"ーSo, do you know anything about them?"
"Hoho, I see, I see. Allekant is it?"
Lunch break, the next day. The classroom of Year 1, Class 3.
Ayato was questioning Eishirou regarding the two girls from Allekant who'd visited the day before. Eishirou, on the other hand, nodded happily as he skilfully sliced his apple with a dagger-type Lux.
Whenever Eishirou was low on funds, this was what he'd do for lunch.
Even this apple was a gift from his neighbors back home, who'd grown it themselves.
"Information on those two is going to be pretty pricey, you know?"
Chewing on an apple slice, Eishirou exaggeratedly rubbed his thumb and middle finger together.
"...Alright then. Why don't I treat you to lunch and we'll call it even?"
"Great, you've got a deal. Finally, my first good meal in who knows how long."
Eishirou stuffed the rest of the apple slices into his mouth and pulled out his phone.
"Right then, why don't I fill you in while we're on the way? Let's see, Camilla and Ernesta..."
Urging Ayato onward, Eishirou exited the classroom.
Although the incident with Cyrus hadn't been publicized and he hadn't been given the full details on the situation, for Eishirou, the names were enough. Opening a window, the faces of the two girls from yesterday appeared.
"First up is the foreign beauty... Her name is Camilla Pareto, a student at Allekant Academy. She's the representative of Allekant's largest faction, Ferrovius. Her research is focused on the development of Lux weaponry. The team using weaponry developed by her claimed victory in last year's Phoenix. Other Festa participants have also used weapons developed by her. When taken in sum, her excellent final score during last year's Festa season places her second."
To be sure, that forthright and perceptive personality of hers screamed of her competence.
"Now then, the other is Ernesta Kühne - the genius of Allekant, the brilliant and well-known representative of the Pygmalion faction. There's not too much about her, to be honest. All that I've heard is that apparently she has quite the peculiar personality."
Wasn't that the truth.
As he remembered the light sensation upon his cheek, Ayato reddened a little. Even putting aside that shocking action, her other words and actions had been just as unsettling.
"Just one thing. When she first joined, Pygmalion was both small and weak. Its due to her efforts alone that its influence can no longer be ignored. She's one to be wary of."
"Pygmalion and Ferrovius, is it?"
"Every school, large or small, has its own internal power struggles. Allekant is something of a special case, though. Split into factions according to research interests and ideologies, they vie over research funding and students to put their efforts into practice."
Eishirou opened another window, which revealed a pie chart.
"As I'd just mentioned, the Ferrovius are the most influential power of the Lux development groups. As you can see from the diagram, their influence accounts for about 50% of the total."
"Although they're certainly influential, they lack a centralized system. Moreover, Allekant's student council wields more authority than they do, and resolutions require a two-thirds majority to pass. In order to ensure those votes, they have to join hands with other factions. In times past, their ally was the Tenorio faction, whose research focused on living things. However, it seems that some years ago, the Tenorio suffered a grave humiliation and lost most, if not all, of their influence. Since then, their new partner has been Pygmalion."
This conversation sure had gotten complicated.
"Pygmalion... what kind of research do they do?"
"Their research focuses on cybernetics and Replicants."
That being the case, it looked like the person who'd supplied Cyrus with his puppets had indeed been Ernesta. In order to combat Julis and Lester, she'd provided him with specially designed puppets intentionally targeting them. Viewing her as the mastermind behind the curtains of the incident seemed pretty fair.
"So, this is a pretty stupid question, but why does Allekant allow its students to personally undertake R&D? Isn't it better to leave that side of things to the Integrated Enterprise Foundation, and focus on the Festa?"
"Yeah, there's a fair bit of difference there. Mana and Prana research are related - both relate to the Starpulse Generation. To be honest, the majority of outstanding meteoric engineers are members of the Starpulse Generation. Since they all gather together anyway as members of the Starpulse Generation, why not teach them at the same time? That's how Allekant sees things."
"Isn't that a bit much...?"
"Truth be told, when Allekant was first founded, it was rather weak. However, due to the excellent results brought forth by their research, they're now very formidable. Moreover, when it comes to those with the desire to do research, there's really nowhere else to go."
"Is that so? Wait, what's this...?"
Halfway through his comment, Ayato realized he was on a path he didn't normally take.
Having left the high school building, he now found himself headed towards the junior high hallway.
"Yabuki, the cafeteria's the other way..."
"Don't worry about it. This is one of those rare times when you're treating me; why would I go to one of those cheap places we normally eat at anyway?"
Grinning evilly, Eishirou gave Ayato a quick glance.
"Today we're going to dine on fine cuisine at 'Le Meurice'."
Le Meurice was a high class dining hall located on Seidoukan grounds. It was situated at the entrance to a forest, a ways off from the school buildings. When compared to the Polaris Dining Hall Ayato normally ate at, the prices were three times greater.
"That data was hard to come by. This still counts as pretty cheap, you know?"
"...Oh, well, OK then."
He'd been the one to offer, so there wasn't anything he could do about it now.
Ayato pulled out his wallet to confirm he had enough on him. All the eateries on Asterisk accepted electronic currency, but this didn't suit Ayato, so he rarely used it.
Eishirou suddenly stopped short. Counting his money in a daze, Ayato almost crashed into him.
"That was close, what's up?"
"Oh, nothing much. I just happened to catch sight of something interesting is all," Eishirou answered, eyes flashing like a young child catching glimpse of a new toy.
Following Eishirou's gaze, Ayato saw two shadows, hidden behind a hallway pillar.
Ayato knew those two.
The girl from a few days ago, who he'd run into in the hallway, as well as the middle-aged man she'd called "Uncle".
They were too far away for him to hear anything, but the atmosphere was strange. Although their conversation wasn't quite an argument, but it was still quite tense.
"Ho~h. Never thought I'd get a sneak peek at some info on Toudou Kirin. I can't let such a good opportunity go to waste."
Eishirou pulled out a small notepad and, without allowing Ayato to see what he was writing, began to jot something down.
"You know her?"
Even though Eishirou had just said he couldn't let this opportunity go to waste, when he heard Ayato, he couldn't help but stop writing, and turned to him with a dumbfounded look on his face.
"...Are you for real?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, the person you're asking about is Toudou Kirinー"
Eishirou was interrupted by a sudden sharp sound.
The man had suddenlyー! Kirin's face was now sporting a fresh red handmark.
"ーI told you it's not something you should worry yourself over, Kirin."
"B-but, Uncle, Iー"
"I don't remember ever giving you permission to speak."
The man raised his hand to strike her once more as Kirin trembled.
"ーEnough. This ends here."
As the man had swung his arm down, Ayato had suddenly appeared in-between the two, and caught the man's arm.
Kirin was astonished beyond measure.
"...And who the hell are you?"
The man frowned, and commanded a response.
He stared at Ayato with eyes both cold and contemptuous, and his voice revealed his disgust.
"I have no idea what the circumstances are that led to this, but you should never raise a hand against a defenseless girl."
Ayato's answer received a scornful laugh.
"Don't make me laugh. Look at all of you, fighting whenever you please, and yet you have the nerve to say such dignified words?"
"It's a competition, not a street-fight. At the very least, it's not just one-sided violence."
Ayato calmly met the man's intense gaze head-on.
The two stared at one another for a while before the man finally shrugged off Ayato's hand from his wrist with a hmph!
"...Hmph. I was just dispensing discipline. This is a family matter; outsiders should stay out of this."
Ayato sized the man up once more.
He looked about forty or so, and even more than from his quick glance yesterday, Ayato could tell his physique was impressive. He was of roughly the same stature as Lester, and thick muscles covered his shoulders and chest. He wore an expensive-looking brown suit.
From his muscled appearance, it was clear that he had both undergone martial arts training and that he was not a member of the Starpulse Generation.
"I am Toudou Kouichirou, the uncle of this Toudou Kirin."
Ayato turned his gaze to Kirin who nodded her head with a look of terror.
"Now that you know, get the hell out of here, brat. Anyway, to you Starpulse Generation punks, a slap is nothing serious, after all."
"Be that as it may, pain is still pain."
His words led Kirin to look up at Ayato.
She opened her mouth as if to speak, but, her gaze wavering, she kept her silence.
Kouichirou, on the other hand, was frowning in open displeasure.
"You sure talk big for some no-name student. You, what's your name?"
The man pulled out his phone, opened a window, and flipped through it with practiced ease.
"Amagiri... Hmph. Just some piece of useless garbage who isn't even on the Named Charts."
It seems he'd looked up Ayato's information.
Suddenly, Kouichirou's arrogant, condescending expression turned sober.
"Hmm... Ser-Versta, is it? Well, that's something..."
Kouichirou gave a haughty laugh and looked at Ayato once more.
"Alright then, boy. Since you can't seem to stand by and watch anymore, what is it you want me to do?"
"I'm listening. Speak."
Kouichirou folded his arms patronizingly.
Ayato hesitated for a moment, before speaking forthrightly.
"Promise me you won't raise your hand against her again."
Kouichirou took the opportunity to add a malicious smile to his already egotistical attitude.
"ーBut that's if you win the duel."
"Uncle, please wait!"
Kirin responded in surprise while Kouichirou, caring not the least whit, continued to speak.
"Exactly. Is that not the way of things for Asteriskー for all of you?"
"That certainly is true... but you're not one of us?"
It was impossible that Kouichirou was a student.
"Moreover, you're not even a member of the Starpulse Generation."
"Cut the crap!"
Kouichirou cut off Ayato's words with a loud roar.
"Don't you ever mention me in the same sentence as you monsters again..."
Furious to the point where he could no longer control himself, Kouichirou glared at Ayato before turning back to face Kirin-
"Your opponent is her."
He put his hand on her slender shoulder.
Ayato was so stunned he couldn't even speak.
What on earth was going on here?
"Don't worry ー even when you lose, I'm not going to make any demands of you."
"That's hardly the part I'm concerned about..."
Which would be something occurring even before the duel took place.
"Shut your mouth. Just do what I say."
Facing Kirin, he silenced her with an icy gaze.
"ーKirin. Don't tell me you're thinking of defying me?"
A deep, dark voice which didn't bother to hide its malice.
Kirin's heart and body both shook, and she visibly deflated.
"...No, I neverー"
"Exactly. If it's Ser-Versta, then there's some meaning in victory here. I look forward to it."
Having finished speaking, he turned his back on Kirin, and slowly walked away.
Kirin, left behind, bit her lips with her head bowed.
Ayato clutched his head.
The sound raised by the disturbance had already caused several students to gather around, who were, even now, excitedly discussing the matter amongst themselves.
Ayato looked to Eishirou for salvation, but there was none to be found. On the contrary, he wore a smile which beamed bright as the sun.
Ayato sighed, and turned to Kirin.
"Um, Toudou-san? Iー"
"...I'm so sorry."
Kirin never raised her eyes, instead answering Ayato in a quaking tone.
"I... Toudou Kirin, challenge Amagiri Ayato-senpai to a duel."
In response to that low voice, the emblems on their chests began to glow with a scarlet light.
"Whaー Why must the two of us fight?!"
Ayato shook his head.
Kirin looked at him with a sorrowful expression.
"I don't want this either... but I have no choice."
"There's a dream I want to make happen. Uncle is doing this for me..."
A tone which struggled to suppress all emotion.
And, failing utterly, instead revealed the boundless grief hidden within.
"Please, senpai. Please just take it back, please."
Ayato pondered for but an instant before looking her deep in the eyes.
"...And if I did that, what about you?"
"What would happen to you?"
Kirin looked away as if to escape that searching gaze.
"D-don't worry about me. It doesn't matter how I'm treated."
"ーAnd that's why I can't do what you ask," Ayato responded simply.
Ayato well understood that he was being unreasonable.
To fight against the very person he wanted to save, wasn't that defeating the whole point?
But given what he had just witnessed, that scene of violence, and the words the girl had just uttered, "It doesn't matter how I'm treated", he refused to turn a blind eye and pretend he'd seen nothing.
"Is that so? ... Amagiri-senpai sure is kind."
Kirin gave a faint smile, and then reached behind her to unsheathe her weapon.
"ーBut this is different. I cannot afford to lose."
In that moment, Ayato felt goosebumps.
Purely instinctively, he opened up a gap between them.
Her expression never changed.
Utterly reluctant, and inches from crying, she nevertheless brandished her weapon.
He'd noticed the first they met, this was no Lux. Although its design was highly modernized... but this was without a doubt a real sword, and a nihontou at that.
He couldn't feel the presence of mana, and so she wasn't a Strega. However, in addition to the feeling of being bathed in her Prana, there was something else which warranted taking her seriously.
From Kirin, holding her sword in a combat stance, he could feel an ice-cold, piercing aura as sharp as a razor's edge.
This was an intimidating presence Ayato had never before experienced.
"Well... I can't back down on this either," Ayato muttered as he grabbed his school emblem.
"ーI accept your request for a duel."
He gathered Prana within his body before focusing it.
He intuitively felt itー that even at his full strength, he couldn't compete with this girl.
As Prana ran through his body, carrying with it a sparkling radiance, magic circles began to appear around him.
Pain ran throughout his body and took form.
The chains which bound him were forcibly dispersed by the power which swelled forth from within him.
"ーSecret sword bound by the prison of stars, release your might!"
The magic fetters which had appeared around him disappeared.
As the restraints which had sealed his Prana disappeared, a wave of power surged forth.
Utterly taken aback by the scene she was being made witness to, Kirin's eyes opened wide, though the tip of her blade never wavered.
"Kirin, don't meet his sword directly. It'll cut right through yours."
As Ayato activated Ser-Versta, a voice sailed over from behind him. It seems he was aware of Ser-Versta's ability.
That said, one of Ser-Versta's primary advantages was that even if you were aware of its ability, that and countering it were two very different things.
Ayato faced Kirin and took up a stance of his own.
(Let's test the waters for a bit with a feint...)
Kirin had barely spoken before her blade came soaring in at his stomach.
As he warded off her blow and prepared to open some space between them, the next attack came slicing toward him.
Terrifying speed. Godlike speed.
Ayato frantically guarded with Ser-Versta, barely managing to divert the strike.
Seemingly intent on avoiding a direct clash with Ser-Versta, Kirin's blade altered direction in mid-air, and slashed instead at Ayato's right wrist.
Ayato immediately removed his right hand, and grasping Ser-Versta with just his left, returned her attack.
Kirin lifted her blade upward.
"ーAmagiri-senpai, you're very strong. I'm surprised."
Kirin's compliment was heartfelt.
"That's what I wanted to say."
Ayato felt a chill run down his back.
Now that he'd seen her strength for himself, he recognized her speed to be at least on par with his own, if not faster stillー
"...This is bad."
The girl's strength was far beyond his expectation. This duel was quickly becoming an impossible proposition.
- ψ -
There was a pavilion located in a corner of the central courtyard. Of all the places on campus, this was Julis' favorite resting spot.
Whether it be lunch break or after school, as long as she had sufficient time, she'd eventually find her way here.
Though recently she found herself spending the bulk of her time with someone else, old habits died hard.
Julis had finished her lunch quicklyー after yesterday's argument with Saya, she'd eaten by her lonesome today. Pulling out her phone, she began to scan the news.
"So the user of the 'Holy Grail' has finally appeared...If they appear during the Phoenix, that might be a problem. I'll need to keep an eye on Le Wolfe from now on just for that... wait, breaking news...?"
The palm-sized window suddenly expanded.
"Ah, Toudou Kirin's dueling someone. No wonder, that certainly is newsworthy. Let's see, her opponent is..."
Suddenly, she overheard a burst of cheers.
Looking closely, the hallway was crowded with a mass of people.
Strange. She seemed to have heard a most familiar name being shouted out by the crowd. An ill-omened feeling struck her then.
Splitting the rows of onlookers before her, she made her way to the front.
And couldn't believe her own eyes.
In her surprise, she couldn't even finish her sentence.
The person dueling that Toudou Kirin was none other than her very own partner.
(After agreeing just YESTERDAY not to get pulled into something like this... That moron!)
Julis clutched her head in irritation when she suddenly heard a certain someone amidst the crowd.
Joyfully recording the entire incident with his camera was a young man standing in the very best spectator spot. Seeing him, Julis charged forward and grabbed him by the scruff of his neck.
"What is the meaning of this, Yabuki!?"
"Eh?! Er, wait, what? Oh, it's the Princess."
Eishirou lifted his head in surprise before quickly continuing to record.
"Sorry, but I'm a little busy right nowー"
"Give me an explanation for this!"
Julis, threatening, covered up his camera and pulled Eishirou around with force.
"That reminds me, I still haven't paid you back for that load of crunk you fed Sasamiya the other day. How would you like to live the rest of your life as a chunk of coal?"
"...I get it, I get it. Geez. I'll do what you ask."
Eishirou sighed and rubbed the scar on his cheek.
"This isn't really anything worthy of note. This is because of what happened in the hallway earlier... Whoa!"
Suddenly Eishirou turned his body. Julis reflexively turned to look as well.
Before her eyes, Kirin's blade came sweeping by as Ayato dodged by a hair's breadth.
As her sword swung by, barely missing his forehead, his hair was thrown into disarray by the wind created from the force of her blow.
"Man, this is just too amazing. It's not even the Festa and there's already this kind of fight happening. Amagiri, that ass; hiding his true ability from us," Eishirou swiped the sweat from his forehead as he said admiringly.
"...That said, you can tell that this won't end well if things go on like this."
"That's certainly true enough. Even if he's the wielder of Ser-Versta, his opponent's the 'Gusting Wind, Bladed Thunder', after all."
Eishirou's words were pregnant with meaning as Ayato ducked low, dodging yet another sharp slice.
Ayato took the opportunity to jump off the ground, brandishing Ser-Versta, but Kirin had already flipped past a moment earlier.
As she came down, she again targeted Ayato, this time with an overhead chop.
Ayato spun away, pushing himself off the ground with a single hand.
Even without noticing the sweat dripping from his forehead or the grim expression his face, it was clear that he was at a disadvantage.
To be honest, Julis could barely believe her eyes.
Ayato had released his seal, and she, more than anyone, understand his abilities in that state.
Moreover, he'd undergone special training each day, and he'd finally grasped the movements of his opponent and her sword. A single opening was all he needed to claim victory.
Kirin didn't seem to be letting up for even a moment, though, even though she held the clear advantage...
"Her weapon hasn't been touched once..."
Indeed. She hadn't once needed to block Ayato's attack with her weapon.
Ser-Versta could cut through anything, a sword that couldn't be blocked. Furthermore, Kirin held not a Lux, but a normal sword. The slightest contact would be enough.
The terrifying thing was, when Kirin attacked, she completely predicted what would follow thereafter.
Ayato had succeeded in warding off all of her attacks, but each and every time, just before their swords would touch, she altered the trajectory her sword followed without slowing down whatsoever.
"To be fair, Ayato has yet to grow accustomed to using Ser-Versta. That's a gap that just can't be overcome."
"He hasn't? What do you mean?"
Eishirou's words came as a surprise to Julis.
"I'm obviously unclear on the details of Amagiri's style, but just from watching I can still tell a thing or two. Simply put, his movements are too large. Keeping them more minimal would be to his advantage."
Originally speaking, Ayato's movements were unbelievably quick. The problem was, Ser-Versta was simply too large. Its destructive power more than accounted for its bulky mass, but when faced with an inordinately nimble opponentー
As she followed his line of reasoning, Julis suddenly realized. She cast a quick glance in Eishirou's direction.
(This guy...he understood all that just from watching?)
Even Julis, ranked fifth in the school, was unable to fully capture Ayato's movements at full strength.
It was likely the case that that was even more true for the crowd of onlookers.
(Indeed, watching from the sidelines like this presented a better perspective as compared to their practices which involved mutual action, but still...)
Were his eyes just that good? Or was itー
"...Actually, wait a moment. There's something more important stillー how long has it been since they started?"
"Hmm? Around four, maybe five minutes, I'd say? What's up?"
Julis turned white as a sheet.
Ayato clearly only had a matter of moments left in his unsealed state.
It was bad enough that his true abilities had been taken notice of, but for his time limit to be discovered as well would be a worst case scenario, to say the least.
As she prepared to intervene in their battle, what happened next was, from Julis' point of view, infinitely worse.
"Oh, Amagiri's going for an all-out attack."
Almost as if he'd read Julis' mind, Ayato, who'd previously carefully defended against every attack, completely forewent defense to go on the offensive.
Originally, their encounters had resulted in Ser-Versta tracing out linear paths, warding off the naked edge of Kirin's sword which would disappear without a trace.
ーHowever, Kirin's movements had grown even faster still.
Stepping nimbly, she slashed in as Ayato stretched forth his sword.
Ayato barely managed to dodge, his torn sleeve evidence of how close things had come.
"Uh-oh, this isn't good."
"If things had simply continued, he'd have lost all hope of victory. This isn't that bad a decision. "
Julis offered this rebuttal, but Eishirou shook his head.
"No, that's not quite right. He came pretty close to losing it just now."
"And that's why it was the correct decision. It gave him an opportunity to see what his opponent was really capable of."
"Well, normally that would be the case."
"...What's that supposed to mean?" Julis asked with a worried expression.
Eishirou showed an evil smile.
"That guy, ever since he's transferred, you've been his only opponent. You guys haven't been keeping count, right?"
"What's your poiー"
Halfway through her sentence, Julis finally realized what Eishirou meant.
Immediately turning back, she watched as the distance between Ayato and Kirin closed even more.
A full-powered swing with Ser-Versta failed to cut anything but the air.
Taking advantage of the opening he'd shown, Kirin countered, sending her sword flitting across his left upper-chest.
Things had gotten far more exciting than earlier.
Originally seeming like it had barely missed him, the nihontou suddenly slanted toward Ayato's body.
Ayato bent backwards in a dodge, before immediately recovering his postureー
"Duel ended! Winner: Toudou Kirin!"
Ayato stared in confusion in response to the mechanical voice announcing the end of their match.
It seems he still didn't quite understand what had happened.
Suddenly realizing what had happened, he gazed down at his chest.
His school emblem had been severed neatly in half.
"Man, he sure fell for it..."
Julis looked up at the sky and sighed.
He'd completely forgotten about the existence of his school emblem, which he didn't consider part of his body.
"And there you goー he's not used to dueling, only to real battles."
Eishirou smiled wryly and patted Julis on the shoulder.
- ψ -
"It's over. Let's go."
Kouichirou expression showed that things had unfolded as he'd expected. He cast Kirin a quick glance before walking back into the school building.
He'd already lost all interest in Ayato.
Kirin sheathed her sword, and bowed respectfully before Ayato.
"About thatー I-I'm so sorry!"
She took her leave, running after Kouichirou.
Ayato wanted to call after her, but he stopped himself.
The loser had no right to do anything.
This was the way of this school... no, of this city.
As he gave a long sigh, someone patted him on the shoulder.
Turning his head, standing there was Julis, her face as displeased as it had been yesterday, glaring at him intently.
This time, however, it wasn't through a screen, but in person.
"...The things I want to both say and ask are innumerable, but firstー let's leave here. You ought to be just about on the verge of collapse."
Her words were certainly true. Ayato had no choice but to obediently be led away by Julis.
"Oh, and remember this. Once you've settled down, remember these words. I don't care what reason you haveー don't ever duel the Seidoukan rank one!"
Jump up↑ Nihontou actually refers to a category of weapons; precisely which one Kirin uses the author leaves unclear, so I've left this as is.
Jump up↑ The author does a subtle wordplay here that really doesn't translate. Kirin's nickname is 疾風刃雷 [しっぷうじんらい] - "gusting wind, bladed thunder" (more or less). There is a Japanese phrase which has an identical pronunciation, but differs by only one kanji: 疾風迅雷. This phrase means to do something "with lightning speed". I believe the author intends for Kirin's nickname to carry the connotation of both.