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Kyoukai no Kanata - Chapter 2, part 3 [English]

nakulas Sep 14th, 2013 7,809 Never
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  1. *** Visit <http://nakulas.blogspot.com/2013/04/kyoukai-no-kanata-volume-1-progress.html> for more information.
  2.  
  3. Tuesday, April 17th - after school.
  4.  
  5. Mitsuki was going to be late since she had some personal business to take care of. That left only Hiro'omi and me in the club room. As I worked through the stacks of papers on the table, Hiro'omi kept on complaining about the stupidest things. I ignored him. I would've preferred that he leave instead of staying and being a pest, but given that he was accepting Kuriyama's presence here, I wasn't really in a position to adopt an aggressive stance towards him.
  6.  
  7. "Akky, take a look at this."
  8.  
  9. Hiro'omi laid out a number of CDs and DVDs on the table. I couldn't hide my surprise upon realizing they were all AKB48-related. This guy, a self-proclaimed sister-lover, was being tempted by the wiles of a popular idol group? What was I supposed to make of that?
  10.  
  11. "What's the deal with them?" I asked, disinterestedly.
  12.  
  13. I was trying to get him to get on with it. Hiro'omi opened a box and showed me its contents. It was a disc that glowed with all the colors of the rainbow wherever light touched it. It was broken cleanly down the middle. That couldn't happen naturally. Which meant that somebody had broken it, presumably out of ill will.
  14.  
  15. "I saw it coming," sighed Hiro'omi.
  16.  
  17.  I looked up from my papers, politely waiting for Hiro'omi to continue.
  18.  
  19. "It happened two nights ago. When I turned on my iPod to listen to some music, I found that all of my AKB songs had been replaced with K-pop."
  20.  
  21. "Mitsuki did it. No doubt about it."
  22.  
  23.  Hiro'omi looked troubled.
  24.  
  25. "You think so, Akky?"
  26.  
  27. "Of course. She's the only person in the world who torments people in such an unyielding way."
  28.  
  29. We were silent for a short while. The same fate could befall me tomorrow. This was my problem now.
  30.  
  31. "Don't let it get you down. There's nothing wrong with asking your sister to repay you for the cost of the disc, is there? If somebody broke one of my pairs of glasses, you bet I'd demand compensation."
  32.  
  33. "I don't care about her breaking the discs. I'm regretting what I did for her that made her irritated enough to do that."
  34.  
  35. He looked dashing even when he was in a slump. His love for his sister was unparalleled. And so, I just had to ask.
  36.  
  37. "What, exactly, did you do?"
  38.  
  39. "All I did was submit an application to AKB on Mitsuki's behalf without telling her."
  40.  
  41. "...Why didn't you ask her first?"
  42.  
  43. Alright, I could see where this was going. Hiro'omi began.
  44.  
  45. "You've heard AKB members talk about how their applications to the band were submitted by a friend of theirs or whatever, right? So I figured as her brother, it was my duty to put in an application for her. Just imagine the sight of Mitsuki as the center of AKB, wearing a cute school uniform and straddling a mic stand. It ought to be criminal _not_ to reveal such an angelic sight to the world!"
  46.  
  47. "Hm... would you mind if your imaginary Mitsuki wore glasses?"
  48.  
  49. "You know what, that's fine this time. The details are unimportant."
  50.  
  51. The moment I added glasses to imaginary-Mitsuki, the door to the club room slammed open. Hiro'omi hid the CDs and DVDs at lightspeed. She could have been listening in on our conversation. Thankfully, it didn't look like we had to worry about that.
  52.  
  53. "Listen up, guys. As of today, Kuriyama is an official member of the literature club."
  54.  
  55. "Th-thanks for having me."
  56.  
  57. Kuriyama bowed. It was very Mitsukiesque to refer to filling out the club-joining paperwork as "personal business". I didn't bother to prod her about that. It wouldn't be worth my time.
  58.  
  59. "Akihito, when you get a chance, tell Kuriyama how we've been assembling this quarter's 'Lady of the Night'. Make sure you show her around the room and tell her about the club's regulations and all of that as well. Oh, and starting with the summer issue, Kuriyama is going to be part of the writing staff, so show her the ropes there, too."
  60.  
  61. "......"
  62.  
  63. Mitsuki glared at me as I sat there speechless. Her gaze was cold, probably somewhere around minus 273 degrees Celsius.
  64.  
  65. "You asked her to join. She's your responsibility."
  66.  
  67. I'd just be wasting time if I argued. Plus, given Kuriyama's position as a new member, I couldn't exactly say no. It'd be incredibly irresponsible of me to persuade her to join the club and not have anything to do with her after that.
  68.  
  69. "Got it. I'll help her out."
  70.  
  71. We sat down in the same arrangement as the previous day and immersed ourselves in the job at hand. As club vice-president, I couldn't goof off at a time like this. I focused all my energy on the stories in front of me and got to work in earnest.
  72.  
  73. The clamor of voices from outside the room vanished. All I heard was the occasional sound of a piece of paper being flipped over. Trapped amidst the tall bookshelves and the stacks of paper, I felt confined. I happened to take a look at the window. The sight of the well-trimmed bonsai on the windowsill, illuminated from behind by the light of the setting sun, brought a certain degree of calm to my mind.
  74.  
  75. Since Kuriyama was a new member, we had her read some of our top picks from our collection of books. Mitsuki, Hiro'omi, and I, on the other hand, remained hard at work identifying the best stories from among those left to us by our former club members. Much as we would've liked to set some time aside to welcome her as a new member, the root of all evil - the commemorative issue of "Lady of the Night" - forbade us from doing so until we had finished it.
  76.  
  77. Hiro'omi, representative of the perennial absentees, was the first to break the oppressive silence.
  78.  
  79. "This story's a no-go. There isn't a single little sister in the whole thing."
  80.  
  81. "Be better at evaluating stories, man. I'm perfectly capable of determining whether a story is good or not, independent of whether anybody in it wears glasses. Focus on whether or not a story has real depth and whether it follows the principles of dramatic structure and all that. Quit judging everything based on your personal preferences."
  82.  
  83. "Can you rephrase that in terms of little sisters?"
  84.  
  85. Upon hearing what her brother said, Mitsuki mouthed something - something that pushed the limits of free speech. She seemed kind of serious, too. Never mind a dreamghast extermination; it felt like we were going to end up with a human murder on our hands. It would be best to redirect the conversation. Kuriyama was sitting diagonally across from me.
  86.  
  87. "Hey, Kuriyama," I said, with no particular topic of discussion in mind.
  88.  
  89. "What is it?"
  90.  
  91. She pushed up her red-rimmed glasses and tilted her head. Judging from the fact that she didn't close the book, it looked like she was pretty into it. In suggesting that book to her, I imagine I exhausted my life's worth of good recommendations. I suppose we _could_ keep talking about books, but it wasn't often that a good opportunity like this came by. I decided I would ask her a certain question. I had two distinct goals. One, to see how Mitsuki and Hiro'omi would react; the other, to see how Kuriyama would react in front of the two of them.
  92.  
  93. "Can you tell me why you came here?"
  94.  
  95. The air felt thin, as if it had been evacuated of all its oxygen. Kuriyama's eyes and mouth formed three large circles. I kept an eye on Mitsuki and Hiro'omi's demeanors. But... yeah, as an amateur, I probably couldn't divine anything about their mental state from the way they acted.
  96.  
  97. "Mitsuki and Hiro'omi have both been pretty welcoming. I think it'd be better to clear the air now, so things don't get awkward. Besides, we're not completely clueless about why you're here. I hear this is a unique chance for xenors to defeat a jumbo dreamghast and rise up in the world, you know."
  98.  
  99. "So... you're going after a hollow shade?"
  100.  
  101. Before I could start talking about what Ayaka told me about the lull, Hiro'omi blew straight to the point. He looked uncharacteristically serious - he seemed eager to elicit an answer from Kuriyama. It was disgusting how well he played a lady-killer. I, meanwhile, just stood there, looking at the two of them.
  102.  
  103. "Why... do you think so?"
  104.  
  105. "If you want to make a name for yourself during the lull, that's the best way to do it. I'd like this to go smoothly, so I'd appreciate it if you'd answer my questions honestly."
  106.  
  107. That was a threat. I wasn't able to remain calm in the face of that. And yet, I couldn't do a thing about it. After a while, she spoke, as if to clear the air.
  108.  
  109. "That's correct. A hollow shade."
  110.  
  111. Kuriyama shrank back. When I opened the door to let her in, what if it wasn't the number of people here that surprised her? Maybe she was just in awe of the higher-ranked xenor within?
  112.  
  113. "Yeah... there are evil people out there, eh?" said Hiro'omi, saying more or less the same thing as Ayaka.
  114.  
  115. Hiro'omi crossed his arms. It seemed like he was talking to himself, but that was no reason to ignore what he said. Especially not after seeing how uneasy Kuriyama seemed.
  116.  
  117. "What's that supposed to mean?" I asked.
  118.  
  119. Of course, Mitsuki and Kuriyama didn't take their eyes off Hiro'omi.
  120.  
  121. "Choose your answer wisely, or else I'll never call you 'brother dearest' again."
  122.  
  123. That must have placed unfathomable pressure on him. Kuriyama's lips just quivered.
  124.  
  125. "I'm passing intelligence onto you out of kindness. Are you sure you want to threaten me? Do you even have any idea how much it costs to get the directorate moving?"
  126.  
  127. He looked at his sister, a shrewd look in his eye. Right away, there was serious tension in the air.
  128.  
  129. "Are you really not going to tell me?"
  130.  
  131. "No means no. As a member of the Nase directorate, it wouldn't be right for me to lavish special treatment on my little sister. Of course, you're always free to pay the standard intelligence-provision fee."
  132.  
  133. I had never seen Hiro'omi be this harsh with his little sister. That explained why Mitsuki was so taken aback. That wasn't the sort of thing you got to see very often, so I made sure to make a mental note of how she looked then. Mitsuki wasn't going to give up there. That was the youngest of the Nase sisters for you.
  134.  
  135. "Hiro'omi, brother dearest."
  136.  
  137. "Just give it a rest."
  138.  
  139. "Hiro'omi, brother dearie♪"
  140.  
  141. "You won't get anywhere using a cuter suffix."
  142.  
  143. "Hiro'omi beeeeep!"
  144.  
  145. That was just the sound they use to bleep out profanities on TV. She just never lets you down. A sly grin crossed Mitsuki's face. She began whispering something in Kuriyama's ear. They seemed to have become a lot closer. Did they have a chance to deepen their bonds sometime when I wasn't looking or something? But anyway, I got a bad feeling about that. I mean, a _really_ bad feeling.
  146.  
  147. "Big brother, do you hate me?" asked Kuriyama, her voice trembling.
  148.  
  149. She had her hands clasped in front of her chest. Mitsuki had obviously forced her to say that, but it didn't really feel like she was being forced. She was actually tearing up a bit. She was pulling off the alluring little-sister look well.
  150.  
  151. "I see, I see. A meager-chested sister in name rather than a well-endowed sister by blood, eh? Well said."
  152.  
  153. "Nobody said anything!"
  154.  
  155. I had to point that out. I couldn't help myself. If he was just talking about varying deegrees of endowment, fine, that was one thing, but I couldn't bear the thought of having to deal with talk of sisters-in-name and sisters-by-blood on a regular basis.
  156.  
  157. "And those red-rimmed glasses look great on her."
  158.  
  159. "I know, right!"
  160.  
  161. I had to agree with him. I couldn't help myself. Maybe he _could_ listen to reason.
  162.  
  163. You often see cases where a girl turns beautiful when she takes off her glasses. There's also a strong sense that girls who wear glasses are lacking in refinement. Those who think that way, however, border on seditious. Indeed, for the most part, girls become more piquant when they wear glasses. We can explain this as analogous to the phenomenon in which you attend a festival and see a classmate wearing a kimono for the first time, whereas you'd never seen her in anything but her school uniform before, and thus fall in love on the spot.
  164.  
  165. "In other words, glasses can even make an average girl into-"
  166.  
  167. "Shut up."
  168.  
  169. That didn't go according to plan.
  170.  
  171. "Anyway, tell me more about the lull. This lull is part of my bailiwick, you know. The way you've been snooping around behind my back makes me uncomfortable," she said, condemning Hiro'omi.
  172.  
  173. She didn't hide her infuriation with him. As a xenor, his well-endowed sister-by-blood had her pride. Hiro'omi's secretive behavior was a sign that he didn't trust her.
  174.  
  175. "If you're going to be like that, you're on your own. I won't help you or hinder you."
  176.  
  177. The air seemed to congeal.
  178.  
  179. "Hey, hey, this is no time for your sibling rivalry."
  180.  
  181. To keep things from getting too serious, I had to play the peacemaker. If I were to remain silent, that would amount to a sort of tacit approval of their behavior. The two of them stood there acrimoniously with their backs to each other. I proposed a compromise.
  182.  
  183. "This all started with Mitsuki calling Hiro'omi names and Hiro'omi being typically perverse in his love for Mitsuki. Mitsuki, you give your dear brother a proper apology and accept that this was partly your fault. Hiro'omi, you let this go and tell her what you told me about the current state of emergency. Sounds good?"
  184.  
  185. Mitsuki twitched as she turned to look at Hiro'omi.
  186.  
  187. "I'm sorry, my dear brother."
  188.  
  189. "No, no, I was in the wrong."
  190.  
  191. The hostility between them vanished as they reconciled. Kuriyama worriedly looked at both of them. This sort of thing happened all the time, though. It wasn't anything to be concerned about.
  192.  
  193. Anyway, we needed to get back on topic. We were talking about a dreamghast called a hollow shade, right? At my urging, Hiro'omi began.
  194.  
  195. "Hollow shades - more commonly called mists - are incorporeal dreamghasts," he began grimly. "Since they're incorporeal, they're difficult to slay. Traditional wisdom states that at least three xenors specializing in different fields are necessary to defeat one. They're not as dangerous as they are difficult to get rid of, though. After all, they're incorporeal. You'd think that you could just leave them be, but it turns out it's more complicated than that. Once a hollow shade has developed far enough, it becomes capable of causing physical damage."
  196.  
  197. He took a sip from the cup of oolong tea on the table. That was my tea, but whatever. I let it slide.
  198.  
  199. "When a hollow shade reaches its final developmental stage, or even one stage prior, requests come flooding in to get rid of it. Given that they're difficult to slay, the pay is excellent. By Jove, what a dreamghast. It can bring you both fame and wealth."
  200.  
  201. Hiro'omi shrugged his shoulders. He managed to be sleazy about it. Somehow.
  202.  
  203. "Aren't you contradicting yourself a bit?" asked Mitsuki. She seemed to be having a hard time swallowing what Hiro'omi said. You need at least three highly skilled xenors to deal with it, right? That means that the incompetents that've been coming here, hoping to make a name for themselves during the lull, would have to band together, right? But that would mean that the wealth and fame they gain would be split amongst all of them, thus defeating the purpose."
  204.  
  205. "Mitsuki, that's only true if they're trying to slay an _incorporeal_ hollow shade."
  206.  
  207. He smiled fiendishly. There was something wicked beneath Hiro'omi's facade, as if he was chiding his cute, silly little sister, but at the same time as if he was ridiculing her. I'd never seen that sister-lover be so cold to his sister.
  208.  
  209. "If you let a hollow shade gain corporeal form by possessing a human, that's another matter altogether. At that point, even ordinary people would be able to put up a good fight against it. Of course, that sort of foul play only works during the lull. From an ethical standpoint, it's a huge problem. Xenors are supposed to protect people from dreamghasts. We _cannot_ be allowed to manipulate human lives in order to slay dreamghasts. If it were to come to light that a xenor had done such a thing, he would no longer be famous. Indeed, he wouldn't even be able to continue operating as a xenor."
  210.  
  211. The lull - a period of time during which dreamghasts become weaker. And, perhaps, a period of time during which xenors become immoral.
  212.  
  213. During that torture session at Ayaka's, my mother mentioned more or less the same thing. She was getting at the point that my father, who had hitherto been feared far and wide, could be targeted by xenors. Even though he did nothing wrong, he could end up as their prey. Capturing an immortal dreamghast seemed like the sort of thing that would make one's reputation. As Ayaka once said, "Ghasts're evil just for bein' alive. Whether or no' 'ey've duin any ill, if ye capture 'em, ye win a good name. Makes sense, daes na it?" The standard for xenors was set by xenors, for the benefit of all the corrupt xenors in their line of work.
  214.  
  215. "Are there actually xenors who'd take such big risks to become famous?"
  216.  
  217. And so, I had to object. I didn't understand why a xenor would go after a hollow shade if doing so brought with it a risk of being driven out of the world of xenors. More than anything else, I couldn't believe that Kuriyama would have anything to do with that sort of thing.
  218.  
  219. "I wonder. There certainly have been cases in the past where the lull has been exploited like that."
  220.  
  221. Hiro'omi paused for a second before continuing.
  222.  
  223. "I'm not saying that all xenors are like that, mind you. There certainly are some who fight dreamghasts because it's the right thing to do."
  224.  
  225. That said, those that want to use the lull to distinguish themselves probably constituted the majority. And that premise led us to the worst possible conclusion. Somebody out there wanted to sacrifice a human life to a hollow shade in order to defeat it. They would let someone die to attain fame and wealth. What was that, if not a primal sort of scapegoating?
  226.  
  227. ---Thare's evil folk 'at crave tae be famous, sae much 'at 'ey'd let other folk be duin for.
  228.  
  229. Something Ayaka said came to mind. She really had realized what was up.
  230.  
  231. "Mirai took on an extermination job and came here. She knew her target was a hollow shade. And yet, she wasn't aware that there were other xenors in the area - xenors she'd have to cooperate with to finish the job. Am I right?"
  232.  
  233. The ensuing silence confirmed Hiro'omi's suspicions.
  234.  
  235. "I knew something was amiss when she confirmed that she was going after a hollow shade. If she came here and yet she hadn't heard about the other xenors, that means-"
  236.  
  237. "Woah, woah, woah!"
  238.  
  239. I cut him off. He was looking too xenor-y. Even if _that_ were true, that was no reason to say it out loud. Based on where our conversation was headed, I knew what he was thinking. Kuriyama was trembling, pale-faced. I didn't know whether they betrayed her, or tricked her, or what. Either way, things would only end terribly for her. That, I knew.
  240.  
  241. Fight a jumbo dreamghast by sacrificing a hated one to it. I didn't know who would come up with an idea like that, but it was logical, in a sense. Was that an appropriate fate for lineages that deal in blood?
  242.  
  243. I certainly didn't think so.
  244.  
  245. Then, it happened.
  246.  
  247. The club room's window shattered, giving off a tremendous noise. All four of us focused our attention in the window's direction - and that's when we all let our guard down. Something blew the room's door open and soared towards us. I barely caught it out of the corner of my eye. Mitsuki was closest to the door. Hiro'omi had taken up the seat she would usually sit in, which was further away from the door. That shadowy figure was clothed in a loose, white robe that looked almost like a burial shroud. It pounced towards Mitsuki. She was about to scream.
  248.  
  249. I didn't have time to think about _why_ this was happening. I just reacted on instinct. I tried to get between it and Mitsuki, so I could act as a human shield. Just before something sharp caught Mitsuki, Hiro'omi moved from beside her with unimaginable alacrity.
  250.  
  251. Xenomachics that govern space.
  252.  
  253. Mitsuki was petrified with fear as it lunged for her throat. When it came within a few centimeters of her, though, it collided with Hiro'omi's invisible wall, putting a stop top its attack. It rallied for a second attack right away, but by then, Hiro'omi had leapt over the table, grabbed Mitsuki, and pulled her away. As he did, though, Hiro'omi's back was unguarded. Something sharp ripped into him from behind. Fresh blood seeped through his now-damaged uniform. The white-robed thing seemed to be readying itself for another attack on the Nase siblings. As if to prevent that, Kuriyama stood between it and them, gripping a dark-red blade. This time, her weapon was slim and keen, like a rapier. Her blood constituted both the blade and a hilt that protected her hand.
  254.  
  255. It was then that I finally caught sight of the attacker's weapon. It had claws, honed like knives. Naturally, I also realized _who_ the attacker was. It was probably what you would call a lycanthrope - it had a wolf's head, but a body much like a human. The beast stared Kuriyama down as it growled at her.
  256.  
  257. Even if we had made it through the initial ambush, we were still in a state of disarray. Even we were four and it was only one, it had the advantage. The thing is, the beast's next move was to flee. That caught Kuriyama off guard for a moment, but almost right away, she began chasing after the lycanthrope.
  258.  
  259. "Stay there, both of you! Close the door for now."
  260.  
  261. "Shouldn't we pursue it? At this time of day, there'll still be teachers and students in the building. It'd cause a lot of trouble if ordinary people got hurt by it, no?"
  262.  
  263. "I've got that covered. Nobody - and I mean nobody - can enter or exit my cage. I'll admit that there are some exceptions, but that doesn't matter for now. It looks like I got the radicals to fall for my trap."
  264.  
  265. He didn't act like he was in pain, but his forehead was covered in sweat. Mitsuki trembled at the sight of her injured brother. It only took an instant for the club room to become a battlefield. It's not surprise that a xenor working the administrative side of things would be stunned by that. By contrast, Kuriyama, a battle-hardened xenor, was perfectly calm.
  266.  
  267. "Mitsuki, you need to calm down. Listen to me. You need to seal off this room from the exterior to keep us safe. I think I spent too much pneumagoi on trapping that dreamghast. It doesn't look like I'll be able to extend the cage any further."
  268.  
  269. He patted his sister on the head to calm her down. Doing as she was told, Mitsuki concentrated on her left hand. Then, she began to draw a rectangle in the air. A strange sense enveloped the room. Lacking in battle experience she may have been, but she was still as impressive as one would expect of a Nase xenor.
  270.  
  271. "...Do you suppose a dreamghast-controlling xenor did it?" murmured Kuriyama, almost to herself.
  272.  
  273.  The blade she formed from her blood had already vanished. She was composed and collected, perhaps because the ambush hadn't expanded into a full-fledged battle.
  274.  
  275. "I can think of at least two or three xenor lineages known for their ghastmastery - and those are just the famous ones," she added. "If we add in minority factions acting alone, there'd probably be too many to count."
  276.  
  277. "Ooh, you've got a good eye for this. It just took you a second to figure out that it was being controlled, huh?"
  278.  
  279. Hiro'omi seemed impressed.
  280.  
  281. "We're birds of a feather," she responded, straightforwardly. "I'm almost sure that's what it was."
  282.  
  283. "Fighting dreamghasts with dreamghasts, eh. I wonder what got into them, to make them want to rebel against us," spat out Hiro'omi, tiredly.
  284.  
  285. It looked like he was plotting something.
  286.  
  287. "Did you do anything to earn their ire?"
  288.  
  289. "We're xenors. Do you _really_ need to ask? The more skilled you are, the more other xenors shun you. That's how our profession is."
  290.  
  291. Light conversation, but he still had a serious look on his face. That made it clear to me that we were still in a perilous situation.
  292.  
  293. "There's as many people wishing for the Nase to decline as there are stars in the sky."
  294.  
  295. "That's true, but-"
  296.  
  297. "We have more important things to worry about," said Mitsuki, cutting off her brother.
  298.  
  299. She had gotten a hold of herself.
  300.  
  301. "You're hiding something, aren't you? Care to explain? I don't know about you, but I haven't done anything that would make other xenors want to attack me. And we're at school, you know?"
  302.  
  303. Mitsuki emphasized the word "school". Ah, right. That was what was bothering me. For now, set aside the question of who attacked. Mitsuki was right - the problem was that we were inside the school. The school was shrouded by a repulse barrier put in place by the Nase family. Ordinary people weren't affected by the barrier. If a dreamghast or xenomachtor were to cross the barrier, however, the barrier operator immediately becomes aware of the intruder's presence. Thanks to that barrier, a battle between me and Hiro'omi unfolded, and similarly, Mitsuki was informed of Kuriyama's presence. On top of that, if the barrier's warning level is set high enough, it becomes an impenetrable cage.
  304.  
  305. It was only thanks to the nigh-impenetrability of their repulse barriers - their cages - that the defense-oriented Nase family could retain mastery over this area. As a logical consequence, the school, which was shielded by a repulse barrier, _must_ have been absolutely secure. Maybe a colossal dreamghast, one known the world over, would be able to destroy the barrier. But this dreamghast was a lesser dreamghast - one so weak that it fell under the control of a ghastmaster. It would bring shame upon them if a dreamghast were to enter one of their impregnable cages.
  306.  
  307. Therein lay the problem.
  308.  
  309. Something went wrong. That lesser dreamghast broke through the cage. I hadn't the slightest idea whether this was because the Nase were in decline, or whether, perhaps, there was a vast conspiracy of xenors behind it. One thing was clear, though. I couldn't make sense of everything that was going on. Even if I was a perfect likeness of one of those protagonists who always gets caught up in trouble, this was too much for me to take in. Wait. What if I had missed out on a big piece of foreshadowing?
  310.  
  311. A cue. An indication that this would happen. Something a certain sister-lover said came to mind.
  312.  
  313. ---It looks like I got the radicals to fall for my trap.
  314.  
  315. "Hiro'omi, did you dispel the barrier on purpose?"
  316.  
  317. His face was that of a schemer. I couldn't tell what he was really thinking.
  318.  
  319. "By Jove, you've got it, Akky."
  320.  
  321. "What's that supposed to mean? Give me a good explanation, or else."
  322.  
  323. With a stolid look on her face, Mitsuki slapped her injured brother on the back. He screamed in pain: "Iiiiiaaaaaggghh!" I guess Mitsuki jumped straight to "else".
  324.  
  325. "I didn't even say anything! Let me explain first!"
  326.  
  327. Mitsuki stayed her hand, presumably not out of any predilection towards nonviolence. Hiro'omi let out a sigh of relief. It may have been worth looking into whose attack was more powerful - the dreamghast or his sister.
  328.  
  329. "There've been some people that've been picking fights with the Nase lately."
  330.  
  331. He didn't mince his words. Ah, right - that was what we were talking about before we got distracted by the aesthetics of manliness. Things were serious again. Hiro'omi made a face suitable for the occasion, and continued.
  332.  
  333. "I figured they had to be pretty dumb, given that they were picking a fight with us. Much to my surprise, their movements have been frighteningly well-planned."
  334.  
  335. "Why haven't I heard about this?"
  336.  
  337. She sounded calm, but I could tell from her eyes that she was angry. A smile crossed his face, neither happy nor bitter. He must not have been sure how he should feel about this.
  338.  
  339. Two reasons. One, the directorate decided this wasn't something we needed your help with. Two, if you knew about the plan, you'd make a big deal about it, and end up making it more difficult to entrap them."
  340.  
  341. Presumably, the latter reason was grounds for the former. My god. Had he never heard of lying? Or making excuses? I thought that Mitsuki would fly off the handle when she heard Hiro'omi's reply. To the contrary, she hid her face and whimpered a few words.
  342.  
  343. "...You mean I'm not ready?"
  344.  
  345. "Yes," he replied, icily.
  346.  
  347.  Then, he smiled and continued, warmly.
  348.  
  349. "Mitsuki. You can just be a regular old schoolgirl."
  350.  
  351. That was probably what he really wanted for her, as her brother. He just wanted his sister to be happy.
  352.  
  353. "This doesn't sit right with me."
  354.  
  355. Kuriyama got things moving again. I looked over at her. Hiro'omi and Mitsuki did likewise, focusing on what she had to say.
  356.  
  357. "Someone's been causing trouble for you. You dispelled the school's interpose barrier to lure them in and trap them. Your plan succeeded, and the enemy fell for your trap. Do I have that right?"
  358.  
  359. "That sounds right to me. Do you disagree?" I asked.
  360.  
  361.  Kuriyama glanced over at me.
  362.  
  363. "That attack was a bit... underwhelming. If they'd spent all this time looking for an opening, I'd expect something a bit less ad hoc. It's like... maybe they ended up having to rush to get the results they wanted. If that turns out to be the case, I think it will become clear who the enemy was."
  364.  
  365. There was something awesome (in the classical sense) about the way she talked when she was in xenor mode. She was so confident in her close-combat ability that she wasn't the least bit flustered, despite having faced that monstrosity.
  366.  
  367. "Well, don't worry about all that. We'll know what happened when we question the lycanthrope."
  368.  
  369. "Question the lycanthrope?" I asked, astonished.
  370.  
  371.  Hiro'omi scratched his head.
  372.  
  373. "Like I said, I've got that covered," he replied, irritatedly. "Trust me on this, okay."
  374.  
  375. Well, fine. That'd take care of everything on the Nase side. As for Kuriyama, though, there was still a lot to deal with. It wouldn't hurt to take advantage of all the confusion to get some work done.
  376.  
  377. "Mind if I get your approval on something?"
  378.  
  379. "Sure?"
  380.  
  381. "If I were to act as Kuriyama's bodyguard, would you consider that to be a violation of our agreement?"
  382.  
  383. "Well, if you put it that way...."
  384.  
  385. I guess it was pretty obvious that being a "bodyguard" was just a pretext for looking after her.
  386.  
  387. "I guess that's fine. We're in a tough spot right now, and I don't bear Mirai any ill will in any case. I'm making an exception here, mind you. Keep it under control, or else I'll have to revoke the exception."
  388.  
  389. "Yeah, I understand."
  390.  
  391. He says some harsh things, but he's a nice guy on the inside. At least with that, I'd be able to work alongside Kuriyama. If my immortality were to vanish altogether, that'd be a problem, but as long as I had at least a bit of it, I could probably be put to good use.
  392.  
  393. "You know, while we're here, I may as well tell you. Mirai is currently suspected of treason against the Nase. That said, _all_ the xenors that've been coming here because of the approaching lull are suspected of the same. Not just her."
  394.  
  395. Hiro'omi pulled out a small electronic device and did something with it that resembled riffling through the pages of a book. At first, I thought he was working on the stories, but it turned out that he was collating information on Kuriyama.
  396.  
  397. "I have nothing to do with them."
  398.  
  399. "So it seems. It looks like this wasn't your doing. At least, not this time. We would appreciate it if you would refrain from anti-Nase activities going forward. Consider this a piece of wisdom from your brother, who loves his little sister in name as much as his little sister by blood."
  400.  
  401. Kuriyama nervously moved her head back and forth. Again with the ambiguous head-shaking. Yes or no? Mitsuki had started oozing homicidality, so I felt the need to change the subject. I wouldn't want the club room to turn into a battlefield again.
  402.  
  403. "Let's not forget about the dreamghast, okay? Just sealing the white-robed lycanthrope outside the room doesn't answer the fundamental question."
  404.  
  405. "Dammit, Akky, have a little faith in me. Like I said _twice_, I've got that covered. Still don't believe me? Well, it's already taken care of. You should leave these technical matters to the technicians."
  406.  
  407. That wasn't even an explanation, but hell if he wasn't confident about it.
  408.  
  409. "Once we deduce who was controlling the lycanthrope, that'll be that. Why don't we get ready to head home?"
  410.  
  411. Hiro'omi stood up, paying close attention to the wound on his back. Mitsuki took a look at it and told him, "It'll be fine." Judging from the amount of blood he lost, the cut wasn't all that deep, but with the way his uniform was torn up, he'd definitely need a new one.
  412.  
  413. "By 'taken care of'... what exactly do you mean?" asked Kuriyama of Hiro'omi.
  414.  
  415.  She was in xenor mode again.
  416.  
  417. "Just what it sounds like. I achieved what I set out to do," he replied, lazily.
  418.  
  419. He opened the room door.
  420.  
  421. A beautiful, flaxen-haired woman with her hair done up stood in the hallway. She was tall and dignified, which gave her a mature sort of appeal, which was accentuated by the women's suit she wore. When she appeared before me, so too did a powerful urge to put a pair of glasses on her.
  422.  
  423. "Uh... what brings you here?"
  424.  
  425. "Given the situation you're in, do you really need to ask?"
  426.  
  427. She gave me a bewitching devil-may-care grin. I followed her gaze down to the floor, where I saw the lycanthrope's body, resting at her feet. It was shaped differently than before. It was immediately clear why she was here. She must have been a xenor too; one particularly skilled in close-quarters combat, at that.
  428.  
  429. "Nice work, Nino. I'm a bit surprised, though. I would've thought you'd be able to capture it alive. Did the little wolfy have any tricks up its sleeve?"
  430.  
  431. "Well, you know? I guess it _did_ pull a trick on me. I've never seen anything like it in my time."
  432.  
  433. She undid her long, flaxen hair. A very adult aroma wafted forth from it as it gently fell to its full length. Gravity eventually pulled her flaxen her down to her hips. Maybe I should've dropped to my knees right there and begged her to let me put glasses on her. Putting glasses on a grown woman would take me far along the path to adulthood.
  434.  
  435. "Hiro'omi, have you ever seen a dreamghast... commit suicide?"
  436.  
  437. "No. I've never even _heard_ of that happening," replied Hiro'omi, shrugging his shoulders.
  438.  
  439.  Their conversation brought me back from my flights of fancy. It went without saying that this was no time to be daydreaming.
  440.  
  441. "I prioritized capturing it alive, just like I was told. Suicide is foul play, you know. I was being really careful to incapacitate it rather than kill it, and look what happened," she complained, smacking her forehead.
  442.  
  443. "...I see. That _would_ be a bit of a surprise."
  444.  
  445. Hiro'omi looked disturbed. Mitsuki and Kuriyama frowned, too - apparently, they'd never heard of such a thing either. Seeing as the xenors were all conversing about who knows what, it was time for me to butt in.
  446.  
  447. "Enough xenorbabble, guys. Help me understand what's going on here. And hey, while you're at it, go ahead and introduce me to that pretty lady over there."
  448.  
  449. "Ah, my bad."
  450.  
  451. Hiro'omi smiled wryly.
  452.  
  453. "This guy's Akihito Kanbara. He's not a xenor. What we consider common sense, he finds uncommon. Would you mind introducing yourself and explaining what's going on to him?"
  454.  
  455. "Oh, so _you're_ the guy," she said, implying some sort of implication.
  456.  
  457. She straightened herself out and bowed.
  458.  
  459. "I'm Ninomiya Shizuku. Call me Nino, or Her Ladyship Shizuku, or whatever. No need to be formal."
  460.  
  461. Yeah, one of those was not exactly informal. But anyway, she made as good a first impression as I could ask for. She didn't make a sudden attempt on my life, nor did she shower words of abuse on me.
  462.  
  463. "Some xenors can take over a dreamghast's mind and control it for a period of time. What that means is that this dreamghast didn't have any particular motive to attack you lot. That being what it is, the real question is, why was it surprising that it committed suicide? Well, even if you do have control over a dreamghast's mind, your control is limited. Ghastmastery isn't powerful enough to suppress a dreamghast's self-defense instincts. To put it simply, a dreamghast just won't obey an order to kill itself or perform a suicide attack."
  464.  
  465. "Well, knowing what we now know, we may have to go with 'shouldn't obey'. That's why we're at a loss here."
  466.  
  467. Hiro'omi shrugged his shoulders, chagrined. I had a fair understanding of the situation, thanks to Nino's explanation. Basically, the impossible had happened. The next question, then: was it outright impossible for this to have occurred, or was it just that this had never happened before? If it were the latter, all we had to do was figure out how it happened.
  468.  
  469. "Whoever our enemy is, he must be particularly talented. Right?"
  470.  
  471. "Kanbara, was it? You're thinking about this wrong," she countered, gently.
  472.  
  473. "This has never happened before. We can't just explain it away by calling the enemy talented. Whoever it is is some kind of monster. An utterly unprecedented one. If we don't recognize that fact, we'll have difficulty properly calibrating our responses."
  474.  
  475. That was a good point. I stayed silent. Hiro'omi reached out to touch the dreamghast's body.
  476.  
  477. "Whatever happens, we're going to have to search it for traces of its controller."
  478.  
  479. And then - something moved which shouldn't have. Keen claws shot towards Hiro'omi. He reacted quickly, but it didn't seem he was expecting the attack. His interpose barrier came up just barely too late. Mitsuki and Kuriyama turned away on reflex. The situation was desperate. A split-second later, Hiro'omi went flying backwards. Realizing almost immediately that something was amiss, Nino had kicked him out of the way. I was left wondering if there mightn't have been a better way to go about it, but given that it had saved Hiro'omi from the worst possible outcome, it didn't really matter. Nino followed up on the lycanthrope's attack by bringing her fist down on its head, crushing its skull.
  480.  
  481. "Kanbara, it isn't over yet," said Nino.
  482.  
  483. Kuriyama responded by reconstituting her blade of blood in the blink of an eye. Mitsuki was on the alert, keeping an eye out for danger. Nino stood up from her crouch and sprinted forward, gripping the air in front of her. Whatever she tried to do must have failed, though. She turned around.
  484.  
  485. "Run for it!" she shouted.
  486.  
  487. Before she had even finished, Mitsuki and Kuriyama flew through the air, as if pushed by an unseen force. Both of them cried out in pain when they collided with the corridor wall. I had no idea what was going on.
  488.  
  489. "What the hell is going on!?" I yelled. "We're not fighting the hollow shade, are we?!"
  490.  
  491. "Calm down," she urged. "Hollow shades are incorporeal, not invisible."
  492.  
  493. Nino gazed fixedly at empty space. There was definitely something there - something invisible. There was a dreamghast that the other xenors around hadn't detected. Only the beautiful woman standing beside me knew where it was.
  494.  
  495. "Stand back," she ordered.
  496.  
  497. As she spoke, she took a step forward and drove one of her shapely legs through the empty space in front of her. Her high roundhouse kick was stopped in midair. She used the rebound to bring her foot back to where it was on the ground. She followed up by gripping the air in front of her with both hands, and then torquing her body and moving her feet as if she was performing a judo throw. To a passerby, it may have seemed like she was going crazy all by herself. I could tell, though, that a fierce battle with a with an invisible dreamghast was unfolding around her. A dreamghast and a xenor were going at it, mano a mano. After a few moments, she lifted her alluring body off the ground and dusted off her clothes.
  498.  
  499. "That takes care of that."
  500.  
  501. "Thanks, Nino," replied Hiro'omi.
  502.  
  503. He had a hand pressed to the side of his chest. Getting kicked there must've hurt. Despite that, he thanked her before saying anything else. He must have known, better than anyone else, how urgent the danger they had faced was.
  504.  
  505. "Being a bodyguard is part of my job description."
  506.  
  507. Her expression softened. It didn't stay that way for long, though. Nino returned to her fighting stance and stared down the length of the hall. When I turned around to take a look, I saw an eerie-looking thing, draped in a black overcoat. The coat extended well over the top of its head, so I couldn't see its face. I wasn't even sure whether it was a dreamghast or a human. At its side were two dreamghasts - one with a single enormous eye and a huge mouth; the other airborne, with wings like a bat.
  508.  
  509. "Hiro'omi, do you think the cage's precision might be dropping?"
  510.  
  511. "You've got to be shitting me. There's no way I'd fail to detect them inside the cage."
  512.  
  513. Hiro'omi looked stupefied.
  514.  
  515. "Do you think they might have used the method of transposition? Maybe they only just appeared over there. That would explain why you didn't detect them sooner."
  516.  
  517. "Ooh-hoo! She's quite the clever one, eh?"
  518.  
  519. She smiled bewitchingly. I backed away from Nino and Kuriyama, taking Mitsuki with me, to ensure I wouldn't get in their way. It was the two of them versus the black overcoat and two dreamghasts. Thankfully, the corridor was narrow. That worked to our advantage. If they put their mind to it, the Nase siblings could be like an adamantine wall. And I - well, I was immortal. I'd be no use as a hostage. The close-quarters combatants just had to do their thing, and that'd be that.
  520.  
  521. "Akky, I'm sorry for getting Mirai involved in this mess. If anything goes wrong, have Nino back you up. Maintaining the cage over this floor is stretching me to the limit as is."
  522.  
  523. "Never thought I'd see you this weak in the knees," I joked back.
  524.  
  525. "Yeah, well, when I set that trap, I wasn't expecting _this_ to happen. I have no idea what's going on, to be frank."
  526.  
  527. "Please, Akihito. Help us."
  528.  
  529. She didn't have her usual aura of authority. In fact, she was trembling a bit. No surprise there. We were dealing with a series of unimaginable events. That black overcoat, in particular, was giving me the willies.
  530.  
  531. Suddenly.
  532.  
  533. "-------"
  534.  
  535. The one-eyed dreamghast uttered something that was entirely unlike any human language.
  536.  
  537. A magic circle appeared in the air, and from it emerged a bizarre longsword. The sword's surroundings were reflected in its mirror-finished blade. Its hilt was adorned with a number of paper strips of the kind one would use to perform magic. The black overcoat calmly took the longsword in its hand and held it pointing backwards over its shoulder. The sword seemed too long to prove useful in the enclosed space we were in. If, however, the overcoat knew that and had still selected it, there must have been something special about the sword that led it to make that choice.
  538.  
  539. Nino seemed wary of that, too. She remained fixed to the spot. Then, the airborne dreamghast incanted a chant. This time, a number of magic circles appeared on the floor. Four lycanthropic dreamghasts materialized in the space above those circles. As if that were the starting gun for the battle, hostilities began.
  540.  
  541. Kuriyama started things off by dashing towards the pack of dreamghasts, holding her slender blade with both hands. She nimbly closed the gap between her and them and sliced at the forwardmost lycanthrope. It dodged by the skin of its teeth, but she was able to use her momentum to pivot around. With her second attack, bolstered by her centrifugal force, she severed its right arm.
  542.  
  543. The one-eyed dreamghast leapt towards her next. She cleaved it, too, bringing down a shower of reddish-black liquid on her face. It didn't seem to bother her, though. She sprang towards her next target. Her small and delicate build might deceive one into thinking she wouldn't fare well in battle. Don't be fooled by that - the superhuman physical abilities of close-combat xenors are not to be underestimated. With their formation disrupted, the dreamghasts panicked. The black overcoat brought its sword down with such energy that it would have cut down its comrades - but then stopped in mid-air, as if it had been frozen in place.
  544.  
  545. "You're going to fight _me_."
  546.  
  547. Nino grinned diabolically as she held empty space. She made a pulling motion, whereupon the black overcoat soared gaily through the air. I couldn't do anything but watch as events unfolded rapidly before my eyes.
  548.  
  549. "Nino can take conscious control of any space she sees and deform it however she wants. She's an offense-oriented actions-speak-louder-than-words sort of person, but her xenomachics are a lot like ours," explained Hiro'omi.
  550.  
  551. That helped me grasp what I was looking at.
  552.  
  553. It was a battle of dreamghast and xenor.
  554.  
  555. It was beyond human comprehension.
  556.  
  557. The black overcoat slowly stood up from where it had been hurled. Wielding its heavy sword as though it were as light as a feather, it ripped through the air. Nino leaped backwards to avoid its blitz, but it looked like she misjudged the length of the sword - her left shoulder ripped open and fresh blood gushed forth. The way her left arm dangled at her side evidenced that the wound was serious. She was in a position where she couldn't afford to suffer a follow-through attack, and so she showed no signs of retreating.
  558.  
  559. "That's odd. Am I astigmatic now?" joked Nino.
  560.  
  561. She was clearly in pain. It wasn't clear whether or not she still had enough strength in her. If she had a countermeasure, though, the sooner the better. I signaled at Hiro'omi with my eyes and then moved forward to stand beside Nino. This was going to be a quick planning session.
  562.  
  563. "I'll charge in and open them up for you. You follow up by attacking them."
  564.  
  565. "Do you always fight like that?"
  566.  
  567. "Of course not - I _do_ have a sense of pain."
  568.  
  569. I gave her a magnificent shrug. Nino's mischievous smile vanished.
  570.  
  571. Suddenly.
  572.  
  573. The black overcoat came rushing at us with sword in hand. Apparently these villains didn't understand that they were supposed to wait for the heroes to finish talking. Of course, I had never planned to dodge it, and so I took a step forward. The sword cut through my clavicle and ate into my flesh. To maximize the amount of time I could buy Nino, I grabbed the sword and held it in place. A second later, Nino delivered a powerful mid-height kick to the black overcoat's torso. The force of her attack caused the black overcoat to let go of its sword and awkwardly slump to the floor. The overcoat slipped off its head, revealing its actual face.
  574.  
  575. It was a young woman with beautiful hair. Her eyes were utterly lifeless. Something felt weird about the corpse in the black overcoat. It pulled the overcoat back over its face.
  576.  
  577. "Puppetry," said Nino, frowning.
  578.  
  579. Puppetry - a truly awful sort of ghast-magic that allows a dreamghast to control the body of a dead human. Thing is, even if they _are_ dead, they can't regenerate like I do. If a puppet's body is completely destroyed, it ceases to function. They weren't nearly as painful to deal with as people that had been possessed by a dreamghast, but there was still something disturbing about attacking something with the body of a human.
  580.  
  581. "Checkmate."
  582.  
  583. Nino stood before the black overcoat. Even though she now knew its true form, she didn't waver. That's what years of experience will do for you. She took a step forward. The now-weaponless puppet took flight immediately. She wasn't expecting that, and so she was slow to react. The puppet's actions seemed to defeat the entire purpose of having a puppet. I certainly couldn't see why the puppeteer would make its disposable puppet flee from battle.
  584.  
  585. "You're not getting away that easily."
  586.  
  587. Nino took hold of empty space. In accordance with her motions, the black overcoat stopped moving. On reflex, I called out to the nearest xenor.
  588.  
  589. "Kuriyama!"
  590.  
  591. She drove her sword into the lycanthrope in front of her, then turned to look at the black overcoat, frozen behind her. Kuriyama looked troubled. It looked like her weapon got stuck in the lycanthrope. As she used her other sword to finish it off, she delivered a fierce kick to the black overcoat. It went flying through the air, smashed through a window, and fell to the ground outside.
  592.  
  593. Kuriyama liquidized her blade and cracked it like a whip before drawing it back into her hand. Then, she resolidified it, so that she had two blades in hand. The battle was proceeding far better now than it had been when we were first ambushed.
  594.  
  595. "...how's the cage?" asked Nino.
  596.  
  597.  Hiro'omi forced a smile.
  598.  
  599. "It's still running at a basic level."
  600.  
  601. When she heard that, Nino began pursuit. I watched as Nino chased after the black overcoat. It didn't seem like she'd need me to shield her from a puppet that had lost the will to fight. And besides, I was in no shape to be following her. I yanked the sword out of my flesh and dropped it on the ground, suffering all the while.
  602.  
  603. The wound immediately began closing up. Before long, I had stopped bleeding.
  604.  
  605. At that point, I finally turned my gaze to Kuriyama. Using a bizarrely-shaped long, dark-red blade, she sliced through the airborne dreamghast, from one side to the other. Three of the lycanthropes had already fallen, and the only remaining one had lost its left leg and was wounded all over. Just then, one of the lycanthropes behind her stood up. It seemed to have been playing possum.
  606.  
  607. "Look out!"
  608.  
  609. I was already running by the time those words left my mouth. I raced to her side as fast as I could. It must have been over in a few seconds - and yet, it felt like an awfully long time. I was about to interpose myself between her and the lycanthrope when she used her right hand to grab me by the neck and throw me on the ground. As she did so, she used the weapon in her left hand to block the attack of the lycanthrope from behind her.
  610.  
  611. "Don't get in the way!"
  612.  
  613. It seemed like her fierce emotions had infected her blade of blood, as well - when her blade struck the lycanthrope, it underwent a drastic change of form. A number of smaller blades branched off the main shaft and severed the lycanthrope's neck. I was showered with warm blood as I lay on the floor. After being showered with the bulk of the lycanthrope's blood, Kuriyama turned to face the last lycanthrope. Maybe these lycanthropes were weaker than the one that had attacked us earlier. Either way, they were no match for Kuriyama and her ability to manipulate blood.
  614.  
  615. She pushed off the ground and leapt forward. With her crimson blades crossed, she closed in on the last lycanthrope. It didn't even put up a fight. It was split neatly in two by her blades.
  616.  
  617. The corridor was covered with dreamghast fluids and severed limbs. Mitsuki covered her mouth and turned away from that gruesome sight. With the battle behind her, Kuriyama staggered over to the wall and leaned against it. Her legs slowly gave way. Just standing up must have been difficult for her. She was a small girl - who fought by turning her blood into a blade. It was an unusual style of combat. Seeing that with my own eyes just reaffirmed it.
  618.  
  619. She was impermanent and imperiled.
  620.  
  621. It looked like she had overburdened herself in an effort to wipe away their negative impressions of her. She was under more pressure than any one person should have to bear. As I walked up to her, she smiled awkwardly.
  622.  
  623. "I'm pretty good with short duels... but I used my blood for too long this time."
  624.  
  625. Yeah, her face was pallid. And yet she was brave. She must have been in such agony that she couldn't even stand - and yet she smiled, so that I wouldn't worry about her. Suddenly, she fell over. I put my arms out to catch her. I could feel the weight of her body. She gave me a gentle smile. And then, she passed out in my arms. It was that side of her that made me never want to abandon her. I... wanted to support her.
  626.  
  627. "By the way, Akky."
  628.  
  629. Hiro'omi called for me out of the blue. I couldn't imagine that he'd tell one of his stupid jokes at a time like this. I turned to look at his eminently unpleasant face, cradling Kuriyama in my arms all the while.
  630.  
  631. "Do you realize who was inside that black overcoat?"
  632.  
  633. "Yeah. A puppet."
  634.  
  635. My voice started to crack. I imagine I had a sour look on my face, too.
  636.  
  637. "Hey, don't give me that look. None of this leaves me with a bad impression of you."
  638.  
  639. Only dreamghasts can perform puppetry. And so, when a puppet murders a human, there are always those who see me - one born to a human and a dreamghast - as dangerous. That's how it had always been, and that's probably how it would be from here on. This incident, however, left me with a nasty feeling unrelated to my personal issues.
  640.  
  641. "Yeah, I'm not worried about that. Do you see the real problem? We're dealing with a ghasmaster xenor and a puppeteer dreamghast. Aren't xenors and dreamghasts supposed to be inherently antagonistic? What the hell are you guys - and the rest of the Nase - up against?"
  642.  
  643. That was everything I wanted to know. Hiro'omi shrugged his shoulders in near-exasperation.
  644.  
  645. "You say some dumb things. That's exactly why we set a trap - to find out. If we knew who we were dealing with, we wouldn't have gone to all this trouble."
  646.  
  647. Hiro'omi glanced at Mitsuki before fixing his gaze on Kuriyama.
  648.  
  649. "Is Mirai okay?"
  650.  
  651. "Yeah. Anemia got to her is all."
  652.  
  653. "Well, we're all alive. Let's just wait for Nino to get back."
  654.  
  655. And with that, he closed out the conversation. That got me worked up.
  656.  
  657. "What, you're going to leave me in the dark?"
  658.  
  659. "Not at all. We're all high-strung right now. I can't imagine we're in any position to make good decisions right now. Besides, it's going to take some time to make sense of all the data we have. Once we come up with some well-grounded hypotheses, you're going to hear them, whether you want to or not."
  660.  
  661. After that, Hiro'omi started talking to Mitsuki about getting in touch with their higher-ups or something of the sort. I'd be wasting my time if I pressed him any further. I looked at Kuriyama, who was still unconscious. It seemed like she had turned a fair bit pinker, presumably because all her blood was back in circulation. After that, I looked around the corridor. The gruesome sight before me looked utterly unlike an ordinary school corridor. That said, the battle was over. That was good enough.
  662.  
  663. "...Kanbara?"
  664.  
  665. I heard a feeble voice. Apparently, Kuriyama was conscious again.
  666.  
  667. "Are you okay?"
  668.  
  669. "...I'm okay...."
  670.  
  671. She got back on her feet and leaned back against the corridor wall.
  672.  
  673. "Why would you do something that crazy?"
  674.  
  675. "I wanted to save you. Duh."
  676.  
  677. "But I'm a combat-trained xenor."
  678.  
  679. "Yeah, but this was an emergency. That didn't cross my mind. When I saw you about to be attacked, my body just moved on its own. You know how I am. I can't abandon a girl who looks good in glasses."
  680.  
  681. "......"
  682.  
  683. Kuriyama, remaining silent, closed her eyes. And then, as quietly as a mouse, she spoke.
  684.  
  685. "You're kind, Kanbara."
  686.  
  687. "What makes you say that?"
  688.  
  689. "You're treating me normally despite having seen me like that."
  690.  
  691. A faint smile grew beneath her red-rimmed glasses Her smile was so fleeting that it seemed it could vanish without a moment's notice. I couldn't bring myself to smile back at her. I saw so much of myself in her.
  692.  
  693. "Kanbara?"
  694.  
  695. "Yeah?"
  696.  
  697. "Do I... look like an ordinary person?"
  698.  
  699. What a question. I couldn't help feeling a tightness in my chest.
  700.  
  701. "Of course you do."
  702.  
  703. "The rest of the world doesn't think so. So many people refuse to accept me as one of them. I have to prove to them that I can be useful to them. That's the only way they'll accept that my life has meaning."
  704.  
  705. Which was to say that she could only find a place where she belonged by proving herself useful to others. I felt like I caught a glimpse of the darkness that Kuriyama held within herself. She just wanted to be treated like an ordinary person. And yet, the people around her wouldn't accept her as an ordinary person.
  706.  
  707. She wanted to be ordinary.
  708.  
  709. I understood that hope... that desire. Painfully well.
  710.  
  711. I really simply could not bring myself to abandon a girl who had to fight all alone. There was something about that that was... very much like the spell on her that made her unable to ignore dreamghasts. What a pain. I smiled dryly. Kuriyama, seeing that, looked at me in confusion. We were still in a nasty situation, one that was not a place for deep conversation.
  712.  
  713. Our meaningless conversations were interrupted by Nino's return. She stretched her arms out over above her head. It was like she was sulking, or maybe she was unsatisfied about something.
  714.  
  715. "It got away."
  716.  
  717. That was the first thing out of her mouth. It was a stunningly anticlimactic report.
  718.  
  719. "Got away? Won't the teachers and students be in danger?"
  720.  
  721. "Their goal was the Nase siblings, so probably not. I imagine they'll lay low until they get what they wanted."
  722.  
  723. That was logical. If they injured ordinary people, they'd have other xenors after them. If their goal really was to launch a surprise attack on the Nase family, it would certainly be wisest for them to keep a low profile. No, wait. The way the conversation was going had made me miss something critical. We were operating under the premise that it got away, and that didn't make an iota of sense.
  724.  
  725. "I thought dreamghasts couldn't escape from a cage. Was I wrong?"
  726.  
  727. I glanced over to Hiro'omi. Another possibility came to my mind.
  728.  
  729. "What if... does the cage not react to people who were once human?"
  730.  
  731. "The cage isn't so badly-tuned that it'd miss a moving corpse," replied Hiro'omi, instantly.
  732.  
  733.  I continued to pursue my line of questioning.
  734.  
  735. "Then what happened?"
  736.  
  737. "Don't ask me. Nino, do you have any ideas?"
  738.  
  739. "There was a hole in the cage. About eighty centimeters in diameter." I found some damage near the hole. It looked almost like the cage was neutralized by an interaction with another Nase-lineage interpose barrier."
  740.  
  741. She shrugged her shoulders pointedly. When one interpose barrier collides with another, both are nullified. That's a standard method of destroying barriers. This incident, however, had to be an inside job. Cages... were a Nase specialty.
  742.  
  743. "Hiro'omi, keep in mind that we were dealing with someone capable of puppetry. Before you look for betrayers, look for people who've gone missing. It's entirely possible that someone's corpse was being manipulated."
  744.  
  745. "Yeah, I know, Nino. You don't have to tell me," replied Hiro'omi.
  746.  
  747. He seemed glum. Nino giggled. Something was bothering me.
  748.  
  749. "Can puppetry be used to exploit a corpse's xenomachics?"
  750.  
  751. "In general, yes," replied Nino. "We really do have some troublemakers on our hands."
  752.  
  753. She rubbed her head, seeming at a loss.
  754.  
  755. "We were awfully violent there. What're you going to do about this disgusting mess?"
  756.  
  757. That really hammered in that this was reality. Not even the finest haunted houses would be drenched in this much blood. Death was everywhere. It was macabre.
  758.  
  759. "Hm, good point. If we change scenes, that ought to take care of it."
  760.  
  761. "Since when have we been in a gag cartoon?"
  762.  
  763. "I was kidding. But seriously, it'll be taken care of. The Nase family has no shortage of people who take care of these details. All we need to do is head home and pretend that nothing happened."
  764.  
  765. He really did have it all covered. It almost felt like everything had drawn to a close exactly how it should have. As I took a quick look around the corridor, something strange caught my attention. It was the longsword that the black overcoat had pulled out of the magic circle. When the sword injured Nino... wait, what? Wasn't she just stretching both her arms over her head just a minute ago? I looked up at her, only to see her standing there in deep thought, with her arms crossed.
  766.  
  767. "Uh, Nino, what happened to the cut on your shoulder?"
  768.  
  769. "Oh, it's this. Slow on the uptake, huh?"
  770.  
  771. She pulled a strip of paper with writing on it out from inside her shirt.
  772.  
  773. "It's a talisman that promotes healing. I can't afford to be forced to withdraw from combat because of an injury or two."
  774.  
  775. Apparently, she was skilled at close combat _and_ combat support. I walked over to the object of my interest.
  776.  
  777. "What're we going to do about this longsword?"
  778.  
  779. I grabbed it by the hilt. When I tried to lift it, I was thrown off balance by its weight. It felt even heavier than I would expect of a sword of such absurd length. When I put my left hand on the hilt, I found myself able to lift it with surprising ease.
  780.  
  781. "It didn't look all that heavy to me," said Mitsuki.
  782.  
  783. "...I misunderestimated its length. I don't think it's possible to lift it one-handed."
  784.  
  785. Nino ran her hand along the length of the blade. She then spent a while quietly studying it. Her bearing was just what one would expect of a beautiful, intellectual woman.
  786.  
  787. "Hiro'omi, would you mind if I took this home to examine it?"
  788.  
  789. "Go ahead. You know more about that sort of stuff than we do anyway."
  790.  
  791. Hiro'omi stood up and held a hand out to Mitsuki. Then, he looked at me and Kuriyama.
  792.  
  793. "Our escort seems to have arrived. The two of you are heading back with us. You shouldn't be out in public looking like extras from a horror flick."
  794.  
  795. Kuriyama and I looked around at everyone present and couldn't help but chuckle. I was painted scarlet with both my own blood and the blood of others. Definitely an extra from a horror flick. For once, he was right. When we exited the building, we saw three jet-black luxury cars parked, waiting for us. An elderly driver of unparalleled deportment greeted us. Mitsuki and Hiro'omi got in the first car; Nino in the second; and Kuriyama and I in the third.
  796.  
  797. The cars set off smoothly, and were soon darting and weaving through the streets at a good clip.
  798.  
  799. I could finally relax. I looked out through the window. The sun had already set, and our surroundings were lit by the streetlamps. It was clear that the Nase family had gotten caught up in a serious mess. Thankfully, neither Kuriyama nor I was directly involved. If all went well, we'd have nothing further to do with this kerfuffle. I couldn't help but get the feeling, though, that if the lull was really the match that started this fire, we wouldn't be able to entirely dissociate ourselves from this mess. Really... what a pain.
  800.  
  801. We ended up being brought not to the Nase estate, but rather a small apartment not too far from the school. Nino seemed to have been dropped off elsewhere, leaving us four high-schoolers here.
  802.  
  803. "This room is one of our emergency shelters," said Mitsuki. "We have xenor gear and equipment; emergency rations and commodities; and spare uniforms, too. It's a bit cramped, though - just two bedrooms, plus living, dining, and kitchen," she finished.
  804.  
  805.  She had regained her presence of mind, and/or her typical haughtiness. Ordinarily, that wouldn't be a development I'd welcome, but for today, it was truly a relief. Each of us in turn used the shower and put on a new set of clothes. There was no sense in hanging around there for too long, so we left shortly after we were all ready.
  806.  
  807. "Regular people aren't going to notice anything out of the ordinary, right? Despite how much happened back there? Honestly, I'm having a hard time accepting that. Is it just me, or is it kind of gloomy now?"
  808.  
  809. As we left the apartment, I grumbled a bit. Hiro'omi chuckled.
  810.  
  811. "It's all going to be fine. Just think about it. Everybody's seen enough TV to know that lawyers exist. But has anybody ever _seen_ a lawyer working? And that's for a profession of tens of thousands of people. Xenors number only in the thousands, so it's not surprise that nobody ever sees one. The whole business will be taken care of, and nobody will be any the wiser, save for those of us who were there ourselves."
  812.  
  813. That made... perfect sense. There was nothing to rebut.
  814.  
  815. "Makes sense. So, are we done for today?"
  816.  
  817. "I guess so. A proper debriefing will have to wait, and it's not like any of us want to go back to the club room now."
  818.  
  819. "True, that."
  820.  
  821. Even if the Nase cleanup people had finished up, I had no desire to head back there for the time being. Even if we did go back, I couldn't imagine we'd make any real progress on the stories anyway. Kuriyama politely declined Hiro'omi's offer to walk her home, said her farewells, and set off walking.
  822.  
  823. "What's the plan, Akky?"
  824.  
  825. "I'm going to take a walk. I need to think through some stuff."
  826.  
  827. With that, I chased after Kuriyama.
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