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"ーSo that girl is the #1 rank, huh?" "Your disbelief is easy to understand. In any case, just how far does your absolute ignorance of our school's rankings extend? Idiot." Julis' tone revealed her displeasure with Ayato, lying on the floor with a towel on his forehead. The recoil from forcibly breaking his seal had given him an intense fever, and thus the cold towel lying on his forehead felt enormously comfortable. Their current location was somewhere now most familiar, Julis' training room. Although there wasn't any need to worry about strangers pa.s.sing by, the large hole in the wall somewhat destroyed the feeling of privacy. "About that... I'm sorry." There wasn't anything he could offer as a reb.u.t.tal. Seeing Julis' frown tighten and knot further and further, he felt it best to simply apologize. Given how things looked, it seemed "displeased" was far too inadequate a word to describe her current state of mind. "So uh, I'm guessing you're angry...?" Ayato asked timidly, as Julis cast him a frosty glare. "And? Do you know why I'm mad?" The phrase "where do I start?" came to mind. "Umー because I dueled someone without asking?" Best put first things first. After all was said and done, he'd promised her just yesterday that he'd avoid any and all duels, and he'd already broken that promise. He'd more or less explained the reasons for how things had turned out as they had, but the sight of Julis, never uttering so much as one word in response, was terrifying in the extreme. "About that, don't worry about it." "Wait, what?" "That man, Kouichirou, was it? That unbelievably egotistical att.i.tude of his... Even if he's her uncle, to treat a fellow human being as nothing more than a tool is not something that can be forgiven." Although Julis' tone was as frigid as the dead of winter, her eyes burned flaming hot with pure, unadulterated wrath. "If you'd simply let things stand without lifting a finger, then you'd have disappointed me. If the one who'd pa.s.sed by had been me instead, the outcome would have been identical." Those words were anything but hollow. They were her honest, sincere feelings on the matter. As Ayato realized that she agreed with him, his expression relaxed itself. "Thank you. That makes me happy." "Wha...!" As he openly expressed his grat.i.tude, Julis' cheeks reddened in response. "Th-That wasn't anything worth thanking me over. I, um, I just..." As Julis blushed, her sentence turned to incoherent gibberish halfway through. "A-Anyway! The reason I'm angry with you isn't that!" "Hmm...thenー" As she watched Ayato honestly pondering, she sighed. And, pouting, turned away. "ーThe reason I'm angry... is because you lost." "Eh? But wait, thatー" "I know! Even if you were doing this so she wouldn't have to be treated so cruelly anymore, she's the number one rank! It's just that... I don't know... if it's you we're talking about, I thought you had a chance..." "Julis..." He never would have guessed that she trusted him so deeply. If it was at all possible, he wished he could have meet her expectations. ...But... "Even you lost... Just how strong is this Toudou Kirin?" "...I don't want to admit it, but her swordsmanship is superior to my own." That was the undeniable reality of things. It was nearly impossible to conceive that someone so timid could possess such exquisite swordsmanship. Both her technique and speed were absolute. In every aspect she was the equal, if not the better, of the unsealed Ayato. He was unable to imagine just what kind of h.e.l.lish training she must've undergone. "I see..." Julis leaned on the wall and laughed bitterly. "No, at a time like this, I ought to praise her instead. She is, after all, only thirteen years oldー a first year in junior high. On her first day at this school, in April, she challenged and defeated the tenth ranked student. By the end of the first ranking tournament, she'd obtained the number one position. I can only imagine what she will accomplish in the future." "T-thirteen?!" Ayato sat up his in his surprise, his expression twisting in pain at his unconscious action. That flawless swordsmanship was nearly inconceivable. And it wasn't just her swordsmanship. The way she moved, the way she took full advantage of every opening, her timingー everything. In every way, Toudou Kirin was extraordinary. (Even her bodily development is unbelievable for a thirteen year old...) As his mind filled with the image of those feminine curves, mature beyond her age, Ayato shook his head to clear it. "Something wrong?" "N-no. More importantly, is there anything else you can tell me about her?" In an attempt to distract the doubtful Julis, he asked a question to change the topic. Julis frowned once more. "...You're really concerned about that girl, aren't you?" "Well, you could say that." Ayato wasn't clear as to why Julis suddenly looked so irritated, but she nodded nonetheless. "Oh, just forget it." Her face still showing her displeasure, she nonetheless pulled out her phone and opened up a window. Appearing on the screen was information regarding all of the Top Twelve. The first page of the Named Charts lists the Page Ones, or in other words, the Top Twelve. "I've already said this before, but there are definitely others stronger than me. If we're restricting things just to Seidoukan, there are three 'opponents I cannot defeat' at the moment: you, Claudia, and Toudou Kirin. " "Claudia?" For Julis to so straightforwardly acknowledge Claudia was something not often seen. "I hate to admit it, but it's the truth. She's strong. She is, after all, the rank two." "Eh...? I-I see." Even though he'd heard from the person in question herself that she was a Page One, he hadn't known her rank. "You... Seriously. First, you have no idea who the #1 is, and now you don't even know the #2... It's unbelievable." Julis shrugged in amazement as she opened yet another window. "Claudia Enfield. The Parca MortaMaster of a Thousand Eyes. Wielder of the Ogre Lux Pan-Dora which allows her to glimpse the future." "When you say she can see the future, are you talking about precognition?" "The precise details are unclear. Claudia is the only person with that ability," Julis replied solemnly. "It's rumored that she can see several dozen seconds into the future, although that's just speculation on the part of her previous opponents." "...That's certainly formidable." Even if it was only a few dozen seconds, but the ability to completely see through an opponent's movements was unparalleled. "That's why there hasn't really been anyone willing to challenge her to a duel. You too, don't just start a duel for no good reason." "Haha..." Ayato smiled wryly as he took his time perusing the data. Suddenly, he noticed something about what she'd said. "Wait, Toudou Kirin is ranked first and Claudia second, but... you're ranked fifth. What about ranks #3 and #4? They're not opponents you can't beat?" "I believe I've mentioned this to you before, but the rankings aren't just determined by raw strength alone. Although #3 and #4 ーespecially the Dante who's #4ー have very powerful abilities, they aren't well-suited for facing me. In a ten-round fight, I'd likely win by the fifth. As for those below me... #7 has an Ogre Lux I'm ill-suited to fighting. Using the same a.n.a.logy, it'd be something if I could win by the third round." As Julis reached this point, she stopped flipping through the info on the screen. "But when it comes to you, Claudia, and Toudou Kirin, it's another thing entirely. If we were to fight ten times, I wouldn't even win once." "...I see." "Toudou Kirin has yet to lose since entering this school. In this she's the same as Claudia. However, unlike you or Claudia, she is neither a Strega nor the possessor of an Ogre Lux." She certainly did not use an Ogre Lux, but rather a simple nihontou. Having witnessed her swordsmanship first-hand, it was clear that was her weapon of choice. "Even though I'd previously said that the rankings weren't particularly special, that doesn't extend to the rank of #1. To stand in that position, which represents the school itself, is a fierce and bitter struggle. Even apart from official ranking matches, the #1 is not allowed to turn down duels. Someone without ability would not be able to attain such a position. To have held her spot at the top for three months now, defending her position with just that nihontou; it's unimaginable. For the purpose of comparison, the current rank one of every other school is an Ogre Lux-wielding Strega." As she finished speaking, Julis closed the window with a touch of her finger. "Well, when it comes to Toudou Kirin, those are my thoughts. If you're looking for more personalized information, Yabuki's the one you want. I'm not a newsstand." "No, thank you very much. That was plenty." Truth be told, that wasn't really what Ayato wanted to hear. If given the opportunity, he'd like to know more about her uncle, but that wasn't something he could ask Julis. "Alright, let's change the topic to the Phoenix for a bit." "The Phoenix?" In response to Ayato's puzzled look, Julis smiled wryly. "Well, since your ability's been leaked, we're going to have to change tactics." "Ah..." His limits were still a secret, but his strength was anything but to all who had witnessed his duel with Kirin. There had been plenty of people watching, at least a few of which had likely recorded the incident. "...I'm sorry." "Don't look like that. Fact is, this was bound to happen sooner or later." Julis patted his head, bowed in apology. "If you'd beaten her, then things afterward would be much smoother... but there's no point in worrying about that now." "If I won, then what...?" "Well, you'd be #1 then. During the Phoenix, the likelihood you'd be paired with an easy opponent would be rather high." "An easy pairing...? Oh, that's right, it's an elimination tournament." Ayato nodded his understanding. In order to raise excitement for the Festa to a favored peak, tournament organizers spared no effort in arranging the order of matches. Simply put, they'd do their best to ensure that those who would most likely pa.s.s the first round were all kept separate from one another. "Since I'm ranked fifth, that means something. The problem is, you're unranked. After that fight with Kirin, my hope is you'll pick up a name of your own after the news spreads. Page One is a bit too much to ask, though." "Is that so..." "For those seeking to climb the ranks, this next ranking tournament will be their last chance. At a time like this, there probably isn't anyone willing to accept a duel..." Worried about foul play, once partners were determined, all they could do was wait, unwilling to accept duels that might threaten their current standing. "For now, stay on guard. When there's another opportunity, we'll speak more." Speaking these words, Julis rapped Ayato on the forehead. - ψ -
After school the following day, Ayato headed to the entrance of the student service center. His school badge had been destroyed in the duel with Kirin, and so he needed a replacement. At Seidoukan, one's badge represented one's ident.i.ty, and was necessary for a variety of authentication purposes such as signing the roll. A non-functioning badge was extremely inconvenient, to say the least. This morning he'd applied for another and was told to return after school. "Just give that directly to the student council president." The girl at the window pulled out a sheet, speaking in a professional tone. "Also, please sign here and here." "So I should just take this badge straight to Claudia then?" "Exactly. She's currently awaiting you in the student council lounge." "The lounge... is it?" Slightly taken aback, he inquired further, but the window had already closed. There was nothing else to do but head over to the top floor of the high school building. His body was still sore and ached all over, but the normal activities of daily life weren't a problem. Since he and Julis were currently taking a break from training, he had some free time. "Everything related to the student council's on the top floor, so there shouldn't be a problem just heading straight there..." Outside the window lay a vibrant blue sky. Within the room, the air conditioning had kept the room cool and comfortable, but as he stepped outside, he was a.s.saulted by the heat of the burning sun. It was best to stay out of the heat as much as possible. Thinking thusly, Ayato glanced around, looking for the aforementioned lounge. The student council office was surrounded by a ma.s.s of rooms which looked very s.p.a.cious. Pressing the intercom, Ayato was greeted by Claudia's voice. Hehe. Surprised, aren't you? "Welcome, Ayato. Come on in." He entered as prompted. And doubted his very eyes. He seemed to have stepped out into the depths of the jungle. In the center of the room sat an ice-cold pool of water, while the room itself was covered with tropical plants. The walls were now gla.s.s, and sunlight filled the room. Beside the pool of water was a long deck chair, upon which Claudia was stretched out. Numerous windows hovered around her, deeply engrossed in her work. "...Um, thisー" "Hehe. Surprised, aren't you?" As he turned to look at her, he froze. Claudia wore a swimsuit which was simultaneously both flattering and daring. The bikini she wore suited her greatly but was far too provocative, and he didn't know where to look. Way too much skin had been exposed. "This was left behind by my predecessor, who'd forcibly had it put in place. Although the costs were immense, but the cost to return things to their original state was similarly high, so there's nothing to be done but to take full advantage." "I-is that how it is..." Claudia glanced at Ayato and began to giggle. "In any case, we're in the middle of a lake, aren't we? There's no need for such a pool, right?" "Oh, you don't know, Ayato? Swimming in the lake is forbidden." "Eh? Really?" "This entire region boasts an extremely high concentration of Mana. It's led to some mutations." The influx of Mana after the Ember Tears had led to mutations in the flora and fauna. Its effect on humanity had been the inception of the Starpulse Generation, and naturally, other forms of life had not been left untouched. Nonetheless, mutants with the ability to pose a serious threat to the Starpulse Generation ーand their abnormal abilities, physical or otherwiseー had yet to be discovered. "There haven't yet been any recorded incidents, but rumored ones only. That said, there've been reports of an enormous shadow moving about in the water, as well as monsters in the subterranean levels. It's quite terrifying." Claudia sat up and waved her hands as if to say "how frightening". He couldn't feel the least bit of fear from her. More importantly, the way she waved her arms only served to emphasize her chest even further, which made it awkward to look. "Th-They were just imagining things, I'm sure." "Hmm... you're more of a realist than you seem." Claudia seemed delighted. Her shoulders trembled slightly when suddenly she clasped a fist to her palm. "Right, right, you were here for this." She handed Ayato a new school badge. "Yeah. Thanks, Claudia. But um, might I ask where exactly you were keeping this?" Just a moment ago her hands had been empty. "...That's a secret." "A secret... I see." He was terrified of what the answer might be, and so he let the matter rest. "I have to say I'm quite surprised, though. I never would have guessed you'd be dueling Toudou Kirin." "Well, the circ.u.mstances didn't allow for much else." He a.s.sumed Claudia already knew the rough details of the matter, so he kept his reply simple. "Toudou-san's uncle... Right?" Ayato lifted his gaze. "Claudia, you know him?" "Of course I do. He's a most troublesome individual." Having spoken, Claudia rose, and slowly walked toward the water's edge. Impatiently, Ayato followed after her. She dipped her feet in the water. "It's pretty comfortable, you know? Do you want to try?" "No thanks. I'm in my uniform, after all." "Then just remove it." "I don't have any swimwear." "I don't mind. Actually, I rather welcome it." "I mind! Anyway, Claudia, youー" As Ayato frantically reb.u.t.ted her words, she raised a hand to her mouth and giggled. "Fine, fine, I understand. You want to know about Toudou-san's uncle, correct?" As she spoke, Claudia's usual smiling face took on a severe expression. "Toudou Kirin-san's uncleー Toudou Kouichirou-dono, is the operative responsible for the running of Seidoukan Academy. He is a member of the Integrated Enterprise Foundation's "Galaxy" and the Head of the Integrated Entertainment Enterprise's 7th Instructional a.s.sessment Office. He is the individual in charge of the scouting-related departments for all of the Far East. The Instructional a.s.sessment Office is also responsible for oversight of our school's students as well as all matters pertinent to our performance in the Festa; their authority is very wide-ranging." "So he's someone very important, then?" "Yesー if subtly so. He's a candidate for the elite." "It goes without saying that this is something he desires greatly. For that reason, he's taken his own niece as a p.a.w.n to be exploited. All of her duels and even her daily life are meticulously plotted out by Kouichirou-dono." "Exploited... So then, Kirin-san's only fighting because of him..." "What makes you say that? Of course she has her own goals as well." Claudia rejected him flatly. "This type of showy method is just Kouichirou-dono's style. To be sure, raising a student out of nowhere to become number one is advantageous to his position. That said, the burden on said student is immense, and were she to fail, his reputation would go with her. Nevertheless, this is the path he's chosen." "...He sure is confident. Confident in Kirin-san's strength." Claudia nodded her satisfaction at his words. "Very good. As always Ayato, you're quite perceptive." "I did fight her, after all." "Speaking of which, now wasn't that something?" Ayato could only laugh bitterly in response. "In any case, the position Kouichirou-dono seeks to attain is a difficult one to obtainー whether or not Kirin-san fails." "Why do you say that?" Kirin's performance was directly beneficial to him; Claudia had just said as much. "Because Toudou Kouichirou-dono's desires are far too strong." "Huh?" "The Integrated Enterprise Foundation will never allow those whose personal desires are too powerful to ever reach the top. This isn't limited to just Galaxy, World Dragon and Frauenlob either, but to all other Integrated Enterprise Foundation ent.i.ties as well." Saying this, Claudia scooped up water from the pool with her hands before letting it gently trickle out from between her fingers. The sunlight reflected through the water, glistening brilliantly, and Ayato had to squint his eyes. "When it comes to the cadre of the Integrated Enterprise Foundation elite, unless one has first undergone many instances of mental adjustment programs, and having thus eliminated all personal desires, only then one is able to attain such a position. For that reason, the upper ranks of the Integrated Enterprise Foundation have almost no desires remaining. The immense power they wield is for but one purpose and one purpose onlyー the continued existence and prosperity of the Integrated Enterprise Foundation itself." "...You seem to be pretty familiar with their inner-workings." Information on the Integrated Enterprise Foundation ーto say nothing of its eliteー was all cla.s.sified. "That's right. My mother, after all, is one such individual." "Your mother?" Ayato was shocked. He'd guessed that she was the daughter of a distinguished family, but he never could have imagined that she was the daughter of an Integrated Enterprise Foundation elite. Even in comparison with Julis, who was a princess, Claudia was of an entirely different social cla.s.s. "Heh. Meetings of the elite sure are interesting. Everyone looks the same; even I am unable to distinguish which is my mother," Claudia laughed. ...No, that couldn't be described as a laugh. "By the way, Toudou Kirin-san is the daughter of the main family of the Toudou-style. Were you aware?" Claudia clapped her hands and changed the subject. "Ah... Well, no, I didn't, but fighting her, I could tell she was a pract.i.tioner of some style or another." The Toudou-style was a currently thriving school of swordsmanship. Emphasizing spirituality, in order to ensure guidance of the correct path, they stressed the necessity of those of the Starpulse Generation undergoing mental training from an early age. For this reason, they had many students who were of the Starpulse Generation, as well as many dojos abroad. They existed on a scale utterly unlike the Amagiri Bright Dragon-style that Ayato belonged to. If she was a daughter of the main family, then her swordsmanship made sense. Claudia sighed and slipped beneath the water's surface. As smoothly and silently as a fish, she disappeared and reappeared in the center of the pool. "So Ayato, what is it you plan to do next?" Ayato wasn't sure where the voice had sounded from. Nor was an answer expected. Knowing this, Ayato didn't speak and simply shrugged. - ψ -
"Toudou Kirin...is it?" He didn't quite understand why, but he was quite worried about her nonetheless. Of course, that was due at least in part to the existence of Kouichirou, but he'd be lying if he said that was all it was. He felt a certain kinship with her... but on exactly what, he wasn't sure. Deep in thought, he was on his way back to the dorms, when he felt something awry. There seemed to be a commotion of sorts, an aura of nervous energy. "What's going on...?" Thinking to ask someone nearby, he stepped forward when suddenly the crowd, noticing Ayato, erupted. "He's here..." "It's Amagiri..." "It's him..." "What on earth...?" He wasn't able to hear too clearly as sentiments of curiosity, jealousy, pity, and every other kind of emotion ran together. "...Huh? What's going on?" Ayato stared at the crowd as Eishirou stepped forward. His expression revealed his utmost delight. "Hey, Amagiri. You're late. You've got a guest waiting." "Waiting? For me?" "Yep. They're in the guestroom. Hurry up." "O-OK." At Eishirou's urging, he sped up, and made his way to the guestroom. From the impish smile on Eishirou's face, Ayato suddenly remembered having had a similar feeling in the past. It was like the first time he'd fought with Julis, the moment when he'd entered her room. Suddenly, a lightbulb went off in his brain. This could only beー "Ah... Please, come in." Knocking on the door, a cute voice came through. It was as he'd expected. Ayato opened the door. Greeting him from within the guestroom, sitting on the sofa, was a nervous visage; or in other words, the number one rank of Seidoukan Academyー Toudou Kirin.