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Chapter 1 – What has to be seen through to the end
On her way back from school, Tatewaki Shouko unconsciously tensed her body when she saw the message that she had received on the ROPE messaging application; or more to the point, when she saw who had sent the message.
The message that she had received from Kenzaki Yasuo was very concise.
『Can we meet today?』
She stopped in her tracks, took a deep breath of air, let it out, and tried her best to calm her heartbeat.
There was nothing to be worried about.
Just when she was about to start walking again, she received another barrage in the form of one more message.
『There's something I want to talk to you about.』
"Stop sending such suggestive messages."
Shouko unconsciously said that aloud.
From the way the messages were written, it looked like he wanted to meet her so that he could confess his feelings for her.
She waited for a while longer, but she didn't receive any further messages or stickers.
Since she was staring at the message screen, the sender should have already seen that the message was marked as read.
It would be bad if she made him wait too long and caused him to send another strange follow-up message.
The sender was that Yasuo, after all. That Kenzaki Yasuo.
Trying to guess the intent behind the message was well and good, but in this case the meaning behind it was definitely going to be something that would exceed her imagination.
"Ugh….. Ugh…… Haa."
While gritting her teeth, Shouko gathered her resolve and sent a reply.
『Sure, if it is after my cla.s.ses at prep school today.』
Although Shouko and Yasuo went to different high schools, they lived close by and went to the same prep school.
If they wanted to meet, there would be a number of chances for them to do so, but talking after her cla.s.ses at prep school would be the most 『natural』.
She received a reply immediately, as if the sender had been waiting for her response.
『I'd rather not be overheard. Can we meet privately?』
Shouko looked up from her phone for an instant and her her composure cracked.
She then started operating her slimphone with so much force that the LCD screen was in danger of breaking, and pushed the b.u.t.ton for the telephone call. After a few rings, Yasuo picked up.
『Ah, T-Tatewaki-san, sorry about the sudden—』
"Choose your words more carefully!!!"
『Eh!? Did I write something weird? I'm sorry!』
Even ordinarily, Shouko was under a fair amount of stress on a daily basis.
On that day. The day when her relationship with Yasuo had gone through a perceptible change.
When Shouko had returned home, she dove into her bed, pressed her face into her pillow, and continued groaning and screaming into it for about an hour.
Even later, whenever she remembered what had happened, she felt like hitting her head against the wall at home, or against her desk or locker at school. She had actually done that a few times.
At that time, she had done it so casually.
She had told Yasuo how she felt about him.
Even though she had told him, what came after was the absolute worst.
Despite the fact that she had been influenced by the atmosphere, why had she gone and done something so rash?
She must have been delusional. There was no other explanation for it.
Considering what had happened to her recently, becoming delusional might have been unavoidable.
Another mistake she had made was to not ask for a response from him.
However — no, exactly because of that, this was a little cruel.
"Everything about what you sent is weird! What is it!? Did you feel like responding to my confession or something!?"
『Ueeh!? Eh, t-that is…』
"I'm ready to hear your answer anytime!"
『Umm, I'm sorry, I didn't mean it like that, did I really write something that made you think that?』
"If anything, it felt like you were going to confess your feelings for me instead!"
"I know, okay!? It hasn't been that long since that incident, and seeing as you want to talk to me about something, it must be really important, right? It probably has something to do with Ante Lande, right!? That's why you didn't want anyone to overhear and asked to meet in private, right!? Well!?"
『T-That's right, yes.』
"Then write that to begin with! Don't get my hopes up!"
"That's right! Do you have any idea how I feel right now? I want to keep my hopes up but I feel like I don't have any hope, which leaves me just feeling regretful, and in spite of that I'm still holding on to that hope!"
Even Shouko didn't understand what she was saying anymore, but she didn't think what she was saying was wrong.
"Well!? Is that something we can't talk about now!? There's no one around here right now!"
『W-Well, uh, It's not that we can't speak over the phone, but it's a really serious matter so I'd like to talk about it in person and explain the circ.u.mstances.』
Despite the fact that Yasuo's voice had become completely timid, Shouko did not show any mercy.
"What's the topic!?!?"
『T-Topic? Umm, let's see…. How do I put this… There's this place I want you to go—』
"………I just told you to choose your words carefully, didn’t I?"
"You're definitely not inviting me out on a date or anything, right? You're talking about Ante Lande, right?"
『Eh!? A date!? Eh!? How did you know I was talking about Ante Lande!?』
"Are you making fun of me!? Fine, be that way!"
Despite the fact that she had confessed her feelings to him, she knew that Kenzaki Yasuo had neither a decisive personality, nor the experience of an adult.
It was apparent at a glance that he was not used to dealing with women, and he was more a child than an adult.
However, because of that, it could be said that he was more earnest and truthful than most other boys of his age.
With his personality, Yasuo would never try and make plans to meet or give his reply to her confession over a messaging application like ROPE.
He would definitely try to go about giving her his reply in a more formal way, and make a mistake somewhere.
That being the case, the only other important matters that Yasuo would want to discuss with her would be college examinations or the other world, Ante Lande.
"Haa, forget it. I don't get what it's about, but I'll see you today after my cla.s.ses are finished! We can meet up at the lounge at the prep school! Goodbye!! ……Aaaargh!"
After hanging up without even waiting to hear Yasuo's reply, Shouko let out a rough breath and unconsciously gripped her Slimphone tightly in her hand, but,
Someone s.n.a.t.c.hed her Slimphone out of her hand all of a sudden, and she quickly raised her head.
At some point, a beautiful young woman with golden hair and emerald-green eyes had appeared beside her, and was looking at Shouko's face with a complicated expression.
"Be careful. Your eyes."
The girl just said that short sentence, and Shouko unconsciously put both her hands over her eyes.
"Aaah… Ugh, my hands are so cold…."
While feeling the coldness from her hands over her eyes, she let out a large sigh.
"Umm, I'm sorry for doing that all of a sudden. At that rate, it looked like you were going to crush your Slimphone, so…"
"No… that's okay. Thank you, Diansan. I probably would have done that. Haa."
Shouko pressed down on her eyes for about ten seconds.
By the time she moved her hands away, the ominous black flames that had been flickering around her eyes had vanished. Shouko, who looked a little tired, stared into the empty sky.
Diana, who had been guarding Shouko, could not hide her surprise at seeing Shouko control the flames so easily, even if it was only in the region around her eyes.
"……That was splendid. It looks like you have it under control now."
"I wonder if something like this can be called having it under control."
Although Diana looked impressed, Shouko shook her head.
"It has happened a few times since then. However, since I know the reason why it happened, I was able to learn a trick to calm myself down."
"Umm… by a trick to calm down, you mean…?"
"It's embarra.s.sing, so I'd rather not say it aloud. Although it's pointless to feel shy about it in front of you after all that has happened, Diansan."
While saying that, Shouko looked at her Slimphone which Diana had rescued.
The screen still showed the ROPE application with Yasuo's messages.
Diana immediately realized what Shouko was thinking after following her gaze and looking at the screen.
"Ah, yes. Here you go."
Diana returned the Slimphone to Shouko with a complicated expression on her face.
Shouko also understood that Diana had realized what she was thinking of, as she accepted the Slimphone and put it into sleep mode in an annoyed manner.
"Thank you. Actually, Yasu-kun was saying some stupid things earlier, so…"
"Apparently he wants to talk to me about something important."
"Something important… Ah, so he put it like that?"
"Oh, so you know about it as well, Diansan. That means it has something to do with Ante Lande, right?"
"That's… right. It is definitely…"
"Dammit. Why'd I have to go and…"
Seeing Shouko slump her shoulders in an exaggerated manner, Diana once again showed a complicated expression.
The other world, Ante Lande.
Tatewaki Shouko had first found out about that ridiculous concept — or rather, that ridiculous world — only a week ago.
Apparently, the parents of Kenzaki Yasuo, her cla.s.smate from middle school whom she had been reunited with at prep school after entering her third year of high school, were a Hero and Sage who had saved that other world from peril around thirty years ago.
Even that sounded ridiculous enough that Shouko did not know how to react, but now that Ante Lande was apparently once again facing an unprecedented crisis, so they sent over an emissary to summon Yasuo's parents back to that world.
That emissary was Dianaze Krone, a Magitech Knight.
That young woman, who was called Diana, told them about the monsters called 『Shii』 that were eating away at her world, and asked for the Hero to return to her world once more. However, after some dispute among the members of the Kenzaki family, for some reason Yasuo had apparently volunteered to become the new Hero.
All of this had been properly explained to Shouko, but she had only seen a small part of it with her own eyes and hence there were still parts of the story that she did not completely understand.
In fact, the part that was important to Shouko came after that.
The monsters mentioned earlier, the 『Shii』, had appeared in j.a.pan, that is to say in this world. Due to that, Diana's superior officer, Khalija Welleger, had also been dispatched to help guard the Kenzaki family.
However, while still in Ante Lande, Khalija had become involved with a group of people who could apparently control the Shii, and developed a deep-rooted conviction that it was possible to resurrect people who had died by using the Shii which imitated their appearance.
After a fierce fight, Khalija's ambition was crushed and she was released from her delusion, but at some point between Khalija's appearance in j.a.pan and her fight with the Kenzaki family, Shouko had been possessed by one of those 『Shii』.
That Shii had appeared in the form of a monster in front of Yasuo several times, and apparently used its inhuman strength to hurt Diana and Yasuo.
Shouko did not have any memories of the time when the Shii took over her body.
Annoyingly enough, when Shouko's feelings of love for Yasuo grew too strong to hold in check, the Shii would start to manifest in the form of cold, dark flames that came out of her eyes and would attempt to take over her body.
That was a pretty girly reason for the Shii — which were said to be basically the same sort of existence as the living dead — to appear.
Not only Diana, but even Khalija had no idea how to effectively deal with Shouko's situation, and they had never heard of a similar case occurring in Ante Lande either.
After being placed in this situation, Shouko decided upon the path of 『Confessing her feelings to Yasuo』.
After hearing all the details, Shouko surmised that the Shii would take over her body when her feelings for Yasuo got out of control.
She thought that if she just told Yasuo how she felt, she would be able to prevent her feelings from bursting forth unexpectedly.
Doing that had an effect greater than what Shouko, Diana, and Khalija had expected.
Just like what had happened earlier, if her feelings for Yasuo ever crossed the breaking point, she would be able to repress the black flames by calming her heart.
Looking at it another way, it could also be said that in the one week since Shouko had told Yasuo how she felt about him, the Shii had become that much more insistent on manifesting.
One of the reasons for that was the fact that even though she had told Yasuo how she felt about him, she had not demanded a reply, which left her in a state of constant worry.
The other reason, and perhaps this was unavoidable, was the fact that Yasuo had been acting evasive whenever they met at prep school.
He would not look her in the eye.
He would run away from her.
Just this was enough to make Shouko indescribably anxious.
It had taken her a considerable amount of courage to tell him how she felt about him.
And what's more, it was under circ.u.mstances that could not be explained by common sense.
Despite all she did, since the other person was behaving like that, Shouko's current feelings had bypa.s.sed anxiety and it didn’t take her very long to think, Maybe my confession has caused Yasuo a lot of trouble.
Perhaps Yasuo was feeling troubled by getting a confession of love from someone he didn't care about at all.
Rather than the crisis in the other world or monsters that she had not seen with her own eyes, Shouko was constantly bothered by such uneasy thoughts that were far closer to her heart and were more concrete.
And then, she had received that ROPE message under such circ.u.mstances.
Shouko could hardly be blamed for letting the black flames leak out of her eyes.
"……So, what is it?"
Even before she called out to him, it was readily apparent that Yasuo was very tense.
"H-How about we leave this place first."
A slightly shrill voice, and a red face.
Looking at him made even Shouko feel embarra.s.sed. Yasuo was just that agitated when looking at Shouko's face… or so it seemed.
"Take care on your way back."
Kobayashi, the tutor in charge of them, had stayed back until the last time slot of the lectures to make sure all the students had left, and he saw them off. The two of them headed out into the night air that gave off a slight, but discernible, presence of approaching summer.
"So, where do you want to go?"
"Eh, ah, umm….. It's pretty late, and I don't want to take up too much of your time, so how about that Weloce over there?"
Cafe Weloce, located just off Prope Street, was an ordinary outlet of a cafe chain that was not particularly unusual in any way, but unlike the other cafes that closed at nine in the evening, Cafe Weloce was the only shop that stayed open until eleven at night.
At the prep school that Shouko and Yasuo attended for their university exams, 『Senshuu Academy』 in Tokorozawa, students could not stay beyond nine-thirty at night.
Even if they stopped at the shop on their way home at that time, about a quarter of the seats would usually be taken.
During the five minutes it took them to walk to Weloce, Shouko looked at Yasuo's back as he walked slightly unsteadily, and once again started to imagine what he wanted to talk to her about.
Considering how much Yasuo was wavering as he told her that he wanted to take her somewhere, it didn't take much imagination to deduce that their destination would be Ante Lande.
However, if that was the case, she couldn't understand why they had to talk alone.
Shouko, Yasuo, and Yasuo's younger sister, Kenzaki Nodoka, had guards accompanying them to protect them against threats from Ante Lande, including the Shii.
The guards were Diana, Yasuo's mother, Kenzaki Madoka, and Khalija, who had sworn absolute obedience to the Kenzaki family and Diana after the recent battle.
Diana had been guarding Shouko today, and judging by the way she had spoken, Shouko felt that Diana didn't plan on attending the meeting. However, even that was strange.
As she was thinking about that, she realized that they had already arrived in front of Weloce.
After they took up their positions in seats where the other customers would not be able to overhear them, Yasuo pulled out his wallet and turned to Shouko.
"What would you like, Tatewaki-san? Since I called you out here for my own reasons, I'll pay."
Shouko suddenly felt that her current expression was completely deadpan.
"……I'll have a medium ice tea. I don't need syrup."
"Ah, o-ok, got it."
Yasuo showed a look of relief for just a second after Shouko told him her order, and walked towards the register in high spirits.
On the other hand, Shouko sat down in the aisle seat and leaned back heavily after letting out a sigh.
"『My own reasons』, huh?"
From the way he put it, Shouko was certain that Yasuo's business with her today was not something that would make her jump with joy.
No matter the circ.u.mstances, the place that he wanted her to go to was most likely the other world, Ante Lande. The destination would be the Resteria Kingdom, the country that Diana and Khalija were from.
The reason was probably to look into the matter of the 『Shii』 that was hiding inside her body.
When she once again looked blankly towards Yasuo, she saw that he was walking slowly towards her while holding a tray with gla.s.ses of ice coffee and ice tea on it.
Shouko, who occasionally helped out at the pub that her parents ran, 『Restaurant Saburou』, thought about something pointless like he wouldn't last a second waiting tables with that kind of skill at holding trays.
Yasuo, who somehow managed to reach the table safely, let out his breath and put a gla.s.s down in front of Shouko.
With this, they were finally ready to start talking, but for some reason Yasuo had beads of sweat on his forehead.
"Just go ahead and drink up. We can talk after we relax a little."
Yasuo meekly nodded and drank half of the ice coffee in one gulp, without even adding milk or syrup.
Was he just that nervous?
Shouko already had a fair idea of what Yasuo wanted to say to her, and she knew that telling her would be quite stressful for him considering his position, so she did not tell him to hurry up.
If she was in his place and had to tell a friend that got caught up in her own family's affairs that they had to now go to some incomprehensible place, she would definitely be tense and find it hard to say.
"Umm, sorry for calling you out all of a sudden."
"Forget about that. Let's just get it done with. What is it?"
"Ah, okay. Well, you already guessed about half of it already, but basically, my father has decided to go to Ante Lande for a few days for reconnaissance, and he wants you to go with him."
"A few days? Oji-san was Hero, right? Is he going to settle everything in just a few days?"
"That might be asking for a little too much, but he was saying that he wanted to get some firsthand information, as well as seriously negotiate with Diana's mother and the Resteria Kingdom. To put it frankly, he wants to tell them not to be stingy with the guard detail."
"That's true. If you think about it, Khalijsan is the person who tried to kidnap me, and yet she's now guarding me, you, and Nodokchan. I guess that's pretty strange."
"Right. And then there's the matter of yourself, Tatewaki-san. Although we as a family feel very sorry about it, in a way you are the first victim caused by Ante Lande's actions in j.a.pan. Dad said that another reason why he wanted to go was to make sure that they take responsibility for that. Of course, he wants you to accompany him for that as well."
"I see. I'll be going to Ante Lande so that they can research more about that 『Shii』, right?"
"Yes, that's right. Of course, Diana will go along as well, or maybe I should say that she will be returning home along with you."
Up to this point, the discussion made sense.
Of course Shouko didn't want that ominous existence hanging around her, and if they could research it and remove it from her, that would be great.
However, in the conversation so far, the name of the person who was important to Shouko didn't come up even once.
"What about you, Yasu-kun? Aren't you going too?"
"……For now, I am not included in the plan."
Yasuo, surprised by Shouko's unexpected outburst, spoke hurriedly.
"I'd love to go as well, but it looks like it costs a lot of money to go to Ante Lande."
The pathway that connects the other world, Ante Lande, to j.a.pan was called a 『Gate Tower』.
It appeared to be an extraordinarily large-scale sorcery system, as it would take three percent of the national budget to move a ma.s.s equivalent to that of an average adult male.
"But it's not like your family is going to pay for that, right Yasu-kun?"
"Even I'm not sure how large a sum it is or who exactly will bear the burden on Resteria's side, but they will be paying for the entire expense of the trip this time. Diana's share is a given, but just the amount required for my Dad and you will apparently take a large chunk out of their budget."
"If that's the explanation from their side, that's pretty awful of them, don't you think? In the first place, they are the ones who allowed the Shii to come over here, and they are the ones looking to your father for help. Moreover, they even made you start training. They should at least pay the travel fee without grumbling."
Yasuo smiled wryly after hearing Shouko speak.
"Well, n.o.body came over to arrest Khalijsan, even though she ignored the king's orders and committed a crime here. Besides, between you and me, Tatewaki-san, it should be obvious who needs to go to Ante Lande more, right?"
"So you're saying I'm an ultrrare sample for experimentation who is more important than the Son of a Hero who is known in every corner of the world?"
"That's a pretty harsh way to put it."
"I mean, that's how the people on that side will see me, after all."
"Well, that may be true… Still, you seem pretty calm about this, Tatewaki-san."
"That's because I don't have any hard facts. Although I would be scared if I found out after going there that they were going to cut my body open without using anesthesia."
"Dad and Diana are going to accompany you, so they'll make sure you don't come to any harm."
"Well, I suppose they won't do anything that might upset the Hero of Salvation."
Even Shouko was aware of something like that.
"I've heard that once you get there, Diana's mother will be taking care of everything you need. It looks like the incident with Khalijsan has made them very sensitive, so they will be guarding you quite rigorously."
"And what about Khalijsan?"
"Of course, she'll be staying behind to take care of things here. Like I said earlier, if she goes over to the other side, she'll be arrested. It might be fine if it was just that, but in the worst case there is also a danger of her being a.s.sasinated, so Diana's mother has decided that it would be better for her not to return."
"……Okay, now I'm feeling a little scared."
To begin with, Khalija had come to guard the Kenzaki Family on the orders of the King of Resteria, just like Diana. However, she had also come to an understanding with a certain person who appeared to be capable of freely controlling the Shii, and betrayed the Kenzaki family once already in order to help further that person's goals.
Beatrice h.e.l.ler, the leader of an organization called 『Carnelian of the Coal Mine』 that took care of refugees.
That was the name of the person who could control the Shii, according to Khalija.
The Carnelian of the Coal Mine was an organization that mainly concerned itself with taking care of the citizens of the Grand Duchy of Torjesso, who were chased out of their homeland thirty years ago by the armies of the Demon King Kaul.
The plan to move them back to their country that was destroyed by Demon King Kaul was still not complete, and that organization apparently used its influence not only in Resteria, but all over the world in order to help the refugees.
No matter how one looked at it, it appeared to be a splendid charitable organization, so why were they controlling Shii which have the appearance of dead creatures? Moreover, just how much influence does that person called Beatrice h.e.l.ler have over the organization? There was no way to answer these questions.
However, judging by the fact that Khalija, who was one of Resteria's central military officers, fell under her evil influence, it was obvious that the power of the person who could control the Shii was far more widespread in their world than initially apparent.
Khalija had said that Beatrice h.e.l.ler was looking for a 『Latch』.
Even Khalija did not know what kind of powers the 『Latch』 possessed, or perhaps would be given, but it appeared that requirement to become one was to be 『A living person who harbors the undead within their body』.
And so, Shouko, who harbored a Shii — an undead creature — within her body was the only 『Latch』 candidate discovered so far.
"Everything about this is so incomprehensible. I suppose this means that in the end, we don't know anything about the matter."
"I'm really sorry. Even though I was the one who explained it to you, I don't understand most of it myself. However, that makes it all the more important that we make a move while we are still able to, which brings us to this discussion today."
"Well, I guess you're right. With things as they are, I can't concentrate on my exams either."
"B-By the way, Tatewaki-san."
Yasuo appeared to have finished his ice coffee in the middle of the conversation.
He once again started sweating strangely.
"The discussion about you going to Ante Lande was of course important, but there's something more important that I need to tell you, Tatewaki-san."
"Ah, I see… Eh?"
Shouko, who was about to go along with the conversation as if it was normal, suddenly did a double take.
"Something… that you have to tell me?"
"Yes… This is something we need to discuss before you go to Ande Lande, no matter what."
"Eh, w-what is…"
Looking at Yasuo's eyes that seemed to tell her that he had resolved himself, Shouko unconsciously corrected her lax posture.
She straightened her back, put her knees together.
"Well, about what happened earlier, I thought that we should make it official."
"O-Official……? Uh, h-hang on a second…"
Although they had been having a completely unromantic conversation about the other world until a moment ago, Yasuo's behaviour suddenly changed which caused Shouko's heartbeat to gradually speed up.
"If it's not too much of a bother… Yeah, as I thought this is a protocol that has to be followed. Tatewaki-san."
Even though she was supposed to be tired out from the cla.s.ses at prep school, her blood ran quickly through her entire body, and even her eyes were widened as we waited to hear what Yasuo would say.
"Tatewaki-san… Would it be okay if I went to greet your parents some time?"
The moment those words fell upon her ears, Shouko's brain overheated.
What came her her mouth was not a word, but merely a sound.
It could be said that Yasuo's request came so far out of left field that the language processing center of her brain refused to work properly.
It was just a reflex action.
"I guess… that it's not okay, after all?"
Yasuo himself had a bright red face, as if he had been thinking too hard about this.
"………………It's……….. It's not like it's n-not okay, but…………"
It was such a sudden attack.
Shouko, who felt like she had received a bodily blow to her blindspot from ultrlong range, could only wait while her thought process began to spin around in circles uselessly.
"………..About what happened earlier…. You're talking about that, right?"
"T-That's right. What else is there?"
"T-That's right, but…… I'm sorry, I didn't imagine that something like this would happen, I mean, Yasu-kun, don't you think it's a little too early?"
"I don't think it's too early. If anything, this is the proper procedure to see things through."
"I-Is that so? Is that how it works!?"
"That's how it works. This is something that will affect the rest of your life, but we are both still students right now, so we can't really go ahead without your parents' permission….."
"Ah, but… Eh, the rest of my life? Y-Yasu-kun, what's up with you? This isn't like you at all."
"Eh? What isn't?"
Although he had seemed so hesitant in the beginning, once the words had left his mouth, his strong will and sincerity strongly shone through.
Shouko's face had turned so red that there was no way to hide it.