When serving something
Keep your head held high
As if to say this is your master’s pride
At night and in her dorm room’s lounge, Horinouchi felt the midterms had begun relatively well.
Across the table from her, Kagami was viewing online information with a spell circle and taking notes in a notebook. To the left, Hunter was on the carpet looking back and forth between a dictionary and a spell circle.
Horinouchi herself had a notebook open to review for the Modern Japanese exam the following day.
The occasional sound of a flipping page breaking the odd silence created a slight tension.
For the first time in the past few months, they actually felt like students.
…Well, if you get down to it, Shihouin Academy is a school.
The exams covered standard educational material, but with a focus on magic.
The Japanese class began with grasping the meaning of what was written, but then touched on the concept of kotodama using Waka and classic literature.
Math attempted to explain the truth of all things, chemistry tended to be about alchemy, and history was based on the formation and spread of folklore.
Of course, it did not particularly matter if they had low scores in any of those.
Witches all belonged to a specific culture. The exams would sometimes touch on taboos, so it was rare for everyone in a class to be able to solve a problem. When making hamburger steak with a partner in home ec, it was fairly common for someone to carelessly turn the meat into a catalyst and curse their partner. This year, when doing the back hip circle in pairs during gym, a continental witch had accidentally removed her partner’s soul from her leg. That had caused quite a commotion.
The amazing part was that a “sorry, sorry” had been enough to get past it. But it had been a Scandinavian witch who had returned the soul by kicking it back with her leg, so the world had a nice cycle set up.
Horinouchi chose to take the exams. She was the Student Council President after all.
But it had been a bit unexpected for Kagami to take the exams along with her. Not to mention…
“Why have you pretty much moved in with me?”
Kagami had settled down in a room near the entrance since the battle with Mary.
Horinouchi did know why it had happened: the battle with Mary itself.
In her skirmish with Hunter, Mary had split the academy’s artificial crust and the dorm building for faculty and others had been located along the crack that formed.
Kagami had apparently been living in an empty room (the roof actually) of the faculty dorm, but she had moved here once the crust reinforcement and repair construction had begun.
She had done so without permission, so at first…
“You showed up this early in the morning just to walk to school with me?”
But that assumption had been wrong. Horinouchi’s dorm covered the entire top floor, so its size was part of the problem, but it had more to do with how unthinkable a possibility it had been. She had only noticed a week after Kagami had moved in and the maids and Koutarou had already noticed by then.
“Lady Mitsuru, kicking Lady Kagami out would only cause a scene outside!”
That argument had been incredibly persuasive. By that point, Hunter and Mary were apparently fighting off the lower Rankers that attempted to move up, and given how interested Kagami had seemed in that information…
…She’s prepared to take any of them on if she has the chance…
And according to Kagami…
“Of course, Horinouchi. Even if it was primarily my sister’s doing, we created this world and I would like to see what possibilities it holds.”
However, Horinouchi had felt a chill when she saw Kagami and Hunter getting all excited about it.
At any rate, when Horinouchi thought about it, she discovered the main reason she had taken so long to notice her new roommate. She never even saw the maids except in the lounge or hallway, so…
…Ah. I’m like a child being kept in isolation!
This was a new realization for her.
But Kagami did not seem intent on sharing the space in any noticeable way. The only differences Horinouchi had noticed were a new toothbrush in the bathroom and some IZUMO “Crystal Wasabi” that she was curious to try out. However, she did sometimes notice a fair bit missing from her “Soi Matcha – For Purification”, so maybe Kagami had trouble with wasabi.
…And does this not say “Soy Matcha” because Kagami’s sister misspelled it?
Were those discrepancies between product names and the knowledge of the world’s residents just part of the setting? Lately, Horinouchi had found herself blaming the Black Witch for any questions about the world and she found it unbelievably annoying how this new knowledge had influenced her thought processes.
But it was now the third night of the midterms. As Hunter lay on the lounge floor drawing a problem diagram in a spell circle, Kagami suddenly spoke.
“Given the season, we need to have a Halloween party to celebrate the end of the midterms, Horinouchi.”
Why are you making that sound like a foregone conclusion!?
Hunter thought Halloween was the best choice.
“I’m not really sure how it happened, but I’m competing with Mary over our test scores. So it would be nice to have a Halloween party as a reward to help her get over losing.”
She honestly did not know how it had happened, but after leaving the dining hall together that day, Mary had declared war:
“Then let us compete to see who ranks higher in our year.”
…I’m already above you in that regard, so are you sure you want to do that?
Still, a Halloween party reward would be wonderful.
“In America, it wasn’t so much about costumes…I mean, the witches tended to come by to the Hexennacht orphans to do their ‘trick or treat’, so on Halloween itself, it didn’t feel all that special. The witches from different regions formed benefit organizations and they would visit the orphans’ houses to leave housework spirits, bread that never ran out for two weeks, or ham that regained its original thickness overnight no matter how much you cut off.”
“I feel that is beyond anything my sister could have imagined.”
Hunter looked up at Kagami’s comment.
“You mean it’s original to this world?”
“A creation cannot contain more knowledge than the author possesses. …So anything set in motion by those inside it would be ‘outside’ my sister’s creation.”
According to Kagami…
“My sister and I knew very little about the Fuji crater lake hot springs land, but it exists here. My sister based this world on our world, so my world seems to have been included here as part of the ‘setting’. The information on the Hexennacht battles was placed on top of that and my sister has a habit of getting rid of the things she has difficulty understanding. But the aspects she was unaware of would have been untouched.”
“That’s a huge nuisance for those of us living here, you know?” Hunter rested her head in her hand while lying on the floor. “But what did your sister know about America?”
“We saw a fair number of cities there when traveling with our father for his job.”
“Yeah… That’s kind of what it felt like.”
“What do you mean?”
“The Hexennacht damage was mostly limited to the major military bases and a line from east to west that hit the major airports. People tend to say the Black Witch targeted the more populated areas, but I bet it was actually because those were the areas she knew best.”
“I can make no excuses for my sister when it comes to that.”
Kagami often joked about her sister, but in the end, she was intent on punishing her.
Horinouchi was a little unsure whether or not the decision seen there came from Kagami’s feelings. But…
“Well, it all comes down to the results. We must fight in Hexennacht.”
As she said that, Kagami’s expression partially faded but also showed a hint of realization.
But Horinouchi had something else to say.
“Once the midterms are over, we will almost certainly be faced with a Ranker Battle against the Rank 1. After that, the Black Witch will be right in front of us.”
“Assuming we defeat the Rank 1, you mean.”
Kagami smiled a little and then looked to Koutarou who stood at the counter behind Horinouchi.
“You said you have no information on the Rank 1, did you not?”
“We have heard she has held that spot ever since the headmaster established the Ranker System immediately after the end of the previous Hexennacht ten years ago.”
“Interesting. Have any of the Horinouchi maids fought the Rank 1?”
Horinouchi knew what answer Kagami would receive.
…None of them have.
If any had, they would already have that information, but they had none. That meant the Rank 1 was unseen and inviolable. And of course, Koutarou’s response was…
“There is one.”
“There is one?”
This was news to Horinouchi, but Koutarou lowered his head a bit and reworded his answer.
“Or perhaps I should say there was one.”
“After her defeat to the Rank 1, she left the Horinouchi family for a variety of reasons.”
“How long ago was this?”
“Nine years ago.”
Hunter’s question and Koutarou’s answer pointed to a certain fact.
“Then she really has held that position for ten years…”
“Yes. I once saw the power that gives her that position. It was when I was still a normal butler serving your mother.”
“What was it?”
Koutarou paused for a moment but finally answered.
“She used an absolute defense and absolute attack to become unbeatable.”
Koutarou took a breath and looked behind the counter.
Some maids were crouching in the space leading to the hallway, placing them out of view of Horinouchi and the other girls. The bespectacled Head Maid aimed a simplified Normal Device lance toward him.
“Head Butler, say anything unnecessary and I will stab you, so be careful.”
“I will say nothing of the sort! And why are all of you here!?”
“Because this is related to Lady Mitsuru’s mother and the others,” said a picture book witch from Western Europe who looked like a child despite being a true veteran. “The maid who left did not say anything more because she felt this was not something she should get involved in. She came here after graduating and enjoyed her time among us, but she was afraid she would let some information slip if she let her emotions or her circumstances get the better of her. Do you understand?”
The witch looked up at him.
“I do not understand why since I never rose above Rank 8, but she felt the Rank 1 should be the one to fight on Hexennacht.”
Horinouchi felt like she had been presented with a riddle.
“Absolute defense…and attack?”
“She has both?”
“I would say Hunter is close to having that,” commented Kagami.
“Depending on how it’s used, Mary’s annihilation spell was an absolute defense and attack, wasn’t it?”
“But I do believe someone still managed to blast her. I believe she even managed to copy her.”
“Th-that was only because I caught her off guard. …Right?”
Horinouchi looked to Hunter for agreement, but…
“Hunter? Why are you crouching down and covering your face!?”
“Because you’re making ridiculous demands…!”
“But,” said Kagami without warning. “The Rank 1 seems to pull off the ridiculous, so what do we do? Horinouchi, your mother was the previous Rank 1, so what spells and Frame did she use and fight with?”
Her mother’s spells and Frame.
Horinouchi gasped when Kagami asked her that.
She recalled saying goodbye to her mother, but…
“…That would be difficult to answer.”
Yes. There was one thing she did not know about the Hexennacht ten years ago.
“I don’t know.”
It had happened on a night ten years ago.
In just one night, most of the world had been broken and she had lost someone important to her.
Her memories of saying goodbye were so vivid, but there was something she did not know.
“Unfortunately, I don’t know how my mother fought.”
“You do not know? …It must have been an intense battle. Are you saying you do not know what happened in it?”
Horinouchi answered Kagami’s question.
…I really don’t.
She had no memory of the battle between her mother and the Black Witch. Or rather…
…It was erased.
How had her mother fought? How had she protected everyone? And how had she been defeated?
She had thought those things “existed” in her memories, but she did not know the answers.
She had a vague image. There was a lot of light and power there, but other than that…
“I don’t know…”
Kagami turned toward her.
She started to say something, held a hand up to her face, and then turned back around.
“You were about to ask if I became an idiot, weren’t you!? Weren’t you!?”
“No, no. You are a clever girl, Horinouchi.”
“But…” Hunter raised her hand. “Don’t you know about those things the Black Witch sent out when she was feeling cornered? Even we know about them.”
“Yes. …The Black Witch summoned a large number of giant humanoids and dragons as reinforcements.”
She knew that. Those “reinforcements” were speculated to have descended to earth from satellite orbit. They had descended while entirely ignoring things like “distance” and “speed”, but they had made a soft landing on the surface.
They had used the rotation of the earth to descend along the equator in turn, so once everyone realized what was going on, the time lag before dropping had meant the US West Coast to the Oceania region should have received relatively little damage.
But their understanding of the situation had come from naked eye reports and confused, conflicting information, so they had only made it in time for the Polynesia region. That was likely why Hunter and the 7th Fleet she worked with tended to cooperate with the forces that still survived there. That was why Hunter had chosen the ocean near Hawaii for her first sniping position during her battle with Horinouchi and Kagami.
“Kagami, I guess I’ll ask… Did your sister have an opinion of Hawaii?”
“Yes, my sister had a traumatic experience picking up a sea cucumber on the beach there, but she generally liked the place.”
…I knew it.
Hunter was averting her gaze, but Horinouchi was growing used to that.
“But,” said Kagami. “What do you mean when you say you ‘don’t know’ about the Black Witch’s battle and your mother’s battle?”
“She means exactly what she says, Lady Kagami.”
Koutarou spoke from beyond the counter. He thoroughly polished a glass and stared at it before continuing.
“There are no detailed records of the battle with the Black Witch or how either side fought.”
Horinouchi answered that question.
“Because they were ‘erased’ by the Black Witch. From this world, from history, from everything.”
“That is the Black Witch’s power. It is a spell we call Concept Erasure,” she explained. “It is the opposite of the power that created this world. The power to destroy this world and erase anything in it is used on whoever loses. …So my mother’s ability to resist was erased and the records were erased.”
Since she knew about Kagami’s existence and how this world had been created, Hunter had something to say about that.
“It’s an eraser.”
It may have been a little late, but she now understood something about the Black Witch’s destructive power.
“Instead of the power used to write and create this world, it’s the power to erase. …All records concerning the spells Horinouchi’s mom used to oppose the Black Witch were erased with an eraser.”
“If everything was erased together, I can see how there would be a blank at those portions alone,” said Kagami. “Does that mean you inherited none of her techniques to oppose the Black Witch?”
“It does. …For one thing, my mother was the first case of the Black Witch using her erasure against someone.”
Hunter asked without thinking, but Horinouchi simply nodded. But then she tilted her head.
“I think the Black Witch must have been panicking a fair bit and it’s possible similar situations occurred in the past, but as far as my research could take me, my mother’s case is the only one where the erasure was used on any spells used against her as well.”
“That is too bad.” Kagami crossed her arms deeply across her chest. “If we knew what they were, giving you a power up would have been simple. Yes, you would have evolved from a Normal Manko into a Super Manko!”
Horinouchi stood up and Kagami gallantly fled at the exact same moment, so Hunter gave them a reminder.
“Hey, midterms. We’ve got exams to study for.”
Horinouchi heard Kagami speak as the two of them sat back down.
“But anyway, it is a shame we have no hint toward helping you grow, Horinouchi.”
“No, there is something.”
“Do you have a data defense that can defend against phenomenon-class erasure?”
“No, I just mean we still have the information not related to my mother’s spells during the final battle. So…”
Horinouchi summoned the Suzaku. When she looked atop her own right shoulder, she saw the Suzaku eating soba inside its spell circle. When its eyes met hers, it put on a serious look.
And it silently hid the bowl in the space beyond the spell circle. It then stood on a single leg and began chirping nonchalantly. Kagami and Hunter glared at her.
“Horinouchi, about that servant…”
“B-birds eat soba too. I’m sure they love soba seeds.”
But the Suzaku was important to the conversation.
“The Suzaku contains Frame data stored by several generations of Horinouchi family representatives. So while I can call the Akerindou my own, I referenced the previous generations a lot when strengthening it.”
“Oh?” said Hunter, sounding impressed.
“In other words,” said Kagami while glaring at Horinouchi. “Your mother was also fully focused on attack power?”
“I can see why the Black Witch was so worried…” added Hunter.
“Yes, she must have decided that was something too dangerous to leave un-erased.”
“S-stop that, you two! Don’t make up things about my mother’s character!” Horinouchi turned toward Hunter. “Besides, Hunter, you understand the relationship between attack power, Frame size, and sturdiness, right?”
“Oh, yeah, I do. But depending on how you use it, the optimal values change a fair bit.”
“What do you mean?” asked Kagami.
Hunter used her hands to measure out a distance of about 50 cm.
“Y’see,” she began. “It’s pretty hard to actually use a Magino Frame class of magic wand, right? When it’s that big, any small manipulation is difficult and the efficiency of the power system gets pretty bad. At a military scale, everyone could work together to manage it, but Hexennacht is about heading out to fight on your own.”
“Are you saying Horinouchi’s Akerindou is at the limit of its growth?”
“There are probably areas I could improve on, but it’s time we started thinking about how to improve it on a more fundamental level.”
“My mother might have made similar improvements for the final battle.”
Koutarou heard Kagami speak as she sat back down.
She was one of the creators of this world. She was much like the Black Witch, so she likely understood how the previous generation’s crucial knowledge had been lost and what that meant.
“In other words,” said Kagami as she raised her right index finger. “In the next Ranker Battle, we might get some kind of hint toward catching up to your mother. Right, Horinouchi?”
…Well done, Lady Kagami!
A voice overlapped Koutarou’s natural thoughts.
“Splendidly said, Lady Kagami.”
Someone appeared from behind the wall on the right side of the counter.
It was the Head Maid.
Horinouchi saw the Head Maid step out from around the hallway corner behind the counter.
She carried a tray bearing a tea set for the girls.
“Lady Mitsuru, I should probably tell you not to worry.”
“Not to worry…?”
“Yes,” said the Head Maid as she silently set down the cups and served the tea into them.
Hunter raised her hand.
“Oh, I want lots of lemon in mine!”
The Head Maid smiled and tossed a lemon into the air.
The lemon split in two directly above the cup she held up, and…
“Are you going to scoop it out?” asked Kagami.
“No, I will twist it apart. …My spear Device can act as a high-rotation rifle round.”
As she spoke, the inside of the lemon vanished and fell into the cup as a somewhat paste-like liquid.
The Head Maid caught the falling lemon peel on an empty plate.
“I apologize for letting you see such a banal technique.”
“No, it was wonderful. …How large of a fruit can you do that on? Would a grapefruit be too large?”
“Depending on the amount of power I use, I can do it to a watermelon or a metal drum. When I was a student and the Rank 3, this and my hairstyle gave me the Urban Name of Lady Drills.”
“Ohh, the Head Maid is having fun with it.”
Koutarou agreed with the maids sitting behind the counter. He glanced over at them as they used a spell circle to view the lounge.
“And when she went to serve that tea, didn’t she walk out to the hall while still crouched down before walking back out like normal? She did, didn’t she?”
“Head Butler, you’re the one that made the mistake of standing up. Leaning is important on a mission.”
“You forget that I am a normal person who took this job after graduating as a normal student.”
“Then please stop trying to resist us!”
“A heart of resistance has nothing to do with being a witch or a normal person!”
He ignored the witches when they accused him of sophistry. Then the witches cast a lip-reading spell on the spell circle image.
“Well, we understand why the Head Maid stepped out before walking back in.”
“Is it related to some kind of jinx?”
“No, it just would’ve been creepy if she suddenly stood up next to you.”
“What do you mean creepy!?”
“Oh, we weren’t calling you creepy, Head Butler.”
“That’s right, Head Butler. Please stop with the persecution complex just because you work with nothing but witches. If you keep persecuting us over your persecution complex…oh, but if I say that, your persecution complex will just make you hate us more!”
“Someone! Someone please! This maid has a persecution complex!”
The Head Maid was facing away from them to serve the tea, but a spell circle dropped from inside her skirt and onto the floor. It was set so only they could see it and it said,
Koutarou grimaced at the short message and the maids cheered.
“Well done, Head Maid!”
“Hold it, all of you! ‘Well done’ may only be used on Lady Mitsuru and her friends! It is not to be used on ourselves! They deserve a different level of praise than us!”
“I get what you’re saying, but that’s pretty creepy, Head Butler. Oh, and that’s only a low level insult.”
“If that’s low level, then the highest level would probably kill me!”
With a witch’s kotodama that might actually be possible, he realized.
After Koutarou tearfully retreated down the hallway for some reason, four maids stepped around the corner in his place. They were apparently going to prepare a snack.
Horinouchi felt this was a good time for a break, but she was also amused how much the Head Maid was enjoying her conversation with Kagami.
The Head Maid was from Germany and had been an underclassman of Lisbeth Lueger, who had been the German Representative and one of the Troika, aka the Three Sages. The Head Maid had graduated after rising to Rank 3, but rumor had it that was only due to focusing on supplying techniques to her home country after the damage it had taken in the previous Hexennacht.
She said she had come here because she had felt that graduating had lightened the load, but her skill remained and she was in charge of managing the other witches.
She was smiling as she spoke with Kagami.
That was a surprise because the woman was known for rarely smiling, but…
…Kagami’s ether crafting spell must be an unknown technique to the Head Maid.
Yes, they were discussing technique. And that must have brought the Head Maid back to her days as the Rank 3.
…So it doesn’t mean she was moved to emotion by Kagami’s personality.
After thinking that, Horinouchi looked out the window.
She saw a difficult expression in her reflection.
What was she so conflicted about?
…And why am I feeling jealous of the Head Maid!?
It was not that she did not understand her own feelings. This was clearly the same as finding her playmate was looking to someone else.
But there was something she wanted to ask while the Head Maid was in such a good mood.
“Head Maid? You said before that I shouldn’t worry, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” said the Head Maid while turning toward her.
The woman seemed to realize she had gotten sidetracked, so she fixed the position of her scarf, gave Kagami and silent nod, and spoke to Horinouchi.
“Whoever your opponent is, you are your mother’s daughter.”
“My mother…? Why bring her up here?”
The Head Maid smiled behind her glasses.
Her eyes were smiling as they stared thoughtfully into the distance. It was the look of someone reminiscing about the past.
She then looked directly at Horinouchi with the eyes of a witch.
“Our records still have data on your mother’s old Akerindou up until the battle to determine the Hexennacht representative. In other words, until the battle among the Troika. That is the situation you are in now,” she said. “So this is a jinx. Lady Mitsuru, a witch’s jinx says the same thing will happen in the same situation. The jinx will ensure that what happened with your mother will happen with you now. Even if the phenomenon was scrubbed from the world, no one can stop a jinx from taking effect in the world of witches. And even the Black Witch is a witch.”
The Head Maid closed her eyes in a smile and then lowered her head a little.
“We think that you too will gain the power needed to oppose the Black Witch in your battle with the Rank 1.”
Horinouchi listened to the Head Maid.
She saw the woman nod once and pour some more tea into each of the cups.
“It was your mother who took part in the previous Hexennacht, Lady Mitsuru.”
Horinouchi was well aware of that. She had been there ten years ago.
But that was her mother.
They had been discussing their concerns about the current Rank 1.
“I am not the same as my mother.”
“Very true,” chimed in Kagami. “Your name is different.”
Horinouchi glared at her for a short moment. And that’s more of a nickname…no, I’d rather call it an insult.
However, the Head Maid bowed and stepped back. She placed her heels together and shifted her balance backwards at the hip.
“History’s most powerful witch challenges the Black Witch who has existed back to the very beginning of history. The ether and spells were enough to blind us if we had looked directly at them, but all that was defeated by the Black Witch’s rule-breaking strategy. She used reinforcements to destroy the surface which was not part of the fight. …So to put it another way, we believe your mother would have won in a fair fight.”
“But,” said Horinouchi. “My mother lost and everything about her final battle was erased.”
“Yes. That is true. It is due to her loss that we are where we are now. And that is why I…why we came here as maids. Our justifications of protecting our homeland, our organization, or our family could be overwritten with a single goal: victory on Hexennacht. And we believe that you can surpass your mother.”
Before Horinouchi could ask anything more, the Head Maid stepped further back to end the conversation.
This meant she had nothing more to say.
She simply raised her head to reveal her normal emotionless-looking face.
She was back to normal.
So Horinouchi realized how the current head of the Horinouchi family should act.
“Yes,” she said while smiling to the Head Maid with her eyebrows slightly raised. “I hope for the same thing as you. I hope the battle with the Rank 1 will make us the strongest.”
…Well done, Lady Mitsuru!
The Head Maid silently expressed her praise as she listened to the other maids moving around and suppressing their voices beyond the counter behind her.
So she reiterated herself aloud.
“Well done, Lady Mitsuru.”
She gave a true bow this time.
She had been unable to reach the point where she could say that. While she could perhaps say she simply had not reached that point, she stubbornly refused to say that.
But there was someone here who could say that.
And they were here to support that person.
…This has fulfilled the retroactive thoughts I did not notice at the time.
She took a breath.
“I apologize for the intrusion. If we can help with your midterms in any way, please tell us. The same goes for you as well, Lady Kagami and Lady Hunter.”
“In that case, Head Maid,” said Kagami. “Could we ask you to prepare a Halloween party after the midterms are complete?”
“Yes, of course. What scale, location, and food would you like?”
“It must be something that all of you may also attend.”
“Very well. Then…Lady Mitsuru?”
When she looked over, Horinouchi nodded and shrugged.
“Given the season, we can’t exactly do barbecue on the beach again, can we?”
They completed their midterms, the short break afterwards passed, and it came time for the graded exams to be returned.
Horinouchi and Kagami had prepared for the Halloween party during the break and, on the exam results day, they saw Hunter and Mary facing each other on the dining hall terrace.
…What are they doing?
Horinouchi gave them a look of “oh, that’s what” just as Hunter and Mary each pulled out a piece of paper and slammed it against the table.
Really though, what are they doing?