It was the last third of July. The rainy season had ended, and now was the season of soaring white cloud columns. The school period of rushing through selection battles was over, and Hagun Academy had entered the summer break. Some students went on vacation, and many went back home, so there were few people left at school.
Were the only ones left those who wanted a carefree summer holiday in Tokyo? Were they those who wanted to train themselves with the academy's ample facilities? Or maybe, they just couldn't go home because of troubles waiting there.
…However, Ikki Kurogane was surprisingly not among them. Similarly, his friends and his sister were also not there. Why was that?
It was because the Seven Stars Sword-Art Festival was drawing close. The Sword-Art Festival opened in the middle of August. And for any sports tournament, attending a training camp was the usual thing to do. Hagun held a training camp each year, of course. That would be ten days of focused training at a training lodge in Okutama. Professional mage-knight lecturers who've participated in the King of Knights league had been called to this, so not attending would lead to a huge difference in growth, come the day of the Festival. Ikki and the others not being at school was because they were participating in the training camp as the representative team, or as assistants.
―However, the place was not Okutama. That was due to the Okutama Giant uproar, mentioned previously. That matter remained unresolved in the end. Afterwards, there were no reports of the stone giant that had attack Ikki's group appearing again, but of course none could say they were satisfied with the security.
Therefore, Board Chairman Shinguuji made an earnest request to Kyomon Academy for permission to hold a combined training camp with Kyomon's representatives at their own lodge in the mountains.
The Crimson Princess, Stella Vermillion.
A girl who came from a faraway land to the country of samurai for the sake of strengthening herself, she was now in the middle of a fight she requested, here in the mountains after arriving from Tokyo.
In the mock battle arena at the Kyomon training camp, crimson flame and golden lightning were clashing furiously, creating great sparks.
The one clad in a crimson blaze and wielding a gigantic sword was Stella. Power and speed―hers was high-performance motion with what could be called the greatest strength, and overwhelming magical power.
The knight named Stella Vermillion could not generally be said to have any weaknesses. She had remarkably high offensive ability, but her true essence was the height of her overall power. In offense, defense, and speed, she was equipped with a balance of exceedingly high qualities in every possible ability and talent. That was why she was an A-rank knight―
However, there was someone in front of her eyes right now, an enemy exchanging sword blows with her, enduring her fierce attacks head on. At this moment, that enemy could do so with a skill that was worthy of being her opponent.
A regular person would surely have his body destroyed opposing Stella's great physical strength directly. Instead, this opponent had flexible defense that dispersed the power of her descending sword, and a defense that certainly did not only guard, but held a clarity gave back immediate counterattacks.
This was the kind of opponent Stella was facing, but it was not unexpected. Why? Because the one serving as Stella's opponent, participating as a volunteer coach along with the rest of the student council, was none other than Hagun's student knight―Touka Toudou, the "Raikiri".
In the middle of that sword fight, Touka displayed her technique. In the instant that the two sent sparks from their steel, she used the impact of her parry to angle for Stella's wrist. In a movement reminiscent of Aikido, Stella's body leaned over greatly. The shock was evaded, and the sword blade glided past.
Naturally, Stella was also a top-grade knight. Though her blade was pulled in, her balance did not break. Her well-trained lower body held Stella firmly to the earth.
However, the move certainly created a gap between them. That gap―Raikiri didn't overlook it.
Immediately, Touka returned her Device, Narukami, to her black scabbard, and she took a wide stance, pouring lightning energy into her scabbard.
In that moment, a shudder ran through Stella's spine. What attack would shoot from that posture? She knew.
The Noble Art―Raikiri.
Touka's trump card that destroyed the enemy with the unsheathing. Although it had suffered one loss, Raikiri could boast of overwhelming power in close range.
Although she was called the Crimson Princess, Stella had no technique that could be used against Raikiri. If might and range counted, she could win grandly with Katharterio Salamandra, but with speed as the main determinant, she would lose.
So when Touka took the stance for Raikiri, Stella could only fall. But….
This is what I was waiting for!
Not succumbing to the shudder that raced through her spine, Stella kicked against the ground to dash out of close range.
Indeed, having fought up to now in a close-ranged sword clash, it could only have led to Raikiri being used. Raikiri was a sword draw that emitted intense electrical energy through imbuing electromagnetic force into the sword blade. The explosive propulsion brought forth by intense electrical energy was something Touka herself could not stop. It was a technique that could not cancel the unsheathing once started. For that reason, Stella had purposely put herself into Touka's range, and then retreated back out of that range once Touka took the stance for her trump card, inviting Touka to strike at nothing.
The trump card did not come out. Touka stood still in her sword-drawing position, and stared silently at Stella who had escaped. At the discernment which saw through her smallest motions, Stella leaked a sigh of admiration from the bottom of her heart.
After all, such a simple plan wouldn't go through like I want, right?
Tricking the user to spend her trump card uselessly? Anyone could've thought up a tactic on this level. It was a typical countermeasure against Raikiri. Of course Touka had faced countless opponents who used that tactic. There was no way she'd fall for such a simple lure.
―In that case.
I should use a plan that only I can use, right!?
Boom! Stella kicked the ground a second time, taking another huge step backwards. She took a distance of more than ten meters away from Touka. It was beyond the range a sword or a spear could reach. Long distance―it was the range for only bows or guns, or magic.
Yes. Stella was not a knight whose forte was only in close combat. At this long distance, Stella was still in her element. Because she was, among these currently recognized knights, the one who boasted of the greatest magic capacity.
At long range magic combat, those who held high magic capacity held an overwhelming advantage. Though Touka also had a technique for fighting at long distance, Stella's ability in magic combat exceeded hers noticeably.
Because of that, Touka dashed forward hurriedly to close the distance. However, that decision was slightly slow.
Stepping outside Touka's range, Stella poured more power into the Dragon Breath surrounding her Device, Lævateinn. Devouring that magic, her sword's fiery aura grew in light and heat. As the flames covered the point of her sword, Stella faced Touka who was charging from the front.
"Take this! Dragon Fang!"
It became an attack.
Lævateinn―the flame that surged from the point of her sword in a flash took the shape of a living creature.
It was―a dragon. A dragon with a long, serpentine body. That fiery dragon opened a jaw full of teeth and struck down upon Touka.
Touka managed to just barely sidestep that burning dragon's jaw. Instantly, the dragon twisted around to bare its teeth against Touka again.
Lævateinn was no ordinary fiery weapon. With fangs that burned through everything, for the sake of taking a bite of the enemy, it was an attack that would follow its target to the ends of the earth. Shaking it off was impossible. Touka didn't have a single means to counter it.
An average Blazer had no chance against Lævateinn. The magic that came from Stella's overwhelming capacity all carried enough power to deliver certain death. If a challenger started a fight with an inadequate offensive, he'd find himself beaten at his own game. So Touka―
At the approach fire dragon, she responded with the strongest and fastest attack she had.
―She had nothing else to offer. And that was what Stella was aiming for.
I have you!
The slash of plasma collided with the Dragon's head. In that instant, Stella dashed forward with all her strength, and drew near Touka with a burst of speed.
Touka had fallen into Stella's trap, and used Raikiri. Right now, she was unable to interrupt her technique―which mean she was completely defenseless. This was the moment when the fight would be decided.
For a breathless instant, Stella crossed the distance with explosive force, and gave a knockout blow. It was a vertical downward slash. Right now, Touka who had just used up her killer technique wasn't able to do anything―
Shouldn't be able to do anything. Stella's attack should definitely have hit.
But in that moment, Touka showed a movement that Stella didn't anticipate.
She had certainly recovered from Raikiri―but… her recovered stance had not stopped the technique.
She used Raikiri's momentum to turn her body, and attack twice...!?
A devastating propulsion born of a sword draw based on extreme electromagnetic force. It was a second attack using high speed rotation.
Yes, Touka had completely seen through the tactic Stella was going to use. So Touka had―purposely used Raikiri, in order to induce Stella to jump in by making herself look defenseless.
And that scheme had worked flawlessly. Stella's abdomen, where Touka had aimed at for the second blow, had been mowed down by Raikiri―
Illusionary form―against a sword that cut through endurance directly without injuring the flesh, Stella fell to her knees.
And in the next instant, Narumaki fell precisely on the back of Stella's neck. It was the moment that decided the battle.
"…I didn't hear about you having that kind of counter-move."
"It's because this is the first time I've used it in combat. Attacking the enemy's weaknesses is fundamentally correct, but now that you're at the same level as the best in the nation, your opponents will take advantage of your own weaknesses without remorse too. To win against opponents of this class, it's critical not to let yourself be read like that."
To the junior who was looking up at her, Touka explained the reason for this defeat.
"You're not quite there yet, Stella-san."
And she gave a very composed smile.
Facing that, Stella couldn't help but feel frustrated.
She uttered a moan that sounded quite regretful.
"Oh my, the Crimson Princess lost?"
"Yeah, no way."
Two girls watching the confrontation from a distance both sighed. On their arms were yellow bands proclaiming them to be newspaper club members; they were the newspaper club of Bunkyoku, who had come to the training camp to cover the news there. The Seven Stars Sword-Art Festival training camp was an opportunity to collect information on other schools' teams that didn't happen often. It was a vital event for newspaper clubs of all the schools, so the two from Bunkyoku had come from faraway Kyushu to write an article about the rumored princess knight, Stella Vermillion, but―
"It's a little bit disappointing!"
"Raikiri won so easily! Even though I got hyped about it."
"So in reality, she's weak! That means there's no story here after all."
―they wanted to write news about Stella that would be noteworthy, but her loss would mar the dramatic impact. Bunkyoku's newspaper club was suffering a letdown.
At their mutterings… Kagami Kusakabe, who was wearing a similar newspaper club armband and had heard them from where she was standing slightly distant, murmured in amazement.
"Sheesh, where were those Bunkyoku people looking?"
"I know, right? Being drawn here by the results they themselves wanted, they're clouding their own eyes to actual reality. They're not worthy of being called reporters."
The one who spoke was Nagi Arisuin, who had watched the mock battle between Raikiri and the Crimson Princess from his place standing next to Kagami. The two of them knew what was going on, because they had watched many of Stella's fights. They knew the outcome of this fight was not a sign of Stella being weak like Bunkyoku's observers had said.
However―among others different schools, there were also people with discerning eyes there. This referred to the boy and girl who were watching the fight a bit far from where Kagami and Arisuin were standing.
"Whoa―what an amazing fight! You could totally charge money for it!"
"Hagun's participants are all excellent this year. Isn't that right, Kusakabe?"
Kagami smiled at the two people who spoke while approaching.
"Yagokoro-san and Komiyama-san, you were watching too?"
"Of course. If there's a mock battle between Raikiri and the Crimson Princess, any reporter would catch wind of it."
After greeting the two, Kagami's shoulder was poked by Arisuin who was standing aloof behind her.
Kagami turned her head to ask why, but Arisuin inquired first.
"Kagamin, who might these two be?"
Being asked so, Kagami realized that this was the first time Arisuin had met the two.
"Ah, I should introduce you, huh? This girl is Yagokoro-san of Bukyoku Academy's newspaper club, and this boy is Komiyama-san of Donrou Academy's newspaper club."
"Pleased to meet you, Arisuin-san."
"Pleased to meetcha."
"I see, they're both people in the same business as you."
"That's how it is. We're wearing the same armbands, after all."
Certainly. Arisuin nodded in agreement. Yagokoro approached him after the straightforward greeting.
"Well, there were a lot of rumors, but meeting you in person, you really are a lady-killer, huh? You can seduce just with that face, right?"
"Yagokoro, that's rude."
To Yagokoro who said such a thing while staring fixedly at Arisuin's face, Komiyama who was standing next to her poked her with an elbow.
But Arisuin wasn't very bothered. He smiled.
"Ahaha. I'm fine with it. Both flowers and women should be loved."
At the words Arisuin spoke, Komiyama started shaking as if he could not wholly understand their meaning.
"Oh, Alice-chan is that kind of person. Don't worry about it, Komiyama-san."
"I-I'll leave that alone then…."
"What, Komiyan didn't know that Nagi-san is like that? Your data collection has been shallow, huh?"
"Kuh. I didn't comprehend how far his fetish went…."
Kagami thought those words were very much like Komiyama. Even as reporters, there was something called preference. Yagokoro and Kagami preferred to write news articles that mixed facts about the contenders with their human sides. In contrast, Komiyama was more objective type who nails down the facts of the news while staying away from dramatization, similar to a government broadcast. That kind of reporter probably wouldn't check up on things like sexual inclination.
"But Nagi-san, since you're a representative contender, is it okay for you to watch other people fight so casually?"
"I had a bit of luck, so I made it this far. Originally, I didn't have any interest in the Seven Stars Sword-Art Festival, you know? Although it's a bit unfair to the people who lost to me. Anyway, I only came to this training camp to chaperone my roommate. That's why I'm taking it easy."
"Luck, huh? I don't think anyone can win twenty consecutive fights by luck, though."
"But since I've won, there's nothing we can do about it, right?"
"Well, people who get into the game come in all sorts, I guess. It's probably good that there's this kind of contender too."
"Oh my, you're the open-minded type of man, are you?"
"P-Please forgive me for what I said before…."
At Arisuin's chaming gaze, Komiyama paled and retreated.
While watching that strange scene, Kagami suddenly asked the two something that was on her mind.
"By the way, Yagokoro-san and Komiyama-san. What did you think of the fight just now?"
"The contest between Raikiri and the Crimson Princess?"
"Oh, right. To put it simply―it's at an outrageously high level."
"What do you mean? Both, of course."
At that response, Kagami giggled. These two understood after all. Yes, Yagokoro and Komiyama had correctly seen through the reason Stella lost that mock battle.
"The Crimson Princess had power exactly like her rumors said. There's nothing to object about that. The offensive ability to fight blow for blow, explosive power… each and every one of her traits is perfectly first-class. A first-year student like that only comes once a decade. So in that match, the reason for her defeat wasn't because of some weakness. The Crimson Princess isn't weak―rather, Raikiri is just bizarrely strong."
"I think so too. Komiyan and I are both third-years, so we took data on Raikiri last year, but the beauty and power of her technique can't even be compared to last year's.
"Perhaps in the last year, she's been polishing her technique for the sake of beating the Seven Stars Sword King. But that's why it's still unbelievable. Even though she's this strong, Raikiri is participating in this training camp not as a representative, but as a volunteer coach. And her place as a representative was snatched away not by the A-rank knight, but an F-rank one."
Saying so, Komiyama turned his gaze to the edge of the training arena.
And there―was the man who had defeated Raikiri and stolen her place as representative. The Worst One, Ikki Kurogane.
As an F-rank knight, despite having the lowest power, he was the man who had mowed through those above him until he reached the position of representative student at the Seven Stars Sword-Art Festival.
"Incidentally, what's he doing all the way at the side like that?"
"He's going to have a mock battle, I guess? Since he has Intetsu materialized."
"The ones near him are the Hagure sisters, who are representatives like me."
"A mock battle… against both of them?"
"For Senpai, something like that's no big deal."
Kagami's guess was indeed correct. Right in front of the four of them, there and then, Ikki was having a one-versus-two mock battle against the third-year twin sisters Kikyou Hagure and Botan Hagure, who he had invited.
Kikyou Hagure, who had materialized a spear-shaped Device, used an instant-acceleration Noble Art and attacked with a supersonic charge. But Ikki, with absurd speed against the thrusting spear, showed no panic at that state of affairs.
―Stamping on the approaching spearhead, he sent it stabbing into the ground.
Kikyou whose spear had been jammed into the ground flipped upward as if pole-vaulting, her own momentum sending her into the air.
And when she flew over Ikki…
She crashed into her sister Botan, who had been aiming at Ikki's back with a handgun Device and was about to pull the trigger.
And the two were sent rolling across the sandy surface of the ground. Worried, Ikki called and chased after them.
「Are you two alright?」
「Ow ow ow… yeah. I'm fine. How about you, Botan-chan?」
「Uuu… I think I skinned my knee.」
「Yes, leave it to me, Onii-sama.」
At Ikki's voice, Shizuku who was waiting at the side patched up Botan's skinned knee with healing magic. And at the same time, Ikki spoke to the Hagure sisters.
「Kikyou-senpai, you use speed, but there's not much advantage in doing so when you're wielding a spear against me, who has less reach. Doing so relinquished your own reach advantage. I think you should consider offensive tactics a little more. Also, entering your own ally Botan-senpai's line of fire is―」
He pointed out the problems in the fight just now, saying what Arisuin, who watched the situation from a distance, was thinking.
"This mock battle, it feels like Ikki is training the two of them."
Because the mock battle had been far too one-sided. Well in reality, this mock battle had been training that the Hagure sisters had asked Ikki for from the beginning, so Arisuin's discernment was correct.
"…Training, huh? At any rate, he was overwhelming. The Worst One isn't just good at waving a sword."
"Kagami-chan, are those Hagure sisters weak?"
At Yagokoro's question, Kagami shook her head in disagreement.
"No way. Certainly you could say that the Hagure sisters were lucky they didn't have to face superior fighters like Senpai or Stella-chan, but there's no way they're weak. Both of them took down the members of the academy's top ten ranking who were stronger than them, and they're knights who scored twenty undefeated matches. If they were compared to Raikiri or Runner's High, I think they would lose out, but they definitely have real ability."
"We've really been treating them like children, huh? They're a bigger deal than expected."
"At any rate, they're really calm about it. Training steadily at the precious training camp."
"Senpai likes to poke his nose into other people's business, so it's kind of refreshing, right?"
"Besides, in three days Ikki took down all the coaches that Kyomon brought, you know?"
The words Arisuin had uttered were true. It was the fourth day of the training camp, but Ikki had already defeated in mock battles every one of the professional coaches that Kymon had hired.
That was why he had no opponents to do mock battles with. Even Raikiri who was the strongest coach in the training camp right now had already been defeated by Ikki in a real match.
"Well, I suppose in this situation where the honor of the sponsor, Kyomon, has been affected, they're calling for a special coach for the Worst One, huh?"
"I wonder who will come? Chairman Shinguuji and Saikyou-sensei would probably rush over here, but since it's both time for Seven Stars Sword-Art Festival preparations and the KOK championship match, it's probably impossible for the two of them to come from Osaka. On the other hand, the coaches who've been beaten are all ranking members of the Japanese national league, so there's no point to calling up ordinary knights."
"If they summoned people of that class, it would be an unusual instance where the opponents wouldn't be fit for the participants' level, right?"
"Yeah, really. Hagun is amazing this year. Everyone in Bukyoku is in danger too."
Yagokoro praised Hagun's representatives in a lamenting voice. But in response, Kagami gave a wry laugh of disagreement.
"Once again, you're playing around, pretending like you're already going to lose. Miss Bukyoku, don't you have some unreasonable people entering the Festival?"
Bukyoku was prestigious even among the prestigious schools, having monopolized the winner's podium for multiple years in a row. The strength of the team that included the current Seven Stars Sword King, representative Yuudai Moroboshi, was renowned not only in Japan but also overseas.
However―leaving aside that one member of the renowned representative team, there was a man who had announced himself as a Bukyoku representative suddenly by submitting his entry at the last minute. That man was the only A-rank knight among Japan's students, who held the nickname "Sword Emperor of Wind", Ouma Kurogane.
"That A-rank knight entered the Seven Stars Sword-Art Festival as a third-year even though he didn't participate during his first or second year. Bukyoku's representatives were really surprised at seeing this for the first time."
"I was surprised too. I also thought that man would definitely not participate this year either. I guess his entry is Bukyoku trying to put as much power as possible into the tournament?"
The Crimson Princess, an A-rank knight, had come from a foreign country.
The Worst One had defeated Raikiri with one slash.
From other academies as well, this year had an abnormal ratio of unknown first-years.
Before the competition had even started, it seemed to already be in an uproar. It looked like there was no choice but to field Ouma, who was an even higher class of knight than Moroboshi, the Seven Stars Sword King. Wasn't that the reason the entry was made? This was what Komiyama and Kagami conjectured.
But Yagokoro shook her head.
"No, no. The Sword Emperor of Wind isn't the type to listen to the school, you know? To begin with, he doesn't come to school, so who would know how to contact him? Entering was the decision of the Sword Emperor of Wind himself. Because of that, we were also completely surprised."
"Then it wasn't at the academy's direction?"
"Is that how it is? Well, even if it was his own decision, it was probably what the academy wanted too."
"That's likely. So they hurriedly arranged a selection battle with the sixth-ranked Shibata-kun, to see who would be the representative."
"And Ouma-san won that?"
"I honestly can't call it a match. If we say the opponent was a bad fit, we can leave it at that."
Yagokoro's face was colored in grief as she answered. Shibata had probably suffered a cruel defeat. However―
"It may have been bad for Shibata-san, but the whimsy of the Sword Emperor of Wind is good news for us news clubs, right?"
"Entirely. To honor that, we'll give extravagant space to the story."
"There are a lot of voices on the Net who're looking forward to a confrontation between the Crimson Princess and the Sword Emperor of Wind."
"That's understandable. Anyone would want to see a match from the A-rank student brought up by World Clock and the Yaksha Princess.
A legendary fight between those two had already become a hot topic. That fight was strangely being billed as a confrontation between Hagun and Bukyoku, east versus west Japan, and was already rousing the public mind.
"…Well, it's a shameful story for us Donrou who are also in Tokyo."
"But I'm also interested in the matter of the Worst One's rematch with Sword Eater, you know?"
"Honestly, that's my only saving grace. We're also putting our expectations on him this year. His behavior is problematic, but the Sword Eater's close-ranged combat sense is top notch. …But based on that, this year's competition is focus on… the Worst One, after all."
Though he had anticipation for how his fellow schoolmate Sword Eater would perform, Komiyama's reporter senses told him that the dark horse of the competition this year wasn't Sword Eater but Ikki, and he said so.
"With the rumors of a private relationship after his confrontation with the Crimson Princess, and distinguishing himself more and more on the center stage with his victory of Raikiri, one wonders what other national champions this famous F-rank will cut through. …Those kinds of thoughts, anyone might indulge in similar ideas. Off the record, it seems there's a lot of people who want to put together a special report on the Worst One before the Seven Stars Sword-Art Festival begins."
"The younger brother of the Sword Emperor of Wind, who defeated the Crimson Princess and laid low Raikiri with one slash…. Well, that might be natural treatment."
Near her, Kagami smiled secretly. She was happy for the person she had recognized, who she had always been following around and observing. It was confirmation that she had a good eye, but more than that, she know the circumstances of the knight called Ikki Kurogane who had surmounted all kinds of obstacles to reach this point, so it made her extra happy.
Well, it's not good to push other team members aside."
But Kagami decided it couldn't be helped, given her connection to Ikki.
After all, there's no girl who wouldn't cheer for a boy that sincere and earnest."
So it couldn't be helped. Yeah.
Suddenly, when she returned her gaze to Ikki, Kagami saw someone at the edge of her peripheral vision. It was an ash-blonde young lady, who was watching Ikki from the sidelines like they were.
"Hey, isn't that Kyomon's 'Icy Laughter'?"
"It's true. Did she come to scout out the Worst One?"
"I'll definitely get her comments―wow, Komiyama-san is already gone!"
"Wait for me, Komiyan! I won't forgive you if you monopolize this! Nagi-san, I'll come back to interview you, hey!"
After getting Arisuin's agreement to a shrewd stopgap promise, Yagokoro ran chasing after Komiyama.
But Kagami didn't follow them just yet. She stayed with her companion, Arisuin. After all, it would be bad to leave him behind like that, so Kagami asked Arisuin.
"Alice-chan! I have to go too, so will you wait for me here!?"
But Arisuin didn't answer immediately. He was looking downward with a thoughtful expression, as if his thoughts were somewhere else.
"Eh? Ah, sorry Kagamin. I was lost in thought for a moment there. What was it you said?"
To Arisuin who had responded after the second time, Kagami relayed the matter of interviewing Icy Laughter again. Arisuin quickly returned an unconcerned smile.
"Of course it's fine, Kagamin. Good luck with the interview. I'll be here."
"…Yeah. See you later, then!"
Saying that, Kagami ran after the two who had already left.
As she did so, she thought of what Arisuin had been concerned about. Why had he been lost in thought? It had already been several months since they met, but this kind of thing had never happened before. Arisuin failing to listen to what another person was saying? Not even once.
Could it be, Alice-chan is nervous right before the Seven Stars Sword-Art Festival too?
If not that, then the topic they were discussing before Arisuin had gone quiet―the talk about Ouma Kurogane, maybe he was concerned about something there?
But after pondering it a little, Kagami thought―
Well, everyone has a blank moment here and there.
In any case, she had to seize the chance to interview Icy Laughter. Kagami immediately put her doubt out of her mind. Fortunately, Komiyama's interview had only just started by the time Kagami caught up.
"Hello! I'm Komiyama from Donrou's newspaper club. Mikoto 'Icy Laughter' Tsuruya-san, after seeing the mock battle just now, what do you think of Ikki Kurogane, the Worst One―I mean, the Crownless Sword King? He has surpassed the nation's best eight, like yourself, right?"
A sudden interview. But a member of the media would probably be used to confronting even someone as important as Tsuruya. In this not very surprising situation, she didn't make an unpleasant face either.
"Hmph. You shouldn't be so hasty, Mr. Reporter."
With a well-rehearsed expression, she gave a slightly meaningful smile.
"What are my thoughts on him? There's no point in me talking about it, I think. For us knights, only the outcomes of battles matter. And the stage of battle is already in place―whether he surpasses us or not, it will become clear soon enough. In that way, cruel as it may be, it will be expressed more clearly than with words."
Announcing this, Tsuruya let slip a small gap between her lips. That smile, colder than anything, left the three interviewers shaking with chills racing through their spines.
"Haha. Well, excuse me―"
Stating her intentions to the three who had become frozen in horror at her smile, Tsuruya turned toward the exit of the practice arena. Her simple answer made it very apparent to the three reporters, but her dignified departing back also left not the tiniest doubt in her confidence and strength.
"That's the dignity you'd expect of the best eight, huh?"
"What an impressive presence. I thought I was frozen a little."
Yagokoro and Komiyama let out voices of admiration. Kagami had the same feelings, but her faith in Ikki was greater. Because Ikki had brought down Sword Eater who was also one of the best eight, and even Raikiri who was one of the best four.
Because of that, there's no need to lose my composure.
The nation's best eight wasn't a bunch of people as easy as Kagami thought. Tsuruya, who had left the practice arena, had spoken to a fellow representative schoolmate on her way out.
"Ah, Mikocchan. What did you think of Hagun this year? If it's you, I think you can win without trouble."
She responded with a smile that embodied the name Icy Laughter.
It was a clear declaration. Yes, Icy Laughter Mikoto Tsuruya was much stronger than Kagami and the others thought. And so, she could measure the strength and capability of herself and others accurately. For that reason, far away from the three in the arena, the true self of Icy Laughter could be perceived.
She knew she could not win against the Worst One.
"I mean, he was even surrounded by three professional knights, you know? It's impossible for me."
Speaking with a lamenting voice, Tsuruya leaned against a nearby wall. In her ears, she could hear the hustle and bustle of the practice arena.
「Hey, isn't that Torajirou Nangou!?」
「The coach they brought in for the Worst One is the God of War! That's way too extravagant!」
Slumping against the wall, Tsuruya slid down to the ground. She only wished for one thing.
"Ahh, why can't I avoid fighting against that gang of monsters…!?"
―In this way, the heretical existence known as the Worst One had become well-known.
Yuudai Moroboshi, the Seven Stars Sword King.
A-rank knight Stella Vermillion, the Crimson Princess.
Fellow A-rank night Ouma Kurogane, the Sword Emperor of Wind.
Listing the favorites for the Seven Stars Sword-Art Festival championship, these were the ones who had made their names.
How far can he progress fighting against this bunch of warriors? How much of an uproar can a crownless F-rank knight create?
Team members and spectators, everyone had started looking forward to his efforts.
Kyomon's training camp had no schedule. The coaches that were summoned there opened special classes, but whether to participate depended on each representative's preference. This was because each Blazer has his or her own ability. The variety was great, and successful training methods were also highly divergent, so making a grand schedule framework would be inefficient. Therefore the students all decided on their own training programs individually with the help of their friends.
Accordingly, Stella asked Ikki to go running with her before dinner. From the training camp to the shopping center ten kilometers away, it was a round trip of twenty kilometers. For the two of them, it wasn't a distance that could be called much training. If one of them were asked, he or she would call it closer to relaxation.
Stella was running to distract herself from the chagrin of losing to Raikiri before. However―
"Uuu! Ahh! It really bothers me after all~!"
At a bench that the two of them were taking a break on, in a park near the shopping district that was their turning point, Stella stamped her feet in childish frustration.
"You haven't been refreshed from running?"
"I haven't! I haven't at all!"
They had gone at twice their usual pace, and she had washed her face at a water fountain in the park, but Stella's mood hadn't cleared up one bit.
―Honestly speaking, Stella had also felt it vaguely, a hunch that Touka was stronger than she was, from the incident in Okutama or seeing the match with Ikki. But now that this outcome had been forced in front of her eyes, it was vexing.
"I mean, I knew before going to the fight, but that person is really too strong."
"Touka-san's close range is practically at the upper boundary of power, you know. Charging with a frontal attack is a difficult tactic to use."
"But Ikki, didn't you make use that tactic?"
"…Well, I had no choice. At any other distance, I'd lose."
Her sweetheart smiled humbly, and Stella felt a tinge of envy. Against Raikiri, who she couldn't do anything against, this boy smiling with a mild demeanor had won by breaking through from the front magnificently. Touka and Ikki's one-cut match: that instant exchange had been burned into Stella's eyes. It was splendid, and at the same time frustrating. She still didn't have enough experience to reach him.
"At any rate, for that kind of person to only reach the top four last year, Japan's level is really high."
"Well, there's always the luck of the draw in who you face at a tournament, so I think there might be those even higher than the four that Touka-san is a member of. At the quarterfinals, there are certainly those who forfeit because of grave bodily injuries."
"That's why I don't have an excuse for losing! There are already two people who've beaten Touka-senpai, you and the current Seven Stars Sword King, so I can't be be losing here. My goal is to beat you and everyone else to become the Seven Stars Sword King. Plus―there's an opponent I'm a little worried about."
"An opponent you're worried about?"
"The one who's from Bukyoku Academy, just like the Seven Stars Sword King. Ouma Kurogane."
The moment that name left Stella's mouth, Ikki's expression stiffened noticeably. At that reaction, Stella was convinced.
"Like I thought, he's the same Kurogane as you and Shizuku, right?"
"Yes. He's my older brother."
"I didn't know that you had an older brother. No, in the first place it was also the first time I learned that there was an A-rank knight like me among Japan's students."
"Well you see, for the two years that he entered knight school, no, even the five years as a student in middle school, his situation was almost completely unaccounted for."
"Eh? Did he disappear?"
"No, that's not true at all. It only happened occasionally, but it seems he got in touch, and he was seen in public too. But it seems he would go somewhere for a day or two. And he did not join any competitions for five years. He was champion in the primary school league, and there were many people who took notice of him, but with five years of not showing what kind of talent he had, society lost interest in him. As to what kind of attention he has, I think Shizuku has more at the moment. So it's only natural that you wouldn't know about him, Stella."
"I get it. If he's been absent from public matches for five years, that would only be expected."
But if that was the case―
"I wonder why someone like that would reappear here? Ikki do you happen to know anything about it?"
Stella asked Ikki this, and he shook his head.
"No, I have no idea."
"Even though he's your own brother?"
At those words, Ikki gave a troubled and bitter laugh.
"On top of me becoming forced out of the family, my brother Ouma had also been forced out as well, so we never had any contact. To me, he's someone even more distant than Father. Because of that, he's someone I truly don't know at all. It's just that, well, if I had to say what impression I have of him, he was an incredibly stoic person."
"Being born meant becoming strong… he was that sort of person."
"…Isn't that like you, Ikki?"
To Stella who said what she was thinking, Ikki shook his head again.
"You can't compare me to that. Ouma had no interest in anything besides getting stronger. He had no interest in a younger brother weaker than himself. He had no interest in a younger sister weaker than himself. He had no interest in a father weaker than himself. …He even declared in an interview that his reason for not entering the Seven Stars Sword-Art Festival was because 'no opponent there is worthy of me'."
"He's sure has a lot of confidence in himself."
"But he has the strength to match. And for my brother Ouma who cares about nothing except getting stronger to appear at the Seven Stars Sword-Art Festival, he surely has no other motive but to become stronger. So―this is only my guess, but I think Ouma's goal is you, Stella. An A-rank student like himself. You're not someone he'll come across in the world often. If I were him, I would definitely be thinking about fighting you."
At those words, Stella also agreed. It would be a lie for her to say that she wasn't interested in a fellow A-rank student. If she could, she would try to have a match with him. The likelihood that her opponent would think the same was high.
"By the way Ikki, from what you've seen, what do you think Ouma's strength is like?"
"It's exactly as he said."
"Like he said?"
"'There's no opponent there worthy of me.'―his true strength matches his boast."
At Ikki's air of tensions as he stated this, Stella felt a chill in her spine. In a word, what Ikki had said was that Ouma Kurogane had a strength where, to say nothing of Raikiri, he could even disregard the current Seven Stars Sword King.
The tension that had spread from Ikki's words, it had him personally remember the pressure of his brother taking part in competition. Just speaking of the past when Ouma was a boy, he was no ordinary person. And if Ikki had to meet such an enemy in competition―
For Stella as well, it was becoming less and less a situation where she could lose to someone of Raikiri's level.
"I've decided. Before this training camp ends, I'll absolutely become strong than Touka-senpai!"
The training camp had five days remaining. With one mock battle a day, today meant a total of six fights to do. She would win more than she'd lose. In a loud voice, Stella declared her goal. And since Stella was able to give a precise goal, her body throbbed from her conviction. She was already not in the mood for resting in the park. Stella bounced up from the bench, and hurried Ikki.
"Ikki! Let's go back to the training camp quickly! After dinner, we'll do more training―"
But at that moment.
An extremely cute noise came from Stella's stomach. Furthermore, whether there were any kids playing outside at this hour, the park was deserted, which meant the sound reverberated indiscriminately throughout the area―
"Ha ha, what an adorable sound."
She was laughed at by Ikki. Stella's face reddened like an apple in embarrassment.
"I-I can't help it! I was moving a lot today! And it's just before dinner right now―"
"Yeah, that's true. Becoming hungry is proof that you've been working hard, Stella. It's nothing to be embarrassed about."
"R-Right. It's good that you understand."
"But enduring hunger that long isn't good either, so let's go get something to eat."
Saying this, Ikki stood and took the hand of Stella who was red-faced and staring down in shame.
Stella was surprised at her hand being caught suddenly. But Ikki didn't pay any attention to that.
"If we go toward the shopping district, we should be able to find something, so bear it for a moment."
With a smile, he pulled Stella's hand and started walking.
The shopping district at dusk was favored by middle school students on summer break and housewives there to buy dinner for their families. Into the midst of that, Ikki and Stella walked hand in hand.
As they did so, they head whispering voices.
「Aren't those two the princess of Vermillion and the child of the Kurogane family who've been in the news lately?」
「Ahh, those stories about the princess being cheating on and molested?」
「I heard those were false rumors.」
Topics about the association between the two of them came up one after another, and it wasn't just Stella, but also Ikki whose face was now widely known in society. It wasn't just their faces either, but the details of their relationship as well. That was why the two of them stood out as they walked, even though it was unpleasant.
「Look, look! They're holding hands! It's really true that they're going steady!」
「I mean, looking at her in reality, that princess is outrageously beautiful.」
「How nice… I wanna go out with a girl like that….」
At the inquisitive gazes piercing from all around them, Stella's ears grew a little red. She had become reasonably used to being stared at in school as a couple, but being looked at as girlfriend and boyfriend by people off-campus was still embarrassing no matter how she thought of it.
Guessing that Stella was thinking this, Ikki spoke.
"Hey Stella, if you're embarrassed, we can let go with our hands?"
It was consideration after noticing that Stella was blushing due to the gazes from all around them. But Stella―
"I'm… n-not embarrassed… at all…."
―told a lie.
She was certainly embarrassed, but she really loved holding hands like this.
"It's that's true, then okay. But don't strain yourself."
Did Stella understand the subtleties of that situation? Ikki smiled a little bit, strengthened his grip a little bit, and once again started walking and pulling her along.
Looking at Ikki's face in profile, Stella thought,
"What's this? Ikki has changed a little."
The boy Stella knew as Ikki Kurogane was by any standard not what one would call assertive. Like herself, it was the first time he had liked someone or dated someone, so it was a relationship where the two of them timidly stepped into the role of sweethearts.
But recently, the atmosphere around Ikki had changed―he had become unusually proactive. For example, him grabbing Stella's hand just a while ago. They had enjoyed that sort of physical contact before, but up until now, it was hard to say who was usually the one to put a hand on top of the other's. But lately, it had been different.
This hand is… solid… firm…―
It wasn't a spontaneous touch, but rather Ikki's assertive grip. And right now, he wasn't worried about the gazes around them but was holding her hand with dignity. Knowing Ikki's usual virtues of care and sincerity, Stella who was slightly anxious couldn't help but be shocked by this change. What exactly caused this change in his mentality? Therefore, Stella spoke to Ikki about this openly.
"Hey Ikki, you've changed a bit recently."
"You've become… a little pushier, a little more assertive than before."
…A little more manly, a little more impressive….
At Stella's statement, Ikki showed a surprised expression for an instant. And immediately, he blushed and scratched his jaw, then answered.
"…I guess you noticed, Stella?"
Ikki's answer showed that he was aware of his own change.
"Sorry. I've been trying to be more courageous."
"I-It's not like I dislike this! I was just wondering what caused it."
"I don't think it really had a cause…."
At the questions being piled on him, Ikki started his explanation that way.
"It's just that, ever since my proposal to you, I've felt an attachment to you growing strong inside that surprised even me. n feeling that I can't do anything about. That this person is my precious girl."
He spoke of the reason for the change that Stella was wanted to know about. The confession he made after the fight with Raikiri, it had become a huge turning point for him. Up to that point, Ikki had intended to love Stella more than anyone else, but after their strong feelings had been confirmed with exchanged words, the desire to her for himself had grown stronger than can be compared to what he felt before. The feeling that he wouldn't surrender this girl to anyone had grown stronger.
As a result, a self-conscious had been born inside of him. A man's strong self-consciousness that he would protect his woman. And that self-consciousness had given Ikki an assertiveness he had not had up to now.
"To the point that I want to embrace you right this minute. …But I don't think saying that is very chaste, right?"
Ikki spoke what was in his heart, though he sounded a bit embarrassed. At Ikki's confession, Stella felt her chest pounding like a drum.
That throbbing, it was a sweetness emerging from so deep inside her chest that it was itchy.
Why? The reason was obvious. The one she love was declaring something right now that words wouldn't be enough for.
You're mine. I won't let anyone else have you.
And at the same time, the overwhelming pressure from their surroundings fell away.
She's my woman. Don't touch her.
At this realization, Stella had to hide her softening cheeks.
Ikki, you're so cute….
Honestly, it was adorable. Even though he was immature, he was trying to monopolize his woman with all his might. She couldn't help it when he was that cute. Ikki probably wouldn't enjoy being thought of that way, but as far as Stella was concerned, Ikki was so cute that she was getting giddy.
She had to reward this no matter what. As someone's girl, as his girl. So Stella―took his arm with her own hand, and pulled him into an embrace.
"If we do this, everyone will understand better that I'm your girl, right?"
Smiling, Stella pressed Ikki's arm to her cheek. She no longer cared about the stares falling on her from all around. More than such trivial things, the boy who was trying to monopolize her with all his might had created a far stronger feeling.
But for Ikki, who was trying to hold her hand and walk with a prim face to the end, Stella's act of clinging to him had created a situation where he couldn't calm down. Though since he was the one who said he wanted this, he couldn't tell her to get off because he was embarrassed either.
"Th-That's right. Good idea. Yeah…."
Ikki continued to walk while staying as calm as possible, but his cheeks were glowing with embarrassment, and the hand he was holding Stella with had become damp with sweat.
At such a bluff, Stella couldn't help but find him charming.
…Somehow, I'm really happy right now….
With her mouth falling into a smile, Stella entrusted the walk entirely to Ikki. Anyone around them who saw this would probably think they were an idiot flirty couple. Stella seriously figured that it wasn't something they could do anything about. After all, they were in love.
Hold me firmly, my prince.
This embarrassing thing didn't leave her mouth, but was only whispered inside her heart.
But at that moment―
Ikki's steps abruptly stopped.
Did he find somewhere to eat? That was her first thought, but Stella instantly realized this wasn't the case.
Ikki's line of sight was in the opposite direction from where they were going, and his face had a very grim color.
"…That person just now."
Ikki, looking straight at the back of a man dressed in work clothes who had passed them, answered like this.
"Wasn't something strange about the way he was walking?"
"Maybe he was hurt?"
Ikki thought that at first too, but….
It's probably not the case.
Inhaling a shallow breath, he raised his concentration. Staring at the departing backside, he took in the man's physique, height, and width. He compared the muscles attached to that frame to his preconceived notions on how bodies were put together. Yes, the man was walking strangely. The steps were not going left and right in a regular way. But there was no feeling of injury or other hindrance. He could see that the various joints were driving the man forward normally.
But it was so lifeless. The man was walking as if his body was out of order.
I can see there's something wrinkled at its side. The right pocket?
A hand was thrust into the right pocket at the waist. In the wrinkles gathered in the work clothes, there wasn't just the hand. The right hand was clutching something, stored away in the pocket. It was somewhat long and wide. For example―a survival knife, or something like that.
…From his clothes, he might be an electrician.
It was common for an electrician to carry a knife in order to peel the tough outer covering of electrical cables. The knives that electricians used were very large, but his own knowledge of such things was meager, and maybe this was just an individual's preference. But just as he thought this, Ikki noticed it clearly for an instant.
From the brim of the cap the man was wearing on his head, something inside of it glimmered. It was the bloodshot eyes of a wild beast focused on its prey. They were very much the eyes of someone full of hate.
It might be the bloodshot look of someone who was just lacking sleep. In addition, the thing in the pocket might also have been an ordinary work tool. Both of those possibilities were perhaps more likely than Ikki's worst-case guess. But―there was no way he could put the worst case out of his mind. His premonition wouldn't lessen.
"Ah, Ikki, where are you going!?"
"Wait for me a bit."
Ikki pulled away his right arm that Stella was holding, and he rushed over to the man who was dressed in work clothes.
He could start with talking, and find a way to check what was in that pocket. If he was just making a rude misunderstanding, that would be good. He'd just need to apologize. If his apology wasn't accepted, well, he could accept getting into a little trouble. Since that was the case, if he could allay the worst-case thoughts that had stolen his attention….
Thinking that, Ikki called out―and at that moment, the man in the work clothes suddenly stopped walking.
The place he stopped was the shopping district's tenth street. It was in the middle of very busy foot-traffic. Why did he stop in such a place with nothing to look at? The answer was―
"The hell!? What're you doing stopping in the middle of street, old man!?"
The moment some middle-school aged kids bumped into the man, it became obvious.
Leaking a weird whistling shriek, the man moved. He started to pull whatever was in his pocket out with his right hand quickly. In that unending moment, Ikki beheld time flowing past with his focused concentration and enhanced motion perception.
He had correctly identified the thing glittering through the tiny gap he had peeked through into the man's pocket. It was a blade's edge glaring and sparkling savagely, a thick survival knife. In the middle of the intersection, there was only one reason to pull out such a tool.
The worst possibility that Ikki had suspected had come true. And as he felt his prediction hitting the mark, Ikki moved.
With his concentration slowing the world down around him, he was faster than anyone. Lunging forward through the pedestrians coming and going, Ikki ran to arrest the man's hand holding the blade. The distance to the man was less than five meters. The man hadn't yet pulled the knife out half-way, and the group of middle-schoolers in front of the man hadn't yet realized the danger.
I can make it…!
With Ikki's speed, there was plenty of time. Running, he could strike the man from the back and render the man unconscious. Before the knife-blade was fully pulled out, he could settle the matter. Though it might create a small ruckus, he could stop a tragedy from happening. It was all from what Ikki immediately sensed in the moment they passed each other by, but thankfully Ikki's quick-wittedness had caught it. Indeed, up to now it was all what Ikki considered the worst possible possibility.
But the next moment, something he hadn't foreseen occurred.
"Waa! Wait, wait! Don't do it!"
The high voice a girl who sounded at her wit's end resounded, and before Ikki could arrive at where the man was, that owner of that voice clung to the man's arm.
It was timed just before the knife could be taken completely from the pocket.
If a normal person wasn't staring from the start at the pocket the man was vigilantly watching over, she wouldn't have the timing to interrupt that action with only common reflexes. Only someone who had the kind of physical ability that Ikki regularly honed could do it. That was why Ikki had not foreseen anyone having such timing. Someone attacking the man when his guard was down perfectly. And all the more untimely, it was a girl who was next to the man, who was now in the way of Ikki's attack.
He couldn't charge. Having no choice, Ikki immediately canceled his body's acceleration and came to a halt.
Meanwhile, the situation progressed. The girl, with a somewhat high voice, yelled at the man who had a look of shock at the abrupt interruption.
"You can't, mister! Even if your company laid you off or you're under tons of debt, to consider taking someone with you in suicide would be…!"
But her yell was heard by everyone in the vicinity—
"H-Hey! This guy has a knife!"
"Eeeeek! He's going to kill someone!"
Though the thing hadn't yet been fully pulled out of his pocket, everyone could understand the implication of having it. The shine peeking out from the man's right pocket caused an uproar. While the people closest to him recoiled, and the contents of the bags they were carrying spilled all around, everyone raced to get away from the intersection. In the middle of that, the young girl who had grabbed onto the man's arm…
"Since you failed to do what you were trying to do, won't you come with me to the police? Something like this would make your mother in the countryside mourn, you know. It'll be fine. As long as you're alive, good fortune will come your way eventually, right!?"
Smiling with a beautiful face that was only sweating just a little, she spoke with a soft voice. She was probably trying to calm the man.
But the man did not accept it.
"You fucking brat!"
The man who had been hindered roared with an angry voice, and shook off the girl with all his might. The slender girl was easily heaved away, and fell on her back.
A shadow fell over her. It was the shadow of the knife that the man was swinging down with an extremely upset expression on his face—
Wh-What should I do!?
At that moment, Ikki who was watching the chain of events from within the flow of people fleeing the area hesitated in deciding his next action.
Properly speaking, it was the kind of situation where he shouldn't hesitate, but go in and save the person. But—there was one factor that made Ikki hesitate. It was none other than the girl who had barged into all of this.
No—this was no girl. He didn't misread that charming voice or those pretty features. But the clothes were—Kyomon Academy's boy's uniform.
And he knew that face. He hadn't recognized it at first, but after looking at it carefully, he remembered. After the selection battles ended, his classmate Kagami had shown him a list of this year's Seven Stars Sword-Art Festival representative students. This person's face was in a photo.
Ikki had forgotten the name, but this was a Blazer who was at a level of the Seven Stars Sword-Art Festival. In that case—
That kind of person wouldn't barge in this without a plan.
That kind of person wouldn't appear nonchalantly and spout cliche words from a police drama. That kind of person must have some means and ability to take control of the situation. And since he didn't know what kind of ability this boy had, there was a possibility that he could be a hindrance if he intervened. Ikki thought that about the boy.
So I have to leave this situation to him, right?
But as Ikki came to that judgment, the boy with blond hair facing the descending knife—covered his head and yelled out.
"S-Someone save me—!"
You had no plan—!?
While screaming in his mind at the boy's cry for help, Ikki immediately began to move. He didn't have enough time to rush in anymore, but the belongings of the fleeing passengers were scattered all over the ground.
Ikki swung one foot forcefully at a tube of lipstick, aiming to hit the swinging knife.
Taking an unexpected impact, the knife flew out of the man's hand and fell to the ground. At the same time, Ikki charged up and struck the man in the face with his fist.
The man fell face up on the ground with blood flying from his nose in an arc, and he stopped moving. Ikki's fist had rendered the man unconscious with one blow.
To anyone watching, it was probably a truly skillful performance. But…
"Ha… haa… haa… haa…!"
The performer himself was sweating frantically.
Too close…! This person really didn't think before putting himself out there…!
If Ikki hadn't flown to the boy's aid, the boy would undoubtedly have been killed. At that moment, the boy had been defenseless against the knife swinging down on him. To say nothing of martial arts, he hadn't even used a Blazer's magic to protect himself, only panicking, freezing up, huddling up against the blade-wielding opponent. Honestly, the young boy's reckless behavior had been more terrifying than the man who tried to attack people randomly in the street.
"Ha… Stella. Can you call the police to arrest this attacker?"
"Y-Yes! I'll do that!"
After asking Stella who had arrived late to go inform the authorities, Ikki turned toward the young boy who was still lying on the ground. Ikki kind of wanted to make a word of complaint, but the boy had done what he did to stop a tragedy. Therefore, no complaint erupted from his throat, and Ikki asked the boy as he extended a hand.
"Are you hurt?"
"…Ah, no. Thank you. You saved me."
The boy gave a sudden smile, and offered his thanks as he took Ikki's hand.
Suddenly, his eyes grew large as he looked at Ikki's face.
"…Hmm? Is there something wrong?"
"Ah-Ahh! You, are you Ikki Kurogane-kun by any chance!?"
"Err, yes. That's right, but—"
What was the matter? The moment that Ikki answered the strangely excited boy's question—
"Wow! Wow! It's really you It's really you, Ikki-kun!"
And no sooner than the boy got up, he grabbed Ikki in a hug.
"H-Hey, what are you two doing—!?"
At the unexpected embrace, both Ikki and Stella raised their voices in confusion. But the boy continued to hug Ikki without concern for their surprise.
"I'm so moved! Even though I hoped for it, to meet you by chance like this, I'm really lucky after all!"
As if they were friends meeting again after ten years, the boy was beaming and jumping up and down with his whole body. The blue eyes wavering underneath long eyelashes were spilling tears of deep affection. The boy seemed truly and sincerely happy to meet Ikki.
But because of this, Ikki was in chaos. Why was a boy this happy to meet him?
"Who are… y—"
But before Ikki could ask, Stella was quicker. Forgetting to call the police, she who couldn't endure this any longer rushed over and grabbed the shoulder of the boy with a cute face who was embracing her boyfriend and tore him off with sheer strength. And she stood in front of the boy as if covering Ikki protectively.
"Who do you think you are!? From your clothes you look like a boy, but are you gay!? Are you gay too!? Even though we already have one such character!"
Stella scowled at the boy as if to intimidate him. The boy was astonished at being pushed away suddenly, but immediately understood that he was facing Stella who was Ikki's girlfriend, and sympathized with why she was angry.
"Ahh, I'm sorry, Stella-san. No, I'm not gay. I'm just excited and happy to meet Ikki-kun."
After this explanation, he turned to both of them and introduced himself.
"How do you do? I'm a first-year student at Kyomon Academy, Amane Shinomiya. Like you, I'm a representative at the Seven Stars Sword-Art Festival, and—I'm a huge fan of the Crownless Sword King!"
After that, Stella and Ikki gave their report to the policemen who came to arrest the attacker, and returned to their original goal of getting something to eat. They entered a hamburger franchise restaurant. All three of them.
The third person was Amane Shinomiya, Ikki's self-proclaimed fan who they had just met. He came because he wanted to treat the two of them for saving him from danger.
"Nnn—♪ It's my first time coming to a place like this, but this potato is delicious, even though it's full of grease that spreads through your stomach and has tons of salt."
"Eating something like this everyone once in a while is fine by me. But is it really okay for you to treat us?"
Ikki asked that as he sat facing Amane. To the question, Amane nodded with a big smile on his attractively cute face.
"Of course! Ikki-kun, you're a lifesaver, so I have to treat you to McRonalds at least!"
Lifesaver was not overstating it. Practically speaking, if Ikki had not intervened at that time, Amane would've lost his life. Thinking about it from Amane's side, it would probably lead to guilt if he didn't offer something like this.
"…Then I'll accept your kindness."
Sympathizing with this situation, Ikki accepted Amane's goodwill. Unwrapping his burger, Ikki took a bite. Though it was not an especially nutritious meal, the stimulating taste spreading over his tongue was pleasant.
"By the way, Amane-san was it?"
Suddenly, Stella—who had already devoured her own burger and returned her tray some time ago—spoke to Amane.
"Call me Amane. We're the same age, and having a princess put '-san' after my name is a bit embarrassing."
"I see. Then I won't use the honorific, but Amane, you're a representative member of Kyomon, aren't you?"
"Yep. That's true."
"But so far I haven't seen you at the training camp. Where have you been?"
At the question, Amane let out an "aah" and answered.
"It's because I'm not participating in the training camp. Today was the first time I came here, so it's natural that you haven't seen me."
"Is that so? Then you're thinking of participating from today onwards?"
"No. Today is also me coming to bring stuff the participating upperclassmen asked for and then immediately going back."
"How humble. Since you've already taken the effort to come, you should participate too."
"Ahaha. …Well, unlike you, Stella-san, I'm not very interested in the Seven Stars Sword-Art Festival. It's only because I have a rare ability, even though I don't have physical strength or knowledge of martial arts, that I was chosen as a representative."
A student who wasn't interested in the Seven Stars Sword-Art Festival had been chosen as representative. It was not rare for such a thing to happen in academies that didn't use combat selection like Hagun and Bukyoku. So it wasn't unusual. Amane probably wasn't just saying it to be modest. In that case….
"Then against that attacker, your rare ability should've helped, right?"
Ikki said this to Amane. In response, Amane shook his head a little, and answered.
"…Why do you think that?"
"Just process of elimination. Amane-san, I'm sure you don't have martial arts experienced based on your build and your reaction when the attacker came at you. Despite that, you had unusual timing when you seized that man's hand. Though you don't have a high level of martial arts, it was timing that showed an exceptional reaction speed. If it's not from martial arts, then all that's left is Blazer ability, I think."
At Amane's question, Ikki answered with his own ponderings. When he did so, surprise spread across Amane's face.
"Ahh, as expected of you, Ikki-kun. You were able to see through that. Such insight doesn't differ from the rumors."
It was an expression of the discernment called "shining magic mirror", belonging to the Crownless Sword King. Was Amane glad to see something like this? He stated words of happy admiration.
"But I can't tell you what kind of ability it is. My teacher said that I mustn't tell people of other schools, so I'm sorry."
"Ahh, that's only to be expected, especially for people like us who are fellow representative contenders."
There was nothing to be gained from telling the enemy your own abilities, so Ikki had no real intention of asking to hear it.
"But Amane-kun… if it's not an ability you can use to hold off an opponent, you should be a bit more restrained yourself next time. It's your life at risk, after all."
Indeed, Ikki gave candid advice to Amane from experience. With a serious look, Amane bowed his head in apology.
"Y-Yeah. That's true…. I was so upset I forgot to protect myself…. If you hadn't been nearby, Ikki-kun, what would've happened…? I was really lucky. But—"
"But because my luck was good, I got to see you in action, and it was so awesome~♪ You really looked cool, like a hero~♪"
In a complete change from his look of remorse, Amane's face bloomed in a girlish look of happiness. Where could one find such an optimistic person? Ikki's head was starting to hurt a little.
…Well, he's not a bad child, but….
"Oh, that's right."
Suddenly, Amane reached a hand into his bag as if he just remembered something.
"…The truth is, since I knew that Hagun and Kyomon were shaing a training camp this year, I was a little hopeful that I could meet you, Ikki-kun, so I was carrying something for you to autograph. Um… do you mind!?
With eyes sparkling, he pulled out a gigantic piece of paper and begged Ikki.
"Eh, Y-You want me to sign on that expensive paper?"
"Err, it's not like I would refuse…."
Ikki was perplexed at Amane's request. After the duel with Stella at school he had become somewhat popular, so it wasn't like there weren't people asking him for a handshake or to sign their notebooks. But there weren't anybody who brought paper for an autograph so diligently. Because of that, a mere commoner like Ikki would of course become nervous. To be treated like a celebrity this way, wasn't it strange?
"Being presented such splendid paper, I don't think my signature would be good on it…."
But Stella opined as though she was completely uninvolved.
"Isn't it fine? It's just writing your name."
"Stella… but still."
"He idolizes you to this degree. Shouldn't you respond at least that much? Besides, the value of your autograph is for the person receiving it to decide."
It was certainly sound reasoning. Amane only wanted Ikki to sign, and brought paper that reflected how important Ikki's signature was for the request, so it was unreasonable for Ikki to doubt his own value.
Therefore Ikki accepted the splendid paper with a soft "I understand."
"But I really can't do much more than sign my name. Is that okay?"
"Don't worry about it!"
So after Ikki double-checked, and Amane reaffirmed with that he should sign, he wrote his full name with unskillful characters.
"Whoa—! Thank you, Ikki-kun! I'll frame it and treasure it for the rest of my life—!"
Receiving Ikki's autograph, Amane jumped up and down in rejoicing and hugged it close to his chest. Seeing a happiness not unlike that of a child who was bought the toy he really wanted, Ikki gave a wry smile.
Did I ever think anyone would put my name inside a frame and treasure it for life…?
He was happy that someone idolized him to that extent, but Ikki who wasn't used to such treatment felt self-consciousness more than anything, and started sweating. Until he met Stella, things like praise and respect were far beyond reach for him, so perhaps this feeling couldn't be helped.
However, contrary to Ikki's mood,
"At any rate, you really like Ikki, don't you Amane? Would you tell us what exactly about him made you a fan?"
Stella asked Amane for this, and the topic turned more and more toward Ikki.
"I like how he fights. The way he's taken down every adversary put in front of him with just a sword is smart and stylish."
"But recordings of his selection battle fights weren't allowed outside of school, I heard."
"That's true, but every school has a few 'benefactors' who upload them. Especially Bukyoku and Hagun, it seems. The schools with currently popular students having matches invariably leak information. So Ikki-kun's main match was appreciated by everyone! Downloaded to datapads, broadcast hundreds of times, I've memorized his words completely! –With my great weakness, I will break your invincibility…!"
Seeing a picture of himself reciting those words from the match against Raikiri with a sexy expression, Ikki just barely managed to cover the spray of ginger ale from his mouth with a napkin.
"That signature phrase is mesmerizing! Ah, but I like the version you gave during your fight with the 'Hunter' too!"
"L-Look, can we not listen to that? Stop? Please stop! Hey!"
"With my greatest weakness, I'll catch your greatest strength―!"
"When you destroyed, no, caught Hunter, you looked really elegant, you know?"
"Wa—no, please let me off! I was really stressed at the time! During the fight I was just out of sorts! So please forgive me, I beg you!"
No longer able to stand the itch of humiliation, Ikki clung to Amane. His face was so red it could burst into flame at any moment. But Amane looked dissatisfied by Ikki's restraint.
"Eh—why? I think you look really cool. Don't you agree, Stella-san?"
And Stella, who Amane was trying to bring into the conversation—
"Y-Yes, that's true. Yep. Ikki sure is cool. …Heh heh heh."
—was half crying, trying to keep the laughter off her of face.
"Stella, your words don't match the expression I see."
As he thought, Stella turned her face away rather than object. Well, since he understood her feelings, Ikki didn't object strongly. If he had to say so himself, how could he say such brazen words? Stress was a fearful thing.
But in this place, Ikki's fan continued to talk about the things that made Ikki fascinating, even though Ikki was writhing from the descriptions of his own conduct.
"Even though you look so cool fighting… I like how you look dealing with the fight even more than that, Ikki-kun."
"How Ikki looks when he's dealing with the fight?"
"Yep. My way of saying it might be impolite, but frankly Ikki-kun seems to have given up on the attributes of a Blazer, right? At least, he wasn't blessed in that way. But Ikki-kun doesn't let that show. No matter how strong his opponent is, or what the gap is between him and that opponent, Ikki-kun makes his challenges with pride and dignity. As if he believes in his own worth. That's dazzling to me."
And so Amane informed them the reason he was captivated by Ikki. At that confession, Ikki once again felt surprise and embarrassment.
He really was watching carefully, huh?
Believing in his own worth. The attitude he had when he strugged which Amane was describing, it was surely Ikki's core truth.
"Ah, haha. …Saying that in front of the person himself is embarrassing after all, right? My face is getting a little red, you know."
"…Hearing it is even more embarrassing, though."
"Haha. Sorry, sorry."
Smiling as if glossing over it, Amane left his seat with a sigh.
"Well, it's time for me to go back."
"Oh my. At any rate, we're going to the training camp, right? Then let's go together."
"There's no way I can keep up with you two running even after you've just eaten. Besides, I haven't finished buying the things my upperclassmen asked for."
Amane declined Stella's suggestion. And before he left, Amane turned to Ikki.
"Thank you for the autograph. I'll be cheering for you from the bottom of my heart that you'll push through every difficult and take the summit of the Seven Stars!"
Yes, he gave those words of encouragement with a smile. It was very strange to hear those words of support from someone he might meet and fight in the Seven Stars Sword-Art Festival, but it would be boorish for Ikki to retort that in the face of being shown such clear favor.
He's cheering for me in such an honest way, if I don't respond properly….
Ikki opened his mouth thank Amane for that support with a smile of his own—
At that moment, inside himself, he felt an unease—and lost his train of thought.
"…Ah, no. I'll do my best. Thank you."
After Ikki was silent for a while, he managed to squeeze out a few words in response. To Ikki who had suddenly sunk into silence, Amane showed a slightly puzzled expression, but…
"Well, let's meet again~"
Was he satisfied by Ikki's response? Amane gave a small grin and left that place by himself.
"Hehehe. In the end, you became the type who can get fans outside the school, Ikki. It's unbelievable compared to how you were in the beginning."
After Amane left, Stella laughed delightedly as she finished of her remaining potato. In reply, Ikki nodded slightly.
"And Amane seems to have quite the crush on you."
"You look very happy about that, Stella."
"Yes, I certainly am. I'm happy that the strength you beat me with has been recognized, but more than Amane expressing that so openly and heatedly, I'm happy that he recognized what's wonderful about the one I love. Ikki, you're not dissatisfied, are you? About having a fan who understands you properly and supports you?"
"…Yeah. I don't have a problem with it. …I can't have a problem with it."
Suddenly, Stella felt a strange faltering in Ikki's response, and looked at his expression. Ikki was staring toward the exit that Amane had left through and making a somehow strained expression.
No, it wasn't—just at the level of being strained. Ikki was… clearly, visibly sweating. Even in this store with a functioning air conditioner.
"What's wrong, Ikki? You're sweating so…."
As if pushing Stella's question aside, Ikki asked Stella.
"In your eyes, what kind of person is Amane-san?"
"What kind of…. His manners are good, he has a cute face, and more than anything he watches you properly. A person who feels splendid, I think."
To Stella's reply,
"Yeah… that's right. One would normally think that… right…?"
Ikki's voice came out like a moan, and he furrowed his brow.
That's right. …Because there's nothing to dislike.
Amane Shinomiya. With charming looks like a girl from somewhere. With gentleness that couldn't turn a blind eye to possible tragedy, but held back an attacker even at the risk of his own life. He, more than anything else, idolized and respected Ikki. Everything about him was what was likeable in a human being.
He had to be likeable. But—despite that—
I can't hold together an impression of liking him without it breaking into pieces…
Moreover, at the moment when Ikki was returning the smiling Amane's encouragement as Amane was departing, he felt it. Against Amane's smile, he needed to exert quite a lot of effort. Amane's words. Amane's expression. Amane's puppy-like good-will. All of it was naturally likeable. All those things that Ikki thought he should like, in reality none of them resounded in Ikki's heart.
It was incomprehensible. Ikki himself couldn't understand why he held no favor for Amane. And so, that shapeless and uncanny truth clung to Ikki's heart like tar.
The eerie unease couldn't be helped, so Ikki took out his student datapad, and attempted to call someone. The phone call was connected immediately.
「Ye~s, hello! It's rare for you to call me, Senpai. Is something the matter?」
"Ah, Kagami-san. Do you have a little time right now? There's something I need to ask you."
「Sure, it's no problem. I'm just having tea with Alice-chan and the others right now. What do you want to ask?」
"Kagami-san, you haven't just been investigating Hagun, but also the contenders from other schools, right?"
「Sure, of course. I've checked through basically every school's representative team.」
"Then do you know what kind of person Kyomon's representative Amane Shinomiya is?"
「What kind of person, you say. That's a very vague question again, you know?"」
"Ah, yes, I know. Hmm."
Saying such a thing, Ikki had the same thought. It was an inquiry that was too much like what a guy would ask another guy. However, in order to sweep away that ominious feeling, wouldn't knowing anything he could about Amane be good? Since he didn't know himself, Ikki was worried for a short while. Kagami guessed Ikki's distress over the phone and opened her mouth to speak.
「Ahh, it's fine. If it's about Shinomiya-san, I can tell it's something between boys.」
"Is that so?"
「There's not much information. He's not a contender who appeared in the middle-school league. What I know is that he's a Blazer of the rare causation-manipulation system, and they story is that he was endorsed with high opinion as a representative. How should I put it? The truth is there are a lot of those kinds of contestants this year, you know? There's a pattern of nameless first-years who don't have experience in the middle-school league being selected as representatives. So with regard to Shinomiya-san being one of them, there's not much of an impression–that you pulled out his name and asked about him makes me a little interested. Did something happen with Shinomiya-san?」
To the question being thrown at him, Ikki wavered in explaining the ominous sensation he had felt. Since he himself didn't know the reason for it, he didn't want to denigrate another person, and more than anything else, he couldn't put that ominous feeling into words.
"No, I just met him unexpectedly during my run. And because of that, I just felt like I wanted to know what kind of person he is."
In the end, Ikki dodged the question that way.
「Huh… I thought he wasn't coming to the training camp, but he did come to the mountain?」
"It seems he came in order to deliver provisions to his upperclassmen."
「In that case, I should be on the lookout and gather some information on him~I guess? Heh heh heh.」
"Ahaha… well, you can do that. Sorry for the abrupt call."
「No, no. Sorry I couldn't help much. Tell me if you figure out something interesting~」
"Yeah. Thanks. Talk to you later."
Giving his gratitude, Ikki ended the call. In the end, he didn't obtain any great information. If Kagami who always had an ear out for such things didn't know, then there probably was little information on Amane available.
"Aren't you overthinking it? You probably just have a fatally bad compatibility with Amane. Maybe you killed each other in a past life, or fought for the same lover. Or maybe it's true from both sides."
"Maybe that's how it is."
"Well, I think everyone has someone he can't get along with."
Can't get along with. It would be good if his discomfort went that far and no more. However, since he himself couldn't explain the reason for the weird feeling he had about Amane,
"Yeah. …That's right. It's probably just that."
He had no choice but to agree. But even if he told himself to agree, he couldn't wash away the eerie feeling those false words left clinging to his heart.
What settled in his heart, that he couldn't put into words, was—an evil omen. An awfully unpleasant premonition. This is what Ikki thought as he looked at the restaurant exit that Amane had exited through: that he had met something tremendously fearsome just now.