On a piece of reclaimed coastal land far from the center of Osaka stood a collection of unpopulated buildings. During a period of urban development some decades ago, this area was heavily built up, but the essential attraction of enterprises was unsuccessful and tenants did not move in. As a result, any new development was abandoned, with those that had been built left as relics of the failure.
Yet, that 'ghost town' where not a soul would dwell normally was brimming with life, filled with rows of stalls and the heavenward-reaching clamor of people gathered from all over the Japanese Isles.
Why were these people gathered there? There was only one reason. Two days from now―the annual student knight event, the Seven Stars Sword-Art Festival, would be held in this ghost town's Bay Dome.
In previous years, the Festival always garnered more of the public eye than the professional mage-knight combat league, the King of Knights. Of course, this meant that in those years the degree of competition for tickets and nearby accommodation was extremely high. But with the uproar surrounding Akatsuki Academy that had arisen from its attack on Hagun Academy, that level of scrutiny only increased this year. As a result, the aforementioned competition increased manifold. People from inside and outside the country of all walks of life scrambled to reach the site, surrounding it with an anomalously feverish atmosphere two days before the event even began. Those who arrived at the location early were not limited to audience members. Many of those participating in the Seven Stars Sword-Art Festival had also gathered on-site well before the opening ceremony, and were resting at the competitors' provided living quarters.
The one carrying the flag of Hagun Academy as the captain of its representatives, the "Worst One" Kurogane Ikki, was one of them.
"Hmm… somehow this feels really weird."
In an chic and elegantly furnished room of a fine hotel, Ikki Kurogane stood in deep thought before an antique-style full-length mirror. His attire was not his usual uniform; instead, he was dressed up stylishly from top to toe in a navy blue tuxedo and a bow tie of the same color, and with a lustrous sheen on his leather shoes.
Of course, dressing up was not one of Ikki's interests. He was wearing attire like this for a reason. The League's Seven Stars Sword-Art Festival steering committee had arranged for a buffet-style party to be held today, two days before the opening ceremony, for those participants who had arrived early. It was for his attendance at this function that he was presently selecting a set of formal-wear. However, he was having a rough time.
I can't wear my normal clothes at an occasion like this, but….
Being in no way used to formal dress, he could not find one that suited him among the suits loaned to him by the management. In fact, Ikki thought, they were so ill-suited to him that it was laughable.
I wonder if the problem is my spiky hair.
Thinking thus, he grabbed a comb and parted his usually hairstyle to one side, then examined the changes in the mirror.
"Ah, that looks more fitting than before―"
But this would only last an instant. The hair he had just combed down sprang back into their original place with a *bing!*, as if yelling "Who would listen to what you have to say? I'll do what I like!"
"These stubborn things."
Didn't they resemble a certain someone, he wondered? While mumbling harshly, Ikki took off the tuxedo.
For now, we should consider this one unsatisfactory.
At first, he had thought that little could go wrong in choosing the most high-class suit, but the fit turned out to be so bad that even though wearing it would not embarrass him as far as etiquette was concerned, he could not accept it personally. So after some fretting―
"After all, I guess this one is the best…."
Ikki took up a light grey three-piece suit from among the sets he had borrowed. It was a safe choice, but that couldn't be helped―after all, he possessed neither the sense nor the ability to flaunt his character through fashion. And in any case, there was only a little time left before the party would start.
Thus, Ikki quickly put on the three-piece. Just at that moment―
"Onii-sama. Is it alright to come in?"
―there came a knock on his door, and with it the voice of his sister and fellow Seven Stars Sword-Art Festival representative, Shizuku Kurogane. He must have taken too long to dress, for her to have gotten worried and come over to see him.
Thinking this, and feeling ashamed at having taken longer to prepare than a girl like Shizuku, Ikki examined himself in the mirror again in response to her request. His white shirt was not completely buttoned up, exposing his chest and abdomen, though his trousers were at least on properly. If the other party was female, this would usually be a sight he was hesitant to show, but since it was his blood-related younger sister Shizuku, it should be fine. Having judged so―
"Ah, sorry. I'll be ready soon, so it's okay to come in."
The door opened even as the words were spoken, and the silver-haired girl, Shizuku, stepped inside the room―
"Onii-sama, I'm read…y―"
―and stopped dead mid-sentence, as well as in her tracks at the entrance to the room. Upon seeing Ikki's state of dress, her green eyes widened with shock. Wondering what might have surprised her so for a moment, Ikki's attention was quickly turned elsewhere―namely, to Shizuku's attire.
Wow, that's amazing.
Shizuku was wearing a dress she too had been loaned to attend the party as a representative, a classy black bustier adorned with intricate flower-petal frills that seemed to absorb the light. Her neckline and shoulders were highly exposed, creating a stark contrast between the dark dress and her snow-white skin. Such attire would normally be too adult for Shizuku's young looks, but a tasteful application of makeup, likely masterminded by none other than her friend and roommate Nagi Arisuin, had caused her to seem several times more mature than usual, thus eliminating any sense of incongruity. It was a beautiful visage that his sister donned at this moment, one befitting of a lady, and Ikki praised it straightforwardly.
"This might be trite… but you look really beautiful, Shizuku."
At that instant, Shizuku turned a deep crimson and fell backwards, a spray of blood spurting forth from her nose.
"Eek! Oh dear!"
Rushing in from where he had probably been waiting outside, Arisuin supported the falling Shizuku with his right hand, while in his left he held a handkerchief to her nose to prevent the blood from dripping onto her dress.
"Wh-What happened, Shizuku? Are you alright?"
Shocked by his sister's odd state, Ikki tried to get closer, but―
"Ah, aa, ah―"
―even as he did so, Shizuku quivered, her face and the handkerchief pressing on nose becoming all the redder.
It could not be helped. Shizuku Kurogane loved her brother Ikki as a woman would. To see the man she could not help but love deeply tell her "you're beautiful" with his chest exposed in a disheveled manner was honestly too much for her. Erotic dress did not differentiate between genders. Ikki, not realizing any of this himself, drew even closer―
"Hey Ikki, please don't get any closer! Button up your shirt first!"
―only to be stopped by Arisuin, who unlike him had immediately understood Shizuku's feelings.
"Hurry! Her dress is about to get bloodied!"
"Ah, um―okay, I got it!"
Ikki failed to understand what he might have done wrong, but quickly got dressed in response to Arisuin's fierce scolding. Thanks to that, Shizuku was able to calm down somehow.
"Haa… haa… I am truly sorry for letting you see something unsightly. But Onii-sama… you were a bit too sexy just now."
"Uh, I don't really understand, but sorry. I still haven't decided what I should wear…."
"I think you look great in this suit. Is it unsatisfactory?"
"O-Oh, really? I was worried that I look like a child masquerading as an adult, though."
"It's not like that at all. Ikki's shoulders are well-formed from training, so this suit fits you fine."
Arisuin also piped up in praise from behind Shizuku. With his excellent height and figure, Arisuin looked perfect in a suit, just like a cabaret host. Even though Ikki had never met a host, Arisuin seemed the very image of one, so Ikki could not truly be pleased even when receiving such praise from him. More precisely, could this friend who was much taller really be one year Ikki's junior? Considering that his background was fabricated, Arisuin might even be older. Pondering such things in his heart, Ikki pointed at Arisuin's attire and inquired―
"Are you attending the party too?"
"How could that be?"
Arisuin shook his head while answering in the negative.
"I'm no longer a representative. But I'm going with Kagamin to the journalists' party after this."
"You've totally become Kusakabe-san's errand boy, huh?"
"It can't be helped, since I owe her a favor."
Arisuin shrugged at Shizuku's words. The "favor" he mentioned referred to the matter of Akatsuki Academy's attack on Hagun Academy only shortly before. Arisuin had originally been one of the enemies, a spy for Akatsuki, especially with regards to Kagami who had previously received an illusionary form strike directly from him. As atonement, he was now being put to hard labor at her right hand as part of the Hagun Academy newspaper club.
All the same, Ikki believed that this was nice of Kagami. Akatsuki had only utilized illusionary form during their attack on Hagun Academy, although this was because their sponsor and man behind the scene, Prime Minister Tsukikage, did not wish to harm his own citizens. But though the body was unharmed, the wound of the heart known as fear would not be easily healed. Currently, the Hagure sisters had lost the will to fight and had thus relinquished their positions as representatives, while Touka Toudou and Utakata Misogi had yet to awaken from the coma-like state they entered after having been struck by a single blow from the Sword Emperor of Wind. Arisuin understood that this unconsciousness had been brought about by extreme exhaustion, and was not life-threatening, but due to his involvement and his upbringing that had led him to have an overly low self-concept, he nonetheless held himself responsible.
It was for the sake of preventing him from wallowing in such thoughts that Kagami used the pretext of repayment to order him around. Moreover, Arisuin had a keen eye for the subtleties of the heart. He had probably noticed and understood Kagami's intentions. Despite that, he continued to 'repay' her while pretending not to know.
I guess Alice honestly wants Kagami-san to depend on him.
So Ikki thought. If they could little by little regain the relationship they had before, that would be great. At that moment, the room's wall-clock began to resound with a sonorous *dong*, *dong*, announcing the arrival of six o'clock in the evening―and thus the time of the party.
"Aah, so it's already this late? Let's go then, Shizuku."
"Ah. Wait a moment, you two."
Ikki, having already lined up with Shizuku and gotten ready to leave for the party, was stopped by Arisuin. Even as he wondered what was going on, Arisuin snapped a shot of the two of them with the camera on his student datapad.
"A memento for this special occasion where both of you are so well-dressed."
As he said this, Arisuin quickly worked at his datapad, sending the photo to both of them. Shizuku's cheeks colored red with joy upon seeing the photo.
"Waa… thank you, Alice. I will treasure this all my life!"
…All her life, huh…?
Ikki on the other hand felt dispirited. In the end, he still looked out of place in such formal wear, and standing next to Shizuku who wore that look so well he appeared more ludicrous still. It might become a nice memento once he became an adult, though. While he was dwelling on such complicated feelings, however―
I don't think Akatsuki will attend the party, but be careful for the time being.
"Thanks. I'll take this."
Expressing his thanks for the photo as well as the message that had come with it, Ikki headed out to the party.
The party was to be held in a reception room on the highest floor of the hotel that housed the representatives. It was not a distance for which one would take the stairs, so Ikki and Shizuku took the elevator to get there. All the way, Shizuku seemed to be in a good mood as she stared at the picture from before.
"Do you like it that much?"
"Yes. I've already set it as my screensaver."
While smiling wryly, Ikki vowed to himself. The next time he had a chance to be invited to this sort of party, he would attend in his uniform. He would not force himself into wearing this sort of attire a second time.
"When I think about bragging about this to Stella-san, I can't stop smiling."
And just as he had made his vow, he could see another future coming, one in which he would be made to dress up just like this.
"Please don't provoke Stella."
"I can't promise that. In the first place, it's that person's fault for. Not. Being. Here."
She was not present. Indeed, Stella had yet to reach Osaka, just as Shizuku had said. Originally, the Hagun Academy representatives had been scheduled to arrive today, but Stella had apparently contacted Board Chairman Kurono expressing her desire to continue her training with the Yaksha Princess, Nene Saikyou, for as long as possible. During the attack on Hagun Academy by Akatsuki Academy, Stella had been defeated by the Sword Emperor of Wind, Ouma Kurogane. Moreover, she had lost in power, something in which she had boasted absolute confidence. This fact had hurt that confidence badly. Right now, she was engaged in a desperate struggle to regain it. Perhaps she could grasp something through her training with the strongest person in Hagun Academy, the Yaksha Princess. Nonetheless—
"Onii-sama, do you think Stella-san will get stronger from this training?"
Shizuku suddenly asked. Her tone seemed laced with concern.
"The Seven Stars Sword-Art Festival is only two days from now. This should be a time for rest. Though I can understand her feelings, I cannot think that this sort of hasty preparation will have any meaning. Isn't she making this decision too lightly?"
Forget "seemed". Shizuku was genuinely anxious about Stella, about whether she might ruin her health due to the overly strenuous training, and thus not be able to enter this crucial event in her most optimal condition.
"That's kind of you, Shizuku."
At this, Shizuku whirled around, her face reddening as if aflame.
"I-It's not like I'm worried about that person or anything! I'm only worried because you're looking forward to fighting her, that's all!"
So Shizuku protested in annoyance, but her bluff was plain to see. Even though they were normally butting heads, Ikki knew that there was friendship between them, though Shizuku did not wish for that point to be mentioned. As such—
"So you're asking if she can get stronger with such last-minute training, huh?"
Ikki responded to her question directly.
"Yes. I think it's a stretch. There is too little time to do anything, and that buildup of undue stress will only worsen her condition during such a crucial event as the Seven Stars Sword-Art Festival."
Indeed, Ikki had the same fears about Stella's judgement as Shizuku did. Of course, it was possible to grow stronger within a short period of time through intensive training, but—this, in his view, only worked when one's skill was still raw. He likened honing oneself in anything to climbing a mountain. The path from the foot to the first checkpoint would be gentle enough for one to run up. In the same way, an inexperienced person could make great strides in strength within a short time. But a seventh checkpoint, or an eighth checkpoint, that was different. Just as a mountain path got steeper and harsher as one approached the summit, so too did the path to the zenith of strength get steeper as one climbed towards it. The same step. The same one meter. Yet the effort required to advance would be higher. Such was the case when honing oneself, regardless of the subject.
"And Stella is far from inexperienced."
Thus, to be become stronger than she was at present, she would need to expend the appropriate amount of time and effort. That was Ikki's thought. Taking into account Stella's strength, about one week's worth of intensive training… was a little too short.
Having heard Ikki's opinion, Shizuku's face fell a little. She herself felt that it was reckless, and to hear her brother whom she trusted back up her view only confirmed it.
"Really, what is that person doing…?"
Shizuku muttered, seeming at once sad and shocked.
"However, that is what I would say if it was a normal person."
Ikki's analysis continued. Stella was certainly reckless. If it was them, they wouldn't do it. Couldn't do it. Up to this point, he and Shizuku were in agreement.
"Given the potential of the Crimson Princess… Stella Vermillion's present strength has yet to even reach the base of that mountain."
Ikki knew better than anyone the unfairness of talent. There was a huge variance in terms of the potential each individual person possessed, and among these, Stella's was first-class. The size and grandeur of the mountain she could climb was not comparable with those he and others could. Its cloud-piercing height and steepness not something he could measure.
"Therefore, I believe it is possible for her to make an explosive leap in strength."
As the one who was closest to her and loved her above all others, Ikki believed that she would return, having gained strength incomparable to before.
"I believe that in two days, she will surely show it to us in person."
"I hope so, then. I too… want to try fighting that person once. It would be disappointing if she were to just collapse and get eliminated."
As Shizuku replied thus in a brighter voice, the elevator reached the highest floor.
The metal doors opened to the pleasant smiles of two waiters as they greeted Ikki and Shizuku.
"Ikki Kurogane-sama and Shizuku Kurogane-sama from Hagun Academy? Please proceed inside. The party is just up ahead."
"Thank you very much."
With the exchange of formalities completed, Ikki and Shizuku trod the red-carpeted way towards another door in front, where from within the intermingled sounds of a great many people conversing could be heard. Clearly, the party had already begun.
The representatives of the various schools… are beyond this door.
Ikki swallowed, his heart pounding.
"You look happy, Onii-sama."
"This is the stage I could only yearn for last year after all…."
Indeed, as they had spoken of earlier, Ikki looked forward to his battle with Stella. But that was not all. The people beyond that door―the elite who had been chosen from throughout the nation, they were all above an F-Rank like Ikki. People he could test his abilities against without reserve. He could not help but get his blood up at this. Just thinking about being pitted against such people made him champ at the bit impatiently. Attendance at this party had been voluntary. He had gone through all that trouble to wear that suit here, just so he could see with his own eyes those he would be fighting a little sooner.
"Well, even though they probably wouldn't consider an F-Rank like me a threat, eh?"
It couldn't be helped―this was a Seven Stars Sword-Art Festival in which Stella and Ouma, A-Ranks, were participating after all. On the contrary, this was definitely a good opportunity. His opponents were the best of the best; there was a basic difference in strength between them and himself. As the Worst One, his fighting style revolved around manipulating that limited talent to its fullest extent in order to defeat a stronger foe. If he were to be underestimated by an opponent, that would only shorten the distance between them―a good thing. Considering this, Ikki gave a pleased chuckle as he pushed the door open―
―and found that he had been mistaken. All commotion ceased the moment he showed himself, with uncountable glances piercing his body. It was like receiving a heavy blow. The gazes and the ensuing silence lasted merely a moment, and then the noise re-asserted itself, but―
「That's the guy who defeated Raikiri, Hagun's Worst One?」
「That's some aura he has around him. Bright as a honed blade… so awesome!」
「He's definitely national-level, maybe even one of the better ones.」
「You can tell at first glance from that aura that he's strong. To have made this kind of knight repeat a year, what the hell was the chairman of Hagun Academy thinking, really?」
One could overhear in the conversations proof that the attention focused on Ikki previously had not been a coincidence.
"Heh. As expected of those who are also at the national level. They could recognize Onii-sama's strength immediately."
Shizuku broke into a pleased expression as she examined the room's atmosphere from beside her brother, who for his part―
It seems I was the one who underestimated them.
―smiled wryly, unbeknownst to her.
How naive he had been, to think that they would be careless around him. The ones present were not only those who had been chosen from all over the country, but also those who had persisted in competing, stalwart and unafraid despite the entry of a powerful force like Akatsuki Academy. There were none among them who would be fool enough to get careless because of something like rank. That they would be able to recognize another's ability at a glance here should have been taken for granted.
As he soaked in this atmosphere, so apparently different from the battles back in school, it gradually came to Ikki.
I've come here.
To the place where the student knights of Japan would compete to take the summit. This was surely a place where he could push the limits of what was possible for himself. But even as he trembled with excitement at that realization―
―suddenly sounding flustered, Shizuku tugged at the hem of his pants.
In the direction that Shizuku had pointed, standing in front of a table on which the party dishes had been arranged, was a young lady who seemed to be looking for someone.
Ikki quickly realized the reason for Shizuku's surprise. The lady in question was blonde and unusually dressed. Various colored paints streaked her hair, and an apron served as the sole barrier between her and voluminous toplessness. There was no way he could forget her, one of the people who had attacked his school.
"Akatsuki Academy's 'Bloody Da Vinci', Sara Bloodlily-san…!"
"I didn't think that she would come to this party after doing such a thing."
It was as Shizuku said. The students of Akatsuki Academy were all elites of the underworld sent by the terrorist organization Rebellion, though only a minority knew of this due to information manipulation by Prime Minister Tsukikage and the Japanese government. Nonetheless, to come to the party after having violently attacked and half-destroyed Hagun Academy was something that the word "brave" did not adequately describe. This act had sent shock waves not just through Hagun but all the seven schools, leading many to forfeit, and as such there was significant hatred toward Akatsuki even by schools besides Hagun. And as though to prove that point, none of the participants seemed intent on approaching Sara. It was due to this that Ikki had not considered that they might make an appearance at this event.
Should we call them defiant, or just bold?
At that moment, Sara's hitherto meandering gaze locked onto Ikki's position, and in the next―
―of all things, she began making a quick beeline for him, as if to say 'I've finally found you', stopping only when they were nose-to-nose.
Then she began to scrutinize him.
"Umm, what do you want with me?"
Her sudden approach confused him. Undoubtedly, she had looked solely at him and thus clearly had business with him. But having had no interaction with her, he could not imagine what that business was. On the other hand, Sara, who was staring at Ikki's face as he wavered―
―muttered in a detached manner, while proceeding to run her hands over Ikki's shoulders and chest as though conducting a body-search.
"Hey, you! What are you trying to do!?"
"Be quiet. I'm concentrating right now."
Ignoring Ikki and Shizuku's panicked voices, Sara continued to trace the contours of Ikki's body through his clothes. She was a terrorist, and a foe whom they had clashed with once before. Defenselessly allowing her to touch his body should be dangerous. Ikki understood this, and yet―
I can feel that she is really focused….
Despite his attempts, he could not feel any negative emotions from her, whether it be enmity or the intent to harm. Rather, she exuded an seriousness that made him hesitate to stop her. Hence, he did not forcefully push her off of him, but was attempting to ask her the purpose for which she had been so intently inspecting him when―she forcefully ripped through his suit and the shirt he was wearing under it.
At this, Ikki put some distance between them, shouting while shielding his exposed chest.
"What are you doing so suddenly―!?"
In response, Sara replied―