Today was the deadline to turn in the thesis, presentation draft, and materials to the school.
Suzune, Isori, and Tatsuya had no interest in trying to slapdash the job the day before the deadline, so they had produced the data disc the day before.
During the lunch break, they gathered to go over the final checklist that was not directed towards the contents within, but examining the context and manner of presentation of the major points. After passing their inspection, they accepted Haruka's suggestion and Suzune personally handed the data disc to Tsudzura.
"Does Ono-sensei's advice to not turn in the thesis online have anything to do with yesterday's incident?"
After finishing the portion he was responsible for, Isori asked in a blank manner.
After finishing his task (even the burden allotted to a Year 1 student was by no means light), Tatsuya replied in a whisper to avoid distracting Suzune.
"It would be far simpler to hack from on campus to get a glimpse of the network."
"Even then that's quite challenging." Isori shrugged at Tatsuya's point.
At the same time, accompanied by the typing sounds on a traditional keyboard — the sound from Suzune's favored traditional keyboard — Suzune turned back this way.
"Was it really a student from our school?"
After finishing her inspection, Suzune organized the materials and joined the conversation.
"No, that remains a 'maybe'."
"Even the uniform wouldn't be that difficult to obtain if they tried."
Hearing Tatsuya and Isori's replies, Suzune fell into thought. "Isori-kun and Chiyoda-san should have access to the student roster."
Isori was a member of the Student Council and Kanon was the Chief of the Public Moral Committee, so they had the power to review the student roster. Of course, the amount of private information available was zero, so they could only make a cursory inspection of mug shots and full photos.
"Kanon was the only one who got a partial glimpse from the side of the face, so we have to be careful we don't exclude the suspect. Also, with nearly 300 female students on campus, there's no way to identify our target if we can't narrow it down to a manageable number."
Isori wasn't referring to this as a hypothetical situation.
In reality, these were Kanon's words after attempting that this morning.
"Yesterday, the only thing we could say is that one side was chasing the other. Even if we know who the culprit was, the only thing we could do is put her under surveillance, which is the same thing as doing nothing."
Suzune and Isori were aware of what Tatsuya was saying.
Monitoring students that haven't broken any rules — technically, using a flashbang while escaping could constitute a problem — may lead to accusations of stalking.
At this stage, there was nothing they could do except be on their guard.
◊ ◊ ◊
By the time Tatsuya returned to class, Erika already took over his seat. "Ah, you're really early today."
She quickly discovered Tatsuya's presence and rose from the chair.
She wasn't impudent enough to keep sitting there. After Tatsuya sat down, she sat on the edge of the desk itself, which was exercising considerable restraint on her part. "What were you guys talking about?"
Still, just as Erika observed, he was quite early today.
He didn't immediately face towards the terminal, but struck up a conversation with Mizuki, who sat next to him.
The conversation target was Mizuki because she wore an uneasy expression on her face.
"She said she felt someone watching her." However, the one who answered was Erika. "Watching her?"
At his renewed question, Mizuki hesitantly nodded.
"Early in the day, I felt an annoying gaze on me. A nauseating gaze that's lurking in the darkness somewhere."
"A stalker perhaps?"
"That is impossible. I'm not a worthwhile target to be pursued."
The likeliest possibility was presented first, but Mizuki shot that one down by repeatedly shaking her head as if to dispel a ridiculous notion.
"I'm not the target. I think I'm just part of a much larger web being cast out."
Her vague words were likely because she wasn't able to express herself very well.
On the other hand, Tatsuya knew perfectly what she was trying to convey.
"In other words, the target isn't a single student, but many students and professors or even the school at large. Is that what you mean?"
That may be my mistake too."
The uncertain attitude was also one facet of her personality. Since they had no evidence, there was nothing for it.
"No, I think Shibata-san is onto something."
Yet, as if to shore up Mizuki's flagging confidence, Mikihiko arrived and spoke in the affirmative.
"Since yesterday morning, the spirits on campus have been thrown into an unnatural uproar. I think someone must have thrown down a Shiki."
Since Erika occupied Tatsuya's seat, Leo didn't keep turning around like he usually did. However, he whirled around after hearing Mikihiko's words.
"Shiki, as in a shikigami from SB Magic?" Mikihiko nodded at Leo's inquiry.
"It's a little difficult to tell since they used a different type than we do, but there's definitely a Magician of unknown origin snooping around here."
"It's not that rare of an occurrence, is it?" Erika's skepticism also held merit.
Even though this was a high school, they were still affiliated with the magic universities and had access to many important documents. With so many talented Magicians in its faculty, First High was often the target of individuals who homed in on magic abilities.
"Generally speaking, if they are blocked by the defensive magics hung on the walls, they usually don't come back the same day. But this opponent continues his assault no matter how many times they've been beaten back. The fact that they're searching for something isn't surprising, but this is the first time I've seen such sheer obstinacy since coming to school here."
Mikihiko responded to Erika's rather tactful objection with a confident rejoinder of his own.
"......Mikihiko, just then, you said they used a different sort of magic than we did, correct?"
"Indeed I did."
Mikihiko was quite concerned by Tatsuya's choice of words and nervously confirmed Tatsuya's question.
"Are you saying a shikigami from a different branch of the Shinto System? Or are you saying that it's fundamentally different from this country's Ancient Magic?"
He had no idea that the contents of such a carelessly phrased sentence could be mined from another direction; Mikihiko's expression grew solemn.
"I think that's not a magic spell from our country."
"Hey, are you talking about foreign spies?"
"Isn't that the exact point he's making?"
Leo's wide-eyed stare completely contrasted against Erika's light words, but in reality both of them were on the same wavelength.
"Such conspicuous behavior."
"They're doing whatever they please. What the heck are the police doing?"
Thanks to Tatsuya's words, Erika directed her ire towards the law enforcement.
Rather than being outraged at public officials slacking on the job, she appeared to be scolding her family members instead, which prompted an "Ah?" thought from both Tatsuya and Mikihiko.
◊ ◊ ◊
Meanwhile, Inspector Chiba of the Kanagawa Prefecture Police — more like exiled from the main office to the Kanagawa Prefecture Police Department — sneezed as if on cue.
"......What's wrong, Inspector? You suddenly look agitated."
Sergeant Inagaki, who was currently investigating the illegal entry incident at the Yokohama Harbor, directed a look at his immediate superior's suspicious action.
"Ah, for some reason I feel cold all of a sudden."
"Are you OK? We're busy enough as it is, don't even try to pretend to be ill."
"What do you mean pretend to be ill, you......"
Inspector Chiba's voice had a tinge of a reprimand mixed in, which Inagaki promptly ignored.
"Inagaki-kun, you should at least respect the chain of command." At Chiba's words, Inagaki gave him a skeptical look.
"You're in no position to say that" was written all over his face, but the words that came out of his mouth were entirely different.
"Compared to that, do we need to continue taking testimonials? I doubt we'll find any more witnesses even if we go further."
Inagaki had a point there. After many days of recording testimonies, they received no new information on those who penetrated the border.
Chiba wore a self-depreciating grin as he looked at Inagaki, whom he saw more as a partner than a subordinate.
"Of course there are witnesses, it's just that they choose to remain silent."
"Inspector, you mean......"
Inagaki seemed to pick out something from his superior's delicate tone as his eyes sharpened.
"Hey, don't scare anybody."
"I think the Inspector is the terrifying one. Did you notice something?"
"Relax, I didn't do anything off the book. Well, they say snakes go through snake paths, so let's take a look at the snake's den."
Hearing Chiba's proposal, Inagaki wore an unwilling expression.
"Backdoor dealings are still against the law......"
"I think this still falls within acceptable parameters, right? Not like this is the time to worry over small details like that."
Is that so?"
As Inagaki was nodding and looking for a counter argument, Chiba had already taken a seat in the driver's seat of the plainclothes police car parked in the free parking area. After verifying that his partner had climbed on board, Chiba took the car towards the high class residential sector dominated by foreigners.
◊ ◊ ◊
The destination for the plainclothes patrol car carrying Inspector Chiba and Sergeant Inagaki was the parking lot for a cafe located in the Yokohama Hills area. After Chiba turned off the engine, Inagaki turned a sour face on him.
"Inspector, I have nothing against taking a break here and there, but weren't we headed for the 'snake's den'?"
At his subordinate who was leveling a hard look at him that blatantly accused him of being lazy, Inspector Chiba responded with a regretful expression.
"This is the 'snake's den'."
After hurriedly catching up to his superior who had already disembarked and was locking the door with a remote, Inagaki looked over the cafe once more as he stood next to Chiba.
At first glance, this was a quiet, peaceful cafe. The quaint windows modeled after a cabin in the mountains had a pair of shutters that were currently open and not trying to hide anything at all.
"Ah, calling him a snake would be disrespectful to the owner. The owner's intelligence network is quite sophisticated and he doesn't have a criminal record either."
"Are you saying he's a big fish that we haven't pinned anything on yet?"
"I think he would prefer the term professional businessman over a big fish."
Inspector Chiba lightly shrugged and opened the "Rotterbart" doors.
Thanks to its proximity to tourist locations, there were quite a few customers present, even though it was already past the time for usual luncheon.
Still, the place wasn't very rowdy.
The mood within the cafe seemed to reflect the owner's personality as each of the customers sat there quietly enjoying their drinks. All present belonged to a slightly older generation. Any assumption that they were all tourists would be incorrect, as the majority of them appeared to be regular patrons who favored this establishment in particular.
Chiba sat in the second chair in one corner of the counter (Inagaki occupied the first) and ordered two cups of coffee from the owner.
The owner appeared to be a businessman on the outside, but Chiba knew very well that he hadn't abandoned his other trade either. Still, the conversation was stillborn before the coffee arrived and just sitting there seemed to be a waste of time, so he took this opportunity to glance around the place.
Off to the side of the counter, a coffee mug that had just been used sat there likely because the customer had just left in a hurry so the owner didn't have time to recover the mug. What a shame that such a wonderful coffee was just wasted like that. As he ruminated over this idea in boredom, Chiba suddenly discovered that while he was fixated on the coffee mug, the customer he thought had departed in a hurry had returned.
The one who sat down next to the counter was a young woman roughly Chiba's age.
He kept his face forward while surreptitiously glancing at the woman's features.
At first glance, she didn't possess incredible beauty. She wore a plain tunic and skirt, but upon closer inspection, she possessed delicate facial features and an outstanding figure.
This gave Chiba the feeling that she intentionally applied a small amount of makeup.
After drinking in these details, he wordlessly shifted his gaze forward. He should be calling himself out on his idiocy.
His excuse for not asking a few questions in a professional capacity was because of her inconspicuous appearance, but his actions just now were practically outright flirting.
Inagaki's suspicious gaze was starting to hurt.
The owner behaved as his cool appearance suggested and continued to silently prepare the coffee.
Chiba could only sit there and wait for the coffee to be served. At this time, an unexpected laughter broke the silence.
He could only use his eyes to verify this, but just as he expected, her shoulders were shaking as she bowed her head forward.
"......I apologize. I was still thinking of how to handle a conversation, then you just went ahead and sat there. So it's true that you're not adept at handling women, O heir of the Chiba Family?"
Inspector Chiba was astounded, and not because she was dead on regarding his personality.
Nor was it a major secret that he was the heir of the Chiba Family.
Still, he never tried to proactively publicize his identity or picture through public relations.
In terms of publicized information, his brother Naotsugu far surpassed him.
Besides criminals or those affiliated with the police, anyone able to tell that he was Chiba Toshikazu on sight would have to hail from a select group of the world's population.
Namely, people who wielded magic in live combat. "You are......"
"Pleased to meet you, Inspector Chiba. You may call me Fujibayashi Kyouko."
This time Chiba was truly struck speechless.
The daughter of the Fujibayashi Family renowned for their prowess in Ancient Magic and granddaughter of Kudou Retsu, one of the elders in the Japanese magic community, stood before him smiling without reserve.
◊ ◊ ◊
It had been a long time since Tatsuya's party of eight had passed through the school gates together.
"Tatsuya-kun, have you finished all the preparations for the Thesis Competition?"
Even though the eight of them hadn't congregated recently, the one who first asked this question for some unknown reason was Honoka, who attended the Student Council with Miyuki and departed with Tatsuya on a daily basis.
"I can only say we've finished this stage. Right now, we still have to worry about the minute details like preparing the models for the presentation and assorted adjustments."
"Sounds tough. Speaking of which, Mizuki's helping out with the model production, right?"
Erika didn't belong to either the Student Council or the Club Activities Group, yet was still curiously well informed as she shook her ponytail back and forth as she looked towards Mizuki.
"Ah, yes. I'm helping out a Year 2 senpai. Even though I'm not really doing anything."
"We left the model entirely to Isori-senpai, so it makes sense that Year 2 students make up the bulk of the production personnel."
"Hm~, so what does Tatsuya do?"
Leo took this opportunity to ask Tatsuya, who had voiced his support for Mizuki.
"I perform calibration for the magic techniques used during the presentation."
"......Isn't it usually the other way around?"
"Really? In terms of producing objects, I think Isori-senpai's several leagues ahead of me."
"Well, Kei-senpai does fit the 'alchemist' impression more than a 'magister'. I guess this is the right tool for the job."
Seeing Tatsuya tilt his head, Erika wryly smiled and expressed her agreement.
Shizuku continued to keep her head tilted to one side. "Using that as an analogy, what class would Tatsuya be?" Suddenly, Mizuki sprouted this question.
"He would be a mad scientist of course." [Erika] "That's not from an RPG." [Shizuku] "Then, maybe a sage dwelling in the remote lands far removed from civilization that imparts a secret technique." [Erika] "A martial sage then." [Leo] "An evil wizard scheming to conquer the world?" [Erika] "I think a Demon King would be more suitable." [Mikihiko] "No, no, no, after defeating the Demon King, turns out I'm the real man behind the man~. Doesn't he fit being the Final Boss who bars the main character's way?" [Leo] "How come everyone doesn't think he fits the hero?" [Honoka] "Forget it, Honoka. I do give off an evil vibe after all." [Tatsuya] "Onii-sama, strength alone is the true justice." [Miyuki] "Oh snap, as expected of the Demon King's sister!" [Erika]
......And thus, a vibrant discussion began.
Even though they were walking along and bickering as students do, Tatsuya never let down his guard.
After reaching the intersection that leads to a few small stores, Tatsuya turned to face the direction where he felt someone watching him.
"Want to head over there?"
In response to Tatsuya's suggestion to take a detour and incur more time spent to handle the pursuit,
"Tatsuya will probably be very busy starting tomorrow."
"Indeed. Let's grab a cup of tea."
Erika, Leo, and Mikihiko's responses seemed a little too eager. They likely each had their own agenda in mind.
Tatsuya feigned ignorance and pushed open the door that led to the Anneliese Cafe.
Unfortunately, their usual two tables that seated four people each weren't available to be joined together, so the eight of them crowded around the counter and the table that stood closest.
The ones next to the counter were Tatsuya, Miyuki, Honoka, and Mizuki (In order of seating, there was Mizuki, Miyuki, Tatsuya, and Honoka).
At the table, Erika sat with Shizuku while Leo and Mikihiko shared the other side.
From an outsider's perspective, Tatsuya would undoubtedly be the scoundrel with a harem of several beauties serving him.
"Ah~, welcome, welcome. Seems you're just as popular as usual, Tatsuya-kun."
Eh, forget outsiders, even the owner of the establishment who was familiar with their group cast a cold gaze from the other side of the counter.
"I'm sure the owner would be just as popular if you would just shave off that beard."
Tatsuya intentionally retaliated with the taboo (?) word popular.
"That's true, Owner. That beard is a darn waste and makes you look rather old."
Thanks to Mizuki's innocent (?) nature, she naturally provided supporting fire.
Mizuki-chan certainly doesn't hold anything back."
His beard definitely qualified as a mess. The owner sighed deeply while gently brushing his beard in order.
Despite the gray coloring, the owner wasn't nearly as ancient as Mizuki made him out to be.
More like he was quite young actually. Certainly he wasn't yet 30 years of age.
His hair color and beard were both gray, likely due to genetics. After all, the owner was a quarter German (Anneliese meant "slight wind" in German, which warmed Leo's heart enough to make him a frequent patron).
Still, the only feature that marked his foreign lineage was his hair color, as his pupils were black and his face was thin and angular in the
Asian fashion. Even though he had the gentle aura of a handsome male, the owner seemed to be very particular about his appearance and took great pains to cultivate his beard and hair to create a more masculine image.
Nevertheless, Tatsuya and company felt that the beard didn't suit him very well, but the scent of coffee more than compensated for that. Of course, all eight of them ordered coffee.
So you're appearing in the Thesis Competition."
While the water was on the broil, the owner inquired the reason why they hadn't frequented here recently and responded with an appropriately exaggerated nod.
"You're quite capable despite your Year 1 student status."
The owner's feelings weren't just idle talk to pass the time. Speaking of which, even though the owner didn't have any magic talent of his own, the very fact that he opened a store on the road to the magic high school implied that he knew a few details regarding the world of Magicians. Occasionally during their idle conversations, he could surprise Tatsuya and the others with news or trivia that they didn't know about before.
"It's Yokohama's turn to host the event this year, right? My old house is in Yokohama. The setting will be in the International Conference Center like usual, eh? That's quite close to my house."
The owner continued to speak as he used this opportunity to pour the coffee from the kettle into the mugs.
"Where's your old house in Yokohama?"
Mizuki asked this question as she took the coffee for four people from the owner on a tray in place of a waitress.
"There's a cafe called 'Rotterbart' halfway up the Yokohama Hills."
"So your old house is also a cafe."
"Indeed. If you get a chance, make sure you stop by. I would love to hear an unreserved opinion on who serves a better cup of coffee between my father and I."
"Owner, you're a heck of a salesman."
Shizuku returned the tray in place of Mizuki and offered a direct retort that caused both sides of the counter to burst into laughter.
By the time Tatsuya's mug was down to its last third, Erika had already drained her cup in one gulp and silently placed the mug back (a sign of excellent upbringing on her part) and rose to her feet.
"I need to use the restroom."
After replying to Mizuki, who had raised her head in question, she lightly walked towards the back of the store.
Afterwards, Leo immediately pressed a hand to his pocket and stood up.
"Sorry, phone call."
Leo stepped outside after dropping that line. "Mikihiko, what are you doing?"
Tatsuya's gaze returned from Leo's oddly polite behavior to rest on the notebook (more like a small journal) that lay open next to Mikihiko's hand.
"Uh, well, there's a few things I have to write down so I don't forget them."
As Mikihiko replied back, the hand holding a pen never stopped moving.
"You'll be discovered if your movement is too obvious, so make sure to dial it down."
After Tatsuya said this and swept a razor sharp glance behind Mikihiko's back — and not his surroundings — he kept his back to the counter and continued sipping his coffee like nothing happened.
◊ ◊ ◊
"Old man, want to have some fun?"
Even though this was an alley with sparse traffic, the man almost dropped the drink in his hand upon hearing these words before the sun had even set.
Turning around, he found a young girl with a ponytail that could be described as "beautiful" in a heartbeat standing at the intersection where he was keeping an eye on the cafe's backdoor. She kept both hands held behind her back as she smiled happily.
However, upon recognizing her face, the man became anxious for a wholly different reason.
"What are you talking about? You should be more careful with yourself."
"Ah? I just said 'have some fun'. What exactly did you take that for?"
The young girl continued to wear an innocent smile as she tilted her head to one side. There was no doubt about it, she was one of the people close to his surveillance target.
"Don't mock adults. Now stop messing around and go home."
He was mentally sweating buckets, so all he could do was put on his game face and continue to act like "an adult annoyed by a child's antics and about to leave".
"The sun is about to set. If you stay in a place with little traffic like this, you risk running into the phantom killer."
As he said this, the man turned his back on the young girl. Only to stop dead in his tracks.
"......By phantom killer, you mean someone like me?"
Directly in front of him, a bulky youth chuckled while smacking his fist that was covered with a black glove into his other hand that also wore a black glove.
"Didn't you know? Phantom killers refer to 'Magicians who just happen to be "passing through" '."
Within the young girl's happy reply to the young man, the man began to feel increasingly uneasy and turned around again.
The young girl wielded a retractable police baton and fell into a combat stance.
She smoothly raised the police baton in her hand, but that simplistic motion caused an overpowering pressure to resonate from the young woman in an instant.
If he had lowered his guard, that "pressure" would have sent the man to his knees......
From this, he knew what that was.
That was her fighting spirit.
Not killing intent, the wish to crush the life from one's opponent, but a pure desire to seek combat.
"Scary...... So you're the type of woman who only reveals her true nature in these kinds of places."
He heard a voice merrily commenting on the situation.
Despite his inability to verify the conditions behind him, he believed that the young man must have made this remark with a grin on his face.
There was no way for him to escape. If that was the case, the man decided he might as well call for help.
He possessed a modicum of ability.
Even if he wasn't the most talented individual, he didn't believe that he could be vanquished by fifteen or sixteen year olds.
Regardless, he was currently in the middle of an assignment, so he chose to avoid confrontations if possible, given that squaring off against them served no benefit towards his mission parameters.
"Wow~, how weak......"
"No, no, I think you should praise his decisive judgment, right?"
The action the man chose seemed to gravely disappoint the young girl.
But the young girl didn't let go of the police baton, nor did the young man drop his raised fists.
—Afterward, nobody came to answer the man's calls for help.
"Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that it's useless for you to call for help, OK? After all, no one drops by this area."
"More like no one can even approach. We've already set up a barrier around here with our 'understanding' as the foundation, so you're not leaving here without knocking us out, got it?"
Hearing the girl's words, the man finally realized that nobody had passed by since the start of their confrontation.
They found out.
He was out of options.
The man retrieved the cup he dropped earlier and drew to his full height.
Wearing a thin jacket, he raised his hands like he was protecting his head — which was what they thought until he suddenly turned towards Leo and dropped his left arm to a 90 degree angle at the height of his stomach.
"Hmph...... The boxing stance known as the Hitman Style? I thought you actually carried weapons of some sort......"
"You idiot, just because he didn't pull one out doesn't mean he's not carrying one!"
Hearing the warning (?) Erika threw out, the man clucked his tongue. Still, beyond that, he didn't appear to be overly anxious.
He didn't have any need to keep up pretenses. There was no time for that.
The cowardly middle-aged man who was just screaming had warped into an experienced fighter who was closing in on Leo.
His lowered arm whipped towards Leo and landed blows like rain falling to the earth.
The bullet-like punches came crashing towards Leo's face.
The continuous chain of attacks persisted without pause, which gave proof to the fact that this man was a wolf and not a sheep.
However, neither Leo nor Erika was surprised by this turnout.
Through Erika's insight developed through long years of training and Leo's natural instincts, they already detected that the man's real nature was that of a wolf, no, a highly-trained hunting hound.
With astonishing speed.
Matched with incredible power.
And most importantly, the ability to move at a speed that surpassed human physical abilities without a trace of magic usage.
He had launched dozens of punches in less than 10 seconds without leaving any room for retaliation, so Leo could only move his arms left and right to defend himself.
Finally, there was a chink in Leo's defenses and a fist bypassed Leo's defenses and crashed straight into his face.
Pow, with a sound of a rubber balloon bursting, Leo went flying backwards.
Without wasting any time to verify the result, the man immediately swiftly whirled around.
Using the centripetal force when turning around, he flung a flying dagger towards Erika.
Clang, the crisp sound of metallic impact.
Erika used her police baton to deflect the dagger.
Since she swung her police baton from inside to out, there was an opening in her forward defenses.
Without missing a beat, the man's left fist swung towards Erika's face. However, the police baton pulled back to defend at a speed that surpassed the man's fist, so he pulled back.
Not only did he pull back the punch, the man's entire body jumped backwards. —Yet, in the next instant.
The man's back took a direct hit from a powerful shoulder tackle and he went face first into the ground.
Ouch, that hurt. This guy isn't a normal human being. Still, I didn't feel any machinery during contact......
Maybe he's using medicinal enhancements?"
After applying a tackle from behind, Leo rubbed his chin where he took the hit and murmured at the man stretched out on the ground without letting down his guard.
"......You're in no position to talk. Just then, you definitely took a solid blow to the face."
Compared to the groaning man who was trying to find purchase with his hands, Erika seemed to be more wary of Leo as she said this.
"Of course. After all, as a Magician, a fourth of me is thanks to the research labs. I have no inclination to say that this is entirely due to my natural genes."
Leo chuckled wryly at Erika's piercing gaze and ruthlessly kicked at the prone man's limbs.
"Stay down. We don't want your life. We just want to know why you're following us around."
Leo spared a glance at Erika to find her utterly shocked at his barbaric behavior wholly unlike that of a normal person before raising a foot off the ground.
The implication was obvious.
Wait a second
...... I got it, I surrender......
Originally, I never...... was your enemy......
It's not worth...... getting killed over......"
"That's true. If it wasn't the two of us here, your attack would have killed us for sure."
"Aren't you...... the same......"
Coughing in between his words, the man sat up.
"If I hadn't strengthened my flesh, that hit would've ruptured my internal organs."
The pain must have largely passed, seeing as how the man still sat on the ground but was able to speak more fluently.
"If I didn't think you were enhanced, I wouldn't have done that in the first place."
Leo's tone wasn't concerned in the slightest.
"Regardless, since you're not our enemy, then give us the low down. You can't expect us to keep this barrier up forever."
"OK. It's not my intent to draw attention to myself anyways."
The man seemed to look past all this and sighed in relief.
"Start with your name, since you already know ours at this point."
The man answered Leo's question, but there was no way to tell if this was his true name or not.
"I am unable to reveal any details regarding my identity, but I can say that I am not affiliated with any government organization. That is all."
"So you're black ops."
Again, the man didn't affirm nor deny.
"......And then? Since you won't tell the truth even if we asked, then why don't you talk about your purpose as well as the current situation?"
"My task is to monitor the magic high school students and prevent cutting edge magic technology from falling into the hands of the East. I am to take action in the event that magic technology that could constitute a military threat is leaked to the East."
At Leo's impatient urging, the man who called himself Jiro replied back in a business-like manner.
The East was a term favored by USNA intelligence agents and military personnel after the last great war. Even Leo and Erika were familiar with knowledge on that level.
That being said, this did not prove the man's connection with the USNA intelligence community. In order to confuse his affiliation, he may have intentionally used terms specific to a certain region.
"At the very least, your employer isn't someone in this country, right? Why bother with all this?"
Hearing the skeptical implication behind Leo's words, the man shook his head like he was saying "Seriously......".
"And here I thought this country's peaceful naiveté had been cured, though I guess I can't apply the same standard to teenagers......
Military balance across the globe isn't just one country's problem. If this country's technical expertise was handed to the East, then the West's technological advantage may be lost. Regardless of whether it's the New Soviet Union whose interest lies in improving existing Magic Sequences or the Pan Asian Alliance who emphasizes restoration of old magics over advancing modern magic, everyone is searching for new practical applications of technology in magic engineering for military purposes. Not just this country, but the USNA and the nations of Western Europe have seen large increases in spies that target magic engineering. Even your school has become the target of the East as well."
"Peaceful naiveté is an old term from decades ago, and if you really wanted to creepy peeper then you should be more cautious. Didn't we easily discover that you were following us?"
Irritated by the man's smug attitude, Erika ruthlessly attacked the man, but she didn't object to the actual contents of the man's message.
"Exactly. I'm not a spy, I'm just tasked with stopping their activities. Since I'm not your enemy, there's no conflict of interest here."
The man stood up and made a show of brushing off the dirt.
Mockingly — in reality, sarcasm probably made up 30% — the man delicately brushed his pant leg before straightening up.
In his hand was a pistol that could easily be hidden in the palm of his hand. The muzzle was pointed at Erika.
"The fact that I didn't pull this out earlier is proof that I'm not an enemy."
"......Things might get a little hairy if you used a gun. Lots of evidence will be left behind."
At Erika's furious words, the man smiled meaningfully.
"That's true as well. Next, I've said everything that needs to be said, so allow me to bid adieu. May I trouble you to alert your companions to take down the barrier?"
Despite his bantering tone and attitude, there were no weaknesses to exploit in his stance. It would be suicidal for Erika and Leo to press the issue here.
With the advancements in CADs, modern magic could achieve speeds that rivaled firearms on some level. Still, this didn't mean that they were "faster than guns", nor were they even "as fast as guns". When compared to firearms that could fire bullets that pass through the human body with the click of a trigger, modern magic still had to go through the process of reading the Activation Sequence and constructing the Magic Sequence. Though magic had more versatility than firearms, possessed superior firepower and could even provide cover against bullets, that was only under the condition that the speed differential wasn't a problem. When faced with the situation that one bullet could be fatal or render someone unable to keep fighting, "a speed differential on some level" became the difference between victory and defeat. And that was the situation they were faced with right now.
Mikihiko was probably monitoring the situation here with magic the entire time. Before Erika and Leo could reply, Mikihiko already disabled the barrier.
"—And thus I bid you farewell. Oh yes. Allow me to give you two one final suggestion. Please convey to your companions to be wary of their surroundings at all times. Even on campus, don't let down your guard."
As he said this, the man removed a small canister from his coat pocket.
After pressing a button on the canister, he threw it into the middle of the triangle that the three of them formed.
Erika and Leo both leaped backwards at the same time.
With a small explosion, a dense, white smoke rapidly spread outwards.
The two of them closed their eyes and covered their mouths and only opened them after judging that there was no poison involved. By that time, the man who called himself Jiro Marshall had long gone.
◊ ◊ ◊
At the Rotterbart Cafe in the Yokohama Hills, Inspector Chiba and Fujibayashi were still deep in their conversation. Something had piqued Fujibayashi's fancy, causing her to chatter on to the point that Chiba never had an opportunity to get down to business with the owner. Still, owing to Fujibayashi's skillful verbatim, Chiba was highly invested in the conversation as well. On some level, Chiba didn't feel that speaking with her interfered with the investigation, but his partner Inagaki certainly didn't seem nearly as interested.
Just as Chiba was about to completely forget the reason why he came here, Fujibayashi's cellphone rang. Despite the sound not being loud enough to disrupt anyone else, Chiba still heard it from his seat next to her.
Fujibayashi pulled a smartphone from her bag and glanced at the subject heading. After perusing the message, she turned around and flashed Chiba a secret smile. That smile perfectly displayed her dazzling features that simply put her ordinary makeup to shame.
Chiba's pulse spiked to a rate wholly unbefitting of his age. "My apologies, Inspector, may I take my leave for a moment?"
Even though Fujibayashi's eyes never hinted at any ulterior motive or hidden meaning, Chiba was immediately able to grasp that Fujibayashi had work to attend to.
"—Oh, of course, by all means."
She rose from her seat and nodded in greeting to Chiba, passed her credit card to the owner and left for her electric car that was in the parking lot.
Taking a seat behind the wheel, Fujibayashi switched the smartphone display over to the dashboard screen.
Cars that had adopted the palm pilot control schematic had no need for steering wheels. This was a natural course of events for a system that incorporated acceleration, deceleration, and directional control entirely. The palm pilot control schematic was used to create a more direct driving experience and especially to avoid blind spots by switching the traditional dashboard for a varied control panel (such as a larger display monitor with multiple functions). With a few extra modifications in place, technological prowess in the car could match that of a workstation at home.
However, Fujibayashi's personal vehicle was equipped with a system a level, maybe several levels higher. Although this was a small two seat sports car, it had the same processing power as that of a combat command vehicle. Equipped with a highly sensitive and powerful communication device, whenever Fujibayashi added her magic to the mix, the sheer electronic warfare capabilities at its disposal certainly deserved the title "Electronic Combat Vehicle".
"Looks like Tatsuya's friends ran into a little bit of trouble."
She wasn't unconsciously murmuring to herself, but using that specific term to target her magic. By using Tatsuya's "connections" as markers, she was overlapping the information dimension with the electronic intelligence network.
"Yoshida Mikihiko, the one-time prodigy of the Yoshida Family. Even though there's some degree of improvement since his adolescent years, I still wish he would pay more attention on the streets."
Names are a symbol of the actual body, so once the name was spoken, then one could home in on the actual body. Closely related individuals, essentially people who are closer on a mental scale, can be used as markers for magic by setting their movement, status, and names as specific variables.
"Even Ancient Magic will leave traces in the observation system."
Compared to modern magic, Ancient Magic, especially SB Magic, was much more difficult to capture by the cameras of the observation system. The difficulty wasn't that it was harder to catch the magic being invoked since the cameras would still record it, but determining who was the one wielding the magic in the first place. The emergency mission that Fujibayashi was currently tasked with was to overwrite the areas where the magic was recorded.
Even though erasing recordings for the improper use of magic wasn't within Fujibayashi's job description, she knew very well that it was integral that the people surrounding Tatsuya didn't stand out too much. If there were too many flags being raised, the prey would be on guard and no longer continue its pursuit. In other words, Kazama and company were using Tatsuya as bait— (—On that point, I doubt you would mind.)
With these words in mind, the "Electron Sorceress" activated her unique ability.
◊ ◊ ◊
The operative from an unknown country called Jiro Marshall stopped running after using his enhanced legs to run the distance between bus stops. He stopped running at such a dangerous speed that would draw attention to himself not because he judged it to be safe.
Actually, it was the exact opposite.
Even though he was running at a pace that no one could match no matter how hard they trained, something was continuously following behind him. He hadn't verified what that "something" was, but Jiro Marshall was strongly suspicious whether that "something" was even human.
There was no need to check whether it was the pair of teenagers from before. He was not a moron who allowed his opponents who he was in a standoff with to follow him without his knowledge. Regardless of whether his pursuer was a Magician or an enhanced human being, the likeliest possibility was that this was an enemy. As a solo operative, Marshall didn't have a team for this mission. Even if he received unexpected reinforcements, he would still receive a message ahead of time to avoid friendly fire. However, since the start of this mission, he never received any intel of this sort.
(—Where are you hiding?)
Marshall slightly lowered his head to concentrate on listening and, using his extensive expertise, searched for the "aura" that was the most critical aspect of three dimensional sound. There was no way he could fail to detect the man following, no, pursuing him. Even if that guy was hidden, he should still be able to find him, Marshall thought.
Unfortunately, his prediction was entirely incorrect.
Suddenly detecting an unexpected "aura", Jiro Marshall abruptly raised his head.
Directly in front of him, a young man stood there in silence.
Just now, he realized that any noise in front of him had been entirely muffled. Marshall was only able to physically detect the danger thanks to his instincts.
The man was exceptionally tall and well built, but his figure was East Asian. He wore a plain grab that consisted of a pair of gray sports pants and a gray jacket with a black jersey beneath. His features were not particularly eye-catching or ugly. From appearances, he was undoubtedly human — but Marshall had the inkling he was squaring off against a man eating beast.
Seeing the young man's face, Marshall suddenly recalled where he knew him.
"The Devouring Tiger!"
In reality, it wasn't that they had met before, since this was the first time he saw the man face to face.
The name of his opponent that unconsciously slipped from his lips headed the list of targets that he had to watch out for during his mission briefing. Rumored to be the one credited with the highest number of kills in melee combat from the Pan Asian Alliance, he was an S-ranked individual from the Pan Asian Alliance special Ops.
By the time Marshall recovered his wits, he had already raised his right hand to aim the gun at Lu Gonghu. Born of reflex honed by countless hours of training, Marshall's body had long since surpassed his mental facilities.
However, Marshall's finger never clicked the trigger.
Faster than even his reflexes, Lu Gonghu's fingers already pierced Marshall's wrist. The inside of his wrist pierced by the other man's thumb, the handgun slipped from Marshall's hand to the ground.
Marshall could only blankly watch his handgun fall to the earth.
When was his wrist pierced? No, speaking of which, when did Lu Gonghu stand right next to him?
Marshall never caught a glimpse of Lu Gonghu's movement.
As Marshall's consciousness was wallowing in the pain that overwhelmed his surprise, his life had already fallen into eternal darkness.
Lu Gonghu swiftly retracted his right hand from where it was embedded in Marshall's throat.
Even though his fingers were stained blood red, very little blood escaped from the wound.
Using his left hand that was free of any blood, Lu Gonghu removed a stack of paper from his chest pocket and carefully wiped away the bloodstains on his right hand.
Afterwards, he flung the papers soaked in Marshall's blood onto the corpse. During the descent, the paper spread out to a handkerchief's size and fell onto Marshall's corpse.
The blood soaked paper suddenly ignited into flames that were redder than blood. The flames started from the center of the paper and spread outwards in a circular fashion.
Nothing existed within the inside of the circle. No matter if it was the ashes from the burnt paper, the clothes that covered the corpse, or even flesh, nothing remained.
After the flames consumed the paper, they began spreading across the corpse.
And so, the circular flames completely devoured the corpse. Seeing the corpse vanish, Lu Gonghu turned to leave.
There was nary a human presence at the scene. Regardless of whether it was voices or footsteps, there was no trace that someone had ever been there.
The only thing that witnessed this scene was the broken camera that swayed near the intersection.