During lunch break, the student cafeteria at magic high school differed a little from a normal high school or even a middle school (which may be because institutions for upper class education for children were all the same).
It was filled with disorderly chaos and noise. Yet, there was a pocket of order within this chaos.
The area around the entrance of the cafeteria suddenly stilled, an atmosphere centered entirely around one person.
In the open student cafeteria, the one who possessed the ability to influence the atmosphere of a single area — or the ability to dominate
—was none other than Miyuki, who was putting her beauty on display more often these days.
Completely heedless of the gazes tossed her way by those she passed by, Miyuki directly advanced towards the table where Tatsuya was waiting.
"Onii-sama, I apologize for making you wait so long."
Tatsuya smiled and waved his hand at Miyuki's impeccable etiquette. Behind Miyuki, Honoka nervously dipped her head in greeting while Shizuku gave an imperceptible nod that would easily have been missed if he hadn't been paying attention.
Tatsuya's group would get the table first, followed by Miyuki's group meeting up with them. This format wasn't something decided ahead of time, as the reverse was also a frequent occurrence at a roughly 6:4 ratio.
However, Miyuki almost never failed to join Tatsuya wherever he was.
"Ah, Miyuki. You're here."
"Yes, we just arrived, Mizuki."
As if on cue, Mizuki and Mikihiko returned with their meals. "Then, I'll go get mine."
Switching places with Mizuki and Mikihiko, Tatsuya stood up and visually urged them "let's go".
Leading three beautiful young ladies towards the buffet area, Tatsuya was subjected to an entirely different sort of stare than Miyuki received.
By the time the four of them returned, the only two people to greet them were Mizuki and Mikihiko.
"Erika and Saijou are still practicing?"
Since she didn't see the two of them, Honoka asked with concern. Still, she wasn't particularly worried, since it's not like everyone was always present during lunch. For example, these past couple of days Tatsuya was busy working on the stage devices (making system adjustments would be more accurate), so he didn't frequent the cafeteria (Miyuki naturally followed Tatsuya).
On some level, based on the relaxed format of modern education, it was quite normal for students to have individual plans after instruction was over.
Honoka's question was synonymous to saying "we have fine weather today", and was only meant to be a conversation starter. —However.
"Ah, those two are probably resting today."
Tatsuya's thoroughly unexpected answer caused a flash of excitement to spark in Honoka's eyes.
"Ah, the two of them together?"
"The two of them together."
Honoka's expectant eyes quickly discerned Tatsuya seemed to misunderstand her words at some point.
Following that, she revealed a mischievous smile and intentionally modified her speaking pattern with a lofty air.
"It might not be an accident, right?"
Shizuku tilted her head and murmured to herself. Despite her easy- going tone, her eyes were also very excited.
"Eh, is that how it is!?"
"Mizuki, even if you asked me, there is no way I would know."
At Mizuki's wide-eyed question, Miyuki could only reply with a wry smile. As Mizuki was in the same class and Miyuki wasn't, Miyuki's response was only to be expected.
"Ah, you're right."
A bemused Mizuki used her eyes to search for a target who would have the answer.
"Eh? No, I don't think there's anything special about that."
The four women seemed to be in cahoots as all their eyes fell on Mikihiko, who frantically replied back.
"Speaking of which, the two of them went home together yesterday." And then, Tatsuya threw even more fuel onto the fire.
Wow, Really, Ah, amid the frenzy their friends went into, Miyuki watched her brother with a gentle gaze.
Did you accumulate too much stress? That gaze seemed to ask, but Tatsuya pretended not to see her and turned his head.
"But why would Erika-chan and Leo-kun suddenly need to rest?"
"Indeed. Since it's these two we're talking about, they wouldn't just suddenly fall sick."
After everyone finished eating their meals and proceeded to the after meal tea time, "the two of them resting together" once more ignited their passions.
"I think we're getting worked up over nothing. Still, at least until yesterday, the two of them showed no signs of any abnormalities."
Mikihiko and Tatsuya both arrived at the conclusion that "it's not an illness".
"Of course, there is still an outside chance that is true."
Though Honoka was the one who spoke to Tatsuya, the one who answered her was Shizuku.
"There's also the chance that this isn't a coincidence."
"That's also true."
Probability bounced off probability and Honoka's conversation partner changed from Tatsuya to Shizuku.
"Now that you mention it, if 'not coincidental', would the two of them be engaged in such close behavior?"
"I don't think that's strange even if it did happen, but......"
"Hm, yeah, I think so too."
Shizuku's gaze inquired "what do you think" from Mizuki, hence she hurriedly expressed her agreement.
"But, if the two of them are together right now, what are they doing?"
Hearing Miyuki say this with a gentle tilt of her head, Mizuki and Mikihiko blushed one after the other.
"You two, what are you thinking of?"
"No, no, nothing at all."
"Y-Yes! Nothing at all!"
"Well, forget it."
At their blatantly obvious reactions, Miyuki sighed and turned her eyes back to her brother.
"Well, looks like both of them are thinking of the same thing. Even though there's no evidence in this area, but maybe Leo has his sights on Erika."
Tatsuya joked with a wink. "Haha, that might be possible." Miyuki's lips also curled into a smile.
◊ ◊ ◊
Tatsuya's abilities did not include the "All Seeing Eye". Still, he was capable of similar feats.
Just as magic isn't affected by physical distance, sensory abilities through the information dimension are not affected by physical proximity either. So long as the target has been locked on through the information dimension, one could "see" the target no matter how far away they were. For example, a powerful telescope could see the moon's surface, and if it could home onto a lunar landing vehicle, then one would be able to see the status of that vehicle on the moon's surface (in reality, such a powerful telescope does not exist).
However, at this moment, it was pure coincidence that he wasn't secretly watching what Erika and Leo were doing.
"Hey, you're distracted again!"
Erika scolded her opponent who knelt at her feet holding his head.
"~~That hurt...... I've said this enough times! Use your mouth before using your hand! What do you think language is used for!"
"That's because you wouldn't understand even if I said it."
"Don't think for a second that socking me would make it sink in." And so, Leo's objection slowly lost steam until he finally gave up.
This was partially because he was being taught and had no basis for resistance, but the main reason was the defeatist air surrounding his repeated failures.
"That's true. Let's take a break."
Yet Erika never felt that Leo was incompetent. She likely knew very well how hard it was to learn a new technique.
Erika gave a lukewarm bottle of water to Leo, who had just flopped down on the dojo floor, before standing before him in her kendo uniform.
"You were able to do this when wearing that cloak......
So the situation is that different?"
Erika unconsciously mentioned this aloud, but Leo frowned in displeasure upon hearing this.
"You mean during the Nine Schools Competition?"
No matter the result, his outward appearance was something that Leo desperately wanted to forget. Still, since this had something to do with the technique he was learning, he couldn't just pretend to have forgotten.
"At the time, the cloak wasn't straight like a metal plate, nor did the creases affect its ability to serve as a shield. Looks like some sort of assistance magic was incorporated into the fabric."
Erika maintained her sitting position and rubbed her chin with her fingers.
"Hm~, while we can also add assistance magic spells, it would still be far faster to ask Tatsuya."
"No, don't do that."
Leo shook his head at the words that slipped from Erika's mouth.
"This time, if we bothered Tatsuya then the entire thing becomes pointless. If casting assistance magic is all that's necessary, then let me invoke that spell."
"How manly." Erika chuckled.
This unexpectedly brilliant smile forced Leo to avert his gaze.
◊ ◊ ◊
Today was Saturday, but school was still in session. Magic high schools haven't adopted the two days off per week format.
Even though he still had to attend class (including practical skills) today, Tatsuya still visited Yakumo's temple. He even had Miyuki in tow today.
Actually, he had been invited by Yakumo to test the renovated "long range ki attack" training grounds.
There were very few locations to train magic shooting with live ammunition. Especially for someone who couldn't use training facilities on campus like Tatsuya ("Mist Dispersal" was definitely out of the question on campus), it would be optimal if he found a local area for shooting practice without heading all the way out to Tsuchiura.
Though Miyuki was different than her brother in that she didn't have to hide her abilities, the campus practice facilities for students and clubs didn't allow her to bring her full might to bear. In addition, the magic she excelled in was closer to wide-area magic rather than targeted sniping. Since she usually lacked a venue or time for shooting practice, Tatsuya pulled her along saying that "this is an excellent opportunity".
The training area was set underground, beneath the main hall for the temple, and occupied quite a large area.
They should say as expected of Yakumo's temple, as the secret training area used by ninjas was vastly different than their school's facilities.
Refusing to admit defeat, sweat streamed down Miyuki's face as she was breathing hoarsely.
Having rolled several times, her neat hair had become unkempt. This was a square-shaped area.
Three of the four walls and the ceiling had numerous holes where targets came out. (They weren't on all four walls because there were very few actual conditions where one was completely surrounded by the enemy. In an actual fight, one should have retreated long before this occurred.)
Each time, dozens of targets would appear, only to hide themselves after one second.
Just trying to take all of them out was a chore by itself, and there was even a devious condition that any remaining targets would retaliate with shots of their own.
Although Miyuki managed to block all the merciless retaliatory shots, there were still multiple instances where she fell down trying to switch between offense and defense.
"OK, let's stop there!"
At the time Yakumo gave the signal to stop the training device, Miyuki couldn't help but powerlessly sit on the floor. The training difficulty appeared to be set a tad too high.
"Ah, Onii-sama, I'm sorry."
Miyuki hurriedly took the towel Tatsuya handed to her.
After handing her the towel, Tatsuya used his other hand to clasp his sister's hand and gently pulled her graceful figure to her feet.
"Ah, thank you very much."
"You appear uninjured."
After taking a look at his sister standing there in a thin training shirt and pants that fell to her knees, Tatsuya smiled as he spoke to his sister, who was getting her breathing back under control.
Miyuki's flushed visage wasn't entirely caused by her recent strenuous activity, though did Tatsuya manage to notice that?
Of course, there was no answer to that question.
Nodding his head at his sister's concise answer of "I'm fine", Tatsuya walked towards the center of the platform.
Miyuki wasn't displeased by this aloof attitude. They didn't come here to play around.
If she caused her brother to be unduly worried on her behalf, then she was doing him a disservice.
Of course, such a thing would never happen.
As Tatsuya lightly paced forward, he drew his favored CAD before his chest.
He bent his elbow and adopted a ready position.
Without waiting for Miyuki to leave the platform, the training session began without any signal given.
Three of the walls sent out orb-shaped targets.
They were immediately disintegrated the moment they appeared. Tatsuya reached out his right arm and adopted a shooting position.
He only squeezed the trigger — pressed down on the CAD button only once.
Twelve targets were decomposed just like that.
Not missing a beat, targets shot out of the ceiling and the walls. This time there were twenty four.
Tatsuya didn't aim at any individual target and merely squeezed the CAD's trigger. Then, he dashed aside to avoid the powdery debris.
As he turned, he raised his right arm upwards and pressed the trigger.
Like they were trying to replace the gaps formed by the ruined orbs, swarms of orbs repeatedly materialized.
Twice, thrice, he continued to squeeze the trigger time and again.
However, even when all the targets had been exhausted, not a single retaliatory shot was fired.
"Onii-sama, that was amazing!"
After the device came to a halt, Miyuki fairly flew towards where Tatsuya lowered his CAD.
"Seriously, a complete victory. Is even that level of difficulty not enough?"
Yakumo followed behind with a bitter expression on his face. Tatsuya smiled in response to Miyuki and moved towards Yakumo.
"This is my area of expertise after all, but even then it was still a stretch. Who came up with this devious layout that takes advantage of the blind spots?"
"I got the design from Kazama-kun."
"I see, so this is Sanada's work."
Thinking of the technology officer with the candid smile who was one of the wiliest within the Independent Magic-Equipped Battalion, Tatsuya murmured quietly.
As Yakumo's face relaxed to hide his "so you know" reaction, Miyuki stepped between the two.
"Speaking of which, Onii-sama, when could you handle 36 targets at the same time?"
These words weren't out of concern for her brother but more because she couldn't contain her excitement.
"I remember that 24 was your limit three months ago."
Miyuki was referring to the number of targets that could be sniped by magic at the same time. Even though the Specialized CAD was shaped like a handgun, that did not mean the magic was fired from the muzzle. If this was a Generalized CAD, it might not even be in the shape of a gun.
Modern magic in the form of the Four Great Systems and Eight Major Types relied on Eidos manipulation of the chosen target rather than using magic bullets to shoot at a target. Thus, so long as one could focus on the targeted phenomenon, it was possible to target multiple instances of the same phenomenon.
To accomplish this, each of the replicated targets needed to be defined and considered simultaneously.
Rather than lumping all the targets together and identifying all the phenomena together and changing them at once, magic needed to be applied to each individual target, so it was necessary to identify the subtle differences between each of them.
If the number of the targets was only one digit, then anyone could accomplish this with sufficient training. Anything above that was the realm where qualities other than magic were required, as even adding one target became incredibly difficult.
Miyuki's eyes shone brilliantly. Needless to say, this was her bro-con personality on full throttle.
However, Tatsuya only laughed and shook his head at his sister's question.
"No, although this opponent does actually retaliate, it is more like they were set to wait to retaliate. In live combat without any breaks in between, currently 24 is already my limit."
"Please don't be so humble. Even if that's the case, even with the training set towards waiting to retaliate, I can only manage 16 at a time. Onii-sama is truly amazing!"
"Hey, flattery won't get anything from me. You are capable of using magic at a wider scale than I can, and if you weren't constantly keeping an eye on me, you would be able to do this too. In terms of defense, you are far ahead of me, aren't you?"
"In that case, can't Onii-sama reach even farther than I can by increasing the level of interference?"
Yakumo's wry laughter cut through their enigmatic conversation. "Hey, you two remember that the walls have ears, right?"
The two of them shared embarrassed expressions, then exchanged knowing smiles.
Afterwards, the siblings left the training grounds in the basement and came to the corridor where Yakumo's room was.
Yakumo was undoubtedly the one who led them here. Even though Yakumo claimed that he would bring them tea after training, the very fact that they were in his private quarters rather than the main hall hinted that this odd gesture entailed something special, Tatsuya thought.
"You two still have to go to school, so I'll keep this short."
After bringing tea for three, Yakumo sat next to Tatsuya and cut to the heart of the matter.
"It appears you have received quite a special item."
While there was no way to confirm that the "special item" Yakumo spoke of was the Magatama, he wasn't overly surprised or astonished. There was no way one could associate with Yakumo if they were shocked by comments on such a level.
"Are you talking about the item placed in my care?"
Tatsuya frankly and directly confirmed that he possessed the item Yakumo spoke of. There was no point in trying to play fast and loose with Yakumo, something that Tatsuya had learned through long experience. Likewise, Tatsuya also knew that Yakumo did not favor individuals who engaged in pointless conversation to discover other people's secrets.
"If that is the case, I advise you to return that as quickly as possible. If you must hold onto it, store it somewhere other than your home."
Although Tatsuya knew that Yakumo would warn him, the seriousness in Yakumo's voice surpassed his expectations. Surprise and anxiety welled up inside his body and he couldn't help but straighten his body in front of Yakumo.
"There's no sign that someone is on to us."
Tatsuya's comment contained the subtle inquiry "Is someone spying on us?". Since he received a painful (physical) lesson during the Sayuri incident, he had begun to prudently monitor the auras around him recently. However, excluding a few minor incidents, at least no major threat like Yakumo hinted at had materialized yet.
"That's because they're being very cautious and not because they're lacking in talent."
Yakumo's reply not only served as a warning to their opponent's capabilities, it also hinted that he was on their trail.
"Who are they...... I suppose it would be pointless for me to even ask."
"Not entirely pointless."
Yakumo's response was entirely theatrical, but Tatsuya did not fret.
On the other side, Yakumo saw that Tatsuya didn't take the bait, so he slowly went with the hook "Hm, in that case......"
"I'll give you another piece of advice, if the enemy appears before you, be very wary of their bearing."
The one who asked in surprise was Miyuki.
Tatsuya was also curious as to the answer of that question, so he wordlessly glanced at Yakumo.
"The price will be considerably higher if you want to ask more questions."
Yet Yakumo didn't answer Miyuki's question.
◊ ◊ ◊
There were 8 days until the Thesis Competition.
The support level for the live demonstration on stage had practically reached full mobilization for the school.
There were people in charge of creating the components for the device, people acting out the stage performance, people serving as the audience, people who directed transportation and handed out lunchboxes, anyone in the indoor camp who couldn't appear in the Nine Schools Competition was there putting their talents to full use.
On the other hand, athletic students also had their own mission to accomplish and were also giving it their all. Even the core members who usually didn't have to prepare were sweating it out in practice just in case they were needed.
There was an outdoor training facility standing on the remodeled hill next to the school. Magic high schools were not military or police training academies, but there was still a considerable amount of people who progressed in that direction, hence the need for both indoor and outdoor facilities.
Within this artificial forest, Mikihiko hid his presence and watched the upperclassman who was his training partner.
He was hidden within the shadows of the trees, but his opponent stood exposed in the middle of open terrain. Just and honorable, that description fit him perfectly. He was able to intimidate Mikihiko without even looking in this direction.
His training opponent was the Club Activities Group Leader, Juumonji Katsuto.
During this Thesis Competition, Katsuto served as the supreme commander for all security personnel from the nine schools. Since he was to work alongside representatives from other schools, he needed to practice leading from the front in order to inspire the other students selected as security personnel and bolster their morale.
Mikihiko was selected as his opponent largely due to his outstanding performance during the Nine Schools Competition.
However, he wasn't Katsuto's only training opponent.
In the beginning, there were ten against one. Thirty minutes later, seven had already been defeated.
Mikihiko had already launched several long range attacks, but even though he hadn't received a single attack yet, he was already covered in sweat.
And cold sweat to boot. (Too anxious, eh.)
When he heard that he had been selected as a training opponent, he almost leaped for joy. A Year 1 student, and a Course 2 student too, who had not joined any magic competition club would have found it nearly impossible to beg for the opportunity to serve as the training partner for the Juumonji Family's next heir.
Not only did he nod in thanks to Sawaki, who brought the news, he also vigorously bowed.
Of course, he knew very well that he couldn't stand on an equal footing with Katsuto. Thus, he planned to give this his all and learn from this experience.
(Relax. This is mock combat.)
From the very start, Mikihiko constantly reminded himself of that.
Katsuto was holding back. None of the seven defeated individuals suffered serious injury. Even with that in mind, Mikihiko was almost crushed by the pressure Katsuto was exerting.
This wasn't because Mikihiko felt that he was weak, but because he felt the overwhelming pressure radiating from Katsuto. Three minutes ago, a Year 1 student from the Hundred Families panicked in the face of that pressure and was defeated after recklessly attacking.
Without noticing it, Mikihiko's breath became ragged. The sound of his breathing had risen in volume until it was easily discernible.
He quickly noticed this problem and hurriedly hushed himself. Only two or three sounds escaped during that interval.
Even indoors, this was a volume that would not travel more than 1 meter out.
Despite that, Katsuto's eyes truly drifted towards the trees where Mikihiko was hiding himself.
Cold sweat ran down Mikihiko's back again. Slowing modulating his breathing, Mikihiko concentrated everything on his sight and hearing.
He didn't have the courage to use magic to find out. Even if his opponent knew where he was, he didn't have audacity to announce himself unless his opponent directly saw his face.
He used his ears to carefully discern the air flow.
Through the fabric of his pants, he could feel the slight vibrations in the earth through his knees, but this wasn't enough.
He used his eyes to read the slight fluctuations that wouldn't disrupt the air flow, his nose and tongue to taste the changes in the chemical ratio within the air itself.
Mikihiko raised his five senses and combined that with his sixth sense to get an accurate reading of the situation.
Betraying neither a hint of anxiety nor extreme caution, Katsuto steadily advanced to Mikihiko's location.
(Three, two, one, now!)
Mentally counting down, Mikihiko pressed his right hand into the earth.
He transmitted the signal down the line and pumped psions into the magic formation.
The conditionally activated magic that he planted before hiding in the shade activated upon receiving the psion surge from the caster.
In order to hold Katsuto, four pillars of earth erupted around him. These pillars were to his southeast, southwest, northwest, and northeast; they were the perfect positions for the four gates of earth, man, heaven, and demon.
In the next instant, the circular area where Katsuto was standing suddenly sank into the ground.
Ancient Magic "Earth Pit".
This was not a technique that concealed himself within the embrace of the earth, but a spell that plummeted the enemy into an earthen tunnel, disrupting the senses and hampering movement to buy time to escape.
Against an inferior opponent, this would be sufficient to completely restrict their movement and capture them. However, Mikihiko wasn't optimistic enough to believe that he could achieve anything beyond buying time with Juumonji as his opponent. Mikihiko wasn't self- delusional about his own abilities.
Without wasting time to verify the effects of the invoked magic, Mikihiko fled at full speed.
Which was the correct judgment.
After the dust cloud passed, a pile of dirt stood within the round chasm in the earth, and Katsuto could be seen standing there without a speck of dust on him.
His barrier had completely blocked the attack that used the earth as a medium.
Still, it was also true that he lost visual on his fleeing opponent.
Katsuto smiled slightly and used his barrier's reverse reaction to slightly float up and return to the surface.
In order to prevent accidents and provide medical assistance, there were people manning the indoor and outdoor observation cameras during magic mock battles.
Watching the monitor, Mari sighed.
The fact that he could survive this long as a Year 1 student was a testament to Mikihiko's abilities.
His superlative ability that surpassed the boundary between Course 1 and 2 students had already been proven during the Nine Schools Competition.
Yet, seeing him in live combat again, it was easy to see that the effects of his unique way of applying magic far exceeded expectations.
"He possesses a different caliber of talent than Tatsuya-kun. We have a lot of interesting students in this year's batch."
Mari's lips curled upwards at Mayumi's words.
"If we had to separate them out, how ironic that the more interesting ones are Course 2 students."
Hearing this, Mayumi revealed a sour smile.
"That's incorrect, Mari. In terms of combined skills, the number of talented Course 1 students is still higher. We're getting this impression only because there are several unique ability users who are particularly conspicuous."
Mayumi's explanation was right on the dot, prompting Mari's nod with an air of "I see". Then she once more directed her gaze to the monitor.
"Still, that guy is undeniably more 'useful' than the other Year 1 students. Nicely put, birds of a feather flock together."
"With the experiences from the Nine Schools Competition under his belt, even the teachers have remarked on Yoshida-kun's massive improvement. I wish that sort of positive influence continues to spread."
"That guy isn't the type to exhibit leadership qualities."
"If I had to say, he's the type that mass produces enemies."
On the monitor next to where Mari and Mayumi were exchanging wry smiles, Mikihiko had been forced into a corner and was making his last stand.
◊ ◊ ◊
In the dojo that belonged to the Hundred Family's "Magic Swordsman" Chiba Family, Leo also directly came here today instead of going to school. Including the small break for lunch, Leo spent six hours sweating and swinging a bokken. The bokken he was swinging had a metal core and even the usual swordsman could only use it for three continuous hours. Even Erika, who was usually highly critical towards him, could express her amazement at Leo's incredible physical stamina and mental concentration.
"OK, let's stop."
Leo halted his hands at Erika's signal and let out a deep breath. He accepted the towel Erika offered him and mopped at his sweat.
"You're really going at it despite having no experience with swordsmanship."
Her words were not gentle, but Erika's tone didn't carry her usual teasing tone and was purely an expression of her opinion.
Although Leo understood this very well, he still shrugged his shoulders and answered in his usual cursory manner.
"Compared to everyone here I'm definitely rated as a newcomer. Even if I haven't swung a sword, normal club activities often use ice picks and clamps."
"Ice picks I understand, but clamps? ......
What the heck is the
Mountaineering Club doing?"
"On that point, I don't find anything particularly odd.......
From an endurance perspective, I suppose both sides are equal."
Just as he said, Erika wasn't just standing there watching Leo swing a sword. She stood opposite Leo and swung a sword to demonstrate the motion. Leo was watching Erika's motions and doing his best to replicate hers.
"My bokken is lighter, and I would quickly give up if I was swinging the same thing you are."
Erika tossed the bokken she was using to Leo as she said this.
Frantically catching the bokken Erika suddenly tossed to him, Leo used one hand to lightly swing the blade to check its weight. A befuddled expression spread across his face.
"It really is light......
However, being too light makes it difficult to wield with two hands."
"There's a method behind the madness."
Erika's response was neither humble nor cute as she used a hand to wipe away at the sweat on her face. Owing to the heat, she tugged the collar of her kendo uniform to fan some air. Even though her undergarments and flesh weren't visible, Leo still turned his face in another direction.
Since he paid extra heed to avoid Erika's detection, even if she saw Leo's suspicious behavior, she wasn't embarrassed in the slightest. The two of them had been classmates for over half a year, so Erika knew that although Leo was a youth with a brusque appearance, he actually had a surprisingly innocent and stubborn streak. In Erika's estimation, even if the women's changing room hadn't been latched completely and left a crack, Leo was the type that wouldn't take a peek even if he was alone. That being said, Erika was still irked by Leo's attitude when he obviously averted his gaze.
"......Where the heck are you looking!?"
Leo faltered at Erika's displeased gaze and question. "Ah, n-nothing, I didn't see anything!"
Leo's panicky state only served to compound Erika's embarrassment. She was still a pure maiden at heart.
"I know you didn't see anything! What I'm telling you is to not glance all over the place with no reason!"
"Oh, err, sorry."
An awkward silence occupied the space between the two of them. Nevertheless, Erika wasn't the kind of person to be hesitant with words.
"......Let's start the next training phase."
Under Erika's hawkish gaze, Leo didn't look overly harried and managed to relax.
"It's about time to practice slashing the straw dummies."
"Correct, come over here."
Erika led him to the next room where a network of straw bundles awaited them. This room was set up to accurately reflect the impact of the blade depending on stabbing or how the blade made connection. In order to maximize the realism behind each swing, there was no way to bring out its full potential without this setup. These conditions were integral in order to teach Leo the technique "Usuba Kagerou".
"Here, this is a real sword, so be careful."
This time there was no way she was going to toss it, so Erika held the center of the hilt and handed the drawn sword to Leo.
Using his right hand to clasp the bottom of the guard and the left hand to clasp the end of the blade, Leo received the sword with two hands.
"You remember the steps?"
"Yeah. First I horizontally slice the top of the stalk, then I need to stop in order to make the second slash. Then execute the second slash, and the third. After five slashes I move to the next one from the left side to the right side."
"Correct. I'm going to take a break inside. Let me know when you reach the one on the far right."
"What do I do with the sword?"
"The scabbard is by the door."
Erika said so as she pointed at the door.
Since Leo just saw her draw the blade, there was no reason to actually verify this once more. Still, as if to placate Erika, he still directed his gaze in the direction she was pointing.
Given that the scabbard could maintain the sword, the scabbard must possess the function to clean off the grit and apply oil. Upon hearing Leo's confirmation, Erika lightly waved and left the room.
Full of spirit, the sword slashed downwards.
In the beginning, there were occasions where the blade was caught because he didn't apply enough force, but near the end he was able to split them apart in one blow. With the last one done, the task Erika left for him had been completed. He probably took around 10 minutes to accomplish this, which caused Leo some confusion.
That was almost too easy — this was where Leo felt something was awry. Erika said to get her once he was done and left the room, saying she wanted to take a break. In other words, in Erika's estimation, this assignment was supposed to take a considerable amount of time. Yet, he only took enough time to finish a cup of tea to finish this. In that case, Leo came to the conclusion that he must have made an error somewhere.
Nonetheless, he wasn't clear exactly where he went wrong. Did this happen because Erika miscalculated Leo's abilities? After some thought on the matter, he still didn't have a viable answer. Fortunately, Leo wasn't the type to waste time and energy on something like this. Since he didn't have all the information to arrive at an answer, any further consideration was a waste of time. Erika had said to "call her when he finished", so even though he "finished" outside of her calculations, Leo ultimately decided to go get Erika anyways.
As instructed, he replaced the sword back in the scabbard and left the room into the adjoining corridor, only to realize that he never asked where Erika currently was. Even he was surprised at this silly turn of events. As he quietly ridiculed himself, he glanced around looking for a HAR terminal, but couldn't see anything like that. Still, even if he did locate one, he didn't have the authority to request information and might even be seen as a suspicious individual, a thought that prompted Leo to abandon looking for a terminal.
If he returned to the dojo, someone might be able to point him in the right direction, Leo thought as he retraced his footsteps and ran across a young woman who came from the main house. She was approximately in her mid twenties and dressed in a kimono (Leo wasn't familiar with this type of clothing), hence Leo wasn't able to tell if she was single or married based on her wardrobe. Her features weren't particularly distinctive, but her stern attitude would be out of place on a servant. Not that this household had any female servant her age.
"Ara, an unfamiliar visage."
That domineering gaze solidified the idea in Leo's mind that she was from the Chiba Family. Although she didn't look like Erika, if Erika's features came from her mother, then this woman's features must come from their father.
You must be Erika's classmate."
In spite of the amiable words, Leo's ears didn't detect a trace of kindness in them. Their sibling relationship — Leo assumed that the woman before him was Erika's older sister — appeared to be quite hostile, he thought.
Regardless, even if it's the Onee-sama whom she was on a bad footing with, Leo's attitude wouldn't change. Leo knew that putting on an act would only reflect poorly on him.
"Actually, Erika-chan asked me to call her after I finished my assignment."
The only reason he said this was because "calling her by name would be bad", except his tone changed entirely due to his anxiety. Nevertheless, Erika's sister didn't seem to reveal that special brand of interest unique to most women.
"Did Erika-chan say where she was staying?"
It appeared that she was more concerned about the topic in question than those details. Was she the serious type? Still, this didn't feel like that was the only reason, Leo thought. —Not that he had any basis for that statement.
"She just said she wanted to take a break."
In that case, she must be in the lounge."
Erika's sister (for now) said this as she pulled out a small terminal from her sleeve pouch. After tapping the board a few times, she handed it to Leo with a "I'll lend this to you for now".
"Follow the displayed instructions and use this to open the door."
"......Is it OK for me to hold onto this?"
"Erika was the one who told you to get her, correct?"
Although there were still a few things that eluded him, this truly provided much needed assistance in his search for Erika. Thus, he accepted the terminal and said something vague like "As you please" to Erika's sister (for now), and headed towards the dojo.
"Now that I think about it, this house is huge......"
Just now, he had hesitated briefly over borrowing the terminal, but now Leo believed that "it was a stroke of good fortune that he did borrow it". —Of course, this was referring to the terminal Erika's sister (for now) lent him.
The reason he thought so was because the route to the lounge was quite difficult to find. It was almost as if he had taken a longer detour, but Leo felt that this was probably just the layout of Erika's house. Regardless, Leo finally stood before the door leading to the lounge after a five minute walk.
Even though all he had to do was enter, Leo still had some concerns. Erika was neither his kin nor lover and would likely only rate as close ("close" in terms of acquaintances, but words were insufficient to convey that here) classmates.
He should still knock.
"Hey, Erika, are you inside?"
He let out a shout when no one answered the knock, but still no one responded.
Is she really here? Despite his misgivings, if this was an empty room then he had nothing to worry about. Leo placed the terminal in his hand alongside the reading device.
After a brief electric sound, the lock disengaged. A sound rang out from within the room.
What now, was she inside all along? Leo thought as he opened the heavy door that didn't have a door knob.
Immediately, he heard someone shout "Wait! Wait a second!"
A ridiculous sound erupted from Leo's throat.
Not that he was aware of it. The current Leo had no leisure time to worry about something like that. His entire body was frozen to the point that he didn't even realize he should shut his eyes at this point.
Of course, his opposite number across from him was the same.
Directly before Leo's gaze, Erika maintained a posture that was about to turn around.
This was the scene before Leo's eyes.
Erika's modesty was only covered by a single bathing towel. Not only was her posture thoroughly unnatural, the knot in front of her chest was also loose.
Next to her was a reclining massage chair. Erika was probably lying there up until the moment he came in.
Behind Erika, there was plainly another door with a door knob on it. It was only now that Leo finally realized that he had come through the emergency fire escape.
The towel around Erika's chest chose this moment to come undone.
The flow of time swiftly slowed down to a crawl. Nay, more like his consciousness became many times more focused.
Erika grabbed the slowly drooping towel.
Meanwhile, Leo's body finally broke free of its confinement. "Ah."
"Don't just stand there and drool like some sort of Peeping Tom, you idiot!"
Far swifter than Leo's apology, her barbed tongue sent a hurricane of feminine fury broke over Leo.
"That devious woman
...... I must have been a moron to think that she was the older sister......"
On one side, there was Erika muttering swear words under her breath while kicking the massage chair, while on the other side, Leo was sporting a bright red hand print on his face. This was the result of Leo fully accepting Erika's request that "No matter what, I still need to hit you". The reason she used the palm instead of the fist was because
Leo was also a victim of fraud here, and definitely not because Erika disliked a stinging pain in her hand.
Leo had no complaints regarding that slap. The fault for this incident was entirely on him. Although Erika was only in such an unguarded state and relaxing on the massage chair because she miscalculated the time Leo needed to complete his assignment, that was an entirely different issue than the undeniable fact that he was the one who had opened the emergency exit. Although he barely avoided seeing any critical pieces, that certainly didn't relieve him of any responsibility. Looks like he better head back for today, Leo thought as he decided to apologize to Erika one more time.
In the end, both of them called out each other's name at the same time. "Leo."
The moment Leo wilted a little at Erika's piercing stare, Erika once again called out his name.
"Immediately forget what you just saw!"
No matter how much that request made sense, Leo still found that to be a tall order. One couldn't simply white wash one's memory that easily.
"—Even though I know that's quite unreasonable."
However, despite the easily understood meaning behind these words, Leo couldn't dispel the trepidation that refused to allow him to relax.
Also, his premonition swiftly became reality.
"How about, in order to prevent you from having any spare time to think of those unnecessary things, I need to seriously train you from this point forward. I'm going to go over basic swordsmanship as well as Usuba Kagerou."
Even though this was important enough to warrant Erika repeating this one more time, Leo was terrified of Erika's chilly aura and didn't dare to open his mouth.
"Starting today, why don't you just sleep over here."
"......I didn't bring a change of clothes."
Leo had mustered everything he had into those last words.
"We can prepare undergarments over here. Money isn't an issue."
Still not having vented all her displeasure, Erika gave Leo another hearty kick after speaking.
◊ ◊ ◊
Even in the evening, First High's campus was still filled with the vibrancy of student activity. The noise nearly rivaled the level when the school festival comes around. Magic high schools incorporate a format that not only demands high quality secondary education but also includes magic education as well, hence the lack of a school festival. This is primarily because there is simply not enough time to allocate towards that during the school year. Generally speaking, intramural competitions do exist, but there is nothing that surpasses school clubs or individual classes that can unite the entire student body to work together towards one overarching goal. For a magic high school like this, unlike the Nine Schools Competition dominated by talented students during the preparation and competition phases, Course 2 students had many opportunities to shine during the Thesis Competition preparation phase, which was why the school campus approached a level of frenzy that could only be seen at a school festival.
The Year 1 female students from the Literature Club volunteered to be the compensatory team for the primary workers that were toiling away together at the last leg of the project. Although this was almost the end of the school day, the young girls were still occupied preparing the bentos for dinner. Mizuki, from the Arts Club, could also be seen among them.
As the saying goes, the sun sets earlier in fall, so right now in second half of October, night was descending earlier as well. Earlier, the western sky was still a dash of purple as if someone had splashed a layer of paint over the sky; now the faint purple had turned dark blue. The scene outside had taken on that of the night itself. "It is quite late", Mikihiko couldn't help but think at this time.
Today, he had been called in to serve as Club Activities Group Leader Juumonji Katsuto's training partner. Of course, it wasn't a one on one. This was a ten on one mock battle, with Mikihiko being one of the ten.
Even though he didn't feel there would be only one mock battle, Mikihiko wasn't holding too much hope in that regard. Unrelated to the Ten Master Clans and the identity as a Course 1 student, Katsuto's strength gave him a deep impression during the Nine Schools Competition. Even during the mock battle, the chance for him to challenge such a powerful opponent was not something one could simply ask for. This time, he had the valuable opportunity to experience exactly how strong Katsuto really was. Likewise, he brought an incredible desire to learn how to fight modern magic users into this mock battle.
As Mikihiko hoped, there were a total of 5 mock battles. He was also defeated by Katsuto 5 times. As he panted raggedly while falling to the ground (wasn't he supposed to be knocked down?), he was thoroughly satisfied with the use of his time. Since they started shortly after the half day classes on Saturday, by the time he was finished being Katsuto's training opponent it was already 4 in the afternoon. In order to prevent himself from shamefully vomiting during the training, he had only dined lightly during lunch, a point that his stomach was crying about right now. He squinted his eyes at the setting sun and thought "OK, let's go" as he stood up, only to suddenly hear the order "halt preparations".
Since Katsuto was serving as the supreme commander for all security personnel from the nine schools at the event, Sawaki was responsible for leading First High's security detail in Katsuto's place. He was also the one who gave that earlier signal. On reflex, Mikihiko stood up and was promptly cowed by Sawaki's force of personality (more like overwhelmed), and was promptly roped into combined training as a perpetrator. One hour later, though the security personnel continued training, the Year 1 students called in as opponents had been spared (The Year 2 students were not allowed to leave).
After exchanging the dirty training uniform for his school uniform, Mikihiko walked towards the second gym (known as the combat center) where the security team was training. On the surface, he was the one who provided assistance, but in reality Mikihiko was the one who took away more from the experience, which naturally warranted some thanks on his part. Since he didn't want to interrupt their current training, he was only planning on dropping a single greeting and then departing.
"Yoshida-kun, let me treat you to a meal as well!"
Mikihiko was once again following Sawaki only to find himself meeting with the leader for the compensatory team. What terrible timing, Mikihiko thought. Now, the only people left in the combat center were largely Year 2 students. There were some Year 1 students selected as part of the security detachment, but unfortunately, he just met most of them for the first time today. Actually, since he was famished right now, his timing should be perfect. However, eating with these people would turn the food to ashes in his mouth, Mikihiko thought.
Regardless, he should still decline, Mikihiko thought. Just as he was considering this, he felt an odd gaze filled with unease and hopeful relaxation fall upon him. Normally, "hopeful" and "unease" are opposite one another, but that earlier gaze plainly had a "relaxed" feeling. Quite concerned about that, Mikihiko couldn't help but follow that gaze. When their eyes met, a familiar (of course) girl's face leaped into his eyes.
At Mikihiko's surprise, Mizuki hurriedly turned her face and revealed a warm smile.
Thanks to Mizuki, now Mikihiko didn't have any way to escape — that was probably true no matter which excuse he spun — so Mikihiko could only sit in the outer circle of boys.
This appeared to be the last station for delivering meals. The young ladies from the compensatory squad sat primly with the sandwiches for the bentos on their lap (there were sandwiches and rice balls with meat for the boys). Probably pitying the hopeful stares from the bachelors in the security group, the evidence was that the female students were preoccupied with handing out towels and pouring tea before sitting down on the mats in the gym.
By the time Mikihiko took a seat, the compensatory squad was practically finished with their duties. The forcibly conscripted Mikihiko also sat on the mat, but his upbringing immediately prompted him to adjust his seating posture before accepting a bento box from the young lady sitting across from him. There was no need to identify this young woman because he had been following her from the corner of his eye whenever he had a chance.
"Thank you, Shibata-san."
An embarrassed look flooded Mizuki's face at Mikihiko's formal reply. While there were quite a few upperclassmen (mainly women) who secretly laughed at this scene, no one was rude enough to actually bother them. The students of the far famed First High were better than that. How would they be able to witness such a hilarious scene if someone openly mocked them?
—Mizuki and Mikihiko were unaware of the devious thoughts of those surrounding them. Neither of them had the spare time to do that. While she had plotted ahead of time to sit next to him, even though they were classmates, Mizuki didn't have the courage to initiate a conversation with a boy while surrounded by so many upperclassmen. On the other hand, Mikihiko's family had a lot of women studying their style (the Shinto System and Ancient Magic shared this distinction), so it wasn't like he was inept at carrying a conversation with a woman, but Mizuki's completely flushed and embarrassed expression caused him to be overly self-conscious and unable to broach any subject.
The end result was — in the eyes of their innocent observers, this was the bittersweet atmosphere of "first love". Not only were the young women using warm eyes to offer support, even the combat-orientated boys that had no connection with romance had noticed the peculiar atmosphere between Mikihiko and Mizuki. Whenever Mizuki poured tea for Mikihiko, her hands would frantically retreat whenever their fingertips occasionally touched. Whenever this sort of theatrics usually reserved for clandestine meetings on a bridge occurred, a flood of wordless killing intent and cheers would spring forth from their watchers.
Until now, the clueless duo had no idea that they were providing entertainment for dinner, but they were aware that "something seems to be off (really)?" The two of them possessed this degree of sensitivity and were getting slightly uncomfortable in the middle of the stares they had unknowingly engendered, especially Mizuki. Her fidgety appearance was becoming more and more obvious. Finally, she said something vague along the lines of "Ah, I, uh" and erratically stood up — rather, tried to stand.
Speaking of which, modern Japanese culture no longer called for kneeling on cushions. Sitting on chairs had already become the norm and the only people who still knelt were those engaged in martial arts, paired instruction, or religious practice. Essentially, they were all individuals engaged in special training. Nonetheless, society still held the stereotype that "women should kneel", so most of the young ladies in the compensatory squad were kneeling. Still, upperclassmen often secretly used Weight-Type Magic to lighten the load. Even Year 2 students in Course 2 knew how to use this sort of magic that didn't rely on speed without a CAD. Of course, the effect would only kick in ten to thirty seconds later, so whenever these ladies fell into brief lull of silence, they were secretly invoking Weight-Type Magic. The boys were all well aware of this point, so no one was going to start a conversation with one of the girls who suddenly fell quiet.
However, for Year 1 students and especially Mizuki, who was in Course 2, this was something beyond them at this point. Strictly speaking, she wasn't even aware that there was a trick to "reduce her weight using magic while kneeling". In addition, she never really practiced kneeling on a mat—
—So naturally, her feet went numb.
Seeing Mizuki wobbling on her feet and letting out a small shriek as she fell, Mikihiko immediately reached out a helping hand, but he still wasn't going to make it in time. He maintained a kneeling position and caught Mizuki's upper body. Since all his concentration was focused on not falling down together, Mikihiko never consciously noticed exactly where he was putting his hands.
After halting their momentum, Mikihiko let out a long sigh. It was then he noticed that he was facing the back of Mizuki's head. In other words, he was more or less in a posture that was hugging Mizuki from behind. He also noticed exactly what that firm, soft feeling was in his two hands......
Mikihiko's mental facilities ground to a dead halt. But his thought betrayed his intention, he recognized the true identity of what was grabbed by his hands. At this time, Mizuki's consciousness finally rebooted and accurately deciphered what her current situation was.
Mizuki let out a soundless scream of despair and started shaking. At this, Mikihiko frantically let go of both hands. Without any support, Mizuki's body started tilting forward as she fell forward, using her hands to support herself on the mat, placing all four limbs on the ground and her rear towards Mikihiko, a result that terrified Mizuki even more. As she stumbled to her feet, her numb feet caused her fall back on her rear once more. Owing to her sudden chain of surprising motions, her skirt had flipped upwards, revealing a significant proportion of her sock clad feet, shins, and even her thighs. This time, Mizuki used a blazing speed that normally wouldn't be attributed to her to swiftly restore herself to a kneeling position that "women were supposed to be" with her two hands tightly clasping the hem of her skirt. Her already flushed face was now completely burning red. Her eyes laced with tears, she strove back to her feet and didn't fall over this time before fleeing from the gym.
"What the heck are you staring for! Go after her, Yoshida-kun!"
Mikihiko was just standing there and staring blankly at Mizuki's back when he was roused by a nameless female upperclassman scolding him and hurriedly leaped to his feet. After running out of the building, he doubled back inside and grabbed his shoes from the rack. After grabbing a pair of slippers for Mizuki, who had fled without getting her shoes, he once again chased after the figure who had already disappeared out of sight.