Alchemist's fifth weapons development laboratory located in the border.
The official reason to build it in modern slums was to mine anti-magic materials by the border, it was more efficient that way because there was no need to transport them.
However, the truth was that in the border, no anti-magic material was mined. Although there was a mine, but it wasn't functioning ever since it was built.
The real purpose, was to reduce interference from Inquisition as much as possible.
The border was an area with lots of crimes happening in it; even the Inquisition had a hard time with it and can't really control it. Both mafia and small groups of witch communities have been established inside of it.
At the entrance of the border there is a checkpoint, ordinary people require a permit to enter it.
It was the best place to hide something from Inquisition.
Fifth weapons development laboratory, in fact it was too big to be called a laboratory.
It wasn't as big as the headquarters, but it was about size of a theme park.
The sections inside were divided into levels, the deeper the level was, the more dangerous was the research performed inside.
It was a mechanism of gradually increasing the security.
The sections are divided into 5 levels, the levels signify how dangerous the weapons researched are, with level 5 being where weapons of mass destruction are being researched
Only a few people among the alchemists know about the existence of level 5.
It is located inside of a tower in the deepest part of the facility.
On the top floor of it, there was a space with pure white walls.
That, was a level 6 section that officially didn't exist.
The white walls covering the interior were emitting dim light. It was a first-class anti-magic material, the Weiss Crystal. No magic could pass through the walls coated with rare material.
In the center of that space, there was a single pillar, an incubator filled with dark red liquid.
She had unkept red hair; it looked as if she cried recently. Although she was wearing a lab coat like a scientist but the color of the coat was deep red.
That outfit stood out from the white lab coats. Between Alchemists, it implied a different rank from the white coats with the colored coat meaning she was one of "Designs Children", a "Suginami".
She had a somewhat sleepy look, like a tremendous enclosing darkness, with a sense of emptiness that seemed completely removed from human beings.
"——A sorrowful face of a scientist, that's pretty rare. I'm really curious if people who carry the name of "Suginami" normally feel emotions."
From behind the woman, a man in a black costume contrasting with the white facility.
He had sparkly blond hair and priestly clothing matching his disgusting smile.
It was Valhalla's executive, necromancer Haunted.
After hearing his speech, the woman turned her face towards him with a relaxed movement.
"...Sorrow? What's that."
"Sorrow is sorrow y'know. It's a really captivating feeling. It's a great emotion that makes women more beautiful. It's really wonderful."
"I don't understand such things."
"It's like watching a girl being left behind after being soiled. It makes you want to hug her. Strong enough to break her."
"You want to hug me?"
Hearing such a frank response, Haunted was suddenly left speechless.
The girl even opened her arms and said, "come come", welcoming Haunted.
"I don't really mind. I can understand the sexual meaning."
"I have no experience, so I'll leave it all to you. I need to learn."
She said such a thing while being completely expressionless, Haunted suddenly gulped and dropped his shoulders
"...no, it's fine. I have completely withered. Also, I didn't really mean it in a sexual way."
"Do I have no sexual charm? Suginami's proportions should be perfect. Or are you a pedophile?"
"No. It's because you are a boring person. Teasing people like you goes against my sense of aesthetics, no offense."
Their eyes met, and Haunted slowly came closer to the girl.
"Are all Suginamis like this? I want to complain from the bottom of my heart about your lack of feelings. Isuka-san, why don't you live your life more like a human? Though, it's my hobby to destroy such happy lives."
Haunted said to the girl called Isuka.
"The only thing that interests us is research."
She responded flatly, and stared at Haunted.
"What happened. You look pretty horrible."
"Oh, you mean this? Ufufu, it's pretty good, right? It's kind of like a medal."
He said that and *pan* *pan*, he hit his addition lightly.
His clothing was brand new, but Haunted had his body all wrapped in bandages.
From between beaten-up bandages something like ash spilled, his internals were clearly burnt.
"Even though I changed majority of my body, the magical attribute of aurora is really dreadful. The damage to the soul also affects the physical body, and it turns out all beaten up like this. Even my Nacht is in bad mood after our first defeat and won't come out of the sheath."
"Oh, the attack on the tournament last month. I'm interested in what did you in."
"Ufufu, it's been a while. Those children are wonderful. That's why I'm not telling you. You won't be able to stop yourself from wanting to dissect them."
"That was my intention."
"Right? That's why I won't tell you. They're my treasure."
Haunted made a big grin.
Even that smile didn't catch Isuka's interest and she continued to stare at the incubator.
"How is it? Did the restoration of an elf succeed?"
"No. It's a failure. It grows while its still an embryo, but after that it rots and disintegrates. Substituting with human cells doesn't seem to work."
"Did you try fertilizing a witch's egg with a elven nucleus?"
"Humans and elves are completely different races. Even if it succeeded, it would become a half. It's not beautiful at all. A half is no good."
"We don't mind if it's a half you know?"
Said Haunted, Isuka shook her head in response.
"I don't want to make any more failures. What I want to make is a perfect Dark Elf."
"...there's one thing I want to ask, why do you insist on recreating a dark elf?"
"I feel something like a hatred directed towards me."
The expressionless Isuka normally didn't feel hatred.
Being told that, she looked at Haunted with her black pupils.
"Yeah. Because I'm interested in feelings of others, I can tell."
Haunted opened his eyes slightly and laughed.
He focused on the beauty of human emotions, he cherished the wonderful passions, loved them, and breaking them was his utmost joy.
Haunted probed Isuka's emotions.
Emotionless humans don't exist, that was his theory.
No matter how emotionless they seem, there's always something hidden.
He tried to force something out from Isuka.
Without a doubt, it has to be something wonderful.
There's definitely something, there's a passion dwelling inside this frigid woman——
"I won't be able to meet your expectations, there is no such thing."
Isuka denied his observations, and stared at his approaching face.
She put her hand on his cheek and made a distorted smile by using her face muscles.
"I have told you already, we Suginami are only interested in research and development. We were created just for that purpose. To make better, irregular weapons, we're not interested in anything that doesn't lead us to creating stronger weapons. It's just a result of how we have been made, that is all. The only emotion that exists within Suginamis, is the one that drives us to achieve results.
"...Suginami's motto, is it. Then why did you betray Alchemist, and decide to side together with Valhalla? Alchemist has the best possible facilities. You can do whatever you want and you don't need to worry about money and personnel in there."
"In the end, Alchemist is a company. Like I can only make things that were requested. What meaning is there if I can't make things I want to make?"
Definitely, deep inside the dark pupils greed could be seen.
Scientists are also human. They don't have any unprecedented feats, there is a lot of people who aim high, but they're always held back by "Ethics".
Great scientists from the past also thought about things like toxicity, hazards, harmful effects or utility as they advanced their research. Those who suspected danger made the tough decision to discontinue the research and there were many scientists who gave in to despair seeing their research being utilized as weapons.
However, if you were to get rid of the ethics, if there were human beings that only researched.
If you were to mass produce geniuses that don't hesitate to step into taboo territory.
Mankind would be able to move forward.
That was the reason for starting the "Designs Child" program.
"Then, the fact that you ordered me to kill every researcher in here, came from a rational decision rather than a grudge and desire?"
"Of course. In the end, they're just researchers. There is a clear distinction between them and the Suginamis. For us who have no unnecessary emotions, there is no laziness nor fatigue. That is why their performance and utility is inferior to us. That's why I wanted you to kill them, they have no more use."
Hearing Isuka say that, Haunted closed his black eyes.
"Right now they are great. They are puppets, but their utilization rate went up. They move as instructed, you have really done well. Thanks to you the experiment will succeed faster."
She placed a hand on his shoulder and told him her thanks.
But Haunted's eyes were stained with red, and he hit her hand, pushing it to the side
"——You, do you think nothing of human lives?!"
Forcefully shaking her hand off, Haunted shouted with visible irritation.
His appearance was as if he were a real priest getting angry about someone's lack of morals.
Isuka rubbed her hands while tilting her head.
"...I don't really get it, but do you really mean that?"
"Yeah I do! I really do! Certainly, I do kill people, I trample over their precious lives! But unlike you, I don't kill people just because there is a reason to!"
He heated up and said it with a strong emphasis, almost like a priest.
"I kill people because I want to kill! I don't have objective in it, I just like killing people! I love people! I really love them! And more than anything, I love the passion they show when they're on verge of death! That's why I kill!"
"Wait, why are you angry?"
"I'm telling you should feel something when you kill people! Murdering people because of an objective is just a blasphemy, it's being rude to the dead! Hatred is fine, love is fine, even a burst of anger is fine! If you're killing... please feel something... if not, the killed people are... more than anything, they're pitiful..."
Haunted preached with tears on his beaten up face.
She didn't know if it was because he was insane, she didn't know much about sanity.
However, it probably were his true feelings. The normal humans get frightened after all.
But, Isuka was different.
In response to Haunted, Isuka circled around him.
"I don't really get it but——the one who killed them wasn't me, it was you right?"
Haunted as expected, opened his mouth wide dumbfounded. That wasn't what he meant, is what he wanted to say.
But Isuka tilted her neck, still expressionless. She placed a hand on her chin and tried to understand. Haunted, hearing that manner of speech, he decided there's no hope there.
With a cold expression, Haunted wiped off his tears using a sleeve and looked into her eyes.
"...I was an idiot to try to teach you something about morality. I hate you, it seems like scientists and sorcerers are incompatible."
"I see. A pity. But you guys are necessary to me, and you guys need me as well, right?"
Being asked, Haunted spat out a sigh.
Isuka continued unworried.
"I keep my promises. With the Suginami name on the line, I will definitely restore the elves."
With Isuka's declaration, Haunted recovered his original mental state.
"So do we. If you succeed with restoration of the elves, and present us weapons, we will welcome you into Valhalla. With the Magical Dragoons you're developing that will allow us to use pseudo-Hero Summoning it will be enough of a gift to higher-ups. That is if the experiment really succeeds."
"Don't worry. The experiment is almost complete."
"I've heard that one of the Lost Matrixes was stolen by someone a few years ago?"
"Why do you know that?"
Isuka inquired still expressionless, Haunted smiled in response.
"Just overheard it somewhere. But it really is amazing, for a thief to steal the crystal from such a fortress-like laboratory, it must've been a outrageously good thief."
As Haunted said that, Isuka's eye reflexively convulsed for a moment and she put a hand on her forehead. Although it wasn't much, sweat appeared on her temples.
"A migraine or something? I have a good medicine."
"...no, it's alright. It's nothing."
She closed her eyes and removed her hand from forehead.
"If you want, I can help you with recapturing it."
"There's no need for that. Earlier, information on the Lost Matrix was leaked."
"...ohh, is that information trustworthy?"
"There's no trust or anything. It's a leak from the person who stole it."
"From the person who stole it, why is that... can it be, someone you know?"
Haunted asked curious, and Isuka averted her face in a different direction
"...yeah, from my former compatriot."
She slightly narrowed her eyes and put her hand on her forehead again.
Five minutes later, Haunted left the level 6 section and headed down by elevator.
"...from the person who stole it... was it. It sounds a bit fishy."
He placed his hand on his chin while still in elevator, and his shoulders shook with laughter.
The high-speed elevator reached the ground in a blink of an eye, the door opened together with a high pitched sound.
That moment... he felt a nasty acrid odor overflow.
It was a smell that reminded of rotten corpses.
"It's a good scent, but it's about time it hit the limit. It seems like maintaining it with just magic isn't enough."
Haunted filled his lungs with the putrid smell, and headed outside of the tower with loud footsteps.
As he headed there, he passed by several researchers.
"Yahoo, everyone, working hard without sleep or rest!"
He passed by them while cheerfully greeting them and flashing smiles.
"Helping out a black company and a black boss is really hard, isn't it... I wouldn't be surprised if there were suicides. But don't worry, the work is almost done! Just work enthusiastically for a while longer!"
That figure, it looked like a doll.
Haunted headed towards the lady in the reception at the lobby, he threw an authentication card over as if he was playing cards. The card got stuck to receptionist's forehead.
"Ss-so-sorr-rry f-fo-r t-the wa-it."
The receptionist with the rotten left eye smiled eerily, and nodded while making a disgusting sound.
——Haunted used this place as his stronghold ever since he was sent to this city.
He summoned and piloted the Hero sent to rescue the VIPs from this place.
He was to bring back the results of the successful restoration of elves to Valhalla. Until then, he was to listen to Suginami Isuka's instructions.
Isuka ordered him to kill everyone.
That's why he killed them. He killed them with joy. He killed them until he exhausted his love.
Everyone living in this place, all the researchers aside from Isuka.
People who were working in this place, guards and mercenaries from private companies aside, were corpses
The corpses were implanted with an order to "single-mindedly engage in experiment", so they were perfectly obedient.
All of it was possible because the border was a place that made Inquisition's interference difficult.
Beyond the automatic door, as Haunted left the tower, he gracefully opened his arms wide on the stairs right in front of the lobby.
"It burns and aches. Is it an omen that something is about to happen?"
While saying that, he scratched his own burnt skin.
"Aah... it's just like it was back then, I want to plunge into an irresistibly sweet battle."
As if he was desperately in love, he stared at the sky and shuddered.
After receiving the suspicious letter, Takeru went to the dormitory to talk with her about it but after she came out with a meek look, everyone hid themselves..
And after that they continued to fidget anxiously...
"I already know that you're acting weird, that's why... why don't you stop that?"
Ouka peeked from behind the wall and whispered to Takeru
"What are you talking about Kusanagi. Aren't you worrying about Suginami? After receiving such a letter, we can't sit still."
Ouka said that to Takeru from below while using binoculars.
Next was Mari who was below Ouka, she looked at Ouka and teased her.
"That's why you thought about stalking her...? That letter, isn't it just a prank?"
After Mari said that, Usagi's face peaked from below her.
"Even so, it doesn't change the fact that she was acting weird. There's definitely something going on."
Usagi said confidently, she was in favor of monitoring.
Usagi was at the bottom, next was Mari above her, above Mari, there was Ouka, and Takeru was on on top, they all peaked out from behind the wall. Looking at them from a perspective, they looked like a dumplings on a stick.
Currently, they were in middle of stalking Ikaruga.
Ikaruga left the Academy and got on a bus heading to the outskirts. Takeru and the others were observing her movements from as far as possible.
"The Dragoon race hall is in completely different direction... why did she lie."
Usagi recalled the letter had said 'betrayal', but shook her head denying it.
Ouka stopped looking through binoculars and showed a difficult face.
"I don't intend to be fooled by that letter, I don't know much about Suginami. But there is a chance... hey."
"Uwaa... really〜 Ootori-san...you're so skeptical to suspect a comrade〜 well, you've been skeptical from the very beginning—"
Mari said that and made a face full of contempt, and then,
*bang*, was hit with Ouka's chin.
"O-ouchhhhhh! What are you doing!"
"That's because you said something annoying."
"Buuut, isn't that truue."
"I don't think being suspicious is a bad thing. It's necessary to ascertain the truth to prove her innocence. When we confirm that she's innocent, I will apologize. Even if I were to be hated, I would just continue to apologize, I think that's fine."
"...then, what if you are convinced of her guilt, just like it was with me..."
Mari who had her own debt, made a slightly sorrowful expression.
Ouka, whose face was hovering above Mari's made an uncomfortable expression and glared at Mari from above.
"I-It huuuurts! What again!?"
"That's because you said something boring."
"Whaaat? I just said I feel slightly guilty!"
"Guilty? That sounds really shallow."
"If you have time to feel something like that, you better use it to save people just as you said you will."
Mari twisted and trembled, while Ouka snorted.
They didn't know each other for long, but Takeru and Usagi sympathized with Ouka's feelings.
She's embarrassed... She's definitely embarrassed...
Thought both Takeru and Usagi.
She definitely wanted to say "you're weren't the one at fault".
Even so... why did she have to lie to us?
Although he didn't believe in that letter, he didn't know why did she lie to them about taking a few days' rest. Prying into her private life was no good, but considering the discomfort he felt this morning, the letter wouldn't leave his head.
Suginami Ikaruga betrayed the Academy.
Betrayed? For whom?
Doubts clouded Takeru's mind, and he followed Ouka without question.
After leaving the outskirts, Ikaruga continued to a street that was less crowded.
The landscape gradually turned simple, and the devastation became more noticeable.
While they were moving behind the building, Mari suddenly stopped.
"Eh... this way is, it can't be."
Mari looked around as she said that.
"Wait, Suginami stopped."
Ikaruga completely stopped walking by the crossroads right beside the signals.
The Four of them looked at her puzzled.
That's when large trucks passed in front of Takeru and the others blocking their view. After a few seconds, the platoon lost sight of Ikaruga.
Takeru raised his voice surprised.
After the truck has passed, Ikaruga was no longer there. Takeru ran towards the signals in a hurry, and stood where Ikaruga had been earlier.
"Where did she go?!"
"There are no alleys here. And escaping from our eyes with Suginami's reflexes is impossible."
"M-maybe she really disappeared... that's not possible, right?"
Takeru and the others looked around flustered.
They searched for ten minutes, but in the end couldn't find Ikaruga.
Only Mari looked below their feet.
"...Suginami... probably, she went to the border."
She murmured, and then immediately continued.
"The whole area around here, obviously there aren't many people are there? Even buildings, they look like the ones over there. It's a proof that the border is close. There should be a checkpoint right there."
"The border... but you can't go past the checkpoint without a permit, right? I've heard it's impossible to get in there without a permit?"
"You're so naive Takeru. If crossing was impossible, then how do Magical Heritage dealers like me get into the town?"
Mari was squatting on the ground, and she hit the manhole with her fist.
Ouka made a bitter face.
"That how it is. I'm not really sure, but it seems like there used to be a subway under this place, there's an absurd amount of passes underground. For the sake of transporting goods during the war, it was expanded further. Currently the underground is like a labyrinth.
Hearing Mari's words, Ouka crossed her arms depressingly.
"Setting up a checkpoint in an underground passage is impossible. At most a patrol can be sent, but there's a limit to that as well."
"It's a transport line known and used by many people, because there's no way to blockade it."
"How deplorable. If it was properly maintained, this muffler woman wouldn't be here now."
"If Inquisition knew someone like me wouldn't——hey, wait a sec?!"
The two of them were about to start arguing again, but Usagi put one hand on her face in front of the manhole.
"The-then, did we completely lose sight of Suginami?"
"...I have a map of the underground labyrinth in my head, but not knowing where is she heading we won't be able to catch up to her. At worst case, we might get separated."
"That's can't be..."
"Reacting to Mari's words, Usagi made face as if she was about to cry
Casting skeptical gazes at Mari and the depressed Usagi, Ouka put a hand on Takeru's shoulder.
"What do we do, Kusanagi. Chase her?"
Questioned by Ouka, Takeru frowned.
Now he was regretting the fact that he didn't stop and question her when he felt the discomfort in platoon's room.
It was possible that Ikaruga was caught up in something outrageous, and headed to the border using the underground passage only criminals used. She wouldn't go there without a reason.
Was there a reason she lied to Takeru and the others?
...no. It didn't matter,
There could only be one conclusion.
"——There's no other choice than to chase her, we can't leave her alone in the border."
He tensed his face and said to Ouka.
If she's stirring up something, or if she's been dragged into something, they could only follow.
Follow her, and confirm. And if they confirm it's something troublesome, they would carry it together as comrades.
Ouka expected that answer, and nodded slightly.
"I also agree with it, however... there's something I have to say first."
Ouka put some strength into the hand she placed on his shoulders.
"If by any chance Suginami is involved with bad things, I will carry out my duty."
"...meaning, you will arrest her?"
Ouka looked straight into Takeru's eyes.
That was her nature, if Ikaruga had her hand in wrongdoings, then he will not stop her. That's even more of a reason to stop her.
"It's all right. If she tries to escape I won't stop you from that, however, you absolutely can't kill her. Even for me, Suginami is... umm, that is..."
Ouka averted her eyes, then look at him, she looked back and forth in panic.
"S-she's an important comrade to you right? I promise not to shoot her."
"Got it. But, wait until we get the evidence... or at least until we hear the truth from her."
"Of course, that's what I intended."
As soon as he heard Ouka's reply, Takeru looked at Usagi. She was facing down, her mouth was closed tightly.
Ikaruga and Usagi were the ones who got along the best in the platoon. She wouldn't ever admit it, but Takeru thought they were best friends.
Takeru placed a hand on the anxious Usagi's head, and lightly stroked it.
"Don't worry. I'm sure it's something like illegal modification parts available only in the border, she probably went to buy some rare metals."
"...but Suginami, she never came out of the Academy's premises, not even once..."
With that said, Takeru was reminded that he never saw her going out of the school grounds.
She always acted as an operator during missions, and was living in the campus dormitories.
Although Takeru was also suspicious, he made a bitter smile and made a small lie.
"I've been hanging with her for four years now, she went to watch the Dragoon race before you know? You worry too much, Usagi."
"...is that so, then it's fine."
Usagi's depression was also one of things he was concerned about.
While Takeru comforted her, Mari placed hands on her hips and looked at all the members.
"It can't be helped. I'll help you look for Suginami. I owe you guys after all."
Mari puffed up her flat chest.
Ouka glared at Mari while performing a check on her equipment.
"You go back. People who wear a Gleipnir can go out to town at most, the border is out of acceptable range. Also, a witch who can't use magic will be of no help to us."
Ouka sharply protested against Mari's decision. Mari turned her shocked face and poked the collar attached to her neck after loosening her muffler.
"This collar is specially made, you know that right. It has an inhibitory effect, and I can't take it off normally. I will die in prison if I remove it. If I run away, you will report to the president and I will die when it explodes."
Also, she added while laughing.
"I'm confident that I'll be more useful than you? I know the way to the border by using the underground pass. As long as I am here, I promise we'll get there safely. In the first place, is there anyone other than me who can give you directions?"
"Oh? You have no confidence? Why do you look away〜there there〜."
"Annoying!! Don't poke my cheek!"
Ouka's cheek was poked, in revenge she grabbed Mari's cheek and pulled on it. Another bitter screaming match started between the two of them.
Nothing changed, even during this emergency situation.
"...but, you said before that there's no way of telling which way Suginami went? What do we do?"
With Usagi's question, Ouka and Mari stopped bickering.
Takeru also considered it, but he couldn't think of anything.
Honestly, he wanted to ask Inquisition for help, however that was only if there was no other option. If they learn about their entering the border without permission, they would be suspended, and in the worst case expelled. If they got involved with something bad, they might get arrested before they could even explain.
Takeru continued to think.
The moment he lowered his face and looked down.
"——Host, are you having trouble?"
In front of him, there were empty eyes devoid of light.
Suddenly Lapis appeared, Takeru fell back and left an ass print on the ground.
About the time Takeru and the others decided to chase her. Ikaruga entered the underground passage, and while not losing her way walked through labyrinth as complicated as spider web.
It was the second time she was passing through here.
Even though she was here a few years ago, she still firmly remembered the directions.
Ikaruga took out a mobile phone from the breast pocket of her lab coat.
"It's me. Right now, I'm heading to the border through the underground passage."
《"Got it. I will tell the men to expect you. Did you bring it?"》
After hearing that, Ikaruga sighed.
"If you mean the Lost Matrix, then I've got it. Don't worry, I intend to return it to the fifth laboratory."
A clear voice sounded in the underground pass.
《"In exchange for Lost Matrix you want to help with the experiment, was it. "》
《"...you have betrayed Alchemist. Even if you come back now, it's not a place for you."》
"I don't really care about getting back my position. I'm just curious about the restoration of elves."
After she said that, Isuka remained silent for a while.
《"If you are that interested, then why did you steal the Lost Matrix four years ago? "》
"If I stayed there, I would have died from boredom and lack of work. Also, I didn't take the high quality Lost Matrix with intention of stopping the experiment, I wanted to continue the experiment outside."
"But in the end, it was a failure. Because the equipment is too poor, I couldn't restore them. That's why I want to go back to Alchemist."
《"——Don't lie. Who would believe you, one who learned ethics."》
Answering Ikaruga who told her the reason frivolously, Isuka immediately denied it.
《"What's your real objective? What are you planning."》
"............hey, don't you think this exchange is meaningless? You want the Lost Matrix, I want to get back into the laboratory. Is that no good for you?"
Ikaruga said it fed up, and started to walk faster.
《"Fine then. I don't get what you intend. You will get what you want... however."》
Just when Isuka seemed to accept it, she quietly added.
《"...if you try to get in my way again, I won't show any mercy."》
She said those words refusing her and immediately terminated the call.
Ikaruga continued to hold the mobile next to her ear for a while after the sound signalizing the end of the call rang.
Just as Mari said, the underground passage was very complicated.
There was light here and there, proof that it was still in use, but the path Mari used was almost completely dark. A lot of them were poorly made and were used for transporting goods during the war, or were rushed tunnels made for infiltration.
After the war, criminals and refugees from the border quickly connected the passages, finishing the underground labyrinth.
"NNW, a hundred and fifty meters in a line straight ahead."
Behind Mari who went first, Lapis indifferently continued to inform them of Ikaruga's current location.
Mari stood still every time Lapis did that and proceeded after a few seconds when she selected a path.
"A hundred and fifty meters ahead in a straight line... isn't that in gray city... Let's hurry up. It isn't that far, but the road isn't straight."
Mari said towards the small lights coming from wristwatch-type devices. Takeru followed up with a voice of admiration.
"You really did well not to get lost even though you only knew the approximate position."
"I'm not a witch just for show. If you're surprised by just this much, seeing operative procedures for magic would make you faint, Takeru."
Ueeh, Takeru made a pained expression. Ouka who was beside him snorted in response.
"The one who surprises me is Suginami. She used the shortest possible route to the border... she seems to be accustomed to going over there, or she hired someone to guide her."
Mari asked as she moved on the rough path.
While following Mari, Takeru put a hand on Lapis' shoulder.
"Thank you, because you are here we can keep up with Suginami."
"No. Don't mind it. I only do whatever is within my ability to help Host."
She responded indifferently.
"You should be more happy for being praised. You're a very useful Relic Eater. There aren't many Magical Heritages who can be used in so many ways."
"...I praised you, why don't you say something?"
Even reminded by Mari, Lapis didn't react. She was expressionless like usual, making soundless footsteps, like a ghost.
Mari's eye convulsed, and the way she walked revealed irritation.
Usagi who was walking behind also watched Lapis with a mysterious look at her face.
"That's creepy. Why doesn't she react when we talk to her, not even returning a glance? Ootori also has a Relic Eater right? Are all of them like that?"
"I don't know, I'm not interested. I have no idea how magic thinks."
Ouka who had a magic allergy, was clearly hostile towards Lapis.
Even though she openly directed her hostility towards her, Lapis' expression didn't change at all.
Aside from Sougetsu and Takeru, Lapis rarely reacted to people who spoke to her. Even though she was always by his side, her standing in the platoon was very subtle and special.
She wasn't a regular member, it was just that she was usually beside Takeru. If possible he wanted her to adapt to other members... that's what Takeru thought.
"We arrived. This is a good place to come outside. It should be relatively safe above."
Mari pointed at the manhole above as she spoke.
The city where both police and Inquisition are, and the border were like entirely different worlds.
Those who come in realize it as soon as they leave the checkpoint. The streets are no longer there because of war, smashed asphalt, and because the only usable buildings are the ones made before the war, it was a horrible sight.
A lot of vagrants holding their knees on the side of the road can be seen.
As they proceeded, there was a square that acted as a gang's hang out, and a residential area which was human's refuge. Eventually they entered a downtown that seemed to flourish.
The downtown was called Evil Street, a place of gambling and prostitution where the mafia acted like the police.
And, even further ahead,
There was a location that was the closest to the Akashic Hazard's area, the "Sanctuary".
The place was called Gray City, a lawless area even Inquisition feared to enter, said to house a number of witches.
Ikaruga entered the border as scheduled, and walked in front of a certain junk shop.
She didn't enter the store, instead she stood in the middle of the road and looked up at the sky.
"...there's no need to be on alert. You don't need to force me to go with you."
As she told that and sighed, there was movement in the area.
From the back alley and broken windows of the junk shop, several men equipped with assault rifles and bulletproof vests came out and pointed their muzzles at Ikaruga.
Ikaruga placed her hands on top of her head and waited unmoving.
All of them were equipped with first class Alchemist-made goods.
Judging from the way they acted and the way they were dressed, they must have been from a private military company.
"Show us your ID card."
The mercenary instructed her while looking through weapon sights and she slowly removed the ID card from her lab coat pocket and threw it to the mercenaries.
A mercenary caught it with one hand and after sharply staring at Ikaruga, he turned his sight to the ID for only a moment.
And a moment later,
"...confirmed. Show me the article of trade."
"No way. If I pass it to you, you will kill me here and now right? This is hundred times more expensive than the money you were hired for. I don't have a reason to show it to money mongers like you."
"Show it. I'm not asking, I'm ordering you to."
"In exchange for this Lost Matrix I was promised to be taken there. I will protect it, and I will not give it to you."
Ikaruga said that to all of them with a strong attitude.
Mercenaries around her suddenly released blood lust.
Ikaruga looked at them as if she saw something silly.
"...boring and vulgar."
She muttered with an extremely calm attitude.
They left the underground passage while keeping track of Ikaruga, Takeru and the others arrived on the surface after successfully crossing to the border.
"——Why did it turn out like this?!"
They ended up in the middle of fugitives.
It was good that they came out to the surface, however the place they surfaced was a site of a Magical Heritage trading mafia.
Obviously, because they were wearing AntiMagic Academy's uniforms they were thought of to be conducting an investigation and were intercepted before they had time to negotiate. The enemy was poorly equipped, but they couldn't handle so many of them.
The four of them dashed into a back alley, the enemy desperately scattered.
"What the heck! You said that you're familiar with the border, and that this outlet was safe! It's not safe at all!"
Ouka yelled at Mari while shooting her gun behind.
"It can't be helped right!? It's been half a year since I've been in the border! It must've changed after so long! I don't know myself why there is a trade happening in a place like this!"
"You're useless after all!"
"Even Usagi-chan—! Just because I didn't know about it doesn't mean I'm useless!"
Mari responded to the accusations while being out of breath as she ran.
Takeru dropped his speed and stopped after sliding at a T-junction, and immediately asked Lapis.
"Lapis! Where's Suginami's location?!"
"SSE, it's left."
He turned left as instructed by Lapis who ran by his side without breathing.
However, one of them, Mari couldn't keep up with their mobility and bent, almost falling down.
"This third wheel...!"
Ouka intended to return after she stopped in her tracks, but before that, Takeru used Soumatou and flew to where Mari was.
He held her in her arms and started running again to join Ouka.
"Don't move! Put up with it for a while!"
He advised the blushing Mari, and aimed at the exit of the back alley.
Being held in both arms and facing him, it seemed like she was incredibly embarrassed, and "awawawa" leaked from her mouth.
There was no choice since it was an emergency.
Even though they knew that, he felt a mysterious hostility and resentment from both of his sides.
""...you should have left her there.""
"You guys are really unforgiving, aren't you!?"
"Don't talk, hurry up! We need to lose them before we join up with Suginami!"
Takeru gave out orders and ran straight down the road while holding Mari.
Ahead, he saw the light.
"Head over there, there's a reaction a bit to the right."
Takeru lowered his waist and increased his speed.
And at that moment, from the light on the other side,
Takeru was a bit late in grasping the situation.
About the same time, on the second floor of the building across the street, there was a woman holding a sniper rifle who was spying on Ikaruga and the mercenaries.
She was one of Inquisition's Dullahans, a direct subordinate of Kurogane Hayato, the captain of EXE.
Her name was Oonogi Kanata, she was the woman who served as his assistant during the time of the attack on the tournament.
"——Oonogi here, the target made contact with someone who looks like a trading partner. Considering their equipment, they're probably mercenaries hired by Alchemist."
《"Got it. What is the 35th Test Platoon doing?"》
"Sure enough, they lost their way."
《"That's convenient. They should be left alone for now. We'll recover them later."》
"Is that fine? Certainly, the Chairman..."
《"It's fine if you just follow my orders."》
As Hayato instructed from a distance, she took a deep breath, feeling dissatisfied.
"Today I should be off duty... why is it me... even though I have a reservation in Cake Viking... oh come on."
《"Don't complain with your communicator on."》
"Was no other member of EXE qualified for this? I-I'm still a newcomer."
《"There is no one more competent than you who came from Banshee."》
"...? Does that mean, that you picked me because of my abilities?"
She asked through the intercom a bit happy.
《"No, that's because you were the one with the most time."》
The words that came from the other side weren't the ones she desired causing her to make a grumpy face again. She continued to look at the enemy with her left eye through the scope.
"The enemies are five mercenaries, from my vantage point I can easily subdue them."
《"...I leave the timing to you. Before Suginami Ikaruga is taken away, clear them out and leave only her."》
She toggled the switch of the intercom, and tried to contact a comrade. In this mission, there were three other members of EXE involved, they were scattered around with the mission of monitoring Ikaruga and recovering the Lost Matrix. Three other people surrounded their objective while hiding themselves with optical camouflage while standing in positions allowing them to rush in at any time.
Hayato took command of the mission from headquarters and Kanata issued instructions on the field. In order to instruct the others, she waited for their responses.
"This is Oonogi, is everyone prepared?"
"? This is Oonogi, respond. Are the preparations for the attack..."
There was no answer. It was strange.
Just when she thought that, she saw something on the edge of her field of view and looked away from the scope.
In her field of view, about ten meters away from the place where the mercenaries and Ikaruga were, in the corner of the alley there was a familiar figure of a boy holding a girl in both of his arms.
"T-those kids——why with this timing!"
Kanata aimed the muzzle immediately at the mercenary closest to Ikaruga.
After thinking of stopping for a moment, Takeru devoted himself to accept the situation.
On his right, there was Ikaruga surrounded by several armed mercenaries. Ikaruga was hit in the cheek with a punch and fell to the ground.
A man was about to kick her while aiming a muzzle at her. Takeru looked at it with wide opened eyes.
Also Ikaruga, not knowing why Takeru was in this place was wondering of why would he be here.
When Takeru comprehended what was going on, anger welled up from inside of him before he noticed. This feeling was like the one when sword was made fun of, it couldn't be suppressed.
He put Mari down immediately and put a hand on his sword.
And like an antelope, he prepared to kick off the ground.
Someone shot twice from behind his back.
He didn't need to check, it was Ouka. Her gun's barrel was visible by his right shoulder.
Ouka told him.
With just that much, Takeru regained sanity. Rather than defeating the enemy right now, the priority was to help Ikaruga.
Immediately after, he sheathed his sword and kicked off the ground.
He tackled the man who was about to kick Ikaruga, since he was using Soumatou, the man was blown away.
There was a sound of the man's ribs being crushed, and he was blown away like a puppy hit by a car.
Although it almost dislocated Takeru's shoulder, the enemy wasn't caught completely off guard.
One of mercenaries seeing his comrade being blown away, impatiently directed the gun's muzzle at Takeru.
Takeru picked up Ikaruga without regard to it, and his mouth arced as he looked at the mercenary who aimed at him.
Before the mercenary could understand why Takeru laughed, the mercenary collapsed because an anesthesia bullet hit his temple.
Without looking back, Takeru kicked off the ground again.
He could trust Ouka. With how many people there were, they would come out of it intact.
Takeru dove into shade of a building and ensured Ikaruga's safety.
"...did you follow me...?"
Although she expected it, it wasn't welcome.
After separating from Takeru, as if she was disappointed, she placed a hand on her forehead.
"...I'll take any criticism later. Those guys just now——"
"It's better if you stop now. It's impossible for you guys."
"What are you talking about, with Ootori there that much is..."
Just when Takeru was about to say so, communication came from the intercom.
《"Kusanagi! Don't come back! Take Suginami and run awayyy!"》
With a voice that seemed like a scream.
Beyond that building was outside of her sniper rifle's range, she started shooting providing covering fire for Ouka.
She no longer cared if her position was exposed. Kanata couldn't stop herself from shooting.
"I apologize, the mission failed. I understand there will be severe punishment. But I couldn't stay silent in such situation——"
《"I don't mind. You've done well. Provide them cover."》
《"Just don't kill the mercenaries. We'll capture them and have them spit information. Leave Suginami to Kusanagi."》
"Is that alright?"
《"I've already told you I don't mind."》
Kanata was certain that she had to listen to Hayato's orders from above at all times, but she was now puzzled by his unexpected reply.
She was a fool to act like a sweetie all this time, now that she had the Captain's stamp of approval, there was no reason to hesitate.
Kanata fired accurately at the mercenaries who directed their muzzles at Ouka. She shot all the enemies who were glued to Ouka. She should be able to take them all out with a suppressor-equipped rifle.
From behind where Ouka was shooting with her handgun, a loud sound generated by the engine or caterpillar could be heard. Ouka also noticed it, and jumped into shadow where her comrades were hidden.
Immediately after that, two Dragoon machines jumped on the field.
It wasn't just two. Three more machines were on top of a building, it were new models equipped with rocket launchers.
That was careless. She couldn't get in touch with her fellow Banshees because of those guys.
Kanata was horrified, thoughts rotated at high speed in her head.
What to do? Her current equipment was insufficient for fighting against Dragoons.
I need to join up with 35th Test Platoon——
When she thought about that, all expressions disappeared from her face.
The sense she developed when she was in Banshee deprived her of all thoughts.
"Captain Kurogane, can you hear me?"
《"What is it?"》
"It seems like I can't help them."
While saying that, Kanata folded the poised sniper rifle and stood up.
"There's a machine behind me."
She pulled the bolt and prepared for combat.
《"You screwed up."》
《"There's no permission to use a Relic Eater. You have to do it with your normal equipment."》
《"Failing a mission is unforgivable. No matter what, you have to survive."》
Immediately after, behind Kanata there was sound of an indirect drive starting. With an electronic sound the optical camouflage was cut off. A big shadow appeared behind her.
"Plan change, Oonogi Kanata, to turn around the situation."
——The muzzle of sniper rifle turned around, at the same time the Dragoon raised its blade, Kanata pulled the trigger.
Takeru listened to the report from Ouka, he wanted to return there immediately but was too horrified.
No, there were three more machines on top of the buildings.
The two machines crushed the asphalt beneath its feet and went into the back alley to chase Ouka and the others. And the three from above, jumped over the buildings using their boosters and followed them as well.
Takeru couldn't endure it, and tried to jump after Ouka.
One of three machines noticed where Takeru was, and aimed its rocket launcher at him.
———This is bad!
A chill ran down his spine, and Takeru jumped into the back alley to protect Ikaruga.
Together with a distinctive sound of launching, it fired and the missile hit the entrance to the back alley.
Sounds of explosions rang out.
With a slight delay, the blast hit Takeru's back.
The rocket destroyed the alley's wall, and debris fell down.
Takeru tried to raise his body from under the rubble, but he felt intense pain in his waist.
Without giving any sound, he swallowed the pain.
"We have no time to spare. The road was blocked by the rubble, but it can be broken through with a Dragoon's brute strength."
"We're running, can you stand?"
Takeru grabbed Ikaruga's hand and pulled her up.
Ikaruga looked at Takeru accusingly as he almost detached her arm.
"Shitt... Ootori and the others... comms won't go through."
While spitting curses, he tried to call Ouka many times through the intercom, but there was no reaction.
It was the worst possible situation, *clap*, Takeru grabbed his head.
Takeru continued to go on instructed by Ikaruga, they had to lose the enemy first. Ikaruga was just like Mari, accustomed to moving inside the border and seemed to choose less popular and safe passages.
Takeru desperately kept up with Ikaruga's speed.
The speed wasn't too big because of how Ikaruga's motor senses were.
Even so, Takeru was losing breath more than Ikaruga, and his body started to sway.
He was very pale, as if he was already dead. He stood in a spot and took a deep breath.
"Sorry... can you hide yourself somewhere around here? Just stay there and wait for me."
Ikaruga who was standing in front stopped, and looked at Takeru.
From her expression, it seemed like she was angry.
"Kusanagi, what are you going to do?"
"I need to find them. For a while now... I couldn't contact them."
After he said that, Ikaruga suddenly closed on Takeru and pulled on his shoulder.
She used force to turn the staggering Takeru around, and looked at his waist.
There were pieces of glass stuck deeply in his waist.
A huge amount of blood continued to flow from it.
Ikaruga put his arm around her neck and on her shoulder as he staggered.
"We're going to my hideout. It's no joke if you damaged your kidney. You'll die with no treatment."
"Even so... I'm not going."
"Silence. Don't piss me off any more."
"...let go, Ootori and the others..."
"Shut up. You reap what you sow."
She was definitely angry. Ikaruga glared at him.
It was his first time seeing Ikaruga make an angry expression.
While lending her shoulder to Takeru, Ikaruga took out a mobile phone from her pocket and made a call.
"...Isuka? Sorry, but the schedule went crazy."
《"I have received a report. Was that your trap? You did something stupid."》
"Don't misunderstand. That was mishandled. These guys are from my school's test platoon. My... acquaintances. All of them."
《"I can't trust you."》
"In that case, I'll say this. Next time get better mercenaries... they almost killed me."
"As a price for being targeted, I have a request."
"If your mercenaries happen to catch the guys from the test platoon... you're not to kill any of them."
《"Your request is just that?"》
"If you kill them you will get 'that'."
《"...very well. They've already been captured. They were to be used as bargain chips.You still haven't recovered my trust. It's only a trade."》
"Fine. I'll contact you from my side again."
Ikaruga ended the call immediately after saying that.
Takeru heard a voice of a person from the other end, but he couldn't tell what were they talking about. Gunfire and explosions could be heard in a distance. Like an echo.
Somewhere, Ikaruga's voice entered his head and echoed, but his consciousness dimmed.
"You did something unnecessary... because of that my plan failed."
Ikaruga breathed out and said to Takeru.
"Why did you chase me. There's no point staying silent after coming this far."
"...I was...worried... about, you..."
"In the end, it's probably the handiwork of that rotten Chairman anyway. Probably, he said something like me being a traitor, that's what he told you isn't it."
Ikaruga said coldly.
Takeru, barely conscious while keeping his weight on Ikaruga, rebutted while breathing painfully.
"A traitor, that wasn't... I didn't care about that..."
"I thought you might... be caught in something troublesome... also..."
"Because, you always try to solve everything alone... don't you... but."
"...I won't let you... to carry it... all alone."
"That's enough. Stop saying whatever you want, when you don't know how the other person feels."
She accused him, but it could no longer reach Takeru's ears. *shhh*. The weight on Ikaruga's shoulder increased.
Ikaruga proceeded into a dim alley while dragging Takeru's weight.