Inside of a dim room from which light had already disappeared from, Shio slowly opened her eyes.
Her mind was still agitated after she experienced an entertainment structure for the first time, smouldering heat was leaving her body and she took deep breaths repeatedly.
Shio waved her arms lightly to clear her thinking. In conjunction with her movements the lights were turned on, at the same time the Arclight was turned off.
"...I sweated a lot."
Although that was in the Elysion, it was because she wasn't used to moving that much. Her camisole was drenched with sweat, sticking to her skin, and her skin colour could be clearly seen through it. Although she wiped her entire body with the towel she prepared, she still felt discomfort.
I'll take a bath first, then have a lunch.
She was alone in her broad room.
There was an Arclight and a bed, it was a simple room with minimum furniture. That was the place she was living in.
——One corner of the four major cyber-related corporates, 'Karasuba'.
Even if there were people who still didn't know Kiritou's name, there were no people who didn't know the name of Karasuba. That's how large of an enterprise it was. Karasuba Shio was the granddaughter of its company head and the second daughter of its current president.
Unlike Fuyuki who was an adopted daughter using the Karasuba name, she was a daughter descending from a 'Noble Lineage'.
Shio changed into appropriate clothes and draped a coat on her shoulders before she left the room.
Karasuba owned grounds was the size of a small town and her room was inside of the head family's manor.
Through the window there were several visible buildings serving as research facilities and behind those buildings were huge headquarters towering over them.
It wasn't visible from where Shio was looking now, but on the other side there is the reception hall of the internal education facility 《Bird Cage》 and its various facilities that were dispersed.
Partially because it was a holiday, but there were less people in the mansion than usual. Judging from the appearance, Shio was the only one from the head family in there, everyone else there was a servant.
"My lady, Princess Shio is staying at home again... even her other siblings are all at laboratories researching..."
"Master and mistress are going to scold her again..."
Along the way, she heard the servants chatting. Shio shut her heart ignoring the negative chatter.
Aren't they getting bored of repeating the same thing every time...?
Again and again and again and again, that talk continued on a daily basis, these words no longer hurt her but still, somewhere in her heart she felt worn out.
Shio had an older brother, older sister, and a younger sister.
The three siblings besides Shio were already acting as researchers and have attained remarkable achievements——they were being called 'Geniuses'.
Children of Karasuba didn't play like normal children would, they don't attend school. To become people that stand above everyone else, they are subjected to special thorough education from a young age.
They were trained in different subjects. But what was the most important among them was the cyber technology. The only thing that mattered was that they had to have excellent results, that was all.
From a very young age they desperately polished their techniques at the expense of everything else.
———And despite all of that, Shio had no talent at all.
It took her siblings only a week to learn what she had to study for three months. No matter how much effort she put in, she couldn't even see her siblings' backs.
And then, the place 'Karasuba Shio' belonged to slowly faded away.
Shio entered the dressing room, quickly undressed and entered the absurdly huge bathroom.
"Hafuu〜...this is really calming〜"
She soaked in hot water from which white steam rose, and let out a voice.
The warm water was not only pleasant. She also had a sense of freedom no one else knew, it was healing Shio's heart.
She relaxed her body releasing all her strength, and floated as the watery sounds filled the air.
For just a moment Shio felt an unbearable weakness no one knew of. All the unpleasant feelings melted away in the hot water and her head became empty——is how it should have been. That's how it normally was.
...it turned out really weird.
She thought about her first time in 《Aries》, reminded of how she was travelling with the boy who claimed to be Fuyuki's brother.
Even now when she closed her eyes she was reminded of the feeling she had as she released an arrow from her bow, she recalled the sight of arrows flying straight and penetrating through monsters.
It was supposed to be a way to kill time. She obtained a free pass by chance (or rather it was forced on her). She didn't throw it away because it would be a waste, that's all.
But because of that whim, she was reunited with a friend from her past.
I wonder if that was fate...
Even though the hot water should have warmed her up, her heart was cold.
She wanted to ignore all of these feelings, but she couldn't get accustomed to pain that easily.
The pain she felt in her heart seven years ago as her dreams and hopes were all shattered, it encroached her body slowly, like poison.
Ever since then she didn't expect anything, she wasn't entertained by anything, she just lived her life while remaining idle. She thought her own life had no value, that's how it was. However...
...it was fun.
These few hours she spent today were really fun. It was very enjoyable, even though at some point it became as painful as it was when she was betrayed, she still wondered 'What is going to happen next?' with high expectations.
Just a little more, let's continue for a while longer——Shio closed her eyes and entrusted her body to the hot water once again.
After an hour passed since the break started, Taiga returned to 《Aries》.
An inorganic voice announced, and he opened his eyes. What he saw was the interior of 《Babel》's thirty-third training grounds.
He had a meal in Paradise which as usual, had no other customers. He washed away the sweat and his body was in perfect condition.
Then, he heard the sound of an explosion nearby.
He wondered just how long she had been going at it. Shio was shooting her arrows at the target which was located forty meters away while maintaining a light breathing. Even though there was compensation it was difficult, about 40% of her arrows hit the centre of it.
Despite that, it seemed like she made a steady progress as compared to herself from before the break.
Hey hey... then why did we have an hour long break to rest. There's no point if she doesn't rest is there.
Not noticing that Taiga has logged in, Shio continued to shoot one arrow after another.
She didn't grow as an archer, it wasn't like she grasped it intuitively. Her progress was from the very beginning until the very end a result of her efforts.
Not knowing what to do, and only repeating the same thing over and over again. Standing in the middle of pitch black darkness and exploring everything with touch. A human who only knew how to do it that way, when it came to efficiency she was clumsy it looked as if her thinking circuits were removed.
It's impressive that she was able to improve and reach that level by doing such a thing.
Taiga was shocked, but he didn't hate that kind of thing.
Not having a place for himself, having to be strong to finally get out of there. Without anyone to rely on, unable to ask anyone for guidance——his old self overlapped with her, Taiga couldn't keep watching or leave her alone.
"...Shio, put less strength in from your shoulders."
"Ee...Onii-san?! I'm sorry, is it time already?"
"It's fine, just do it."
He cut in the middle of her apology and prompted her to take the posture.
Panicking Shio tried to pull the string with all her force, she was still stiff.
"You're putting too much strength considering the target is at that distance. Remember the first arrow you hit in the forest. That much strength is enough, what's left is technique. Yes, breathe slowly."
Just as she'd been told, Shio took a very deep breath while holding the arrow. Three times, four times she repeated that and the strength faded from her body.
Taiga continued to instruct her.
"Don't narrow your eyes, like that you won't be able to see the target too well if you burden your eyes too much, your concentration will decrease. Control yourself and your breathing. You must have rhythmic, shallow breathing. If your breath is too deep you will draw out too much strength, and if your breath is too shallow you won't have enough oxygen and your thinking will be blurry. It might be difficult at first, but you should try to keep your breathing as natural as possible."
Shio followed Taiga's instructions and fixed both her breathing and vision.
She only saw the contour of the target that was forty meters away, the dot in the very middle of it was practically invisible.
Seeing Shio anxious like that, Taiga continued to speak.
"You don't need any more information about the target. You know roughly how big is it and what its shape is, it's fine if you shoot at it and just adjust your aim accordingly. What's important right now is to grasp the feeling. Like that you will be able to hit the place you aim at."
"Stop your breathing for a moment right before you release the arrow, it will stop your body from making small movements and help you to retain the aim. However, you can't stop your breathing for too long, if you decide to shoot then go through with it immediately."
Following the rhythm inside her head. Shio aimed her arrow straight. She stopped her breathing for a moment and immediately released the arrow!
*clank*——the arrow cut through the air and pierced in a place right beside the dot in the centre. Shio unconsciously murmured "I've done it!!", and Taiga saw her happy smile.
"Let's continue. How about we see what will happen if you follow the rhythm?"
Shio replied vigorously and readied another arrow.
Taiga fixed the parts he felt were bad one by one and eventually when the number of arrows shot reached fifty she was able to hit nearly every arrow near the middle.
Her body has a natural posture, rhythm, just as she was taught. She's a good learner.
It was the first time he taught someone who perfectly listened to his instructions like that.
Any human would have some kind of habit that would surface to a certain degree, and that habit would upset what he taught them.
But without tendencies of her own, she absorbed Taiga's words like wool. At that pace she would improve in no time.
"Shio, let's stop here. We'll continue with monsters as our opponents."
"Uu... it'll be harder than worms. I wonder If I can do it...?"
"Hitting them isn't that hard. Well, though to get a good aim you need to read an opponent's movements."
The basics don't change, only an additional element is added.
"...oh right. Onii-san, you said you had a place you wanted to go to?"
"Yeah, I've been asked something troublesome of an acquaintance. It's the arena on the top floor.
《Aries' Management Tower》, users call it by a name 'Babel'.
Even with that said, the amount of people who were here to contact management or get a rank-up were at most a hundred. So what were all the other players doing here? Their aim was to visit the top floor of the Babel. On top of the giant rock floating in the sky above the tower was——an 《Arena》.
"So this is the arena."
"The atmosphere is amazing... also, it's noisy."
The moment they entered after speaking with the transfer staff on the top of the spiral staircase, Taiga and Shio were forcibly blown away to the amphitheatre. As two people appeared on the edges of the stage, a loud applause rumbled, it felt like an earthquake.
The 《Arena》 reminded of the Colosseum from the middle ages. However it was inside of the Elysion, so it was not normal.
Placed in the middle of the arena, as if having a leading role was a sparkling, mysterious crystal sphere. It was a projector that reflected several three-dimensional images from nothingness.
Their number was five in total. They were broadcasting battles in real-time in five different locations for each one.
"I might be no good with this..."
"That's true it might be hard for Shio since you're very shy. But what's with this amount of people. Do they have nothing better to do?"
Responding to Taiga's condescending tone Shio put on a wry smile.
The audience that consisted of over five hundred people cheered and taunted as they pleased. Honestly, they were really noisy. It seemed like it was hard on Shio as she was in a state where her legs were unsteady.
"I feel as if I was drunk...auu..."
"Oops. Shio, are you alright?"
He supported Shio's body who almost collapsed onto her knees. At that time, he touched her shoulders that were strangely exposed by the hunter costume.
Whoa... what's this, her skin is too white...
No extra flesh at all and spotless beautiful skin.
So white it seemed like it would melt on touch, so brittle it seemed like it would spill on touch.
After touching her, he saw her in a new light.
She looked up towards him with slightly red cheeks, it might have been because of the enthusiasm in this place. A drop of red in the middle of pure white, naturally it was her eyes that attracted him with their diabolical charm.
"——!! Come on, let's look for a vacant seat, you can lean on me."
"Yes... thank you, Onii-san."
After unconsciously staring at her in admiration, he looked away in a hurry and started to look for a vacant seat Shio could rest on. With that said, since it was both daytime and a holiday it seemed to be a very busy time so there was no convenient seat they could use.
As Taiga worried about what to do, that's when a man approached.
"Oh, isn't it the two from before! What a coincidence!"
A man two, three times older casually spoke to them, Taiga tilted his neck. Wondering, where did I see this guy before?
"Hey hey, did you forget me already? Earlier today, on the main street——"
"...ah! The guy who came in to mediate!"
When they had a dispute with the man called Tokuma, he didn't just stand around and dived in. Because the only thing he was thinking about back then was to calm Shio, he didn't look at his face.
"That's quite a fast reunion."
"Hahaha, this might be destiny. Speaking of which, I still haven't introduced myself. I'm Leon, nice to meet you."
"Leon? A foreigner?"
"Onii-san. It's not a real name. It's a secondary name used in Elysion. It's a temporary name used to hide the real name. It's probably the same for that Tokuma person."
"...in other words, a pseudonym?"
"Hey hey, from what age did you come from that you don't know about the second name?"
Leon was amazed. Unfortunately Taiga didn't have any contact with the cyber world. Since neither Fuyuki nor Rui taught him about it, it was impossible for him to know.
"It's not like there's a reason to hide it. I'm Taiga, nice to meet you."
"Taiga, is it. By the way, that girl appears to be sick, is she alright?"
"This atmosphere doesn't serve her too well. I was trying to find a place for her to sit, but there's none so I'm kinda troubled."
"Then I know a good place. Not only you can sit down there, but it's also quiet unlike this place. If you're fine I can guide you?"
Leon's proposal was like a rescue boat. However, there was a single question.
"...a place like that, where is it?"
"Participants waiting room below. Normally, unrelated people can't use it, but since the clan is not using it now you can stay there until the match ends. Do you know what a clan is?"
"It's an English word for family however... but it doesn't seem to be the case here."
"It's not wrong if you think of it as a kind of group. It's a party of four or more players. I'm the leader of a clan called 《Lion Alliance》. Well, we're a weak clan with only four members. Eh, I ended up talking about unnecessary things. Let me guide you to the waiting room."
As he said that, Leon passed through the audience and headed towards the stairs installed near the outer wall. Taiga determined that having Shio get some rest was top priority, he placed his arms around Shio and picked her up before following Leon.
"O-Onii-san! I can walk by myself!"
"What are you saying, didn't you fall down. Just a little longer so don't make a fuss and bear with it. By the way Shio, you're way too light, you should eat more meat."
Probably embarrassed, Shio's face was dyed scarlet and she lowered her head. Taiga, surprised by how light her body was held in his arms, felt like dropping her would be unforgivable.
They walked through a corridor located below the audience seats until Leon stopped his feet.
"We're here, this is our waiting room."
Guided by Leon they arrived and entered a simple room.
There was a projecting sphere just like the one in the field's center and it was surrounded by chairs. Taiga helped Shio to sit down and bowed his head to Leon.
"Sorry, you saved me."
"Thank you, Leon-san."
"Don't mention it. ...but why did you come to the Arena? Let me tell you first, fights here are too hard for beginners alright?"
"I didn't come here to participate. I've been asked to investigate something by a tyrannical ojou-sama. I just thought I would find something in a place full of people."
The fact that Kiritou was involved was the most he could say, he shouldn't talk about his connections any more than that. Especially not in a place where people might have some information.
"Is that so. By the way, what are you investigating?"
"It's about a guy called 『Angel』 who appeared recently."
"Yeah. Something about bestowing whatever we wish for. Or something..."
"You know something?"
"Just from the rumours. I never saw him myself."
"That's fine. Just tell me."
"Sure thing. First——uh, wait a second. Leon speaking..."
It seemed like he had a call, Leon started to talk after turning his back to the two.
As the room became silent, Taiga glanced to check on Shio's state. It seemed like she settled down quite a bit, her cheeks weren't as red as before either.
"You look better now."
"Yup, it's all thanks to Onii-san. What's the 『Angel』 you mentioned before?"
"A guy who's said to have scattered around a strange program. I am supposed to investigate why he did that. ...that Haya, forcing people to work. She better rest properly."
Hearing Taiga speak Shio tilted her head, she felt like she knew the name he just spoke.
"Must be a different person, right?
She got curious and asked honestly.
"By Haya, do you mean Kiritou Haya-san?"
"What, you know her? Oh right, you're both children from the four major corporates. You must be acquainted."
"We just exchanged greetings once at a party. Oh right. The one who's given me a free pass and recommended 《Aries》 was Haya-san, she said her acquaintance uses it..."
"That's definitely about me. In other words, what? The reason Shio came to 《Aries》, was because of me?"
What a coincidence, no, it was inevitable.
The fact that Taiga and Shio met in 《Aries》 might have been fate.
"That's really surprising... but a party eh. Seems like Shio participates in such a thing as well."
"Nnn. It was the first time in a while since I participated in one. That's because a drop-out like me is just a nuisance at home."
For Karasuba she was only a disposable tool. Also, a tool of little value——that's what Shio seriously thought.
Ever since her parents said 'That girl only has good looks so let's have her marry as fast as possible'——she learned just how much a person called Karasuba Shio was worth, she was now only a 'Tool for political marriage'.
Taiga wanted to say 'be more confident' but he swallowed those words. That wasn't what he should be saying now.
No matter what, that seems way too irresponsible...
Because he didn't know anything about her past.
"HA?! W-wait a minute! You, don't you know how important this day is?!"
Then, Leon who was talking in the corner of the room suddenly raised his voice in panic. The atmosphere for the conversation disappeared, the two looked at each other.
"You didn't know... didn't I fucking tell you that before?! The clan matches are for four people, if even one person is missing——Wait, I said wait, hey!?"
It seemed like the caller suddenly disconnected, and Leon's voice resounded throughout the room not reaching him.
"Leon-san, what happened?"
"Seems like it's something troublesome... hey, Leon! What is it?"
"...last minute cancellation."
"Today's match, we aren't able to participate without four members and as it suddenly turns out one member can't come... even though it was determined there will be a match a month ago."
Seeing him fall into a slump like that, it seemed like he really looked forward to today's game.
"Can't you ask someone else to stand in?"
"《Lion Alliance》 is a clan that has only four members, we don't have any substitutes. And there's no time to look for one——"
That's when Leon stopped talking, and his line of sight was cast towards Taiga.
Taiga had a bad premonition, he wanted to take Shio and leave the room but——
"I beg you Taiga! Participate in the game instead!"
"...it turned out like this after all."
He was a bit too slow.
"There's no one else but you! Hey, I beg you!"
"You're the one who said it'll be too hard for me. What are you doing, inviting me after saying that?"
"Just this time we can overlook it! Anyone who can increase the head count is fine!"
No matter what, that's suiting himself too much.
"Is it fine even if we lose?"
"Since we're participating we have no intention to lose! Rather than admit defeat without fighting, I'd rather participate with a handicap! Of course, I won't tell you to do it for free. If you participate, then me and my acquaintances will collect information about 『Angel』!"
Because of that condition, his resolve started to falter.
For Taiga himself there was no profit from it, however there could be some for that scheming young lady. If he continued to collect information at this rate and took too much time, he would be showered by a barrage of insults.
Moreover, Leon not only helped them in the morning, but Taiga was also indebted to him for lending a room for Shio to rest in. He would feel horrible if he were to decline.
Also, it's not like he didn't have any interest in PvP.
"...tell me more details."
"For the time being, explain everything to me. If it's too weird, I'm not going out there."
Even if he was pulled in by Leon for numbers, he had no intention of pulling his punches. That's why he wanted to know if he will be useful before agreeing to it.
"If you want specifics... I can't explain it to you because I don't know them myself yet."
Not knowing why he didn't know the contents of the game despite being a participant, Taiga was shocked. But it seemed like Leon had a good reason for that.
"Don't jump to conclusions. It's not just us. None of the participants know the content of the game until the start is signalled. That's the real thrill of 《UNKNOWN》."
According to Leon's explanation.
Participants don't know the rules until the very last moment. Rules are different every time, in some cases the rules upset them greatly——it was held only once a month. Arena's most popular event the 《UNKNOWN》.
"The registration will be over soon, and they will announce the rules for the first time. Also, there was a special rule that was changed from the old 『Rank Bonus Reversal』 to 『Movement Speed』 whatever it means."
"Fuun... and the number of participants?"
"This time it's ten groups of four people, so a total of forty. Victory conditions sometimes change, but usually its defeating all other groups besides your own. It's really simple, I'll take care of all last minute details."
While saying that, Leon deployed a window and sent it over to Taiga.
Among all that was written there, the thing that made Taiga curious was a sentence that stood out since it was written in red.
"So what's the prize for winning this?"
"An update program for attack-configured programs. It seems to drastically power up a weapon. The rewards for participating now seem to be really great this time."
With these words, Taiga glanced at Shio. She was resting while sitting on a chair and looking curiously at the projection sphere floating in the middle of the room.
"Let me confirm one thing. Even if we lose you will help me to collect information right?"
"I promise you that."
"Then I'll participate."
"Yeah!! Then right now it's most important to send the party application to other members! I'm going to explain the circumstances to the other members now!"
After saying just that Leon turned into an incredibly hurried state, he immediately expanded a window in front of Taiga.
〈"A party request has been filed by player Leon. Do you accept it?"〉
Taiga tapped YES, his name was added to the Leon's and the other two members names that appeared. Taiga seemed to have become a member of their party.
"In that case Shio, can you wait for a while? I'll end it in a flash and come back."
"Y-yes. That's fine but... Onii-san, are you really participating?"
"It seems interesting. Is Shio against it?"
"...beginners like us will be only tread upon by the strong people."
Again. Those eyes again.
Trusting in those words as if it was an absolute truth, eyes of someone whose heart was crushed. Not attempting to deny or struggle against it——eyes of a human who lost all hope after confronting reality.
"You won't win anyway, so it's better not to participate at all. The one who will be laughed at after losing won't be Leon-san, but Onii-san right? ...no matter how hard you try, you can't win against someone who has a starting line ahead of you right from the beginning. That's what I think."
For some reason, in Shio's words Taiga heard a heartbreaking cry asking why does it have to be so.
He couldn't agree to it——that's what he thought instinctively.
"I won't be able to win against higher-ranked people, eh. ...then if I win this match, that would prove that Shio's thinking is wrong. Alright! I've got some motivation now!"
"...I'm telling you it's impossible."
"In that case, let's have a bet?"
"Yeah. Shio will bet that I'm going to lose. I say it'll be just the opposite. The loser is going to do one thing the winner requests of him——how's that?"
Although Shio looked up at Taiga to find his real intention, but she couldn't read his thoughts that easily. She gave up after a moment and reluctantly agreed with a sigh.
"Fine. I'm in. Since Onii-san will lose anyway."
"Is that so. Then, just look at it from there."
Leaving behind the girl who closed her mouth with her head down, Taiga left the place. He felt slightly guilty.
I feel as if I've cheated her... but this time it couldn't be helped.
Taiga might have been an E-rank, but his strength was that of an A rank or higher. He worked together with Fuyuki and Rui at subjugating viruses after all. Other users should be no match for him.
At the end of the corridor the waiting rooms were located at, was the standby room in which nearly forty players have already gathered. In one of the corners were the members of 《Lion Alliance》.
"Oh, you're here Taiga. Are you prepared?"
"Yeah. I found a reason to win as well."
Although Leon casually spoke to him, the gazes of the other two were harsh. It looked like they weren't convinced about Taiga's participation. Since an E-ranker suddenly joined, it was an obvious response there was no choice but to show them results.
"It looks like you're fired up, but Taiga is an E-rank and has no chance, as long as the rules aren't too weird you might be able to hide somewhere and survive until the end if you're lucky."
Leon started a meeting together with other members, Taiga clenched his fist and observed the opponents for the time being.
As expected, it was different from reality. He couldn't tell how strong they are just by looking. However, he could tell how familiar they are with fighting. It was just as people said, experience could be seen in its own way.
"This seems like it'll be harder than expected. ...hm?"
Suddenly the participants groaned "Why are they...", after he heard that question he followed their line of sight——there, was a man dressed completely in black.
The moment Taiga moved his line of sight and turned towards it he found the reason other participants were so noisy.
"Hmph, the sight of weaklings stretching their necks looks as annoying as always."
With such an arrogant face and looking down on others, it wasn't a face Taiga would ever forget.
It was the A-rank guy they met during the day, his name was Tokuma or something, a qualification holder.
"That guy is participating as well... it might turn out troublesome.
He understood just from his atmosphere. He had a tyrannical attitude, but it seemed like he wasn't incompetent. The three members who were together with Tokuma also seemed pretty tough, though not as much as he Tokuma himself.
As Taiga observed Tokuma's line of sight, unexpectedly the standby room's door closed with a loud noise. At the same time, a green crystal appeared near the ceiling. A voice sounded from it.
〈"Everyone, thank you for waiting for so long. Entries of forty participants confirmed, I'm happy to announce the rules of this《UNKNOWN》. Ten seconds after the rules have been disclosed, you will be automatically transferred to the field."〉
Together with the mechanical announcement, windows appeared in front of the participants.
——— Rules of the 《UNKNOWN》 ———
① Battlefield is 《Sea of Trees》. Battle system is survival.
② Privately owned attack-configured program cannot be used. The only armament available is one scattered around the field. However, if a player takes down ten others alone, he will be granted access to use his privately owned attack-configured program.
③ Damage calculation depends on the rank. However the stats do not change.
④ Damage dealt depends on the body part hit.
Seeing the contents written, Taiga freezed.
It wasn't that he didn't understand the meaning. It was because he understood that his mind froze.
W-what?! Are they rules specifically aimed at me?!
There were several reasons Taiga who was an E rank could demonstrate the power of an A rank or even greater.
First, was the attack-configured program he received from Rui 《Heavenly Sword》. And another was his specs far beyond an ordinary person. With these two elements, Taiga had an offensive power far beyond his rank.
——In other words, with these characteristics of his sealed, Tenryo Taiga became a real, weak E-rank.
"Ah—shit, there are some weird rules this time. How are we supposed to defeat those A-rank guys with these conditions... Taiga, for the time being hide and try to survive. We'll do something about Tokuma."
Leon said something, but Taiga was too stunned after reading the rules and didn't hear him at all.
Soon after, the room was wrapped in blue light and the players were blown away to the battlefield.
"Not started yet... even though it said that it'll start soon..."
As the participants were being transferred to the field, Shio was left alone in the waiting room and still looked at the projection sphere floating in the air. Impatient, she moved her feet up and down hitting the ground.
Now that I think of it, I've never seen Onii-san fighting... he taught me how to use the bow, I wonder if he's familiar with that kind of thing?
She lost herself in thought as she waited, and then the projection sphere unexpectedly began to give off a faint glow. Several windows were deployed in the centre of the room, a forest full of huge trees was projected.
〈"3 ・2・1———Match Start."〉
When the countdown finished, players appeared throughout the sea of trees.
T-that person... the one called Tokuma, was it... and there's Leon-san over there...
The players armed themselves and started to move one after another. It looked like despite being from one group, they scattered. She confirmed the positions of three 《Lion Alliance》 members, but she couldn't find Taiga.
"I wonder where is Onii-san... waawwa!"
When she tried to get rid of a distracting window, suddenly another small window was expanded. She cautiously checked it, but it seemed like it was a roster of the game participants.
Near the end of the list she found Taiga's name, when she touched it a small piece of the window spread out——what was displayed in front of Shio, was Taiga as he moved.
"...why is he kneeling down?"
Shio tilted her neck.
Despite the fact the game has just began, Taiga's figure was down on his knees, collapsed on the spot.
《Sea of Trees》.
Just as it's name implied, it looked like a sea of trees towering overhead. Each of the giant trees' branch was as thick as a train, and intertwined they created a three dimensional structure.
And another characteristic standing out more than anything else, was a number of weapons stuck here and there.
But even without looking at them, Taiga dropped down.
Just how bad is my luck...
When he wanted to win, suddenly he got hit by the worst rules——amazed by his own horrible luck he tried to check the rules once again to make sure. But of course, there was no change in what was written there.
When he moved his hand to his hip, there was no nodachi nor its sheath there.
"...what should I do..."
① and ④ were basic rules, he wasn't particularly interested in those. The problems were rules ② and ③.
——Privately owned attack-configured program cannot be used. The only armament available is one randomly arranged at the field——
The 《Heavenly Sword》 that became the cornerstone of his attack power could not be used because of this condition.
When he looked around, he saw weapons stuck here and there. It seemed like he had to fight using those.
Following was ③, damage calculation depends on the rank.
That meant his specs had no effect on his ability to damage his enemies, it meant that his rank was being converted into his attack power. Thus with his body ability a reverse correction was applied. These rules were the worst for Taiga who didn't increase his rank.
Stats do not change. That's my only salvation...
He tried to move his body lightly, but there was no change to his own physical ability. Like this, he could run away. It won't be one-sided situation.
No matter how he broods over it, it can't be helped. With that said, Taiga proceeded to stand up and discerned the sounds around him.
"Okay, there's no one nearby. For the time being let's join Leon and the others."
He didn't want to admit it, but it seemed like it was impossible for him to fight on his own now.
Taiga pulled out a suitable sword that was stuck nearby and began to carefully go deeper into sea of trees where daylight didn't reach. Since the risk of being found by enemies on the ground was high, so he decided on a route on top of the branches above.
He walked and ascertained his prey.
A blade length of about sixty centimetres and about four centimetres wide. It was a sword called 'Broadsword'.
Honestly speaking, he couldn't say he was familiar with this weapon. It's length and weight was significantly different from the nodachi he usually used... or rather, it was a one handed sword that's usually combined with a shield. There was no meaning in using it alone.
Long sword, estoc, spear, axe... there was a lot.
He confirmed various weapons just by walking for a while. But at just a glance he could tell they were all inferior mass produced ones. He didn't know much about attack-configured programs, but they were obviously different from his 《Heavenly Sword》. They were probably all initial equipment.
Although he tried to find and change for a Japanese sword, since he couldn't find it he decided to rush ahead. This 《Sea of Trees》 was broader than he imagined it, he walked for five minutes or more but couldn't find any other player. Meanwhile he looked at the last rule, and the damage calculation in PvP.
"Hmm... damage increases for hits above the neck. Normally it means instant death, but this is virtual reality."
Besides that, it seemed like there was bonus damage for attacks from behind. It seemed also that if arms or legs are cut or crushed to a certain level they are disconnected. Another important thing, there was a set durability for attack-configured programs, if it reaches zero they break.
Let's check the damage for hitting an enemy above the neck first when I enter battle——just when he decided that, he heard footsteps in the front. Taiga erased his presence and moved up the trunk without making any sounds and waited patiently in a position above the enemy.
Before long, Taiga saw the owner of the footsteps——a man who picked up a halberd.
Taiga held his breath and waited patiently for the man to pass beneath him. And the moment he saw his back, he ran down the trunk at top speed attacking his unprotected head from behind!
Taiga who completely erased his presence closed the distance like a snake, and cut the unprotected neck with all the momentum.
It was a perfect blow from an ambush that would blow his head off in the real world.
Taiga slipped away and quickly checked the opponent's HP. As expected, instead of being fatal, the damage should be displayed behind his head——
A light as small as the tip of his small finger appeared on the gauge decreasing it, and his hopes were crushed.
Rather than a 1%, it was more like 0.1%. It was so small it wouldn't be noticed unless you're cautious, it was a really slight change. Not only Taiga, the one who was cutting, but also the person who was cut was taken aback by the amount of damage dealt.
"Umm, was that an attack just now?"
"Yeah, well... seems like it."
What followed it, was this ridiculous exchange of words.
The man tilted his neck while rubbing his carotid artery that was cut. Taiga also made a single step back with an unpleasant feeling, the halberd's tip was lowered——
"...I don't really get it, but let's defeat you for the time being!"
"So it turns out like that after all!"
Taiga avoided the attack with the halberd and made a step forward before cutting the man's body. But the blow had no bonus applied to it so the gauge barely decreased.
Knowing that even if he's struck there will be no damage, the man has thrown away all defence and continued to attack.Taiga showered him with slashes while parrying his attacks, but it was ineffective.
"This is impossible! Just how many times do I have to cut dammit! The guy who thought of this rule better be prepared to hear a mountain of complaints!"
"How about you concentrate instead of talking!"
Taiga complained as the battle continued.
As expected, as it went on not a single enemy attack went through either. No matter how good his defence was, if he dealt no damage there was no point.
This can go on forever——eh, what?!
Just when Taiga honestly though about escaping, he sprung back after sensing the presence of someone else.
A black shadow assaulted his enemy with a large sword and sent him flying with sheer force. The man who was blown away rotated in the air once and somehow managed to rebuilt his posture as he fell to the ground and readied himself again.
"Yoo, you alright Taiga?"
The one who entered the fight between the two of them was the leader of 《Lion Alliance》 - Leon. Holding a huge two handed sword in one hand, he laughed in front of the enemy.
"Hee— I saw it. You're doing really well! Are you really a novice?"
"For the time being. It's been only two weeks since I started. Rather than that, you've saved me. Sankyu."
"What, it's fine. ——I'll take it from here. Stand back."
If he fought as he was now, he had no chances of winning. Knowing that, Taiga obediently stood back.
Leon thrust his large sword into ground, rotated his shoulders and vigorously hit his fists in front of his chest. *pam* sounded with a nice feel, and his playful expression disappeared.
"Now... let's start this."
Leon vigorously pulled out the large sword, and a ferocious smile reminiscent of a lion appeared on his face.
The man instinctively sensed Leon's intensity, and unlike he was earlier, he took a proper stance as he confronted him.
The halberd was the first one to move, it was a simple therefore fastest attack on Leon's head.
It seemed like normally he was using a similarly shaped weapon, also in Taiga's eyes he was quite good too.
...it's Leon's win.
But, his opponent was the worst.
Leon dodged the fast attack of the halberd, his prey was no match for him. He twisted his entire body and pounded him with the large sword he held in both of his hands.
The man set up the halberd to defend instantly, but it was pointless resistance.
With a terrifying momentum the halberd was cleaved in two and continued to cut the man's body, his gauge indicating HP dropped down to 0 all at once. The man began to disappear and turned into particles of light without having time to even raise a voice.
"Splendid. It was a good strike."
Taiga applauded Leon who fought in his stead.
Both his offence and defence were impressive. Even though he thought so ever since he saw him in Arena, but to think he was this good.
"I won't lose to a guy like this. ...also Taiga, I told you to hide right? Rules this time state that rank is directly linked to abilities. It seems like you're pretty good, but being an E-rank you stand no chance."
"Looks like it... are you alone?"
"No, I'm together with comrades. We're going to run a plan after partnering up with another group, you coming with us Taiga?"
"You saw it as well right? It's a plan to beat that despicable Tokuma."
Leon started walking and prompted him to come as well with his head. Taiga hurried and stood alongside him, and asked about the mentioned plan.
"Partnering with another group, what do you mean?"
"The matches in Arena are made for normal players, people who are A-rank or higher holding qualification don't try to participate. That's because boss battles are more exciting than arena. But even though it's rare, there are some cases when qualification holders participate in the matches for the reward."
Taiga was in fact a qualification holder (or rather his comrade was one), but he thought it's better to remain silent.
"It's the same for those guys. Tokuma is the leader of a clan that consists of A-ranks only. He brought those members of his. He's probably aiming for the prize. Between A-rank and B-rank there's a huge difference in compensation. We can't win this with a group of four A-ranks with rules like these."
"So that's why you teamed up with other groups, in that case, your numbers?"
"Five groups including 《Lion Alliance》, that's twenty people."
"So it's half of the total participants. Considering just numbers, you vastly outnumber four opponents."
"Don't talk nonsense. In fact we had ten more people, but everyone else was taken down by Tokuma and his group. That's why we better hurry, otherwise we're fucked. If he takes down ten players by himself and gains access to his own attack-configured program it'll get out of hand."
Maybe that guy from before was a survivor from that. If that was the case, then they should have recruited him instead——thought Taiga, but it was too late now.
Also, just how much were the A-rankers hated, to make twenty people gang up to beat them.
"I decided to look for you before the operation starts. ...so, let's hurry. According to schedule it should be starting soo——"
That moment, they heard sounds of metal crossing each other a short distance away.
Leon and Taiga looked at each other, and started to run at the same time.
"Taiga you hide! It'll be troubling if you go out in front and die!"
"I can protect my body at the very least!"
"That so! Then do as you want!"
They ran through the forest and jumped from a trunk arriving at the place the sounds came from.
It was the centre of the forest, it was a big space among the huge trees that conspicuously stood out. The plan seemed to have begun, players deployed and surrounded the group of four that included Tokuma and attacked one after another.
"Don't try the impossible you trash...!! Don't bother me!!"
Tokuma growled with his usual arrogant attitude, his stamina was already down to half. Other members were already at 30% as well. It was obvious at a single glance they were being pressed.
The attacking players repeatedly disengaged after dealing blows as not to suffer from a counterattack, they were gradually shaving off the stamina of the four in the middle. It was a sight that embodied the term 'ganging up'.
"Ah—shit. Seems like I missed everything... isn't it nearly over already."
It was just as Leon said, the battle was already over.
Although they could easily get out from that kind of siege by pressing on one point of it, but it seemed like they lacked the ability to be calm while being pressed to the wall by the underdogs. Unless something unusual occurs, the alliance won't lose here.
The players who formed the siege also thought so, and their movements turned visibly slower.
That stimulated Tokuma's small pride. Going easy on him. The great Tokuma, small fries like them——anger boiled within him from the bottom of his stomach.
And as the offensive relaxed, he noticed something he overlooked.
What he saw, was the boy who underestimated and angered him during the day, and the man who interfered with his revenge. They stood behind as if overlooking their plan at work and in their eyes sympathy could be seen. That was the last blow to him.
Tokuma gripped his sword with all his might——and cut the comrade who was next to him.
As everyone stood surprised by the fact he suddenly went mad, Tokuma cut down the others. Their stamina that was already at 30% went to zero with a single blow and the three turned into particles of light and disappeared.
"...is he insane?"
No matter how much they were cornered, why would someone attack his comrades. He definitely was crazy——
〈"——Defeating ten players alone confirmed. Privately owned attack-configured program has been released."〉
What answered them, was the announcement they heard coming from the sky.
Rule ②——『Privately owned attack-configured program cannot be used. The only armament available is one randomly arranged at the field. However, if a player takes down ten opponents alone, he will be granted access to use his privately owned attack-configured program.』—— There, was no mention indicating it has to be an enemy.
"This is bad... everyone run away!"
Sensing the danger Leon cried out, the other players still didn't understand the situation and didn't move. Even so, some of them panicked and tried to escape, Tokuma grasped the handle with a brutal smile and pulled it out all at once.
"Now, begin the execution 《Cihuacóatl》!!!!!!"
Together with his shout, steel howled.
Tokuma rotated his body once, and the sword swiped like a wave.
A slash completely ignoring a normal sword's reach, the slash cut apart the players who surrounded him. Every weapon that was raised and on guard was cut through and the players disappeared with a single blow.
"Whip sword...!! He has something like that as his attack-configured program!"
Also called a snake sword, a fictional weapon. As its name implied, it was a whip capable of cutting the opponent.
It's main blade splits up into many smaller blades usually connected by a wire.
It has both the form of a sword and a whip, it's an armament combining both close range and medium-range. In recent years thanks to technology advancement it was no longer a fictional weapon. Still, twenty meters length was non-standard.
"Hyahahahahaaa!! Thought I'll let ya escapee!!?"
Players finally started to run away, but the sword's blade continued to cut them one after another as if it had its own will. It was no longer a fight, it turned into a simple execution.
In only ten seconds. The offensive that numbered twenty people was wiped out leaving only Leon and Taiga.
"...hey hey, seriously?"
The overwhelming difference in strength reached the level of absurd.
*pakin*, Leon unconsciously stepped back and broke a branch with his foot.
It was too late to say 'what are you doing', the glare was turned towards them.
Taiga jumped at full power avoiding by hair's breadth but Leon was slightly too slow to make an evasive maneuver.
Leon was blown away after the whip sword hit his legs, it's power was increased by centrifugal force.
His HP dropped drastically, there was just 5% remaining. Moreover, the attack didn't end with that. As the 《Cihuacóatl》 means as the name implied, the blade whip flowed and wound around Leon's body.
The whip sword bent according to Tokuma's arm movement, gaining momentum and slamming Leon into a big tree. *bang*, with a dull sound as if an iron ball hit the tree, Leon lost his remaining HP, turned into particles of light and faded away.
"Leon!! Damn, no good!"
"It's your turn you damn insecttttttttttttttttt!!!"
Although Taiga jumped up and landed on a trunk, the sword's tip immediately came flying after him.
The sword's tip pierced the location Taiga was just at a moment earlier and broke the trunk that was as thick as a train.
After losing his footing Taiga lost his balance as well, and 《Cihuacóatl》 approached him.
He reflexively guarded with the one-handed sword and somehow deflected it. However the fragile weapon shattered and scattered and Taiga was blown away flashily.
His back slammed into a tree trunk and he lost his breath for a moment. Using that opening, 《Cihuacóatl》 approached him mowing down horizontally.
That moment he used all his strength to hit the trunk, thanks to the rebound made by that he was able to avoid the slash.
Taiga fell down in accordance to the laws of gravity and quickly distanced himself disappearing from Tokuma's field of vision.
"Haa...haa...did I manage to lose him...?"
"Where are you hiding!! You're a mere bug so don't bring me any more trouble!!"
Taiga hid himself and fixed his breathing, he glanced through the gap between the trunks. It seems like the furious Tokuma completely lost sight of him and continuously destroyed the trunks with his whip sword.
"I somehow managed to dodge it... looks like my attacks being ineffective is a problem. Moreover, the weapons break after receiving a single blow."
Taiga still had 80% health, but even if he had full health one hit was enough to end him. Also, that whip sword spelled trouble.
Originally it was a weapon that had trouble in complicated terrain like labyrinths. But 《Cihuacóatl》 moved like a snake and avoided obstacles freely. It turned out that it could hit him in blind spots like behind trees.
He couldn't keep on hiding forever, for some reason... he thought the same thing Shio said, 『It's impossible after all』. Geez, even though he intended to win, now it was being ruined by strange rules.
His chances for winning were nearly zero, besides, there was no need to win this match.
However, those eyes, it's hopeless, impossible. Eyes of someone who gave up, they were bothering him so it couldn't be helped.
Why she started to think like that didn't matter, it had nothing to do with it.
However, not being able to admit it——give her a reason to deny that, that much was enough.
"...I'll show her."
Give hope to that twisted girl.
He closed his eyes and exhaled. When he opened his eyes again, he resented himself for thinking like a coward and squinted sharply.
The battle from earlier was replayed in his head, and he memorized Tokuma's habits and combat style, as well as 《Cihuacóatl》's movements and the positions of the weapons scattered around——he packed all this information and devised the best tactics.
"Now——Let's start the counter-attack."
Taiga pulled out the rapier that was stuck near him, and jumped out from where he was hidden.
He ran as fast as the wind and closed the distance between himself and Tokuma in an instant. However, the enemy was an A-rank, a qualification holder. He wasn't sweet enough to allow him to get in point-blank range that easily.
"Ha, you finally came out!"
Just as he said that the whip sword attacked Taiga from the right side.
To avoid it, using his rapier Taiga dodged by stooping down, and after barely avoiding the sword which flew above him, he hit off the ground and accelerated all at once!
He ran straight like lightning, thrusting at Tokuma's throat. The speed was faster than expected, but Tokuma stood upright and just looked at the strike——and his mouth distorted suspiciously.
Instantly Taiga leaped to the side. Right next to him, nearly grazing his cheeks passed 《Cihuacóatl》 that jumped out of a trunk and slashed from above leaving a bruise in the ground.
"Tch———that's a really nasty weapon!!"
Taiga cursed and made some distance. However, he was able to confirm it.
His acceleration earlier was out of Tokuma's expectations. It seemed like his sword was able to pinpoint Taiga's location, 《Cihuacóatl》's special ability was tracking the enemy.
The tip of the sword changed trajectory in the air and aimed at Taiga again. With a single blow it destroyed his footing, although Taiga jumped with all his strength towards another trunk, the whip sword approached him from behind.
He couldn't avoid it while being in mid-air, so Taiga deflected it to the side with the rapier. The whip sword's trajectory was forcefully changed and it destroyed a trunk nearby.
The angle at which he received the slash, timing, adjusting to the power at which it came at its prey——not a single one of those could fail, they were godly feats. But the fragile weapons still broke. He pulled out an axe that was stuck nearby and faced Tokuma again.
Now was the moment of truth. If he's able to lure him to that place without being noticed——the game will be determined.
"All he's been doing up until now was running away! Fight him fair and square!"
The alliance formation started by 《Lion Alliance》 that focused on the A-ranks, and the reversal of the situation that was one step away from succeeding——with this development that made their hands sweat, the storm resolving inside of Arena swelled and approached the climax.
However, at the moment the audience complained seeing the boy continue to run away.
It was obvious. No matter how excited they were, after looking at the same scene for five minutes anyone would get tired of it.
"...that's why I told you, there's no way you can win."
Ever since the game started Shio continued to look at Taiga.
That's why she knew that his attacks are ineffective, and she saw that he was saved and somebody else fought instead of him.
The only participants left were Taiga and Tokuma. The one who wins this duel wins the match.
However the difference between the strength of Taiga who was an E-rank and Tokuma who was an A-rank and was able to use his own attack-configured program was too huge.
The boy on the screen just continued to escape by climbing on top of the huge trees.
"The difference between their powers is absolute. There is no way to win against someone who starts on a different start line."
Shio repeated her own words, speaking to herself.
She was reminded of her own scattered feelings. No matter how much effort you put in, you can't beat talent.
That's why———even if she said 'Wrong'. Or even if she had expectations 'If it's him, then maybe...', she still blamed it all on her own weakness.
The audience's jeering became more intense.
Parrying 《Cihuacóatl》 while continuously changing weapons must've been incredibly difficult——for them, such a thing didn't matter.
Shio hugged her body as if she was in pain.
She knew she couldn't say it to herself. But hearing booing at someone's desperate, hard work. His tremendous effort not even being noticed, it was just like herself who was being repeatedly insulted every single day by her father.
After meeting eyes like his, she felt it's better to give up right from the beginning——that's what she was reminded of.
She should have understood. In front of an absolute element, something as unstable and brittle like effort had no meaning.
She was never praised, not even once. She was always compared to her talented older brother or younger sister, she was one-sidedly labelled as a disappointment, 'Why are you so incompetent!' or so she was continuously blamed.
Even such a girl, no, because she was a girl like that——
"...do your best! Onii-san!!"
She wanted effort to be awarded, more than anyone else.
While Shio cheered, Taiga was finally cornered on top of the huge tree in the centre.
The game was approaching its final stage.
"Fuu... this is pretty high..."
Taiga ran away from 《Cihuacóatl》 and continued to climb the central tree, finally reaching the top. The ground was far away, he judged with his eyes that it was about a hundred metres above the ground. An ordinary person's leg would freeze and he would become unable to move after climbing this high, but Taiga was completely calm.
It should be fine from here right? Though the prey seems a bit uneasy.
In his hand he had a tanto. There were no more weapons in this place, there was no choice but to make do with this one.
"——Hmph. I finally got you cornered. You annoy me way too much for a mere bug."
In the background there was the sound of an explosion.
The last footing was destroyed by the twenty metres long whip sword 《Cihuacóatl》 and Tokuma entered, climbing to the top.
"I remember your face bastard. A mere small fry who dares to look at me with that impertinent look in his eyes..."
"I'm indebted to you for taking care of me back then. Although I wanted to say thanks, but instead I'll crush you with my full strength. Amateur."
*twitch*, Tokuma's movements stopped.
"You said... amateur?"
"Ah, sorry. A mistaken bastard like you who pretends to be a king in a small world by brandishing fake power isn't even worth being called an amateur."
After Taiga said that, a number of blue veins appeared on Tokuma's head. In response to its owner's anger 《Cihuacóatl》's tip rose up———
"Enough of this... die."
Together with that declaration, the sword's tip shot out like a bullet.
Starting with top speed from the very first step, Taiga rushed at Tokuma thrusting at him.
"Ha, trying the same thing a second time, foolish!"
In response to Tokuma's arm movement, the whip sword changed trajectory.
Swung down from above, then assaulted from below. It gained speed thanks to the centrifugal force——continuously striking one after another a matchless barrage of attacks, Taiga continued to dodge them all by a hair's breadth.
And it wasn't just the tip of the sword. Because the blade was incredibly long it spread out like a wire trap and inhibited movement in this place. However, it didn't hit him.
"You're the one who's foolish. Even a monkey can repeat the same thing over and over."
No matter how complex the motion was , Tenryou Taiga could perfectly track it.
In the first place, the whip sword exhibited its full prowess with a combination of both the whip and sword form.
Tokuma mistook himself as absolute and continued to use the same attacks over and over, he was just third-rate.
"Ghhu...?! You third rate weaklinggg!!!"
Blood rose up to his head, and the whip sword Tokuma was wielding turned into a mess.
In the first place that weapon was hard to wield, it couldn't be manipulated properly by someone who lost his composure, the automatic tracking caused the blade to hit itself and change trajectory.
Not missing that fatal chance, Taiga accelerated.
Even if he attacked with the tanto there would be no damage. Taiga closed the gap between them in one step and grabbed the arm that held the handle of 《Cihuacóatl》 and slammed the back of the gauntlet towards the ground.
Taiga moved at a godspeed his opponent couldn't even register, immediately after Tokuma fell over.
There was no damage but the impact hit his entire body, 《Cihuacóatl》 separated from Tokuma's right hand.
Taiga twisted his entire body and with his full strength he hurled Tokuma into the air where there was no footing. He also jumped aiming above.
"Y-you bastard...!! What are you intending!!"
"Can't you see? I'm going to drop you. Since you destroyed all the footing you're going straight to the very bottom."
He clenched his left hand and swung with all his might.
When Leon was defeated he confirmed that there was damage upon the impact. When Taiga himself was flicked by 《Cihuacóatl》 there was damage when he hit the truck.
With a fall from the sky a hundred metres above. Maybe he could survive if fully recovered, but thanks to the encircling operation his HP was cut down to nearly 30%.
It can't be this guy... did he lead me around to destroy all the trunks on purpose!?
There was a possibility that his fall might've ended on one of the trunks if they remained. That's why he eliminated all the unnecessary risk by deflecting away 《Cihuacóatl》 towards the trunks which served as scaffolds.
It all went as Taiga intended it. From the very moment he lured him in here, the game was already on.
"A hundred metres to the surface——"
"Enjoy your trip without breaks bastard!!!!!"
With a fist like an artillery shell, he hit Takuma right in the middle of his face.
Hit by a blow with the strength of a car, Tokuma continued to fall at a tremendous speed. On the other hand, Taiga began to fall but pierced through the tree's trunk with the tanto and started to dangle.
"Ah—I'm tired. Not doing this ever again."
Immediately after he sighed and said that, from the bottom came the sound of a heavy crash.
〈"———Only one virtual body reaction detected in the area. Match is over, all virtual bodies are going to be immediately deported to the Arena———"〉
Waiting for Taiga to return to the coliseum were waves of an excited audience.
After all, he overcame the overwhelming difference in power with a brilliant reversal play. Tokuma who took down his comrades by his own hand was branded a villain, ear-breaking cheers welcomed Taiga. Among the audience, there were people who said "I was wrong to call out such a thing." and apologized, Taiga didn't know what that was about and just tilted his neck.
He received the winning prize which was an update program for attack-configured programs and rushed to the waiting room Shio was in.
Shio was sitting on a chair and stared at the projection sphere that no longer displayed anything.
"Hey Shio-san, any words of praise for someone who did his best and won?"
"Wawawa. O-Onii-san since when did you?!"
As Taiga reluctantly called out, Shio looked behind with a startled expression. For some reason her breath was rough, her cheeks were red and she had tears in her eyes.
"Oh, I'm sorry. Umm, I just got too excited."
Shio tried to deceive him and rubbed her eyes in a hurry. Feeling it's better not to ask for the reason of that, Taiga sat next to her in silence.
"...the bet, it's my win."
"...yes. It's Onii-san's win, and it's my loss."
Somehow, she had a very refreshing smile on her face. Shio looked at the projection sphere that displayed the fight just a moment ago.
"Onii-san is really amazing. Winning against such a strong opponent."
"That's because I took him off guard. As expected, if I fought him from the front I would've lost."
"It might have been so... nevertheless, you perfectly proved your words to be true. You reversed the situation when in an overwhelming disadvantage."
Her heart that decided right from the beginning that it's impossible, her weak self that already gave up, he denied it all head on. Taiga didn't know just how big a hope he has given her.
"What is it?"
"If talent is not absolute... then why did I confine myself in a husk for seven years?"
She learned of talent, and ran away after finding an area she couldn't reach.
She was scared that she won't have any results, afraid that she won't be acknowledged by anyone, of being responsible for her own life, she lived while blaming everything on her friend.
Believing that neither despair nor effort brings any results, she just single-mindedly lived an empty life.
However... if all of her assumptions were wrong right from the beginning, there was no point in running away.
"Plunging myself into despair, arbitrarily giving up on every single thing, was it meaningless?"
Hearing Shio's heartbreaking cries, Taiga continued.
They were neither words of encouragement nor comfort, they were incredibly realistic words.
"I don't know what happened in Shio's past. That's why I don't know what would have changed if you didn't give up. That's how the reality is. Looking back at the past has no meaning."
He said these words to himself as well.
Always reminded of the past where he survived while leaving his parents to die, 'If only I was stronger back then', he continued to regret. Forgetting it all, discarding it all, it would really put him at ease. If he was able to do it, he wouldn't be having such a hard time.
But, just that——he didn't want to accept such a way of living.
Forgetting his sins, throwing away the fact that his parents died, it would make their deaths meaningless. He wouldn't be able to attain anything from their deaths, it would just be a tragedy. There would be no salvation anywhere.
There must be a meaning in the fact that Tenryo Taiga survived. Thinking like that allowed him to put in a desperate effort into finding it.
"In the end, finding what Shio wants to do, is your own problem."
"What I want to do..."
Taiga cut off there and didn't say anything else. He told Shio his own feelings and waited patiently.
He conveyed to her what he wanted to convey. From this point, it was all up to her.
And slightly hesitating, she opened mouth slowly.
"...I, I was always jealous of Hime-chan's talent, and that's how I lost my only friend... that's why, I stopped struggling. I blamed it all on talent and wanted to run away. ——......is that, no good?"
"No, isn't it fine? Looking forward instead."
He wondered about it ever since he first met her, eyes that gave up on everything——they were no longer there. Taiga immersed himself in an indescribable sense of accomplishment, and vigorously stood up.
"——Alright! Let's continue our journey! I somehow progressed with Haya's request, and also obtained something good."
"Something good? Ah, you mean the program that was the prize for winning?"
"Indeed. And... here you go."
He materialized a bright orange crystal on the palm of his hand and tossed it towards Shio. Although Shio only reached out to catch it, the crystal smoothly melted like a candy exposed to heat and was sucked into her body.
"Good, the update is complete. It was a good thing I asked Leon how to use it."
The prize he received for winning wasn't an attack-configured program, but a program used to strengthen attack-configured programs. Of course, it was possible to use it to enhance his own program as well.
"W-why? Isn't this what Onii-san has won?"
"My own 《Heavenly Sword》 is plenty strong already. It will be more useful, in various ways if Shio has it."
"Stop. Did you forget the condition for the bet?"
The loser is going to listen to one request of the winner——he took no refusals.
"Rather than that, let's go to the field quickly and try it! According to what Leon said, it's a power-up that boosts the program beyond the level of A-rank, I look forward to seeing it."
"A-awawawa...Onii-san, I can walk on my own so don't pull me?!"
Pulled with her hand by Taiga, Shio jumped out of the waiting room. While looking at the boy who showed her that she had her own potential, Shio thought.
——I'm really happy to continue this journey.
——Where there was light, there was also darkness.
As the winner bathed in the light, the loser hid himself in the darkness.
"Shitt... those damn insectss..."
In the corner of a back alley, not exposed to the light, a man walked while cursing endlessly.
He continued to swing the black sword 《Cihuacóatl》 that was usually attached to his waist messily, countless slashes were engraved on the walls and the ground around him.
He should have won.
There were favourable conditions for him, who was already an A rank. On top of that, he used 《Cihuacóatl》. There was not a single element that would make him lose. There was an overwhelming difference between their strength.
——And yet he lost.
It was a perfect defeat where he couldn't even make an excuse. A stigma of defeat he obtained after he sacrificed three of his clan members. As a bonus, his opponent was an E-rank to boot.
Tokuma lost his comrades, the pride of someone strong, and his position. The only thing left there was the hatred towards the one who defeated him.
"I'll cut your body up. Those annoying eyes, I'll engrave the taste of defeat inside of them!!!!"
For that purpose he needed strength. He needed to become more powerful than he is now, so overwhelming that none can reach him.
Seeking absolute power, his heart was going mad with thirst for it.
"———Hmph. Do you want power?"
That's when. In an alley no one should be in.
Tokuma pulled out 《Cihuacóatl》 and pointed it in the direction he heard the voice from.
There, was a strangely dressed woman.
She was wearing a pure white cloak that completely obscured her head, her face aside he couldn't even discern her physique. He speculated she was a woman based on her voice. But it might have been a man with a woman-like voice.
"I'm not anyone suspicious. That's right, if I were to name myself it would be——Angel, maybe?"
"...Angel you say? Ha, I've heard the rumours. A shady user that's said to fulfill wishes."
"Don't misunderstand, the correct answer is that I help people to fulfill their desire but only when 『They are ready to sacrifice anything to have their wish granted』. I don't grant them to just anyone...however, I think you qualify, am I right?"
The virtual body calling itself angel spread its hands.
That figure blossomed in the dark alley like a pure white flower. But he wondered why.
"Answer me——what do you desire?"
Rather than godly, he had an ominous spine-chilling feeling.
Tokuma laughed at himself for flinching for a moment. Nothing remained for him to lose anyway. In that case——he will use anything and anyone.
"Give me power. Give me an overwhelming power strong enough beat anyone. Absolute power that will make anyone grovel in front of me!!!"
"That's simple. Then I'll give you this program. This will allow you to raise your performance a few times——however, you will feel pain corresponding to it."
"...pain? But this is Elysion? There's no way——"
"There is. It's just that the virtual body is normally blocking it. This modified virtual body is different. What, there's nothing to worry about. It's virtual reality after all, if you have a strong heart you will withstand it——it's fine if you try it out."
Saying that, the Angel materialized a jet black crystal on the palm of its hand and pushed it inside of Tokuma's body.
The crystal began to destroy his body from the inside, and electromagnetic waves ran through Tokuma's virtual body.
"...nn? A, gh, gy, gGHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!"
Just when he thought that nothing has changed and wanted to question the angel.
What hit Tokuma was severe pain as if all of the nerves in his body were being ripped apart.
He raised a scream that seemed like it will make his throat collapse, but his pain did not subside.
"That's a pretty nice howl. Does it hurt that much?"
Feeling unbearable pain Tokuma begged as tears flowed from his eyes. But Angel looked down on him with cold eyes, as if he was a pebble on the side of the road and shook its head seemingly troubled.
"That's troubling. To think that he would break this early in the experiment. Seriously, people with weak hearts really are small fries. I wanted him to fight that person again to gather data. It can't be helped. Let's try the other candidate."
Once again——the Angel created a black crystal and squeezed Tokuma's head.
"It's a program that causes excessive secretion of adrenaline. You won't be feeling pain now, instead you will feel good. If it's simple orders then you should understand. ...now then, I'll have you play the villain for a while longer."
A beautiful, no, the Angel made a too beautiful of a smile.
There was no evil in it as it looked down on the broken man, its expression wasn't malicious. If someone saw it he would have surely thought.
——Neither frightening nor evil, it was just an empty expression.
"...well then, let's start the experiment."
The Angel murmured and disappeared into darkness.