Silence had come.
The two girls who had an unexpected, chance meeting were at a loss for words. Neither Taiga nor Rui knew anything about it and their gaze drifted between Fuyuki and the silver-haired girl.
"Most likely she refers to Fuyuki. Also that name... Karasuba Shio, was it."
"By Karasuba, does she mean that Karasuba...?"
Karasuba. The name that is known throughout the entire world. One of the four major corporates that governs the cyber market. The household Fuyuki was adopted to eight years ago, and from which she ran away just the other day.
"It's been a while, hasn't it."
The one who broke the silence was the silver-haired girl——Karasuba Shio.
"It's the first time we meet face-to-face... in seven years, was it? I recognized you immediately thanks to your eye colour."
Fuyuki didn't answer. But the moment she heard that it's been seven years, she started to tremble as if she was frightened of something and looked down. Seeing Fuyuki act clearly different than usual, Rui asked him in a low voice.
"...how are they related?"
"Who knows... but considering her state, they aren't simply acquaintances."
Compared to the scared Fuyuki, Shio looked pretty normal. It felt like Fuyuki felt one-sidedly at fault about something.
Taiga felt a strange discomfort from the girl called Karasuba Shio.
"...why... are you here..."
Fuyuki asked with a trembling voice.
"That's my line. The culprit who hacked the main server of Karasuba, no matter how much you camouflaged it is probably Hime-chan right? As always, your skills are amazing."
After hearing Shio's word, Taiga noticed what was causing him discomfort.
Not just the fact that she carried the name of Karasuba, it was without a doubt that she was a member of that group.
Because Fuyuki dealt extensive damage to Karasuba, it wasn't a happy reunion but a meeting with an opponent who denounced her crimes.
Even so, the girl called Karasuba Shio only felt respect and admiration.
"...aren't you angry?"
It seemed like Fuyuki thought the same and asked the question.
For some reason. His little sister thought otherwise——without any basis for it, that's what intuition told Taiga.
"Angry? Me? Why would I be?"
"Because... little sister at that time..."
Fuyuki's voice was very feeble, it was completely different from her usual voice that was filled with self-confidence.
It wasn't a devil who bullied his little sister, it was a single frail girl.
"I'm not angry or anything. If anything, I'm grateful to Hime-chan."
"Yup. It's all thanks to Hime-chan. Even if I play around like this I won't be told off by father, the fact that all the work has been wasted, all of it, was thanks to Hime-chan helping me and the researchers to give up."
The silver-haired girl said so and smiled faintly.
Not an evil, but a colourless transparent smile that displayed negative feelings.
The moment she saw that smile, Fuyuki realized just how much did that girl change in seven years. No, how much she herself changed.
When she thought so, Fuyuki turned her back to Shio and ran away.
Taiga's and Rui's voice didn't reach her from behind.
She wanted to run away as soon as possible from the mistakes she made, run away from the past that should have been left behind.
Where are you going to run now? ——Where this time? She felt as if she heard a voice saying that behind her.
When Taiga returned to the real world, it was already evening.
"...now. Where did Imouto-sama go?"
The vermilion light of the setting sun entered through the gap in the curtains, Taiga turned off the Arclight and squinted. Instead of his little sister's figure on the second machine's seat, there was a headgear thrown on the floor. Before, when Taiga did something similar she got really angry and said 'and what if it broke?'.
She'll probably be over there...
He left the dive room to look for his little sister and entered the bedroom.
As expected, she hid behind the large bed that filled nearly half of the room. She squeezed herself into a small gap and sat down while holding her knees.
"Found you. It still didn't change even after eight years, your habit of squeezing yourself into narrow places when you're down."
"Oh, that's an unusual way of calling me."
Taiga sat on the edge of the bed and gently stroked his little sister's head. Her sleek black hair flowed with just a light touch, it felt very comfortable.
"Don't misunderstand though, I'm not feeling down. I just thought it would be nice to sit in a place like this since it's been a while."
"Is that so."
The conversation ended with just that, Taiga continued to gently stroke his little sister's head as she tried to act strong. He didn't ask anything, he didn't say anything. He believed that was for the best at the moment.
〈"So, how's Fuyuki?"〉
"She went to take a bath, we're going to rest early today."
Taiga spoke to a holographic window in front of him as he cleaned the dishes after dinner. Displayed on it was Rui who was in middle of work, she had an appearance of a neat and clean maid.
〈"Shio-chan, was it. Did you hear the circumstances concerning that girl?"〉
"No, I didn't hear anything. And I have no intention of asking her."
"It's just my intuition, but it isn't just depression. Let's just wait until Fuyuki tells us by herself."
In fact, he really wanted to help his sister immediately. But... if he did that it might backfire, that's what he felt.
It was a problem between those two.
〈"I see. Yup. If Taiga thinks so, it has to be like that."〉
Rui smiled as she said so. Just by looking at her cheerful expression, he felt better over the fact that he neglected Fuyuki.
〈"Ah, but you shouldn't leave her alone."〉
"I know. I want to consult with you, are you free tomorrow?"
〈"Nn〜, I'll have to help in the shop a bit in the morning, but aside from that there's nothing."〉
"That's good. ——Tomorrow's the 1st, I want you to take Fuyuki outside, please."
〈"That shouldn't be a problem."〉
"I appreciate it. Ah, one more thing. Teach me how to set-up initial settings in 《Aries》."
〈"...how to set-up initial settings?"〉
Not knowing the purpose of his request, Rui made a questioning smile.
Next day, nine o'clock in the morning.
"...fuu, I've sweat a lot."
After his routine training Taiga took a shower and was eating breakfast in the living room.
Because he couldn't cook, it was a simple meal made up of bread and coffee.
It was Sunday, a regular holiday. Of course there was no school today.
Although he spent five hours of his holiday on his training routine, he cleaned up the dishes and entered the bedroom Fuyuki was sleeping in.
"Fuyuki, it's about time to wake up."
He poked the sleeping Fuyuki's shoulder, but she shook off his hand. The futon fell off her body so her thin negligee and black laced lingerie were visible so he looked away momentarily. Although he was accustomed to it, he still couldn't look at it directly.
"An hour longer, let me sleep for another hour..."
"Don't act selfish, hurry and wake up."
Even though she always said she wants to sleep a little bit more, this time it was much worse than usual.
With grim determination Taiga cast away the futon and carried Fuyuki in his embrace to the washroom. With that Fuyuki opened her eyes and complained "Why do I have to get up on a holiday..." before washing her face, fixing her hair and changing into a proper dress.
...she looks better than I thought.
Taiga felt relieved seeing her act like usual. It might have been her just acting strong like the day before but it was still better than her shutting herself in.
And then, *ding-dong*, a sound of intercom resounded.
"Who is it so early in the morning?"
"She came. Hey, come on."
Taiga headed towards the front door while pulling Fuyuki's hand and opened the door.
"Yahoo〜! Good morning you two〜!"
The one who greeted them with a big smile on her face was Saionji Rui. Her chestnut fluffy hair bounced, emitting an aura as bright as the sun.
"Then Rui, I leave the rest to you."
"Yeah, leave it to me. That's why... let's go Fuyuki!"
Suddenly Rui grabbed Fuyuki's arm and pulled her outside by force. Significantly weaker Fuyuki did her best to protest and at least wear shoes.
"Rucchan?! What's this all of a sudden?!"
"Then Taiga, we'll be back before dinner!"
"Before that explain——no, Rucchan don't pull me I'll walk on my own!"
"Come outside first〜"
She suddenly pulled the confused Fuyuki towards the elevator, and the door was closed. Their voices slowly faded and silence came.
"...now, let's get to work."
He returned to the dive room and immediately started preparations to start the Arclight.
It was absolutely necessary to dive alone today.
The moment he said those words his consciousness dived into the paradise consisting of electrons.
After a moment of light-headedness, Taiga stood in the middle of the grassland that was the starting point.
"This place... it really is huge."
According to Rui's explanation he heard last night, people who connect for the first time will always appear in here. But, how many people could it hold. He thought it was wide enough to hold several hundred people at the same time.
"Now, I wonder if she's here——oh, there she is."
Just as planned, no, he found the person he wanted to see earlier than expected. Taiga smiled because he was very lucky.
"...I was prepared to wait for half a day, it's really my lucky day."
His line of sight was focused on the silver-haired girl who manipulated windows just like the day before. She was startled and had a surprised expression.
"Hey, we meet again."
"Ah... umm... the person I met yesterday?"
A girl wearing a dress unsuitable for Aries——Karasuba Shio stared at him puzzled. Taiga approached her not minding it and looked at the window from the side.
"Are you still struggling with the difficult settings?"
Although it seemed like she tried various things, she still couldn't get past them. She didn't contact the management, it was convenient for Taiga. Thanks to that he could easily enter a conversation with her.
"Sorry for suddenly logging out yesterday. Although I can only say sorry, but do you want me to teach you how to set up the default settings? I've learned it earlier."
"Eh...? Is that okay?"
"That was my intention from the beginning. Also——I'm interested since you are Fuyuki's acquaintance."
The moment she heard that name Shio made a long face. It seemed like she wasn't just an acquaintance.
"For the time being let me introduce myself. I'm Tenryo Taiga, Fuyuki's brother."
Shio looked at Taiga's entire body suspiciously and in the end she stared at his sky blue eyes.
"Oh you really are, your eye colour is identical."
Their pupils had a very rare colour. Even though the siblings didn't look much alike, it was clear with just that much.
"I see. Hime-chan's name was originally Tenryo..."
Mixed feelings swirled in Shio's pupils as she murmured that.
After catching her interest Taiga continued.
"Then, are you going to take me up on my offer?"
"...I would be really thankful but, is it fine with Onii-san?"
"I don't mind at all——also, by 'Onii-san' you mean me?"
"Yup. Because you're Hime-chan's Onii-san right?"
He wondered about being called like that. But if Shio was fine with that, he didn't want to force her to change it. It was a little embarrassing, but it wasn't all that bad.
Even though Shio's fear of strangers was on Fuyuki's level judging by the glare she gave him, she was surprisingly sociable or rather he felt that she was more open-minded. Maybe it was thanks to the conversation they had yesterday, or because he was Fuyuki's brother.
Anyway, it seems like a good start.
He continued to shorten the distance that way.
"You can call me what you like. Ah, also I'm going to teach you now how to set-up the default settings.
This is the recommended setting for people who are poor at athletics."
"...eh? Why do you know I'm bad at it?"
"I can tell that much just by looking at you."
Not only he could tell if someone was poor at exercising, but could also measure their physical ability just by looking at their arm and leg muscles.
Shio was about the same as Fuyuki, maybe a little worse. It would be hard for her to suddenly play or have a battle in a structure like that.
"...I didn't have time to spare for exercises."
She didn't have time to exercise——these words caught his attention a little, but it wasn't time to pursue their meaning.
"Then about the setting? Can you show me how to fight too?"
"If you want to, then yeah."
"...Onii-san, do you know about me and Hime-chan?"
"Nope, not at all. I don't want to stick my neck into a problem between the two of you, I have no intention of doing that. That would be meddling."
Hearing that, Shio closed her eyes to think for a moment.
Honestly, it might have been a pointless act done by Taiga. He won't learn anything about Shio with this, and it won't cheer Fuyuki up.
He just couldn't leave her alone like that. But with her crippled smile, she looked similar to his little sister.
"...then, just for a moment I'll be intruding on you."
Like that, a strange pair has formed for a limited amount of time.
"Umm, this goes here and this here———oh, it's starting it's starting."
He fiddled with the open window based on his memory of what Rui taught him, another window expanded and an artificial voice announced.
〈"Welcome to 《Aries》 structure managed by the Kiritou Group. From now on you shall become inhabitants of this world and hunt monsters during your adventures."〉
A promotional video briefly describing mechanisms of 《Aries》 was played. On a dozen number of screens were displayed all kind of weapons.
〈"Now, please pick your attack-configured program. If you have prepared one yourself, then skip this step. Also, together with this initial armament, your costume will also be changed automatically."〉
The weapon that could be chosen were: two handed swords, one handed swords, shields, bows, knives, hammers, spears, Japanese swords. There were also minor weapons like tonfas or kusarigamas.
"I have to choose from those? There's so many that I'm lost..."
"Do you have any experience using these... there's no way you do, is there."
"Then, between short and long range which one you'd like better?"
There were several ranged weapons from relatively major ones like bows and crossbows to things like chakrams, there were also weapons not even Taiga touched before. Aries was really dreadful.
"For the time being let's try the bow. ...ah, it seems like I can pick a secondary weapon."
"Then you should pick a melee weapon. One with small reach should be fine. Shio wouldn't be able to swing a long one properly, right?"
After selecting a dagger as her secondary weapon, a blue light wrapped around Shio.
Light particles flocked and covered Shio's virtual body. When the phosphorescence disappeared her outfit completely changed.
"Oh—...you look like a hunter."
She wore a stunning hunter costume. Taiga didn't know, but the costume had an elven motif.
Probably to better conceal in the woods (or at least that was the setting) it was mostly green.
Her shoulders were bare for her upper body's ease of movement and her thighs were exposed. But it wasn't excessive exposure, on her right leg she had a knee-sock, on her left she had a belt holding the dagger.
"This is somewhat... weird outfit. And its pretty risqué too..."
"Nono, that much is still alright. You look pretty good in it."
Although the costume gave her a flexible and graceful image, but strangely it didn't feel like a mismatch. Rather than that, coupled with her pure white skin and silver hair it added to her mysterious atmosphere.
Shio turned around to check her own appearance, on her back there was a rugged bow, something she had never seen in her everyday life. She stared at it.
And then, something out of place appeared on the edge of her field of view. Floating ten meters away was a plate with circles drawn on it.
"You have to shoot that, probably."
"Eh? ...that's impossible. I've never done it before, there's no way I'll hit something so small."
"Just try it for the time being. We'll discuss it later."
"B-but there's no arrow——"
The moment she said that an arrow appeared on Shio's palm. At the same time 〈"The arrow is automatically generated by the image."〉 sounded an announcement which cut off her escape route.
"Looks like there's one. Come on, let's challenge."
"Uuu... Onii-san is high-handed..."
The window displayed an arrow being shot, still reluctant Shio set up the arrow to mimic the video. She adjusted her aim, targeting the plate and released the hand that was holding the feather.
Propelled by the stretched string, the arrow vigorously launched forward penetrating the target——......no such thing. Instead it flew only few meters ahead and hit the ground.
"...well, something like that."
Although Shio tilted her neck, Taiga thought it was an obvious result.
There wasn't enough force put into pulling the arrow, even if the aim was good. But it wouldn't fly far, it was surprising it flew that much.
I thought it would immediately fall down... it seems like there's support.
Enemies were monsters, a target that was moving around.
Perhaps for people like Shio right now, who can't hit the stationary target there is a system that augments the flying distance of the arrows and allows anyone to handle a bow easily with little practice.
"Shio, put more strength into your arm as you pull it, it won't fly otherwise."
"Even if you say that, I'm not that strong..."
"No such thing. It might be true in the real world, but this is Elysion. The muscle strength required is minimal and everything else is provided, as long as you have a clear image you'll be able to do anything."
Taiga remembered his conversation with Rui the night before.
———Then can a girl who is as weak as Fuyuki play it?
———No problem. If original physical strength doesn't reach the average value, it's automatically corrected. It's improved to the level of an average highschooler or so.
"To have your arrow fly straight you need an image in your head. If you do that, you will be able to tell how much strength is required, it's easy to sense it. And then, well, just believe. Believe in the fact that you can do it."
"Believing might be the hardest but... I'll try."
Shio created another arrow, slowly took a deep breath and made a proper posture. And then——
After a short pause, she shot it.
Unlike the weakly flying arrow from earlier, the arrow flew at a fast pace. But the aim was off and it hit the ground like the previous one.
"A pity. If your aim didn't go off the moment you shoot, it would've hit."
"...it looks like it's impossible for me after all."
He thought that for a while, but rather than Shio being mentally weak, it was her evaluating herself too low.
That was what caused her to fail, a negative spiral that further made her lose confidence.
We have to change that first I guess.
Fortunately, Taiga was a pro when it came to handling weapons. He could teach her a lot.
"Then, the next opponent will be a monster."
"Eh? And what about that target?"
"We leave it. When you're targeted by a monster it won't be just standing in place."
"B-but suddenly real combat is..."
"It's all right, it'll be fine. It was the same for me. The monster over here is disgusting so if you don't defeat it before it approaches you, something horrible is going to happen you know〜?"
"Awawa... s-stop!! Let me rest for a moment——"
"There's no need for that. Now, let's go—!"
Taiga took Shio's hand and pulled her to the forest.
At about the same time as Taiga and Shio proceeded through 《Aries》.
On the terrace of a Café near New City's main station were the figures of Rui and Fuyuki.
"Yahaa— as usual, the sandwiches here are really delicious—"
It was slightly late to call it a breakfast since it was nine o'clock. While Rui was wearing a perfectly coordinated outfit with a high amount of exposure and ate lightly, Fuyuki was eating like a hamster, taking small bites.
"Fuyuki, aren't you hungry? That's no good〜 you need to eat breakfast properly."
"...it's about time you said what's the purpose of this. Why did you bring little sister outside?"
"Nn? That's because we haven't played together just the two of us lately you know? Lately Taiga's been with us the entire time."
Rui gave her an answer with a blank expression causing Fuyuki to sigh. At a single glance it was clear she was plotting something, considering the way her brother acted in home it seemed like he was part of it too.
Seriously, what a meddlesome pair.
It seemed like she really made them worry.
"I understand. I'll take that as the truth for now. Do you have anything planned?"
"Fooling around until sunset, that is all!"
"In other words 'no plan' is it."
Fuyuki was amazed by her best friend's haphazard declaration.
"Well, it's not like I don't have a plan at all? I thought I could pick some clothes for Fuyuki."
"Clothes... is it?"
"Yup. Fuyuki has a lot of similar clothes right? You need some variation when it comes to clothes!"
"Little sister already told you before, that she's not familiar with something like that."
To be precise, she didn't have a need to worry about clothes up until now.
She was alone in a small laboratory, immersed in work every day. She was fine with any clothes. The only clothes she owned were the ones she took from home when she ran away, she knew nothing about fashion and trends.
"It's a shame because you're so cute. For girls, fashion is a weapon you know?"
"Haa... a weapon."
"That's right. And it's not just to appeal to boys, it's also important to care about it when among girls. Fuyuki looks good no matter what she wears, think about it. Don't you think if you were to wear the same clothes you usually do when going on a date with Taiga, there would be no freshness?"
"Muu... that might be right."
As expected, when her brother name was mentioned she could no longer ignore it.
Because she had a date promised before the Grim Reaper incident last week, it wouldn't hurt to pick some battle clothes now.
"Then it's decided. Let's go at once!"
"I appreciate it, but is that fine with Rucchan? Isn't Rucchan a rival that competes with me for Brother?"
Just like Fuyuki, Rui was also attracted to Taiga. That's what she herself had declared last week.
Since they were competing with each other, she didn't expect Rui to cheer her on actively——
"Nn〜 before being my rival, Fuyuki is my friend. And if my friend wants to look cute for a person she likes, I'll gladly help her."
Hearing Rui say such a thing with a big smile, Fuyuki sighed once again.
"Haa. That's right, Rucchan is that kind of person."
"That's the person I am. Come on, eat up and let's go〜"
The two girls resumed their breakfast while basked in warm sunlight.
"You shot down 73 of them, are you used to it yet?"
"...if that's all I do I'll get used to it even if I don't want to."
On the other hand, the two inside Elysion finally left the forest.
He left the countless monsters they encountered along the way (or rather lured them at her) to the silver-haired girl and as a result, her skill with a bow improved in a short while. Since Shio's opponents were all disgusting monsters, her mood worsened significantly.
She got used to moving in cyber world and was able to defeat the enemies they encountered with room to spare.
Then after an hour of walking through the forest the two finally reached the exit.
"Why is there a gate at the forest's exit?"
"No idea. It's probably the creator's hobby. Even so, it is a ridiculously huge gate."
The two of them stopped by the forest's exit and looked up the huge gate. Ahead of them was a cliff, and there was no other route that could be used.
And, as the two of them waited, a large window emerged in front of the gate.
〈"『Forest of Silence』 completed, congratulations. If you proceed, the tutorial will be finished. If you journey to a new location, adjusting your equipment will be left to your own discretion and you're free to do as you please."〉
As the voice message finished, the heavy gate slowly opened.
〈"Now then, please enjoy your second life in 《Aries》."〉
Beyond the door there was only light. It simply seemed 'fantasy-like'.
"...shall we go?"
They looked at each other and took a step towards the light at the same time.
Immediately after that he experienced something he felt many times before, it was as if his entire body was being twisted.
When they were able to distinguish colours again, rather than being surrounded by lush and dense forest vegetation, they were right in the middle of a city crowded by people.
Unconsciously, Shio raised a voice of admiration. Taiga reacted similarly in the past, he looked at the unfolding spectacle with a surprised expression.
It was a strange place completely different from cities in the real world.
The first thing that entered their vision was the abundance of nature. There were rivers running throughout the entire city, non-existing in reality, trees that emitted seven colours of light arranged all over. The buildings were fitting for the world, and were fashionably build out of stone.
In the square where the two were, there was a fountain that ejected water high up in the air, giving birth to an arched rainbow. On top of it, there were several people.
It was a town filled with fantasy.
"...I thought I wasn't into fantasy settings but this is somewhat extraordinary."
Taiga muttered, overwhelmed by the sight of the city.
As he looked up, there was a huge rock floating in the sky and there was a spiral that connected to the building on top of it. Unconsciously he thought that it went beyond common sense.
It seemed to be quite a big city, according to the map he expanded from his terminal they seemed to be in the city's centre. On the upper corner of the map there was it's name written, 《Central District, Central Kadora》.
And with that, a single question appeared.
"So, what do I do now?"
According to the announcement at the gate, the tutorial was already over. There will be no more guidance.
"It said 'do as you please' is what it said but..."
"Let's catch someone and ask. Wait a moment."
The two beginners couldn't make any progress alone.
Since it was impossible for Shio who was scared of strangers, Taiga told her to wait and after choosing a person he started to gather information.
On the other hand, Shio who was waiting for Taiga was looking around.
What entered her field of view were objects made with transparent ores and trees glowing in seven different colours, they were things that didn't exist in the real world.
But they weren't the only thing that caught Shio's attention. Even ordinary boulevards bustling with people and the noisy atmosphere were the first experience for her, who was always confined in the mansion.
"There's a lot of people here... I wonder if all cities are like that."
From the middle of the main street, Shio continued to look at the city around her.
With her pure white skin and revealing clothes Shio stood out. But she was carried away by the sight of the city and didn't care about her surroundings.
That's why she didn't notice people that started to stare at her, that was also why she wasn't aware of people flocking to her.
"Eh, what is it...——ah!!"
Absorbed while looking forward at a huge tower in the distance, Shio took a step forward and collided with a man next to her who wore black clothes on his entire body. She fell on her butt and immediately tried to apologize——
"...to stand in my way, what a foolish little girl."
Hearing the man's words, her heart groaned.
It was just an accident. It was just a little incident that should have ended with a single apology.
But the man's eyes, they looked down on her as if she was an insect, those pupils roused memories from depths of her heart.
——Why are you so incompetent.
The words her father said to her while having the same look in his eyes, haunted her in the form of auditory hallucinations.
"A bow from the initial equipment... hmph, a newbie. Weak small fries like you shouldn't tempt fate and watch how you walk. You're an eyesore."
The man's attitude was abnormally overbearing. He thought of himself as absolute.
As she heard more of his offensive speech and attitude, the more her emotional scars opened.
The surrounding people were just looking at it from a distance.
"Hey, look that guy's the A-rank..."
"Yeah, it's Tokuma... better not to get involved, let's go."
And with that, none dared to meddle between the two of them.
The ranting man who was standing in front of terrified Shio clicked his tongue.
"...tch. Hey, are you listening——"
"Yes, that's enough."
The man extended his hand towards Shio, and then Taiga grabbed his hand and entered separating them.
"Who the fuck are you."
"I'm with this girl. This is enough. You're going too far, she only bumped into you."
Taiga released his hand and crouched. He sandwiched Shio's cheeks between his two hands as she repeated "I'm sorry, I'm sorry." with an empty look in her eyes and made an eye contact.
"Shio, look over here. ——Shio!"
"Are you all right? Come on, stand up."
As he gradually raised the volume of his voice, Shio's eyes finally noticed Taiga. And as he attempted to take her hand to help her rise, the rude man reached towards her again.
"Wait, that woman still has to——ghu?!"
"——Cut it out you bastard."
Taiga grabbed his hand again and squeezed it with enough force to crush his wrist.
He cast him a glare, releasing his caged blood lust causing the man to unconsciously step backwards. And when the man noticed that fact, his expression turned furious.
"You bastards... mere insects like you think you can stand against me!"
The man shook off Taiga's hand and put it on a sword he had by his waist. At the same time Taiga placed his hand on the nodachi. That's when a man came out from the audience.
"Leave it at that, Tokuma. If you pull out a sword in the city, even if you're an A-rank I won't remain silent. Babel is close too, should I call someone from the management?"
After hearing those words, the man called Tokuma clicked his tongue and walked away after giving Taiga and Shio a dreadful glare.
After Tokuma disappeared in the crowd, the man whispered to Taiga.
"The two of you stand out too much. It's better if you leave as soon as possible."
"...looks like it."
Wondering what happened, people started to gather around them. It didn't seem like things would settle down like that.
Taiga said his thanks to the man, took Shio's hand and quickly left the spot.
After walking through the main street for five minutes they entered a small passage, and finally caught a breath.
"You should be able to calm down here, right...? Shio, are you all right?"
"Y-yes... thank you, Onii-san."
As Shio fixed her breathing, Taiga thought about the previous incident.
The man from before, he was called Tokuma... an A-ranker, he's also a qualification holder isn't he. He had a seriously screwed-up personality.
One of the strongest guys in the Aries, there was only a hundred of them among the players. A player that's allowed to go on suppression missions against viruses——that's a qualification holder.
"His arrogance probably comes from that..."
"? Onii-san, what do you mean by that?"
"That Tokuma guy, he thinks he can bully weaker people just because he's strong. Seriously, to think that's the reason he acts so bossy. How ridiculous."
A brute that immersed himself in the sense of superiority in his small world——there were people like that in Renjou as well. To think there were people like that in this game.
"...isn't that normal?"
Suddenly, Shio muttered that.
"Mm? What did you say?"
"——Isn't it obvious that weak people are going to be treaded upon? At least for me, it reminded me of Hime-chan."
Hidden in those words was a strong feeling contradicting her tone.
What kind of past did she have to be able to say words like that. As if it was an absolute truth, Shio stared at Taiga with a cold look in her eyes.
Taiga was at a loss, not knowing how to answer.
Those words were definitely related to the problem between Shio and Fuyuki. That's why he couldn't find an appropriate answer. He fixed his breathing, and just when he attempted to answer Shio,
That's when a ringtone was emitted from his terminal. The callers name was——Kiritou Haya.
"What now, at a time like this... Shio, go towards that big tower over there. I'll catch up soon."
"That spiral tower?"
"Yeah. That's where you can go through rank-up procedure. So go ahead and leave me for a moment."
"Okay, I got it."
With that said, Shio started walking towards the giant tower that was piercing the sky. He sent her off and didn't try to hide his displeased look as he accepted the call.
"Yes yes, Tenryo here——"
〈"You're slow!! Pick it up faster!!"〉
That moment, he thought his eardrums died.
〈"When you see it's a call from me you should answer immediately!! I don't have time to spare——Taiga, why are you blocking your ears?"〉
"You ask...why...seriously Haya...don't shout...with your volume...set at max..."
What rushed into his ears was no longer a voice, it was bombardment made with sound. It was probably because it was set to maximum, but the sound exceeded even the Grim Reaper's sonic attack and it still resounded in his bones, his visibility shook as well.
"Ah—shit... a sound this loud completely stunned me..."
"...are you all right?"
Taiga stood up while ignoring the sound still ringing in his head and looked at the window displaying the caller again.
"So, what is it?"
〈"Oh, yeah. Taiga, do you have any time to spare?"〉
"No, there's something I have to do——"
〈"You don't have time? Then find some. Or rather, make some time for me right now."〉
"Isn't that kind of unreasonable?!"
〈"I won't accept a negative answer or complaints. I've stuff piled up and I don't have enough time."〉
Not enough time——after hearing those words he noticed big bear-like circles under Haya's eyes that and that her complexion was worse than before.
"Hey Haya. When was the last time you slept?"
〈"A lot of work has piled up. I don't have time to sleep."〉
She worked both as the school's student council president and as a researcher affiliated with the Kiritou Group. Just that was enough of hard work, but now Haya had more work forced on her. Indeed, she might not have time to sleep.
"...make sure to secure some sleep time. At this rate you'll pass out."
〈"Thanks for your advice. I do have intentions of adjusting it. ——Actually there's work I want you to do that involves Aries."〉
"Is it fine if I do it?"
〈"Even though I said it's work, it's just an investigation. I'll send you details via mail so make sure to check it."〉
"Wait wait. I didn't say I'll do it——"
〈"Ooh. If Taiga takes this off my shoulders, I'll be able to take a break〜 But if a certain someone refuses, I'll have to stay up all night again〜"〉
With a proud look on her face that was her specialty, she cut in the middle as Taiga spoke. He was the one who told her to secure some sleep time. If he refused here he would turn out to be a man who's only good at talking.
〈"Then, I leave it to you—♪ "〉
In the end she made a wicked smile right before the window disappeared.
Taiga made a huge sigh. It's been only two weeks since they met, but Haya's insolence was getting worse.
"What am I, an errand boy?"
Originally, the one acting as her helper was the AI ・Iora. But it seemed like she was allowed to act freely 'to learn about society'. It was enviable, to be released from that tyrant.
And, another sound came from the terminal. It should be the mail Haya spoke about earlier.
"Umm... and the content is... what's this?"
The first word that he noticed after expanding the text was———'Angel'.
He didn't want to read it, but since it was sent to him, he could no longer ignore it. He looked through it reluctantly.
To summarize briefly contents of the job.
For a week now, it seemed like a program of an unknown origin was circling around the structures Kiritou operated. It didn't seem problematic in itself, but it seemed that this program disrupted the game system, it was viewed as a potential danger by Kiritou and they started an investigation.
And the author of the program called himself 'Angel'.
The work was to collect information on 'Angel'. The program was scattered all over the structures, and Taiga was in charge of 《Aries》, or so it seemed.
This work, it seems like something an underling would do...
He didn't know whether it was forced on her or she picked it by herself, but it seemed like she couldn't be picky with her jobs.
"...I'll ask while I'm touring around with Shio. Even so, 『Angel』 eh. That's just like the Grim Reaper, it seems like this world is full of stories like that."
He murmured that happily, and started to walk towards the spiral.
——A huge tower located in the middle of 《Aries》, 《The management tower》 known as 《Babel》. It was a facility players often use, the only place you can access the management from within structure. This was the place the rank-ups were performed and also the place where you could buy attack-configured programs, it was possible to perform various procedures inside.
"Welcome to the management tower. How can I help you?"
When Taiga stepped into the tower's interior, one of the women standing at the entrance called out to him.
She had green hair that nearly reached the ground and was very beautiful. There were ten women with cold smiles on their faces, no, to be exact there were ten bodies.
AI...MR-7 was it?
It seemed like that was how Fuyuki called them. Although it was a humanoid drone with mechanical body at that time. It could do both housework and office work, it was used for a variety of chores and matters such as reception, it seemed to be used in many areas.
"A person should have been here a while ago. Her name was Shio, she probably wanted a rank-up."
"Please wait a moment, the person in question was directed to the thirty-third practice field after finishing the procedure. If it pleases you, shall I guide you?"
Taiga followed the AI that went ahead and began to climb the spiral staircase.
There was free space on every floor, they were places the players used to chat. The further he went the amount of players increased.
"What is up there?"
"The Arena is located on the top floor. It's a place where players can compete against each other under the variety of conditions, anyone can participate."
"An arena... I'll go and take a look after I collect some information."
After a few minutes, he arrived in front of the door that was marked with number 33, the female AI bowed and left. Taiga opened the door and heard a noise of something cutting through the air coming from inside.
He recognized the sound of an arrow.
The released arrow hit the centre of the target located twenty metres away and exploded with a small popping sound.
"You've improved a lot. It's completely different from when you first entered."
As he called out, Shio trembled for a moment and then slowly looked behind. It might have been because of the conversation before, but she had a dark expression.
"...the performance augmentation was improved because I became a D-rank, that's all. It's not a real strength."
"Not all of it is fake. Shio's aim is improving right?"
"...is...that so... Did Onii-san rank up as well? The condition is to break through that forest and come to the city, so did Onii-san also become a D-rank?"
"No, I want to stay as I am for now."
I would become weaker instead——is what he refrained himself from saying.
For Taiga who had an abnormal physical ability far beyond a normal person's, the system that was augmenting players ability would bring the opposite effect. If his nerve connections were disconnecting after he got serious as an E rank, that meant there was no point in increasing it.
"Then, we're going outside already?"
"About that, there's a place I want to visit. Do you mind if we take a detour?"
"Since you've been helping me out this entire time I don't mind it at all. Ah, but it'll be lunchtime soon."
"Then we can take a break. Let's meet here in an hour."
Taiga opened the window to start the log-out process. What should I eat〜 as he thought of Master's cuisine, he heard a faint voice.
"...don't you want to know about my and Hime-chan's relationship?"
A quiet, barely audible murmur.
He knew Shio would eventually ask that question, Taiga answered quietly.
"I've told you at the beginning right. I won't ask you about it. It's something between you and her, that's something the two of you need to solve amongst each other... am I wrong?"
"...there's no need to solve anything... nothing at all."
After saying that, Shio returned to the real world.
"...looks like it won't be easy."
Taiga who was left behind sighed in secret, and followed her logging out as well.
Translator's Notes and References
- ↑ He says here "let's challenge" in English.