Editor: Deus Ex-Machina, Skythewood
Normally at this time, the sun would be shining brightly in the southern sky. However, the weather now was terrible. The sky was obscured by clouds and a light drizzle fell like mist, drenching the earth.
However, the men of the JGSDF did not have the habit of using umbrellas in their combat fatigues.
Itami was carrying a Type 64 sidearm and wearing body armor — among many other articles of equipment — as he prepared for his next mission beside a CH-47JA Chinook at Arnus’ helipad.
That said, his resource-prospecting mission had not yet been terminated. He was still carrying out his prior assignment… in a broader sense. He was to serve as a guide for a group of academics from Japan as part of his prospecting mission.
His objective was called Kunapnui. It was a border region about 1000 kilometers to the northwest of Italica.
Thus, he was permitted to use a Chinook as a form of transportation.
The generous budgeting for the prospecting of resources made that possible. Although on some level it could be considered to be misappropriation of funds, all the paperwork had already been handled, so there should have been no objections to this. In addition, he would be accompanied by several reliable subordinates from his time in charge of 3rd Recon. Apart from Sergeant Major Kuwabara, there was Kurata, Katsumoto, Sasagawa and Kurokawa. Kuribayashi, Tomita, Tozu, Azuma, Nishina and the others had been assigned to protect members of the media, while Furuta was acting as a spy and thus not taking part in this operation.
In their place, he had been allowed to bring along local collaborators. Thus he had chosen Rory, Lelei, Tuka and Yao. Naturally, the four of them had immediately started packing their bags the moment they heard about the mission to Kunapnui. To them, travelling with Itami was not so much a natural thing but a privilege.
If anyone had any objections, they could be referred to the observers from the legitimate Imperial government who was accompanying them. That would be the Crown Princess and her female knight escort.
Naturally, the Crown Princess in question was Piña Co Lada.
“Ah, are you sure you want to come with us?”
In response to Itami’s question, Piña smiled as brilliantly as she could while clutching a 100 yen plastic umbrella.
“Of course; I have been pondering the revelation granted to us by Hardy, Lady of the Underworld.”
“Well, you say that, but I have no idea what she was getting at. I don’t think we need to trouble Your Highness in order to verify it.”
“But aren’t you going there anyway, Itami-dono?”
“Well, ah, yes. Orders are orders.”
“In other words, the government of Nihon takes a serious view of such things. Don’t you think it should be considered seriously, Itami-dono?”
Piña’s opinion of Itami remained as high as ever. This was because she was certain that something big must have happened if the Japanese government had dispatched Itami on this mission.
However, Itami did not think that the JSDF brass were taking this investigation that seriously. After all, they might have sent academic experts along, but the people they had chosen to accompany them were only around the same standard as himself.
The higher-ups probably felt they couldn’t just ignore this, so they decided to send someone over, Itami reasoned.
“Well, the earthquake and the abnormal alignment of the stars in the sky are all real enough. Since someone mentioned that these strange phenomena have been happening ever since our worlds were linked, we can’t ignore them, even if they’re “divine revelations”. Particularly because Hardy-sama seems closely tied to the Gate.”
“Then I must go in person to verify the cause of these oddities, whether it is the earthquake or something else entirely.”
Piña took a step towards Itami, looking at him with a little resentment.
“Also… I tire of matters of governance. I have received nothing but blame for everything I have done for the Empire’s future, so I no longer wish to involve myself in it. If I stay with Father, I will only be drawn into more political conflicts.”
“But aren’t you already the Crown Princess, your Highness?”
“I do not recall accepting that title. Father gave me that title of his own accord and told everybody else.”
“Still, His Majesty’s health is in grave condition. Should anything happen, you are the only person who will be able to assume the mantle of leadership, Your Highness. Isn’t it better ...
Piña pursed her lips and puffed up her cheeks.
“Do you think of me as a burden, Itami-dono?”
“Er, well, I wouldn’t quite put it that way…”
Itami hurriedly tried to placate her, but Piña’s expression was one of a girl whose lover had mentioned the topic of breaking up. She covered her sorrow-filled face with both her hands.
“Uwah, do I exist only to be conveniently rescued?!”
“It’s not like that!”
“Then why are you so cold-hearted and merciless, Itami-sama?”
“...Er, are you by any chance throwing a tantrum?”
“Do you even need to ask?! After being abandoned by my elder brother, plunged into the abyss of despair, and roundly castigated by the pro-war faction, the hand which you extended to me was like a ray of light in the darkness, Itami-dono. It seemed as though you glowed with a halo from behind your back. In that moment, I felt that I must offer my all to you — no, that I wanted you to utterly claim me. I believe that is a common trope in Risa-sama’s works, as a lead-in to domination scenarios. My heart pounded mightily. Honestly, it was too moe. I am ashamed that I am not a man.”
That pronouncement drew a series of reactions from around Itami.
For a moment, silence reigned. Right after that, a spine-chilling air surrounded Rory, Lelei, Tuka and Yao.
“No, no, I personally think it would be great if you could remain a lady. I’m not interested in doing that sort of thing with men, so please, give me a break!”
“When you shouted ‘Piña! Come!’ I thought… I thought…”
“Did I say that? Really?”
Itami glanced back at Lelei and Rory — who were busy with travel preparations — to verify if he had indeed said such a thing.
Lelei was silent, as though the question was not worth answering. She headed to the rear hatch of the Chinook, clutching her luggage.
Rory and Tuka — who looked like teruterubozu in their ponchos — seemed to be huddling with Yao and discussing something. Whispers and fragments conversation containing words like “Homo” and “Shudo” came up.
(TL Note: teruterubozu are the Japanese fine weather dolls which look like ghosts, while shudo is the ancient samurai form of faggotry)
“...And, and, and even after all that…”
“After all what?”
“When I learned that you had only rescued me because I was along the way, I did not know whether to feel disappointed or neglected. The knowledge that I had been so casually treated filled me with despair! Did you know that?!”
“Haa… ah, it’s a bit hard to imagine.”
“Indeed, indeed! Could it be so easily imagined?!”
“Then… do you want me to know? Or is it better that I do not know?”
“Of course I want you to know!”
“Okay, I get that…”
“No, I don’t want you to know so easily. As if you’d understand the humiliation that I went through!”
“Then what do you want me to do?!”
Piña bit her lip with a “hmph” as Itami shouted in exasperation. Then, she forced herself to say:
“I hope you can follow my words. First, imagine me on my knees, both hands pressed to the ground, my head lowered in resignation. Then, I rise to my feet, my chest held high, wailing loudly and cursing myself. That is a rough approximation of my misery.”
“So I just have to imagine that?”
Itami’s well-honed imagination immediately began visualizing the scene as she had requested.
“Yes, and please be sure to dwell on the suffering I had to endure. Just like how I am in the rain today… no, imagine my form, drenched by rain and mud as the torrential rain churns the ground into a swamp.”
“Mud and a storm… is it?”
“Indeed. Mud symbolizes humiliation. Make sure to imagine my hair soaked by rain and my hands trembling as they dig into the ground. My nails should be broken and bleeding profusely due to clawing at the soil.”
“Urk... that sounds painful.”
Piña and Itami groaned together, rubbing their fingertips as they did. Their overdeveloped imaginations — though derived from different sources — produced a palpable sensation of pain.
“Umu, that does hurt. Let’s keep the fingernails on,” Piña relented.
It was only when she said those words that Itami realized that Piña was not speaking from personal experience. Well, to be fair, he had already realized that, but pointing it out from the beginning would be rude.
“Which means that it didn’t actually happen?”
“Well, if it did, wouldn’t it be dirty and painful? No — the resentment was real, so much so that I beat up my pillow. And my tears got it wet too.”
“So your pillow is the enemy now?”
Itami imagined Piña’s fists going “boff boff” as she beat up her pillow.
He visualized her in a princess-like white dress. But after considering that she was drenched by the rain, he reasoned that he would be able to glimpse her body through the translucent fabric.
“Don’t imagine the part about the pillow! There’s pouring rain and mud everywhere, staining my body! Don’t leave that out!”
Itami corrected his mental image in accordance with Piña’s request.
“Well then. Can you imagine the sheer suffering your cold ruthlessness caused me, Itami-dono?”
Itami was at a loss for words, so he tried to continue his visualization. Yet, it seemed to be heading in a lewd direction.
Suddenly, Itami glanced at Piña. She seemed to be looking forward to his reaction. In order to gauge what sort of reaction was appropriate, he asked: “May I know our current situation now?”
“You were about to admit your mistakes and apologize, then offer up your sword to me in a pledge of loyalty, Itami-dono.”
“Indeed, Lord Itami.”
“But I have no sword or anything like that.”
“Then your sidearm will do.”
“Ah… that’s right. I need to give orders to my people.”
Itami tried to use speaking to his subordinates as an excuse to flee.
However, they did not need his directions at all. They had already begun moving stacks of canvas, inspecting their personal equipment and ensuring they had enough food and water, even without detailed instructions.
In order to avoid being drawn into this mess, they turned their backs on Itami, as though to say, “we’re very busy”. While that was certainly a possibility, it was most likely not the case. At least, that was what Itami thought.
Still, he could not interrupt them while they were focused on their work. That being the case, he could still… yes, he had to take care of Hamilton, the female knight accompanying Piña. This should have been the first time she was taking a plane, so he would need to take the appropriate action.
In truth, she faced a rather severe problem.
There was still some time until takeoff, but she was already on one of the Chinook’s jump seats. Her body was stiff and she looked nervous.
She had taken shelter inside the craft to avoid the rain, but the reason for her stiffness was immediately apparent, judging by her wail of “I can’t believe a big lump of metal like this can go into the sky!”
“Can’t we go by horse, your Highness? Let’s take our time going to Kunapnui by land!”
She sounded like a condemned criminal being strapped into the electric chair.
Itami was starting to have his doubts about speaking to her. Piña herself was pointedly avoiding Hamilton’s line of sight.
“It looks so heavy already and now you’re filling it with even more things? How is it even going to float through the air?!”
Everyone seemed to be thinking the same thing, which was why they turned their backs on Hamilton.
Amidst shouts of “Please stop! Give me a break! Don’t put in anything else!”, Kurata, Katsumoto and one of the airmen continued their task of loading up the helicopter.
Lelei was helping as well. She glanced briefly at the pale and trembling knight before heading to the Chinook’s cockpit.
Her face was always expressionless, so there was no way of telling how Lelei felt. However, she did not look like she was about to explain the principles of flight to Hamilton and thus ease her fears.
Her attention was focused on the aircraft personnel, who were conducting their preflight checks.
After entering the cockpit, she studied the interior closely, as though she wanted to cling to the pilots’ backs. The look on her face was like a puppy waiting for treats.
Once she had learned how to drive the HMV, Lelei’s interest had turned toward the various vehicles the JSDF had brought to the Special Region, such as their bulldozers, the XLR250R motorcycles, and so on.
Much like with the bulldozer and the motorcycle, she was waiting for them to ask, “Do you want to try the driver’s seat?”
However, they could not let this girl into the pilot’s seat. While they knew that Lelei — a technical specialist — had experience driving a HMV, riding a bike across the wilderness and flattening out the earth with a bulldozer, they could not allow just anybody to operate an aircraft. This was a legal issue. There was a limit to how much the rules could be bent, even if they were in the Special Region.
Lelei seemed to understand that as well, so she did not actually say that she wanted to pilot the helicopter. Instead, she used her eyes to convey her thoughts. The truth was, despite her lack of outward emotion and speech, Lelei was a hot-blooded girl who communicated through body language.
The airmen keenly felt Lelei’s hot gaze burning into them, and her close attention put them on edge. The way she scrutinized every little thing they did was as though they were taking an exam.
“Ah, you seem to be looking closely at all of this — is it so interesting?” one of the pilots asked.
“I was thinking about how to apply it to magic,” Lelei replied.
Then, she nonchalantly continued, “I believe it should be possible to fly with magic.”
“Well, if you can do that, you’d become a real magical girl.”
Everyone felt the same way.
That said, if that topic had been brought up before now, they would have suggested to Lelei, “You should be riding a broom instead, right?” After all, “magic users” + “flying = broom” was an iconic image that came up when one thought of novels, movies, anime and manga.
However, she shut down everyone who brought the subject up with a flat “No”. In addition, she directed a reproachful look at them, as though to say, “A broom? What are you on about? You want a girl to ride such a slim thing? Are you retarded? Are you tired of living? Are you a pervert?” and so on.
When Itami heard about this, he told Lelei, “Well, I’ve seen anime and manga where they had things called training brooms, which were actually metal bars”, in an attempt to explain why everyone thought that way.
At that time, Lelei had stared at the broom Itami had handed her, then indicated that she understood before telling her own side of the story.
“It would definitely hurt. I don’t like it… and I don’t want to get used to it.”
Itami nodded in response.
“Well yeah, I wouldn’t ride a bike whose seat was changed out for a bar. My butt would hurt…”
When one thought about it calmly, it was a perfectly reasonable conclusion to reach.
And so, nobody asked Lelei to ride a broom any more. The very idea was ripped out by the roots and eradicated. And now, she was staring at the Chinook pilots with a “jiiiiiiiii~” expression.
The pilots felt her eyes burning into their backs, but they paid it no heed and continued their work.
Pilots went through extremely harsh training. However intense the motivation which led them to join the JSDF and throw themselves into their training, they would still be coldly rejected with a “We do not need you” if they could not complete their courses within the allocated timeframe.
Only people who could surpass that strait gate could earn their wings.
The foundation of their pride was their skills, earned through blood, sweat and tears. If their skills could not pass the inspection of a magical girl from the Special Region, they would not have a leg to stand on. The memories of their harsh training flashed past their eyes.
They had to satisfy Lelei’s expectations to maintain their pride. They had to show that ardent gaze of hers that this was what flying was about, that this was how one flew, constantly demonstrating their technique and mastery to her.
Thus, the atmosphere in the cockpit was quite intense. It radiated an air that made everyone unwilling to approach. Itami felt that going in there would be a bad idea.
In other words, there was no port for Itami to take shelter from the storm.
“Itami-dono, won’t you say something?”
Itami went “Uh,” as Piña approached him.
“Come on,” Piña said as she drew closer.
“No, ah, about that…” Itami continued retreating.
“Come on, come on, come on…”
With every step Piña took towards him, Itami took one backwards.
Sergeant-Major Kuwabara coughed very deliberately to get their attention, before straightening his back and issuing an order.
Kurata and the others formed up in front of him, chests upthrust.
Overjoyed at this sudden rescue, Itami snapped off a textbook salute before proceeding to report to Lt. Gen. Hazama, who had appeared before them. Piña looked vaguely resentful, but now was not the time to worry about her.
“Preparations to move out are complete!”
“Mm, good work.”
Hazama had no desire to cling to formalities. He introduced Itami and the others to the aged but robust-looking men beside him, as well as the television studio’s cameraman and the rest of the press team.
“This is Professor Urushibata of Kyoto University’s Xenobiology department, and this is Professor Shirai from the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan. This is Professor Youmei of Todai, who specializes in theoretical physics. And then there is Kuribayashi Nanami-san of the press team.”
“My name is Urushibata.”
“I am Shirai.”
“I am known as Youmei.”
“And I’m Kuribayashi Nanami. Thank you for taking care of my Nee-san.”
“Eh~ is the media coming with us? Nobody told me about that…”
Youmei roared at Itami’s reply: “How could the mass media not pay attention when I take the field?!”
In truth, this was the first time academics had been allowed into the Special Region.
“We won’t get in your way,” the younger Kuribayashi pleaded with her hands together. All they could do was take her word for it.
To the side, Youmei was griping to Hazama about “Why did you delay my introduction until the end” and so on.
“I bear a doctorate of Tokyo University; the vocational field of a curriculum vitae only needs to have one of these four entries in it: teaching assistant at Tokyo University, lecturer at Tokyo University, assistant professor at Tokyo University or professor at Tokyo University. Do not mention me in the same breath as the rest of those riffraff.”
Hazama began to tremble and sweat as he apologized to Urushibata and Shirai, who Youmei was pointing at. He hurriedly wiped his forehead off with a handkerchief and then replied: “Sempai, you were a schoolmate of mine, so I had to consider the matter from many angles. I hope you will forgive me for introducing you last.”
At this, Youmei’s attitude suddenly changed.
“What, you are an alumnus of Tokyo University?”
“Yes, although I was five batches removed from yourself, sempai.”
“Ohhh, I see, I see. So you thought of me as part of the family. Then it cannot be helped. After all, one seats one’s family at the rearmost tables at a wedding… mm, so you saw me as kin. Ahahaha!”
Youmei’s heart seemed to have grown three sizes all of a sudden, as though he was pleased by something.
Then, he suddenly turned his attention elsewhere, slowly discarding his umbrella. Then, he crawled upon the ground and beat at the soil of Arnus, shouting “Mumumumu, are we riding this?!”
As he peeked into the Chinook, Hamilton was scared stiff, but the spike in her heart rate showed no signs of ending.
Urushibata paid no heed to Youmei’s rudeness and strange behavior, but instead observed the scenery of the Special Region. From time to time, he stared at Tuka and Yao’s bodies.
“Hohoho… I see. It would seem that hypothesis was correct — in an Earth-like habitat, the lifeforms which develop will tend to be similar to human beings...”
Professor Urushibata delivered his analysis as he paced back and forth while inspecting them. The two of them were startled by the way he was staring at them and looks of fear bloomed on their faces.
Usually speaking, Yao would be deeply offended by someone who eyed her with lust, and she would seek to either scare him straight or beat him up. However, the way Urushibata looked at her was far removed from the lewd gaze a man had for a woman, so she was lost as to how to respond.
Indeed, he was looking at her in the way a researcher would appraise an excellent specimen.
Itami and the others thought, “I hope he doesn’t want to dissect Tuka and Yao.”
Perhaps they should have expected that, but Urushibata said, “Ah, Hazama-kun~ can we bring these two back with us?”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that, Urushibata-sensei. The two of them are local collaborators.”
“Is that so? What a shame.”
The others almost asked, “What’s a shame?!”
Around this time, the third academic Shirai was taking pictures of the region around Arnus while holding a tripod frame which had a reflecting telescope on a manual equatorial mount. Perhaps he was a collector of some sort, but the camera he was using was the film-using kind, which was quite uncommon in this day and age.
“If only the rain would stop soon. Muhuhuhuhu, what will the sky of the Special Region be like? I’ll snap it all up!”
Each of them was quite a character. They were all bizarre in their own way.
“Are these… teachers in a university?”
Hazama replied, “Mm, yes… Probably. I guess.” It was a voice that was at odds with his usual regal bearing.
Then, what exactly had happened which required a group of academics to travel to Kunapnui, which was deep in the Special Region? To answer that question, we must turn back time to when Itami and the others had gone to the Belnago Shrine.
After learning from Gray and the others that assassins were going after Lelei, Itami decided not to stay in Londel and instead decided to run around doing whatever he wanted.
His logic was that as long as they kept on the move, the assassins could not catch up with them, no matter how many were sent against them. This method of thinking was largely correct. The only way to catch up with them was if their pursuers had predicted where they would go and stolen a march on them. However, Itami was the sort who took operational security seriously, and he had put some thought into this.
“We’ll head here next, then.”
Roughly 50 miles to the west of Londel, Itami — who had finished collecting mineral samples from an abandoned copper mine with Lelei and her stepsister Arpeggio — raised a stick up on a map, holding it in place with his index finger.
“I’m letting go!”
Yes, he was going to decide their future direction by following the direction in which a stick fell.
However, simply holding it up with his entire hand ran the risk of unconsciously influencing the direction in which it fell, so his idea was to support it with one finger, then close his eyes before turning a circle around it first.
In addition, he had resolved himself to go where the stick went, regardless of where it pointed.
Of course, strictly following that rule would lead to running around in circles in the desert. Thus, they still went in the general direction the stick pointed, but they were flexible enough to allow themselves to gravitate toward nearby settlements and the like. That said, since the direction that was chosen was essentially random, no more assassins targeting Lelei had appeared before them.
Everyone looked as one to the stick as it fell.
“Bearing 326… looks like north-northwest,” Itami said as he consulted his compass on the stick’s direction.
“North-northwest?” Rory asked, as she stared in puzzlement at what should have been a chance occurrence. Then, she studied the others’ faces as she asked, “Did a queer wind just blow past?”
“I don’t think so… at least, I didn’t feel any wind.”
Itami was seated on the ground, studying the opened map and paying attention to where bearing 326 would take them. He looked up as he heard Rory’s question, and thus his forehead nearly touched Rory’s face.
Rory tilted her head. She was a Demigoddess, after all, and she seemed to have sensed something imperceptible to humanity.
“Well, perhaps the wind might have blown the stick a certain way, but is that a bad thing?”
Tuka raised her head as she said this. Her face was also very close by.
“Hm~” Rory hmphed, then looked down, beside Itami.
“Still, that takes us to Belnago. I don’t like the sound of that.”
If one traced a line on the map and swept it out… they would soon pass through the region marked as Belnago. In Rory’s opinion, it was far too accurate to be a coincidence, and so she felt that someone had a hand in this.
Itami felt that it might not be so, even if Rory said that. Still...
“Well, I was invited to the Belnago Shrine, so at some point I’ll have to go there. Is anything wrong with that?”
The invitation in question sat within their luggage. An inauspicious aura hung about it.
It was a scroll parchment, dyed black with what looked like dried blood. Someone had written on it with ink that appeared to have been made of some kind of litharge.
The contents were an invitation for Itami — who had defeated the Flame Dragon and fought off the Apostle Giselle with his might — to visit the shrine. Even the sealing wax was black. If this was a sign of the author’s sense of humor, it must have been very dark indeed. Although it was written in a business-like style, he felt like burning it after reading it just once. Incidentally, it was because of this item that they had considered visiting Belnago in the first place.
“Rory, didn’t you say you were going to tell that goddess Hardy that you weren’t going to marry her? I believe Yao wanted to sever ties with her as well.”
“That’s right. However, I have a bad feeling about what will happen if I go now. She’ll probably call up those assassins and the like as well.”
“I concur with her Holiness’ opinion,” Yao said, showing her doubts about the goddess she had once worshipped.
She had renounced her faith after learning that her fellow Dark Elves were used to feed the Flame Dragon.
Gods existed in the Special Region, and there were many of them. It was quite natural for worshippers to pray to those gods that aligned with their beliefs and abandon those which they no longer favored. This was completely different from a certain narrow-minded, monotheistic faith that reverenced a totalitarian deity, which split its adherents into several sects and let them fight among themselves, and which counted apostasy as a mortal sin.
“Then… should we try again?”
As she heard the suggestion which came from Shandy Kaf Marea, Tuka immediately nodded in agreement. Itami slowly nodded as well, and erected the stick again.
He closed his eyes, turned a circle, and released his finger.
And then, the stick pointed to...
Gray Co Aldo seemed to speak for the speechless group.
“What should we do~”
“Try it again.”
Itami let the stick go again.
After seeing the results, Lelei looked away and sighed.
“You know, they say Belnago has really good food,” Arpeggio said to Gray. She probably felt that going to Belnago was a done deal, so she began talking about the news surrounding that place.
“Let’s, let’s try one more time.”
Itami held up the stick, and this time, he leaned it toward the south.
Then, he closed his eyes and let go.
As expected, gravity pulled the stick toward the south. However, a gale unexpectedly blew at the stick, so that it landed pointing north-northwest.
“Har— Hardy, damn you…”
Rory kicked the stick.
“Owie!” Itami yelped as it bounced off a tree and hit Itami on the forehead. It was still pointing north-northwest from its resting place on the ground.
Itami rubbed his aching head and picked up the stick.
“Everyone! Let’s look at this differently. This stick doesn’t point north-northwest, but south-southeast.”
Itami indicated the thicker end of the stick, implying that since it was not an arrow, either end could be used as the head.
It sounded pretty forced, but everyone applauded in approval, saying “That’s a pretty good idea…”
However, a gust of wind came before that sentence could be completed. It turned the stick, pointing it north-northwest.
When Itami had chosen this method of deciding their direction, he had declared that he would go in the direction it indicated, no matter how harsh the route. He had been joking back then, but it had been a promise.
Lelei patted at her knees, swiping the dirt off before getting into the driver’s seat of the HMV and starting the engine. Tuka and Rory got on, looking dead inside.
“It can’t be helped, I guess. Let’s take care as we move off.”
Thus did Itami and his company set off toward the Belnago Shrine.
It was a temple city that was famous as being consecrated to Hardy, the Goddess of the Underworld.
Typically, one associated the Underworld with the final destination of the deceased. It made one think of the afterlife, and it was located deep underground.
That said, not everybody who died went to the Underworld. The souls of those who fell in battle, or who had performed sufficient feats of arms were instead summoned to the throne of Emroy.
In that sense, there were other places for the dead to go besides the Underworld, but on a whole, those were very rare exceptions. Under normal circumstances, the souls of the deceased would be drawn to the Underworld which Hardy ruled. Thus, Hardy’s shrine was often visited by those who did not primarily worship Hardy, but who wished to pray for the souls of their parents and grandparents. As one might expect, this meant that Belnago was full of activity, thanks to the hordes of worshippers which flocked to it.
“That sure is a lot of people,” Itami murmured as he observed the throng milling around before the shrine.
After securing their lodgings and parking the HMV, they took to the streets, which were packed with worshippers. It was comparable to a shrine being packed for Hatsumode.
(TL Note: Hatsumode is the Japanese New Year visit to a shrine to pray for good luck)
The stalls and shops before the shrine were targeted at visitors, and they were similarly filled. It looked just like a scene from Sugamo’s Jizo-dori, the front of Kawasaki Daishi, or the Kaminarimon at Sensoji.
(TL Note: Jizo-dori is a shopping district in Toshima, Tokyo. Kawasaki Daishi is another name for the Heiken-ji, a temple in Kawasaki. Sensoji is Tokyo’s oldest temple, in Asakusa)
Shrines were typically associated with a stern and grave atmosphere, which made people uncomfortable. The fact that this place was unexpectedly worldly put Itami at ease.
There were cheap wooden accessories everywhere, sold by the local souvenir stores. There were also metal chalices and carvings of the scenery, each stamped with the mark of Belnago Shrine.
They were instantly recognizable as true souvenirs, given their cheapness and decorative nature.
In addition, there were racks adorned with ores from various mines, which were being sold as souvenirs as well.
There were things like crystals, lapis lazulis, jades and other precious stones, as well as their ores. There were colorful, banded stones of unknown provenance, each with a price tag of their own.
Itami was about to ask why these things were being sold as Belnago’s souvenirs. After hearing Arpeggio’s explanation, he could only nod and say, “I see”. In short, Hardy had jurisdiction over everything under the ground, so the ores extracted from there could be seen as the bounty of the Queen of the Underworld. Thus, every city that operated a mine worshipped Hardy, and offered their ores and minerals to the shrine as a tithe, which only served to enrich the shrine’s coffers. Any excess was sold on the market as souvenirs, like they were now.
Alfie (Arpeggio’s nickname) and Shandy immediately started browsing the wares on sale. The ores in particular were an unexpected find for Arpeggio, who could use them as research specimens, and even her eyes had changed at this.
However, Rory urged Itami and the others on toward the temple. Not wanting to be left behind, Shandy and Arpeggio followed them, though they cast longing looks at what they were leaving behind.
As Lelei saw this, she said, “You don’t have to follow us. Wait for us in the inn after you finish shopping.”
It might have sounded like a cold abandonment, but Arpeggio understood that Lelei wanted them to enjoy themselves shopping. Still, she shook her head.
“As if I could. This is a golden opportunity to witness the innermost sanctum of Belnago Shrine; how could I pass it up?”
She put her arms around her little sister’s shoulders and pulled her close.
“For all we know, it might end up being the subject of a research paper, no?”
Alfie was a mineral researcher, so to her, Hardy was like the keeper of a storehouse of treasures. Thus, it only made sense to stay in her good books.
On the other hand, there was Itami, who had long been conditioned to seek the end of a line whenever he saw one. He looked around and asked Rory:
“Hey, Rory, is it okay if we don’t queue up?”
“It’ll be fine. Don’t you have that invitation from Belnago?”
“Ahh, yes, I do.”
Itami produced the black scroll from his backpack.
“The priests will show us the way as long as we have this.”
“I see. So this is like a pass for a tour group, or something.”
And indeed, just as Rory had said, it had a remarkable effect on the attendants standing by the main door. The exquisitely beautiful clerics in their white-ruffled priestess’ dresses were stunned as though stricken by lightning, following which their skirts swished as they genuflected before him.
It would seem this scroll was far beyond a mere tour group pass.
“Uwah, that’s amazing.”
The fact that he was now a supremely important guest seemed to have gotten to Itami a little.
“Let’s try it again,” he said as he revealed the scroll once more.
The priestesses genuflected before him as they had earlier. It was as though they were wicked officials who had beheld an incognito lord’s badge of office.
(TL Note: This refers to the period drama called Mito Komon, where a former daimyo travels incognito, finds corrupt officials through their misdeeds, and subdues them by flashing his inro.)
Just as he was about to brandish the jet-black scroll one more time, Rory bonked him on the head with the hilt of her halberd.
(TL Note: A reference to the line “控えおろう”, also from Mito Komon)
“How much longer are you going to play around? Let’s go.”
Itami clutched his head as Rory dragged him by the sleeve.
And so, Itami and company received special treatment from the priestesses in white goth outfits as they were ushered into Belnago Shrine.
Simply put, one could describe the shrine as a vast cave.
It was comparable to an inverted pyramid. It was essentially a huge mound that had been flipped over.
Of course, it was not simply a hole excavated in the ground. If that were the case, the shrine would flood whenever it rained. Thus, there were large stone pillars everywhere with support beams between them, supporting a gigantic ceiling that covered the pit. The actual altar to Hardy was located in the deepest reaches of the hole, where the apex of the inverted pyramid would be.
It would seem this was as far as regular worshippers could go.
Priestesses clad in white goth outfits stood in a line before the altar, dispensing blessings upon the worshippers in the form of words. Itami and his group could hear things like “May you be blessed” as they drew near.
However, the white goth priestesses ushered them even further within.
If one looked carefully, one could see a narrow set of stairs which extended deep into the earth. Those steps faded into darkness and nothing could be seen further in.
That must be the true altar; in other words, the entrance to the Underworld.
Up till now there had been no sense of claustrophobia, because the ceiling was high and broad. However, they were actually going underground now. Itami was not a tall person, but he could not help but shrink as he thought of how low the ceiling of the tunnel would be.
Rory and the others had the mournful expressions of non-swimmers who were being forced into the water. He could imagine them squeezing their eyes shut, pinching their noses, taking a deep breath, and then jumping into a bottomless pool.
“Are you alright, Rory? You’re just not used to the underground, right?”
“Under normal circumstances, entering the domain ruled by another god would cause all sorts of problems. But, but this is different. We have Hardy’s personal invitation, so it should be fine…”
Her forced voice squeaked a little towards the end, so it hardly sounded convincing.
Rory seemed to be very bothered by the matter of going underground, trespassing in another god’s territory aside. Thus, when Itami took the lead and said, “I’ll go in front”, Rory sighed in audible relief. Then, she drew up behind him, clinging to the hem of his uniform.
Itami led the group down the long, long stairs.
After descending through what seemed like the interior of a pyramid for about five minutes, they came to a large, open chamber.
It was a gigantic shrine. Countless pillars stood within the vast underground space. The scale of the place was comparable to the interior of the Metropolitan Area Underground Discharge Tunnel. That in turn made Itami think of the atmosphere surrounding the passage which led to the volcanic lair of the Flame Dragon.
Now that the ceiling was high again, Rory seemed much less tense, and even had a relaxed expression on her face as she looked around. That said, she had not once let go of Itami’s shirt.
A stern pronouncement issued from the altar at the heart of the shrine:
“You visitors. The goddess Hardy makes her advent. Pay your homage unto her.”
A ray of divine light tore through the darkness and illuminated the altar, and as one, the priestesses genuflected before it.
Rory sank the spiked head of her halberd into the ground and went to one knee.
Itami hesitated, and then saluted. He rarely performed a 45-degree bow, so that was not his first reaction. Tuka and Lelei did as the priestesses did, while Gray and Shandy touched their hands to their chests, in the salute of the Imperial Army.
Before long, a mote of radiance descended from somewhere near the ceiling. That point of light reshaped itself into the form of a woman.
Itami wondered if this was some sort of movie special effect or CGI. Unable to resist his curiosity, he glanced behind to see if there was a projector there.
However, there was no beam of light that betrayed the presence of a cinema film projector, and there were no mechanisms in the shrine’s floor or ceiling which he could see.
It soon resolved itself into the form of a woman in her twenties, with silver hair reaching down to her waist.
Her serene expression was like an exquisitely-carved piece of glass, while her slender curves were a simple yet elegant illustration of the feminine form.
She stepped forth silently.
In that instant, the green eyes of Hardy met with Itami’s, as though they were drawn in.
She smiled gently, and the fingertips of her right hand moved, delivering a tiny greeting. It seemed like a performer on stage waving to a friend she had found in the audience, and Itami could not help but panic.
After all, Itami did not have a particularly good impression of Hardy after the Flame Dragon incident. But it was nice to have a beautiful woman smile at him, and the atmosphere in this place was quite sacrosanct and all. He had once thought she was arrogant, domineering, and unreasonable, but now he felt that she was direct and honest instead, which strangely endeared her to him.
Hang on a bit, he thought.
According to what Rory had said, the gods determined the forms they took by their own will. That would mean Hardy had most likely not been born with that perfect body of hers. Itami considered the fact that even the smallest cosmetic changes — made over and over again — might result in onlookers being unable to tell what a person originally looked like. Plastic surgery and the like was commonplace in Japan, so it was quite likely that Hardy was an artificial beauty.
Hardy then took on a hurt look, as though she had not been expecting that. She then turned to Rory and said something to her. Regretfully, Itami and the others could not hear their conversation, and Rory herself was silent, as though ignoring Hardy. It looked like a muted television drama.
Hardy’s eyes filled with tears and her movements became frantic, and she gesticulated at Itami while pleading silently with Rory.
Eventually, Itami began to feel sorry for her. Since she was pointing at him, it must have something to do with him. At the very least, he wanted to know what she wanted.
“Rory, what is the goddess-sama saying?”
Rory sighed, as though to say “give me a break”, before replying, “She wants me to tell you that it isn’t plastic surgery.”
Itami realised that it was probably not the best choice of words. He lowered his head and replied, “Ah, sorry about that.”
Then he realised something:
“Does that mean you can read minds?”
So you do understand, Hardy’s face seemed to say as it blossomed into a radiant smile. She nodded to Itami in approval.
In all honesty, how many men would not feel guilty with a beautiful woman before them and their hearts laid bare?
Given that she was possessed of such bewitching beauty, it would be bad if she realised what they were thinking. Of course, there were some people who might not care, but Itami was an honest man, and he sighed, “I can’t think of stupid things any more…”
Hardy covered her smirk as she saw the change in Itami’s attitude. Then, she said something else, but Itami could not hear her. Rory, on the other hand, seemed thoroughly unhappy and refused to communicate, so Hardy trailed off halfway and looked around, as though searching for something.
Following that, the priestesses advanced in unison, as though they had been waiting for this. They looked upon their goddess with expressions which seemed to say “Please choose me.”
“Er, what are they doing?” Itami asked as he leaned down towards Rory.
“They’re saying, ‘Please make use of my body’, or something like it.”
“Body? Is that like possession or something?”
Itami thought of Kyouyama Itako or Himiko, famous miko of their periods.
Spirits and divinities could not directly interfere with humanity, but by borrowing the bodies or mouths of mikos, they could interact with the world of mankind.
“Becoming one with one’s god is arguably the highest honor for any priest…”
“However, taking such a mighty soul into one’s body will generally break one’s mind, so it’s like committing suicide…”
“That’s bad. That’s terrible,” Itami said.
To Itami, one had to be alive to enjoy honors and whatnot. A corpse could not enjoy the glory it was covered in.
“Still, they’re priests; they’ve accepted that.”
“Why do they want to do this?”
“That’s because it is a good chance to raise their status in the clergy. Someone who can hold on to their sense of self after having a god descend upon them might well bear a fraction of divine power…”
“Ah, I see. That means, they might have a chance to become gods?”
“That has been the case for some, but for the most part, it has not. It ultimately depends on the person themselves.”
“I see. And becoming a god doesn’t seem particularly advantageous either…”
Itami had no idea what benefits that state would grant, so he tilted his head in contemplation.
“That means there’s nothing good about it at all.”
If even Rory the demigoddess was grumbling about it, that suggested that there were more things he did not understand. However, she swiftly changed her attitude and continued:
“However, it is a priceless gift to people who live for their faith.”
“Hm, I see.”
On the other hand, Hardy did not seem to have found anyone satisfactory among the white goth priestesses, and a look of despair crossed her face. It looked as though she was sighing. Then, she looked beyond the priestesses with a look of resignation on her face, and then her expression suddenly lit up with delight.
As Rory turned to where Hardy was looking, she exclaimed in a panicked voice:
But Rory could not stop Hardy as she darted toward Lelei’s body.
Lelei sprawled on the ground, as though physically struck. A faint glow limned her.
“What... just happened…”
Rory’s hands covered her mouth, staring in shock as though she had just witnessed a truck accident involving a schoolgirl. The priestesses were also startled into silence.
Alfie patted her little sister’s face and shouted “Lelei, Lelei! Wake up! Open your eyes!”
Just then, Lelei sprang up, and it seemed as though her silver hair had descended to her waist. Then, she lightly touched her sister’s hand and smiled to put her at ease, before addressing the group:
“Guests who have travelled far to come here, I bid you welcome. My name is Hardy. Let us proceed.”
Hardy — who had stolen Lelei’s body — stepped up to Itami as though showing off to Rory, and took his hand.
Being addressed with Lelei’s voice and her face made it feel as though Lelei was actually saying it. However, after remembering that the spirit of the goddess Hardy was within Lelei’s body, Itami decided to correct himself and said, “Wh-where will we be going?”
Hardy placed her index finger to her lip, tilting her head in thought.
Then she announced, “Mm~ to sate my hunger, of course.”
However, Itami’s watch said that it was three in the afternoon. It was too late for lunch but too early for dinner.
“A, a meal? But I’m not hungry…”
As she heard Itami’s denial, Hardy’s green eyes filled with a dangerous gleam and narrowed into slits, as though to say, If you don’t come with me, terrible things will happen.
Of course, even as Hardy displayed that terrifying side of her, she was still tugging on his arm with just a hint of force, and the way she looked up at him was quite charming.
This was a magnificent use of the carrot and the stick.
In that instant, an alarm bell went off inside Itami’s head.
Lelei would never have — or rather, she could not possibly have — shown him a seductive expression like the one on her face now. Though he was reluctant to admit it, Itami was slowly becoming aware that the girl before him was not the one he had gotten accustomed to and familiar with. In addition, he was firmly convinced that no girl would ever fall in love with him at first sight, a position which over 30 years of life had solidified into an unbreakable pillar. Thus, if a female continued approaching him despite these two factors, it was a sure sign of a scam, a honeytrap, or some black-hearted joke. Thus, Itami swiftly backed away from her.
“My, how cold. Do you not like this girl’s body?”
“That’s not it!”
Hardy advanced and pressed herself against Itami. After seizing his hand, she embraced it tightly with both arms.
“So you don’t mind, then?”
“Har-Hardy-sama? You’re, uh, making things hard for me....”
Itami tried to pull himself free, but Hardy was unwilling to let go and redoubled her grip on him.
“How mean. I was hoping you would call me Hardy, in a tone of respect and intimacy. Don’t you address Rory directly?”
“No, ah, well, about that… Hardy… sama?”
“Ah well, that’s fine too. We’ll leave it at that for now.”
After that Hardy released her grip on Itami’s arm.
“Please follow me.”
Hardy led Itami, his group, and the white goth priestesses out of the shrine in a long train, to what seemed to be the most luxurious-looking restaurant in the town surrounding Belnago Shrine. She shouted for the boss, opened up a menu, and then proceeded to order everything on it from top to bottom, enough to fill up the entire table with food.
The quantity was such that even Itami and the others could not help but stare in stunned silence. Even the eight of them eating together would be hard-pressed to finish it all up. The cuisine was mainly heavily-flavored dishes of meat, vegetables, river fishes, mint, mushrooms, grains, cheese and cream. They gleamed with oil and fat, and they looked like they could cause indigestion just by looking at them. However, Hardy dug into the food, as though intent on finishing it all by herself.
The emptied plates piled up and up. The onlookers could not help but worry that she would hurt herself by eating so much.
“Well, uh, you might be able to finish it all, but perhaps you could, uh… show some restraint?”
While everyone around her was left dumbfounded by that prodigious appetite, Tuka gathered her courage and ventured a protest.
However, the goddess of the Underworld simply shrugged and replied, “Ah~ being a god isn’t easy, you know. Emotions fade away as one travels the endless river of time, and soon one stops being able to feel things. If that happens, I’ll become a being that only exists to carry out her functions. To avoid that, I need to take my fill of enjoyment and excitement.”
“In other words, eating?”
“Exactly. You should know well, High Elf of the Elf races. How do you greet the end of your own millenia-long lifespan, High Elf? After losing your joy, your emotions, your passions, you interest in everything, you turn into a tree because you tire of life, do you not?”
“Then, will you return Lelei to us after satisfying your hunger?”
That question came from Alfie, for whom this situation was like negotiating the terms for the release of a family member who had been kidnapped.
“Of course. However, I want to thoroughly enjoy myself first.”
Hardy licked her lips playfully as she said that.
“When you say ‘thoroughly’, you mean…”
“Of course, if I had a companion with whom I could share my joys and sorrows, I could return her to you right now… Rory, marry me. Or, I could marry you. Let us become one and grow old together.”
As expected of a god; it would seem even gender was not a barrier to her.
In addition, even her voracious consumption had not impacted her elegant air in the slightest. They could all feel her magnanimity and grace even through her casual conversation.
Of course, Rory was determined not to lose out. She nibbled a piece of toast in an adorable manner, and when she heard Hardy’s sudden statement, she turned her face away in refusal.
“No thanks, I already have someone.”
“By ‘someone’, you mean this gentleman here, don’t you?”
Hardy’s face and body suddenly pressed close to Itami, and in response, Itami scrabbled back.
“Don’t be a stranger. It’s hurtful.”
Rory moved, her frustration at its peak.
She suddenly rose to her feet and forced herself between Itami and Hardy, then rested the edge of her Halberd on Hardy’s slender neck.
“If you don’t watch yourself, I’ll get mad!”
“Ah~ what a rude girl. That’s some nerve you have, a demigoddess pointing a blade at a full goddess.”
“You may be a goddess, but that doesn’t mean I’ll bow and scrape mindlessly before you. I’ll repay kindness with kindness and rudeness with rudeness. This is an ample reward for someone who stole the body of a girl who wasn’t even one of your priestesses and making moves on someone else’s man.”
“That said, they were all weak-spirited girls. Why would I care about my priestesses if there’s a reliable girl who can take my spirit?”
(TL Note: the JP term is 霊格, referring to spiritual power)
“That’s pretty damn immortal, you know that?”
“Of course I do. I know it very well.”
“If you do, then get out of there at once!”
“I don’t want to. It’s been so long since I last took on a mortal form. Can’t I enjoy myself a little? Lend it to me for a while.”
“As if I’d lend her to someone like you. Youji and Lelei both belong to me.”
“Well, it’s jealousy then? How cute… as they say, all’s fair in love and war. I love the feeling of claiming a man that other women like. Immoral things like that excite me so much that I shudder.”
“There’s no joy in a loveless relationship!”
“That’s a prospective goddess of love for you. I guess nobody else will do. Love me, then.”
As Hardy said this, she reached a delicate fingertip out to caress Rory’s cheek.
Rory pressed the edge of her halberd against Hardy’s neck again, who backed away while saying, “Like I was saying, stop it…”
“Didn’t I say I wasn’t marrying you already? I responded to your invitation to make it plain to you!”
Having learned that intimidation was completely ineffective, Rory pouted and put up her halberd.
“Ah~ isn’t that a shame. Still, I’m sure you’ll come around some time. I’ll wait for you until then. You, the Elf girl over there. How about it? Become my lover. You don’t mind girls, do you?”
To Itami, that was a statement which could not be simply brushed off.
And indeed, Tuka did seem somewhat disturbed by it, but she did not attempt to hide her reaction. Instead, she composed herself and primly answered, “Please permit me to refuse, Hardy-sama.”
“And why would that be?”
“I do not like you.”
Hardy sighed, and then turned the thrust of her attack to Yao.
“How about you, Dark Elf?”
“You have no need to ask, do you? All you need to do is read my mind.”
“...How mean. Even a god can only use physical senses while in a body of flesh. Please tell me what you are thinking.”
“Then please permit me to refuse you as well. In the past, I might have readily acceded to your invitation. However, I no longer care for you at all. The reason for my visit today is to renounce my faith in you.”
“Is that so? What a shame.”
“Isn’t that obvious enough? You turned my friends and tribesmen into the Flame Dragon’s fodder! How could I not hate you for that?!”
Itami sensed Yao’s emotions rising to a head. He placed a hand on her knee in warning and reminded her:
“Yao, calm down.”
Yao lowered her head and remained silent.
“Eh~ you’re quite obedient to this man. Oi. Then, order this Dark Elf girl to be my lover.”
“I am afraid I must refused Hardy sa—n. I do not intend to repeat the same thing over and over again, but there is a reason why Yao dislikes you.”
“Indeed, I know. However, I have no intention of regretting my actions, nor do I care about them.”
“What?! Why is that?!”
Yao sprang up as she shouted her reply, but Hardy merely shrugged in displeasure.
“Please don’t ask pointless questions. Would you be able to accept any answer I gave you? Even knowing the answer would not lessen your pain. Why? Why? Why?! ...Much like an interrogation, your questions are not intended to find an answer, but to induce guilt in someone else and hurt them. No matter how many answers I give or how many replies you’re given, it’s like drinking from the sea, which only makes one thirstier. So don’t cloak it in sophistry, but fiercely, earnestly, directly hate me. There’s no need to pretend that you actually want to know the reasons for it.”
“No need to pretend?! Are you saying my misery and pain are all fake?”
“Exactly. I know nothing of your pain and misery, nor do I want to know. After all, I did what I did with full knowledge of the consequences.”
“Too much! That’s too much!”
“What’s too much? Where have I gone too far? Consider what you are eating. You take the lives of animals and plants to feed yourselves. Is that not too much?”
“If we don’t do that, we will die. These are the rules of nature.”
“Then you should understand why the Flame Dragon hunts and eats, then.”
“But there was no need to use us as its feed.”
“The Flame Dragon decides what it eats. In addition, I did not put you all on a plate and serve you up to the Flame Dragon as a meal. Is that incorrect?”
“That… that might be so.”
“Still, I would not have minded doing that. One needs to kill other creatures to raise a carnivorous pet. This is a universal and natural course of action. You feed your dogs and eagles with meat; where does the meat come from?”
Indeed, the staff of an aquarium fed fish to orcas and dolphins. Those fish were painstakingly raised with others of their kind in another tank. It was easy to gloss over it, but it was a selfish and cruel scenario.
Humans instinctively placed themselves outside of the food chain, but perhaps a being which surpassed humanity would see that as a violation of natural law and scoff at it.
“The strong prey upon the weak. It is a rule of nature. Because of that, you too have the right to defend yourselves. Thus, I will not pursue the matter of you slaying my Flame Dragon. The plan may have gone awry, but that too was to be expected.”
“And in any event, I am the mistress of the Underworld. All but a few souls will pass into my domain upon their demise. I will guarantee them happiness after death. Thus, the right to spare or slay is also mine to exercise. If one can exchange a moment of agony for the bliss of the afterlife, then it is hardly different from the pains of childbirth. It is merely a transition from one world to the next. Your parents, your friends, your fiancee, all of them are living happily in the world of the dead.”
Those words were apparently chosen to provoke Yao.
Unable to bear it any further, Yao drew her rapier and pointed it at Hardy’s neck.
“Happily? You dare speak that word? Don’t give me that nonsense! Happiness is earned through struggle, not given by others! Not even a god can give people happiness!” Yao shouted as her emotions raged out of control.
Itami hurriedly grabbed Yao’s shoulders from behind, pleading with her to “Stop it, Yao.”
“Itami-dono, please do not stop me. I, I…”
“I know why you feel that way, but you can’t!”
Itami had a pretty good idea of why Yao was so angry.
After all, Hardy’s exposition was pretty much the same as a dictatorship bragging about the happiness of his country’s people under his party’s rule.
If you asked each of the citizens about it, they would probably respond with something along the lines of “It is thanks to our Maximum Leader that we are living in happiness”. However, that answer would sound very fake, because there was no scale on which happiness could be measured in the first place. Everybody’s definition of happiness was different from each other. There was no way to simultaneously ensure the happiness of everybody at once.
It was precisely because of this that the best mankind could do in satisfying themselves was to not infringe on the rights of others. People had to respect each other when pursuing their own happiness, and the work of creating an environment which permitted such a thing to take place was called “social welfare”.
While adequate food, housing, clothing and health were all preconditions for happiness, they were by no means the same as happiness. By using policy to create happiness, one would need to define the precise meaning of happiness, and then force everyone to conform to that standard.
It would be like trying to create a utopia by plastering the streets with slogans like “Aren’t we all happy together?” “Let’s be happy together?” “It would be strange to be unhappy” and “You need to examine yourself if you’re not happy”.
Simply put, it would be a sacrilege against the soul. How many people would not be angry when they learned their friends and family were being subjected to that sort of treatment?
Itami could sense the righteous anger from Yao’s wrath toward Hardy. Even so, it would not be fair to direct that rancor at Lelei’s body.
“You can’t. That body belongs to Lelei.”
“Dammit, didn’t I tell you to stop?! You too, Rory! Don’t just stand there and gawk, help hold Yao back!”
Rory and Tuka stared as they saw Itami — who hardly ever raised his voice — bellowing at Yao. Then, they gazed at Yao with meaningful looks in their eyes.
As she watched a deeply remorseful Yao quiet herself, Hardy sat down primly and touched the place on her neck where the tip of Yao’s sword had touched it. The crimson line of the wound healed shut in an instant.
“Hardy, don’t treat souls as dolls. Souls are not toys.”
“If you want to save them, then fight for them like a good little minion of Emroy.”
The animosity between Hardy and Rory was clearly apparent in that brief exchange of words. If this kept up, the mood in the air might become even more malevolent.
“Hardy-sama. Perhaps it is time you told us the reason for summoning us here?”
Itami decided to push to the main topic. The use of -sama was to emphasize the distance between them.”
“...All right. That might be better.”
Yao looked like she wanted to lunge at Hardy, who deliberately trembled and went “oooh, I’m sooooo scared”.
“Actually, there is a place I’d like you to visit. It’s the reason I called you here.”
“Yes. It concerns the future of this world. No, that’s not right. It also concerns you people from the other world.”
“And what would that be?”
Hardy shouted for the storekeep and ordered wine, which she drank after filling her glass.”
“Before I tell you about that, I need to mention something about the Gate.”
“Ah, that’s right. I have some things to ask you about the Gate.“
Rory drew close to Hardy, but the latter decided to answer Itami’s question first.
“Joining the two worlds was unexpectedly easy. One could say that a world is like the flow of a river that began with the creation of the universe. In the process of their chaotic flow toward the horizon of eternity, they meander and narrow through the influence of valleys and mountains. Sometimes, two worlds are close together, and very nearly merge. At that instant, a simple push can link two worlds. This is when a Gate opens. However, these flows will not always flow together. At some point, they might end up flowing toward their individual destinations. Do you understand so far?”
“Ah, I think I do…”
“The Gate at Arnus is where the two worlds are in contact. Originally, it was just a small hole, and it was very unstable due to the vibrations of worlds, so passing through it took quite a bit of effort. The magicians of the Empire created a magical device so as not to let it disappear. This is much like anchoring a ship to a pier with a chain attached to a rock.
“I see, so that’s the door-like structure on Arnus Hill.
“Indeed. That magical structure joins the two worlds together. Thus, the Gate will not vanish.”
“And if the Gate does not vanish, will there be a problem?”
“The two worlds should have slowly drifted apart. If they are bound together by force, this will cause many logical errors. Many undesirable consequences will result on both worlds. The worlds will bend, twist and warp. No matter how hard one pulls on the oars or how wide one casts one’s sails, the ship will not sail. If one insists on sailing anyway, the body of the boat will start to creak — no, perhaps it has already started to creak — and fissures might even appear on the stones of the pier, no?”
Hardy smiled as she said this. To the listeners, it was as though she were telling them that this was deadly serious, and it sparked unease within them.
“So, so… what will happen?”
“Hm, well, first… ah, the earthquakes have already happened.”
Earthquakes. The very thought made Shandy and Gray — citizens of the Empire — hold their breath.
However, Itami was Japanese, and he was not unduly alarmed. After all, he had grown up in a country where he had been told “the big one will come in the next decade”.
Thus, Itami asked: “And then?”
Hardy did not answer Itami’s question right away. Instead, she raised her glass and downed it in one gulp, before cheerfully answering:
“You’ll need to see for yourselves, and then decide what you want to do next. That is why I called you here. Of course, you don’t have to go over right away. There’s some time, and you’re very busy. You can go over whenever you’re free. However, this isn’t something which can be delayed forever. I hope you understand that.”