A shocked Raishin fixed his eyes upon the maiden standing behind him.
She looked the same as she did back then. Her appearance was exactly the same as Raishin’s memories.
However, that couldn’t be. Nadeshiko was dead. Raishin had personally gathered up her ashes himself. Those ashes were now with him.
That’s why even though this maiden had Nadeshiko’s face, she wasn’t Nadeshiko.
He could feel his blood boiling throughout his entire body. At the same time though, his heart was frozen solid.
“… Fancy meeting you at a place like this.”
His voiced brimming with anger, Raishin called out into the darkness opposite him.
“This must be some sort of fate, Magnus.”
Without making a sound, a figure glided out from the darkness.
His silver mask covering his face, he was clad in his usual coat.
His self-confidence was overflowing— No, that wasn’t it.
For the strongest living organisms above ground, even if they didn’t have self-confidence, they still wouldn’t fear anything else. This was a concept surpassing something as simple as confidence, where they realised and accepted the fact that they were the strongest.
Transcendence would be a good way to put it. This man had transcended strength itself.
Raishin honed his senses, searching for the presence of automata.
… There wasn’t any. He couldn’t lower his guard, but at the very least, it looked like the only puppet that was following him was the lone maiden.
Magnus didn’t say anything. Was he… watching Raishin sizing up the situation?
(… Should I do it?)
He tensed his legs up. The distance between them was only several metres. If he were to resort to using the doll next to him, Raishin could kick him before he even had time to focus his magic energy.
Tension started to build up. The atmosphere grew strained, and just as it was thick enough to be cut with a knife,
“Oh my, was there someone else down here as well?”
A voice feigning ignorance suddenly cut in.
The voice belonged to a man in the prime of his life. He was splendidly well-built, and Raishin would have no trouble believing it if someone told him this man was from the army.
His face was tanned, he had a moustache, and there were crinkles in the outer corners of his eyes. He could have been called a good natured old man, but he was still a little too young for that label, and he was overflowing with vitality. Still, his smiling face did leave the impression that he was a good natured old man.
This man appeared from behind Magnus, smiling genially at Raishin.
“You’re Raishin Akabane, are you not?”
“… I’m honoured that the headmaster would remember a lowly student such as myself.”
“Of course I’d remember you. You are a puppeteer that holds promise for the future after all.”
He grinned at Raishin. It was a defenceless smile, but Raishin still shivered.
(This guy is also a monster…!)
When he had received his gauntlet during the ceremony he had come face to face with the headmaster. However, the headmaster then and now were like two different people. Now that they were in a place with little people around, there was nothing to obstruct the headmaster’s intensity of power.
Coming into direct contact, Raishin could feel the intimidatingly huge well of magic energy. On top of that, he had trained his muscles well. If Raishin were to start a scuffle directly in front of him, there was no telling what could happen to him.
While giving off a fearsome presence and overflowing strength, the headmaster continued to smile at Raishin,
“What’s wrong? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Narrowing his eyes sharply, his gaze at Raishin was as sharp as any blade.
“Did you perhaps, see something weird?”
“… No, not particularly.”
“That’s good then. Magnus here is acting as my bodyguard. I must apologise if he startled you.”
“You must have gotten caught up with the earlier collapse. Hm, and the young lady over there—“
Recognising Henri, he smacked his fist into his palm.
“Ah, you must be the other Belew daughter.”
“—! Ah yes… My name is Henriette.”
Henri twitched at the headmaster, but she still remembered etiquette as she bowed politely at him.
“So you’re Charlotte’s sister. The Count was an exceptional puppeteer.”
“Eh… You knew my father?”
“Of course. However, that is a topic best left for another time.”
The headmaster brought that topic to a close, and cheerfully began another one.
“As fellow survivors caught in the collapse, we should band together and wait for help. Don’t worry, I’m sure my diligent secretary has already made arrangements for our rescue.
Once again, the look in his eye turned as sharp as a hawk.
“So I ask you refrain from doing as you please. Is that ok, Raishin?”
I will not tolerate a fight, was what he was saying. The aura he was giving off meant that it was the final say.
Having finished talking, he sat down.
Next to him sat Magnus, and beside him, his automaton.
Completing the circle was Raishin and Henriette, who were seated opposite them, a little distance away from the fire.
The headmaster began to discuss high level magic arts with Magnus. Raishin felt grateful that they were being left alone. He observed Magnus intently, like he was waiting for an opening to assassinate him.
Abruptly, the automaton lifted her head up and muttered.
“I apologise for interrupting, Master. Should I go and seek aid?”
“… No. You’re forbidden to leave the headmaster’s side.”
“In that case, what if I smash through the ceiling?”
Raishin did a double take. She had just said something unbelievably dangerous.
The headmaster hurriedly opened his mouth to interject.
“Wait. You mustn’t do that. Magnus, surely you understand. Any form of direct hit would be dangerous, since we have no idea what could drop down on us or where it’d fall.”
“You need not worry. I will smash every last rock, big or small, till they are nothing but powder—“
Magnus held up his hand, and his automaton fell silent.
“Don’t do something so needless. You need only protect the headmaster.”
“Yes, Master. As you wish.”
She despondently hung her head downwards. Her side profile looked all too familiar to Raishin, so much so that a light voice began to replay inside his head.
Brother. Brother. Brother—
(Goddammit… There has to be something I can do!)
A different kind of irritation than when he was worried about Charl’s welfare ignited inside his chest.
He was right there in front of Raishin, and there was nothing he could do!
Two weeks had passed since the start of the Night Party. Tonight was the 86th seat’s turn to take the stage. If he counted the 87th seat who didn’t appear yesterday, he would have to fight through eighty six more people to get to Magnus.
Of course, that would mean going through Frey, Loki, and Charl.
It was such a long way off— but now he was literally next to him. So close, and yet so far.
Then again, could he reach Magnus’s level just by beating eighty odd people in combat?
Raishin had trained under Shouko for that very purpose, but if the day actually came, his current strength was nowhere near Magnus at all. If they were to meet, it would be the same as his current situation. Magnus would be right there in front of him where he would be able to reach him, but not possess the strength to defeat him at all!
Henri’s voice brought him back to his senses. It looked like he had been unconsciously releasing magic energy.
“Sorry. It looks like I got a little worked up.”
“… What’s the matter? Ever since just now, you’ve been acting weird.”
Using the crackling of the fire to conceal his voice, he spoke to Henri such that only she could hear him.
“I’ve sworn vengeance on that guy for my clan… and my sister.”
Henri was surprised. Her eyes widening, she glanced back and forth between Magnus and Raishin.
Having been told this so suddenly, there was no way she could appreciate the gravity of the situation. She was more surprised by what Raishin had said rather than the severity of the situation itself. Raishin himself was surprised at what he had said. He hadn’t planned on telling anyone else…
But the words kept on coming one after another.
“I came to this academy to kill him. He’s revered as the Squadron leading Marshal— but now he’s only brought along one puppet instead of the full ensemble.”
“… Are you… Are you going to do it now?”
“As much as it pains me to say it, no. This might be a one in a thousand lifetimes’ chance, but my partner isn’t here by my side. Or do you expect me to take him on by myself?”
“Why… aren’t you doing that?”
“If you really felt that strongly, you… you should have already done something by now.”
This little girl had seen right through him. Raishin gave a snort of self-depreciation, stretching out his legs.
“I won’t fight battles I can’t win. If I lost and died, I wouldn’t be able to show my face to my sister. Besides, you’re here. I won’t tried anything stupid until I’ve at least escorted you back onto solid ground.”
“I’m… not worth it. There is no value in protecting me… You should leave me be and just do what you really want to do.”
“I’m… fine with anything. I’m just a worthless girl from the garbage heap. I have no magic energy, I’m not pretty, I’m a coward… and I’m w-weak.”
“Are you comparing yourself to Charl when you think that?”
Bingo. Henri clamped her mouth shut and nodded so hard her chin knocked into her chest.
Raishin couldn’t help letting out a small laugh as he warned Henri.
“Don’t tell anyone else about my revenge. Not even Charl knows about it after all.”
“Eh… Not even sis? Then why would you tell something so important to someone like… me?”
“I don’t think of you as a stranger.”
For some reason, those words seemed to resonate within Henri’s heart.
Henri suddenly lifted her head up, turning towards Raishin.
“… Um. The truth is, I’m not actually a student here.”
“Huh? What do you mean you’re not a student?”
“This isn’t a school where someone like me could ever hope to qualify for… I’m just a messenger despatched to—“
Suddenly, Raishin felt a strong killing intent on the back of his neck.
The darkness behind him was wavering. A sudden gust of wind blew from behind him, causing his hair to stand on end.
The next instant, a heavy blow landed squarely on his neck.