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Ichiban Ushiro No Daimaou - Volume 9 - Chapter 3

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Chapter 3: Even if I Say Goodbye[edit]

By nightfall, Akuto's group had moved to an abandoned building outside the city. It had originally been a factory, but it was now a dreary space with a roof covering the bare ground.

Yoshie had remembered it as a place they could hide, so Akuto had transferred them all there. Zero was monitoring the flow of mana over the entire empire, so only three people could escape his notice: Akuto who wielded the same power, Brave who had a mana canceller, and Keisu.

Akuto was currently spreading out a camping set he had brought from somewhere and everyone was sitting around the light of a lamp as they pleased. This hideout would likely keep them safe for the time being. Hiroshi had been checking his map, but now he asked Akuto's permission to head outside and take a look around. After that, they all received a rare time of rest.

’’I love abandoned buildings. I always want to take photos. There's so much romance in forgotten places. You can imagine a cornered soldier died here or something.’’

Yoshie alone was excited, but she was also the only one working while she spoke on and on. She was creating the equipment they would need for their plan.

’’It's been a while since I constructed something, but it really brings out my craft-loving side. I just wish this job wasn't so easy.’’

She was currently fixing a rundown land vehicle. They had brought in an abandoned vehicle and she was making sure it would run.

’’Are you good at all kinds of construction?’’ asked Akuto with an impressed tone.

’’When I create my programs, I also want to make the mana devices to run them on. And when I create devices, I want to create the programs to run on them,’’ answered Yoshie proudly.

Akuto could feel his heart calming down as he watched her. This was the first time he had spoken to her in a relaxed situation, but her oddly frank way of speaking allowed him to relax and simply be himself.

’’How complex of things can you make?’’

’’I can go pretty far. For example, I can build autonomously thinking devices similar to L'Isle-Adams and the terminals of the gods. I can't create an actual consciousness like Zero, though.’’

This caught Akuto's interest.

’’A human consciousness and a L'Isle-Adam's consciousness are different, right?’’

’’That's right. One has a sense of self and the other doesn't. It's kind of hard to explain. Even if you make a machine that can replicate itself, it won't have a sense of self. If an AI maintains a relationship with a person for long enough, they gain something resembling a sense of self, but it's still different from the sense of self humans have from the beginning. You could say this is one of the big mysteries of life.’’

’’A mystery of life?’’ muttered Akuto.

’’Yeah. What creates life? If we knew that, we might also learn the secret of the universe's origin. At the very least, I bet it's related to the end of the world that Yamato Bouichirou mentioned.’’

’’I have a feeling someone closer by knows that secret but isn't aware of it.’’

Akuto glanced over at Keena's face as she slept leaning up against him.

As she breathed gently, she looked like nothing more than a normal girl, but he had seen her carry out miracles a few times in the past. Yamato Bouichirou had also been obsessed with her, so it was possible Kento was after her as well.

’’Kento wants to seal Zero rather than destroy him, right?’’ asked Akuto.

’’Of course he does. Destroy Zero and the gods would cease to exist. You might want to destroy them, though,’’ said Yoshie with a laugh.

’’Yeah, I definitely want to destroy them.’’

For a while, Junko had seemed to want to say something and she finally made up her mind.

’’Why do you insist on going that far?’’

’’Eh?’’ asked Akuto in confusion.

’’I still do not understand why you would do that. In fact, I do not understand you as a person.’’

Junko's tone was very earnest, so Akuto grew serious as well.

’’I don't understand myself either and that is what I want to see. I want to know who I am. Someone created me and gave me a role, so my identity was set for me. If I do not bring that to an end, I can truly never be myself.’’

Akuto's answer was sincere, but Junko fidgeted in irritation.

’’That is not what I mean. I...’’

But she trailed off. She tried to find the right words but found herself unable to continue.

In her place, Keena spoke up.

’’A-chan, you need to think about us too.’’

She had woken and was looking up at his face while still leaning up against him.

’’I need to think about you?’’ he asked.

’’That's right.’’ She nodded. ’’Junko-chan is asking this because she likes you.’’

’’Wha-... What are you...?’’

Junko blushed and began shaking her hands in denial, but Akuto only nodded earnestly.

’’And I like all of you. So...’’

’’Not like that. You're as important to us as rice is to a farmer!’’ forcefully declared Keena.

’’What kind of analogy is that?’’

’’Eh? No analogy could make it clearer! Farmers treat their rice with care. Just because the rice will be sold and eaten in the end doesn't mean they forget about it or give up on it! And if the rice could speak, the farmers wouldn't want to talk about harvest time. They'd want to hear how much the rice loves them.’’

Keena continued on and on.

Despite Akuto's confused look, she seemed to be satisfied with the point she had made because she curled up and went back to sleep.

’’Th-that girl says some strange things,’’ said Junko with a bitter smile.

She was still blushing, but she seemed to think Akuto had not caught on.

Meanwhile, Akuto gave a contemplative look and finally spoke to Junko.

’’Is it wrong of me to think about your happiness in the future even if I'm going to sacrifice myself?’’

Junko was caught off guard by the sudden question, but she nodded as soon as she grasped what he had meant.

’’Yes, it is. Of course it is. Just think about it. You are doing all this because you do not want horrible things to happen to others. Well, we are the same. Just as you do not want anything painful to happen to the people you...um...care for, we do not want anything painful to happen to-...’’ Junko trailed off shook her head and added, ’’Forget it.’’

But Akuto must have understood because he stared straight at her.

’’I will try not to forget there are people willing to rescue me. Even if I was created as a tool meant to fight and ultimately die, I want to respond to your feelings up until the final moment.’’

’’Wait, you idiot. Why are you getting so serious?’’

Junko smiled to hide her embarrassment, but Akuto remained serious.

’’Do not worry. I will bring everything to an end the day after tomorrow. Everything will go well.’’

’’S-sure...’’

Junko looked Akuto in the eye and gulped.

She then slowly reached her hand out toward his hand.

’’Right. You want to bring it to an end.’’

Yoshie had appeared behind Akuto at some point and she suddenly embraced both him and Junko from behind.

’’Hyah!’’

’’Ah...’’

Junko and Akuto cried out.

’’Sorry to interrupt you at such a nice moment, but I'll be upset if you don't let me join in,’’ said Yoshie jokingly.

She rubbed her cheek up against Junko's cheek and tugged on Akuto's ear.

’’When you're done, how about you pay this unsociable girl some attention? Or should the three of us do it together?’’

’’I-idiot... What are you saying...?’’

Even Junko's ears turned red, but Yoshie ignored her and suddenly switched to a serious tone as she spoke to Akuto.

’’Are you really planning to defeat Zero instead of sealing him? If so, you need to prepare yourself for that now.’’

’’Yes.’’ Akuto nodded. ’’I know what you're trying to say.’’

Akuto and Yoshie seemed to come to an understanding simply by exchanging a glance.

’’And you're still going to do this? Are you sure that previous conversation isn't going to make your resolve waver?’’

Akuto hesitated when he was asked again.

’’You're right. I probably will hesitate. My thoughts are beginning to change a little.’’

Yoshie nodded and smiled.

’’Then maybe I should put some effort into saving you as well.’’

’’Wait. What are you two talking about?’’ asked Junko.

Yoshie returned to her teasing voice.

’’Heh heh heh. Akuto-kun and I can understand each other pretty well without saying a word. Jealous?’’

’’Wh-why would I be jealous?’’

Junko blushed yet again and waved her hands around.

’’Ah ha ha. I'm just kidding. But it's because I'm so much like Akuto-kun that I like you so much.’’

Yoshie suddenly pushed Junko to the ground and climbed on top of her.

’’Hyah! Stop!’’

’’Ohh, this sensation has a completely different charm to it than Fujiko-kun's.’’

Yoshie began groping various parts of Junko's body.

’’S-stop that... Do not touch me there...’’

’’Touch you where? You'll have to tell me. And remember: Akuto-kun's listening.’’

’’Wah! You idiot! You know what I mean, so just stop it!’’

’’Then should I say it?’’

’’Stop!’’

’’Tell me when you're done,’’ said Akuto as he averted his gaze.

’’You idiot! Stop her!’’ protested Junko.

Morning arrived.

This was the day on which Akuto intended to reach the transfer circle to the moon.

’’If it gets dangerous, please get out of here,’’ instructed Akuto.

He was speaking to the others aboard the land vehicle. That was Yoshie, Junko, Keena, and Keisu. Yoshie was the one driving the vehicle.

’’I intend to, but I'm hoping we will all play a useful role here. Looking at that up there is enough to make me want to run away right now, though.’’

Yoshie felt a sudden chill.

The vehicle was on its way to Constant Magic Academy and L'Isle-Adams were waiting for them in formation. Having only four people charging toward an entire army felt like running out into sub-zero temperatures while naked.

’’That formation is meant to be used against magic. They thin out the mana along their enemy's expected route and fire real bullets accelerated with mana from the side. Normally, you wouldn't drive a vehicle up to an army waiting with a trench built,’’ said Yoshie while analyzing the situation with her goggles.

The western side of the academy contained a vast area of land made up of hills both small and large. It was perfect for a battlefield.

’’They have a virtual alternate dimension field in place. As expected, they're keeping Brave from acting here. We were right not to bring him.’’

’’But our strategy is the same as we discussed. Instead of breaking through, I'll knock all the L'Isle-Adams out of commission,’’ said Akuto casually.

’’Wow. How reliable,’’ joked Yoshie to hide her fear.

Yoshie's lighthearted personality and curiosity allowed her to manage in dangerous places, but she was acting different this time because she had no experience in actual combat.

And Akuto seemed to sense her unease. He placed a hand on her shoulder and nodded toward Junko.

’’Just leave it to Junko.’’

Junko was not used to being referred to by her given name, so she let out a short cry of surprise. However, she quickly recovered and nodded.

’’Do not worry. In a fight on this level, I can protect the vehicle.’’

Akuto smiled and nodded.

’’Good. I trust you. I'll regulate the mana density along our path. Normally, I want the rest of you to only move once everything is safe. Even so, I'm sure Zero will target Keisu, so I want you to move the vehicle around as bait.’’

’’Understood.’’

Yoshie smiled bitterly as if her fear had vanished.

’’Okay. Let's get going.’’

Akuto waved a hand and ran forward so casually one would never think he was on his way to a battlefield.

Even so, the area ahead of them filled with violence the instant he began moving. They could hear explosions and see flashes of light and flames from well ahead of the land vehicle. They of course came from attacks being sent toward Akuto.

’’I know he can handle attacks like that, but I am still worried,’’ muttered Junko.

’’Oh, such love. But try worrying about us right now! Toh!’’

The vehicle jerked forward as Yoshie accelerated.

It was true they had no reason to worry about Akuto. Even though all the attacks were focused on him, he easily defended against them all. He even had the leeway to attack the L'Isle-Adam soldiers beginning to target the vehicle.

Even so, some soldiers slipped through. Yoshie could see them approaching from the distant group fighting with Akuto. Zero supposedly had no way of detecting Keisu, but the L'Isle-Adams had likely seen her. And even if they had not, it was only natural to attack the approaching vehicle.

Three groups of five L'Isle-Adams in military uniforms flew toward them. Akuto finally noticed the threat and fired mana spheres at them and managed to instantly blow away two of the groups, but the remaining five soldiers created a formation blocking the vehicle's path forward. The well-trained soldiers quickly aimed their rifles with efficient motions.

’’Toh!’’

Yoshie began turning the steering wheel, but Junko stopped her.

’’Exposing our flank is more dangerous. Keep straight. The mana is dense enough for me to defend against this!’’

Junko jumped up from her seat and landed in front of the advancing vehicle. She ran faster than the vehicle, lowered her hips, drew her sword, and created four copies of herself.

The five version of herself each charged toward one of the L'Isle-Adams.

They caught on to what she was doing, so they fired.

’’Those guns are nothing!’’

All five Junkos created mana barriers. Due to the scattered mana density, a few bullets pierced the barrier, but she rotated her sword quickly enough to cut through the bullets. The copies did the same and their mana-made swords sliced through the bullets just as easily.

’’Hah!’’

Junko sliced through the L'Isle-Adam and its gun with a single slice.

The copies did the exact same, so the five L'Isle-Adams were defeated simultaneously.

The land vehicle came to a stop next to her a moment later.

’’Not bad,’’ said Yoshie in admiration.

’’More are coming,’’ said Junko without growing embarrassed.

Just as she had said, more L'Isle-Adams that Akuto had missed were headed their way. This was not due to Akuto doing a poor job. The L'Isle-Adams - and therefore Zero - had made Keisu their main target. An overwhelming number of soldiers were targeting the vehicle.

’’Drive around to avoid them as best as you can. Let's go.’’

Junko then created many more copies of herself. They surrounded the vehicle and defended against the coming enemies so that not even a single kitten could get through.

The wave of L'Isle-Adams struck the wall of Junkos and intense mana light surged out.

’’Ee!’’

Yoshie instinctually lowered her head, but not even a single bullet struck the vehicle.

The Junkos wielded their swords like fierce gods and sliced through, crushed, or repelled the L'Isle-Adams attacking with all sorts of weapons.

’’Ohhhhhhhhh!’’ roared Junko.

It was commonly known that the effects of mana changed depending on one's imagination. Just as in Akuto and Zero's fight, a human will was the key to defeating L'Isle-Adams in a magic battle. This made Junko's honed mind overwhelming.

’’Let's go!’’

As Junko and her copies stopped the waves of L'Isle-Adams, she began to advance.

Junko and her copies moved in such harmony it was impossible to tell which was the original. They moved like a herd of wild bulls. The L'Isle-Adams outnumbered the Junkos, but their army began to crumble.

Once the L'Isle-Adams began to fall back, Junko pursued them.

Some of the retreating soldiers managed to recover well, but they only found the brutal destruction of Akuto's attacks awaiting them.

Every single L'Isle-Adam that entered his field of vision was diligently crushed. The ones nearby exploded from within after a single glare. The ones more distant had a mana sphere thrown through their gut with a single motion of a fingertip.

The L'Isle-Adams were under Zero's control, so the entire group was able to act like a living being, but Akuto was methodically crushing each individual cell. They could not maintain their ability to fight. If they had had a sense of self, the fear would likely have left them standing still like empty, soulless shells.

’’I'm glad they're on our side.’’

Yoshie watched Junko and Akuto fight like it was a show.

’’But they do look somehow beautiful like this,’’ she muttered.

As Akuto remained motionless in the air while heartlessly and overwhelmingly crushing his enemies whether they were nearby or far away, he had the majesty one would expect of a demon king.

As Junko wielded her white sword so it danced like icy snow and cut open a path alongside her identical copies, she looked like the kind of fierce and beautiful swordsman who would accompany a demon king.

’’Won't this be over before long?’’ asked Keena from the backseat where she was protecting Keisu.

’’Looks that way,’’ agreed Yoshie.

Barely any of the L'Isle-Adams were functioning anymore. Constant Magic Academy's grounds were covered in corpses.

’’I feel sorry for them,’’ muttered Keena.

’’Yeah, I do feel sorry for those L'Isle-Adams,’’ replied Yoshie. ’’He's managed to grow this heartless, but the worst part is yet to come.’’

’’The worst part?’’ asked Keena in puzzlement.

’’That's right. They've finished up outside, so now we have to enter the school building.’’

Yoshie pointed forward.

Akuto and Junko stood next to each other atop a pile of destroyed L'Isle-Adams. It was a desolate yet oddly reassuring sight.

Akuto and the others cautiously entered the school building.

When they peered inside, the halls were not filled with waiting L'Isle-Adams and nothing happened even when Akuto entered ahead of the others. No traps were waiting for them.

’’What is going on?’’ asked Junko.

She was keeping an eye on their surroundings from the tail end of the group while they made their way to the stairs leading underground.

’’Focusing your forces is standard. It's possible they didn't expect the army outside to actually win,’’ answered Yoshie ahead of Junko.

She had input the route Keisu had mentioned into her goggles and now overlaid it on her surroundings.

’’Okay, it's this way. Through this wall.’’

Yoshie pointed at a stone wall in an underground passageway that Akuto and the others from the school were familiar with.

’’We've used this passageway before, but there was never anything-...’’

Akuto trailed off as Yoshie checked her goggles again and placed a hand on one part the wall. With a low-pitched noise, the wall slid aside, revealing another passageway.

’’I never knew this was here.’’

Surprised, Akuto checked within the passageway. There was no one inside, but the disturbance to the thick dust made it clear someone had passed through recently.

They continued through that passageway while protecting Keisu. They reached a staircase which brought them down several more floors.

When they arrived at the bottom, they saw a light at the end of the passageway.

Akuto stopped at the head of the group.

’’Is that...?’’ asked Yoshie as she looked ahead. She then let out a groan. ’’I knew it... I had hoped I was wrong, but it looks like this really was their trump card.’’

’’Y-you mention this trump card yesterday too, but what is it?’’

Junko sounded confused as she peered forward from behind Keena and Keisu.

And then she gasped.

The silhouette of a slender girl was visible up ahead.

As they continued down the passageway, they found a room the size of a football field and a several meter wide transfer circle glowed in the center. The circle was the sole light source and the girl stood in front of it.

’’I cannot let you go any further. I will kill you all here,’’ she said in a cold voice.

Junko knew the voice well.

’’Korone...’’

As Junko continued forward, Korone's form came into view.

She realized this was what Akuto and Yoshie had been talking about. It was true Akuto would be unable to defeat her.

Korone wore her usual school uniform and the lack of expression in her eyes was the same as always, but her actions were completely different. As she raised her hand, the motion contained both Kazuko's grace and the mannerisms of Zero when he used a humanoid body.

’’She's being controlled,’’ muttered Junko.

’’Most likely. But it's hard to say how direct the control is,’’ said Yoshie cautiously.

’’Korone!’’ called Akuto.

’’That is this unit's name,’’ replied Korone. ’’But at the moment...’’

Korone raised her hand and the flow of mana around her distorted.

With the sound of the air ripping apart, a large transfer circle appeared over her head.

’’A weapon?’’ muttered Akuto.

A large machine appeared from the circle. It looked halfway between a machine tool and an airplane and it seemed able to fly on its own.

Once it was fully transferred in, it slowly descended above Korone. Surprisingly, it began transforming. The center of the machine tool-like device split apart and a few of the pieces attached to different parts of Korone's body.

Once the transformation and combination completed, it looked like Korone was wearing some sort of armor. Alternatively, it looked like a giant twice the size of a normal human was holding a normal sized human in its belly.

Korone waved her hand to test the armor's movement. The double-sized hand let out a roar as it moved with great power. The hand pointed at Akuto.

’’I have equipped the Evil Bane Hammer, the artifact of the god Markt. You may call me Armored Korone.’’

’’That strange joke sounds like Korone...’’ commented Junko.

’’But she still has the mannerisms of Kazuko and Zero. She's being controlled, so this isn't really Korone. The different identities seem to be mixed together to a certain extent,’’ added Akuto.

’’So that's the Evil Bane Hammer. That powerful armor is kept by the Temple of Markt,’’ explained Yoshie.

’’So is it like my Sword of Sohaya?’’ asked Junko.

Each of the temples had a single weapon looked after by the priests. The devices created a stronger link to the god, so they were the most powerful weapons an individual could use. But during the recent peace, they had only been used as symbols.

’’It is known as a hammer because it gives the wearer the hardness of steel and a powerful hammer with which to strike those who break the law. This weapon has been used in previous wars,’’ explained Yoshie as she pointed at Korone's right arm.

A giant metal stake was attached to the forearm. The hammer was bent and it was large enough to overbalance the entire armor if held out straight. Its mere presence seemed to radiate pressure.

’’That giant hammer has a booster attached to the back. It's about as simple a weapon as you can get, but it's incredibly destructive.’’

For that comment alone, Yoshie did not use her standard rhetoric.

’’Here I come,’’ announced Korone as she suddenly advanced and swung the hammer horizontally toward Akuto.

’’Ah!’’

Akuto jumped backwards to avoid it, but the hammer had tremendous mass. It compressed the air where he had been and caused that air to burst as it passed through.

A shockwave spread as if the air itself had exploded.

’’That is not all.’’

Korone used the momentum of her missed strike to rotate all the way around and swing the hammer diagonally up at a slightly different angle.

’’Fire,’’ she muttered, igniting the booster on the back of the hammer.

With a great roar, the hammer shot toward Akuto.

’’!’’

He jumped to avoid it once more.

With a sound resembling an earthquake, the hammer smashed the stone floor and sent fragments flying everywhere. Only after gouging out a large portion of the ground exposed below did the hammer stop.

As Yoshie watched that ridiculous power through her goggles, she let out a surprised cry.

’’That attack is too powerful to withstand using a barrier of compressed mana!’’

Akuto gulped.

’’You can't defend against it with mana?’’

But she had to move the hammer a lot. To send two strikes in a row, she spun like a top.

’’Still, it isn't hard to avoid,’’ he muttered.

’’And if you can easily avoid it, you can easily touch it afterwards,’’ analyzed Yoshie.

Just as she had said, Akuto evaded the hammer, charged right up to Korone, directly touched the armor's right arm, and focused mana to destroy the arm.

’’Hah!’’

He could tell he had properly controlled the mana, but he jumped back with a look of surprise.

’’I can't destroy it!’’

Yoshie also looked surprised.

’’The armor is too strong to destroy with mana!?’’

’’Exactly. As long as I continue swinging this hammer, you can never stop me,’’ said Korone.

The voice was definitely Korone's, but the tone made it clear this was actually Kazuko speaking.

’’No, there's a weakness. But...’’ said Yoshie.

Akuto understood what she meant. The armor did not cover Korone's entire body. It was of course still protecting her exposed parts, but Akuto had enough magic power to break through that level of protection as long as he could touch her.

Korone had to know this, but she still smiled. That was an expression one would never have seen on Korone's face. The unconcerned smile was the same one they had seen on Kazuko.

’’The demon king cannot do that,’’ declared Korone/Kazuko.

’’Kh!’’

Akuto avoided another attack.

’’That is why Korone was brought here as our final trump card. You cannot destroy her. I will repay you for what you did earlier, even if it is not done directly.’’

Korone/Kazuko sneered.

’’This is what I feared. Akuto-kun can't do this,’’ said Yoshie.

She was exactly right. Akuto continued to avoid Korone's attacks. The attacks were not enough to wear down his mental strength and Korone was not fighting fiercely enough to run out of energy. The battle would likely continue indefinitely if nothing was done.

’’Then will this continue forever?’’ asked Keena suddenly.

As if she had heard, Korone/Kazuko grinned and gave an unexpected answer.

’’If I only target the demon king, it will. But what if someone else is on the receiving end of this strike that not even the demon king can defend against!’’

Korone/Kazuko changed the trajectory of her hammer and it flew in a different direction. Instead of targeting Akuto as he moved around, it changed direction by 90 degrees. It now travelled toward Keena, Junko, and Keisu who the first two were protecting.

’’So that's what you're after!’’ shouted Yoshie in surprise.

This of course left Korone wide-open to Akuto. He could stop the attack by attacking her, but...

’’What will you do? If you do not defeat Korone, Keisu will be hit. And to protect her, Soga Keena and Hattori Junko must die,’’ said Korone/Kazuko.

She used the hammer's momentum to swing it up and triumphantly forced Akuto to make his choice.

’’Choose!’’

Korone/Kazuko's cruel hammer strike flew toward Keena, Junko, and Keisu.

Akuto's face twisted and he let out a quiet voice.

’’You coward...’’

’’Ho ho ho ho! Is there anything wrong with that?’’ laughed Korone/Kazuko.

With a roar, the hammer slammed down from above the three girls.

An explosive noise rang out and a great vibration spread through the stone floor like a wave.

The hammer's movements were large enough that it was not difficult to avoid even for the others. And in fact, two of them had avoided it. Junko leaped away holding Keena.

But Keisu...

’’I won! It is all over now!’’ announced Korone/Kazuko.

Keisu had been directly below the hammer. She had not avoided it. She could not even be seen crushed beneath it. The impact of the hammer had simply caused her parts to scatter in every direction. They audibly clattered across the floor.

’’Now Zero cannot be resealed. Any further fighting on your part would be meaningless. Zero will never disappear.’’

Korone/Kazuko slowly raised the hammer. She gave a satisfied nod when she saw Keisu's remains below.

’’If Zero will not disappear, he will rule the world if I am defeated. In other words, you cannot defeat me.’’

She announced her absolute victory.

She was certainly right. It was better to have Kazuko controlling Zero than to allow Zero to freely rule. All of Akuto's group's actions had been for naught.

But hope remained in Akuto's eyes.

And Korone/Kazuko finally noticed this.

’’Why are you not despairing? Don't tell me...’’

Korone/Kazuko seemed to realize something and she started to have a conversation with herself. She was likely speaking with Zero, but both sides of the conversation were spoken with Korone's voice.

’’Has anything changed?’’

’’What is this? Something is approaching me.’’

’’Approaching you? I thought you were on the moon.’’

’’I am. Something is approaching the moon.’’

Zero's comment was shocking to Kazuko.

’’Impossible.’’ Korone/Kazuko was confused. ’’No rockets that can reach the moon still exist.’’

’’A shuttle is most definitely approaching the moon.’’

After that comment in Zero's tone, Korone/Kazuko turned toward Akuto.

’’What did you do?’’

’’What you destroyed was a quickly-made doll. It could move, but it was hollow.’’

Akuto grinned.

The other day, Yoshie had created a doll that looked just like Keisu. It had no AI, so there was no fear of Zero noticing. And Zero would not find that odd because he could not detect the real Keisu either.

’’Then where is the real one?’’

Korone/Kazuko's voice was trembling.

’’On a shuttle from a museum. Apparently, it still works,’’ answered Akuto.

Kazuko must have known what shuttle he meant because she gave a confused rebuttal.

’’But it had no rocket to launch it into orbit!’’

’’Someone worked hard to make up for that.’’

Akuto grinned again.

’’So that's it. Brave!’’ muttered Korone/Kazuko with a shocked expression.

’’It seems he could just barely carry it far enough from the effects the planet's gravity. And Zero can't detect him or Keisu. They left two nights ago. We calculated they could get enough speed to arrive in two days,’’ explained Akuto.

’’Damn you, demon king! Why don't you play fair!?’’ shouted Kazuko.

The shuttle should be fine up into orbit. It was apparently made to travel between the moon and the orbital station. It can also reenter the atmosphere. It just doesn't have the ability to launch into orbit on its own.

Hiroshi recalled what Kento had told him.

This part of the story occurred two days before.

Hiroshi checked the location of the museum on his map and flew their while carrying the real Keisu and with his mana canceller active. He slipped past the human guards working there, entered through the roof, and looked up at the shuttle which was already an antique.

’’You will be carrying this up into orbit?’’ asked Keisu in an impressed tone.

The lights were off in the museum's display hall. The room had the same layout as a giant warehouse and a shuttle the size of a passenger plane sat in the center, gathering dust. Ever since flight using mana had become common, ships with wings for gliding had become a rare sight in the empire.

’’If I can get the shuttle up to the designated point on the space elevator, workers under CIMO 8's influence will supply us with fuel. They apparently have some fuel stored for satellite orbital correction rockets.’’

’’The shuttle can travel to and from the moon from there, right? Then we need to go,’’ said Keisu.

Kento had of course been the one to propose this plan. Hiroshi was worried about what the man was truly after, but he could think of no other plan.

’’What is that Kento guy thinking?’’

’’Do not worry about that now. You need to focus on transporting me,’’ said Keisu as she moved to the side of the shuttle.

Hiroshi picked her up, floated up a few meters to the shuttle's side hatch, and opened it manually. The airlock inside could also be operated manually, so it did not matter that the electronics did not seem to be functioning. The inside of the shuttle was pitch black, but Keisu continued inside without issue.

’’The safety and damage checks will be carried out at the space elevator's satellite dock, so don't touch anything for now.’’

After seeing Keisu nod, Hiroshi closed the hatch and moved toward the switch on the wall which would open the display area's door. The shuttle had been brought in through this door, so it covered an entire wall. However, it used mana to operate, so the guards would notice once he opened it. He would have to act quickly from that point on.

He pressed the switch, quickly flew back, and crawled beneath the shuttle's tire.

’’Here goes.’’

He used his suit's gravitational control to bear the weight of the shuttle and lift it up.

He did not feel the weight, but he had to pay attention and prevent the shuttle from hitting the wall.

He began to fly while carrying the shuttle and carefully slid it out the door.

He then gathered momentum and flew up into the sky.

A lot of people had to have seen the shuttle flying through the night sky, but only a few would have found it odd. Most would think it was a flying bus and those who correctly identified it would forget about the old shuttle by the next day.

The guards would of course realize the truth and they would report the theft. Kento had said he would prevent that report from rising too high, but they still had to supply it and repair it as soon as possible. Even if Kazuko realized they were planning to fly to the moon, no one could stop them once they were on their way.

Hiroshi finally arrived in orbit and brought the shuttle into the satellite maintenance dock.

The space elevator resembled a narrow rod and it extended down toward the earth. A large cylindrical facility was attached to the end. It was known as a space station and it generated electricity and managed the satellites in orbit.

Just as the shuttle began to enter the dock which looked like a hole torn from one end of the station, a large number of workers in protective suits came out, gathered around the shuttle, and began fueling and checking over the shuttle without speaking a word.

Hiroshi tried to speak with them, but he gave up when he realized he had no way of contacting them. More importantly, none of them tried to speak with him.

Several tedious hours passed. Hiroshi finally straightened his back again when he heard Keisu's voice.

’’The instruments check is over. Everything is on line. The fueling is also complete. Please take the shuttle into orbit now.’’

Keisu had contacted him using the radio while seated in the shuttle's pilot seat. The shuttle's lights were now on and she was visible through the window.

’’The shuttle was created to function with oxygen-breathing humans onboard, so it is maintaining an environment suitable for humans,’’ continued Keisu.

Hiroshi turned back toward the satellite maintenance workers and found they were moving away from the shuttle. He watched them leave, but they did not give any sort of greeting.

When I was acting on my own, everyone would wave to me.

He felt a bit lonely but came to a sudden realization.

When did I start expecting favorable treatment? Aniki has always been treated like this.

Only a fraction of people were interested in the direction the world was headed and everyone else would simply do the work they were ordered to do. These people were not thinking about whether allowing the shuttle to launch was right or wrong. They did not care whose side it benefited. If Hiroshi had been in their position, he would likely have done the same, but carrying out one's job like that was part of the ’’story’’ Akuto hated so much. Those people wanted to protect the story that said they were no one special and had no power. And that was precisely what had turned Hiroshi into a hero and Akuto into a demon king.

But if no one believes in the same great story, the world can't function and shuttles can't be launched.

Hiroshi grew melancholy as he wondered if he too had to work to protect that story. He thought about his position. He bore a great weight using borrowed power.

What can I do with my own power?

He blankly thought on that, but then shook his head so he could focus on the job at hand.

He carried the shuttle from the maintenance dock and into black space.

Below, he could see the blue light reflected from the earth. Far ahead, he could see the pale light of the moon.

He pointed the shuttle toward that pale light.

He then circled around to the front of the shuttle and waved at Keisu in the pilot seat.

’’Your turn.’’

’’Leave it to me,’’ answered Keisu.

The shuttle's engine ignited and it began to accelerate. It grew smaller and smaller in Hiroshi's vision. He could see far into space, but the shuttle still shrank into a point of light and vanished in only a few seconds.

’’You're the one that doesn't play fair. Anyway, this reverses the situation. We just have to wait for Keisu to seal Zero,’’ said Akuto.

’’Kh. You think you're so clever!’’

Kazuko used Korone's body to form an unpleasant expression, turn around, and head for the transfer circle. It was now Akuto's turn to stop her.

’’You need to use that circle to reach the moon, but I can keep you away even if I can't hurt you!’’

Akuto punched the stomach portion of Korone's armor and sent her flying backwards. After a few meters, she dug her feet into the ground and stopped, but her expression showed her panic.

Their roles as defender and invader had reversed.

’’I know Kazuko wants to enter the transfer circle, but why is she so panicked?’’ asked Junko.

’’Keisu said Zero can't stop her on the moon,’’ answered Yoshie. ’’She was made to function there, after all.’’

’’Yes, but if Kazuko knew that, wouldn't she have sent an army to the moon ahead of time? We carried out this feint because we were afraid she would do exactly that,’’ continued Junko.

’’Given the mana system, she couldn't have sent an army in ahead of time. On the moon, all energy comes from the solar batteries. An army uses too much energy to stay there for long.’’

’’In that case, reinforcements will be arriving here to help Korone.’’

Junko turned toward the entrance and heard footsteps approaching down the corridor.

’’You take care of them. If you can hold them off until Keisu seals Zero, we win,’’ said Yoshie.

’’Got it. I will push them back!’’ shouted Junko as she created copies of herself.

She let out a battle cry and charged into the corridor where she began fighting like a fierce god once more. Sounds of gunfire and clashing swords rang out, so it was obvious she was stopping the reinforcements.

Yoshie nodded as she listened to the sounds. The time they needed was as good as theirs. But then her expression grew uncertain and she turned toward Korone.

’’But that means Kazuko will begin focusing on one thing,’’ she muttered.

’’What's that?’’ asked Keena.

’’Defeating Akuto-kun at all costs.’’

Yoshie silently pointed at Korone.

She had repeatedly charged forward in an attempt to break past Akuto, but none of her charges or hammer attacks had worked. She was now standing there as if she had given up on it all.

’’Are you sure she hasn't given up? Or maybe Zero was already sealed and she's returned to being Korone-chan,’’ suggested Keena.

But...

’’This might be bad,’’ muttered Yoshie as she activated her chainsaw.

Korone/Kazuko raised her hammer above her head. She had done the same countless times already. She then ignited the hammer's rear booster and began the acceleration. She had used this intense attack countless times as well.

But her target was different this time.

’’Not good!’’

Akuto and Yoshie ran forward at the exact same moment.

Korone's Evil Bane Hammer was targeting Korone herself. The front of the armor covering her was open and the hammer was headed exactly there.

’’No!’’ shouted Yoshie.

In the next instant, a heavy sound of impact rang out. Unlike the countless previous impacts, this one included a spine-chilling crushing sound.

’’Gh!’’

The one who coughed up blood was Akuto. He had covered Korone's body and caught the hammer with his back. No, he did not catch it. The hammer's special alloy was harder than the compressed mana which protected Akuto's body. Rather than catching it, Akuto had taken the blow for Korone.

’’Akuto-kun!’’

Yoshie slid in from the side and shoved him away. Korone's next strike had targeted him, so this knocked him out of the way of danger.

’’I told you yesterday not to do anything like this,’’ complained Yoshie as she fell to the ground along with him.

’’I acted without thinking... But I'm prepared to make the sacrifice,’’ replied Akuto in a pained voice.

’’You aren't prepared if you do it without thinking. And if we're going to sacrifice someone... Sorry, but it should be her.’’

Yoshie stood up and faced Korone with chainsaw in hand. She could avoid the hammer strikes, but she could not knock Korone away like Akuto could.

’’I can handle this. I'm already regenerating, so I won't die.’’

Akuto had collapsed to the ground, but he placed his hands on the ground, sat up, and groaned.

’’Please believe me! Not even you can block the next strike. Don't do anything!’’ said Yoshie as if giving Akuto an order.

Korone/Kazuko grinned as she raised her right hand to attack herself once more. If Akuto took this next attack as well, his regeneration would not be enough.

’’Stop!’’ shouted Yoshie.

She did not know how he had so much strength left, but Akuto moved more quickly than anyone else and once more threw himself in front of Korone.

’’My, how foolish.’’

Kazuko's mocking comment was spoken with Korone's mouth and voice.

’’If you want to laugh, then laugh,’’ said Akuto.

And then the hammer's booster ignited.

’’No, Korone-chan! Wake up!’’

More intense than the sound of the booster and louder than the sounds of Junko's battle was Keena's piercing voice filling the room.

As if the air had suddenly frozen, everyone there stopped moving.

And Korone was no exception.

’’Ah...’’

Other than Keena, Akuto was the only one who understood what had happened. As he watched Korone's expression, he distinctly saw the normal Korone there. Her face remained expressionless, but this was definitely Korone.

’’This will not last long. Please move away from me. We will meet again in the next life,’’ said Korone.

As one would expect of her, it was an odd thing to say, but Akuto sensed something from it.

’’Korone!’’

He reached out toward her, but she quickly removed her arm from the armor's right arm cover and shoved Akuto away.

’’Korone!’’

He flew limply backwards where Yoshie caught him in her arms.

’’Let go of me. Korone has returned to normal!’’

He struggled, but Yoshie shook her head.

’’I can't. If she has returned to normal, this will only grow worse.’’

He quickly realized what she meant. A moment later, Korone's expression reverted to Kazuko's and she began speaking with Zero.

’’Zero, why wasn't I able to control this L'Isle-Adam?’’

’’I do not know. And that means she could become an obstacle later,’’ replied Zero with Korone's mouth.

’’I see. Then I will destroy her,’’ said Kazuko.

’’Stop!’’ cried Akuto.

Korone/Kazuko grinned. Korone was once more fully controlled by Kazuko. With a nasty smile, she removed her own body from the Evil Bane Hammer.

Korone's body tumbled forward from its relatively high location.

’’Korone!’’ shouted Akuto when he realized what Kazuko was trying to do.

However, Akuto could do no more than that because Yoshie held him back.

’’Don't,’’ said Yoshie. ’’Use this chance to enter the transfer circle. I will handle the rest.’’

She tried to drag him backwards, but he refused to move.

Once Korone was released from the Evil Bane Hammer, the armor instantly transformed back into its flight form and the hammer's booster ignited. It flew toward Korone's back as she fell.

In that instant as Korone seemed to hang in the air, she turned toward Akuto.

She had returned to her normal self.

’’...!’’

Akuto was left speechless.

He clearly saw her lips form the word ’’goodbye’’.

Immediately afterwards, the Evil Bane Hammer knocked her through the air and pieces of her body scattered in every direction.

’’Korone!’’

’’Korone-chan!’’

Akuto and Keena both cried out.

The sound of the booster seemed to mock their screams. The Evil Bane Hammer retained its momentum from destroying Korone and flew forward. It disappeared into the transfer circle.

When Yoshie saw the light produced by the transfer, she let go of Akuto and shouted out.

’’After transferring, they'll try to destroy the circle! We need to hurry through!’’

Junko responded from the corridor.

Her voice was almost a scream.

’’She is right! They have brought out explosives! They are coming in for a suicide bombing attack! I am heading back your way! Hurry to the circle!’’

Hearing that, Yoshie began pushing on Akuto's back.

Akuto's eyes lacked any strength, but then he nodded resolutely and headed toward Keena. The two of them held hands and moved toward the transfer circle. The mental shock must have slowed his regeneration because his gait was heavy.

After making sure Akuto was on his way, Yoshie approached Korone's scattered body, picked up the L'Isle-Adam's bag from the ground, and pulled a beam weapon from it. She used it to cover Junko's retreat.

Junko ran up to her while using her copies to hold the enemy back.

’’The one's holding the explosives are almost here! We need to get in the circle!’’

Yoshie nodded.

’’Understood. Just wait a second.’’

She began returning the beam weapon to the bag.

’’We don't have time for that even if we do need weapons!’’ shouted Junko.

’’Don't worry. Go on ahead. Make sure Akuto-kun and Keena get in!’’ shouted Yoshie while having trouble with the bag.

’’Hurry!’’ said Junko.

She used her legs which were strengthened by dense mana and the Sword of Sohaya to leap right next to the transfer circle in no time. She gave a push to Akuto and Keena's backs.

Once those two had entered the circle, she turned around.

Yoshie had activated her chainsaw, placed it against the ground, and was using the teeth digging into the floor in place of a wheel to ride toward the circle.

’’Hurry!’’ shouted Junko.

She could not buy much more time with her copies and a group of L'Isle-Adams was pressing in at the entrance. A few of them were covered in an amount of explosives that would not normally be used underground.

’’If those explode, the entire room will collapse! Hurry!’’

Junko waved toward Yoshie.

’’Just a bit further!’’ shouted Yoshie.

However, some L'Isle-Adams had approached right behind her.

’’Hurry!’’

Junko waved vigorously.

’’Goooo!’’

Yoshie charged inside the transfer circle just as the L'Isle-Adams behind her leaped toward the circle and blew themselves up.

Junko and Yoshie vanished inside the light of a transfer just as a tremendous explosion occurred.



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