Tokyo ESP Gaiden – London ESP Chapter 2

Tokyo ESP Gaiden – London ESP Chapter 2

Chapter 2 — Road of Woe at the Theater

When I wake up, I see Kozuki’s lips right in front of my eyes. Her face looks surprisingly young without her makeup. The appearance of her sleeping peacefully is, honestly, as beautiful as a picture. During these two weeks in London, I have been seeing her face every single morning. I hate how her looks are getting etched into my mind because of it.

I really dislike sleeping together with someone else. I can never get back to sleep again like this.

I try to get myself up, but my arm has been seized. There is an extremely soft sensation on my upper arm, so I lift the bed sheets a bit. As I thought, she is sleeping without wearing anything. I only know about her sleeping habit recently. After all, we were mostly sleeping outdoors or in separate rooms before we arrived in London.

“Nfufu, Koala-chan. You’re very cute.”

Half-smiling, she blabbers some sleep-talk. I know this is your home, but aren’t you being too lax?

I shake my arm violently and leave.

Rescuing Levan, forced entry by gangsters, a strange phone call drama; in the end, various things were left unsettled.

Kozuki was totally exhausted from talking with her own grandmother.

“Please do not pick up any more children, all right?”

That was the only thing she said before staggering into the storage room to sort the place. I did offer to help, but she ignored me so I decided to leave her alone. Levan thanked us and went home. Because I had nothing to do, I took a shower and rested for the day.

Surprisingly, it did not take long for me to fall asleep when I lay on the bed. Maybe it was because my body had reached the limit of both physical and mental exhaustion at that time.

Two weeks have passed. The days are so peaceful that I am starting to forget the fact that I am currently living on the run.

The sky through the window looks cloudy, but I am feeling good today. After washing my face and brushing my teeth, I feel hungry.

I dump some cereal into a bowl and pour milk into it. Kozuki is the one who bought them. The cereal is shaped into rings in different colors like red and green. The way they float on the milk really makes it look like swimming rings. Also, the cereal is really sweet to the extent that it numbs my brain, but there is nothing else to eat for breakfast. I feel like a cow munching on its grass in a pasture, and I swallow, and repeat.

Kozuki appears around the time I finish eating. She looks half-asleep, wrapped in a bed sheet. She goes to sit on the sofa.

“Koala…”

With a soft voice, she falls flat on it. The sheet opens up, revealing her thighs and ass.

“If we take a koala away from its tree, the tree will fly away. I never knew that a tree can fly.”

“Wake up and wear some clothes already.”

“In a few more minutes…”

“People can see you from outside. Besides, the position of the sofa makes you an easy target for snipers. You’ll die soon enough.”

Highest floor or not, this apartment is built in a row with other buildings of the same height. The inside of this room must be completely visible from the opposite apartment.

“That will not happen. All the windows in my house are made of bulletproof glass.”

That’s news to me.

“Alright, alright. Wash your face at least, and go get changed.”

Kozuki stands up in a wobbly manner and disappears into the bathroom. Meanwhile, I finish washing the bowl and go to change my clothes.

These sluggish and peaceful days are not making me calm at all. I really want to move away from here.

If only I have the Ark with me… I have asked her about its location several times, but she has been dodging the matter intentionally. I have also become unable to press her on it.

I return to the living room and I hear the intercom ringing.

“He’s here again…”

I open the door in the entryway and I find Levan, who is waving his hand in greeting.

“Morning, Minami.”

“I’ve told you not to come here any—”

Before I could even finish my sentence, Levan pulls my arm and enters the living room with me. He is why I cannot press on Kozuki too much. For some reason, Levan comes to our unit every day.

“I want to repay you,” he said, but there is nothing we need from a boy in his teens. He did not give up even after being told to go home so many times. When I was finally thinking of pulling out my sword to chase him away, he stated, “Then, I’ll guide you around the town.”

Surprisingly, Kozuki accepted his suggestion, which is perhaps to stop me from interrogating her about the Ark. And so, we ended up going out somewhere with Levan every day since.

He is still a child, but there is no way I can talk about the Ark in front of him. Also, the fact that he is an immigrant from Efrasia makes me even more reluctant.

Efrasia——it is where my mother died, and also the place where the Ark was discovered.

“Where’s Kozuki?”

“Taking a shower.”

“Can I sit on the sofa?”

“Do what you want.”

I have been giving him curt answers, but he does not seem to mind at all. I really cannot understand what makes him so eager to meet the unsociable woman that is me.

Levan opens up a sketchbook that he has been carrying with him and starts drawing. From his one-sided conversation, it seems that he wants to become an artist in the future. His real name is Levanarl Levanereze, so Levan is actually a nickname.

He is from a city called Ritchel, located in Efrasia. After escaping from the civil war together with his father, they both came to London to ask for his uncle’s help.

“Want something to drink?”

I asked. With a smile, Levan shakes his head sideways. But, his stomach growls instead.

“Then, something to eat?”

“Eh? It’s alright, I can bear it.”

I ignore his answer and prepare some food. Although, cereal is the only thing I can make. After pouring milk to the brim, I hand it over to Levan.

“Eat.”

“But…”

I glare at him silently, and he finally holds the spoon. He is hungry after all. He starts stuffing his mouth after taking the first mouthful.

As I imagined, Levan is living scantily as an immigrant. His father was a licensed tax accountant in Efrasia, but that occupation cannot be simply regained after he emigrated from his country. Although he is working on several day labors from the early morning to late at night, it is barely enough for their livelihood. There are even days when they do not eat at all. Their lives are as scanty as they can be. “There are many of them in these blocks,” said Kozuki once indifferently.

I look at Levan’s face from the side. He looks childish, appropriate for someone his age—no trace of one who had witnessed a civil war. Well, maybe he has forgotten about things that occurred more than five years ago. The illusion that I saw in him must have been triggered from hearing the language that I had not heard for a long time. In the end, he is nothing like ‘him’ at all.

I could always see it in ‘him’. Even when he laughed or ate, his eyes and actions were constantly filled with the shadows of his past.

I move my sight towards his sketchbook. Without the allowance to buy a new book, the tattered papers are showing signs of having been drawn and erased repeatedly.

“What have you been drawing all the time?”

I was going to take a closer look, but Levan stops me.

“You can’t! It’s not done yet.”

“I don’t mind.”

“B-but… you still can’t… I’ll show you when it’s done.”

It is easy for me to snatch it and look, but I refrain. It is because I can see how serious Levan is from his eyes.

“That was refreshing~! Ah, Levan, so you were here.”

“Morning, Kozuki.”

Out from her shower, Kozuki greets Levan in Efrasian. She has also finished putting on her makeup.

“So, where should we go today?”

Asked Levan eagerly.

“Hmm… how about going shopping again?”

So we are going out again, despite being international wanted terrorists. We went to Oxford Street yesterday, and Richmond Park one day prior. I have gotten to know more places in London thanks to that. But really, what kind of terrorists actually goes for sightseeing tours I wonder.

I whisper to Kozuki.

“Oi, aren’t you getting carried away?”

“What do you mean?”

“I know this is your hometown, but going out every day is just…”

“It’s all right, I tell you. If by any chance we are spotted, can’t we just hold Levan hostage?”

“Oi!”

“Ah, but an immigrant like him might not make a good hostage after all. Oh well…”

I can see that Kozuki is looking down on me with her attitude.

“You cannot go anywhere without the Ark anyway. Just enjoy your stay in London to the utmost.”

I really want to kick that smug face of hers right now.

Minami, do you have anywhere you want to go?”

“Shut up!”

Levan cowers from my voice.

“Ah… sorry, I lost it a bit.”

What am I apologizing to him for…

“You’re really the wo~rst.”

It takes a whole lot of effort to stop myself from shoving a backfist into her mouth. She is totally getting carried away because I cannot do anything when Levan is here.

“Me, too. I’m sorry, Minami. You never looked like you’re enjoying yourself whenever we went out, either… After all, I have only been forcing you all this time…”

He is getting teary-eyed. This is bad, there will be no stopping Kozuki if he starts crying now. And ultimately, we will end up having a fight to death because of her jeers.

“You’re wrong. I do have a place I want to visit.”

Levan immediately brightens up, what a simple fellow.

“Where is it? Where is it? I’ll guide you there!”

“I’m curious as well. Where do you want to go?”

Alright, what do I do now? Honestly, I have nothing in mind. I have visited the London Tower. It probably will not take long for us to get surrounded by the palace guards if we go to Buckhingham Palace in daylight. I wander my sight around the room, until Levan’s sketchbook enters my vision.

“I want to go to the a-art… museum… I think…”

And it became my answer.

The National Gallery is located to the north of Trafalgar Square. With a huge ancient Greece-style entrance, it holds everything from da Vinci’s to Gogh’s, from the thirteenth century to the first half of the twentieth century. It seems that its amazing number of exhibits makes it one of the largest art museums in the world.

Levan’s eyes have been sparkling with expectation before we even entered the place.

“I am feeling excited as well.”

Likewise, I can see the fire in Kozuki’s eyes. But, hers are tainted with greed instead.

“Stop it,” I said to her, in which she clicks her tongue in return. I keep glaring at her until she finally gives up, saying, “I know, I know,” before walking away briskly.

I may be the one who suggested this place, but I am not really interested in paintings. I know several paintings that portray histories of the past, and I recognize some of the artists, but this would be my first time going out of my way to visit an art museum.

I am starting to think that going to the British Museum nearby would have been a better choice.

I am somehow still following Levan. Well, some of the artworks do manage to interest even someone with zero aesthetic sense like me.

On the other hand, Levan is looking at each of the paintings thoroughly. I wonder what he actually sees in them. The charm behind the brush strokes? The splendor of the colors? I do not understand any of them.

After walking around for a while, Levan stops in front of one painting.

Old and young, men and women, all kinds of people are illustrated. A fair-skinned nude woman is drawn in their center, hiding her chest. Behind her is a man wearing armor and helmet, chasing away another man who is wearing a mantle.

The many people around the woman seem to be gathering to worship her, on top of protecting her as well.

“You like this painting?”

“Eh? Ah, yes, it is an artwork titled ‘Minerva protects Pax from Mars’.”

“Mars and Minerva. So it is based on the Roman mythology?”

I do have some knowledge of that myth. My father… the Professor taught me about it in detail, and I often talked about the stories with ‘him’.

“Do you like Roman mythology?”

“That’s not it. I only start liking this artwork recently.”

“It looks beautiful after all, especially the nude woman in the center.”

I only said what came to my mind, but the word ‘nude woman’ seems to make Levan blush.

“You must be talking about Pax, the goddess of peace. She is pretty, but the one I like is the goddess who is protecting her at her back.”

“Goddess?”

So the one wearing armor and helmet is a woman, not a man.

“She is Minerva, the goddess of order and wisdom. And the one she’s driving away is Mars, the god of war.”

“I see, ‘Minerva protects Pax from Mars’. The painting exactly follows its title.”

I take a closer look at the painting. Pax is really captivating with her conspicuous, bare fair skin. But, now I can also feel the gallantry from Minerva.

Mars’s eyes are opened wide with fear and shock as he gets driven away. Is the red mantle a metaphor for bloodshed?

Then I notice a woman drawn next to Mars. She is painted in a noticeably darker color. And it seems that she is the only one who sides with Mars.

“Who is the goddess that’s standing next to Mars?”

“She is the goddess of revenge, Alecto. She’s being chased away along with Mars.”

A goddess of revenge that is being chased. She sounds a lot like me. The reason I am here is only because I am being pursued.

If I say that Minerva is Urushiba Rinka, then that would make me Alecto. The roles are so fitting that I smile in self-derision.

Minami, it seems that you’ve started to like this painting, too.”

Levan has interpreted my smile as a form of fondness. Do I like it? I guess I do, this painting is perfect for me.

“This painting has another name, ‘Peace and War’.”

Said Levan with no ill intent.

I am sitting on a bench provided in the exhibition room. Levan was still talking about paintings, but I do not feel like hearing about it anymore.

Interacting with people is tiring as always.

He may be a child that I saved by coincidence. But that does not give me the obligation to get along with him. But then, why can’t I just forcibly reject him?

Is it because of the genuine respect that I saw in his eyes? Or is it my sense of responsibility for having rescued him once? Or maybe it is because of his origin as an Efrasian…

I shake off the doubts that are welling inside me. They are not worth brooding in the first place. Increasing my own worries does not do me any good.

Raising my line of sight, I see the wall decorated with a painting of a ship; a battleship, I think. It is painted with setting sun and sea as its background. But, on top of having its sails folded, there is a steamboat at its front. It is raising a puff of black smoke as it tows the battleship.

“This painting gives off a depressing mood, doesn’t it?”

I am bewildered from suddenly hearing someone talking to me in Japanese. As a matter of fact, this young woman wearing a black parka simply sits beside me like she is friends with me. She is wearing the hood despite being indoors, to the extend of hiding her eyes from my view. Her white skin, peeking through the gap is white to the extent of being pale. Furthermore, she has a piercing on her lip that is now glittering in view.

“‘The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up.’ That is the title of this painting.”

Without looking at me even once, her eyes are fixed on the artwork.

“A battleship that once boasted its power has become nothing more than a scrap pulled by a small ship… an inevitable end to those left behind the times. It is sad, isn’t it?”

Despite her words, I can feel the sneers in her tone.

“If you do not mind me asking, what do you see in this picture?”

And that is when she looks at me for the first time. She has a well-featured face, but her white skin makes her look lifeless. On top of that, she has no eyebrows. In place of what should have been her left eyebrow, she has a piercing instead. Her meek face really does not suit her appearance.

“……A picture of a ship, that’s all.”

Thinking that I have got myself involved with a strange person, I was going to leave my seat. But, she then opens her mouth again.

“Azuma Minami, right?”

In reflex, I put my hand on the knife hidden in my coat.

“Ah, I am not your enemy.”

She is smiling at me, but it feels eerie; maybe because of her looks.

“Who are you?”

“I am sent by Kakunoshin-san. Hmm, please call me Kuroyagi.”

Kakunoshin——the guy wearing a helmet decorated with a crest of the old kanji for sorrow. He is Professor’s right hand, as well as the one who taught me wushu. I heard that he went into hiding after the fight in the Diet Building. But from what I heard, he did not leave Japan.

“So, you’re one of our remnants?”

“No no, I am but a mere underling that awakened my power after ‘The Great Liberation.'”

‘The Great Liberation’, it was the grand operation to awaken as many bearers of superpowers from humankind. It was a success, producing a great swell in the number of awakenings not only in Tokyo, but also the whole Kanto region. Consequently, it caused the following mayhem to drag on.

“How do you prove that Kakunoshin really sent you?”

Kuroyagi reaches her pocket for a small LCD tablet and passes it over to me. I put both earphones in my ears and turn on the power. The screen lits and shows the appearance of Kakunoshin in suits. Although, he is still wearing the same ‘sorrow’ helmet as always.

“[It’s been a while, Minami. This is just a recording so I’ll make it short. You can get the details from my messenger over there.]”

“Which is me.”

Pointing at herself, she smiles.

“[We scattered during Professor’s defeat, but we have started to gather again. We have also been taking in new members, so our scope will soon become big enough to oppose the humans again. However, we currently lack a decisive hand to overwhelm them with. That’s why I want you to meet a certain weapons dealer and strike a contract with him.]”

Kakunoshin, is he still intent on establishing the Special ESP District?

“[He is the one who had been supplying Professor with weapons from the underworld. It will probably not be easy. I know it is pathetic of me to bring this to you who are currently on the run. But for the sake of obtaining the Special ESP District, I shall ask for your help with shame. Long live ESP!]”

“And that’s it.”

I give the tablet back to Kuroyagi.

“Why isn’t Kakunoshin here in person?”

“He has become the leader, so he cannot leave Japan at a moment’s notice. Ah, we also have a name now. We call ourselves ‘ESP Liberation Front’ as we carry out our operations.”

ESP Liberation Front——that stiff name is totally something Kakunoshin would think of.

“Who is the guy Kakunoshin wants me to meet?”

“I do not know much myself. It seems that he is a weapons dealer; someone from the Black Market, so to say. I also heard that we have been in contact with him since Professor’s leadership and… we have scheduled an appointment in advance.”

Kuroyagi takes something else out from her pocket.

“I am sorry, I has been creased.

What she took out is an envelope sealed with wax. I open it and find two theater tickets and a note with ‘Today at 8pm’ written on it.

“Have you met this weapon dealer before?”

“It seems that Kakunoshin-san has met him, but not me. I am only told to pass this to you after all.”

“Do I just need to go with you then?”

“Of course not. I am just a lackey, you know. I am not a fighter, either. Please go with Kozuki-san.”

I look at the tickets. These tickets are for [Les Misérables]; taking place during the French Revolution, it follows the story of a former convict, Jean Valjean, trying to live an honest life.

I put away the envelope and sit down again. Meanwhile, Kuroyagi just keeps smiling as ever.

“You did well finding us.”

“It is because Kozuki-san always contacts us whenever you are moving somewhere.”

That’s news to me. That girl, what has she been doing behind me all this time?

“So Kozuki told you that I would be here?”

“No, she only told us that you were going to London. With that information, I used my ESP to…”

Kuroyagi puts the small tablet on her forehead. The camera shutter then makes a clicking sound, and the screen shows the picture of me sitting on a bench.

“Nensha.”

“Yes, ESP is really convenient, isn’t it?”

As if she is commenting on her new home appliance.

I finally realized what it is that I sense from this girl after all this exchange. She is ‘hollow’, so much that I feel if someone swings a hammer to her head from above, her whole body might just shatter into pieces like a porcelain doll.

“You called yourself an ‘underling’, didn’t you?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Despite being sent here as a messenger? That’s really reliable of you.”

“We are still short of people after all. Since the ESP regulation measure passed through, everyone is now observed through their bracelets. They can’t even leave Tokyo anymore. And it has become hard to invite people, too. Like Kakunoshin-san said, it will be hard for us if we don’t procure any weapons.”

And she squints her eyes.

“Besides, I am a bit curious.”

Her pupils are locking on me. No, she is peeking into my soul.

“What kind of person would the daughter of that Professor be?”

I feel uneasy, as if something is licking my cheek in the dark. I sense a gaze akin to that of a snake, sadistically wondering about the taste of its prey as it strangles it to death.

Her original mission is nothing but a bonus in fulfilling her true objective, to meet me. She is the type of human who finds joy in exposing herself to danger. I am getting more and more anxious. People like her are often good at stirring up others’ emotions.

Without saying anything, Kuroyagi turns away and stands up.

“Oh, Kakunoshin-san didn’t mention it in the video, but there seems to be something else that he wants from the weapons dealer. He said that we would not require a better weapon as long as we obtained that one.”

“That guy actually has something that amazing?”

“Yes, I heard that the weapons dealer has a copy of Professor’s notebook after all.”

“What?”

“Aha, of course you are surprised. It had been thought that the notebook was lost along with Professor at the Skytree.”

I know about that notebook. Professor would sometimes write in it, but we never let me see its content even once. Why would this weapons dealer own something like that?

“Well then, I will be leaving since I have conveyed everything I was asked to. So good luck, okay?”

At that moment, I thought of calling her out, but I decided not to. Although I might be able to locate of the Ark using her nensha, I cannot trust her. I am reminded by the sting of her gaze earlier that was creeping on my skin.

I watch Kuroyagi leaving with her light gait as I take out the envelope that I put in my pocket earlier. I could have never imagined to encounter an article left by Professor this far away from Tokyo.

Although, that is too short-sighted of me. Professor waged a war with the whole world. He introduced the existence of espers to the world. He brought surging waves towards the world. I was merely running far ahead of the waves, but now those waves have caught up with me.

Kakunoshin is still continuing the fight in Tokyo. Instead of stopping, the waves will continue to spread in the future of this world. When the waves reach their final destination, perhaps when the waves recede, no one knows what will become of the world then.

“Did you make a new friend?”

Kozuki appears from her hiding and comes into my view.

“When did you start listening?”

“I heard pretty much everything. This is going to be interesting, really interesting.”

“Not that interesting. Well… Professor’s notebook, huh.”

Kozuki snatches the tickets from my hand.

“Oh, isn’t this ‘Le Mis’? I do not really like it, it’s dark.”

“We aren’t going there for the show.”

“You don’t have to do as they said, do you? Strictly speaking, the organization that was created by Professor and this ESP Liberation Front are two different entities. There is no reason for you to listen to them.”

True, Kozuki has a point. Kakunoshin’s organization has no direct relation to me. But still…

“Where is the theater?”

“If you’re going to watch ‘Le Mis’, it is at the Queen’s Theatre, within the vicinity of Piccadilly Circus.”

Piccadilly Circus, where I almost got run over by a bus once because of Kozuki.

“Are you intending to go?”

“Thanks to what you’ve been doing behind my back. Take responsibility.”

“I figured that by letting them know about our location, we would give ourselves some favors in certain situations.”

“Not even a sorry, huh.”

“Nope, I am not going to apologize. I am not sorry, either. Well, if you want me to take responsibility, I am fine with accompanying you.”

For some reason, Kozuki looks proud. There is no one nearby. I really want to drop a knuckle to her face, but maybe not. Everyone has to behave themselves in an art museum.

From the art museum, we head back to the apartment and part ways with Levan. He said, “Let’s visit it again sometime!” waving his hand as he left.

We return to our room and make our preparations. Kozuki has changed into her best clothes: a black dress with feathers on its back, complete with a black veiled hat. She is like wearing a frivolous kind of a rash widow getup.

“Well then, shall we depart?”

Said Kozuki while twining her hand around my arm.

“What are you doing?”

“Hm? Aren’t you going to escort me?”

Shoving her away is just going to be a pain, so we head out as is. We travel towards the theater by car.

“That district often has traffic congestion, so I do not really like to travel there.”

“We could’ve used the train then.”

“Are you saying that while knowing how the subway is like? It’s crowded, you know.”

We drive through the city night. There are lots of people, lots of lights illuminating the cityscape. I am slightly disappointed to see that London does not look any different from other large cities.

I think about the upcoming meeting with the weapons dealer. What kind of person is he? A sly man? Kakunoshin said that he does not pick his methods. I need to remain vigilant.

Underworld——it is the devil’s lair, where common laws never apply. The ones lurking in there will always try to take a hold of others’ weaknesses.

Perhaps we already belong there. Although, we terrorists are rootless. A weapons dealer, on the other hand, needs a big financial and manpower to function. It is a successful organization that owns soldiers, personnels, and influence on par with all those first-rate companies.

In the underworld, it is always the seller who has the upper hand. And in this case, we are the customer, where they are the seller. Besides, we are the blue-collar who work on site, while most of them are white-collar who never dirty their hands directly. These people are the reason civil wars and terrorists can continue to exist. So any blue-collar who oppose them will just be left out of the loop. No matter the circumstances, we are always the ones who get the short end of the stick.

“Why aren’t we using your teleport?”

“That’ll just make them wary.”

It is Professor and Kakunoshin who have had a contact this person. I wonder what he will think if his business partner arrives by teleportation. They know that we are espers, but I feel they will not take it in a good way. One way to say it, we have a magic ticket to escape anytime we want.

Fundamentally, they will not sell anything to those who do not put their lives on the line. We need to show our resolve to face the risks to become their customers. It might sound strange, but it is part of the etiquette.

“We have arrived.”

I drop off the vehicle and look up, where I see a huge wooden signboard displaying a picture of little Cosette. The Queen’s Theatre looks like an old apartment, and it is not all that big. I had expected a grand theater from how Kozuki dresses herself; what a let-down. The buildings nearby are not that different either. The road seems unorganized and is bustling with people.

“Well, let us depart.”

Kozuki clings to my arm again. From her outward appearance, she must look like a fine lady. I would feel proud to receive these stares from the foot traffic if I was a man. This only feels like a punishment game. But, if shaking her off will just make her frenzy, I can do nothing but to endure.

I give our tickets to the clerk and we head inside. The lobby is crowded with people waiting for the start of the performance. Is the weapons dealer among them? Everyone seems to be purely looking forward to the play.

I look at the clock, 7:30pm. For now, we head to our seats which are located on the second floor.

The place is bigger than I thought, or it is actually just the ceiling that is high. There is a big chandelier hanging overhead, illuminating the theater.

The stage is, naturally, on the first floor with the second floor, forming a half-circle surrounding the stage. Our seats are on the left-hand corner, so we will be looking down the stage exactly from the side.

“I would have preferred a better seat.”

Kozuki stated her complaint, but we are here to conduct business. Where we sit is not important.

Each of our seats has its own small headset. Since there is nothing of the sort on any other seats, they must have been deliberately placed by the weapons dealer. Kozuki elusively checks our seats for bombs and the like.

“Everything seems normal.”

It is getting close to curtain raising, and the crowd from the lobby takes their seats one after another. The venue almost has a full house. I wear the headset and take my seat.

It is 8pm. The buzzer rings, signaling the start of the play. The lights are turned off, a music is played, and the stage curtain is raised.

I cannot hear anything from the headset. I look around the audience, but no one is reacting. Have I been deceived? No, it is still too early to judge. I am sure I am being watched from somewhere in this theater. Be patient. I take a deep breath and calmly readjust my sitting position.

The play is now entering its first turning point. Fantine, who was fired from the factory is now singing to find solace within his tragedy. Suddenly, the headset produces some static. I instinctively put my hand on my ear. Kozuki lightly presses on her ear as well, and she gives me a sidelong glance. The headset remains silent, but it is now connected to a line.

“Hello?”

“[You are none other than Azuma Minami-san, correct?]”

It was a male’s voice. Judging from his voice alone, I guess he is around thirty. I check through the audience, but it is dark and hard to see anything.

“[And to your side is Kuroi Kozuki-san, correct?]”

“Yes, precisely.”

“[I thank you for venturing all this way.]”

His speech is gentlemanly and polite.

“So you’re the weapons dealer?”

“[Indeed.]”

“No intention of showing yourself?”

“[I will show myself when the time is appropriate. Such is my way of conduct. On the other hand, I am aware that this will only make you feel anxious. That is why I decided to call you here and let you enjoy a wonderful performance in exchange.]”

Kozuki snorted with laughter at that. I have the urge to do it myself, but it would mean trampling over his courtesy. This guy is fooling around with us. Not showing his face, and telling us to watch a play as a compromise…

“You have no intention to talk business, do you?”

“[Of course I do, I assure you. The people from the Professor’s organization were of great help. Although they are now called the ESP Liberation Front, if I am not mistaken.]”

“Who cares about the name. I see you have a clever observation, but I don’t like how you’re treating us. I want to cancel my purchase if you don’t even care to show or name yourself.”

“[Since you do not care about names, is there any necessity for you to know mine?]”

His tone is tinged with ridicule. Kozuki looks annoyed from his silly riposte and re-crosses her legs. This guy seems to be looking down on us, thinking that we are just children.

“It appears we’ll never reach to an agreement.”

“[Is that so?]”

“I’ll inform the organization that the negotiation broke down. I will be excusing myself here.”

“[Please wait for a moment.]”

I was going to rise from my seat when his voice came through. It is a simple trick, but it appears to be effective. If you cannot push, then try to pull away. Regardless of superiority, no one would just let their customers slip away. He stopped us just as I expected.

“[I admit that I might have slightly crossed the line. However, as a man of position, I cannot divulge my real name. However, I am at least able to tell you that I am called Popper within my group.]”

“Popper?”

“[That name is pretty well-known. When you hear the name Popper in the underworld, it undoubtedly refers to me.]”

“I see. Well then, Mr. Popper. I want to purchase your weapons. Make it the same scale as the previous: firearms, ammunition, everything.”

“[Goodness, that is magnificent! However, Tokyo is currently under a strict security. Considering the transport costs, keeping the same price as the previous purchase will… prove to be quite impossible.]”

“The organization will take care of it. They have assessed the sum before sending me here.”

“[I see.]”

We continue discussing about the fine details of the weapons. I think everything is going smoothly so far. This is a good time to talk about the real issue.

“There’s one more thing that I want to get. Or should I say, that I want you to return.”

“[Hoo, what might that be?]”

He sounded slightly surprised, and amused. He knows what I am going to say next.

“I heard you own a copy of Professor’s notebook. I want to have it back.”

“[A notebook?]”

“I heard it’s in your possession.”

“[I suppose hiding it will lead me to nowhere. Yes, I do possess the Professor’s notebook… but, how would I even return it? This notebook is what I had received from the Professor in person.]”

“You don’t need that notebook.”

“[Ms. Azuma, do you know what contents the notebook holds?]”

I am at a loss. I do not know, but I cannot say that. I cannot let him grasp my weakness.

“Professor has died. As his daughter, I have the right to inherit it.”

“[Inheritance, huh.]”

Popper is laughing. Unlike his gentlemanly attitude, his laugh is high-pitched and vulgar.

“Please take a look at the center seat of the front row on the second floor.”

I take a look at the seat he specified. Illuminated with lights reflected from the stage, I see a man sitting. He has a darkish complexion and is wearing a T-shirt.

“Is that you?”

“[Of course not.]”

“What?”

“Minami, here.”

Kozuki passes her opera glasses to me, and I use them to look the man closer. He is sitting up straight while watching towards the stage, but he is behaving strangely. He looks stiff of nervousness and fear. His large amount of sweat makes his shirt cling to his skin.

“What’s wrong with him?”

When I hear the muffled laughter from the headset, a chill runs through my spine.

“[To tell the truth, I have another customer currently in this theater. That would be him.]”

“What are you getting at?”

“[I am a weapons dealer. I sell weapons to anyone who wishes it. However, there are those who need to purchase from me, yet lack the resources to. I can only sell to customers who pay the suitable amount.]”

Suddenly, the audience bursts into cheers. On the stage is a sly-looking inn’s landlord and the fat landlady singing merrily. The spectators are laughing and clapping, while that man keeps staring the stage as if he is going to eat someone. His eyes are bloodshot, and his body trembles every so often.

“[That man lives in a certain country where human rights are but a dream within dreams. He is a member of the revolutionary army that emerged there. The citizens exist only to feed their dictators and the rich, while resisting would only grant them a shooting to death.

As a member of that revolutionary army, naturally, he has no money. That is where I showed him my consideration.]”

I hate how he talks in a roundabout way. And I can think of what he is doing towards that man.

“[His seat is loaded with a bomb. It is a high-yield C4, so it should be quite powerful despite its small size.]”

“What a bad taste…”

“[I gave him one condition, that he would remain sitting until my negotiation with the ESP Liberation Front concludes. However, in the case our talk breaks down, or either of you leaves your seat even for an instant, then the bomb will set off.]”

“What the hell are you thinking…?!”

“[Have a look at his visage. Without knowing how our negotiation is proceeding, he doesn’t know when he will die.

Or perhaps, he is holding on the tiny hope that he will survive! His strong desire to save his motherland, that is what binds him as he clings to that seat.

His expression! Wavering between his ideal and his fear of death! The ultimate expression! Doesn’t it pound your heart?]”

Ultimate? Isn’t this just a torture? Did Professor really talk with this guy? Did we really get our weapons from him?

“Minami, you don’t have to ponder about it. As long as he owns the bomb switch, he can blast us away anytime he wishes to. We don’t need to go along with this foolish mockery.”

“[Now that would be terrible! But… will you be all right with that, Ms. Minami? If you were to leave now, that man will die. Furthermore, the explosion will involve even more people!”]

Kozuki ignores him and is going to get up from her seat.

“Wait!”

She is already half-standing when I push her back down. She lets out her protest to me.

“Hey! You don’t need to go along with this! Not with someone like him!”

“I need the notebook. I’m continuing the negotiation.”

Kozuki fails to restrain herself as she kicks the handrail.

“Is that how it is? Are you sympathizing with the man sitting over there? Don’t tell me that you want to avoid meaningless sacrifices or the like.”

“That’s not it. The organization needs weapons. Even if this guy is getting on our nerves, we can’t start acting on our emotions here.

“Oh, I wonder! Considering that you’re the great Minami-sama who had come to the rescue of a frail young boy!”

“Stop it! We can’t be fighting among ourselves right now!”

“[All right, would you mind if I have a say on this?]”

Said Popper with a prim voice.

“I’ll ask you this first. What is your aim, telling us about that man?”

“[You are espers, and we know about your powers well. You are in a situation where you can disappear from this theater any time you want. We may have the predominance in the transaction, but not in terms of raw strength.

Most likely, both of you will not die when the bomb explodes. But at least, we can direct your behavior closer to our ideal. I am both a businessman, and a weapons dealer.

Call it a bad taste, but I always lay the necessary groundwork whenever I partake a negotiation. So to say, that man is the current groundwork. Do I have your understanding?]”

A man who does not pick his methods… It is possible that Popper’s methods are actually the norm in the underworld, but it still feels unpleasant. He’s calling that man as his groundwork, but he is having fun here. He just enjoys playing with people’s lives.

“Got it. Let’s continue the negotiation, then.”

I push aside my emotion and press on. As long as the negotiation goes smoothly, nothing will happen to that man or anyone else in this theater.

“[All right, I will be frank here. The notebook is not for sale. It’s a matter of course, since I cannot even estimate its value. The notebook of the person who shook the world, it is not a mere article that can be bought with money.]”

“So you’re saying I’m currently in the same position as that man.”

“[I appreciate your keen judgement.]”

This Popper must be laughing at me right now. I feel as if I can see his unfamiliar face smiling within the darkness in this theater.

“[Well then, how about we employ the ancient system of bartering?]”

“What do you want?”

“[Would you like to barter the Ark for it?]”

“What?”

“[I was informed that the Ark is currently in your possession. It would be my pleasure to offer this notebook in exchange for the keeper of the tablets, the Ark.]”

“Of course not!”

“Of course we can’t!”

Kozuki shouted almost at the same time. There is no way I can give the Ark to someone else. It is the ultimate weapon that can change the world, which Professor entrusted to me. It is what I have been protecting with my life all the way here. And this guy…!

“[I never said that that would be the only thing I offer. I will be sure to provide the two of you with shelter, hiding you from the world. In addition, I promise a perpetual discount on my weapons for the ESP Liberation Front.]”

“Are you trying to keep us under your control?”

The Ark is the only lifeline for us, for the whole organization. It is a sacred relic that awakens the power of miracles, and it was the pillar of the organization together with Professor. The ESP Liberation Front should have the same foundation. No, because Professor is already gone, they are depending on the Ark more than ever.

If Popper were to obtain the Ark, the organization would have to obey him. They would lose their foothold and become his private army.

“Let us leave now. It is pointless to pursue this negotiation any further. We have already obtained the agreement for the weapons. That is all we need.”

“[If you don’t give me the Ark, I won’t give you the weapons, either.]”

“What did you say?!”

“[Naturally. You are the one who wants to purchase my weapons. Furthermore, you said that you wanted to have the notebook. I assume both are a single transaction. Therefore, I will not give you my weapons if you refuse to give the Ark to me.]”

Anyone can see that his reasoning is flawed, but there is nothing I can say to rebuke him. He is using the fact that he has the upper hand as a seller. There is no longer any chance for us to purchase anything from him when he says no.

“It’s good that you are thinking this through. However, please make your decision before the end of the first act, all right? It will turn troublesome when the curtain is lowered.”

I look at the stage. The actors and actresses are all singing about what they should be doing as they head towards the night of revolution.

“Our time is limited. The first act will end with this song.”

I can hear another chuckle from the headphone. I am gritting my teeth so hard that my molars are making a grating sound.

I should end this negotiation right now. His requirement is just impossible to accept. Besides, this Popper guy is disgusting and unreasonable. I should run. I know that, but…

That man——he must be praying right now, hoping that our negotiation will work out. I see a trickle of tears spilling to his cheek, and I stand. I shout towards him.

“Run!!”

All of the spectators look towards me, and so does the man who is sitting in that seat. The expression on his face at that moment is something I cannot describe in words.

Kozuki grasps my hand. A flash of light appears from under that man’s seat, and a blaze spreads to the area. I see everything in slow motion. The flame engulfs him in an instant and blows him away. His body scatters into the air like cherry blossoms as he turns into splinters. The roar of the explosion shakes the building. When the hot wind reaches my cheeks, I dash.

The hot wind is replaced with chilly air. We have teleported to a rooftop of some building in Piccadilly Circus. I can hear screams and shouting from below, followed by the sound of another explosion. The sky towards the Queen’s Theatre is dyed with red.

“Just what were you thinking?!”

Kozuki seizes my shirt collars and pushes me towards the edge of the rooftop.

“I had told you again and again! End the negotiation! Don’t go along with his farce!”

I do not answer her. I have no idea how to. I myself do not understand why I did not choose to run.

“I have been accustomed to your ignoring my suggestions, but don’t involve me in all that!”

“……I never… asked you… to come with me……”

My stomach churns from my own childish answer. Kozuki’s eyebrow twitches, and her mouth trembles furiously.

“You… just die.”

Her tone has completely changed from that of anger into coldness, like the cold air surrounding us. She lifts me so near to the edge, and my heels are now floating in midair. But she remains tense, she really intends to drop me.

“I won’t die from this.”

“Of course I know. But, aren’t you the one who wants to die?”

“What?”

“At the block, you saved a child. Then at the theater, you sympathized with that man. You are always trying to throw your own life away. You feel like dying, don’t you?”

“Don’t joke with me. I never felt sympathy towards anyone!”

“Then, why didn’t you run?”

“That’s…!”

Sirens are wailing. I can see patrol cars and fire engines filling the rotary road below in a great number. Kozuki releases her hand from me.

“I can’t kill you here with these policemen all over. Let’s move somewhere else.”

I look down again. The police is erecting a blockade when a limousine appears from the Queen’s Theatre vicinity. There are some police trying to stop the vehicle, but a different police who seems to be the one in charge lets it through.

Passing through the blockade, the limousine heads towards the north from Piccadilly Circus.

“Kozuki.”

“What is it?”

“I think I found Popper.”

She holds a doubtful gaze at me, but she still stretches out her hand without saying anything. I, too, stay silent as I grasp her hand.

Just before I dash, Kozuki seems to be unable to hold back and says.

“I hope you don’t misunderstand me. I shall say this first, it will be your turn after Popper is dead!”

Dashing from one rooftop to another, we are chasing after the limousine.

“I wonder where he is going? Up ahead is Jubilee Gardens, though.”

“Like, literally a garden?”

“It is more like a public park. You can find a giant Ferris wheel there, the London Eye.”

I look over the Thames River to my right as I keep advancing. Like Kozuki said, I can see a huge Ferris wheel glowing with a pale light. There are two thick metals as its fulcrum jutting out from the park, seemingly to protrude towards the river.

The fulcrum extends to a framework of thin wires, that is barely visible under this setting sun. It is now looking like a giant wheel floating in the air.

The passenger capsules are big, designed with glass as their circumferences. The passengers should have an unobstructed view of the whole London from the peak.

‘London Eye’ truly suits its name in both meaning and shape.

“It appears that they are going to enter the park, all right.”

The limousine stops in front of the park. He is clearly inviting us in. Since he has realized our pursuit…

“I’m going to show myself in front of the limousine. If you see them react when they see me, then we’re on track.”

“Wha- Are you stupid?! How can you instantly decide on such a flawed method?!”

“Back me up from here.”

Kozuki grabs my shoulder before I dash through.

“Hey! You aren’t the only one who has a score to settle with him. I won’t rest until he develops hematuria from my beatings.”

“Get ready.”

I teleport to the front of the limousine. I have no idea what is happening inside the limousine because it has tinted glass. Although, I am sure that they see me.

The door opens slowly, and a male foreigner appears in front of us. He is wearing a tailcoat with the same black color as the limousine, and sunglasses even though it is already evening. Also, he uses a folded umbrella as his walking stick. I can swear that his getup is strange, even in London.

Is he Popper? He looks at us, and rotates his umbrella once.

“You are unharmed as I expected.”

His voice is calm, like how he sounded through the headset. Kozuki takes out a sword with her ESP and throws it. I receive and unsheathe it in one go. The blade reflects the outside light and lets out a glimmer.

“So you’re Popper. Give me the notebook.”

“Are you referring to this?”

He moves as if flaunting, taking a notebook with leather binding from his breast pocket.

“Don’t make any strange movements now.”

It is possible for him to tear it in front of me. I thrust my sword towards him to keep him in check.

So this guy is Popper… His clothes are strange, but he appears like the kind of gentleman you can see anywhere.

“I believed that the negotiation has ended, was I wrong?”

“Then we can just start a new one here. Give me the notebook and the weapons if you don’t want to die.”

This guy smiles as if he is watching a child’s play.

“Would you mind taking a little walk?”

He is not even waiting for an answer. Popper turns to his back and starts walking. I can just slash him and snatch the notebook right now, but I will be making an enemy of the whole underworld. I will get both the weapons and the notebook. I have to be patient here if I want to achieve the best results.

Surrounded by the sounds of wind blowing the withered trees and grass, we walk until we reach the center of the public park. Then he suddenly opens his mouth.

“To tell you the truth, I have found another client. So you see, I no longer have any business with you.”

He talks as if he is sorry, but his contempt and scorn are as clear as day. I am getting impatient because of it.

“What are you saying? Do you think I care about that?”

“Now that will be troublesome. I am trying to talk to you like an adult.”

“You’re the one who started your childish tantrum during our negotiation!”

“…Brat.”

Now he sounds angry. This must be his real nature. He is no more than a shallow scoundrel.

“I’ll cut your arm the next time you try a joke. Think before you talk.”

He is currently out of my reach, but distance never matters to me. I just need to dash and cut him afterwards.

“You’re really scorning us too much. You show up before us without taking even an escort with you. Do you want to taste your… stupidity with your own body?”

“I admit that I am scorning you.”

“That self-conceit will be the end of you. I can just kill you here and take my time getting that notebook back from you.”

I was half-serious when I said that I would cut his arm. People can get more obedient when they are hurt. What we call negotiations always include that in mind.

“Now, choose. Give me the weapons and the notebook, or die!”

“You don’t understand my words, do you? I said, I have no intention to do what you say.”

He is putting on airs. What kind of person is he? No one should able to keep calm when his life is on the line. Like that man in the theater; no matter how much courage it took him to keep sitting, he was still drenched in sweat and restless.

But, this guy is different. Even now, he is still looking down on us. Why…?

It is impossible for a normal person—— but if he is not normal, then…

Popper stretches his hand to us, and the temperature around us suddenly rises. The air sways, distorting the sceneries around us. I immediately take Kozuki’s hand and dash backward.

A large pillar of flame rises from the ground where we just stood. The fire blazes through the sky.

“Pyrokinesis…”

Also known as the firestarter, it is an ESP to control fire with his own will. Who would have thought! Professor did not only give him his notebook, but also an ESP…!

“The Professor gave me this notebook as a payment for the weapons I sold. And as a guarantee, he let me awaken my ESP.”

The temperature rises again. I teleport with Kozuki another time. An explosion. It seems that Popper’s pyrokinesis is the explosive-type.

“That Professor… he had given an ESP to another troublesome person.”

Muttered Kozuki provokingly. Well, it is true this guy’s ESP is powerful. The ground is carved with small craters from his explosions.

I am disappointed with Professor for giving an ESP to this guy. No, this is not the time for that… I have to protect the Ark!

“What do you want to do with the Ark? You said you would shelter us, but you have another intention, don’t you?”

Popper spins his umbrella once. His every attitude is getting on my nerves.

“Do you know what commodity is the most sought-after in the black market right now?”

“…Espers, huh.”

“Correct. With power, even a human like me can change. This is a great asset for wars. In addition, even the army will face devastation if faced with trained espers, like you.”

“Things won’t go as you want, bastard.”

“Anyhow, I wasn’t implying that I would sell you off. You should keep engaging in your own battles. That in itself will serve as a good demonstration.”

“Are you mocking our struggle?!”

“No, I’m not. However, it remains a fact that terrorist organizations all over the world as well as the army desire your powers so very much.”

“We’re not commodities.”

He lets out a quiet, shrill laugh.

“I have managed to sell, already.”

“What…?!”

“Thanks to you, Tokyo has plunged into chaos. The government has yet to grasp the exact number of espers. It would have been naive of us not to grab that opportunity. A number of espers has been successfully abducted so far.

However, that will soon reach its limit. The key in a trading business is to maintain supply against demand, and the Ark will make it possible.”

“You’re going to taint even the Ark?!”

“You were the one who let your powers known to the world. You showed that world that you were able to wage a war with but a few people.

Your terrorism brings great success to us. You not only gave rise to a new type of demand, but you were even supplying them for us. You have truly saved us the labor.”

How far is he going to ridicule us?! We are not fighting for the sake of your profits!!

An explosive-type pyrokinesis—— sure, it is a powerful ESP, but easy to handle. I can take my time dodging the explosions by teleporting, and also we win in numbers. I only need to approach him with Kozuki’s support and it will be easy to beat him.

“Kozuki, cover me.”

“Eh? Wait!”

I run towards him in a straight line. The air sways with the rise of temperature. At the same time, I use my teleportation to dash over his head. While hearing the explosion behind me, I brandish my sword.

Got you! ——When I am sure of my victory, a sudden gust blows. My right half is hit, I feel as if I am being attacked by a giant. I have no idea what happens as I am blown away.

“Minami!”

I can hear Kozuki’s voice from far away. No, my hearing is strange. My ear is buzzing, like there is a howling sound from a speaker. My mind is hazy and my knees are giving way. What’s this? What did he do? What happened…?

The wind blows again. The grass topples like a domino in a straight line towards me. I swing my sword in a hurry, but I am blown away by something I cannot see.

I somehow regain my posture in midair, but I nearly fall over when I land. My sense of balance is getting weird. I am somehow still standing by sticking my sword to the ground, but…

Kozuki takes out an assault rifle and aims towards Popper. And to the opposite side, there is a woman in kimono standing in the direction where we walked from. She spreads out her hands, waving the seemingly long, heavy sleeves of her kimono.

“Kozuki!”

I shouted, but she clapped her hands in almost the same time. Her clap echoes through the dry air. Then a sudden gust plows the grass in a straight line, and that invisible something crashes into Kozuki, blowing her aside.

She is an esper, too. I have no idea what her power is, but she is really skilled.

“I suppose her introduction comes late. Her name is Shindou Hibiki. She is an esper, and also my escort.”

Popper says in a clear voice, as if he is presenting a new cast in a theater. The woman in kimono called Hibiki steps forward from his flank, and she gives a deep bow to us.

“I am called Hibiki. It is a pleasure to meet you~”

She should be around my age, but she is having the attitude of being lower in stature. But taking it the other way, her action is just strange. Hibiki walks towards me as is.

“I have finally met you, Azuma Minami-sama. I have truly been waiting for this occasion to come.”

Why is she getting near? Her ESP, she should be able to shoot that invisible thingfrom a distance. There is no point for her to approach me like this. But, since she is already here, I will take her invitation.

I steady my sword and I dash to her back. Faster than she can turn, I swing my sword towards her waist. Her body, along with her kimono and its sash should have been bisected.

But when it reaches the cloth the cloth, there is a clanging sound followed by a hard feedback. The blade that came in contact with the kimono shakes. No, it is vibrating.

“Aah~ I am being so close to Minami-sama…!”

Hibiki puts on a sweet smile as she repels my sword so easily with her sleeve. With my stance broken, she stretches her silk-white hand towards me without any hesitation. I instinctively feel an impending danger and take some distance from her in a hurry.

“Aaw~”

She looks really sad when she catches nothing but air. This woman, she was not trying to knock me out, she was… uh…… Anyway, I have never met someone like her before. I can still feel lingering vibration in my sword.

Hibiki walks towards me again, and I rush forward, swinging my sword. Once again, she repels it with her sleeve. The sword vibrates, to the extent that it numbs my arm. I finally know what her power really is.

“Don’t you dare forget about me now!”

Kozuki has recovered, shouting angrily. Her shout is accompanied with the rumbling sound of the firing assault rifle. A rain of bullets is now heading towards Hibiki. What is she doing when I am still here! I hurriedly teleport away to evade it.

As if to protect herself from a breezy wind, she lifts her sleeve to cover her face. Like what happened to the sword, the kimono deflects the bullets, ricocheting them to the ground. But not even a soot stains her skin, not even her kimono.

“Stop! It doesn’t do anything to her!”

Kozuki ignores me and keeps firing in full auto.

“Shut up, you shit hag!”

Snap! I hear a clicking sound. The grass scatters in a straight line, and the gunpowder disperses. Receiving another blow, Kozuki flutters in the air.

Finger snapping, a simple gesture that is also known as finger clicking; that is all she did.

“The ESP of [Oscillation]…”

Like its name, it is the power to make things vibrate. The true nature of her long-range attack is a shockwave that results from amplifying sound.

The trick behind her impenetrable kimono is the same. By applying her ESP, even a kimono gains enough defensive capabilities to flick off bullets. In a way, she is wearing an armor of oscillation. But, to be able to deflect even bullets, only ESP can achieve this.

“Hibiki, don’t kill her. The thief girl will be traded for the Ark.”

I cannot ignore that statement. Trading Kozuki for the Ark? Did he just say that?

Hibiki points her fingers at me. She is going to snap them! But, she can only attack in a straight line, I can evade it by going sideways.

But in that instant, Hibiki’s figure flickers, then a fireball fills my vision. The blinding light and thunderous roar rob me of my five senses.

Shoot! It was already too late when I realized. Hibiki slips through the fire while spreading her arms. She claps right in front of me, launching a super oscillation shockwave. My whole body takes a direct hit, and I collapse to the ground like a selfless doll.

“Now, we can take our time and talk. Right~, Minami-sama?”

She gives an innocent smile as she straddles me. Her white hand forms a clenched fist, and she punches me on my cheek.

“Forgive me, please bear with me. I do not want to do this, either.”

And followed with one more hit. My blood splatters, damping the dry grass.”

“Please say that you will surrender the Ark. Also, if you agree to become one of us… your life will be spared.”

Hibiki’s breathing becomes erratic, and she presses more of her body weight on me. Her cheeks are flushed, and her eyes gleam like an animal.

“Damn it…”

I am reaching my hand around to search for my sword, when Popper, who is suddenly beside me steps on me.

“Stop your futile resistance.”

Then he kicks in my stomach.

“Aaw~, Popper-san, don’t wreck her too much~”

“Hibiki, step aside.”

Hibiki looks unhappy when she gets off from me. In her place, I see an umbrella rotates once in front of me.

“You look tired.”

“I…’ll never… give you the… Ark.”

I could barely say that out.

“I told you earlier that I have found a new client. And from what I heard, it appears that the Ark has somehow entered the possession of said personage.”

“Im…possible… we are the… ones… who have the Ark…”

Popper shows his disagreement by kicking me. He then takes out a smartphone and shoves it to my face. On the screen is the Ark, letting out a faint light in the darkness.

Why did… how did it happen? I cannot think straight because of my injuries.

He grabs my hair and pulls me up forcibly. I see his grinning face up close.

“Now, what will you do? Do you still want to speak about your naive negotiation?”

I spit on his smug face. Blood, mixed with my saliva sticks to his sunglasses. He takes it off and slams my face to the ground.

“Don’t joke around with me, you brat! Who do you think I am?!”

He keeps doing it for several times. My hair is tearing here and there, but I do not care about the pain anymore. How did the Ark fall into someone else’s hand…?

Kozuki—— Popper said that he is trading Kozuki for the Ark.

He sinks the tip of his shoe to my stomach.

“You’re only a girl, seventeen, maybe eighteen. It’s a mistake for you to even speak to me like we’re equal.”

I confirm my situation in the midst of my hazy consciousness. My fingers are shivering from lack of oxygen, and I cannot stand from the pain. This is hopeless.

“I guess I told you in the theater that you had the predominance in terms of raw strength.

Too bad it was never true from the start! I fooled you. It was to make you feel elated.

And it was hilarious to see you panicking. Over the life of a penniless man, much less!

After all, you’re nothing but a mere brat. You’re no different from those lots out there.”

I feel the sound of Popper’s jabbering getting further and further. Crap, my consciousness is…

“You’re not worthy of the Ark, for people like me are the only ones who are!”

He keeps saying whatever he wants. My consciousness is hazy and my stomach is being kicked, but my thought is clear.

“I’ll let this fool taste death, with my ESP!”

And he lets out a shrill laugh.

Negotiation. A trade for Kozuki. An unknown third party. And a flash appears in my mind.

“A power that I received from the father, will be used to kill the daughter!”

Popper brings out his hand. My vision is getting distorted. No, it is the scenery that is distorting. The temperature around me is rising. The heat haze is refracting light.

I cannot die here. But I cannot move my body. Is this… the end?

Just when I am going to give up. Something hits Poppers foot and it stops there. The next instant, I feel my eyes pierced by a blinding light and my ears rent from a blast. It is a flashbang, a non-lethal hand grenade used to immobilize the victim with sound and light.

Even more grenades are thrown around me like I’m in a ball festival. Beside the flashbangs, there are also smoke grenades, pumping out thick smokes. As if competing, smoke and blast and light fill the area with chaos.

“What the- What’s all this?! Hibiki, do something!”

I can hear Popper’s bellow. With the flashbang impairing my ear, I cannot tell if he is near or far. What’s more, I cannot see well from the light and smoke. I cannot move my body, either. Am I gonna die like this…?

Someone grabs my arm.

“…mi…sh…!”

Who? I can hear something from far away.

“…nami…sh…y!”

The owner of the voice pulls me, calling out to me with all its might.

“Minami, dash away!”

“Kozuki…?”

“Hurry!!”

Mustering the last of my strength, I dash along with Kozuki. A vortex of light covers my vision, and the landscape changes completely into Trafalgar Square.

My consciousness is fading. I can see Kozuki’s face calling out to me so desperately.

Popper’s new client was her grandmother, Beatrice.

My senses are falling into a bottomless abyss. And that sense of falling too, disappears before long.