Prelude of Pearls: The 9th Prelude – Hunted
Walking through the streets, I heard a satisfied purr echo throughout the atmosphere as a warm sensation tickled my hair.
Of course, the source of both the purr and the heat was none other than Takubi, perched atop my head as it buried its body into my blue hair.
(Heh. Well, at least someone’s comfy.)
I sighed as I continued to advance forward.
With my new ally in tow, I left the clinic in order to return to the restaurant I had departed earlier that day–【Noel Cafe】.
After all…………thanks to a certain skill of mine, I had noticed something strange.
(But I guess I’ll worry about that when I return.)
I carefully scratched the back of my head, trying to ensure that I didn’t bother Takubi.
「? What, you got something to say?」
Noticing a set of eyes boring into my back, I turned, addressing the curious girl with brown hair.
Needless to say, she was the person that I had saved from death, the girl who was left behind–Pearl Noel.
「E-eh? Ah, no I-」
The girl of coffee stuttered as she drew backwards. For some reason, I could see that her cheeks were quite red—to the point that her whole head was starting to look like a tomato.
Naturally, I found this quite strange. However, before I could even bring up the issue-
「Look, just lay off her, alright?」
A boy with black hair suddenly called out to me, his eyes narrowed while giving me a dirty look.
The doctor that had taken care of both Pearl and Takubi ended up being the very same person I bumped into during my earlier search. The person whose name I had learnt only moments ago–Shingen Bonnet.
Apparently, he was joining us on our trek in order to ensure that nothing funny happened? I wasn’t really sure.
All I knew was that he hated my guts—because I’m a noble.
「……look, it was just a question. Besides, she’s not looking too hot.」
I spoke casually as I strolled up to Pearl and placed my palm against her forehead.
「You alright? You look like you’ve got a fever or something?」
As my hand made contact, Pearl’s face flushed furiously, further flaring her temperature as my fingers soaked up her heat.
But of course, this didn’t last very long.
Upon having my hand lightly pushed away, I stood in silence, staring at the innocent girl who had gingerly backed away.
Reminded of something crucial, I gazed at my hand. Though the physical pain wasn’t substantial, I could feel my hand trembling like a whimpering dog.
(I’m not Pearl’s friend. I’m her villain.)
Indeed. Having saved Pearl, meeting Silvia, and gaining Takubi as an ally, I must have forgotten somewhere along the way that I had a job I needed to do.
With that said, I couldn’t help but feel………somewhat conflicted.
I mean, I already knew that Pearl was a good girl.
To treat her so terribly……to be thought of by this girl as a terrible person……
It felt kinda painful.
Covering up my insecurities with a ≪facade≫, I gave Pearl an incredulous look as I saw her suddenly tremble with shock.
While I wasn’t entirely sure why she was so shaken up, I suddenly noticed something strange upon looking down at the ground.
A set of charcoal footprints lingered as they created a trail that followed a certain path.
A path that headed towards 【Noel Cafe】.
(………this can’t be good.)
I muttered as my eyes studied the trail.
Though I wasn’t exactly scared of Shana, I was more perturbed about the other sets of footprints that seemed to follow alongside the charcoal tracks.
One of them, in particular, was glowing radiantly with a light blue pigment.
A colour reminiscent of a noble.
「Oi, where are you going?」
Ignoring both Pearl and Shingen in silence, I began to tread the path walked by others once before.
Though it was a mere suspicion, I hoped to god that it would stay that way.
After all, if it didn’t……then it would seem that another ordeal would be waiting for me at Pearl’s home.
I called out towards my sister’s friend with a low voice in an effort to ensure that the noble we were following wouldn’t hear me.
「? W-What is it, Shingen-san?」
「…what’s the deal with this guy?」
I couldn’t help but ask.
After all, though I barely knew this guy, I was somewhat aware of the situation and circumstances that led him to my clinic.
And yet, the fact that he fought against other nobles in order to save Pearl was unbelievable.
「Eh? U-Um, I……I’m not sure.」
As Pearl spoke, I noticed that her expression grew clouded, almost as if something was troubling her.
Then again, it wasn’t hard to imagine exactly what that was.
Especially considering that J’s unease was currently stirring up tension in the atmosphere.
「……what’s the relationship between you two?」
I couldn’t help but ask in an attempt to try and understand the situation a bit more. Though I wasn’t exactly a psychologist, I had enough experience to conduct consultations for my patients, provided that I was aware of their circumstances.
「………o-our relationship?! W-We don’t really……」
「……is that so?」
As I studied the flustered patient, I realised that the issue was quite complicated.
(……perhaps I shouldn’t get involved with it.)
I muttered, understanding that it would be wise to let sleeping dogs lie.
With that said, there was one thing that I wanted to say to the girl who was older than me.
「Well, whatever happened between you two, you better apologise to him soon.」
Somewhat surprised, Pearl tilted her head to the side in incomprehension.
Though I hoped to end the matter there, it would seem that I needed to spell things out for the girl seemingly too innocent for her own good.
「When you knocked his hand away, that expression on his face……I’m sure even you could tell that it wasn’t a lie.」
Though I had only caught a brief glimpse of him from the side, I could feel the raw emotion behind his visage.
Despite his attempts to hide it, the pain was all too clear.
His frown filled with anguish.
While I had no idea that a pompous noble could make such an undeniably human expression, that didn’t mean I allowed my biases to cloud my judgement.
After all, even for normal people, there was no way that such agony could be faked so easily.
—And it was also apparent that Pearl understood this all too well.
Stuttering once more, the girl with brown hair drooped her head as guilt began to swell within her heart.
And yet, unaware of Pearl’s plight with her good conscience-
「……this is bad.」
The noble froze in place as his expression darkened, his gaze fixated on a certain building before him.
(………why did my suspicions have to be spot on?)
I sighed as I stared at the door leading into Pearl’s house.
Of course, a trail of charcoal and light blue had also made their way through the entrance and into the building.
—a sign that things weren’t going to go as smoothly as I wished them to be.
「……Pearl. Were you expecting any visitors today?」
「…huh? N-No, I wasn’t.」
Having eliminated the possibility that Pearl’s friends intruded upon her abode, I felt my body grew tense.
After all, it was unclear as to what our unexpected company’s goal was.
「Hey, what’s wrong with you?」
Shingen asked, discerning my disquiet with distaste.
「……there are people inside.」
「Eh? W-What do you mean?」
「I meant what I said. I don’t know who they are, but there are people inside the cafe.」
I answered Pearl as I closed my eyes before beginning to use my ≪Ownership Observation≫.
Although this scouter usually gave me hints via vision, it was by no means limited by sight. Rather, this sixth sense transcended a lot of the limitations that my normal senses were restricted by, especially when paired up with another skill.
A skill that allows the user to exercise authority over things that they own.
Though it was quite a complex skill, one of the features that was most pertinent to my current situation was the fact that I could sense pretty much everything within my 【Domain】–a location that was acknowledged as my possession.
And because of the deed in the locket hanging around my neck, 【Noel Cafe】 was certainly mine and mine alone.
(…………shit. There’s quite a lot of people in there.)
Realising that the number of presences far exceeded the number of footsteps, I was quite daunted.
After all, if I had to fight them, I wasn’t confident that I could emerge victorious.
(……nevertheless, I’m gonna have to deal with whoever’s in there eventually.)
I noted as I looked up at the sky. Twilight drifted across the horizon, threatening to envelop the world in darkness.
While I wasn’t particularly scared of the dark, I was aware that low visibility would make the potential conflict inside much more annoying than it needed to be.
Therefore……after quick consideration, I made my decision.
After all, there was no time like the present.
「Shingen, take care of Pearl.」
「Hah?! Why do I have to–」
Though Shingen displayed defiance in the face of my instruction, I ignored him as I walked up to the door and opened the handle.
And, just like I suspected, I was met with a wave of killing intent upon entry.
「Calm down, Takubi.」
As the kitten atop my head grew agitated, I carefully took the creature off of my head and cradled it with one arm.
Though initially it was difficult, the kitten managed to settle down as it buried itself in my chest.
While I couldn’t help but find this act adorable, I understood that now wasn’t the time to admire Takubi’s appeal.
(……well this is quite sudden.)
I muttered as my eyes scanned the surroundings. From all directions, I could see an individual pointing a weapon at my face. Melee weapons and firearms sparkled with a menacing gleam, despite the rust and decay evident in their frames.
Luckily, all of these lethal instruments were still, poised as they patiently wait for the commands of their wielders.
(………wait a minute.)
As my attention focused on to the people holding these armaments, I noticed something quite strange.
Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet.
While all of their hair colours were different, there was one thing that each of these individuals had in common.
All of them were little girls.
(………LoliQ’s gonna have a field day with this.)
I couldn’t help but mutter, reminded of a hopeless yet entertaining colleague of mine. She…it was the type of being that enjoyed devouring……delectables of a miniature nature.
(……c’mon. Now isn’t the time to be getting nostalgic.)
Suppressing my wistful thoughts, I subtly released my influence into the atmosphere, soaking the surroundings in my colour as I refocused my attention towards the crowd.
Amongst them, I noticed two individuals that stood out amongst the crowd of petite soldiers.
The first had black hair and wore a symbolic hoodie. It wasn’t difficult to deduce that this was the detective who had been following me around for the last couple of days–Shana Bonnet.
Having already expected her presence, I wasn’t particularly surprised to see Shana here.
That said, my mind suddenly stumbled upon a realisation.
(Wait………Bonnet? Doesn’t that mean-?!)
「N-Nee-chan!? What’re you doing here!?」
Affirming my suspicions, Shingen called out towards his sister. It would seem that he was also confused about this detective’s presence in this building.
「S-Shingen!? Why are you…」
Shana expressed similar surprise upon seeing her brother with me. That said, even though her jaw dropped was during the obvious pause in her mental processing, Shana’s shock subsided as her visage grew clouded.
That said, astonishment once again returned to the restaurant as a certain girl with brown hair trembled timidly.
(……? They knew each other?)
I expressed surprise as Pearl’s anxiety left her mouth agape. After all, who would have suspected that Shana, the girl that had coincidentally been tasked with tailing me, was acquainted with both my target and the youth I bumped into today.
「Excuse me, but I believe that is quite enough with the surprises.」
All of a sudden, a voice of silk pierced the air.
Turning towards its source, I was met with the second individual that had caught my attention earlier. A girl with blue hair and a domineering aura approached me as a soft, sly smile streaked across her gorgeous face.
「……who the hell are you?」
I asked the apparent leader of this army, studying her features with a critical eye.
Elegant, light blue hair that neatly flowed from her petite, yet perfectly constructed face.
Her soft, round eyes that shimmered with a rather deceptive serenity.
Her small lips, curved upwards in a pleasant smile.
Needless to say, this girl was an undeniable, absolute beauty. That said, from the intellectual aura emitted from her slender frame, I couldn’t help but feel that this woman was somewhat shrewd.
-which meant I had to be extra careful when dealing with her.
「Oh dear, that’s quite a rude greeting.」
「Says the girl that barged in on someone else’s property.」
I returned a similarly sarcastic snide as I gave the blue haired girl a sharp glare. Though I noted that both Shana and Pearl grew restless in the face of my declaration, I decided to leave things alone for the time being.
「Oh dear. I must apologise for our rudeness, J-sama.」
Seemingly unfazed, the noble continued to speak with a polite tone as her face reflected remorse. Well, upon ≪reading≫ her face, her tensed cheeks indicated that this was most likely a fabricated facade.
It went without saying that this consequently informed me that Hiroko didn’t give a damn about her behaviour.
Then again, I didn’t really care for her conduct either.
「……get rid of the -sama. Also, how do you know my name?」
「Sorry, but that’s classified~」
「……I’m not sure if you’re doing that on purpose or not, but I really want to punch you regardless.」
Upon hearing a cliched and dangerous reply to my question, I instinctively clenched my fist in annoyance. While I had nothing against the franchise from which this phrase originated from, this girl’s delivery instantly pissed me off.
Yet, before I could dwell too long in my irritation-
「Nee-chan!? What the hell are you doing with Aoyama Hiroko!?」
Shingen roared towards his older sister as a familiar name erupted from his mouth.
Aoyama Hiroko–a girl that I had read about in a magazine two days ago.
And……seeing how it was the name of a noble, it didn’t take long for me to connect the dots.
(……I swear, will coincidences never cease.)
I couldn’t help but mutter as I gazed upon the girl of light blue. It would seem that Shana’s friend(?) was quite the unique individual.
And, like me, she was also a noble.
An entity that Shingen clearly despised.
Shana replied, tensed as she pulled her hoodie over her head. Though the detective was probably more aware of Shingen’s hatred for nobles than I was, I found it weird that she would willingly partner up(?) with one of them.
Then again, it would be different if she was unwilling.
A possibility that had yet to sink into the enraged doctor’s mind.
「What do you mean, “it’s complicated”!? I don’t hear from you in a week and I find out you’re dealing with a noble behind my back!?」
「Look, I said it’s complicated!」
「”Complicated” my ass!」
「Look, when I say it’s complicated, then it’s complicated!」
Shana’s voice grew heated as she engaged in a childish skirmish with her little brother. Though I wasn’t sure whether some of them could be described as real arguments, it didn’t take long for the detective to start lashing back at the dark-haired doctor.
「I could ask the same of you, Shingen! What are you doing here with J!?」
「I’m not here for J! I’m here because of your friend!」
His face clouded with rage, Shingen’s voice burst through the dark cafe. That said, upon seeing Shingen pointing towards Pearl in his frenzy, I realised that the young boy had just introduced an outsider into their family quarrel.
「T-That’s right! Pearl! Are you ok!? And why are you here with J?!」
Having her attention redirected towards her friend, Shana worriedly called out to the brown-haired girl.
Though her distress was well justified, I was more preoccupied with Pearl’s response towards this situation.
Specifically, the fact that she sent me a helpless glance in search for aid.
While the feeling of wanting to assist Pearl began to surge through my body, I stifled this desire before my body began to involuntarily act on it.
After all, I needed to maintain my villainous ≪facade≫.
Therefore, if I wanted to help Pearl, I needed to do so in a not-so-obvious manner.
「……I see. So the reason why you know who I am is because of her. Isn’t that right, Aoyama Hiroko-sama?」
Attempting to redirect everyone’s attention away from the vulnerable maiden, I advanced my conversation with Hiroko while maintaining an aloof, apathetic attitude.
「Oh? I see that you have some brains after all, J-san.」
Responding to my comment with a sharp tongue, Hiroko returned a smile fit for a business woman as her words echoed throughout the cafe sparkling with a gold.
「To think that you understood the circumstances just from that conversation alone…I must say, you’ve got quite a sharp mind.」
I felt my face twitch with displeasure. To be honest, I honestly had no idea what to think of Hiroko’s statements which practically had ridicule laced into every breath.
Should I be disgusted by the fact that she was looking down on me to such an extent?
Should I be impressed by how little she thought of me as a competent human being?
To be completely honest, I wasn’t entirely sure.
I mean, I could not deny that I was slightly perturbed from being treated with such disrespect. That said, it wasn’t to the point that I would retaliate in anger towards this girl that appeared to be around the age of 16-17.
「……is that meant to be a compliment?」
「Indeed it is. After all, I thought that a man who didn’t even lock the front door would be a complete and utter imbecile.」
Hiroko spoke as she gave me a condescending glare. Noticing my hands twitch, I realised that this noble’s comments impacted my mental state more than I originally thought, causing me to quickly ≪calm≫ myself.
Incidentally, the reason why I didn’t lock the door when I left to look for Pearl was because I didn’t have the key.
(……in hindsight, that probably backfired on me, huh?)
I noted internally as I watched Hiroko unleash the following question with a provocative smile.
「You’re quite carefree, aren’t you?」
「Who knows? I don’t think I’m as oblivious as you make me out to be?」
In response to her scorn, I uttered some advice as I reflexively ≪read≫ her face. It wasn’t particularly hard for me to find out that she didn’t believe me in the slightest.
(……now I’m starting to understand why Shingen hates nobles.)
I affirmed to myself as I found myself growing increasingly irritated with Hiroko’s arrogance.
However, it seems that I wasn’t the only one whose patience was nearing its end.
「Oi J! Don’t just suddenly interrupt us!」
「That’s right! Don’t get in our way either, Hiroko!」
As the two hoodie-loving siblings screamed at us, I suddenly felt a dark aura pouring out of the young noble girl beside me.
As soon as Hiroko uttered this in an intimidating tone, a tremendous amount of energy began to circulate about the room.
With my ≪Ownership Observation≫, I could see several snakes with light blue skin writhe about behind the girl blessed with stunning hair.
The moment she clicked her fingers, the intangible snakes immediately snapped towards the two siblings, coiling themselves around Shingen and Shana’s mouth. Though invisible to normal eyes, these snakes acted like a muffler that forced the two to remain silent.
(-!? That was-!?)
Although I had witnessed the entire scene play out before my very eyes, it still took me a while to process what had just occurred. From what I could gather, it appeared that Aoyama Hiroko had just performed something akin to magic.
That said, according to my memory, most magic that I’ve stumbled across required some sort of invocation in order to activate. Though I was aware that my magic wasn’t limited by such restrictions, this was because my spells weren’t magic at all.
To be honest, what I usually did was simply mimic the effects of magic via using my ≪influence≫ to control physical phenomenon—a method that was remarkably similar to the magic system popular in Azur.
Regardless, the fact that Aoyama Hiroko was capable of wielding such magic in a terrifyingly expert way sent chills down my spine.
「*ahem*. My apologies about the slight disturbance.」
After showing such a terrifying persona, Hiroko returned to her usual dainty self as she showered me with her fake smile. Of course, due to the rapid, drastic change in demeanour, the grin plastered on her face was considerably more frightening than it probably should be.
–which just so happened to instil fear into everyone but me.
Making a quick sideways glance, I could see Pearl quivering as she inched away from the noble who was most likely younger than her. As for the siblings, they could do nought but bite onto the non-existent rope that currently restricted their movements.
As for Takubi-
-it squirmed, distraught by Hiroko’s presence as they sought solace from the suffocating aura.
In doing so, however, it would appear that Takubi ended up attracting her attention.
「Oh? That’s quite a cute kitty~」
Hiroko made a passing comment about its adorableness as she attempted to pet the little creature. In the face of this, however, I slapped her hand away, ensuring that Takubi didn’t get a chance to swipe its claws.
Naturally, while she was slightly startled by my actions, I didn’t give her much time to dwell on it as I unleashed the following words.
「Look, let’s just get on with this. What are you here for, Aoyama Hiroko?」
「……I see. I guess it’s best that we get on with business, yes?」
「Stop putting on airs. If you want me to listen to you, get to the point.」
Seemingly taking the hint, Hiroko decided to stop dragging this along any further as she spoke the following.
「Alright. Originally, we wanted you to join our cause. However, now, we just want this cafe.」
「………sorry, but it’s not for sale. Can you leave now?」
I ruffled my hair as I brought my phone out, glancing at the screen while ≪reading≫ Hiroko’s arrogant expression. Though her smug smile didn’t convey much, I assumed that she was currently bemused by my act of attempting to use my phone.
The only reason why this would cause her to have a sudden increase in ego, however, probably meant that my phone was currently being jammed, rendering it unable to contact those outside this building.
Then again, considering that my phone didn’t have reception in the first place, I wasn’t particularly bothered. And besides, the reason why I had whipped out my phone wasn’t because I wanted to make a call.
Yet, it appeared that Hiroko wasn’t aware of this at all as she continued to ridicule me.
「J-san, you’re aware that you are in no position to bargain with us, yes?」
As Hiroko had indicated, we were currently surrounded by girls with armed weapons.
There was no room for me to either move, fight or escape.
It didn’t take a genius to understand that my current circumstances were rather unfavourable.
「Ah, these children have all been instructed to attack you should you attempt to use any magic whatsoever. Well, if it even is magic.」
「……I see. So you also got that info from Shana, huh?」
It would seem that Hiroko was already aware of the fact that my magic was…different from the normal systems defined in this world. That said, it didn’t really make much of a difference to me.
After all, I had already made my preparations.
「Indeed. You were very careless with your actions, J. I bet you don’t even realise how we found out so much about you.」
Pretending to feel disheartened by her words, my head drooped, causing my hair to obscure my face.
「Furthermore, you haven’t even noticed the fact that we’ve been tracking your actions since the very beginning! That’s how we knew you were here, after all!」
I couldn’t help but comment on the girl’s stupidity after seeing Hiroko reveal her entire plot to me. I mean, I was already aware of most of the facts she had divulged to me in the midst of her high.
That said, after hearing Hiroko’s egotistical spiel, I no longer had any misgivings regarding whether or not my preparations had been seen through.
And so, having taken all of the information into account, I was able to comprehend the following:
The Hunter has already been decided.
Managing to determine thus after quite a bit of waiting, I no longer needed to play submissively.
After all, it appeared that the one who was truly in control of this situation was none other than me.
(I guess I can stop pretending now, huh?)
While I couldn’t help but feel slightly elated by this feeling of control, I decided that it would be best to drop the charade and finish this little farce as my lips began to move.
「……look, I wouldn’t mind helping you guys out if you explain the circumstances to me properly, alright?」
Deciding to take a bit more of an amiable stance, I opened my mouth in an attempt to reason with Hiroko.
「……what was that? You think you’re in any position to negotiate?」
Unfortunately, it appeared that Aoyama Hiroko was still basking in the illusion of control.
「J-san, this is checkmate.」
Hiroko arrogantly proclaimed as she flashed a condescending smile. In doing so, all of the witnesses began to shift their eyes in my direction.
Some gazes held pity.
Others were full with curiosity.
That said, all of these glances had one thing in common.
They were filled with anticipation.
Yet, even though everyone was gauging how I would react to this hopeless situation, I paid them little mind as my thoughts gravitated towards Hiroko’s conduct.
It was obvious that any attempts to reason with her wouldn’t work so long as she remained in this egotistical state.
Thus, I decided that I would show her the cruel reality that she was completely ignorant of.
「Why don’t you just give up and surrender to me already? I’ll be needing both this house and your power in the end so-」
Interrupting the girl, I gently released Takubi before reaching into my jacket pocket.
Though Hiroko expressed displeasure towards my disturbance, her demeanour suddenly changed as I took my hand out of my pocket.
After all, what was in my outstretched hand was a pen.
A tracking pen that was used to monitor my movements.
Hiroko uttered, dumbfounded as the realisation snapped her out of her high.
Her pupils contracted significantly as they trembled in incomprehension.
「H-How did you-!?」
「That’s not really important, is it?」
Seeing her jaw drop in angst, I returned this ambiguous phrase as I purposefully avoided giving her an answer.
「H-Hmph! Even if you were aware of that, this doesn’t change the fact that we have you surrounded……」
Though she initially scoffed in order to save some face, her arrogance, as well as her confidence, soon faded away as she noticed that something was wrong with her surroundings.
Unlike its previous tranquillity, the entire cafe appeared to take on a rather ominous gleam as it threatened to crush her underneath its malice.
Needless to say, this was all my doing.
「You don’t get it, do you?」
Seeing as she wasn’t yet aware of the fact that she had already fallen into my trap, I decided to give her a gentle hint as my mouth contorted into an eerie smile. Glaring at her with ominous blue eyes, I spoke the following phrase as the moonbeams reflected off of my hair, casting shadows across my face already darkened by the encroaching night.
「You’re in my 【Domain】 now, bitches!」
And then, as if in response to my words, the surroundings…no.
My 【Domain】 began to bare its fangs.
|The 2nd Segue – Modulation||XCrossJ’s List of Movements||The 10th Prelude – The Hunter and the Hunted|