Prelude of Pearls: The 10th Prelude – The Hunter and the Hunted
Question: When someone points towards nothing and asks you what they’re pointing at, what do you tell them?
Answer: It’s impossible to point at nothing.
When people use the phrase nothing, they are referring to the abstract idea of emptiness, a point of void, or an absence of something.
Most people more or less understand this concept nowadays, being instinctively aware of how many use it to indicate the lack of anything worth noticing.
That said, just because it’s commonly used, doesn’t mean that it’s particularly correct.
I mean, think about it.
If nothingness was defined as the absence of anything, then that would mean that nothingness couldn’t exist in the world.
Even if you’re inside of a room that had very little inside, there is still a room. There is air. There is space.
I’m not saying that nothingness doesn’t exist at all. I’m merely saying that, in the world’s natural state, matter will always exist, no matter where you go.
In any case, do you think you understand what I’m getting at?
So long as I can ≪influence≫ matter, then I will always have a weapon available to me.
And considering the world is full of matter, that means that the entire world is more or less my weapon.
As I muttered thus, a sea of electricity flowed into the atmosphere, cackling maniacally as it sought out its prey.
Naturally, while the screeching twitter of sparks clued the army in on the whereabouts of the attack, they could do nought to prevent it.
After all, none of them were expecting the lightning to come from the electric sockets installed into the walls.
I instructed internally, crouching as the blue bursts were accompanied by a symphony of sparks. Despite the fact that the bolts were distant from me, I could still exercise my influence over the electrons in the air as I guided my spell towards my true target.
The army’s weapons.
*bzzz* *bzzz* *bzzz* *bzzz*
As voltage coursed through the weapons’ metal frames, each little girl winced in pain, immediately disarming themselves as if they had pricked themselves on a thorny rose.
But of course, while the discharge of electricity was weak, that did not change the fact that they had dropped their weapons.
—an opportunity that I did not dare to waste.
Commanding the air around me, I sent a powerful gale rushing towards my enemies, stunning them as cloth cracked against bones.
While some of them were able to withstand the force of the gust, most of the lolis were swept off their feet, their petite frames violently smashing against the walls.
However, while I felt slightly guilty, I paid Hiroko’s troops no mind.
After all, I needed to turn this disadvantageous situation into an advantageous one.
And there was only one way that I was going to be able to do that.
Scooping up Takubi with my left hand, I swerved, grabbing Pearl’s arm before dragging her towards the counter.
「Save your complaints for later!」
Pre-emptively shooting down Pearl’s complaints, I used my ≪Illusion≫ spell to submerge the surroundings in darkness.
And under the cover of this darkness, I began to work my magic.
「Shingen, Shana. Keep quiet.」
I whispered towards the siblings, shoving Takubi onto Pearl before exercising my influence.
To recap from my experiences in this world, magic came in the forms of various practices. And while each was unique in the way that it created miracles, they all had one thing in common.
They relied on the power of mana.
From what I could tell, Hiroko was using Mana Imbuement magic–a magic where mana is infused into objects so as to manipulate them.
—which meant that if I took control over Hiroko’s mana, I could take control over her spell.
I muttered the name of the technique formed from this principle.
It needn’t be said that I was trying to hijack Hiroko’s ≪Silence≫ spell.
And, while the question remains whether or not mana was something physical, I did know that my ≪Ownership Observation≫ skill caught Hiroko’s magic in its sights.
This meant that it had ownership.
And this meant that I could control it.
(-!! It’s done!)
Successfully gaining control of Hiroko’s snakes, I quickly commanded them to release the black-haired siblings.
「Shana. Don’t talk. Just listen.」
I spoke sharply, attempting to maximise the small amount of time I managed to buy.
「Tell me what Hiroko wants.」
「-?! Why sho-?!」
「There’s no time. I can’t guarantee Shingen and Pearl’s safety if I don’t know what I’m dealing with.」
Understanding that Shana wasn’t going to simply shut up and listen to me, I clearly laid out my perspective before asking her once more.
「Give it to me in one sentence. What is Hiroko’s goal?」
「She wants to save one of her servants. A girl by the name of Melanie Ambrosia.」
My mind echoed, causing the memory of yellow twins to flicker in my retinas.
The two children that I encountered upon entering Lucid.
The trap, Celest Ambrosia.
And his sister, Melanie Ambrosia.
Though I had no idea what had happened to the latter, it would seem that something was amiss in the air.
Yet, unfortunately, I needed to hold that thought for the time being.
「I’m not sure what happened, but now’s not the time for it.」
I muttered as I commanded my newly acquired snakes to seek out their former master.
While doing so, however, I issued more commands towards the female detective in the hoodie.
「Shana. Take Pearl and Shingen and hide behind the counter.」
「-?! Y-You aren’t!!」
「No discussion! Just do it!」
My firm voice resonated, imbued with a peculiar gravity. Though a pang of guilt coursed through my veins, I suppressed it before placing Pearl’s arm in Shana’s hand.
「……don’t die, J.」
And so, as the detective took her brother, her best friend, and the black kitten with her into the safety provided by the cafe’s bar, I turned.
Placing both hands into my pockets, I narrowed my eyes, focusing on my newly acquired snakes.
Under the cover of darkness, the serpents grew darker, their light blue hue dyed by a rich ocean. Mimicking the colour of their new master, the vipers slithered as they threatened to sink their fangs into their new prey.
Naturally, the target was none other than Aoyama Hiroko.
The girl who had ordered the detective to track me down.
The girl who had barged into my 【Domain】 so naively.
The girl who had looked down on me.
My eyes grew cold as the invisible serpents coiled themselves around Hiroko’s legs, effectively immobilising them.
As they wrapped themselves around Hiroko’s limbs, sections of her skin paled in the darkness, clearly depicting the impression of the snake’s squeeze.
(……well, this should be enough.)
Upon hearing Hiroko’s grunt of pain, I decided that I had effectively achieved my objective.
Though as tempting as it may be to mess around with this
arrogant bitch naive girl in order to make her pay for all of her shit talking show her who’s in control of the situation, now wasn’t the time for this.
After all, I wanted to make sure that I fought as little as possible.
As I snapped my fingers, the filter of darkness was suddenly removed from the surroundings, causing all to be amazed.
But of course, this was to be expected.
All of the rusted weapons now lied upon the floor.
A majority of the army had been rendered unconscious.
The dark-haired siblings were nowhere in sight.
And Aoyama Hiroko was currently suffering at the hands of an invisible assailant.
「Well then. I’d say that this is checkmate, Aoyama Hiroko-san~」
In light of the circumstances, I unleashed Hiroko’s words back towards her.
And, while I found the paraphrased quote quite ironic, it would seem that the person in question did not hold the same opinion.
「H-Hah!? What are you talking about, idiot!?」
Hiroko sneered, denying the fact that she had been cornered.
Honestly, I had to give Hiroko props.
To remain relentlessly rebellious, despite the fact that an invisible something was gnawing at her legs, was truly remarkable.
And yet, while her mental fortitude was commendable, that didn’t mean that it was necessarily forgivable.
「Well, I’ll admit that you’re tenacious, if nothing else.」
Weary of dealing with this brat, I voiced a back-handed compliment.
Though I wanted to end things here, Hiroko’s stubborn eyes allowed me to understand one thing.
This girl would not yield unless I resorted to something………drastic.
(Alright. If I don’t do this right, then this might not end well.)
Wordlessly, I raised my arm.
Dramatically drawing attention towards my fingers, I narrowed my eyes.
「……Aoyama Hiroko. This is the last time I’ll say this. Just give up, ok?」
I made one final appeal towards the noblewoman.
After all, there was no harm in trying.
And yet, the response I got was quite predictable.
「*spit* As if I will concede to a man like you!」
「…………don’t say I didn’t warn you.」
I muttered as I grit my teeth.
Honestly, I didn’t want to do this.
I didn’t want to resort to such means.
Not if I could help it.
However, some members of the army were starting to come back to their senses.
They were reaching for their weapons.
If I didn’t make my move now, then I never would.
And so, with this idea fresh in my mind, I snapped my finger.
Unable to comprehend the situation, Aoyama Hiroko shrieked, saturating the coffee-coloured cafe with a macabre undertone.
Her legs no longer able to support her, the girl of light blue collapsed, her chin raised towards the ceiling in shock.
Her tearstained expression, distorted by pain, conveyed the utter horror and misery inflicted upon her psyche.
It needn’t be said that the cause of this anguish was none other than me.
Yet, many were confused as to what had just happened.
*drip drip drip*
The sound of trickling goo reverberated clearly within the confines of 【Noel Cafe】.
The source? That’s simple.
The blood that leaked out of Hiroko’s left arm.
What used to be a perfectly sculpted limb covered by silky skin was now drowned in a sea of cuts and scratches. Freshly brewed red wine oozed out of the infestation of wounds, soaking her arm whilst intoxicating the girl with indescribable pain.
Needless to say, Hiroko’s current state was my doing.
Manipulating the air surrounding Hiroko’s arm, I created a sleeve of sharp blades that, upon compression, penetrated her flesh as it riddled her arm with distinct scars.
Needless to say, this was done in order to intimidate both the girl and her followers.
After all, unlike dislocating a shoulder, shredding an arm left quite the impact.
An impact that left a bad taste in my mouth.
(……-tch. I’m really a fucking asshole, huh?)
I clicked my tongue silently, guilt forming in the pit of my stomach as I continued to gaze upon Hiroko’s misery.
Yet, I could only swallow my remorse as I placed on a demonic ≪facade≫.
I growled, calling for the noble whose ego had been shaved away by fear.
Though she whimpered quite pathetically, I knew I could not release my hold on her even for a moment.
Otherwise, this villainous ≪facade≫ of mine would rapidly come crashing down.
「Aoyama Hiroko. I’m waiting.」
My lips quivered in the frosty air as inflexions in my tone conveyed my irritation. In doing so, my ≪Intimidation≫ skill involuntarily activated, causing crystals of frozen vapour to form in the sub-zero atmosphere.
And though this was but a simple metaphor, it was clear that Hiroko had been bewitched by the sparkle of condensed terror.
「Y-Yes!? W-What is it?!」
Desperately blurting out a question with a timid voice, the noble of light-blue jolted as her eyes laid upon my figure.
Within her turquoise pupils, a dark dread swirled.
It was clear that her arrogant demeanour had all but vanished.
Her focus, as well as everyone else’s, had been fully dominated by my actions.
And so, under these circumstances, I began to speak.
「Aoyama Hiroko. Are you now willing to negotiate?」
「W-What do you want?」
I shivered, answering the man’s question as I feared for my life.
In hindsight, I should have seen this coming.
From the moment this man walked into the cafe, he was unusually calm.
Even when faced with our massive force, he barely batted an eyelid.
Adding to the fact that he fended off the group of lackeys after Shana, I should have expected that he had some sort of plan.
And yet, I simply dismissed it as I naively tried to engage a hostile takeover.
(It wasn’t meant to be this way.)
This poignant notion reverberated in my pressured mind, rattling my nerves while serving as a constant reminder of my foolishness.
「Well, there’s quite a bit that I want to say, but…」
As the man before me spoke, his casual smile invoked anxiety into my feeble heart.
Was he going to kill me?
Was he going to use me?
Or perhaps…something along those lines?
The ambiguity alone threatened to crush me under its weight.
However, this uncertainty was soon cast aside by the man’s next comment.
「Well, for starters, let me help you out.」
The moment those words entered my mind, my brain faltered as my thoughts ground to a halt.
This man had used some sort of supernatural power to hurt my allies.
This man had humiliated me ruthlessly, without a care in the world.
This man had rendered my precious arm absolutely useless.
「……don’t screw with me.」
My body convulsed with rage as I snarled towards the boy known as J.
Though I should have been grateful towards the noble intentions, an unbridled fury poured through my veins, causing my petrified body to break out into a cold sweat.
Then again, how could I not be angry?
He had just destroyed my future as an artist.
I gazed at my defunct arm, a well of tears obscuring my vision. Feelings of regret and despair encroached my psyche as my future had instantly evaporated before my very eyes.
All because of this man standing before.
……no. That’s not quite right.
Even if he was the cause behind my shredded arm, had I not incited his wrath, none of this would have happened.
Thinking back on it, he had given me plenty of chances and warnings.
However, instead of trying to talk, I ridiculed him, shooting down his attempts at seeking peace.
………that’s right. The only one I had to blame for destroying my future……was myself.
Upon hearing Hiroko’s mumbles, I clicked my tongue.
Recalling a vague memory, I was somewhat aware that Aoyama Hiroko was an aspiring artist of some kind.
Though unsure of whether her art was visual or musical, both forms required a skilled hand.
—which is probably why the noble was so profoundly impacted by the destruction of her arm.
(Well, I guess I better fix this issue right now.)
I muttered, understanding that talking to a distraught Hiroko would get me nowhere fast.
It was obvious that various opportunities had attached herself to this girl that seemingly knew a lot more about the current situation than I did.
And there was no way that I was simply going to let these opportunities get away.
Despite the distance between myself and the target, I cast my one and only healing spell onto Hiroko’s arm.
Of course, no matter how much one stimulated cell activity, it would take quite a tremendous amount of energy to heal an arm carved with deep scars.
—–which makes it so fortunate that Hiroko’s wounds were but superficial scratches.
When I shredded her left arm, I carefully manipulated the air so that shallow scratches were made to the limb’s surface.
The dramatic amount of blood and pain, on the other hand, was caused by me compressing normal air, effectively squeezing both her nerves and her veins.
Suffice it to say, Hiroko’s wound was a front. An act of ≪intimidation≫ intended to have her listen to my words.
And, while it was somewhat effective, it appeared that I had gone a bit overboard.
Thus, I had begun to mend the lacerations engraved onto the lady’s limb.
I maintained my silence, using the need to concentrate on my recovery spell as an excuse.
Naturally, seeing how I had used this skill quite extensively throughout the past week, I hadn’t exactly expended all of my mental resources.
That said, my mind was currently busy contemplating the various questions that I had for the young girl.
……yet, before I was able to fully explore all of the potential opportunities this new lead had provided for me-
「J-san! L-Look out!」
Pearl screamed, thrusting herself onto my back in a hysteric high.
Though initially shocked by her abrupt action, it didn’t take me long to understand the reason for her desperation.
Using my ≪Ownership Observation≫ skill, I grasped the entire layout of my 【Domain】, allowing me to notice that one of the fallen warriors had manoeuvred herself to my back.
And in the hand of this fallen warrior was—
Though absolutely clueless as to why Pearl would even think of trying to save me, I pushed the matter aside as I focused my attention on the movements of the girl with her finger on the trig-
A sharp sound assailed my ears as I sensed a bullet leaving the gun’s barrel. It needn’t be said that a certain, brown-haired girl was smack dab in the middle of the bullet’s flight path.
All of a sudden, something began to surge within me.
What was this something you ask?
I’m not sure.
Perhaps it was obligation towards protecting her after seeing Shell Noel die before my very eyes?
Or maybe it was pity for the girl—for having to go through so much hardship in such little time?
Whatever it was, there was one thing that I was absolutely certain of.
I wasn’t going to let Pearl die here!
(………wait a minute? Why did I-?)
I stammered silently as my mind finally grasped my body’s actions.
My legs had propelled me towards J, placing myself between the boy and the gun held by the little girl.
Naturally, I was afraid.
But what was the origin of this fear?
Honestly, I wasn’t sure.
However, this initial fear was soon replaced by a different horror as a deafening ring caused the following notion to shake my soul.
I was going to die.
Thoughts of my life ending right before me had suddenly rushed through my mind.
Thoughts of no longer being able to work in this restaurant.
Thoughts of no longer being able to see the smiles of people enjoying my cooking.
Thoughts of no longer being able to see my friend Shana.
Thoughts of no longer being able to continue my mother’s legacy.
(……ah. I see………I’m not really alive anymore.)
Upon looking back at my life after my mother’s disappearance, I realised that there was no longer anything in my life worth living for.
After all, I only enjoyed living in the restaurant because I could work with my mother.
That’s not to say that I didn’t appreciate the smiles of people savouring my cooking. However, since my mother disappeared, the number of customers dwindled.
Due to the nature of her job, Shana and I haven’t been able to see much of each other at all, to the point of becoming slightly estranged.
And as for my mother……
(She’s no longer coming back.)
No matter how much I wanted to hug her…
No matter how much I wanted to cry in her chest…
No matter how much I wanted her back in my life, she was never coming back.
Perhaps the reason why I had grown so attached to this restaurant was because I was desperately clinging onto the remains of her life.
I guess……I was in denial.
That said, I guess it doesn’t really matter anymore, does it?
I mean, a life without my mother……is a life that’s not worth living………
At least, that’s what I thought as I closed my eyes in resignation.
But then why?
Why are tears relentlessly streaming down my cheeks?
If I die, I won’t be with J-san anymore.
My eyes widened, dumbstruck by the thought that struck deep within my conscience.
Yet, at the same time, time slowed as I was forced to watch the end of my world drawing ever closer to my reality.
Without mercy, nor compassion, the bullet continued to inch closer.
…………a hand suddenly burst through the area above my left shoulder.
I inhaled sharply, astonished as my eyes remained fixated on the reality before me.
The outstretched fingers that brushed across my cheeks grasped the bullet in mid-flight, saving my life as a flower of red blossomed.
Or at least, it should have.
However, not one single drop of blood had spilt after the bullet had been caught.
All that remained after the bullet’s collision was a trail of smoke and a clenched fist.
A subdued sizzling came from the clasped hand as steam danced through the air, oblivious to the world’s irrationality.
However, rather than rejecting the events in disbelief, my body shivered uncontrollably as a comforting warmth permeated my skin.
(……eh? Come to think of it……)
Realising that my body was chilled by its brush with death, I grew confused in the face of this peculiar sensation.
Even though my skin was like frosted snow, a soothing heat clung to my back and stomach.
Honestly, I had no idea what this meant.
At least, not until I turned my neck to my left.
I couldn’t help but ask once more.
After all, the reason why I was enveloped by a comforting warmth–the reason why I was still alive……
Was all because of the boy named J.
Speechless by his actions, I stared at his lips, taut as they conveyed a tense anxiety unbeknownst to his stoic ≪facade≫.
His arms supported my feeble frame, firm as one was wrapped around my vulnerable waist.
(…e-eh?! H-Hang on a-?!)
Suddenly realising how close I was to this man, my face flushed uncontrollably.
After all, this was probably the first time I’ve been in such close proximity to a boy, much less being held by one.
And yet, unaware of my plight, J wordlessly dropped the smoking bullet before placing me onto one of the barstools.
「Takubi, knock it off.」
Noticing that the kitten was glaring at the child who fired the bullet, J concisely commanded the creature to stop. Though somewhat reluctant, Takubi ended up swallowing its anger before returning to J’s side.
「Since it’s clear that I’m not welcome here, tend to your own wounds, Aoyama Hiroko.」
J muttered, his bitter eyes narrowed as he glanced at the little girl responsible for the gunshot.
Though his stern face was kinda spooky in the creeping darkness, I couldn’t really blame him for being upset.
「Anyway, if you feel like having a civil discussion, I’ll be waiting upstairs.」
The boy declared, calmly walking through a sea of silence.
With Takubi in tow, J headed towards the staircase, disappearing into the dead of the night.
However, before he did so, he uttered the following towards the young noblewoman collapsed on the floor.
「I expect you to come alone, Aoyama Hiroko-san.」
|The 9th Prelude – Hunted||XCrossJ’s List of Movements||The 11th Prelude – An Undesirable Development|