Episode.4 – Deeper, Deeper
“It’s gone. . .” Minato quietly muttered under his breath as he watched the helicopter fly away.
I wanted to get the trainees evacuated, but it looks like that plan ended in failure.
The craft seemed big enough to carry even ten evacuees, but for whatever reason, it flew off into the distance without so much as a reaction to their predicament.
Was it possible they hadn’t seen them floating on the surface of the ocean.
There’s no way, Minato thought.
The helicopter wasn’t flying all that quickly, and considering the route they took, they was no way the pilot didn’t notice Minato and the others at some point. The only feasible possibility was that they had intentionally left them there. Yet, he wasn’t sure why they would do that. Perhaps they knew about the existence of the monsters and were prioritizing their own safety, and perhaps if they did save Minato and the others, a certain inconvenient truth of theirs might become apparent.
At any rate, there was no point in trying to figure out the answer at the moment. It wouldn’t change that fact that they had been abandoned.
“We have to find Ms. Aish,” Natsuka Hoshino murmured, eyes swollen. Her pink Territory warped unstably.
Instead of worrying about her own future, his pure-hearted childhood friend voiced her concerns for someone else.
“She must be so scared. Let’s find her and all go home together.”
That became the consensus among the survivors.
Minato wasn’t about to give up on Aishwarin either. On the other hand, he also hoped that he could send the girls back to the artificial island ahead of him out of concern for their safety.
He was completely aware, however, that they would refuse. Instead of wasting time arguing over whether or not they should go back, it may actually be safer to go as a unit.
That’s why Minato chose to respect their wishes, and everyone decided to return to the underwater facility.
They returned to the bottom of the ocean.
The red rope Aishwarin carried with her inside the facility and the underwater message board left for her remained in front of the entrance to the waterway.
It was time to finally enter.
The tunnel itself was constructed fairly narrow—to the point where only two people could barely fit side-by-side. There was no point in forcing that to happen, however, so they ended up going down the tunnel in a single-file line. At the front was Minato, and trailing after him were Michel, Natsuka, Meifa, and then finally Chloe, in that order. It was purposely like that in the event that they should encounter any more monsters.
Aishwarin’s red rope was a total 500 meters in length. At around half that distance, the rope turned right at the second corner.
Michel, swimming directly behind Minato out of necessity, started talking to him in good nature. Impressive to him, she continued to talk like she normally did, not missing a beat even in these circumstances.
“Will this waterway really go all the way inside the facility?” She was unsure, that’s all.
“I’m not certain, but it’s possible.”
“But I’ve been thinking, you know, and like doesn’t water pressure have something to do with it? I don’t think you can just have it go straight there. You’d have tons of water going inside the facility. How would they stop that?”
“If this facility was built in line with the current theory on the topic, then inside there should be a bunch of layered areas to prevent that.”
Her voice was full of curiosity. As much as she came across the kind of girl who only cared about popular fashion, she seemed to be interested in the science behind things as well, surprisingly enough.
“At the gate, the waterway is split into a number of different levels and depths, and the water is periodically. . . It’ll probably be easier for you to just see it yourself.”
In no time, the party found themselves at an impasse. It was a wall made from a metal that resembled steel.
This was the first layer gate. It seemed this was where the red rope had been cut in two.
From behind, Natsuka stared at the scene. “Is it a dead end?”
“It’ll open in a little bit. Probably, at least. Oh, that’s right. When the gate opens, the water will rush into the next area, so the force of the current will be really strong. Everyone should use their Territories to anchor themselves into place. Let’s put some distance between us and the gate.”
After a moment had passed, a clicking sound suddenly echoed across the waterway.
Just as Minato had envisioned, the first gate started to rise. It was a thick metallic door about 5 meters in width. To lift something of this size would require a monumentally powerful motor and power source, and even now in the year 2145, an underwater facility of this caliber was thought to be a fever dream of both financing and construction.
At the same time the gate was opening, the pressure of the water at depths of 1,500 meters forced the liquid overwhelmingly into the empty space on the other side of the door. Had their Territories not been there to resist the force of the gushing water, each of them would’ve likely been torn to shreds in an instant. There was no room for error under the weight of these watery depths.
At last the first layer was filled completely with sea water, and the violent currents quieted with it.
“Let’s get going. Hurry before the gate closes.”
Minato and the others made their way into the area and the first gate started to close slowly behind them.
Unlike the pathway they initially came along, the width of the area around them now grew wider, and the ceiling above them became higher as well. To Minato’s eyes adept at perceiving measurements, the water contained in the room weighed a total of 5,000 tons. To put it a different way, the space was the size of ten 25 meter pools.
After a brief wait, the second gate began to open, and the water in the first basin where Minato and the others were started to flow into the next area. Furthermore, the second basin slanted downwards like a slide, and by the force of gravity, the water pooled at the bottom.
I thought I specifically told her to hold onto the red rope before we came down here. . .
Natsuka, hopelessly clumsy and nonathletic, started to fall down the decline with gusto. This is straight out of a comedy show, Minato calmly thought as he grabbed the arm of his sliding childhood friend the second she passed him on the way down, stopping her descent.
She came to a halt. Inevitable as it was, she smiled uncomfortably at having herself held up.
“T-Thanks, Minato. Um, you know, uh. . .”
“No worries. You’ve gotten lighter recently.”
Her face reddened as if catching on fire. I guess that didn’t work out so well.
They reached the interior of the facility. It had taken five more water gates before they finally arrived.
The red rope Aishwarin left behind was also severed at the gate behind them. From here on, all they could do was traverse the paths and search for her whereabouts on foot.
After going up a metal staircase, they left the facilities room and entered a corridor. The first thing their eyes fixated on was just how unbelievably white everything was.
It was almost like the interior of a spaceship in some low-budget sci-fi movie. The wide hallway seemed to ooze a faint haughtiness. The ceiling, walls, and even the floor were all unified by the immaculate white, and they gave off a harsh light that even strained the eyes. It could only be considered a stroke of good luck, however. Even though there was no unnecessary coloration, it was precisely because it was such that the monsters would likely stand out against it should they appear.
They spotted a number of doors along the hallway, but all of them were fitted with a card reader and had been locked tight. Even as they knocked on them and called out to the other side, there were no responses.
Out of options, they ventured deeper and deeper still.
“So, have we figured out what kind of place this is?”
In other words, just what purpose was this facility built for? No one could answer the question Michel brought forth with any certainty. Surely, however, the same unspoken thought flitted across the minds of most of them.
Meifa was the one who eventually vocalized that thought. “My prediction is monster-production factory.”
After a small pause, Minato nodded in agreement. “It sounds ridiculous, but it makes the most sense, so I’m not sure what to say.”
They were suddenly overrun with unidentified creatures. In those very same waters was a mysterious underwater facility. It was an only natural conclusion to arrive at after putting two and two together.
Even still, Michel seemed as if she didn’t fully agree. “Huh? You’re saying someone wanted to make those creepy things?”
“A destitute country that desires war,” responded Meifa. “Essentially, living weapons. Very common premise.”
Producing living weapons was of course against the law, but managing the feat would prove extremely lucrative. That was precisely why its research would be the perfect fit for an economically-inefficient underwater facility like this one, he thought. The ocean deep was the ideal place to get work done while avoiding the eyes of the world.
It’s possible Minato and the others found themselves wound up in something truly unfortunate.
“Shh. Don’t speak. Danger.”
They arrived at a fork in the passageway. It was when they stopped at the crossroads, wondering if they should go left or right, that it happened.
Meifa suddenly brought a finger to her mouth and told the others to be quiet. Minato tightly sealed his lips together and immediately started to survey his surroundings. All he could see were the forgettable white walls. He couldn’t figure out what she had noticed.
Meifa lowered her voice to a whisper and briefly explained the abnormality she picked up on. “Heard something.”
So she says, but no matter how much I concentrate, I can’t hear a thing.
“A repeating sound. Probably footsteps, but no shoes. Squish, squish. A wet sound.”
Minato gradually started to feel as if something was gripping at his stomach. They didn’t find anything in the hallway, and yet Meifa said she heard footsteps.
Where is it?
What is it?
There is nothing more terrifying than that which cannot be ascertained. This rumbling in my chest probably won’t go away until we find what’s causing the sounds that Meifa hears.
“. . .”
All of them instinctively moved closer to one other without muttering a word. The sounds finally reached Minato’s ears as well soon after.
It was like the sound of dripping water.
Squish, squish. The mysterious sound continued to echo throughout the passageway. It seemed to come from around the left curve of the junction they were currently at.
Squish, squish. It was becoming ever so loud, ever so fresh—squish, squash, squish, squish, squi, squi, squi-squi-SQUI-SQUI! The interval between sounds grew short!
—as if the source of the steps was running.
That’s when Minato finally noticed the irregularity.
The sounds didn’t match what he saw.
“No way. . .”
They should have been able to see it by now.
“Everyone, get down!”
—It was an enemy invisible to the eyes.
The instant Minato came to this conclusion, he pulled out his knife and activated MAI.
《MAI》※detecting non-visible movement ※response difficult ※advise retreat
《MAI》※constructing virtual model based on movement sounds ※advise against relying on model
Similar to how sonar utilizes sound waves, it was possible to locate the enemy via the sounds it created. Using the reverberations of its footsteps as it traveled throughout the hall, MAI was able to pinpoint its approximate location and project an object in Minato’s vision that only he could see—an octagonal object, the likes of which you might have found in the retro 3D video games of old.
The approximate location of where the enemy supposedly was—
—was right before Minato’s eyes.
Although Minato was caught by immense surprise, feeling as if his heart were about to jump out of his mouth, he twisted his entire body as advised by MAI, avoiding collision with the octagonal object. In addition, as he performed this evasive action, he simultaneously drove his knife forward. At this point, Minato’s own will had little to do with what happened. This action was essentially an automatic counterattack performed by MAI. He didn’t even know where the enemy’s head was. The only option was to reach his arm out towards the center of the octagonal shape.
He felt the sensation of impact in his hands.
At that very moment, an unearthly shriek assaulted Minato’s eardrums. It was a beastly growl, yet one that defied comparison with any and all forms of life in this world.
And with it came an attack.
Although he knew the approximate location of the enemy, he couldn’t follow its actual movements. As the monster flew into a rage, it must have come into contact with a part of Minato’s body as a huge force struck him in the temple and caused his consciousness to flicker in and out. By the time he came to, he found himself sprawled out on the ground, knife out of hand. Perhaps it was by a miracle that his neck hadn’t been broken by the impact.
The situation wasn’t over, however. In no time, he heard the squish, squash once more. The inorganic octagon came into Minato’s view, hanging above him.
《MAI》※high chance of target approach ※prioritize evasion ※evasion difficult ※be careful of attack
His legs wouldn’t budge. The shock of the impact still lingered in his head; he wouldn’t be able to move very well for a while.
Then a strong gale swept across the area. With it was blood scattering in the wind.
The blood wasn’t Minato’s—rather it seemed to belong to the invisible thing in front of him. The liquid was a pale pink, as if it were blood thinned by water.
The Green Dragon Crescent Blade twirled around, and the one who held it, Meifa, had her head tilted with an apparent lack of confidence. “. . . OK?”
“It’s okay. I think so, at least. I’d like to hope your attack killed it.”
Hers was undeniably the finishing blow. Thanks to a single strike from her weapon, the invisible enemy met its demise. The evidence of such lay in the lump of white flesh on the floor sliced cleanly in two, its outline now visible enough to be seen by the naked eye.
It was different than what they had encountered while on the surface of the ocean—a completely new type.
Overall, the monster strongly resembled a crustacean in appearance, something like a lobster that was forcefully made into the shape of an Antarctic Humanoid. In the seconds following its death, the white of its body transformed into a mossy green. Perhaps that was its original color.
Minato let out a sigh. “You really saved me there, Meifa. . . You really are something else. Did you guess where it was?”
“Your knife, sir. Saw it. Cut there.”
The knife that Minato had driven into the monster moments before remained there, and apparently it served as a visual marker.
Thank god we were able to kill it right away.
Judging by the reactions of the other trainees, none of them had any idea what was going on. Their faces were still gripped with shock. Finally Chloe said, “There was. . . a monster? It’s amazing the two of you reacted so quickly.”
Meifa threw her chest out with pride.
“The footsteps were loud. Invisibility was pointless. Take notes, Predator.”
“Sorry to rain on your parade, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to do the same thing next time.”
If two or three of them make an appearance, it’ll be a serious problem. It’ll be more dangerous than even I can imagine. Should we get out of here right away? I know that’s the right decision deep down.
Natsuka came closer to his side. Clearly having worried her, he looked up at his childhood friend.
“It’s red. Doesn’t it hurt?”
The impact to the forehead from the monster earlier struck bone. It didn’t hurt—rather it was completely numb. It might be in a bad spot tomorrow.
It goes without saying, though, that he put on a strong face.
“Just a little. It barely scratched me.”
I want to use it to tease Aishwarin when we find her:
My face is all swollen thanks to you.
The existence of a monster that could become transparent suggested a single truth to Minato.
When the creature in question was moving around, not even the shadow of its twisting body was visible to the naked eye. A self-defense mechanism on that level didn’t exist in the natural world.
No, forget nature. Even with mankind’s advanced scientific knowledge, they couldn’t produce “perfect camouflage.” It defied science—a physical contradiction. Although at first glance it seemed like a phenomenon that laughed in the face of physics, there was a material in modern society that might make it a possibility.
It must be Solaris.
Defying mankind’s logic and reason—the power of a new age. In fact, there did exist water manipulators who possessed abilities similar to that of invisibility.
Because of this, Minato started to view the monsters up until now with the thought: “Couldn’t they be another kind of water manipulator?” If that was the case, then it lent further credence to the theory that they might actually be experimental lifeforms.
The strange powers bestowed by Solaris certainly had the capacity to be abused, but since it was such a rare material, the amount of it that existed had little chance to make a meaningful impact in war—that was how things have been. No matter how fearsome and useful Chloe’s all-rending ability was, there was no doubt she’d run into trouble when up against a hundred trained soldiers. After all, each soldier would be able to use one of the long-distance rifles or mortars produced en masse. And there was nothing limiting it to a hundred soldiers—it would be thousands, tens of thousands. Mass production capacity was the feature sought most among weapons of war.
On the other end, the chance of being compatible with Solaris was extremely low, under 0.1%.
Neither the number of human subjects necessary to make up for this statistical improbability nor the funding necessary to make it possible in the first place were enough.
—In that case. . .
Wouldn’t it be faster to simply make compatible organisms instead?
It chewed on the corpse like a stray dog might, staring into the void with emotionless eyes.
Immediately hiding himself upon witnessing it, Minato felt a gulp next to him. It was Natsuka, hand plastered over her mouth. Perhaps she was shocked at having seen the monster so suddenly, or perhaps it was because the ravaged husk of the human in which the monster’s fangs were buried had been brutalized in such a grizzly manner. It seemed to Minato that the corpse in white clothing was male, but in all honestly, it had already been torn into shreds too small to tell. Less a human, it was more accurate to call it a piece of one.
Up ahead was a large open space.
It seemed like a data room or something similar. As it was surrounded by large glass panes, it was easy to see in from outside. There were many machines—desktop computers, monitors, etc.—all throughout it.
In it were three monsters and twice as many human corpses. By sight alone, they knew it to be the aftermath of a tragedy pungent with blood.
The monsters within the glass panels were of the same Antarctic Humanoid type that had attacked them above the surface. Using their developed forelegs, they wandered aimlessly around the room.
There was no hope of using a different route as there had been only one path up until now. In order to proceed deeper into the facility, they would have to eventually pass through the glass-enclosed area.
What’s the best option?
In the brief time that Minato was considering this, one of the girls started to move.
It was Chloe—wrapped in her golden Territory.
“This is a waste of time. Do we really have to stop like this every second of the way?”
His words came too late. Her attack was frighteningly quick.
Whirling upwards like jewels, her Territory drew countless triangles and squares. Those two-dimensional pockets contained pressures of astronomical magnitude and were launched at dizzying speeds. They slipped through the glass and sliced through the bodies of the monsters. The Territory—colossal amounts of which were compressed to a thickness of under 0.1 millimeter—traveled through matter silently and without resistance.
Just as had happened back on the boat, the enemies’ lives were discarded with unbridled ease.
It only made sense to liken exemplary water manipulators to weapons. Chloe’s abilities were absolute in their destructive prowess. Be they zombies or monstrous abominations, likely all would be felled as equals under her power.
I think, however, that her tendency to do as she likes, made possible by her self-assuredness, is a dangerous habit.
“See? Dispatched with ease.”
It was cute, the way she turned around, face glowing with such pride after eliminating all the monsters.
And then, in the next moment, the glass started to crumble to the floor, no longer able to bear its own weight after being sliced through by her Territory—along with the thunderous noise that accompanied it.
That’s why I was trying to tell her to stop. . .
“Eek.” Because of the delay, even the girl responsible for the mess clenched her shoulders in surprise. “W-What brittle glass. You’d think they’d at least use the reinforced, non-shattering kind.”
“Don’t go all wild on your own like that. They might flock to the noise.”
“I’ll clean up after my own mess and take care of them if that happens. Come on, let’s hurry up and find Ms. Aishwarin already. I don’t want to stay a second longer in this blood-stench.”
She raised her hand as if proud of the path she herself had cleared.
No matter the situation, she always focused on the path forward.
After proceeding to the area with the glass, they found the room strewed with what used to be humans.
“Ugh, it’s too much.”
Michel covered her mouth with her hand at the intense sight and smell. There was one corpse dropped on the floor alongside the various scattered files, its head split open to let the gray matter spill out, and yet another had its upper half gnawed into a patty of minced meat on the administrative desk over which it was deposited. The mere fact that Michel and Chloe could face it head-on with their grimaces, however, spoke volumes to their mental fortitude. Even the male Minato felt his heart grow cold as he witnessed the gruesome spectacle.
Natsuka’s face was deathly pale, and her eyes were glued to her feet as she pressed forward. As he couldn’t have her trip, Minato took Natsuka’s hand and guided her through the room. He grew uneasy watching the Territory that enveloped her become unstable. It was losing its constitution, far more than normal.
Perhaps the mental trauma from this morning was starting to show itself.
“You feeling okay?”
“Yeah. . . I can walk. I’m okay. Let’s keep going.”
She lifted her eyes and showed a smile—such an awkward smile. It was precisely because I knew how hard it was on her that it became difficult to look at.
The distance from the entrance to the exit was a measly ten meters, and yet it felt like it was ten times that. And then seven meters into the room, Minato suddenly pulled out his knife.
He had heard the faint sound of crunching glass from a blind spot behind a desk.
Meifa, possessing senses superior to even Minato’s, had apparently also heard the noise, and in the same instant, she had molded her territory into the Green Dragon Crescent Blade, sinking into a deep fighting stance.
“On the right. Beyond the desk with the plastic model. Something’s there.”
With a moment’s delay, Chloe expanded her Territory. Fortunately, Chloe asked for confirmation before using it in combat this time. “Should I cut through the things in the way? But what if it’s a survivor. . .?”
“I’ll go check.”
“It’s too dangerous. I’ll do—”
“Blind spots are my specialty. I’ll be fine. You stay here and protect everyone.”
He didn’t say it to sound tough; it was the truth.
Chloe, for example, had to go through the process of first identifying the target, then preparing her attack, and finally launching said attack, whereas the MAI born from Minato’s abilities took care of all of it at once. As a result, he was absurdly good at deciding whether he should evade or counterattack and so on in the face of an unexpected encounter.
However, Minato was all too aware of what that meant.
While his ability was masterful at protecting himself, it couldn’t necessarily do the same when protecting others.
That’s why he had to take the dangerous roles upon himself.
Leaving the trainees in the same spot, Minato went to scout the source of the noise. He inched carefully towards the tight cluster of desks and soon peeked into the hidden area that had inspired so many misgivings.
《MAI》※confirming existence of predicted enemy ※predicting incoming attack from same enemy
Their eyes met.
I knew it. The monster hid itself on the ground with its crooked maw agape, and just as it seemed to look up at Minato, it suddenly pounced in his direction, spewing spit as it did. It had clearly been lying in wait— You can’t mean to say that it made the sounds to lure me in? I may be thinking too far into it, but if that’s the case, it was pretty cunning.
As Minato had mostly predicted it’d be the case, however, he didn’t hesitate in his actions.
I won’t use the knife in this situation—it has hardly any effect. With Minato’s current gear, he had little hope of inflicting damage on the enemy. He didn’t intend on needlessly prolonging the fight.
Using Chloe’s expanded Territory was the most surefire way to finish it off. As a result, what Minato aimed to do was instead set the stage for her. Just how ideal of a situation could he create for her attack? —That was what he decided he must do.
The monsters fangs were right before Minato’s eyes.
With the smallest possible distance between then, he shifted his body to the side to dodge the incoming monster’s head. He then wrapped his arm around the monster’s neck and brought it close to his side, throwing the monster like before with aikido mastery.
It was almost like the brainbuster used in professional wrestling. The monster collided back-first atop the desk. All that was left was for Chloe to deliver the final blow—
—he thought, until a crucial miscalculation made itself evident. As soon as Minato noticed, he screamed with all he had.
It happened opposite to where Minato was fighting. Behind the trainees from his perspective, he saw two monsters emerging from their unseen hiding spots.
Using the one monster as a decoy, the others aimed to take advantage of the distraction; it was a hunting technique used by lions.
Immediately after Minato shouted his warning, one of the lurking predators made a beeline for the girls. Neither Chloe nor Michel were able to react quickly enough, and there wasn’t enough time for them to ascertain what it was that lurched at them from the shadows.
There was one trainee that noticed it, however.
Meifa, with her sharp senses, spun around even before Minato issued his warning, and readying her Green Dragon Crescent Blade—
—she launched an attack upwards with all her might.
The deformed creature’s head was sliced in two, and it fell to the ground. The blade-like Territory gouged deeply into the floor. With its skull cleanly halved, the monster’s arms convulsed wildly around. All of this happened in an instant.
Chloe noticed the creature behind her in the moment immediately following that. There was still one remaining.
Chloe was obviously shaken.
She was pincered on both sides by the opponents Meifa and Minato were facing off against. She wasn’t sure which target to strike down first, and the hesitation came through in her attack.
《MAI》※detecting target A regaining form
In the other part of this fight, Minato clicked his tongue and hastily moved the knife he wasn’t intending on using to the other hand.
The monster on top of the desk got up from being tossed, and, with arms as thick as a bear’s and as developed as a human’s, it attempted to grab the prey in front of it. Standing there, Minato crouched down to avoid the lunge and then plunged his knife into the monster’s throat, but the damage it inflicted was but a simple drop in the bucket. The monster possessed frightening vitality.
Minato was far more concerned about the trainees, however.
Three seconds later, Chloe finally expanded her golden Territory to maximum output.
As she was possessed with worry, she set her sights on the monster that threated Minato and created a two-dimensional plane of high pressure— However, perhaps upon seeing how close the two were, she hesitated to release her attack once more. A further second later, Minato pulled his knife out of the creature and then leaped backwards. This was when Chloe’s finishing strike came and irreversibly decimated both the monster and desk. In total, this all took five seconds.
During that entire duration, Meifa was focusing with everything she had on the enemy behind her, and as a result—
—the Chinese girl, combat in her veins, grasped victory.
Before the second creature could move, she spun the Green Dragon Crescent Blade around her and pulverized the enemy’s forelegs. As it lost its balance, another strike came from below and mercilessly sent its head flying.
Chloe, Meifa, and Minato all executed their actions simultaneously.
In other words, this duration turned into a focus-fueled vacuum for the three of them.
Michel’s voice, approaching a scream, echoed throughout the room.
There was dome that capped the area walled in by glass—
It was much higher than previously thought, and in the heat of the moment, it turned into the ultimate blind spot. Unbeknown to any of them at the time, the monster had powerful suction cups on its forelegs, and it could scurry around at high speeds on both the walls and ceiling alike.
It was almost as if it were a third layer to the surprise attack. After making it this far, their intelligence shone through. Minato and the others had the initiative stolen from them and their openings thoroughly taken advantage of.
The fourth monster nesting up above pried open its jaws, large enough to swallow a human head whole, and set its sights on the trainees five meters below, making its descent. It was aiming for—
This was right as she finished performing her first attack. Michel screamed her warning at this moment, but it happened too slowly, and there wasn’t enough time.
In the next instant, Chloe is pushed to the ground by the giant creature two meters across, and the monster buries its teeth into her small, delicate skull—things almost turned out just like this.
The reason it didn’t—the reason they were able to avoid this result—was because something stopped the monster midair in its tracks.
Rather, it wasn’t that it was stopped, but that its descent was slowed down.
What looked as if could have been time manipulation was in fact the simple absorption of its kinetic energy. For example, if you were to drop a marble into jelly, it would either slow down or stop completely. It was exactly the same.
The monster landed into a mass of high density Territory—
—into a pink Territory brought into existence using all Natsuka Hoshino could muster.
“Above you, Chloe!”
To think she struggled so much at doing something like that in her training with Chloe. Sheer effort will bear fruit, and that was the moment that had saved her friend.
Noticing the monster slowly descending above her, Chloe’s eyes were struck with shock, and in her panic, she created planes of high pressure and demolished the final creature along with Natsuka’s Territory until there was nothing left of either.
This twenty-second fight had felt far longer.
After passing through the area with the glass, they immediately arrived at a large lobby-like area that branched into two other paths.
It seemed to be a rest area of sorts.
In addition to a sofa positioned against one of the walls, there was a decorative plant and ashtray in the space. It looked like they could continue deeper into the facility this way, and a quick peek down the right-hand path showed a short hallway leading into what appeared to be a meeting room. At first glance, there were no enemies in sight.
After thoroughly making sure their surroundings were safe, all of them collapsed into fatigue.
. . . This isn’t good for my heart.
“That was like way too close just now. Look, my heart is beating like crazy.” Michel, the only one standing, had her hand pressed tightly to her chest.
She was right, though. Had there been even one less person among them, someone would have undeniably died.
Especially Chloe. Her expression was uncharacteristically solemn.
“If Natsuka wasn’t here, I’d be. . .” she muttered, lips trembling. For someone who seemed unfazed by the monsters, this was how deeply her self-confidence had been affected.
All it took was a little carelessness and a dash of misfortune.
That was all it took to come face-to-face with death, she likely realized.
As she watched this younger girl shaking with fear, Natsuka brought a smile to her lips. What an awkward smile. “It was scary, wasn’t it. I’m glad you’re alright.”
Chloe returned the smile. “You really saved me. I guess you’re the kind that really shines when it matters.”
“You. . . think so?”
“I mean, I never once saw a Territory that dense during our training. It looks like I owe you one. I promise to return the favor.”
“You don’t have to worry about that.”
“There’s no way I could—”
“You’ll make me sad if you keep talking like that. I know I didn’t ask you first, but I already think of you as one of my best friends, you know.”
“That’s right. Even without favors and all that, I want to be there for you. As long as the two of us can continue being friends, that’s all I need. Is that alright?”
She was obviously embarrassed. He face was red as a beet, and yet she still continued her vain resistance.
“I’ll think about it.”
After careful consideration, he came to a decision and announced it to the trainees:
“I think we should call off the search for Aish.”
Hearing this, all of the students turned to their instructor with surprise. In particular, Meifa, Aishwarin’s pupil, showed some distress in her expression. “Already?”
“I know it’s cruel of me, but going any further is too dangerous. We got lucky last time and made it without any casualties, but had even one thing gone wrong back there, we could’ve easily lost someone.”
This was a decision only Minato himself could—absolutely had to—make. There was no way he could force these girls to choose abandoning one of their own.
Truthfully, these girls were powerful, and they had incredible courage. Against even man-eating abominations, they continued to fight and press forward.
That was precisely why Minato couldn’t allow the possibility of something happening. I absolutely need to get them back to the Academy safely. Not enough was known about these monsters. Not only were there ones that could become invisible, but there were some that could even work as a unit to hunt down their prey. There’s no telling what will come up ahead.
It’ll be too late if something happens.
I’ll treat my senior coworker as a lost cause.
—even if I’m branded a coward because of it.
Protecting these girls is the most important thing I can do, Minato thought.
“We’re heading back to the Academy. This is an order. If you disobey it, I’ll bring you back forcefully.”
When he said this in a stronger tone than ever before, the expressions on all the trainees’ faces fell dark. It’s possible rage and despair were taking ahold their hearts in response to the cruel resolution.
Even if they resent me until the end of days, I won’t regret this decision.
Though, if there was something that he regretted—
—it was that the decision itself came far too late.
A shadow cut across the corner of his periphery.
Watch out! Get back!—there wasn’t enough time for anything like this to escape his mouth. After all, by the time Minato reflexively put up his guard, that which followed them had already caught up.
Inhuman and white, it had a face like a mannequin’s.
All sound faded away as his panic rose.
It was a being with speed the likes of which they had never encountered, but fortunately, as the judgment handed down by MAI soon after Minato activated it was counterattack possible, he readied his knife automatically, mechanically, and initiated its plunge into the pale mask-like visage to save Natsuka.
《MAI – judgement》※enemy lifeform will proceed to ceiling
—I was off.
Clicking his tongue, Minato finally shouted.
“It’s above us!”
“Ugh, what is that?” Michel clenched her eyebrows in disgust as she looked up at the enemy’s grotesque form. The creature seemed to grovel upside-down as it gazed at Minato and the others from the ceiling.
No, more accurately, didn’t have eyeballs.
Different from the Antarctic Humanoid-type monsters they encountered up until now, possessing only their forelegs, this one had a much more human form, and its entire body was a waxy white, leading Minato to associate its appearance with that of a mannequin’s.
Looking at it a second time, however, it might’ve been closer to say it resembled a drowned body. In place of absent eyes and nose, its striking mouth pulled apart, allowing a long tongue to fall from it alongside dripping saliva.
Violet and gold lights filled the room. Both Meifa and Chloe had expanded their Territories to their maximum outputs.
“Disgusting. Sickening. Sentenced to death.”
“Let’s get rid of it, at any rate.”
Thankfully there was only one enemy. If it tried to approach any of the girls, Minato would be able to cover for them. And yet, the drowned-body creature showed no signs of movement. Instead, it displayed a transformation that no other monster until now had.
—a blotchy pattern about its body.
It was a striking color change. Red spots began to appear like lightning all over its sickly white skin.
That was all that happened from what Minato could see. Certain families of squid also displayed similar reactions to warn predators against attack, so there wasn’t anything too shocking about it.
Perhaps it was meaningless, perhaps it wasn’t.
“Be careful! It might be up to something.”
“It should be fine if I just shoot it down from here!”
Chloe prepared a medium-range attack and quickly fired it. The last battle likely still fresh in her mind, there were signs of tension in her expression, and she didn’t allow herself a moment of carelessness.
She immediately fired one of the slicing planes. It was a small triangle, probably created that way to avoid damaging the facility, but it was still an attack more than capable of cutting down an opponent of that size. She fired another attack from a different angle, and then did it yet again. She did it as to create a web that might cut off all possible escape routes.
Yes, that monster would surely be finished off with this initial attack.
If it didn’t—
Chloe’s Territory dissipated just before impact.
Not only hers.
Meifa’s Green Dragon Crescent Blade too melted in its entirely and dispersed into thin air.
Witnessing this, Minato finally came to understand the enemy’s true nature.
I know this—
“H-Huh? Why? Wait, this doesn’t compute.”
“Why did my Territory—”
Back when the concept of water manipulation was still in its relative infancy, there was a manipulator, I believe, who possessed an ability capable of the same feats.
It was an erosion-type ability in the Order Dictator family—Territory Virus.
If it truly was the same type, then as long as it was activated, all outward-projected Territories in the vicinity would, without exception, lose their effectiveness. In other words, it was a Territory that killed Territories—the absolutely worst kind of ability for a water manipulator to go up against.
Like before, the blotchy monster didn’t move from its perch on the ceiling.
—as if it were calculating the scene below.
All at once, a horde of monstrous oddities began to swarm in from the right-wing passageway.
It was a truly masterful trap.
Screaming beyond his limits, Minato immediately grabbed the hand of Natsuka next to him.
A fresh mob of monsters came from the sides. All they could do was run in the opposite direction. In doing so, they would get separated from the path they took to infiltrate the facility, but this wasn’t the time to be worrying about that.
Minato thrust Natsuka into the passageway and let go of her hand. He did so praying there weren’t any monsters up ahead. Praying was all he had left to him.
“Start running! Don’t look back!”
“But what about the others—?!”
“I’ll do something about it! You just focus on running!”
Clutching his heart that seemed to be on the verge of tearing itself apart, Minato let Natsuka run ahead of him, and he turned back to face the hellhole.
A familiar voice entered his hearing.
《MAI – warning》※detecting four lifeforms, correction: five, correction: six, correction: seven
I thought so.
Territories like Minato’s that expanded inside one’s self weren’t affected by the power. It was exactly the same as what he knew about the Territory Virus ability. Minato’s power wasn’t killed off.
He still didn’t have the power to salvage this hopeless situation, however.
“What’s going on?!”
Nearby, he saw Michel running around without a clue as to what was going on. Behind her was something else. She was being chased by one of the forelegged monsters.
“Hey!” Minato yelled with a ragged voice and ran past her, jamming the knife with a violent ferocity into the monster that was chasing her. Less so stabbing it, he pummeled the creature with the blade.
It didn’t fell the creature of course, but it bought enough time for Michel to get away. So long as he crippled the legs, that would be enough.
The monster seemingly switched its sights from Michel to Minato, and it directed its gaping maw towards Minato’s body.
“That’s right. Come and get me!”
Although shouting his provocations, he unfortunately didn’t have enough time to deal with the enemy. Once he made sure that the monster was fully fixated on him, he started to run once more. There were still girls here trapped in a tight spot.
Meifa then came into view. Standing in the hallway, two monsters surrounded her on both sides. One of them moved, much more quickly than Minato was able to arrive at her side.
At first glance, it seemed like a hopeless situation, but it was none other than Meifa who refused to accept it. She ducked beneath the monster with its arm raised like a martial arts master might and then slipped past it with the precision of a stray cat. Yes, out of all of them, this girl was the one who used her battle-hardened body to its fullest extent.
She stayed alive. She made it to Minato. And then, when she finally arrived before Minato, she suddenly hid her face.
The words slipped out her mouth in a hoarse voice: “—I’m sorry”
She continued to run past Minato, sliding past even the monster that was chasing after him, and then disappeared around the corner that Natsuka and Michel had taken.
Why did she apologize?
Minato realized why only two seconds later.
It was when he looked in the direction of Chloe.
There stood a single girl late in her escape, surrounded on all sides.
The girl was left there, robbed of her powers by the blotched monster.
In front of her, behind her, to the right and to the left— There was nowhere for her to run. There was no salvation for her.
That’s why the best thing for Minato to do was to immediately start running away.
There was no hope for her. She would die. He needed to get away, sparing not even another second.
Yet, he couldn’t look away, not until the bitter end.
—for, between the gap in the monsters, he locked eyes with the girl and her frozen expression.
“. . . N-No. I d-don’t. . .”
Robbed of the power she relied on—
With a face that seemed to be both crying and laughing—
She didn’t want to believe it would end like this.
As the trembling whimper left Chloe’s mouth, it happened.
The excited monsters piled onto Chloe one by one.
Their fangs plunged into her. Into her arms, into her shoulders, into her stomach, into her thighs. . . Sharpened fangs stripped away at the small girl’s flesh, layer by layer.
At the end, as they were finishing ravaging her body, she had likely even lost hope in the possibility of a swift end.
There was no way she could have retained her humanity under the searing pain of her tearing flesh, pulled apart and apart again before the life could leave her body. Her whimpering cries wormed their way sublimely into Minato’s ears, torturing their every subtle recess.
“I. . .”
I was wrong.
We should’ve turned back much sooner.
No, we should’ve never entered this underwater facility in the first place.
Every human has experienced loss—there is a certain phrase that goes along these lines, but there are also mistakes which must never be committed. They can never been taken back. I’ll never be able to apologize to her again.
In the end, they hadn’t found Aishwarin, and Minato’s pupil had lost all resemblance to how she once looked.