───Aquatic City of "Underwood".
Garden restaurant of "Six Scars".
With Kuro Usagi’s suggestion, Saigō Homura, Ayazato Suzuka and Kudō Ayato were brought to the riverside restaurant from where the “Spirit Train” could be seen clearly. The terrace was crowded with visitors who had come to see the “Spirit Train”, that was going in and out of the water in 10 minute intervals. Never before seen cuisine like grilled Sakurami bird, Peryton’s ham and eggs, giant pumpkin cold soup and such various things were carried to the table.
But, ignoring such things as cuisine, Homura and others were intently watching the departure of the “Spirit Train”.
After each departure of "Spirit Train" loaded with baggage, the sprays of water danced, creating large rainbows on the riverside. And following it, cheers were raised from somewhere.
With that dazzling scenery in front of him, Homura further raised a voice of admiration.
Two of them were looking while bending forward from the terrace's fence. After seeing off the “Spirit Train” all the way before it vanished from the bottom of the river, Homura returned to his seat and exaggeratedly crossed his arms.
"..........Hm. Not bad. It was somewhat OK."
"Stop lying brother. It was super fun, wasn't it?"
Suzuka looked amazed while Homura sulked.
While giggling, Ayato brought black tea to her mouth.
"I was surprised. I thought Senpai lacked hobbies, but as it turns out you like trains, huh?"
"No no, it's a bit different Aya-chan. Homura likes vehicles as a whole. You see, in old days, he, together with Iza-nii used to make plastic models of airplanes and cars."
"Suzuka. Stop saying unnecessary things."
Homura was getting more and more sullen.
Ayato blinked from further surprise.
He was always doing nothing but research, so seeing enjoyment on his face was a rarity. From what Ayato knew, he was reading books at home even at occasional holidays.
Sitting next to them, Kuro Usagi was also lending an usamimi to them with an amused feeling.
"Kuro Usagi is also surprised. Those plastic models are model products, right? I was not aware that Izayoi-san had such hobbies."
"That person only went along with me. We competed with each other in things like which of us would construct them faster. .........Thinking about it now, it was the only contest I won against Iza-nii."
A nostalgic smile appeared on Homura’s face. But before one could think, he had already changed back to being sullen.
While grinning broadly, Suzuka poked his cheek.
"I was also like that, but Homura in old days was always stuck behind Iza-nii. During the time he had been missing, we also recalled various memories from time to time."
"Is that right?"
"That's right. ...........Well, we understood that he was a person who would disappear someday. But when he did disappear, it was really too sudden. Thanks to that, we had many hardships."
With a serious voice, Homura rebuked Suzuka who was continuing the talk about the bygone days with a smile.
Kuro Usagi tilted her usamimi and showed somewhat serious expression.
"The hardships...........in other words, the troubles Izayoi-san left behind, is that what you want to say?"
"Of course not. Sure, he was a hopeless person, meeting all three requirements of being arrogant, self-centered and hedonist, but...............That person, he was not someone who would pass the remains of the trouble he himself created to his family, right?"
"But the extent of the brawls were large you know. He would team up with Don Bruno or old man Ushimatsu, and later with Canaria-sensei, and picked fights with people of high social standings as his hobby.”
"That's right. According to him "Strong power should be used against a strong opponent to be cool!" or something was a stupid excuse of his. If I remember correctly, his favorite motto was..........."
“It was───"The heavens don't produce people above me!""
Pfff──Kuro Usagi spurt out the tea.
She probably thought that it was very much like him, but on the other hand, it was indeed a foolish motto.
"T-That, how should I say, it’s the typical Izayoi. He lived the same way even in homeplace huh."
"He wasn’t someone who would change just because his living place changed. ───About that, even Kuro Usagi should know, right?"
"Fufu, that may be true."
Kuro Usagi shook her usamimi while giving a cheerful laugh.
Both sides had many more things to talk about, but the conversation wasn’t advancing any further.
Kuro Usagi gained attention with a cough.
"Now, now, let's proceed with the feast! Now it’s about time for Kuro Usagi to tell everyone about this world───”The World of Little Garden”.”
Yes! Suzuka got fired up.
Homura's expression became serious.
Ayato kept her calm expression.
Getting each of their affirmations, Kuro Usagi pulled out a single card.
"Well then, three of you. Should I say the usual phrase? Should I? Here I go! Welcome! To the "World of Little Garden"! We have summoned the three of you to present the qualification to the “Gift Games” where only people who have been bestowed Gifts can participate!”
"That's right! You three should have already realized that you are not ordinary humans! Those unusual powers are the Gifts bestowed by various war gods and deities, Demons, Spirits and Stars. "Gift Games" are where you compete with using those "Gifts". And, this world of little garden is a stage created for those Gift holders with strong powers to lead an enjoyable life!"
Usaa! Kuro Usagi's usamimi jumped up as she explained.
But Suzuka and Homura exchanged glances and asked surprised.
"Eh, wait a second. In this world, you can’t be summoned unless you have those Gifts?"
"Absolutely? Without exception?"
"YES, YES, YES♪ Suzuka-san should have an idea about her own power, right?"
"Well, yeah, I have but............"
Homura and Suzuka exchanged glances.
Both of them were well aware that they were special. Therefore, there was nothing surprising up to this point. If there was a problem then───It was about Kudō Ayato's existence. If the current talk is true, It would be unreasonable if she didn’t have the power known as Gift.
"Suzuka. Let's leave that talk for later. ............Please continue, Kuro Usagi-san. There should be some conditions for us to participate in those Gift Games, right?
"YES! Before participating in Gift Games, It's absolutely necessary to belong to an organization. Those are the numerous "communities" that exist in Little Garden."
"Hm-Hm. So, what happens when you win?"
"The winner of Gift Games gets the prize from the game "Host"! The possible prizes can be money, lands, rights, honor, human beings.....................and even the stakes of Gifts. If you take new Gifts from other, it would be possible to challenge even higher level Gift Games as well. Given that, if you lose in a Gift Game which has Gifts at stake, naturally───your own Gift will be taken away, so please take note."
Mufufu, Kuro Usagi laughed provocatively.
At this point, Suzuka's eyes were shining.
"Fufun, isn't that useless worrying I wonder? Even if he looks like this, my brother Saigō Homura is unbelievably strong when it come to games you know?"
"Fufu, then, I look forward to it. Skilled Gift Game players are stars of this Little Garden world! Please do enjoy it to your hearts content♪."
"............Well, will do it in time. Who are ones who Host and bestow Gifts in these Gift Games? It couldn't possibly be real gods, right?"
"YES! This is the world of Little Garden where war gods and buddhas gather! To tell you the truth, This Kuro Usagi is also a descendant of "Moon Rabbits" from tales of buddhism!"
Ehem! Kuro Usagi threw out her chest with her usamimi raised.
Suzuka and Homura widened their eyes looking bit more surprised.
"Hey hey, Homura. "Moon Rabbit".......... If I remember correctly, it's one of the Buddhist tales from Konjaku Monogatarishū right?"
"Yeah. If I'm not mistaken, It's a tale about a rabbit that in order to save an injured old man, threw itself into the fire to be eaten. The reason moon's surface took the resemblance to the rabbit is because Taishakuten invited that devoted rabbit to the moon, or so."
"Uhaa! It's a super major tale isn't it! Kuro Usagi is a famous rabbit!?"
"No, not to that degree! Although, Kuro Usagi is their descendant. ───Now, lets return back to topic shall we. Like this, the existences admired as legends from outside world, or perhaps the existences who left great achievements in human history, are permitted to establish a spirit rank in this world of Little Garden, and could also be awarded with various Gifts!”
"......? Can they even contribute to human history?"
"YES! Rather, probably there are many such people in Little Garden."
───I see, He nodded seemingly satisfied from the answer.
"If it has such meaning, there is indeed a chance for me to be summoned."
"Hohou? Do you have confidence in your own achievements?"
"I wonder about that. Since those achievements aren't my own, I'm just half-confident. Please continue."
Yes, Kuro Usagi answered cheerfully with raised usamimi.
"Then, let's return to the talk about Gift Games. Actually, there are two greatly different kinds of it. One of them are Games intended to test the humans, held by war gods and deities who have too much time on their hands. These are many times free to participate from its characteristics, but since the "Hosts" are war gods and deities, they are often brutal and difficult, and life could be at risk. However, the reward is big in return. It depends on the "Host", but even getting a new "Gift" isn't just a dream."
"Fumu Fumu. Then, there are more normal Games as well right?"
"Of course! Normal games have the format of participation by paying the designated chips for the entrance fee. There are held as an industrial business of the communities, and are the source of income for the organizations."
Finally at this point, the color of their eyes change as they got motivated.
"Since they are at the level of industrial business, they are Games that leans towards entertainment right?"
"Now now, I wonder about that? If you don't understand the meaning of the Game, you could present the favorable conditions for the Host's side you know?"
"Hou? In other words, the game rules could only be tampered by negotiating with the Hosts, right?"
"O-Ooh......! How sharp of you Homura-san. That's right, that is the so called "Game Making", the act of negotiation. It's a vital skill for advancing the negotiations with the Hosts or performing as groups in Games."
"I see, I see. I understood everything well. In short, Gift Games refer to the businesses and trades that the organizations called communities do, right?.........Does currency or bartering exist here?"
"YES! Trades are spread as much as Gift Games!"
"As expected. Otherwise, the circulation using the spirit train wouldn't be practical. Circulating it with just Games would be impossible after all. ......In that sense, it would be a wise move to earn for pressing expenses with Gift Games, while another person focused on raising the money by trading, huh."
Homura thought about the current matter while holding a hand to his chin.
Kuro Usagi widened her eyes from surprise.
"H-How should I say......You two are the polar opposites of Izayoi-san."
"Polar opposites? With Iza-nii?"
"YES. When I heard that Izayoi-san's family might have been summoned, I prepared myself for the worst, but you've been great guests after arriving, or should I say......I'm relieved that you two are acting like honor students."
Kuro Usagi sighed seeming from relief.
Homura and Suzuka on the contrast, showed somewhat complicated expressions.
"......I'd like to hear it once about that. That person, did he do something even at this place?"
"Speaking of that, he went around picking fights left and right in Little Garden, from "City of Brilliant Flames” in the North to "Underwood" in the South, he rushed about without restraint, bringing vigorously big troubles everywhere! If he was as reliable as you two, then even Kuro Usagi...... Even Kuro Usagi wouldn't have underwent that much trouble......!!!"
The loli Kuro Usagi broke down crying. Only that brute guy could make such a young girl cry from worry.
"Uhhm......Our Iza-nii has given you lots of hardships."
"But he was the same even in the orphanage, that person. ───Anyway, we should get down to business now."
Homura's expression had hints of unease. As if waiting for it, Kuro Usagi also straightened up.
Summarizing the chain of conversations in his mind, Homura asked asked with a serious expression.
"I'll ask without beating around the bush. Is there a way for us to return to our former world?"
Kuro Usagi answered blankly. Her puzzled expression was clearly saying "What is he talking about I wonder?".
Homura got flustered from that reaction. He pushed aside the cuisine from the table and leaned forward.
"......We can't return?"
"T-That's not it! That's not it at all, but...... E-Eeh? Isn't that strange? In the first place, only people who "Have reason to arrive in the world of Little Garden" are supposed to be summoned here......by the way, what was written on the invitation letter?"
Homura thought back in surprise. It was an emergency back then so he had no time to read the contents.
Quickly taking out the phone, he saw the mysterious mail address───Queen.Hallowefirstname.lastname@example.org. Written on the mail subject was the following.
『─ The Second Sun Authority War Invitation ─』
Kuro Usagi widened her eyes in surprise the moment she saw the LCD screen.
"T-The Second Sun Authority War Invitation!!? W-W-Why did an outsider like Homura get this kind of thing!?"
"No, even if you say something like that..."
"Senpai. Let's confirm the contents of the letter first for now."
That's right, he nodded. Urged by Ayato, Homura and others started to confirm the contents.
『 ─ The Second Sun Authority War Invitation ─
Dear Saigō Homura-sama.
You have earned the entry qualifications to the "Second Sun Authority War" being held in the world of Little Garden. For gaining the qualifications to enter the final selection, please enslave at least one celestial beast belonging to the "Twelve Ecliptical Constellations" or "Twelve Chén of the Equator" first.
Celestial Beasts required to subjugate: "Taurus"
Winning Condition: ① Subjugation of Avatar of "Taurus".
Winning Condition: ② Erase the lightning, and return the star to its original form.
※ Rule Summary/Duration Period
Since would be a preliminary game, the duration period would be seven years. After seven years, you would automatically be disqualified from game. No matter who subjugates the beast, it will counted to Saigō Homura so please, feel free to cooperate.
※ Important Points ※
This frame of participation is a special frame that was prepared so that Saigō Homura could participate in the Second Sun Authority War. If you abstain/abandon/ignore the participation or are eliminated in the preliminary round, the special participation frame as well as the inherent Gift "Proto Idea" that Saigō Homura-sama possesses would be collected, so please forgive us.
Furthermore, during the game period, you cannot leave the Little Garden so please be careful. Prolonging the game can be considered but please try to complete the requirements within the given time.
Second Sun Authority War Facilitators "Laplace Demons".』
The moment he finished reading it, Homura hit the table and raised a protest.
"D.........Don't screw with me!!!"
From Homura's yell, the surrounding audience started murmuring.
Grasping the phone with shivering hands, He read it once more.
"The duration period is seven years you say.......!? You can't go back during it you say......!? Don't screw with me, there's no way I'd just accept such conditions!!"
"H-Homura. Try to calm down a little."
"As if I can calm down!!! If I......If we don't return, what's going to happen to the orphanage!? Everything Company would stop the funding you know! If that happens, at that point, it would be the end of the orphanage for sure!"
Being high-strung from consecutive emergencies, Homura finally exploded from restlessness.
But, that was inevitable.
Even now, the existence of Saigō Homura was necessary for the "Canaria Family Home". If he went missing for seven years, the fundings would certainly stop.
With an unusually tensed attitude Suzuka also asked Kuro Usagi.
"Kuro Usa. Is there nothing we can do about this? We can't return from abstaining from the game either?"
"......This is difficult. If you haven't agreed to the invitation, you wouldn't have been summoned to Little Garden to begin with."
Kuro Usagi dropped her usamimi apologetically.
Finally at that point, Kudō Ayato raised her voice.
Kuro Usagi-san. About previous topic, properly speaking, the Gift Games are the games of gods and demons that are only held within Little Garden......that's how it is, right?"
"Eh? Ah, yes."
"However, we encountered the monster that looked like Minotaur back in our world. Us coming to Little Garden was caused from such inevitable circumstances......Putting it another way, it would be no more than taking shelter in Little Garden as a result of getting rolled up in its Game. I think there's plenty of reasons to be able to return to the former world."
.........Umumu, Kuro Usagi twist her usamimi.
Kudō Ayato continued her question with stronger tone.
"Why did something like this happen in the first place? I think we won't arrive to a solution if we don't clarify that part."
"I-I'm sorry. That part is difficult for even Kuro Usagi to understand. The only thing I can say, is that perhaps this situation happened as a result of the preliminary game of that large-scale Gift Game held in Little Garden.........The Second Sun Authority War running wild. I don't know anything else."
Homura bit his lip to divert his impatience. The only aim for him was to make the livelihood of the orphanage enjoyable after finally progressing the results of his research.
But in one swing, that changed to survival crisis. It was no wonder he became impatient.
Kuro Usagi hung her head with usamimi down in shame.
"It's unfortunate, but you have no choice but to clear this subjugation Game for now. No matter what kind of situation it was, you have agreed to the invitation letter, so.........Before starting the negotiations, you have to first clear the Game."
"B-But, even if you say to defeat an ox monster like that, there's no way we could win!"
Unable to endure, Suzuka also raised her voice.
Two monsters that appeared at evening......They were the existences that have went beyond human knowledge. It could be said that the mysterious Cumulonimbus ox was a monster of a scale living up to it's title as a Celestial Beast.
This goes without saying, but it wasn't an opponent they could fight and win against.
With this, it was extremely unlikely for them to be able to return to their former world.
As the three of them were being silent, Kuro Usagi suddenly told them as her usamimi perked up.
"......Ah, that's right. In this case, there's no need to need to defeat it with some kind of power!"
"In subjugation games with powerful ability opponents as a target, aside from power, there's also the method of fighting with the means intelligence! The opponent is the Avatar of Taurus......For example, since the target is Minotaur, then there should be a method of subjugation in its legends!"
Usaa! Kuro Usagi raised here usamimi.
From those words, even Homura was taken aback and folded his arms.
"I-Is that so. According to the previous conversation, monsters in Little Garden assume the form of legends. In that case, if we investigate Minotaur's legend, we might find the way to beat it......!"
As if finding a ray of hope, Homura raised his face and looked at Kuro Usagi.
"Kuro Usagi. The previously mentioned Sun Authority, what is it? Would it be fine to consider it as some kind of Gift with terrific power?"
"YES! Even within the countless Gifts, Sun Authorities are ranked as the highest class. There exist 24 types of them, and while they are respectively strong arms, they are also the mediums required to summon the Celestial Beasts!"
Kuro Usagi explained with raised usamimi.
Homura started to ponder as if realizing something.
"Just by reading this invitation, this Game involves Taurus of Twelve Ecliptic Constellations, right?"
"YES, it's as you say!"
"I see. So that's why there were Minotaur and "Taurus" huh. Indeed, if all these was caused by the Gift Game, then it all makes sense."
Homura took a serious expression and put hand to his chin.
That expression was even more tensed than until now, however there was no despair in it like before. Homura who was a quick thinker, started to collected the chain of events that happened until yesterday in high speed.
"Typhoon......agricultural damage......since it came to that, next would be famine, huh? But, there are already measures against that. The second clinical trial have been passed so the distribution of medical-use Nanomachines should start within a few days. The question is what happened to the typhoon number 24 and where is the Minotaur."
While tapping on table with his finger, he announced the conclusion.
Homura who breathed a big sigh, despite sweating a little, still displayed his best smile.
"......Okay! Suzuka, Ayato! We might actually have a chance to win!"
"Is that true?"
"Yes. It was by accident, but I have brought the trump card with me."
Suzuka looked slightly puzzled from Homura's remark.
As if noticing something, Ayato asked him with a tensed expression.
"Senpai. Could it be......that you plan to use the remaining "Origins"?"
"I don't have another choice do I. The study is still at 10% stage, but we still have "Origin" stocks. It should be fine to use just one of them. But, what's left is the means to return to our former world......Does Kuro Usagi have some kind of idea?"
Homura turned towards Kuro Usagi.
Meeting his gaze, Kuro Usagi also made up her mind.
"......I see, I understood the story! If you are determined so much, then albeit not much, Kuro Usagi will also lend you a hand!"
"Is there a way?"
"YES! I think meeting with "Queen Halloween" who has summoned you first would be a good idea!"
Homura and Suzuka tilted their heads in wonder at the words that came out from Kuro Usagi..
""Queen Halloween"......Yeah, now that you mentioned it, there was such mail address. So that person is the summoner?"
"YES! She isn't someone who comes out in public much......But generally, she is referred to as Golden Haired Queen Who Governs the World's Boundary."
"Governs the World's Boundary?"
"YES, or would it be better if I say she is the one deified at Halloween Festival. To start with, do any of you know the meaning behind the festival known as Halloween?"
"No, I don't know the details."
Homura and Suzuka exchanged glances and shook their heads at the same time.
Then, we have to start the explanation from there.
Gohon, as Kuro Usagi cleared her throat, she raised one finger and puffed up her chest.
───"Halloween" was the festival of Sun worshipping and celebrating the harvest performed by ancient Celts that have existed in Western Europe. The ancient Celts viewed the movement of the Sun and difference in it's shine throughout the year as a cycle of life and death, and worshipped the Sun that had started to weaken when it neared the fall from summer, as an existence that would be reborn as a new life after dying in winter.
The ancient Celts believed that on October 31 which is the Sun weakening boundary, the boundary of the world itself would become unstable, and ancestral spirits would come crossing from the kingdom of the dead. However, the ancestral spirits weren't the only ones crossing over from the kingdom of the dead, fearing that man-eating fiends would come together with ancestral spirits again, they have defended themselves by mimicking monsters in appearance.
"Aha. So you mean that by deifying that, it became known as the Queen Who Governs the Boundaries?"
"YES! Furthermore, even in this Little Garden where war gods and deities gather, "Queen Halloween" is someone who is referred to as a sole "Queen". I think she would know the way to return! And in a few days, you would have a chance to meet Queen here in "Underwood"."
Suzuka raised her voice. Raising her usamimi, Kuro Usagi responded.
"YES! Actually, the water of this "Underwood" is famous for it's cleanness, and it seems that it goes well with Queen's favorite black tea. She desires the morning dew in particular, which couldn't be gathered beyond few droplets, and Queen's errand person comes once in a month."
"Once in a month......When's the next time?"
"Conveniently, she should be coming at night tomorrow. If all goes well, it might be possible for Queen to mediate."
With Kuro Usagi's proposal, Homura's and Suzuka's faces brightened and they stood up.
"Okay. Now that our objective is decided, we can't stick around and wait."
"Uisa! We have to earn to cover our living expenses!"
".........Senpai. Suzuka. Do you have anything that could be used as a replacement for the participation fee?"
Receiving Ayato's calm tsukkomi, the two became silent.
Kuro Usagi smiled gently and raised her hand.
"Please don't worry. Two of you are Izayoi-san's family. The family of our benefactor so to speak. Participation fees will be covered from Kuro Usagi's pocket money!"
"Ooh, Kuro Usa is so generous!"
"Sorry for the trouble, we'll definitely return it after we earn. I want to first practice with an easy looking Game, but what should I do I wonder?"
"In that case, the shop from a while ago looked nice! Surely it must be a stage for Gift Games───"
"Wait a minuteeeee!"
At that moment, a giant pillar of water raised up from the great river. Seeming to misunderstand that it was some kind of show, the surrounding audience started to applause with smiles on their faces.
It was a serious matter however to the people in question that were nearby it. They got entirely soaked by the river water, and the cuisine on the table got washed away as well.
Large part of the cuisine went to the river, not even half of which was eaten yet. Suzuka looked at that with pain. However, the figure that came flying out of the great river, swept down before Homura and others without a care.
"I have heard your conversation! This Shirayuki-Hime will be in charge of your first Gift Game!
"S-Shirayuki-sama! Why did you make such meaningless, troublesome and flashy entrance!?"
"I don't understand it well, but probably she wanted to look cool."
"That's right, Senpai. I can't think of anything else."
"S-Such tasty-looking meal was sacrificed for such selfish reason.........!"
"S-Stop fussing! As one of the Divinity holders, first impression is important! Establishing a hierarchical relationship from the start is essential, isn't it!?"
Ugaa!!! Shirayuki-Hime, girl dressed in kimono bared her fangs in anger.
As she suddenly glared towards Homura, she pointed at him loaded with all her hostility.
"You there! I thought there were some signs of resemblance, but you really are Master's younger brother it seems!"
"Master......? Is this about Iza-nii? In that case, Suzuka is the same."
Umu? Shirayuki-hime bend her head.
"......Nunu? Can't see that, but alright. All of you seem to be the inhabitants of Master's homeland. If that's the case, I will use you to clear away all the humiliations I have gotten from him!"
"Okay, with this, you really are that big fool's acquaintances!!!"
I have predicted this level of development!!!───In complete high tension, Shirayuki-Hime made up her mind. Then suddenly, she glared at Kuro Usagi next.
"Kuro Usagi-dono. I heard the full story. No matter if they are a family of a friend, giving them money for free isn't good, don't you think. Three of them are children of tender years if you look at them. At that age, giving it for free would be bad for their education."
"W-What......!? That was an unexpectedly sound argument, to the point that I'm lost for words......!"
"It really doesn't feel like the words that would come from a fellow who caused great inconvenience to the guests some time ago."
Homura threw a fair tsukkomi towards the fair argument. Shirayuki-Hime naturally ignored it.
"So. For gaining experience in Gift Games, shouldn't this Shirayuki-Hime invite these three to the Gift Game personally?"
Shirayuki-Hime made a self-satisfied face while bearing her fangs. Kuro Usagi became greatly perplexed while muttering something like "I feel that Shirayuki-sama took resemblance to a certain someone as of late".
Homura and Suzuka exchange glances in wonder, but the answer was decided.
"Well, we still don't know what exactly Gift Games are. I am indeed grateful, but."
"Would we receive the reward with that?"
"Of course. I will prepare a spare Gift."
Umu umu, Shirayuki-Hime nodded as if enjoying it. Hearing that, Homura and Suzuka likewise consented to this with smiles.
Despite holding a significant suspicion, Kuro Usagi leaked a sigh without saying a thing.
"Understood. In that case, Kuro Usagi will act as a judge."
"Judge? Kuro Usagi will?"
"YES! Even if it doesn't look that way, Kuro Usagi is the "Aristocrat of Little Garden" who has been bestowed with "Judge Master"! Within Kuro Usagi's hearing range, no one will be able to cheat!"
Usaa! Kuro Usagi raised her usamimi. If that was true, then it saved the trouble of worrying about cheating. Shirayuki-Hime jumped in the great river once more, and appeared with the shape of a giant serpent.
『......Umu. Now then, get on. I'll take you along to the stage area.』
"Going underwater on the way is a no go."
Suzuka obediently replied, while Homura looked slightly suspicious, still looked to be enjoying it somewhat.
Kuro Usagi gave a sidelong glance to the girl who kept her calm in contrast to those lively two───Kudō Ayato.
"Well, then, we shall go as well. ......By the way, Ayato-san."
"What is it, Kuro Usagi-san."
"I was thinking that maybe......Have we met somewhere before?"
"───...... No, this is our first meeting."
She replied with a calm, emotionless tone. Kuro Usagi showed a lonely smile for an instant.
"No, in that case, never mind. ───Now, Let's head towards Shirayuki-sama's game!"
Her skirt swaying, Kuro Usagi stood up.
The three of them also stood up vigorously, and their exploration of “Underwood” had begun.
───"Underwood Stage Area" Hippocamp Pastures.
It was the aquatic pastures, where beautiful shining water droplets trickled down from the leaves of the Great Tree. Perhaps the livestock were allowed to run freely here and there on the lands , because there was no need to worry about them running away. It was natural for cattle and pigs, but surprisingly, even the livestock like sheep and goats who could swim, didn't seem like they would run away, taking their children with them.
While Saigō Homura, Ayazato Suzuka and Kudō ayato were sightseeing that scenery, their eyes were still directed ahead towards Shirayuki-hime.
Suzuka raised her voice as if she saw something really strange.
"W-Wait Homura. That carriage, isn't it running on the river's surface?"
She pointed at the water cart while shaking Homura's shoulder. The body of that cart looked like it was floating above water itself───Saying it bluntly, it looked just like a ship.
However its driving power wasn't relying on the wind to sail, nor an oar paddled by a grim boatman.
A seahorse with fish-like fins attached in front of its hooves───A half horse-half fish Eudemon commonly known as "Hippocamp" was running gracefully on water.
"How is it, brother. Even the hull is pretty, as one would expect, that's amazing, isn't it?"
"Umu. It's not half-bad."
You liar! Suzuka tsukkomi'd lightly.
Kuro Usagi asked to Ayato while giggling.
"Homura-san sure is an obstinate person."
"He's usually a bit more honest. It's because Senpai tends to dislike showing his childish side."
"Hohou, then you mean to say that he is originally childish? Fufu, he is similar to Izayoi-san in that aspect."
"Oi, the Kōhai and Loli Usagi over there. I can hear you."
Erasing his former expression, Homura knit his brows sullenly.
Kuro Usagi and Ayato were still giggling, but Suzuka remonstrated that with wry smile.
"Now now. Despite how it looks, he's still the eldest of the orphanage. After looking after younger children, he became like this before one knew."
"Orphanage?.........E, Eh? But Homura-san and Izayoi-san are..."
"Not related by blood. Just from the same orphanage."
Kuro Usagi looked puzzled as her usamimi tilted.
But at that moment, they had arrived to their destination.
『Let's drop off here for the moment.』
Saying so, Shirayuki-hime bend her head towards the land. As the four of them came down one by one, Shirayuki-hime dived underwater. And jumped out in a human form after a moment.
"Now... As you can see, this area is a feeding ground for the livestock, and will be the area for the Game. While on the way to here, you saw a "Hippocamp" right?"
"Yes. We just passed it."
"Nu.......? Ah. That did happen. I was thinking of doing a Gift Game using water carts, what do you say?"
Oohh! Homura and Suzuka raised their voices. As expected, they didn't consider that she'd set up such an interesting-looking game.
Kudō Ayato alone was calm, but even her expression had softened into a smile.
"That seems interesting. Are we going to perform a water race?"
"As expected, there are too few people for a race here. But well, there's a special race known as "Rider of Hippocamp" being held here periodically."
"YES! The game that was held three years ago gained a good reputation, and is now performed as a regular festival race. Sometimes, Kuro Usagi is invited there as a judge as well."
"Houhou. W-Will that be held in near future or..."
"It won't. It is being held once a month and the last one happened just 3 days ago."
Ayazato Suzuka became clearly dejected from Shirayuki-Hime's words.
While being at loss towards her whose emotions were even more apparent than herself, she still made a follow-up in a hurry.
"B-But you know, we will perform a similar Game now, right?"
"Umu. Although it's not a group race, I'm thinking of us racing through the downtown waterway, an obstacle race."
"Oh......It's more large-scaled Game than I expected. Is it alright to use it for personal business like this?"
"Fortunately, I lend a hand in various ways for the stability of the Aquatic City of "Underwood" so I have a lot of influence. Even if we cause trouble, no one would get angry. ───Now then, read this."
As Shirayuki-Hime clapped her hands, a single parchment fell down.
『Gift Game ─ "Water Rider of Hippocamp" ─
- Entry Qualifications: Ones invited by the Host.
- Winning Condition: Finish a lap around the Great Tree faster than Host "Shirayuki-Hime.
- Rule Summary
First: Players are allowed to look at the map and choose a favorite route.
Second: Host has the freedom to choose the route, however they have to stop when raising the head above water.
Third: In case the Player is turned over, they are allowed to continue from that place if they immediately get reorganized.
Fourth: You can interfere with the opponent at fixed intervals.
- Player Victory Reward: Awarding of one Gift Card. As well as the guarantee of daily necessities.
- Host Victory Reward: Persuasion of Sakamaki Izayoi to apologize for all the rudeness until now.
Oath: Respecting the above stated rules, we swear upon our Glory and Flag to host the Gift Game.
"No Name" Shirayuki-Hime Stamp』
Three of them quickly read through the letter and asked Kuro Usagi.
"What's this? The game rules?"
"YES! It's a "Geass Roll" that represents the Game Rules of Little Garden. If you agree to the terms after reading them, then please convey it to the Host."
Fumu, Homura began to think. There were many things to be asked, but before that, there was something that he absolutely had to ascertain.
"About this "You can interfere with the opponent at fixed intervals", does it mean distance? or is it time duration?"
"It's time duration. You can interfere with the opponent at fixed time intervals. In addition, the moment when interfering is possible, is a secret of the Host."
"......You mean to be on defensive at first and search for it, huh. Then what's the stock of rights to interfere?"
"There isn't. If there was, wouldn't it be disadvantageous to the Host?"
"Eeh. Let's be fair there."
“Suzuka. Host is undertaking the Game without compensation, and is offering a reward. It might be somewhat unfair, but even if you take that away, this is quite a warm hearted Game."
Ayato rebuked Suzuka. That also weighed on Homura's mind.
Taking into consideration that this was their first game, this victory reward was too gracious compared to this level of risk and difficulty. Was there any ulterior motives.........He didn't consider that either.
"...... I'll hear you out just in case. About this sentence, "Persuasion of Sakamaki Izayoi to apologize for all the rudeness until now." Just what did that guy do?"
"───...... It'll get prolonged if I talk about it. It's to the extent that the day would darken and the clean water of "Underwood" would be dyed dark red by my resentment and anger."
"U-Uhm, I'm sorry?"
For some reason, the two of them suddenly became apologetic. Homura and others were also plenty manipulated by Izayoi, but it seemed as a resident of Little Garden, he had caused several times more trouble.
"Gohon. We strayed from topic, but shall we begin about now? Use whichever water cart you like. Next, it would be great if there was a "Hippocamp" who would be willing to help, but......"
Saying so, Shirayuki-Hime reviewed the surroundings.
Just at that moment, one of the "Hippocamp" from their group came rushing with terrific force. That "Hippocamp" who came rushing towards this direction, stuck out it's head in the gap between Suzuka and Ayato as if charging.
As Suzuka fell behind from the surprise, Ayato looked at that "Hippocamp" while easily stopping it. That horse was beautiful even among all "Hippocamp".
It's blue firm limbs were moderately trained, and had the semi-transparent dorsal fin that was green in color, growing instead of its mane. Getting wet by the river water, it seemed to be shining from the dazzling rays of sun.
As Suzuka looked at the dorsal fin from the side, the dazzling shine hit her eyes. Towards that beauty of it's body that looked just like a living sculpture, she leaked a sigh of admiration without thinking.
"Yes. I'm an amateur with horses, but such beauty isn't easy to find, right?"
"Umu. This fellow is called Hyutos, and is the king of "Hippocamp" herd. It was leading a campaign as a horse of a Queen's Knight until three years ago."
"Queen's Knight......you mean the previously mentioned "Queen Halloween"?"
"YES! She was a really strong and brave knight who has saved Kuro Usagi and others many times. And this "Hippocamp" was one of the competitors of Izayoi-san and others in the "Hippocamp Rider" three years ago!"
Hihin, Hyutos responded by raising a neigh. While scratching it gently under its neck, Ayato muttered with delightful voice.
"......It's been a while, Hyutos. You seem as lively as ever."
Hihin, the "Hippocamp" Hyutos responded seemingly happy.
After nodding exaggeratedly, Shirayuki-Hime handed over the "Geass Roll" together with a town map.
"The preparations are finished. What do you say we start the race tomorrow at around noon?"
"That much would be plenty for preparations. ───Ah, that's right. Incidentally, there's one thing I'd like to ask."
Looking around the surroundings, Homura saw several water carts.
Then, ascertained "Hippocamp" Hyutos' build and grinned.
"This water cart......would it be a problem to design it myself?"
"Hou. Do you have confidence?"
"Yeah. Rather, this is my strong point. Of course, I would think of other measures if I don't make it in time."
"YES! In that case, Homura-san would plan the blueprint, and let's ask the tree spirits to assemble it! If we do that, we will make it in a flash without doubt!"
Okay, Happily nodded Homura.
Seeing Homura looking happier beyond their expectations, Mutually, Ayato and Suzuka suppressed their smiles.
1 Konjaku Monogatarishū (今昔物語集, lit. Anthology of Tales from the Past) an anthology of over one thousand tales written during the late Heian period (794–1185). See the notes of the Volume 1 V2 (note 22) for more. ↩