Chapter 3 – Vampires Are Being Watched
The next morning, by Toraki’s reckoning. It was the time that normal people would refer to as ‘well into the evening’.
After Toraki woke up and came out of the bathroom, he realized that neither Iris nor Akari were in the house. Just to be sure, he knocked before opening the sliding door of the room where Akari had been sleeping the previous night, only to find it empty. The only thing he saw was Iris’s usual habit neatly hanging on a clothes hanger.
“Ah, that’s right.”
Last night, Toraki had agreed to work with Iris—albeit temporarily—and so they had finally exchanged phone numbers. He went to check his phone to see if Iris had left him a message or an email, and found that he had a notification on the messaging application ‘ROPE’ from Iris’s account that he had recently added to his contacts.
“I’m going out to drop Akari-chan off at her house and run a few errands. There’s breakfast in the fridge and clear soup in the pot.”
Toraki opened the fridge and found a plate of bacon and eggs that had been wrapped in cling film.
“What the heck is clear soup?”
Looking up, he saw a small pot on the stove that hadn’t been there when he had gone to sleep that morning. He lifted the lid and saw that the pot contained a golden consommé soup with minced onions and bacon. Seeing as the pot was half empty already, he assumed that Iris and Akari had also eaten this before heading out.
Toraki immediately pulled out his Slimphone and ran a search for ‘consommé soup in English’.
“Oh… So ‘consommé’ was a loanword…”
Toraki gratefully turned on the stove to heat up the contents of the pot and stood blankly in front of it for a while before remembering to switch on the ventilation fan.
“I should get around to cleaning the fan sometime soon…”
Toraki breathed in the smell of the soup as it heated up while looking up at the old fashioned fan-type ventilator.
Toraki poured the consommé soup prepared by a foreign Englishwoman into the miso soup bowl that he had purchased back when he had started living alone, at which point he finally remembered the bacon and eggs that were in the fridge. He smiled wryly at his bad management skills and opened the toaster oven to heat them up, only to find…
There was some white bread from a convenience store stuffed inside the microwave, still in its plastic wrapping. It was a thrice-cut loaf of regular-sized white bread, the sort of product that was not sold in the Front Mart store that Toraki worked in.
This was probably Iris’s way of telling him to use that bread to make toast.
Toraki thanked Iris who was not present. By the time the bacon and eggs were warmed up and the toast was done, the soup had become lukewarm. While he would usually just eat it as-is, for some reason he returned the soup to the pot and warmed it up again. By the time that was done, all the items had reached the perfect temperature for eating.
“Thank you for the food.”
He put his hands together to give thanks for the meal that was prepared for him, a habit that had not changed since his childhood.
The soup was slightly bland, but Toraki preferred it that way.
The bacon and eggs were probably just a little saltier than he would have liked.
It was a breakfast that reflected the tastes and preferences of the person who cooked it.
“…I haven’t had breakfast like this since Kimie-san passed away.”
After eating all of the food, Toraki carefully washed the dishes, placed them in the draining tray, and finished up by sending a message that said ‘Thanks for the food’ via ROPE. After that, he checked his watch and made sure to leave the house fifteen minutes earlier than he normally would for work.
Toraki hurriedly walked into the store, and Muraoka, who was handling the register, waved to him after he noticed him enter.
“Hello. You’re early today. Is something wrong?”
Even though Toraki hadn’t done anything wrong, the fact that he had allowed Muraoka’s daughter to stay over at his house last night without permission caused his guilty feelings to show on his face.
“Ah, it’s nothing. Muraoka-san, your shift is nearly over for today, right? There’s something I wanted to ask you. How many POSA cards did we sell today?”
“POSA? What, are you worried about that police bulletin? I think it was the same as usual.”
“I see… In that case, how many people bought the cards along with these?”
As he spoke, Toraki picked up a stack of brown envelopes from a shelf of stationery near the counter. Muraoka thought about it for a short while before suddenly clapping his hands together.
“Ah, there were quite a few of those. Five—no, six of them. I probably wouldn’t have remembered if it was just one or two, but a bunch of young people of roughly the same age came in around an hour ago and bought those.”
“An hour ago… I see, thank you very much.”
Toraki glanced at the clock on the wall of the shop and saw that it was 5:45 PM. An hour ago would mean around 5:00 PM.
“Assuming there’s time for a light meal before the curtain rises, the performance starts at 6:00 PM and ends at 10:00 PM, and then there’s the mixer… Four hours is a bit too long, so maybe there are breaks in between… but that still means about two performances per day, I guess.”
“What is it? Is there something wrong?”
Something was wrong, indeed. It had started last night—or more accurately, the day before—after Akari came to the store and purchased a POSA card for 1500 Yen along with an envelope.
However, that was not something he could reveal to Muraoka at this time.
“Oh, it’s nothing. I just saw a lot of people buying those items together lately, so I wondered how it was during other people’s shifts.”
The excuse sounded forced to Toraki’s ears, but Muraoka didn’t seem to pay it any mind.
“Well then, I’m going home. It’s been a while since I’ve had a good night’s sleep at my own house.”
Muraoka yawned even as he said that and headed into the staff room. Seeing him leave, Toraki started thinking about whether Muraoka would have some time to talk to Akari and if the talk with Iris last night had assuaged some of Akari’s resentful feelings towards Muraoka—frankly, he was worried about things that had nothing to do with him.
He then remembered how Akari had come to the store to make that purchase in the middle of the night and re-evaluated that things would not be settled quite so easily. While he was thinking about such things…
“Excuse me, do you have any envelopes?”
A customer walked up to the register that Toraki was operating and asked him a question about the store’s stock of products while holding a POSA card in one hand.
“The envelopes are with the other stationery on that shelf, if you can’t find the ones you need, we will receive fresh stock tomorrow…”
“I see. In that case, I’ll just be buying this.”
The young woman held out the 3000 Yen POSA card that she wanted to purchase along with a 5000 Yen note for payment.
“…Please press the acknowledgment button on the screen”
Right now, Toraki had no choice but to carry out his duty as an employee of the store. However…
“Umm… We’ve received word from the Toshima police department that there has been an increase in scams related to POSA cards. Please be careful while using them.”
The young woman’s expression turned to one of suspicion upon having a shop clerk in a city convenience store talk to her all of a sudden about matters that were unrelated to business. She left the store in a hurry after receiving her change and the POSA card from Toraki.
“Well, that went about as well as I expected.”
It wasn’t just her. Anyone would have had the same reaction if a clerk suddenly started talking about things that weren’t related to the store’s business.
While he was thinking about that, a familiar face entered the store. She was wearing a black suit that gave a different impression from the black habit that she had been wearing when he first met her and she had a handbag hanging from her shoulder.
She looked like the perfect example of a first-class business woman from overseas. She seemed to exude an aura of beauty and competence while standing there without saying anything. That was true when she was wearing her usual habit as well, but there were some things that she just could not conceal from Toraki who knew what she was really like.
“Are you thinking about something rude again?”
“Just wondering if you were looking for a new job.”
Iris frowned for an instant, but she switched gears and continued to speak.
“I’m fairly okay during the day, so I went to take another look at the surroundings of the live house that we visited yesterday. After that, I went to the garrison to submit my report. While I was there, I thought I’d ask about the information that you wanted to know.”
“So? What did you find?”
“In short, it was just as you predicted. Looks like we’ll be intruding on the Japanese police’s turf.”
Iris looked at Toraki as if she was looking at something mysterious.
“Yura. You’re not just an ordinary closet Phantom, are you?”
“I’m just an ordinary closet vampire. Muraoka-san is in the back, so keep your voice down.”
“If you’re just an ordinary closet vampire, then why do you have accurate information about the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department’s activities?”
Iris was not being overbearing by any means, but despite that, Toraki could feel the strength behind that question.
“I don’t have any concrete information. With a bit of knowledge, anyone can make a guess to that extent.”
“The things I heard today were not something of that level.”
“If this conversation is going to take much longer, can we have it after I return home? I’ll do my best to pull an ‘all-nighter’.”
“You’d better. By the way, what is this?”
Iris pointed to the convenience store’s cafe menu that was displayed next to the register.
“Royal Milk Tea? I’ve never heard of that. Is it a type of tea from Japan?”
“Ah, it’s made by boiling tea leaves in milk. Even I only found out earlier today.”
When he ran an internet search for the clear soup earlier that day, he came across some information about royal milk tea as well. It was an article about how many of the commonly found food items in Japan that were introduced from other countries had names that were prefixed with loan words from a foreign language.
“Oh? Then I’d like to try some.”
“Just so you know, it’s the sort of sweet tea that you hate.”
“I won’t know until I’ve tried it.”
“Sure, whatever. That’ll be 200 Yen.”
“That’s incredibly cheap. Ah, that’s right.”
Iris looked honestly surprised by the price for a moment, but then her face lit up as if she had just remembered something and she pulled a commuter pass case out of her handbag.
“I’d like to pay using a Suica card.”
Toraki was deeply moved by what he saw. Peeking out of the brand new pass case was what appeared to be a brand new transportation system IC card.
“You were able to buy that all on your own!?”
“I think I’m finally getting used to your rudeness. Besides, we have the Oyster card in London for paying for transportation, which isn’t all that different.”
“I see. Alright, please touch the card here.”
Toraki was worried for a moment if Iris had properly loaded the card with money, but his fears were unfounded. The card was properly topped up with 5000 Yen. After printing out the receipt and handing it over to Iris, he sprayed his hands with sanitizer and used a serving machine to fill a M-sized disposable cup with royal milk tea and handed it to Iris over the counter.
“If you need a lid for your cup or additional creamer, feel free to help yourself.”
Toraki pointed towards the items he just named that were placed on the counter.
“I understand… Yes, the aroma is not bad at all. Well then, I’ll be going back now. I’ll go to sleep early, so wake me up once you get home.”
“Got it. …Ah, by the way, Iris.”
Toraki spoke to Iris as she picked up a lid from where they were stocked on the counter and struggled to put it on her cup with unpractised movements.
“Thanks for the ‘breakfast’. It’s been a while since I ate a proper breakfast like that.”
Iris’s eyes widened slightly in surprise, but she soon put on a bright smile.
“You’re welcome. What’s the correct thing to say in this situation again? ‘It was just a humble meal’?”
“Hardly anyone says that anymore. Take care on your way back.”
“Yes, I will. Goodbye.”
Iris, who had finally managed to get the lid on the cup with great difficulty, gave Toraki a small wave and left the store. Just before the automatic doors closed behind her…
Toraki smiled to himself upon hearing Iris shriek, presumably after she scalded her tongue with the hot tea. As expected, she just could not seem to maintain a good image for very long.
Toraki turned back towards the register while thinking about that, when…
He heard a deep-seated grudge in the voice of his resentful employer, who had somehow managed to creep up on him from behind.
“It looks like things are going well with your girlfriend. How very nice for you~”
“What sort of personality is that supposed to be?”
“So she made breakfast for you today… Hehehehe~”
“I’m giving her a place to stay, so that’s the least she could do!”
“That’s not good~ You shouldn’t take her for granted, Tora-chan… Or you’ll end up like me, with your partner running out on you…”
“Dammit, you’re such a pain in the ass!”
Toraki didn’t hold back against Muraoka, who even used his own delicate circumstances as material to further his grudge. After that, Toraki suddenly put on a stern expression.
“If you keep saying things like that, even Akari-chan will get fed up with you.”
“…At her age, it’s normal for girls to be fed up with their fathers.”
“That’s just a convenient excuse for fathers who don’t pay attention to their own families! What are you planning to do if Akari-chan becomes rebellious and turns delinquent? Stop messing with your employees over stupid things and go home and speak to your daughter!”
Toraki thought that he had overstepped his bounds. It was hardly the place of a younger employee to intrude into his boss’s private affairs, but Muraoka just stared dumbfoundedly back at him.
“It sounds like you actually have some experience with that sort of thing.”
“Eh? Ah, no, nothing like that!”
Toraki couldn’t very well say that he had seen the same sort of situation a few decades ago between his younger brother and his wife and their daughter. Even so, Muraoka appeared to have felt something from Toraki’s emphatic statement, and his grudge seemed to wilt after hearing Akari’s name.
“I guess… you’re right. Yeah. I’m not sure if I can do anything, but I’ll give it a shot.”
Saying that, Muraoka slowly walked out of the store with drooped shoulders.
“…Now that I think about it, I wouldn’t have any reason to help Iris with her work if not for Muraoka-san’s family issues.”
That was yet another reason why he wished that Muraoka could dedicate his efforts to keeping his family happy.
Last night, Iris and Akari had strangely hit it off for some reason. If Akari started dropping by his house frequently to confide in Iris, then he would never be able to escape Iris’s clutches.
“…That’s so unfair.”
Toraki was aware that it was partly due to his own meddlesome nature, but there was still a part of him that just couldn’t accept this situation.
Toraki somehow managed to complete his shift despite his feelings and reached home by 4:40 AM. Even though the eastern sky had not yet begun to brighten, he could see a light in the balcony of Apartment 104, his semi-underground house.
“What the heck, didn’t she go to sleep?”
After entering the house, he heard the sound of a TV and felt the presence of someone moving around inside one of the rooms.
Hearing Toraki call out to her, Iris slid open the door to her room and peered out with a somewhat exhausted expression.
“Did you stay up all night?”
“You could say that. Actually, the circumstances have changed again since we last met. Now we’re supposed to capture Amimura by tonight.”
“What the heck!? That’s too sudden!”
Seeing Toraki knit his eyebrows, Iris also walked into the dining room and nodded.
“Your concerns came true. The police are going to raid the live house tomorrow for their investigation. They even have an arrest warrant for Amimura.”
“The situation has already progressed that far?”
“Indeed. Ah, would you like to eat something before we start talking? There’s still some leftovers from this morning.”
“No. It’s almost time for sunrise, so it’s fine. Eating before I go to sleep makes it hard to get up.”
Saying that in a manner which implied that even vampires were living beings with health issues, Toraki carelessly draped his coat across the back of a chair and sat down before throwing himself down on the table.
“Five of them before I started my shift, and five during my shift. That’s the number of young customers we had today who wanted to buy POSA cards along with envelopes. Well, if you consider the fact that our store is not exactly on the main road, they must be getting a lot more from other stores here and there.”
“Right. I’ve been meaning to ask you about that. Yura, how did you know that the envelopes that Akari-chan and the other audience members gave to Amimura at that time contained POSA cards?”
“Well, there was a bunch of stuff that all meshed together to produce that result.”
As far as Toraki and Iris could tell, there was nothing clearly illegal about the music event that they had attended at the Crimson Moon live house. Even the fact that someone from the Order of the Dark Cross had been seriously injured was an incident that would never be made public.
However, there had been multiple clues. The things that Amimura and Sagara had said. The way the fans behaved. The reason why there was no fee for attending the event. The PSA that had been circulated by the Toshima police department regarding POSA card scams. The actions that Akari had taken.
And finally, the reason why the Order of the Dark Cross had decided to foist this mission upon a defective newbie knight who had been demoted and transferred here without even giving her any proper information about the target. Toraki had simply taken all these factors into consideration and made his inferences.
“You’re thinking about something rude again, aren’t you?”
“Wow, you’re really good at reading my expressions. Do you have feelings for me or something?”
Those words had just slipped out of Toraki, partly because of Muraoka’s teasing. However, Iris was clearly flustered by what he said.
“W-What kind of nonsense is that!? There’s no way a Church Knight would fall in love with a Phantom!!”
Although Iris’s face was red, her expression was 50% embarrassment, 30% confusion, and the remaining 20% was disgust. Toraki realized that he had picked a bad method to tease her and immediately started talking in order to avoid stirring up more trouble.
“Well, in any case, I can think of only two reasons why your organization wants to capture him ASAP. Either Amimura is unspeakably evil and is planning to create a hundred or so servant vampires by tomorrow, or your organization caught wind of a different player who is moving to capture him.”
Last night, while Iris and Akari had been watching the video stream of the event, Toraki used the meager amount of information he had obtained at the live house to run an internet search for more details about that event.
The search turned up a large number of stage performance recordings that had been posted to video sharing websites, and more importantly, he found out that the last time Amimura himself had stood on stage as a performer was more than four years ago.
Most likely, the junior Knight from the Order of the Dark Cross had failed in her mission quite recently. Toraki had no idea when the Order had discovered that Amimura was a vampire, but at the very least, he could have been carrying out his plans in that live house for four years.
In addition, Iris herself had initially behaved as if they still had some time until they had to make contact with Amimura.
With all this information at his fingertips, it wasn’t particularly hard to understand why this case had been assigned to Iris at such short notice, and why, after only two days at her new post, she was being given unreasonable orders to capture the target ASAP.
“The other players are probably the organized crime countermeasures division of the police and the National Tax Agency.”
“Exactly. On Sunday, the day after tomorrow, they are going to conduct a full search of the live house where Amimura conducts his events. The Order wants to capture him before that.”
“Let me ask this, just in case. As a law-abiding citizen, I would feel better about leaving Amimura to the police instead of a mysterious organization like the Order of the Dark Cross. Amimura has been blending into human society for a long time, so I don’t think he would suddenly lose control and turn the entire police department into vampires just because of a search warrant. Is there any reason why the Order wants to capture him despite that?”
“You just said it yourself, Yura. The police department’s organized crime countermeasures division is taking action. After going through Amimura’s background, it looks like he is being supported by some criminal organizations from mainland China.”
“All the more reason why it’s better to leave it to the police. What else?”
“Among those organizations, there is one that is made up of Phantoms. Amimura is at the very bottom of that organization, you could even say that he is their pawn. The Order intends to crack down on this organization’s plans. Even if he is captured by the police, he’ll probably get off on a minor charge. He probably won’t get away scot-free, but precisely because of that, we won’t be able to track the people who are behind him any more.”
“In the regions around Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Macau, there are so many Phantoms that are harmful to human society that it can’t even be compared to Japan, and their actions are influencing the Phantoms in Europe as well. Even though he’s only a low level member, Amimura could turn out to be a big clue that will allow us to see the larger picture.”
“Looks like the forces of darkness have been steadily making their presence felt around the world while I wasn’t paying attention.”
“Don’t get me wrong. The vast majority of Phantoms are living out ordinary lives, just like you.”
“So, because of the actions of a small group of hot-headed idiots, the innocent majority suffers the consequences. I guess some problems are the same no matter where you go.”
“By the way, I have to ask. Why is the National Tax Agency taking part?”
After Iris asked that question, Toraki pointed at a POSA card.
“These guys are using POSA cards to falsify the earnings from their events. I watched a bunch of their videos, and it’s the same in every one. These guys make all the musicians who take part in their events participate in a popularity contest. The votes for this contest are in the form of POSA cards. 3000 Yen counts as one vote, 5000 Yen is two votes, and 10,000 Yen is five votes. The maximum number you can vote at once is 30,000 Yen for fifteen votes, apparently. This information was freely accessible on a fan’s blog, all it took was a simple internet search.”
This event, that was being managed by Amimura, was named “VOTE YOUR TUBER”.
On the surface, it appeared to be like any other live house that had amateur bands taking turns to perform on stage. However, Amimura kept the fans hooked by promising to do a special promotion for bands or solo performers who got the highest number of ‘votes’.
“The total number of votes cast by each person are recorded, and the fans who voted the most are identified and treated as VIP sponsors within the event. After accumulating a certain number of votes, the event management rewards them with stuff like opportunities to shake hands with their favorite performers or take photographs with them. This method must have been particularly effective against fans who want to stand out and get the upper hand against other fans.”
“That certainly rings a bell. But isn’t it fairly common to see people invest a lot of money for special perks? Doesn’t Japan also have idol groups that work the same way?”
“For those, the fans who invest money are compensated with CDs, books, or something else with material value, and the perks are at most treated as a bonus. However, that’s not the case with Amimura’s events. There is no ‘transaction’. The POSA cards are just being used for one of their primary purposes… as gift cards.”
There were many people who used POSA cards as gifts, just like book vouchers or beer coupons. Also, they are fundamentally treated the same as goods stamps or vouchers, and so the exchange of POSA cards is not subject to tax.
“So what you’re saying is that even though the fans are ‘investing’ money into their favorite performers, there is actually no ‘transaction’ taking place between the fans and the event managers? Then how do Amimura and his cohorts benefit from this?”
“The answer to that, is here.”
Toraki showed Iris his Slimphone. Displayed on the screen was an app for what was commonly known as a “flea market” auction website.
On that website, innumerable POSA cards were being sold under different item names. Depending on the listing, there were numerous cases where the cards were being sold for more than their actual monetary value.
“What’s going on here? Putting up a 5000 Yen card for auction at a higher price… Are there actually people who buy these?”
“Some people do. I’m sure they have their reasons, but I’d rather not think about them. However, Amimura has no real need to sell his cards at a higher price. He effectively paid nothing to obtain the cards that he is reselling, after all.”
The fans were happy to purchase those ‘votes’ for him instead.
Since there were costs associated with the event venue, equipment rentals, and promotional fees, Amimura still had to bear some part of the financial burden. However, seeing as the event had been going on for four years at this point, those costs were probably factored into his budget and caused him no trouble.
“Take the event that we attended, for example. If we assume that a hundred customers donated an average of 5000 Yen each, that would add up to roughly 500,000 Yen. Back then, Amimura said something about the winner getting 50,000 points, so the actual sum is likely to be higher. Now take that and multiply it by the number of different locations that he holds his events in. Over a period of at least four years. Even if the value of each card is low, the fact that he can convert them to hard cash means that he can make a killing with the massive number of cards that are in circulation.”
“……It’s probably a significant sum. There were so many people at the event that we attended, even though it was a weekday… But does this really constitute a scam?”
“It would be a hard case to make. The fans are just giving him their cards as a gift, after all. He’s not forcing anyone to vote, and it looks like he’s sort of keeping up his end of the bargain by mass reposting videos of the performers that he promised to promote… I guess that’s why Section 2 hasn’t taken any action yet.”
It would be hard to make a case against him for running a scam. They were probably looking for clear evidence of accounting fraud or funding anti-social elements instead.
After organizing all the facts that he knew, Toraki suddenly made a suggestion.
“Don’t you think it would be better to leave it to the police after all?”
“The Order also needs to know if he’s funding Phantom organizations in other countries and make preparations if that is the case. If he’s helping to revitalize Phantoms that are hostile towards humans, the number of victims will only continue to increase. I don’t just mean people losing their lives, but being crippled financially as well. Of course, there will be a proper investigation after we capture Amimura. We might consider handing him over to the authorities If it turns out that he’s just a vampire working on his own, although he will still be kept under observation. However, we can’t make any decisions until we actually make contact with him. Depending on how things go…”
“You think we should be prepared to kill him?”
“If he resists and turns violent, then yes. Although I’d prefer if things didn’t turn out that way.”
Iris rubbed her left arm while making a dangerous-sounding statement. While that gesture showed no eagerness on Iris’s part, Toraki recalled just how badly she had fared against the vampire Okonogi and hoped for things to not turn out that way.
“Well then, we can only pray that this doesn’t come back to bite us in some way… and for the ‘transformation kit’ that I ordered in preparation for tonight to be delivered in time.”
“Transformation kit? What’s that?”
“We have no idea what sort of powers Muraoka has, and it might turn into a fight, right? So as a vampire, I need to make my own preparations as well.”
While saying that, Toraki once again showed Iris the screen of his Slimphone. Iris obediently looked at that screen without thinking too much about it, but her expression turned stiff as soon as she understood what she was looking at.
“Eh? What on earth…”
“You’re helping me with the cleanup, okay?”
Despite her shock, Iris once again looked at the screen of the Slimphone and furrowed her eyebrows. The display showed an online shopping website, and what’s more, the item that Iris was looking at was exceedingly grotesque and hard for her to accept.
“You can actually buy something like this online!?”
“It’s actually pretty simple. You can even choose from multiple options.”
Iris stared intently at the display as if she was looking at something unbelievable.
“Yura… When you said that I needed to help… Don’t tell me you’re actually going to eat this?”
“More like I’ll pretty much leave it all to you. I can’t say I’m fond of it.”
“Ehh!? I’ve never even seen or heard of this! Besides…”
“Just think of it as a necessary expense. Oh, and I’ll be expecting you to add the money that I spent on this to my fee, got it?”
At that moment, the inside of the apartment suddenly grew noticeably brighter.
“Oh crap! There’s only five minutes until sunrise!”
Toraki looked around in a panic.
“Iris! Grab my mattress for me, would you!?”
“E-Eh? Umm… Is this the one?”
“Yeah, that one! Where are my pyjamas… bah, forget it. Oh, and if the delivery guy gets here while I’m asleep, make sure to accept the delivery okay? It’s supposed to be delivered after 3:00 PM today.”
“You just need to open the door and take the package. I’m sure you can manage that. Oh, and make sure to get some sleep yourself. See you later!”
“Ah! Wait a minute, Yura! We still haven’t discussed the plan for tonight…”
“Ouch, I’m burning! Nope, I can’t take anymore! I’m going into the bathroom!”
It was time for the sun to rise.
The rising sun peeked over the horizon and started to bathe the plains of the Kanto region and the urban center of Tokyo with its light. Before he could get pierced by that light again, Toraki grabbed his air mattress, ran into the bathroom, and locked the door.
“It’s impossible… Even if I’m not exposed to sunlight… I get super drowsy once it’s morning… Crap… I don’t even have the strength… to inflate the mattress…”
“You said you’d pull an all-nighter!”
Iris shouted while banging on the door, but Toraki’s voice from the other side grew more and more feeble until finally, without even hearing the sound of the mattress inflating, she heard the sound of something heavy fall to the floor followed by what sounded like snoring.
Iris stopped banging on the door. Instead, she leaned her back against it and slowly slid down until she was sitting on the floor.
“…Are things really going to be okay at this rate?”
The feeble rays of the winter sun that made it into the semi-underground apartment 104 did nothing to assuage Iris’s anxiety.
After Toraki woke up, he found Iris collapsed in a chair at the dining table and looking utterly spent.
“Looks like you did your best. Good job.”
Lying on the table was an empty cardboard box that looked slightly wrinkled—a sign that it was transported in an ice box.
“He asked me to… sign for the package. …I thought I was going to die…”
Iris looked so feeble that it looked like she would crumble into dust if someone so much as touched her, making Toraki wonder who was really the vampire here.
“Oh. The packaging is different from the last time I bought this.”
Toraki opened the fridge and found the item in question. He took it out and started fiddling with it, and spoke to the collapsed Church Knight without looking at her.
“Mind if I ask the obvious question?”
“I don’t want to answer.”
“I see. Never mind, then.”
“In exchange, I can’t guarantee that I will be able to help if you get into trouble.”
If Iris’s fear of men had been caused by some trivial reason, then it should have been possible to fix her way of thinking after spending a little time with other people. However, as Toraki had expected, it appeared that the cause was not so simple.
“I had a lot of things I wanted to discuss with you to prevent things from turning out that way… But you ignored me and went to sleep.”
Iris started to pout.
Toraki also felt bad about that. Since they were going to start the mission soon, he should have tried a little harder to hold a conversation with Iris, even if it was through the bathroom door.
“My bad. I used my powers after a long time, so recent events have left me feeling especially drowsy in the mornings.”
Iris suddenly shouted and pointed a finger at Toraki.
“You! You drank my blood, didn’t you!?”
“Why are you bringing this up now!?”
During the previous fight, Okonogi had used a technique that utilized threads of blood to injure Iris. Toraki had used his powers after consuming the blood that spattered from the wound on her forehead, and those powers had played a major part in winning that fight.
“A-Am I going to turn into a vampire!?”
“Like hell you are! Aren’t you supposed to be a specialist!? What happened to being at the top of your class in theory subjects!?”
“I majored in werewolf and ghost studies!”
“Even physics majors know the difference between mammals and reptiles!”
“What’s that got to do with anything!?”
“I’m trying to say that the basic knowledge you’re lacking is on the same level as that!”
Toraki held his forehead and shook his head with a fed-up expression.
“Humans don’t turn into vampires just because their blood was taken.”
For Iris, that was a startling revelation.
“D-Do you mean that it’s because you only consumed the spattered blood, and didn’t drink it from me directly?”
“No. Even if I were to sink my fangs into your neck this instant and drink your blood, that still wouldn’t be enough to turn you into a vampire. If that happened… you’d just be injured, and in the worst case, die. For a vampire to turn a human into another vampire, the act of ‘giving back’ is absolutely essential.”
Saying that, Toraki made a gesture of poking his own neck with two fingers.
“Iris, have you ever borne witness to the instant when a human turns into a vampire?”
As long as you lived a normal human life, it was impossible to either ask or be on the receiving end of that question. Even if, for some reason, you were on the receiving end, it was a question that would ordinarily never receive an affirmative response.
However, the people here were anything but normal. They were a vampire and a Church Knight.
“…Yes, I have.”
Even though her expression had finally turned lively, she once again went a little pale as she answered his question.
“I see. Was blood flowing from the holes where the vampire’s fangs penetrated the skin?”
Iris tried to recall that ominous memory.
“…No, there was no blood.”
“Why do you think there was no blood flowing out, even though the person was injured?”
While speaking, Toraki opened a closet that was next to the main door and pulled out a box with a green cross painted on it.
“Is your wound okay already?”
Toraki held out a large-sized sticking plaster towards Iris. Seeing that, Iris suddenly raised her hand to her forehead.
“There was no blood because… the wounds were already closed?”
“That’s right. If a vampire just wants to drink blood, they don’t need to go to that sort of trouble. However, if they want to turn the human into a vampire… After drinking the blood, the vampire needs to close the wounds by injecting a fluid from a specialized gland. In other words, it’s basically the same as a mosquito.”
When mosquitoes suck blood, they inject a special fluid to prevent the blood from clotting. The itching that accompanies a mosquito bite is actually an allergic reaction to the injected fluid, and Toraki was saying that it was the same case with vampires as well.
“We’re different from mosquitoes in that we have no reason to prevent the blood from clotting if feeding is the only objective. We can just open up wounds large enough to keep the blood flowing, after all. However, if we want to turn the victim into a vampire, then we need to properly take the necessary steps. We need to inject a special fluid through our fangs—just like mosquitos—to seal up the wounds and remake the victim’s body from scratch. Even with all that, it’s not like we can make just anyone into a vampire.”
“Can I ask you something? Yura, why do you…”
Why do you know about that?
“You seem to have the impression that I’m a good person, but…”
Toraki smiled sadly at Iris.
“In this world, there is no such thing as a vampire that has never tasted human blood.”
Iris felt a lump in her throat and she instinctively stepped away from Toraki.
When she noticed her actions, her expression turned stiff. However Toraki simply accepted her behavior and nodded.
“As you know, I used to be human. Which makes it all the more worse. So trusting a vampire too much is a bad idea. You should keep that in mind.”
The instant Toraki said that, Iris’s mind recalled a certain memory.
“You shouldn’t trust vampires too much.”
Iris recalled the words of a different man who had said the same thing to her in the past.
“Humans can’t even get along with each other. How are they supposed to get along with vampires—a different species? To humans, vampires are nothing but enemies. And to vampires, humans are nothing but enemies. If we forget that basic fact, then both sides will only end up with an unhappy outcome.”
Back when she heard those words, Iris was still far too young.
She knew nothing about the world. She knew nothing about humans or vampires.
Despite that, she haughtily assumed that she understood everything.
“Remember how I said earlier… that I saw a person being turned into a vampire?”
“That person was my mother.”
“So yes, I know. I know what sort of creatures vampires are. More importantly, I know what sort of creatures humans are.”
“…I’m a knight, so I do have some sense of duty when it comes to my work. But after hearing what Akari-chan had to say, I felt a surge of motivation like I’ve never felt before. I’m also the same as you. Rather than fight for the good of the world or for humanity, I feel more motivated about fighting for the sake of a girl I know.”
Iris stepped closer to Toraki, held his hand, and drew him closer to the table.
“There is a time and place for worrying about the larger picture. Right now, we don’t need to think about abstract things like whether the way vampires live is right or wrong. We only need to think about how to capture one vampire who has turned his back on the rules of society.”
After saying that, Iris took out a rough sketch of the live house that she had prepared at some point and spread it out on the table. Her expression turned resolute as she continued to speak.
“Just like you, there are things about my past that I don’t want to share. However, just like you, I also want to do something to prevent an acquaintance from getting pulled any deeper into something suspicious. So stop thinking about things that don’t matter and concentrate on my mission for now.”
Saying that, Iris pulled out her Holly Hammer Liberation and used it to indicate a location at one of the corners of the rough sketch.
“To start with, let’s decide on the entry and exit routes for infiltration. Since we can’t scout out the backstage area or the dressing rooms in advance, we’ll have to figure out how to move around in the areas that we’ve already seen. After that…”
“What, do you still have something to complain about?”
“…No, it’s just… You’re hitting my table with that hammer again.”
Toraki moved away from the table in a hurry. Seeing that, Iris couldn’t help but laugh.
“Haha, I’m sorry.”
“It’s not funny!”
Toraki also found himself getting caught up in her pace without intending to.
While feeling the heavy bass sound typical of live houses resonating in his gut, Toraki walked through the door of Crimson Moon. Just like the last time he had come here, it looked like business was booming.
Also, he immediately noticed the strange behavior of the customers, something he had not picked up on during his last visit.
“Look at them, holding on to those envelopes as if nothing else matters.”
About half of the customers were standing around in unnatural positions with one hand inside a pocket or a bag, even as they enjoyed the music that was playing. Most likely, that was where they were carrying their envelopes with the cards inside.
“Oh? It’s the guy from the other day. Welcome. So you’re here alone today?”
Once Toraki reached the bar counter, he found the employee with the dreadlocks, Sagara, behind the counter again. Apparently, he remembered who Toraki was as well.
“Kaei Jiten is playing again today, so Akari-chan is here as well.”
Toraki thought about what was going to happen later and grimaced for a moment, but there was nothing he could do about it now. They had already prepared for this eventuality, so he immediately adjusted his expression.
“I’m not her guardian. I only bumped into her by coincidence the last time I was here. Besides, I’m here alone today, so I don’t want her thinking that I’m stalking her or anything. I’ll just watch over her carefully from here.”
“I see. Would you like something to drink? Maybe a gin and tonic today as well?”
“Ah, yeah I’ll go with that.”
After hearing that, Sagara picked up the beautiful blue bottle and prepared a gin and tonic for Toraki. Apparently, he even remembered what drink Toraki had ordered the last time.
“We don’t have any special alcohol or particularly skilled bartenders in this place, so we have to make up the difference in other ways to compete with the popular pubs. Despite how I look, I’m pretty good at remembering faces.”
That was quite the dangerous disposition for Toraki as he was now, but since he had no intention of ever coming to this place again after today, it wouldn’t really cause any problems.
“I’ll just take it easy like last time and listen to the music.”
“Sure. Enjoy your stay.”
Sagara walked away from Toraki. Perhaps he had some other work to take care of. Toraki leaned his back against the counter and allowed his mind to drift for a short time while letting the music wash over him.
The song that was currently playing was apparently called “Friendship”, and it was a song by Kaei Jiten, the band that Akari was a fan of. After looking it up online, he found a video of a past event recording of the song.
The video had slightly over thirty thousand views. It had twice as many dislikes as it had likes, and the comment section was full of clumsily written criticism, the gist of which was that the song was just an imitation of existing music made by popular bands.
“Even if it’s just an imitation, it’s better than not doing anything at all, right?”
Though they were few in number, there were some young fans in the event venue who appeared to be genuinely enjoying themselves. For both Kaei Jiten and their fans, the event was one of the few opportunities where they could have this precious exchange. Wasn’t that good enough? After all, nobody could say for sure whether the band had the talent and luck to make it big in the music industry.
Even so, they were not skimping on their efforts to make their dreams a reality. Just that alone was enough to make humans, with their short lifespans, shine so brightly.
At the very least…
“They are far more alive than someone like me who has given up on everything it means to be a human.”
Toraki whispered those words to himself in a mocking tone and looked at the clock on his Slimphone.
It had been thirty minutes since Toraki entered the live house. He was well aware of the fact that the performances for today would be ending soon. After that, the ‘voting’ part of the event would start, and once that was done, people would slowly start leaving the live house. As per their plan, that was when they would make their move.
However, before Kaei Jiten could even finish playing their final song, the ear-splitting sound of a fire alarm filled the entire arena.
Toraki almost spit out his drink.
Someone shouted that at the same time.
As if adding on to the confusion, Toraki heard a number of sounds coming from a room on the other side of the counter that he was leaning on. It appeared to be a kitchen used to prepare light meals, and it was emitting a series of explosive sounds that one would normally never hear. Before long, the ceiling of the live house was entirely covered in black smoke.
“W-What the heck is going on!?”
Toraki was flustered.
It was happening earlier than planned. And what’s more, the building was actually on fire.
“No way, are those explosions!?”
“Hey, where’s the emergency exit!?”
“Nah, it’ll be fine. Let’s just calm down a bit.”
“What the heck is wrong with you? The building is on fire!”
There were screams, mayhem, and for some reason, a bunch of people gathered near the bar counter where the flames were visible, trying to record the scene on their Slimphones. It was a perfect recipe for chaos.
In many of the shopping district’s basement live houses, the entry and exit points often doubled as emergency exits and service entrances to transport equipment. Even if there was a separate emergency exit, there was no way that the nearly two hundred people in the live house would be able to leave through the narrow passage all at once.
“Dammit! What the hell is going on!?”
The plan that Toraki and Iris had come up with was exceedingly simple.
After the event ended and most of the customers had left the live house, Toraki would use his vampiric powers to light several smoke candles and simultaneously pull the fire alarm without anyone noticing, thereby causing a panic by making people believe that there was a fire.
After all the customers left, the only people remaining inside would be the performers, staff members from the live house and from the event management team, and Amimura himself. In total, there would be less than thirty people left in the premises.
Since they were not really setting fire to the place, Iris would be able to sneak in and capture Amimura amidst the confusion. In the unlikely event that someone tried to interfere, Toraki would deal with them.
It was supposed to be a very simple plan.
However the chaos had started at the worst possible time, when the number of people in the live house was at its highest. This caused the exit to get choked with people who were trying to leave, and although it wasn’t part of the plan, there were actual flames licking along the walls. There was also a very real danger of people falling victim to carbon monoxide poisoning due to the large amounts of smoke being released.
“Eh!? Toraki-san!? What are you doing back here again!?”
“I should be the one asking you! Are you going to participate in the voting again? I’m amazed you still have the money for that!”
“T-That’s not important right now! More importantly, we need to run!”
Maybe even Akari had some misgivings about the unorthodox method of casting votes using POSA cards. As if trying to escape any further questions, Akari turned around in the smoke-filled hall and tried to run in a direction completely opposite to where the exit was located.
“Stop! The exit is this way! Let’s go!”
As the hall continued to fill up with blinding smoke, Toraki surreptitiously used his vampiric ability to see through the darkness while keeping it at a level where Akari would not suspect anything.
“Hey, don’t stop moving!”
“Stop messing around and go up, already!”
However, they once again ran into a bad situation here.
A large number of customers were crowded around the door that Toraki had used to enter, each fighting to be the first one up the stairs. However, one of the customers had gotten stuck in the process of trying to escape and jammed the exit in the process.
“What the hell! Oi, what’s the holdup!?”
“Someone is stuck on the stairway! Hey, stop shoving!”
Toraki grimaced while listening to the people shouting at each other.
“Hey, don’t tell me there’s another Phantom among the customers.”
After Toraki entered the live house, Iris had set up a barrier in the stairway that would prevent any Phantoms from leaving. She had used her Holy Hammer Liberation to drive wooden nails into the poster-covered walls on either side of the narrow stairway, thereby creating an invisible wire mesh that would not allow any Phantoms to pass. However, that would not impede ordinary humans in the slightest.
However, it appeared that the invisible wire mesh had netted somebody at the front of the line of customers trying to find refuge aboveground, causing a large number of customers to be unable to leave.
Iris should have also noticed by now that things were not going according to plan, but she and Toraki had agreed beforehand that in such a case, they would make minimizing injury to non-Phantom civilians their highest priority.
“Toraki-san, the fire! And the smoke!”
Toraki looked around after hearing Akari scream and saw that the flames had finally reached the ceiling and set it on fire.
All the fear that had started to accumulate due to the smoke suddenly burst out at the sight of the flames. That applied not just to Akari, but the other customers as well. The pressure of people trying to leave through the exit increased even more.
“Dammit! I wasn’t planning to use it at a time like this!”
Toraki pulled a soft plastic vial out of his pocket, twisted off the lid, and drank down the contents in one gulp.
The vial that held the dark red liquid had a label with very typical Japanese design that read “Fresh soft-shelled turtle blood”.
“Toraki-san, what the heck are you doing at a time like this!?”
In Japan, this was the only legal and yet simple method for vampires to obtain blood from a live animal. Ever since the advent of online shopping, it had become even easier to obtain than before. Of course, the fresh blood that was purchased through online shopping was processed to prevent food poisoning and hence couldn’t exactly be called ‘pure’. But hey, blood was still blood.
Based on Toraki’s senses, the power and duration of the abilities he obtained by drinking the soft-shelled turtle’s blood were about one-fourth of when he drank human blood.
“Ah well, that should be more than enough. Akari-chan, I’m letting go of your hand for a bit! Keep your eyes closed!”
“Eh? No! Toraki-san, don’t let me go!”
Akari seemed to misunderstand that he was leaving her behind and tried to strengthen her grip on his hand, but the sensation of holding his hand disappeared all of a sudden.
In an instant, Toraki’s body transformed into a black mist and slipped past the rush of bodies that were blocking the exit.
While continuing to slip past the customers in his mist form, Toraki arrived at the place where Iris had driven the wooden nails into the walls and pulled them out without returning to his solid form.
The effects were immediate. The male customer who was at the front suddenly fell forwards as the barrier disappeared, and he was in danger of being crushed by the people who were pushing forward from behind.
“I don’t know if you’re a vampire or something else, but I guess you’re the non-human who was caught by the barrier.”
Even elementary schoolers were taught that a large number of casualties from such emergency evacuations were those who had fallen over and ended up getting trampled by the people behind them.
“I guess securing him would be a good idea.”
Toraki coiled the black mist around the man’s neck and waist and pulled him up to the surface. Instead of stopping there, he carried the man all the way into an alley between two buildings before returning to his solid form.
“Go to sleep for a while.”
Toraki’s eyes glowed red as he locked eyes with the man who was teary-eyed from nearly being strangled. It was an application of the power of hypnosis, one of a vampire’s basic abilities that even Okonogi had possessed.
Either the man was a vampire with a considerably weaker will than Toraki, or perhaps he was a different type of Phantom altogether. Toraki put him into a deep sleep in the blink of an eye and once again turned into a black mist before heading back inside the live house, where he found Akari sitting on the floor near the stairway. She was coughing violently, maybe because she had inhaled some smoke.
“Ugh… Toraki-san, where were you!?”
“Sorry! I was searching for a way out! Everything is fine now, so come with me! We’re getting out of here!”
Toraki pulled Akari by the hand and returned to the surface where he found that the customers had mostly made it out safely. There were a bunch of people standing away from the building and recording the scene on their Slimphones.
“Dammit, these people are so carefree… Akari-chan, are you okay?”
“Ugh… My throat… I feel sick… blegh.”
“Crap… Looks like she inhaled a lot of smoke.”
Akari started to throw up while having tears in her eyes, and Toraki rubbed her back while looking back at the entrance of the building that was emitting copious amounts of black smoke.
“Oh, damn! I forgot about Iris! I hope she’s okay!”
It was a genuine inferno that completely surpassed anything that they had planned for. Compared to Toraki who was a vampire, it was highly unlikely that a normal human like Iris could remain unscathed while trapped in the basement of a burning building.
The five minutes that it took for the ambulances to arrive felt like an eternity to Toraki. After the paramedics rushed over to help, Toraki left Akari in their care.
“…Please take care of this girl. If anything happens, you can call this number.”
After saying that, he gave the paramedics a phone number.
“Toraki-san… Don’t go. I’m scared. Stay with me…!”
“Sorry, Akari-chan. But she’s still in there.”
“The paramedics know whom to call. You won’t be alone. But right now, she’s all by herself. I need to go save her.”
“We can have a nice, long talk if we meet at the hospital. Well then, see you later.”
Toraki tightly squeezed Akari’s hand one last time before turning back towards the burning building that was spewing smoke.
Everyone else was staring at the flames and the smoke, but Akari alone had her eyes focused on him, which is why she was the only one who saw it.
For a second, she thought that she lost sight of him because he had jumped into the thick, dark smoke.
However, she undoubtedly saw the sight of Toraki’s body turn into a black mist, move away from where the paramedics were standing, and disappear down the stairway to the building that was belching dark smoke.
“Just what on earth is going on!?”
Iris was running through a corridor even though she couldn’t see what was on the other side. As expected, she had also realized that something out of the ordinary was happening in the event hall.
Iris had entered the live house twenty minutes after Toraki, blended in with the excited fans near the stage, and slowly moved to a position from where she could surreptitiously keep an eye on the staff-only door. She had spotted Amimura, her target, peeking out from the wings of the stage. It looked like he was working to support the performers while they entered and left the stage.
Compared to the other live houses in Ikebukuro, this one was fairly big. However, judging by the size of the building, it was apparent that the dressing rooms backstage could not be very large. Once most of the customers had left and the fire alarm was activated, Iris was confident that she could hit Amimura with one shot from her Holy Gun Deuscris and capture him with almost no witnesses.
However, when she actually went behind the stage in pursuit of Amimura, she found something unexpected.
The underground space where the live house was located was far larger than the building above it.
“There’s no way a group of simple tax fraudsters could arrange something of this scale. I’m scared to hear what Yura will have to say later on.”
Although she wasn’t engaged in a firefight at present, she couldn’t very well just run around the corner without a plan.
Instead of the straight passage that she had expected to find, the path was maze-like with multiple turns, and there were small rooms that served no purpose scattered here and there. It was clearly designed with the idea of confusing intruders.
There were no ordinary light sources like fluorescent lamps, instead there were dim orange lights placed along the floor that barely gave enough light to see by.
Also, as expected, her Slimphone was no longer receiving a signal.
In the past, there were many organizations that operated on the fringes of society that laid claim to business districts, including Ikebukuro. Perhaps this place was a remnant from those times?
“At this rate, he might have already escaped…”
After checking behind her third door and seeing nothing but a rat scampering around, Iris felt like the strength was draining out of her legs.
“…Hang on, that’s—!”
She locked eyes with the rat.
It lasted for less than a second. However, that was more than enough for Iris, who was well-versed in the creatures of darkness. The open door allowed light from the orange floor lamps to illuminate the inside of the room, casting a large shadow of the rat on the opposite wall.
“Real rats don’t stop moving after seeing a person!!”
Iris tossed the wooden nail that she was holding into the air and firmly drove it into the large shadow on the wall using Liberation.
The rat that had its shadow pinned by the wooden nail let out a shriek and stopped moving.
And following after the shriek, the rat actually spoke.
“Rats and bats are always at the top of the rankings every year for animals that Phantoms like to transform into, but there are still very few people who know the small details of how those creatures behave. If you’re going to transform into a rat, then you should study about their behavior at the very least.”
Iris forced a smile and took one step closer to the rat.
“Katsuse Amimura. Repent for your sins before the divine spear of the Order of the Dark Cross. If you do that, you might be given a merciful sentence.”
The rat’s eyes glowed red.
“You just decided unilaterally that no matter what part of the world, we can never coexist with humans. How dare you make selfish statements like that!”
“I wasn’t really expecting you to beg for God’s forgiveness at this point. You will soon be transported to the Order of the Dark Cross headquarters as nothing but ashes in a box. Repent for your past deeds and hope for a merciful judgement.”
The rat’s whiskers suddenly twitched.
Iris detected the presence of something rushing towards her from behind and immediately spun around. She felt a violent wind pass by her face, and the next instant, a black shadow interposed itself between Iris and the rat.
Iris was familiar with the face of the person who had appeared there all of a sudden.
“Dammit, Missy. So you’re one of those people after all?”
The man had dreadlocks and was even taller than Toraki. It was Sagara, the employee who made drinks at the bar counter inside the live house.
“You see, I knew something was up. An adult who I’ve never seen before, coming to the live house for two events in a row? Definitely something fishy about that.”
“I… I… I…”
Iris wanted to say that she didn’t see anything strange about that at all, but she couldn’t get the words out after seeing the bent scaffolding tube that Sagara was holding in his muscular hand. She broke into a cold sweat, turned pale from fear, and her legs started to tremble.
“What’s this? Are you actually scared? Man, I’m really not into hitting cute frightened girls. I’ve had enough of that with the one from last time.”
However, when Iris heard those words, a small measure of strength came back to her.
“There was another girl some time ago. She was Japanese, though. She called herself a knight or whatever and said that we were her sworn enemies. I didn’t want to attract the wrong sort of attention so I let her off with just a beating, but I guess I went too far.”
Sagara spoke about that as if it was nothing and casually swung the scaffolding tube. He completely removed the wooden nail that was stuck in the wall with just that one swing, allowing Amimura, who was behind Sagara, to regain his human form.
“Don’t sweat it. You’ve been looking out for me all this time. I gotta return the favor at least at times like this.”
As Sagara started rolling his shoulders like he was warming up, Amimura squatted down behind him as if he was trying to hide.
“Right then. Miss, your boyfriend wouldn’t also happen to be a little special or anything, now would he?”
“…W-What does t-that have to do with a-anything?”
“I mean, if you say he’s unrelated then that’s fine by me… but if not, it would have been better if he came here with you, just saying… Although I’d feel bad for him.”
It happened in less than a second.
“Because I’m a little special myself!”
Sagara’s well-built physique illuminated by the dim orange light was already intimidating enough, but suddenly, a ripple seemed to pass over his skin. Iris noticed that ominous presence right away and took a large leap backwards, just in time to avoid the streaks of light that ripped though the space where she had been standing just a moment ago.
His transformation was already complete.
He had turned into a bipedal monster that was covered in black fur that looked as hard as steel, with shining fangs and claws that were as sharp as blades. He growled like a starving wild beast as he looked down at Iris from a height far greater than her own.
Werwulfs. Also known as ‘werewolves’ or ‘wolfmen’, they were a type of Phantom that were no less famous than vampires, and there were tales of them from all over the world.
Although they did not possess any magical abilities like vampires, there was good reason why the majority of legends spoke of their power, speed, and brutality. They were an unrivaled type of Phantom when it came to sheer potential for violence.
“Sorry, but I can’t let you catch Amimura! It’s a shame you’re so pretty, but I can’t have a repeat of the last time. I guess you’re just gonna have to die here!”
Even after transforming into a werwulf, Sagara’s voice still had a charming quality to it. The claws on his forelegs cut through the air as he spoke. Iris avoided his attack, but the wall that separated the room from the corridor outside received the brunt of Sagara’s attack and crumbled into pieces like a cookie.
Amimura once again transformed into a rat and slipped past the rubble as he dashed into the passage outside the room.
Iris tried to chase after him, but…
“How many times do I gotta say it? You’re not going anywhere!”
Of course, Sagara swung his claws again to prevent that. Iris tried to use Liberation to repel the oncoming claws and fist, but unfortunately, the difference in physique and power was just too great. Completely overpowered, Iris was not even able to put up a fight as she was sent flying into a wall.
The shock that ran through her entire body almost knocked her unconscious, but Iris gritted her teeth and resisted it.
Compared to Amimura who could do nothing but run away, Sagara’s strength was overwhelming. If she let her concentration lapse even for a moment while fighting him, that would be her end.
“Hey, not bad! I thought you were just a scaredy-cat, but you can fight!”
“I… specialized in werwulfs back when I was a student! Haaaa!”
This was not an opponent that she could win against while holding back. Sagara had no way of knowing, but Iris was far calmer when faced with Sagara in his werewolf form rather than his human form.
Without even taking the time to stand up after being smashed into the wall, Iris lightly flicked the wrist of her left arm. That action activated the hidden mechanism that kept the Holy Gun Deuscris strapped to her left arm, causing the gun to pop out of her sleeve and straight into her hand.
The gun was loaded with silver bullets that brought destruction in equal measure to all types of Phantoms. Iris unhesitatingly pointed it at Sagara and pulled the trigger.
Sagara let out a shout and tried to put some distance between himself and Iris. Maybe he had sensed the presence of the consecrated silver bullet.
However, even a werwulf’s agility was not enough to avoid or block a bullet fired from point-blank range. Of course, blocking the shot would be meaningless as the holy power within the bullet would deal decisive damage to a Phantom just by touching their skin.
In any case, the deathly claws on one of the hands that were about to close in on Iris had been pulverized by the bullet from Deuscris.
“Damn, that hurts… Not bad, Missy.”
Sagara glared at Iris, his beast-like eyes brimming with a small amount of surprise and a large amount of anger.
“I knew you were special, but I didn’t expect you to go so far.”
“You can blame Amimura for that. His deeds are evil enough to force us of the Church Knights to such measures. I will make him regret going against the teachings of the Lord.”
Iris kept a vigilant eye on Sagara while holding Liberation in her right hand and Deuscris in her left as she discreetly attempted to catch her breath.
“The teachings of the Lord? Screw that! That’s big talk coming from an asshole who tramples all over someone else’s turf whenever the hell they like!!”
While blocking the corridor with his huge body, Sagara let out a roar and closed in on Iris.
“Stop right there!”
“Shut the hell up!”
Iris aimed her gun at the middle of Sagara’s forehead without mercy, but he showed no signs of stopping.
Deuscris could only hold two bullets. However, Iris did not think that she could stop Sagara with Liberation, no matter how many times she struck at his vitals. If that massive brute got his claws on her, she would end up splattered against a wall or the ceiling before she managed to end his life.
Iris had taken into consideration that there might be other vampires working with Amimura. However, she had not imagined even for a second that Phantoms of such utterly different types would be cooperating with each other.
The original plan called for her to save a bullet for Amimura, as it was absolutely essential for reducing him to ashes during the night while the sun wasn’t out. However, Iris unhesitatingly aimed Deuscris at Sagara’s hind leg and pulled the trigger once more.
Sagara had charged directly towards Iris while leaving himself completely open, as if he was trying to show off his own strength. Hitting him somewhere on his body with a bullet was a simple task. Sagara’s massive body did a somersault before crashing to the floor, the claws on his uninjured hand piercing the ground just a few centimeters away from Iris.
“Give up and surrender. The bullet did not go all the way through. Even the toughest werwulf cannot survive for long with a bullet from Deuscris lodged inside their body.”
“Amimura must be long gone by now. I have no way of pursuing him when he’s escaped into the shopping district in the form of a rat, especially after giving him such a big lead. I suppose capturing you instead just barely rates as a pass to complete this mission.”
“Ugh. Haha… So what, are you going to call the police to come arrest me or something?”
Sagara still glared at Iris with the gaze of a predator, but his right leg—the one with the bullet in it—was already completely immobile. At most, he could only thrash around weakly on the floor.
“Feel free to think of it that way. Either way, you’ll never be able to go back to your old life after this.”
“Old life… Hahaha, now that’s funny, coming from you… Since ancient times… our kind has never had a ‘life’ to begin with…”
The fur on Sagara’s body bristled as he clenched his uninjured left hand and crushed the floor.
“It’s people like you who have been sealing us away in the depths of darkness for as long as anyone can remember!”
His strength was terrible to behold.
Using just his left hand, Sagara heaved his massive body off the ground and jumped at Iris with his sword-like fangs bared. His bulk blocked the corridor in front of her as death raced ever closer to her slim frame.
Iris was just a second too slow to react to his abrupt attack. Frustration at her own carelessness flashed through her mind, as well as a clear image of Deuscris sinking in a pool of her own blood just a few seconds in the future.
Well, that wouldn’t be so bad.
Surely, she had been fated to meet such an end.
Ever since that day.
She had always had a vague feeling that the path she’d chosen to tread would eventually lead her to a horrible death, with her sinking in a pool of her own blood. However, she had never imagined that it would happen so soon.
The instant she saw the spectre of her own death, the only thing she was able to give voice to was a meaningless exclamation.
However, she eventually realized that the blow that should have ripped her apart failed to arrive. She opened her eyes and looked up from where she had pathetically fallen to the ground on her behind and saw that Sagara, who had displayed an unexpected amount of strength to leap at her, was lying completely powerless on the floor with froth coming out of his mouth and spasms running through his body.
“What the heck are you giving up so easily for, dumbass?”
And then, the male voice that Iris had gotten accustomed to over the past few days came to her from directly in front of her. The black mist that hovered in the air solidified to take the shape of a man straddling the unconscious Sagara’s thick neck.
“If you go and die on me, how am I supposed to get back the money that you owe me?”
His eyes glowed a more vivid and ominous red compared to Amimura’s when he had transformed into a rat. There was a slight amount of anger in his gaze.
However, the sight of him made Iris feel strangely relieved.
“I’m sorry, Yura. I let Amimura get away.”
“I see. So it’s not like you thought Amimura was a vampire, but he turned out to be a wolfman all along?”
Even though his eyes glowed ominously and he had the uncanny ability to turn into black mist, Toraki Yura was still just the same as usual.
“In my experience, vampires don’t team up with anyone except other vampires. Was the Order not aware that there were other types of Phantoms involved in this case?”
“…Was there someone else apart from him?”
“A vampire much weaker than Amimura and Okonogi. Or maybe he was just a servant vampire. He got caught in the barrier and held up the evacuation of the customers, it turned into a pretty big mess.”
“What happened to the barrier? Did you dispel it, Yura?”
“Yeah, and I’ve got massive burns to show for my troubles.”
Saying that, Toraki looked at Iris with a displeased expression and showed her his hands. Even though he had pulled out the holy wooden nails that created the barrier while he was in his black mist form, it didn’t change the fact that he had to come into direct contact with them.
Both of Toraki’s palms were blackened and had hideous burns on them.
“So you did the same thing to the table in my house, huh? Give me a break, seriously.”
“…Haha, I’m sorry.”
Iris laughed while apologizing.
“So, how exactly did you beat him?”
“When he jumped at you, I just knocked him down and stomped on the back of his neck. This isn’t my first time fighting against a beastman. Well…”
Toraki got off Sagara’s back and held his hand out to Iris.
Iris took his hand as if it was the most natural thing to do.
“Even so, he couldn’t have been an easy opponent for a human to fight head-on. As expected of a Church Knight.”
“That doesn’t sound like you’re praising me at all.”
Iris blushed while looking embarrassed at his compliment.
“What the heck, I praise you honestly for once and that’s your reaction—Ah.”
At that moment, Sagara’s body writhed noisily at their feet and started to shrink as if the air was being let out of him.
“Eh? It was him all along?”
After seeing the human form of the werewolf, Toraki was shocked to find out that he was actually the barkeep with the dreadlocks who had served him drinks at the bar counter.
“He didn’t give off that sort of vibe at all.”
“It sounded like he was working with Amimura because of some circumstances. They’ve probably known each other for quite some time. Amimura got away, but if we take this one in for questioning, we might get some information out of him.”
“I see. So it wasn’t a complete failure… Still, I must say…”
Toraki laughed wryly, and Iris noticed that his eyes had gone back to normal at some point.
“This guy probably transformed into a werewolf to intimidate you, but I wonder what sort of expression he would make if he found out that he could have won easily if he just stayed in his human form.”
“You didn’t have to say that out loud.”
Iris’s face turned red.
“Well, I’m just glad we both made it out in one piece.”
Toraki placed his hand on his waist and turned back towards the direction in which he had come from.
“Right then, how should we get back above ground? The live house is probably full of police and firefighters at the moment, and my powers are almost at their limit…”
“Good point… Hang on.”
Iris suddenly realized something while she was returning Deuscris to its holster inside her sleeve.
“What caused that fire? Yura, don’t tell me you actually set fire to the building?”
“I’ll smack you.”
“I-I mean, it’s impossible for an accident to occur with such perfect timing… Amimura and his people couldn’t possibly have found out about our plans, so just who…”
“Such arrogance. As expected from someone belonging to the Holy Cross Church.”
A voice that did not belong to Toraki, Iris, Amimura, or Sagara echoed down the long passageway.
Toraki and Iris went on alert instantly and realized that there was someone standing on the other side of the unconscious Sagara.
It was a woman wearing a kimono, holding a cage that was rattling noisily.
Iris remembered seeing this woman before. The last time they had met had also been in a narrow passageway. The only things different from that time were the cage in the woman’s hand and the Japanese sword hanging on her back.
“Even though I asked Sister Nakaura not to aggravate the situation… But I suppose she is just a Knight-Captain of a garrison after all. I guess in the end, she could not go against the orders from headquarters?”
The woman took one step forward. Just that alone was enough to make Iris unconsciously take a step back.
The woman had a completely different aura compared to Sagara, and the pressure that she gave off was of a different level as well. Iris wondered why she had not noticed it back when they met at Sunshine 60.
“I see. You at least have the intuition of a fully-fledged knight, if nothing else.”
The woman also realized that Iris had sensed her unusual aura.
“Oh well, there is no use quibbling over the Order’s holy missions in such a place. While that may be the case, what I find especially unforgivable is…”
Iris felt a chill run down her spine. She pointed Deuscris at the woman even though it was not loaded.
It was an utterly different feeling compared to facing Sagara’s claws and fangs. Iris was assaulted with a sense of fear that the woman could stab her blade through her heart in the blink of an eye.
And then, the woman went on to deliver the final strike with her words.
“The fact that you dared to involve my beloved Toraki-sama in your detestable holy missions. You deserve death for such a transgression.”
There was a brief period of silence following that statement. The only sound to be heard during that time was the rattling that came from the cage that was hanging from the woman’s hand. Looking closely, Iris saw that the cage actually contained Amimura in his rat form, and despite the dim lighting in the underground passage, the cage had a brilliant silver shine to it that was clearly visible.
Iris started to doubt her own fluency in Japanese after hearing the person she couldn’t let her guard down against say something outrageous. She looked between the woman and Toraki repeatedly.
Toraki had his head in his hands, and if the grimace on his face was any indication, he was utterly disgusted with this turn of events.
“Indeed. Toraki-sama and I are connected by a bond that goes deeper than blood.”
“How many times do I have to tell you to stop using that lame vampire joke, Miharu? It wasn’t funny in the past, and it’s still not funny now.”
At long last, Toraki opened his mouth and said something that sounded like the woman’s name. Did Toraki and this woman called Miharu know each other?
“Have I not always said that it is a sign of my love for you that crosses the boundary of species?”
“Umm… Yura… What’s going on? Who is she?”
The woman was still letting off an air that forced Iris to keep her guard up, but the conversation was heading off in a completely bizarre direction.
Iris ventured to ask Toraki a question once she judged that the woman wasn’t going to draw the sword on her back and attack them any moment, but…
“This is why I cannot abide you westerners. Who gave you permission to address Toraki-sama by his first name without any honorifics? Do you think I would forgive such a slight?”
The woman named Miharu directed the highest amount of anger that she had displayed so far at Iris.
“Toraki-sama. That woman is an enemy who throws your peaceful days into disarray. It would be a bad influence on you if you spend time in the presence of a barbarian who thinks it is okay to do whatever she wants as long as she invokes God’s name.”
“…I have no intention of getting into a dispute over history with you, but just who are you to speak so arrogantly about other people’s faith?”
Iris used the full extent of her Japanese fluency to load her words with as much cynicism as she could manage, but at that moment, she and the Toraki heard the sound of a large number of people shouting noisily from behind them. Most likely, the firefighters or police who had made their way into the live house had discovered the underground passage that they were standing in.
“It appears that the situation is about to become troublesome. I could not care less what happens to that woman over there, but should Toraki-sama be apprehended by the police, it would cause trouble for Waraku-sama as well.”
Iris suddenly heard an unexpected name pop up in the conversation.
“Do you also know Yura’s grandfather?”
Iris was surprised to hear the name of one of Toraki’s relatives and asked that question, causing Miharu to also show a surprised expression.
“Grandfather? What on earth are you talking about?”
“E-Eh? But Waraku is…?”
“Hahaha. Oh, I see. Hehehe.”
Miharu, who seemed to understand something, gave a smile that could only be described as condescending.
“You know absolutely nothing about Toraki-sama, do you?”
“…What do you mean?”
Iris didn’t know why Miharu was being so condescending, but she could at least tell that she was being made fun of.
“Waraku-sama is not Toraki-sama’s grandfather or anything of that sort. Waraku-sama is undisputedly Toraki-sama’s younger brother.”
Iris gulped after hearing that.
“Younger… brother? How can that be?”
“Since you are a Church Knight who follows Toraki-sama around, you must be aware that a great deal of time has passed since he became a vampire, yes?”
Miharu started speaking slowly, like a teacher trying to explain something to a particularly slow student. As for Toraki, he was more worried about the voices of what sounded like policemen slowly getting closer from behind them, and he wished that they could have this conversation somewhere else. However, he knew better than anyone that once Miharu found something that caught her fancy, she would not stop until she was satisfied.
“Waraku-sama has been supporting Toraki-sama for a very long time, ever since Toraki-sama, his older brother, was turned into a vampire. Moreover…”
Miharu triumphantly raised a small necklace that she was wearing to show it off. Even Iris knew that wearing a necklace with Japanese clothing was a faux pas, but she realized that the necklace around Miharu’s neck looked familiar.
“That’s… the same as Yura’s…”
It was the night after she had met Toraki for the first time. Although he hadn’t been wearing it when she saw him buck naked right after his resurrection, she had noticed that he was wearing a necklace when he came back from his shift at the convenience store.
Iris had no interest in ornaments worn by other people, so she did not think to ask him any questions about why a vampire would want to wear a pendant shaped like a twisted cross that looked like it had been made from solidified blood.
“Toraki-sama and I are bound by the red string of fate. We are fated to never be separated from one another.”
Miharu was wearing the same twisted red cross as Toraki.
“…Anyway, Miharu. You came here from the opposite direction, right? Just as you said, staying here would cause trouble, both for Waraku and myself. Can we shelve this conversation until we get out of here? Besides, you guys had something to do with the fire that broke out here, didn’t you?”
“Certainly, if that is what you wish, Toraki-sama. Would it be alright if we left that woman behind?”
“Like hell it would. We’re taking her with us. Circumstances aside, I made the decision on my own to stick my nose into this business. I have a duty to see it through to the end.”
“Understood. If you say so, Toraki-sama.”
Apparently, the woman named Miharu would only meekly accept whatever Toraki had to say.
“Ah, one more thing. We’re taking this guy along too, Miharu. This guy is a werewolf. We can’t hand him over to the police.”
Toraki effortlessly picked up Sagara who was still unconscious and slung him over his shoulder. Miharu simply nodded once as if it was of no interest to her.
“As you wish. Now, please follow me, both of you. My subordinates are standing guard over the exit of this underground passage.”
Miharu turned around while still maintaining her mysterious intimidating air and walked away with a sprightly step as if she was going for a stroll around town, the sound of her Japanese sandals echoing in counterpoint to the bizarre underground tunnel.
Iris tried to follow behind Miharu without putting away her Liberation or Deuscris, but…
“Can you please put those dangerous things away? The overground exit of this passage is connected to a shop located in an ordinary building complex, after all.”
“Or could it be that you find me frightening? Iris Yeray-san of the Order of the Dark Cross.”
“Sister Nakaura was afraid of you. Just who are you?”
“I am extremely reluctant to answer any of your questions, but not knowing each other’s names and positions would also be a bother. Allow me to introduce myself while we walk.”
Miharu spoke to Iris in a bored tone of voice without sparing her a single glance.
“My name is Hiki Miharu. I have the same occupation as you, the difference being that the position that I inherited has a far more illustrious past than your own.”
“Hiki Miharu… Hiki… Wait, Hiki!? You’re from the Hiki Family!?”
“As expected, you’re familiar with my family name. So do you understand what it means for a lowly Church Knight such as yourself to address me in such an overly familiar fashion?”
“Iris, you know about Miharu’s family?”
“If anything, I’m the one who is surprised that you have connections with the Hiki Family, Yura.”
Iris gazed dumbfoundedly at Miharu who was walking in front of her.
“The Hiki Family… The ones who subjugated the Phantoms… Ayakashi of Japan and built the foundations for a peaceful human society. They are a family of half-human, half-Ayakashi beings…”
Iris’s voice was tinged with awe.
“Miharu, so you belong to the family whose members are descended from the Ancient Phantom Yao Bikuni… the family of people with perennial youth.”
“If you know that name, you must also be aware of the relationship between my house and the Order of the Dark Cross, yes? If that is the case, you should refrain from saying anything unnecessary for your own sake, you know?”
Iris had indeed learned about the “Hiki Family” back when she was still studying at the seminary. Just as Miharu had said earlier, a Church Knight like Iris had no business carelessly speaking to someone in Miharu’s position. In the worst case, it would not end with just being a problem between Iris and Miharu as individuals.
However, even knowing all that, Iris still spoke to Miharu.
“I am currently staying over at Yura’s house.”
She let that piece of information slip without meaning to.
The sheer explosive potential of that single sentence was made evident by how Miharu, who had been walking calmly in front of them until now, suddenly stumbled over her own feet and staggered to keep from falling.
“I… I see that you really want to th-throw your life away.”
Even Iris herself didn’t know why she had blurted that out. Even so…
“Give me a break already…”
Iris saw Toraki droop his shoulders in a dejected manner and sensed a vague emotion in Miharu’s words, and she couldn’t help but feel a slight amount of satisfaction as she let out a snort of laughter.