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🔊: “Next, the ‘27-Style Match of the Phoenix’ collection stage begins!”

🔊🔊🔊: “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!”

Sunday, April 10. A large audience of spectators who are using their day off to watch our duel cheer along with the shouts of commentator Kazami.

The venue is the District Four stadium that was used last time. But unlike the day before yesterday, the auditorium, which seats more than five thousand people, is already packed. The number of people watching the game through the Libra app, IslandTube, is almost double. The card battle of Academy Island’s strongest vs. Kugasaki Seiran seems to be as popular as expected.

“There’s no doubt about it… That girl’s spirits are as exaggerated as ever,” I can’t stop my thoughts from leaking out when Kazami’s proclamation of the start of the duel hits my eardrums through the transmission.

…Yeah, actually, I’m not in the stadium, but in front of the Eimei Academy gate that I’m used to see. As confirmed yesterday, 27-Style Match of the Phoenix is a two-stage duel. The first half is the collection stage in the entire area of District Four, so we were given some time to decide our starting position.

Anyway, the duel has already started, so I immediately look at my terminal, and notice that the screen has changed. Five cards showed up on the map: 2, 5, 9, 14 and 17. It is probably due to the bonus of the Lucky skill, as I feel that these cards spawned near me.

After confirming the information, a slight noise suddenly comes from the earpiece in my right ear:

🔊: “Communication established. Master, if you are listening to me with no problem, please respond.”

“Yeah, no problem. Even though there’s a helicopter flying above, it shouldn’t be able to record my interaction with the earpiece. The Bug Manifesting skill apparently is already doing its job, so the setting is good… Anyway, I’ll go for the number 14 card first, which is the closest, right?”

🔊: “Right. It’s best to get a card first. Then, if a card greater than 17 appears, you will go there; if the new one is not greater than 17, you will go for the card with number 17.”

“Understood… But number 17 card is relatively far away, don’t you think? Is it okay if I take a bus?”

🔊: “Yes. The route between cards 14 and 17 is covered by District Four’s bus route, so we prepared a special bus that will blend in with the rest. This bus will take you directly to your destination.”

“Oh, oh… What a cheater you may be…” I mutter these words as I dash with a bitter smile in the direction of my target.

Of course, I didn’t mean that in a bad way. I meant that, as expected, this team is a strong one. However, it seems that the words alone got through to Himeji, as I can ‘hear’ her silence on the other end of the line.

After running around for a while, I suddenly notice something.

On the terminal screen, which should show five cards, one of them—number 5—has disappeared. Not even five minutes have passed since the start of the duel, and it seems that the opponent has already started moving.

I can’t help but be puzzled, so I report the situation to Himeji, who calmly replies:

🔊: “Really?

“That was quite fast. It could be that his initial position was very close to the coordinates on the card. Although we manipulated the marker coordinates, it’s just a small deviation. The card is projected out on a hologram, so you can spot it. As long as you get to the actual location, the interference on the map will be useless.”

“Hmm… Ah, that’s right. There’s no more mystery.”

🔊: “That’s right, Master… But this way, the opponent should have noticed that the locations on the map deviate from the real locations. I wonder what he will do from now on.”

That’s for sure. It’s true that Kugasaki moved fast, but the number he got is only a low value of 5. If he noticed our interference, he should no longer be able to use skills like Geoposition Manipulation carelessly. Consequently, since he’ll be out of focus thinking about what to do, I’ll pick up the cards with the larger numbers…

🔊: “…!”

…Suddenly, an inaudible shout sounds from my earpiece.

“Huh…? Himeji? Hey, are you okay?!”

🔊: “Yes, it’s nothing… Sorry, I panicked. In fact, I’m watching Libra’s live broadcast on another screen… And, just now, Kugasaki-sama got a second card.”

“…What?”

Hearing Himeji’s slightly altered voice, I suddenly halt.

Kugasaki already got a second card…? No, it’s impossible. Because the cards displayed on my terminal haven’t decreased. There are 2, 9, 14, 17 and 7, which just showed up. No other cards have disappeared.

“You’re saying that Kugasaki got a second card…?”

🔊: “Yes… Kazami-san of Libra said that Kugasaki-sama probably got a card that has not been shown in the terminal. Indeed, the opponent’s cards shown on the current screen are 5 and an ‘unknown’; the latter must be a card whose number has not been confirmed.”

“A card whose information has not been confirmed… Wait, does that mean Kugasaki is using Reconnaissance?” falling into confusion, I say with a slight frown.

Reconnaissance: it’s the skill that allows you to ‘investigate coordinates,’ according to what Saionji said yesterday. If he investigated the location from the beginning, he had no trouble getting it before it was revealed. The card does not appear on the map, so the terminal screen will not change if it is acquired.

🔊: “E-Everything seems to indicate it, but… hadn’t you said that strategy was ineffective? Because moving without knowing the numbers is terribly inefficient.”

“Well, it should be…” I put my right hand to my mouth and nod ambiguously.

…It shouldn’t be an option. The efficiency of collecting cards with a combination of Numeric Management, †Black Wings† and Reconnaissance is too low. That said, I don’t see how to create this situation without equipping Reconnaissance.

“Being the case… Numerical Management doesn’t—”

🔊: “…Huh? You guessed it already, seven stars? You seem to have a knack for games.”

“…K-Kugasaki?!” Suddenly hearing an irritated voice from the terminal, my eyes widen.

Kugasaki Seiran: the five-star who knows the Empress best. He was supposed to be using an unknown tactic to get the best hand in the duel, but for some reason, I now hear his instigating voice.

After a quick confirmation that Himeji is silent, I decide to answer, holding back my agitation:

“Hey, you… How did you contact me? You shouldn’t know my terminal ID.”

🔊: “Of course not. No one seems to have understood, my †Black Wings† are a ‘prop-boosting’ skill. But it’s not only for setting up the stage, but it can also repeat my voice from afar and, at the same time, allows me to hear voices from the opposite direction. Quite convenient, isn’t it?”

“Heh… Then why don’t you get to the point? If you just want to brag about your skill, I’ll hang up.”

🔊: “How do you plan to do it? Ku ku… Now, seven stars, this is what you thought: he’d definitely take action at the collection stage, since his Numerical Manipulation is inferior. Also, I always set up †Black Wings†, which would make it impossible for me to incorporate a defensive skill, so you could hinder my performance without having to use Cancel Nullification.”

“…”

His approach is somewhat off, but the result is correct.

While I remain silent after being discovered, Kugasaki continues with a pleased tone:

🔊: “Ku ku… Did I guess? Then, I’ll tell you good news: the premise is what was wrong. To be clearer, I schemed everything to make you think that way.”

“…Huh?”

🔊: “What, you don’t get it, seven stars? In other words, I’ve guessed all your strategies. Your trickery won’t be able to scratch me. Let’s continue like this, and this duel will be my complete victory… Hmph. It’s such an amusing game, don’t you think?” Kugasaki says these words in a mocking tone.

He deliberately tries to irritate me like this. Even though it’s clear to me, I can’t help but put on a disgusted expression.

🔊: “Ku ku… Well, that’s it. Goodbye, Shinohara. By the way, two seconds left,” Kugasaki unilaterally drops these words and decisively cuts off the communication…

 Two seconds? This ultra-short period is gone in the blink of an eye, but nothing happens when it ends. Only about ten minutes have passed since the start of the duel, so it’s not yet time to count backwards. Wait, ten minutes?

“Something is wrong,” I whisper and stare at the time on the terminal, uncomprehending.

Ah, of course… That nothing is happening is the strangest thing. After all, it’s exactly ten minutes since the start of the duel. Let’s put it more clearly: it would be time for the second card to appear, the one that comes after card 7.

But the new card does not yet appear on the map displayed on my terminal.

“…!”

I feel a shiver run down my spine. As if driven by this ‘bad omen,’ I open Libra’s transmission on my terminal. As I do so, the most visible are the cards with the numbers of each competitor.

Originally, my set would have zero cards and Kugasaki’s set would have 5 and ‘unknown.’

But… what is shown now is slightly different than expected.

🔊: “He has 5 and 10… huh?” a slightly confused voice escapes from Himeji when she resumes communication. 🔊: “What happened just now? Kugasaki-sama got card number 10, but that didn’t show up until now. Where did the unknown card go…?”

“No, you’re making a mistake.”

🔊: “…Huh?”

“These two events are not unrelated things. They are connected… The unknown card has become a 10. No, more precisely, the number of the unknown card originally was 10.”

🔊: “Is that… Does that mean that’s the card that was revealed? Ah…”

“Yeah, that’s it. That’s what I meant. It’s already ten minutes after the start of the duel and the new card still hasn’t been shown. It just looks like it wasn’t revealed… But in fact, the card has already been shown. The card that was next to be revealed is the one held by Kugasaki.”

That’s right… It is likely that the mechanism was that from the beginning. When a player has an unknown card, it will have priority for the next reveal. That is, it will be revealed instead of the card that would appear on the map.

If this is the case, it makes sense… And, at the same time, it makes his strategy clear to me.

“That is, Kugasaki is using Reconnaisance to investigate the location of all the cards and plans to take all of them. This way, he will continue to have unknown cards in hand. One of these unknown cards will be revealed every five minutes. In other words, no more cards will ever appear on the map.

“He has done it once for now, but by the second time ten minutes will have passed and with the third time it will be fifteen. If Kugasaki keeps getting unknown cards, I’ll have to fight to the end with the information I see on the map right now.”

🔊: “S…! S-so, Kugasaki-sama from the beginning planned to monopolize the unknown cards?!” Himeji’s voice trembles greatly.

Monopolize… Yes, of course it contains some assumptions and speculations, but, from the situation, there is no doubt that this is Kugasaki’s plan. He will constantly acquire cards that do not appear on the map to prevent me from obtaining additional information. He plans for us to get to the exhibition stage by having all the cards himself.

“Also, what I was going to say before we were interrupted is that… he probably did not equip Numerical Manipulation. Our idea of obstructing his fetch is proving to be completely useless, so his third skill must be defensive.”

🔊: “He gave up Numerical Manipulation to improve defense…? It’s true that this is not impossible, but is it really worth it? During the exhibition stage, the competition is not for the number of cards, but for the points they have. To begin with, the limit of cards per hand is only five, so, if you have six or more, in the end you have to discard some… Quality should be more important than quantity, right…?”

“You’re right… but…!” I answer Himeji’s almost pleading question while forcing my legs to move. “The exhibition stage of 27-Style Match of the Phoenix consists of everyone showing a card and comparing the size of the numbers. This process will be repeated five times, so you must win at least three. But if you are in the collecting stage and only get to collect two cards, what will happen?!”

🔊: “Ah…” this time, Himeji is speechless… That’s right. This is the true intention of Kugasaki. As long as he collects eighteen cards in the collection phase, he will win. Therefore, there is no need to use Numerical Manipulation. All that is needed is Reconnaissance and the ability to protect himself from unforeseen events. In this way, he shaped a skill structure specialized in monopolizing all the cards.

And this kind of strategy neither Himeji nor Saionji nor I had foreseen.

“…Too bad…”

🔊: “It’s not just bad, Master… Now I got a call from Kagaya-san. Apparently, the bus we had prepared has been stopped by vehicle control!”

“Huh? Vehicle control…?”

🔊: “Yes. Since morning, an out-of-control vehicle with the emblem of the Holy Knights of the Phoenix, an organization led by Kugasaki-sama, has been running around the Fourth District, and public security forces have mounted an operation to deal with it… The mystery of how he got the cards so quickly has been solved. Kugasaki-sama has recruited the Holy Knights of the Phoenix as his means of transportation.”

“What?! But the intervention of a third party in a duel is not… Got it.”

Out of reflex I try to raise an argument, but I notice it immediately… Exactly, as Saionji said yesterday, the students summoned with Emergency Call will be considered participants and not third parties. Such support is not considered cheating.

🔊: “…My plans have failed…” Himeji whispers in defeat through the terminal. 🔊: “This… it’s not working anymore, Master. I can’t do anything now that all my cheats have been blocked. Originally, in this duel you only had a small chance of winning if everything went well… This seemed like a perfect execution.”

“…No, not yet. The duel is not over yet.”

🔊: “What more can you do!” Himeji’s voice unusually permeates with emotions. But it lasts only for a moment, and she quickly continues, “…I’m sorry.” Then she falls silent, as if devastated.

At this point, I finally arrive at the place where the first card is. The number I get is 14. Not bad, but the inability to take the bus was unexpected. Even if I take the train to card 17, there is a high probability that Kugasaki, who moves by car, will be the first to arrive.

At this moment when I look at everything negatively…

“Oh. Watch out, Shinohara!”

Huh… That one who spoke… was that the rocker senpai?!

A black metal monster outruns me and stops diagonally in front of me. The one riding it and taking off her helmet is none other than the bangyaru girl who was my opponent from the duel the day before yesterday.

“What are you doing here, rock- no, biker senpai?”

“So I’m the ‘biker senpai’… Well, whatever. I’m here because… someone asked me to be here. They asked me as a favor to give you a ride while I was out.”

“They asked you to give me a ride…? Who?”

“I don’t know. I just got a very suspicious private message from an unknown sender on STOC.”

“Huh…? No, anyway, I can’t accept your help. That would be a violation of the rules.”

“Is it because I’m a third party? That’s not a problem at all. Look, I have a commercial license.

“Actually, as of today I’ll be working in transportation with my baby… I don’t have a name for the business yet, but I guess it’s something like a cab. So, the thing is, cabs are public transportation. ‘Of course, they have never convicted anyone for using a cab in a duel,’ these words are from the headmistress who just gave me the business license. I think she said her name was Ichinose.”

“…?!”

W-was it—was it the principal?! Impossible that this is a coincidence… Could it be said that this situation was already foreseen by her…?

“…By the way, you don’t have time to chat quietly now, do you? Come on, get in.” Senpai interrupts my thoughts, pointing to the back seat.

Although I hesitated for a while, after hearing these words, I finally get into the black chassis, just like she said. I take the helmet she hands me and put it on… Then, immediately:

“Sit? Okay. Don’t be embarrassed because I’m a girl, hold my waist tightly. We’ll race to the destination full steam ahead…!”

O-o-o-ooooohhhhhhhh?!

Along with her powerful declaration, the monster motorcycle turns into a gust of wind in an instant.

I’m sure that Kugasaki won’t get there first, even if we were targeting the same card. With this assurance, I cling to senpai, determined to endure this crazy ride.

“…Well, time for me to return to my way. Don’t lose this duel, Shinohara.”

“Thank-Thank you very much…”

We really arrived at the destination at a frightening speed.

I’m now in the most peripheral area of District Four, where the coffee shop from last time is. It’s a remote area bordering District Three, that’s probably why I can’t even spot the broadcast helicopter. It sure would have taken a considerable time to get here by train.

When I open the map again to confirm the information, low-rise buildings are drawn at the target coordinates. The location of the card is probably at the height of a third or fourth floor.

I walk around for about a minute while looking for such a building.

“…Wow.”

Partly thanks to Himeji’s guidance (although she keeps quieter than before, she still directs some words to me), I manage to find the building without much effort… But it’s much different from what I imagined. There is indeed a building, but I think it was abandoned during the construction process. Only the beam structure often exposed in construction zones, is assembled up to the fourth floor, and a layer of blue tarpaulin was attached as an exterior wall.

I duck under the tarp, and inside I find only empty space. The atmosphere is dark and feels stifling due to the attempted sealing. By looking up a ceiling can be seen overhead—well, not a ceiling, but a dirty blue tarp.

In other words, in its current state it is an atrium with no division between the first floor and the top floor.

I’m not sure if they planned a building with the roof that high or if they planned to add the stories later. But this is what it looks like for now. The only thing inside is a temporary ladder attached to the right side of the building.

It was probably for the workers, but I guess it’s the only way to get to the top.

“Let’s do it.”

Still hesitating a bit, I decide to climb the ladder. Along with the shrill creaks that echo along my every step, the aluminum rungs feedback with puny support. Doing my best to endure the fear, I climb step by step towards the location of the card.

🔊: “…Kugasaki-sama seems to have obtained a seventh card,” Himeji’s occasional voice feels hollow.

Repressing my growing anxiety, I finally reach the height of the third floor, but…

“Hey, hey… This has got to be a joke…”

I’m suddenly speechless. You can’t see it from below… but the steps that would run the height of the fourth floor are destroyed.

Somehow, only the part where the hands clung to has been saved, there is no trace left of the steps. They probably deteriorated after being exposed to the atmosphere for so long.

…However, if you look closely, the three-dimensional hologram of the card is not far from here.

So I take hold of the ladder rail with my left hand and stretch my right hand, with which I hold the terminal, in front of me. That is, I put all my weight on the left handrail. Since I don’t know when the last step will detach, I just lean from the waist up, leaving my legs perpendicular to the platform.

Phew… Easy, easy, Hiroto. This is the third floor. A fall from here is quite dangerous, but I’m doing it very carefully, so I’m not going to fall. Just stay calm, stay—

But… maybe I just discovered my death flag.

“Huh?”

Just as I reach for the hologram with the terminal there is an ominous crackling sound.

Before I can process that it’s the sound of the rail snapping, I fall into the void.

#

…My consciousness is a bank of clouds.

I don’t think I hit my head, as I covered myself as quickly as I could, but my body does throb incessantly. My feet and arms are bleeding considerably and added to the industrial ladder (pieces are scattered all over the floor), it looks like a horrific crime scene.

The terminal came loose from my hand in the fall, so I don’t know how much time has passed since then. I want to contact Himeji, but unfortunately, the handset is also gone.

“…Ugh…”

My mind is still a little foggy, but I need to check my physical condition within the scope of what I can do… Fortunately, there seems to be no fractures. I may have some minor sprains, but at least I won’t be completely immobile.

“So I’m fine, but…”

The problem is not my physical condition.

It’s the duel—how is the duel between Kugasaki and I going? I probably got the 17th card, but even so, I only have two cards in my hand… Just two, damn it. If Kugasaki has already collected the other eighteen, then the possibility of my victory disappeared.

“But… it’s too soon to give up. Only I have Numerical Manipulation, and I possess cards 14 and 17. Right now, I can even say that everything is fine as long as I get a third card…”

“…How can it be okay, you idiot?”

“…Huh?”

As I sort out my thoughts and talk to myself, I get a curt denial.

When I look up to see who the familiar voice belongs to… standing there is Saionji Sarasa with her arms crossed and a displeased expression.

“…”

She stares at me like that for a while, then finally lowering her hands and walking towards me. Then she stands in front of me with her right hand on her hips, averts her gaze slightly and says in an excusing tone:

“…Err… It’s not what it looks like…”

“…What it’s not what it looks like?”

“I mean the fact that I’m here… You’re probably misunderstanding, aren’t you? I didn’t come because I was worried about you. I didn’t call Urasaka-senpai to ask how you were doing and she didn’t reply ‘it seemed like a dangerous place, so why don’t you go check later, mysterious person?’ It’s not like I was worried when she answered me like that… And I’m not the mysterious person either. I mean, it’s a coincidence. I was spending my free time to go for a walk, and I happened to meet you.

“…Heh… It’s a terribly convenient coincidence.” I can’t help but smile. What can I say? It’s her typical speech.

Normally, it would be somewhat dangerous to come into contact with her during a duel, but as I confirmed earlier, there are no transmission helicopters in the area. Saionji now approaches with a calm face, so I guess we’ve finished our textbook interaction.

So, I proceed:

“Tell me, Saionji, do you know what time it is, how long I was unconscious?”

“I don’t know what time you fall unconscious, but… it’s been a little over thirty minutes since the duel started. There’s still more than an hour before the collection phase is over, but there aren’t many cards left.”

“I see… Great, it’s not over yet. Then, I beg you, Saionji, can you contact the rocker senpai and request her services as a cab?”

“…Why is that?”

“Do I still need to say it? The way I am now, it’s very difficult to walk, let alone run. If I delay any longer, Kugasaki will monopolize all the cards, so I have to get back in the game now…”

“…Stupid!” In an instant, Saionji interrupts me loudly. Then she squats down to look me in the eyes, since I couldn’t stand up. There are tears in her ruby eyes. Those eyes with firm determination stare at me.

“Is it that what I just said wasn’t enough? Then I’ll keep telling you: silly, silly, silly, silly, silly! The place you should go to now is not the location of the next card, but the hospital emergency room! From my position, I can’t go with you, but I can at least call an ambulance for you, so go get yourself checked out by a medic right away!”

“…” I can’t but lose my breath at the seriousness in her voice with no trace of joking or exaggeration. Saionji seems to be really worried about my condition, which makes me understand that my body is in a pretty bad condition. I understand that… but still…

“I can’t. What are you saying, Saionji? I am gonna win, no matter what it takes. This is not the time to go to the hospital.”

“Of course you’re going…! Aaah, I didn’t think you were that stupid. I’ll tell you more clearly: give up here. Right now. No matter what you do in this situation, it’s impossible to win.”

“Why are you saying that?!”

“What, are you angry? But I told nothing but the truth.”

“It’s not true… If I lose, you’ll be ruined too, remember? In that case, I must make one last effort. Isn’t this supposed to be the scene where you force me to stand up even if I don’t want to?” I ask Saionji this question more out of bewilderment than disgust. “‘Saionji Sarasa,’ the real heiress, was kidnapped, right? You go through all the trouble of taking her place in order to get her back, right? You’ve been struggling for a year, right? Then, don’t give up so soon just because I got hurt. That lie is no longer yours alone. You and I are accomplices. If you unilaterally decide to give up, it’s all over.”

“…”

“…For my goal, for the heiress I don’t know and for you, I don’t want to lose. I will not let it all end here. So don’t get in my way with your defeatist arguments.”

“…No… It is not defeatism…!!”

After saying it with a trembling voice, Saionji stares at me with her eyes flooded with tears. I’m sure she wants to say something, but her voice and expression seem to indicate that she’s desperately choking it down with reason… That fragile silhouette suddenly reminds me of Himeji’s words. A lonely girl who fights alone and hides things even from the Saionji family. The most important thing to her.

I wonder how much time has passed.

Saionji, who has been hesitating, finally makes up her mind and nods… Then she speaks in a voice so small that it seems to disappear at any moment:

“…I lied to you.”

“Huh…? Ah, what are you talking about?”

“…Why do you have to ask again, Shinohara! It’s hard for me to muster up the courage!”

“Is it my fault?! Well, I’m sorry! But I really didn’t hear clearly, please say it again!”

“I said— I said—!!”

Hearing my demand, Saionji closes her eyes, as if giving up her desire to hide it anymore. Then, as if letting it all out at once, she shouts:

“The incident of Saionji Sarasa’s kidnapping, it was all a lie on my part!!!”

“…What?”

For an instant—no, for a while, I can’t understand what she said at all.

“Wait, Saionji. What the hell does that mean?”

“It was a lie. Sarasa, the real Saionji Sarasa, was not kidnapped. She is now studying at a regular high school. Well, obviously, she can’t keep the Saionji surname, so I lent her a modified version of my family record… In short, that’s all.”

“No, how can that be…” Trying desperately to understand, I pose a question, “Why? Why did you do this?”

“Because it was Sarasa’s dearest wish… Hadn’t we talked about that a little while ago? Sarasa had been confined to her house until she graduated from middle school, and she would have had to participate in Star Hunting as the successor of the Saionji house… But I once heard her say it as she was falling asleep, ‘I would have liked to go to a normal school, too.’”

“…”

“Of course, Sarasa is an exemplary girl who would never say such things. She accepts and obeys her family’s policy… But those words flashed her true wish. Now do you understand? I would definitely want to do something for her sake when I knew. She didn’t ask me for anything, but I wanted to give her a surprise that would make her happy… So, I ‘kidnapped’ Sarasa. To be precise, I made it look like she was kidnapped, but in fact I secretly took her to the main island.”

“…You went out on your own against the Saionji family?”

“Yes. Because I’m a genius. Besides, the people of the Saionji family are basically obedient to Saionji Masamune. There was no way to get anyone to cooperate in the plan to let Sarasa escape.”

“If that’s why… why not count on Himeji, at least? She also worked with the Saionji family. And she said you used to be close—at least she could have helped you.”

“Of course not, you idiot!”

How many times has she called me ‘idiot’, ‘silly’ and ‘stupid’ today? I felt angry at first, but if I think of it as a catchphrase of her character, it’s kinda cute… No, what am I saying?

Saionji sighs lightly as she squats down, and continues:

“Do you understand? At the top of Academy Island is Saionji Masamune. If he finds out that there is a plan that betrays his policy, everyone involved will be punished.”

“Ah… I see.”

“Moreover, there is a time limit to this lie. In two years, when Sarasa graduates, this lie will be automatically exposed. How could I involve Yuki knowing this? Well, you may not know it, but I love Yuki. She, in my heart, has the same importance as Sarasa… That’s why I can’t tell her. I can’t involve Yuki in this lie. In the first place, I’m even lying to Sarasa herself. ‘The school transfer was decided by the Saionji family. Don’t worry,’ I told her.” Saionji exposes her lie in a tone of slight irony…

A second fake lies behind the big scam of impersonating the heiress. That is something she guards with great reserve, something she would never reveal to anyone.

And yet, to me fixed in silence, Saionji has told it plainly.

“So, that’s it. Surrender. It is true that Sarasa will not be able to fulfill her wish if my lie is exposed… but as I said a moment ago, these are my sins. Yuki has nothing to do with the kidnapping and Sarasa does not know the truth. Also, I’m sure you won’t be treated as a villain. I mean, I was on the seven-star throne all last year usurping the name of Saionji Sarasa—if you pretend that you were deceived by a liar of my caliber, you will just be one more victim… Now, Shinohara, stop being so stubborn and give up. If you continue, you’re going to die for real!!!” the words that are repeatedly interwoven are like the cries of her heart.

I’m sure… I’m sure she had already considered this possibility when she decided to start the lie a year ago. She had prepared herself to bear all the responsibility alone if for some reason the truth was exposed. That’s why she kept Himeji on the sidelines and safeguarded the second lie alone.

And it seems that now she wants to protect even me.

That’s what I’m getting from her revealing what she couldn’t until now. If the duel ends this way, Saionji and I will fall together. In this situation, she asks me to let her take all the burden… She’s pretending to be strong, but she has a face that looks like she’s going to cry at any moment.

“…”

After listening to Saionji’s story to the end, I look down a little. Then I silently start to think. The real reason for Saionji’s lie, the messed up situation I’m in, Himeji’s little selfish desire… Considering everything…

“Ah… Understood,” a single word slips out of my mouth.

“…Huh?”

Is there a big gap from the answer she was expecting? Saionji is gaping, not understanding my words. But I continue, not caring about her confusion:

“When I heard you confess your lie, I said ‘it doesn’t sound like you,’ remember? I wasn’t trying to make fun. It’s what I really thought.”

“Huh? H-Hold on. Does that mean you knew I was lying all the time?”

“No, I wasn’t completely convinced. But… to impersonate your best friend, who was kidnapped, waiting for the criminal to show up? What you said was nonsense. I mean, when we first met, even though it was an accident, you challenged me to a duel without missing a beat. If there really was a kidnapping, you would have spent all your energy chasing the perpetrator on your own.

“Ah… Yes. Of course I would,” Saionji gazes into my eyes and nods bluntly… I’m surprised that she confirms what I say without hesitation. But she deserves credit for being the girl who has deceived the Saionji family for a year. If she says she would do it, I don’t think it’s impossible.

Her answer is strangely gratifying. Then I speak again with a smile on my face:

“You see? That’s why I couldn’t believe you about the supposed kidnapping… But, if those are your motives, it makes sense. To make your best friend’s wish come true, you tricked the whole school and the Saionji family. It’s a reckless plan. How can you keep calling me silly?”

“What? You don’t have to say it like that. I know it may seem absurd to you, but it’s very important to me.”

“I know… Saionji, you should know that, to me, ‘reckless’ is not a bad thing. I know it’s an absurd story, but I sympathize with you. I believe in your reasons and I think it’s awesome. And above all, I want to help you. So—so, let me be a part of your lie.”

“U-Uh? -What… are you saying?”

“I’m telling you to continue this ‘fake’ a little longer,” with a smile, I declare this to Saionji, who doesn’t seem to understand. Or rather, she does understand, but she can’t believe it.

…Ah, I guess it is about time. Up until now, I’ve let myself be saved by Himeji and her easy and reliable methods of cheating. But this has reached its limit. If I don’t take it seriously already, it will be impossible for me to win this duel.

With the feeling of a switch being flipped inside me, I gaze fixedly into the ruby eyes.

“After coming this far, I’m not going to let it end like this. I still haven’t achieved the goal I came to the island for and I’m sure you wouldn’t want to give up either. Besides, the main reason you can’t let the lie be discovered is because you don’t want to involve Himeji and the heiress, right? So, what’s the problem if I get involved? Unlike the two of them, I’m not your friend or even your partner.

“Nevertheless, I am your only accomplice. We’re both liars, after all, so let me carry your lies too.”

“…B-But…!”

“Drop the buts… Don’t get me wrong, okay? I’m not saying this for you. This situation, that I’m a fake seven-star and maintain behind-the-scenes contact with the Saionji family, the authority of Academy Island, is surprisingly convenient for me. It is true that I have a huge risk if they discover the lie, but this position is much better than being just another student. That benefit alone pays for the risk.

“So you’d better learn to ‘use me’ without hesitation, too. Don’t be afraid. Don’t let the weight crush you just because you feel you can’t take it anymore, just give me half. Otherwise, how can I say it… It wouldn’t be fair, would it?”

“Shinohara…” from Saionji’s throat comes out a whisper as she looks at me with slightly moist eyes.

In the silence of the abandoned building, time passes while two people hear nothing but each other’s heartbeats… I feel that now we can communicate without words. I slowly put my hand on Saionji’s shoulder—she shivers for a moment. Then she closes her eyes, as if determined, and brings her face slowly closer to mine.

She comes closer, closer… Huh?

“Hey… Err… Miss Saionji?”

“Huh?! What, is there a problem?! I don’t know anything about this, I’m also doing it for the first time…”

“Ah, I see, it’s your first time… No, but first time or not, shouldn’t you know that with your eyes closed you won’t be able to stop my bleeding?”

“…Stop the bleeding?”

“Yes, stop the bleeding… what else? Hurry up, since I want to go back to the duel soon… Or what did you mean by first time?”

“Shut your trap, because I’m going to treat you right now, you stupid Shinohara!”

“Huh?!”

…For some reason, Saionji, who is completely red, pushes me, and I almost end up hurting myself more.

Himeji tracked down the coordinates of the terminal and met us at the abandoned building. Since then, a few minutes have passed.

“Regarding the current situation… First of all, about forty minutes have passed since the duel began. During this period, Kugasaki-sama has obtained a total of sixteen cards. So now there are only two cards left on the playing field—no information has been given.”

I remain rapt and silent at Himeji’s depressing words… But it’s not really unexpected. What would have been strange is if at this stage of the game there was still room to work with.

“I see. It’s almost a given that my hand will be limited to cards 14 and 17. Kugasaki, on the other hand, is sure to show up with the top five cards. If nothing happens, there’s no doubt I will lose… Well, what should I do next?”

“Yes. It’s difficult to collect the remaining cards in this situation. We must find a way to turn the tables before we reach the exhibition stage.”

“…? Uh, wait a moment, please,” as Saionji and I fold our arms in deep thought, Himeji, standing next to us, hesitantly speaks. “You two… don’t tell me you haven’t given up. All the agency’s interventions have been blocked and all the prepared plans have been destroyed… In such desperate conditions, do you still think you can win?”

“Of course.”

“…Ah…” Himeji’s eyes widen slightly as she sees us give the same answer.

She freezes like that for a moment… But in the end, she smiles slightly, cheerful wholeheartedly.

“Heh heh… What a surprise. Really, really… I’m so surprised it’s hard to put it into words. Thank you, Master. Thank you for granting my selfish request.”

“What are you talking about, Yuki? A selfish request?”

“It’s nothing, Rina. Forget it… Then, I’ll take part in this. My best friend and my master haven’t given up, so I can’t do it either. That way I’d be disqualified as a maid.”

“B-Best friend… You’re a best friend to me too, Yuki.” Saionji looks embarrassed, but the corners of her mouth show that she is happy.

I secretly watch the interaction of the two and then look at the screen of my terminal again. What is displayed there is a list of the skills I brought in this duel. Bug Manifesting, Numerical Manipulation, and Lucky; the effects of each are described in detail.

In fact, when Saionji was stopping my bleeding, I had an idea. But before…

“…Hey, Saionji. I want to ask you something, is there a skill to rewrite the duel rules? If so, is that skill famous?”

“The ability to rewrite the rules of a duel… There is one: Rule Breaker. It’s famous, but it’s probably not as versatile as you may think. Rewriting a few words will probably exceed the capacity of this skill, and it can only be used by those with six stars or more.”

“That’s good enough. The point is that it really exists.”

“Hmm?”

“…Ah, it could be that…”

Saionji is confused, but Himeji, who is used to cheating, can quickly understand my intentions. I nod my head and explain to them the strategy I came up with to turn the tables around.

I would venture to say that the key is the following three points: first, a skill to rewrite the rules does exist. Second, Kugasaki does not know the details of the skills I equipped, given that the Bug Manifesting signs are being disabled by a defensive skill. Lastly, I am a fake seven stars.

“Hmm…”

As the topic progresses, Saionji’s expression becomes serious.

“Err… Well, it’s an all-or-nothing gamble, but it’s worth a try if it’ll give us a chance… Hey, but you really surprised me. I didn’t think you could pull such a reckless plan out of your sleeve.”

“Uh… It’s that bad?”

“Hey, wasn’t ‘reckless’ supposed to be a first-class compliment?”

“No, it’s just that it scares me that you are able to compliment someone else… Still, it’s not easy for the plan to work. Bug Manifesting is a simple visual interference in the terminal. So, we’ll have to improve that effect a bit, we’ll have them upgrade the skill… And well, Himeji, how long will it take to add the features I described? To be honest, whether or not they implement them in time is the factor that will decide the game.”

“…It seems so.”

Himeji gently puts her right hand to her mouth and starts calculating in her mind… Originally, skills can’t be changed in a duel, but an ‘upgrade’ that merely alters the content of the skill isn’t within that limitation. It’s a life insurance I prepared just in case, a little, minor tweak in the effect.

So, a few seconds later, Himeji exhales and says:

“Right. If we put the entire agency staff to work, we could finish updating it just in time for the exhibition stage—no, I said it wrong. We’ll have it ready no matter what it takes.”

“…Phew. Thank you very much.”

“That’s not necessary. Rather, I’m very sorry, Master.”

“What for?”

“I… seem to have misunderstood Master’s talent so far,” Himeji says with a smile and bows politely. I think she’ll contact the agency immediately, as she carries the terminal in her hand.

I glance at Himeji’s back… Suddenly, Saionji, from the side, pokes my cheek.

“Hey!”

“Huh…? What’s wrong with you?”

“’What’s wrong’? Watch out for that leering look… By the way, are you sure you want to do this? Like I said before, if you give up now, you can leave all the blame to me. If you continue to be stubborn, you’ll only get worse and worse.”

“I already know that. I’ll tell you again, this has already been decided, so don’t keep asking questions. Your lack of resolution will only get us into trouble.”

“Hmm. I know, but…” Saionji averts her eyes as she says it.

…Maybe she’s feeling restless again now that we’ve finished formulating the strategy. After all, once we take the next step, there will be no turning back. If I lose the duel against Kugasaki because of my stubbornness, it will be the same as throwing the lie she has treasured for a year down the drain.

“…Damn it,” she continues to falter… Therefore, I answer:

“Be calm, Akabane. No matter how grim things may look now, no matter if it seems like we’re on the edge of a cliff… It’s nothing but a paper wall. Do you understand? Day in and day out, we have to fool all of Academy Island. We are capable because we have a purpose that is worth it…” I look deep into her red eyes and, with a confident smile, make the bold statement. “How could we not be able to fool a mere five-star?”

#

“Ah, too bad for you, Shinohara Hiroto.”

District Four, General Athletics Stadium.

In the center of the venue where more than 5,000 spectators are gathered, Kugasaki, dressed in a jet-black cloak, speaks animatedly with a dramatic tone.

“I thought it was an accident from the beginning, but I was cautious with you, since you were able to defeat Goddess once. At the same time, I had high expectations of you. A duel against a being that rivals my Goddess—few things could excite me as much. I looked forward to this day… but look how it turned out.”

“…”

Kugasaki speaks mockingly in front of me, but I just lower my head in silence.

My current appearance, to put it kindly, is a mess. My entire body is bandaged, and Himeji, who was allowed to participate as a special exception, is helping me stay on my feet; otherwise, I would have difficulty doing even that. What’s more, not only my looks are a mess. My progress in the duel also merits such a word.

Looking at the giant screen in the stadium, Kugasaki lets out an annoying “ku ku” laugh.

“You see, seven stars? While I have five cards in hand, you only have measly two. You won’t make the three wins needed to win… Yeah, yeah. This is a situation I meant to create, but it’s really disappointing that you fell so easily. It might have been something else if instead of focusing on getting in my way, you had used your level seven attack skills.”

“…Yes. That could probably change the outcome.”

I’m not a true seven stars, so I couldn’t set up such skills at all, but it’s useless to say this now.

“Ku ku. My strategy turned out to be a success. I didn’t intend to use a frontal attack to win. My Numerical Manipulation level is lower than yours. There was no chance of winning hand to hand. So how can you win in this game against a superior opponent…? You can understand it immediately if you think about it a little. You cannot allow the opponent to come to the ring alive.”

“Well, you’re absolutely right. Your strategy was perfect. I’m afraid that at first glance, it’s quite difficult to deal with this—no, rather, it seems impossible.”

“You think so? That’s not the case. I’ve released ten attacks like this against the Goddess so far. You already know the result.”

“…I see.”

I’m not so sure if that’s something to brag about, but I can only respond with a bitter look… Thinking back, Saionji had mentioned the possibility of him using Reconnaissance yesterday. Knowing full well that having only one star subjects me to limitations of all kinds, I dared to think that I could handle this duel wonderfully.

“…”

Speaking of Saionji, she is now sitting in the front row, watching us all the time.

Under the gaze of his ‘Goddess,’ Kugasaki adjusts his glasses.

“Enough chatter. There’s only one important thing here: I beat you. Do you understand? The best of Academy Island… Ku ku. That title will soon leave you,” he says sharp words in a mocking tone.

…For me, this statement is basically a death sentence. It’s not just the fall from my position as seven stars. Depending on Saionji Masamune’s judgment, I could lose everything at worst.

When he sees me turn down without saying anything to him, Kugasaki lets out a bored yawn.

“Hmm… So, are you going to do something, Shinohara? You don’t stand a chance of winning. I suggest you give up gracefully instead of going on an exhibition stage that won’t get you anywhere.”

“…Ah. You’re right, maybe that’s for the best,” as I reply in a choked voice, I look at the stadium screen. The LCD screen shows Kugasaki’s and my cards. I laugh at myself as I see the data that only could be summed up as ‘defeat.’ Then I start operating my terminal.

What I choose is the ‘discard’ command from the cards.

According to my command, the first card disappears from the terminal.  The second letter also disappears… Before the program processes the changes completely, I turn off the terminal. At the same time, the information displayed about me on the large screen disappears.

“…Satisfied, Kugasaki?”

“Heh…! Ku ku. Woah ha ha ha ha! Ah, this is it! This… This is my victory!!!”

All my cards were cleared. Kugasaki explodes at the sight of what I did, for it seems that I gave up on continuing in the duel. He has let out a cry of victory. That raucous laughter full of joy is a direct jab to my mind, but I provoked it. Beside me, I can see that Himeji is checking the time frequently. “Hurry up… Hurry up,” I can hear her whispering like this.

“…A-And now, nya. Th-This, this way, as referee, I shall declare the result of the duel,” when Kugasaki’s laughter quiets down, Kazami, who had been waiting quietly until now, says cautiously.

She looks at me worriedly, but in the end shakes her head to refresh her mind and puts her hand on the microphone.

“Dear spectators, thank you so much for hanging with us for so long, nya! For unknown reasons, the broadcast helicopter lost control, the picture was cut off, and Shinohara-kun has returned wrapped up like a mummy; the broadcast was almost cancelled… However… the great battle between the five-star and seven-star students has come to an end!”

To revive the audience’s enthusiasm, Kazami’s voice is more energetic than usual. She briefly reviews the duel in the same tone, and finally enters the results announcement stage:

“…Now the result! The winner of 27-Style Match of the Phoenix is—”

“…” I keep my gaze down, listening uninterestedly to Kazami’s voice.

…Once she says the words, the result of the duel will be set. If that happens, there will be no turning back.

Time is about to run out… I think as I look at the time on the terminal.

It has to be now… It has to be now. The feelings that arise in my heart are exactly the same as Himeji’s. It’s been twenty-five minutes since I finished the collection stage and arrived at this place. It’s hard to delay it any longer.

I bite my lip hard and put a finger on the earphone of my right ear as if to say a prayer. It is at this moment…

🔊: “Just a moment, Hirokyun…! Are we still on time?!”

“…! Wait a minute, ref!!!”

“—Kugasa… Eh, nya?!”

After hearing Kagaya in a hurried voice, I shout to stop Kazami’s words. Almost at the same moment, the terminal in my hand vibrates. An update completed notification, just in time! Really, just in time.

“Whew…”

Kazami, the audience and Kugasaki in front of us look doubtful. I gesture to Himeji, and we step forward. There’s no need for me to keep pretending to be defeated. It’s time to use my acting skills. I put on a deep smile and speak with a chuckle:

“Hey, Kugasaki… do you know the finishing conditions for 27-Style Match of the Phoenix?”

“Are you kidding me? How could I not know? It’s only winning three times. To be precise, it’s winning the most times in the five rounds of the exhibition stage.”

“No, that’s the condition of victory. I’m asking about the condition for finishing this duel.”

“…To finish?”

Kugasaki frowns, perhaps annoyed by the unwelcome interruption. He remains silent for a while, but then begins to speak, probing for an answer.

“Hmm… For it to end, both sides would have to run out of cards… The winner is decided after the five comparisons… What are you trying to prove, seven stars? Playing time for no reason is miserable.”

“Playing for time…? Nah, you’ve missed the point.”

Buying time has been over for a long time…

I’m sure he’s finally noticed the drastic change in my attitude. Kugasaki stares at me, confused; then, in a hurry, he checks the terminal. As he operates it, the screen in the venue displays the text of the 27-Style Match of the Phoenix rules. Naturally, there is a section on termination conditions.

…But this is slightly different from what Kugasaki said earlier.

It says, ‘the exhibition stage ends when either participant runs out of cards in their hand; the player with the most wins at that point wins.’

“…What? What is this?” The moment Kugasaki sees the rules, he throws out these words. “The duel ends when a player runs out of cards…? It’s absurd. Impossible. That wasn’t in the plan. Ack… What’s going on here?! The original rules said it ends when both players run out of cards!”

“It doesn’t matter if you say it wasn’t, that’s what the rules say. You might remember them wrong… or, who knows, could someone be playing with you?”

“…What?! Then… No way, you used Rule Breaker?!” Kugasaki lets out a blood-curdling scream, and there’s an uproar in the audience…

Rule Breaker: the ability to change the rules that Saionji told me about. That’s right, with a skill of that caliber you can turn the tables.

Feeling on my skin how the audience’s questions gradually turn into excitement, I scoff quietly:

“Did you already feel like a winner, Kugasaki? As the rules state, the exhibition ended when I ran out of cards. Since at that time the comparison of victories was made, your cards are no longer of any use. The score was a 0-0 tie… Come on, Kugasaki, let’s have another duel. I’ve got the hang of it.”

“You… bastard…!!!” He never expected this development. Kugasaki’s face distorts in anger… Don’t play with me…! Don’t play…! Don’t play with me! The main stage of 27-Style Match of the Phoenix is the collection! We both knew it well, and my strategy won at that stage! So why should things change now?!

“What else could it be? You underestimated the exhibition stage. I admit that the collection stage is quite significant, but that doesn’t mean that it determines the outcome of the duel.”

Kugasaki can no longer contain his emotions, and angrily shakes his cape… But this is also a normal reaction. After all, the explanation I gave him means that no matter how many times we fight, I can bring this duel to a draw. Before anyone noticed, the roles have been reversed.

After that, Kugasaki’s cheeks tremble in anger for a while. Then he looks at Saionji for a moment. Not as the Empress, but as his ‘Goddess’… I wonder if he is remembering that, if he loses to me, he won’t be able to challenge her again. Kugasaki flaps his cloak again and opens his mouth as he smiles and his glasses sparkle:

“…Ku ku. Have you forgotten already, stronger in Academy Island? It’s terrible that I didn’t win, but I have Emergency Call. So, if we have to play again, I just need to change the person I mobilize… Therefore, I’ll break the tie no matter how many tries it takes,” Kugasaki makes this statement with a voice full of confidence…

Yes, that is the strength of the five-star Kugasaki Seiran. With three hundred tactics at his disposal, he has no blind spots.

“Ku ku ku… Whoa ha ha. All right! Torturing a wounded man is of no interest to me, but it would be a betrayal of my principles to back down after such a humiliation! I’ll take your word, seven stars! You’ll become the first step in my ascension!”

Unleashing a violent blast with †Black Wings†, Kugasaki discards all the cards in his hand. This is a clear sign that he accepted my proposal. Thus, everything would restart, and we would signal the start of a second duel… Everyone thinks it will be like this.

Ah… What a relief.

I look at the scene with a calm face and sigh in relief. Himeji, who is holding my body, also has a blank expression as she gulps her breath. Saionji, who I see out of the corner of my eye, opens her mouth blankly, as if she had seen something unbelievable.

“What’s going on? What the hell is going on, Shinohara Hiroto?” Kugasaki looks at me suspiciously as I remained silent.

I desperately stifle the laughter in my throat and point directly at the stadium screen.

“It’s nothing… It’s just that this is my victory.”

“…What?

“You have to watch your opponent’s actions carefully, Kugasaki. In fact, I got rid of only one card a moment ago, unlike you, who got rid of them all.”

At this moment, the screen returns to display my information after having been off for several minutes. As I said, there is one card left in my hand… Yes, all this time I only dropped one card… I shut down the terminal before it processed the second card drop command to make it look like I lost them all.

“What a stupid thing…!” Kugasaki is dumbfounded by this strange situation. He freezes for a while, then finally calms down and raises his hand in the air. “But… but… weren’t the rules rewritten with Rulebreaker?! I have zero cards, so no matter how many cards you have, you can’t affect the score! You don’t even know what you’re talking about!”

“Rewritten the rules, huh? Well, unfortunately I never said I did that sort of thing. That was your interpretation, isn’t it? What I did wasn’t changing the rules, I just modified the image to show that.

“A…h?!” The last thing heard from Kugasaki is a scream as if his life was being taken away from him.

That’s right. Because I, who am a one-star, can’t do anything like interfering with the rules. The best I could do was to change a couple of words of the rules text that looked on the screen, thanks to the Bug Manifesting update. The image changed, but the actual rules haven’t changed.

But the fact that I’m a seven-star—at least in the system—made him misunderstand. I see, it turned out true that Rulebreaker is a trump card fit for a seven-star. It’s normal to have an ace up your sleeve if you’re the so-called ‘strongest.’”

…With these assumptions, Kugasaki misread everything.

The real rules have not changed: the duel will not end until both sides lose all their cards. Obviously, I provoked him, and he got rid of all his cards himself.

“…S-so… you were acting from the beginning? You made me think that I was at an advantage, pretending to give up the victory, and even the skill Rule Breaker was just a bluff…? I’m sure that the quality of my strategy and my combination of skills were superior. Are you saying that you turned everything against me just by acting?”

“Hey, no, you make it sound like I created a sinister plan… Understand, Kugasaki. Your downfall was underestimating me. You had an overwhelming advantage during the collection stage, so you didn’t put me in your eyes—you never saw me as a threat.”

“Really… Was I so careless…? It’s my fault…”

“Yes, exactly. If it hurts you so much, you’ll have a lifetime to reflect. We will meet again. For the 27-Style Match of the Phoenix exhibition stage, I’ll use this 17. I don’t need to use Numerical Manipulation to win. So, you don’t have any cards, do you?”

Kugasaki’s silence, crestfallen and powerless, on this occasion signifies his null objection.

“In that case, as I just said, this is my victory. Well, this winning every duel has become a matter of course,” I lift the corners of my mouth and say. Immediately, the whole stadium falls silent. And then a lot of people start talking quietly. Also, although it doesn’t produce any sound, Saionji, who is sitting in the audience, has her lips trembling as if she is about to cry.

After that, deafening screams take over the stadium in an instant…

When Himeji’s excited, sentimental voice gently caresses my eardrum, the tension I had been enduring finally disappears. That’s when I lose consciousness.

“Thank you for your hard work, Master… You were most gallant today.”