As the day slowly turned to evening, the three of them managed to reach the camp while there was still light left in the sky.
The t-spot—Misasagi-senpai’s nickname for the tent spot—was on an open plain, and a short distance away down an incline was a stream with abundant water.
Homura carried a complete set of tools as she followed Misasagi-senpai down to the stream.
Senpai piled up rocks from the river to make a hearth, while Homura drew water from the river using a hand-pump equipped with a water filter. It was quite a convenient tool.
Homura was quite excited by the extraordinary atmosphere, but she was still a girl with no prior outdoor life experience. The most she was allowed to do was use a fully-furnished barbecue.
Perhaps due to her efforts in training to make boxed lunches recently, part of her unexpectedly enjoyed the food preparations and touching various cooking tools.
Touya had remained behind further up to set up a tent. It was a cool-looking tent with the UNPIEP logo printed on it in large font, but—
Homura timidly asked Misasagi-senpai a question.
“Umm, senpai… could that tent be meant for three people…?”
“It can fit, three or four people, but we’ll be split up, between a tent, meant for us, and a single tent, meant for Touya.”
“Separate tents! Of course. Naturally. As expected.”
“Yes. You’ll receive detailed, instructions on that, kind of division from, Fujimori-sensei eventually as well…”
“It depends on the time and place, though.” Homura could have sworn hearing senpai murmur that at the end.
After having finished her work in the blink of an eye even while continuing to talk with Homura, Misasagi-senpai piled kindling in the hearth and then stepped back a bit.
“Hinooka-san, please come stand, by me.”
Homura walked over next to her as she was told.
Misasagi-senpai brought her hands together in front of her navel as if clasping something and began concentrating hard.
Homura’s eyes widened.
“Ox (Oxygen)… Ph (Phosphate)… Mg (Magnesium)…”
A white light seemed to flash between Misasagi-senpai’s hands as she chanted, and then a deep orange ball of fire appeared there.
“Something came out!”
The coin-sized fireball grew to the size of a baseball while superfine strands of flames whirled and swayed around it.
While maintaining her concentration, Misasagi-senpai moved the fireball downwards at a sloped angle. The fireball maintained a certain speed as it went and was absorbed into the hearth. The moment the fireball touched it, the kindling immediately ignited and burst into flames.
After lowering her hands and relaxing her shoulders, Misasagi-senpai added in more wood while making sure the fire remained stable.
“So that’s also magic!”
“Yes. Fire-type magic isn’t, my speciality… so I’m always tense, when I chant it.”
As she spoke, Misasagi-senpai took out a waterproof lighter from her pocket.
“Ah, a lighter.”
“This would, have worked too, but magic is useful, in its own way, so I use it, as practice at, times like these.”
The fire burning in front of them illuminated the rocks around the stream so brightly and naturally that it was hard to believe that it had been created with magic.
“Hinooka-san, do you also, want to give, it a try?”
“S-Seriously? You don’t mind?”
“Here, it won’t turn, into a huge, fire.”
“Please let me do it. This is Hinooka Homura’s first step as a Mage!”
“Then, first of all, please imagine, a die painted, in four colors. Two faces, are white, and two faces, are blue. One face, is red, and the last one, is black. The color, arrangement is—”
After somehow having the rest of the explanation simplified enough for her, Homura followed senpai’s instructions and took her first steps into the realm of magic.
She held out her hands together downwards at a slanted angle and stood in front of the hearth just like senpai had done.
While feeling the heat from the flames of the hearth on her palms, Homura formed the image in her head.
“You can’t cut off, your concentration. Otherwise, it will, explode.”
“…O-Oxygen… Phosphate, Ma-Ma-Ma—”
Hearing a muffled explosion, Touya came running down to the stream, and there he found a cloud of black smoke enveloping the area.
“Wha… *cough, cough*… What’s this black stuff!?”
Homura jumped out from the smoke while coughing.
“*Cough, cough*! D-Douya-gun, zenpai iz—”
While wringing out her voice, Homura turned around and pointed behind her.
“Senpai is inside this smoke!?”
Homura nodded with tears in her eyes.
My, this has turned into something serious, Touya thought as he prepared to jump in, but immediately after—
The two of them saw movement from the slope high above the river bed where they stood.
The dark and heavy smoke whirled and suddenly rose up in the form of a dome.
The dome gradually swelled and expanded, becoming a wall that quickly approached the two of them. Touya frantically moved to stand in front of Homura.
Just when it seemed like their ears were being subjected to pressure, a chilling thin membrane of water traced against their skin and passed by them, dampening their hair and clothes slightly in the process.
Afterwards, the black smoke completely scattered away, leaving only the stream which reflected the twilight sky and the dying residue of fire.
In the center of the now vanished dome, Misasagi-senpai stood alone as if nothing had happened.
Even when Touya and Homura ran up to her, she remained calm.
“What an, unfortunate failure. Let’s try again, next time.”
“—No, no, more importantly, are you really all right, senpai?” Touya asked.
“I’m fine,” Misasagi-senpai said with a nod.
“Umm, I’m sorry. I messed up the chant… Did you also use magic just now, senpai?”
“That was my, specialty magic.”
Senpai spoke with a strangely proud expression.
“What, so it was just Hinooka’s magic exploding?”
“Wait, could it be that you knew that I would fail?”
“No, I believed, you could do it, you know? —About 50%, anyway.”
“Just having a 50% success rate when you first start using magic is pretty good on its own.”
Homura felt relieved, but her stomach grumbled right afterward.
“Then I’ll get it right for sure, this time! All right…”
Homura once again posed to chant in front of the hearth, while Misasagi-senpai immediately prepared to use her own magic and Touya pinched his nose in exasperation and stepped back.
In the end, they used the lighter.
The sun had completely set.
While listening to the murmuring of the river, the three of them cooked their dinner with the fire from the hearth.
Their main dish was soup cooked with dried vegetables and meat.
At Misasagi-senpai’s suggestion, they chose their respective side dishes by drawn lot.
Three very similar looking packages were laid out on the ground.
“One of them, is the bad option. The expiration date, is very strict.”
“Fine, I’ll accept your challenge. But you’ll be the one eating your own words in the end.”
“Hey, Touya-kun, that’s a death flag right there, you know.”
“Hmm,” Touya hummed in concentration as he glared at the packages, while Misasagi-senpai just grinned.
“These preserved meals, were all thought up, and chosen by members, of the Exploration Club.”
“Are the ingredients from here on Nutella?”
“Yes. We search for, edible mountain plants, make vegetable gardens, cook bread, go fishing, smoke the food, and even use magic, to restrain decomposition…”
“Wow, you made it all the way from cultivating crops in the field? That’s a lot of work. My boxed lunch ideas pale in comparison.”
“It’s the same, you know? Both of them, are quite fun.”
Suddenly, Touya grabbed one of the packages.
“I’ve decided on this one!”
“Then I’ll take this one.”
Misasagi-senpai took the remaining one.
“Kuh—I got the bad option! Darn it! Just what is [Hell’s lunch] supposed to mean?”
Touya fell back with a flop.
The expiration date written in large letters on the package was dated to last month.
“Make sure to, properly eat it.”
Misasagi-senpai consoled him while smiling.
When Homura checked over her own package, it had the expiration date, the dish name [Chicken & Dumplings], and a handmade stamp on it.
“What’s this stamp with a goldfish and cat mark on it…?”
“Those are the, marks of me… and Inari-san. It’s a dish, we thought up, together.”
Touya’s face suddenly became clouded under the illumination from the firelight.
“Inari-san? You mean that Inari-san?”
“She’s an, Exploration Club, member… formerly, that is.”
“Ooh. Then she’s our senpai. But, even though her name is Inari, she has a cat mark? Not a fox2?”
“Yes, it’s a fox-cat3.”
Misasagi-senpai smiled amusingly as she explained.
Meanwhile, Touya was challenging his preserved meal while feebly complaining.
“For it to taste so bad… or rather, it should be tasty, but… Anyway, it’s just so spicy…”
“So it was, still spicy, huh?”
Misasagi-senpai held out some water to him apologetically.
“What!? Were you waiting for the spiciness to go away!?”
“There was a senpai who was fond of spicy food, huh? And Touya-kun likes spiciness. Doesn’t everything work out that way?”
“This thing isn’t a preserved meal! Once we return to base camp, I’m going to write a warning in red letters on it.”
“Why don’t you just throw it away?”
After this and that, they finished their dinner.
“Oww… My legs stiffened up while I was sitting…”
Standing up, Homura patted her legs while staggering.
“I really did a lot of walking.”
“Senpai, I can put out the fire here now, right? We can make another one back up at the t-spot.”
As Touya filled a pan with water in preparation, Misasagi-senpai shook her head.
“Please throw in all, the remaining firewood.”
“…We’re going to make a camp fire?” Homura asked.
“Ah, I had a feeling about that.”
As he said that, Touya began throwing in the remaining firewood.
Misasagi-senpai took off her shoes and socks, and then took off her jacket as well, revealing a body suit underneath. She then walked into the shoals of the river.
“I know, you’re tired, but I’d like, you to help, too, Hinooka-san.”
“Eh, ah, sure, but—are we going to be catching fish or something?”
As Homura stepped in too, the clear and cool stream and rocky shoals felt achingly good on her stiff feet.
They began gathering up big rocks and using them to stem the river flow where the stream got a bit deep.
Homura moved the rocks as senpai told her.
“Uwah, there’s something rustling between the rocks… There aren’t any strange bugs or anything here, right?”
“Fortunately, there are no, land leeches, around here. But if you get, stung by something, make sure, to tell me.”
“Stung, you say… I’ll be careful…”
Soon, they completed a small dam on the river bed. It was quite well done for something made on the fly.
“Th… This is a children’s pool! No, it’s more like a bathtub.”
“It’s not a hot spring, like you asked for, though.”
“Even so, it’s quite effective on me! The important point is that it’s an open-air bath! Really, if I was going to have to sleep while all dirty like this, I was considering quitting the Exploration Club.”
“Ah, that was a joke, okay? Don’t make that sad face, please.”
“Hey, are you troubling senpai? —Anyway, is this good enough, senpai?”
Touya showed a shovel made of thick Y-shaped branches to senpai.
Senpai nodded and pointed at the deepest part of the path with the end of a stick.
“The white rocks, break easily, so avoid them.”
“Roger… Here we go.”
Touya used the wooden shovel to pick up rocks heated within the fire and threw them into the dam one after another, causing the water to noisily let out steam. It was a stone bathtub inside the river.
The water temperature was just right, making Homura eager to get in.
“Then, the female group which contributed to making it gets first dibs…!”
“Yeah, yeah, I get it. I’ll be over at the t-spot.”
“Since it’s a promise, I’ll say it just in case, but—don’t peek! You better not peek!”
“I can massage your feet again, you know?”
“Ahaha, please give me a break. That tickled too much.”
Back when Homura had a leg cramp during one of their morning running sessions, Touya had forcefully dug his thumbs into the back of her feet to massage it. Just remembering the ticklish feeling of it made Homura reflexively laugh out loud.
After leaving some towels for the girls, Touya went off into the grove of trees along the slope, and Homura warily watched him until his back disappeared from sight.
“…All right, he’s gone… He’s gone, right? Don’t begrudge me for this, young man.”
“Hinooka-san, I’m going, in first.”
“Wah, faaaaaaast! So fast!”
When Homura turned around, Misasagi-senpai was already naked and wearing only a towel. Senpai stuck her toes into the shoals and tested the water temperature.
“I forgot about your changing speed, senpai. Y-You should be a bit more conscious of service for the viewers and such, you know…”
Undaunted, Homura also undressed and put her clothing down next to senpai’s neatly folded clothes.
Observing Misasagi-senpai, Homura washed her body the same way she did with the cool water further downstream.
A stone bathtub they had made themselves. While being careful of the heated stones that were marked by a stick placed in the water, Homura nervously sunk her body into the bath.
It wasn’t that deep, so when they sank down to their shoulders they had to stretch out like in a Western bathtub, but it was still wide enough for the two of them.
Homura let out a sigh and murmured to herself, “Dealing with sexual urges really is a problem for Exploration club members…”
“What was that?”
Misasagi-senpai, having been looking up at the night sky while leaning her back against the rocks and hugging her knees, turned to Homura calmly.
Homura noticed something unusual about senpai’s hair as it was reflected in the dim light.
“Senpai, your hair color… returned to normal…?”
Misasagi-senpai nodded and lifted up her washed hair with the palm of her hand.
It wasn’t completely black, but her hair had greatly regained its dark hue.
“Yes. My transformation seems, to have the quality, of reaching its peak, at noon, while Nutella’s influence, on me weakens, at night.”
“…Wait, does that mean there are also people for whom Nutella’s influence gets stronger at night instead?”
Homura carefully checked over her body, but no matter how she looked at herself, she was a normal human. There was no sign of seeing magnetic force lines or infrared rays when she strained her eyes to look around her either.
“It’s a bit of, a waste for just, the two of us, to enjoy this view…”
“Yeah, true… Eh?”
Suddenly, Misasagi-senpai whistled with her fingers.
Soon after, a human silhouette came down the slope, and a troubled-sounding voice from beyond the tree thicket called out, “What is it?”
“Touya-kun’s just like a dog…”
Ignoring Homura’s comment, Misasagi-senpai said something unbelievable.
“Touya-kun, you come in, too.”
Senpai called out to the thicket with a loud voice.
Homura doubted her own eyes and ears.
“Wait, senpai, what—”
“The hot water, we went to the, trouble of heating, will chill and, go to waste, by the time, he comes in.”
“W-Well, I admit that’s unfair for him and it might be kinder to Nutella’s environment this way, but—”
Well, it was true that carrying over new heated rocks would be a lot of heavy labor.
“I guess, it’s true that, dealing with sexual urges, is a problem.”
“Hey, that’s harsh even for a joke,” Touya shouted back while seeming to be heading back within the thicket, but Misasagi-senpai whistled at him again.
After several more whistles rang through area around the river, Touya finally gave up and came over while keeping his face turned to the side.
“Wah, wah, you’re actually coming in—!?”
Homura frantically dragged up her towel, but when she did that it was too high to properly cover her waist…
Even as Homura felt like running away during the time it took for Touya to undress while grumbling to himself, Misasagi-senpai relaxed and stretched her body while taking a hand out from the stone bathtub and enjoying the cold sensation of the river water.
Homura glared over her shoulder at Touya as he entered the shoals with a towel around his waist.
“…It can’t be helped, it’s the club president’s order.”
“There, come in from there.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Touya grumbled in resignation as he stepped over the rock dam.
“—Thanks for the bath4.”
“Eh, what’s with that?”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you always say that when you go into the bath?”
“Don’t! It sounds rude in a situation like this.”
“We always say it in my family.”
“It’s weird, weird I say! And it’s kinda lewd too…”
“Don’t say lewd.”
When Touya sunk down into the stone bath, the width of the bathtub was just right to fit them, as if it had been made to fit three people from the beginning.
However, Homura had her body bended forward and was clearly keeping at a distance, while on the other hand, Misasagi-senpai was far too defenceless, and the black speck Touya, who was stuck between them, was unable to look either left or right and so had no choice but to look up.
“Wow… this really is nice…”
Noticing what he meant, Misasagi-senpai also leaned her back against the rocks and gazed up at the night sky.
Homura also took her first hard look up at the night sky.
The sky commanded the view from the shallows of the river where the tree thicket cut off.
Currently, the Bagel was a thin triangle like a cut-up cake, and it shone so brightly in the night sky that you could even read a book under it.
Furthermore, countless stars twinkled brightly, in no way losing to the Bagel, and they could see every detail of the Milky Way.
“Can you see it—Hinooka-san, Touya-kun?”
Misasagi-senpai raised her hand high and drew a huge arc across the sky with her finger.
The space in the sky normally occupied by the Bagel was, at a glance, a pitch-black and boorish area that hid the stars, but… when you looked closely and strained your eyes, you could see gently-sloping arcs of light that countlessly overlapped.
“A night rainbow…”
It was the rainbow pattern of the Bagel that wasn’t clear during daytime, because of the brightness.
“The color is completely different along with the band.”
“Yes. It looks, even more beautiful, at midnight.”
When you figured out the structure, the patterns could be distinguished even more clearly.
Faced with this wondrous sight that she had never seen before in any planetarium, Homura let out a sigh of awe.
“…There are many, offered explanations for why, the rings that serve, as Nutella’s shadow look, multicolored like that—like it being from, a complex series of, reflected light from, the sunlit side, of the rings, or that it receives, solar wind just like, the aurora phenomenon. There are even, strange theories like, they are supplied with, magnetic energy from, the interior of Nutella, and glow like, a fluorescent lamp.”
“…Even if you take a picture of one of the rings, it’s only when you look at it close up like this that you notice a lot of strange and wondrous things, huh?”
Just how many mysterious and unknown things were still hidden on this vast planet?
“In winter, the Bagel hides the sun.”
“Eeh, I’m not good with cold.”
“In exchange, it’s quite hot, in the summer.”
“I hate heat even more. It makes my eyes feel like their burning.”
“How do you get by if both cold and hot are no good for you?”
“Normal people are all like that, you know.”
While light-heartedly arguing together, Homura and Touya fully enjoyed the night sky.
Falling stars cut across the sky repeatedly, and, occasionally, they saw light run across the rings like a small wave.
Misasagi-senpai, who had been mostly staying out of the conversation between the two of them, suddenly spoke up.
“Hinooka-san… Please don’t, begrudge Fujimori-sensei, okay?”
Senpai’s formal tone made even Homura inclined to listen attentively and raised her body a bit.
“…Are you referring to how I was kidnapped—suddenly brought along here like this?”
Misasagi-senpai hung her head apologetically.
“You still don’t, approve of it, right?”
Homura suddenly hurled hot water into Touya’s face, and stood up in a half-risen posture and moved next to senpai.
“Hey, I wasn’t even looking!”
“It was a fish, a fish jumped up and splashed you.”
While saying that lie as an excuse, Homura sat down on the submerged rocks with her shoulder side by side with senpai.
As water dripped down from her forelocks, senpai’s eyes faintly reflected the purplish-red color of glowing embers that still remained on the river bed.
“I’m already over that, senpai.”
“We… Well, it’s true that I would have hesitated a lot if I were warned about today’s route with an explanation video beforehand, though.”
“…The Transport Ring requires, a period of charging, in proportion to, the number of people, being transported. The preparations were, already finished, a while ago, but then the possibility, of Hinooka-san joining, came up, and it was, delayed… I also wanted, us to come together, if possible.”
“Does that mean… you and I alone might have gone ahead first, senpai?” Touya asked.
“Hinooka-san would have, experienced transporting, a bit later on. Until then, she was supposed to, receive standard training…”
Senpai looked up at the sky with far-gazing eyes.
“It’s a, matter of course, on Nutella, but even in training, there’s no guarantee, you won’t get hurt. In the training program, directed at middle-schoolers, 60% of applicants, give up at, the first stage. They get hurt, and develop fear, and the stance of, their formerly cooperative guardians, can suddenly change… there are even cases, where the person, in question didn’t, have the will, to participate from, the beginning…”
Touya nodded and interjected into the conversation.
“Those statistics are a result of the club’s accident ratio being no different from that of martial arts sports clubs.”
“Mori-chan also emphasized that to my parents.”
“I’m not surprised. There are a lot of people who say that Japan is overprotective compared to other countries. Even though the invested budget is quite substantial, the scale and results of our country’s program are far too small by comparison, they say.”
“Is that also posted on the internet?”
“No. This is from the online community established among Exploration Clubs, separate from the public internet. I’ll teach you how to use your terminal for it once we get back.”
“Yes, please do. Other Exploration Clubs… huh. Yeah, we aren’t the only ones, are we?”
“It’s better, that way. Everyone is, one of our, precious comrades.”
The hot water was starting to feel lukewarm at that point.
Homura’s body had been completely warmed up and the stiffness in her overused muscles had also pretty much come undone by now as well. It seemed to be about time for her prolonged bath time, excluding the mixed-bathing part, to end.
“How about, I tell a, ghost story?”
“Eh? All of a sudden?”
“What? T-That’s out of nowhere.”
Misasagi-senpai suddenly brought it up.
The ends of her stretched legs splashed against the water.
“It’s a ghost story, passed down in, our Exploration Club. There was once, a valley of fog, where once you entered, you would never, come back—”
“Wah, wah, I love scary stories. Can’t we listen to it in the tent, senpai?”
“We can’t,” Touya interjected. “According to the schedule, we have to get up pretty early in the morning. We have to go to bed soon.”
After being rebuked by Touya, Misasagi-senpai sank down to her mouth in the hot water with a displeased face.
“Umm… even if you say that…”
Senpai protested while making bubbles on the water surface.
“…But, in our tent, Touya-kun won’t, be there, you know?”
“You should just forget about him. After all, he’s going to be busy tonight. He’ll be sorting, labeling and going through his treasure mental video Blu-Rays from today.”
“Hinooka, you really do run your mouth… Hmm?”
Ignoring their banter, Misasagi-senpai put something in her mouth. Following Touya’s gaze, Homura also looked at her.
Misasagi-senpai was holding a canteen made of bamboo.
“Senpai, what are you drinking? Is it shampoo or something…?”
“Of course, not. It’s juice, you know?”
Speaking of which, Homura had noticed her extending her hand outside the stone bath sometimes. Misasagi-senpai had apparently been secretly quenching her thirst with it.
“Juice? Can I also have some?”
“No. It’s still, too soon, for you.”
“What do you mean, too soon? Can’t you give me just a little bit?”
“No. This is, the special privilege, of an upperclassman.”
Smiling mischievously, Misasagi-senpai lifted up her canteen and kept it away from Homura.
This time, the instant Homura indignantly reached her hand out to it, senpai hugged Homura. Without minding the fact that their towels were coming off.
Homura was taken aback.
After grabbing her with a loud splash, Misasagi-senpai rubbed her cheeks against Homura’s chest while giggling.
This was the second time today Homura had been embraced by senpai, but this was a completely different situation from before.
A sweet scent mixed in with the steam gently tickled Homura’s nose.
“The blood is rushing to senpai’s head—no—she’s drunk!?”
Touya picked up the bamboo canteen that had been left to float in the water and gave it a quick sniff and taste.
“This is fruit wine. Probably from hardy kiwi or some similar fruit.”
“Oh no… The discovery of a scandal!? Rather, is senpai in a drunken frenzy!?”
“It might have just fermented naturally, but I don’t think senpai would fail to notice that…”
While murmuring with a dumbfounded tone, Touya turned around and began walking to the shore.
“Well, I leave the rest to you…”
“Wait a minute! What am I supposed to do about this!?”
“You’ll have to look after her, Hinooka.”
“Don’t run away! I can’t do it alone! It’s impossible for me!”
Suddenly turning her head around as she leaned against Homura’s chest, Misasagi-senpai then jumped on Touya as he was trying to get out of the stone bath.
“Got you, too, Touya-kun.”
“Wait, stop, senpai, you’re putting in too much strength. Hinooka, do something!”
“I-I-It’s fine, it’s fine already, so just bring her back to shore like that! I’ll permit it!”
“Senpai!? We’re getting out of the bath now! I’ll wash your body, so don’t move!”
After that, they brought senpai, who could no longer stand at that point, back to shore, and Homura quickly dried senpai’s hair and body before getting Touya to reluctantly carry her. Senpai, who was basically naked with only a towel around her chest, had lost all strength and hung loosely in Touya’s arms.
“Please bring her up to the tent! I’ll go get our clothes!”
“Keep both your eyes firmly closed! Watch the path since it’s dark! And don’t turn to look at me!”
“Don’t ask so many unreasonable things at once. You hurry up too.”
Homura was trying to shrewdly change into her clothes by herself.
“W-Wait, don’t leave me alone in a place like this!”
“No, I’m not waiting. I’m going.”
Giving up, Homura ran after Touya in only a towel while carrying their clothes.
After having changed into a shirt in place of sleepwear, Misasagi-senpai fell into a complete drunken unconsciousness on top of the sleeping bag laid out within the tent.
After having changed as well, Homura stepped out of the tent, just as Touya had come back from going to the river and cleaning up the fire.
“How is she?”
“She’s asleep. Her condition doesn’t seem that bad, so I think she’ll be fine once she wakes up…”
The two of them peeked through the entrance to the tent.
Within the dim tent, senpai was quietly breathing in her sleep. It seemed they really did have nothing to worry about.
“But that was a shock. For that level-headed senpai to end up so…”
“It was a big help having you here to take care of her, Hinooka.”
Touya bowed his head in thanks, and Homura puffed out her chest proudly.
“Yeah, you got that right. As expected, this isn’t the kind of thing that you could have taken care of.”
“This is the first time I’ve seen senpai like this—she was probably happy. That you entered the Exploration Club, that is.”
“……I see. But you’re also an important club member, Touya-kun.”
“Well, I suppose that’s true.”
Touya made a new fire next to the tents.
As Touya watched the fire while hanging the wet towels and washed socks out to dry, Homura sat down next to him.
“You can go to sleep already, Hinooka. I’m going to stand watch here for a little while longer.”
“Are you planning to stay up all night?”
“…No. The truth is, there’s no need to stand on watch. The place we’ve come to isn’t that dangerous.”
Touya smiled wryly and scratched his head.
“When I come to Nutella, I get excited and can’t sleep that much. Like, it’s a waste to spend time sleeping…”
Touya looked up at the night rainbow in the sky as he spoke.
Homura nodded and looked up at the night sky as well.
“Ah~, I stayed out overnight without getting my parents’ permission. My dad is probably furious right about now.”
“Mori-chan will have taken care of contacting our homes at least.”
“I wonder about that.”
The sound of kindling splitting and popping in the fire. The slight murmuring of the river.
Homura and Touya’s silhouettes swayed side by side and cast shadows on the wide open ground amidst the forest.
That comfortable silence was broken by Homura finally opening her mouth after hesitating a little.
“The third club member… is that Inari-senpai?”
‘The Exploration club has three members’—those words which she had heard from Rokujizou-senpai before she joined the club had always been bothering Homura.
“Yeah.” Touya nodded after a brief pause of silence.
Rather than Touya having hidden that truth, his sad expression made Homura think that he just didn’t want to talk about it as much as possible.
“…I see, so it wasn’t referring to that Ameno girl. Misasagi-senpai said she was a former member, though. Did that person quit the club?”
“Inari-senpai is a second-year student. The Exploration Club is treating her as skipping club activities, but she doesn’t even come to school either. She hasn’t been attending classes for several months now.”
“She’s skipping school?”
That goldfish and cat stamp.
Senpai’s smiling face as she boasted of it happily earlier.
The bond between the two of them was so clear, and yet—
“Was the Exploration Club the cause? Did something happen on an expedition or something…?”
“I went to Inari-senpai’s house before, after hearing about it from Mori-chan.”
“Uwah,” Homura exclaimed with a bitter smile. “Your dynamism really is amazing, Touya-kun. I can’t tell whether you’re bold or can’t read the atmosphere. Then, you met Inari-senpai… or not, by the sound of it…”
Touya shook his head, as if to say, ‘She was unapproachable.’
“I only talked with her over the interphone—‘Don’t get deeply involved with the Exploration Club,’ she said, in a nasty voice.”
“I shouted back, ‘I don’t need your advice.’”
“You said that to someone who was not only an upperclassman, but a truant too—!?”
“……” Touya pressed a finger to his lips.
Homura had forgotten.
Recalling senpai’s presence in the tent, Homura lowered her voice.
“You didn’t have to go that far…”
“As if I care. She abandoned senpai and ran away.”
“Hah… Based on your words, you didn’t even ask her whether something happened, huh?”
“…Mori-chan said it was a personal problem and wouldn’t tell me the specifics.”
Touya hung his head with a brooding expression.
Homura was impressed by the seriousness in his face and words.
“…I could tell right away that there was another club member when I saw the list of names and personal lockers in the club building. But when I asked senpai about it, she just said that ‘Inari is a member that has already quit’ and that ‘she’s a former club member’. There’s no way it’s as simple as that, right?”
Hesitantly, Touya spoke in a painful tone.
“There’s no way that senpai abandoned her. She’s the one that abandoned senpai.”
After letting out a huge sigh, Homura stretched herself.
“Your senpai-fixation is quite strong, Touya-kun.”
“What was that?”
“Touya-kun, you like senpai. You’re serious about Misasagi Mayo.”
Staring silently at the flames without answering, Touya blushed red up to his ears.
Shrugging, Homura spoke up.
“You don’t get it, do you?”
Homura stared hard at Touya while also giving a slightly teasing smile.
“In that case, you shouldn’t have invited me to the Exploration Club. That way, you and senpai would have been alone with just the two of you. All smiling and excited.”
“Well, you’re already plenty like that even now, though.”
Homura slapped Touya’s shoulder.
“I’m saying that you should support Misasagi-senpai, Touya-kun.”
“…It’s no good like that.”
The side profile of Touya’s face as he hid half of it by sinking down into his arms wrapped around his knees was very serious, yet also lonely, looking like that of a child who’d been left behind.
While Homura searched for words to say, Touya suddenly stood up.
“I’m going to sleep now. Make sure to get up on time tomorrow.”
“No way. I don’t even have an alarm clock here.”
Touya tossed a small-sized spring watch.
It was currently at a standstill and didn’t display the current time, but it could apparently be made to count time within twelve hours with the dial. In other words, it was a kind of timer.
“Senpai has a watch, so sync that to it.”
After saying that, Touya disappeared into his own small tent.
Homura was left alone in front of the open fire.
Still not feeling very sleepy, she continued staring at the flames.
“…What’s no good, geez…”
Before she realized it, she had completely fallen asleep.
When she woke up, the fire was already embers, emitting merely a slight warmth.
The t-spot was dark and wrapped in silence.
When she looked up at the sky, the night rainbow had finally become bright and vivid, just like senpai had said.
“…The Bagel, huh?”
Letting out a sign of admiration, Homura laced her hands behind her while gazing at the sky.
Several shooting stars shot across the sky in just a short instant.
They were much faster and emitted a much more striking brilliance than the shooting stars that Homura knew of through video footage only.
Here on Nutella, there were no shopping malls, lined-up brand stores, or 3D movie theaters. However, just happening upon this breath-taking sight made Homura feel that coming here was plenty worth it.
“A tomato… Cheese… That’s sesame… Honey… Pumpkin… Blueberry…”
As her eyes chased over the rainbow, a star drifted past the edge of her vision.
Suddenly, she turned her head in that direction, puzzled.
Within the darkness of the trees, she saw another one—no, two.
Small, blue stars drifted quietly over the ground while flickering. No matter how many times Homura rubbed her eyes, they didn’t disappear.
The blue stars silently increased in number and began to glitter as if to surround the t-spot.
Homura tried to back away from the fire and call out to the two sleeping within the tents.
Immediately after—she heart a short breath.
Unable to speak out, Homura cringed in fear.
The sound of something trampling over fallen leaves and pebbles came from behind her.
The strange stench that faintly tickled her nose was the smell of a beast. The unpleasant, bloody smell that you would find in a zoo cage.
Remaining sitting in front of the fire, Homura was unable to even stir an inch as her body stiffened in order to desperately pretend to be asleep.
She heard the sound of a backpack falling down. She could clearly sense a presence searched through the baggage containing ingredients while sniffing.
That sound made Homura finally recall her own bag right behind her, as well as her only weapon in it, her knife.
She sensed something cautiously approaching.
Turning around while staying focused, Homura grabbed the knife from her backpack and prepared herself.
While trembling at the sensation of someone pulling her bag, Homura swung down her knife.
A small silhouette silently leapt back.
It did a sudden somersault, landed far away and then crouched down.
What fell onto the ground around Homura was the taffy she had put into her baggage.
Her knife, which had cut through empty air without hitting anything, trembled minutely as the blade remained only halfway extended.
Somehow managing to cheer up her flabbergasted knees, Homura faced the small silhouette.
It was all she could do just to say that much.
Several low growls resounded and grew closer from the surroundings.
Several seconds of fear passed while she remained facing the silhouette.
At last, the sound of a clicking tongue rang out, and the growls stopped.
The small silhouette turned on its heels and ran swiftly into the forest. Large beasts also ran after the shadow, quickly fading away into the distance.
In less than a few seconds, the visitors had completely disappeared from the t-spot, leaving only a faint smell behind.
Homura sank to the ground.
She tore off the fingers that held the knife as if it were someone else’s hand and threw it to the ground.
Without paying any mind to taking care of the scattered baggage or extinguishing the fire, Homura ran into the tent.
“…This is a dream… This is a dream…”
Murmuring that to herself as she shivered, she slid into the sleeping bag and clung to the asleep senpai’s back within it. While sinking down to her head in the sleeping bag, she managed to fall asleep while paying attention to only senpai’s quiet breathing and slight warmth.
The small silhouette that she had faced over her backpack—
It had definitely been human.
Chapter 12 END
(1) Regarding magic: When the characters chant, they use abbreviations of chemical elements and compounds. (For example, Hydra for Hydrogen, Oxy for Oxygen, and Magna for Magnesium.) However, the terms used often make less sense in English due to Japanese’s unique naming sense, so I fully write out the intended chemical name to avoid confusion among the readers, despite how it changes the original text.
(2) Inari: It comes from the name of a fox deity of harvests, hence Homura’s question.
(3) The pun used here doesn’t translate into English, so I’ll explain it. Misasagi says “Kitsuneko” here, which combines the words “Kitsune” (Fox) and “Neko” (Cat).
(4) Here, Touya says “Itadakimasu”, the phrase used to express gratitude before starting a meal in Japan. While it can be used to suit situations like these, it makes less sense in English, so I had to adjust the phrasing to make it sound better.
(5) Nyet: Russian for “no”.