The excitement of an unexpected transport—
This was the first time since picking up Suzuran that Homura would be visiting Nutella.
To think that her next trip would suddenly occur with no time for her to prepare her heart.
This also was her first time transporting with so many other people and without the Exploration Club clothing that purposefully resembled school uniforms, which she’d been told was because self-image was important when going to Nutella.
Every club prepared two participants, and no clubs withdrew from the race.
There were twenty-six participants in total, though their degree of eagerness to participate varied.
Nanakubo would be accompanying them along with the two other second years working as her assistants, making for a total of twenty-nine people.
What would the sight of twenty-nine people holding hands in a huge circle and suddenly vanishing from the Iriomote Island beach look like to bystanders?
Unfortunately, as one of the participants, Homura didn’t get the chance to witness it herself.
Homura was surprised at the sudden sensation of her shoes being submerged in water.
She was relieved when she saw that her feet were standing on sandy ground.
The location on Nutella that corresponded to the Iriomote Island’s coast was also along a coast.
It was a circular sandy beach of a hundred meters in diameter, surrounded by high and steep cliffs. The bright horizon could be glimpsed through a tunnel-shaped hole in side of the cliffs that connected to the ocean.
Homura and the others had appeared on the edge of the beach near the tunnel’s entrance.
It was a mystical place where the only sound present was the gentle sound of the waves along the beach. Far behind them was a slope that led up to solid ground.
There was no sign of man-made structures like ruins or a camp on this naturally pristine beach.
The next thing Homura noticed after the sensation of water at her feet was the change in temperature after having transported from night to day. But even then, this place was still quite cool thanks to the cliffs blocking the sunlight.
“We really did come to Nutella…”
When Homura looked up at the sky, the familiar Bagel was there to greet the novice investigators, telling them that this was certainly not Earth.
The Bagel here looked thinner and farther away compared to the white gentle arc that Homura had seen at the Seiran High base camp.
“I see… It’s because we’re at a lower latitude here…”
She heard splashing behind her.
“—Homura, Homura. Everyone’s gathering together.”
Homura was snapped out of absentmindedly looking at the sky by Inari’s voice from behind her.
“Ah, yeah, roger… Wait, what!? Uwaah!?”
“What’s with that reaction?”
Homura was shocked and reflexively took a step back after turning to look at Inari.
The height and voice were definitely those of Inari-senpai, but her appearance had changed drastically.
“Are those… ears…? Are they real?”
“These? Yeah, they’re real.”
—To sum it up, Inari had transformed.
Homura slowly held out a hand to grab one of the twitching ears on Inari’s head.
She felt moist yet warm and comfortably fluffy fur in her hand.
Since coming to the SA, Homura had often heard others call those who tended to undergo striking physical transformations on Nutella as ‘Trans’. There were apparently more specific subcategories like TAPC (Trans Animal Possessed Case) and TSPC (Trans Spirit Possessed Case) as well.
“Inari-senpai, do you have a tail too…?”
“I-I do… but give it a rest, okay…? It’s embarrassing to be stared at like that.”
Inari retreated while holding down her tail behind her. Homura was trying to circle around her to get a good look at it.
Her curiosity getting the better of her, Homura jumped at her, but Inari dodged with a side step so swift it was as if she had teleported.
Even so, her fluffy tail peeked out from behind her back.
“What’s with you…? H-Haven’t you already seen pictures of me on Nutella in the clubroom before?”
“No, this is my first time seeing it… Umm… can I touch it a little? I won’t do anything bad.”
Her big ears were like those of a fox, but her sharps eyes and the contours of her round face resembled a cat. She also had a lean physique that gave off a masculine impression.
If Homura was more knowledgeable, though, she probably would have likened Inari’s appearance to that of the fennec fox that lived in the African Sahara.
“Now’s not the time for that. Look.” Inari pointed past Homura with her chin.
All the other club members were climbing the rockface in the opposite direction facing the ocean at Nanakubo’s direction.
Realizing they were about to be left behind, Homura hurried to catch up to them with Inari.
“Any suffering from transport sickness? Just listen while resting your bodies, okay?”
After finishing a second roll call, Nanakubo began to explain the rules of the race.
They had transported to an isolated island in Nutella’s southern seas.
All the club members had gathered together on an area of elevated ground along a peninsula with a panorama of the ocean spreading across the horizon as far as the eye could see.
Nanakubo seemed to have lost some of her earlier impatience after transporting here.
“We call it a race, but it’s more like ‘orienteering’. It’s an adventure race to be precise. There should be some people here who’ve already done it during club training.”
It wasn’t an actual question, but two students from Hamamatsu Central energetically raised their hands. There were several raised hands from other schools as well. It appeared to be quite a major activity in the Exploration Club’s standard training menu.
“Good, good. What you’re doing tonight—though it’s morning here—is a smaller scale version of that.”
Orienteering was a sport born in Scandinavia that took place out in nature.
It involved giving each competitor a map of the competition field and making them search for multiple checkpoints located throughout the field in a race to finish first.
Additionally, unlike the traditional version of orienteering which was an individual competition, an adventure race was a team competition. In an adventure race, the information on the provided map was sparse and sometimes even took place in unexplored regions, which was closer to the format of this irregular race.
“We’re on an uninhabited island right now. Well, obviously. Its total circumference is fifty-five kilometers. It’s smaller than Iriomote Island, but larger than Izu Ooshima in the Izu Archipelago. Just as you can see, the island has mountains and valleys. It also has fresh water rivers. There are even ponds here and there.”
Nanakubo pointed at a boulder where a rough and simple monument was erected. It had a Japanese flag attached that had maintained its form well even after being worn down by wind and rain.
“This island originally had a Transport Ring constructed on it to use it as a base for the ‘Public Planet Corporation’, the predecessor of the Japanese branch of the UNPIEP. However, as you can see, this is an isolated island in the middle of the ocean. There are neither any large land animals nor any ruins to be found here, and going out into the ocean is too dangerous. In other words, they picked the wrong place for a base. The investigation of the island was finished almost immediately, and after that, the only plans left for it was to come again should Nutellan researchers request a second investigation or to use it as a training field for investigators.”
Homura and other investigators these days were able to observe Nutella through satellite photos—though the image quality was quite grainy—in advance on Earth. The discovery of this island in the days when the observation technology hadn’t yet advanced that far was quite an achievement.
Though the realization came a bit late, Homura couldn’t help but feel relieved that they hadn’t transported into the middle of the ocean and become floating carcasses.
“…However, it was right around then that the Transport Ring was lost. This incident caused quite a disturbance behind the scenes among the higher-ups. After all, geographically speaking, Iriomote Island is basically our national border with our dear neighbor1. Well, none of that matters now. It’s all in the past. You can ask your teachers about it when you get back. In any case, the lost Transport Ring was safely recovered by some of our senpai back then… and they shrewdly took the opportunity to keep hold of it for themselves.”
“Oohs” of admiration rang out among the novice investigators as Nanakubo finished explaining the story. Of course, there were anxious voices that said “Isn’t that bad?” as well. Even to Homura, who didn’t know a thing about politics, the tale sounded incredibly risky and suspicious.
“This Transport Ring, which is recorded as a lost item, has been passed down to each successive Exploration Club representative in secret. I’m temporarily borrowing it from representative Tenryuu right now. And since it’s only ever used once a year during the SA, it’s full to the brim with magical energy too.”
Eeh, isn’t that cheating…?
That was some shocking news to Homura, who had fretted over the scant remaining energy left in the Transport Ring when rescuing Misasagi-senpai.
“Anyway, back to explaining the race. Basically, this island is a garden for us Exploration Club members. However, it’s also a pristine island that hasn’t been visited in approximately six years in Nutellan time. There are no real trails here. No matter how much your physical abilities have increased on Nutella, don’t let your mind wander and relax or you’ll pay for it.”
Nanakubo seemed to be directing that warning at herself as well and firmly put the Transport Ring on her finger.
“Now then. We already transported to this island once earlier this morning and finished setting up the checkpoints. Here.”
As she explained, Nanakubo took out a sample of the checkpoints from her bag.
It was a thirty-centimeter-sized triangular prism made of cloth, and it was painted in red and white, colors that stood out in a natural environment like this.
“You’ll wander the island in search of these. Both the start and goal are here, besides that, you’re free to choose whatever route you wish. We’ll give you all maps before you begin. There are also several aspects that are different from a usual orienteering race, so listen well. First, the checkpoints each count for a different number of points. The winning team will be decided by how many points you’ve accumulated in six hours. If there are multiple teams tied for first place, the ones who arrived at the goal first win. —Well? Have you gotten the gist of it?”
One of the first years raised a hand.
“Can we use magic?”
“Use whatever you want. If you guys can effectively use magic in this race at your levels, then that’s great. You can even start a battle royale with each other if you want. However! Second years are forbidden from using magic! And you can’t use familiars either.”
“Ye~s,” replied Hayashi in a shrewd-sounding tone.
Next to Homura, Inari merely stared at Nanakubo with her arms crossed.
“Will the race still continue if it rains?”
Nagashino was the one to ask that question.
The sky was completely clear, so it was an unexpected question to everyone else, but Nanakubo wore a disappointed yet also oddly proud expression—as if she had anticipated that kind of question.
“Hihihi,” snickered Nanakubo. “True. Let alone rain, even squalls are quite possible on this island. And very violent ones at that. If rain falls on this goal site, then we’ll stop the race then. But it’s common for isolated drizzles to come down in the mountains. You have to deal with it on your own in that case. You can keep track of which direction you’re going in by—” She pointed at the sky above. “—looking at the Bagel. If it rains or turns cloudy, you’ll have to rely on your compasses instead.”
Compass? That was the tool that had greatly aided Homura and Touya when chasing the tracks of the wolves on Nutella. But, if Nagashino hadn’t asked the question just now, what would have happened if they encountered a squall during the race…? It seemed liked the race overseers were still purposefully hiding some things from them, making Homura even more uneasy.
“…No other questions? Then let’s get started.”
“Ro~ger~,” everyone replied. It appeared that everyone had resolved themselves to some degree the moment each club was put into teams of two.
About half of the race participants were older and experienced members, but exploring the unknown wild was something that every Exploration Club member experienced after joining.
Nanakubo looked at her mechanical watch.
“All right, let’s begin the race! First, we’ll hand out maps, compasses and record cards! Ah, wait, don’t go running off yet! There’s ten minutes until the official start. All right? I’ll give the start signal in ten minutes!”
Nanakubo gave a short blow of the flute hanging from her neck as a demonstration.
The two second years serving as her assistants held up bundles of copied maps, causing every participant to instantly gather around them.
What, eh, it’s already starting!? In just ten minutes—?
After vacantly standing there for a moment, Homura finally followed everyone else’s lead and jostled in line to get her own map and compass.
“Inari-senpai! I got your share as well! …Umm, senpai?”
When Homura came back, Inari, who’d been standing upright while listening to Nanakubo’s explanation, was sitting on the grassy ground with her head drooped a bit.
Her previously perked ears were also slumped on her head now, making it easy to tell her current condition.
“Are you okay…? Could it be… you’re suffering from transport sickness?”
“No.” Inari shook her head even as it remained drooped. “I just… got sleepy from Nana’s long explanation…”
Inari childishly tried to act tough, but it appeared she’d been surreptitiously hit by transport sickness due to transporting for the first time in a while.
Though the symptoms were transient, it apparently hit some people quite strongly. Even Touya, who strove to avoid relying on others as much as possible, had resignedly borrowed Homura’s shoulder when he’d suffered from it before. Homura couldn’t help being impressed by Inari’s force of will that refused to realize her own condition.
Homura bent down while checking Inari’s condition.
“Umm… I’ve discovered a serious problem in this race…”
“…Problem?” Inari glared at Homura with a single eye.
“We’ve got water… but we have no food. We have no sustenance. We’re going to quickly get worn out at some point.”
“…Finding the calories you need is also part of the race. Just eat any bugs you find crawling around.”
“Bugs are a bit…”
Inari-senpai, are you seriously saying that?
“More importantly… Homura, what’re you going to do?”
“Haah… I have no confidence I can win, so can’t I skip the race and stroll around the beach idly? If it’s all right with you, of course… Ah, no good, huh? Your eyes are scary right now.”
Inari shifted to sit cross-legged and stared hard at Homura.
“…Right back at you. Are you all right that? Haven’t you managed to make a guess about what the race’s prize and the topic of discussion in the club president meeting is going to end up being?”
“You really have no idea at all?”
In order to run away from Inari’s questioning, Homura desperately wracked her brains.
“…Mumumu. I painfully realized it during the SA, but our Seiran High club is nowhere near the level of the other schools…”
“That’s exactly why—”
Inari raised her voice, regardless of the fact that they were right near their other rivals.
“The other schools are obviously aiming to get the rights to talk and negotiate with the Nutellan as the prize. She’s called Subaru-hime, right? They’re clearly after her. I also told Touya, remember? You guys are too carefree. Don’t push everything on Mayo.”
Homura turned speechless.
“Eh… That might be kinda bad…”
Homura felt a cold sweat forming on her skin.
Homura had vaguely pictured a future where Seiran High and Hiyoshizaka High worked together to deepen relations with Subaru-hime. That’s how it should have been, but….
“When an exceedingly huge treasure like this is found, it doesn’t matter who the first discoverer was or how close to it your school is. Even if it’s technically outside the country, if people forcefully try to make contact with her and go too far, the whole area where Subaru-hime lives might get quarantined. Your personal sentiments don’t matter to everyone else. The fastest wins.”
“T-That’s… Misasagi-senpai and Touya-kun will surely resolve it somehow at the club president meeting…”
Inari’s expression had softened somewhat after her transport sickness seemed to have subsided a bit.
“…I see. That might also be part of the purpose of this test of courage here.”
“Basically, the club presidents entrust resolving issues that concern their respective interests to the first years who bear the future of the Exploration Club.”
“……Future?” Homura turned frantic at the word. “T-That’s too heavy a responsibility! W-What do I do!? What should I do?”
Inari put her hand over her mouth to stop herself from voicing the thought ‘You should have switched places with Touya to serve as the vice-president at the meeting’. After restraining the urge, she held out a hand to Homura.
“Show me the map… Homura, you go spy on what the other teams are planning.”
After saluting and standing up, Homura turned to look over their surroundings.
The pairs from each school were scattered about and seemed to be deciding their plans for the race.
There were varied reactions whenever someone’s eyes happened to meet Homura’s; some would immediately look away and some would stare back, with equally variedly emotions in their expressions.
“……If I remember right…”
Himekawa from Tomakomai Denpa should have come to Nutella too… but Homura couldn’t catch any sight of her.
Eventually, a first year boy who was the same animal-type Trans as Inari caught her attention. The boy began to tremble and became clearly fearful the moment Homura’s curious gaze turned on him.
Appearance-wise, his transformation wasn’t as striking as Inari’s. Even so, the long and slender straight ears on his head really stood out.
“A rabbit? So cute!”
The rabbit boy hid behind a nearby female student.
The female student looked up from the map in her hands and turned in Homura’s direction, and then she gave a small nod in greeting and walked over to her.
“—Things have turned quite serious, Hinooka. How about it, is your team ready for this?”
That low intoned tone and voice was very familiar.
“C-Could it be… Himekawa-san…!?”
The girl nodded.
Pale skin that seemed to freeze sunlight. Wavy pure white hair.
An abstract pattern that resembled undyed clothing was visible on her body beneath her swimsuit.
“…You look completely different from Elves like Misasagi-senpai.”
“Yes… Apparently, I’m currently the only one of this type in Japan. There were signs of it early on after patterns appeared on my body, but… I only underwent a huge change in form recently. I still haven’t gotten used to it—”
As she spoke, Himekawa pushed off the rabbit boy that was clinging to her waist in fear.
“Since I’m the only one in the country, I wanted to personally name this type as the ‘Snow Elf’—but they already found precedents among male investigators in North America. They apparently call such unusual Trans types names like Wendigoes and Sasquatches over there.”
“I’ve never heard of those odd names before…”
“More eerie than odd. They’re the names of fabled monsters like snow men and wind demons. My case is best described as a snow woman… but for the time being, I’ve been registered as a Wendigo.”
“I think you look really cool!”
“…Really? Thank you very much. I’m happy to be told that by you, Hinooka-san. Inari’s transformation also looks wonderful. In comparison… this kid is…”
Himekawa pulled the parka of the bunny boy who hadn’t learned his lesson and clung to her arm next, and made him stand up properly.
“Uuuuh… Shizune-san… You really intend to do this?”
“This is Kuwazono Yuu from my club. He’s a Trans like me… As you can see, he has quite the courageous personality… He and I are the only two first years in Tomakomai Denpa’s club. That’s why…”
Himekawa’s words trailed off there. She was probably trying to say, “That’s why we have to participate together whether we like it or not.”
“Nice to meet you, Kuwazono-kun,” greeted Homura.
The boy frantically bowed his head in return, causing his ears to flop in front of his face.
“There’s not much time left before it starts.”
Cutting the introductions there, Himekawa lowered her voice and spoke in a serious tone.
“Hinooka-san. I think you’ve already probably guessed, but everyone’s goal in this race is to get hold of the new base camp that’s going to be established for Seiran High.”
“…Does the same go for you and Tomakomai Denpa?”
Himekawa gained a complex expression with clear mixed feelings.
“No, my club is different. We still have lots of observation work to go and can’t leave our base in the far north. Though, I admit I’m quite interested in that Nutellan princess myself.
“But regardless, I’ll be challenging this race with all our might.”
Unlike the eager Himekawa, Kuwazono trembled as he spoke tearfully.
“If we win, we’ll get to request a female dormitory with an attached shower room for our base camp.”
“Ah, but I can’t discard the idea of requesting for our club to be given priority in receiving a Nutellan probe unit like Ameno-chan either.”
“Ahaha, that’s a great idea.”
Himekawa didn’t say it out loud, but essentially, her stated goals wouldn’t inconvenience Seiran High. However, it wouldn’t benefit Seiran High either, merely leaving the whole Nutellan matter at square one.
In any case, though, Homura was a bit uneasy about whether it was really a good idea to have Kuwazono accompany Himekawa in the race as her partner.
Despite that, Himekawa remained motivated, and she grasped Homura’s hand in a tight grip, snapping back Homura’s attention.
“That’s why we can’t cooperate with you, but I’ll still be rooting for you, Hinooka-san. Let’s have a fair race.”
“Yeah… Thanks, Himekawa-san.”
“So, Hinooka-san, do you have any plans to work together with your paired school Hiyoshizaka?”
“Ah, I forgot about that. I’ve got to go—Thanks again!”
Parting from the two Tomakomai Denpa members, Homura then searched for Hayashi-senpai and Kanae Yuri from Hiyoshizaka High.
The other teams were already starting to carefully look over their maps while surveying the island, writing down and arguing over routes to take, and making various other preparations—among that hustle and bustle, the two people Homura was searching for really stood out in a certain sense.
“Ah, there you are. Kanae-san… Mumu? She’s sleeping!? …Is it due to transport sickness?”
Kanae was lying sprawled on the ground.
Speaking of which, that young man Akiho had said something about Kanae before the transport.
For an instant, Hayashi looked like he was having Kanae lay her head on his stretched out legs as he sat next to her, but it turned out to be Homura’s eyes playing tricks on her. Still, they were positioned quite close to each other on the ground.
“Umm, Hayashi-senpai…? Is Kanae-san… okay?”
“Ah, Hinooka-san. Good luck with the race.”
“Why are you talking as if it has nothing to do with you?”
Hayashi-senpai was carefree as always.
“I think Hamamatsu Central and Ecchuu Takaoka High are seriously aiming to win this, their respective paired schools Mikawakotobuki High and Kanazawa Asano High as well if they team up. Isn’t this quite bad for us?”
Kanazawa Asano High was the school that Otomaru attended.
Homura’s heart felt pained at the thought of having to ruthlessly compete with a good natured guy like him.
However, the sharp question and request from his club president Shiragiku during the SA presentation had left a strong impression on her.
“True. And even discounting that, we have no reason to just let ourselves lose without doing anything…”
Fitting his easygoing nature, Hayashi hadn’t even turned to look over the map, despite the fact that there were only one or two minutes left until the race started.
Was that the composure of a second year, or something else…? But there was another matter that concerned Homura most.
“Hayashi-senpai, is it really okay to be so carefree, after you even went through trouble to exchange places with Akiho-kun despite the custom for first years to participate?”
“Hmm? Are you talking about her? Ah, you mean me? Well, I’ll manage somehow.”
Hayashi looked down at Kanae, who was lying curled up on Hayashi’s wind-breaker spread out on the bit of grass growing on the rocky surface. A big hat was placed over her face in place of a parasol.
“…She went to sleep again……… Hmm?”
Kanae’s skin tone was different than on Earth, having darkened slightly.
For a moment, Homura wondered if she was the kind to quickly tan even under weak morning sunlight like this, but that wasn’t the case.
It looked like she was a Trans too, but Homura wouldn’t get the chance to properly look at her transformed appearance until much later.
“She’s really weak during daytime. She always sleeps whenever she has the spare time.”
“H-Heeh, even on Nutella? But now isn’t the time for that—”
Homura couldn’t quite get used to Hayashi’s relaxed pace.
“Didn’t Hiyoshizaka High contribute just as much as Seiran High in the encounter with the Nutellan—with Subaru? You guys feel the same as us in not wanting other clubs to butt in unnecessarily, right? At this rate, you won’t be able to face Koma-senpai and Taga-senpai when you get back either…”
“Don’t worry about it. It’s just a festival race. Let’s take it easy.”
“Well, that might be the case for you, Hayashi-senpai, but… Ah, no, that’s not what—!”
Homura desperately tried to discuss plans for the race with him, but then the sound of Nanakubo’s flute signaled the end of the planning time. With no other choice, Homura ran back to Inari.
There, Inari was finally standing upright again.
“All right. Shall we get going?”
It appeared she’d completely recovered from the transport sickness.
She’d folded the map to make it easy to carry and also written down notes around the compass direction line and on the various routes.
“Don’t tell me you memorized and installed the whole map into your brain!?”
“As if. Mayo’s the only one who could do that. Analyzing the possible courses was the most I could do.”
The participants gathered around Nanakubo once more.
“Listen well, because this is the last time I’ll repeat this. The race lasts for six hours. Each team is free to choose any course they wish. You start from here. And the goal is here too. If both members of your team don’t make it back here before the six hours is up, you’re automatically disqualified.”
Until, Nanakubo had clearly been grudgingly acting in her coordinating role, but now she had regained her unique sadistic composure as she gazed over the uneasy faces of the novice members.
“And there’s one thing I forgot to mention. I’ll be releasing a signal every hour! And again when there are thirty minutes left and fifteen minutes left as well. Make sure you carefully calculate the time it’ll take for you to come back if you intend to keep searching right until the very end.”
With the loud sound of the flute resounding through the air as the start signal, the race between every Exploration Club began.
“Allez! Allez! Allez2.”
Immediately after the start, the two boys from Hamamatsu Central let loose a strange cheer and dashed off swiftly before everyone else, as expected.
Homura stopped as she was about to start running and nervously turned to Inari. Inari wasn’t standing still, but she was walking quite leisurely.
“No need to hurry, everyone. Just follow after them!” Hayashi shouted in a mischievous tone.
The two Hamamatsu Central boys turned around in surprise, but they didn’t stop running.
“Cut it out!”
“Don’t follow us!”
While tossing those shouts of protest behind them, the two boys took the lead over everyone else. They were already fervently consulting their map and had no time to check out the others behind them.
Hayashi-senpai followed after the two Hamamatsu Central members while calmly watching their backs.
He pulled along Kanae by grasping her hand, since she was wobbly on her feet and clearly still half-asleep.
Many of the other race participants looked at each other in confusion in the face of this sudden development, but there were also some teams that immediately followed after Hayashi and the others.
Some of them had simply chosen the same course to take, but the mental and physical burden was greatly different for those who were figuring out their path as they walked and those who merely followed along everyone else.
On the other hand, there were also teams that had chosen to head in a completely different direction from the Hamamatsu Central team.
Homura made a show of looking over her map while moving to follow along with the second group.
The entire island was roughly shaped like the letter ‘a’.
The start/goal point was located on the southeast edge of the island, near the lower-right corner of the map.
Located at the lower center part of the ‘a’ was a forest. The ground gently rose the further you went north, until it turned into a hill that was visible even from the start point.
The upper right edge of the ‘a’—in other words, the protruding section that curved out from the north towards the sea—served as a long and narrow peninsula.
The Hamamatsu Central pair and the group that followed them were heading towards the north, while the rest were headed towards the western area of the island.
“All the teams have clustered into two groups, Inari-senpai.”
Inari and Homura watched the direction the second group was heading in from behind.
“Yeah. Everything is just as expected so far. One group plans to circle clockwise around the island while the other intends to go counter-clockwise.”
Inari pointed at two routes on the map with her finger.
“Look, Homura. There’s a pattern to how the checkpoints are scattered across the race field—Do you see it?”
Inari continued walking leisurely as if there were no hurry.
Bracing herself inwardly, Homura looked over the map again.
“If I had to make a guess… The checkpoints inland are worth more points than the ones along the coast?”
“That’s right. Well done. And why do you think that is?” asked Inari.
“……Hmm. It’s the work of a criminal.”
Homura spoke with a seemingly serious expression—but she was obviously saying between the lines, “I have no idea at all.” Inari slapped the back of her head with the map.
“It’s because the checkpoints on the coast are easiest to find! As long as you follow the coastline, you’ll end up seeing them even without putting in much effort. The terrain there is also unobstructed. —On the other hand, your range of vision is obstructed by jungle inland. Well, they placed them in places that are easy to see even taking that into account, though. But it’s still highly likely that people will pass by a lot of them without noticing. There’s also the danger of losing track of our current location.”
“Ooh, I see. What keen insight, Inari-senpai!”
“Haven’t you noticed anything else?” Inari asked again with an unforgiving stare.
“…Don’t the checkpoints marked with [?] instead of a point score make you curious!? These are clearly meant for turning the tables in a single stroke, right?”
Such game-like mechanics were the only things that caught Homura’s attention.
“Well, it’s true that that’s a common trope in races like this … Especially the one far away at the edge of the northern peninsula. But these are definitely traps. I really don’t get the thought processes of playful people who come up with weird pranks like this.”
Suddenly, Homura raised her hand like an eager student in class.
“I have proposal, inspector. Let’s split up! I’ll go clockwise and you go counter-clockwise! If we each gather checkpoints we’ll get double the points!”
“Impossible. We each have our own map, but we only have one score card.”
“Ugh… I-I was just joking. I don’t have the courage to search on my own anyway.”
“Courage? You do realize that you’d have to search on your own if this were a normal orienteering game, right?”
Inari looked at Homura in exasperation.
“That’s how it is, so make sure you properly read the map too—ah, never mind! I hereby announce that we’ll divvy up roles! Homura, you’re on lookout duty!”
“Lookout duty? That’s it?”
“Your job is to use your eyes to carefully search for any dangers along our path, any unique areas that stand out, and for geographical features that I tell you to look for—and for checkpoints too, of course!”
“Roger,” replied Homura with a salute.
Suddenly, an angry shout came from behind them—
“Hurry up and go, Seiran! What are you guys being so sluggish for!?” Nanakubo spurred them on with a yell from far behind.
“Yes, we’re going!” replied Homura with an energetic wave at Nanakubo, who was remaining at the start point with the two male second years that served as the moderating assistants for the race.
A race on a completely unknown uninhabited island… and in the middle of a dense jungle with bad visibility to boot. Just where are we supposed to start from? Homura had thought discouragingly at first. However, now that Inari had given her orders and explained the tasks she needed to do in individual and concrete steps, she was surprised to find that her uneasiness was beginning to fade.
Next to her, Inari put her hands around her mouth to amplify her voice and shouted back at Nanakubo.
“Nana! We’re allowed this much of a handicap, right!?”
Nanakubo-senpai yelled something while angrily whirling her arms so fast that she struck the boys next to her, but she was too far away and her voice was carried off by the sea breeze.
“Ahaha, what the heck is she saying?” wondered Homura.
“She said that if we’re in last place, she’ll punch us and bury us in the sand on the beach for a whole night.”
Inari’s big ears twitched facing the direction Nanakubo was in.
“I-I don’t want anything to do with that kind of old-style penalty game, thank you very much!”
Homura and Inari had chosen the clockwise course.
The counter-clockwise course, which the Hamamatsu Central team and Hayashi had headed towards, contained a thick concentration of close checkpoints and seemed at first glance like the fastest route for collecting points. However, it involved going up and down a lot of slopes and focused primarily on the inland checkpoints.
In such exhausting circumstances, being forced to choose a path across difficult terrain could easily lead to the worst case scenario of losing track of your current location and becoming lost. That was Homura and Inari’s thinking, at least.
On the other hand, the clockwise course had gentle slopes and hills, but the distance between checkpoints was wide and it required walking across long distances.
“—Ah, I found one! I found a checkpoint! It’s that, right?”
Inari squinted her eyes in the direction Homura pointed. There was a red-white triangular prism there.
Their first checkpoint was located at an easily visible location a bit off the beach but outside the forest, making it easy for them to find.
Inari checked over the map.
“On high ground, huh… All right. Homura, you stay here.”
“Will you be okay getting it on your own?”
“I’ll be right back. You stay here at this height. If we both climb up there and come back down here, we might lose our bearings.”
Also, this helped reduce Homura’s exhaustion.
While Homura inwardly felt relieved even as she felt bad about being the only one taking it easy, Inari ran off with their score card in hand.
Inari once more displayed shocking agility as she jumped from branch to branch and ran up the rockface.
Just as she’d declared, she came back in less than five minutes.
“Here—we’ve got the [H] checkpoint.”
Inari showed the score card to Homura.
A stamp that appeared to be from the checkpoint was now in the first box on the card.
The stamp contained the letter [H] and a score number surrounded by a unique patterned border. Most likely, each stamp had a different border pattern to prevent participants from cheating.
“…5 points… That’s a low score number.”
Well, they’d already known that since this checkpoint’s score was labeled on the map as well.
“This is just our first one, so let’s hurry on, okay?”
Right around the time they were approaching their third checkpoint, Inari’s ears suddenly twitched, and she turned to look behind them.
That far-off echo of an explosive sound reached Homura’s ears as well.
The two of them were currently walking through a sparse section of the forest.
They managed to catch sight of white smoke rising up from somewhere far back outside of the forest.
“…What’s that?” wondered Inari.
“It’s probably the one hour mark signal. I was thinking it was about time for it.”
Inari nodded in comprehension, but then frowned
“But still, a smoke signal spell…? Was there such a convenient piece of magic? Did you know about it?”
“Err, I guess—but I only learned about it today. They talked about it during the Nadahama High presentation. Who do you think fired the signal just now?”
“Not Nana, that’s for sure. But wow, magic research is really making steady progress.”
The signal just now was white smoke, but they’d explained during the presentation that soon it’d become possible to release different colored smoke signals as well.
“I’ve used smoke signal guns before, but I find those scary since they sometimes misfire. Homura, how about you learn that spell yourself? Doesn’t it seem convenient?”
“Yeah, but they explained that caution is needed when casting it… They mentioned something about special training being necessary.
While it was certainly convenient, Homura also didn’t want to create a reputation of being skilled at only smoke magic.
Shortly thereafter, Homura and Inari reached the lower left side of the island on the map.
They were collecting checkpoints at a good pace, but they hadn’t seen any of the teams ahead of them so far.
Homura felt anxious at the thought of how much their late start might be costing them.
And there was another problem.
According to the map, there was a small peninsula that curved south ahead. And near the end of it was a checkpoint with an unknown score.
Homura and Inari discussed what to do about it with the map and compass in hand.
“What should we do…? If we try to get that one… going there and back will cost us a lot of time.”
“Yeah… It’d be great if it was worth a lot of points, but if not… Mumumu.”
…It’d end up being a complete waste of time, in other words.
“Only an hour and a half has passed so far since the start. We’ve already finished a third of our planned route… There’ll probably be more perilous locations to pass through ahead, but our pace isn’t bad. Now then…”
“Since it’s at the edge of the peninsula, it’s unlikely that the checkpoint is somewhere hard to find.”
“Yeah, you’ve got a point—”
Suddenly, Inari raised her head and stared deep into the forest. Her pupils reflectively retracted from the sunlight that hit her face.
“—A-Another Exploration Club member?” asked Homura in a nervous tone.
“It’d be scary if it weren’t.”
A group was coming their way, heading northwards from the direction of the very peninsula they’d been discussing just now.
They suddenly came into view. It was the team from Nagumo High.
“Ah… Hinooka-san. And—”
The one who swiftly replied was Nagashino, the moderating assistant during the SA meeting.
Nagashino gave a small bow and greeting while giving off a brooding and tense attitude, and then hurriedly continued past them.
Her partner, a male student, cheerfully waved back at them over his shoulder while going off with Nagashino.
“They left in quite a hurry. Like they had to move at a really fast pace.”
“Who was that?” asked Inari.
“Nagashino-san from Nagumo High. The boy with her was Hiraoka-kun, if I remember right.”
For an instant, Nagashino had glared at Inari with an extremely harsh gaze when she first noticed her.
A first year and novice member like her shouldn’t be directly acquainted with a member who hadn’t been attending club for a year (and still technically wasn’t) like Inari, though.
However, Homura had no time to ponder that oddity, as Inari spoked up again.
“I see—Ah, looks like another group coming back from the peninsula heading this way.”
Right after Nagashino’s team left, the team from Tomakomai Denpa appeared.
Himekawa-san… and Kuwazono-kun…
Seeing the two of them in their transformed appearances here in the jungle really made Homura once more conscious of the fact that they were on another world.
“Hinooka-san. So you’ve come this way too.”
Homura shook hands with Himekawa, who was panting for breath.
“It’s no good. The southern checkpoint is a trap. It’s a complete failure.”
Despite her words, Himekawa’s usual dispassionate tone didn’t really make it sound as if it’d be a failure.
“I can’t tell you too much since it would spoil the fun of the race, but I can’t recommend going after it.”
Homura looked to Inari for agreement. Inari immediately nodded.
“Sorry for making you stop. Let’s go!”
With Homura’s encouraging shout, the four of them resumed running through the jungle.
As they ran, Homura started a conversation.
“We saw Nagashino-san! She looked like she was on the verge of crying.”
“I know how she feels. The results from that checkpoint were quite severe, motivationally speaking.”
“By the way, what was the score of that mysterious checkpoint?”
Homura asked without a shred of reservation. My, my.
“Though telling the specifics is a bit of a spoiler, it was only worth three points.”
“Moreover, it was located somewhere hard to reach, and we unexpectedly wasted a lot of time and effort to get to it. Nagashino-san and her partner arrived after us—”
Himekawa stopped talking as she was almost entirely out of breath, so Kuwazono took over the explanation.
“It would have been pitiful if we left without saying anything, so Shizune-san told them the checkpoint’s score.”
“I was merely thinking out loud in passing.”
After that, Nagashino’s team gave up on that checkpoint and headed straight back immediately.
“They didn’t thank us for the info either,” said Kuwazono as he shrugged his ears instead of his shoulders.
“It’s fine, it’s not like we needed any.”
Himekawa really didn’t seem to mind.
“…By the way, Hinooka-san, shouldn’t you guys start running seriously soon?”
“Eh… Faster than this?”
Investigators typically had their physical strength enhanced and their sense of balance strengthened on Nutella. It was thanks to that that they were able to run through a jungle with uncertain footing and lots of ups and downs like this.
Up till now, Homura and Inari had run side by side so they could easily talk to each other, but they had still maintained a pretty fast pace.
However, Himekawa and Kuwazono merely exchanged a look, and then,
“Well, see ya later.”
After that short farewell, they increased their speed even further.
Both Himekawa and Kuwazono looked as if they were leaping with each step.
“Ooh, that’s amazing. There’s no way I could keep running at that pace,” said Inari in admiration.
Homura’s initial impression of the two Hiyoshizaka High team members was completely overturned, which actually made her feel a bit relieved.
Also, Himekawa was running at that superb speed without checking the Bagel above or her compass as well. Though Homura hadn’t really asked her about it, she assumed that Himekawa had an ability that allowed her to see geomagnetic waves like Misasagi-senpai, thereby letting her innately grasp her bearings.
“There are a lot of merits to being a Trans, aren’t there~? I’m envious~…”
“You mean their leg strength? In that case, you’ve got it wrong,” said Inari with a shake of her head. “That’s due to their bodies having adapted to gravity at high latitudes. Homura, haven’t you noticed? Compared to the area Seiran is in charge of, this uninhabited island’s gravity—and the shape of the ocean’s waves are—”
Just as Inari was about to explain, Homura’s pace suddenly began to slow down.
“Senpai… I’m hungry…”
“What? Geez. That’s why you’re acting all weary and limp?”
Inari took out three light green fruits the size of small eggs from her parka’s pocket and handed them to Homura, with no sign of stinginess at all.
“I found and picked these up while going around the checkpoints. They’re called something like renbu or denbu, I think. They’re edible, of course. The taste is so-so. They’re sweeter than most Earth fruit.”
“You’re giving them all to me? You don’t want any for yourself, senpai?”
Upon hearing that question, Inari looked away while putting a hand over her mouth.
“I already ate a ton earlier.”
“What? That’s unfair, senpai!! That’s why you’ve been so full of energy!?”
“I told you to carefully observe the forest yourself, remember?”
The fruits lacked much moisture, but it had a crunchy texture and good flavor.
After that, Homura and Inari headed north across the west side of the island.
To use a clock as a visual example, they were heading from the direction of 8 o’clock to 11 o’clock.
They were following a zigzagging course where they steadfastly obtained the points along the coast while turning inland every once and a while without majorly diverting their course.
This was a very tiring process for not only Homura but Inari as well.
Not only was taking a zigzagging path on uneven terrain quite exhausting, but their overall course also took them on a gradual upward slope that they had to ascend, and their view was often obstructed.
However, they did encounter some bits of good fortune as well.
Along the way, Homura and Inari passed by the Kanazawa Asano team, who had already gone halfway around the island. This was the club from the co-ed school that was actually closer to a girls’ school.
When they ran into each other, Iguchi, the female student who was Otomaru’s partner, clearly viewed Homura and Inari as rivals and forcefully tried to pull along Otomaru by the arm when he tried to exchange information with them.
Even so, Otomaru somehow held his ground, impressing Homura.
According to Otomaru’s thinking, this kind of opportunity to talk and converse with each other might be more precious and valuable than the exact results of the race… If that really was part of the intended purpose of this secret gathering, Homura couldn’t help feeling amazed by the superb acting of the upperclassmen.
“We’re part of the ‘faction that gave up’. Now that I think back on it, we might have seriously gotten tricked by Hayashi-senpai, you know!?”
“Faction that gave up?”
“Maru! Maru-kun! It’s almost time for the third signal, remember!?” said Iguchi noisily. ‘Maru’ was Otomaru-kun’s nickname. Many of his senpai apparently called him by the teasing nickname Omaru3 as well.
“T-Then what about the faction that hasn’t given up?”
According to Otomaru’s brief report as Iguchi tried to urge him to leave—
The hill that stretched across the northern coast was common knowledge to all the participants, but when they’d actually arrived there, it was apparently much steeper and more treacherous than was indicated on the map. It served as a precipitous cliff that cut off the rest of the island from the northern peninsula.
“After learning that, the best course of action would have been to survey the terrain and search for a way around it while slowly approaching the cliff. But—”
“Everyone ended up rushing it after Hayashi-kun incited the Hamamatsu Central team, right?” guessed Inari with an exasperated smile.
“That’s right. Because of that, we reached the cliff right away and weren’t able to immediately find a path past it.”
“Geez… The map they gave us was completely off…” complained Iguchi in frustration.
At that moment, Inari pointed at a far-off corner of the sky.
Homura and the other two first years hadn’t noticed it, but there was a trail of smoke drifting high up in the sky there.
—The third signal! Half of the race’s time limit is already passed!
Homura frantically turned back to Otomaru.
“Just telling us that is more than enough. Thanks, Otomaru-kun, and Iguchi-san too. You guys can go on ahead.”
“Yes, yes, you’re welcome!” said Iguchi as she hurried to move on.
“We’re heading inland to gather all the checkpoints there. That’s our only chance of making a comeback now.”
“Don’t go blabbing that, Marucchi! Aah, I hate this! I hate bugs!”
After that final shriek from Iguchi, the Kanazawa Asano team leaped off into the jungle.
“B-Be careful!” shouted Homura as she saw them head off, deep into the denser regions of the jungle that even Homura and Inari had purposefully avoided venturing into…
“I can’t believe the map was wrong…”
“It’s a common occurrence. The teams in the ‘faction that hasn’t given up’ must still be trying to get past that precipitous cliff.”
Inari calmly analyzed the situation, while Homura turned pale.
“Y-You mean they’re rock climbing? Ah, none of us have the necessary tools, so free climbing instead? In other words, bouldering?”
“There’s no other feasible option… I can’t help but feel impressed if they actually try to do it,” said Inari.
Homura gulped. She was concerned about how Nagashino and Himekawa were doing ahead of them as well, but right now they needed to focus on their own plan of action.
“Do you think it’s possible to find a path through it if we cautiously approach like Otomaru-kun said?”
“Yeah. As long as you know that the map is wrong ahead of time, that is.”
This is probably one of the things that Nanakubo-senpai had purposefully kept silent about… thought Homura as she glared at the map.
Inari was a strong and reliable ally to have, but their speed as a team fell behind everyone else’s and they had already been passed by several other teams. If they wanted to make a comeback and win, they had no choice but to aim for the more difficult checkpoints with high scores, but Homura shied away from the thought of going deep into the jungle like Otomaru-kun’s team.
In that case, their only other option was the unknown checkpoint at the end of the northern peninsula.
However, it was on the other side of a precipitous cliff that they didn’t even know if they could get past.
After simply declaring, “The final right to decide lies with the leading actor here, Homura”, Inari patiently waited as Homura agonized over what to do.
…Her way of doings things is different from both Touya-kun’s and Misasagi-senpai’s.
If Touya were here, he probably would have quickly chosen a path to take and thereby closed off Homura’s illusionary means of escape.
And what about Misasagi-senpai…? No, this was a situation where Homura couldn’t rely on senpai in the first place.
However, the fact that Homura had to decide for herself made her extremely anxious.
After finally resolving herself, Homura spoke an idea she’d thought of while nervously gauging Inari’s reaction.
“Actually… there’s something that caught my eye…”
Chapter 8 END
(1) Iriomote Island is part of the southwestern most island group in the Okinawa Prefecture and is located near Taiwan.
(2) Allez is the French word for “Go”.
(3) Omaru means “bedpan” in Japanese.