And so, a week passed by in a flash—
The Exploration Club members had safely transported to Nutella from the Transport Room in Seiran High’s club building.
This was Homura’s first time back to Nutella since she went to the uninhabited island during the SA, and Touya and Misasagi’s first time in over two months.
It was currently just past noon.
Normally, they would already be off towards their destination by now.
But currently, Homura and the other four investigators with her were still on standby at the base camp.
From now on, this place would be called the former base camp, since their mission this time was to head to Subaru-hime’s castle and set up a new base camp nearby.
In light of that, they had brought a bulky amount of tools and materials with them this time.
For the time being, the massive bundle of luggage had been piled in one place, emphasizing its sheer volume. Just the thought of how they would have to lug all this across the mountain trail made Homura wish to avert her eyes from the pile. She prayed that the engineers back home would implement a light-weight cycle car with an engine as soon as possible.
Still, they had some new members to help share the heavy luggage for this mission.
“How is it, Takumi-san?”
“—Okay. I’ve managed to check off all the points on the initial response checklist Toneri-san gave us.”
“There’s nothing abnormal, right? There’s nothing wrong with my body, right? All clear!”
Ameno jumped up and down to express her joy.
As usual, the Bagel stretched across the blue sky of Nutella, which had entered its fourth autumn season.
Ameno kept looking up and sighing in admiration at it without tiring of the sight.
Since Homura had experienced it herself before, she gazed upon Ameno’s innocent reaction as if looking upon her past self.
Touya had battled against the discomfort of Transport Sickness as he filled Ameno’s operation checklist, but had since regained his vigor and smiled happily at her.
“It’s almost scary how well things seems to be going,” he remarked.
“Please don’t say that! There was a long string of failures up to this point. Now I can truly go exploring with you all!”
“Yeah. I’m happy for you, Ameno. Congratulations,” said Touya.
“Everything’s all right, then!? Congratulations, Ame-chan!”
Homura happily congratulated Ameno from a short distance away.
“Yes! It’s all thanks to Tsuwako-san’s protective charm!”
“Now we can go exploring with all the members of the Seiran High Exploration Club!”
…However, there was a senpai present who threw cold water over this touching moment.
“What we’re doing this time is more like grunt work than exploration, though,” murmured a female Exploration Club member in a nonchalant tone next to Homura.
“What? There something ya wanna say?”
“No… not really.”
“Sorry I’m not Vice-President Oozore.”
“I-I didn’t say anything like that at all… N-Nanakubo…senpai…?”
Nanakubo stared at Homura with narrowed eyes.
“I could see it in your eyes. Your smoking eyes were so obvious you practically said it out loud.”
Instead of Oozore Misaki who was originally supposed to accompany them, Nanakubo Sae was the one to come to Seiran High.
She was a second-year student at Nagumo High. Unlike Touya, whose nearsighted vision improved on Nutella, she was apparently the type that still required glasses even after transporting.
Just as Nanakubo herself had frankly pointed out, she was someone that Homura had a hard time dealing with, but the senpai had still unexpectedly helped her a lot during the SA.
“It’s fine, not like I came because I wanted to. Really, why did I end up joining you Seiran guys on baggage duty?”
“I-I’m very grateful for your help… and for allowing us to economize on the magic energy for the transport…” That was the sincere truth. “We had so much luggage that one of us might have had to go back to Earth to bring it all, but thanks to the incredible capacity of your payload1, we managed to bring it all at once. Misasagi-senpai was talking about how happy she was about it.”
Despite how Homura had used all of her small amount of knowledge to flatter her, Nanakubo didn’t react. Homura peered at her curiously.
“Ah… Yeah, it’s not a big deal. If you want to thank me, do it in cash. How nice it must be for Seiran, being so rich. The exact opposite of our school which cuts the budget on everything.”
“No, umm, we’re not really living in luxury or anything… Though our club building is amazing, I admit…”
Nanakubo was clearly disgruntled as she complained in her usual way.
Homura cringed in response.
“But I heard that President Tenryuu was the son of a wealthy and influential family… He’s like a character straight out of a story, isn’t he?”
“That has nothing to do with our club itself. The president is the president, while the rest of us are commoners. We have to get up super early and take the Nozomi train2 to school. Just getting to ride a maglev train is a luxury.”
“I suppose so.”
Nanakubo sighed after getting that off her chest.
“By the way, I’ve been wondering since earlier, but what exactly are you doing? Are you helping President Misasagi with something?”
“No, I’m just searching for something…I guess?”
“Searching for something?”
“Well, you see…”
The current base had been made by reformatting old ruins left behind by ancient Nutellans.
Due to Suzuran’s extreme mischief during their last mission here, the stone ruins’ first floor and first level of the basement had tragically collapsed.
Right now, they were using the armory room, which had barely survived the onslaught, as a makeshift shelter against the wind and rain.
This time, the plan was to use everything that could be used, including not just the new materials they brought with them, but also the various tools that were already here at the base camp.
Homura had (officially) been looking around to see if there were anything usable in the collapsed rubble. However, they hadn’t had the time to sort through the wreckage during their last visit, so most of the implements had been left exposed to the wind and rain and no longer seemed usable.
Nanakubo seemed to have guessed the reason behind Homura’s search.
“That mentality not to waste things is a splendid mindset as a commoner, but the stuff around here is no good anymore. Everything’s covered in moss.”
“What about the wonderful oil lamp over here…?”
“It’s covered in rust. Might as well just make a new one.”
Just as Nanakubo had said, this camp was already in the process of becoming one with nature and returning to being the set of castle ruins it originally was.
Homura sighed as she looked around and once more keenly realized how swiftly time flowed on Nutella.
—Nutellan time flows six times faster than Earth’s.
That also represented the enormous gap that separated Homura and the others from Subaru-hime.
A year had passed on Nutella since their last visit.
They had taken Suzuran, Subaru-hime’s only family, and left the Nutellan princess in complete solitude here. That guilty thought pained Homura’s heart.
At that point, Misasagi-senpai came over to the two of them. She was carrying a big cooking pot and drinking water tank in her hands.
“Hinooka-san, it’s about time to prepare lunch.”
“Ah, right, roger that! Err, we need to make enough for eleven people, right?”
As Homura trotted over to her to accept the pot, Misasagi tilted her head with a worried expression.
“…We might need to make enough for fourteen.”
“That much!? Well, I guess there is one super big guy in the group.”
“I’ll prepare the fire, so please go and draw the water. Can I request your help as well, Nanakubo-san?”
“…Well, guess it can’t be helped,” replied Nanakubo.
While carrying the pot and heading towards the watering hole near the camp, Homura peered at Nanakubo’s face from the side with a knowing grin.
“…What is it? Don’t look at me. It’s creepy.”
“Nanakubo-senpai… Is this your first time seeing Misasagi-senpai’s Trans appearance?”
“Y-You’ve got a sharp eye there.”
Nanakubo was embarrassed that Homura had noticed how surprised and conscious she’d been upon seeing Misasagi’s beautiful transformed appearance.
When the two of them came back from the watering hole, the camp had grown quite lively.
The Exploration Club from Seiran High’s paired school, Hiyoshizaka High, had arrived.
“Wah, everyone is already here!? Welcome!”
“Hey, hey, don’t shake the pot. The water will spill out.”
Homura reflexively speeded up and Nanakubo hurried after her.
The Hiyoshizaka group had arrived on Nutella six hours ahead of them in Earth time and then immediately headed out from their base camp to reach here.
They had arrived just past noon after a day-and-night’s journey on Nutella.
Their arrival was at the exact time that the two clubs’ presidents had planned out beforehand.
Like Seiran High, all the members of the Hiyoshizaka club were participating in this mission.
With club president Kamikoma Sara at their lead, their members consisted of the vice-president Taga Taichi, Momoyama Masami-senpai, Hayase Ryou-senpai, Saho Akiho and Kanae Yuri, for a total of six.
The members from Seiran High, the leading actors of this mission, consisted of club president Misasagi Mayo, Touya Takumi, Hinooka Homura—and Fujimori Ameno, who had come to Nutella for the first time.
Nanakubo Sae from Nagumo High had also come along, making for a total of eleven investigators participating in this mission.
Having all these investigators here was extremely reassuring to Homura, and deep down she was actually just as excited as Ameno.
Touya and Ameno ran over to the just arrived Hiyoshizaka group, letting out cheers of amazement.
“What a huge spotted deer!”
“Is that an endemic species of Nutella!?”
Taga unfastened the animal carcass that had been tied to his backpack and let it drop to the ground.
It was a male deer. Its distinguishing characteristics were the spot that covered its fur from back to hip, whose color didn’t fade even in winter, and its antlers which were slightly small for a deer. The deer itself wasn’t all that big. It looked practically tiny next to Taga-senpai.
Looking at the bloodstains on the deer’s torso, Touya asked a question.
“This wound—did Hayase-senpai kill it?”
“Yeah, that’s right,” said Hayase while holding his bow in a mock shooting pose. “We’re imposing on your hospitality with so many members, so I thought we should at least bring a gift to make up for it. And we made it just in time for lunch, too.”
“Though I’m not sure about having this kind of feast so early in the day,” said Kamikoma with a wry smile.
“No, no, we have to build up our stamina for nighttime.”
“To do what, exactly?”
Kamikoma gave Saho Akiho a whack on the head as he merrily cut in with his jesting.
“Thanks for that! Well, that aside, leave dressing and preparing the meat to me. I’ve already finished draining the blood from it.”
Saho proudly took out a knife from a leather case.
His ears, which had drooped after Kamikoma’s whack, quickly turned erect and brimmed with energy again.
“Great. Please teach me how to dress meat too,” asked Touya enthusiastically, before suddenly turning around. “What are you doing, Hinooka? You come over too.”
“Uuuu… Just leave that kind of thing to Akiho-kun.”
Homura tried to back away, but Touya and Saho caught her.
His tone full of pride, Saho taught Homura how to dress and prepare an animal carcass with great detail.
The carcass was quickly cut and dressed by the knife in Homura’s hands. Homura kept letting out piercing wails at the sensation throughout the entire process.
As Nanakubo watched the noisy trio of first-years with an exasperated expression, Kanae Yuri gave her a piercing sidelong stare.
Her red eyes gleamed challengingly.
“…What, so Oozore-san wasn’t the one who came?”
“That you there, Kanae? Your face is depressing as usual.”
“There’s no point in my having come here if I won’t get the chance to be taught by Oozore-san.”
Kanae yawned as if to express just how disappointed she was.
“Hah. Our vice-president doesn’t have that kind of free time. By the way, isn’t your personality different here too?”
After a hectic yet satisfying lunch, the two Exploration Clubs set off from the camp.
Each of them carried a portion of the massive quantity of materials they were bringing with them. Taga-senpai, who had especially exceptional strength, carried a mountain-sized load. Naturally, Homura wasn’t exempted from baggage carrying duties.
Though her load was modest compared to those of the male members, she still had to walk carefully or risk slipping and losing her balance on the mountain path. The idea of merrily running around was absurd in this situation.
However, Ameno, despite being much smaller than Homura, was easily carrying the same amount of baggage as her, causing Homura to look at her enviously.
“Are you all right carrying all that, Ame-chan? Isn’t it heavy?”
“I think I could actually carry a lot more… but Misasagi-senpai said, ‘You’re forbidden from overdoing it.’”
“Yeah, she’s got a point. It’s easy to fall over until you manage to get used to the different sense of gravity here.”
“Yes! I’ll make sure to be careful!”
Ameno nodded repeatedly, moved by the guidance she received from the older Nutellan forerunners. As someone who was visiting Nutella for the third time herself, Homura was delighted by her reaction.
“Yeah, there are people whose feet slip over nothing, after all,” commented Touya.
“Touya-kun… That’s something you’re not supposed to bring up…”
Touya’s quip made Homura turn dejected. “Now, now,” comforted Ameno.
Homura looked up at the sky, feeling a sense of excitement and fun like a torch that refused to be extinguished in the depths of her heart.
This was her first time being surrounded by so much noise and commotion within the vast expanse of Nutellan nature, which usually filled her with a sense of isolation.
Even so, Nutella’s ring, the Bagel, remained unchanged as it stretched across the heavens.
A magical celestial body, which maintained its ring-like form through the shepherding of various satellites.
The closer it came to noon, the closer Nutella’s sun neared the Bagel in the sky.
In the clear blue sky, the Bagel, whose glitter was quite faded compared to the summer season, looked slightly further away than last time.
Along the way to their destination—
Nanakubo explained the circumstances behind why she ended up replacing Vice-President Oozore as the Nagumo High participant for this mission. Naturally, the Hiyoshizaka High members hadn’t heard anything about it until they joined up, but even the Seiran High members hadn’t yet heard of the complicated circumstances involved.
“Our club president Tenryuu had to hurriedly depart to China on official business due to Meivelle Chandra’s personal nomination. He went to participate on a joint investigation of ruins discovered within the region on Nutella that China is in charge of… but that’s just a pretext.
“The real reason he went is to conduct an inspection on the actual state of China’s exploration missions. They refuse to accept an official inspection group, so our president was sent instead using forceful measures.”
A sudden and unplanned inspection mission… Yet another disquieting affair.
Just hearing about it filled Homura and the others with unease and tension.
The implications of those distressing headlines in the newspapers recently had at last hit close to home.
‘Excessively long sojourns on Nutella by young male investigators.’ ‘Construction of a base camp that ignores international treaties.’
Investigator Meivelle had managed to obtain proof that the People’s Republic of China was secretly conducting illegal acts. And she had uncovered it by her own hands despite being on Earth.
Furthermore, in order to directly confirm the truth with her own blue eyes, she was accompanying Tenryuu to Nutella.
“There’s no way we could refuse a personal nomination from the Regina3 of Nutella. As a result, Vice-President Oozore had to take over our club’s next mission in place of the club president. And so, the job of sending someone to participate in the joint mission with Seiran and Hiyoshizaka came to me. Ah, geez, I really drew the short straw…”
Nanakubo made no attempt to hide her reluctance at coming here, causing Homura and the others to smile wryly.
Meivelle-san, huh? If I remember right, she’s half-Indian, half-British. A young, natural-born genius. And fluent in Japanese too. And she’s super-beautiful to boot… though she’s younger than me. God really does nonchalantly gift some people with everything…
Meivelle was an investigator attached to the United Nations headquarters of the UNPIEP. She was still only a fourteen-year-old girl of Indian birth, but the dignified behavior she’d shown during the club president meeting had left a strong impression on both Homura and Touya.
“Still, I can’t believe Miss Chandra personally nominated him. Despite how he looks, Representative Tenryuu must be really well trusted,” remarked Touya.
Nanakubo nodded with a complicated expression.
“India and China have long been bitter enemies over various border disputes—though that goes without saying—so even with Meivelle’s neutral position as a UN investigator, it’s highly possible that they might interfere and spy on her inspection. Miss Meivelle wants to avoid that kind of bothersome trouble, so she formed a contingent of understanding and trusted Exploration Club members to bring with her.”
Leaving Earth to go to what was, in a sense, enemy territory—to a lawless land where any accident could easily happen, and with only a select few comrades accompanying you. Just imagining it made Homura tremble.
That aside, a question similar to Touya’s occurred to Homura.
“Heh, how scary… but for some reason I got the impression that Miss Chandra disliked Representative Tenryuu.”
Homura spoke her thoughts out loud as she recalled the short conversation with Meivelle during the meeting.
“She dislikes him, all right. I’ve actually seen her jab him with her heel while insulting him with ridiculously harsh slang words before—but her personal feelings don’t matter. That’s the trade-off. I don’t know the details, but President Tenryuu apparently gets along well with the Chinese representative. You need someone to help relax the other side to strike a good balance, you know?”
After saying that, Nanakubo seemed to suddenly recall something and peered at Misasagi’s face.
Misasagi showed no sign of being upset and was naturally listening to Nanakubo’s explanation.
Seeing that, Nanakubo shrugged her shoulders and let out a sigh.
“Well… Our club can’t act so high-and-mighty when our club’s advisor is always buttering up to the Chinese, though.”
With that, the topic of Nanakubo’s last-minute entry to the mission was brought to a close.
Next, Kamikoma and Momoyama-senpai tried exchanging information with Nanakubo on the ruins reported to have been discovered in the Chinese area of Nutella. However, Nanakubo didn’t seem to know many details on that piece of news either and replied to their questions in a slightly tedious tone.
She had overheard that the vestiges of a structure believed to be a giant bridge or rampart had been found in the inner regions of the continent, but that was the most she knew.
Meanwhile, Homura’s attention was drawn to a particular person whose Nutellan appearance she was seeing for the first time.
He was a Trans whose transition form was registered as a “Cat-person”.
Just as the name implied, his transition form’s distinguishing features were his cat-like ears and tail. To be exact, the fur on his ears and tail resembled that of a calico cat’s. The color of his eyes had turned lighter as well.
If Homura hadn’t already seen Inari-senpai’s transition form, she might have been unnerved by Saho. Also, Saho had occasionally spoken of his transition form in his frequent texts to her, so she’d been prepared for it beforehand.
The other person she was seeing for the first time on Nutella was Momoyama Masami-senpai, but his appearance remained that of a human’s.
Like Taga-senpai, Momoyama-senpai was a quiet person of few words and a third-year student with a lot of experience on Nutella, but he had a weak presence… or so Homura rudely thought.
And the last person who Homura was secretly interested in was—
Kanae wore the same Hiyoshizaka High female Exploration Club uniform as Kamikoma-senpai.
Back at the uninhabited island on Nutella, Homura had only gotten the chance to briefly glimpse her appearance, and it was only now that she could fully observe the girl.
Dark brown skin. Dark grey hair with a bluish luster. Deep crimson eyes that seemed to suck in those who looked at them. Sharp-pointed ears.
Himekawa from Tomakomai Denpa had also possessed a unique air as a Wendigo Trans, but Kanae had a different kind of aloofness.
Her Exploration Club uniform, which was based on the Hiyoshizaka school uniform, seemed to have been modified a bit compared to Kamikoma-senpai’s. It gave off a similar air as the outfit Misasagi-senpai wore as a Magic Warrior.
And right now, Kanae was walking side by side with Misasagi-senpai.
This was a pairing that Homura couldn’t simply overlook. She reflexively walked behind the two of them and listened carefully to their conversation.
Homura couldn’t help but recall that summer evening, when Kanae had declared that Misasagi was the woman who would eventually become her sister-in-law.
…However, they currently seemed to be having a perfectly normal conversation.
“Yuri-chan… Is your physical condition all right?”
Kanae impassively nodded at Misasagi’s kind question.
“For the time being, anyway. I made sure to skip lessons yesterday so that I could sleep and rest.”
“Oh my. Was it effective?”
“Ryou scolded me, saying that I just wanted the chance to sleep.”
Misasagi burst into giggles.
Misasagi was an Elf Trans herself, but the different air she gave off wasn’t just due to her exotic appearance. She gave off an air of friendliness and intimacy that she’d never shown in front of Homura and the others.
Saho caught up to walk beside Homura without making a sound.
“Are you interested in Yuri-chan?”
“…Uwah… Akiho-kun. Stop surprising me like that…” said Homura, before nodding at his question.
“Yuri-chan will change even more when it’s nighttime. She even grows horns.”
“Horns!?” Homura unconsciously shouted.
Kanae turned back to look at them, and Homura blushed in embarrassment.
Once Kanae’s eyes were off her again, Homura resumed talking with Saho.
“Akiho-kun, sorry about this. We made you all come out here to help with our moving arrangements, and even made you carry such huge luggage.”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Saho nonchalantly with a shake of his head. “The only one of us who thinks that way is Yuri-chan. I don’t mind at all; I actually have some interest in the full construction of a genuine camp. I would probably never have had the chance to make my own house if it weren’t for this opportunity, you know? Besides, it’s my first time working in such a big group too. Ah, right, right, I also want to visit the castle of the Nutellan.”
“I see. You’re looking forward to meeting Subaru-hime like the others, right?”
“But… you said you wanted to go to the castle…”
Homura was bewilderment by Saho’s sudden change in tone. And Saho went on to spur that confusion further.
“But Subaru-hime is, like a thousand-year-old old lady, right?”
“Wha… O-Old lady…? What~~~?”
“I have no interest in that kind of thing. Let alone over forty, the idea of a woman whose age reaches four digits makes me shudder.”
“How could you say that!? That’s rude, Akiho-kun!”
Saho faltered in the face of Homura’s angry look.
“No, no, why are you getting angry over this—? The whole idea of a young-looking old lady is weird. Old women are supposed to be wrinkled-looking grannies. Those are much better in comparison. Aren’t those kinds of grannies cute?”
“Ugh, in any case, apologize! Subaru-hime isn’t an old granny. Take those words back!”
“Are you saying something like ‘A woman wants to keep putting on airs no matter her age’? Well, I wonder about that. It makes me want to question the aesthetic senses of Nutellans. You know what they say, ‘Old people should act their age’…Oww, ooooow! Hey, don’t pull on my tail, it’ll tear off! Please grab it more gently.”
“It’s fine, isn’t it? This will disappear once you return to Earth, right? Or not? Will it leave a scar on your body if I tear it off? Want to give it a try?”
“I don’t want to try something like—Oooow!”
It was deep in the autumn on Nutella.
The farther and higher they traveled on the mountain path, the more the colors of the mountain turned vibrant.
Each time they stopped to rest, Homura put down her bag and took out her analog camera.
She took photos of the breathtaking fall colors of the Nutellan mountains using the special turret filter she’d gotten as a sample from Ecchuu Takaoka High.
Tree groves spread out below in a panorama resembling a burning sea. The living and breathing primordial forest stretching out as far as the eye could see, thin clouds lingering here and there—the sight was beautiful enough to bring tears to one’s eyes. It truly was a vista that no one living in modern Japan could ever see.
Partway through their journey, the group made camp for the night.
The weather hadn’t turned for the worse so far, marking a truly favorable start to their mission.
Some of the others like Saho, Hayase, Touya and Ameno still seemed to have plenty of energy and noisily conversed by the fire till late at night, but Homura went to bed right away from the exhaustion of carrying so much baggage.
She could hear Nanakubo’s faint breathing from where she slept in her sleeping bag in the tent they shared—as well as the gentle sound of Kamikoma’s lute playing from outside.
Ah, if only I could stay awake a bit longer… Though she wanted to listen to Kamikoma’s lute performance, Homura’s drowsiness won over. It was a very pleasant, comfortable night.
Chapter 15 END
(1) The kanji below the English word “payload” reads “available number of carry-on items during transport”.
(2) Nozomi train: the fastest train service running on the Tōkaidō/Sanyō Shinkansen in Japan. The service stops at only the largest stations, and along the stretch between Shin-Osaka and Hakata.
(3) Regina: Latin word for “queen”.