Chapter 22

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VOLUME 2-2

Chapter 22

The next day, the party finally reached the coastline.

Just as the pre-mission report had informed them, the ocean was filled with many pale white pieces of drift ice.

The pieces that rammed into the coast split apart and piled together in many layers.

The ice itself was quite thick, with even the ones they observed nearby being at least seventy or eighty centimeters thick, but there were cracks running all along their surface with random protrusions sticking out here and there, so walking atop this ice for a lengthy amount of time would likely prove a challenge.

From there, the party headed north along the snow-packed coastline.

Misasagi judged that this place was still a source of expanding and colliding drift ice, and that the thickness and flatness of the ice would increase the further north they went.

However, they couldn’t simply head straight north and had to take a roundabout route that followed the cape that jutted out to the east along the coast.

But eventually, just as Misasagi had predicted, the color of the drift ice visible on the horizon turned increasingly white the further they advanced.

“Wow, there are foxes atop of the ocean. I wonder if they transform like in fairy tales?”

Saho managed to spot wild animals in the distance with his excellent eyesight.

Brown-furred foxes were cautiously moving across the ocean ice while jumping over the huge dark chasms that resembled streaks of lightning between the pieces of ice. Places that looked like open ocean at a glance were actually already covered by thin layers of ice.

As the group continued their trek along the coast, they also encountered a colony of what first looked to be cute seals but turned out to be gigantic elephant seals, demonstrating the sheer variety of sea life within Nutellan oceans that they had never had the chance to witness firsthand.

The fact that so many wild animals were living in this area indicated that a lot of fish inhabited the ocean here, providing an abundance of food.

Occasionally, Homura took out her camera and photographed the animals they encountered.

She found taking picture quite enjoyable, but taking off her gloves to switch out the film and operate the camera delicately was literally a painful experience. The endless freezing wind caused her fingertips to turn numb in an instant.

The greatest trouble that day was when they encountered an ultra-gigantic walrus whose body looked to be eight meters long—it looked a true sea monster from right out of a children’s show.

The walrus, camped out alone beneath a cliff by itself, threatened the approaching party with a resounding growl that seemed loud enough to crack the ocean, while showing off two long tusks!

In order to pass through the coast which was lined by cliffs, they had no choice but to pass by the walrus. It stood in their way like a gatekeeper barring their path.

Normally, walruses had gentle dispositions, eating mainly shellfish or shrimp, and pratically never attacking mammals like humans, but this irregular sea beast seemed to be a subspecies unique to Nutella.

“All right… Then let’s use our own two sword-style to counter his!”

With that haphazard judgment by Kamikoma, Touya ended up being the first to challenge the beast.

It was a mystery whether there was any real point to it or not, but he did indeed hold a sword in his hands. This time, he hadn’t brought both his swords for his preferred dual wielding and kept the shorter blade sheathed at his waist. It appeared he had taken Subaru’s warning to heart.

“This thing’s as big as a dump car… the kind that’s filled to the brim with gravel and weighs four tons…”

Touya remained cautious as he slowly advanced along the cliff bottom with a sideways crab-walk.

The walrus’ ear-shattering growl didn’t abate during his approach, but he somehow managed to pass by the walrus without issue.

Following Touya’s lead, they made past the narrow span of cliff-face where the walrus lay one by one—though Homura did so while sticking to Misasagi’s back with her eyes closed the whole time—but just when they thought they’d successfully put the imposing cliff guardian behind them…

“It’s because you act all irritable that no females will approach you and you can’t make your own harem, you know?”

With those laidback words, Saho boldly approached the walrus.

“You—”

—idioooot! The others held the exact same thought as they gulped at this act that defied all sense or reason from ahead on the path.

Saho spoke in a friendly manner while tapping the walrus’ thick and fatty stomach.

“Well, as fellow men for whom harems are out of reach, let’s get along-gargh—”

Saho was caught by one of the walrus’ tusks and sent flying through the air.

It took only took seconds for him to fly above the heads of the others and crash far off into the distance, his body rolling through the fields of snow. He went with the momentum of the roll and managed to get to his feet to run off at full speed.

Homura could only stare speechlessly at Saho’s diminishing back as he ran further and further away towards the horizon.

“Crap! Everyone, run!” Kamikoma shouted, but it was drowned out by the walrus’ resounding roar. Its giant brown body caused the ground to tremble as it charged straight at the party members.

They all dashed away as fast as their legs could go.

“What the hell was that idiot thinking!?” Touya shouted.

“As if any of us could understand that brain of his! Someone hurry and bring Hayase-senpai! I can’t even make a retort to this!” Homura cried.

“We should have just sent out Akiho as a sacrifice from the start,” Kanae opined.

Fortunately, they all managed to escape with no injuries, even Saho.

Only the god of the sea could guess what their return trip through here would be like.

+++

Their journey along the coast continued into the afternoon.

For lunch that day, they had pre-made curry stored in freezer bags. In this freezing winter weather, the cold air itself served as a natural freezer, allowing them to preserve a variety of foods.

The fact that cooking only consisted of melting it in a pot, which was just as easy here as on Earth, was greatly appreciated by Homura, who was on cooking duty. She’d thought a winter expedition would consist of nothing but miserable cold, but she found herself a little surprised at how she enjoyed doing such simple things.

However, before she could bring a spoon of curry to her mouth, she saw Touya staring intently at Kamikoma and Misasagi.

“What’s wrong?” Homura asked.

“No, it’s just… I’ve got a bit of a bad feeling, but…”

After seeing the two presidents start eating normally, Touya looked relieved and began to eat. But…

“…Huh? …Mumu…” Homura was a bit late to start eating since she had been busy preparing the food and serving everyone’s plates, but she frowned after taking her first bite. “S-So spicy…”

This was curry that Homura had made herself using a large scattering of various vegetables, but without her realizing it, the curry’s red tint seemed to have gone way up—!?

“The flavor is a bit strong,” Kamikoma said like it was nothing.

Upon closer inspection, all the first years showed anguished expressions. Even the glutton Taga-senpai seemed to be eating at a slower pace than usual. Only the two presidents were completely unaffected.

“Hmm… The spiciness of the black peppers that stabs the tongue the instant you take a bite… Then the spiciness of the red peppers that gradually hits you halfway through… And finally, the spiciness of the Habanero chili peppers that comes last and continues to assert its presence even once it’s reached the stomach… Now this is what they call spicy violence…” Saying this kind of analysis like student council president Rokujizou would do was the most Homura could do as a show of protest against this assault on her taste buds.

“…In other words, it’s extremely spicy,” summed up Ameno while passing out water to the others, having listened to Homura’s analysis in interest.

“Is that so? Isn’t this amount pretty normal?” Kamikoma asked to Misasagi in search of agreement.

Misasagi nodded with an unfazed expression. “A little spiciness like this helps warm the body.” As if it was just a little spicy!

True, their bodies had quickly gotten cold and they’d had many sneezing fits once they stopped walking and took a rest, but even so, wasn’t this level of spiciness to much?

Suddenly, Homura vaguely recalled that Kamikoma had come to sample the curry when she’d been near the end of her frantic cooking.

“This makes me remember the previous club president’s Hell’s Lunch series…” Touya mumbled while dripping sweat.

Upon hearing that, Homura at last realized that those boxed lunches from before were the work of the previous club president.

Kamikoma nodded.

“Yeah, that person always threw off all limiters whenever it came to curry, rambling things like non-spicy curry being a crime worthy of punishment by the Hindu gods, and that in the Ramayana it was bequeathed along with Indra’s arrow. The way we see it, curry that’s easy to eat isn’t curry at all. This one is just barely at the starting line in terms of spiciness.”

Misasagi nodded again. Rather than having their tongues trained, it was more like they’d been completely brainwashed by the previous president. Homura swore to herself to never take her eyes off the pot while adding ingredients ever again.

+++

After that spicy meal, they set out for the coastlands once more.

The wind grew strong again in the afternoon, but thanks to their route lying beneath the shadow of the cliffs, the fierce winds were cut off and they were able to proceed without trouble for a while. The clusters of strangely-shaped rocks that occasionally appeared along their path was simply a nice accent to the background of their journey.

Eventually, the natural path along the cliff-face widened, and the snowfields that extended from the forest and the ice atop the sea connected in a gentle slope.

Thanks to that, the party gained the leisure to stop walking in narrow ranks of two and move about more freely.

—After his escapade with the walrus, Saho was severely chewed out. He got a harsh dressing down from Kamikoma, along with silent pressure from Taga. He was despondent for a little while after that, but by now he was back to his usual self and talking excitedly to Homura as they walked side by side.

“—Yes, yes, you’re quite good at this, Hinooka. So next, this is a hippo.”

“Uh-huh.” Homura listened to Saho’s explanation.

Ameno was also with them and was quite impressed by Saho’s passionate impressions, inspiring her to mimic him.

Touya moved back from the front of the group to join the three of them.

“What’s with all the noise you guys have been making since earlier? I keep hearing weird sounds like ‘Oah’ and ‘Veeey’.”

Homura merely gave a truly animal-like cry of ‘Boaah!’ in response to Touya’s question. Pleased at the confused expression she got out of him, she repeated the cry several times.

“We’re learning different animal cries from Akiho-san!” Ameno answered happily.

“…Animal cries?”

“That’s right! Let’s do it one more time—”

Homura, Ameno and Saho all released an animal cry together.

Their voices were absorbed across the nearly soundless white horizon. The sea surface with sprays of snow dancing atop formed a world of pure white, while the sky was grey from the haze of clouds that covered it. Only a sliver of sunlight touched upon the monochrome landscape.

Kamikoma briefly glanced back at the four first-years from the front, but didn’t pay them much mind and resumed talking with Taga and Misasagi. Kanae was walking alone in the space between the two little groups.

Saho seemed quite satisfied with the accuracy of their animal cry reproductions based on what he taught them and continued with his lecture.

“The voices of both large and small tortoises sound the most human and heartrending.”

“Heartrending? Huh?” Homura blinked in confusion. “Tortoises have their own cries?”

“No, they can’t.” Touya shook his head. “They don’t have vocal cords, if I remember my biology studies right.”

Saho nodded and explained further while wriggling his body.

“Rather than cries, it’s more like they breathe hard. Like ‘Haaan’ or ‘Aaan’.”

“Hmm? …Wait a minute.” Homura tilted her head in puzzlement. “Akiho-kun… Are these really animal cries…?”

“Sure they are. The cries when the animals mate, that is.”

“Wait, m-mate—!? What the hell are you making us say!?” This time Homura’s shout of protest resounded across the snowy fields.

Ameno tried to shout “Boaah” again in sync with her, so Homura had to frantically stop her.

Touya couldn’t help but laugh at it all, but then he glanced to the front and saw Taga pointing in the direction of the ice plains atop the sea.

“Ah.” That was all his deep voice said.

Beyond the spray of snow being whipped about by the fierce winds—

The bright white peaks of a snow-tipped mountain range could be seen sprawling the frozen horizon like a boundary line beneath the sky,

Their destination, the peninsula, had finally shown itself.

+++

That day, they set up camp atop the snow along the cliff-face once evening came.

While Homura’s group quickly began preparations to make supper, Touya and some of the others buried their accumulated garbage and various tools they would need later in the ground, planting markers so they could pick them up on their way back.

Their camp spot was set along the edge of a bay that formed a wide arc, at the point nearest to the peninsula on the opposing shore.

The floating ice atop the sea was as flat and smooth as a mirror here, looking perfect to traverse. The ice was over a meter thick here.

As the sun was on the verge of setting, the mountain range on the opposing shore became visible again on the horizon, dyed pink in the fading sunlight.

Homura felt a little excited now that their grand destination was finally in sight.

Misasagi and the other senior members estimated that getting to the opposite shore would likely take a whole day, and that they would be able to arrive around sunset if they departed at the break of dawn. Naturally, though, that was only if the weather was favorable.

It wouldn’t be a laughing matter if they were struck by a gust of wind and snow while traversing the sea ice. On the ice where there wouldn’t be any obstacles to serve as windbreakers, the wind could get strong enough to easily blow away a tent nailed to the ground. There would be nowhere for them to escape to in such a situation. They wouldn’t even be able to make an igloo for shelter, leaving them no choice but to freeze to death if they got stuck out there. No matter how reliable their specialized winter sleeping bags were, if they were exposed to winds of 20 degrees below freezing point for hours without end, they would definitely freeze-dry, their bodies still fresh.

In the first place, no matter how thick the ice was, just the idea of sleeping atop the ocean with only a sheet of ice separating them from the water made Homura mentally shiver.

This is way different from skating or going on a boat trip…

However, troubles that far surpassed Homura’s worries awaited them atop the ice they would be traversing tomorrow.

+++

Kamikoma gave the go-ahead for traversing the ice the next day.

Last night, she had left her tent many times to check on the weather.

They could have stayed along the cliffs for another day to further confirm the situation. However, there was no guarantee that the good weather they’d consistently had until now would remain the same tomorrow.

Both Homura and Touya sighed and fruitlessly wished that Nanakubo were here with her special skill for predicting the weather.

They slept through the night while carrying that anxiousness in their hearts—until Kamikoma let out a loud shout, that is.

It was just before dawn the next day—

Woken up by the commotion outside, Homura left her tent and saw the other members energetically conversing with each other while pointing at the sky.

“What’s going on…?” Homura asked the nearest person, her eyes too blurry from sleep to identify who it was exactly.

It was Taga-senpai, who pointed up at part of the night sky at the abnormality that had everyone riled up.

After clearing her head the cold air and finally focusing her gaze, Homura noticed a line of light trailing across the night sky. Now that she could properly see it, it greatly stood out amidst the night sky as it shone against the backdrop of the Bagel’s shadow.

“…Eh, what’s that… an airplane trail? Of course not… t-then, maybe a comet?”

“I think it’s probably the cloud trail left by a shooting star, but…” Misasagi’s answer was unusually uncertain. She seemed baffled by how it was shining like this.

“A shooting star… then that means a meteorite fell from the sky, right?” Homura asked.

“The instant it shot down from the sky, it released a huge burst of light. It was so bright that a lot of us got woken up by it,” Kamikoma explained excitedly.

She pointed at Touya and the others who were chatting frantically. Saho in particular was loudly insisting, “It’s clearly the work of a witch!”

“Saying it’s the work of a witch… I’m not sure whether that’s a good or bad omen…”

Kanae was also among the other members who’d been abruptly awoken.

She was wearing thin nightwear that exposed her shoulders, making her look extremely cold.

But right now, she was simply staring fixedly at the sky.

Ah… Kanae-san…!

Homura saw shining crimson horns sprouting from either side of Kanae’s head. This was Homura’s first time seeing Kanae’s true form as a Diabolo. The curved horns that resembled those of a goat truly made her look like a demon.

The line of light far above in the sky eventually faded and disappeared. The direction of its trail coincidentally headed towards the mountain range that Homura and the others were aiming for.

+++

Though last night’s mysterious event remained on their minds, the Exploration Club members went on to journey across the ice the next morning.

They began traversing the bay in the direction of the mountain range on the opposing shore, facing the rising dawn sun lighting up the eastern sky.

“From this point on… is where the real adventure begins,” Misasagi murmured, which earned a spirited “Yeah” from Kamikoma.

Eh, everything until now didn’t count as an adventure!? …Homura really, really wanted to say that out loud, but before she could, her attention was caught by something abnormal occurring in the sky.

The sky was on fire.

The dawn sky, which had been a pastel of faint colors just moments before, was instantly dyed in amazingly vivid colors, like an oil painting sketched over finely undulating clouds.

Weakly shining sunlight peaked through a gap from where the sun lay behind the Bagel.

Touya put a hand on Homura’s shoulder and silently pointed at the sky. There, the peaks of the mountain range they were heading towards were casting shadows across the clouds. The dark line stretching across the screen of clouds along with the rising sun was like a shadow searching.

It was a brief but beautiful sight that was a joy to behold. However, that wasn’t the only thing that served to raise the group’s adventurous mood.

At last, it was time for the sled they’d brought with them to take the stage. It was a simple sled made from an aluminum frame with a net holding it together, but it was a great help on this flat plain of ice.

It was as if another Taga-senpai with his boasted strength had appeared. Well, in reality, the ones who pulled the sled with their baggage atop it were Touya and Saho.

“Ooh, you’re even more dog-like now, Touya-kun,” remarked Homura while walking alongside him.

“Shut up. The ‘even more’ is unnecessary.”

“What’s more, the other one pulling is a cat. This is the first I’ve ever heard of a cat-sled, you know?”

“No, you see, I didn’t find it to be so hard at first, but it’s actually quite difficult. I don’t think I can keep this up… Ah, it just got forty-nine kilos heavier.”

“Eh, no way, no way, it’s not that much.”

“Hmm? Hey, Hinooka! I told you not to ride on the sled! It’s immediately obvious you hopped on!”

“Well, it was worth a shot.”

Spurred by the novelty of the sled, Homura fell into a mischivious mood.

However, that kind of trivial talk only lasted for the first little while.

Kamikoma’s pace at the head of the group was fast, and she kept their breaks to a minimum.

She didn’t make any teasing comments that might spur unease among them, but it was clear from her attitude that she was treating this ice field as a dangerous place. She could tell that the wind tended to grow stronger in the afternoon based on previous experience, and she was obviously impatient to travel as much distance as possible to avoid that.

Misasagi was once again taking up the rear and used a whistle to send signals to the front when needed, finely adjusting the party’s course like a cox in a boat race.

Eventually, the silently walking party approached that point, the last place where they could turn back in time.

It was just an empty spot on the ice field with nothing of note, but it was the final borderline based on the remaining time and the distance until the opposing shore. If they advanced past here, it would actually be more dangerous to turn back should a sudden snowstorm hit them.

Right now, the weather was good and clear. As they stopped to check their respective body conditions and the tiredness of their feet, Ameno made a suggestion.

“How about I carry Yuri-san’s baggage?”

As the sled pullers, Touya and Saho tried volunteering in her stead, but the two club presidents ultimately decided to increase Ameno’s baggage load.

“Thank you, Ameno-san. Then, please do so. If there’s an abnormal drain on your battery, please report it right away,” Misasagi requested.

“Yes! Leave it to me!” Ameno nodded happily.

Until now, Kanae had been reduced to carrying only a small sack containing emergency tools. Even with that lightened load, it was clear that Kanae displayed the most exhaustion among them.

Homura had also been unable to adjust her feet to the hard icy surface which differed from the snowy plains and felt a dull pain in her thighs, but she couldn’t bring herself to complain upon seeing Kanae’s condition.

“……”

Without breathing a word of thanks, Kanae merely followed the presidents’ instructions and silently handed over her baggage to Ameno.

Ameno was already carrying a shocking amount of baggage from Homura’s perspective. It was even more than Taga-senpai if you compared their body weights. If they were on an incline like in the mountains, it might even have been dangerous to those around her should she accidentally fall, but that was a needless worry on these flat icy plains. In light of that, the decision of Ameno and the club presidents seemed correct.

“All right! Let’s lift off!”

Kamikoma hoisted up her arm and the rest of the party replied with the best cheer they could in their current condition.

They had decided to keep going all the way. Homura didn’t miss how Kanae had lightly patted Ameno’s shoulder before she resumed walking silently along with everyone else.

+++

—The threat suddenly appeared before them.

The first to sense the anomaly was Taga, walking at the front of the group with Kamikoma.

“…Koma-san.”

“Hmm? What’s wrong?”

Taga slowed his pace and put a hand on Kamikoma’s shoulder.

Saho suddenly let go of the sled and dashed forward.

“Hey, what’re you doing, Akiho!?” Touya panicked as he was left pulling the baggage sled by himself.

Saho went running right past Kanae and leapt onto Taga’s back.

Taga didn’t move as he kept his eyes on the distant horizon and allowed Saho to climb up to stand on his shoulders. Seeming to notice something as well, Kanae turned around and ran back to the sled to take Saho’s place.

“It’s coming—We have to all gather together, or else—!”

“Eh?”

Despite being clueless to what was going on, Touya hurried to pull the sled forward with Kanae.

Misasagi and Ameno also trotted up from the rear and pressed the confused Homura to follow them.

“Hinooka-san, go to Taga-kun along with Ameno-san!”

After giving that order, Misasagi attached her own baggage to the sled and lightened herself while remaining on the move. She took out her personal bow from her back and swiftly deployed it from its folded state.

“A-An earthquake…?”

At last, Homura also detected the anomaly. Her feet felt a slight trembling from the ground.

An earthquake—on an ice sheet over the ocean?

Saho reported that a black line was expanding across part of the horizon.

Doing as she was told, Homura trotted over to Taga and questioned Kamikoma, who was glaring at the horizon.

“Senpai, what is that!? A tsunami!?”

“No. It’s not a tsunami. Well… it seems like my gut was right.”

Nodding, Kamikoma handed Homura the pair of binoculars she’d just been using.

Homura lifted it up to look through the lenses. The black line that was growing larger on the horizon with a trail of snow blowing in its wake—its true identity was a countless number of beasts running side by side. Homura felt a shiver go down her spine from their sheer size and number.

“They’re running towards us at shocking speeds… They have horns on their heads… Deer? …No, cows!?”

“Those are bison, Homura! A huge herd of American bison! —Just like us, this day of clear weather is the perfect time for them to traverse the ice, I guess,” Kamikoma said, convinced of her theory.

After putting down the binoculars, Kamikoma carried her under her arm and stored away her bulky gloves. Underneath, she was already wearing fingerless gloves that she had prepared for times like these.

She then bit off the sticker seals that were attached to the back of her gloves.

“What’s that…?”

“Heating elements. I’ll be able to hold out for a while with these. The rest depends on them—How’s it looking, Akiho?” Kamikoma shouted as she turned back to Saho on Taga’s shoulders.

“…Amazing! I’ve never seen such a huge herd of bison before. I can’t even see how far back the herd goes! They’re heading north, but the herd is spreading out mostly in our direction!”

After reporting that to Kamikoma, Saho jumped down rom Taga’s shoulders.

“I guess the only silver lining is that they’d not heading straight at us… Taichi, please!”

This time, Taga lifted up Kamikoma onto his shoulders, and she resumed looking through the binoculars while keeping her lute under her arm.

Even as they spoke, the trembling caused by the bison herd grew stronger and stronger. They were now close enough that they could be made out with the naked eye.

“Just how many are there?” Homura wondered. Saho shrugged.

“There’s at least ten thousand that I count by sight, and there’s probably way farther behind them. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were a million of them in the worst case.”

“A million—!? A whole whopping six zeroes!?” Homura could tell Saho wasn’t joking. “I only have ten cans of tear gas spray, you know?”

“Provoking them would just make things worse. We have to rely on the president here.”

Kamikoma gave orders from her perch and had the party bunch up together.

In the first place, there was nowhere to hide on the ice. While the sled could serve as a temporary wall tipped over on its side, it didn’t look reliable at all.

The bison had thick dark brown fur and were far bigger than any cow in Japan, their raised shoulders reaching almost two meters tall and their weight reaching up to a ton for the adult males. Their horns, small compared to their heads, still reached up to a meter long by the looks of it.

The bison advanced in tight ranks like a dark muddy stream before the eyes of Homura and the others.

“A million bison… If a single one is ten thousand yen worth of meat, that makes ten billion yen…”

Homura’s innappropriate joke managed to get a feeble smile from Saho.

“I don’t think it’s something that can be laughed off, though—In the past, there were apparently sixty million of them across North America, but during colonization and pioneering by Europeans, they were hunted down and reduced to a mere five hundred. Yet they have survived like this here on Nutella. It really is amazing. There’s probably at least a hundred million bison, no, even more, on this planet—”

Despite also keenly feeling the threat of the bison from their overwhelming numbers like Homura, Saho looked at the herd with a hint of awe.

……But it’s still scary…

Eventually, just as they feared, the bison herd reached their vicinity.

Strong smells suddenly filled the world of snow and ice.

The herd of bison, which had stayed several dozen meters away from them as they passed by until now, was now growing increasingly closer as they spread out along their ranks.

Though the bison clearly held no animosity towards them, they had lost any individual judgement at this point and looked as if they were being spurred on by something.

Just when those sharp horns, which resembled ice-covered knives, got close enough to prove a threat…

…Ah…

The sound of a lute began to spread out from above.

Kamikoma-senpai’s magic… It’s an equal temperament pattern played using Pythagorean tuning1!

The music’s volume was increased further with magic, reaching far away without being drowned out by the rumbling stampede and wind. The bison within range of the music became sleepy-eyed and visibly started to slow their pace.

Right this instant, Kamikoma must be revolving a Dodeca-model in her mind and carving a specific pattern into it as she played the lute.

Eventually, the area around the party was surrounded by bison that were moving at a drowsy walk. The thunderous footsteps from before had grown further away as well.

“Koma-senpai’s amazing… So this is a bard…”

Touya expressed amazement as he gazed up at Kamikoma displaying the true power of a bard, able to rule any space within earshot.

…However, the Exploration Club party remained stuck where they stood for almost thirty minutes, unable to move a single step. The bison herd seemed to go on forever and showed no sign of ending. Just how many tens of thousands of bisons had passed by them already?

Every once in a while, Kamikoma gave directions to Saho to help her switch out the heating elements on her gloves. But even then, having her fingers exposed to the cold air caused them to turn pale white, while her fingertips turned deep red from touching the frozen lute strings, which likely felt like metal saw teeth.

The rest of the party had no choice but to watch her performance while swallowing back their saliva. Misasagi watched Kamikoma with a pained expression.

Eventually—Homura could tell that the strengthened sound of the lute was starting to weaken. Kamikoma’s concentration was being disturbed from the pain in her fingers and she couldn’t do the spell pattern perfectly.

…Koma-senpai……

Next to Homura, Misasagi began to take action.

“Touya-kun, bison will turn docile and calm if you block their breathing. Please capture one of them and set up its body as a shield. Your swords will only be good to deflect their horns. You won’t have the leisure to subdue it through blood loss like in bullfighting.”

“—Yes, understood.”

“Hinooka-san, could you melt part of the ice and make some water?”

“Eh, ah, yes—I will!”

Homura was flabbergasted by Misasagi’s next order.

Until now, Homura had used the familiar Tinderbox spell to start up campfires and the like, but it had trouble igniting here, and even when it did, it was blown away by the wind, making it an arduous task. Moreover, there was nothing to burn as fuel on these icy fields.

(W-What should I do…?)

As Homura wavered, things progressed further around her.

The bison surrounding the party had started to move all at once, despite Kamikoma’s music magic continuing—

Saho shouted in a panic.

“This is bad, prez! Something is coming from behind the herd! They’re being chased!”

How was he able to determine that—?

In any case, the tension of the bison instantly heightened and they started to move again. They brushed and slammed roughly against the sled the party had propped up as a wall.

Misasagi opened the lid of her water canteen and threw the warm water inside at the ground in front of her.

The one liter of liquid, which should have instantly frozen as it splashed against the icy ground, swirled around while letting off steam and compressed into a sphere.

Misasagi then immediately pulled back her bow and fired an arrow. Her aim wasn’t the bison themselves.

The sphere of liquid attached itself to the arrowhead as the arrow flew over the heads of the bison.

After the arrow had flown a certain distance, the sphere swirled and expanded like a twisted spiderweb in midair, causing the arrow to suddenly start to brake.

And once it pierced the icy ground, it transformed into a small fence.

—It could only be described as a fence of barbed wire made of ice.

According to magical theory that Homura would learn later, it was apparently a spell that rapidly stole heat from water while preventing it from crystallizing into ice immediately (this was very hard, she would learn). The supercooled water would immediately freeze upon impact with the ground with precise aim. It was a trick that was only possible in the kind of sub-zero environment like they were in now.

However, much more water was needed to deal with the approaching herd.

Misasagi fired another arrow, emptying the last of her canteen.

“—Mmm!”

Taga groaned. A bison had been driven off course from colliding with another one and ran straight at him, colliding against his body and pushing him aside.

Homura shouted at Misasagi.

“S-Senpai! I’m going to use the ‘P-Torch’ incantation!”

“…! Do it!”

After hesitating for an instant, Misasagi gave her consent.

It was an incantation that Homura had practiced countless times in simulations on Earth, but had never had the chance to use until now. As an incantation formed from a limited Hexa-model, it was within the highest class of spells. Despite knowing, Misasagi still entrusted Homura to do it.

She could achieve the same result in a shorter amount of time if she used a Rubik’s cube model, but that would make the structure of the imagined pattern much more complex. Fearing failure at such a crucial juncture, Homura chose to use the limited Hexa-model she was used to using.

“I’m going to unleash the P-Torch! Everyone, make sure to stay away from me!”

This spell released a far greater amount of heat than the Tinderbox spell. After all, the ‘P’ in its name stood for ‘plasma’.

Despite trembling in the face of the clearly agitated bison running all around them, Homura took some distance from the rest of the party and began the incantation.

“Hi (Hidra)… Ox (Oxi)…”

Touya stood back to back with Homura with his swords in hand and drove off any bison that suddenly approached.

And after I said to stay away…!

Even so, Homura felt the reliable presence at her back as she continued the incantation.

“…Mg (Magna)…… Ar (Argos)!!”

The result of the completed pattern—a flickering beam of light appeared and whirled through the air.

The pillar of fire that appeared at the tip of her extended hand wavered momentarily as it was buffeted by the wind, but immediately condensed into a straight line and turned into a brilliant, purple blade.

Homura had learned that this spell was called Flamberge, or ‘blade of fire’, in Europe during her training, though that dangerous-sounding name wasn’t really to Homura’s taste.

Squeeze and compress the flames—compress—Haah!

She pierced the blazing hot blade of flames, which was already starting to frizzle her skin, into the ice at her feet without breaking her concentration.

A high-pitched whine was released as the blade of fire was sucked into the ice.

The snow piled over the ice layer immediately vanished and the true bluish black ice beneath it showed itself.

—However, perhaps due to the flames being too hot, the ice that was touched simply turned into steam and didn’t produce any of the water she was after.

The hole pierced through the ice widened from the width of a baseball to that of a handball.

H-Huh? It’s not melting as much ice as I expected? —The heat isn’t being spread to the surrounding ice!?

Realizing what was happening, Homura broke into a cold sweat. Perhaps she should have heated an iron plate and lump of rock first and used that… She was a bit late to think of this, but she didn’t have the leisure to implement that idea now. There was no way such a convenient object would happen to be nearby in this kind of place.

—!

The high-pitched whine from the ice suddenly stopped and changed into the rumbling sound of flowing water.

“W-What the heck is that sound coming from!?” Touya asked in confusion from behind her.

—That’s what I’d like to know!

Homura couldn’t voice her reply as she maintained her concentration.

First a wave of lukewarm air and then cold air struck Homura’s face from the widened hole.

Just as she had a bad premonition and reflexively stepped back, a huge geyser of sea water gushed out from the hole. The flames had pierced all the way down to the sea beneath the ice.

The additional weight of the countless bison pressing down on the icy ground had caused the air and an enormous amount of sea water sealed beneath the ice to erupt from the hole all at once.

“Thanks—I’ll be using that!”

With that cry, Misasagi extended her hands towards the geyser.

The geyser of sea water, which had reached far above Homura’s head and was spraying over the ground even now, suddenly changed direction and swiftly weaved through the air like a snake towards Misasagi.

She then nocked two arrows at once on her bow and fired them both while attaching spheres of water to them that were far bigger than the earlier ones.

The two spheres formed a double spiral as they spun and followed the arrows through the air, releasing a whistling sound as they flew.

Ice barbed wire instantly sprung up beneath the arrows’ trail.

Furthermore, Misasagi repeatedly jumped and accurately fired more arrows while dodging the bison and even jumping onto their backs at times whenever they slowed.

Up to ten arrows were fired in the blink of an eye, and the barbed wire fences made of ice grew in size and formed a wedge-shaped buffer zone that countered the stampeding herd.

“You’re amazing, president! It’s just like that legend of jumping across eight ships2!”

Ameno excitedly praised Misasagi when she returned to the rest of the party with ragged breath.

Additionally, Misasagi manipulated the remaining sea water and used it to instantly create an ice wall while leaving a route to retreat through.

Homura was wide-eyed with awe at Misasagi’s accomplishment even as she carefully recited the termination pattern to safely extinguish the P-Torch.

“I should have done this from the start. Sorry, Koma-chan,” Misasagi said regretfully.

“It’s fine, it’s fine.” Kamikoma waved her hand from atop Taga’s shoulders. Seeing her hands tucked back into her original thick gloves, Homura sighed in relief.

Behind Homura, the sea water continued to gush out and formed a sorbet-shaped mountain.

“Sorry, senpai. I didn’t even think that it would drill a hole all the way to the bottom of this thick ice… just the idea of it is scary…”

“No, thank you, Hinooka-san. You managed to do it carefully without going overboard.” Misasagi smiled while wiping off the sweat on her forehead.

They’d done it completely off the cuff, but they had successfully coordinated their respective fire and ice spells.

Even so, Homura’s magic was still unstable this time. She’d only had a short time to concentrate too. They couldn’t dismiss the possibility that the bison might have fallen into a panic upon seeing the flames. If they weren’t in an environment of such extreme cold, Kamikoma’s flute magic maintained over time would have been a far better option. Homura keenly realized this.

The bison herd gradually chipped away at the improvised fence. Some even charged straight at it without minding their own injuries.

“We can’t relax yet! The bison are still abnormally agitated!”

Saho as he shouted seemed like a completely different person from the boy who had high-fived a giant walrus in a carefree manner. This attitude change of his was precisely what made Homura feel just how bad the situation was right now.

However, in contrast to Saho’s warning, the herd of bison began to thin out after the initial huge wave of them passed.

“Strange—look there.”

Taga pointed at part of the herd, refusing to relax yet like Saho.

A small group of bison were running in such a panic they were tripping over each other. The bison at the front suddenly got hit by headbutts from several of those behind him. Impossibly, part of the group was attacking one of their own.

Eventually, that bison was expelled from the others and started to fall back little by little. Homura was shocked to see herd members hurt each other when the herd should exist for them to help one another.

Even worse, the small group was heading in their direction while roaring wildly. Fear and panic filled Homura. They were once more in danger of being trampled.

“The ice wall is going to crumble!”

Kamikoma jumped off Taga and gave the order to evacuate.

However, before they could react, the spearheads of white horns closed the distance.

Taga and one of the bison grappled with each other head on. Taga used his shoulder to hold back the hard head that was lowered and thrusted at him, and he grabbed onto the sharp horns aimed at his face with both arms.

Taga held his ground, as if to a current coming from upstream.

The eight club members retreated while avoiding the horns that passed by within inches of them.

The sled also finally failed as an impromptu wall and was blown off within the stampede. They had no other choice but to recover it later.

If they could just hold out a little longer, they should make it through this—

Just when Homura prayed thus within her heart—

“T-That’s!?” Saho shouted, wide-eyed.

“That’s…” Misasagi gulped in shock.

“—That’s impossible! A Phantom Limb Tiger at this time of day…! In a place like this…!”

The fur on Saho’s tail bristled and stood up on end.

What? A shining… tiger…?

It was still far in the distance, but Homura also managed to catch sigh of it.

A giant beast was nimbly running without making a sound as it weaved among the bison herd.

It had bright, vivid fur that didn’t seem to match this land of ice and small fangs poking out of its mouth.

Its green eyes glittered with the sharp gaze of a predator, fixed squarely on the bison.

“It looks like a saber-toothed tiger…! Is that the rumored Phantom Limb Tiger!?”

“That’s right! Its a strong, carnivorous predator. It’s far more clever and dangerous than the bison!”

Misasagi answered Touya’s shouted question while re-prepping her bow.

—It was a wild tiger classified as a breed unique to Nutella.

Though smaller than the bison, it was still a large beast that didn’t fall behind the other carnivorous animals indigenous to Nutella. Its weight far exceeded three hundred kilos, a match for even Yukiwarimaru.

Unlike the Sumatran and Bengal tigers that Homura usually associated with the word tiger, it had long fluffy fur that covered its entire body. In particular, there was an abundance of fur from its cheek to its neck, like a muffler, that seemed quite warm.

Its fur was colored in stripes of white and brown that varied in tone from faint to deep, like a piece of art drawn with milk and espresso. If this was a zoo where there were steel cages, Homura would have loved to just gaze at this beautiful beast forever, but right now nothing separated her from it.

Homura gulped at the indescribable tension that filled the party.

“Damn it, no wonder the bison herd is in such a panic!” Kamikoma cursed.

“That’s what I kept telling you, prez!” Saho shouted angrily.

“Sorry! But there’s no way we can prepare any countermeasures in this situation anyway!” Kamikoma shouted back.

Misasagi stepped in between the two of them.

“Calm down…! Phantom Limb Tigers aim for weakened prey. We can’t afford to panic and act hastily. Let’s all huddle together and make ourselves a difficult target.”

Despite Misasagi’s words, Saho kept arguing.

“But Misasagi-senpai—Phantom Limb Tigers are nocturnal! It’s abnormal that it’s hunting when it’s not night!”

“I don’t know the reason behind it either… Perhaps it ran low on food due to the extreme winter weather.”

“…It’s a male… If it’s mating season, it might be searching for a female mate…”

Saho’s words seemed to be a mix of cold analysis and pure curiosity.

“Don’t we have any spears for dealing with large beasts? Or some kind of new weapon?” Homura asked over her shoulder to Touya as she evacuated to the center of the party along with Ameno and Kanae.

“We don’t have anything like that! Even if we did, that tiger is too fast for us to land a blow…!”

“A-All right then! I-In that case, it’s time to bring this out…” Homura took out her tear gas spray can and expertly removed the safety pin and prepared it for release. However, when she tried spraying it at empty air as a test, the trigger felt light and hollow. The spray didn’t have any force at all. “I-It’s no good…”

It was then that she noticed that Saho was sniffing the air vigorously.

“Taga-senpai, have you noticed it?” Saho asked.

Taga nodded even as he splendidly parried the head of a bison charging at him without letting his guard down.

“What’s wrong? Did something happen…?” Homura asked.

“No, it’s just that the Phantom Limb Tiger has no sme—!!”

“Eh?”

Seeing Saho suddenly gulp, Homura hurriedly turned around.

The bison that had been attacked by its comrades had been aiming its horns menacingly at its gold pursuer, but now it had suddenly changed direction and was heading straight for the party.

And the Phantom Limb Tiger was chasing after it from close behind.

Taga once more positioned himself to grapple with the charging bison.

The Phantom Limb Tiger instantly jumped from its approach run while aiming its front claws at the bison’s lower body.

“……!”

The party had no choice to separate in two in order to avoid the bison and Phantom Limb Tiger rushing headlong at them. However, Kanae was too slow to run away being at the center of the group. She just stared at the Phantom Limb Tiger from where she stood.

“Yuri!”

Homura immediately ran back and grabbed her hand. Kanae finally came back to her senses.

At that moment, Homura and Kanae saw a dazzling shine appear within the Phantom Limb Tiger’s mouth as it opened its jaw to attack its prey.

The tiger’s long fangs—those clear, crystalline fangs instantly grew several times in size, resembling a twin pair of swords. It was a dual attack meant to hunt down prey several times the tiger’s size. This Phantasm Limb Tiger still retained the rare power within nature that the saber-toothed tiger had once possessed before dying out as a result.

The bison had already had its lower body torn apart by the tiger’s front claws, but it came running even as it left a trail of blood in the snow.

“……!”

The two girls practically became entangled with each other as they dodged the bison just when it was right before their eyes. It felt as if they were blown away by the bison, but also as if they’d been forcefully pulled away by someone.

“——”

After reflexively closing her eyes in the confusion of it all, Homura realized that she was lying on the icy ground.

The first thing that came into her vision was the Phantom Limb Tiger piercing its fangs into the bison’s thick neck. After having such a vital point deeply wounded, the bison weakly fell to its side as if it had given up.

The lifeblood of the bison released steam as its spread across the ice—

“…Hii…Uu…”

Homura scolded her frozen limbs into action and retreated away while still on her back.

After holding down the huge bison at its feet, the Phantom Limb Tiger drained it of its blood without wasting a single drop and gazed down at Homura in an aloof manner.

Such an overwhelming sense of presence that it made her heart hurt. A gaze just as sharp as its fangs.

After an instant so brief that the scattered snow didn’t even have time to fall back down—

The time they spent facing each other should have been extremely short, but the terror of the experience was enough to rob Homura of her reason and spur her to run away frantically.

The yells from her surroundings not even registering in her ears, she floundered her limbs until she was on all fours and desperately crawled away at near running speed.

However, the sensation of something touching her back plunged Homura into despair.

“Haa, Haahaahaahaa—!”

She felt the weight of front paws pressing on her back and claws brushing against her neck through her parka’s hood.

Homura instantly pitched forward and lay rooted to the spot on the ground against her will.

She could feel the tiger’s breath on the nape of her neck, coming closer and closer.

As she imagined those terrifying fangs ripping through her throat in the next instant, Homura felt her consciousness grow faint even as she gritted her teeth in terror. However—

…Eh… H-Huh…?

At last, Homura also noticed the abnormality that Saho had mentioned.

She didn’t smell the “scent” that all wild animals naturally possessed. Even though she could feel a weight great enough to seal her movements on her back, she couldn’t smell the blood of the bison that had just been killed. Or even the smell of the breath right behind her.

“Hinooka-san—Keep lying down like that!”

Homura sensed an arrow sharply cut across the chilled air.

The next instant, Touya’s boots jumped into her vision, which had become narrow from the blood rushing to her head in the panic of it all.

“Yaaaaaah—!!”

That shout was accompanied by the sensation of a sword cutting through the air.

At the same time, the weight on her back suddenly vanished.

As she was pulled up by Touya’s arm, Homura saw the silhouette of the Phantom Limb Tiger jumping high and escaping to the side.

Misasagi and Touya stood in front of Homura with their weapons ready, but the tiger looked past them and stared intently at Homura from a distance. For some reason, she could tell that it was staring at her specifically. Its huge fangs had already retracted back into its mouth.

“Why… didn’t it attack… me…?”

The tiger’s ears twitched as if in response to Homura’s murmur.

The tense moment stretched on for what seemed like forever.

After each side faced each other for a while without making any sound, the Phantom Limb Tiger finally started to back away. It then turned around and ran off towards the billows of snow left in the wake of the bison herd.

+++

Even after that incident, Homura was given no time to collapse and relax.

Though it had greatly thinned out, the Exploration Club party was still in the midst of the bison herd.

They first picked up and carefully checked over their scattered baggage, and then they propped the sled back upright and resumed moving. In the end, they had been stopped there for almost an hour. If they got struck by a blizzard on this flat icy plain after sundown, it would really be life-threatening, so they were all desperate to move as fast as possible.

Once they confirmed that Homura hadn’t received any injuries from the Phantom Limb Tiger, no one coddled her. In fact, they even turned the whole thing into gossip and joking material.

Saho chatted brightly as if the earlier tension was a lie.

“I can’t believe we met a Phantom Limb Tiger! I’m so glad I came on this expedition. But in the end, it didn’t eat the bison it killed… Man, the mystery thickens further. I can’t get enough of it. Maybe it really did come out for the sake of mating?”

“By mating, you mean it was looking for a wife?” Ameno asked innocently.

“Yeah. That’s the only other reason I can think of for a normally nocturnal Phantom Limb Tiger to appear during the day beside being hungry.”

Saho proudly displayed his knowledge, while Homura narrowed her eyes reproachfully at him in an insistent manner.

“…What… so you mean I was turned down? …By that Phantom Limb Tiger-chan?”

“It’s possible. All right, then let’s practice in preparation for next time. Umm, if I remember right, the tigers’ mating cry is very—”

“Shut up3

Homura whacked Saho’s head.

“Hinooka, do you have anything on you that might have caught the tiger’s interest?”

Homura jumped with a start at Touya’s question.

She had completely forgotten about the stone of power that Subaru had given to her.

“Uh… I don’t know anything… okay?”

“What’s that supposed to mean? Anyway, I wonder just what was it that spurred the tiger into doing that? —Well, more importantly…”

Touya looked at Misasagi, who nodded in response.

—Touya’s swords and Misasagi’s arrow should have directly struck the tiger, but they had passed right through it as if cutting through air. Homura was shocked to hear the full details of what had happened.

Even as they continued their trek towards the opposite shore without rest, the whole party listened to Misasagi’s analysis of the Phantom Limb Tiger’s unique ability.

“The origin of the name ‘Phantom Limb Tiger’ is partly because it has a similar ring to saber-toothed tiger, but it also comes from the literal meaning of ‘a tiger with phantom limbs’.”

Phantom limb was a neuropsychological term, referring to the sensation of still feeling the existence of a limb lost in an accident or surgery. Apparently, the Phantom Limb Tiger’s special ability was the exact opposite of this, allowing it to create illusionary front legs to attack and hunt down prey.

“An illusion that has actual mass!? It really is a magic tiger… Then, umm, those enormous fangs too?” Homura asked.

Misasagi nodded.

“Yes. It’s a magic that allows the temporary creation of high-density matter. With the exception of the transport technology to Nutella, it’s a field of magic that we investigators still can’t accomplish. Even if we can create thermal energy like fireballs or kinetic energy to manipulate liquids, we have yet to reach the level of creating actual matter…”

Homura knew of an exception to this. The Bath Flower Orb, crystalized from Subaru’s incantation. She also knew that this orb was made of a fragile substance. However, the Phantom Limb Tiger’s fangs were as hard and sharp as a knife, capable of cutting apart meat and bone.

And… I…

Fraught with guilt, Homura stared at Kanae’s back further ahead,

If that Phantom Limb Tiger’s interest had been caught by Homura’s hidden stone of power, that meant Homura had actually dragged Kanae into that attack by being near her. They had luckily escaped without injury, but still…

“—But senpai,” Touya asked with a serious tone. “Is there really a Phantom Limb Tiger that can do something as absurd as creating an entire illusionary body? Wouldn’t that make it… invincible?”

Even Touya, the one who said it, was left speechless for an instant by those words. Neither Misasagi nor Saho had any memory of such a case in the past, so they couldn’t give any answers.

If that Phantom Limb Tiger’s entire body really was an illusion, and if its true body was actually hidden somewhere nearby and observing Homura and the others from afar—

“Even if it were possible, it would require an enormous amount of magical energy. Enough to exhaust it and leave it unable to move at all…”

Misasagi’s final words contained the hidden wish for it to at least have that limit to its power.

+++

Several hours afterwards, the sun finally sank below the horizon and they were forced to rely only on the reflected light from the Bagel behind the sparse cloud cover to guide them on their trek.

The cold and wind became harsher as expected, but they didn’t get hit by any heavy blizzards or encounter any further enemies, so the party managed to finish crossing the ice-covered bay.

They walked around the base of the sharply inclined mountain range in search of a suitable place to camp, and by the time they finally began to set up camp, it was already night. It was quite a sober goalpost after their long trek, with no beautiful view and only cold and darkness to welcome them.

Even so, they had finally reached the unexplored peninsula. Homura and the others were the first Earthlings to trace their pens across this previously blank portion of Nutella’s map.

At last…… We made it…

As Homura immersed herself in the satisfaction of making it this far while holding a cup of warm soup she had taken out from her baggage, Kamikoma briefly bowed her head to Homura. The silent message of apology for prioritizing the trek and forcing Homura to keep walking after that incident was clear.

Completely caught off guard, Homura frantically shook her head.

Like I thought… I have to tell them about it… Homura resolved herself.

The party had collapsed in exhaustion after that long high-pace trek, so they chose to rest and nap before eating. Ameno volunteered to keep watch while preparing the food. The party leader Kamikoma gratefully accepted her proposal.

Since the club presidents wanted to discuss the party’s next course of action, they split off from Homura and Kanae and each pair went into separate female tents. Speaking of Kanae, she immediately dived into her sleeping bag as soon as they finished setting up the tent.

Homura really wanted to follow her example, but she spurred her sluggish body and left the tent to go visit the two presidents. However, upon exiting the tent, she first encountered Ameno setting up a campfire over the snow and preparing the cooking utensils.

“Homura-san, are you going to wash your hands? Shall I accompany you?”

“Err, that’s… M-Maybe later…”

“…Homura-san, I’m sorry for not going to cover you right away during that incident today. When I considered that my taking action might provoke that Phantom Limb Tiger, I became unsure what to do.”

“I’m telling you, it’s fine. Look, I’m right as rain. If you were the one attacked, it might have really taken you away as its bride, you know?” Homura said with a bitter self-deprecating self.

“Eeeeh… That would be a big problem… a really big problem…” As Ameno gripped her pan and seriously agonized over it, Homura slipped away and headed towards the presidents’ tent.

After Homura honestly confessed about Subaru’s stone of power to them, neither Kamikoma and Misasagi got mad over it, and they decided that it would be best for Homura to keep careful hold of it until they returned.

“Huh… You’re okay with it? In that case, I’ll make sure to be careful with it.” Homura nodded.

Still, is it really okay for me to keep this with me…?

Misasagi, however, was more concerned with another matter. As far as she knew, though Phantom Limb Tigers could use magic, they weren’t sensitive to magical energy.

“Did you notice, Hinooka-san? By the time that Phantom Limb Tiger turned to face you, it had already retracted its fangs. It didn’t look like it was in a hunting posture at all.”

“From what I saw, it looked like it was sniffing some kind of scent,” Kamikoma added.

“A scent…? Something that would attract the tiger’s interest…?”

They discussed Homura’s shampoo and the food she ate during the trek as possibilities, but none of it was any different from the other girls. Something then occurred to Homura.

“Ah, maybe it was the meat sauce?”

“Hah? Meat sauce?” Kamikoma tilted her head in confusion. Homura explained the small incident of trouble that had happened just before their departure.

“But… I changed into a spare parka after that. I guess it’s unrelated after all.”

“Hmm. A spare, huh?” Kamikoma murmured.

“I just put on the one that Mori-chan handed to me, so I don’t think there’s anything special about it…?”

Frowning, Kamikoma turned over the sleeve of Homura’s parka and raised an eyebrow in surprise.

“—This is Inari’s.”

“Eh, it is?” Homura asked.

“Yeah, her name is on the tag here. Mori-chan must have forgotten to exchange it for a new one.” Kamikoma pointed at the parka’s ID tag for emergencies. “She was always complaining that it was one size too big when she wore it. I guess it’s a perfect fit for you, Homura.”

“Then, that means… the tiger smelled Inari-senpai’s scent?” Homura wondered.

“……Inari-san’s…?”

Upon hearing Homura’s theory, Misasagi sank into thought with a mysterious expression.

“Was Inari-senpai’s familiar a Phantom Limb Tiger? Wait… but didn’t you say that her familiar died? Then, that tiger is a ghost!? A ghost tiger!?”

“A ghost? No, no way, not possible! I-It’s not, right, Mayo? Wait, why don’t you know this kind of important detail already, Homura!?”

“But Inari-senpai never talked about her familiar, so I just assumed it was something like a polar bear—”

“Touya already knows the details of her familiar, so it’s your own fault for not asking! And Mayo, you should properly teach her these things!” Kamikoma gave Misasagi an indignant side-glare, to which Misasagi meekly shrugged in surrender.

However, there was still no proof that Inari and that Phantom Limb Tiger were connected.

Homura had come here to confess her secret, but she returned to her tent with even more mysteries to ponder over, causing Homura to nap with worries plaguing the back of her find.

+++

—After the party finished their nap, they filled their empty bellies with food and sat around the campfire. Suddenly, Kamikoma started playing her lute. The party members were startled by the cheerful melody as it blew away the relaxed after-meal atmosphere.

“Good evening, everyone! Congratulations on completing the first step of our expedition into unexplored territory! Now then, let’s begin the customary ‘Nutella Hidden Talent Show’, jointly hosted by the Exploration Clubs of Hiyoshizaka and Seiren High Schools!”

We’re doing it now…? Homura scrunched her brow.

The Nutella Hidden Talent Show—

Homura and the other first years had been informed of it through a leaflet passed around the day before they departed for Nutella. ‘The members of both clubs will form random pairs and display their hidden talents during the expedition.’ Kamikoma was probably the one who had originally proposed it.

Homura was honestly bad with these kinds of embarrassing events, but once she learned that her partner was Kanae, she became a little motivated. However…

“Now then, the first pair, Saho and Touya!”

Kamikoma played her lute in place of a drum roll, clearly caught up in the moment. Her lute playing was quite wild.

Saho and Touya’s performance consisted of a comedy act. Perhaps they had been influenced by Subaru’s Rakugo performance.

Homura burst out laughing upon seeing their appearance once they came out from behind the shadow of a tent when their names were called.

“Man, the sea’s great. It really washes down your body.” Saho said.

“If you’re going to wash anything, wash down your heart first. But hey, isn’t it kinda cold?” Touya said.

Wha… What the heck are they going…!?

A justified reaction, considering the two boys were dressed in nothing but black speedos. Even with the heat of the campfire, the temperature was below zero. It was an outrageous stunt.

The act consisted of two young men who had come to the beach to pick up girls, only to dig their own graves and get turned down each time… It was an ordinary and repetitive story, but the fact that they were practically naked and were clearly enduring the cold with only guts and bluster made the audience laugh at their every action.

At first they tried picking up the girl members with great vigor, but after repeated failures consisting of being toyed with by Kamikoma and bluntly refused by Kanae, they were shivering cold and sneezing by the time they came up to Homura.

The sight of them truly invoked pity in Homura. Despite feeling bad for them, Homura held off giving a definite answer to their flirtations and thoroughly troubled the boys with a flexible yet unmoving attitude. Next to her, Ameno was eagerly awaiting her turn with glittering eyes.

Truthfully, the boys should have kept being turned down all the way to Misasagi-senpai sitting at the edge of the group, to keep with the tone of the act, but…

“Yes, if you’ll have me.” Ameno stood up and accepted their invitation.

Is Ameno-chan just not reading the mood? No… that’s not it.

Perhaps it was an act of kindness by Ameno, not wanting to see Touya make motions towards Misasagi yet get turned down, even if it was just an act.

The comedy act finished with the boys realizing they were actually ghosts and expressing their thanks to Ameno for saying yes even so. They then heartily lay down on some fresh snow(!) propped up as beach sand and waved their arms and legs to form snow angels before fading away… was how the story went. It was quite a nice and tasteful ending.

But why did the subject of ghosts have to come up again!

The two boys returned to the campfire with their bodies shivering so hard they looked like they really might ascend to heaven, and then the next pair stepped up.

“Next is Taga and Ameno~!”

Homura thought for sure Ameno would just do her usual trick, but she ended up bursting out in shocked laughter once again.

Bwaha… Taga-senpai…!?

Taga came out from the shadow of the tent with Ameno’s small body on his shoulders. He walked with slow and heavy footsteps. There were screwheads neatly drawn all over his face.

“Taga-robo! Lift off!” Ameno shouted as she jumped down to the snowy ground. They made poses very reminiscent of a certain genre of children’s TV shows.

Taga looked more like Frankenstein than a robot, but regardless, the huge gap from Taga’s usual overly serious demeanor was so funny it made Kamikoma explode into helpless laughter. Misasagi also covered her mouth and fell into a fit of giggles.

In Ameno’s hands was an emergency kit with a signal mirror opened on top, made to mimic a remote control. Ameno pretended to press one of the mirror’s buttons and shouted an order to Taga-robo.

“The ‘ta’ in Taga Taichi! —Grip this egg (tamago)!”

Ameno made an egg appear atop her head in a casual sleight of hand and presented it to Taga.

With slow and clunky movements, Taga-robo gingerly took the egg and rolled it between his thumb and finger.

Ameno turned to face the audience with a proud expression, but she was greeted by silence. She’d failed to garner any reaction.

After tilting her head in confusion, Ameno pressed another button.

“The ‘ga’ in Taga Taichi! —Make a gunpla model (ganpla)!”

This time, Taga-robo took out a chisel and began to seriously start on making one out of the ice and snow with fine attention to detail. Once again, no reaction from the audience.

Ameno’s expression clouded over in disappointment.

“Strange… This was a riot with the people from the lab…”

“That audience is way too skewed to use as a good example.” Touya calmly pointed out.

“Holding an egg is amazing? Isn’t breaking one way stronger?” Saho asked with a puzzled expression.

“What’s a gunpla? Is it tasty?” Homura asked.

“Does Taga-robo even understand what he’s doing?” Kamikoma said.

It was one merciless comment after another.

“It’s a raw egg, you know!? Of course it’s amazing!” Ameno objected with a pout.

Homura suddenly glanced beside her and noticed that Kanae was hanging her head. For an instant, Homura thought she might be sleeping… but Kanae’s shoulders were trembling slightly.

“…Ku… Kuku… Ku…”

Sharply noticing that reaction, Ameno wore a triumphant look that just shouted “See that!?” and resumed her act.

“The ‘ta’ in Taiga Tachi! Version 2! —Peel the egg (tamago)!”

Taga-robo once more took up the egg with great diligence. Though it felt like a raw egg on the outside, it was completely frozen all the way through, so it pitifully fell apart when Taga tried to peel it.

This was apparently a troubling accident for Taga-robo, as he began to panic for real.

The sight of him like that spurred laughter from the audience at last and even Ameno started to laugh.

—Now then, following these acts with pretty good reception, it was at last Homura and Kanae’s turn.

Homura’s sigh of resignation was in complete contrast with the lively playing of the lute to welcome their entrance.

“Last is Kanae and Hinooka! Get out here and show us what you’re made of~!”

Their names were called once their preparations were complete, and so Homura came out from behind the tent with stiff movements. In her hand was a black cloth.

Her partner Kanae didn’t seem to have any idea of what they were going to do and walked sluggishly onto the snow stage while hiding behind Homura.

“E-Ehem… Chalalalalalalaa~♪”

Homura hoisted up the black cloth in the air while singing a well-known olive necklace melody from a TV magic show. Ameno eagerly leaned forward to watch. Kamikoma adjust her playing to the melody as well.

Kanae crouched down and was hidden behind the cloth. Naturally, it was quite obvious she was there.

When Homura moved the cloth away, it revealed Kanae sitting with her knees grasped in her arms.

“Cha… Chalalalala~♪”

Homura then hid Kanae with the cloth once again and made a show of walking past her to stand on Kanae’s other side.

“Chalalala… Oh my, the beautiful girl has turned into a cat!”

With that loud declaration, Homura once more pulled away the black cloth with a twirl.

However, Kanae was still there, looking quite uncomfortable.

“……”

Acting as if nothing happened, Homura hid Kanae with the cloth again and resumed the melody.

“And now the cat has become an iguana!”

Homura pulled away the cloth, but Kanae was still there, the same as before.

“………”

“Homura, what is this, a slideshow?” Kamikoma interject, but Homura chose to ignore it and continued her pseudo-magic show.

“P-Perhaps because of the cold, the iguana doesn’t seem very lively. But wait, now the iguana has disappeared!?”

…Naturally, Kanae didn’t disappear. But Homura acted as if nothing was there and moved her hand around the area where Kanae was sitting. This resulted in her patting all over the so-called iguana’s cheeks and neck, which naturally made the iguana scowl.

“Hey… Hey, cut it out.”

This caused a few chuckles to finally leak out from the audience.

“Boring!” Touya commented honestly.

“And last comes a goat! And two of them as well!”

Homura hid with Kanae behind the cloth. Naturally, their presence was quite obvious.

Even so, Homura timed it with the rising climax of the lute’s melody and let go of the cloth. Exposed behind it were Homura and Kanae, sitting side by side.

Homura posed her hands over her head in imitation of goat horns.

“……” Maintaining the pose, Homura stared at Kanae with a meaningful gaze.

“……Haah…”

Giving in with a slump of her shoulders, Kanae suddenly closed her eyes.

—Shining red horns appeared atop her head.

Homura was relieved to see that her message had been received.

In the end, the only thing that resembled an actual act was the display of Kanae’s horns, but the other party members let out cheers half in desperation.

This was Homura’s first time seeing Kanae’s horns up close. They seemed solid, but upon closer inspection, they were partly see-through like a hologram and couldn’t be physically touched.

They kinda look like jewels… so pretty… Homura ended up becoming entranced by them.

Kamikoma stood up.

“Not bad. This talent show ended up being quite interesting—but this is still just the second act here on Nutella! It’s time for us to display our dignity as club presidents! Right, Mayo!?”

“…? Eh?” Misasagi blinked, completely baffled.

Kamikoma handed her lute to Taga and confidently walked over to the snow stage without making any preparations.

“I didn’t hear anything about this.” Misasagi shook her head frantically, but Kamikoma just gestured her to come over to the stage.

Reading the mood, Saho stood up to take Kamikoma’s place as the announcer.

“Now then, keep your eyes on the stage, everyone! Tonight’s finale will be Team Kamikoma-Misasagi!”

Figuring this was a chance to see a rare side of Misasagi, Ameno and Homura cheered as well.

Kamikoma stood at the center of the stage with an extremely serious expression.

“………”

Next to the suddenly silent Kamikoma, Misasagi just stood there without any idea of what they were going to do and nervously glanced at Kamikoma.

Kamikoma suddenly lay down on her belly over the snow and pulled back her head and legs as far as she could.

“Shrimp!!”

True, with that position and her red parka, she did kinda resemble a shrimp… but the audience was left even more dumbfounded than during Ameno’s act.

Kamikoma desperately maintained this difficult position and made a small gesture towards her partner.

Still clueless, Misasagi approached. Kamikoma gestured her to come closer and so Misasagi bent down beside her, but that was when Kamikoma suddenly grabbed her hand and pulled Misasagi over to ride on top of her back.

“—Shrimp-mayo4!” Kamikoma shouted.

Touya burst out laughing. It was, in a sense, an admission of defeat, but he apparently hadn’t been able to hold back in the face of the sheer surrealism of it all.

The act continued, with Kamikoma brimming with confidence and motivation and Misasagi clearly bewildered.

The two separated from each other. This time, Kamikoma lay down face-up on the snow and relaxed her entire body, with even her face turning blank.

“Tuna……”

Once again, she gestured to her partner using only her fingers.

This time, Misasagi understood. She kneeled down next to Kamikoma who was acting like a dead fish and sat atop her upper body while murmuring embarrassingly.

“Tu… Tuna-mayo…”

Misasagi was so cute that Homura couldn’t help but break into a smile and laugh.

Ahaha…!

The surrealism of the Mayo-skit continued to pay off. Next, Kamikoma turned sideways on the ground and rolled into a ball.

“Whelk snail!!”

“W-Whelk-mayo…”

“Clam!!”

“C-Clam-mayo?”

It was the battleship roll sushi series. It was hard to tell whether Misasagi herself realized that it was a sushi joke, though. In any case, though it was a pretty simple skit consisting of Misasagi riding on top of Kamikoma, it was received quite well by the audience.

As she laughed along with everyone else, Homura was honestly impressed, especially since the act consisted of Kamikoma basically playing around with her partner like Homura’s act, and she wondered if maybe she should have been as fullhearted in her act as Kamikoma was now. When she glanced to the side, she saw that even Kanae, who had been sulking a bit since their magic show earlier, was smiling a little.

Thus, the lively Hidden Talent Show was brought to an end with one last act that, in a sense, was truly a feat that brought forth tears—

Kamikoma took out a purple tube from her pocket. Touya and Saho widened their eyes upon seeing it and let out startled “Geh!” and “Oh no”. The fact that Kamikoma’s voice shook was just due to the cold.

“Wa…Wasabi!”

Kamikoma took Misasagi’s hand again and removed her glove. She then covered Misasagi’s index finger from the tip to the joint with the tube’s contents, and very thoroughly at that.

Nonononono… T-That’s practically life-threatening, isn’t it…!?

Homura paled as she watched the two presidents. Kamikoma did the same for her own finger and then, right in front of Misasagi’s eyes that were slowly being filled with horror, she made a declaration.

“Wasabi-mayo!!” Kamikoma put her trembling finger in her mouth.

Seeming resigned to her fate, Misasagi followed her example with a zen-like expression.

““~~~~~~~~~~!!””

Their bodies twitched and wriggled as if they’d been struck by lightning and they covered their mouths and noses with their hands, but they managed to sluggishly overlap their bodies and make a sushi pose.

“…Wa… Wa… Wasabi-mayo… yo!”

Nearly in tears, Kamikoma barely managed to say the joke, but immediately after, she patted the silently-enduring Misasagi’s back, and together they jumped off stage and rolled across the snow.

Chapter 22 END

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TRANSLATOR’S NOTES

(1) Equal temperament and Pythagorean tuning are musical terms that have to do with frequency intervals in a musical piece. It involves musical theory and terminology that I am not familiar with as someone who knows nothing about music, so I recommend researching online if you want to learn more. Editor Note: This is a pretty nice introduction for the interested: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6NlI4No3s0M

(2) This refers to a legend about Minamoto no Yoshitsune at the Battle of Dan-no-ura, where he performed the feat of jumping across eight ships repeatedly.

(3) Homura says “shut up” in actual English here.

(4) Here, Kamikoma is using Misasagi’s first name “Mayo” as a pun, short for “Mayonnaise”. The whole skit is basically about different sushi with mayonnaise. At sushi restaurants, its common to call out your order in short form like this.

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