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――That proposal spun by the hoarse voice greatly befuddled Subaru and the others.
The “infantilization” that had assailed Subaru’s group, and its mastermind, Olbart Dunkelkenn.
Subaru and the others, who sought to negotiate with Olbart in order to get him to release his infantilization off them, were presented a condition that was befitting of the old man―― no, befitting of the monstrous old man who was toying with their bodies and minds alike; a strange condition, which would lead one’s heart astray upon being heard.
Subaru: [Playing, tag…?]
Subaru, who had been dreading what kind of unreasonable request was going to be posed, ruminated on the words he had just been told.
At the sound of Subaru’s voice, Olbart, his hands up in the air, frowned quizzically.
Olbart: [What’s with the question mark? You’re not gonna tell me ya dunno how ta play tag, are ya?]
Subaru: [Of course I know what it is. It’s just that, it’s not a word that should come up in this situation.]
No matter how it was framed, it was merely a child’s game of “tag”.
It was hard to imagine that there was another meaning to it. Although, since it would be the kind of game of tag played in a shinobi village, there was a good chance that it would have a unique set of rules.
For example, something like――,
Subaru: [“Killin’ isn’t against the rules while playin’, tho’”, something like that.]
Olbart: [Kakakakka! Of course not. If that kinda nonsense were popular, the shinobi’d be extinct in no time flat. And that by my hands, with me bein’ their leader. That’d be bad, wouldn’t it?]
Although Olbart denied Subaru’s concerns, Subaru believed him to be a man willing to stain his own hands with the blood of his own people if necessary, taking into account his violent behavior and the things he had said and done so far.
To be honest, he would not have been that surprised if that shinobi village of his had already been destroyed.
Abel: [――That tag thing, how does it function?]
Rather than Subaru, who was burning with suspicion, it was Abel who urged him to go ahead.
His cheeks twisting into a smile, Olbart let out an “Oh”,
Olbart: [You seem ta be more enthusiastic than I’d expected, masked young’un.]
Abel: [Foolishness. We have already passed the point of not getting into this game, as soon as we divulged that we possess the information you covet.]
Olbart: [Kakakakka! Well, guess you’re right.]
Opening his mouth so wide that it looked like his jaw was about to come off, Olbart gave a hearty laugh without reservations.
In fact, Abel’s point was correct. Olbart’s idea was vicious. Regardless of whether he won or lost this game of tag, Olbart would obtain the information he desired.
The purpose of this game of tag was to allow them to choose how they wished to give up that information, whether after negotiations, or after torture.
Olbart: [So, there’s nothin’ really special about how “tag” works. One side runs away, and the other side catches the other… Oh, it’d be better if I were the one runnin’ away. Ya know, since chasin’ a large group of people ‘round’s too much for an ol’ man’s stamina.]
Medium: [So, if we catch Gramps running away, we win? That’s easy to understand.]
Taritta: [It’s easy to understand, but…]
To Olbart’s explanation of the rules, Medium reacted optimistically, and Taritta pessimistically.
Subaru’s opinion was also leaning more towards Taritta’s. Indeed, the rules were simple and there was no room for uncertainty to interfere. ――In other words, it was all up to one’s ability.
And on the topic of ability, the total sum of the ability of Subaru’s group was nowhere near that of Olbart’s.
Olbart: [Well, might be hard with all the lil’ ones. Then we can loosen the conditions a tad.]
Taritta: [And the person who did it, doesn’t even feel guilty…!]
Olbart: [Don’t get so upset, ya know. If yer finger comes off the bowstring, I’ll have a good reason ta defend myself, and it’ll all become a lot easier.]
As Olbart glanced at the faces in the room and shrugged his shoulders, Taritta clacked her molars together.
It was as the monstrous old man had pointed out; Taritta’s bow still remained trained on Olbart. However, the person in question, Olbart, ignored it with a straight face, and rather used it as a bargaining chip.
One could only imagine the mental turmoil Taritta was feeling. But the priority right now was――,
Subaru: [What do you mean, loosen the conditions?]
Olbart: [Talkin’ ‘bout the way we’ll be playin’ tag, here. How ‘bout, ya don’t have ta catch me, but instead, if ya find me, ya win. But you’d have to do it thrice.]
Olbart: [I’ll hide thrice. Ya folks’re gonna have ta try and find me three times. If ya can’t, ya lose. In this case, it’s no game of tag, it’s a game of seek… which sounds kinda weird.]
“It don’t sound quite right”, said Olbart, cocking his head in puzzlement.
Taking in the old man’s suggestion, the words that came from within Subaru, were――,
Olbart: [Oh yeah, that’s a good name. We’ll just use that.]
With a snap of his fingers, Olbart clicked at the sound of “hide-and-seek”.
As he did so, Olbart held up one finger on each of his outstretched hands, and flashed them to the left and right on the spot for all to see.
Olbart: [In tag, ya only gotta catch me once. In hide-and-seek, ya gotta find me thrice. ――I don’t think I need ta tell ya which one you’ve got a better chance of winnin’, do I?]
Once Olbart posed that question, shutting one eye, Subaru let out a gasp.
Olbart was right, this was a question that required no further thought. ――Given Olbart’s ability as someone transcendental, something Subaru was already aware of, there was no reason for them to opt for a game of tag.
There shouldn’t, yet――,
Al: [Ain’t that so kind of you. Can’t help but wonder if there’s more to it, since you went to the trouble of suggesting a method that’d give us a better chance of winning.]
With Olbart attempting to pass on the odds of victory to them, Al snapped at him.
As a substitute for the helmet he had taken off, Al now had a cloth wrapped around his face. His voice, now high in pitch as he had become younger, was a bit muffled through the cloth, albeit not to the point that it was difficult to understand.
Olbart, having listened to Al’s words, shrugged his shoulders.
Olbart: [Oioi, don’t make the mistake of thinkin’ that I’m an ol’ man who wants ta win at all costs, young’un. As far as I’m concerned, it’d be better if ya folks win, okay? I’m doin’ this ‘cause I wanna know if ya folks’re worth listenin’ to.]
Olbart: [As for me, I’m quite interested in what ya folks have ta say. But is it wrong for me ta be worried ‘bout my retirement savings if I’m caught in some random lie and my loyalty to His Excellency’s questioned? Ta prevent that from happenin’, I’m usin’ my sluggish brain ta come up with this plan.]
Waving his left and right indexes, Olbart answered Al aloofly.
Hearing that answer did not dispel Al’s suspicions. But it was a reasonable answer, and he seemed hesitant to pursue the matter further.
Subaru was not so easy-going as to believe that Olbart was being truthful.
However, there was too little time and not enough information to uncover what was within the mind of this accomplished shinobi mastermind.
During all of this, the time limit that Yorna had given was fast approaching, second-by-second.
With Olbart’s two inconvenient choices―― neither of which was the best option, the chances of coming up with a way to recover from this were close to zero.
To put it another way, Subaru had done everything in his power and still arrived at this situation.
Abel: [――If we are to take up on your offer, we shall need to be clear about some matters.]
Olbart: [Oh, whaddya mean?]
Abel: [You yourself have said so. If you wish to give us a higher chance at victory, you should not leave too much room for pointless exertions―― What is desired from one another must be made clear.]
Olbart: [――. Kakakakka.]
Seemingly having reached the same conclusion earlier, Abel proceeded, one eye trained on Olbart.
Clarification of the rules of the game―― what laid behind the demand for clarification was clear. It served as a sign that the decision was to accept the game, and its content.
Abel nodded, staring back at Olbart, who gave a low chuckle, his eyes bright and blazing.
And then finally――,
Abel: [――Hide-and-seek it is.]
――Following that, there were three major agreements made between the two sides.
The first commitment was, “do no harm to each other”.
Olbart was capable of murdering everyone if he wished so, to begin with. What discouraged him from doing so were the false Emperor’s orders and his wariness towards Yorna.
But this assurance was essential, because he would break this ban if the situation warranted it.
The second was, “limit the places of hiding to the city’s boundaries”.
If they were to believe in the pretense of leaving the odds in their favor, limiting the area was also essential to maintain fairness. Of course, even if it were limited to the city, the play area was quite large.
However, the conditions that Subaru had made him accept should do the job in this regard.
The third was, “clarify the conditions for victory”.
They had opted to play hide-and-seek because they believed that meant a better chance of winning. Then, no one would be able to say that it would be wrong to pursue victory.
Subaru: [I know the odds are different for us in tag compared to hide-and-seek, but why three times? Don’t be stingy, can’t we only do this once?]
Olbart: [Kakakakka! That’s a tad greedy, young man. Tell ya what. If it happens once, it’s prolly a fluke. But if it happens thrice, it’s skill.]
Subaru: [Some people think luck’s part of skill, you know?]
Olbart: [Hate to tell ya, but I don’t believe in luck. I mean, that’s what most of the Empire’s people believe. Ya say some darned things, don’t’cha?]
It was an unavoidable school of thought, typical of an empire based on the supremacy of merit.
There was no such thing as luck or misfortune, and everything was the result of one’s own abilities. This attitude was seemingly suffocating for those unable to live without a refuge.
For example, the Subaru of his days as a truant had no place in the Empire.
Olbart: [In addition, why not do it thrice ‘cause there are three among ya who’ve been shrunken? Sounds reasonable for a technicality I just came up with on the spot.]
Abel: [Then, every time we find you, you shall undo the technique on one person?]
Olbart: [Oh, and now you’re tryin’ ta take advantage of me. Well, let’s just forget that technicality.]
Waving his hands in the air, Olbart refused to confirm Abel’s statement.
Anyhow, with that matter settled, there was presumably nothing else left that required closer examination.
Olbart: [Well, let’s play.]
Subaru: [Olbart-san, just double-checking a small detail… No hiding where we can’t physically get to. There’s nothing we can do if you’re hiding in the middle of nowhere.]
Olbart: [You’re a real stickler for detail, ya know that? ――Well, I would’ve done it if ya hadn’t said that.]
Olbart: [Tell ya what, I was serious when I said I don’t need ta win at all costs, ya know? Don’t forget tho’, this is yer test.]
In other words, he was looking at them for their adroitness, shrewdness and intelligence too.
Olbart appeared to be generous and easy-going, but he was severe when it came to cutting someone off. Were he to deem someone unworthy of his attention, he would rip their vitals out without mercy.
Even now, if Subaru had not butted in, he would have done so in earnest.
Olbart: [――I didn’t think the masked young’un would’ve overlooked that.]
Indicating Abel by cocking his chin, Olbart displayed him a cunning smile that did not hide his elderly age.
Despite this annoyance, Subaru signaled Abel and Al with his eyes, and once he made sure of their assent, he prepared himself to throw down the gauntlet.
Subaru: [If we win, I’ll have you put us back to normal.]
Olbart: [If I win, you’ll have ta wait ten years ta get back ta normal. Well, if His Excellency and the foxgirl get any second thoughts, I’ll go ask ya for yer secrets my own way.]
That would be, a shinobi technique passed down in his shinobi village―― Subaru felt a surge of fear as he regarded Olbart’s dark eyes, feeling that the method the old man had suggested could lead to torture.
Then, before the old man headed to his first hiding place, he would ask a question,
Subaru: [――So what’s the first hint?]
It was a question that would be dismissed as ridiculous if this were a serious game.
However, Olbart did not laugh at this. Because this was a condition for victory that Subaru had forced Olbart to accept for their game of hide-and-seek.
Now that Subaru had been “infantilized”, Olbart wanted to evaluate them not in terms of their fighting prowess or physical abilities, but in terms of their mindset and creativity, as mentioned before.
To put it simply, it was none other than the natural feeling called “not wanting to deal with idiots”.
Olbart: [First of all, a tryout… Near this inn, I’m gonna hide “behind the eyelids”.]
Subaru: [――Behind, the eyelids.]
Olbart: [Well, hang in there, young man. Let this ol’ man have some fun in what’s left of his short life, at least.]
With a fluttering wave of his hand, Olbart turned his back to Subaru and the others. ――At that moment, Subaru felt the tension in the room rise as the man walked away leisurely.
Who among them had not wished that they could pounce on Olbart and solve the problems of the “hide-and-seek” and the “infantilization” at once, in that very moment?
But nobody carried out that reckless act. And it was the right thing to do.
Just before the door closed, Olbart laughed because he knew what Subaru’s hesitation was about.
His behavior lived up to the title of “Vicious Old Man”, his shrill laugh included, right to the end.
And so, once Olbart exited the room, and it was once again occupied only by Subaru and his allies――,
Abel: [Taritta, lower your bow. There is no one to point it at anymore.]
After the enemy had left the room, Abel had Taritta lower her bow.
Taritta’s face, as she followed the instructions, was filled with shame. Naturally so. Olbart had kept a cool face as she pointed her bow at him.
As one of the Shudraq―― No, as someone who had already been entrusted with the role of being the next Chieftain, for Taritta, the old man’s attitude was a mockery of the power of the Shudraqians.
Subaru had allowed Olbart to underestimate the People of Shudraq.
This too, was due to his own lack of strength.
Originally, Taritta had accompanied Subaru to the Demon City to seek a pillar of support for her resolve to take over as Chieftain.
――This would only have the opposite effect, rather than her gaining the needed confidence.
Al: [Are you seriously gonna play along with that old man’s games, bro?]
And so, Al spoke up towards Subaru, who could not find any words to say to Taritta.
Al was wearing a face covering that did not quite fit, and his tone was filled with frustration and disapproval at this interaction with Olbart. He always had the impression of accepting everything rather easily, and of letting things go, so it was surprising to see him react that way.
However, since Olbart keeps outmaneuvering them, it was understandable as to why he would be frustrated.
Subaru: [I don’t feel good about being put through the wringer like that either. But we left some possibilities open at the last minute, right?]
Al: [Possibilities, you mean…]
Medium: [There’s a chance our original bodies can be restored, right? Subaru-chin.]
Medium was sitting on the floor, holding Louis down as she struggled. She was restraining Louis, the latter’s size now almost the same as hers, with her skills, not her arm strength.
Perhaps it was a skill she had developed at the orphanage where she had grown up.
As she calmed Louis, Subaru looked into her blue eyes and nodded, “Yes”,
Subaru: [If we got him in a bad mood, our bodies would stay small… And that isn’t something we can afford considering future plans, and our current course. It’s a must that we return to normal.]
Al: […Well, that’s exactly what we could’ve done, we could’ve surrounded the old man and beaten him.]
Subaru: [Don’t be stupid. The only reason we didn’t die is because Olbart-san was intending to follow the Emperor’s orders. We wouldn’t be able to do anything about it if he felt like it.]
Al: [――. You say that like you’ve seen it before.]
Looking away from Subaru, Al sounded like he wanted to say that that should be impossible.
Al’s remark was not off the mark, since Subaru’s insight was because of a cheat transcending worlds. He had indeed seen it with his own eyes.
Events that he had thought to be impossible had happened, even if he wished not to admit it.
Averting his gaze, Al did not argue further.
Due to the previous day’s visit to the castle keep, Al had also grasped a part of Olbart’s strength. Naturally, he would know that the old man had not been serious back then, and that the odds of victory would be slim were he to demonstrate his true ability.
That was why Al had made the decision to keep watching Olbart’s back as he left.
Subaru: [Whatever, we don’t have much time. If we’re going to meet with Yorna, I need time to do my makeup. I need thirty minutes for everything, so… the grace period’s a little over two hours.]
Taritta: [Is it really necessary to wear women’s clothes…]
Subaru: [It is, because the three of us from yesterday are being requested, too. And…]
As he said this, Subaru looked at Abel, who was silent.
As long as he did not interfere, Subaru guessed that he had the same basic policy as himself. Subaru did not believe he was getting lost in the emotions of having gone through a deadly situation.
Subaru: [Shocked that Olbart-san’s trying to kill the Emperor, huh?]
Abel: [Nonsense. I knew he had ambitions beyond his size. Albeit, I did not think it would be the Emperor’s head. I thought there was nothing to be gained by such an attempt. But what he really seeks is a final sense of accomplishment and the posthumous notoriety.]
Abel shrugged his thin shoulders as if to say he couldn’t fully grasp it.
Regardless of even having been forced out of his position as Emperor and being driven into the most unfavorable situation, Abel never knew when to give up.
From his point of view, it was incomprehensible to give up his own life and seek posthumous fame, as it would be best for him to return to the throne alive.
On this point, Subaru agreed with him, though it was a very mixed bag of feelings. He did not want to be praised after death.
Subaru wished to be forgotten by his remaining loved ones after he passed away.
It was in Subaru’s nature that he would rather be made a memory of and forgotten about in the moment of his death, than for everyone to grieve or suffer for it.
However, he had no intent to share that feeling with Abel.
Subaru: […But Olbart-san’s a bit of an outcast, isn’t he? He’s got all that ambition, but he doesn’t even realize who you are in front of him.]
Therefore, Subaru deceptively changed the subject.
But as soon as he heard that, however, Abel’s eyes showed a suspicion that was clearly visible even through the oni mask.
Abel: [――. What in the world are you talking about?]
Abel: [I am wearing this mask. Hence why Olbart’s reaction is justified.]
Tracing the oni mask’s cheek with his finger, Abel made that declaration nonchalantly.
Subaru raised an eyebrow at his words, his expression showing that he did not understand. Promptly, Abel’s puzzlement turned into disappointment visible through his oni mask.
With that look in his eyes, Abel sighed deeply, and,
Abel: [This mask has the effect of distorting the perceptions of others. It is an effect that conceals the true identity of the wearer.]
Subaru: [――! Is that really “cognitive disruption”? But that mask was originally supposed to be from the Shudraqian’s village…]
Taritta: [Yes yes, that’s right. It’s said that in the past, when the Emperor and Shudraq formed friendly ties, the Emperor used it to visit the Jungle without being recognized.]
Subaru: [That mask has actual history…?]
With the revelation of that surprising fact, Subaru’s mouth was left agape. To that shocked Subaru, Abel’s disappointment still lasted,
Abel: [You, did you really believe that I have been wearing this mask all this time for show, or due to madness?]
Abel: [At last, your stupidity has reached its pinnacle. In the first place, there is plenty good reason to conceal my face. I believe we did not come to the Demon City for tourism.]
Subaru: [You didn’t have to say it like that, you could have just explained that at the start…!]
Certainly, it was Subaru’s fault for thinking it was part of Abel’s odd behavior and not asking anything, but Abel was also at fault for thinking it would be understood without explaining anything.
Thanks to that, he had to unnecessarily embarrass himself, and to worry himself without it being needed.
Anyway, he was now aware of the mechanism as to why Olbart had not realized Abel’s true identity.
Abel had no intention of covering up his pompous speech and arrogant attitude, so Subaru’s fears that he would reveal himself were unfounded.
Medium: [Heyhey, Al-chin, Al-chin. That’s what Abel-chin’s reason is, but is there a reason why Al-chin’s hiding his face?]
Al: [In my case, I have a complex about my facial scars… But let’s not talk about me. Hide-and-seek’s already begun. We gotta get a move on.]
As he said this, Al pointed out the window to the streets of the Demon City.
Chaosflame was one of the largest cities in the Empire, amounting to probably five times the size of the Fortress City of Guaral.
To find the shinobi head honcho hidden among all that was no easy task.
Find him three times, in just two hours and with only six people.
Al: [I know he said he was gonna do a tryout first, but there are a lotta possible hiding places just around the inn, man. Bro, do you or Abel-chan have some kind of plan?]
Subaru: [It’s not much of a plan, but…]
At least, there were some things Subaru had thought of that he wanted to try.
A “hide-and-seek” tryout―― unsurprisingly, he’d had the same idea Olbart did. An idea that should be tried at least once to gauge the mindset of their opponent, the old man.
Just as Subaru thought that, Abel crossed his arms and nodded, “Of course”,
Abel: [There are a few possible moves. Although, my idea is probably different from that of the clown here.]
Subaru: [You’re demoting me from a military strategist to clown, you’re too uptight about that mask thing from earlier… No, it’s not like I cared about being your military strategist or anything.]
Subaru could only curve his lips in a snarl at the sound of Abel’s cold voice. It was as if the fact that Subaru had treated the oni mask’s disguise as an oddity was really upsetting the latter.
Anyway, throughout that discussion here, time was being wasted.
Subaru: [I’ve got to get moving before I forget what having long limbs felt like.]
Al: [Well, dunno if there was ever a time when me and you had long legs, bro…]
Subaru: [I meant compared to the current situation.]
The group pushed aside Al as he teased that they were all short-legged, and prepared the minimum amount of gear.
Al carried his Blue Dragon Sword in its sheath on his back, Medium carried only one of her twin swords on her hip. For now, Subaru would also carry his whip. However, he was not confident he could handle it in all honesty.
All that was left was Abel and Taritta, who were in top condition, plus――,
???: [Aa, uu!]
Medium: [Oh, Louis-chan, you’re so motivated! Alright, let’s work hard and find Gramps!]
Medium raised a small fist at the sound of Louis’s voice, not wanting to leave her behind.
In the end, Louis was likely to slow everyone down. Olbart had been forbidden to change his hiding place in the meantime, so they would like to believe that, even if he sensed the approach of the noisy Louis, he probably would not do anything of the sort.
Al: [Isn’t it possible that he’ll change his hiding places from time to time and claim that he’s been hiding in one place the whole time?]
Abel: [I already corrected you on that, but Olbart’s goal is not his own victory. The reason he is performing such a roundabout move is to measure our capabilities through this game.]
Al: [Measuring our capabilities? That means…]
Abel: [He wishes to know if I am capable of making such a big claim to the Emperor’s throne.]
Abel made it clear to Al, who doubted Olbart’s true intentions.
Subaru also saw no falsehood there. It was hard to believe Olbart’s own words, but since his goal was the Emperor’s life, being able to believe the aim of Subaru’s group, and the information in their hands being the real deal would be convenient.
Olbart wanted to be convinced by their party’s demonstration of capabilities.
And for that reason――,
Subaru: [I didn’t ask before, but what was that about the Flame of the Yang Sword…?]
Abel: [I am afraid I do not have the leisure to give a lengthy lecture on the history of the Emperors of Vollachia. Your shallow wisdom notwithstanding, my plan is not something that can be set in motion in a room at an inn.]
Subaru: [Tch, okay.]
Subaru clucked his tongue at this manner of saying that he did not want to reveal anything.
Nevertheless, if the exchange with Olbart were indeed true, it seemed to him that the Emperor of Vollachia, or rather Abel, had some kind of protection. As long as he did, no harm would befall him.
Subaru: [On second thought…]
So far, Subaru had never seen Abel lose his life with his own eyes.
Since arriving in the Vollachian Empire, Subaru’s life had been threatened quite frequently, having actually lost his life and Returned by Death. However, Abel’s death was an event that had never occurred. ――Although Subaru had been in situations which seemed like they should have resulted in Abel’s death.
When Olbart revealed his true nature the very previous loop, or when Todd had the Buddheim Jungle burnt down, Shudraqian village included, the life of the imprisoned Abel should have been lost.
But that was only because of the circumstances, not because Subaru had directly confirmed his death. ――So, he wanted to confirm one thing.
Subaru: [That thing called the Flame of the Yang Sword, is it still protecting you?]
Abel: [How insistent. Will you perhaps turn against me as well, if you do not hear it?]
Subaru: […There’s no merit in me doing that.]
His cheeks contorting due to that mocking remark, Subaru gave up the pursuit this time.
Then, Subaru looked around at the faces of his companions as they prepared to leave the inn,
Subaru: [Unexpectedly, we have to play a game. But if the condition is that we just need to find a person, then we should be able to compete even in a situation where half of our members have shrunk. In fact, since it’s a game of hide-and-seek, that we’ve returned to our childlike minds and bodies might even be better for us in this game.]
Taritta: [W-what’s the logic behind that…?]
Abel: [Ignore him. It is nonsense, meaningless to listen to.]
In fact, that was right, since it was nothing more than banter, but he just expressed his regret with a wrinkle between his eyebrows.
After doing that, Subaru shouted “Anyway!”, louder than he should have.
Subaru: [I want everyone to pay maximum attention to their surroundings. ――Ok then, let’s go!]
Al: […You’re really into this, bro.]
The enthusiastic Subaru was dressed in the clothes he had on hand, his figure looking quite unsightly. Al sighed as Medium and Louis followed Subaru’s lead, pumping their fists in the air.
On the other hand, Taritta, who had become the strongest fighter, had nervousness and anxiety in her eyes, while Abel was as irreverent as ever, with no expression behind his oni mask and nothing in his hands.
All of their members left the inn together.
First item of order, was to locate Olbart’s first hiding place. Full of eagerness, Subaru slammed the door with a loud bang and stepped out with great vigor――,
Subaru: [――Then, we’ll return right away.]
With a hard step, he kicked the floor directly with his foot, and Subaru’s body made a half-turn. Al let out a dumb-sounding voice upon seeing the other side of door he had just gone out of.
With this in mind, Subaru pushed open the door of the room with force.
Then Subaru pointed into the room from which he and the others had just left――,
Subaru: [――Found yooou~, Olbart-san.]
???: [Kakakakka! Oioi, com’on, don’t’cha have a bad personality, for ya ta notice this right away? I’m blushin’ here, bein’ spotted this right outta the blue, it’s so embarrassin’!]
And Olbart, who had snuck into the room in Subaru and the others’ stead, laughed heartily at Subaru’s first declaration, as the latter pointed at himself.
Al: [Seriously, bro…!]
Al was surprised to see Olbart in the room, who was about to refill his cup with cold tea.
Much to his surprise, Medium and Louis followed suit, with an “Oh, it’s Gramps!” and an “Aa!”, respectively. Taritta widened her eyes, having peeked into the room as well.
Delayed by those reactions, Abel narrowed his eyes once Olbart’s figure finally came into view.
Abel: [“Behind the eyelids”, I see.]
He looked down at Subaru’s young profile and muttered.
Abel: [Did you know from the start that this was the place?]
Subaru: [The expression “behind the eyelids” and the surroundings of the inn made this the first place I thought of. The type of person who offers you this kind of game’s definitely going to try to do this at least once.]
A distant, nostalgic memory came to Subaru’s mind with that answer―― the memory of his first meeting with Beatrice, at the old Roswaal Mansion.
Beatrice had attempted to have Subaru endlessly walk in the same space by creating a looping corridor using her magical ability. Unfortunately for Beatrice, Subaru had seen through her scheme at a glance and quickly figured out that the starting point was also the goal.
Now that Subaru thought about it, he was sorry that he had not gone along with the cute Beatrice’s ruse. But his opponent now was not the mischievous Beatrice, he was a monstrous old man, now wasn’t the time for holding back.
Therefore, he would distort his young face into a big grin and boast of his victory mercilessly.
Subaru: [Honestly, I saw right through you, Vicious Old Man.]
Olbart: [Oioi, don’t kick me while I’m down. This is an embarrassment I can’t let the young people of my village see at all. Why don’t’cha call yerself the Vicious Lil’ Boy?]
Subaru: [I’ll pass on that. I haven’t done anything to be called vicious, after all.]
Olbart: [Well, that’s just bein’ humble. ――Ya even went ta the trouble of speakin’ in a loud voice for me ta hear as ya left the inn. It was some great actin’.]
Subaru scratched his cheek at Olbart, who raised one eyebrow and sneered at him.
As expected, his intentions could be seen through after such an exaggerated act. However, even if he had been able to notice Subaru’s true intentions, Olbart had no way to change his hiding place.
That was because this game was played by determining the hiding place they used first, and then giving clues accordingly.
Subaru: [I know it’s really early in the first round to be discovered, but you’re going to count it as one, right? You’re not going to be in a bad mood just because I refused to take on the name “Vicious”, are you?]
He wanted to avoid being dismissed “because these were anticlimactic results”, or something like that.
To Subaru’s request for confirmation born out of concern, Olbart closed one eye and said, “Of course”,
Olbart: [My fault that the results were brought in so quickly. It’s a bit unreasonable ta expect ya folks ta mop up my mess. Twice more, as agreed.]
Medium: [Oh~! You did it, Subaru-chin! We got the first win in about ten seconds!]
Subaru: [Yeah, it’s good news.]
With Medium to his side overjoyed, Subaru patted his chest in relief.
For now, this concluded the first riddle from Olbart―― indeed, it was a trial of sorts, borrowing the name “hide-and-seek”. It could be said that they were being asked to solve a problem on a test.
They were being tested to see if they were worthy of Olbart’s attention.
Subaru: [All of it is because of Beako’s…]
Help, he was about to say, as Subaru attempted to picture the adorable girl in his mind.
However, for a moment, that thought was bleached white, coming to a full stop.
A feeling of slight discomfort and a slight tugging created a ripple in his heart.
Before he could pursue a definitive answer to what it was――,
Olbart: [Well, I gotta redeem myself, so I’ll hurry ta the second hidin’ place.]
Subaru: [Oh, yeah, you’re right. So, what’s the next hint?]
Olbart: [Hmm… The next hidin’ place’s gonna be somethin’ like…]
Folding his hands behind his back, Olbart leaned his head and body in thought. However, he did not spend much time pondering, and so the old man contorted his cheeks.
Olbart: [――“An abyss with a great view”, ya might say.]
Al: [An abyss…]
Taritta: [With a great view?]
The words of Taritta and Al completed each other, as they ruminated on the bizarre hint left regarding the next hiding place.
But Olbart had no intention of leaving any further hints.
Olbart: [Ya were better than expected the first time ‘round, but the real game’s ‘bout ta begin.]
The old man smiled, his white teeth in full view, and then leapt backwards nimbly and gallantly. With that, Olbart opened the room’s window and put his foot on the windowsill without a care in the world.
Then, right before Subaru and the others looking on with eyes open wide, he jumped outside.
Olbart: [Next time, I’ll be sure ta hide a lil’ better!]
Al: [Wait, old man…! Shit, he’s gone!]
With haste and a yell, Al rushed to the window and looked around outside as he held his covered head.
In fact, it would be difficult to catch Olbart when he was dedicated to escape. His overwhelming ability to run away convinced Subaru that changing the game from “tag” to “hide-and-seek” had been the right call.
Taritta: [Subaru, that man’s next hiding place…]
Medium: [Hmhm, Subaru-chin, did you understand? Do you know what it is?]
Subaru: [Uhh… That’s…]
Taritta and Medium turned to look at him expectantly, yet Subaru was at a loss for words.
As for the second hiding place’s hint, “an abyss with a great view”, Subaru honestly found no clue that could lead to an answer.
Subaru: [Sorry. Can’t think of anything right away. It’s not like I can read minds or anything, I just can read the situation.]
Medium: [I see~, I’m sorry! We can’t keep just relying on you! We’ll figure it out together!]
Taritta: [Yes, you’re right. I’m not very good at using my head, but I’ll keep thinking about it.]
Subaru bowed due to his uselessness, to which Medium and Taritta responded.
The initial hiding place could also be called the starting point, a typical development of sorts that had been realized.
Even if that had been off the mark, they could have easily tried it out in part because it was a location so close that there was almost no time loss. However, from here on――,
Subaru: [It’s simply going to be a race against time.]
Al: [――. Bro also doesn’t have an idea of where he’s gonna hide next. Well, it isn’t anything surprising though.]
Subaru: [That’s right… Maybe I can’t be depended on, but it’s depressing to be told that in such a clear way.]
At the start of the real game of “hide-and-seek”, his allies stabbed him in the back.
Of course, Subaru took that as a fair assessment, but he really wished he would have been a bit less direct. Even close friends have some sense of consideration.
However, in response to Subaru’s words, Al waved his hand and said, “Oh, that’s not it”,
Al: [Well it isn’t unreasonable for you to not get it, bro. After all, I’m here with you.]
Subaru: [Hmm? I really don’t know what you’re talking about. Is it something like, my IQ goes down when you’re around, Al? What kind of system is that?]
Al: [That ain’t what I’m talking about, but it’s hard to explain… right?]
Subaru: [Even if you ask me to agree, I still won’t get it.]
As he spoke, Al’s way of speaking, holding neither confidence nor certainty, was curious.
He put Al aside, who was tilting his head, as he did not see how this topic could go any further in a constructive direction. The highest priority right now, was to figure out the “abyss with a great view” clue Olbart had left them with.
Subaru: [“Behind the eyelids” was the room where we started. “An abyss with a great view”, another way to phrase it would be…]
Taritta: [“With a great view” means it’s probably considered a high place, no?]
Medium: [But an abyss is a hole, right? If it’s a hole, wouldn’t it be in the ground?]
Alternatively, it was possible that there was a spot in Chaosflame described as such.
In any case, it was unlikely that they would be able to reach the answer with the amount of information they could get from their room at the inn. At last, they would have to go into the city.
Al: […I can’t get my head around this. Which reminds me, what’s Abel-chan’s plan?]
Abel: [It is not something that can proceed here, as I have told you. It would be convenient to have as many people as possible… And in addition to that, a place where outsiders come and go.]
Al: [You mean a place where strangers come and go? I wonder where in this city…]
The implementation of Abel’s plan caused Al to tilt his head.
The true meaning behind the idea of looking for a place where outsiders entered and exited was unknown to Subaru, but there was a good chance that Abel would not tell him even if he asked him to until they actually reached the execution phase. It could not be called an act that benefited their opponent, but it was difficult to deal with.
Of course, he was a man who would even discard the cards in his hand without a second thought for the sake of winning.
Subaru: [If it’s a place with a lot of people coming and going, that should be… a place to drink.]
Taritta: [A tavern?]
Subaru: [Yeah, there. I think we should try to go there or somewhere similar.]
It was debatable whether it was more beneficial to search for Olbart without taking any detours or to help Abel’s plan come to fruition, but for now, it seemed like a good idea to prioritize Abel first.
With that in mind, Subaru and the others headed out of the inn with a renewed spirit.
Abel: [Attracting the attention of the public with this crowd of children is not ideal.]
Subaru: [Don’t complain because four-sixths of us are children. In the first place, you’re not one to talk about public perception because of that oni mask you’re wearing. Or maybe, the perception… Uhh, does the effect of the mask make it look like it has a different face?]
Abel: [The mask does not alter its appearance from an oni’s face, it merely hides my identity.]
Subaru: [Then you’ll definitely stand out…]
With a small shrug of his shoulders, Subaru sighed, parrying aside Abel’s misguided frustration.
After greeting the shopkeeper at the entrance of the inn and asking them about the locations of some taverns, they went into the street. With that, they all walked towards a tavern to accomplish Abel’s aim.
And suddenly, in the middle of it all,
Subaru: [Instead of having all of us going to the tavern, wouldn’t it be better if we split up? One group goes to look for Olbart-san, and the other goes to the tavern with Abel――]
It happened just as he was about to suggest that they split up.
Suddenly, a scarlet light scattered at the edge of his field of vision, dazzling Subaru’s eyes.
???: [Oh yeah, that’s a good name. We’ll just use that.]
An unexpected voice struck Subaru’s eardrums as he blinked, his eyes simmering from the vermilion light.
The sound and its suddenness made a silly voice leak out, and a giggle broke out right in front of Subaru. A low chuckle it was, causing Subaru’s eyes to widen at its sound.
???: [Kakakakka! What’s with the dumb voice? I was just complimentin’ ya on the good name.]
Subaru: […Olbart, san?]
An old man stood in front of him, clearing his throat and shaking his thin shoulders as he laughed.
It had happened so suddenly that Subaru had to blink his eyes a few times, unable to understand it. Then, he swallowed his saliva, and said what he had to declare,
Subaru: [Oh, found you, Olbart-san.]
Olbart: [――? Why’s that? Ya already feelin’ like you’re playin’ the game?]
He noticed a sense of incongruity upon taking that chance at the unexpected second discovery.
Olbart’s attitude as he tilted his head and spoke that, coupled most of all with the discomfort regarding the scene around him―― he was supposed to be out in the streets of the Demon City, but Subaru was in a room somewhere else.
――No, not in some room.
Subaru: […No way.]
Subaru was in a room at an inn. ――The same lodgings they had just come out of.
And finally, there was the fact that Subaru was there, facing Olbart and talking to him.
He had no choice but to accept that he had Returned by Death in contradiction to the rule that should have prevented that.