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Chapter 7 - An Archenemy Barring the Way  

“Go secure the grandmaster.”

After the three-thousand Qinglong Gang mercenaries entered the Tomino Basin from the surrounding woods, their employer, Masato Sanada, gave them orders as he surveyed the state of the battle.

Despite the sounds of fighting, his voice traveled uncannily well, and the Qinglong Gang mercenaries responded by getting to work. They cut a path between the Neuro and the Yamato armies, surrounding and protecting the grandmaster.

“Wh-who are these people?! That’s not the imperial standard they’re flying. Who are they fighting for?!”

“Get out of the way! If you don’t, we’ll cut you down!”


The Yamato soldiers were so bewildered they nearly went on the offensive, but Tsukasa shouted to stop them.

“Mr. Angel…?”

“The situation’s completely changed. Gather up all troops and fall back behind me.”

With that, Tsukasa recalled Aoi and the rest of the soldiers who’d fought Neuro. The Qinglong Gang’s strength had forced his hand.

Masato had single-handedly run Elm’s distribution networks, allowing him to equip the mercenaries with black-market weapons. They were a fully modern fighting force equipped with top-of-the-line bolt-action rifles across the board. Those guns had demonstrated their terrifying power time and time again during Elm’s fight for independence. Their effective range and destructive rapid-fire capabilities far surpassed anything native to the current era.

That was a gap no amount of tactical wit could close. Attacking the Qinglong Gang head-on would doom everyone but Aoi to death.

Tsukasa had no choice but to tell his forces to stand down.

“Well, hey, look who’s feelin’ all reasonable.” Masato had joined his troops by Neuro, and he gave Tsukasa’s sensible decision a satisfied smile. “Don’t shoot anyone who’s fleeing. Just get in there and form a wall between the two armies.”

“““Yes, sir!”””

Following Tsukasa’s lead, Akatsuki’s ambush troops stopped their attack and reassumed their formation. Meanwhile, the scattered imperial army gathered with their nearby allies, too. Finally, the Qinglong Gang stepped in and lined up so as to block the two sides from each other in their entirety. The battlefield was now cleanly partitioned.

Seeing the soldiers get shuffled around caused Neuro, who was still under the gunmen’s protection, to snap. He couldn’t comprehend why Masato acted so leisurely. “MASATO!! Why aren’t you attacking?! This is the perfect time to strike!!”

Masato replied with a simple shrug. “Hold your horses, Grandmaster. I’ve got this whole procedure I’m following.”

“Look around you! You don’t need procedures; just shoot the bastards already! That’s an order!”

“Oh, shut up.”


Frustration at having nearly been backed into a corner caused Neuro’s tone to take a harsh edge, but the cutting reply he got back left him speechless.

Masato sounded more than a little exasperated as he continued. “I think you’ve got a few things mixed up, Grandmaster. I told you that I’d help, and that’s exactly what I’ve been doing, but I don’t remember ever agreeing to be your lapdog. I control who wins this battle right now, and I’m free to sell it to whoever I damn well please.”

“Y-you little…!”

“Let me repeat myself. I don’t want either army moving an inch. If you even think about pulling anything, just know that as soon as you do, you’ll have made enemies out of me and all three thousand of my Qinglong Gang mercs. Now, Tsukasa…you and I have an important business arrangement to hash out.”

A touch of bafflement colored Tsukasa’s expression. “Business arrangement” didn’t seem at all like the appropriate term given the situation.

“A what?”

Masato was no longer interested in Neuro, and he shifted his attention away from him…

“You heard me. And I won’t take no for an answer. Engineering this situation, this moment, was the whole reason I left you all in the first place.”


“Now, come to the negotiation table, Tsukasa. Before I change my mind.”

…and over to Tsukasa. He cast the boy a piercing stare while beckoning him from more than half a mile away.

“For my end, I’m offering you this battle up on a silver platter. And in return, I want you to take that policy you’re pushing back on Earth…

“…your universal basic income plan, and shelve it in perpetuity.”


Universal basic income was a social security system where the government provided each of its citizens with enough money to guarantee their access to a cultured life as ensured by the Japanese constitution. Unlike current public welfare systems, there were no special procedures or checks you had to undergo to get the money. If you were a citizen, you were eligible. The policy was incredibly fair, and its fundamental simplicity allowed it to avoid getting bogged down in the privileging and arbitrary screenings that plagued its current counterparts. Implementing UBI would eliminate benefit fraud and take the many problematic situations of existing welfare programs—such as people improperly getting payments despite their relatives having stable incomes, people starving because welfare workers made an incorrect call, and beneficiaries being discriminated against—and eliminate them in one fell swoop.

UBI had the power to save countless people from poverty.

That’s why prodigy politician Tsukasa Mikogami had been pushing it as a mid-to-long-term goal for Japan and trying to earn public support for the system. However…

“If you ask me, UBI is a dog-shit system that only benefits slackers who want enough to get by on without having to work at all.”

…prodigy businessman Masato Sanada had some harsh things to say about the idea.

“Money doesn’t just grow on trees. Nations only have finite budgets, and they gotta make their social security systems work within ’em. If you tried to give everyone enough money to survive with no strings attached, you’d burn through your bankroll in a heartbeat.”

Masato had a point. UBI was an experiment with a lot of potential, but at the same time, it had many problems people were concerned about, too.

The biggest one of all was how to finance it. The policy involved unconditionally providing each citizen with enough money to subsist on. If you assumed that amount was eighty thousand yen a month, then the program’s annual outlay would be north of one hundred trillion yen. Preexisting funding methods weren’t enough to cover that amount, so the difference was going to have to come from somewhere, and the initial suggestion was a tax hike on corporations and the wealthy.

In the eyes of Masato Sanada, the greatest businessman in the world, that solution was unacceptable. He made no attempts to hide the hatred and animosity in his expression. “I’m gonna be honest with you. I’m not fucking having it. I put a lot of time and money into amassing my fortune. Sometimes, I even had to take huge risks that meant putting my life on the line. I’ll be damned if I let it be stolen by a bunch of loafers who’ve never built a thing in their life and who spend their days lazing about.”

“…I see.” After lending an ear to Masato’s criticism of his policy, Tsukasa nodded. Then he scowled at Masato and gave him a look with a hint of rage. “In other words, you intend to use this battle, the lives of everyone fighting here, as ammo for this negotiation. You’ll turn your guns on us if I don’t do what you say. That’s a low move. You really think it’s right to take our dispute from Earth to this world?”

Tsukasa’s expression was even harsher than during the battle with Neuro.


“Yeah, it’s low; I’ll give you that. But that cuts two ways. What you’re trying to do is goddamn highway robbery. Looting, carried out under the name of governmental authority. I’ve been waiting for a long time… A looong time for an opportunity to shut you down.”

…the judgmental look in Tsukasa’s eyes did nothing to change Masato’s attitude. Once again, Masato beckoned him over to negotiate.

After hesitating for a moment, Tsukasa told his soldiers to stay back, then stepped forward from his battle line alone and approached his old friend.

Tsukasa was ready. He knew now that the true enemy wasn’t Neuro, it was Masato. And Tsukasa was the only one capable of bringing him down.

His resolve came through loud and clear to Masato. Tsukasa’s choice to step forward marked the start of the true battle.

“…I mean, think about it,” Masato continued. “What’ll happen if you funnel money to a bunch of people who don’t own companies? Salaries exist because of wealthy people doing business, and without them making investments, the economy stops functioning. When rich people have money, that money ends up flowing downstream. It’s what they call the trickle-down effect, and it’s how the economy works. Go on, tell me I’m wrong.”

“That argument’s fallacious and you know it, Merchant.” With that one intense word, fallacious, Tsukasa cut right through Masato’s retort. “In the past, there have been administrations that based their economic policy around that very same trickle-down theory. Do you know what happened?

“Companies’ retained earnings, the savings they kept for themselves instead of distributing into the economy, rose to never-before-seen levels. All the riches that were supposed to flow downward stopped right at the top. Instead of money trickling down, real wages declined. Trying to advance your argument while completely disregarding actual case studies hardly seems like a productive course of action.”

Trickle-down economics had already proven to be ineffective, so as Tsukasa saw it, another option was necessary.

“The problems our nation is grappling with can’t be solved merely by increasing the size of our economy. The issue is that a tiny percentage of wealthy individuals control seventy percent of the total wealth—and it’s the system that enables them that’s at fault.”

“People like me have our money because we earned it.”

“Absolutely; I don’t deny that. But if we allow the fact that you earned your money to serve as a justification for maintaining the status quo, then we might as well not have a democracy at all.”


“The primary objective of UBI is to ensure our civil rights are protected by taking the money flowing through our nation like water and mandating that its waterways be maintained. That’s right, mandating. Many of our nation’s problems are rooted in how the wealthy have dug in and protected their vested interests over the past century or so. The masses don’t trust you to self-regulate, so they elected my administration to make that choice for you.”

“Spoken like a true populist,” Masato said, sighing overdramatically to express his exasperation. “Always gotta pander to the masses, don’t you? Those people don’t have talent, they don’t have skills, they don’t even have a proper work ethic, and you treat them like gods. What’s your endgame here, goddamn mob rule?”

“What would be wrong with that?”

“Sorry, run that by me again?”

“Mob rule is just an outcome. If the people’s foolishness leads them to destroy themselves, they have no one but themselves to blame. It’s a perfectly viable conclusion, one might even say a healthy conclusion, for a democracy. The worst possible outcome for a democracy is for a small group of people to recognize that possibility, denounce it as inane, and use that as a pretext to seize power for themselves and use it at their whim.”


“You have every right to oppose my campaign promises, Merchant, and our constitution guarantees you the right to run for office with that as your policy platform. If that’s what you want to do, then be my guest. But trying to have your way by force is something I cannot abide.”

“…Big words for a guy standing where you are.”

A bitter smirk spread across Masato’s face as he watched Tsukasa approach unhurriedly. The situation was such that Masato effectively had a gun pressed to Tsukasa’s head, yet Tsukasa didn’t seem daunted in the slightest.

“But hey, you’ve always been a bit hardheaded. Don’t worry, I never thought it’d be easy to get you to walk back your plan. But here’s the thing…”

Tsukasa’s demeanor wasn’t enough to make Masato lose his cool. He was supremely confident that he was in the right here.

“If you keep pushing for UBI, the people who blindly support you for being the messiah who took down the twisted old administration are gonna get hopped up on hype, and Japan’s gonna descend into exactly the kind of mob rule you described. And you wanna know why? It’s because UBI’s got this one fatal flaw.”


“Does it?”

When Tsukasa stopped in his tracks and posed his question, Masato gave him a theatrical nod. “You’d be giving people an entitlement that assures them they can survive without working. You’re removing the necessity for labor.”

The question was: What happened when you took away the need for people to work?

The way Masato put it, their desire to try would decrease, and the labor participation rate would deteriorate.

“The quality of service will go to shit. Then there’s the progressive tax you’ll need to implement to fund UBI. With the one-two combo of lower quality and worse cashflow, our nation’s industries are gonna stop being competitive in the global marketplace. And you know what’ll happen then?

“Our GDP’s gonna shrink, and your tax revenue will drop with it. Eventually, you won’t even be able to keep funding your UBI.”

If the government attempted to maintain UBI through lower tax yields, it would have to increase taxation. However, that increase would hurt corporations all over again.

“It’s a vicious circle, and it’ll end with our domestic industries in ruins. All those people who supported you will change their tunes. ‘Con man!’ they’ll call you. ‘You’ll just say whatever gets you elected!’”

“That’s a pretty bold conclusion.”

“Yeah, well, it’s true. That’s the way it’ll all go down. Look, Tsukasa. As a manager, I’ve observed a lot of people, and I’m talking from experience here. People are fundamentally lazy deep down. Unless something forces them, gives them no choice, they’ll drift through life slothfully.

“Maybe you could call it a biological mechanism. Lions raised in captivity don’t hunt, and it’s the same deal with people. If the government raises its people like that, they’ll stop working altogether, and the nation will fall.”

“Interesting. So to sum up, Masato, this fatal flaw you see…”

“Is that it goes against human nature. That’s the main problem with UBI. Japan’s a country that sells tech and buys resources. If our people stop working, our companies will wither, and our economy will tank so badly that we won’t even be able to keep the lights on. Without our companies, we won’t have a nation.

“Sure, wealth is getting concentrated, and maybe there isn’t that much trickling down. But if someone has a problem with that, all they gotta do is start their own business and use it to climb higher.

“They can found a company, they can get a job in a public sector… Japan doesn’t have any have laws against that. It’s all totally legal, so the idea of plunging everyone into poverty for a bunch of slackers who won’t even try is straight-up pigheaded. That right there is a system that makes fools out of anyone who actually puts in effort, and there’s nothing more unfair than that.

“I say some people aren’t worth saving. Nations aren’t built by gods. They’re built by people, and that means they can’t rescue everyone. Call it an evil of democracy if you like, but as long as we’re working with finite resources, our systems are gonna have limits. In democracies, politicians are meant to do their best within those limitations.

“So c’mon, ditch the pipe dreams and work with me here. That’ll let you bring happiness to the most people possible. That right there is one of those ‘better compromises’ you love so much, right?”

People were creatures of sloth. Masato was certain of it, and he built an argument upon that conviction to show Tsukasa how wrong he was.

There was less than a hundred feet between the two Prodigies now. Masato extended his hand toward Tsukasa. All Tsukasa had to do was take it, and their negotiation would reach its conclusion. Perhaps the gesture was also meant symbolically, like he was trying to pull his friend back from the brink before Tsukasa destroyed himself chasing an impossible dream.

However, Tsukasa took Masato’s words and outstretched hand…


…and rejected them both without a shred of hesitation.


Tsukasa’s tone was as sharp and unwavering as a knife, and Masato’s eyes went wide with shock. He knew that Tsukasa was exceedingly careful when it came to the future and matters unknown and that he always considered every possibility to choose the best. That was just the kind of person Tsukasa was, and that was precisely why Masato hadn’t expected him to refuse so firmly.

Was Tsukasa letting his emotions get the better of him? No, that wasn’t it. Masato was sure it had to be something else. There wasn’t a person he knew more detached from their feelings than Tsukasa.

Masato shot him a questioning look that asked, “What are you basing that refusal on?”

Tsukasa replied, “It’s true that lazily drifting through life is a biological mechanism, Merchant, and I admit that humans are furnished with that feature. In primeval times, it may well have been the truest expression of our nature. But now… Now things are different. There’s something we now have that animals don’t, and its creation changed us on a fundamental level.”

“What’s that?”

“I’m surprised. I didn’t think you’d need to ask. You’re the prodigy businessman, aren’t you? There’s one thing we have that animals don’t, and that thing is currency.”


“Its creation increased the range at which goods could be distributed and the diversity of those goods. It meant that distant civilizations could engage in cultural exchange, and it spurred on human society’s rapid growth. However, it also created the ability to use currency to pervert society—hoarding.”

Tsukasa pointed out that currency didn’t degrade over time, and that gave people the ability to easily store value.

“Its presence altered our very natures from creatures that live for the moment to creatures that live for tomorrow.

“‘I might need this someday, so I’ll save it.’

“‘I might need this someday, so I’ll gather up more of it.’

“We began seeking value for use in the future, even though we couldn’t know for sure whether we’d be able to use it. And it turns out that behavior has no limits. The mere existence of value that you can store without it ever spoiling takes those bounds and destroys them. It stops being about having enough for tomorrow or the day after. It becomes about the next year, or the next decade, or the next generation, or the next three generations. People gather up more and more and strive for greater wealth than they could ever possibly use. They keep on hoarding it, but no matter how much they hold, it’s never enough. The future is infinite, after all.

“So the question is, what happens then?

“Naturally, some people will be really good at making money, which eventually leads to colossal wealth inequality. There are people who don’t have enough to feed themselves tomorrow coexisting with those carrying fortunes substantial enough to do as they like for generations and never fear going broke. Our homeland exists at the endpoint of that history, where we have people starving to death while dumpsters overflow with food.”

“So you’re saying that what drives humankind…,” Masato began.

“Is greed,” Tsukasa finished. “It drives people in our world of extreme wealth inequality, and it motivates the citizens of this world that recently had a revolution. Greed motivates citizens to seek better futures for themselves. By doing so, they change society. You’ve stood by Roo’s side and seen how powerful that drive is yourself.”


Roo was a slave girl who, spurred by a desire to buy back her lost family, put her life on the line to convince Masato of her hunger. There was a value to the avarice burning in her young eyes, and Masato recognized that better than anyone.

Masato had no way to refute Tsukasa’s assertion. He sank into awed silence.

Meanwhile, Tsukasa strode onward with intensity in his steps.

“With that fact in mind, I not only refute your theory that people are inherently slothful, but I can also state that your fears about UBI destroying the framework of our society are baseless! No matter how the system changes, there’s no end to humanity’s appetite. We can never go back to being wild beasts.

“With UBI, I intend to take our countless welfare systems, the ones that have purposely been needlessly subdivided to create power structures, and unify them to break down the barriers keeping wealth stagnant and create a vast financial canal that flows back and forth between our nation and its people. It will set countless things in motion.

“And the first thing it will do is change our relationship with work.

“The fact that UBI gives people enough to live off of means that workers will possess a lifeline to escape from abusive workplaces. Companies won’t be able to exploit laborers anymore. That will lead to moral working environments, which in turn will have a direct impact on employee motivation. A lot of people have big dreams for the future but are tied down by simply having to survive, and this will give them an opportunity to embrace new challenges. They can start businesses, go into research, create works of art—the world will be their oyster. As you said, Merchant, Japan is a nation with few resources that gets by selling technology. This will allow more people to embrace their potential, which will serve our national interests.

“On top of that, the flow of goods will shift as well.

“When the massive waterway that is UBI sends wealth flowing to the masses, tons of goods produced only to be sent to dumpsters will end up in the hands of people who need them instead. The interplay between supply and demand shall become more efficient than ever, and the scale of our nation’s markets will expand dramatically.

“It will fundamentally change the way money operates in the long run.

“Once people know that there’s a baseline income level they’ll always have access to, they’ll stop thinking of money as something to be hoarded. It will become something to be spent, or perhaps invested. Of the estimated two quadrillion yen the Japanese public owns in personal assets, nearly sixty percent is held in bank deposits. That number is almost unreasonably conservative by international standards, and if we can get that asset ratio more active, it’s impossible to estimate how much good it will do for our economy.

“People, goods, money…the massive UBI river will carry them through our nation with hitherto unseen mobility. That will allow us to systematically build a country where nobody starves again. We’ll be trailblazers for a new era and a guiding light for democracies heading into the twenty-second century. That’s something I feel deeply confident about.”

Tsukasa’s stance on human nature differed from Masato’s. And after laying it bare, he made his stand. Tsukasa stood before Masato’s proffered hand, but rather than spare a glance at it, he looked his old friend straight in the eye.

His gaze declared that UBI would work.

“…You seriously think you’re gonna be able to pull that off? You’re not talkin’ about changing Japan anymore. You’re talking about changing the whole damn world.”

“I do. People’s greed has altered the world before. If people want it, I’ll get it done. After all…that’s what politicians are for.”


Seeing Tsukasa talk like that, with his blue and red eyes shining with ice-cold rationality and fiery passion, dredged up a memory of Masato’s from a few years ago.

He recalled the night when Tsukasa, who was just a boy, came to him and suggested they take down Tsukasa’s father.


“Your old man is a problem for me, too. He’s already laying the groundwork to sell off our nation, and I can’t be who I am in a socialist state. This plan of yours has my full support.”

“That means a lot. I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have in my corner than you, Merchant.”

Tsukasa and Masato had met at night in the park, beneath a streetlight that had been left broken to save on infrastructure renovation costs and atop a bench with all its paint peeling. Tsukasa’s father, Mitsuhide Mikogami, was running Japan into the ground with his misgovernance, and Masato and Tsukasa had come together to discuss their plan to oust him.

Masato had already made a name for himself as a talented businessman, and he offered Tsukasa his full support. At the same time, though…

“But here’s the thing. When the plan succeeds, your old man’s gonna get executed, no ifs, ands, or buts. The only statutory penalty on the books for treason is the death penalty. In other words, you’ll be murdering your father with your own two hands. You’re gonna regret it no matter what.”

…he also issued a warning.

Masato was all too familiar with the pain of losing one’s family. Blood was nothing to be made light of.

To that…

“You’re right. I’m sure I will.”

…Tsukasa had given him a small nod. Then…

“I loved my father. He cared for me and gave me the best life and education I could have asked for. Without my mother’s and father’s unconditional love, I wouldn’t have the clothes I’m wearing or the knowledge I possess. I wouldn’t even exist. He gave me more time, energy, and love than a child could possibly hope to repay. My father is a great man. He’s a kind man. A kind man! So why? Why?! Why couldn’t he care about the masses the same way he loves me?!”

…he let out a violent wail of grief and tore at his hair. The roots were already starting to go white.

Masato distinctly remembered Tsukasa’s expression that night. It stuck with him partially because it was the first and final time Masato ever saw him sob in public, but more importantly…

“Every person possesses the kindness to care about other people. Everyone loves and is loved by someone—their mothers, their fathers, their children, their friends.

“So why do tragedies like this happen? Why do people forget their nobler instincts?

“The thing about me, Merchant, is that I never want anyone to feel the way I do right now. I want to build a nation where things like this don’t happen. A country without starvation, where no one has to kill or be killed, and everyone can live happily.

“I’m not going to rely on some vague notion of humanity’s inherent goodness like God did when he forbade us from eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge. With proper logic, I can manipulate humanity’s wickedness and create a systemized Eden!

“I don’t know what method will make that possible, not yet. But someday, I’ll find it. Just wait and see.

“This battle is only the first step on that journey.”


…it was the awe and dread he felt over his friend trying to achieve something that even God himself had failed to do.


You really found it, huh? You found the road to your destination.

As he reflected on the past, Masato realized something. Ever since that day, Tsukasa had never stopped looking for a way to regulate people. People, who had the beautiful ability to love others yet were unable to rid themselves of their inherent evil.

After all that searching, the answer he’d arrived at was UBI.

That’s why Tsukasa’s explanation of how UBI would change the world didn’t rely at all on the innate goodness of humanity. Humankind’s greed had built the world as it currently stood, and Tsukasa was trying take that avarice and carefully direct it toward constructing a world that was kind to as many people as possible. It was the same thing he’d done with the People’s Revolution on this planet.

As a prodigy businessman, Masato couldn’t flat-out deny the possibility of Tsukasa’s vision. Beasts knew nothing of currency, whereas humans did. While both were technically living creatures, it was difficult to truly describe them as being one and the same. Beasts existed for the moment while humans lived for tomorrow, and that formed a fundamental difference to their approaches.

Now that humanity had obtained the standardized, quantifiable happiness that money represented, for it to return to being beasts would require so much effort that it was about as far from sloth as you could get.

“Tsukasa, I get where you’re coming from.”

Unlike Tsukasa, who’d rejected Masato’s opinion immediately, Masato confessed to understanding. He was unable to do anything else. As a prodigy businessman, he knew full well the power and allure of currency.

He couldn’t reject it, and yet…

“But at the end of the day, that’s just a single possibility. For rich people like me who already have it good, that’s not a strong enough reason for us to shell out. If you decide that you’re gonna push your UBI plan through no matter what, then the long and short of it is one of us is gonna have to put the other guy in the ground.”

Masato agreed with Tsukasa’s logic. However, that didn’t mean he needed to actively work with him.

The prodigy businessman and prodigy politician’s negotiation had concluded.

As Masato lowered his outstretched hand, he reached into his suit with his other hand and pulled out the same miniature flintlock pistol he’d shot Shinobu with. He trained it straight on Tsukasa.

The other Prodigies had been watching from afar, and a stir ran through their ranks.

Tsukasa wore the slightest smile, and without a shred of trepidation or shock…

“You’re the best businessman in the world, Merchant, and you’re connected to nearly a third of Earth’s wealth. If I can’t sell you on UBI, then I harbor no delusions that I’ll be able to make it work. So if I have to bet my life to set my ideals against yours, then so be it.”

…he stepped toward the barrel leveled at him.

Masato tensed his trigger finger.

Aoi dropped her center of gravity, ready to break into a dash.

The next moment…

“But the thing is…”

“Yeah, the thing is…”

““…that’s a conversation for another time.””

…Masato cast his gun aside and high-fived Tsukasa.


Neuro’s screams erupted from a cacophony of gunshots.


The shots came from the Qinglong Gang mercenaries who’d been stationed around the grandmaster. They’d originally surrounded Neuro to protect him, but then they whirled around and fired at him.

Masato casting his gun aside had been the signal.


Neuro collapsed, his body full of lead. Death claimed him slowly, though. He posed his question with his face drenched in blood and contorted with the rage of being unable to understand what had happened.

Wasn’t he supposed to be your enemy?

Didn’t you say you wanted to kill him?

Your negotiations broke down, so why am I the one you shot?

Masato looked down at Neuro and spoke with cold indifference. “There isn’t a person alive I disagree with or want to kill more than this guy. My bloodlust is genuine. That’s why I don’t want our showdown to be a sideshow for something else.”


“Sorry, but your fate was sealed the moment Shinobu got to me. As soon as she did, you stopped being a useful way for us to reach our goal. The only reason I stuck with you after that was so I could take my enemy—my one true archenemy—and risk my life to make sure he had the guts to fight me to the death once we get back. Now that I’ve done that, I’m through with you.”

“You little piece of SHIIIIT!!”

Blood sprayed from Neuro’s mouth as he screamed furiously and forced his dying body to perform magic. He dug his nails into the ground, and his shadow reacted by extending like a snake and joining itself to Masato’s. Masato’s shadow frothed, and a black dog leaped from within to tear the prodigy businessman’s throat.

However, its fangs never reached him.

A series of kunai sped through the air, striking the dog in its side and hurling it to the ground. After a short death throe, it turned into mist and dispersed.

Masato didn’t so much as flinch at this development…

“I guess you used magic or something to see if I was lying, but the moment you thought a petty trick would turn me into your pawn was the moment your luck ran out. There’s plenty of ways you can lead someone by the nose with nothing but the truth. I’m not some cheap con man, y’know. I’m a prodigy businessman.”

…and as he spoke, he gave the order to retaliate.

The mercenaries had finished ejecting their spent casings. When their rifles flashed in unison again, Neuro breathed his last.

Masato turned his gaze from where Neuro was lying facedown in a pool of blood over to the Qinglong Gang mercenary who’d thrown the kunai. “I figured you’d sneaked in there somewhere, Shinobu.”

The mercenary he spoke to stripped her viridian battle uniform to reveal a sailor uniform and scarf. It was the prodigy journalist who’d gone missing in Drachen, Shinobu Sarutobi.

“You’ve got a lotta nerve, bub,” she said with a look of resentment on her adorable face. “As I recall, you’re the one who shot this frail li’l maiden and locked her up in a cell.”

“Yeah, ’cause I knew that whatever we did, you’d figure out a way to escape. Besides, I didn’t expect you to pass out after I intentionally aimed for your bulletproof stuff. At first, I thought you were just playing along, but when I realized that you’d actually lost consciousness, I freaked out. You sure you aren’t losin’ your touch?”

“I got my ribs smashed up before I even got to you! Of course I passed out after you shot me!”

“…Look, I had my own plans I was working through. Plus, I couldn’t just bail and leave Roo behind, so I figured shoving you in a cell was the safest option for a bunch of reasons. Sorry about that.”

“I mean, I get it. That’s why I saved you.”

Masato had a point. Roo had been away when Shinobu came to Drachen, making her plan of extracting them both a bust. At the time, Shinobu had been too weak to do more. She knew that she’d come up short and kept her complaints and anger to a minimum.

As soon as she calmed down, a different set of furious bellows began. They came from Neuro’s army, which had just lost its leader to a supposed ally, Masato.

“G-Grandmaster Neuro!”

“Those Lakan savages! They won’t get away with this!”

They charged on horseback for Masato, the Yamato soldiers, and the Qinglong Gang.

Masato, Shinobu, and Tsukasa exchanged a look…

“We’ve got some catching up to do, but that can come later. Let’s deal with the pests first.”



…and with the overwhelming power of the Yamato army combined with an additional three thousand modernized troops, they delivered a fitting end to the fools who’d mistaken recklessness for valor.


It was nearly winter, and by the time all the fighting was done, the sun had begun its swift descent, filling the sky with the indigo hue of night.


“Heya, Prince! Howya been? I bet you were all lonely without me around to—”



After routing the enemy and making the Tomino Basin safe to cross, Akatsuki ran over to Masato, then sank a full-body dropkick into his abdomen. Petite as Akatsuki was, the sheer momentum behind his strike was enough to send Masato flying.

“Ghck! Kaff?! Wh-what’s the big idea?”

“That’s what I wanna know! One minute you’re showing up out of nowhere, the next you’re pointing a gun at Tsukasa! Then you start spouting off some complicated stuff and making it sound like you joined Neuro’s side! What the heck were you thinking?!”

Akatsuki had been off in the distance, so he hadn’t fully grasped the situation, and now he was furious.

To that…

“You did great back there, Akatsuki. You really took a load off my shoulders.”

…Tsukasa chose to compliment his actions rather than explain the situation. Then he turned and glared at Masato. “Merchant, when you told us you were leaving Elm, you gave me a signal by tapping your spoon against your teacup. I knew that crass action was out of character for you. You were trying to remind me about how Neuro showed us that image of Tokyo in his teacup. You wanted me to remember that a man with such power might well have been watching us that very moment through another ‘window’ he opened.”

Masato nodded. “Yup. I figured you’d pick up on that. If Neuro was peeping on our meeting, then turning against him as a full group would’ve been the dumbest thing we could do. It might’ve lost us our only way home. Hedging against risk is just as important in business as it is in politics.”

“True enough. Once I saw that Tokyo skyline, I worried that Neuro might be able to observe whatever part of this world he pleased, too. When it comes to dealing with magic, there’s no such thing as too cautious. With how little we know about magic, that’s the only way to keep ourselves safe from it. That’s why I didn’t stop you from leaving and operating independently.”

Their separation hadn’t been caused by a difference of opinion at all. Between needing to be careful about the unknown capabilities of spells and the then-uncertainty about Neuro’s trustworthiness, Tsukasa and Masato had devised a situation where they could come out on top no matter the result. They’d set up their combo play without exchanging a single word or message aside from simply tapping the rim of a cup.

Given that Neuro had, in fact, been watching their discussion play out through Nio’s eyes, their precautions ended up being completely justified. That much was all well and good. However…

“Still, I can’t believe you used that to force me into that discussion. I can’t let my guard down around you for a second, can I?”

“You make it sound so sinister. Just think of me as shrewd. I’m the kind of guy who gets restless if I don’t take full advantage of every opportunity that comes my way. Woulda been smooth sailing for me back on Earth if you’d yielded here, but I guess that was too much to hope for.”

“Of course it was. Issues like this are for the people to decide, not for you and me to determine on our own.”

For all of Tsukasa’s scolding, Masato didn’t look the slightest bit contrite. Tsukasa sighed. Masato was so shamelessly shrewd that Tsukasa had gone right past being angry with him and all the way to feeling begrudgingly reassured.

Once people had their fill of piling on Masato…

“At any rate, this should put a stop to this war.”

…Keine clapped her hands together and changed the subject back to the present situation.

Tsukasa nodded. “That’s right. I’ve already sent word, and the enemy Dragon Knights are probably doing the same. Things at the Byakkokan Checkpoint should settle down before long.”

Neuro had been the only person who actually stood to gain anything from the war. The empire didn’t even want to hold Yamato, so it was unlikely to shed further blood pursuing this conflict.

Now it was up to the Prodigies to make the armistice official.

“Where’s Roo at, Merchant?”

“Running an errand for me in Lakan. There’s this one particular slave couple I sent her to buy from a powerful Lakan clan.”

“How much did you give her?”

“Enough for one adult woman.”

“…That’s one nasty mentor Roo’s got.”

“Hey, it’s how I show my love.”

“Oh, I know,” Tsukasa replied with a thin smile…

“We should collect Neuro’s body and head back to the Byakkokan Checkpoint. The rest of the evil dragon’s homunculi, the other members of the Four Imperial Grandmasters, are still alive and well. We need to get organized so we’re ready to fight them by the time they get back from the—”

…and got to work setting up for the unavoidable fight that was just around the corner.

More accurately, he tried to get to work.

But that was when it happened.

“Heh… Heh-heh-heh… Ha-ha-ha-ha…”

That was when they heard laughter echoing in their heads like it had come straight from their brains.


The Prodigies all heard the voice, of course, but so did the Lakan and Yamato armies around them. An uproar spread through the Tomino Basin.

This was no normal laughter…

“I-isn’t that Neuro’s voice?!”

…it belonged to a man who had already breathed his last.

“No way… Get on that!”

“W-we definitely got him, sir!”

On Masato’s orders, the Qinglong Gang mercenaries promptly double-checked the body. Sure enough, Neuro was dead. That was an indisputable fact. Yet somehow, the laughter continued.

“Oh, you definitely got me good. Losing my body to a bunch of apes… Forget Father, I’m not even going to be able to look my horrid siblings in the eye after this.”

A projection of Neuro’s body appeared before their eyes. The translucent, wavering image hung directly over his corpse like a mirage.

Upon seeing this…

“I-is he a ghost?!”

…some people, like Akatsuki, went pale with fright. Others, like Ringo, were struck speechless at the fantastical development. More, like Aoi, recognized the emergency and braced themselves for battle.

Neuro laughed mockingly at the shock coloring everyone’s expressions. “Why so surprised? You met Yggdra, didn’t you? She’s a homunculus just like me, so it should have been obvious that I can maintain myself after being reduced to this spectral form.” Grief showed on his face. “That said, having my soul stick around isn’t going to do me much good. Even if I reincarnate as a human again, I doubt Father will restore my true magnificence, considering how I failed so spectacularly acting on my own.”

Neuro hung his head and let out a profoundly despondent sigh.


“That would be too much to bear.”

…he looked back up and glared at the people who’d reduced him to this—the Prodigies. He spoke with fury and determination.

“If the alternative is going back to being an ape, then I’d rather spend my soul reclaiming my honor.”

A sinister red light exploded from the Neuro mirage. The glow swelled in size and intensity, then emitted so much wind that it was impossible for people to keep their eyes fully open. The power spewed out in all directions like lightning.

The soldiers struck by the bolts went flying as though kicked by horses.

“Wh-what’s the hell’s going on?! What’s happening?!”

“Settle down! If he comes back to life, all we have to do is kill him again! Fire! Fire!”

The Qinglong Gang mercenaries immediately staged a counteroffensive. They shot blind, without bothering to get into formation.

However, it had no effect. The red light with Neuro at its center continued to grow, staining the night crimson and emitting a gale so intense it was impossible to stand upright. Eventually, it erupted toward the sky and formed a massive, heaven-piercing pillar.

“Hey, Tsukasa, what do we do?!”

“Fall back! Everyone, get away from that thing!!”

The spectacle was akin to the end of the world. Naturally, the first thing the Prodigies were worried about was war magic. Neuro had expended the people he implanted with Philosopher’s Stones to cast Rage Soleil. If he was using his own life to do the same thing…

…there was no telling what might happen.

Tsukasa and Masato ordered their respective armies to flee. They ran as fast as their legs could carry them while issuing their orders.

Midway through their panicked flight…

“I beseech you, Father, please forgive this incompetent son of yours. I love…you…”

…Tsukasa heard something.

He heard Neuro’s words of repentance, all but drowned out by the raging gale. But there was something else. Something besides the wind—a rumbling in the ground.

The hill was shaking.

Was it an earthquake?


Those are the sounds…of hoofbeats!

Tsukasa had to strain his ears to make out the noise buried under the wind’s discord, and the tremors came from a massive group of horses that emerged…from within the pillar of light that stretched to the heavens.

“On your guard!” Tsukasa shouted. “Something’s coming!”

Then they arrived.


With a great war cry, a group of cavalry soldiers wearing fire-red cloaks charged from within the pillar of light. There were far more of them than should have been able to fit in the pillar. They spread across the Tomino Basin and flooded the hill, spilling forth like wine.

Only when the heaven-piercing light subsided did the full situation become clear. The forces that had appeared atop the hill were imperial troops; that much was clear from their equipment. At a glance, there looked to be over a thousand of them.

When Tsukasa saw the results of the grandmaster’s efforts, his expression tensed. “Neuro must have teleported them in!”

Yggdra had summoned him and the other Prodigies from Earth, so it was no surprise that Neuro could achieve a similar feat. Tsukasa surmised that Neuro must have burned through the last of his life and power in an attempt to exact revenge, and he was right.

He was right…

“Wait…Tsukes! Look at that banner!”


…but in the worst way possible.

When he heard Shinobu’s desperate cry, he squinted. Nightfall was swiftly approaching, but with the help of torchlight illuminating the enemy banner in the gloom, he spied that it was emblazoned with the Freyjagard Empire’s coat of arms. There was only one group in the whole imperial army that would use the flag, the symbol of Freyjagard itself, as its battle standard. Namely…

“That’s Emperor Lindworm’s army, the one that’s supposed to be over in the New World!”

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