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Chapter 158: Scarlet Ashes, 3 VS 1
A sharp sting cut through the brisk morning air, the sonic boom trailing just behind the projectile that hurtled through the atmosphere. The killing intent encompassed within the pellet twisted through the air, its intensity so thick that it resembled a snake, leaping with fangs agape at its prey.
Of course, the serpentine form was but an illusion, diligently crafted with wild, fanatical strokes by the brain’s fear response. That said, the three members of the ［Scarlet Ashes］ didn’t have time to dissect the reality before them as Shizuka Mayumi, Kurosawa Yoshino, and Minamoto Rin tumbled onto the ground in their frantic attempts to evade.
Despite being covered in dirt due to her ungraceful fall, the 〚Assassin〛 maintained an icy-cold calm. Summoning the powers of her counterpart, 《Tear》, Rin instantly conjured up several daggers of ice, which she then threw back at her assailant with one smooth motion.
More snakes slithered through the air at sonic speed as they intercepted the attack. This time their scales were burning red, as opposed to the previous jade, giving off the illusion that they were blazing through the skies as their fangs crushed the throwing knives in their vice.
Realising that her agitated attack had left her vulnerable, Rin gnashed her teeth, her gaze fixating on the smoking barrel that adjusted its aim towards her face. Despite her vexation, the ponytailed 〚Assassin〛 could only stand her ground, bracing herself for the inevitable assault.
All of a sudden, however, Rin lost sight of the metallic cylinder as a cloud of grey smog suddenly descended. The fumes, which drastically limited visibility, were concentrated in the area between the lavender ponytail and the opponent, no longer allowing the gunman to take aim at the high-school girl.
「A-Are you ok, Rin-san?!」
「Y-Yes……I’m fine, newbie.」
The girl who was responsible for the smoke, Shizuka Mayumi, smiled brightly upon hearing her teammate’s response. Having noticed Rin’s predicament, the scruffy-haired girl quickly invoked 《Delta’s》 ability, using ［Soul Power］ to generate bead-like smoke bombs which she threw to create a smokescreen.
「S-Saito-senpai really is tough, isn’t he? B-But let’s do out best, Rin-san!」
Trying to motivate herself, the timid hamster’s orange hair bobbed up and down as she extended a helping hand towards the 〔Shadow〕 that was still on the ground. Even though her stature was somewhat unreliable, the sincerity behind Mayumi’s gesture was on display for all to see.
「……yeah. Sorry for the trouble. It won’t happen again.」
-Rin curtly apologised for her stumble before placing strength into her legs and standing up on her own two feet. In doing so, she essentially ignored the outstretched hand, resulting in Mayumi awkwardly retracting her hand after being left hanging for too long.
Though, whether for better or for worse, neither of the two combatants would be able to ruminate on this jarring moment for long as a certain sound immediately grabbed their attention.
Off to the side, Yoshino had recomposed herself from her initial evasion, prompting her to charge towards the dark-haired youth who was being distracted by the smoke screen.
–or at least, that’s what she thought.
Not even bothering to look towards her direction, the obsidian-clad gunman raised his arm so that it was level with his shoulders. And then, within less than a blink of an eye, he fired another bullet, causing the pellet to be launched from its chamber as it mercilessly struck Yoshino square in the forehead.
Due to having her upper body’s momentum instantly brought to a halt, Yoshino’s legs flew out from underneath her, causing the ever-righteous 〔Hero〕 to hang in the air momentarily before crashing down to the ground.
Naturally, Yoshino also manifested her counterpart, 《Shield》, into a weapon of her own. A literal metal shield, moulded into a triangle as it covered half of her body. Despite this, however, the obsidian-clad youth could only grimace as Yoshino’s vulnerable head peeking out from above the slab of iron made the tool completely meaningless.
Upon seeing their green-haired companion being mercilessly struck down, both of the petite girls showed different reactions respectively. Mayumi’s entire body jolted in shock, her spirit wavering despite the fact that Yoshino had only been hit by a rubber bullet. Rin, on the other hand, swallowed her distaste before quickly disappearing into the shadows.
And as a result—
『!! Mayumi, look out!』
*bang* *bang* *bang*
Mayumi’s earlier shriek allowed the youth to pinpoint her general location, causing her to be subject to a hail of bullets. Despite the shots being blindly fired through the cloud of smog, the trajectory of each projectile was scarily accurate, with only 10% of the pellets completely missing the scruffy-haired hamster.
And with that, there was only one.
As the smog cleared, and the dust began to settle, a lone youth with dark hair stood undaunted. His ruby eyes swept across the levelled clearing, curtly dismissing the two collapsed girls as he calmly surveyed the surroundings.
Even with his collected and aloof demeanour, the youth maintained a constant vigil in all directions. Well, with the exception of the area behind him.
Which is exactly why Minamoto Rin chose to assail the obsidian-clad man from his rear.
Discerning the chink in her target’s armour, Rin ducked out of the shadows, swiftly closing in with dagger in hand. Keeping her petite body low and her footsteps light, she erased her presence as much as possible as she gained steady ground.
It was then that, after reaching the end of her prowl, Rin raised her blade and-
-found herself looking at the other end of a gun barrel.
「Better luck next time.」
With slight scorn hidden beneath his neutral expression, Junichi pulled the trigger, firing the rubber bullet into Rin’s cranium at point-blank range and removing the final member of the ［Scarlet Ashes］ from play.
—or at least, that’s what it seemed at first.
The bullet that blitzed towards Rin’s forehead abruptly stopped, its momentum dying as the sound of something shattering could be heard. Along with the discarded pellet, a few crystal shards also fell towards the ground, evaporating into vapour during their descent.
Looking at the ponytailed girl’s visage, one could easily tell what happened. Encroaching upon her pale skin was a thin layer of hardened ice which covered a portion of Rin’s face. A few holes in her icy scales clearly displayed both the origin and nature of the dissolving crystals from earlier.
As a countermeasure to receiving the shot at point-blank range, Rin had woven her ［Soul Power］ into a portion of her face, shielding her vitals from a fatal blow. Needless to say, being made of otherworldly energy, the ice was significantly dense, allowing it to easily deflect a bullet despite the sacrificed shards.
To be honest, it was quite an intelligent move. The only downside of this tactic, apart from the armour’s fragility, was that the user suffered lowered movability and reaction speed due to the nerves being numbed by frost.
Nevertheless, it was because of her quick thinking that Rin was still capable of continuing the fight, rather than being knocked out instantly like the other two. Lagging behind for only a split second, she continued to advance swiftly, knife in hand.
『Don’t let up, Rin!』
『You don’t need to tell me!!』
Responding to 《Tear’s》 warning, Rin barked inwardly as her grip on the dagger grew ever tighter. Her vice was so taut that her skin squeaked underneath the pressure.
All that being said, even though her ice-trick had saved her, it would just the same become her undoing.
The moment before Rin was about to strike with her dagger, another gun shell had been fired from the pistol. The pellet’s shell screeched sharply, shrieking as though it were scraping through the insides of the barrel. One could even see sparks trailing through the air it had just passed, as though electrons were being slaughtered in its wake.
And then—-it happened.
Utterly dumbfounded, Rin’s cool and collected facade shattered in a similar fashion to her face-armour from earlier. Her lavender pupils contracted in a mixture of amazement and horror as she desperately tried to backpedal ASAP.
Yet, it was already too late.
During mid-flight, the bullet that had been launched from its chamber shone for an instant before bursting into flames. Bizarrely, instead of being vaporized into ashes, the bullet maintained its shape, wearing the blaze like a mantle as it bravely charged forward like some sort of kamikaze hero.
Seeing how blatantly the bullet defied the laws of physics, it took Rin less than a second to recognise that this phenomenon was the work a counterpart. Yet, no matter how fast her mind was, it accounted for nothing as her body was unable to react in time.
–piercing through the ice-armour as easily as a hot knife slicing through butter, the infernal bullet signalled the end of the ［Scarlet Ashes］ as silence settled alongside the falling dust.
「Aww, hell yeah! How’d you like them apples!」
「《Cross》, just calm down.」
「What? It’s not like it’s going to change the fact that we floored them, partner!」
「Aw, look. Is 《Tear》 upset because we beat her without moving a single step? Even though we were a literal stationary target, to think that you couldn’t even beat us!」
In the face of the dark-haired counterpart’s gloating, Rin clenched her balled fists whilst maintaining her silent scowl. Seeing as both she and 《Tear》 were on bad terms with the boastful entity, it was no wonder that it seemed as though displeasure was seething out from beneath her icy visage.
「Alright, 《Cross》. Leave it at that.」
Putting an end to his other self’s celebrating, Junichi redirected the attention back onto himself. As a result, both the ［Scarlet Ashes］ and the spectators—Shiori, Li Qiu, Roxanne, and Maxwell–turned their gazes towards the dark-haired youth, the former awaiting his judgement with bated breaths.
「Yoshino, your performance was the worst by far.」
Junichi declared, scratching the back of his head as he ignored the sprightly, green-haired side tail stiffening at his tone.
「Not only did you separate from your allies, but you even charged straight ahead at the enemy without any plan whatsoever. What’s more, your shield didn’t even protect your head. Are you trying to die?」
Spouting off criticisms one after the other, the dark-haired youth thoroughly critiqued the so-called 〔Hero’s〕 performance in the mock battle they just had. The large mark left on her forehead from the rubber bullet’s impact said enough about her lacklustre display.
「Mayumi, your performance was decent. I’ll commend you for the well-timed smoke bombs, as well as keeping an eye on your teammates’ conditions. You let down your guard, though.」
The scruffy-haired girl replied, her eyes bright as she took all of the praises and criticisms to heart. Junichi actually wanted to say more about her actions but decided against it for now. After all, the deep analysis of the skirmish was a job more suited to the 〚Tactician〛, who would be giving a supplementary description later.
「As for you, Rin. I’ll keep this short. I’m impressed.」
With his gaze finally landing on the ponytailed 〚Assassin〛, Junichi honestly admitted his bewilderment. After all, both her cunning and her development had actually taken him by surprise.
Not expecting to receive such sincere words of praise, Rin’s body shuddered slightly, her lips quivering as though to keep a certain something from spilling out of them. Even Rin, herself, did not know what was threatening to burst out from within her, as she felt her burning cheeks dispelling the numbness induced by the ice-mask from earlier.
Completely in the dark about her internal struggle, however, Junichi simply continued on with his speech.
「Alright then. With that out of the way, let’s vote. Who’s gonna be their team leader?」
The youth turned towards the audience, shrugging as though he already knew the outcome of this little venture.
Having graduated from the basic course of 〔Maverick’s〕 training regiment, Yoshino and Mayumi were now somewhat capable of standing on the same playing field as Rin (physique wise), prompting the youth to start with the next phase of training.
AKA sparring matches.
Of course, he already had a few one-on-one skirmishes with Rin. During which, Junichi exercised integrating the use of ［Soul Power］ in combat, while the ponytailed girl was trained to deal with the unorthodox fighting methods inherent in the red-eyed mercenary’s combat style.
That said, in the match that they were training for, the girls wouldn’t be fighting one-on-one skirmishes. They’d be fighting together. Thus, in order for them to be able to function as a coherent team, Junichi recognised that there was a need for someone to lead the group, or at least manage them.
Resulting in the current situation.
At the end of the voting, all of the observers, with the exception of one, cast their votes towards the girl who leaked out an expression of surprise: Shizuka Mayumi. As for the remainder, Wen Li Qiu, she ended up pointing towards the lavender ponytail, who many had originally expected to win the election.
「M-Me!? W-Why didn’t Rin-san get-」
Unable to believe the results, Mayumi stammered nervously as she turned towards Rin who, despite maintaining a cool facade, was also inwardly surprised at the outcome. However, the one to answer both of the girl’s doubts didn’t wait long to give voice to the voters.
「Yeah, well you might not be as strong of a fighter as Rin-chan, but just strength doesn’t get you very far as a leader, Mayumin~」
Roxanne Leblanc stood up, pointing out the obvious flaw in the girls’ assumptions as she clarified the logic behind the audience’s decision. Incidentally, she also sent an occasional glance towards her elder sister, who was similarly disgruntled about being the only one who chose a different candidate.
「To be a good team leader, you have to do just that—lead your team. Although you’re not as inspiring as you could be, at least your sensitivity is better than isolating yourself from the rest of your team~」
In a not-so-subtle move, Roxanne turned towards the ponytailed 〚Assassin〛, admonishing her for the earlier callous treatment of the scruffy-haired hamster. It should be said that Rin held no malice towards Mayumi. Yet, it was plain to see that she acted independently from the rest of the group, as opposed to the scruffy-haired girl who went out of her way to save her.
Autonomy was an admirable trait, one that a team leader should certainly possess. Excessive neglect of one’s teammates, however, was a different matter entirely. After all, such conduct ran contrary to the role of a team leader—a person who had to be the glue that brought the group together.
Which meant that Mayumi, whose sensitivity actually gave her an edge in terms of allowing her to keep tabs on her friends, was a much more ideal candidate.
「So with that said, congrats on becoming the team leader, Mayumin~」
And so, it was in this manner that Shizuka Mayumi had been appointed as the leader of the ［Scarlet Ashes］.
As for whether or not this choice would cost Junichi his bet against Gabriel Gaston remained to be seen.
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