The Trans-Siberian Highway, spanning Russia from east to west.
Approximately four thousand kilometers east of Moscow, near Krasnoyarsk.
Under the sky washed-out of color, the plains and pine forests spread as far as the eye could see.
The motorway stretched on and on through the deserted landscape.
It had once been called the frontier of Russia, and since then it had become a comparatively well-developed area, but there were still not many cars going through, and only on rare occasions would there be a large trailer carrying supplies or a local farmer’s tractor.
On top of the dust-covered asphalt were two motorcycles, emitting high-pitched noises while running at tremendous speed.
Both were supersport models with cowlings.
Both riders were wearing full-face helmets and riding jackets, with their bodies fully bent over, enduring the wind pressure that came from driving at such a high speed.
They constantly looked back at the rearview mirrors, probably to make sure that the police car they’d shaken off over an hour prior wasn’t gaining on them.
They were well over 250 kilometers an hour by this point.
It would be impossible for an average police car to tail them at such a speed, and there was no police station close enough to put a car out nearby.
It might have been possible to track them with a helicopter, but even then, it would have been impossible to see them.
They only needed to get 60 kilometers further in order to reach the city of Krasnoyarsk. From there, their plan was to switch over to a car they’d prepared earlier.
But as they rushed down the asphalt like arrows, they suddenly noticed two very small points far ahead of them.
A black passenger car and a silver minivan were parked on the side.
Looking more closely, there was a single person beside them.
A man, who seemed to have come out of the car, did the unthinkable and walked right into the middle of the road, turning to face the approaching motorcycles.
Once it had dawned on them who the man was, the two bikers quickly took off their helmets and pulled what looked like strange fist-sized devices from their jacket pockets. They attached the devices, which were decorated to look like tree nuts, to the belts they had strapped around their waists.
Before one could even mentally process the odd synthetic-sounding noise that had just rung out, two round holes1 opened above them, as if a zipper had opened.
Two giant steel tree nuts fell from the holes and covered their bodies in a flash of light, transforming them into two odd-looking warriors.
They were Armored Riders2, ones that had once been referred to as “Kurokage”.
With the Shadow Pine spears in their left hands, they pressed down on the accelerator further and headed towards the figure in front of them, like cavalry on horses.
But the man on the street did not stir an inch, standing there perfectly calmly.
Black eyes and hair. He seemed to be Asian, but with finely chiseled features and a tall, lean body, he looked no worse than any Russian would.
The man reached into his suit and pulled out a device similar to that of the Kurokage troopers, this time resembling a fruit.
With that, he attached the mechanical fruit — the Melon Energy Lockseed — to the belt he had wrapped around his waist.
The belt on his waist — the Genesis Driver — proclaimed those words in a loud voice, and armor descended from above to neatly combine with his figure.
Melon Energy Arms!
The man’s name was Takatora Kureshima.
The pure and beautiful white moonlight of crystallized noble spirit, Armored Rider Zangetsu Shin!
Zangetsu Shin took a step forward with his right foot and twisted his upper body slightly, awaiting the incoming motorcycles.
Held loosely in his lowered right hand was a bifocal weapon with blades on both ends, the Genesis Bow Sonic Arrow, which shot arrows of light.
The motorcycles were approaching him at full speed — and Zangetsu Shin awaited them, with his legs planted firmly. A few seconds passed, and the three of them aligned on the street.
The two bikes separated to his left and right, and, at almost the same time, both spears headed towards Zangetsu Shin.
The spears had been thrown at inhumanly high speeds from motorcycles running at over 250 kilometers an hour, with the inhuman strength that came from Armored Riders.
Zangetsu Shin skillfully dove out of the way of the attacks that should have been impossible to dodge.
With a clear cry of fighting spirit, his Sonic Arrow flashed towards the flanks of the Kurokage troopers.
Like a sword drawn so quickly it could be re-sheathed immediately, the blow claimed the consciousness of one of the troopers.
The motorcycle lost control and fell off balance, running into the other one next to it. The motorcycle parts started rolling around.
” — !!”
The remaining Kurokage trooper managed to jump off the motorcycle before it fell, and, after quickly readjusting posture, rushed towards Zangetsu Shin with a shriek of anger.
Even without the speed of a motorcycle, the trooper was still running faster than an average person could see.
Staring back at the Kurokage trooper, Zangetsu Shin attached a Lockseed to the Sonic Arrow and drew back the bowstring.
The Sonic Arrow shot out an arrow of light wth a dazzling trail behind it, and the arrow hit the Kurokage trooper right on the mark. The trooper collapsed right on the spot, completely limp.
“Okay, get ’em!”
With Zangetsu Shin’s obvious victory, a bunch of men wearing the uniforms of a private security company quickly jumped out of the parked minivan and ran up to the two troopers on the ground.
Takatora released the transformation and took a deep breath.
Takatora had been involved with the development of the Sengoku Driver from its earliest stages. Since he was more intimately familiar with the Driver’s capabilities than anyone else, he was able to pull off the miracle feat of defeating two Kurokage troopers in the blink of an eye.
“Splendid work, Takatora.”
A middle-aged Russian man got out of the car and walked up to him, smiling with admiration.
He was the president of a Russian high-tech venture company, and a long-time friend of Takatora.
“It was all thanks to your information network, Mikhail. We’d have been in much more trouble if we hadn’t been able to catch them right here.”
“That’s nothing, compared to you coming to clean up all of Yggdrasill’s business by yourself.”
“That’s because I’m the one who sowed those seeds myself…”
Takatora picked up the Lockseeds that were left lying on the road.
After the Helheim threat had vanished, Takatora had decided to devote himself to the world’s reconstruction.
One of his jobs was to collect all of the Sengoku Drivers and Lockseeds, which had been brought out in all of the confusion when Yggdrasill and its international branches were dismantled.
Takatora had been informed that a robbery had been conducted by Armored Riders in Russia, and so he had immediately come to visit in order to continue his search.
“President Stuglev. We’ve collected their fingerprints. They are most certainly Inovercy executives,” said the security company’s commanding officer, reporting in to Stuglev.
The security company investigating the two motorcycle riders was technically a security company, but since all of its employees were former military personnel and former police officers, one could call them a private military company in practice.
Takatora and his associates had determined that that the robbery had been carried out by a criminal organization named Inovercy.
According to witness testimony and internal memos, they had four Sengoku Drivers in their possession. Since two had already been retrieved, this made a total of all four of them.
“So you’re finally done with your business in this country.”
“Not yet. I can’t call this resolved until I’ve figured out where and how the Russian Mafia managed to get Sengoku Drivers and Lockseeds.”
All of the Mafia members they’d tracked down had only said “I don’t know, two of our executives got them from somewhere” when asked about the Sengoku Drivers.
If they interrogated the two executives they’d caught today, perhaps they could figure out whether that was true, or whether they’d been hiding something.
“Also, we found these in their wallets…”
The commanding officer handed a black card to Stuglev.
“What’s this, a business card? Hey, Takatora, what do you think?”
It was a very concise business card, with only a name, mobile phone number, and email address.
But when Takatora turned over the card to look at the back, his eyes widened in shock.
The name was scribbled there with a ballpoint pen — “чёрный липа”.
“Chornyy Lipa…Black Bodhi.”
Staring at the business card, Takatora muttered the name with a bitter tone.
It was the name of a cult that had caused turmoil in Zawame.
But it was one that should have already lost its leader and vanished.
Why did the Russian Mafia have a business card with such a detestable name on it?
“I should have brought summer clothes…”
Takatora had rushed over with all of the clothes he’d brought to Russia, but he was now in a country where the humidity and temperature were unbearable.
It had been around two weeks since the incident on the Trans-Siberian Highway.
Takatora was visiting a small country in southern Asia.
The country was currently in tense social conditions due to a clash between the pro-royal and anti-royal armed factions.
The country had only a single international airport. Takatora was waiting by himself in the airport lobby.
The airport had once been crowded with foreign tourists, but the recent political instability had caused tourism to decline, and the only people who stuck out were businessmen in plain-colored suits and military personnel in camouflage combat uniforms.
An information board hanging from the ceiling flashed a notice that a passenger plane had arrived from Narita3, which was quickly followed by passengers emerging from the door into the boarding bridge.
Within that group of passengers, a single person could be seen waving at Takatora.
“Kyah! There you are, Sir Melon! It’s been so long!”
A somewhat menacingly flippant voice echoed through the lobby.
A bunch of people surrounding him had been staring, trying to figure out what was going on, but once they saw who the owner of the voice was, they quickly looked away.
After all, the voice had come from a big man who had wrapped his burly, muscular body with gaudy and flashy leopard print, and had a terrifying and imposing look on his face covered in feminine makeup.
He was the person who could probably be considered the world’s greatest pastry chef, Oren Pierre Alfonzo.
“I apologize for calling you all the way over here.”
“Goodness, it’s nothing! I’d answer your call even if it meant going to the depths of the earth!”
Oren responded to Takatora’s apology with a huge smile on his face.
“You’re the same as ever, I see.”
Noting that he hadn’t changed at all since they’d last met, Takatora smiled wryly back at Oren.
Was this man truly serious about anything?
He had the kind of personality that was difficult for Takatora to understand, but he couldn’t deny that he’d seen Oren display genuine strength several times already.
“So, what do you need me for?”
“Well, about that…I have a car waiting for us outside. We’ll discuss it further on the way to the hotel.”
Takatora quickly glanced around, and it was obvious that he didn’t want to be overheard. He had probably summoned Oren without explaining why for the exact same reason.
They departed the airport building and headed for the car pickup area. A limousine and a driver were waiting for them there.
“Splendide! How lovely.”
“It’s just a rental.”
The limousine was a courtesy car meant for executives, and had been rented from one of Stuglev’s business partners. It was custom-made to be bulletproof and soundproof. Naturally, the driver had also gone through a thorough background check.
“You’re aware that I’m currently cleaning up the remnants of Yggdrasill, correct?”
Now that the thick armored doors were closed and the limousine running, Takatora had finally begun to speak.
“Of course, you’re collecting all the Sengoku Drivers and Lockseeds, right?”
Takatora conveyed all of the information he’d gathered from circling around Russia.
Around two weeks prior, Takatora had succeeded in recovering the Sengoku Drivers and Lockseeds from the Russian Mafia, but the Mafia members had stubbornly kept their mouths shut about where they’d obtained them from.
The Mafia executives had business cards bearing the name of the person who had given them the Sengoku Drivers and Lockseeds, but the phone number and address listed on the card had been throwaway ones, and the sole clue remaining was the name of a certain person in southern Asia —
Even so, Takatora had carefully chased down the Mafia executives’ recent activity and obtained surveillance camera footage, and discovered that the mafia executives were in contact with someone who seemed to be an Asian man.
The man was a former executive of the country’s largest foundation, and had been diverting Sengoku Drivers to the Mafia.
“The last foundation commander was locked up in jail, wasn’t he? Something about planning a coup d’etat.”
“Yeah. The foundation had independently learned about Project Ark through its own investigations, and secretly attempted to obtain Sengoku Drivers. It seems they were planning to perform a takeover of the country with Armored Riders. Once the last foundation commander fell, the young scion of a noble family, named Shapur, took over the foundation and is now working to rebuild it.”
“So you’re saying this foundation is manufacturing Sengoku Drivers and Lockseeds.”
“No, Shapur is trying to keep the foundation clean. He’s not up to anything suspicious.”
“Huh. Impressive for such a young man. I wonder what sort of kid he is?”
“…Black Bodhi is manufacturing the Sengoku Drivers.”
“Black Bodhi…isn’t that the cult that was causing a huge fuss in Zawame?”
“Yeah. The leader’s name was Kugai Kudou. A former Yggdrasill researcher.”
Upon hearing the name Yggdrasill, Oren’s expression suddenly changed.
“He lost his life during a research accident, but reappeared some years later, formed Black Bodhi, and used his own Lockseeds to perform terror attacks on Yggdrasill. Back then, I’m sure Ryouma and I had put an end to him…”
“Pardon? Wait a second, I don’t get it. You’re saying that Kudou guy came back from the dead twice?”
“It’s impossible, that would be absurd.”
Takatora answered Oren’s question with immediate denial.
“He probably managed to survive the accident somehow. This time, it has to be someone running the organization in Kudou’s place.”
Kugai was the kind of person who always appeared in unexpected places at unexpected times, but, in the end, he was a human being, and there was no way he could possibly undo his own death.
At least, that was what Takatora believed.
Oren nodded and snapped Takatora back into the conversation. “Well, I’m sure a cult would love to dream up some nonsense about resurrecting the dead or something. But I’ve read something about this somewhere, I heard there was some former leader from the anti-royal faction who’d gotten kicked off alongside the last foundation commander, and that he was connected to Black Bodhi.”
An Armored Rider could easily stand toe-to-toe against an entire armed group by itself.
For something like an anti-royal armed faction trying to recover from the brink, the Sengoku Driver was the kind of irresistible item that they would do anything for.
They were likely to be providing shelter and funding to Black Bodhi in exchange for Sengoku Drivers.
“No matter what…”
Takatora reaffirmed his words with a strong tone, as he stared at the seemingly idyllic scenery passing by through the car window.
“No matter what, we absolutely must not allow the Armored Riders to become tools of war.”
“Beau! What a face of anguish! What eyes with strong belief! How lovely!”
Oren, acting in his usual manner, caused Takatora to unconsciously relax his facial expression.
“So, Oren, I have a favor to ask of you…”
“…So in other words, you need the service of the skills I had before I became a pâtissier, correct?”
Prior to his training as a pastry chef, Oren had joined the Foreign Legion in order to acquire French nationality, and had a history of traveling around the world as a mercenary.
“If I want to destroy Black Bodhi’s facilities and prevent Armored Riders from being used in civil war, I need your experience as a mercenary and the help of your former mercenary colleagues.”
“Oui! Leave it to me!”
Oren thumped his own chest.
“I had a feeling it’d be something like this, so I’ve already dropped a line to my old friends. I think I should go ahead and call them in directly.”
“That helps me greatly. Also, there is this.”
Takatora picked up an attaché case that had been lying at his feet, and handed it to Oren. Oren opened the case to see what was inside, and a bold smile spread across his face.
“Goodness, this, this is…”
“I recovered it from the remnants of the European Yggdrasill branch. Please make good use of it.”
Oren pulled out the contents from within the case — a Sengoku Driver and a Durian Lockseed.
“Très bien! I haven’t been able to show you my splendid battle skills in so long.”
As Oren said this, his facial expression was not one of a pastry chef, but that of a mercenary thoroughly experienced in war.
As soon as they reached the hotel, Takatora and Oren got to work.
The two pretended to be eccentric wealthy foreign visitors and rented a vacation house in the mountains near the capital, one that seemed more like an abandoned house more than anything. Of course, they intended to actually make it into their base of operations.
There were no residential houses nearby, and there was a large garden that they could use as training grounds, so it was perfect for their purposes.
Oren’s former fellow mercenaries arrived from different countries in response to his call.
If they were to arrive at the house all at once, they would stand out too much, so they were instead instructed to disperse, start from the neighboring area, then head in one by one on foot.
“It’s been such a long time, Captain Oren!”
“Have you been doing well, Raymond?”
“I’m so happy to get to fight with you again, Mr. Oren.”
“I could say the same, Scythe. I’m counting on your help.”
“Hey, Oren! Why’d you call me all the way down to this kinda country? We gonna start off with some kinda pointless operation?”
“Oh, my, you’re still alive, Isaac. Don’t worry, we’ll prepare the most suitable sort of battlefield for you.”
Oren warmly received all of his old friends one by one. It was a long-awaited reunion for them.
The mercenaries were of different races and ages, and different kinds of people as well. Some were working as military personnel, but there was someone who looked more suited to being a corporate worker at a desk than on the battlefield with a weapon, and someone who looked like a giant outlaw with tattoos all over his body.
But despite all of their differences, the one thing they all had in common was that they had utmost respect for Oren. And on the flip side, it was clear that Oren trusted them deeply in return.
It was not a military relationship of superiors and lower ranks, but more like that of friends tied together with strong bonds. Thanks to that, they were also able to carry on conversation in a very blunt, straightforward manner.
For example —
“Let me introduce you. This is our client, Takatora.”
The moment Oren began to introduce them, the soldiers started raving with speculation.
“Are you the captain’s new lover?”
“Nah, it’s totally one-sided, isn’t it?”
“Why, you…I’ll get you back for that and train you until you die!”
— It was like that.
More and more soldiers were piling in, but although they had enough to pull the operation off, the problem was in procuring weapons for them.
It would be possible to obtain weapons via the Japanese black market, but the risk of the police and military catching onto them was too high.
Instead, Oren contacted a smuggler in a certain other country, one who owed a large debt to him, and had weapons and ammunition brought over from abroad via cargo ship. They managed to retrieve the weapons at midnight.
Fortunately for them, thanks to the local political instability, security was not very tight and their measures against offshore smuggling were weak.
At the same time, they also managed to pin down the location of the Black Bodhi hideout.
A former foundation executive had given them a tip along the lines of “near a lake in the southwest…”, but the precise location was still unclear.
“Since Black Bodhi is likely to be working alongside the anti-royal armed faction, it’s also likely that their hideout has guards around it. We’ll need to confirm.”
“That’s fine, I’ve already made arrangements for that.”
Oren also had a long relationship with an expert in information gathering, so they had been carrying out their own separate investigation into the Black Bodhi hideout, as well as their relationship with the armed faction.
Around the exact time the final mercenary arrived at the house, Oren had also obtained the results of the information stakeout.
“Their hideout should be here.”
After receiving the investigation report, Oren pulled out a tablet device, pulled up an aerial photograph of the capital’s suburbs, and pointed out one area.
There, a cluster of trees surrounded a lake. The trees were so overgrown that it was impossible to even make out anything like a building in there.
“I can’t tell anything from this picture alone.”
“Don’t be in such a rush.”
Oren opened another window in front of it, showing a closer picture within the cluster of trees.
There were white metal panels, like those one would see at construction sites, all lined up in a row. It was impossible to see what was inside from there.
The panels were placed far too neatly for a construction site, and there were countless surveillance cameras peeking in from above.
There were more photos taken from different directions, and, judging by the tree angles, it could be deduced that the panels were surrounding a square-shaped area, around 200 meters on each side.
“It’s bigger than I’d expected…”
“Look at this photo. You can see the interior here.”
Several dozen photos in, one portion of one panel had been opened on the sides to allow a truck into the premises, and it was possible to get a peek inside.
Takatora brought his face closer to the tablet screen.
There were multiple prefabricated buildings lined up on unpaved ground, with multiple people around it.
The people there were not wearing military uniforms, or any kind of uniform at all. They were all in plainclothes…but something felt off about them.
“Don’t you think it’s strange?…They’re all holding something, aren’t they?”
Takatora recalled his encounters with the Black Bodhi cultists in Zawame.
All of them had been holding Pomegranate Lockseeds, all manufactured by Black Bodhi.
According to Ryouma Sengoku, the inventor of the Sengoku Driver — and also once a friend of Takatora — the Pomegranate Lockseed had the ability to send its holder into a trance and brainwash them.
The people in the photo may not have joined Black Bodhi of their own will, but rather may have been manipulated by someone who was acting in place of Kugai Kudou…
“Is this a security guard?”
After flipping through more of the photos, Takatora saw one with a person wearing a combat uniform and hanging a rifle from his shoulder.
“Looking at the posture, it’s a trained soldier.”
“So they do have anti-royal faction members guarding the place.”
The pictures alone indicated at least three soldiers in the facility.
A secret facility would likely not want soldiers to frequently come and go, so it was best to assume that there were quite a lot of soldiers, including potential reserves, on the premises.
“That’s rather worrisome.”
I want to destroy only the facility, and do my best to avoid harming laymen as much as possible — that was what Takatora had hoped for, but it would be difficult to hold back if armed soldiers were involved.
And that would especially be the case if the soldiers transformed into Armored Riders and challenged them directly.
But on the other hand, if we hesitate… Takatora pondered.
“Oh, also, I have another important piece of information regarding the anti-royal faction.”
Takatora looked up from the tablet.
“It seems that the former commander, the one currently in prison, will soon be moved to the capital to be put on trial. The anti-royal faction plans to launch an attack and recapture him there.”
“Which means they’re probably going to bring out Armored Riders, right?”
A major military operation. If they were receiving Sengoku Drivers from Black Bodhi, there was no doubt they would be using them for the sake of this recapture plan.
Naturally, the pro-royal faction might be preparing for such an attack, but they probably had no expectation that they’d be fighting against an army wearing invincible armor.
“Chance! We’ve got a lucky opportunity.”
What the hell kind of chance… Takatora was halfway into the thought when he realized what Oren meant.
It was clear that the anti-royal faction had very little fighting power. Of course, they also had no way to move a large amount of soldiers. As a result, they were likely to get the soldiers in the Black Bodhi hideout to be involved in their attack plan.
“The hideout’s security is likely to be weak, but…if they’re planning to use Armored Riders in their attack plan, we can’t just let it be.”
“Yes, of course. I was thinking the same. So we’ll attack the hideout and take down their Armored Riders.”
Takatora was surprised at Oren’s confident words.
“Do we have a shot at it?”
There were more than twenty mercenaries at the house, but no matter how hardened they were as veterans, they were far too small of a group to carry out a two-pronged strategy.
“We may not have enough to stop the entire attack plan, but our main goal is to destroy the Armored Riders. If things go well, we can at least pull that off.”
Oren went to the door and called out to the soldier in the neighboring room.
“Hey, can someone come and bring it out?”
Eventually, a soldier came in with a large aluminum case.
“It’s a VKT Lahti L-39.”
Inside the case was a huge firearm, a striking one that came off more like a giant lump of iron.
“An artillery weapon, huh?”
Takatora’s eyes were wide at how huge it was.
“It’s a 20mm caliber, so you could say that.”
Oren stroked the barrel of the anti-tank rifle, which was slightly red and rusty.
“It’s been remodeled so modern sniper scopes can fit it. It’s an antique, but quite powerful. You could blow up an Armored Rider even from a whole two kilometers away.”
Armored Riders had incredibly outstanding offensive and defensive power. They were particularly strong in close combat. But they weren’t invincible.
Oren had come up with the following strategy:
Since they already knew where the armed faction’s secret base was, they would follow the assault raid, snipe them from afar as soon as they started transforming into Armored Riders, and destroy them.
“We’ll use the 20mm-caliber Lahti and the 12/7mm M82 for the Armored Riders before they attack. We’ll withdraw to our hideouts around the city before the general troops strike back. Also, if we miss a shot, we’ll set a trap for any Armored Riders who come after us…I think that’ll be enough.”
“If you say it’s possible, I’ll believe you. I just want to confirm one thing.”
“Oh, what’s that?”
“Even if we snipe them, we don’t actually know how many Armored Riders the anti-royal faction has in store. We may have to send in quite a large number for that…”
“Yes, we’ll need backup for our snipers, so we’ll need people to protect them and secure their retreat. Almost all of our troops here will be directed towards attacking the Armored Riders.”
“So then what about the hideout?”
“Our remaining personnel will head there.”
“Sir Melon and I will be attacking the hideout ourselves. That alone should be more than enough power for our purposes, right?”
As Oren said that, a savage smile was on his face.
There were two weeks left before the previous commander would be escorted to the capital.
The assault raid would naturally take place then, so in order to prepare for the time being, Takatora and the others planned out their attack strategy, working intensely on training and battle simulations.
And thus, the day arrived —
It was before dawn. Deep in the mountains, so dark there wasn’t even moonlight, the mercenaries prepared for their departure.
Several of their scouts had already made their way around the armed group’s base and the Black Bodhi hideout, so if anything went against their plans, they would be able to get back in contact easily.
Once preparations were finished, the mercenaries dispatched in three trucks to head to their predetermined attack points.
“Time for us to go, too.”
Takatora and Oren boarded an old four-wheel drive car and headed out separately from the mercenary trucks, heading for the Black Bodhi hideout.
If they went directly in a straight line from the house in the mountains to the hideout in the forest, the distance would be around 60 kilometers.
Since they were tracking something down, they had to make sure to use a highway with proper exits, but the early morning had very little traffic, so they arrived at the destination in barely over an hour.
There was still no sign of the sun on the horizon, but the sky was slowly getting brighter.
“All right, time to be careful…”
They parked the four-wheel drive car in an inconspicuous location, and walked into the forest.
Takatora and Oren had scouted out the location within the clump of trees in advance, and confirmed that the surveillance cameras had only gone as far as slightly surrounding the Black Bodhi hideout. They’d parked the car just barely outside of its perimeter, but they still needed to be careful.
“In battle, one must be bold, but one must also determine the precise timing to exert their power.”
Takatora recalled the words Oren had repeatedly said during their simulation and training.
As they went deeper into the forest, the trees became denser and darker, to the point it was difficult to even see a few meters ahead of them.
Relying on mobile GPS to guide them through the cluster of trees, trying not to get lost within it, they eventually reached a small hill.
A hill that barely rose over its surroundings in flat terrain. An excellent place to keep an eye on the Black Bodhi hideout.
“Nothing seems wrong from here.”
A scout, who had been planted earlier in advance, enthusiastically submitted his report to Oren, and departed to join the other mercenaries heading to the city.
Hiding in the tall weeds that covered the hill, Takatora and Oren turned their binoculars towards the hideout.
“Perfect timing. They’re right about to leave.”
The Black Bodhi hideout emerged like a fort within the dark cluster of trees. A portion of the panels that had surrounded the site opened to the left and right, and dozens of military vehicles came out through them.
The soldiers stationed in the hideout were setting out to join the assault on the convoy.
Once the last one had departed the hideout, the gate closed and the cluster of trees fell silent once again.
As soon as the military vehicles’ lights had completely vanished from view, Takatora took a black airplane-shaped drone out of his backpack, quickly assembled it, and gently pushed it into the sky.
The drone passed through the entwined treetops and soared into the sky over the cluster of trees.
It had been absolutely necessary to understand everything about the area when attacking the hideout, but because there was a high possibility of being caught, they hadn’t used it up until this point.
“Come here, come here, we can see the whole thing now~”
On the tablet, which was serving as the remote control for the drone, they could see a full view of the hideout taken from the sky.
“The prefabricated buildings near the entrance serve as an observation post. There’s dormitories lined up in the back.”
“There’s probably a factory in this building here, the one with all the pipes and electric wires. Oren, which plan should we use in our attack?”
Oren stared intently at the bird’s eye view footage.
“With this setup…perhaps Plan A or C. But there’s a possibility they might notice our attack pattern, so…”
Oren pondered the situation with his fingertips to his mouth, and, after a while, finally settled on a decision.
“I’ve got it. We’ll go with Plan Zero.”
“The hell is that? You’ve never mentioned that before.”
“Plan Zero means we change our plan as we go along.”
They had discussed and carefully scrutinized more than a dozen attack plans in advance. And now here Oren was saying they were going to throw all of them down the drain — Takatora was at a loss for words.
“Oh, is there a problem?”
This man is truly difficult to understand, thought Takatora.
If Oren’s words of “be bold, but have precise timing” were to be taken to the logical extreme, this did seem to be the appropriate approach, but even so…
But this was no time to argue. Takatora had no choice but to trust in Oren’s judgment.
Takatora sighed and nodded.
“All right, go ahead.”
“It’ll be fine, leave it to me.”
They weaved their way through the trees down the hill and stopped right before the hideout’s surveillance cameras would catch them.
“Let’s attack them with full force here. If we take our sweet time in getting in there, it’ll defeat the whole point of a surprise attack.”
“Do whatever you want.”
Once they stepped into the open space, they threw out any pretense of trying to hide, and approached the gate where the military vehicle had departed earlier.
Countless numbers of surveillance cameras from all over the hideout turned right towards them at once, and a searchlight came down on them from the top of the gate.
“It’s party time!”
Takatora and Oren raised their Lockseeds, as if showing them off to the person running the surveillance cameras, and shouted.
A flash of light cut through the darkness in the forest, and two Armored Riders appeared from it.
Melon Energy Arms!
Zangetsu Shin, an Armored Rider like a knight. And —
Armored Rider Bravo, a modern gladiator who embodied Oren’s ferocious fighting spirit.
Bravo pulled out his vicious-looking twin swords, the Duri Saws, with a myriad of thorns sticking out from them.
The Duri Saws slashing left and right tore through the metal gate like thin paper and blew the pieces around.
Zangetsu Shin and Bravo headed straight into the hideout.
“Come out, come out, wherever you are!”
Holding his swords, Bravo casually looked around the area.
But, contrary to his expectations, there was no response from within the hideout.
The cultists who had emerged from the inner buildings seemed unconcerned, staring back at them with lifeless eyes.
“Goodness, are you not awake yet? If you don’t want to get hurt, throw aside your weapons and surrender. We won’t attack if you don’t resist.”
Bravo had lost his momentum and was set off-beat.
Suddenly, the cultist that was closest to Bravo started to rush towards him.
“Ah, so you’ve made your decision at the last moment…”
In the cultist’s hand was a faintly shining Lockseed…
Zangetsu Shin pushed Bravo aside.
A moment after that, the cultist suddenly exploded, right where Bravo had been standing.
Staggering in the shockwave of the explosion, Bravo let out a shriek.
“Be careful, they’re going to self-destruct!”
“S-So that’s what’s going on…”
The Black Bodhi cultists were carrying Lockseeds that were brainwashing them, and even turning them into living bombs.
Oren had heard about this earlier, but hadn’t expected them to resort to self-destruction so easily.
As if following the first one’s lead, the other cultists started rushing towards Zangetsu Shin and Bravo one after another, setting off the self-destruct each time.
Zangetsu Shin blew back the cultists as they tried to jump Bravo behind him.
“We just need to stun them before they self-destruct.”
The cultists were willingly letting themselves explode without hesitation, but there was a narrow window of time between them approaching and them blowing themselves up.
Zangetsu Shin knocked the cultists out one by one, paying close attention to the momentary time gaps.
“All right, I’ll join!”
Perhaps it was thanks to the Lockseeds, but the cultists were moving far more quickly than the average person could. But they were still no match for Oren, a seasoned specialist in battle.
“Hyah! Take that! How’s that?”
They defeated the cultists pouring and jumping in one after another, with steady motions, as if they were dancing.
“They keep piling in. We’ll just have to break away and head to the factory!”
Shaking off the crowd of cultists that were converging on them like zombies, the two Armored Riders headed for the factory-like building that they’d checked earlier, and took down all of the cultists wandering near the entrance before entering the building.
Contrary to what the shabby exterior of the prefabricated building had suggested, the interior was more like a large company’s research facility.
Both sides of the corridor were covered in glass and extended all the way to the back, where a hydroponic cultivation facility spanned, illuminated by white LED lights.
“Could these plants be…”
“They’re from Helheim.”
Strange plants cultivated on well-ordered shelves — there was no doubt about it, they were Helheim plants bearing Lockseed fruits.
“There were still so many of these left…”
“When the Cracks started opening all around the world, they must have collected some and started cultivating them.”
A whole half of the building seemed to be dedicated to growing Helheim plants.
A corridor extended through the hydroponic cultivation area. The door at the end was an air shower room made to prevent dust and dirt from entering, the kind you would normally see at factories with precision machines.
“Looks like the factory is ahead.”
Zangetsu Shin walked up to the door to the air shower room.
Just then, what seemed to be a portion of the wall opened up in front of the air shower room, and four Kurokage troopers jumped out to ambush Zangetsu Shin.
Zangetsu Shin was taken off guard by the ambush for a second, but Bravo immediately jumped between Zangetsu Shin and the Kurokage troopers to repel their spear attacks.
“Not so fast!”
The Kurokage troopers were set off balance by their spears being diverted, and Bravo attempted to slash back at them with his blades. But the troopers quickly pulled back their spears and retreated from Bravo’s reach.
Unlike the cultists, who moved much like puppets, these were properly trained fighters.
“Hmm, I see they still had a bit left in them?”
“Looks like they had some remaining soldiers here.”
The four Kurokage troopers were circling the area with proper distance taken. Zangetsu Shin put their backs together and stared back at them.
“Hoho, seems like we’ll finally get to have a decent fight.”
“You seem rather calm about all of this.”
“Well, my dear Sir Melon’s got my back, so I feel much more at ease.”
“What about it?”
“No, it’s nothing…let’s go!”
The Kurokage troopers all moved simultaneously, as if perfectly timed.
A breathtaking blow, and a skillfully coordinated attack.
They must have trained very diligently to refine their skills as Armored Riders.
But they were still terribly outclassed.
Takatora and Oren, who had refined their combat skills in the Armored Rider battles in Zawame, would not fall to such half-hearted attacks so easily.
Zangetsu Shin’s Sonic Arrow shook.
Bravo’s Duri Saws scattered sparks.
They were outnumbered by the Kurokage troopers, but in only a few seconds, the troopers were completely overwhelmed and knocked to the floor.
“Didn’t even stand a chance.”
Zangetsu Shin and Bravo were still breathing steadily, not even slightly disturbed.
“All right, time to keep going while there aren’t any reinforcements.”
Beyond the unpowered air shower room were dozens of rows of production lines with conveyor belts.
They seemed to have been untouched for a while, and the conveyor belts and workbenches were covered in a thin layer of dust.
“It’s a full-on manufacturing factory. I wonder how many Drivers and Lockseeds they’ve made with this already?” muttered Oren, looking back at Zangetsu Shin, who was taken aback in shock. “This is bad. If they managed to make more Sengoku Drivers than we’d thought, then all of our friends out there…”
“No, it’ll be fine.”
Zangetsu Shin was looking through a notebook that had been placed in a corner of the production line.
“Looking at the yield table, it seems most of what they produced was Lockseeds, and there weren’t many Sengoku Drivers.”
“Whew, that’s a relief.”
Bravo stroked his chest in relief, but yelped in shock when he saw the numbers written in the notebook.
“That’s the number of Lockseeds they manufactured, right? Ones, tens, hundreds…tens of thousands!?”
“That’s only for one month. The total is…around a hundred thousand.”
The Sengoku Drivers that were designed for Project Ark gave their wearers the ability to transform Helheim fruits into Lockseeds. This factory was made to do it more efficiently and on a larger scale.
Yggdrasill had planned to produce one billion Sengoku Drivers, so the number of a hundred thousand in itself was not surprising to Takatora, but he was surprised that such large-scale production was even possible at such a remote facility.
“Where could they have hidden so many Lockseeds?”
The back of the factory had a space to temporarly store completed Lockseeds, but there were only a few forklift pallets and cardboard boxes lying around, and there was no sign of the actual Lockseeds that would be filling them.
“They must have already shipped them out somewhere…That’s the only thing I can think of.”
After undoing his transformation, Takatora silently headed to the corner of the factory.
In the wide center was a single area, isolated from its surroundings by a partition.
Office desks were lined up on the partition, with desktop computers and large displays.
Takatora turned on one of the computers, but was greeted with a message prompting him to enter a password before he could do anything else.
“A password, huh? Give me a moment…”
Oren pulled out a USB memory stick from his chest pocket and plugged it into the port of the computer.
“I had a feeling this might happen, so I asked our intelligence officer to make this for me. If the security isn’t too tight, it should break through easily…see, there we are!”
As Oren had said, the password input screen had already cleared up, and the screen changed to a basic one with icons lined up in a row.
“There should be some data about the shipping address where they sent the Lockseeds.”
Takatora haphazardly opened the randomly arranged folders and checked the contents.
But there was a huge amount of data stored on the server, and moreover, the files were named with the local language, so it was difficult to perform a search.
As he was playing around with things, Oren, who was watching the surroundings behind Takatora, caught notice of something unusual and spoke up.
“Something smells strange…It smells like smoke.”
Looking more closely, a large amount of smoke was entering the factory from the air shower room.
“Fire! Someone’s set the factory on fire!”
But Takatora was staring, frozen, at the display. The screen had a drawing of a complex mechanical device on it.
“What’s wrong? What’s this drawing?”
“It says ‘Saver System’, but…this is undoubtedly the same as the Scalar System.”
“What did you say!?”
Oren had only heard about it afterwards, but he knew the name well.
The Scalar System was a terrifying weapon of mass destruction, which had been installed in the Yggdrasill Corporation headquarters in Zawame.
Why did a Black Bodhi facility have a blueprint for the exact same thing?
Takatora was trapped within his own burning thoughts, from the shock of an unexpected reunion with such a detestable thing from the past.
Oren’s voice snapped him back to reality.
“The building’s on fire. We have to hurry up and get out of here!”
Black smoke was rising from the cluster of trees into the early morning sky.
The flames from the Black Bodhi factory spread to the surrounding buildings, one after another, and the entire hideout became a sea of fire.
On the hill where he had scouted earlier during the assault raid, Takatora gazed back at what had happened.
Oren, who was standing next to him, received reports from his radios informing them that the mercenaries had successfully pushed back the anti-royal faction’s Armored Riders.
“So our mission is complete, then.”
“Not yet. I have to track down where the Lockseeds were transported to. And as for that blueprint…”
“The one that said ‘Saver System’, right?”
“There’s a possibility they may be building that somewhere out there.”
“Let’s analyze the data further when we get back.”
Oren began to walk out of the forest. Takatora started to follow him — and then.
” — the standstill we once reached is finally proceeding once again. The time of salvation is near.”
Startled by the echoing voice he’d heard from behind him, Takatora looked back in a panic.
But there was not a single person there.
“Qu’est-ce qu’il ya? Is something wrong?”
“…Did you hear a voice just now?”
“No, never mind…”
But it was too clear to be passed off as simply hearing things.
And moreover, the voice was a familiar one to Takatora.
It was a voice very similar to that of a man who should have disappeared from the world alongside Ryouma Sengoku.
The leader of Black Bodhi — Kugai Kudou.
- Written 丸い穴 (“round hole”) in the main text, but with furigana instructing to have it read aloud as “Crack”.
- Written 鎧武者 (“armored warriors”) in the text, with furigana instructing to read it as “Armored Rider”.
- Referring to Narita International Airport, one of the two major international airports around Tokyo.