Author's Note: Just a random observation, but my chapters are getting shorter and shorter. I hope I'm not running out of steam…Also, thanks once again to karnivollo for following the story so closely. I'm glad that you enjoy it.

A Reluctant Master

Tenjou Mikado (IV)

Tenjou's parting words gave me much to think about, but unfortunately, I barely had any time to consider it.

After all, simply leaving the school compound greeted me with the sight of his bruised and battered body. A quick glance was enough to tell me that he had taken several powerful blows. Our school uniform had long sleeves and pants, preventing me from seeing his limbs, but the numerous purple bruises that adorned his face was a clear enough indicator of the beating that he must have undergone. Alice blinked a few times but otherwise looked rather unaffected by the violence inflicted upon him. She bit her lip and stayed back while I approached Tenjou, who was picking himself up off the ground.

"Need some help? You look pretty beat up."

"Can you fight?"

Tenjou replied nonchalantly while wiping away some blood from the corner of his mouth with his sleeve.

I shrugged my shoulders. "Nope."

"You have a damn bad sense of humour, then."

"Wait a minute. I thought you said that you wanted me to help you if an Artifact was involved. Do you mean that she did all this to you with her bare hands?"

I pointed at the tall woman who stood opposite him. For some reason, she had not deemed it necessary to conceal her face. It was pretty difficult to judge her age accurately, but she might have been twenty or thirty. Certainly not older than that. She was smirking, with one hand plunged into the pocket of the jet black biker jacket that she wore, and the other hand occupied with flipping a silver coin, over and over again. She wore faded, blue jeans and leather boots, and waves of dark hair, cut into a bob, framed her black eyes. I was pretty sure that she was Japanese. Most importantly, despite her slender build, there was not a single wound or bruise on her body.

Tenjou didn't say anything about it, but I knew that this woman was surely a member of the Green Knights. I could hardly think of any other reason why someone would randomly attack him outside of school like that.

He ground a fist against his temple and shook his head violently. He kind of looked like a punch drunk boxer. "Ah, my bad. My brain's still rattling around inside my head after she smacked it around a few times. Couldn't think properly. She really did beat me up with her fists, but she's using an Artifact too, so I could do with some help here. Actually, that's why everyone else ran away. She was teleporting everywhere."

It wasn't like the street was completely deserted, but it was obvious that everyone was avoiding Tenjou and the unnamed woman. A number of students were hurrying away nervously, and a pair of middle-aged men in suits walked briskly away, muttering to themselves. On the other hand, the same thing would probably have happened if it had just been a normal fight anyway, but I decided to take Tenjou's word for it.

"Teleporting, you say? Any idea how it works?"

"All I know is that she has to use up coins to use it. See that coin that she's flipping right now? Every time she teleports, it disappears and she needs to take out another one. She was using it pretty often when we first started fighting, but she's not doing it any more. There's probably some kind of limit on the number of coins she has."

"How - "

My voice died in my throat. No one likes getting interrupted, but I could hardly complain about it this time. In an instant, my vision of Tenjou had vanished, replaced by the back of the woman in the biker jacket right in front of me. Despite our close proximity and the seemingly absurd speed which she had moved with, I had not felt any trace of motion. So she really was teleporting, then? Next to her head, a glittering coin faded away and disappeared, looking as though it had quite literally become a ghost of its former self.

A resounding thud of flesh on flesh accompanied the swinging blur of her fist, followed by another dull thump. She was obscuring my vision, but it didn't take a genius to figure out that she must have sent Tenjou flying with that punch. It was no wonder that he had been so badly beaten up. Just like that. There was no way an ordinary person could have reacted to an attack as quick as that.

The black-haired woman cracked her neck and looked over her shoulder, grinning at me. "Alright, pep talk time is over. You must be Kurogami Shinya. The name's Karasawa Miho, a member of the Green Knights. Glad I could meet you."

"Um...The pleasure's mine?"

I'm not exactly well-versed in communicating with members of criminal organizations. Still, I figured it couldn't hurt to be polite. Luckily, she sounded pretty friendly, or at the very least, it didn't seem like she intended to attack me, and I allowed myself to relax a little. I made a mental note of her name, but I was pretty dertain that it was a pointless endeavour. It was surely a false alias.

"I'm surprised that the Green Knights know about me," I commented, giving her a glassy smile. "I'm just an ordinary high school student."

"Well, as an organization that steals Artifacts, it's important for us to keep track of those who are capable of removing them from this world, especially when such a person is so close to an Artifact that we're targeting. So it's hardly surprising that we're keeping an eye on you, Kurogami-kun."

Karasawa Miho answered me in such a casual way. It seemed as though she was completely unwary of me. That fact alone was enough to make me feel nervous again. She didn't look like she had any weapons on her, but she had already proved that she had no need for such things.

"I see...Is it fine to talk to me so freely, though? I mean, I would have expected a gang of thieves to be more secretive."

It was a rather surreal situation to be in, but I was engaging myself in a pleasant conversation with a member of the Green Knights, the organization that planned to steal away Rei's Artifact, while Tenjou Mikado, my ally, was in a crumpled heap on the ground. Well, the current situation didn't seem at all like the work of thieves, but rather that of robbers. It was a minor distinction in many ways, but nonetheless, the forceful methods that Karasawa were employing were more suited for 'robbery' than 'theft'.

I still couldn't detect any movement from Tenjou; maybe he had been knocked out by that punch. Either way, it couldn't hurt to talk to Karasawa a little and buy some time. Surely someone would have called the police by now. I glanced at Alice and saw that she had not moved an inch. She returned my look but didn't say anything. That was actually probably the wisest decision. There was no reason for Alice to involver herself in this matter. Even if she had tried anything, like calling the police herself, Karasawa would simply have used her Artifact's ability and stopped Alice. In the worst case, Alice would have been attacked by her for nothing.

"There's nothing to worry about. It's not like I'm divulging any important information. I may be a thief, but there's no reason for me to be hostile. A friendly thief is still a thief, after all."

Karasawa raised a hand with two fingers outstretched in a peace sign and smiled at me. Strictly speaking, what she had said wasn't wrong, but I still couldn't shake off the feeling that criminals weren't supposed to act in this way.

"Uh...right. So it's true that you're after the 'Lens of Truth', then?"

"Yep. There's no point in denying it after I went to the trouble of beating up this guy, after all. Actually, that brings me to what I wanted to say," Karawasa jabbed a finger over her shoulder, not even bothering to look back at Tenjou. I couldn't see Tenjou myself, of course, since she was blocking my vision of him.

"Tell him that he should leave. Otherwise, I'll kill him. It's a simple matter if he reports to his superiors that his life is in danger. It's not worth it for the Anti-Artifact Agency to risk losing an agent over a single Artifact like this. Us Green Knights prefer to avoid killing if we can, and personally speaking I'd rather not kill a kid."

Casually, callously, carelessly, she spoke about murder as though it was the easiest thing in the world. With a smile on her face. Without a care in the world. Tenjou's life was in her hands, and whether it ended or not was entirely up to her whim.

Yes, this felt more like what a criminal was like.

"Pardon me for asking this, but why is it even necessary to even attack him in the first place? Your objective is to acquire the 'Lens of Truth', right? I don't see how it links together at all. He's not the owner of the Artifact."

"But he is the protector of the owner of the Artifact. In other words, getting rid of him will make it easier for me to take the Artifact anyway. Once he leaves, I'll take the Artifact from that cute friend of yours without any violence, so don't worry about that. Well, I don't mind admitting that I was interested in fighting him as well, though. Tenjou Mikado, wasn't it? That's one heck of a name. He did in one of my buddies a month ago."

Karasawa Miho's good humour did not disappear from her face, but there was something a little different about her smile. Was it anger?
That would have fit well given what she had just said, but that wasn't quite right. It was something else. She still seemed to be in good spirits, but there was a minute trace of some other feeling.

The woman gave a small sigh. "Honestly, I had higher expectations of him than that, but it looks like he only managed to take out Alexander because of his own Artifact. 'Blood of the Savior' - an Artifact that nullifies the effects of all other Artifacts. Or rather, to be more accurate, it prevents the effects of all other Artifacts from affecting him. In other words, the natural enemy of all Artifact users. Unfortunately for him, I have only have to use my Artifact on myself..."

Ah, so that was it. Disappointment. That was what Karasawa Miho was feeling right now.

"Well, he was still pretty good at fighting, but he's just a normal teenager after all."

Thwack.

There was something to be said about having the element of surprise in a fight. Those who are far more experienced and knowledgeable than myself when it came to fighting probably could write entire essays about the topic, but an amateur such as myself will just settle for making a painfully obvious observation - having the element of surprise was pretty good.

A fist smashed into the side of Karasawa's face, completely throwing her off-balance. To her credit, she took less than a second to recover and threw a punch of her own at her assailant without even needing to look at him, but Tenjou simply pulled his left fist back to parry her attack and fired another blow mercilessly with his right, knocking her head backwards. Good thing she cracked her neck earlier, I guess.

Tenjou wasn't going to let go of this opportunity easily. He made to rush in, but Karasawa fell to the ground and directed a sweep at his legs, forcing him to retreat and ending that short exchange of blows. He dusted his hands and gave her one of his trademark grins.

"Sorry for just being a normal teenager. I do try my best."

Karasawa rose to her feet and smiled happily. A trickle of blood emerged out of the corner of her mouth, but she didn't bother wiping it away. "Glad to see that you have more in you, kid. Let's continue."

"I'd be quite happy to, but don't you think that you should leave? The police will turn up soon, you know," Tenjou said, shaking his head.

"Tch."

The so-called female thief, who really looked more like a hooligan, hung her head and clicked her tongue. "Well, I suppose you're right. It'll be troublesome if I have to escape while surrounded with so many people...And you look like you can barely stand, anyway. Fine, I'll let you off for today, Tenjou-kun. Make sure you heal those injuries properly, you hear? I don't want to have another boring fight like today."

She turned around and looked at me. "See ya next time too, Kurogami-kun. I'll take that Artifact off your friend's hands for you then, so just sit tight and wait."

Karasawa Miho retrieved another coin from her jacket pocket and flicked it into the air. I eyed the coin as it travelled up in mid-air. Its revolutions seemed to take an eternity, but it was really only a second later that both the coin and her person vanished, with empty space taking their place.