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Chapter 10: Solitude
Before my eyes was a mess of mops and furniture that had collapsed upon opening the door, somewhat blocking the entrance. I lowered my heavy head and saw a leg powerlessly thrown on top of the dusty floor. Its right knee was bleeding a little. My own leg... I wonder when I injured it.
My head began to catch up and went back through the memory of what I'd been doing. I lost myself in wanting to get away from that place as soon as possible and ran without any destination, then tripped in the hallway. I lifted my head and straightened my gaze, then looked around.
This was that first storeroom I searched with Kaito... He moved around the old desks, bureaus, mops, brooms, and buckets, leaving them piled up near the entrance. So getting in was fine, but getting out looked like a tight fit. But this was much better than the long gallery I'd entered repeatedly while running around, or one of the guest rooms. On the off chance they came looking for me, it would be hard to find me here.
The first shock came when the Mistress called the Doll Boy "Len," and it merely confused me. I simply wondered, "Wait, why?" But as their conversation continued, my confusion became sadness... and fear... and resentment, and anger. All of my emotions were mixed, and I felt like I was going to burst from them.
Yet, when those emotions peaked, the intensity of them was suddenly gone, and I began to feel like I was watching a play - an ambivalent human drama swirling with love, hate, intrigue. My mind stopped thinking, and I admired the scene unfolding before me ala a play. How much I wish it were only just a play.
"Ahaha... How cruel..."
My hoarse voice echoed futilely in the unoccupied room.
"Somebody... tell me it's just a lie..."
I reached out to cling to something and touched only air. I saw a hand in my blurred vision. But it was just my own hand... there was only me. No one would take my trembling hand.
I was sad. Regretful. Pained. Lonely. How miserable. I recalled the conversation I'd heard from behind the door piece by piece, and the intense emotions smoldering in my chest welled up to my throat, and I sobbed. I firmly held my mouth with both hands to keep from making any sound. But even so, my intense wailing that I must have wanted someone to respond to echoed in the empty room, only coming back to my own ears. The more severely I cried, the more hollowness it brought.
I had believed in the others unquestioningly as friends. I expected a hand to stroke my head as I wept all alone, a voice to scold me for crying over something like that, a gaze to gently watch in silence, or delicious milk tea that would calm me, but there was nothing like that... there never had been. The first-class actors who could manipulate every sense would not offer me such consolation anymore.
I had never truly been a friend to those professionals. I hadn't even been betrayed; I'd just convinced myself that I had already become their friend. Idiotic... What a foolish, miserable, impudent mistake. Not seeing how I could never become a friend to them from the start, I made my own stupid assumption and prided myself on it.
"The lead role of this play will die, even if she says and does nothing. That's her fate... Because it's the law of this world."
Earlier, I tripped in the empty hallway while running. I always tripped clumsily, so I was sure it was just that once again. But I was wrong. Just how many times had I felt the fear of death since coming to this world? The breaking stepladder, the fall down the stairs. Not to mention the sword that came down from above. The milk tea that was offered to me with perfect timing: right after hearing the story about the perfect crime of the well-concealed poison. It all seemed too unlucky. But they weren't just accidents; they were all planned, intentional events...
The star actress who suddenly disappeared - taboo words - she who died - the replacement of lead roles - ninth person - the karma of death - necessary death - to bring her back from the grave - Miku can't know the truth, or go back to reality - the completion of our objective - the mastermind's invitation - the sudden troupe audition - the dream I saw this morning - First nighT.
Now, the pieces of the puzzle were assembled... Everything I had felt doubts about finally came together neatly to form a single story.
I had to sever myself from them - from the affection, trust, and bonds I felt. And I had to build resolve to fight against them. I had to think of a way to avoid things going to script, or I would be left all alone in this world to die...
All my sadness over being tricked changed to anger and hate. Just like in that Bad ∞ End ∞ Night. They were fighting, to the point of experiencing temporary death in this fictional world, to drive me toward the death they desired. So I would have to be determined as well, and finish them off before they finished me. This time, I would have them perform the script I had thought up, without letting them realize I'd noticed the truth - and finishing this repeating play with a last act, the actors would step off the stage to applause.
Kaito said that the letter was important. Most likely, this was the End roLL, like I'd predicted. And using the End roLL, I could create a scene they didn't want - the lead being saved and being able to return to reality. And the things they tried to keep me away from... They were likely related to the usage of the End roLL.
First, the wine bottle. When I searched the wine cellar, there was a single bottle that wasn't fake, with a bit of real wine left. Gack naturally diverted my attention away from the wine. I should have been very interested in this single non-prop bottle that concealed the potential to be used for something... but before I knew it, he was talking about wine in general, then switched things to an entirely unrelated topic. Maybe this would be the ink. Since when I spilled it on the blank End roLL, it glowed. Now for the other part...
I frantically went around my memories. As I searched for things hidden behind all the actions I'd witnessed since coming here, a particular scene came back to me. Rin was always in the hall, in front of the clock... Yes, the clock hands...! When I tried to approach them, she said it was dangerous, and her eyes threatened against coming any closer... I had to hurry and get those hands!
When I stood up, pain shot up my right knee. I took the handkerchief Luka gave me out of my pocket and wrapped it tightly around my knee. It was faintly soaked with the blood which still hadn't stopped.
I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. Behind my eyelids, I imagined another me.
She arrived late to their meeting and stepped into the dim room looking very apologetic. Everyone looked her over with some doubt and unease over how very late she was. She, too, looked like she was dying to ask the others something, a little curious about what she'd seen in those books in the library... Slowly, the air in the room grew tense, each party wanting to probe the other... She made a face full of unease, yet trusted them, and approached saying she'd found a hint toward finding the next page. Acting stupidly and easily-fooled, yes, like an audience member... Her objective was to steal their script.
Yes, I didn't know a thing. Wholly ignorant of being number nine, the pitiful replacement, I would dance for them.
I hid the clock hands in my skirt pocket, held the wine bottle in my left hand, and with my open right, lightly knocked on the door to the study.
"Searching the stockhouse certainly took you a while. We were all waiting for you."
The Mistress sitting on the sofa nearest the door welcomed me with a concerned smile. Only slightly opening the extravagant wooden door, I stepped my foot into the room.
"Um... I finished checking the stockroom a little while ago. But I remembered something when I was searching the wine cellar with Mr. Butler. You said you'd rather drink beer than tea earlier, so I brought some..."
"My, so there's some left! I'm glad."
"...This is no time to be drinking, all right?"
The Master scolded the rejoicing Mistress with deeper wrinkles in his brow than usual. I could interpret it as an expression with some unease; because the Villager had brought the wine bottle, a key to progressing the story. Coming inside, I went over to the wall on the right... toward the small table with the script. The armchair across from it was empty, so I was able to sit down there in a natural way.
Paying no attention to the script, the Villager looked fidgety about something else - she couldn't help but be curious about the things she heard in the library earlier... but she was pondering how to break the topic. The inhabitants, meanwhile, were likely formulating a plan to steal the letter.
"Oh, did you find the page? Alas, I've had no luck at all. I haven't found so much as a scrap of paper..."
The Lady started things off. The word "paper" was intended to cause a breach.
"Yes, same here! The kitchen had nothing but paper napkins for dining!"
"And the newspapers in the living room all had things written on them... Those won't do. To think so much effort would go into finding a single piece of paper..."
"But...! They do SAY things are alWAYS right under your NOSE! YahaHA!"
I knew that they were creating a natural flow of conversation to obtain the blank letter the Villager had. Starting with the Lady, to the Maid, to the Mistress, to the Doll Girl, they formed a perfect chain with no gaps. The usual Villager who knew nothing would surely be enticed by this to say "Oh, if it's a blank piece of paper, I do have one of those..." and pull out the letter in her pocket.
I only had one chance. To act out, as the uneasy, ignorant Villager... no, as the idiotic Miku who had the role of the Villager, the most natural response...
"I searched as hard as I could too, but... I just couldn't find it. It's a little bit depressing... But there's something I'm curious about... I was wondering, is this letter I have part of the script...?"
I slowly produced the letter from my pocket. Their eyes stared with delight. But like hunters reaching for a trapped rabbit, they concealed their true inner joy, putting up expressions of fresh surprise and expectation as if it were the first time game were caught in that trap, then acted slowly and carefully to procure the game without letting it get away.
"I... I didn't even consider that. Did you have that all along?"
"Yes. I forgot about it, but I'm pretty sure it was always in my pocket..."
I took the folded blank sheet out of the envelope and opened it up to show everyone. They watched me with surprise like they'd never seen it before.
"I saw THAT too, in the HALL! It looked JUST the right SIZE! YAhahaHA!"
"Yes, a PERFECT fit! AhahaHA!"
"There's nothing on it, huh! Just paper... isn't it? It looks pretty faded, though..."
"The next page of the script is torn. And rather roughly, so there should surely be irregular tear marks along the inside edge. Indeed, it does seem that the size is just right... But if it's not the right thing, even attempting to use it as the next page would be dangerous..."
"...! Oh, I see..."
Convinced by Meiko, the Villager complied with her advice, looked down with a bit of despair, and stuffed it back in her pocket like she'd completely lost interest.
Immediately, there was a very slight unrest in the air. "If we take the Villager's letter, it'll inevitably lead up to us having to test here and now if it can be used as part of the script or not... That's also rather dangerous... If we run out the time limit, we won't need to take it by force, will we?" "We should steal it right now... She still has some unease... Who knows what she'll do next?" I could see those two viewpoints flying across the room wordlessly.
Not at all noticing this confrontation, the Villager was visibly depressed about her hopeful idea being useless, and while wondering how to ask everyone about what she learned in the library, the Butler spoke to her.
"...Perhaps we should at least give it a try. If only checking whether or not the size is indeed a match."
The others engaged in a wordless war stared at him in surprise. "Don't take a risk like that, what are you thinking?", I could almost hear the Master, Mistress, and Doll Girl scream. Meanwhile, the Lady and Doll Boy kept sending looks that said "Hurry up." Ignoring the silent blame, the Butler standing by the window picked up the script enshrined on the small table and brought it over to me.
Casually standing up, I rested the wine bottle I was carrying against the back of the armchair, and while placing it carefully to keep it from falling, glanced at the route between myself and the door, confirming the distance. All right, no one there.
"No, hold on. Let's all take a look at this first..."
The Master strengthened his tone, and with the kind of worried smile one would show to a child not listening to you, came toward me with his long legs. The master of the mansion would never have his expression disturbed and raise his voice over such a minor thing. In hiding his internal worry, his act as the Master was crumbling. Demonstrating no notice of that fact, I took the letter back out of my pocket, and moved my hand to open the envelope. Heavy glances gathered on that hand.
I took it out slowly, bringing it halfway up to show it off tantalizingly. Then...
I slipped it back in and re-sealed the envelope.
In unison, everyone stared in bewilderment, seeming to forget about playing their roles. The time was now - for the Villager to dance out as the lead.
"...No, you're right. If it's dangerous, maybe I shouldn't. Who knows what'll happen... And I was thinking, the script might have to proceed in the correct way... and this might actually be the End roLL, the last page. If that's true, we have to find the next page, don't we? Skipping over it and forcing an ending might not end this play properly... and it'll disappear..."
I put the letter in my pocket. The Butler stood in front of me, the script laying in his hands, and just blinked, not grasping the reason behind the Villager's sudden change of heart. But they opted not to deeply question the thinking behind her surprising act; they were confident they'd achieved victory, and relief swept over the room. No doubts, worries, or unease, just relief and a bit of kindness - a nostalgic mood. And...
"Well, I'll be taking this, okay?", the Villager said with a smile.
Before anyone could react, I swept up the script in the Butler's hands - the script held out right before my eyes without any defenses - with my right hand, spun around, grabbed the bottle resting on the armchair, and dashed for the door. I tackled the door left slightly open without dropping speed, turned right down the hall, and sped toward the stairs. So taken off-guard, the others were unable to react promptly; I heard their footsteps quite a distance behind me.
"Wait! Where are you going?!"
Gack was fast. And he was the closest to me... the nearest to the door. If I slowed down even a little, he'd quickly catch me.
"This is mine! I am the star of the play, after all!"
"Miss Villager, wait! I apologize for unsparingly denying your idea!"
"Sigh... Enough of the act. I know everything! Your plotting... and the person you killed!!"
As I reached the corridor and was about to hurry down the stairs, Luka shouted in a way resembling a scream.
"Wait, please! Stop! Calm down! What in the world are you saying?! Gyaaah, dooon't!"
"I'm the ninth person - someone's replacement, right?! ...She was going to be the lead... But she died, so I became her stand-in! And now you want to kill me to revive her, don't you?!"
Their voices repeatedly calling to stop me came to a halt. I couldn't afford to look behind me. Only footsteps racing down the hallways echoed off the large hall's ceiling, further fostering this air of bloodthirst. My nonstop sprint soon had me panting. Such a huge mansion...
Down on the first floor, I turned left, opened the door to the hallway behind the stairs, and made sure to shut it tight. I ran straight down the long hallway to my right. Slightly afterward, I heard someone opening the door I'd just closed. It's okay, at this distance... I can get away...!
As soon as I was about to flee to the basement down the spiral stairs behind the Twilight ∞ nighT painting - somehow, Kaito, Rin, and Len were already there waiting for me. I quickly put the brakes on my full-speed legs.
"It's too bad, Miku," Rin said, looking like she actually did feel something was unfortunate.
I was sure I'd taken the shortest route from the second floor study to the first floor's forbidden room. Before coming to the study, I even checked all the passages, and simulated it repeatedly in my head...!
"Remember the forbidden room up above you and I searched? Yes, it too has a Twilight ∞ nighT painting hanging outside it, exactly like this one..."
"Pant... pant... No way...!", I muttered, breathing heavily. But the others who arrived before me weren't out of breath at all. Because....!
"The secret stairs don't only go from the first floor to the basement. However, the stairs from the second floor to the first can't be opened from the first floor side..."
Kaito glanced behind him. I looked back there, and sure enough, there was a staircase leading up where there had only been a wall earlier. I completely overlooked it. Thinking about it, I should have noticed the possibility immediately. Argh... Still catching my breath, I glared at the three.
"...If we've been found out, oh well. Still, you certainly did trick us with that hastily-made act. We were thoroughly fooled... Bravo, number nine."
Len no longer had the cruel Doll Boy's unperishing smile, and was back to his usual blank expression that made it difficult to read his thoughts. The footsteps in the distance got louder; one set came to a stop, then two more. Then, considerably later, the last person arrived. All seven surrounded me.
"Gasp... pant... I caught uuup!"
"Sigh... Meg! You really are unathletic. So slooow."
"Y-You too, Miss Luka! Pant, pant... aren't you out of breath too?!"
No one tried to take the letter, script, and wine bottle right away. Keeping their distance, they seemed to still be working out a strategy. I had my hands full with the script and bottle, so I couldn't easily take the letter out of my pocket. But wary after having been tricked already, they surrounded me with a solid formation, and it seemed they could subdue me at any time. I would have to look closely to make an opportunity. I had to focus my senses, and put on an act as subtle as putting a thread through the eye of a needle. First...
"I can't help feeling regret" - I was one step from being taken into their hands. The idiot Miku bit her lower lip, but trying to keep her composure, silently observed her foes' next move.
"...Well, what now? We'll sacrifice you, and exchange your death with hers - indeed, the woman I told you about then. You remember, yes? We all worked so hard to hide it. Our dear friend, lost before you joined the troupe... our star actress, suddenly gone... It rather piqued your interest, didn't it? Your intuition's quite sharp. It was planned for her, not you, to be the lead in Crazy ∞ nighT. And to bring her back, we've tried to kill you again and again in ways made to look like accidents... as you've learned. And until your death succeeds in the way this world desires it, the night will repeat endlessly.
"But what will you do, knowing that? By the laws of this world, the fate of her death is attached to you, which makes it easier for accidents to occur. Firmly-held swords will suddenly fall, stepladders will abruptly break, you'll fall down the stairs, you'll trip on nothing. Furthermore, you're of entirely average intelligence and ability. Versus the seven of us: sharp, capable, professional actors with far better insight than you. The odds are stacked against you."
"(There's one of us who's clearly inferior in physical ability, though...)"
I hated to admit it, but I couldn't reply; it was all true. I naturally tightened my grip on the wine.
"Hah... Didn't I tell you, that night? You have a fatal lack of insight. You don't understand your own worth. You're so wrapped up in yourself, you don't at all notice how others see you, their true feelings. So others can easily trick and exploit you. Well, you reap what you sow."
"...I know that!! I know so much it hurts... I understand the advice you gave me. You pretended you were letting me be less formal and more friendly with you because you accepted me... but it was just to fill me with relief and affection so I wouldn't doubt you, wasn't it? And... all of you, you opened your hearts to me right before and after act one. It was my first play, I was the lead, and for you, it was a play more important than any that couldn't fail... I thought you showed me concern and gave encouragement to help me make it succeed. But even that was just preparation to ensure that when I was sucked into this strange world, I would trust you as friends and wouldn't try anything funny...!
"Preparing a sacrifice and exchanging her for my dead predecessor... I don't know what kind of magic can do that, but it must be the work of the person who created this bizarre world. So you conspired to ask Burlet... no, you made a deal, didn't you?! You'd put on an amusing show for him to enjoy, and he'd revive the real lead in exchange! It all started when I was picked for the audition... No, earlier than that, when you suddenly put out the audition for a stand-in. Because a total novice, an average girl with no redeeming qualities, would never be picked by the Burlet Company for the lead of his lost play! Anyone could figure that out with a little thought... I could never be the lead! Ahahahahahahahahaha...!"
Miku's deranged laughing made everyone hesitate a little. There was nothing funny about it... but her dry laugh wouldn't stop.
"...Ahh. I looked up to you all that time, barely managing to go to the theater daily on the wages from my job... until just half a year ago. It wasn't long ago, but it's already so nostalgic... I was chosen to join the troupe, and I worked myself to death trying to quickly catch up and meet your expectations... But it was all useless... No, it was never necessary from the start... because I was just a disposable replacement."
I mumbled out these words like I was telling them to myself. The quiet rain of tears became a small river, then increased in volume to an audible stream. The negative emotions wouldn't stop until they'd cried a sea.
"Yeah... I'm just a replacement! Number nine, her replacement, stupid, miserable, and pathetic...!"
"...That's right. You understand yourself well, huh?"
"Len! Don't talk like that... Hold on a moment, Miku. You have it wrong. We're really not doing this because we want to..."
"It's useless to smooth things over now, Meiko. Her eyes are verrry scary. She's found us out, so what's the point in hiding anymore? Yes, you're just a stand-in. Didn't I tell you before? The one who we did everything with, but suddenly left us... Yes, she died... In the theater, shortly before you joined. Pitiable, isn't it? It was because we cornered her... So we fiercely regretted her death. And then, a miracle occurred. We found we could bring people back by using someone else as a substitute... so we're trying to do it for her. And you... were picked as the sacrifice for it. That's the truth. Have all that?"
Luka's words stabbed me in the gut. The truth was thrust in front of me, and I understood it well enough, but my heart wasn't ready for the impact; my vision misted up with tears, and it got harder to breathe.
"...Oh, Miss Luka, you're being excessively harsh... Look, I'm not going to try and make excuses, but we didn't particularly enjoy tricking you, Miss Miku. At least believe that, okay?"
"When you say it like that, Meg, it kind of sounds like you're making fun of her."
"Miss Rin is right. You're inviting misunderstandings, Miss Meg. Causing unneeded trouble once again..."
"So, yes, you must realize. There's not even any time left. No matter what, you lose."
"Haha... Come to think of it, Len... You gave me blue roses. You wanted to revive her no matter what. So was the meaning of those flowers your way of implying you entrusted me with a miracle... with her revival...? Did you love that dead girl, I wonder?"
The stream gradually settled, stabilizing to a calm, smooth surface. Sticking my head out of the water, it was moved only by slight ripples; the undulating was coming to an end. Now - time to make some waves.
I gently put the wine bottle on the floor. A moment after everyone looked down toward it, I took out the clock's hour hand - the knife - concealed in my pocket, and ran over to the wall of a T-intersection in the hallway. Then I turned around. From this position, everyone was standing in the same direction. A moment after I broke free of their encirclement, Luka and Meiko formerly behind me hurried to the hallways left and right of the intersection, trying to surround me again.
"Miss Luka, Miss Meiko! Don't move!! If you come closer..."
For an instant, everyone was astonished. Holding the script under my left arm, I reached out toward Rin - the nearest person - restrained her, and pointed the sharp, glinting edge of the clock hand in my left hand toward her.
"I'm serious. No one come any closer!"
An eerie silence dominated the scene. Everyone must have known the hour hand of the clock in the hall was a knife.
"...That's useless. Rin's a doll now. It won't do any good..."
"We'll just have to see if it's useless or not, won't we...? Heehee."
With a creepy grin, I gazed at the others. The small doll in my hand was trembling slightly, and I could feel her pulse.
"You're shaking... Unfortunate, huh, Rin...?"
"Stop! Miku, please! Let go of Rin!"
"When you'd kill me without a care...? Ahaha."
"I'll be taking that wine bottle, too. I was supposed to drink it during act one."
Kaito picked up the wine bottle from the floor in his left hand.
"Might you tell us why you need this bottle? What were you going to do with it?"
"...I'm sure you don't need me to tell you that, do you?"
"...I can't give this to you."
"You don't mind what happens to Rin, then?"
I put the knife right up against Rin's face, but Kaito didn't move. The unexpected situation made a little bit of unease came back. If I tried to take it by force, he might pin me down in return. Without the wine... I couldn't write the ending. What do I do? I had to think. Calm down...
"Stop with this foolishness, and give us the script."
Kaito stepped forward to close the distance. To incite more fear in them, I brought the sharp edge right up to Rin's eyeballs. Tears flowed from the Doll Girl's glass-like eyes. If she could cry even as a doll, surely stabbing her would cause major pain similar to that of dying in reality, I thought dimly in the corner of my mind. The same pain I'd felt dying repeatedly in this world; I didn't remember any of those deaths at all, but they did. They remembered it all...
Huge tears poured from Rin's eyes, yet Kaito continued to approach. Deaths in this fictional world would just be fake deaths... so even if I killed them here, another night would come. So as much as it hurt, they could bear it knowing it was a lie... they wouldn't even fear death.
It seemed that I, as the lead role, couldn't be killed properly unless the woman's death scene from reality were perfectly re-enacted. And they too wouldn't die from being stabbed with the knife, reviving for the next night. Since their memories remained, surely their fear of death would too, but they knew it was only temporary... So strong-willed Kaito could endure it and stubbornly proceed forward.
I let go of trembling Rin and turned the knife toward Kaito. But he still wasn't fazed at all. I couldn't hesitate any more. With the knife in my left hand, I tackled Kaito and reached for the wine bottle in his left hand with my right.
Just as it was almost in reach, Kaito lifted his hand up, pulling the bottle away. The red liquid inside shook up, and some flew behind him in a clean parabola. A dull shock ran through my left hand. The knife was stuck in Kaito's right forearm. Red blood danced before my eyes, mixing with the deep crimson of the carpet below.
Rin screamed. Everyone was motionless, eyes fixed on bleeding Kaito. His face tightened in pain; he faltered and fell on his knee. After a brief moment, time resumed. Slipping to the side of the others running toward Kaito, I ran for the now-unguarded stairs leading underground.
The Doll Boy responded promptly and chased after me. But going down the stairs, the difference in our steps gradually widened the distance between us. The footsteps slowly got quieter, and I accelerated to reach the door at the end of the long stairs.
Right after heading through the heavy doors I left open, I put all my might into closing them and firmly barred the door with the wooden beam leaning against the wall. A few seconds later, I heard banging on the door behind me. Looks like I made it. Through the door, I could faintly hear their muffled voices. Len and Luka, Gack, then Meg. Rin and Meiko were probably at Kaito's side. If all seven of them tackled it, they might be able to bust it open... It was heavy, sure, but a wooden door and lock weren't reliable. I had to achieve my objective before that happened...
I turned to face the coffins again. The thumping on the door from outside annoyingly continued. But there was something odd. When I listened closely, I thought I could hear that sound from inside the room, too.
The eight coffins were aligned in two neat rows. I came to a stop in front of one, the one placed in the far back. I squatted down and put my ear to the high-quality wood. Thump, thump, thump - I could hear a sound inside, like knocking against the lid of the coffin. Was this the same sound, coming from nowhere in particular, I thought I was imagining upon waking up in this strange world...?
Suddenly, an unknown fear welled up in me. Could I really open these coffins? Imagine if a zombie came out and attacked me... The knocking continued like someone was calling for help. I had no doubt; in this coffin was the woman they had hid away... the former lead.
If they sought to exchange her death and mine, I would have to make her body impossible to exchange with. My only option was to make her die again, in this world, for good. I felt bad about it... But to borrow their words, it was inevitable given the laws of this world. So I told myself, scolding my body beginning to tremble. I was about to kill someone. But she was long since dead... Yes, she was really meant to be dead, so it was fine, it's fine... I'd seen plenty of blood since coming here, mine and everyone else's -
Blood...? That's right... Kaito was injured back there. Remembering the fresh blood, I closed my eyes tight to shake away that image from my mind. That was another thing I just had to accept. They had murdered me again and again. Their whole goal was to exchange my death with the woman sleeping in this coffin... It was self-defense, really. I also questioned if a dead person could really be revived using a sacrifice... but I'd already spent all this time sealed in this bizarre world. It wasn't strange to think it was possible.
I had failed to steal back the wine bottle. But after that earlier scene, I had a new idea.
I put my hand to my chest to check the time. There were only about ten minutes left in the play. I'd calm down for a moment. I wouldn't forgive myself for making a mistake now because I was in disarray. If I failed here, all my efforts would be for nothing, my memories would be lost, and everything would begin again from the start. And with them keeping their memories, they'd continue tricking me with more difficult nights still. Before the birth of the next me... that poor, poor me. Here, this night, I would have to put an end to it all.
I slid the minute hand from my pocket into the keyhole on the coffin. Sure enough... a perfect fit.
As I focused myself to calm down, the banging on the door got louder; it seemed the remaining three - Kaito, Meiko, and Rin - had arrived. They had all started charging at the door together.
"Miku!! Open up!!"
"Hey, please, don't open that coffin now! We'll tell you the truth, all of it!"
Smash - there was a sound of glass shattering outside the door.
"Hey, are you listening?! The wine bottle's in pieces now, and everything inside got sucked up by this absorbent mat. Now there's nothing left to use as ink. Give up and come out here!"
"Len's right, Miku! Even if you try to write an ending on the End roLL, you have to do it properly, or time won't move... It's impossible to do it this time! Look, I promise! Next night, we definitely won't leave you out! Pleeease!!
Rin screamed bitterly, and seemed to be crying. Her convincing act made my chest tighten briefly. But I couldn't let myself be fooled anymore. I had to calm down my shaken mind. I couldn't lend an ear to their kind words. They had taught me the hard way that my greatest weakness was being too trusting of anyone, and too easily fooled.
By now, I'd had enough of this strange, sad night.
"No, it's too late. Too late for any of that. Heehee... Ahahahahahahahahahahahaha!"
I had no idea if I was happy, angry, sad, or joyous. My wounded heart had exceeded its limits. After going through countless, mind-numbing repetitions of the same night, it all came to this scene. My mind forgot it all, but my body, my hand on the lid of the coffin, remembered that long, painful past well, and shook with delight.
I grabbed the minute hand in the coffin's keyhole and turned it left. The click of a lock opening echoed through the dark room. With a shrill creaking sound like a bird's cry, I opened the coffin lid.
"I fooound it."
Chapter 11: Truth
On the empty stage, I picked up a suspicious letter that I'd seen glow and read it. Something very startling was written there. My hands trembled, and my pulse pounded loudly. By the time I'd finished reading, the uplifting feelings I'd had were blown clean away. If someone else were here, it would probably look to them like I was practicing for act two tomorrow.
"...No... This isn't true, is it...?"
Everyone deeply admired that magnificent playwright, and surely became actors in the Burlet Company to perform his works. Everyone's passion was the real deal... surely. And yet...
If what this letter said was the truth, couldn't this be considered betrayal, sacrilege against Burlet? Not to mention, I... to them, I was only...! Sadness, anger, despair, hate - newly-budded emotions suddenly took root in my heart. Before I knew it, I was running with the intensity of those emotions.
I have to find out the truth quickly! I need them to tell me this letter is just a lie...!! I went off the stage, ran from the hall to the grand stairs, went up them and turned right, toward green room #1 at the far end. The backstage staff had all gone home to prepare for tomorrow, so no one was around but us, the cast. The only lights in the hallway were faint foot lights. I strained my eyes running through the dim halls, and forcefully opened the door to the green room emitting a slight light.
Slam - with the loud sound of me opening the door, the merrymaking people within the room slowly turned to face it. Meiko with beer mugs in both hands, redfaced but still drinking; Kaito engaging with her; Meg engrossed in conversation, eyes shining with excitement; Len pretending to listen to her; Rin singing, and Luka dancing; and lastly, Gack quietly tilting his glass.
Everyone was celebrating the wonderful success of tonight's play in their own way. No one had even changed yet; they still wore their costumes. I could even see it as a continuation of the highly enjoyable party in act one of the play.
Gack, nearest to the door, who had been relaxing and sipping wine on a three-seater sofa all to himself, noticed my arrival and stood up to greet me.
"You're late. Well, how about a toast to our first day? We've all already started, you see?"
I couldn't get my thoughts in order on what to say, so I stood there silently, saying not a word. Gack thoughtfully filled an empty glass on the table with wine from the bottle, and urged me to come in.
"Perfectly expected for the lead role to arrive fashionably late. Here's a drink for you. Come, let's have a toast."
The glass I received was full of delicious red wine. I faintly gazed into the red liquid wavering in my hand. My first words would be crucial. They would set the tone of things. But no good lines came to mind. Something concise, that wouldn't shake them, and would take initiative in the following conversation... I desperately thought, but nothing popped up.
As I silently stood there merely holding the glass, noticing my odd behavior, the rest of the group came to stare in my direction. Their kind gazes, filled with anticipation and optimism, stuck in my heart and dulled my resolve. But I had to say it. I firmly shut my eyes, resolutely tipped the glass, and gulped down the swaying redness all at once. My nose was filled with a smell like fresh roses.
"Ahh, here comes our lead role, everyone! Come on over. Why, you down your drinks quick!"
Finding no fault in me emptying the glass before the toast, Kaito approached me with a drunken red face and a good-natured smile.
"Can we get a word from the lead role, too?"
Everyone turned toward me and gathered around. Act one had only just ended, but everyone was brimming with joy like they had the blessing of the Muses of the arts themselves, and had faces of relief. Not a hint of doubt, deep relief and delight... I would have to bring ruin to their fabricated happiness.
"...Won't you tell me the truth?"
My first line, after much agonizing. No beating around the bush. I would get right into it.
Happy drunken Kaito smiling at me opened his eyes slightly, then blinked two or three times.
"This letter... tells about the truth of this play."
As I said this, bringing the letter in my left hand up beside my face, the air in the room froze. Keeping the exact same smiles they'd had moments ago on their faces, everyone in the room stared at me. Not changing emotion, not even blinking, just holding their breaths, they remained still and questioned what my next action would be. After a considerable silence, Meiko slowly put her beer mugs down on the table and spoke.
"Tell me, whatever do you mean by... the truth?"
In contrast to the casual nature of her words, her lips stiffened slightly.
"It has to do with us... making this script into a play."
"And? What exactly would this be?"
"...Please, don't play dumb. It's all written in this letter."
I suddenly turned left to glance at the white letter I held in my hand.
"Where exactly did you get it?"
"It was left on the stage."
"Well, then... Just what does it say? May I see that for a second?"
Kaito took on a stern look quite unlike before, put down his mug, and slowly approached me.
"I believe you're familiar with it, so I shouldn't need to show it to you! ...If what this letter says is true, then isn't this production considered "sacrilege" against him?"
The moment I spoke the word "sacrilege," everyone but me trembled with nervous looks. Seeing this reaction, I knew what the letter said was true. I hadn't had a doubt in my mind that this was paradise, yet I felt like the ground I thought so solid was giving out from under me. Despair... a feeling of being tossed down into the pits.
Unable to bear it, I felt something coming up my throat. I brought my hand to cover my mouth and keep it in. Not wanting to look any of them in the eye, I slowly averted my gaze and hung my head.
"...So it was true... I feel... so horrible. And why did..."
Why did... you trick me, and try to pin the crime you committed on me...?
I couldn't voice that line. In my head, I knew I should have asked them that right away, but I was afraid of saying it and having it confirmed as the truth. The truth that from the very beginning, they never thought of me as anything more than a convenient, disposable pawn...
It was written in the letter. It spoke of their intent to put all the responsibility - the sin of this play, this sacrilege against Burlet - on the lead actress, Miku, to say it was all done by her. They'd say that it was a plot to escalate myself as an actress in the troupe - to profane his script, keep silent about the truth, deceive them and the world, and rise as a breakout star. That was their fallback if the truth about the sacrilege became known: to say it was all plotted by me alone.
I opened my mouth, wanting to confirm it, but hesitated to speak the words. I was afraid to hear it from their mouths.
"...It simply happened this way. Please understand... We -"
"I don't want your excuses! I don't think it's too late yet. Please, you have to announce the truth to the world! If we do it now, it might not be too late. I'm sure... No, I'm certain we can do it over!"
"What are you talking about?! On what basis? The moment we revealed the truth, don't you see it would be the end of us and this troupe?" Meiko approached me, face filling with anger.
She was the most tenured of the group, so she was surely the most concerned about the troupe's future. Still, I was shocked that she had immediately denied me, and turned away from her blaming gaze.
"Who could've written a letter like that? Must be one of us, right...?"
Len, lounging on a single-seat sofa, looked around the room as if conducting a search. But no one confessed. As Len opened his mouth to continue the search for the culprit, Meiko interrupted to continue where she left off.
"That doesn't matter right now. What's important is that we can't allow the truth in that letter to be made public. You understand?"
"...Really, won't you reconsider? We're all friends in this together, aren't we? You're no exception."
Friends... To them, it was half a year at most. To me, it was an irreplaceable six months in the troupe and with the cast I had aspired to for so long as a fan. To stand on the same stage as them... Until just now, I thought a longtime dream had come true. But it was all make-believe, as this letter made me realize. I was little more than a marionette convenient for prolonging the company. I was scared to see Kaito's face as he said "friends"... I remained silent, unable to look at them.
"Yeah! If you do something like that, it'll be real bad... Hey, reconsider! Pleeease!"
Rin, worriedly looking between me and her friends speaking, spoke with a whine. Tears were faintly welling up in her eyes. The happy party mood was completely gone, and amid savage tension, attacks on me flew left and right. It rained terribly outside, and the heavy sound of raindrops echoed. I remained silent for a time, staring at the back window, listening but not listening to both the heavy rain and the conflict.
The storm of words passed, and silence drifted in. Everyone had fallen silent, determining that I had no response to their attacks and now pondering their next move. Even as they showered me with criticisms, I still wanted to believe in them. Surely they were just confused about this sudden situation... As was I. So if we could just talk it out, we'd understand how we felt. Having the tiniest hope it wasn't too late, I started up another battle with them.
"Um... Please, listen! This is really... I really mean it, this will be for the good of the troupe. I thought of the perfect way to go about this! But there are reasons why I can't tell you the details yet. But still... It'll definitely work out okay!"
"There can't be any recovering once the world knows about what's in that letter you picked up. All our dreams, all our hopes, gone. It'll be the end of us all..."
"That's not true! Please just believe me... Please!"
Kaito, still looking concerned, folded his arms in thought and looked away from me.
"Weeell, can't you tell us those details or whatnot? I wanna know, y'know, the chances of success."
Meg went to push up her glasses, then blinking as she remembered she wasn't wearing them currently, let her gaze waver around the room to hide her mistake.
"Well, I... I can't do that yet..."
I gripped the bracelet on my left wrist with my hand. If this were really an antique of Burlet's, like my grandmother said... maybe I could make do by selling it. It was one of Burlet's possessions, and while the color had decayed over a century, it was one of his favorite accessories which he wore all the time. Even in the surviving portraits of him, this once-beautiful bracelet was depicted in a way that demonstrated its former brilliance. So no doubt, it would sell for quite a large amount.
But on the off chance it was a fake... I didn't want to doubt my grandmother, but the bracelet I wore was very old, and I had no decisive proof of it really being Burlet's. I couldn't claim with certainty whether it was real or not until I had an expert on antiques examine it.
Besides, could I really let go of such an important memento of my grandmother...? No, I couldn't afford to hesitate over that. I had to make up for the crime of profaning Burlet and deceiving the world. I had a duty to protect his history, too. On her deathbed, my grandmother left me this bracelet and a mission to preserve his legacy - at first, her parting words merely surprised me. But if they were true, then as one who carried his blood, I had to protect the history of my great predecessor.
My grandmother told me to use the bracelet whenever I was troubled. All right... this must be the real thing. But more importantly, I had to negotiate with the theater managers and sponsors to see if they would accept this plan I'd thought up. How would that fare, I wondered... I might be able to make it work on the money side, but it likely wouldn't be happen overnight. At worst, it could take months.
Still, I had to take the risk. As long as we believed in the strength which got us this far, then this would be the only way to protect the Burlet Company in any true sense.
"Yet... So you mean, you'll be able to someday?", Gack questioned pointedly as I hectically pondered.
"Just give me some time. Then..."
"Just a little time and you're sure you'll manage, eh?"
Meg added on another question. Her eyes told me they wouldn't accept any answer without it being "certain."
"W-Well... I won't know until I try... I need to confirm some things... I can't say it's certain right now, but!"
Meg twisted her neck. "Uhh..." She looked doubtful of my answer.
"Well then, you can't possibly ask us to believe you without reservation..."
"But I... why..."
Meiko, who I thought would be the one most on my side, kept denying everything I was saying, and it pained me every time. I hung my head sadly, and this time Luka, who had been silently watching us converse, sighed, stood up, and glared at me with a piercing gaze.
"Why, you ask...? Are you trying to claim you're in the right here? You've seen all that we put into getting this far, haven't you? How badly do you think we've sought this chance? "I can't say anything now, but we can try it again someday" - what a dream. No one would believe such a selfish claim."
"...True. It's unfortunate, but if you can't offer us anything worth trusting, there's no way. We didn't get this far on half-hearted resolve... This isn't a game, you know?"
Meiko added on to Luka's cross-examination, and I was overwhelmed by their threats. But I had to build up a tiny bit of courage and reply to them; I couldn't lose here.
"...I understand. But I keep telling you, all I can say right now is to believe me!"
"It just figures a girl like you who's hardly struggled in her life doesn't know the meaning of "being cooperative." No experience, ignorant to the true harshness of the world... What a pathetic softy!"
"I... I never meant... It's true, I don't have much of a track record, but I'm doing my best..."
Luka's words cut deep into my heart like a knife. What she was saying... was all true. I was still a know-nothing novice, always causing trouble for the rest. Even in tonight's show... If it weren't for them carrying the weight, I would have ruined everything. I didn't intend to dispute that fact. But I did intend to try my best to catch up to them. By no means was I trying to disrupt everyone's teamwork and get in an argument here.
Maybe these were Luka's usual methods. Like earlier... Her words were harsh and cutting, but she always left a path to her heart. I gently grabbed the top of my skirt, so that no one would realize I was squeezing the handkerchief Luka had just given me.
"Can't you think it over once more...? Please! There's still..."
"We keep telling you, we're not going to believe anything if all we have is your feelings! You're a real blockhead, aren't you?! Sounds like you just want to abandon us right at the end, hm? Traitor!!"
I'd desperately tried to conceal how effective their harsh attacks were, how hurt I was. For myself, and for them. Yet the moment I heard the word "traitor," my last little foothold crumbled, I plummeted into dark despair, and I hit the bottom.
In the eerie silence, rolling thunder roared, and lightning illuminated the others' stiff, angry faces. I closed my eyes and focused my thoughts. My battle with them wasn't over yet. I encouraged myself, telling myself it had only just begun.
Not to worry; I'm not alone. The will Burlet left behind flows in my body. He absolutely wouldn't want this. If he saw this situation, he would certainly grieve. I had to do something. After a short contemplation, I slowly opened my eyes, then my mouth.
"I understand. Then I'll send this letter to the tabloids."
Sharp glares fixated on me. Their mouths hung open in surprise.
"At first, I thought I could just wait until after all the performances, and present it at the final curtain call. Because I thought that might still be in time. But, no... It's too bad. And I asked you to believe me, but none of you would. I have nothing more to say to you. Thank you for everything. Goodbye!"
I quickly turned around and made a break for the door behind me. The others shortly followed after me, shouting things to make me stop, giving chase. I didn't look back, running as fast as I could through the dark, unlit building. The tears I'd been holding in now flowed like a waterfall, blurring my vision.
"Wait! Hey, wait!"
"You two, take the east stairs and cover the front and back entrances! The rest of you, split up and search the second floor. Call the others when you find her. The lights are down, so she couldn't have gotten far!"
"We'll go down!"
With Kaito's directions, the chasers scattered. From the voices, it seemed Rin and Len were going down. If I went downstairs now, I'd surely be quickly caught by them, with their smarts and good reflexes. Everyone shouted my name loudly. Rin's voice was slightly cracked; maybe she was crying. Even though I was the one who should have been pained and hurt. I glanced outside, and saw the light rain had become a torrential storm.
I opened the door to the storeroom on the edge of the second floor, went inside, and carefully shut it to not make any sound. My rapid breathing caused by the crying was hard to get back to normal. Holding in tears, I slid my hand down to my pocket, gripping the handkerchief tightly. I felt the soft cloth, and a hard metal.
Tap, tap. I sensed someone walking close to me. They came right up near the door.
"...Say, are you there?"
It was Meiko's voice. Maybe she'd heard my sobbing. It would be bad to stay here... I took my chances and quietly stepped toward the door... Okay, no one right behind it. I swung the door open and sped down the hall again, going right past stunned Meiko.
"Hey! She was up here! The second floor foyer! She's headed for the grand stairs!"
I heard the others, heeding Meiko, heading toward the grand stairs one by one. Going down the stairs would take me right to the hall... but in no time, the hallways surrounding the stairs were filled, and my escape routes all around were blocked. I was alone on the landing, keeping my distance like an animal surrounded by hunters. A wall behind me, the stairs in front - Rin and Len downstairs, Kaito, Meiko, and Gack on my left, Meg and Luka on my right. I couldn't escape.
"Now... Enough running. We haven't finished talking yet. Let's go backstage."
Kaito took a step toward me.
"Stay away...! I'm serious. Don't come near me!"
The moonlight from the large window in behind made the beautiful gold knife glint, and I squinted my eyes from its radiance. The rain had now stopped. I thrust out my left arm with the knife - the hour hand of the clock I myself had broken - turning to point it at Kaito. Gasping echoed through the hall. Kaito stared, and his Adam's apple twitched. The clock hand's sharp edge shined eerily in the moonlight. To think I would have to turn to this... I really was like a cornered animal. I noticed those tears that had flowed from my eyes had stopped.
While Kaito seemed frightened of my desperate threat, quicking regaining his composure, and demonstrating that such a thing wouldn't scare him, he slowly took a step... then another toward me, closing the distance. His cocky gait was almost predator-like.
I stepped back toward the center of the corridor with each of his steps forward, but I had nowhere to run. Looking back, I saw Luka and Gack furrowing their brows and blocking the path. As for going downstairs, I looked down the grand stairs to my right, and saw Rin and Len already in wait at the foot of them. My hand began to tremble slightly.
In a moment of negligence, the letter in my right hand, perhaps slipping away from the sweat, went fluttering down the stairs. Down below, Len carefully watching the others in silence snapped it up.
"We've got the letter!"
"I... It's pointless! Disposing of that letter won't change the truth!"
I tightened my grip on the knife by putting my empty right hand on it as well. No choice. I had to use this threat and run down there. Rin and Len... If I made a feint of pointing the knife at Rin, Len would likely panic and protect her... I'd use that opportunity. I turned the sharp point straight toward Rin downstairs. Her eyes widened, and she shuddered with fear.
"...!! Wait! Calm down! We can talk this out!"
Realizing my expectation, Kaito suddenly broke into a run and lept toward me. I was too slow to thrust the knife out, and he grabbed it in his large hands. But I couldn't have the knife, my last defense, stolen from me now.
"Drop the knife!"
I desperately shook my hands left and right to shake him off. Slowly, the others on the upper floor began to enclose on the two of us. Kaito yelled at them not to come any closer, as it would be dangerous if the knife flew off in the struggle.
"Let go! Somebody...! Help!", I shouted frantically.
Maybe the audience members were still waiting outside. If someone heard the clamor and came inside...
"Ooh, this isn't good. If someone comes by..."
"Come now, just calm down!"
"No! Somebody, HEEELP!"
"It's too dark to see a thing! Please, enough of this dangerous nonsense!"
He's going to push me down at this rate! I temporarily weakened my struggles and stopped resisting. At the same time, Kaito slightly weakened his grip on me. I took the chance to forcefully swung my body left. Unintentionally released from my hand, the knife sliced through his right arm, spewing a parabolic line of fresh blood. His face contorted in pain, and he faltered. I shook him away -
Rin down below screamed. I turned to my right and looked down, and saw Len desperately holding to the hand of Rin trying to run up the stairs and help Kaito. Len was busy holding back a panicked Rin... Now was my only chance. I put out my right leg to run down the stairs, but a moment later, Kaito grabbed both my wrists. With only his unhurt left hand, he tried to again immobilize me.
The stairs behind, and Kaito in front one-handedly holding both my wrists, I couldn't even budge my hands gripping the knife. We had a tug-of-war, but I found myself being slowly brought closer to Kaito. I saw Gack, Meg, Luka, and Meiko tensely and carefully approach Kaito from behind to provide him assistance.
"Give up... Come with us!"
"Why?! Let's just talk... Then we'll..."
Even after I'd pointed a knife at him and wounded him, those eyes I looked at head-on seemed to still trust me, and have deep sympathy. My heart raced. Why was he making such a face at a time like this...? Was this just another convincing act to tame me? I knew I couldn't be swayed and tricked, but for some reason, once again I... My closed tear ducts flowed again.
"...Who's the real traitor here?! I... I don't want to trust any of you anymore!"
Kaito shook with surprise. For a moment, the force in his hands slackened. And my hands desperately pulling backward were left with nothing to be pulling back against.
His large hand reached out in front of me. Four more hands reached from behind.
I met eyes with Kaito, whose couldn't be opened any wider. Reflexively, I thrust my hands, still holding the knife, out toward him. But I came just short of slicing anything but empty space.
The brief moment of falling down the stairs seemed to play out in slow motion, like being eternally subjected to a scene from an everlasting nightmare. I don't know if I felt any pain or such. As my senses faded, I only heard the sound of applause.
She lay face-up at the bottom of the stairs. Her eyes were hollow, and the tears around them gleamed in the moonlight pouring through the window above her. Plunged deep in her chest was the golden knife she wouldn't let go of to the very end.
Applause seemed to echo from somewhere, like it were a scene from a tragic play. Everyone stared at the horrible sight dumbfounded. There was a silence like the world had come to a halt around Miku's unmoving body. The moment felt like eternity.
"NOOOOO! W... What is this...? Tell me, what is this...?!"
The silence that could have gone forever was broken by a scream from Rin, followed by half-mad shouting from Luka.
"I-It can't be... Miss Miku..."
Meiko and Meg, followed by Kaito, came running down the stairs. Meiko got down on her knees near the fainted girl and took her wrist.
"Her pulse has stopped..."
Kaito looked at her frozen, at a loss for words. Behind them, Gack supported trembling Luka as they slowly went down the stairs.
"Quickly, we have to take her to a hospital! Her heart may be stopped, but maybe there's still time!"
Rin's head snapped up in response to Meiko, and she ran to the front door.
"I want to try CPR, but who knows what will happen when this knife is removed... But we have to try... It's too dark in here!! Someone, turn on the lights! And someone help me stop the blood!!"
Len briskly nodded to Meiko's instruction and ran down the hall. There was only the moonlight to go on in the dimly-lit building. Meg sat down beside Meiko, faltering slightly.
"It's not your fault, Kaito... She lost balance... It was an accident..."
"And we can't give up yet! Meg, there's a handkerchief I don't use in my pocket. When I pull the knife out, hold that firmly to the wound. I'll take over right after."
Meiko, who claimed to have a little bit of medical knowledge, nervously touched the knife in Miku's chest. She took a deep breath and slowly removed it. Meg stooped over the body, averted her eyes slightly, and prepared for the blood that would pour out.
The knife smoothly came out all the way. But strangely, no blood came out of the left side of Miku's chest. In fact, once the knife was fully removed, there wasn't even a trace of the wound, nor her clothes being cut through.
"What's going on...? No blood came out... Her clothes aren't even damaged... This isn't just a toy knife, is it?"
Kaito stood there stunned, and timidly grabbed the removed knife. To test, he touched the end of his pinky to the blade, and it faintly bled fresh blood.
"...Did we see it wrong? I'm sure I saw it stabbed near Miss Miku's heart..."
"It certainly was... I have good eyes. I couldn't have mistaken... that..." Luka spoke weakly from behind Meg, still shaking.
"...! Her heart?! .........It's stopped!!"
Meiko tried CPR and artificial respiration. Kaito, Meg, Luka, and Gack watched blankly. Meiko attempted CPR again and again, but Miku lied there totally unmoving.
"Please, please!! Miku, wake up!!"
The remainder of them could only tensely watch Meiko's desperation. Then Rin, who had run to the front door, for some reason appeared on the second floor and called to everyone downstairs. Her expression had changed; her eyes were open wide, and her face was stiff.
"Pant, pant...! Hey, something's weird here! There's no front door! And I thought this was the theater, but... It's not!!"
Having been distracted by the attempts to resuscitate Miku, everyone finally took a calmer look at their surroundings.
"Strange... Surely we were in the theater when we left the green room to go after Miss Miku...", Gack muttered with a sullen look.
"The lights in the hallway were out, so it was hard to see, but there's no mistaking we're in the theater! I could close my eyes and still make it to the room I was headed for!", Luka yelled, her unrest very evident.
"So then when...?", Kaito asked, regaining some of his composure and looking all around and behind.
"Well... I don't know, but I'm sure that this isn't the theater. Just look out the windows! The theater's smack dab in the middle of West End, right? There's no forest around it!"
Meg made everyone simultaneously look toward the large window above the landing. Outside, the wind howled through a dark forest of thick trees.
"Well, then where in the world are we...?"
"Hey, I brought a lamp! You've probably already noticed, but... This isn't the theater, and I couldn't find any light switches... in fact, there's no electricity. So for now, we'll use this..."
Len returned carrying a small lamp, and approached Meiko still performing CPR on Miku. Meg, helping out beside her, saw Len's legs illuminated by the faint light of the lamp, and after a beat, fell on her back with a yelp.
"W-What's the matter with you...?"
"M-M... Mr. Len, y-your, legs...!"
Len looked down at his legs. His knees, which had been trained up by lots of soccer playing, had beautiful round ball joints.
"Len! What's wrong?!"
"What the... What the hell...! M-My body...!!" He was too shocked to finish the sentence.
"No way...! You turned into an actual doll..."
Rin hurried down the stairs and unsteadily approached Len.
"It's you, right?! You're Len?!"
Len just kept shaking his head, still not able to talk from the shock. Rin started to put her hand to her chest like she was relieved, but her little hand stopped in air, and she slowly rolled up her black dress. The color visibly left her face.
"Even Rin...? No..."
Rin's scream echoed through the hall again. Rin and Len, both in bodily construction and in size, had been turned into dolls. The same size which they appeared to be via the trick of perspective used in act one... They reached up to about the hips of a normal-sized person. But everyone was too disoriented by Miku's death to notice it right away. Once Miku fell, Rin and Len quickly ran off, and when they were upstairs, a similar perspective trick induced the illusion of them being normal size.
"Miss Rin! Calm down!"
"No, no, NOOOOO!"
"Could, could this be a dream...? Is it the curse of Crazy ∞ nighT? Because of what we did..."
Everyone went silent at Luka's words. "What we did"...
"Because of us... Rin and Len turned into dolls... And we were taken to this strange mansion in the woods... A mansion just like the play describes. And Miku, who tried to condemn us for what we did, died..."
All fell silent. Even Meiko's hands repeatedly attempting CPR had stopped. Just then, something shined in the dark hall. From on top of an old wooden table, placed beside a clock right at the edge of the hall after coming down the stairs.
Kaito slowly approached the suspiciously-glowing object.
He delicately picked the object up in his hands and turned around. His large hands were holding a book.
"Crazy ∞ nighT..."
The cover indeed said, in faded letters, "Crazy ∞ nighT." A faint pale light like a crescent moon poured out from it. Kaito slowly opened the book. And he read the contents aloud for the others to hear.
""What a strange thing! They were inside the play, and made to act it out!""
Now, we find ourselves at the entrance to a certain story's world.
Let this narrator tell you a tale.
In a quiet, rural village, there lived a girl.
She lived together with her grandmother. From a young age, she had no father nor mother.
She distracted herself from her loneliness by filling her thoughts with imaginary worlds.
Her grandmother, seeing her do this, one day took her to see a play.
There, the dream worlds she had imagined all alone appeared before her with such realism.
Beginning that day, she became entranced by theater.
And soon enough, she came to dream of becoming an actress herself.
When the girl was fifteen, her grandmother passed away.
Now, she was left without a single relative.
No sooner had sadness come upon her than she left the village.
To fulfill her promise made with her grandmother... to realize her dream of becoming an actress.
Throwing herself into bustle of the big city, the girl toiled away.
In the time between work, she daily went to the theater... to see the Burlet Company she so aspired to.
One day, a miracle happened in that troupe.
A script that had much historical value to the troupe was found.
It was Crazy ∞ nighT, the script referred to as Burlet's lost libretto.
The news spread like wildfire around the world, and an audition was held for the lead part.
And by pure chance, the girl was chosen in the audition.
What a miracle... She joined the troupe, and began practicing furiously.
After much difficult practice, it was finally time for the main event.
She assumed her lead role, became the Villager who wandered into an eerie forest one night...
She was "appraised" by the strange inhabitants of a mansion, and enjoyed a "party."
A play that made a magnificent, celebratory night come true.
Act one was received superbly.
And then, intermission.
The girl picked up a letter left on stage after the show ended.
It was addressed to her.
There, it said something truly horrifying.
Unbelievably, the lost libretto had been profaned by the seven actors.
Naturally, this was an unforgivable act, a stain upon the company's history, reputation, and dignity.
She felt resentment, sadness, anger, and despair.
And at the end of the letter...
In the event that the seven's sacrilege were to be revealed to the world...
It was written that they would pin the crime on the lead role alone.
"Every part of it was all her scheme...
She did it all to ensure her name would echo across the globe as a miraculous breakout star."
...When she finished reading the letter, she was deeply hurt by her friends' betrayal.
And she thought... How can I right this crime they've committed against Burlet?
The answer she came to was: an apology.
After they performed the play to the end... They would earnestly apologize to the audience.
And her bracelet, a memento of her grandmother...
She would sell the Burlet-related antique, which she treasured nearly as much as her life.
She thought they might be able to raise money for the vast expenses spent on the play, and pay back all those who bought tickets.
But she couldn't know right away whether her idea would work.
She tried to propose the plan to the actors, but they wouldn't hear it, lashing out with attacks on her.
She couldn't fully believe in them... And they couldn't fully believe in her...
They were unable to search inside each other... And thus never exchanged their respective truths...
And it became the trigger to set fate awry.
Failing to convince the seven, the girl was branded as a traitor.
Her meager hope crushed, in the depths of despair, her love and trust became hate and disgust...
She solidified her resolve to fight against them.
The girl died.
Just like that... in the blink of an eye, the final curtain fell on the play she starred in.
The play would no longer be able to go on.
Because the lead was dead...
The seven actors grieved the unhappy death of the lead actress.
And they wished: let her death be buried away.
Yes, if only this tragedy were just a scene in a play.
...And then, something strange happened.
Her bleeding stopped, and even the wound had completely vanished...
Was her death stopped...? No.
The scene of her death was excised from reality.
At the same time, they noticed they were now in an entirely different world, one not their own.
Their bodies were no longer their real ones, transformed into those of the characters in the play.
The human roles became human... but the dolls became real living dolls.
The group was in a panic.
Then they saw a glowing script... yes, the one they...
No, the book you are reading now.
This is a fictional world born from the event that took place on this night, "her death," being buried away from reality.
A play world, where "her death" will be repeated over and over for eternity.
The world inside the script of Crazy ∞ nighT which they profaned...
Oh, the cruelty...!
We want to escape this crazed world as soon as possible!
We must get back to reality...!
...However, it suddenly occurred to them.
If they returned to reality, then that scene which dodged into a world of fiction in order to vanish from reality...
Would the buried moment of "Miku's death" not re-awaken and occur?
Time resuming would mean reverting the scene's excision from reality.
Upon all returning to reality, the next moment that arrived would be her death... that tragic instant.
Ah, what a conundrum.
If they stayed in this fictional world, the poor girl would escape the reality of her death.
By living in a world where the instant of her death repeatedly circled around...
But she wouldn't know of this repetition.
The memory of her death was contrary to this world where she was alive.
In this world, she would repeatedly be reborn without her memories.
Freed not only from her death in reality, but also from the fear of wandering this world's eternal moment...
She could likely be appreciative for her fabricated life.
But if they returned to reality...
A strict two choices.
Do the actors return to reality, and accept the moment of her death?
Or do they stay in the fictional world, and perform Crazy ∞ nighT for eternity alongside the lead role saddled with the fate of death?
Which will you choose?
Faced with such harsh choices, your faces must be stricken with fear. Poor you.
You must choose one or the other...
But is there really no other option...?
No one knows the answer to that.
But searching for one could be a bit of amusement.
After all, you do have plenty of time.
Even if a mind-numbing eternity passes in this fictional world...
In real time, it is only a brief moment.
When one writes "They spent an eternity there" in a book...
For the author, there is only that one moment of finishing the sentence.
But in the world of the book, it causes that "eternity in a moment" to exist.
Do you understand, now?
An eternally-lasting fiction... It's possible its repetitions could have interference on the real world instant.
This is a play world made from a single moment in reality.
All things... the world is bound by laws of cause and effect.
The connection between reality and fiction is not easily broken.
Even in this world, in lack of anything else, she will be drawn to her coffin.
She is influenced by the reality... guided to the EndinG of death.
But can that influence be obstructed?
There's a possibility.
Because this is fiction; a world of lies.
Here, time in the play will pass.
You, the players in this instantaneous world...
You make the time of this play, where she dies in an accident eternally.
But even if a play follows the exact same lines and actions...
It won't turn out exactly the same way.
By the accumulation of repeating EndinGs, irregularities are born, and it exerts an influence on the real world...
For this to be the case... is not inconceivable.
However, it may be a very, very distant dream...
Until, with the passing of ∞ time in the fictional world, a distortion is made in reality...
For how enormous a quantity of time must the same thing be repeated?
And all this repetition can change only a single moment of reality...
Just giving real thought to that hair-raising terror makes me feel like I'm going mad.
Because ∞ is not something humans can understand easily with just a glance at that symbol.
Indeed, it is more than their imaginations can even handle.
That is what makes it so beautiful...
For you to be taken by the madness of this everlasting night, despair, and abandon her to return to reality...
That, too, would be a perfect finish to this magnificent tragedy.
As long as the lead role exists, ∞ many EndinGs can be made to the story.
But "crazy" has a second meaning, does it not?
I am a member of the audience, hopeful that Crazy ∞ nighT will be a magnificent, outrageous night.
I will always kindly watch over your performances.
The scene of her death takes place, in reality, during the intermission between acts one and two.
The PagE describing it has already been ripped out, and sleeps in the coffins underground, along with your real bodies.
And this world was created at the same time that sleep began.
Your reality, too, is in an eternal sleep in the coffins.
To return to reality requires waking from that sleep and ending this world stopped in time.
To write on the blank End roLL the EndinG moment, to take the stopped, lost reality out of the coffins...
And to take back the buried scene of her death.
And fundamentally, it is the duty of the lead role to guide the story to an EndinG.
So at the start of act two, let us make the End roLL a blank letter, and leave it with her.
Of course, it is entirely up to you what will you do with her letter afterward.
Perhaps this too is an effect from the scene in reality...
To make time tick once more, you must use the clock hands.
There are two hands... Bright ones like yourselves should quickly realize their usage.
Now, I have a piece of advice.
To make this play more interesting... ahem, excuse me.
To better reward you for your brave will to put on this play for her... a suggestion from the playwright.
This is not an instruction, only advice, so you need not follow it exactly.
It would likely be better not to speak of the truth while she is around.
If she remembered the moment of her death from reality... that would be a very dangerous thing for this world.
She would notice the oddity of being alive when she recalls already dying...
And she would lose sight of her "life" in this world that keeps her alive.
This world is unstable, kept up by a balance of her simultaneous life and death.
Her becoming aware of her death would cause it to be confirmed as reality.
That would cause the absence of the lead from the story.
A story can't do without a lead, now can it?
With order lost, the world would crumble...
Yes, the laws of cause and effect are very delicate.
Terribly ambiguous, brittle, and easy to destroy.
The world is propped up by that single support known as cognizance.
So please, take care that doesn't come to be.
Now, as for your memories of the nights you're about to perform.
They will be stored as past performances, each a book in the library.
Among the many shelves, at present, there is currently only one book.
The events of tonight... First nighT.
This lost play that I never wrote...
Yes, I'm very much looking forward to seeing what kind of story you'll make it.
I'll be gladly observing, each and every night, to see what Crazy ∞ nighTs you put on.
Currently, we're still in the waiting room during the intermission.
Soon, the buzzer for act two will sound.
Have you come to an answer...?
Oh my, don't you hear that applause, coming from nowhere?
Well, open up that invitation and take a look.
I invite you, the cast, to a strange world where a moment lasts for eternity.
As soon as you open my invitation, into the ∞ play world you will go... ∞
- from the Mastermind
Kaito finished reading the Prologue. Everyone's mouths hung open, frozen like time had stopped. Meg was the first to recover from the shock.
"The "lost play that I never wrote"... the Mastermind..."
"Yes... Indeed, what we did was none other than sacrilege against him... against Burlet..."
After muttering self-derisively, Kaito faltered slightly. Gack quickly came to support him. Kaito only said "sorry," and fell silent with a gloomy look.
"A fictional world where that event a moment ago was excised from reality to be repeated eternally... And... it's also the world inside the play of Crazy ∞ nighT... right? And... it hasn't started just yet, huh..."
Since Kaito was still bewildered and in shock, Meg took his place and began to timidly summarize and analyze the situation, taking control.
"Yes... I can't imagine what kind of power he used, but... it seems he saved Miku, keeping her away from the reality we didn't want. That's why her chest is completely unharmed after being stabbed with a knife... isn't it?"
Meiko spoke with slight relief that Miku, lying down in front of her, was not necessarily dead.
"But this is a fictional world. We've been sealed here forever. And we have to perform as the cast of this play where she's the lead role, fated to die. While the Mastermind watches the nights we put on from who knows where..."
"Then... Then will we have to act in this play until we die?!", Luka shouted in terror upon processing Rin's line.
"...I don't think that's right. As long as we interpret this Prologue just the way it reads... Even our deaths in this world won't end the play."
"Huh...? What do you... mean by that, Len...?"
"I mean it won't end no matter who dies. It says it'll just keep repeating. It also said that time in the play keeps passing, right...? So there's a fixed amount of time to perform the play in. In that time, we have to act as the characters of Crazy ∞ nighT. Then when that time runs out, the next performance will start. And we'll act out the same story again... That's gotta be how it repeats. And the seven of us will remember all of that. But Miku will forget it each time..."
Len slowly put together his words with eyes shut. Luka went pale as she heard it.
"Act it out...? But what are we even supposed to do? And... if Miku happens to remember falling down those stairs... that she died... this world'll end..."
The way Rin aired her doubts was just the same as Len: closing off her vision and focusing on her thoughts.
Everyone went silent to think. They were trying to grasp the situation and determine what to do next.
"So what we did was sacrilege against him... Burlet... the Mastermind. And he was angered... Yes, that's it, isn't it..." Luka spoke absent-mindedly, with empty eyes.
"Because we fabricated a lie about finding his lost script... and made a fake lost play of Burlet's."
Rin hung her head and balled her fists up tight. Her right arm shook slightly. Gently holding her hand, Len spoke, seeming like he was trying to keep something in.
"...Look at this, the letter Miku picked up. It lies... it says that if the world found out about our deception, we were going to pin all the blame on Miku. Why Burlet would want Miku to see a letter like this, and include a lie that aims to push us apart, I don't know... but it's clear as day it was set up so that Miku wouldn't be able to trust us. But even then, she... she still believed in us, and tried to persuade us. And we... didn't even lend her an ear."
"It's all our fault... Miku didn't know, she had nothing to do with it, she did nothing wrong...! I'm sorry, Miku... I'm sorry...!"
Meiko held Miku's head, still on her lap, with trembling hands and screamed. The unending stream of tears from her eyes wetted Miku's immobile pale cheeks. Behind her, Luka standing there in a daze collapsed to the floor. Her hollow gaze looking out into space, she spoke through large tears.
"Ahaha... It's my fault... I was heartless to her, called her a traitor... I..."
The air was heavy with sadness, regret, and repentance, and there was only the sound of wailing and the intense rain outside. After some time, Meg again managed to be the first to open her mouth and move things forward.
"...Um. So this is a fictional world, not reality, right? Even Miss Miku in front of us is in the play... so then, if reality starts up again..."
Everyone gasped. Gack continued on in a pained voice.
"Miss Miku and we have both been sealed in this world forever. However, if everything written in this book is the truth, then all of us can return to reality at any time. But when we do..."
Gack hesitated, and the Doll Girl tried to continue from there.
"When we return to reality, Miku will..."
...However, neither of them could bear to say the next word.
Some looked down with dark, pale faces. Some shut their eyes to focus on their thoughts. Some appeared emotionless, like they weren't thinking about anything. The oppressive silence may have gone on for a minute, an hour, an eternity.
A neutral alto broke the silence. It came out listlessly, but with a hint of cheer. Len, who had been disoriented by the fact of becoming a doll, opened his mouth.
"Finally... we can perform the real Crazy ∞ nighT. The dream we always dreamt... as a genuine play made by Burlet himself."
The others thought about it and looked up toward him. As their gazes landed on him one by one, he wore an intrepid grin. There was no trace of fear or despair left in his eyes.
"Ahh, geeeeez... Len always beating me to it again!"
Rin puffed her cheeks, like a little animal who had them stuffed full of food, and continued.
"It's kind of embarrassing... But I've always really looked up to dolls. In this world, I can be a cute little girl forever! Isn't that pretty great? I mean, anti-aging is an eternal problem for women. Oh, and miss crybaby Lady? You better stop worrying so much. The stress might add to your wrinkles."
Rin winked at Luka with plenty of playfulness. Her lively voice called up a wind that blew away the heavy mood, and the despair slowly vanished from everyone's faces.
Luka, sobbing on the floor, quickly swept her hand to wipe her tears, and hid her eyes behind long eyelashes. Rin watched her closely with eyes of strong intent. Luka slowly stood up, put her right hand on her hip, and bending her head back slightly, looked down on her - her usual pose. With a bewitching smile on her lips, she shot a challenging gaze at Rin.
"Dear, isn't it a bit too soon for a little doll to be speaking about anti-aging? Especially such a childish one who's flat all over."
"Wha...! And here I thought you'd cheered up, but there you go again, Luka!!"
"What's that? Well, isn't it true? And I don't have a single wrinkle yet!!"
Meg intervened between Rin and Luka as they slid back into their usual attitudes.
"Aheeem, Miss Rin! I've always had the role of being the droll one who cheers the rest up! I feel like you keep snatching up the scenes where I'd have a chance to shine!"
"Huh?! Well, that's because... You're taking over Kaito's job!"
"Be quiet, Meg! So annoying..."
"You two are just right back to normal, huh... How mean! Look, Mr. Kaito seems pretty glum right now, so I figured I had to be the one to seriously move things along! ...In fact, I've been thinking, aren't I the more charming character?"
Meg assumed a pose of slumped shoulders.
"We've returned to the usual hierarchy... Ah, this speedy recovery is truly magnificent!"
"Heehee... It's good you can cheer up so quickly. Yes, it's no good to wallow forever... We must be positive now more than ever."
Gack and Meiko smiled peacefully seeing the three girls back to their ordinary interactions.
"Well, I know what you're saying, Meg. I mean, somebody's just being such a downer, so I can figure he's not in the mood."
Rin folded her arms and turned toward Kaito with her eyes still closed, then turned to Len. Len sighed a little, then scratched his head and spoke.
"...We've basically made our lives on performing Burlet's plays. For the Crazy ∞ nighT we created... we researched everything about where he lived, came up with an undeniably interesting script... thought of a perfectly dramatic way for it to be "found"... and almost miraculously, were able to select a lead that would paint it like a Cinderella story. We spared no expense creating a truly dramatic tale. We had regrets about it being sacrilege, and intended to carry the weight of that sin our whole lives... So we can't regret this perfect story on which the troupe's revival is riding. Except for one point... that we let her die."
Len shot an aggressive glance, like an animal ready to jump at any moment, toward Kaito, whose eyes were still closed.
Kaito slowly opened his eyes and spoke.
"Miku... our dear friend... won't be left to die."
The leader, who was nearest and felt most responsibility for failing to prevent her death, accepted his mistake and was determined to atone for it.
"You know, Kaito... None of us think you're at fault. We chased after her in the first place because of that quarrel in the green room. And if you trace it back, it's rooted in our forging a Burlet script... and the company falling so low as to need to forge a script... Argh, once you start thinking about it, there's no end to it!"
"You're right. But as a leader, I have a duty to protect this company, the culture of Burlet... and all of the troupe's members. And in this world, I'll make up for failing in that duty. And for failing to believe in her..."
"Yes... All of us will, won't we? We'll save her together. You're not alone in this. We'll earn back her trust as well."
The seven, regaining their firm unity, began to think about how to save Miku from this world. Kaito, with regained vigor, stood in the center and took back control from Meg.
"First, we must firmly understand the situation. Miku's death scene, the excised moment, should be sleeping in the underground room of coffins. Along with our real bodies."
"...So these bodies are really just fakes, huh? Good. It's not stylish at all to be a shorty doll like this. Though it is pretty interesting being able to turn my neck around."
"Oh yeah! I tried that too. Handy, huh? And it is pretty nice being young forever. Maybe we should submit ourselves to be played with!"
The two turned into dolls, despite having been markedly more worried than all the rest earlier, both joked around between Kaito's instructions. Kaito cleared his throat and spoke again.
"...Listen to me, you two. Now then... When Miku wakes, she'll have forgotten even coming anywhere near death. Then she'll act in this play as the lead, never knowing about the repeating world, meeting a new night every time. And each time, she'll forget it. Well... that seems better than remembering everything. Like he says, if you think about an infinite span of time, it's hair-raisingly dreadful... But still nothing next to actually dying."
"Each time we do something here, it'll lead toward her accidental death. But Burlet wrote that there might be a possibility of obstructing that, huh?"
"If so, perhaps we seven can be divided up around the mansion to stay at her side and protect her... To keep guard from assigned stations."
"That's a good idea, Luka. It's possible that contact with us will instead make Miku more susceptible to danger... But we can know those dangers in advance, so we'll be able to respond quickly if anything happens."
"Right... We'll have to come up with some other reason to be focusing on her, and make things as safe for her as we can."
"But... How should we act so that Miku won't realize we've been sucked into this strange world with her? Seems pretty hard. Do we just keep pretending we don't know no matter what she asks? ...I don't like it. It'd be like isolating her."
Though usually reticent and not particularly passionate except when on stage, in this state of emergency, Len was actively contributing to the conversation and displaying emotions he typically never did. Luka promptly voiced her agreement with Len.
"I think the same. I'd feel so bad having to keep it a secret the whole time..."
"Suppose we explain that we're all in the same circumstances. What do you think she'll ask next? "Why were we sucked into this world?", and "how do we get out?" How do we explain those? In the real world, we chased after you, and you died... And likely incurring Burlet's wrath, as recompense to him and you, we were made to perform in a play set just before your death... As soon as we explained the true story, reality would likely kick in again. And say we talk around Miku having died. She's not that much of an idiot... she'll surely notice the discrepancies. It's too dangerous."
"Yes, that would be much too risky. I'd like to at least fabricate a reason for her why we were sucked into this world... But one slip of the tongue would be the end."
Kaito and Meiko spoke in opposition to Len and Luka's opinion. Everyone saw they had to think in the long term and began serious thought.
"How about we act like... we were trapped in this fake script we wrote for Crazy ∞ nighT... and made into part of the play world, not remembering a single thing about reality? So we'll behave like the parts of our characters... Yes, WE'LL keep putTING on the ACT. If we think OF it as perFORMING a play, maybe we CAN get by withOUT any slip-UPS!"
"...I see. That's very smart, Rin."
Kaito nodded to Rin's idea, and the Doll Girl laughed happily.
"We won't make another mistake... Right, Len...? And Luka. It may be hard, but it will be the best way to protect her."
"Well, for me, it wouldn't be much of a personality change between play and reality. I can just act natural, can't I?"
"Um... That's kind of obvious! We intentionally made the script with characters similar to our roles to make it easier to act out!", Meg quickly retorted to Luka.
"If we seven are going to be the characters of the play... then we'll need to follow the course of the script," said Gack, stroking his chin and tilting his head in thought.
"You mean, we'll have to make it look like we can only move according to the script of Crazy ∞ nighT? But what we really need to be doing here is protecting Miku from death throughout the play, and attempting interference with reality... So it wouldn't really help to keep performing act two onward as the scenario dictates, would it? If we consider this mansion to have a link to the theater... It would be better to have Miku moving around here and there. Like earlier."
"...Rin's right. When we were chasing Miku earlier, it was hard to catch her with her running all over the place... and it's very likely she temporarily hid in a room then. Now, which room in this world would it link to...? Or if there isn't a direct link, maybe we should go general with interference...?"
"...Len, you're getting too complex for me. Make that bit less abstract so that I can understand, will you?"
"...Sure, putting it in a way you'd understand, Luka... I'm saying that even if years, decades, centuries pass in this world, it might not amount to more than a second in reality."
"What?! You mean..." Luka's mouth opened in wonder.
"But as an absurd amount of time stacks up in this world... it's won't necessarily amount to a useless moment. We can see what'll happen if we get rid of everything that poses a threat to Miku's life here... It might keep her from having to die in the real world. Just an example, but Burlet wrote there's a clock in this world too. We could keep destroying the clock hand that's a knife. It could overwrite the facts in reality and break the knife... maybe. But Burlet said we'd need the knife to return to reality, so scrap that plan. We can't destroy it."
"Wh... I see, yes... Hmm, so that's it, is it? Mhm, yes." Luka folded her arms and nodded with exaggerated motions.
"...Do you really get it? ...Anyway. Repeated interference with reality will cause feedback, and once it reaches a good point, we'll all use the keys to the ending to escape. That being the two clock hands, the letter Miku has, the script, and the coffins... Once we have everything, we'll use them in order."
"Hmm... Well, then we'll have to think up an effective scenario - and, um, one that's kind of apology-ish toward Miss Miku - for what Mr. Len's suggesting..."
Meg took the script from Kaito's hands and flipped through. The Prologue was what Kaito had read earlier, with the information written by the mastermind. After that, starting with Chapter 1, was the story of Crazy ∞ nighT, the script Meg had penned with the other six's suggestions.
"Difficult... If we're saying that we were sealed in the play's world, we must perform as the script dictates... As long as there isn't any kind of accident..." Gack again put his hand to his chin and had a grave look.
"...Accident, you say...?"
"Basically, we have to present a situation which convinces Miku that we're effectively fabrications of this world, created to be part of the set. We can't speak or act if it isn't according to the script of Crazy ∞ nighT. Our personalities, actions, everything has to be what's in this script. But that's super inconvenient! So if we could do something to ease up those rules just a tiiiny bit..."
"...Miku will remember the events of act two onward... If we don't move according to it, she'll get suspicious. What can we do about that...?"
Kaito summarized and explained Meg's point for easier understanding, and sighed with worry.
"...Say, there's something I'd like to try."
"Meg, can I see that script for a moment?"
"Huh...? Here you go."
Meg went over to Luka and handed her the script.
"Err... um... the page between acts one and two... was here, right?"
Luka's long, well-formed fingers flipped through the script. Upon reaching the page she was looking for, her hand stopped, grabbed the page, and forcefully pulled left and down.
With a pleasant ripping sound, the page was torn out.
No one could respond to the sudden action. The other six stared at her, faces frozen in deep shock.
"See, I tore it. Now even we... Ah, what do you know. We can't remember a thing about act two onward, can we?"
Everyone swallowed their words, too stunned by Luka's rash action.
"Ahem! Surely you can't have no reaction."
"...You really are a genius, I can tell."
Len's mouth twitched, and he gave Luka praise.
"Oh my! I feel rather nice, being called a genius by a genius."
"I-Indeed... By tearing out the intermission page of the script, then we, already subject to this world's laws, forgot it... And since we have to proceed according to script... We can't continue from act one, as we've forgotten the rest... But..."
"Sheesh! Luka, how could you not say a word to us before doing that...?"
Kaito and Meiko spoke wincingly.
"Because if I did, you might have tried to stop me. Wouldn't you? It's important to be forceful if you want to win big bets."
"True, that brilliant idea's saved us. Thank you. But next time, please talk with us first, won't you?"
"...Well, for now, thanks to Luka's, er... forceful epiphany, we have relative free reign to act in the play...", Kaito said with a hint of exasperation and a twitching face.
"What do we do with this page? Say someone stole it? Then I think we could move around as we like, but still with some restrictions."
Fast-thinking Rin quickly considered and proposed their next action.
"Aha... If we say someone stole the page, we can act suspicious of one another and pretend to look for it. But should someone carry it on them at all times, or should it be hidden somewhere...?"
"Kaito's the leader, why doesn't he carry it?"
"...Well, yes, but..."
"In the event that something happens to me, it would be bad for Miku to get her hands on the page..."
"Yes... Then we'll hide it somewhere where it will never be found."
"How about in a coffin with one of the bodies?"
"Ahem, Rin? That's just too disturbing. In a coffin, really...?"
"...Look! Me, and Luka... all eight of us have their real bodies lying down in those creepy coffins underground! We're just putting it with our bodies! There's nothing scary about it."
"Eee... I-I... I can't handle ghosts or specters or anything like that! No!"
Luka yelled, looking ready to cry at any moment.
"...Ghosts and specters are the same thing... Geez! Don't be selfish! And it's like Kaito says... There's going to be long, long repetitions... Something could happen to any of us. We need to consider the worst case scenarios... We even have to consider the chance of us dying. But if that does happen, this world is fake. Our final line of defense, the reality we're trying to protect, is in the coffins. So if Miku opens the coffins and returns to the real world... Then that story where she's really the lead... her life, will end..."
Rin's eyebrows lowered sadly.
"We could get away with her seeing our bodies, in worst case. But Miku's coffin, certainly not. Let's make that our last line of defense. Her simply getting the idea that she's already dead, or supposing this is the afterlife, would put the stability of this world in peril. Whatever happens... we'll protect Miku's coffin with our lives. And we'll hide this intermission page in the coffin with her real body."
"Great! Well, shall we get going?", Meiko said, pumping her fist in the air.
"Huh...? Mei-pie, you're going? Now? To the coffins underground?"
"Of course! Time is of the essence. And there's no point prolonging conversation here. Once we've seen this world with our own eyes... then we can make plans!"
Following proactive Meiko's lead, everyone decided to do a search of the coffins underground.
"Um... Well then, I'll go in front and lead! I already have a disgustingly exact knowledge of the play's setting, so I probably more or less don't even need to go... But yes, I am the one who wrote the basis for this world and drew up the mansion's layout. So let's go to that cellar, shall we! I wonder if that secret spiral staircase is there with the same trick and everything?"
Meg was the one to take the lead and guide the others. Kaito lifted up Miku and followed after. Everyone went into the hallway behind the stairs, turned right, proceeded ahead, and stopped in front of the wall-covering Twilight ∞ nighT painting that came into view on their left. Meg put her right hand to the left palm of the girl in the painting, the wall retracted into the forbidden room, and a spiral staircase leading underground appeared.
"I-It really...! It's a real secret spiral staircase... Oh my gooooosh!"
"...What kind of mechanism is this?"
"...You two are still such children..."
Rin and Len lept out first and ran excitedly down the staircase. Meg then began to examine the workings of the system, but Gack urged her that "going underground is our priority right now," and was reluctantly dragged down as well.
Everyone proceeded down the winding stairwell. Once they had gone rather far down, they finally reached a dead end with sturdy doors. For being made of wood, they were quite heavy, and Kaito and Gack remarked upon this as they slowly pushed them open. Through the doors was a room bathed in candlelight, containing eight coffins in neat rows. Without even having to open them, everyone seemed to know which one contained their body.
"I feel like it's calling to me... Ah, Len, is that yours on the left?"
"...Is this the strange link between twins at work?"
Each of them walked without stopping to stand before their respective coffins, as if drawn to them.
"...What about Miku...?"
Kaito, holding Miku in his arms, proceeded toward... the other Miku's coffin.
"...I guess when it comes time to open it, it is kind of scary."
"What did I tell you, Rin! Always such denial with you."
Kaito took off his jacket, threw it on the cold stone floor, and gently placed Miku down on it. Then he went to open the coffin. But...
"It won't open... Is it locked?"
Looking around the coffin's exterior, he noticed a long, thin hole. Len similarly tried to open his own coffin, found that it too wouldn't open, and stared at the side.
"Guess it needs a key. Something about the size of a thick card."
"A card? Where do you suppose that would be? If they won't open, then how about we leave this be, hm?"
"Sigh, Luka... If you're going to be like that, you're going to be left behind when it's time to leave this world," Len said bitterly as Luka remained visibly afraid.
"I-I don't want that!"
"Hmm... A key, huh...?"
Everyone wandered around the room in search of a key, and some closed their eyes and thought earnestly.
"Miku... still hasn't woken up, has she?"
Meiko put her ear to the sleeping Miku's chest and worriedly checked her pulse.
"Time still seems to be stopped for her..."
"Hmm. Maybe she'll wake up once we open up Burlet's invitation into the play and time here starts, like he said..."
"By invitation, could he mean the letter she has?", Luka questioned, now sitting next to Meiko and looking at Miku worriedly.
"Yes... Perhaps that's the invitation. We'll have to hide this torn page before opening that and waking Miku."
Luka slowly took the letter from Miku's hand.
"H-Hold on, Luka! Don't tell me... You won't open that yet, right? Right?"
Meiko's voice cracked in haste as she approached Luka.
"Of course not, I'm just looking. I was wondering if there was anything else..."
Luka began searching through Miku's clothes. In the pockets of her skirt, she found a handkerchief and the minute hand of a clock. The handkerchief was the one she had given Miku before act one. Luka stared at it in silence, squeezed it tightly, then gently put it back in her pocket.
"...Huh? Hey, come to think of it, where's the hour hand? Kaito, do you have it?"
"Hm? Yes, after pulling it out of her, I've been keeping it safe. Here."
Rin ran over to Kaito like she'd had a revelation, took the hour hand from his hand, and stared at it. Then she went over to Miku, and took the minute hand Luka found.
"...These are the ones from the real world. From the clock Kaito bought from that antique shop... after all that struggle to find the best one..."
"Miku broke the clock and took off the hands... Maybe it couldn't quite be fixed after act one, so she put these in her pocket to go ask Kaito about it."
"It's just, well... kind of scary, I guess. That this happening to Miku was... really just all by chance... Like we're just in the palm of an unseen god..."
"Accident, miracle, and coincidence are all the same thing in probability, Rin. And even if we're all in the hands of... some mastermind... it's a punishment we deserve."
"...You're right, Len."
"To burden her with the crime if the world learned the truth... We never planned such a thing. But the letter she picked up told such lies. It was intended to hurt her, and make her lose trust in us... and at the same time, not knowing she was made to think that way, we couldn't trust her either. I'm sure this must be punishment issued by Burlet."
"...If it is, it's certainly effective. I could hardly be more sorrowful, like my heart's been torn to ribbons... A superb payback," Meiko muttered sadly, lowering her brows and holding her chest.
"Payback... Yet, he's given us time to regret, and a chance to try again... Perhaps it may be a path to truly making this for the good of the troupe. This punishment... I feel it's not solely for the purpose of him watching and enjoying our performance."
Kaito put on a concerned smile. But his voice didn't have a hint of pessimism.
The small doll girl squatting next to Miku's coffin slid the hour hand into the keyhole. Everyone watched with surprise. The key wouldn't turn. Next, she inserted the minute hand.
"Ah... It opened..."
The click of a lock opening echoed through the room. Rin hesitated to take the lid off the open coffin. So Meiko beside her forcefully lifted it off. Inside was Miku, sleeping like the dead. Everyone gulped and looked between her real body and the fake one sleeping on the floor.
Meiko took out the minute hand, put it in the coffin beside Miku's, and opened the lid. Her real body was inside, the spitting image of her. She gently put a hand to the sleeping Meiko's cheek.
"Sleep just a little longer..."
Len took the minute hand to open his coffin and Rin's next to it. Rin joined him wordlessly, and they opened their coffins in unison. Inside laid their normal-size human bodies. With a look of sorrow in her eyes like finally returning home, Rin quickly re-closed the lid. Len's face showed no reaction, and he handed the key to Gack. Gack opened the coffins with the key, checked his and Luka's bodies, then Meg and Kaito checked the safety of theirs.
"I think we shouldn't come back to this room until the last night, huh?"
Rin lifted up her lowered head and spoke.
"We can't look too much and get homesick! I... I've decided, until that time comes, I'm not coming into this room again!"
Everyone reluctantly agreed, and went around locking the coffins with determination. Vowing to fight a ruthless battle in this world... The heavy sound of the locks reverberated against the high ceiling and faded away.
Kaito gently put the torn page near Miku's hand, resting near her chest. Everyone watched her peaceful sleeping face intensely while the lid was slowly closed. Then it was locked. To change the mood, Kaito took a big breath and continued managing the situation.
"Now, let's decide how we'll operate here. There's much to think about, but he did say we had plenty of time... So let's get settled."
"Yes, we must determine the course of our actions once Miku awakens," Gack emphasized.
"Hmm. When Miss Miku wakes up, she'll be made to think she's in this strange world, the world of Crazy ∞ nighT, and everyone but her has been absorbed into the play. Then we'll let Miss Miku know that this is a world that has to proceed to script, but a page in the middle was stolen! Then, uh... We say we have to find the stolen page and get the script back to normal... Yeah, just need a natural way to explain that. Hmm..."
Meg, diligently taking the task of summarizing in a way that everyone would understand, quickly explained how things would go down.
"...Given Miku's personality, if she wakes up and sees our bodies right away, she'll probably panic. "Why are you dolls...?" and all."
"Right... And if we hit her with a big impact like that first, she can quickly grasp the situation, and no matter what happens after that, she'll have a sort of tolerance. Like easing her in."
"Exactly, Rin. It'll be a big shock to her, but we'll have her meet you first upon waking up, numbing her with fear... That should improve her adaptability to this world. It may make it easier for her to avoid her fate of death."
"While we're pretending to look for the page, we'll have an excuse to search every nook and cranny of this world... magnificent. What's more, we can keep guarding Miku. I'd also think it wise to create a time when she can be left alone, and the rest of us can meet..."
"Good point, Gack. We can't know for sure if always accompanying and guarding her will be the best direction to head in. If events in this world and reality are linked, we have to expect that she will face danger many times. And we will protect her from that danger to the best of our ability. We'll slowly build up events of her being saved."
"Err, um, how is this going to progress, exactly? We should probably go around and see where things are, and grasp the layout in detail..."
"...Even if we were to hide away and do nothing, leaving her alone, the chance of her dying would be high... wouldn't it? While she's just walking around, couldn't she trip and fall down the stairs again?"
"Right. We can't know how probable that will be until we begin... But the stairs must be especially dangerous. True, even if Miku dies here, it's a fabrication... just a single part of a long-repeating night. But we're trying to change reality by the accumulation of those parts. So fake or not, we can't let her die in the play either."
"Then let's experiment to see how our actions may lower Miku's risk of death, and by how much."
"Yes. First, like Meg suggested, we'll thoroughly search this mansion... this set. See where everything is, how we can use it, what poses a danger. Once we grasp that, we'll consider the link to reality and try to keep her away from things that would lead to her death."
After Kaito took initiative to advance the discussion, the others chimed in.
"The elements involved in Miku's death tonight were extracted from reality. Those will be our way to cause interference with the real world. And I saw her on the foyer; that might be a clue, too."
"So, then... we should keep her away from the stairs, for instance? That seems rather difficult, doesn't it? We can't expect her to stay in one place."
"I suppose we should always have someone watching to protect her anytime she comes near the stairs."
"Aha... Well then, I'll take that duty."
"Eh? L-Luka?! Giving Luka such an important role... is that gonna be okay?"
"Rin! You're so rude! ...Ah, perhaps you wanted to do it, is that it? But oh, too bad. You're just a little dolly now. Are you telling me if she were about to trip down the stairs, you'd stop her? You're shorter than she is."
"True. Then let's leave the stairs to Luka. She has good reflexes and quick wits, so it's a natural fit for her. Always stand guard near the corridor on the second floor."
"Also, about the blank letter Burlet said she'd have at the start, where the ending can be written. It would be dangerous for her to use that to create an ending, so we should obtain it as early as possible."
"Hmm. In the play, she had the letter in her skirt pocket, so won't it be in her pocket when she wakes up too?"
"In that case, how about someone takes the duty of watching for a chance to steal the letter from her pocket? I'll..."
"...!! Yeees! Yes yes yes YES!! That important role shall humbly be fulfilled by I, the brilliant Doll Girl!"
"I-I suppose so... right, Len? Indeed, I too think it may go more easily with Rin. They're both girls, after all."
"...Fine. But don't mess it up, alright...?"
"Hee hee hee. Leave it to me, dear brother!"
"Also, the knife. This is the most dangerous of all... Someone should carry it, I think."
"Yeah... But if we consider the link with reality, these hands should probably stay on the clock, shouldn't they? Then when we return to reality, the knife will be out of Miku's hands, back on the clock, maybe..."
"But what if she notices the clock and takes the hands once again...?"
"The clock is near the bottom of the stairs. With Luka on guard around the top of them, let's also assign someone in front of the clock to strengthen defense of that area."
"The effects this world of an instant has on reality will be extremely minor, won't they? Even if we stop something here, can it really have a significant effect on the flow of time in reality...? I don't want to see that knife in her chest ever again..."
Meiko's face clouded remembering that tragic scene.
"As long as there's the possibility, we have to try it. There's definitely a risk leaving the hands out in the open like that. It'll catch her interest, and she might try to take them. But someone will be watching nearby, and they'll keep that from happening. No, all of us will. We'll change the subject to keep her from getting too interested, and make up completely unrelated topics that will have her interest more than the clock does. The stacking of these effects could also have an effect on reality."
"I'll guard the clock. After all, I'm sure my doll form will be scarier to Miku than anyone else, so it'll keep her away."
"Good point. All right, Rin. Any other opinions?"
Meg swiftly raised her hand to speak.
"Um, I'd like to test the possibility of a very minor distortion. In the time before she runs from us and reaches the stairs... I wonder if we can buy time to slightly move back the moment of the tragedy?"
"It's worth trying, right, Mr. Len?!"
"Yeah. And given the connection of the worlds, that might have a good effect."
"Ahem? You brainiacs are going on about incomprehensible stuff again... I keep saying, keep it simple for me! Teamwork, everyone!"
"Wow... Never thought I'd see the day that word came from Luka's mouth..."
Rin made a jab, but Luka paid it no mind and urged Len to speak.
"Right, well... When she was running away from us around the theater, we lost sight of her. Probably, Miku hid somewhere. It's clear there's a link between the theater's second floor and this mansion's second floor. So we need to find out where her hiding spot corresponds to here, and set something up there every night. Something that'll postpone the time of her running around."
"That's right! And if we can slightly lengthen Miss Miku coming to a stop, when she reaches the stairs after that, the point at which that moment occurs might be slightly delayed from the time axis in reality..."
Meg glanced toward Len.
"...Kaito was immobilizing Miku, and Gack, Meg, Meiko, and Luka were behind him. When Miku was about to fall, all five of their hands reached for her. We might be able to make it so that one of them was able to grab her."
"We'll slightly delay just Miss Miku's actions. That should be all we need to do. Then we'll be able to make our response happen quicker."
"...I see. So our goal is to, when we return, have it appear that we acted just in the nick of time?"
"That's right, Miss Meiko!"
"...Sure, all right... I more or less get it, I believe. So we're going to make her behave even more clumsily?"
"Well, I mean, you're not wrong..."
Luka didn't look entirely understanding, but came to her own independent interpretation. Meg was stunned, but affirmed it.
"So it's necessary that we inspect the second-floor rooms even more diligently."
"Come to think of it, that storeroom where Rin always hid to practice acting like a doll... That would be an ideal hiding spot. I was on the foyer near it when she suddenly ran out, so perhaps..."
"Ahaaa! That's just the right size to hide in. If Miss Miku was hiding there, then we should make a mess in the storeroom!"
"Hm? Why in the world would we?"
"If we mess it up, it'll be easy to enter, but take some time to get out of. That'll add that much more time. And that slight lengthening will slightly delay the time of her actions. If we do that, she should be a little bit delayed when we return to that instant in reality!"
"Then we'll purposefully make a mess of the orderly storeroom. And when one night ends, the next will begin. Likely, the storeroom will be back in order when that happens. But if this world is linked with reality, then messing up the storeroom every time may eventually have an effect on reality. And effects from reality will also show in the play. So if we repeat this, we should start seeing the storeroom a mess from the very beginning of a new night.
"Though as the playwright said, the extent of it may be "mind-numbing." Maybe all we can do is slightly offset a broom that was leaning straight up against the wall. And how many nights it will take to accomplish even that... and how long until we see if such interference is even possible, we won't know until we try..."
"It's still just a hypothesis she hid in the storeroom then. But it's possible...", Gack nodded, quietly listening to Meg and Kaito's explanation.
"Yes... We'll exhaust every potential possibility. What if she hid in one of the other green rooms? Or the nap room? In that case, we'll experiment with causing interference in all the possible corresponding rooms in the mansion."
"Well, then... We should assign duties for who will handle which areas."
"Um... There's no diagram of the mansion, but we've become its residents, right? We're already part of this world's workings. Even though we've never been here or even seen it... Yeah, try it, guys! When I try to think about it, I know where things are! I'd guess Miss Miku wouldn't know anything about the mansion, though, since she's not a resident. That's convenient! We can also tell how much time has passed in the play... Right now, yeah, we're still in the waiting room, not started yet."
"...! It's true..."
Following Meg pointing this out, everyone went silent, and focused to try and remember the mansion's interior. Shortly after, Kaito issued orders.
"Guarding the stairs and the clock downstairs... Luka and Rin will take their respective stations, as decided earlier. One person each will take the areas around the forbidden rooms leading underground on both floors. And there should be a good balance between those on the first floor and those on the second. Let's make it easy for people with nearby stations to make contact if something happens."
"We'll also need a time to discuss all together each night. We'll have to leave Miss Miku alone for that, so we'll have her search for the stolen page in the room least likely to cause her to die."
Kaito nodded to Gack's suggestion.
"It pains me to trick her... But we'll get results. So that we can interfere with reality from fiction, and set the gears of time in reality just slightly off..."
Everyone seemed completely unified to survive this world.
"...Burlet... He isn't mad about us making our own "lost Burlet play," I feel like."
"You can take this as just a convenient interpretation, I don't care... But if he were really mad about what we were doing and wanted to stop it, he would've stopped us way before it came to this. I don't think that letter appeared immediately after act one. Maybe what made the letter appear was our elation over the success of act one? Because we were talking about how, if we got in financial trouble again, we could do the same thing... And... if the letter hadn't contained that lie about intending to falsely accuse Miku of our crime, maybe she would have been swayed by the plight of our suffering troupe, and joined us in our crime.
"So maybe he left that letter to Miku so that, before we made the same mistake again... we'd have a chance to talk, Miku included, about whether it was really okay to keep going like this. But... Nah, of course he wouldn't feel good at all about us forging a play he never even wrote..."
Len spoke meekly, and started to shake slightly. He seemed to want to express his feelings of regret for betraying Burlet, whom he respected unceasingly. Gack beside him squatted down to meet the small doll at eye level and silently patted his shoulder encouragingly. Kaito watched them and responded with a vexed look.
"...True. We were all ecstatic about act one's success. We ignored the weight of our crime, and... discussed doing it again, if it succeeded. Getting a taste for it, we'd make another forgery... and I'm sure we would have done it..."
Nodding to Kaito, Meiko and Meg added their own opinions.
"This is a good place for us to reflect. There's plenty of time here, above all."
"Maybe we were about to lose something important that made us who we are. We might have gotten a little cocky..."
Luka smiled bitterly.
"...My, well, we'd have to ask Burlet to know what he really thinks. If I were him, I wouldn't be able to impede people desperately trying to protect my company and works. Indeed, we only did it because we had to, to keep the company alive. We respect him; it's not as if we wanted to profane him purposefully. So he must have understood that, and continued looking on. But we went too far. Hinting at the possibility of another forgery... This letter was meant to prevent that from happening."
"He left us a sliver of hope..."
Kaito was slightly taken aback by Gack saying the word "hope," then continued.
"Yes... Certainly, if we had trusted Miku and listened to her... and if she too had believed in us more than the letter, and shown it to us... surely the future would have been different."
"We were a step too far apart as we sounded each other out... And an unbelievable tragedy came of it. We should see it positively; that Burlet gave us plenty of time to reflect, and a chance to redo the past so Miku can live into the future."
"That's right! Well said, Meiko! We'll reflect lots, and reach a future where Miku doesn't have to die... It'll be a happy ending!"
"...Rin, you say that with a smile, but it won't be an easy road, you know? We haven't the foggiest idea what things may happen in this world. Miku's life will be in constant danger. And while we're watching on tenterhooks, we'll also have to act distant. If our feeling sorry for her makes us carelessly give in and tell her the truth, it all goes poof in an instant. And even if we reach that happy ending, once we're back in reality, we'll have to handle announcing the truth of our forgery, and many other trials... and will that really get us Burlet's forgiveness?"
"Um, Rin, Luka. Burlet not being mad about our forgery is just my theory, okay...? Take it with a grain of salt. I just have to think of it that way, or..."
"It'd be too scary to handle, right? I understand, Len... We're all scared. We've finally realized the weight of our crime and our fear. We have to toil away in this world, or it won't be very good repentance. I'm prepared for it."
Kaito put a hand to his heart and spoke like making a prayer.
"I wouldn't call it atonement... But I can only hope she can have the slightest peace in this world..."
It was time to decide.
Everyone had solemn, serious faces as if performing a holy ritual. Each of them had their last thoughts on the reality they didn't yet know when they could return to.
"Ahh, I'm starving. I'll have to do without super-spicy foods for a while... Such a sad thing."
"...Miss Luka? You were talking all cocky and earnest before... Why are you bringing up a topic like that now? You're ruining the serious mood! Well, that's fine... We'll all go eat spicy food together when we get back to reality!"
"Haha... If it's just a little, I might give it a try."
"Kaito... If you go overboard and your lips swell into sausages again, I warned you. Heehee..."
"The food Miss Luka suggests is indeed delicious, but... it's all so magnificently spicy... I must prepare myself."
"Meals aren't a battle, Gack. ...I'll pass, thanks."
"Don't say that! You're taking the challenge alongside your sister, brother!"
"Ahem... You don't have to force yourself to come along. Truly, I'm the only one among us who can even eat such things! I... I'm inviting Miku, and we'll go just the two of us! I've never invited her out before... but I'm sure she'll love it. Of course, this is if we get back safely..."
Luka folded her arms and blushed. Everyone looked down at the sleeping Miku with kind smiles.
"Don't worry. We'll return someday. With Miku... all of us."
Rin spoke with a superbly cheery smile. The letter in Miku's hand faintly glowed.
"...Let's open the letter. When she wakes up, it'll be the first scene of act two..."
There was no hesitation left on their faces. Meiko slowly opened up the envelope.