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[Volume 2 has an identical Glossary to Volume 1 and the same maps of the mansion. However...]

Character Introductions

Miku
An up-and-coming actress in the Burlet Company. She was chosen to play the lead role of Crazy ∞ nighT, the Villager, after her audition.

Doll Girl
A bright and cheery, yet foolish doll girl with ball joints.

Doll Boy
A cynical and cruel living doll boy with ball joints.

Master
A gloomy noble with a hobby of collection. The owner of the mansion in the woods.

Mistress
The Master's wife. A boozehound who loves tea and conversation.

Lady
The adoptive daughter of the Master and Mistress. A selfish girl.

Maid
A girl who works for the Master. She makes mountains out of molehills.

Butler
A youth who serves the Master. Overly serious, like a solid mass of common sense.

——

Chapter 8: Discrepancy

First nighT

One night, when the wind blew fiercely, seven actors celebrated a play.
It was a very joyous party. Then an eighth woman, a friend of theirs, visited.

The woman said she had found a letter speaking of a sin the seven friends had committed.
And that she would reveal their secret...

The seven were bewildered, and indignant.
Because they had important business they had to carry out, sin or not.

The actors blamed the woman. They said that revealing that secret would be to betray them.
But the woman stood her ground. She insisted that she was in the right.

She gave up on the quarrel and attempted to leave, and the seven tried to stop her.
But the woman stood her ground.

Negotiations failed to resolve satisfactorily.
At last, the woman produced a knife she happened to have in her pocket and threatened the seven.

The seven faltered.
However, by this point, they would not give in either.

If the truth within that letter, their sin, were revealed, all their efforts would be in vain.
There was a dispute and an ugly scuffle... and then.

Perhaps it was a prank played by the goddess of fate... To her, miracle and accident is all the same.
How easy the gears of tragedy begin to spin.

The woman tumbled down the stairs.
Once she reached the bottom... the knife was plunged into her chest.
The woman died... And what a tragic death.

The actors pitied her unlucky death and grieved.
And they thought this.

"If only this tragedy we see before us were the same as the plays we perform, the first scene of a fictional world...
Oh, if only time could come to a stop."

But the play of her life, where she was the lead, had already come to an end.

And so they decided to consign her tragic death to oblivion.
To hide everything in the theater's secret cellar, inside a coffin... ∞




Sweat ran down my fingers as I turned to the final page. The thick book filled with words... Every time I flipped its pages, the words jumped out at me as if being typed directly into my head.

"I... know this... I know it!"
"HM...?"

I clearly remembered now. The events of "First nighT" were exactly those of the nightmare I'd had this morning. Seven men and women were gathered for a party, one came late and made an statement that caused an uproar, tried to run while still in discord with her friends... and died doing so. The dream I saw certainly went up to there. But if this book was the same as my dream, then had the seven tried to cover up her death afterward, and hide her corpse in a coffin? In a room underneath the theater...?

"It definitely is the same as that... No doubt."
"As WHAT...?"
"I had a dream this morning. When was rolling around in bed and couldn't sleep... I forgot all about it until now. But now... I can vaguely remember it."
"ReMEMber?"

"What's written in this book. Eight men and women... and seven of them chased one of the women, and she died. I think it was an accident, but... I feel like it could be interpreted as them killing her, too."
"Eight ACTors...? Just LIKE us, huh?"
"..."

Yes, exactly the same. The script of Crazy ∞ nighT, and this world. What connection did they have to my dream and First nighT? Was my dream a premonition...? Or...

"But WOW, so you can reMEMber DREAMS that clearly... We DOLLS can't even DREAM, so we WOULDn't know. Even remembering the NUMber of PEOPLE in your dream..."
"...I don't dream very often, so I don't know if that's normal or not..."

"Was it really SEVEN chasing THE girl...?"
"Yes..."
"RealLY? Good JOB rememberING that number. Since you don't SEEM that SMART, miss VILlager."
"Agh..."

"Hey, WHY do you reMEMber? Did you SEE everyONE's faces? Their VOIces?"
"...No... I didn't see. Or, well, maybe I saw them, but I don't remember now. I can't remember at all... Or what their voices were like, either."

"HMM. But LET'S see, if you counted YOURself as someONE in the DREAM, then SUBtracting yourself, it would be SEVEN people... or NOT?"
"Eh?"

I focused my thoughts on my memories of the dream again, but... As I thought, I wasn't going to remember anything more about it. The Doll Boy was looking at me seriously, not a hint of teasing.

"I think... I wasn't looking from anyone's viewpoint in particular in the dream. Like, if it were a play, and I weren't sitting in the audience, but was still close to the actors - that was how close I seemed to be. So if I included myself, it would actually go up to nine, maybe...? I'm not really sure. That's about all I can say about where I was watching from... Dreams usually aren't from one view anyway, it's like... a weird, ambiguous string of points."
"I SEE..."

The Doll Boy put his little left hand to his chin and went "hmm," showing that he was thinking.

"...You SAID you couldn't rememBER any faces or voiCES, but... Do you THINK they could have been OURS?"

He tilted his cute little head to the side and grinned slightly. But while the look in his eyes started out as slightly curious, as if that curiosity had changed into a greedy tenacity, he now looked at me obstinately with a hint of madness. His gaze was so sharp and cutting, I found myself turning away to escape it. If I were caught deep in those eyes... I felt like my heart's deepest secrets, ones which even I didn't know, might be exposed. My dried-up throat finally moved.

"...Umm... I don't know. I mean, I don't remember anything at all about the people in it. I only remember that... the person who died..."

Yes, I remembered that the woman who died was called the "lead role."

"...was the lead ROLE?"
"...!"

Why did he know that? The book hadn't said a word about that...

"If the LEAD died in the middle of the PLAY..."
"..."
"...Do you THINK the story would END there?"

I hesitated, having no immediate answer to the question. Generally, the lead wouldn't die in the middle. If the lead were to die, it was left for the finale of the story... and only when the ending was a tragic one. In the case of a book, there would be no one left to tell the story, and certainly in a play, it wasn't common to keep going on and on after the lead died. The common reply was that such a thing wouldn't be interesting.

"..."
"You DON'T know? I guess YOU are a little slow, AREn't you, miss Villager. That's a GOOD quality for a LEAD, though..."
"..."

I wasn't sure if the cruel doll was complimenting me or insulting me.

"The LEAD usually won't DIE. If they DO, the STOry will end there. But THERE is a way to keep GOing..."
"There is...?"

"Yes. IF... the lead can be rePLACED. If the lead dies, BUT the baTON passes to the NEXT lead, it's FINE. Then the STOry goes on forEVER."
"Replace the lead...?"

"You SWITCH the lead, and it beCOMES the story of the NEW lead. Doesn't THAT happen all the time in THE human world? HIStory... Everyone writes EVERlasting stories of inheriTANCE. If the lead DIES... Just look FOR someone ELSE, and bring them IN as the NEW lead. And you should KEEP quiet TO the new one aBOUT it. That's just NATUral. For NEW people to keep focusing on OLD, endED things, that's UNnatural. Those stoRIES aren't interesting. There's noTHING weird about moving to a new lead's CHAPter in a story, eiTHER. If it's a play with eight PEOple... You prepare a NINTH."
"A ninth..."

Look for a new lead, and bring them in. In place of the lead who's passed on. A ninth person for a play that only needs eight... I was stuck on something here. The person in my dream who was fated to die and enter a coffin... Just who was she...?

I unconsciously brought my hand to my chest. The time remaining in the play had gone down a little more. What now? There's no time. I have to hurry and do something. Do what? Right, the page! I had to get out of here and search. And think...!

"There's one MORE good thing I'll TELL you."
"Um, I should..."
"You don't NEED to be in such a HURry."

"Don't hurry...? But, the performance time! It's way past halfway gone, so I can't just..."
"And if it does RUN out? Will we go aWAY?"
"Huh...?"

"Sure, THE us of NOW will go away. But that's only the END of THIS play. It can conTINUE again another NIGHT."

Another...? The Doll Girl had said something similar. "Today will go on." I wondered what it meant. I looked the Doll Boy in the eyes, and his gaze said "Come with me." This time he walked to a bookcase on the opposite side of before, to the right from the door. He scrutinized a few of the thick books, but seemed unable to find the one he was looking for. As usual, nothing was written on the bindings of any of the books, so it was hard to search.

After watching him look for a book from behind for a while, I noticed one of the teddy bears elegantly sitting in a leather armchair was holding a book. What a strange sight. I approached and looked at the book. The title was Bad ∞ End ∞ Night.

Just flipping through the pages, it was the same as before; the words flowed direct into my thoughts like a muddy stream. The waves that those words comprised crashed hard against my mind. The unexpected shockwave nearly carried away my senses with it. The final wave withdrew, and I turned the last page, then let my hands down powerlessly. The book collapsed upon the deep crimson carpet.

"..."

A tempest of emotions swirled in me, and I was at a loss for words. This had to be... some kind of elaborate joke, right? I hoped it was.

"AhHH... I was going to recomMEND something less inTENSE first..."

The Doll Boy approached me carrying a small stack of books in his hands. But after being swept up by that wave of words, I was just barely hanging on to a boulder along the bank. I wouldn't be surprised if I were swallowed up by such fierce rapids. I was giving all my might to cling onto this small, unreliable rock to not be swept away. I had no time to piece together the swirling words. With trembling hands, I grabbed my shoulders.

The actress playing the Villager was suddenly sucked into a strange play world, and was greatly confused. While running around the mansion looking for an exit, she found a cellar. And eight coffins. This frightened her more than ever, and she tried to run, but the seven inhabitants of the mansion... no, the seven actors who were once her colleagues and friends, persistently chased her. Only the actress playing the Villager knew that this was a play... She couldn't get through to them; her friends had gone mad. She ran all around the mansion, but the others chased the Villager until she came to a stop. Convinced that at this rate, she'd also be killed and put in those coffins... the Villager remembered that the hour hand of the stopped clock was a knife, and she -

"Lies... This is all lies... I don't remember this at all... This isn't me!"
"...MemoRY is a BORing book. Its pages won't alWAYS be open..."
"...No way... But..."

"If this TIME ends, there is still a NEXT time. It goes ON and ON. FORever..."

Forever. This play world... the one I thought I'd been suddenly trapped in after picking up that strange letter on stage... Had it actually already repeated again and again? Was that "Bad ∞ End ∞ Night" merely a single act of the repeating night...?

"These BOOKshelves are quite a MASterpiece, aren't THEY...?"
"...!!"

It couldn't be... all these books without titles on the bindings. Were all of these bookshelves that filled up the walls of the room...?! No...!!

"Then, First nighT, too...? Is that..."
"Wrong. THAT one is difFERENT. That didn't HAPpen in this play..."
"..."

"If you DON'T remember anything, well, it's BETter that WAY..."
"Huh...?"

I couldn't see the Doll Boy's lowered expression from here. His gaze was different now... this boy who only came up to around my hips. It was nearly the same look as when he'd held that blue bouquet and teased me. Not like the other him.

Did they remember, I wonder? That this night had repeated again and again. I was the only one who knew this world wasn't reality. And yet, had I also been the only one to forget that it repeated again and again...? And what did it mean that First nighT was the one book here that wasn't an event in this play?

A bright light flashed in the room, and I was dazed for a moment. This room had no windows. I turned toward the entrance, and the door which the small boy had surely locked earlier was slightly open. A flash of lightning had come in through the large window at the end of the hallway.



I left the library, and still in a daze, went down the stairs. I went behind the stairs to the hallway between the entrance hall and the living room, turned right, headed straight ahead, and after I passed guest room #1, to my left I could see the hallway that had that giant wall-covering painting. I paced quickly without stopping, as if being drawn in by something. I proceeded ahead listening only to my own footsteps.

Right as that Twilight ∞ nighT painting entered my vision and I glanced toward it - the Master appeared at the end of the hallway. I was certain he was still checking the second floor rooms he was assigned; why was he so far from them...?

"Hey. Can you lend a hand? I want you to look in the stockroom on the first floor."
"Err..."
"It's not a very big room, but it has a lot of things. Ideal for hiding something. It might take a little while... but search as diligently as you can. The others are finishing up their last rooms, it seems."
"Are they, now..."

"So, were you headed somewhere?"

His question made me ask myself why I was standing here right now. Hadn't I been headed to the study on the second floor to look for the Master...? But when I left the library and absent-mindedly wandered in no particular direction, I ended up way over here... as if my destination had been the Twilight ∞ nighT painting. Why in the world...?

"...I was just walking around trying to find someone..."
"I see... All right. For now, I'd like you to go to the far stockroom. Once you're done, meet up in the study upstairs and report. I'm in the middle of informing everyone right now."
"...Understood."

As the Master instructed, I promptly headed for the room in the southeast corner of the first floor. It was a rather widely-built storage room.

By now, I'd noticed how most objects were just background for the play; "papier mache," so to speak. For instance, the vase of white lilies on the glass table on the living room which had looked so real. It looked exactly like real flowers in a vase, with water. But it had no properties beyond giving the impression of "there's a vase there," so you couldn't even take the flowers out of the vase. As I searched through the stockroom filled to the brim with such props, I began to predict that I wouldn't find that next page. My busily-moving hands gradually came to a stop.

I probably should have asked the Master when we met in the hallway. Why hadn't anyone told me this world was repeating itself? Did everyone know that? Or was it just the Doll Boy assigned to the library who happened to find out? Why hadn't we searched people's bodies in our search for the page? Why had we found no sign of the next page after all this searching?

I read some of the other books the Doll Boy brought from the shelves, besides that repulsive Bad ∞ End ∞ Night one. They were all events I had no recollection of. But I suppose they were Crazy ∞ nighTs that had been performed. If I were to take the Doll Boy at his word, then I... then all of us had repeated the script of Crazy ∞ nighT a mind-numbing number of times. And in the books he showed me too, as expected, everyone was searching for a stolen page, just like now. But there wasn't even a single one where the page was found in time...!

"I'm... always alone, huh..."

Everyone had forgotten the real world, and they were made part of this one. As much as I tried to tell them that fact at the outset of this absurd act, they didn't seem to comprehend, every time. Which meant it was really only me who was trapped in this world, wasn't it? These people were just fictional creations of this world, and the real ones were elsewhere... Yes, still back in reality. It was just me who was invited to this world as a guest... as the lead role.

In that case, I think I could understand why only I lost my memory every time. If everything but myself was papier mache, and even the characters were purely fake, then I wouldn't even have to feel lonely. And that horrid book that I dared not even remember...

That Bad ∞ End ∞ Night - I absolutely wouldn't believe that it was something I had actually done. Even if they were fakes, how could I kill them... kill my friends with my own hands?! I opened my clenched hands in front of my face, staring at them hard enough to bore a hole. I had absolutely no memory of it. But when I closed my eyes, I could faintly picture my hands being stained in blood.

It was just my imagination, surely... a spineless weakling like me could never do such a thing. I shook my head to knock it out of my brain, but the intense and ghastly image wouldn't go away easily. Guilt crept up on me for something I hadn't even remembered doing. My throat was completely parched.

This wouldn't do... I would go mad from my suspicion, guilt, and self-hatred. I needed something to change my mood and calm me down just briefly... Something to calm my heart...


"Our maid's tea is truly superb. It just calms your heart, doesn't it?"

Suddenly, the Mistress's line crossed my mind. After she repeated it three times word-for-word, like brainwashing, it was well-ingrained in my mind. Yes, tea...! But... I remembered the principles of this world. Only the Maid could make tea. The Villager, a guest, surely couldn't go to the kitchen, boil water, and make her own tea. That said, I didn't feel like tracking down the Maid now and having her make me some. My mind was still in disarray; I didn't want to meet anyone.

I had to do something to recover from this crushing unease, no matter how small... I understood now, just the tiniest bit, how the Villager who'd enacted Bad ∞ End ∞ Night must have felt. This mental state I was in was very dangerous. So much had happened in one night, and I had no one to share it with, to consult with, to depend on... That situation had actually lasted far, far longer than I even knew, and each time I would forget... learn what I forgot, and forget again... all that on loop. I never knew when madness could creep up from behind in a moment of weakness. Even my own self, the only one I could trust since coming to this world, was someone I couldn't help but fear.

The Butler had said that the world is what we perceive. If so, then myself and the world I was perceiving now were real. But then, were "real" things which were separate from my perception, and long since forgotten, no longer real? I'd forgotten acting out Bad ∞ End ∞ Night, and while I'd been told now that it had once been real, I couldn't accept that; so had it become fake? And so had the real world...

While ceaselessly turning over my memories since coming to this world, I suddenly remembered. When I was talking with the Butler, hadn't there been just a little bit of wine left? Alcohol would do fine. I could drink a little to brighten my spirits some. I hurried for the wine cellar.



I creaked open the wine cellar door. The Butler wasn't there. Where had he put away that not-yet-empty wine bottle...? I searched for the single bottle with just a bit of real wine among all the fakes.

"...Here it is!"

I found the minuscule amount of wine which was barely enough for a single glass. But I didn't hold my drinks well, so just this could get me pretty drunk. The bottle had been re-corked. I took a nearby sommelier knife, screwed it into the cork, and slowly twisted. Once the cork was out, an aroma like fresh roses wafted out.

There were no glasses in the cellar. I was hesitant to go to the kitchen, on the off chance the Maid or Mistress would show up. It may have been bad manners, but I would just drink from the bottle. No one was watching. I held it in both hands, head it up above my head, and turned it downward.

For an instant, there was roaring thunder that seemed to shake the whole room. The low roar rang out with such exact timing as to seem like it was trying to stop me from doing what I was about to do.

"Yahhh!"

Frightened by the surprising sound, I spilled the wine.

"Ahh..."

Yet another blunder. I only wanted the slightest chance to get away from my depressed and desperate state... But even that wouldn't go as I wanted. Ultimately, I only felt worse. Not even being bothered to sigh, I looked at where it'd spilled. Some was on the stone floor, and some had stained my skirt a little. As I reached for the handkerchief in my pocket, I noticed that letter inside had also gotten a bit of the wine on it.

"Ah... The letter got stained..."

It was thinly dyed with the color of the wine. And was it just me, or were the wine-covered areas actually a little whiter than the faded brown paper...? I brought my eyes closer. But actually, it hadn't gotten whiter - the paper itself was giving off a faint light.

"This is...!"

The same as when I was about to take First nighT in the library; the book had faintly glowed for a brief moment. And it surprised me enough to make the stepladder fall. Why was it shining...? What if there were some common point between First nighT and this letter? I remembered what the Doll Boy said: that First nighT wasn't part of this play. Then from its title... I could make some predictions.

Perhaps that book wasn't
a part of this fictional world, and had been brought in from reality... Or perhaps it was the events written in that book which took place elsewhere - in the real world. Yet it had some kind of connection to this world... If the common point between First nighT and this letter was "the real world," then what if the letter was the key to returning to reality? If it could be used as the "End roLL," like the envelope said, then maybe it could end the play and lead back to reality!


My downtrodden mood was suddenly lifted. If I could write an ending about returning to reality on this blank sheet, what would happen? For instance, if I wrote "The play ended, the actors regained their memories and bodies, and they all returned to the real world"... Would it really happen just like that? Or else, no, we would have to perform as the mastermind who sealed us in this world wanted us to, and write the ending that way; and no matter what we wrote, we wouldn't get back to reality.

If the laws of this play world were in effect, then what was written in the script was absolute, and everything and everyone acted accordingly... Well, I would just have to give it a try to find out. Okay...!

I dipped my right index finger in the pool of wine on the floor and drew lines on the paper. But this time, it didn't glow. As a test, I wrote in short words, "All went back to reality," but alas, nothing happened. Maybe it wouldn't start to take effect until this was put in as the final page of the script. Or else the words written with the wine were too light, and having to strain your eyes to make them out wouldn't do. Or maybe even it had to be written with something like a pen. I didn't know how it worked, but if I tried all the possibilities, then maybe...

But... What if I failed?

All the information I'd gathered since waking up would go back to a blank sheet. Would I forget everything again, and repeat the same actions? I'd wake up in an unfamiliar place, realize I was sucked into a strange world, be overcome with panic and fear... Then the others who had forgotten themselves and been made part of the play would appear... I'd despair, and vow to help bring everyone back to reality... In the middle, I'd learn that this world was repeating again and again...

Every detail of the night wasn't guaranteed to happen the same way every time. A single one of my actions could change the entire outcome; it had resulted in a different ending each time. After countless nights, I'd finally found a major possible hint toward returning to reality, so I didn't want to fail here.

I have to save everyone...

There was still time. I put my hand to my chest to check; about two-thirds of the play had elapsed.

In the back of my mind, I pictured everyone's expressions I'd seen since being sucked into this world. It was possible that they were always part of this world, and thus completely fake from the beginning. But no matter what, I couldn't think of them as mere fabrications.

There were many instants where their actions, words, and expressions overlapped with the habits of their real world counterparts. So they were the real ones, who in being adapted into this world's systems, forgot their real names and other memories... This seemed like the most likely explanation to me. Thus, the only one who could save them from this crazed world of night was me, Miku, the one who hadn't lost sight of her past, true self. In order to prevent another Bad ∞ End ∞ Night from taking place here... I had to firmly believe in Miku, in myself.

I wiped up my wet skirt with the handkerchief. The brand new one I'd just gotten from Luka. But now that I'd learned that I'd already spent ages in this world and had just forgotten about it, I saw the new handkerchief as already being worn out. How strange... Of course just knowing the reality wouldn't make any physical changes. I knew that it was only my mind that changed. Yet... I couldn't believe how different an impression it gave me.

The light green leaves were dyed the pale color of the wine. The formerly pink roses sucked up the color, looking like they were in full bloom. I had to wash this once I got home... I squeezed the wet handkerchief tight, carefully put it in my pocket, and stood up.



To gather clues about ending this play and returning to reality, first, I had to know the whole picture. There were many books in the library, and while there could be hints piled up in all those past events... after a bit of hesitation, I shook my head. I didn't have time to read them all one by one. Right now, it was better to make the most of the possibilities on hand, and solve the mysteries in front of me. I had to investigate the points of interest thoroughly...

I proceeded right down the hallway after leaving the wine cellar, and on my left appeared the forbidden room outside which the Twilight ∞ nighT painting hung. When I left the library in my dumbstruck state of mind and wandered, I somehow found myself drawn here. There had to be a reason for it; I'd forgotten about how long a time I'd spent in this world, but surely my body remembered.

When Meg poured me milk tea for the first time here in the living room, I was certain my hand slipped and dropped the teacup, but that didn't actually happen. Surprising even myself, I took the hard-to-hold cup skillfully and without hesitation to drink the tea. That odd discrepancy... it was caused by my memory loss. My body remembered, but my mind forgot. So my mind would think "why?" about subconsciously natural actions it had forgotten. In that case, I could stop thinking and let my body carry itself to hints I had gathered in the past... Hopefully.

I gazed at the Twilight ∞ nighT painting on the wall thoughtlessly. My right hand, seeming to know the truth of it, reached out toward the left palm of the girl dancing in the middle of the painting, which was faced forward. Since the girl was drawn life-size, it looked somewhat like I was putting my hand against a mirror, she on the inside and I on the outside. Then I noticed there was a slight indentation on that palm, and as if trying to enter the painting, I leaned in toward it.

There was a sudden clunk of movement, and I pulled my hand away. Was there a switch in the indent on her palm? The wall slowly and silently receded back into the "forbidden room." When it was finally done, a spiral staircase leading to the basement appeared. So this forbidden room hadn't been a room to begin with, only a secret spiral staircase.

I peered at the dark stairwell. Lamps along the wall provided faint light. A gentle breeze blew up from below; maybe the basement had ventilation of some kind that led outside. Still leaving it to my body, I went down step by step. Just how deep did this go...? The long staircase went on so long, I couldn't even tell how much progress I'd made.

After walking for a while, large doors appeared before me. The old wooden doors were definitely heavy, but putting all my weight against them made them slowly creak open. The musty stone room was bathed in light by lamps around the walls. Going inside and looking around, I found many coffins. I fearfully counted them.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven... eight.

Eight coffins... I approached the one positioned way at the back and slowly put my hand on the cover. But appearing to be locked, it wouldn't come off. Same for the coffin beside it, and the one beside that... I checked every one, but none would open. A loud, discouraged sigh reverberated in the quiet room.

At this point, I came back to my senses.

Thinking about the unconscious actions I'd just done, I backed away from the coffin in front of me. I'd tried to open these coffins. When I let my body take over, in an exceedingly natural way, it checked each and every coffin, longing for something inside them. Like something inside the coffins was drawing me toward them...

While this could have been connected to a hint regarding returning to reality, since I didn't remember anything, I was hesitant to open these closed coffins without any clear aim. I was glad they were locked... it was a good thing they didn't open, I thought with deep relief.

But at the same time, a vague intuition that I had to open these coffins quickly began to swirl in my head. The two thoughts mingled, and I pondered what to do for a while. But either way, the coffins seemed to be locked, so they wouldn't open for now. A cursory look around didn't turn up any keys or anything, either.

Amid the books I read in the library, there had been no mention of opening these coffins. The Master had divided up the rooms to everyone and told them to search diligently for the next page, but for some reason he omitted this room of coffins, not even bringing it up. Did the others want to hide this room's existence from me, the Villager? Was that a natural part of their role as the mansion's residents? In fact, in past scripts, the Master had told me to stay away from this area, saying it was dangerous. But I had a feeling there was something important hidden in these coffins. Like it said in the First nighT book...

"But the play of her life, where she was the lead, had already come to an end.
And so they decided to consign her tragic death to oblivion.
To hide everything in the theater's secret cellar, inside a coffin... ∞"

A secret cellar with coffins; in First nighT, it only said that the dead woman was being hidden. But here there were eight coffins, all carefully locked... On the side of each coffin was a thin, rectangular hole I supposed served as a keyhole, that looked about the right size for a thick playing card. Was there an item that was a perfect fit for this somewhere in the mansion? Would I have to search for that, too, in the short remaining time?

For now, there didn't seem to be anything more I could do in this underground room. I turned on my heel, headed to the entrance, and put all my might into opening the heavy doors again, this time pulling. Then in the corner of my eye, I noticed a thick wooden bar for the door leaning against the wall beside it. Aha, so the room could be locked from the inside. Should I use this latch? I went and looked at the other side of the doors, and saw no keyhole or way to lock them from outside.

After thinking about it a while, I decided to leave the heavy doors open. Having to open them again would take up time. I left the room of coffins behind and hurried up the spiral stairs. Before I went looking for the key to the coffins, I'd meet up with the others. I hadn't even come close to finishing the Master's request to search the stockroom, but surely the next page wouldn't actually be there... so I felt.

There was something more important for me to report: that there might be a hint leading toward the ending in these underground coffins. And everyone was told to meet in the study and report as they each finished searching, so who knows, maybe someone really had found the next page. We were pressed for time, but there was still some hope. If we all brought together our knowledge, surely... we'd be able to manage something. Trying to keep in my hopeful excitement, I hurried up the grand stairs in the entrance hall and made a beeline for the study.



[+]

Chapter 9: Betrayal

When I reached the study, the door was slightly ajar, and I heard a voice from inside.

"Come, Len, you know it's forbidden to take her into the library. Won't she find out?"

Those words I overheard without even attempting to made my right hand freeze on the door handle. That was the Mistress's voice. And she said something I shouldn't have possibly heard. Had I misheard it? The voices in the room echoed off the tell ceiling, wood walls, and floor, reaching slightly outside as well. I brought my face near the gap in the door and peered into the room. The seven had already gathered. They were scattered around the room, keeping their distance from one another. The room was dim, so I didn't think they could notice me.

The Mistress stood next to the fireplace on the far left side, the Lady sat in the big sofa in front of the fireplace, and on the right was the Butler gazing out the window. Sitting in two armchairs closest to the door were the Doll Twins. Right and ahead from the door was the Maid sitting in a chair pulled out from the desk. And in the center of the room, under the extravagant chandelier, stood the Master with arms crossed. Everyone's faces were stern.

"Don't be rash. Focus on the performance, all right? It'll be bad if she opens those coffins."
"I just thought it might have some interesting "effects" to tell her. And there were some things I wanted to ask her directly..."
"And what if that put her on guard, hm?"
"...Look, I said "my bad.""

"Geez! Len, are you reeeally sorry? I was listening to you two talk outside the door. You told her some pret-ty risky stuff, you know... You nearly spilled all the beans!"
"...Thought there was someone there. It was you, huh?"
"Yep! AlWAYS have to KEEP my eye on you!"

"There's been so little excitement... Why not cut loose a little from time to time? There's no way she isn't going to notice we're all getting tired of this. This... silly play business."
"That's cutting it a little too loose. We're all taking this seriously. I'm glad Rin at least refrained from following up on what you did. But on the off chance something happened..."

"Meiko's right! I was passing through the hall, and I thought something was up with you two upstairs, so I just went to take a peek! And then what do you know..."
"...If you're going to preach, there's way more valid targets than me this time. Like you there - all gloomy by yourself, not taking part in the discussion. Getting so flustered... That was one convincing act."

"..."
"...Miss Lukaaa? Are you okay...?"
"...Eh?"

"Everyone's reports will influence the course of things. Luka, I'm sure you're exhausted, but you're a dear friend to us. Won't you tell us what's wrong?"
"Kaito's right, Luka. Keep your head up! What's that gloomy face about? If you have concerns, we can talk them out."
"...It's nothing, really."

"...You're just depressed about your crude performance, aren't you? "Maybe this is the afterlife"... If I were in charge there, I would've instantly made my exit after such a dangerous line. But isn't it fine that you managed to fool that idiot anyway? Of course, I would have easily seen through such a novice act..."

"W... What did you say?! Len... Who do you think you're talking to, here?"
"...To our star actress. But I have the better resume, don't I?"

"Yes, Mr. Len does have more experience than Miss Luka, and quite a lot of talent! And good looks, too..."
"...Meg, are you trying to pick a fight with me too? Don't get so cocky, you big-headed slowpoke!"

"W-What does that have to do with this?! You're terrible!"
"You're always the most useless one of us, even when we were chasing her! You're just a pokey turtle! Is your head too heavy with all that useless knowledge?"

"Now, calm down, everyone! This is no time to be fighting. We still don't have the letter, after all..."
"Yeah, guys! I can understand your haste, but... Well, there isn't much time left, either..."
"...Isn't your blunder the reason we're all hasty, Rin?"
"Wha..."

"It was your job to steal the letter, right? If you can't do that, how about passing the job to me?"
"I-I can...! Just, that time I... the timing was... not the best..."
"And wasn't it the same thing the time before that? Failed because of "bad timing." If you can't handle it, I'll do it. We can't have you dragging us down."
"...!"

"Hey, Len, cool it. Rin's tired, too. Girls are more delicate than you might think, you know...?"
"Ahahaha... Very funny. From that harsh look, I thought you might have a put-down like that, mister "feminist.""

"...Um, Len..."
"...We all fall to exhaustion sometimes. It's got nothing to do with gender, Kaito. If there's any reason for it, it's being in this crazed night."
"Len..."

"Crazed... Yes, it certainly is, isn't it. Len, you weren't so talkative in that world, were you? You were always putting on that cool pretense. Well, but I couldn't usually tell what you were really thinking. But you really fit right into the role of that ill-speaking doll, don't you, cute little doll boy? Have you just turned into the real thing? Hahaha..."

"Luka, you settle down too. You two never used to fight like this... Look, we can't be blaming and finding fault with one another. Let's have your reports first. One after another, everyone."

"Sigh... All right! I'm getting pretty tired of it, too... Sure, it's for real world intervention, but I've made the same royal milk tea more times than I can count. It's aaaaalways the exaaaaact saaaaame thiiiiing. I could make the same flavor with my eyes closed!"

"Ah, that's right, Gack. You left her alone instead of keeping watch, didn't you? Once your intervention was done, you were supposed to bring her back here. But because you left her, she went to the hall first, and Rin's preparations were delayed. That much could be predicted from this world's laws - if you leave her alone, she'll surely be drawn toward that place. You have to keep an eye on her..."

"I'm sorry, Miss Meiko. Indeed, it was rash of me. However..."
"...?"
"...I know I'm not the only one who feels these methods are lukewarm."
"..."

"What... You too, Gack...?! Len, what have you said to him?"
"Like I'd bother with that. I just did what I wanted to do."

"Len, Gack, don't disturb our teamwork. There's a risk of everything going to waste with a single misstep. Until each of us produces results..."
"Haven't I gotten results? I've experimented with those stairs again and again. And this time, the timing was perfect! I feel we're almost there."

"Don't get ahead of yourself, Luka. We can't speak with certainty yet, even if we are gradually getting results. If we can't see it through to the end... there's no point."
"Don't you see all that excruciating overprudence would go out the window if she happened to notice? Len, Gack, you're being a bit more forceful, aren't you? It irritates me, but I have to praise Len for that. Not that I intend to cooperate..."

"Mr. Len, Miss Luka, and Mr. Gack on Team Force, versus Mr. Kaito, Miss Meiko, and Miss Rin on Team Calm... A three on three, huh! And they're pretty evenly-matched... This is shaping up to be a good game!"
"Meg... There you go again..."

"Miss Meg, that's a bit forceful of you to put me "Team Force." I just thought I'd try something a little different..."
"Of course the mystery nerd would act like a detective and take a moderate position... Must be nice to be so carefree. Like Gack says, I wouldn't go that far. We were just experimenting. Better than the rest of you, huh?"

"Mr. Len! I'm doing my part too, you know? I'm watching all of you in the most neutral way I can! A play needs a part like that, doesn't it?"
"It certainly does... if this were merely a detective story. But if we all want to cooperate together, we don't need a neutral party."
"That's naïve, Miss Meiko! It's impossible to ask this many people to all be thinking the exact same way!"

"Meg! Have you forgotten everything we practiced? We've always worked together..."
"That's right, Rin. Meg and Len have been throwing off our teamwork lately."

"Speaking of "everyone" and focusing on the whole... certainly, there's a point that it disallows making use of our individual talents. The assembly of individuals may appear magnificent, but when it becomes a group, it can lose the ability to demonstrate its full potential..."

"To think I'd hear that from you, Gack... Look, can we all just take a break? We're starting to go mad here."
"I'd love to do so, but... unfortunately, we don't have much time for it. We've less than a third of the time left. How worrying..."

"Hey, Kaito... What are we going to do? Guys...! Hey... Is this my fault...?"
"It's not, Rin. In this play, we can't speak of whose fault anything is."

"...Oh, can't we? Seems far worse to keep up that pampering. Sometimes a scolding is in order."
"Len, you've been going too far lately. You should..."

"Ahh, at a standstill again! Always goes like this lately. Maybe Team Force is right, we should change up our methods? Besides, even if no one said anything, if one of us really showed her the lett..."
"Meg, enough. And the rest of you. Enough of this discord. ...At any rate..."

"AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!"

Suddenly, Luka burst into laughter. The quarrel came to a halt, and everyone stared at her. Giving off a momentary aura that monopolized the audience's gaze, she had a deranged smile. I felt the illusion that a spotlight was fixed on her. Such overwhelming charisma... Just as her laugh was making me wonder if it would go on forever, it came to a sudden halt, and she fell silent like a wind-up doll stopping.

"Luka...?"
"Ahh, how funny..."
"..."
"...I hate this play... I HATE it!!"

She stood up and swung her left hand at a vase of roses on the table in front of her. The glass shattered with an ear-splittingly shrill sound and water pooled by her feet. The blue roses slept painfully on a bed of scattered glass shards. Silence lasted for a while. Finally, with a slight wheeze, she slumped powerlessly to the wet floor. Her trembling hands went to cover her face, and she screamed painfully.

"Putting on this same night... again and again... this play that no one's watching!! I've had it, I don't CARE anymore! ...I want to go back to reality, now! To my stage, where the audience is...! You all want that too, don't you?! DON'T you?!"

No one opened their mouths, and hard-striking rain echoed through the room. If the rain was pouring harder, then the clouds should have thickened too, yet for some reason the moonlight was brighter than before. A large branch outside the window would sometimes be slammed into the window by the wind, making an irregular sound like someone knocking from outside. I put my hands tight to my chest, as if to silence my pulse pounding amid the silence.

"Luka... What are you saying? See, we really ought to rest. I've said it again and again, but you're surely tired. Don't push yourself..."

Meiko spoke worriedly to break the silence, approached Luka as she stared hollowly at nothing, and held out her hand. Luka continued to gloomily stare dumbfounded into space, and looking as if she didn't understand why there was a hand there, spoke.

"...What? I just honestly said what I was thinking. The thing that everyone is thinking deep down... I said it for you, as a representative..."

"...A representative? Well... I would be lying to say I didn't think that too, a little. I can't help but pine for the beer I had on the foyer. And sometimes I have such a craving for those cheese sandwiches we often had for dinner. I'd love to have one of those fun nights drinking cheap beer and partying again. But... Not alone. Once everyone returns together, I want to do that with all of you."

"Meiko... I agree. Listen, Luka! Did you forget that vow? We've all worked hard together. We've finally made it this far..."
"Of course I haven't forgotten that abominable night... Even if I wanted to, it sticks in my head like it only just happened. It makes me just want to forget it all at this point... like her. And just go mad... A crazy night... Just like the title says!"

"What?! No, what I meant is..."
"Looking at it as an overall play... the decadent beauty of such an ending could be considered a perfection of the art form. Quite magnificent."
"Hey, stop it! Don't say that, Mr. Gack... Hey, Kaito!"

Rin stood up, ran to Kaito in the center, and clung to his left arm. A common sight... I always saw her clinging to his arm, like a child clinging to a parent. In her small doll body, she could barely even reach his arm. He stooped down slightly and patted her head, saying it would be okay. His hand nearly covered the Doll Girl's head. Rin had the same scared look as when she showed me the stray cat she picked up.

"Miss Luka, you're pretty weak-minded, huh? Giving in to something like this...!"
"Because I'm not a dunce like you. I bet you could get on just fine by yourself, trapped in a place like this. Shameless... You love it, don't you? This crazed world..."

"It's not like I like this at all! Sure, I enjoy reasoning and making up stories in my head, but really..."
"..."When they actually become reality, then no thanks," hm? Well, you seem to get quite a kick out of it, considering. ...I've been thinking. Could it be that you... You..."

"I tell you, I'm not having fun at aaall! I just know it's a necessity to put on a droll character in such a gloomy situation..."
"...Droll character, huh... More "oddball" than anything, aren't you?"
"You too, Len?!"

"Ahaha, you said it. All the scripts you write have characters like that, don't they. They help keep a good balance. But don't you think always striking a balance that way is a bit lukewarm... a bit boring? True art, you know, is much more piercing!"
"...!"
"...I favor that viewpoint, too. Going "too far" is just right. Any less, and nothing gets through."

Meg bit her lip regretfully at Luka and Len's comments.

"My, so you feel that way too, Len? Yes, we don't like always thinking with our heads. Following intuition, our natural senses... that makes us feel alive. We're simply not suited for something so dull as "working together to accumulate results" in the first place!"

Meiko grimaced and admonished Luka.

"...Luka, I know... no, we all know you've been cooperating with us. Please, don't trample on those memories any more..."

"...True. Then we'll all go mad together."
"If we're going on about this, we already have..."
"I kinda noticed at the point where Mr. Gack stopped chiding me for my slip-ups..."
"...Back in reality, I never once got into an argument with all of you. How bizarre this has become. But... it's not bad."
"Stop... Stop it... Guys..."

"Ahahaha! Yes, we're mad! All of us, already! Ahh, how funny!"
"Hey, Luka! Stop this right here."

"Say, Kaito, did you always have such a melancholy face? All your usual seducing has gone poof, just like that... You used to be so moonstruck year-round. But now, you're the strict master of the mansion... Always with that bored, brow-furrowed face of grief. Maybe it's become no longer an act. Or perhaps... you can't fight your blood after all? It was the slovenly womanizer who was just an act to drop our guards... and this is how you really are?"

"...!!"
"...Oh my. Was I right? So sorry."

Kaito's right hand which he held out to chastise Luka came to a stop, and he stared as if caught in a lie.

"...Well, then it's a good thing you have such a fitting role, Miss Luka. Your selfish attitude just got an upgrade, and you're more malicious than ever. Now, you might be perfect for a lead villain!"
"...Look who's talking."

"A lead villain? Well, that's just peachy. A villain is always in a powerful position. Why, villain or hero, it's all the same! To play a part is to become someone who isn't you... And to do that, you need to deceive everyone around you... even fooling yourself, yes?! For so, so long we've fooled ourselves... and long forgotten who we really are! Oh, the COMEDY!! AHAHAHAHA!"

Luka again opened her mouth wide and laughed loudly, her eyes filled with madness. A string stretched to its limits had snapped. That triggered everyone to hurl slander at each other; by the end, they even scorned, refused, and abused themselves. Lurking behind a beautiful and orderly facade was something that would never be shown on stage: their true faces, uncouth and human. How filthy and ugly it was. As I watched this repulsive scene, my eyes and ears were fixated on them, like I was bound to my seat.

"...You look pale. Luka, someone will take over for you, and you can get back to your room for tonight..."
"Oh, I'm fine. We'll put an end to this now... Yes, we'll put an end to all of this, this whole night!"

Luka yelled with eyes open wide. Everyone froze with surprise at the mention of "putting an end to this." Silence fell again. Rin, who'd watched the fight anxiously while clinging to Kaito, slowly stepped toward Luka.

"...Hey. Do you really want to make all our effort go to waste? That's just foolish. I misjudged you, Luka..."

Rin stood at the same height as Luka sitting on the floor, and met her deranged gaze directly. Unlike when she was afraid, her face now had a cold look, and emitted a threatening aura hard to imagine from her small body. The two stared each other down, and Luka was the first to turn away. As if readjusting her posture, she sighed loudly, stood up, and spoke looking down on the small Doll Girl.

"...Rin, always playing the good girl... But I know you can't help feeling lonely either. I know you want to escape from here..."
"It's been hard for me, and my body's turned into this... Some of it's more than I can bear. But everyone else is here, so I can't give in yet, can I?"

The Doll Girl's little hands moved to grab something hidden under her collar.

"Hmm. Well then, could you live here your whole life?"
"Well, I mean... I'm sure someday..."

"That locket... You're always talking at it with tears welling up, aren't you?"
"!! W-What are you talking about..."

Rin's shoulders shook.

"My station is the second floor corridor and stairs... I can see you down in the hall easily. Whenever she's not around, you're always squatting and talking into it... "I can't take it, come help, I'm sorry"..."
"...! I-It's not like dad..."

"...My, so it was your father. It was too far away for me to see the photo inside. So you want your father to come save you? Ah, but... who knows if he'll even come to see the likes of you!"
"...hh..."

Rin's face visibly went pale. She trembled, and her small hands covered her face. Gradually, she started to breathe heavily, like she'd just run a marathon.

"Miss Rin!! Are you okay?! Please, breathe slowly!"

Meg instantly responded and held Rin up as she looked about to faint.

"Ahh, so even that doll body can hyperventilate. How fuuunny..."

Whap.

A dry sound rang out. Meiko had walked up to Luka and forcefully smacked her by the left cheek.

"Too far. Don't you know things have limits?"
"Heehee... Oh, ouuuch. It really hurts... like it were real!"
"..."

Meiko and Luka stared at each other quietly. Luka grinned in desperation, like nothing mattered to her anymore, and Meiko didn't even try to hide her intense fury toward her. It was an explosive situation.

"Ahaha. I haven't seen Rin be talked down like that in a long time."
"...Len. Enough of your teasing. What good will it do to bring us even further apart?"

Meiko reprimanded Len for his joking comment on the tense situation between the two, keeping her stern gaze. She was said to have once lived a rough life where she would answer to any fight picked with her. Now, she was the most concerned for those around her, and tried to mellow the situation, but if the quarrel escalated into a scuffle... she would probably be the victor.

She glared coldly at Len. That glare must have been congatious; the temperate in the room seemed to drop. Even I, hiding outside the door, trembled a little. Her anger was frightening. But why was it...? The angrier she got, and the more the others quarreled terribly, an indescribable exaltation welling up from my heart. I felt like I was watching an amusing play.

"Scary...! But I'm not particularly trying to drive anyone apart. Ahh... I see. So that's his aim..."
"His what...? Are you trying to give me the slip?"

"No, no. I don't have any intent of causing discord between everyone. I'm just doing what only I can do. Maybe doing the same thing over and over for an absurdly long time has driven us mad. But that seems obvious, given the situation. No matter how tough your mind is, when you're in a situation like this, it's more bizarre to stay sane. So now, things are finally getting interesting."

"Hah... Sounds like you want a whack too, do you...?"

Fires of rage burned in Meiko's eyes. She turned her body toward Len and took a step forward, but a little hand grabbed it. Rin, who was still breathing roughly, looked up at her silently with tears in her big eyes. Seeing this, the flames died down, with nowhere to go. Meiko took a deep breath to calm herself.

Meg, stroking Rin's back from beside her, took the chance to ask a question.

"Um... Mr. Len, you said "his aim"...? Who do you mean?"
"I mean the mastermind. Stories need action. A play that's all lulls and no conflict, all comfort and pretend friendship, is just boring, isn't it? He's watching as close as he can get... There needs to be more excitement."

Len slowly stood up from his armchair and moved to the center of the room.

"...I've been thinking about this a while."

The Doll Boy's round, glass-like blue eyes wavered eerily in the soft orange light of the chandelier.

"The mastermind... He's really among us, isn't he?"
"Huh...? Mr. Len, what..."

"The one who invited us from reality to Crazy ∞ nighT... The one who wrote the invitation letter that night... The legendary playwright, Burlet."

The words directed at no one in particular made the remaining six look up toward Len with a start, faces full of surprise and fear. Everyone froze like stone statues watching his mouth, waiting for his next words. But for some time, he didn't have them.

Kaito regained composure quickest, and spoke in a serious tone.

"...What do you mean, Len?"
"I always thought it was strange. That night, it was just us eight there. No one else. And now, too... it's just us."

My heart jumped. Did he know I was out here, hiding behind the door...? I held my hands tighter and shut my eyes.

"That's right. Though I was the last to come in... That night, too, everyone else went home before us..."
"But... We're talking about someone capable of truly strange things. He wouldn't necessarily look like a normal person, even. Maybe he can, say, make himself invisible at will. Or maybe he's not human at all? Like a ghost... or a supernatural being."

"...Maybe. It's clear he's not just an ordinary person. But it's also a fact he existed as a human in the past. Though... then, too, his face, personality, age, lineage... Most information about him was hidden. But I feel something else amiss besides that. I've been feeling like someone's watching me up close... with the perspective of an audience member simply enjoying the play."

"An audience member... up close? You say you sensed them watching?"
"In that letter, the mastermind wrote: I'm always watching the play up close. But they didn't say from where exactly. Say this were a world inside a book, and they could just turn the pages whenever they wanted... viewing us from the outside world. I considered it might be a very detached kind of viewing like that. But..."

Len came to a stop to think. Then he put his left index finger to his lips, and turned his gaze right and down. He looked toward the blue roses Luka had knocked off the table earlier, sleeping restlessly on the white sheets of the shattered vase.

"If it were me... If I were the mastermind, where would I watch this play from...? ...I would slip among the actors, become one myself, and watch as I performed alongside them. That would be most enjoyable..."
"...!"

A heavy silence fell with Len's suggestion, and time seemed to stop.


The mastermind is among us? Burlet himself...?!

Time, temporarily stopped from fright and tension, resumed with a sigh. Kaito, the oldest, had been raised to become a leader, so he could regain composure from even the most shocking events.

"Your intuition is often correct, so it scares me... But could you tell us what evidence led you to think that?"

"...Sure. When Rin started hyperventilating, and Luka got slapped by Meiko... I felt it. When you put on a good play, a sense of delight and excitement comes from the crowd... something completely different from the excitement from a fight. An emotion full of pure expectation and curiosity... and I'm sure I sensed it coming from somewhere in this room. Though I can't pinpoint who."

"It can't be...! One of us...? One of us was watching this awful discord and enjoying it?!", Meiko retorted at Len with anger.
"Well... Who knows if they were pleased. But maybe they were enjoying it as a play?"
"...I see now."

Kaito spoke up with a bitter smile.

"We've all been in this together, haven't we? No such mingling could happen; we've been friends for years, and we can still fondly remember our time since meeting to now... That's undoubtable, is it not?! You're not suggesting that someone's been possessed by the ghost of Burlet, are you?"

"Who knows... I just had a hunch of sorts that he was among us. I didn't say I had solid proof. That's why I've been looking for some."
"Actually, I've thought that myself. The night of the incident, there wasn't anyone but those of us here now, was there?"

Meg hummed and added her own suppositions.

"If we suppose Burlet is among us, then he would be over a hundred years old...! So for him to just blend in would mean he can change his form at will. But then, determining a person's personality and past experiences just from their actions would be hard, huh? Which makes it possible that all of that person's behavior and everything in the real world was just fabricated."

"But it's just conjecture, yes? It's not certain he's here...", Meiko insisted, flustered.
"If we can make the conjecture, then it's a possibility." Gack spoke chidingly with concern.

"...Maybe just like we're fooling Miss Miku, he could be fooling us too."

The cutting words hit me like a knife in my chest. At once, I was torn away from the play I was watching unfold before me, back into reality.

All this time, I'd yearned for a voice to finally say my name - but as soon as I heard it, the faint light of hope I saw went out. The fearful possibility I kept out of my thoughts as soon as it popped up... that everyone else was leaving me out, and tricking me... That terrible idea was now confirmed as reality. "Miku, you lack insight. Miku, you're honest and easy to fool... So you'd be a good audience member" - it was just as I'd been told.

I mixed in with the comedy they were putting on, and thought I'd become an actor on the same standing as them. But that foolish girl wasn't their friend and colleague, just their audience. And certainly not the star of the show. If they were being fooled by a greater mastermind... What an absurd comedy this was.

"But now we've proven ourselves capable of considering the possibility. Maybe we were able to splash him with some cold water, hm?
"...No..."

Kaito denied Meiko's bluff with a deep crease in his brow.

"...I'm sure he's delighted deep down. Thinking, "so they finally noticed"..."

Len picked up after Kaito. For the nth time, an oppressive silence came over the room.

"But... Really, who could it be...?", Rin mumbled, her head hung low.

Everyone's faces stiffened, and not wanting to look at one another, focused their ears on the eerie silence. If anyone made a wrong blink, sigh, gaze, gesture, remark... even an irregular heartbeat in this situation would make the other six apprehend them at once. They all strained their senses to endure, like a beast that had wandered into a hunting ground and had to lay low until the humans left; their tension was very evident.

"Everyone's suspicious... That's what I think. Of course, you all think that about me too, so your silence is really painful to my ears..."

Meg opened her mouth first. The lover of classical mysteries and writing, who had worked on scripts of her own, was the easiest to suspect at a glance. She was trying to fill the distance before everyone else pointed fingers at her. Meiko looked at her, lowering her eyebrows.

"Sigh... You said it yourself when we sat down for tea. More often than not, the most suspicious person isn't the culprit. I understand that you aren't, and honestly, I don't want to suspect anyone. Say that the mastermind is among us. Then so what? What does that change? There's only one ending we seek. That won't change one bit, will it?"

Meiko lied. What Meg had told her was that the most suspicious person was initially considered to be the killer, but as the story proceeded, those doubts were painted as misdirection. However, it was a common pattern in mysteries that ultimately, even that was part of the plan, and the person thought most suspicious at the start was, indeed, the culprit. I had heard Meiko and Meg's conversation myself. Yes, from behind a door in secret, just like now.

"...My, I hope so," Luka said, eyes seeming to doubt everyone else in the room.
"If there is a mastermind among us, deceiving us... Identifying who it is may not have any impact on their goal, nor the completion of our objective. Surely you're well aware of why that is, yes?"

Everyone's doubtful eyes suddenly widened, like Kaito's words reminded them of something. Slowly, they turned to unease and fear.

"Yes... Kaito is right. Even if we go hunting down the mastermind, I can't imagine it'll be of much benefit to us," Gack remarked with a distressed tone.
"Hmm... And it's possible our goal and the mastermind's overlap!"
"There's a good deal we've learned, you know. Slowly but surely, we're reaching our objective. With each repetition, we learn more about the rules that govern this play world."

Kaito summed up his opinions to control the situation which could soon turn sour again, and Meg and Gack added their own persuading comments. Even knowing the mastermind who sucked them into this world could have been among them, they were somehow gaining back their usual team ethic.

Rin raised her head, stood up, and spoke with light in her eyes.

"We're almost there. We've gotten to a pretty good spot. There's just... something we're missing still... I'm sure of it."

"Yes, certainly. Our actions are causing minor deviations. If only by a little, time in the real world is being shortened. Interference is gradually occurring between that night and this world. But of course, we can't precisely measure the effect it's having on reality. Even so, we've learned it's not just futile."

"True... But I still think we need to avoid slipping up in haste at any cost. We can't have another mistake like that night again..."
"...Yes, I know."

The mention of "that night" seemed to change the mood in the room. Their expressions were almost deranged in their seriousness, and the group seemed united under achieving a specific goal. Awed by that impression, my clenched hands started to sweat.

"The important thing is the letter. Rin failed this time. Does someone have a followup plan?"
"..."
"We should act quickly, before time is up again." Gack stared at his left arm as if checking a watch he wasn't wearing.
"All right, if it's come to this... It might be a bit rough, but I don't care how you do it. Just get the letter."

"You know, she seems a lot more wary than usual this time. I'm thinking that after an ending like that, a few fragments of her forgotten memories of it stuck around, influencing her thoughts. She didn't even drink my second cup of tea..."
"Ah, that's right... She completely dodged the collaboration between Meg and I. And since Len went and showed her the past scripts, she's probably even more on guard now."

"Well, there's no time... This night can end BaD too if it means successes next time. It was a dangerous bet taking her into the library then... But personally, I got some good information out of it."

"But... I'm scared. Hey, Kaito... If it turns out like before again..."

At some point, Rin had returned to Kaito's side.

"Yes. We won't let ourselves be killed... The true ending won't require our deaths."
"We have to protect the fact that she died... and the contents of the coffins. If we can't do so, we'll never return to reality. No matter what, Miku can't know the truth. She can't go back to reality like this."

"Miss Meiko's right. 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..."
"My, do I feel sorry for her..."

"It's inevitable if we're going to bring her back from the grave. That's what our objective is, isn't it...?"
"Len... You're right. Yes, we understand."

"Well. Let's end the meeting here. She'll probably be finishing her search of the stockroom and coming up here soon. It's full of junk, so I'm sure it'll take some time to search it all carefully, but..."

I was so shocked, I forgot to even breathe, intently listening in on the long conversation.

Thump -

"...............Miku? Are you there?"

The wind outside howled as usual. The branch by the window would occasionally whack into it, making a knock-like sound.

"It seems it's just the wind. It's part of the script for the storm outside to get most intense around this time. The climax is approaching... Is it time for the thunder effect...?"

Gack stood looking out the window. But my back was already turned, and I only heard part of his words.



Part 5
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