Episode 4. Alliance of the Golden Witch

"Wah-hah-hah-ha, you alright, Battler-kun...?!  We're already on the ground, and ya can't fall any further than that, wah-hah-hah-ha...!"
"Uu-kkyakkyakkya!  Faaall, faaall, kyakkyakkya!"
In the lobby of the Niijima airport, Maria dashed around in excitement.
Battler's uproar in the plane must have been very interesting.
"Hey, Maria!  Give it a rest!  ...Sorry, Battler-kun.  Don't take it badly."

"What a pa-thetic guy, you are.  Even with that hu-ge body, you still can't handle vehicles?"
"Shaddap...  All humans have one or two things they're bad at..."
"Battler-kun, why don't you come with your aunt on an overseas trip sometime soon?  What about Europe?  I'm sure you could overcome a half day riding on a plane.  *giggle*giggle*giggle*!"

"...Stop it, Mother.  I'm sure Battler-kun's dislike for vehicles is inherited."
"Oh, from Asumu-san?"

"......For some reason, she just couldn't handle vehicles and the like.  Pretty much anything other than a bicycle or a car.  Whenever we tried to go far away, that woman was so annoying with the 'no not this, no not that, I'm scared I'm scared, fall fall, gyaah gyaah'."

"Children are taught that things which their parents can't seem to handle are dangerous.  I'm sure Battler-kun saw Asumu-san doing something like that and learned that vehicles are scary."

"*giggle*giggle*.  Could it be Asumu-san's genes, I wonder?"

"Who knows.  Those would be some pretty annoying genes.  .........Stop talking about Asumu.  Right now, the one who's here is you.  Right?"
"...You're right, sorry."
"He-y, the cars are here!  Exactly three of them.  Get on, get on!"
"Fall, faaall!!  Where's the parachu-te, where's the parachu-te!!  Uu-uu-kyakkya!!"
"You rasca~l!!  Wait wait wait u-p!  I'll sentence you to the little girl tickle punishme~nt!!"

"Uffufufufu.  It's good that they're in high spirits.  If Battler-kun and Maria-chan weren't there, the atmosphere in that plane would have been very stiff."
"Thanks.  I'll take that literally.  ......Hey, brats!  The taxis are here!  You can play around later."

"Uu-uu-!!  Taxiii, taxiii!!  Mariaaa gets on fiiirst!  Kyakkya!!"
"Hey!  Maria, and you too, Battler-kun, stop fooling around!  You'll bump into someone!"

The tone of Rosa oba-san's voice grew a little frightened.

And Battler, as soon as he realized that they really were fooling around too much...just as expected, bumped into someone.

"Oh, sorry..."
"Battler-kun, you guys are going in that car.  You're keeping them waiting."

After George urged him to hurry on, Battler apologized to the person he had bumped into and ran up to his parents, who were telling him to come quickly.
With a clunking sound, the doors on the three taxis were shut one after another, and they departed, heading for the harbor......
......As their taxis dashed away...

The entire world grew suddenly dull, ......and slowed to a halt.
Voices, the wind, and even sound, ......everything stopped, and as if they had been frozen in the instant a photo was taken, everyone trying to move, ......stopped.
People and machines and clock hands, even the dust dancing in the wind, were frozen.

With one foot still raised, the people who were walking were frozen.

Scraps of paper dancing in the wind were pinned in midair, frozen.
......And among the shadows standing still in this world that had stopped, a single one moved.
It was a girl.

The girl Battler had just bumped into...
While she had moved, it had truly been a subtle thing.

Her gaze dropped, her shoulders lowered a miniscule amount, and she sighed.  ...That was all.
In a normal world, that probably wouldn't even be taken as movement, but in this still world, it looked very out of place.
...After that, something else moved.

It was a black cat wandering around the shadows near the taxi rank.
It came up right behind the girl, ......and leisurely...changed its form into that of a human.

It wasn't a cat.  It was a witch.
Of course, the girl was also a witch.

As the witch stood still, her gaze still downwards, she muttered...

".........I can't, ......stop everyone from going to Rokkenjima, can I..."

"You cannot.  On October 4, 1986, you are not here."

"......If I were, even stopping everyone wouldn't have been impossible...?"
"Although I cannot imagine how a six year old girl could act to make them turn back.  ......That's right.  If you were in this place, the probability wouldn't have been zero.  If there is a probability other than zero, I can find a miracle."
".........If I hadn't been sick, ...and they hadn't left me behind........."

With her head facing downwards, the witch tightened her fists...
...They were trembling very slightly.
"You were sick in bed starting October 3, 1986.  And Beato's game board is cut off starting October 4.  ......You are not given a chance to avoid getting sick.  ...In other words, you are fundamentally an existence which certainly cannot rise to the game board."
"Thanks for being patronizing.  ......I understand.  ......I know that just seeing Father, Mother, .........and Onii-chan healthy like this, ......that alone, ......is a very wonderful miracle..."
Ange had supposedly been standing in the way of her family, trying to prevent them from going outside the airport, ......towards Rokkenjima.

...However, it was impossible for her to exist in October 4, 1986, and she could not do it.
Just getting bumped into by her brother and being apologized to...

...Even though he hadn't known that she was his own little sister, ...it had been such a miracle, ......that she could cry......
"............I'm sorry for the sarcasm.  I won't waste the miracle you've given me."

"How reliable.  ......Come, let us go with them.  To Rokkenjima.  All of the pieces are already gathered.  ......The curtain will open on the fourth game.  By this time, Beato and Battler are already seated."
"......To Rokkenjima..................To where my, ...no, ......everyone's fates changed...October 4, 1986, ...on Rokkenjima........."
...What happened on that day?

I will expose that.  Learn that.  And I'll take it back...!
As she stood there with her fists still clenched, she surely turned her face up to the heavens.
A single teardrop from the depths of her eyes dripped down into the air.
And when time started moving again, the two witches' figures were sucked into a blowing gale and erased in an instant.

The New Guest

"Good morning, Milady.  My, my, you do appear to be in a good mood.  What a pleasant awakening you seem to have had."

"What do you mean, pleasant awakening...!  I was so excited, I couldn't sleep a wink.  After all, the curtain is rising on the fun, fun fourth game...!"

It seemed that she truly had been so excited that she hadn't gotten any sleep.

Was the fact that she showed absolutely no signs of lacking sleep because she was young, or because her mental age was young?

Ronove chose not to say that aloud, and laughed 'pu ku ku' instead.

"I really ran that Battler into the ground last time!  Ah, the look on his face when he was like 'you tricked me'!  That was so pathe-tic!  Even so, is that guy still feeling down?"

"Feeling down, you say...?"

"Hm, well, that's right.  ...That person is a bit too trusting for his age, right?"
"That is true.  Although you could call that his charm.  Pu ku ku..."

"*cackle*cackle*cackle*!  Isn't that true, isn't that true?  Well, speaking of which.  Didn't he completely fall for that one last time?"

"Yes, completely and splendidly.  ...You violated the purity caused by never being tricked by a person once since birth, as well as his rosebud-like innocence, all to your heart's content.  ............Even the joy of running around a field covered with beautiful new snow on a winter morning and trampling it completely wouldn't even begin to compare.

Didn't you take Battler-sama's innocent heart, and quite thrillingly, splendidly, atrociously, mercilessly, and unculturedly go just a little too far...?  And you insulted him in the highest degree, enough to make one uneasy.  Most people would start to feel down.  Pu kukukuku, so much so that they wouldn't want to see your face again."

"S, so, you understand...!  I also, umm, thought that if he was so disheartened that he wouldn't join us at the table, even though the fourth game is finally starting, that would be such a pain, and thinking that it would be better to prepare a counter-measure for that case beforehand, I asked you first...!"
"Hmmmm...  In that case, perhaps it would be best to prepare a counter-measure.  Most unfortunately, due to your 'North Wind and the Sun Strategy', Battler-sama has received quite a shock."
"H, hoh.........A shock, you say...how badly...?"

Beato lowered her voice slightly, asking timidly.
Ronove went along with that, and lowered his voice in the same way.
"......In truth, he has been crouching and clutching at his knees for some time now.  I spoke to him several times, but he did not answer.  I also carried him food, but he made no effort to touch it."
"...Th, that is...troublesome......  Is he really feeling that down......?"

"Pu kukukuku.  It is only natural.  ...After all, you did it tho・rough・ly , Milady.  That would make most people start to distrust humans."

"Hoh, distrust of humans?  How convenient!  Let him give up on humans and trust witches, wah-hah-hah-ha...............O, ...oh, *cough*.  Sorry, I shouldn't fool around too much."

Beato had tried to joke about it, but it seemed that the situation was quite serious, and she hid her laughter, reading between the lines.

"......Is it really that serious...?  Sh, should we wait just a little longer before beginning the fourth game...?"

"Because Lady Bernkastel's guest will be coming, it may be more appropriate to open the fourth game quickly.  However, it might be useful if you were to show a little consideration, Milady."

"Consideration!  Consideration, you say?!  How should I show that...?!  He is feeling down, so...th, that's right, shall I cheer him up?!"

"When a person's heart is dark and closed off, it is useless to interact with them darkly.  You can do nothing but shine with a brightness stronger than the dark."
"Damn iiiiiiiiiiiiiit, quit messing arooooooooouund...!!!"
"Kya-hhahaha!!  Battler-ku-n, over he~re!  A croissant baked by Ronove-sama would be wasted on the likes of yo-u!  Why don't I enjoy it myself?"
Battler's stomach involuntarily growled at the fragrant smell of the croissant.

His breakfast plate was empty, but Battler hadn't eaten any of it.
...The biggest glutton of the Seven Sisters of Purgatory, Beelzebub, had waited for Ronove to leave, and had then come to snatch the food away.
Battler had noticed, and they had been really noisy ever since.

Even though Beelzebub only had to give it back immediately, or else throw it into her own mouth right away, she intentionally ran around in circles, making fun of Battler.
"Give me my breakfast back, damn iiiiiiit!!  If you give it back now, I'll let you off with a single flick to the forehead.  But just you try eating it!!"

"So are you gonna eat me inste~ad?!  Kyaha!  If you can eat me, just try it!  I'll bet I'd be as sweet as honey pancakes.  Kya!"

"Gotcha!!  Right now, I want to eat that bread even more than your thighs.  Be a good girl and give it heeeeeeeeere, fugagigigigi...!!  So, you resist until the eeeeeeeeeend...!!"
"Ugugugugu!!  No way, no way, I won't give it to yo~u!!  Even the croissant wants me to eat i~~t!!!"
"Y, yaa~y, yahooooooooo, g'moooooorning, Battleeee~r!!  Are you still moping so early in the morni~ng?!?!  It's the beginning of a new day, and a new game, so let's get our spirits uuuuuuuuuuuuuuup!!"
...She opened the door forcefully.

Like a marathon runner drawn on a certain caramel box, with her hands held high and with an idiotic cheeriness, ......Beato appeared.

For some reason, flags from around the world and confetti scattered about, looking completely stupid and out of place.

......Battler and Beelzebub, who had been fighting over the croissant, completely forgot about their argument, speechless.

"Ky, ...kyahahahaha!  Good morning, Beatrice-sama!  That's all for me!  Here, Battler-kun, say aa~h!"

"Mmmm!!  Mmm mmm, *chomp*, ...*gulp*.  .....................H, hey, morning, Beato.........Glad to see you're in perfect form this morning."
........................

Beato and Battler looked at each other.
...It seemed that neither had a clue what was going on with the other.

"B, ......Battleer......?  Wh, wh, what is this, Ronoveeeee, doesn't he look like he's in high spiriiiiiiits?!!  He isn't clutching his knees!  And he's answering!  Wait a sec, he was even in the middle of eating!!"
"Pu kukukukuku!!  No, no, he was sleeping like a baby in his futon, clutching his knees.  I informed him that it was time to wake up, but he just wouldn't get up.  I tried to feed him, but it seems that a naughty cat wandered in and prevented that.  Pu ku ku, pu- ku ku ku ku!"

"G, .........gwaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhh...!!!  You tricked meeeeeeeeeee...!!"

"Heh, you should talk.  Weren't you the one who played that massive trick last time?  I don't have a clue what's going on, but you got what you deserved.

...By the way, Ronove, nice one."
"Pu kukuku, thank you very much, Battler-sama."

The two men stuck up their thumbs as though they understood each other, chuckling together.

For a while, Beato acted very energetically, trying to hide her embarrassment......

"Heh.  Don't take me so lightly.  Did you really think I'd still be hiding in a corner, holding my knees?"
"*cackle*.  Then who was that person crying their eyes out in frustration last time?  You could've gathered your tears in a jar and called it face lotion."

"Sh, shut up.  That was, um, just because I was a little surprised by your crappy act.  I might have looked a little lame, but don't think that the same move'll work twice."

"Of course.  And don't disappoint me by falling for the same move over and over again, alright?  *cackle*cackle*!"

"Ihihi, yeah, just you watch.  I'll teach you that I'm a guy who gets stronger every time he's beaten down.

............But Beato."
"Hmm, what?"

"Don't do it again."

"Hoh?  Why's that?  So you really are weak against the rear attack?"

"............You and I are enemies, and we'll certainly never join forces...I now understand that clearly.  ......So never again do something as unpleasant as trying to make me confused about that fact."

"*cackle*cackle*!  You say that, but I know your weaknesses, ........."

Beato thought they were still joking around, ...but that had disappeared from Battler's expression some time ago.

Beato felt as though his eyes were like the surface of black tea which had cooled down...

"You hear me?  Don't do it again."
"..................I don't get it.  I might do it again when you've forgotten, right...?"
"Don't do it again."
"............nn, ..............."

Pierced by his strong and forceful gaze, Beato held her tongue.
She may have thought that Battler would surely break that silence with laughter.
...However, Battler's serious expression didn't change in the slightest.

So to break that silence, Beato had no choice but to start laughing herself.
"*cackle*cackle*, hahhahahahahahahahahahahahahaha...!!  Very well.  You and I are worthy opponents.  No matter how good our relationship, we are never anything more than a pair of enemies.  If you have not mistaken this, that is enough for me."
"...That's right.  I forgot that you were my enemy for just a second.  I won't show such a disgraceful display again.  ......I won't fall for your rear attack again.  Not again...!"

"...........................Fu!  Hahhahahyahhahha!!  It seems that I am not the only one who cannot wait for the fourth game.  I am pleased, Battler.  Come, take your seat."

"...Yep.  Just how I like it.  ......Clever little tricks won't work anymore."
"Stop acting so tough.  You remain in a state of surrender for the last mystery in the previous game, the mystery of Nanjo's murder...!"

".........I'm still waiting for an answer on that one.  But that doesn't mean that I've lost heart.  I will definitely break your 'red truth', and show that I can deny witches...!"

"Hmph.  A good disposition.  You truly are a man like a phoenix.  Don't betray my expectations!  With that, let us raise the curtains on the fourth game.  But before that, it seems that we must welcome a new guest."
"A guest......"
"You remember as well, right?  That mystery girl, who appeared at the very end of the last game without an invitation, ruining my fun."
"......That person........."
"She says that she wants to join our game.  I sent her an official invitation, inviting her to join this match.  Ronove, call the guest."
"......There's no need.  I'm already here."

The voice that answered Beato's call came from the darkness in a corner of the room.
When Battler turned around in surprise, he could now see that mystery girl there.

"My, my.  How rude.  Once you came, all you had to do was greet us."

"I don't make a habit of greeting people before punching them.  But I'll say it after I punch."

"Hoh, and what is that?"
"<Good night, have a nice dream>."
Lines in English

Some lines in Umineko were written in katakana English, meaning the phonetic Japanese characters were used to sound out English. These lines will be enclosed in <>, like <Have a nice dream>.

Because they're written in katakana, they would be pronounced a little different than you might expect, e.g. Ha ba naisu doriimu.

"*cackle*cackle*, hahhahhahahahahahaha!  I could laugh, I truly could laugh...!"
Beato cackled and clapped her hands.

But that was only Beato, and nothing rose to Battler's face except a bitter smile.

"......Whew.  You sure are a fighter."
"........................"

Battler and the girl's eyes met, and he said that as he shrugged his shoulders.
But the girl didn't answer, giving only a cold stare in return.

"......You helped me out in the last moments of the previous game.  I'm grateful."
"I don't need gratitude.  You were just slacking off.  I only told you to open your eyes."

"Kuhhyahhyahhya!  That's so true, stop slacking off Battler, hyahhyahha!"

Beato tried to laugh along with her, but it didn't reach the girl's ears.

She did absolutely nothing except stare at Battler with ice-cold eyes.

"............Well, it looks like someone hates me."
"I'm just annoyed that you aren't fighting seriously."
"You say I'm not serious......?"

"You can't possibly mean that your predicament earlier happened because you've been serious, can you?  ......Don't be a fool.  How long do you intend to go along with the witch's farce like this?"
"...I'm fighting Beato in my own way.  And seriously, of course."

"Seriously?  .........Don't make me laugh.  You keep on drinking tea and chatting with a witch for all eternity and call that fighting seriously?  Keep the jokes to just your hairdo."

"......Well, that's because I wasn't used to this witch's game in the beginning, and I've been through a lot of harsh stuff.  Still, I'm finally starting to see how to fight and the knack to doing it.  ...If the pathetic way I've been acting makes it look like I haven't been serious to you, you're mistaken."

".........Is that so?"
"Of course, I know I've gotta close in a lot more before I can grab Beato by the collar.  But no matter how long that distance is, it is finite.  And in each game that passes, I am steadily closing that distance step by step!
No matter how long it takes, I will close in on that witch, and I'll definitely checkmate her.  ......It might take one thousand years like she always says.  ...But even so, eventually, I will certainly win.  Why?  Because I definitely won't accept losing.  I definitely won't stop walking, and I'll keep closing in on her!  So in other words, there's just one thing I can say for sure.
......I will definitely win against that witch someday!  That's how it is."
"You sure talk a lot.  Are you even trying to win?  Even the finite can become endless if it's treated the wrong way.  By now, you've become an Achilles who can't even outstrip a turtle.  .........I get it.  So this is why I'm needed.  At this rate, there's no way you could win against the Endless Witch even after a billion years."

"......Who are you?  It's not like you'll be struck by lightning if you just tell me your name."
"........................"

At that point, the girl fell silent, gazing straight into Battler's eyes.

At first, Battler faltered under the firmness of that look and his gaze wavered slightly, but then his eyes gradually began to be sucked into the pupils that were staring at him.

......Then, he saw a light that he had seen sometime before inside them...

Battler was struck with how they strongly resembled the eyes of a girl who definitely couldn't be here, ......but that was completely impossible.

"...I know it's stupid, ......but for some reason, I'm getting that feeling.  But that can't be right.  ......That person's supposed to still be six years old.  ............You couldn't possibly be, ............Ange, could you............?"

"..................If I were to say 'that's right', ...would you believe me?"

"Nn............"

"I'll say it differently.  If I said 'I am your ally, so trust me', would you believe it?  Would you unconditionally trust some unknown girl you're meeting for the first time just because she looks a little like someone you know?

......It's because you're such a softy that you were tricked so easily in the last game and cried so bitterly.  ......You said it yourself.  That kid is 6, right?  Do I look like I'm 6?  And despite that, if I were to claim that I am that kid, would you just swallow that story?"

"......If you say it like that, ...there's no way I can argue back.  ...Sorry.  That's right, I am a softy.  And that should have been made clear after the last game.  ......Is this what you meant when you said I wasn't serious?"

"Yes.  You may think you're fighting with a witch, but you're just getting along with her and playing.  ......You're just playing by fighting in a friendly game of chess.

That may be a serious contest for you two, but looking at it from far away, I only see you playing around and following the rules like you're good friends."

"..................Ihihihi.  That's harsh."

"But as long as you can't win this game, you won't be released from this place.  ......That's why I came.  I came to bring this game to its conclusion.  ......You claim that you're closing in on the witch, but you're just like a hamster running around in a wheel."

"*cackle*cackle*!  Oh, that?  That thing that runs around and around on a wheel night after night?"

"At a glance, you might think that running around in a wheel is endless.  ......The Endless Witch Beatrice.  It's just like you.  And although he thinks he's fighting, he's actually just running around in the wheel making a fool of himself.

......This isn't a game.  This is nothing more than a cage to shut him up for all eternity."

"Hoh.  ......You liken my Endless to something like a wheel that a rat plays in?  Interesting, interesting, *cackle*..."

"Something that's endless in one dimension can be less than endless in a higher one.  The fact that a Menger sponge has infinite surface area only matters in a world of less than three dimensions.  In the three-dimensional world of reality, it has zero mass.  Not only is it not endless, it doesn't even exist."

"*cackle*cackle*cackle*...!  What an assertive woman.  It seems you are worthy of being called my enemy."

"............Who...are you?"
"I am your ally.  And an enemy of witches.  .........Of course, you don't have to believe it.  No one can prove that I really am your ally.  On the contrary, it is more desirable that you stay on your guard strongly enough to find me very suspicious."

".........That's right.  Last time ended up pretty bad.  I've got to be at least that careful.  ...I don't intend to get tricked twice."

"*cackle*cackle*cackle*cackle*......!"

Beato laughed in a truly pleasant way which was humiliating only to Battler.
"People don't just get tricked out of the blue.  They get lazy from their own certainty, and when they entrust things to other people, that's when they get tricked.  ......Saying that you thought the light had turned green just because you saw other people start crossing doesn't count as an excuse for getting into an accident.  Get it...?"

"Yeah..., I get it.  ......You're telling me not to swallow information given to me by others, but to think for myself.  .........I'd swallowed the magic that Beato showed me.

I'd stopped thinking・・・・・・・・・・.  So I was useless."

Battler grimaced as he remembered his many painful losses.
...The witch watched and laughed again, putting on a bold appearance.

"I will advise you in a way that will be to your advantage.  Of course, you shouldn't swallow everything I say.  Because no one can provide certain proof that I am your ally."
In the last game, Virgilia, who I'd thought was an ally, really had been on the witch's side.

......Battler couldn't get that eerie smile worn by Virgilia, who he had even thought of as trustworthy, out of his head.
"So you don't have to unconditionally trust me.  Therefore, taking my advice as nothing more than an opinion to be considered is just fine.  After all, ......the player who's fighting in a game against the witch

(is you/・・・)."
"...That's right.  Saying I lost because I followed the moves of an outsider would be just too pathetic of an excuse."

"Oh yes!  My opponent is Battler.  You are nothing more than an outsider.  You should bear that in mind.  *cackle*!"

"No, I'm not an outsider.  With Beatrice and Ushiromiya Battler, ...and I who gaze down from above, it's almost like a fight in the shape of a triangle.  At a glance it might not be a united front, but just fighting together doesn't make a united front."

"Hoh.  What an odd thing to say."

"Just now, he described fighting with you as closing the distance.  But you can't measure distance with a single eye.  Only with two eyes are things visible in three dimensions, and only then can distance be measured.  ......And even if there are two fields of vision, it's pointless if they're in the same place.  The one further away can accurately gauge the witch."
"......Shooting from different positions and different angles.  ...So this is what they call crossfire.  Heheh, interesting."

"Shooting...from different positions and different angles.  ......So I won't get along with anybody.  In order to separate my own position and catch the witch in a pincer attack."

".........Is that alright, Battleer?  This girl may actually be an ambush I set up, right?  She might just be saying something plausible to gain your trust, right...?"

"......Maybe.  She's been saying that over and over again herself.  ...So of course, I can't blindly accept her advice.  But whether she's worthy of trust or not, I can think for myself and decide.  As long as I don't stop thinking for myself, I won't be tricked by anyone again...!"

"*cackle*cackle*cackle*!!  What confidence, Ushiromiya Battleer!  After you've said so much, it makes me want to trick you all over again, you see...?  And I want to see what kind of face you'll make when you realize that you've been tricked again!  I like it, kuhhahahahahahahaha!!"

"............It looks like you know my name, but I don't know yours.  ...Tell me your name."

"........................"

For a while, the girl remained silent without changing her expression even once.

...She looked as though she couldn't decide whether to say her name or not, or possibly, as though she was deciding the name she would say on the spot.

"......Gretel."
"Ghetto?  You are?"

"That's my name, dumbass.  Call me Gretel."
"Then should I call myself Hansel?  Ihihihi, just kidding, I'm Ushiromiya Battler!  Call me Battler."

".........Nice to meet you.  ...I hate handshakes.  Don't take it personally."

"...Ah, really?  Sorry.  After all, it isn't certain that you're my ally.  ......And you just told me to keep my guard up too."

Battler drew back his right hand, which he had stuck out.

His bitter smile disappeared, and was replaced with a strong resolution for the new fourth game.

"Battler.  ......Think deeply about why you must win against this witch.  ......You can't stop with something abstract, like 'I'll get her because I don't like it'.  ......Have a deep conviction that you'll definitely defeat the witch and escape from this world.

.........Because there is definitely, .........someone waiting for you to come back.  ......For that kid's sake as well, ........................"

Maybe she was thinking about something.
Gretel clenched her fists in front of her chest and hung her head in silence, at a loss for words for a short while.
As though smashing through that silence, Beato spoke up in a forceful voice.
"Good, that should be enough of an introduction for Gretel or whoever!  Come, try to remember, what happened on October 4!  Kuhhihihihihihihi, the curtain opens on the fourth game!!"
At the same time, as though it had been blown by a sudden gust of wind, the clock which had been turned back to October 4, 1986, ......started to move.
While we remained in the witch's tea room, the blue-grey sea and the green Rokkenjima spread out beneath us, ......and we could see a boat heading there, its wake trailing behind it.

The sky was already cloudy, and it seemed that the barrier of the typhoon would soon shut the island away.
The boat docked in the harbor, .........and Gohda could be seen, helping unload it.
Then, ......the boat dropped off all of the passengers, .........and began to separate from the island.

The relatives started to get swallowed up by the island.

"Ahhahahaha!  You're as spirited as ever, Maria."
"Maria-chan, you'll trip if you aren't careful.  Look out...!"
"Uu-uu-uu-!!  Fa-ll fa-ll, si-nk si-nk, kyakkya!"
...The long-missed cousins I had loved dashed across the beach, ......getting swallowed by the forest path that led to the mansion, and disappeared.

And of course, Onii-chan could be seen among them too.

"......Daa~mn it!!  Wait, wait, Maria!!  You nimble little brat!"
"Kyakkya!  Uu-uu-uu-!  Kyakkyakkya!"
Maria onee-chan, who I had loved, started dashing, and Onii-chan chased after her.

They were swallowed up by the forest.

Following them, Father and Mother were also swallowed up.
The rest of the parents were swallowed up...

......They were swallowed up, leaving only me behind...
Dumbass......

How long are you going to joke around and play with a witch in a place like this......

Come back quickly, ......Onii-chan......!
Don't leave me all alone...!
And realize.

Realize how cruel and lonely the world I'm isolated in is...
"Good day to you."

".........G, ...good day to you."
'Good day to you' is the standard greeting used here.

No matter how many years pass by, this style of greeting still feels very awkward...
Even though I had responded to the greeting in order to stifle that awkward feeling, the classmate who had spoken looked at me blankly.
"......Huh?  *giggle*giggle*giggle*"
"Hu-h, what's that?  It seems you're mistaken, *giggle*giggle*..."
Their choice of words and manner were certainly what you would expect of a school for rich girls, but the actual meaning was as innocent and cruel as you would expect from kids of that age.

......It seems they found it funny that I'd mistakenly thought the greeting was directed at me.  No, it might be the opposite.
...Maybe I should say that they didn't know what to do after being greeted by an introverted kid like me.
No, judging by the gazes of my classmates, who were looking this way over their shoulders and whispering to each other, it was as though some of them considered this refreshing morning ruined.
......I was...dark.  Because I was disliked.

So, trying not to get in the way of everyone's refreshing morning any more, I stooped lower and entered the classroom.

......Almost like I was cutting through the aisle in a movie theater while the movie was running.
This is an all-dorm academy, Saint Lucia Academy.

It's not a school that anyone can get into by taking a test.
...It's a hidden rich girl's school, known of only by a select group of celebrities from various fields.
For lofty nobles who truly wish their daughters could be raised like saints, this is probably the ideal school in which to protect their daughters from the impurities of the common world.
......But at the same time, it was probably also convenient for nobles to confine daughters who they didn't want out in public.

As well as an academy isolated from the impurities of the common world, it also held excellent potential as a prison school.
I was truly among the latter, and was confined in Saint Lucia Academy, ......forced to live my life in dreariness.
Of course, there weren't that many students like me, and you couldn't tell us apart at a glance.
However, even if one of these kids didn't talk about it, you could usually guess from their appearance.

...Because they were always hanging their heads all the time, with an expression on their faces as though the whole world had abandoned them.
And every class had one or two kids like that, so even if they didn't speak up about it, you could guess who they were.
Therefore.

Even though I didn't confess that I was one of those kids, at some point, everyone in the class had found out......
Just like how the seriousness of an injury becomes a sign of status in a hospital room, how noble a birth one had became a sign of status here.

Those who aren't permitted to go out in public places are probably nothing more than filthy people to them.
They must think that getting involved with students like that would dirty them as well.
When a rumor sprang up about a particular student, those fastidious girls would grow cold and distant, chasing that student out of all social groups.

Thanks to that, I led a quiet school life like this, all by myself...
Well, that's only if hearing people whisper behind my back, finding my things lost or broken all the time, and having everyone pretend like they didn't know anything...can be called a quiet school life.
Even in the morning, I must be wearing a worn out expression.
......I can almost understand how my other classmates, who had had a refreshing morning, looked at my face and wanted to click their tongues.

Consciously trying to do as I should and avoid tainting my classmates' morning, I quietly took my seat.
......Then, unusually, someone came to talk to me.  It was the class leader.
"Good day to you, Ushiromiya-san.  ......You seem to be in a bad mood this morning.  Were you able to get enough sleep?"
"............Is there some business you have with me?"
"You're the only one who has not submitted her questionnaire for the class presentation, Ushiromiya-san.  Did you forget that the deadline was yesterday?"
...I'm pretty sure I heard something about that last week.

But I'd thought that the questionnaire hadn't been passed out yet.
The details would be written there, so it should have been no problem to remember about it once they were passed out...
"......I wasn't given a questionnaire..."
"That can't be.  I believe that the dormitory leader handed them out to everyone.  If you lost it, all you have to do is honestly say so."
"............I lost it.  I'll fill it in right now, so could you give me a paper?"

Again.  ......Either someone lost my paper, or they intentionally didn't tell me about it.
But I have no way of knowing who was behind that.

In the end, treating it as though it was my own carelessness would settle everything more quickly...
"Once you've filled it out, drop it in the questionnaire box in the student council room yourself.  Our class is the only one that didn't get everyone's in by yesterday."
As I hung my head at the class leader's scolding, I could hear the giggles and whispers of people watching, coming from no direction in particular...
Ushiromiya-san did it again.
It's because that person is too careless.
She isn't suitable for this school.
She has no dignity, and she has no manners either.
......Sorry girls, but I've dealt with much worse when it comes to unfair personal attacks.

As I froze my heart and let those arrows of ridicule pass by, I quickly filled out the questionnaire...
When I learned that Father and Mother and Onii-chan, and all the rest of my family had died...I had been in the house of my Grandpa on my mother's side.
The only survivor of the accident was...Ushiromiya Eva.  ......Only Eva oba-san.
Even at the time, I hadn't really liked Eva oba-san.

At a glance, she would act kindly, but even as young as I was, I could see that she was somehow making fun of Father and the rest, and I hadn't liked it.
So when it was decided that Eva oba-san would take care of me, I was pretty miserable.

Maybe it wouldn't have mattered if that gentle Hideyoshi oji-san and George onii-chan had been with me, but I had hated the thought of living all alone with Eva oba-san.
I had frankly said that to Grandpa, hoping to live together in his house.
However, Eva oba-san had been very insistent that she should be the one to look after me.

Eva oba-san had no desire to marry, so I was essential as a successor to the Ushiromiya family.
Eva oba-san felt very strongly about the Ushiromiya family.

She fervently claimed that she wanted to take charge of me right away so that she could give me an education and lifestyle fitting for a successor.
It seems that confusing negotiations with lawyers took place.
...But in the end, I was forced to go live with Eva oba-san.
After doing that, Eva oba-san told me something.
You must bear all of the glory and history of the Ushiromiya family.

And in order to make you a fitting successor to bear that, the rest of your life will be dedicated to frantic studying.  Sacrifice the rest of your life for the Ushiromiya family.

......That's what she said.
At first, I thought she meant that literally.

But I quickly realized that wasn't the case.
Because even now, in Eva oba-san's eyes, the one most fitting to be successor was the late George onii-chan.
At my first meal, I had received strict instruction and questioning about table manners, and had been forced to listen to her abuse Mom and Dad as though they had been neglectful in their discipline.
I had also received the same strict instructions regarding manners at my first party, and my clumsiness had been disparaged in front of everybody, forcing me to endure insults to Mom and Dad as well.
After that repeated over and over, I eventually began to understand.
Eva oba-san didn't really want to make me the next head.

She thought that the one who was truly fitting to be the next head was George onii-chan, ......and she couldn't forgive the fact that I was to be the next head.
So I was disparaged in front of a lot of people.  I was humiliated.

And she made it known exactly how I was inferior to George onii-chan, ......surely holding a memorial service for her dead son, no, ...she must still have been mourning the fact that he was dead.
......However, that wasn't something I could endure.
I couldn't possibly live together with Eva oba-san.
......As my life was continually compared with her dead son's, I was kept like a pet.

I understood that even when I was in elementary school.
I tried to escape the Ushiromiya house and go to the house of my Grandpa on my mother's side.
However, Eva oba-san had already foreseen that.

...No, thinking back on it, she might have been luring me into escaping.
I was caught by the guards and brought back, .........and for being a coward who had smeared the Ushiromiya family crest with mud and tried to throw it away, .........in a way that makes my whole body shake and shiver just remembering it, .........I was punished.
How should I describe what Eva oba-san was like when she punished me?

In a frenzy?  Gleeful?

......The anger and sadness of losing her beloved son, and well as the hatred and pain that I had stolen the inheritance from the son who should have succeeded it.  And the dark pleasure at being able to let those feelings out on me.

......I was hit with all of those negative emotions at once.
Then, all of my free time and freedom to act was stolen, and I was put under surveillance around the clock.

I may have lived in a gorgeous mansion, dressed in expensive clothes, ...but my heart and my dignity had been trampled upon, and I was the Ushiromiya family's slave, ...its cattle.
Compared to that lifestyle, the derisive laughter of my classmates here was calm and pleasant.  ......It was no match for my heart...
After burying almost all of the fields of the questionnaire with 'nothing in particular', I folded it and put it in my pocket.

......Because if I left it in the desk, it might 'disappear' again.
During lunch break, after dropping it off at the postbox in the student council room, I finished lunch by myself, as usual, and headed behind the school building, where no one could be seen.
......Only my time by myself could protect me from the derisive laughter and gossip.

Since I was hated and didn't have a single friend, my time alone was the most kind to me.
After checking the surrounding bushes to see whether some malicious classmates were hiding and threatening my time of quiet, I finally relaxed the tension from my entire body, knowing that I had gained some true peace.
Then...I let out a sigh.
...It faltered, heavy, as though it was the first time I had breathed out today.

My old favorite place behind the vegetable garden storehouse...had been found out by my classmates and I had been teased, so this was my new lunchtime hideaway...
There was nowhere to sit behind the school building.

As I crouched near the wall in the shadow of the bushes, I opened my bag and took out a book with an elaborate, old-fashioned binding...
Just glancing at it, you would probably think it was a religious book or something written in the Middle Ages.
But this isn't a book.  It's a diary.

Of course, it isn't my diary.
.........There aren't any special things worth writing about in my daily life.
Every single day is just gray, ...cold and dry.
In these completely unchanging days, there aren't any changes worth writing down.

This is, ......the diary of Maria onee-chan, who I had been very good friends with.
She had been a bit strange and three years older than me, but Onee-chan was always a warm, wonderful cousin.

She would always grab my hand and let me join in on some fun game.

......I remember that meeting her had been the most fun thing when the family gathered...
When I opened the diary, the characters, which were made fairly skillfully considering that this was an elementary schooler, were packed close together even though it was written on every other line.

Was she just hopelessly obsessed with jotting everything down in her diary?  ......Probably not.
To her, writing her daily life down in a diary was probably like having a conversation with another part of herself.

So rather than an object on which the events of her day were written down, Maria onee-chan's diary was written like a letter to another part of herself, telling of the events of that day.
I had found this diary among her belongings after her death and had secretly taken it home.

At first, I had felt that reading someone else's diary might be boorish, and had been satisfied to just keep it by my side, ......but I couldn't help flipping through the pages and reading through it bit by bit.
And, .........she had now

become my only friend・・・・・・・・・.
I gently opened to the page with the bookmark.
"......Sorry to keep you waiting, Maria onee-chan.  ......Could you let me hear your story again, Onee-chan...?"
At the same time, ......a very, very soft breeze blew, tickling the paper.
And I thought the open diary might have sparkled faintly.

......The weather is good today.
Maria onee-chan loves wonderful rays of sunlight.

So I'm sure she's in a good mood.
On the open diary, ...no, in the world of the diary, Maria onee-chan showed herself...
She had certainly been nine when she died.  ......So her form was already younger than me.

But I call her Onee-chan, so she also affectionately calls me Ange.
"Uu-.  Ange, you were slow getting here today.  Was it packed at lunch......?"

"......Yes.  It's always packed.  Since friendly groups set up camp in the seats, they stay there even after they've finished eating.  It's pretty fatal if you go to the dining hall late.  ......I was on cleanup duty today."

"......Uu-!  Maria eats fast!  The faster you eat, the more you can play!  Uu-!"

Maybe she noticed that I was holding a grudge because that duty had been forced upon me and shortened my lunch break by a bit.

Maria onee-chan brightly changed the subject.
Grateful for that consideration, I responded by saying that I ate slowly.

Maria said something about teaching me the trick to eating fast, and calmed me down.
I read it in the diary.  No, I heard it from Maria onee-chan.

It seemed that she had been ranked number 1 among the girls in the speed-eating ranking of her grade's newspaper.

It seems that she had been very proud of that, but had been a little disappointed that her mother, Rosa oba-san, hadn't praised her very much for it.
"Uu-!  Then, let's start our story for today.  How far did we get yesterday?  Uu-?"

"Umm......  This far.  Until you got Sakutaro as a present, Maria onee-chan.  ......You promised that you would tell me about Sakutaro."

"Uu-!  Talk about Sakutaro!  You know, Sakutaro is a re-ally cute stuffed animal!  I'm sure you would like him too, Ange!  Uu-!"

"Yes.  Tell me that story.  ......The time I spend listening to your stories is the only time I can be relaxed at school."
"Uu-!  Maria, talk!  So you know, Sakutaro was, umm, umm!"
When I looked at Maria onee-chan, who was always in a good mood, it made my heart feel warm as well.

As I listened to her tale, I began to get absorbed into her world......
"Happy Birthday, Maria.  Sorry I got back so late."
"Uu-!  Good job with your work Mama!  Maria knows that Mama's busy, so even though Mama was late, Maria waited without crying.  Maria was good and waited, watching TV!"

"Yes, you are such a good girl, Maria.  As a present for waiting politely, you can order anything you want today.  Of course, only as much as you can eat, okay?"
"Uu-uu-!  Today, can I change my corn soup to onion gratin soup?!"

"Yes, that's fine."
"Uu-uu-!  It's 200 yen more expensive, but can I change it to prosciutto pizza?!"
"Yes, that's fine.  If you really can eat it.  ......But that's alright.  It's your birthday, after all.  There must be a reward for the good girl who waited so patiently."
"Uu-uu-uu-!  Then, then, can I have enchilada cheesecake for dessert?!  And then, and then, the chef's choice fruit salad and kids' french fries!  I want to drink melon soda too!  Uu-uu-uu-!  Maria's a good girl, Maria's a good girl!  Praised by Mama, uu-uu-uu-♪"
"*giggle*.  You're getting a little too excited.  If you don't quiet down a bit, you'll disturb the other customers."
When Rosa gently admonished her, Maria stuck her tongue out and eased up a little.  ...But it seemed that she was having a hard time repressing her excitement at being able to eat out with her mother after such a long time.
Today was Maria's birthday.

Rosa had wanted to let Maria spend her birthday at a wonderful restaurant no matter what.
When Maria had been in kindergarten, they had sometimes invited other kids from the neighborhood over and had a party at home.

Rosa would make a wonderful cake and snacks and decorate the house herself, making it a huge celebration.
But when they had moved and Maria had stopped having friends in the neighborhood, Rosa had started splurging at expensive restaurants instead.
However, today, they were in a normal family restaurant.
It was also a little late in the day for a kid like Maria to eat there, even with a parent.
Actually, she had gotten reservations at a fantastic place that would surely have pleased Maria.  Of course, she had also prepared a wonderful cake with Maria's name written on it.

......But Rosa just hadn't been able to finish up her business, and had been forced to cancel.
Since that had turned into a local family restaurant, Rosa felt a little indebted to Maria.

So she was prepared to spoil Maria a bit and let her have whatever she wanted tonight...

"......You never used to eat much, did you Maria onee-chan?  Is it really alright to ask for this much?"

"Uu-.  Maria can't eat very much, but likes to have a lot lined up.  You know, on a birthday table?  If it's fully colored with red and blue and green and yellow, it makes you really happy!"

"...You're right.  If a birthday table is colorful, you can start to feel happy.  ......Birthdays at my place were no match for yours, Maria onee-chan, but the cakes we bought at the Fumiya store in front of the station were always gorgeous, weren't they..."

Ange thought back to her own birthday nostalgically.
Even though Dad was busy, he sometimes came home just to show up at my birthday party, and then went right back to his company.

At the time, I was sad, but now I understand how important I was to Dad.

Of course, Mom also took very good care of me.

Her birthday presents in particular always had very good taste, and she sometimes arranged for them several months in advance.

Even though we always sent an invitation to Battler onii-chan, he didn't get along with Dad or something, so he didn't always come.

......So when he did come, I was really happy...
...The birthday parties when the whole four-person family gathered made for fun memories that I will never forget...

"Uu~.  Ange's birthday sounds like a lot of fun too.  Battler and Rudolf oji-san are really lively.  Yay yay, kyakkya.  Battler got covered in cola, ahahahaha."

Maria onee-chan peeked into my happy memory.

As I sat quietly, wearing the origami helmet that Dad had made for fun, I was a little embarrassed.
In my hand was a paper gun that Battler onii-chan had folded for me.
...And Mom was taking a commemorative photo.  It was the happiest moment of my life.

"But your birthday's no worse, Maria onee-chan.  And, you get him today, right?  Sakutaro."
"Uu-!  Was re-ally looking forward to it.  Was so excited, wondering if Mama would show Maria the wrapped present in the corner of her bag right away."
'Sakutaro' is the name of a stuffed animal that Maria was to receive today.

Starting a long time ago, Rosa oba-san had been making a stuffed animal for a birthday present today.
Hearing that it was a cute lion stuffed animal, Maria onee-chan had already given it the name Sakutaro even though she hadn't received it yet.

Today, she was looking forward to meeting Sakutaro even more than her own birthday.
Rosa oba-san had a western clothing design company.

It seemed to be some kind of brand name.  ......What was it, Anti-Rosa...?

It seems that their catch phrase was 'I can't forgive the way I was before today'.
...Unfortunately, I've never met someone who knew of that brand name.
Maybe it wasn't that famous.
So Oba-san was pretty skilled with her hands.
I heard that she made some of the western clothing she wore herself.

So making a stuffed animal had to be well within her capabilities.

"......A hand-made stuffed animal...that's pretty amazing.  By the way, why did you call it Sakutaro?"

"Uu-.  Actually wanted to call it 'Sakura'.  But it's a male lion, so Maria was told to give it a boy's name.  So Maria added a boy-like 'tarou' and called him 'Sakutarou'.  Eventually, the last 'u' disappeared!"

"Why 'Sakura'?"
"Uu-!  Main character in Card Master Sakura~!"

It was the name of the main character in a TV anime which was popular at the time.

......The fact that she'd simply borrowed the name of a character she had liked was, how should I say it, as innocent and cute as you'd expect from that age.

"Uu-!  Mama, Mama!  Still no Sakutaro?  Want to let Sakutaro join in on birthday too."
"Presents always come at the end, right?  If you open it now, it will get dirty.  Hold on until the meal is over."
"Then Maria will finish eating quickly!  Uu-uu-uu-!"

As soon as she proclaimed that, she started tearing into her meal.

Rosa oba-san got mad at her, saying that was rude.
It seemed that she had expected this would happen right away.

I had also thought that, if I were as naive as Maria onee-chan, I would probably do the same thing, so it was kind of pleasant when my expectations weren't betrayed.
In the end, Rosa oba-san lost to her daughter's eyes, which were sparkling with anticipation, cleaned up the table, and took out the long-awaited wrapped present.

"Happy birthday, Maria.  ......I couldn't spend much time on it, so I couldn't make it very well..."
"Uu-!  If Mama made it, Maria is happy with anything!  Uu-uu-uu-!  Sakutaro~, Sakutaro~uu-uu-!"

Rosa oba-san spoke slightly humbly, but Maria onee-san was happy even before opening the wrapping.

......I could really understand that feeling.
It's not a problem of quality.
Just the fact that it was a handmade present was more pleasing than anything.

"Can I open it?  Can I open it?!"

"I really wanted to do it after going back home, ......but, just for a bit, okay?  We'll just take a look and say hello, then put it back, okay?  You can give him a proper greeting once we get home, alright?  We're in public, so you can't fool around, right?  Can you promise?"

"Uu-!  Promise promise!  So can I open it?  Ca~n I open it?  Mamaaa."
"Yes, yes, just for a bit, okay?"
"Yaaaaaaaaaaayy...☆"
Before Rosa oba-san finished talking, Maria started unwrapping it.
As soon as she did, ......yellow and orange peeked out.

What appeared was a slightly blank-looking lion stuffed animal, with cute round eyes and a white chest.
It was about the size of a small pillow.
It looked pretty big next to a short person like Maria onee-chan, but it probably wasn't that large.
From the perspective of someone who didn't know better, it would probably look like something cheap bought from a department store or something.

But to Maria onee-chan, it was her mother's handmade stuffed animal, the only one of its kind in the world and irreplaceable.
"Sakutaro~, Sakutaro~!!  Kyakkyakkya!!  Cute cute, re~ally cute...!  Thank you Mama, thank you Mama, thank you so much for making such a cute stuffed animal even though you're so busy with your work...!"
"...If you praise me that much, it's actually embarrassing.  I couldn't take much time, so I couldn't make anything that good.  I actually wanted to make one so big that you couldn't wrap your arms around it..."

"No, this is good!  With this size, we can always be together.  We can go out together.  Sakutaro~, it's your Onee-cha~n, uryu~☆"

"It really is a cute stuffed animal.  So this kid is your best friend Sakutaro."

"Uu-!  Can't go to school together, but always, always together at home and Maria's best friend.  You know, Sakutaro is ve-ry innocent and cute, and is always nice to Maria.  Supports Maria when Maria is feeling down, and plays a lot with Maria when Maria is feeling good!

So Maria isn't lonely anymore.  Not lonely when Mama is busy with work and Maria is all alone, and even if no one plays with Maria at school, not lonely at all.  He-y, Sakutaro~, uryu~☆"

......At school, Maria onee-chan had lived in the same kind of environment as I did.

Compared to the other kids in her class, Maria onee-chan's tempo was always a little slow.

Her sensitivity and way of thinking about things was a little peculiar, ......and was a little too idiosyncratic for her to blend in with them.

Her grades were low as well, and since she was talkative about everything related to the occult, which was her specialty, she was treated like a weirdo by everyone else in the class.

If you were touched by Maria onee-chan, you would be cursed...stuff like that.
Everyone in the class acted like she was disgusting, made fun of her, and avoided her, it seems.

If a boy bumped into Maria onee-chan, he would start rubbing that part against the other boys, as if he'd gotten some scum on him.

They would pick up her stuff like it was something filthy and chase the other boys around with it.

It seems that the girls acted as though even speaking to her was unpleasant, so they ignored her completely, giggling and sneering at her whenever she made a mistake.

"............It looks like bullying is the same in all eras.  Humans really don't advance, do they.  Why don't they just get wiped out."

"......Maria is sad to be bullied, but thinks that it can't be helped."
"It can't be helped...?  Why...?"

"After all, there's a rule that says every class has to have a single bullied kid."

"......That's a horrible rule.  I want to find the person who made that and hit them over the head with a brick.  Using the corner, of course."

"If Maria wasn't there, then there'd surely be a new bullied kid chosen in Maria's place.  By staying strong, Maria can protect that kid."

As she said that, she smiled faintly.

............Maria onee-chan's way of thinking really is unusual.
According to her, from the beginning, a witch had resided in that place called a school.
No, she says that anywhere that a lot of people gather will most certainly have a witch residing there.
The witch tries to steal the students' souls through death by disease or accidents.
Apparently, she sometimes also corrupts the souls, leading them down that path of evil.

She says that an angel came, not content to let that happen.
"......And the angel, she tried to finish off that witch.  But the witch was powerful, and the fight took seven days and seven nights, but even then, it still wasn't finished.  The tired out witch asked for a truce, and proposed this."
"I've heard this before.  ......'Until now, I have made half of the students in the class become sick or injured.  But in exchange, I have protected the remaining half of the students from sickness and injury.  Therefore, if one member of the class becomes a sacrifice to me and is made into the 'bullied kid', I shall protect all of the other students from sickness and injury', .........wasn't it?"

"Uu-.  The angel thought about it.  Compared to half the class meeting with misfortune, having only one person be unfortunate would be much better.  Then, the witch said that she would protect the safety of all the other students, using her powerful magic."

"If there are 40 students in a class, ......and the 20 victims are shrunk down to 1, then 19 people are saved.  ......It actually is a reasonable proposition."

I wonder if this fairy tale has some kind of motif.
If it's a creation of Maria onee-chan, a nine year old girl, that would be pretty impressive.

"The angel decided to accept that proposal.  So, through the single sacrifice, 19 people were saved.  ......So Maria's role is important.  The witch is protecting 19 people."
"......Because we become sacrifices?  .........Well, I don't remember ever being thanked by those 19 people."

...Maria onee-chan's idea was too compassionate.

The misfortune of my and her situations are very similar.  ......And yet, maybe you could say that because of a small difference in our way of thinking, there's a difference in how peaceful our hearts are.

"And so, aren't you sad, Maria onee-chan...?"
"Uu-.  Not sad at all.  After all, will be together with Sakutaro from now on.  Right?  Sakutaro?"
『Uryu-!  If I can be with Maria, I'm happy too~!』
"Look, Sakutaro is saying he's happy too.  Uu-☆"

Maria onee-chan hugged the Sakutaro stuffed animal, playing both sides of the conversation herself.
I don't understand.
......But that's exactly why I want to reach Maria onee-chan's level.

...So I held a strong interest towards her tale and her words.
"Ange, is it tough because you're all alone......?"
"......It is tough.  But, just the time when I can be like this with you is different.  Because I'm not...all alone."
"Then, if Sakutaro also becomes your friend, it'll be even more fun.  Uu-!  Then starting today, Sakutaro is Ange's new friend!  Right, Sakutaro~"
『Uryu?  I am...Ange's friend...?  Uryu-, Ange~!』

Skillfully moving the stuffed animal like it was a puppet, Maria onee-chan changed Sakutaro's facial expressions.
She was controlling him, but the charming way he waved his short hand and cocked his head to the side, made it feel like he really was a new friend called Sakutaro.

Of course, looking at it with cold eyes, it would only appear that Maria onee-chan was comforting me when I was grumpy.
......But a soul had definitely been blown into that stuffed animal.

The soul of Maria onee-chan's love.

So I accepted the existence of a being called Sakutaro inside that stuffed animal.
"Come on, say hi to Sakutaro too, Ange.  Come on, you say hi too, Sakutaro~☆"
『Uryu......?  Is Ange, ......a scary person......?』

As Sakutaro timidly looked at me, he unexpectedly met my gaze, and hid behind Maria onee-chan's back in surprise.

......Maria onee-chan really is good at playing with stuffed animals.
"It's okay, Sakutaro.  Ange isn't scary, she's a very nice gi~rl.  Uu-☆"
『...H, hello.  I'm Sakutarou.........Uryu......』
"*giggle*.  ......Pleased to meet you, Sakutarou.  I'm Ange.  I'm glad to have a new friend."
I held out my hand as though asking for a handshake, and Sakutaro's short hand was stuck out towards me, lightly touching my index finger.

After all, the size is all wrong for a handshake between a human and a stuffed animal.
This greeting by touching each other's fingers was our handshake.

"Uu-☆  Now, Ange and Sakutaro are already friends!  Two people are more fun than one, and three people are more fun than two.  Uu-!"
『Uryu~!』

Maria onee-chan had given the name 'Sakutarou' to the stuffed animal she was to receive on her birthday, and had warmed and expanded his existence in her heart for a long, long time.

Therefore, even before she had met him, a personality had been sublimated into his existence.
Even at the first moment they had met, he and she had been friends.
Of course, I don't think anything could be as personified and loved as Sakutarou was, but that wasn't anything extraordinary in Maria onee-chan's eyes.

She loved the things she owned very much, treating them just like friends or beloved pets.
Maybe Rosa oba-san hadn't let her keep a pet at some point in time, so she treated objects as though they were precious.

......Maybe she was so isolated that she had been forced to find a friend nearby.

Because of those various conditions, this wasn't anything extraordinary from her perspective.
And even so, Sakutarou, ......no, maybe I should call it Sakutaro like Maria onee-chan.

It was certain that Sakutaro was a stuffed animal, ...no, a friend who was more loved than anything, no, anyone.
"Hello..., it's Mama.  You're in a good mood.  Is a friend over?"
"Uu-!  Playing with Sakutaro!  Sakutaro, knock it off, kyakkyakkya!"
It was already about 9:00 at night.

Rosa had asked since this wasn't a good time to have a friend over and she had been a little surprised, but when she thought about it, Maria didn't have any friends who would come over to play, did she...
Even so, to think that she would have so much fun playing with that stuffed animal.
Rosa was very pleased that Maria had liked her birthday present so much.
"Sorry.  Mama just can't get her work finished...  The next season's lineup is having a tough time.  It looks like we're finally starting to get orders bit by bit, and I want to somehow give an impact here that can answer their expectations..."
"Staying over tonight?  Yeah, okay.  Do your best, Mama!"
"R, really?  Thank you, Maria...  Thanks for understanding about Mama's work..."

Rosa was very surprised that Maria had accepted that she couldn't come home from work so indifferently.
Rosa had viewed telling Maria that she would be coming home late or staying overnight as a large burden.

Maria would start crying about how lonely she was on the other end of the phone, and it took a lot of time and effort to calm her down.
To think that Maria would accept it in such high spirits...
Is this also thanks to Sakutarou?

...Rosa was once again pleased that she had given such a good present.
"I'll make sure that I can come back this time tomorrow.  Let's eat dinner together tomorrow.  You haven't eaten dinner yet, have you Maria?  Buy a bento at the convenience store and eat it.  No sweets, and no soda.  I'll check the receipt and the change, understand?"
"Uu-!  Shopping with Sakutaro, shopping with Sakutaro...!"
"H, hey!  Not Sakutaro, have him watch over the house!"
From Maria's manner of speech, Rosa got the feeling that Maria would go shopping with that stuffed animal without her knowing about it.

Rosa's forehead creased, and after sourly saying that Maria definitely must not do that, she hung up.
"Uu-...  Mama said must not go shopping with Sakutaro..."
『Uryu-...  Can't go shopping with Maria...  Staying home alone...will be lonely...』
"Why did Mama say not to go shopping with Sakutaro...  Uu-..."
『Uryu.........I'm sure that if Maria was seen with me, it would be embarrassing...』
"......Embarrassing?  Why?"
『Mama says not to take me outside a lot.  And she usually says Maria can't do it because she's too old...』
"Uu-?  But Maria isn't embarrassed at all to be with Sakutaro, right?"
『I am a lion, ...but I'm a stuffed animal.』
"You're a lion and a stuffed animal, but you're Maria's friend.  So let's go out together☆  Just when Mama isn't around, as a secret.  Uu-?  You aren't saying that you're embarrassed, are you?"
『I'm not embarrassed, but.........uryu, ...the people outside are a little scary...』
"Is that it!  Then, Maria will make it so that Sakutaro can go outside without being scared!  Leave it to Maria, Maria has something convenient...!"
Maria started fishing around her messy room.

Rosa often told her to clean it up, but she was just bad at cleaning up her room.
However, Maria herself knew more or less where everything was.

So much so that if it were to be cleaned up, she would have trouble finding where anything was.
"Here it is!  Hey, look, Sakutaro.  A knapsa~ck!"
Maria proudly held it up high.

Sakutaro looked at the knapsack, which was gaping open, squirming as though saying 'are you serious...'
『Uryu......, Maria, you aren't saying......』
"Uu-!  This way, we can go shopping together, and Sakutaro won't be scared!"
Maria held Sakutaro up, and started stuffing him into the knapsack.

At first, she tried to stick him in head-first, but then he'd be upside-down and suffocate.
So she pulled him out and tried pushing him in again, feet-first.
『Uryu-...!  Ti-ght, cra-mped, da-rk.  Uryu-!  Urk.』
"Look, it's alright.  If you stick your head out, it isn't cramped, it isn't dark, and it isn't scary.  And it's a good view.  Uu-!"
『Uryu, you're right.  ......Is it alright if I go shopping with Maria like this...?』
"Yeah, it's alright!  What should we get for dinner tonight?!  Come on, let's go out, Sakutaro!  Uu-!"

"*giggle*.  Looks like you're having fun, Maria onee-chan.";

"Yes, it's a lot of fun.  Even things that would be lonely and boring alone all become fun with Sakutaro.  Any human friend would have to go home when it gets late.

But Sakutaro doesn't go home, so we can be together all the time.  He'll watch TV with Maria, be together even in the futon, and even hold Maria's hand on scary nights with thunder.  He'll chase away the monsters in the closet and under the bed.  Sakutaro is reliable!"
『Uryu.  Since I'm a lion, I'll show my courage and chase away any monsters that scare Maria.  Uryu-, gao-.』

They were so close that it made me a little envious.
I'm supposedly older than Maria onee-chan.

But Maria onee-chan really is my onee-chan, and I still haven't reached her level.

...If only I had a friend close by like Sakutaro.

"Maria and Sakutaro are close friends to Ange, right?  We'll a-lways be by your side, Ange.  It's just that your magic is weak, so you cannot perceive it unless you open Maria's diary like this."
"......Perceive?  You know some pretty difficult words, Maria onee-chan."

According to her, this world is full of witches and spirits.

As if they were as natural and nearby as a light breeze.

"You don't normally notice or see the wind, but when incense smoke or something draws trails, you can see it, right?"
"......Right.  And even if you can't see it, it is always nearby."

"That's it.  Maria and Sakutaro are always really close by to you, Ange.  Gods and spirits, and guardian spirits, are always right next to us.  But if you aren't conscious of them, you can't feel their existence.  Like wind that can't be seen with the eyes.  But they are certainly near us, and if they draw trails in the smoke called magic, anyone can see them."
I had thought that I could only meet Maria onee-chan when this diary was open.

But from what she said, she was always with me, and I could meet her at any time if I truly desired to.
"Along with a record of her life, Maria left a fragment of her own soul in her diary.  So the power of Maria's magic resides in this diary.  But it is very faint, so no one other than Ange can feel it."
"......Only I...understand?"

"Yes.  After all, just like Maria, the power of a witch resides in Ange!  If you study hard, even you could definitely become a great witch in the future."

".........A witch.  I wonder if that's fun."

"Uu-!  It is fun.  If you do that, you will be able to know that Maria and Sakutaro are always by your side, even without opening the diary.  If you do that, every day will become fun!  If you do that, Maria will introduce you to many other friends.  If you do that, every day will get busy, and very lively."

"That might be fun.  ......I do have the grimoire you left behind, Maria onee-chan.  I'll try reading it seriously sometime soon.  ......If I do that, I won't be all alone anymore, will I?"
"Uu-!" 『Uryu-!』

Maria onee-chan and Sakutaro said that at the same time, happy that I had developed an interest in the world of witches.
With her knapsack on her back, half of Sakutaro's face peeking out, she triumphantly walked through the late night shopping district.
Anyways, it was this time of day.  Everyone in the shopping district was either a shop owner lowering the shutters on their shops, or employees rushing, or else staggering, on their way home.
Amidst all that, Maria, who was in a good mood as though she was hiking, probably looked quite merry.

Every once in a while, passing employees would glance at her back with the eyes of someone seeing something out of place.
Office ladies giggled at the cute stuffed animal poking its head out of the knapsack.
The supermarket had been closed for a while by this time.
However, the recently popular convenience stores stayed open until midnight.

It was very convenient for Maria, whose mother's return was often late.
Maria lowered the knapsack from her back, and carrying it like a child in her arms, she headed over to the sweet buns corner.

She pointed to a sweet bun she had eaten before, explaining to Sakutaro that this one was delicious, that one was pretty good too.  Sakutaro seemed to be enjoying it a lot.
"Maria will ha-ve the three-colored one!  With just this one, you can eat bean jam and cream and strawberry jam!  But there's sometimes greenish-brown bean jam or white bean jam.  There should be one kind of bean ja-m."
『Uryu-!  Looks like having different things inside makes them interesting.  Uryu~!』
"Next, Maria will ha-ve fruit yogurt!  There's fruit in it, but it isn't a sweet, right?  Yeah, surely Mama will be fine with it.  Do you want one too, Sakutaro?"
『Uryu?  Is that alright......?  What about the money?』
"Uu-, no proble~m!  Look, it's Shotoku Taishi-, uu-!
Shotoku Taishi

The man whose face was on the 10,000 yen note from 1957 to 1984 (about 55 dollars at that time).
 So Maria can buy you whatever you want too, Sakutaro.  Let's eat together!  Will you eat yogurt too, Sakutaro?"

When Maria made to grab another one of the same fruit yogurt, Sakutaro bent his head slightly, worried.
『Uryu...  But, I can't eat a big one, so a small one is fine.』
"Uu-.  Then, how about a small yogurt?  It's 30 yen.  That's cheap."
『Uryu!  That's good enough for me.  Yogurt with Maria!』
"Yogurt with Sakutaro!  Uu-!"
Maria put the three-colored bread and the two yogurts into a shopping basket, and brought them to the register.
The man running the register had been in charge of the tobacco shop, which had been here until last year.
"I seem to be seeing you a lot at this time of day, little lady.  You're a good girl, but why not come with your mother if you're going to go shopping at this time in the future, alright?"
"Mama said it's okay, so it's alright!  Mama always comes home late because of her work, but we aren't lonely.  Right, Sakutaro?"
『Uryu-!』
"Really?  That sounds tough.  Here, I'll give you some free soda."

The man working at the store took a can of leftover soda or something from behind the register and packed it into the bag with everything else.
"Thank you mister!  Uu-!  Isn't that great, Sakutaro!?" 『Uryu-!』

Since she had been told not to buy soda, she couldn't take it back home.
So she decided to drink it on her way back, and not bring the empty can back home.
With the vinyl bag with the sweet bun in it around her elbow, holding the knapsack with Sakutaro in it with that same arm, and drinking her soda, the two of them walked home...
"......Uu-.  Yuzukoshou soda sounds pretty weird...  You want to try too, Sakutaro...?"
『Uryu?  .........Uryuuryuuryu, uryu-!!  Gaah.  ...Uryuuuu, you're mean, Maria...  Nasssty......』
"It sure is, uu-uu-."
Of course, it's not like she could actually make a stuffed animal drink soda.
She just put the can to Sakutaro's mouth and pretended to tilt it.

But it was fun for Maria to share the taste of this weird drink that she had gotten for free with Sakutaro...
There was a huge moon in the sky.

At times, that moon had been clouded by the tears from when she had acted unmanageable when Rosa had stayed over at work, and when she had been scolded by her mother.

But that moon was very warm, and it seemed to watch over the two of them as they enjoyed their trip home by themselves...
Maria and Sakutaro.  ......Ange watched the two of them go from behind.
"....................."

She looked so, ...warm from behind.
After looking at the backs of Maria onee-chan and Sakutaro together, it became very hard to remember all of those long nights when she had cried because her mother hadn't come home...
......I couldn't tell Maria onee-chan, ...but if I had been in the same position, and even if I had given a stuffed animal the name Sakutarou, ...it wouldn't have been anything more or less than a stuffed animal.
Anyone can make a relationship which only distracts you from your loneliness.

But Maria onee-chan was different.
Sakutaro isn't a stuffed animal or a toy.

......He was a real friend, and far from just distracting Maria from her loneliness, he changed the nights without her mother into a fun time where they could play all by themselves...
Was it because Sakutarou was a special stuffed animal?
Because her mother had made it herself?
Because it was very, very cute?
......Probably not.
If there is a secret here, it doesn't lie within Sakutarou.
...I think it probably lies within Maria onee-chan.
".........This is the power of magic you were talking about, Maria onee-chan...?"

"Uu-.  Knowing magic means that you notice a lot of friends right beside you that you didn't notice before.  It's as fun as having a bunch of new toy shops pop up all over the neighborhood!"

......If even I, locked up in an academy without a single friend, ...had power like Maria onee-chan, I wonder if I could make my days just a bit richer.

I wonder if I'll be able to honestly shed tears on nights I feel like crying, to smile on gray nights.

"Yes.  You can.  Ange can do it.  After all, Ange also has the qualifications to become a witch."
".........The qualifications...to become a witch."

"Maria also has the qualifications to become a witch.  So Maria still has a lot more studying and training to do.  Maria will definitely become a wonderful witch, fly in the sky on a broom, and draw a rainbow with her cane, making candy fall from the sky.  Maria can definitely do it.  Then, Maria will show Ange too.  It'll definitely be like a scene from a wonderful dream."

Maria onee-chan said that, making an absolute promise with her smile.

......There's no way I can become a witch.
But if Maria onee-chan says that, I can believe that maybe, I really can become a witch.

Because in reality, ......on this troubled night, when not a single flower of a smile could bloom, her magic had surely given birth to a smile.

"......I wonder if, ............I can become a witch."

"You can.  ......Ange is a bit older, so her soul is slightly bound by gravity.  So training might be tougher than for Maria.  But you definitely can.  After all, you're already touching a fragment of magic."
"I am?  ......Magic...?"

"Yeah.  Come on, look.  In a world where I don't exist, you have summoned me and are talking with me."
".........This is...magic...?"

"Yeah.  You have inflated the fragment of my soul that I left in the diary, and are reviving me.  I also said it a short while ago, right?  Since you are able to be reunited with me and have a conversation, and be shown a smile every once in a while, you must have some magical talent, Ange.  Maria onee-chan guarantees it.  Uu-!"

"...You said it a second ago, Onee-chan.  I thought that I could only meet you while the diary was open, but you're really nearby all the time.  ......If I had more of the power of magic, I could see that, ...and, just like now, ......I could have a conversation with you, Onee-chan...?  Any time...?"

"Yeah.  We can talk any time.  Maria is even by your side to say good morning, and Maria is even there during class.  Let's talk together during boring classes to distract you.  Maria can also be someone to talk to during meals, so let's always be together like this during lunch break.

Also together after school, and of course, I am always by your side when you return to the dormitory.  ...It's just that you don't

see me except when the diary is opened・・・・・・・・・・・・・・."

"............Even if I close the diary, ...Maria onee-chan, ...you'll be by my side, right?"

"Yes.  Be there.  So if you try to see me and try to talk to me, I can definitely answer.  ......If you look strongly and try to talk."

"............I'll, .........try it."

"It isn't easy, alright?  It isn't going to go well all of a sudden, alright?"
".........I understand.  I think it definitely isn't easy.  ......But I, .........want to be like you, Maria onee-chan........."

"Uu-.  Understand.  .........Then, look at me well.  Look strongly."
"......Yeah."

"Slowly open and close your eyes.  ...You can't shut them for a long time all of a sudden.  After burning my form into your eyes, try to make it blend into the inside of your eyelids..."

".........Yeah, ......I'm doing it."

"Once you can visualize me even with your eyes closed, .........without changing anything, slowly and softly close your eyes.  .........How is it?  Can you still see me?"
"Y, ......yes.  ...I think...I can probably see you..."

"Then try opening your eyes for a second.  .........Now for the real thing.  Calm your heart, and close the diary.  ......At that time, Maria's form may disappear for a second.  But calm your heart and don't get anxious.  ......And then, try to make the me that is blended into the inside of your eyelids blend back into your eyes....Slowly visualize me in the empty air.  ......In the empty air...see me."

"........................Yeah, I'm alright.  ............Then, .........I'll close it, the diary.""Uu-."
Slowly........., ...I closed the diary.
When I closed the diary, ......a gray reality filled with dull air unfolded.
Of course, Maria onee-chan's form disappeared.
......Give it all you've got, have courage.  ...Take the first step into the world of witches.

I felt like Maria onee-chan was cheering me on inside my heart.
Cheering me?  Really?
Do I just have the wrong idea...?
No, that's not it.
It's because I have the wrong idea that

(I cannot see her/・・・・・・・・).
Maria onee-chan is always by my side.
And even now, she's definitely there, cheering me on to do my best...

That...reached my ears.
So I mustn't ignore it like it's my imagination or the voice of my own heart......
......I believe, ...that Maria onee-chan is there.
I mustn't doubt.  ...I believe.
Onee-chan said she'd always be by my side.  I must not doubt that...
But looking at that empty space, by the empty back wall of the school building, amidst those almost heartlessly boring rays of sunlight, calling out her name was unexpectedly difficult...

The chains of common sense which had clung to me until today sneered at me, telling me that calling out to the empty air was ridiculous...
It was almost like being told to take a step forward off the roof of a skyscraper overlooking a sea of lights.
......It's Maria onee-chan that's saying it.
......It's alright, she's saying that I'm someone who can do it.

Stop thinking that you might fall, or that it would be foolish to take a step off a roof, ......and free yourself from those chains of common sense...............
"...............Whew..................haaah, .................................Yeah..."
I steadied my breathing.
I concentrated my mind.
Make the vivid form of Maria onee-chan in the empty space before you...rise to the surface.

.........Understand magic, ......and see...Maria onee-chan......
"............Maria, ...onee-chan.........!"
"Huh?!  Is someone the-re?!"
At that time, I was answered by a rustle in the bushes and a wild cry, and I came to my senses.
It looked like I wasn't the only one behind the school building.
No, since I was so immersed in the world of the diary, I hadn't noticed someone coming.
I recognized a group of three beyond the bushes.  ...They were kids from my class.
From their appearance, it felt as though they had come behind the school building to gossip about someone or talk in secret.
I hurried out of that place.

Because if it became known that I had been alone in a place like this, mumbling to myself, it would become a pain again...
"......She said it, right?  She said it, right?  She said 'Maria' onee-chan or something, right?!"
"Isn't that creepy?  She isn't seeing spirits or something, is she?"
"Pu-*giggle*giggle*giggle*giggle*!  Ushiromiya-san sure is i~nteresting...!"
I could hear the shrill, loud laughter from behind.

Irritated and feeling that Maria onee-chan had been made fun of, I left that place at a quick pace, and then a jog once I turned the corner.
......And I might have made it to Onee-chan's world with just a little more time......
It was frustrating, aggravating..., why does everyone get in my way...
I haven't gotten in anyone else's way even once......!

I ran and ran, but it still felt as though I could hear their shrill laughs......

"Rumor has it, Ange-chan, that you jumped off the top of a skyscraper?"
"The groupies were getting annoying, so I thought I'd give them the slip."

Ange and an old gentleman wearing an expensive suit were alone in a massive, modern conference room.

All of the newest machines for presentations were installed there, but they didn't upset the refined and composed atmosphere in the conference room, and that alone was enough to make the business-like theme of the room abundantly clear.

However, that didn't matter at all to Ange.

She carelessly sat on a high-class chair that executives making a salary of several ten million yen probably sat in, looking aloof from the world.

"It's because I knew that they were remodeling downstairs and that there was a safety net below."
Ange talked about it like it was no big deal, but in reality, it was a 'miracle' among miracles.

To think that she had shot through several layers of safety netting for the remodeling project, been caught in a multi-colored banner adorning the atrium and slipped off, ...only to be softly caught by a final banner and to land on the ground without a scratch, then briskly leave that place..., it put Hong Kong movies to shame.
"Whether you knew there was a net or not, even so, it was a 200 meters tall super-skyscraper, right?  If things hadn't gone as you planned, there'd be a mess to deal with now."

"......I figured that if I died, then I'd be dead and that's it, more or less.  Well, still, I was testing my luck a bit.  It's all because of my youthful zeal."

As though saying that she'd had enough of that topic, Ange shrugged coldly.

Seeing that, the old gentleman, who was looking at the world below through a crack in the blinds, cackled.

"So, you were testing your luck...!  My, my, you truly are Kinzo-san's grandchild.  The nerve to trust your life to chance.  ...The Chairman was also a person who could stake her life on a bet like it was nothing, so is this the Ushiromiya blood as well?  ......You really will be something big in the future.  I won't say anything bad.  Why not give up this running away from home act and return to the Sumadera family?"

"I heard that Mom had a bad relationship with her family.  I don't want to go to the house of people I first met at a funeral."
The Sumadera family was her mother's family.

It was a bit of an old family from Kyoto, and compared to Mom's frank appearance, unbelievably strict.
The only person in the Sumadera family I had been on good terms with was Grandpa, who was living separately under the guise of retirement.

Mom also interacted only with Grandpa, but she hadn't interacted with the rest of the family at all, almost hostilely so.
I also only went to Grandpa's house whenever I went to play at the Sumadera family.
When I was young, I hadn't really understood it at the time, but I hear that Grandpa, as a man who married into his wife's family, was in an extremely weak position, and his relationship with Grandma was also bad.

...Maybe you could even say that he was actually hated by Grandma, and confined to the house.
It isn't hard to imagine that because she had a soft spot for Grandpa alone, Mom was probably also hated by the Sumadera family.
As her daughter, I was probably also hated quite a bit.

And yet, they had appeared for the first time at Mom's funeral, shamelessly going on about how big I'd gotten, like they could actually act like family after all this time...
After Eva oba-san's death, I would inherit all of the wealth of the Ushiromiya family.
If that hadn't been their goal, there's no way they would have been able to say such disgusting words.

"......Well, it's not as though I cannot understand your desire for self-abandonment Ange-chan, now that you're all alone."
"It isn't self-abandonment.  It's just that, now that that annoying Eva oba-san has finally kicked the bucket, I'm taking a carefree stroll.  ......Everyone else is just making too big a deal out of it."

Of course everyone's goal is the vast Ushiromiya wealth I bear.

They must think that if they can become my guardians, they will be able to do as they please with that wealth.
Just how many people have tried to act like a substitute parent and get close to me?

"You too, Ange-chan.  If there is anything painful for you, please talk with me, if that will help, alright?  Because I think of you as my true grandchild, Ange-chan."

"........................Haah.  ...Let's say no thank you for now.  ...More importantly, let's return to what we were talking about."
"Ange-chan.  No matter how many times I am asked, there is nothing that I am hiding.  The Chairman was the only survivor on Rokkenjima that day.  That Chairman passed away without saying anything.  I myself understand nothing.  Everything is wrapped in darkness, you see."
The old gentleman was one of those leaders who, after Eva had passed away, had been entrusted with the business group she had built up.

The one he called Chairman was the former Chairman, Ushiromiya Eva.
His company had once had a friendly relationship with Hideyoshi's company, and he had had a close relationship with both Hideyoshi and Eva.

For that reason, after Eva lost Hideyoshi, he had become the only person to which Eva would have let her true intentions slip.
When Eva's heart had been torn by the loss of her family, and she had taken it out on Ange, he had acted as a buffer between the two, so although Ange didn't trust him, she found him a very easy person to question...
"That crime was, ...no, that accident.  If I call it a crime, I'll get in trouble.  ...I have the same questions about that as the public and the talk shows."

"......At the time of the accident, why was Eva oba-san in a place 2 kilometers away from the mansion, all alone?  And on the night of a storm."
"At the time, Kinzo-san was unsure as to who he would choose to be the next successor.  ......It was publicly the eldest son, Krauss-san, but he was not well trusted by Kinzo-san."
"......And to fairly determine a successor from among the four siblings, he made this game-like test called the riddle of the epitaph...?"
"That's how it was on the outside.  ......Kinzo-san probably planned to make Eva-san the successor to the head from the beginning.  He wanted to withdraw his own rule that the eldest son be the successor, and instead of Krauss-san, leave the family to the extremely diligent and brilliant Eva-san.
...The new rule about giving the inheritance to the one who solved the epitaph was probably nothing more than a farce to steal the position of the next head from Krauss-san."

"A farce you say...what do you mean?"

"There was no need for anyone to solve that epitaph.  Once it had been displayed for an appropriate amount of time, Kinzo-san would just call Eva-san, who he truly wanted to succeed him,

and give her that answer・・・・・・・・・.  In other words, that itself was the proof of the succession to the headship."

"..................They haven't talked about this on the talk shows, have they?"

"Well, that's because if you go on and on about the succession of the head, the conspiracy theories will start to prevail too much.  I'm no fool myself.  I won't go out of my way to say things that could invite misunderstandings, you see?"
This was his theory.

At the time, in the Ushiromiya family, the head Kinzo, whose remaining life was announced to be short, was troubled over the problem of who was to succeed him.
Normally, the successor would be fixed as the oldest son, Krauss, who Kinzo had chosen himself.

...But in his later years, Kinzo began to think that Eva was more fitting to be head.

However, Kinzo, who was stubborn even to himself, was blocked by the title of next head that he had given to Krauss, and he had

searched for an official stance・・・・・・ by which he could skip over Krauss and select Eva as the next head.

That official stance was the riddle of the epitaph.
The primary successor was still Krauss, but there was a new rule, saying that if someone appeared who could solve the riddle, they would be chosen as the successor to the head.

And on what would probably be his final family conference, Kinzo had told Eva that riddle himself.

......In short, it was the same as proclaiming that Eva herself was the next head.
"On that day, Eva-san was called by Kinzo-san, and that was revealed to her.  And so that she could succeed the head, he called Eva-san to the hidden mansion Kuwadorian, which only the head knew about."
".........And because Eva oba-san arrived at the hidden mansion one step ahead, she escaped harm in that accident, you say?  Maybe Eva oba-san just killed everyone and made it look like an accident so that she could steal all of the wealth, and that's why only she escaped unharmed."

"Well, that's what the papers are shouting about.  However, I believe Eva-san.  ......I think there are several points worth trusting."
"For example...?"

"That ring of the Ushiromiya family head, which is on your finger now, Ange-chan.  That ring is the only one of its kind in the world, which Kinzo-san had made specially.  And the artisan who made it acknowledges that the object on your finger is, without a doubt, that ring."
The ring of the head...of the Ushiromiya family.

That ring, with the heft of gold and the one-winged seal on it, had a diamond arranged on a pedestal, and felt both sturdy and reminiscent of the dark hobbies of the rich.
Kinzo had worn that on his finger without removing it even for a moment.

He was saying that the fact that Eva had it was proof that Kinzo had acknowledged her as the successor to the head.
"Because Eva-san certainly had that ring.  And, if you take into consideration that Eva-san was actually superior, and that Krauss-san had made a fool of himself several times on the business scene, I cannot imagine that Eva-san's story is completely made up."

"............Although there's the possibility that she murdered Grandfather in order to steal that ring.  Then Eva oba-san, using some kind of trick, massacred everyone and made it look like an accident."

"Ah, yes.  It seems the papers were saying something about her massacring everyone with keeping all the wealth to herself as a goal.  Certainly, when it comes to this, Eva-san was the most drastic person here.  Possibly, ......she might have committed murder just once in her life to grab this chance to have the Ushiromiya family wealth all to herself.  ............But you know, I don't think that's true."

"And the second point worth trusting?"

"Eva-san's family.  Hideyoshi-san and George-kun.  ......It might be difficult for you to believe all of a sudden, Ange-chan, but Eva-san was a person who treasured her family greatly."

......I really didn't want to believe it all of a sudden, so I didn't want to accept it.
But I did understand vaguely.
Eva oba-san certainly had been a person who highly treasured her family.
The root of her twisted personality had been nothing more than the sadness of losing her beloved husband and son.
Even though, after getting hit with her angry outbursts as she tried to distract herself from that pain, I have no feelings of sympathy at all, ......even so, it's not like I can't imagine that the incredible shock from losing her entire family had changed her character.
"......You're saying that there's no way Eva oba-san, who loved her family, would throw away her husband and her son?"

"That's right.  Even if Eva-san really was the culprit and massacred her entire family, making it look like an accident, ......she most certainly would have spared her husband and her son.

She would quibble that, by coincidence, only her family had been in the hidden mansion.  If Hideyoshi-san and George-kun had been alright, even I would probably suspect Eva-san.

......I truly cannot imagine that Eva-san's wailing at Hideyoshi-san's funeral was an act."

".........Looks like both of those are circumstantial evidence.  That isn't the same as physically showing Eva oba-san's innocence."

"Hah-hah-hah-ha.  If you say that, it's all over.  Eva-san was the only one left alive.  And she says that is the truth."

"But no one can prove her innocence."
"Yes, that's right.  And no one can prove that she committed a crime, either."

"........................"
"And the final point that should be believed is the police.  After all, it was a flashy crime.  Pushed forward by a public that was in an uproar over conspiracy theories, the police must have investigated Eva-san thoroughly."
It's easy to feel something unnatural about the claim that Eva alone had escaped the accident by coincidence, because only she had escaped to a hidden mansion.

Furthermore, at the time, Hideyoshi's company had been right in the middle of a takeover struggle, and in order to buy off the big stockholders, she had wanted a large sum of cash.

It shouldn't be too hard to find a motive there.
But as a matter of fact, Eva's person had been perfectly clean when she had gone to the family conference.
Nothing unnatural was found on her that could have been used to brutally murder her family and make it look like an accident.

The servants who escaped harm by being off-duty on that day also stated that they hadn't seen anything strange regarding anyone related to the event, Eva included.
Putting all of that together, it could only be concluded that Ushiromiya Eva had headed to Rokkenjima for a normal family conference, without any change, and had encountered an accident...
"The police looked so intensely, and they still couldn't find evidence that it was a crime.  ......The police came to that conclusion.  Doesn't this resolve the Rokkenjima Suspicion?"
"......That just means that the police

couldn't find・・・・・・・ evidence that it was a crime, right?"

"There's nothing I can say to counter that.  It becomes a Devil's Proof.  To expose it as a crime, you just need to find evidence.  But what could you find to show that she was innocent?  It is impossible to prove a negative fact."

"......Did Eva oba-san commit a crime, or did she not...  Because we can't find any materials with which to decide that, the truth will remain a mystery...is what you're saying, right?"

".........That's it.  To put it in the words you are expecting, that's how it is.  It was even impossible for Eva-san to prove her own innocence.  On that island, an unfortunate accident occurred.  And Eva-san survived by chance.  And we don't know any more than that!

In short, it all comes down to whether you believe the story of the only survivor, Eva-san, or not.  ......I believed.  The case of the ring and her honorable love for her family.  And the tears she showed at the funeral.  Taking all of that into consideration, I decided I would believe her story."

"......But I don't believe.  If she wanted to steal the ring, there were probably many ways for her to do so, and no one knows whether her relationship with her family really was good.  It's impossible to prove that the tears at the funeral were the real thing.

......Anyways, I hated Eva oba-san from the very beginning.  So I don't plan on believing her story."

"Hah-hah-hah-ha...  How does one view the truth of the crime?  You and I are on completely opposing sides.  Even though the information we are given is exactly the same, we interpret it in completely different ways.

.........This kind of thing often happens in politics and economics.  The exact same enterprise will surely have differing criticism.  Do you know why?"
".........Why?"

"It's about whether you have love.  ......Depending on whether you feel love for the other side, the way you see things is completely different.  If a person you like gives to the poor, you can respect them, right?  But if someone you hate starts donating, you fiercely protest that it's a publicity stunt or that they're handing out favors.

No matter what they do or don't do, you thank them if you have love and criticize them if you don't.  That's how the world works."

"Can Eva oba-san be believed or can't she.........You're saying that's the only difference?"
"Those who suspect her will probably take anything she does or doesn't do and view it as truly unnatural.  And it works in reverse.  ......As for me, I think that perhaps, except in extreme cases, truth in this world doesn't exist.
No, even if truth does exist, whether you believe it or not is determined by whether you have love or not.  .....Can you really call truth without certainty truth?  Even if Eva-san had been able to show concrete proof, would you have been able to believe it?"
".................."
It's hard to counter that.

...I hate Eva oba-san, so I'll probably deny all information beneficial to her, and interpret all neutral information as malicious.

......In other words, inside me, the truth is already decided.
And despite that, just what in the world is this 'truth' that I'm still searching for, unsatisfied...?
"That's how it is.  So no matter what you hear from me, because you still suspect Eva-san, nothing will change after all this time.  At the very least, even if you were to grasp a piece of hitherto unknown information, I don't think you would be able to reach the truth the way you are now."

".........I cannot, ...reach the truth?"

"After all.  No matter what kind of new information or proof you find, Ange-chan, it won't change your stance that Eva-san is the culprit, right?  So it's pointless to investigate anything more, correct?  Because

the truth inside of you is already decided・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・."

"....................."

"But, if...  If you don't think of that as truth, and wish to struggle further towards the deeper, real truth, there is a single way.  I believe I already mentioned it, but do you know what it is?"

"......Is it...love?  I don't really know what you mean."
"You are now thinking about this while supposing that Eva-san is the culprit.  But that is like looking at something with one eye.  With one eye, no matter how much you squint, you cannot see an object in three dimensions, right?  That's why we have another eye.  Of course, it's in a different position from the current eye."
"............You're telling me look at things based on the supposition that Eva oba-san isn't the culprit, ...or else, that it was a real accident...?"
"Yes, yes, that is correct.  When you think about things, try to look from a different perspective.  If you don't, you won't understand anything about what is real.
It's the same with newspapers.  You can't see anything from the single viewpoint of a writer who made the article in a single newspaper.  Sometimes you can only process information composedly and in three dimensions when you read multiple newspapers.
......Without love, the truth cannot be seen.  .........Hmm, sounds nice, wah-hah-hah-ha."
Maybe he thought it interesting that such a flashy phrase would pop out of his mouth.  For a while, he laughed, looking pleased.

......At the same time, he was declaring that he had told everything that he knew, and that it was about time to leave.  I understood that and got to my feet.
"I do understand your feelings, Ange-chan.  You should do as you like for a while, so that you can accept it.
......You were six years old at the time.  I understand how you feel after losing your family before you could even understand it, and still being unable to sort out your heart."

"........................"

"You may learn the truth, and you may not.  Eva-san may be the culprit, and she may be a victim.  ......I pray that you find the 'truth' you believe in, Ange-chan.  A journey at such a young age may be a valuable experience."

"Thank you very much.........I am truly sorry to be such a bother when you are so busy, Okonogi-san."

"No trouble, no trouble.  What are you going to do now?"
"Well, whatever works.  ......I've made appointments with several specialists and people related to the crime, and I plan to go to those."

"I see.  I hope you can find an answer you can accept."
At that time, company president Okonogi's secretary came in, handing him a memo over his shoulder.

He read it and looked between it and my face.

"......Ange-chan.  My apologies that this comes right after telling you to try going on a journey, but I have some information you should lend an ear to.  ......It looks like you're in a bit of a nasty fix right now."
"People after my money?  This is why money is stupid."

"Yes, but if you sell off all of the wealth, and try to donate the whole sum to the public welfare, you'll make the eyes pop out of those people optimistic about their chances with your fortune."

"Oh, the Sumadera family?  Those guys act so proud, like they're my guards or something."
There was Eva oba-san's precedent.
Who would ever become under the care of the Sumadera family?

They probably want to, as Eva oba-san had often threatened in the past, cut off my arms and legs, throw me in a warehouse, and suck the Ushiromiya family's wealth dry.

"I heard that a messenger from the Sumadera family is coming here.  They're saying to hand you over...no no, that they want to protect you."
"Messenger, you say?"

"It's your aunt.  Kyrie-san's younger sister.  She has said before that she thinks of you as a little sister."
"She's joking.  At least call me a grandchild, you old granny."

"Judging from the context, it seems they have no wish to listen to your desires.  I have a car waiting in the parking lot two stories underground.  Go."

"......The Sumadera family is telling you to hand me over.  Is it really alright to let me go?"

"You will definitely be something big in the future, Ange-chan.  Let us call this a favor to be repaid upon your success.  ...Go, quickly...!"
After bowing silently and deeply, Ange left that place at a dash.

After watching her leave, the female secretary straightened her glasses and whispered.
"The Sumadera family told us to stall her...  Is it alright to let her go?"
"We did stall her, more than enough.  If they still don't make it in time, that's the Sumadera family's error.  ......I told Ange-chan to run for it.  I informed the Sumaderas that Ange-chan would be coming.  Whether she is caught or not, I will not be blamed.
......Everything in this world is...love, you see...  It's alright, she'll escape.  After all, that child could jump off a building to lose some pursuers."
......Okonogi looked down again through a crack in the blinds, muttering 'it really would be impossible for me...'
Ange wasn't a fool herself.

She got off the elevator, but that was on the third floor.
A taxi in the second level of the basement?

That's so polite that I don't like it.  It's probably better to refuse for now.

But the enemies aren't fools either.
They're probably waiting in the first floor lobby, as well as the underground parking lot.
It's such a massive building.
Instead of getting anxious and escaping outside, maybe it's better to stay on the inside and wait it out.
No, that's useless.
If they get their hands on a security room in a modern building like this, I would have nowhere to run to.

This entire building is like a massive dead end.
The third floor is the business floor.  A girl like me would clearly stick out.
Trying not to stand out any more than I had to, I walked at a quick pace, searching for an emergency exit.
......It would be perfect if that staircase was an outside staircase.
I found the door to the emergency exit.
After opening that heavy door, I found the outside staircase I had expected.
I bumped into a man who looked like an employee skipping work and smoking a cigarette.
After glaring at me, he quickly crushed up his cigarette and went away.
It looked like there was no one below.  ...If I'm going to escape, now is my only chance...!
Just when I thought that, with an incredible squealing of the tires, a black car slid right under me and came to a sudden stop.

......Judging from the sound of the tires, it felt like they had several other allies, and that one of them had come here to block this path.
"......Not bad, Kasumi oba-san.  To think that you'd even send a car to see your little sister off when she's trying to get out through the emergency exit."

*bam*bam*!  The doors of the car were forcefully opened and three black-suited men jumped out, looking up at this emergency staircase.

......O-h no, our eyes met.
"12, target found.  Northwest side emergency stairs, third floor, send support."
"Ange-sama!  Try not to move from there!  Forgive our roughness...!!"
The three of them began to clamor up the emergency exit.

......They had already announced that they planned to be rough.  This is pretty bad.

They had probably been ordered to drag me by the arm if they had to, as long as I was breathing.
*clank*clank*clank*clank*!!
Their heavy, wild footsteps became a helix and began to rise from the lower floors, getting closer...!
In the entrance lobby of the building, a woman with seven black-suited guards behind her advanced at a leisurely pace.

Seeing this ostentatious entrance, the security guards for the building ran up to them, asking if they had an appointment.
".........How typical of Tokyo people.  Don't you understand the status of the person you are talking to without her having to say her name...?"
"M, my apologies...  At our company, guests are to take a securi-"
"......Back down, scum.  I came because I was called by your president.  Call Okonogi Tetsurou here.  To think that he would call me here and then not welcome me...how typical of Tokyo people..."
"My apologies.  Welcome to the Ushiromiya group, Sumadera Kasumi-san."
With his secretary behind him, Okonogi dashingly appeared from the elevator.

Even though both of them wore bold smiles, they were caught in a tension reminiscent of the smell of gunpowder...
".........Where is Ange?  I came to greet that cute, cute daughter of my big sister's."

"Strict observance of time is our motto here at the Ushiromiya group.  The former Chairman herself said that those who can't keep time can't keep contracts."

"......You call me all the way to Tokyo, and this is all you have to show for it?  You let her go, didn't you."

"She escaped from us...is what I hoped you would say.  We did stall her for quite some time.  She must have suspected us after all.  Although there wouldn't have been a problem if you had come on time, Sumadera-san.

This is why it's such a problem when provincials get careless.  Wahhahahahahahahaha!"
"............What did you say just now......?  What did you say to me...?"
You couldn't sense any of Kyrie's frankness in Kasumi's face.

She wore on her face the arrogance of the ancient Sumadera family towards the ruined Ushiromiya family, ......as well as pride, because she didn't want anyone to notice that her family was declining so much that they couldn't ignore the Ushiromiya family's wealth.

Even at a glance, it was easy to understand why Ange hated everything about her aunt...
She couldn't stand even a slight insult, and while she still smiled, her forehead twitched.
At that time, the black-suited man behind Kasumi whispered to her.
"Ange-sama has been found.  We are currently dealing with her."
"......Oh, I'm glad we made it in time.  ......Thank you, Okonogi.  It seems I can finally take my mischievous niece home.  ......I've waited so long to talk with that girl in my tea room, with all of the tools prepared.  Uffufufufufufufu...!"
*clank*clank*clank*clank*......!!

As the violent sound drew a helix, it rushed up at me from below, threatening to swallow me up.
Of course, even if I fight, there's no way I can win.
Even so, if I run into the building, it would be like jumping into a dead end of my own accord.

The enemies will increase in number with time.
If I can't do anything here, I won't have any more chances to escape.
Then, three muscular black-suited men came into view below me.

1, 2, 3.  Three people.  In other words, everyone who had gotten out of the car.
If there had been just one of them, I might have been able to dropkick 'em or something and smash them in the head, which might work out.  ......But it really is impossible with three of them.

No...three, is it...?  ......If there's just three, I might be able to make it.........I can do it......!
"Whew.....................Haaaaaaaaaaaaahh!!"
"Wha?!  Y, you idiot, stop!!  Look ooooooout!!  Whaaaaaaaaahhh...!!"
"01 calling 12, is it secure, we received a response.  ......What happened?!  Respond!"
"Wh, ......what kind of person..., damn it......"
.........Ohohoh.........Owow...
Look, see...that worked out, didn't it?  It's just three of them.

I've already tried that once from a higher place.  I knew I could do it from just the third floor...!
It's a good thing that the car they came in was right beneath me.
Even if it wasn't as pleasant as a trampoline, it broke my fall, a little gently, a little roughly.
"......Sorry about that.  I'll bet it's never been dented this badly."
The roof of the car broke my fall, leaving a massive dent around my body.
Car roofs are surprisingly delicate.  I don't think it's because of my weight.
Apparently, the three people on the stairs hadn't planned on me jumping down.
It seemed that they now realized that they had been outwitted, and they were hurriedly rushing down the stairs.
I have to run and escape while I have the chance.
I moved my body, making clunking sounds on the car roof.
But I had been naive.  There was no way they'd have all rushed up the stairs without leaving one person behind.
There was one black-suited man left in the driver's seat of the car that had broken my fall.
He stuck his head out of the window, and when he realized that the thing that had fallen on him was me, he jumped out.
In a rush, I jumped off the roof, but the black-suited man's reaction was really fast.  ......Either there was a massive reward for capturing me, or there would be some harsh punishment if they let me get away.
"15, secured, secured...!""Owowowow......!!  Ack, don't touch me like that, let go!!"
I was mercilessly held down against the asphalt.
I was being crushed face-down, covered and pressed down on from above.

It was a hold without a trace of elegance, but it really was logical and left me no room for resistance.
I tried to push back with both hands, searching for a way to resist, but I was being pushed down solidly, and I couldn't even tear myself off the asphalt.
Then another car came, squealing its tires as it slid to a sudden stop.
Is it all over now?
"Gyah!!!"
The man that had been crushing me let out a sharp cry.
......He was yelling right into my ear, making my left ear ring.  What in the world?!
Along with the black-suit guy, I fell with a *thunk*.

After landing face up, the first thing I saw was...an arm stuck out right in front of my eyes.
".........Amakusa...?  Why are you here...?"

"Let's talk about that after we've lost them.  To the car, quickly, lady...!"
Amakusa grabbed my arm, easily pulled me up, spinning me around with himself as the center of gravity.

Just when I thought it was a little like a dance, he flung me through the open door into the driver's seat.
I climbed over the hand brake and slid into the passenger's seat.
Pushing me in, Amakusa also got into the driver's seat.

Since I had suddenly taken off while still on all fours, I had to kick and struggle around on the chair for a while, like a turtle that's been flipped over...
Amakusa checked the rear-view mirror for cars in pursuit, but he flew into the artery of the big city without lowering his speed in the slightest.
We sewed our way between cars one after another.
Just like a chase scene in some action movie.

......I was shaken by this horrible driving, and had trouble sitting back down.

"Are you injured, lady?"
"There's nothing wrong.  Humans are surprisingly sturdy.  Next time I try to a escape a downward moving elevator, I'll jump out a window instead."

"Hyahhahaha, it looks like air dives are your hobby, lady.  Still, I recommend that you bring a parachute next time."
"If I can remember after jumping off."
"Hyahhahahahaha, cool!"

He smacked the steering wheel, guffawing.

Need an explanation for this flippantly-talking man?
His name is Amakusa Juuza (天草十三).He was originally one of Eva oba-san's guards.  Didn't Oba-san start to hate him because he chatted too much?
He had been younger than the rest of the guards, but contrary to his outward flippancy, he had hopped from the First Airborne of the JSDF to the French Foreign Legion, placing himself in overseas private military companies and high-class security companies one after another, making for a pretty incredible and unique career.

......But I heard that he had run off from both the JSDF and the French Foreign Legion, and that he'll be arrested if he enters France again.  Both of these flippant episodes were very typical of him.
The guards were sternly told not to chat with me unnecessarily, but he came and took a pass at me, didn't he?

Eva oba-san had particularly disliked that, and had supposedly dismissed him right before she died.
"It's been a while since I've heard that casual tone.  What happened after you got fired?"
"I was coaching people at Blackwater.  When I came back to the country on my time off, President Okonogi offered me a high wage."
"......So, you ran away again?  I wonder if a man like that is useful for anything."
"It doesn't count as running off as long as I come back by next week.  I talked with him yesterday.  I was told that some troublesome people might come to call on you, lady."
"Sorry that it turned out to be exactly right."
"My name probably came up since I know you, and I've got plenty of crazy experience.  Thanks to you, it looks like this'll make for a happy break along with some pocket money."

"......Okonogi-san employed you as my guard?"
"He probably wanted to buy some gratitude from you, lady.  ......After I was fired, I got indebted to President Okonogi in various ways.  He took advantage of me here and there, and now I can't say no to him.  Hyahha!"

"......Seems that if you get indebted to Okonogi-san, it'll be pretty costly in the future.  ......So, where are you planning on taking me?"
"Anywhere.  I'm employed until the weekend.  Anything after that'll cost you extra."

"How much per day?"
"I'll take 50 thousand.  Plus expenses."

"If you stop cracking jokes, I'll double it.  The period of employment isn't fixed yet.  It might take several weeks."
"...That'll be tough.  I'll have to call my boss to get an extension on my vacation."
"More than anything, I want to investigate that day."
"......Oh, you're talking about Rokkenjima?"
"That's it.  What happened on that island 12 years ago?  ......I want to investigate it with my own hands, until I can accept it."
"If you investigate something that happened so long ago now, is there really anything new you can find...?"
"You're right.  But this a journey for self-satisfaction.  ......Once that's over, I'll just throw my hands up and go to the Sumadera family.  ......Didn't Kasumi oba-san say something about how she wanted to serve me some matcha?  Maybe she'll serve me tea as I kneel on some sharp wooden blocks, clutching stones or something."
"Damn that sounds freaky, hyahhahahaha...!"
"My apologies, we lost sight of them...  A single man thought to be an associate assisted in her escape.  Judging by his possession of a stun gun and his driving skills, he is no amateur."
"............I see, thank you.  .........What a shame, Okonogi.  Shall I take this as your answer...?"

"Letting her get away was your blunder.  It has nothing to do with me."
".........I do wish to prepare some matcha in the near future for you as well.  The next time you are in Kyoto, please stop by.  .........I'm going."

"Oh, are you leaving already?  I could offer you some chazuke first."
"...............*cackle*cackle*.  ...Ho ho ho ho ho...!!"
With her back still facing Okonogi, she laughed lightly, with an increasingly shrill and hateful tone, using that as a substitute for a sharp parting remark.

Just as she stopped laughing, her features suddenly changed to look like a demon,
'Demon' Kasumi

The word translated demon here is actually 'Hannya', a type of mask common in Japanese Noh Theater that represents a jealous, female demon.
but because her back was facing him, Okonogi couldn't see that expression.
Okonogi watched her go, laughing cooly.
His secretary whispered over his shoulder.
"......Is that alright?  Milady Ange is our company's primary stockholder.  If the Sumadera family becomes her guardian..."
"I get it.  But you know, we're also the world-famous Ushiromiyas.  We can't let them take us lightly.  ......Still, it looks like that person handled himself pretty well.  ......All that's left is to let Ange-chan do as she pleases.  I'm counting on you, Amakusa."
"......Kasumi-sama.  The escaping car was a rental.  The license plate they displayed was a fake.  This is clearly a pro.  They will probably abandon the car.  Pursuit will be difficult.  ......Should we have the police chase them?"
".........I see.  Shall we have them search for a runaway daughter?  They are getting paid with our taxes, so the police must be of some use every once in a while.  Ho ho ho ho.........
Mother sternly said that she would leave it to me when I left the mansion, you see?  Do you intend to embarrass me further......?  It looks like it might be better for me to serve some matcha for everyone at once, doesn't it?  ......Our underground tea room is cramped, so you'll have to wait in line, won't you......?"
"N, no...  We will search with everything we have."
"......Ah, she really is a cute kid, just like Nee-san.  ......Especially the way that she freewheels and does as she pleases.  ......Ah, now I can't see anything but Nee-san.  Ah, I'm truly looking forward to it.  If only I could invite Nee-san's daughter to my tea room, right......?  Ho ho ho ho ho......!!"
"......The Sumadera family sure moved quickly.  Did Okonogi-san sell me out...?"

"You're joking.  He's my client.  If he had sold you out, he wouldn't have hired me, right...?"
".....................I guess that's true."

"......Ah, so that's why you got off the elevator at the third floor?"

"Having a car waiting in the underground parking lot was too strange and too clever of him.  I thought that I might have been sold out by Okonogi-san.  ......Although by now, it's impossible to prove whether there was an ambush set up in the parking lot or not."

"I see, that pitiful president guy.  Looks like you don't trust him, lady.  That car in the basement...was mine."
"Huh......?  He was talking about you, Amakusa...?"

"I got frantic when the elevator came and was empty.  I wonder what would have happened by now if I hadn't listened in on their radio."

"............So what's going on?  If I had obediently believed Okonogi-san and gone to the parking lot, there would have been no need for me to do that jump off the third floor...?"

"That's how it goes.  Well, it turned out alright in the end."
"....................."
.........What the hell.

If I hadn't suspected President Okonogi, ......I could have easily escaped without getting caught in a tough spot.
'President Okonogi might have sold me out'.

No, because paranoia told me that it was better to guess that he had sold me out, I

supposed and decided・・・・ that 'he had sold me out'.

Because I wasn't able to believe him, regardless of his truth, my truth became 'he sold me out'......
I thought back on President Okonogi's words.

Can you really call truth without certainty truth...?

Truth can change completely depending on whether you have love or not.
In the end, ......perhaps truth itself doesn't exist.

There are as many truths of interpretation created as there are people who speak of the truth.
If I can't accept something that unfixed as truth, ......where does the truth that I really want to find exist?  ......And is that something that can be seen with my eyes?

Surprisingly enough, ...even if this is the truth that is being thrust in front of me, it may be something that I cannot see...
"......Without love, it cannot be seen...is it..."
".........Your kakera is very lively.  It doesn't bore me."

"You said it.  You told me to search for the truth of 12 years ago.  ......But there's something I'm not getting."
"What's that?"

"......What is truth?  There are as many truths as there are people.  There are as many interpretations as there are people.  And those can be twisted by opinions and changed indefinitely.  ......Is truth really that unfixed and vague?"

"That's right.  ......Truth is unfixed.  It can be like a particle, or like a wave, and it can hold conflicting forms at the same time.  You are free to believe that the cat in the box is alive or dead.  ......But the truth is very delicate.  It can change its appearance just by being observed."

"You're talking about stuff like Schrodinger's cat box?  .........Nonsense.  If you open the box, you learn the truth.  Discussion about what happens before you open it is just an armchair theory."
"That's right.  And yet, in order to deny that abstract theory, you need to open the box.  ......It is impossible to negate any idea about the contents of a box that cannot be opened.  This is what truth is."
".........As long as truth isn't denied, it keeps its form."
"That's right.  As long as truth isn't observed, it keeps its form."

"In other words, if it isn't exposed, any reckless statement can suffice as truth."
"Yes.  ......Even if they contradict each other, endless ideas can exist as truth at the same time without being negated."
".........So even something as screwed up as my family being captured by the Rokkenjima witch and shut up 12 years ago for all eternity, can exist as truth as long as we don't know what happened 12 years ago..."
"12 years ago, in Rokkenjima, the witch called Beatrice wrenched open an opportunity for 'Endless' ideas, and swallowed everything there up in a cat box.  ......Everything in a box which cannot be opened is truth."
That's right.

We don't know what happened on that island・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・, so it becomes endless.

"......It can't remain closed.  I just have to wrench it open.  .........But that box was closed up 12 years ago, and I don't even know where it is.  ......Even if I visit Rokkenjima, just what can I learn about what happened 12 years ago on that desolated island?"

"Who knows?  I wonder what you could learn.  .........This is something that can only be done by the person who is able to walk around freely in the world of 1998, 12 years in the future, the final witch, ANGE Beatrice."
".................."
"Beatrice's game board lasts two days, from October 4, 1986 to the 5th.  In other words, this means that you are a piece who can move freely outside her game board.  ......And even Beatrice cannot influence this future that lies outside the game board."
"......If you say it like that, it sounds like I'm a pretty overpowered piece."
"The future of 12 years later in which you are placed certainly is distant.  However, the further a piece is placed in the future, the stronger power it holds.  ......I told you, didn't I?  The truth changes its appearance when it is observed."
"Come to think of it, I heard something like that once.  ......Even if one day, all of a sudden, a star in the constellation Centaurus were to explode, the light from that explosion would have to cross 4.4 light years, so it would take it four and a half years to reach the Earth."
"That's right.  In other words, even if the sun in Centaurus has already died, people on Earth wouldn't be able to perceive that fact for four and a half years.  ......Because no method of perception exists that is faster than the speed of light."
At the time we learn that the sun in Centaurus exploded...

We Earth people will paint over our history of four and a half years ago with a new truth.
We will revise history with a new fact: that it exploded four and a half years ago.
However, for the four and a half year period until we learn that, despite the fact that it has already died, the mistaken truth that the sun of Centaurus still exists will be able to exist as truth.
The truth of the future wins against the truth of the past.
".........That's right.  By itself, the Rokkenjima accident gave rise to nothing but suspicion of a conspiracy regarding Eva oba-san and the Ushiromiya family.  ......But later on...  It was dramatized and linked to the occult, and the conspiracy was painted over by the legend of the witch."
Even though it was clambered over as a conspiracy at the time of the crime, later on, strange occult theories, which claimed that it was the work of the witch, ran rampant and began to paint over the truth of October 5, 1986...
The conspiracy theories will probably be forgotten over time.

......And only the more bizarre, impressive witch theory will continue to remain as superstition, eventually covering up the conspiracy theories.
"That's right.  The false truth that exists before the light from an exploding star reaches Earth is almost like the conspiracy theory, which is the human theory.  .........The wine bottle with a letter in it that drifted ashore several years later, the 'message bottle', painted over that theory and made things return to the occult theory, which is the witch's theory.
......That's right.  A witch didn't exist during 1986.  The witch took control of Rokkenjima because she was 'observed' several years later by us humans of the future, thanks to that message bottle...!"

"......A small revision is necessary.  The witch could have existed even during 1986.  As one of many endless possibilities that can exist."

"Certainly.  If she were observed, she would disappear, so she curled up in the cat box.  ......That's why the message bottle is so bad.

...The witch tried to get out of the box.  She made it so that she would be observed, weeding out possibilities other than the witch theory.  ......In other words, to make it impossible to negate her, she negated all possibilities other than the witch theory.

.........What the hell.  So in other words, Beatrice satisfied the Devil's Proof with a frontal attack.  And, that was part of the witch's plan from the beginning."

"The message bottle is information observed in the future after 1986.  .........It cannot be observed by Beatrice or Battler.  ...It can only be observed by ANGE Beatrice."

"......I really didn't want to investigate the message bottle.  ...After all, reading that would be like listening to the witch's say.  Since I ignored the witch theory as though it was crazy, I thought of it as nothing more than a waste of time.

......But Okonogi-san told me.  You can't see things in three dimensions with only one eye."

"You mean that while looking at it from the viewpoint of denying witches, you must also look at it from the viewpoint of accepting witches?  ......That is the correct way to think.  The number of viewpoints is like a denominator.  If there is one viewpoint, the mystery in the numerator doesn't decrease in the slightest.  However, the more your number of viewpoints increases, the more the mystery begins to be divided."

"I understand.  ......There was a message bottle that washed up on a neighboring island several years after the crime.  That passed into the hands of a dilettante.  I made an appointment, just in case."
...I was able to hear Eva oba-san's say from Okonogi-san.

Next is...the witch's say.
Why don't I listen?  To Beatrice's say...!
"3 months left to live.  It was last year when you said that, right, Doctor Nanjo?"

"......I, I only spoke of what I had comprehensively determined from his physical condition at the time.  As a result, this year too by chance-"

"Even though it's doubtful whether Father will last until the end of the year, he's still enthusiastically immersed in his occult research.  And even so, he has only three months left, Doctor?"
"L, like I said, Kinzo-san's-"
"Isn't it wonderful that our respected father is still in high spirits?  Out of respect for your parents, all of you strongly desire to greet Father.  So you cannot accept the fact that you cannot meet with him."

"...Considering that everyone has started aiming for the inheritance while the sun is still in the sky, it seems that you do not truly wish to meet with Father."

"Y, you've got it wrong, Natsuhi nee-san.  ......We just, umm-"
"Dad isn't immortal, and he'll die someday.  We aren't telling him to die.  We're just saying that he will die someday.  We're just talking together about how to prepare for that."

"And I am saying that this is disrespectful!!"
"Stop it.  You'll make your headache worse."

Krauss told Natsuhi, who had risen from her chair in agitation, to sit down.
Trying to smooth over the atmosphere, which had suddenly become filled with suspicion, Hideyoshi put on a forced smile and motioned for everyone to calm down.
"......Natsuhi-san, don't misunderstand.  They say that you should always clean up after yourself, right?  We are just talking about seeing him off.  We are discussing this so that we can see Father off cleanly when he leaves for a journey he must eventually take."

"Hah-hah-ha...  That's just like you, Hideyoshi-san.  Even though you're saying the same thing, you make it sound so intellectual."
"Yes, that's right.  Unlike you, Nii-san."
"Stop it.  We aren't getting anywhere.  ........So like we're saying, Aniki.  We can just forget all of this about the inheritance.  It doesn't even matter if Dad hits us.
To make a long story short, we want to meet Dad directly and say hello.  Even if Dad says he doesn't want to.  If he's locked up in his study, we don't care if we have to borrow a key from Genji-san.  Right, Rosa?"

"...Oh, ...well, umm...it's not like we're forcing you.........It's just...we haven't said hello to Father in such a long time.  If his remaining life really is short, then there's a chance we might never be able to see him again.........Today might be our final opportunity to exchange words with Father..."

"That's right, just like Rosa says.  If he only has three months left, it wouldn't be odd for him to pass away any time now, right?  Are you saying that despite that, we don't even have the right to talk with him one last time?  ......Regardless of the circumstances, isn't that just a bit too much...?"
"......You would be able to meet with Father if the topic you wanted to discuss really was a greeting.
But Father has already heard about the disrespectful topic you hope to bring about!  No one would want to meet with you under those conditions.  The reason you cannot meet with Father is because of your own doing, and nothing else, right?"

"Heheh.  Exactly.  You should be able to understand why Father doesn't wish to see your faces without wracking your brains over it, right?  Father has seen through all of your stringent financial situations."

".........What are you talking about?  ...I don't have a clue what you're going on about, Nii-san."
"Heheheheh!  Did you think I didn't know about the conditions all of you are under...?"
Eva and the rest realized that he had seen through to their current lack of funds, and alternating between bluffing and returning to the point at hand and arguing back, they repeatedly pressed Krauss to let them meet with Kinzo.
...The sweet smell of the black tea Rosa had gone out of her way to buy had been completely wasted.

The only thing she was glad about now was that the children weren't here for this.

......The fact that they had gone to play at the beach right after lunch had been their only salvation.

Eva made as though to tackle Krauss, and Hideyoshi and Kyrie cut in between them, trying to calm both sides.

......Then, Kyrie took a deep breath and spoke.
"............I'm sorry, Krauss nii-san.  I know I'm an outsider, but I wonder if you would let me say one thing.  I have a proposition."

"What is it, Kyrie-san?"

"......First, and this includes my husband as well, for many years, we have belittled the efforts you have made by living with Father and taking care of him.  ...Isn't that right?"
".........That's, well......We've got it easy since we get to go outside, but Aniki's been babysitting Father for decades now, and that must have taken a lot of effort.  ......I'll accept that, but what's your point, Kyrie?"

"We must acknowledge that Krauss nii-san is Father's caretaker.  ......Isn't that right?  We have always feared Father, and have pushed the task of taking care of him onto Krauss nii-san.  Everyone should acknowledge his efforts.  Right?  Eva nee-san?"

"..................And so what?  Nii-san is Father's caretaker?  Don't decide things on your own, outsider!"
"W, ...well, calm down.  ......Kyrie-san, what are you talking about?"

"..............................Kyrie, please continue."
"We should be more grateful towards Krauss nii-san and Natsuhi nee-san.  ......We should say thank you for always taking care of Father.  It's because we have no feelings of gratitude that we disagree so sourly.  ......Isn't that right, Krauss nii-san?"

".........I'm surprised.  I did not think you, Kyrie-san, would be able to understand our efforts, which even my true siblings have not stopped to consider."
"......It is a natural duty for the successor to the Ushiromiya family head."

"That's right.  It's a responsibility as the successor to the head.  ......It's because you take care of Father that we must acknowledge you as the successor."

"Hey!!  Why are you bringing this up all by yourself?!!  You're just an outsider-"
"Wait, Aneki!!  .........That's right.  It's just like Kyrie says.  Because you take care of Father, you are the successor, Aniki.  It's just like you said."

"............Oh-"
".........Nn-"

Rosa noticed, and then Eva did.

Eva's barking demeanor towards Kyrie for advancing the discussion on her own disappeared in a flash, and she instead stared at Krauss and Natsuhi.

......Natsuhi couldn't understand that sudden change, and was slightly flustered.
"Krauss nii-san.  ......If you would accept just a few conditions, we won't ask you to let us meet Father again until he dies.  Of course, we won't tell you to let us see him at the moment of death.  ......We could even be absent at the funeral."

"......Oh?  .........What is this?  But why don't I listen for now.  Try saying those conditions."

"First.  ......The term successor to the head refers to the caretaker of the current head, Ushiromiya Kinzo."
".........Hmm.  And then?"

"Second.  The duty of the caretaker is to look after Ushiromiya Kinzo for the rest of his life.  ......To make things simple, the caretaker's job is to care for him until his final moments.  You were prepared to do that from the beginning, Krauss nii-san, so there are no problems."
"Naturally.  I have no objections to either of those conditions.  I am already carrying them out."

"Third.  On the off-chance that the caretaker is neglectful in his responsibilities of supervision, he is deprived of his rights as a caretaker."

With that sentence, all slack disappeared from Krauss's face.
...Natsuhi alone was still having trouble understanding what it meant.
"......Hoh.  Just what are these, ......responsibilities of supervision that the caretaker bears?"
"It means supervision so that Father can live the rest of his life in the best possible health.  ......I'll be more detailed than that.  In the case that Father dies anything other than a natural death, the caretaker's rights as a caretaker are deprived, and his status as the successor to the head is lost.  In that situation, the next highest ranked, Eva nee-san, will be selected as the successor."
".........Wh, what did you say......  How can you shamelessly speak such nonsense!!"
"Hohoh.  My, my, the caretaker sure has a heavy responsibility...  However, people can die in many ways.  For example, senile old people sometimes die when food gets caught in their throats.  Normally, this is called death by old age in its broadest sense.
But with your argument, that becomes a death by accident, and I bear the responsibility of supervision.  ......This is unjustly disadvantageous to me."
"I have no intention of forcing such an unfair argument on you.  I am referring to the kind of thing that the caretaker could have prevented beforehand by taking good care of Father and keeping their eyes on him.
It may be the caretaker's job to carry food to Father's mouth, but whether he swallows it or not is clearly outside the caretaker's responsibility.  I have absolutely no problems with the case you raise, Krauss nii-san."

".........Hoh.  So, what kind of case are you referring to that would cause the caretaker to be blamed for making a blunder?"
"For example, ......if he disappeared."
"........................Oh?"

"It seems that right now, Father is in firm control of himself, but dementia might begin to set in.

......He could wander around when you aren't looking and get into some kind of accident, ......or he could get lost in the forest and go missing.  ......Isn't this type of case clearly the responsibility of the caretaker...?"

"Father's mind is perfectly healthy!  There is no need to bring up dementia...!"
"'One day, suddenly, I saw Father go into the forest.  I chased after him, but I couldn't find him.  I called the police and searched, but after being unable to find him after seven years, I had him declared legally dead.'  I am trying to say that we won't accept it if you use a story like that to treat him as dead."

"......................."

"When Father passes away, an autopsy will certainly be carried out, and we will check that he died of old age in the most general meaning, within the bounds of common sense.  ......A death of any other cause will be held as the caretaker's responsibility.  ...............See?  These are all things that you have toiled at until today, Krauss nii-san.  These aren't strange conditions or anything of the sort, right...?"
"Y, you are mocking us, disgracefully so!!  I find it hard to imagine why my husband must be coerced into a rule that disgraces him in this way!!"

".........Actually, I've been suspecting it since last year.  No, everyone here probably suspects it as well.  Eva nee-san and Hideyoshi nii-san.  Rudolf-san and Rosa-san too.  Everyone has suspected it the whole time, but it was so frightening to imagine that no one actually said it."

"Hmph.  ......Fu fu fu fu, hah-hah-hah-hah-ha...!!  I see, so this is what you're trying to say?  ......That Father is already dead, and that I have been hiding it!"

"......Ah, that's right.  That's one of the theories I thought of as a key to solve the last mystery in the previous game."
".........You mean the end of the last one, the mystery of who killed Doctor Nanjo?"

"That's right.  ......The witch definitely said a lot in red.  ...She mentioned the names of all 18 people and announced whether they were alive or dead, and then she claimed that there were no further humans.  ......But with this theory, I can weave my way through that gap...!"

"..................I see.  So this is one of the answers that doesn't cause those two to contradict.  .........I see."
"Understand what I'm saying?  ...You catch on pretty quick.  It's nice that I don't have to explain."

"No 19th person exists on this island.  And yet this trick lets us mix in an unknown new character.  ...In other words, the 'names of all 18 people' don't have to match 'the 18 people on the island'."

"That's it...!  The witch mentioned the names of 18 people one after another, and announced whether they were alive or dead.  And on top of that, she announced that there were no humans other than the 18.  ......There was a single illusion in there."

It wasn't guaranteed that

(the 18 names of people=/・・・・・・・・・)

the 18 people on the island・・・・・・・・・・.

"When she named off all 18 people and announced who was alive and who was dead, she hid the name of culprit X, and instead mixed in someone who wasn't on this island...!  By doing that, even though the culprit was on the island, she was able to leave him out of the list of living or dead people!  The person who was mixed in wasn't on the island, so he didn't count towards the total number of people on the island.

By this, even though the culprit counted towards the total of 18 people on the island, it was possible for his name not to be listed!  The two statements in red are completely independent, so this theory has no contradictions......!"

"There are several conditions for the person who was used to hide the name of the culprit.  ......First of all, even though they weren't on the island, they were someone who we believed was on the island.  ......Otherwise, she wouldn't have been able to trick us.

And it would be desirable for that person to be dead.  ......After all, no alibi exists that is more perfect than death.  Because at that point, the mystery was based on the fact that it was impossible for all 18 people.  .........Is it something like that?"

"Yeah, that's it...!  And, that person was, .........Grandfather.  ......Right now, there's only one thing Kyrie-san is trying to say.  ......We think that Grandfather is locked up in his study, saying that he doesn't want to meet anyone, ......but there is the possibility that he is actually already dead, and that Krauss oji-san is lying when he claims that Grandfather's alive...!"


That's right.  Grandfather was closed up in his room the whole time, and no one saw his face!

Maybe he was already dead, and Krauss oji-san and the rest were conspiring together and trying to trick everyone...!!

"............If Kinzo dies, the distribution of the inheritance occurs.  However, if Kinzo doesn't die, ......no,

if he dies, but

it isn't announced・・・・・・・, the distribution of the inheritance doesn't occur."

"In other words, Krauss oji-san could have all of Grandfather's wealth to himself...!  That's right, he's got plenty of motive!"

Maybe a 19th person X really doesn't exist on this island.

But a person X existed.
......And that person was the 18th person!

"In other words, there were originally 17 people on this island, not 18.  Then an unknown person X snuck in and committed the crime.  ......How's that, Beato?!  Come out, I've just solved the final, biggest mystery from last time!!"

As Battler claimed that forcefully, the crisp sound of clapping came out of nowhere, and their surroundings turned bright, becoming the usual witch's tea room.
"*cackle*, hahahahahahaha...!  Bravo, bravo.  I cannot deny that someone as incompetent as you has finally gotten a feel for it, but somehow or another, you have managed to come up with a single answer.  Even a lump of concrete can stop thinking!  So you have now finally evolved into a being with intelligence.
......You could say that you've finally taken a step forward from the crying creature that you were before, just licking my shoes and grinding your teeth.  *cackle*cackle*!"
"......I was toyed with by that stupid word play in the last game.  My lameness pisses even me off!
Alright, Beato, repeat it!!  If you can announce that the 18 people on the island included Grandfather, just try and do iiiiiiiit!!  Yeah, you can't.  Because he was already dead.  This is the end of your deceptiooooooooooon!!"

"*cackle*cackle*cackle*cackle*, ahhahahahahahahahahaha...!!  Well now, what have we here?  .........Shall I slice that in two with the red truth?  No, no, it might also be good to hold back for now and let you get all excited.  If I'm going to push you off a cliff anyways, it would be more interesting to lure you to a higher place first.  *cackle*!"

As Beato sneered obnoxiously, she looked like she was searching for an expression that would tick me off even more.

As though she was saying that the answer I had reached was extremely ridiculous.
Compared to me, annoyed as I was with the witch's attitude, Gretel had a blank and composed expression on her face.

...Almost as though she had expected the witch would act that way.

"..................I see.  ...Just like Battler has learned and grown, so has the witch."
"What's wrong, Beato!  Don't act so tough!!  I asked if you can repeat it!  Answer!!"
"*cackle*cackle*cackle*..."

"......Stop it, Battler.  The witch won't answer so easily.  ......She won't do it as long as she doesn't think it will benefit her."
"What?!  What do you mean......?"

"Because you've been toyed with by this red truth in the games up until now, the witch has used it many times.  But now, the situation is different.  You are luring the red truth out, and are instead using it as your weapon.  In this situation, there's no way the witch will keep firing off the red without reason.  .........Right?"
"Gretel, or whoever you are.  ...It seems that unlike Battler, you are quite skilled with your thinking.  I have welcomed in a fearsome enemy.  That is correct!  When Battler is expecting me to use the red truth, do I have any responsibility to answer to his expectations?!
No!  I don't even have a crumb from that croissant you ate this morning's worth of responsibility to please yooooooou!!"
"Y, you bastard.........!!"

"Yes yes yes yes, that's the faaaaace!  I started playing with the red truth just because I wanted to see that face!  I have no reason to play around like that if it won't give me a chance to see that face...!"

"......Heheh.  You just don't like losing, right?  Just saying whatever you can to trick me because you can't respond to what I'm telling you to repeat won't work!!"

"Don't be so full of yourself!!  An answer like that could be cut to pieces without any effort!!  But I won't go out of my way to speak in red.  I won't say it because that's what you're asking me to do.  Do you know why?"
"............You just said it.  You want to push him off at the sweetest spot.  This ill-natured witch is saying that she won't use the red anymore because that's what you want.  In other words, she won't go along with this game of telling her to repeat things anymore."

"*cackle*cackle*!  Exactly, exactly!  Unlike Battler, everything goes quickly with this girl because there's no need for an explanation!  I will speak as I like with the red truth, at the time that I desire!"

"That's it.  Basically, it is the witch's right to use the red truth as she pleases.  She doesn't have to use it at whatever time the human side desires.  ............But that depends on the details."
"......The details......?  What do you mean...?"

"The witch has no responsibility to respond when you tell her to repeat something.  But it does become her responsibility only when your claim can destroy the witch theory.  Because in this trial court without a judge, that which is not refuted becomes the truth.

......Just like how the witch theory that the witch claims will instantly become truth if you collapse and stop thinking."

"Then, ...since she doesn't have a counter-argument for my guess, that means it's right?!  It's right that the culprit is the mysterious 18th person X, and Grandfther is already dead?!"

"......At least, until the witch argues back.  Truth loses to new truths farther in the future.  ......The tricky part is that even the timing of the counter-argument is up to the witch.

...In other words, maybe your reasoning just now is correct, or maybe the witch is refraining from arguing back even though you are mistaken.  ......Otherwise, the witch may be ignoring it because it doesn't shake the basis of the witch theory in the first place, and either way, we can't tell the difference at the current time.  .........Is that more or less it?"
"*cackle*cackle*, *cackle*cackle*cackle*!  Damn you, Lady Bernkastel, for throwing in such a troublesome piece.  Thanks to that, I'm losing all my lines!"
"The witch has learned how to respond to your demands to repeat phrases at a separate time.  ......Maybe you could even call it a delay."

"......S, she's messing with me.........So even if I offer some mistaken reasoning, there's a possibility that Beato will intentionally let me flounder about without denying that guess, and at the very end, when I propose an even more massive line of reasoning, she can cut it off at the base, and turn everything over......?!"


A single piece of reasoning becomes a bridge to the next piece.
By demanding that she repeat lines, I have been able to strengthen my position and advance bit by bit.

But since that bastard Beato learned this strange delay tactic, ......I can no longer confirm or deny my reasoning.

This is like being deprived of a staff for searching around in the darkness that I've finally gotten my hands on.  ......I'm just stuck now, right......?!!

"Hey hey, Battler, if you make a despairing face like that, I won't be able to stop drooling, you see♪  From the beginning, that staff was nothing more than something I gave you because you were so worthless.  This just means that you can finally challenge me without a handicap, right?  Kuhihihihihihihihi!"

"......But that alone doesn't change the fact that demanding that you repeat things is one of Battler's ways to fight back.  As I already said, as long as it is something fatal that would destroy the witch theory, the witch is obligated to argue back, and therefore, to speak with the red truth.  ......While the timing of that counter-argument is up to the witch, it must be performed eventually.  .........Isn't that right?"

"Hmm, that may be so.  If I cannot deny the 'tricks done by humans' theory Battler lays out by the time the game ends, Battler will use that as a reason to deny me, and it will be possible for him to proclaim his victory."

"......So should we view this as a restriction on the witch's side that the 'trick theory' laid out by the human side, in other words, what he tells you to repeat, must be countered during the game (during the episode)?"

"That is so.  ......Battler's goal is to show that he can explain the entire pleasant game I have laid out on this island with humans and deny me.  If Battler succeeds in that, at that time, Battler should become the victor of this game."

"Let me confirm the rules.  ......Should we view the time the game ends as referring to 24:00 on October 5, 1986, going by the time of the Rokkenjima in the game?"
"I have no problems with that."

"At the time the game ends, the human side can state a theory using tricks for all of the mysteries, and if the witch side cannot argue back, the human side can proclaim its victory.  ......Any problems?"

".........Let us be more specific.  At the time the game ends, the witch side will be given a chance to argue back."
"Let's decide on an amount of time.  One minute.  If you cannot carry out your counter-argument within one minute, victory will be proclaimed."

"Then allow me to impose the same rule on you.  At the time the game ends, the human side will be given one minute to counter the mysteries it has been given.  If there is even a single mystery that has not been countered within that time, it becomes the witch's victory, and that game is over.  ......It would be such a killjoy to have the game stopped for lengthy consideration, right?"
"............You asshole.  Moving things along without me...  But I more or less get what's going on.  Even if the lines I demand that you repeat aren't countered instantly, they must be countered eventually."

"Yes, that's right.  ......And that must happen before 00:01 on October 6.  ......But be careful.  She only has to cut up one of the things you tell her to repeat.  As long as you can't solve all of the mysteries, you cannot proclaim your victory."
"Just as I can use the red, Battler, from now on I will permit you to use the blue.
When explaining my magical murders with human tricks, you can state things in blue.  I am responsible for countering your blue with the red by the end of the game."

"Blue............So I'll tell you to repeat things using blue..."

"Not quite.  When you told me to repeat lines, any trivial thing was possible.  But the blue is a little more restrictive.  As long as it does not deny witches by itself, it does not succeed."

"........................"
It's starting to get confusing, ...but it's more or less something like this.
For example, let's take one of the riddles in the past where I asked her to repeat something.

"The actual number of master keys is 5".

That had been to confirm that there really were five master keys when she had claimed that there were no more than 5.
But since that by itself couldn't deny the witch, I can't say it in blue.
So, in order to speak in blue, I would need to say something like this.
'The actual number of master keys was greater than 5.  The culprit entered or exited the room with that extra key!'

......And only then would the witch, who claimed that it was a closed room murder with magic, be responsible for making a counter-argument.
In other words, I can't demand that she repeats something that checks the premises of my reasoning.

.........That will probably be significantly disadvantageous for me.
Crap...  It's enough to make me think that the red that Beato has spoken with to toy with me up until now has been extremely merciful......
"...Damn it.  So even if I create a theory for a particular closed room and speak it in blue, if Beato denies it at the very, very end, I won't even have time to create my next theory...?!  This rule is awful, and really bad for me..."

".........Are you going to surrender before the fight begins again?  Calm down.  No one's said that you can only use the blue once for each mystery.  Do you know what that means?"
"N, no.  ......What does it mean...?"

"In the pitiful way you've been fighting up until now, you've made a single theory, glanced at the witch's complexion, and if that one didn't work, you'd then start making another theory.  You won't corner a witch like that."

"Then how should I fight..................You don't mean..."

"Yes, that's right.  ......You don't challenge the riddles with a point.


You assault them with a wall・・・・・・・・・・.  You said that the force of your reasoning should be like that yourself in an earlier game."
Assault...with a wall.
That's right, I said so myself earlier.
Guessing and trying to expose the mystery is like trying to shoot a distant target with an arrow.

Until now, I've been shooting off arrow after arrow, asking the witch if I scored a hit, and then preparing my bow again once I'm told that I've missed, shooting arrows off again.
There's no way I'll hit at that rate...
Bullets might be a better example than arrows.

If you take one shot after another at a distant target with a handgun, you probably won't hit it easily.
......So how can you hit it?

If a handgun doesn't work, ......use a shotgun!
Instead of a single bullet, beat her down with 'shot' filled with countless projectiles at once...!

Shot scatters, so it impacts a wide area.
So it is optimal for shooting small, fast targets like birds.
That's right, there's no rule that says I have to guess like a pistol, shooting one shot off at a time.

......Making a single theory and just hoping that it hits is like stopping your own thinking.

Blast away with a massive number of bullets, of guesses, and make them impact like a wall, so that only one of them hitting the target is enough.
"............Blue, is it.........I get it.  If your red truth is a razor-sharp katana, then it looks like my blue is a shotgun.  No, ......a machine gun whose firepower'll turn the witch into a honeycomb."
"So it's an awkward gun, that fires many shots.  *cackle*cackle*!  That sort of crude analogy is just like you."

"The climax of a detective novel is always the same.  ......The famous detective gathers all the suspects at once and displays a single trail of logic which works splendidly.  Almost like William Tell spectacularly shooting through an apple with a single arrow.  That's why I mistakenly thought that that was a virtue."
......It probably would be splendid.
If I could shoot through the truth with a single guess.

But that isn't realistic.
Look at real wars.
Do they really have everyone pull long guns out of the trench, aim re-ally well, and take shots at each other one at a time?

They don't, right?!
They fire rapidly, they fire all over the place, they pin down the enemy with a barrage!
Reasoning is the same way.

Because of that weird virtue, I had been stuck thinking that it was better to take one line of reasoning at a time.
We humans can fire off countless guesses and possibilities!

The bullet is the power of imagination.  Suspension of thought is a clogged barrel...!
The pathetic way I've been reasoning up until now is like a peashooter.

It was so lame, like I'd been weakly firing off a shot, getting it denied in red, and then taking the next bullet and reloading.
My 'blue truth' that claims humans and tricks are what is real, ......will overpower its target, the illusion told by the witch, with its firepower and the power of what I can imagine...!

This is my, Ushiromiya Battler's way to fight...!!

".........Thanks to you, I've figured out the real way to fight.  Thanks, Gretel!!"
"You're welcome."

"It's enough to make me think how pathetic I was before.  ......Yeah, it's like Beato said.  I've had a handicap up until now.  I'll acknowledge that...!!  New rule, understood!!  I have my own way to fight!  I'll show you it!!"
"*cackle*cackle*cackle*cackle*!!  That willpower is good, I like it!  Then, try using it right away, this blue truth of yours...!!"
"......Yeah, I'll use it.  With this blue truth, I'll break apart your witch theory, which states that only a witch culprit was possible because everyone had alibis!!
This is my truth!  Ushiromiya Kinzo is already dead.  Therefore, the true number of people on the island is 17!  By adding an unknown person X to that, it becomes 18 people.  By supposing that this person X exists, the crime is possible even if all 17 people have alibis!!"
"......In short, if you keep preventing us from meeting with Father, we will have to accept the following theory.  In other words, Father is already dead.  But you are hiding that because you don't want the inheritance to be distributed, you see?"

".....................Ridiculous."
"Th, that is correct, this is worse than ridiculous!!  I have never heard such an insult!!"
"It is even possible for us to have the police closely examine whether he's alive or dead.  Right, Eva nee-san...?"

"......Y, ......yes...  That's right, Nii-san.  You could fabricate any story.  We could easily set it up so that you have to hold a meeting with Father under the supervision of a third party...!"

"Still.  I think that would be very shameful for the Ushiromiya family.  So I propose this.  The responsibilities and duties of the caretaker.  A penalty in the worst case scenario.  If you consent to that, we will be able to refrain from doing something like dragging Father outside."
"...Yeah, that's right, Aniki...  Didn't you just say it...?  You are carrying out your natural duties as Father's caretaker.  Kyrie's conditions shouldn't be anything to worry about, right?  Why the overreaction?
......Are you really that worried about having the position as next head dragged out from under you if Dad dies something other than a natural death?"

"Or else, wha-t is it?  Do you have an idea of some way Father could die other than a natural death...?"
"How could I have such an idea.  ......I see, now I too understand how Father feels.  How pitiful his later years are, unable to even die as he pleases."

"Yes, his later years truly have been pitiful.  ......And the thought that his 'later years' are already something of the past is exactly what we're suspecting.

......You could completely clear this suspicion just by letting us meet with Father.  ...So even after being humiliated by us this much, you still won't allow us to meet with him, Krauss nii-san.........?"

"........................"
"Father is probably already dead.  The corpse may have been disposed of in absolute secrecy.  ......And after taking all of the wealth for yourself as Father's agent, you will make it so that he 'disappeared' and seven years will pass, making Father a corpseless member of the deceased.
............I'm sorry, please don't take it badly, alright?  I'm just playing detective here."
"H, ......how rude can one be!!  You have no right to stay in this mansion!!  Leave immediately!!  I won't permit you to cross the threshold of this house again!!"

"It worked last year, but you've used up your luck if you thought it would work this year too.  ......Father is in a bad mood, so he can't meet with us?  That was plenty suspicious last year, and yet you do it again this year.

If you want to fake being Father's agent and grab up all his assets, you should have done it a little more speedily, and made him disappear without waiting for today's family conference.  You really are naive, Krauss onii-sama......"

".........I have no idea what you are-"
"However!  ......If it is a fact that Father is in a bad mood, and you are preventing us from meeting him as part of your responsibilities as his caretaker, that is a very wonderful thing to do.  In that case, if you just accept our conditions, everything will be settled here and now.

.........After all, you care so greatly for Father, Krauss nii-san.  There's no way that Father will die in a manner that leads to trouble during the autopsy.

Either way, Father hates hospitals, so he'll pass away in his study, right?  Either way, an autopsy will certainly be carried out.
......The only way to

kill him without an autopsy・・・・・・・・・・・ would be for him to disappear."
".........Kyrie-san.  I wonder if you would mind not bullying Nii-san so much...?"

Eva rebuked Kyrie in an sickeningly kind voice.

...Considering the situation, that was impossible.
...Which is why it was sickening...
"Nii-san has to deal with the various conditions he is in, as well as his pride.  Even though it may be an obvious duty to Nii-san, if you put it down on paper and assign penalties, ...that might be unpleasant for him.  Right, Rosa......?"

"......Yes, that's right.  .........She might have made light of Krauss nii-san's pride as the eldest son too much.  ......It may really be pitiful to make him sign a protocol regarding the duties of the caretaker as Kyrie-san has stated them."

"That's right.  You're doing a good job, Aniki.  Taking notice of that, we might be able to consider avoiding all that about signing strange papers and worst-case penalties, and leave everything to you, Aniki."
"Y, ............you people........."
Not just Eva, but Rudolf and Rosa as well, with unnerving smiles on their faces as though they had planned this beforehand, began closing in on Krauss.

They now understood perfectly how Kyrie had cornered Krauss, and exactly where she was prepared to compromise...
"......A protocol regarding the responsibilities of the caretaker.  You can make it so that we never demand a meeting with Father again, even without signing this.  ......If you can guarantee that you are fit to be the caretaker even without the protocol, that is."
"Are you telling me, .........to pay security money?  Fuffufufufu, hahhahahahahaha...!  This is insane!  Wahhahahahahahahahaha!"
"The security money will be paid to Eva-san, Rudolf-san, and Rosa-san, 3 billion yen each.  As a deposit, you will transfer ten percent of that, 300 million yen, before the year is out."

"9 billion?!  I don't have that kind of money!!!"
"After Father passes away, you should be able to work it out.  We have at least investigated that far.  You should be able to manage the deposit of 900 million yen in your current financial situation.

And it should even be possible for you to

borrow it from Father・・・・・・・・・, right?  ...There's no need for an obvious charade."

"............H, how unpleasant.  Truly unpleasant...!!"
"I, it is at that!!  And even just the discussion of Father's inheritance was far too disrespectful!  Father is already dead?  My husband is hiding that and keeping all the money to himself?!  I have had enough of this!!  None of you are qualified to bear the name Ushiromiya any longer!!"

"Calm down, Natsuhi-san...!  This is all everyone has to say!  Why don't we leave it at that for now...?!  This is a sudden topic of a massive scale.  We might be gettin' agitated ourselves!

Why don't we take a break for a while and cool our heads?  Krauss nii-san probably needs a little time himself.  Right, Krauss nii-san?"

"...............Time...?  And why would I need something like that?"

"Well, well!  We aren't thinking of anything shady!  We just want to meet with Father no matter what, so we felt like speaking a little disagreeably...!  And Krauss nii-san, I know re-al well how you're dyin' to get back at us for the things we've said...!

If you're willin' to go so far, then you just need to let us meet with him!  Right?  Isn't that right?  After all we've said, you just couldn't help gettin' stubborn and now yer having trouble saying that it's alright to meet him.  Isn't that it?  Right?  Right?"

"......I, ...it certainly does seem that my husband has lost his composure slightly, just like the rest of you have.  ......We are only refusing stubbornly out of respect for Father's desire not to meet with everyone."

".....................Hmm, that's right.  It just started turning into another sibling fight like the old days, and I grew stubborn as well.  .........Let us cool our heads.  ...I understand that all of you strongly desire to meet with Father.  ...I will pass that on to him.  .........I'll convince Father somehow so that he will meet with you.  .........How is that?"

"......Right.  I think it's alright to give Krauss nii-san some time to persuade Father."
"Yep.  ......We're counting on you, Aniki.  Please persuade him so that he'll meet with us.  After all, you're Father's caretaker."

"About persuading him...let's set a limit on it to sometime tonight, alright?  When tomorrow comes, we'll confirm Father's well-being, even if we have to break down the door to his study.  .........You have no problems with that, right?  Nii-san...?"

"......Do as you like.  I see, it seems that I am not even given much time to persuade him.  ......Let us go, Natsuhi.  We shall ask him to at least be with us for dinner."
"Y, yes...!"
Krauss left the parlor with Natsuhi.

Once their footsteps disappeared, Hideyoshi took a deep breath, smirking and flopping onto the sofa...

"............Kyrie-san.  ...You are...a frightening person."
"Sorry for speaking out of turn.  I apologize."

"......No, no.  You didn't corner him like we had originally planned, but in the end, this was even better.  ...Just like always, I have to bow my head to you..."
"But, ...can he really prepare 900 million......?  I believe we estimated Krauss nii-san's financial situation to be barely 750 million at most.........Isn't 900 million gouging him too much after all...?"

"It's alright if it's impossible for him.  If we do something like lowering it to 750 million so Krauss nii-san can save face, it will look like we're compromising and it'll be easier to settle, right?  And if he really does come out with 900 million, that's even better."

"Nii-san is probably having a strategy meeting with Natsuhi-san about now.  ......It will truly be interesting to see what our proud Nii-san comes up with as an excuse with twisted logic."

"Convince Father......?  There's no way."

There's no way to convince someone who doesn't even exist...!
"............The siblings have all come, despite their various circumstances, for this annual family conference."
Krauss and Natsuhi could be seen in Kinzo's dimly lit study.

Every once in a while, thunder could be heard, and the dimly lit room flickered with light.
......It seemed that the island would be closed off by the storm very soon.

"......Father...!  Please, just this once, show those disrespectful people the majesty of the head...!"
"It is useless........."
The large shadow of a person standing by the window, his majestic back facing them, quietly yet forcefully, ...answered like this.
He hung his head and shook.
...Eventually, they could hear a mumbling laugh over his shoulder.
"*cackle*cackle*cackle*cackle*cackle*, hah-hah-hah-hah-hah-ha!!  It's useless, it's all useless...!!  Wahhahahahahahahahahaha!!"

.........Three months left to live...?  An almost finished geezer...?
Just who are you referring to?
"You foools!!  Did you wander over here because your siblings threatened you?  Know your shame!!"
As Kinzo turned and brushed his cape, it flashed forcefully through the room's stale air.
That air pressure truly signified Ushiromiya Kinzo's majesty and willpower itself.
After being blown by that wind, it wasn't strange that Krauss landed on his butt.

As though showing consideration for Krauss, who looked as though his legs had been swept out from under him, Natsuhi also crouched down.

Then, ......with a *thunk*, ......*thunk*, Kinzo's footsteps approached with a heft that signified his dignity.

"F, ......Father........."
"Yoou fooooooooool......!!  I heard from Kanon.  Just how far did you pathetically let your siblings lead you around by the nose?!?!"

"F, Father...!  My husband is doing his best to protect your honor..."
Without lending an ear to Natsuhi's words, Kinzo extended his palm to Krauss's collar, as the latter sat on his floor.
...No, he curled his fingers leaving only his pointer finger out, then he took that finger and........., pressed it up against Krauss's collar, ......twisted it, ...............and slowly, with just one finger, ......picked Krauss up into the air.
"...You really are a pathetic fooooooool.  ......You let your wife speak in your defense?  If you have an excuse, give it yourself!!"
"Gaggahh, ...................gwah......!!"

Krauss clawed at the air.

Kinzo's brawny finger was choking him.
He couldn't even open his mouth, much less talk.
However, even if he had been able to open his mouth, as he was now, there was no way he would be able to think up an excuse that Kinzo would accept...

Still, ......how could this power be described...?
No one would call Kinzo an old man after seeing this superhuman strength...
"......Father...!!  My husband is fighting in his own way...!!  Please, forgive him...!!"

"............Natsuhii.  ......Fighting is just a process you go through until you win.  ......The process you go through before losing isn't called fighting.

In a word, we call that shameful!!  Wahhahahahahahahaha, you call this my successor, wahhahahahahahaha, wahhahhahhahahahahahahahhaaaaaaah!!"

As thunder roared, Kinzo laughed heartily as though there could be nothing more pleasant.

And when he finished laughing, he threw his son away like he was scrap paper, slamming him against the wall...

"Gwah, ......uuuuuuuuu......"
"Dear, dear...!!  Are you alright......"

Krauss slid down the wall, rubbing his throat as though in pain...  Natsuhi ran up to him and looked after him...

But without showing any interest in the two of them, Kinzo returned to the space near the window, as though he had been there the whole time, and looked up at the thunderclouds of misfortune.
".........I thought that I would have no regrets in my life if only I could meet Beatrice, but it seems that things won't go so smoothly.  ......It was promised from the beginning that nothing received from the witch would remain.  However, the Ushiromiya name is not the property of the witch.  ......Who is fit to succeed that name?  It seems that this alone must be resolved by my own hand.  ......Rejoice, Krauss!!  I have changed my mind."
".........F, Father............So......?"

"I have no desire to have dinner with you cowards.  However, I will attend the family conference afterwards!""F, Father...  Thank you very much......!"
"In that seat, I shall make the greatest announcement regarding the succession of the head.  I will resolve your foolish quarrels myself!!  Uuhhahahahahahaha, waaahhahhahhahhahhahhahhahhahhahah!!!"

Forcefully opening the door with a clunk, Rosa flew in with Maria.

"Is Genji-san or anyone there...?!  It doesn't matter who, bring us a bath towel...!!"
It was already a full-blown typhoon outside, and it was starting to pour down hard.
Even though she had had an umbrella, Maria had been in the rose garden amid all that wind and rain the whole time.

She had grown ice cold.

Maria had gotten into a minor fight with Rosa in the rose garden, and had been told to stay there.

......She had done as she was told, and had continued to wait in that spot even though rain was pouring down.
Rosa certainly had gotten a little emotional and angry, but Maria's stubborn whim was probably more at fault.

......The cousins, who had seen that exchange, were relieved to see the mother and child close to each other again.
Rosa scrubbed Maria's head with a towel.
She seemed overcome with worry that Maria had caught a cold, but Maria herself was nonchalant.
"Are you alright?  You didn't get a cold, did you?  Maybe we really should go back for now and get a change of clothes..."

"Uu-, just fine!  More importantly, Maria is hungry, so food is better than changing clothes, uu-!"

"Hah-hah-hah-ha.  She looks alright, Rosa oba-san.  She's gotta be alright if she's this spirited."
"It's a really good thing she had an umbrella.  ......I was thinking she might be soaked to the bone.  The fact that she was holding on to an umbrella is the silver lining on a cloudy day."

"But Maria!  Even if you have an umbrella, you have to get some shelter if it starts raining so hard, right?  Little girls definitely shouldn't let their bodies get cold."
".........Uu-."

"It's alright, Jessica-chan.  ......It's Mama's fault for telling her to stay there.  I'm really sorry, I'm really sorry...!!"
"Uu-!  Maria's a good girl?  Maria's a good girl for doing what Mama said?  Stayed there even though it was cold, stayed there until Mama came!  Uu-uu-!"

"Yes, you really are a good girl, Maria.  You did exactly what Mama said...  Truly impressive.  But next time, even if Mama tells you to do something, find some shelter if it starts raining like that.  Alright...?  Promise Mama."

"Uu-.  Promise Mama.  ......Uu-☆"

As Rosa gently held Maria, they joined their pinkies together and promised.
Battler and the others realized that by touching her mother's pinky, the warmth had started to return to Maria's body.

"Kanon-kun, thanks for the towel.  That really helped."
"......Then, if you would excuse me."

As Kanon bowed with a blank expression, as though he had done nothing that required gratitude, he left the parlor.

"......Alright, it's already dinnertime.  Let's all go together.  ......I'll even give Maria my share of the dessert for being so good."
"Uu-!  Really Mama?!  Uu-uu-, get dessert, uu-uu-uu-♪  Love Mama, love Mama!"

"Hey, Maria, don't jump around.  Mama loves you too, Maria.  Love Maria, love Maria."
"Maria loves Mama too, love Mama!  Uu-uu-uu-uu-!"
"Uu-uu-uu-uu-♪"

Rosa and Maria looked really close.  Even the cousins who watched started to feel a long-forgotten warmth fill up their chests.

"......You know, that might be the age when you're on your best terms with your parents."
"It wasn't like that for me.  Mom was always yelling at me to study, study, study."

"That's because they love their children.  A parent's love isn't always gentle and indulgent.  My mother was strict with me too, but by now I realize that it was because she treasured me so."

"Uu-uu-uu-!  Love Mama, love Mama!"
"Love Maria, love Maria♪  So, shall we get some food?  Let's be friends and hold hands."

"Uu-!  Be friends and hold hands!  Mama and Maria, friendly friendly♪"
"Yes, that's right.  Mama and Maria are friends.  We'll a-lways be like this.  I love you, Maria..."

"............What's going on, all of a sudden?  ...What's up?"

The sudden sound had come from the teacup Gretel had been holding, which had fallen and smashed.
".........Sorry.  I got careless.  Sorry for dropping it."
The cup on the floor had smashed to pieces.

......Would it really have made such a sound and smashed to pieces just by being dropped from that height?

Even someone as thick-headed as Battler could realize that she was in a bad mood over something, but he couldn't understand why she had suddenly grown so displeased.

When she made to bend over and pick up the fragments of the cup, Ronove appeared out of nowhere and stopped her.

"You will injure yourself.  Leave the cleaning up to me.  Shall I bring you another cup of black tea...?"
"......I don't need it.  .........I guess a demon's black tea just doesn't match my tastes."

"Hoh.  To think that there is someone whose tastes aren't satisfied even by Ronove's tea.  I must respect your discerning palate."

".........I'm getting bored, so I'll go out for a second."
"Bored?  Wait a sec, this is where things start to get interesting.  About now, Maria is probably going to say that she got an umbrella and a letter from Beatrice again, right?  This is the essential part..."

"Excuse me.  Sorry, I'm counting on you to clean this up."
"Leave it to me."
Without saying anything else, Gretel disappeared of her own accord.  Her form literally melted and disappeared into thin air...
There was definitely a displeased expression on her face.

But neither Battler nor Ronove, and of course, not Beato either, could understand why her mood had so suddenly worsened.

All that remained was the scent of the black tea she had spilled...
.........I don't like it.

No, to be more blunt, it disgusts me.
"Uu-...?  ......Why are you so irritated, Ange......?"

"Why, you say!  Isn't it obvious...?"
"Uu-.  ...Maria doesn't understand......"

Even Maria onee-chan, with that blank expression on her face, ...irritated me.
As I held my hands palms up in the empty air, from out of nowhere, a single book landed on them.

.........It was Maria onee-chan's diary.
Even though I didn't turn the pages, the pages were flipped through, even though there was no wind, and the door to Maria onee-chan's world opened.

"......Why do you think that Maria isn't happy, Ange?"
"............Think about it objectively."

"By objectively, you mean from your perspective, right Ange?"
"........................Are you trying to say that the truth is different for me and you, Maria onee-chan?"

"Truth can change its form depending on the observer.  And observers from the future always overwrite that form.  .........Ange, what are you trying to do to Maria's happiness...?"

"........................"

The pages of the diary were flipped through at greater and greater speeds...  Then a brilliant light poured out from the depths of the diary......swallowing everything up and painting over everything with white.
".........Sorry, Maria.  Mama has to take care of some sudden business that has piled up, so I need to stay holed up at the company for a while.  ......I probably won't be able to come back home until late night tomorrow."
"......Uu-.  ......Then, what about your promise to go to the movies with Maria on Sunday......?"
"The movies...?  Umm-"
Judging by Rosa's tone, she had clearly forgotten that promise.
But Maria's response to that was an apology for asking...

.........I'm sorry.

Maria apologized for troubling her mother by asking that question......
".........Maria will stay home.  Definitely wait patiently.  ......Maria will take a bath every day and change her underwear.  ...Also knows where the money is.  .........Maria will go to a different store every day.  Will try not to go out too late.  If a policeman asks, Maria will say that she is running errands for Mama.  ......Maria will do what Mama says, like Mama says."
"...........................That's right.  You really are being a good girl.  If you do that, I'll buy you a present.  Alright?  Go to bed by 9:00.  You must not tell the teacher or any adults that Mama isn't coming home.  Alright......?"
"...............Yes.  ......So Mama, do your best at work.  ......Do your best, end your job......and come back as soon as you can...  Maria, ......won't cry all night and annoy the neighbors anymore............So, come back quickly........."
"..................Well then, I'm busy, so I'll hang up.  ...Be a good girl and wait.  Don't do anything foolish.  Goodbye."

*click*.  ......With a tone of finality in her voice, Rosa hung up the phone without waiting for Maria's answer.
Maria politely set down the receiver and returned to the sofa.
There sat the stuffed animal Sakutaro, who she had been watching TV with until a second ago.
Sakutaro was holding the remote control to the TV.
......The TV had been turned off because of the phone call.

He looked like he was telling her to push the switch because he wanted to watch TV again quickly.
"............Sakutaro.  ......Want to watch, ...TV?"
『......Uryu?  You don't want to watch anymore, Maria...?  If the actors' team gets all the questions right, they might turn things around.  Uryu~!』
".........No.  .........That's enough...TV."
Again, ......Mama was busy with her work and didn't come home.
Mama works so much overtime that she doesn't come home until late.

......Because she had a date or something, she always came home after drinking a lot of alcohol, even though it wasn't strong, and with a pale face, she would go straight into the shower and then to bed.
And because she had overtime on the weekends or something, she said she had to stay over, and almost never came home.

......Recently, she had started saying something about how a big job was holding her back, so this sort of thing happened frequently...
......The pictures I did my best on during drawing time were laughed at by everyone, but even so, I wanted to show them just to Mama...and once again, she won't be able to look at them for me.

And the time when everyone had pushed the job of cleaning up onto me, but I did my best by myself and was praised by the teacher.
And the times when I went shopping, and the man at the shop always said he admired me and gave me a free canned coffee.

And the time when I wanted to encourage Mama because she worked so hard on her job, and hid a card for her under her pillow.
"............There's a lot, ...of other things, ......I wanted to talk about."
『.........Mama is working really hard at her job.  She's working with all of her strength so that we can eat every day.』
"......I hate her job.  ......Why doesn't Mama just quit."
『A job is an important thing for adults to do.  ......It lets Maria eat, buys clothes, pays for school lunches, and pays the deposit for summer camp.  ......This is all because Mama works and earns money.』
".....................Don't need food.  Don't need clothes.  Don't need school lunches and don't want to go to summer camp.  ...It's not like any of the groups will let Maria join in."
『Uryu............Just now, on the phone, Mama promised that she would buy a present when she comes back from work, right?  I think Mama made that promise because you are important to her, Maria, and she would feel bad if she made you lonely.』
"......Is that true..."
『Uryu!  It definitely isn't a pain, or annoying or anything!  ......Mama also wants to be by your side all the time, Maria.  ...It's also painful and sad for Mama since she can't do that.  ............I remember when Mama spent the whole night by your side, crying.』
".........Yeah.  ...Didn't understand why Mama was crying, ......but Mama was so sad, ...and Maria couldn't do anything but stay silent by Mama's side."
『I remember the last thing Mama said then.  ......She said 'thank you, Maria'.  .........Mama said that just by being by her side, you were her only ally in the world.  ......Uryu, do you remember?』
"Yeah............Maria is Mama's only ally in the world, ......she said."
Sakutaro set the remote control on the table, crawled up onto the sofa, sat on my lap, ...and spoke to me, gazing into my eyes.
『......I'm sure Mama feels the same way you do, Maria.  .........The designs Mama draws are the only ones laughed at by the clients.  ......Only Mama's company has troublesome jobs pushed onto it by other companies.  Mama is the president, so she has to take care of everything by herself.  ......Only Mama's company never gets included in the business of other companies.  .........Mama's only ally is Maria.  ......If you tell Mama to stop her job, ......where in the world could Mama find an ally.........?』
"............uu............Sakutaro......"
『The only person I have in the whole world is Maria.  ......The only person Mama has in the whole world is Maria.  .........What about you, Maria?』
"......Mama's here too, and so is Sakutaro..."
『So Maria, you aren't lonely at all!  Uryu!』
".........Uu-."
『Since Mama is busy with her work, she can't be together with you very often, but please, don't blame her for that, Maria.  ......In exchange, I will always be here, and I'll be by your side forever.  ............So don't cry, okay...?  .........Uryu...  Can't your sadness be stopped, .........if I'm with you......?』
"............uuu, ......uuuuuuuuuuu, Sakutaro.........Uuuuuuuuu!!  Uwaaaaaaaahhh, waaaaaaaaaaaahhh..."

.........From the corner of Maria's heart, which she had been doing her best to seal up, ...drops of sadness finally dripped down.  ......*drip*drip*.  *drop*drop*.
......*drip*drop*drip*drop*.
Even though weekends where Mama doesn't come home aren't that rare a thing.
......It's not like tonight is particularly painful or sad compared to other nights.

......Maria's tears poured down.
『Uryu-...!  Maria, don't cry...  I'll always be with you...  Even if you cry, Maria, I won't.  I'm a lion cub, so I won't cry even if I'm lonely.  ...Even though I want to cry too, I won't...!』
"Why won't you cry, Sakutaro...?  Even though you're so sad that you can't hold back the tears, you won't cry...?"
『Uryu.  But if I cry, who will make you feel better...?  So I won't cry.  After all, I want to get your spirits up.』
"If Maria gets her spirits up, ......will Mama come back......?"
『When Mama comes back, if she's welcomed by a happy Maria, ......I'm sure she'll be happy.  Uryu.』
"......Mama...will be happy......?"
『Uryu.  If you do that, then I'm sure her fatigue from work will also be healed.  Then, I'm sure she'll start feeling better sooner, and will play with Maria a lot.』
"........................"
『When you come home and Mama's waiting for you there, and she's in the kitchen in high spirits, don't you feel really happy?  I'm sure Mama feels the same way.』
"......If Maria stays home in high spirits, ......will Mama feel happy too?"
『Uryu!』
Sakutaro nodded deeply with his big head.
The tears couldn't keep falling from Maria's eyes.

......If she greeted Mama with a tear-stained face, Mama would probably get sad too.
『You know about it, Maria.  You can't use the magic that creates smiles if you aren't smiling too.』
"......Yeah.  ......Maria knows.  So, won't cry anymore."
『Hey, Maria.  I have an idea for how to have a fun time.  ......Uryu, want to hear it?』
"......Whaat?"
『Mama won't come back until late night Sunday.  So let's have a pajama party and keep it a secret from Mama.』
"Pajama party...?"
『Until you get tired late tonight, eat candy and drink soda in bed, and play with me.』
"A pajama party.  ......Yeah, sounds fun.  ...I don't have to go to bed at 9:00, right?  Mama won't get mad if I don't sleep?"
『This is a secret between me and you, only for when Mama isn't around.  So tonight, until you get sleepy, let's have fun the whole time.  Let's eat jellybeans and try to guess what color we'll get next.  Let's split open peanuts and try to guess which half is the Grandpa.  Let's search for treasure in the closet.  And more, and more!  I wonder what it'll taste like if we mix cola and melon soda.』
"Uu-.  Wanted to try it once, but asked Mama if it was alright and she got mad."
『Uryu-!  Let's keep it a secret from Mama and try it out♪  Tonight, let's play a lot, laugh a lot, and blow away our tears with happiness.  Don't worry, it'll definitely be fun if I'm here!  I'll definitely make you happy, Maria.』
"Yeah, yeah.  It'll definitely be fun if Sakutaro's there.  Maria can definitely become happy.  Thank you Sakutaro.  Won't cry anymore.  Let's play all we can, get happy all we can, and say welcome back when Mama gets home."
『Uryu-!  Tonight, let's play a lot and feel a lot better♪  Let's play a lot in a secret party that we can only have when Mama isn't here.  If we're noisy enough, I'm sure plenty of friends will come to play from the land of the looking glass and wonderland.  Then, we'll have so many friends that we won't be able to get bored.  Uryu-!』
"Uryu-!!"
......Then, Maria began her pajama party all alone with Sakutaro, having fun until late into the night.

She played by sticking her hand into the bag of jellybeans without looking, and trying to guess which color she pulled out.
......Sakutaro had good intuition and got it right a lot.
Maria also had a brilliant move where she guessed right four times in a row.
The game where she split peanuts open and tried to guess which was the Grandpa, was easier than guessing the color of the jellybeans, so she got it right a lot.

Sucking her salt-covered fingers was impolite, but that was the yummiest part.
She liked both cola and melon soda on their own.
She hoped that by mixing her two favorite drinks, there might be a flash of light like alchemy, and a new drink that no one had ever tasted before would be created.

She got excited about how, if it turned out really delicious, she would call it Sakutaro Soda and sell it.
But, unexpectedly, it had a weird taste that she hadn't hoped for.
And the color was somewhat dull and thick.

...Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised that black and green mixed together would make this.
......Too bad.  I imagined that it would become a sparkling pineapple color.
But, it was an awesome, awesome, fun night.

If it's this fun, maybe Mama will start wanting to come home and do so by chance.

......So I felt like Mama might suddenly come home and went to the front door many times to check, but there was no way Mama would be able to come home when she was this busy with work.
But rather than a feeling of loneliness, it felt just a little disappointing that Mama couldn't join in on this fun late-night party.
Sometime soon, I'll do this when Mama is around, and let her join in.

Mama thinks things that Maria doesn't think are yummy are delicious, so she might say that Sakutaro Soda is really yummy.

When Mama comes back tired, I'll serve her some.
And more than anything.

......I wanted to at least write about this fun night in a letter and tell Mama about it.
So that these feelings of happiness would reach Mama too.

Her work is always so tough and she comes home so tired, so I hope I can share this happiness with her.
Mama will almost certainly come home tired late Sunday night, and I hope I can make her even just a little brighter by sharing this happiness......
I softly placed that letter on Mama's desk.

'To Mama.  Good job with your work again today☆  Let's share our happiness.  ――From Maria'
Then, she decided to give a present to Sakutaro for proposing this wonderful party.

A small red muffler that she had found when searching for treasure in her closet.
When Maria had still been very young, Mama had knitted this tiny red muffler.
'Maria' was embroidered on it with knitting wool.
......She softly wrapped that muffler around Sakutaro.
It really suited him, accenting his yellow with red very well.
『.........Uryu.  ...Does it suit me......?』

Sakutaro looked embarrassed as he wore his first present ever.
......Yeah.  It really suits him.
"Uu-.  Sakutaro, thank you so much for everything.  It was so fun tonight.  Maria can't even remember why she was crying.  ......Let's be together from now on.  And let's always play and laugh together."
『Uryu-!  Love you, Maria!』
"Maria too.  Love you, Sakutaro."
After playing so wildly, Maria's room was a mess.
Maybe she played a little too much.
......But I'm tired for today, so let's sleep together.
And tomorrow, we'll clean up together and welcome Mama with a clean room.  ......Alright?  Sakutaro?

Uryu-♪

"......See?  Maria is...no, Maria and Sakutaro are so happy, right?"
"............Is this your happiness, Maria onee-chan...?"

"Yeah.  Maria is happy."
"......Even though you were looking forward to that movie so much, and Rosa oba-san promised that she'd definitely take you, she completely forgot."

"She just happened to forget because she was so busy with work.  ......Even if she had remembered, with her work, there would be nothing she could do.  Whether she remembered or not, Mama would spend the night at work.  She couldn't go to the movies.  .........Whether she remembered or not is a minor problem."


......There's no way that's a minor problem.

After all, ......when Rosa oba-san answered 'Movie?' on the phone, it was obvious that she had completely forgotten her promise.

And when she had heard that, Maria onee-chan's mood had definitely darkened.

"Well, ......like you say, even if Rosa oba-san had remembered her promise, you wouldn't have been able to go to the movies in the end.  ......But even so.  ......To think that your mother just forgot her promise to spend one of her few days off with you, ...it's sad.  I'd be mad."

"........................Yeah.  It was sad.  Because even if she had remembered, we wouldn't have been able to go to the movies.  ......But after that, I had a very, very fun night with Sakutaro.  You must've thought that pajama party looked really fun too, Ange."

"..................There's no way that would be fun.  ...I mean, all of that messing around you did that night, ......was just like intentionally covering your ears so you could forget that you were lonely and that your mother wasn't coming home."

"That's not true.  Really did have a fun party with Sakutaro."
"No, that's not true!  You were just so sad, and you hated your mother so much for forgetting her promise, that you made a mess of your room...!!"

"............Where was something like that ever written in Maria's diary?"

"It isn't written anywhere!  But, ......by reading in the gaps between every line, I can understand your feelings!  You didn't have a good time at all that evening!  And you stayed up late when you were told not to, broke the strict rule about eating sweets outside of snack time, ......and when even that didn't bury your sadness, you went wild in your room, .........and made a mess of it, right...?!!  And after you made a mess of your room and were all tired out, .........all you did was claw at the bed sheets and cry yourself to sleep, right...?!"

".........It is written in the diary that Mama probably forgot her promise about the movie, and that I stayed up late having a pajama party with Sakutaro, ......and made a mess of my room searching for treasure."

"Yes.  And, .........this is what it means!  You were starving for Rosa oba-san's love, Maria onee-chan...!  And Rosa oba-san always put her work and her public image first, always keeping you on the back-burner...!

That's what disgusts me!  Because I know just how superficial Rosa oba-san's words of love for you are!!  You should realize this yourself!

And despite this, ......how can you say that you're happy?!  I don't understand, ......that part of you, Maria onee-chan!!  Even as old as I am, I can't understand it at all...!!  Why aren't you sad?  Why is it that you can experience a reality filled with misfortune and can call yourself happy?!  I can't do it, I can't understand it...!!"

"............You are a sad kid, Ange."

"I don't get it!!  Why are you pitying me?!"
".........Even though a 'fact' about a really fun pajama party is written about in my diary, .........if the same 'fact' is observed by different people, it has a different form."


I remembered talking about something like this with Bernkastel.

Truth is unfixed and changes its form every time it's witnessed.
By the way it is perceived, ...in other words, depending on the person who perceives it, a single truth becomes different truths.
And truths of the past are painted over by truths of the future......

"In this diary, Maria wrote that what happened that night was very, very fun."
"......You described the events of that night as something very happy."

"And yet, when you read the diary, the events of that night sound very, very sad."
"......Even though you describe it as happiness, I read it as something different."

"Stop it."

"........................"

"This...tells of a happy night.  .........This is...the 'truth' of that night.  Please, don't take this happy truth, ............and paint over it with a new, different truth."

".........Does this make you, ......happy, Maria onee-chan?"
"Yes.  Maria is happy.  .........That's why Ange, who cannot feel happiness in the same situation, is so pitiable."


.........Both Maria at that time, and I now, were in the same isolated situation, with no friends.

So Ange, ......accepted an isolated reality as an isolated reality.
But Maria, ......painted over an isolated reality with a reality of happiness.

Ushiromiya Maria took a sad truth, ......and changed it into happiness.

That was, ......the only, yet very large, ...difference between me and Maria onee-chan.
And even though I am unable to accept it, ......I am also jealous of that power.

"Yes.  ...That's right.  This is 'power'.  ......Maria was able to become happy with that power.  Because you don't have that power, you cannot become happy, Ange."
"What.........is, ............that power............?"

"Maria didn't know what to call that power either.  ......At this point in time, at least.  ...Eventually, Maria was taught its true form.  ......Talk about it later.  On the next page.  .........So then, so then, late Sunday night.  With a present, just like she'd promised, Mama came back......"
".........I'm back."
"Mama-, welcome hoooooooome!!"
『Uryu-!!  Mama came back, Mama came back!』

Waiting to greet Rosa as she returned home all tired out, was Maria, in an unbelievably good mood, holding Sakutaro.
Most likely, Rosa's worn out expression was partly because she really was tired, ......but partly because it would be a pain when Maria, who should have been grumbling after staying home alone for several days, would cling to her sobbing.

However, when she was welcomed by an unbelievably happy Maria, ......and found that her fears were unbelievably needless, Rosa couldn't hide her surprise.

"Wh, ......what's going on, Maria...?  You're in a great mood...?!  Is someone here...?!"

It was strange enough to make Rosa think that a friend had come over, and that she had come home right when they were having a good time playing together.
But there were no other shoes by the entrance.

......Even though Maria was in such high spirits, she was home alone.
At first, Rosa was suspicious that the cause of this unexpected good mood could be nothing good, but that really was a needless fear, ......and in any event, Maria really had been in a good mood as she stayed at home.
.........Even if Rosa's heart had been as cold and hard as a rock, ...after being welcomed with a smile like this...

Rosa started to honestly accept that smile, and a smile rose to her own face automatically.
......In that smile, you could see none of the weariness caused by being unable to return home for several days.

Maria kept talking about what a fun time she'd had playing with the stuffed animal Sakutaro.
Rosa really hadn't imagined that the stuffed animal she herself had given would be liked so much, and she couldn't hide her pleased surprise.
"I see.  So you spent the time together with Sakutaro.  Well done, Maria.  Here's a present for Maria and Sakutaro for being so good."

『Uryu-!  Present!  Present!』
"Uu-!  What is it, what is it?!"

Both Maria and Sakutaro started jumping around.
There were two presents.
One was an assortment of western sweets.

Inside was a Scotch cake.
It looked to be of very high quality.
But Maria was more interested in the other one.
The other one was an even bigger box, and it was pretty heavy.

"Try and open it.  They might become new friends for you and Sakutaro, right?"
"Waaaaaaaaaahhh...!  What's this!  What's this?!"
Inside, laid there like chess pieces, were about 20 small ceramic figures shaped like animals.

Squirrels, rabbits, small birds, dogs and cats.
And they were all holding musical instruments.
In addition to them, there was also a panorama-style background.
A forest scene was drawn on it.
The small forest animals were gathered in a plaza and looked like they were having a good time.
Rosa set it up on the table.

......And when she then lined up the ceramic figures like chess pieces in front of it, .........it became a band of forest animals.
"Isn't it wonderful?  I saw it in the store window, and I was taken with it at a glance.  This is a present for you for being such a good girl home alone, Maria."

"Uuuu---!!!  Thank you, Mama-!!!  Awesome, Sakutaro!  Look how much our friends have grown...!  It's just like you said, Sakutaro.  It was true that if we had a fun, noisy time, our friends would grow in number...!"
『Right, didn't I tell you?  Look, we have more friends, look, we have more friends!  Uryu~♪』

Relieved that her gift had been appreciated, Rosa remembered that she was filled with several days of weariness...

"Mama, really good job...!  You can go take a shower.  If you take a hot one, I'm sure your weariness will go away.  Want to take a bath?  Maria will choose what to put in the bath today!"
"Thank you.  But it's already late, so get ready to go to bed.  Mama is tired, so I'll just take a shower and go to bed.  I have to get up early tomorrow."

"Yeah, got it!  Here, Mama, I'll take your coat o-ff."
"I can do it myself......Oh, thank you."

"Mama, your coat is full of smells from outside.  ......Uu-?  Oh, sorry, something dropped.  Maria will pick it up, okay?"

When she had taken Rosa's coat, a receipt or ticket stub or something had fallen out.

...It had been in Mama's pocket, so it was probably important.
Maria hurriedly picked it up...
It looked like a ticket for the Green Car or the Shinkansen or something.

............Atami?
Wasn't that a famous place for its hot springs...?
At that time.  ...With a razor-sharp sound, the warm atmosphere shattered.
Instead of the Rosa who had been there just a second ago, enjoying the gift with her daughter and recovering from her weariness with a long-awaited return home, .........there stood a person who looked exactly the same, but who had a completely different, terrifying expression on her face.
...In her hand was the ticket stub that Maria had picked up.
...She had stolen it from Maria's hand in an instant.
Just a few seconds too late, ...by the pain of her hand that had been hit, and her mother's expression, Maria realized that she must have done something wrong.
But she didn't know what she had done that had gotten her in trouble.

......It was probably because of that ticket stub-like thing.

Was she not supposed, ......to touch it.........?
Even though she had tried so hard to welcome Mama with fun and happiness, ...she had touched something important to Mama without asking, and had ruined that pleasant atmosphere...

......So Maria apologized immediately.

"S, .........sorry........."
"....................."

Even though she must have heard those words of apology, Rosa's expression actually darkened.
...Maybe those weren't the words she had been hoping for.

Maria didn't know what to do, and stared at her mother's reaction...
Then, even though it should have been such an important ticket stub, Rosa crushed it up and hurried off to her room...

Maria, ......didn't really understand what she had done wrong......
".........Uu-............Maria must have, .........done something she shouldn't have.........That paper must have been something important for Mama's work.  And Maria touched it without asking..."
『Uryu.........You didn't do anything wrong, Maria............And tonight was so very happy.』
"Yeah.  ...Happy."
『And when Mama takes a bath and clears her head, she'll go back to being the normal, nice Mama.  So you must not worry about it.  Uryu.』
"You're right......  Mama's tired too.  ......Uu-, must not worry about it.  Maria is so very happy tonight."
『Uryu.』
"............Just stop it.  ...I can't watch this."

"......Ange, I think you're looking for happiness in the wrong way."
"You're the one who's wrong, Onee-chan!!  How do you call this happiness...?!!  It's so..., pitiful that I can't watch anymore!!"

"What is...?  That Mama suddenly got mad?  .........That happens sometimes when humans get tired.  ......Condemning a person because of a momentary misplaced emotion isn't very adult of you, Ange."

"......I can't believe I'm hearing this from a nine year old...  But that's not the problem!  That ticket stub you picked up was clearly strange!"

"What was?  There was nothing strange, so it has nothing to do with the happiness of that night, right...?"

"Rosa oba-san called because she'd be staying over at her company because of work, right?!  Why Atami?!  Isn't that what you call a vacation?!  It means she left you and went on a vacation, right?!  And you normally don't go on a vacation by yourse-"

"Even if that was a ticket for Atami, that alone doesn't make it proof that Mama lied and went on a vacation, right...?"

"She lied on the phone, changed her expression like that and grabbed it from you!  What more proof could you want...?!!"

".........It might be from a business trip long ago, right?  Or maybe she just happened to pick up some trash and put it in her pocket.  It might be a receipt from someone who worked for her who went on a business trip.  ...In that case, it was important for her work.  It wasn't a toy, so I can understand why Mama took it away.  ......This evidence you're talking about is nothing more than circumstantial evidence.  Imagination and delusions.  .........Maria doesn't know why you're interpreting it so that Mama and Maria's relationship is bad."

"I'm the one who doesn't understand why you're interpreting it in a way that's so convenient for Rosa oba-san!!"

".........As I thought, Ange is a pitiable child.  .........Even though there are so many kakera lying around you that could make you happy, you can't find them.

......Instead, you only look at unhappy kakera and continue to get hurt.  ......That's why you're scared of being hurt, ......and only start looking for happiness after you check to make sure there's nothing around you that will hurt you."

"...............When I talk with you, Onee-chan, it gets hard to tell which one of us isn't making sense."

"You know what?  There are a lot of happy and unhappy kakera, and they fill the world up.  So people who can't find happiness right beside them won't be able to find it no matter how hard they look.  ......Like Tyltyl and Mytyl searching for the blue bird."
".........Oh yeah.  That story with a moral."

"You're the complete opposite, Ange.  You're searching for a world without a kakera of unhappiness.  But even that's the same as the blue bird.  So you will be unable to find your happiness for all eternity.  ............Battler is Hansel?  He isn't the blue bird......?"

"......Give it a rest already.  .........In any event, I understand that a night of happiness was wasted because of a single scrap of paper."
"It sure is scary.  That a single scrap of paper could do that.  ......In that case, maybe the power to get your happiness back also lies in a single scrap of paper, right?"
Just when she had finally been able to communicate with Maria after so long......

Rosa's face twisted with a mixture of anger, sadness, and a fierce self-hatred as she flew into her room and closed the door.
.........Maria's 'sorry' had sliced into her chest sharper than a knife.
At that time, ......she noticed a cute envelope placed on her study table.

It was probably something that had come with a girls' magazine.
.........To Mama.  Let's share our happiness...it said.
She took it, .........and after hesitating, opened it, ...and read what was inside.

........................
Then, after letting two large tears...drip down the paper.........she flew out of the room, hugged Maria from behind as she headed for the bathroom, .........buried her face into her daughter's back, ......and cried.
Then, realizing that she was the one who should be apologizing, ............she apologized.
Why is Mama apologizing...?  There was no answer to that question......

".........Look.  Already made up.  .........Something like that was absolutely nothing to worry about, because of the friendliness between Mama and Maria."
".........................To me, your happiness is, ...too painful, Maria onee-chan."

"......Maria understands your feelings more or less, Ange.  ......Even Maria was like how you are now before she realized that 'power', ...a pitiful child who could only find kakera of misfortune."

"............What is that 'power'?  This power that I don't have, but you do.  ...Are you saying that I am unfortunate and you are blessed because I don't have that?  .........Just what is 'that', which you can't describe except with an abstract word like 'power'......?"

"Yeah.  You do want to know that, Ange.  ......That's why you've been reading my story so far.  ............Of course, I'll teach you.  The secret to that power.  ......And I did teach you about it long ago, when you were little, right Ange...?  Did you forget...?

It's okay, I can remember.  ......Now I, ......no, she.  She will teach you."

"............She......?  Who's that?"
"I shall teach you in MARIA's place."
".........B, .........Beatrice..............."

"The 'power' that MARIA has, but you do not."
"Yeah.  The 'power' Maria has, but Ange does not."


――That is...magic.

Maria and Beato said it together.
And then they started giggling because they'd said it at the same time.

......It was an innocent behavior, which didn't seem like Beato.
Black tea was arranged on a table in a peaceful garden, and Beato, Maria, and Sakutarou, who was sitting on Maria's lap, were having fun chatting...

".........Hoh.  I see, he is called Sakutarou.  This is your best friend!"
『Uryu...  Nice to meet you, I'm Sakutarou...』
"Uu-, Sakutaro is shy so he's anxious.  It's alright, Beatrice is also Maria's wonderful friend...!"
『Uryu.  Is Maria's friend, my friend...?』
"Yeah!"
『Uryu.  ......Then, I am Beatrice's friend too?』
"Yeah!"
『Uryu-!』

"......Maria, does something like this happen frequently for you in your everyday life?"
"Uu-?  What?"

"Is breathing a spirit of magic into inorganic matter and giving it life like this, commonplace in your everyday life?"
"......Uu-.  Sakutaro isn't inorganic matter, he's a lion cub."
『Uryu-!』
"Hmm............A stuffed animal makes for an excellent vessel.
Vessel

The Japanese word used here is 'yorishiro'.

A yorishiro is an object or person that acts as a physical entity for a spirit or god to dwell in.
 It is not uncommon for a spirit to be made to reside in them if they are spoken to by an innocent child that has no toxin."
According to Beatrice, every time a child plays with dolls, the dolls actually gain a will and converse with them, sometimes even moving by their own will.
However, the power imbued into such a vessel is very weak because of this innocence.
If even a tiny bit of the toxin from a human's common sense, which says that there's no way a doll can talk or move, gets involved, it instantly reverts to being a non-speaking doll......

"However, ......this Sakutarou stuffed animal of yours is different."
"Uu-!  Sakutaro is a stuffed animal, but he isn't o-ne!"
『Uryu-!  Lion cu-b!  Ga, ga, ......uryu-!』
"Sakutaro is a lion cub, but he's still a kid, so he can't say gao- sometimes.  Uryuuryuuryu♪"
『Uryuuryuuryu-!』
Gazing at Maria, who was playing around with Sakutaro by the table loaded with tea, Beatrice let out a sigh of admiration.
".........How incredible.  This Sakutarou, with a cloth and cotton vessel as a shell, has completely materialized into the human world.  He has his own character, talks with the summoner freely,

and even moves by his own will・・・・・・・・・・・・.
......And what should be the most surprising point is that Maria did not summon him with a name referring to a character from another world, but created him out of the sea of zero."
After that, Maria boasted to Beato that Sakutarou wasn't her only friend, but that when she went home, there would be plenty more of them.

It seemed that there were other similar stuffed animals and dolls, who like Sakutarou, could talk and move of their own will.
It was something natural to Maria.
It was natural for stuffed animals to talk, move, and become her friends of their own will.

......When she saw that Maria accepted this as something natural, as a witch, Beatrice felt a respect bordering on awe.

"............Maria.  Without a doubt, that power of yours is magic."
"It's magic......?  Maria is still a witch apprentice, so can't use magic yet, right...?"

"No, it is magic.  .........Because you have not become aware of it and cannot use it, you are still an apprentice, ......but even so, what magical power it is!  The materialization of your friend, Sakutarou is excellent proof of that."

"Materialization...?"

"Hmm.  In your case, it may even be fitting to call it creation.  ......A piece of inorganic matter that would have no soul at all in another's hands will have a soul blown into it through your magic.

Furthermore, that strong magical power lies in the human world.  ......In this era so filled with the toxin that denies magic, summoning a magical power that can materialize a single life-form is not easy even for me."


It isn't hard to give birth to any number of soulless beings.
However, giving birth to a being with a soul is very difficult.  ...This is what Beato asserted.

".........Don't really understand what you're saying, Beato.  You're saying Sakutaro is amazing...?"
"Both you and Sakutarou are wonderful.  ......Worthy of praise.  ...I see, apparently that which Kinzo most desired dwells most thickly in you."
"Don't have a clue why Beato is praising Maria so much.  Ri~ght, Sakutaro?"
『Uryu~!』
"......What should be truly admired is not only that a soul has been made to reside in a stuffed animal.  Even more significant is the fact that you have changed your own worldview.  ......When it comes to giving birth to something from nothing, you stand out from the crowd.
......It is easy to make 100 from 1.  However, giving birth to 1 from 0 is not easy.  ...When you become a full witch, you may not only be a match for me, but might instead grow into a Great Witch that I must acknowledge as superior.
The Witch of Origins, perhaps.  .........I am really looking forward to your future."
"Uu-!  Beato said Maria has talent as a wi~tch!"
『Isn't that great, Maria?!  Uryu, Beato..., thank you for praising Maria.』
"*cackle*cackle*!  No need to thank me, Sakutarou.  That red muffler truly suits you.  And I am envious of the talent of your master which was able to give birth to a friend like you."
『Uryu~!  Thanks for complimenting my muffler.  This is a present I got from Maria.  It's my favorite.』
"And its size is truly like a muffler that was created just for you.  ......I see, I must also give my new friend some kind of present."

"Uu-?  Beato is giving Sakutaro a present......?"

"Of course, a gift from a witch must be something with magical power.  In that case, so that he can be your friend for all time, and so that you can have even more fun playing with him...I shall give Sakutarou my magic power.  With that, he should be able to materialize even more strongly."

"Uu-?  Maria will be able to have much more fun playing with Sakutaro...?  How's that?"
『Uryu......?  What could it be, Maria...  Is it something scary......?』
"Don't worry.  Beato won't do anything scary.  Right, Beatri-ce?!"
"Hmm.  I believe you will like it.  .........Well then, to make him materialize even more strongly, a stronger image will be necessary.  .........Well, well, what to do.  Hmmmmmmmmmm..."

Beato crossed her arms and thought about what she could do to please them even more.
And over there, .........was the form of yet another witch.
It was Beato's teacher, Virgilia.
Virgilia truly was a Great Witch.

...Since Maria already thought of Beato as a Great Witch, this person Beato called a Great Witch must have been a Great Great Witch.
According to Beato, she still didn't even rise up to this witch's feet when it came to magical power.
"My, my.  I thought I heard some cheery voices.  What a fun tea party this seems to be..."
"Oh, Teacher.  Perfect timing.  I want you to look at this lion cub.  I hear he's Maria's new friend."

"Ho ho ho.  What a lovely lion-san.  ......I wonder if he can greet me?  Hello, nice to meet you...?"
『U, uryu-!  I, I'm Sakutarou.』
Sakutaro fell to Maria's lap, greeting Virgilia with half of his face poking out over the edge of the table.
...It seemed that he was very nervous since this was a witch that even Beato called Teacher.
"Ho ho ho.  What a lovely name.  ......As a reward for giving such a good greeting, here's a sweet for you."
After waving her hands about, Virgilia held the palm of her hand upwards, as though she was lightly grabbing at the empty air.

Then, she held her fist out in front of Sakutaro.
.........Then, when she opened her fist, there was one of those individually wrapped cough drops.
『Uryu-?!  Maria, it's candy, awesome, awesome...!!』
"Uu-!  Isn't that great, Sakutaro!  Make sure to thank her."
『Uryu.  Thank you very much for the candy.  ...*gulp*.』

Even though Virgilia was a Great Great Witch, she still treated a stuffed animal like Sakutarou to an elegant greeting.

"Still, Teacher.  Cough drops?  Are you someone's granny or something...?!  Can't you at least pull out some strawberry-milk candy~?"
"How mean.  I won't give you candy anymore, alright?"

"Kuhhyahhyahhya, sorry, sorry.  .........Well then, Maria.  Take out your grimoire.  And, of course, your writing tools."
"Uu-?  Yeah, take it out.  What should Maria write?"
"......Oh, what are you starting?"

"I will use a magic I learned from you, Teacher.  ......Magic to make a resident of another world materialize into a vessel.  I think that by applying that, we may be able to further strengthen the power that makes this friend of Maria's materialize.  ......I wanted to give that as a gift to Maria and her friend."

"I see.  ...For a being that has already materialized, it shouldn't be that difficult.  That could become a wonderful gift.  Well then, I shall help too, if only a little."

"It would be very reassuring if you would sign for this magic as a witness, Teacher...!  Be glad, Maria.  This will be a wonderful gift...!"
『Uryu...?  What's happening...?  It isn't scary, is it?  Is it...?』
"Don't know.  But don't think it's scary.  ......What could it be, Maria can't wait."
Beato borrowed the grimoire from Maria's handbag and majestically flipped through the pages.  ......Then she found an empty page among the pages with magic circles drawn on them, and flattened it out.

Then, after gazing at Sakutarou with a grin, she suddenly started moving her pen.
......It was something like a written declaration made by witches to a high-order world.
It was magic whose effect could be controlled if Beatrice wrote and Virgilia signed.

Maria didn't understand what Beato was writing at first, but partway through, she figured out the wonderful magic power of this document, and her eyes began to sparkle...
『Uryu?!  Uryu?!  What is it, Maria, what's she drawing?!  Uryuuryu?!』

Sakutarou was on her lap, so he didn't know what was being written on the table.
......But even if he had seen, Sakutarou probably wouldn't have understood.

"Awesome, Sakutaro!!  Wait a bit, almost done, almost done!  Awesome Beato, awesome Beato!!"
".........When it comes to writing documents of power, this child's talent is splendid.  It seems you could even work as a secretary in the spirit world."
"How's this...?!  It should be passable...!"

After finishing her writing with an intense amount of concentration, Beato looked over the document again from a distance.
......It seemed she was fairly satisfied with her work.

And Maria, who was also peeking in at it, let out a cry of wonder.

"......Awesome, Beato!!  Cu-te!!  Uu-uu-uu-!!"

"By the name of the Golden Witch, Beatrice, I now acknowledge Sakutarou, MARIA's child.  .........Teacher, if you would sign as a witness!"
"Yes, yes.  ......By my name, I witness and acknowledge this oath.  .........It is done."

Virgilia signed, completing the written declaration.
It was a document with the power to proclaim to the beings of a higher world that Sakutarou had most certainly materialized in the human world.

Sakutarou, who had been created by Maria, was nominated by the two witches Beatrice and Virgilia, and just now, his existence had been acknowledged by the higher world.
......That itself was the great magic of materialization.

According to Beato, it was apparently quite fortunate that Virgilia was there.
Because depending on the number and quality of witches that signed the proclamation to the higher world, the power that resided in it could change drastically.

Virgilia in particular had many friends in the higher world, so her signature gave the proclamation a power with which Beato's couldn't even compare.
"By this proclamation, I accept you, Sakutarou, as an individual with his own ego.  And following the contract of Mariage Sorciere, I welcome your existence as a friend.  From now on, Sakutarou is our common friend.
And for that, I shall bestow upon you a fitting form as a gift.  Accept it."
With the grimoire still opened to the page with the proclamation, she turned it around and handed it to Maria.
Maria showed it to Sakutarou on her lap.

When Sakutarou beheld that proclamation, ............in his body made of cloth and cotton, he felt something hot and bright begin to dwell.
Even as he looked around, nervous at this sensation that he had never felt before, that power strengthened, ......and eventually, a bright light completely swallowed him up...
『Uryu......?  Uryuuryuuryuuryu......!』
Then, when that light disappeared...

..........There, Maria's friend Sakutarou

held a new form and existed・・・・.

"Uu-uu-uu-!  You're cute, Sakutaro!  Re-ally cute!"
『Uryu...?  Uryu-...  Does it really look good on me?  It isn't embarrassing......?』

"Ho ho ho ho.  It is a very lovely form, Sakutarou-chan."
"I think the muffler adds some charm points.  And the ears!  Animal ears sure are nice, truly cute!  Let me try some on later.  *cackle*!"
"Thank you, Beatri-ce!!  Thank you very much for the wonderful present!!"

"There is no need for thanks.  This is out of respect for your wonderful magic and your friend.  .........And, now that you have reached this level, it would not be odd for you to graduate from being an apprentice at any time.  From now on, I shall instruct you on even more new and fun magic.  ......From this point forward, you may call yourself MARIA, the Witch of Origins."

"What's the Witch of Origins...?"
"Hmm.  It is the title of a witch who seeks to become a Creator.  Right now, you are just an Enchanter (a magician by nature) who has only enough strength to breathe magical power into the small objects around you.  ......But after one thousand years of training, it is not unthinkable that you could use the magical compendium that resides inside your heart to create a galaxy."

"......The talent of the Witch of Origins is very rare.  Even though everyone has it when they are young, no one can continue to hold onto it.  ......This title is also proof that you have not lost your untainted heart."

"Uu-!!  The Witch of Origins, awesome!  Become it!  Maria, the Apprentice Witch of Origi-ns!"
"Maria, that's so awesome...!  The Witch of Origins, awesome, awesome, uryu-!"
"Eventually, you will probably be able to call yourself a full witch, Lady MARIA, the Witch of Origins.  ......It may be a good time now to give not only Sakutarou, but you as well, an appearance fitting for your rank.  ......This.  I shall give a proper outfit for one who, while an apprentice, is worthy of using the title of a witch."
When Beato waved the pipe that was her cane, many gold butterflies that had appeared out of nowhere grouped around Maria, giving her a wonderful dress.
It was certainly something fitting for the girl who would eventually take the name of the Witch of Origins, combining both cuteness and dignity...

"Awesome...!!  Awesome awesome awesome awesome!!  Cute cute!  I want to show these western clothes to Mama too...!!  Can't I?"
"The full dress of a witch must not be shown indiscriminately.  Such a thing is worth more if you act pompously.  *cackle*!"
Then, the Great Witch, the witch, the witch's apprentice, and their new friend, Sakutarou, enjoyed a lively tea party......

".........See?  Look how happy I am.  And look how fun this is."
"....................."

"Please, don't be afraid of being happy.  Becoming happy isn't the same thing as accepting your current misfortune.  It means creating a new happiness out of your current misfortune.  That is the Magic of Origins."

"......I...didn't want to acknowledge my current world.  ......I couldn't allow for such an isolated and painful world to be accepted.  ...That's why, even though I was entranced by your world, Maria onee-chan, ......I couldn't cross the final line."

"............Maria will teach you.  About her Magic of Origins.  No, taught you before, right?  And you used it before, right?  Did you forget......?"
"....................."

"You were also a witch apprentice, Ange, with your name entered into Mariage Sorciere, weren't you?"
"............Yeah.  That was true.  .........Mariage Sorciere, ...that takes me back.  ......I also had my name entered in there at one point, didn't I..."
"Yes, I will never forget that.  It happened in April of 1987.  I received a certain strange request from a friend.  ......There was a large collection of books, which were the former possessions of a very rich man and were being sold at auction, and it was thought that some of them might have been extremely valuable to the study of archeology and folklore, as well as in an occult sense, so this friend wanted to witness their worth confidentially."

"............'87.  Half a year after the crime on Rokkenjima."
"Correct.  It was explained that those books had escaped the disaster at Rokkenjima.  The owner of the island, Ms. Ushiromiya Eva, had put them up for auction."
This was apparently a high-class restaurant.
In a secluded and quiet seat, a middle-aged man was sitting across from Ange.

Amakusa could be seen by the entrance to the restaurant.
He was probably keeping a lookout for pursuers from the Sumadera family.
The scholarly man across from Ange spoke politely, but with enthusiasm.
He didn't lay a finger on the food in front of him, so you could tell how excited he was as he spoke fervently.
He was a professor at a certain college, and particularly well-known as an authority on western folklore.
However, among his life works, that was only a convenient exterior.
His true life work was...the study of occultism, western magic, alchemy, everything to do with the occult, as well as demonology.

In short, he was the person in the best position to understand the details of Kinzo's research...
"First, what I learned by appraising the books was that Ms. Ushiromiya Eva had absolutely no education in the study of folklore, and that the original owner of the books, Ushiromiya Kinzo, was certainly one of the top five authorities on demonology in Japan."
April, 1987.

A major city antique shop obtained a large quantity of ancient documents that were thought to have a high historical value.
They came into possession of them after Ushiromiya Eva had had them sold at auction.
At the time, it was thought that Eva would succeed the Ushiromiya family and have all the wealth to herself as the only survivor.

However, at that point, not even half a year had passed since the accident, and despite the extraordinary circumstances, it was not established that the others had been missing long enough to be presumed dead.
Because of that, it was thought that Eva had been in a very tight spot financially, unable even to collect from her family's life insurance.

It seems that she tried to sell everything of value, and even the books kept in the place where she had escaped harm in, Kuwadorian, became a target of this.
And the old books that were later called 'the Ushiromiya Library' were gathered from antique shops by authorities in the field so that they could be appraised...and the authorities were astounded.
"At least speaking from the perspective of occultism, the impact of that discovery on the world was comparable to the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls.
This is because, contained in 'the Ushiromiya Library', there were many extremely vital documents which, while their existence had been known of for more than one thousand years, had never been found."
The many dreams of the occult, such as those represented by alchemy, always stirred an intense fascination in dilettantes.

It is whispered that many 'magic books' of great historical value, as yet unannounced to the public, might be in the secret possession of the very wealthy lovers of the occult.
It is said that items such as Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks, which are particularly popular among dilettantes, were prime examples of this.

It is said that approximately 5000 pages of the notebooks currently exist, and that over 10,000 have been lost, but some researchers believe that a large part of this lost portion may be monopolized by certain dilettantes and members of the extremely rich.
It is said that because of this, even now, dilettantes who can't help but seek these spare no expense to search around for quietly hoarded away and unannounced notebooks...
There is probably no doubting that Ushiromiya Kinzo was himself one of those dilettantes.

It is unknown what Kinzo went through to obtain those, but there can be no mistake that he abundantly used his vast wealth, buying them off of other rich people with the same hobby as him.
Those books, which were so valuable that dilettantes just couldn't satisfy their desire to hoard them away, were discovered in large numbers at the end of the 20th century, and their release to the public had given the entire world a massive shock...
"Because of this case, the name Rokkenjima became known across the world.  And the world also received a shock at the high probability that, due to the accident on Rokkenjima, a large amount of even more valuable books yet to be discovered were lost.
...Because of this, the names of Rokkenjima and the Ushiromiya Library will remain in our memories for all time."
......Our memories.

That 'our' probably meant the occult neck of the woods with the same hobby as Kinzo.

Because of that case, the name of Rokkenjima had taken on a vital meaning in the world of the occult.
There certainly had been a lot of reporting about the accident on Rokkenjima, but it hadn't been something on the international level.

However, this case had run about the world, taking the image of Rokkenjima as a small island in the Izu archipelago, and painting it over as a demonic island with a mixture of riddles, suspicion, mystery and the occult.
In other words, until Kinzo's library was leaked to the public by Eva, Rokkenjima had been nothing more than a nameless island that no one could remember, ......and it definitely hadn't been a witch's island.

However, when knowledge of the Ushiromiya Library spread across the world, Rokkenjima's image immediately took on an occult twist.
"And so, what happened next was that case with the message bottle.  It is what turned that island into a witch's island.  A nameless island in the Izu archipelago began to transition into an occult island, and the island of the mysterious witch, Beatrice.
You could say that, lacking either the Ushiromiya Library or the message bottle, the Rokkenjima Witch Legend would never have been established."
"......A message bottle."
"Yes.  A form of communication to an unspecified target by throwing an empty bottle with a letter sealed inside into the sea.
It is famous as a way of sending an SOS from a deserted island, but because of the influence of famous foreign detective novels, it has also become known as a method of confessing the truth after one's own death, like a time-delayed will.  The case with the Rokkenjima message bottle was certainly of the latter."
"......This is the thing everyone says a fisherman on a nearby island picked up?"
"Correct.  We learned that a young fisherman on Shikinejima picked up a wine bottle with a letter in it.  This young fisherman kept it just out of curiosity.  Then, because Rokkenjima had fallen under the world's attention due to the Ushiromiya Library, he announced his discovery."
"Is there any chance that it was a fabrication made by the fisherman?"
"Of course, we weren't able to deny that possibility.  The scraps of paper in the wine bottle were signed by a certain member of the Ushiromiya family.  A girl named Ushiromiya Maria.  However, after looking at the handwriting left on her former belongings, it was confirmed that this message was written in a different person's handwriting."
".........A different person's handwriting......?"
"Correct.  At the very least, I believe there can be no doubt that it was written by a person more skilled at writing and of a greater age than her.  There was a very high likelihood that someone faked her name when they wrote it.  Therefore, at that point in time, it was thought that the contents of those scraps of paper had a very low credibility."
However.

Later on, it was confirmed that a similar message bottle had been recovered from the nearby ocean on the day of the accident by the police in their search for lost articles, and this caused a sensation.
"It seems that, due to evidence from the surrounding area and the fact that the bottle was sealed, the police had decided that its likelihood of being a fabrication was low, and that it had been abandoned within several days before the accident.  And the handwriting for both matched.  This caused the credibility of the scraps of paper discovered by the fisherman to rise.
It seems that magazines and the like have reported on the contents of that message bottle repeatedly, but do you require an explanation?"

"......No.  I know about it, more or less."
Many scraps of paper had been stuffed into both of the wine bottles.

It was an extensive notebook written by someone calling themselves Ushiromiya Maria who wasn't Maria, and which told of the events starting the day before the accident and up until the day of the accident in a diary-like way.
And its contents had been the beginning of 'the Witch's Legend Serial Murder Incident', as well as 'the Golden Witch Beatrice's Puzzle'.
"This bizarre diary-style notebook described how the Ushiromiya family members, nailed down on the island by the typhoon, were caught up in a ceremony for the resurrection of a witch, and killed one by one in inexplicable ways.
And in the end, the Golden Witch Beatrice revived, and swallowed up everything into the Golden Land.  ......It was written almost as though it was a complete account of the events on that day.
Also, it depicted the current situation on the island at the time in great detail, and the former servants who used to work for the Ushiromiya family gave testimony that it had definitely been written by a human who knew the inside details of the island."
"......So, because of a combination of the occult boom from that strange fantasy novel and the Ushiromiya Library, and well as the fact that the truth remained shrouded in darkness, the legend of the Rokkenjima witch was born...?"

"Correct.  More than 10 years have already passed since that case, and it is still the focus of interest for occult enthusiasts across the world.

No, to the contrary, you could say that it has become increasingly deified as time passes.  There are still many enthusiasts who try to secretly land on Rokkenjima even though it is prohibited.  ......Could there be another message bottle that has still not been discovered?  And on that day, what really happened on that island?  There is still much to be discussed."

As though he had finally remembered that he had been going on and on for some time, the man took a gulp of water.
......His potage was getting cold, but it seemed that the man's hunger had already been blown away.

"......I'm pretty sure I heard that the fisherman's scraps of paper and the police's scraps of paper had completely different contents."
"Correct.  Due to that, interest in the Rokkenjima mystery increased even further.  Inside both bottles were diary-style notebooks on which was written an account from the day before the accident until the day of the accident.  However, while both of their contents were about the same two day period, they were completely different.
It was as though one was the truth and one was a lie.  Or perhaps both were lies.  In any event, the beginnings and endings alone matched each other.  In the beginning, the 18 relatives are sealed up on the island by the typhoon.  And in the ending, everyone dies, the Golden Witch is revived, and everything is swallowed up into the Golden Land."
The contents of both message bottles wrote about the events of the day before the accident and the day of the accident.

But the details were completely different.
Both diaries outline a serial murder following the epitaph of the witch, but the order of the sacrifices, the ways they died, and even 'the tale of the two days' was different.

However, in both, everyone died in the end and the witch revived, making for the same circumstances.
"Because the only survivor, Ms. Ushiromiya Eva, has remained silent about what happened on that island, the events of that entire two day period are shrouded in darkness.
These two diaries, of all things, presented two theories to wipe away that darkness.  With either diary, you could explain those two days.  However, we don't know which is correct, or even if there is anything correct contained within them."

――Schrodinger's...cat box.

If it isn't denied, even a mixture of truth and fiction can be the truth.

Through the media, these scraps of paper had of course been shown to Eva as well, but in the end, she never broke her silence......

"Who sent the message bottle...and why?"

"Earlier, in their special issue for the crime's 10th anniversary, magazines took that topic up for discussion in a grand manner.  It seems that that theory is gathering the most support today.  But that is rather dull.  ...What happened on that island, on that day?  Considering this question is the true charm of the Witch Hunt."

"Witch Hunt...?"
"Yes, the Rokkenjima Witch Hunt is the name of group of enthusiasts who try to explain the truth of that crime from an occult perspective.  Discussion of the mysteries that surround Rokkenjima, from the Ushiromiya Library to the mysterious two day period to the legend of the Golden Witch, is flourishing even today among enthusiasts.
For the 10 year anniversary, an international convention was held in New York.  I also participated as a representative of Japan!  I was able to intermingle with zealous overseas Witch Hunters in many ways.  Witches are a very popular category overseas.  The age span of the participants stretched from elementary schoolers at the bottom, all the way to famous cultural figures at the top!  Even in Japan, in recent years, there was finally-"

......You probably don't need any more explanation, but he is one of the most famous Rokkenjima Witch Hunters in Japan.

Even though I didn't ask anything more, he kept continuing on excitedly all by himself.

As I swirled the thin film on my potage with my spoon, I shrugged my shoulders and sighed.
......Looks like it really had been a waste of time to research about the message bottle.
No, if there is one thing I've found, it's that it seems the notebook which was supposed to be written by Maria onee-chan was actually written by a different person faking her name.

And that person had written up an occult legend on their own, put it into the bottle as though it was the truth, and thrown it into the sea.
...I have a question.

Why would they go to all the trouble of writing so much in order to prepare a suspicious letter like that?

With a message bottle, there would be no guarantee that it would ever pass into anyone's hands.
If their luck had been bad, it could have sunk in the ocean and never have been seen by anyone.

And even if someone had picked it up, they might have not cared about it and thrown it away.
......Why would they entrust their confession of the truth to the sea in such an uncertain method?
And why would they write up multiple different tales?

If there had been one message bottle, claiming that its story was the truth would be reckless, but not impossible.
However, because there were two, that made both of them doubtful.

If someone was plotting to make out those two days to be the work of a witch, that was really superfluous.
And because there were two, it suggested that an undiscovered third one, or possibly even more might exist.

......In other words, the two differing contents made it harder and harder to swallow.
But despite that, the contents of both matched in that they told of a witch in a tale.
In other words, does that mean that this is what the writer wanted to tell us.........?

......I can only imagine that someone who wanted to give rise to an illusion of a witch carried out this crime for attention.
However, the 17 people other than Eva oba-san had lost their lives, and a vast wealth or maybe even 10 tons of gold had moved around secretly in the darkness.

With a conclusion like that, it just doesn't make sense for this to be a witch's illusion.
Without waiting for the magazines' reasoning, it's very suspicious whether the message bottle really is a diary.

......After all, the amount of writing was massive.
It's hard to imagine that someone actually caught up in the middle of a serial murder like that would be able to calmly write it down.
In that case, it's probably more realistic that this diary was written slowly over a long period of time up until the day prior to the accident.

In that case, .........would it mean that everything on Rokkenjima had been a 'planned crime', where everything had been prepared for over a long stretch of time...?
...The fact that Eva oba-san left this world without saying anything is...detestable.
She had definitely said it on her death bed.

She definitely said that her reason for not telling me the truth was because it was the best way of harassing me.
......Ah, by now I'm painfully aware of it.

Of all the things Eva oba-san did to me to harass me, this was probably the last and the greatest.
............But thinking of it this way, it's pretty doubtful that Eva oba-san is the true culprit.
Of course, this isn't because the handwriting on the message bottle was different from Eva oba-san's, or anything like that.

......It's because in both tales that had been discovered, Eva oba-san had been included among the victims.
If the writer of that diary was the culprit...

......Maybe Eva oba-san was also one of the targets to be killed.
Eva oba-san had survived because

something had gone wrong・・・・・・・・.
.........Because I had hated Eva oba-san, I had come to believe that she had to be the culprit.

But the existence of the message bottle, .........had made me suspect that the mastermind was a far more profound and unknown person than her...
I looked at the clock.
I've heard more than enough.  It's time.
As he continued to speak fervently, I suggested that I wanted to bring this discussion to a close.

It seemed he was aware that he had gotten excited and talked too much, so he quickly accepted this.

"Thank you very much for today.  I think I've heard about something valuable."
"......No, no.  It was truly fun to be able to welcome a young lady as a new friend of the Witch Hunt.  I have many precious materials that I couldn't show you because of this change to a different venue from the usual.  I should be glad to show you them at the next chance we get."

"Thank you, Professor.  .........Could I ask one more thing?"
"Yes, what is it?"

"Professor, why are you interested in witches...no, in occultism and demonology?"

"Well, that is somewhat embarrassing.  ......It's just that my childhood daydream that, if I could use magic, I wouldn't lose even to the chief bullies, went on to become my life work.  Because the primitive desire of admiring unknown power is as universal today as it ever was in the past."

"Professor, if you could, would you want to become a witch?  Do you still dream of being able to use magic at will?"

"But of course.  Even though, at this age, I understand the logic that such a thing cannot exist, I cannot forget my child-like dreams such as flying in the sky and turning scrap iron into gold.  ......Hahaha, if you would, please keep this a secret from my students."

".........If I told you that I was a real witch, would you believe it?"
"Hahhahhahha.  It's my pet theory from my few experiences with women that they are all witches."

Ange snorted at the old professor, who must have been an earnest scholar with barely any experiences with women.

"Yeah, yeah.  And one final question.  ......Professor, have you seen the original message bottle itself?"
"I have indeed."

"In that case, do you know that handwriting well?"
"Of course.  I am not a specialist in that area, but at least when it comes to the handwriting of the message bottle, I am proud to be the most knowledgeable in Japan."
At that point, Ange set a book on the desk with a thud.
"............And this is?  I have never seen it before."

He prided himself on his thorough knowledge of all literature related to Rokkenjima, and he looked bewildered at this binding that he had never seen before...
Ignoring him, Ange silently flipped through the pages, opened to one of them and showed him.

On that page was a handwritten paragraph beginning with 'to my beloved witch apprentice'.

......And at the end, there was a signature in katakana that said Beatrice.
"Th, that is.........?"

The instant he glanced at it, his face went pale.
......She knew the answer before asking, but Ange asked it aloud anyways.

"Does the handwriting in the paragraph on this page match the handwriting in the message bottle...?"
"B, but, umm......I, I must take this home and investigate more......P, pardon me for asking, but what in the world is this book?!  Where did you get it?!"
The man stretched out his hand, but Ange pulled it back.
...As though telling him not to touch it with his filthy hands.
"Thank you.  Just that reaction is all I need.  Thank you very much for today.  ......Here is the reward I promised."

As she stood up, clutching Maria's diary, Ange carelessly tossed a wad of 10 thousand yen notes wrapped with a strip of paper onto the table.
As Ange turned her back to him and made to leave, the man raised his voice as though clinging to her.
But Ange didn't stop walking.
"I, I beg you...!!  What in the world is that book?!  I don't need a reward, show me that book...!!"
"......Both you and I are in the Witch Hunt, but it looks like we aren't pursuing it at the same level.  You're entertaining yourself with the outside of the cat box.  And what I want to know about is the inside of the cat box.  ......And this book is the key to opening the cat box.  It's too good for you.  Well then.  <Goodbye, gentlemen>.  <Have a nice day>."

"P, please wait!!  Sumadera-san・・・・・・...!!!"

His voice didn't reach her.  She had already joined up with Amakusa and gone into the car......
"Did you find anything?"
"......Only at the very end.  I was right.  The one who wrote in the message bottle was Beatrice herself."

"That's cool.  So you've concluded that the witch actually exists?"

"Who knows.  .........Mind if I sleep?  I'll bet that talkative professor gets lost in his own little world in lectures and makes a lot of kids fall asleep."
"Please, please, take a rest."
".........Still, that went really well.  That guy believed I was Sumadera until the very end."
The Sumadera family had set up a web beforehand around any people Ange might try to contact.
They had offered a reward for anyone who could take Ushiromiya Ange into custody if she appeared.

Ange had foreseen that and

snatched it away・・・・・・・.
She had called herself Sumadera, and after skillfully tricking the man by saying her own subordinates would set up an ambush, she had taken him outside.
So when the Sumadera family pursuers reached the professor's house, there was no longer anyone there...
"According to the family, a young man and woman calling themselves Sumadera visited this morning, took the professor out with them and still have not returned.  ......There is a chance we were outmaneuvered."
"...............What a bad child, Ange-chan.  ......I wonder if that craftiness is from Nee-san's blood.  ......To think that she would casually take on the name Sumadera after saying she'd hate to call herself that so often...
............Hoh-hoh-hoh-hoh-ho.  ...The professor should be returning soon.  When he does, we must serve him some tea..."
"...Y, ...yes.  Understood."
"............I wonder if she thinks she's leading me around by the nose.  She is such a naughty child.  ............*giggle*giggle*, ......hohhohhohohohohohoho!!"

With a demonic look on her face, Kasumi violently stamped her heel.

Maria will teach you.

About her Magic of Origins.
No, taught you before, right?
And you used it before, right?
Did you forget......?

You were also a witch apprentice, Ange, with your name entered into Mariage Sorciere, weren't you......?
".........I was also...included among the witches, wasn't I..."
I closed Maria's diary and flopped down on a very high-class-looking bed.

Since I'd slept deeply for a long time in the car, it took longer than usual for drowsiness to set in, and I had been reading the diary as I waited for that.
This is a super expensive hotel in the city.
...Since this expensive hotel is often used by the rich and the famous, out of concern for their conditions, it has an abnormally strong duty of confidentiality.

This made it very convenient for Ange to escape her pursuers.
The idea that a renegade would spend the night hiding in a cheap hotel is a commoner's way of thinking.

......To Ange, who possessed all the wealth of the Ushiromiya family, renegade life was truly pleasant.
Of course, even though he was a guard, Amakusa was a man and in a separate room.
Ange used the bedroom of the suite and Amakusa laid on the sofa in the living room.

...Amakusa said something about how the sofa here was more pleasant than his own bed recently.
Poor guy.
When I looked at the clock, ......I saw that it was almost 2:00 in the middle of the night.
I'm still not getting sleepy.
............I sighed deeply.

At that time, even though there was no wind, I had the feeling that Maria onee-chan's diary fluttered.
......Then, Onee-chan appeared.
Her form was no longer the normal one that I knew.

...She was wearing the dress that Beatrice had given her after acknowledging her as a witch.
".........If you don't get some sleep, it'll be tough tomorrow, right?"

"If I were a witch too, ......I'd be able to use magic, wouldn't I."
"...Yeah.  You can use it.  Maria taught you, right?  How to use it.  ......And you supposedly were able to use it in the past."

"............I remember.  ......I've started wanting to use it."

"Aren't you lonely...?"
"...............Not really.  ......It's not like having a different pillow every night is that tough."

".........The first step to magic can be loneliness or boredom, or any reason as small as that."

"Even trying to kill time until you get sleepy?"
"Yeah.  Maria is happy that Ange has remembered about magic one more time."

........................
......It's been quite a long time since I last used magic.

At one point, with Maria onee-chan's introduction, ......I touched a corner of it, and opened the door a tiny bit.

So, ......I should still remember that sensation.

"......Right now, your magical power has declined significantly, Ange.  ...If you don't devote yourself to the basics, it'll be hard, okay?"
"Sure.  ............Checking all directions.  Securing a quiet space."

"And Amakusa?"
"........................He's sleeping."

After opening the door to the living room a crack, I could see the blanket caterpillar on the sofa roll over in its sleep.
"......With your magical power as weak as it is now, the anti-magic power is affecting you too much.  ......Not just the sight of people, but voices, sounds, and even the presence of people will get in the way of your magic.  ......Sever those completely.  Like how ancient magicians shut themselves up in ateliers to preserve their isolation."

"I remember.  ......The very existence of humans blocks magic.  ...Therefore, the very act of showing magic to humans is the sign of a high-level witch..."

Obtain a quiet space for yourself alone.
......That should be enough to prepare a space to use magic.

".........Next is the vessel.  ...Right now, it's important for your bike to at least have training wheels, ...no, a chain."
"...........................This is, ............of course, impossible..."

Ange rubbed her own head.

...There were hair accessories there, with pink gems attached.

They felt a little childish for Ange's style, but she had never taken them off for a single day.

"............Yes.  .........That really is impossible for you now, Ange.  ...If you had practiced every single day since that day, you might have become able to summon with that by now."
"...............If I were to start training now, how long would it take?"

".........It's said that a year of magic training for a child is worth ten years for an old person.  You need a strong resolution."
"You mean like Ushiromiya Kinzo?  ............So special education from a young age is important for piano, violin and magic."

"As you are now, your power has weakened since the time that you were first able to use magic, Ange.  ...Don't overdo it, and devote yourself to the basics."
After stubbornly rubbing those things on my head one more time, I gave up.

Then I started fishing through the knapsack.
...Looking for anything that might make a good vessel.

".........Shouldn't this be a perfect vessel?"
"It's been a long time.  ......Yes.  With this, I think even you should be able to perform a summons as you are now.  ...And they have no master now.  It should be possible for you to become their new master, Ange."

Among the things that looked like good vessels, I took the one I thought might possess the strongest magical power, and set it on the side table near the bed with a clatter.
It was, ......a shady-looking stake-shaped weapon with an occult design inscribed on it.
It was a stake of the 'Seven Stakes of Purgatory', which the witch used to offer sacrifices.
When the police had been searching the family's possessions, they had collected a large amount of junk.
After the investigation had finished, these had been politely returned to the Ushiromiya family.

......I found something that I had seen in the pictures of Maria's diary, and I took it home with me.
".........Originally, there were seven of the Seven Stakes of Purgatory.  ......How pitiful.  Now, she is the only one left."

Onee-chan smiled, looking lonely...
I pulled another book out of the knapsack.

......This was also old-fashioned, and you could tell that it was an occult book just by looking.
But its contents were plain.
It was one of Maria onee-chan's elaborate notebooks.

This was not a diary.
......This was a grimoire, which she had written as a witch.
The Seven Stakes of Purgatory are Beatrice's furniture.
Created by her and employed only for her sake.
But since Beatrice is also a witch of Mariage Sorciere, they could be employed by MARIA, who is a witch of the same alliance.

For that reason, the method of summoning the Seven Stakes of Purgatory and how to handle them was written about in great detail in Maria onee-chan's grimoire...
And.
...As another person with their name in the same alliance, I was also permitted to employ them.

".........This stake, ............is which of the Seven Sisters?"
"Their characteristics are written about well in Maria's grimoire.  ...The Sisters of the Seven Stakes really hate it when you get their names wrong.  Remember their names well before summoning them."
A packed page that told of the Seven Stakes of Purgatory.
...It described the seven sisters in great detail.
......Yes.
I think I memorized almost this entire page once in the past.

The more I read it, the more I start to remember...
By the pictures and characteristics written on the grimoire, I could tell that the stake in my hand was 'Mammon's stake'.
In the past, because I hadn't had any stakes, I had summoned them without any vessel.

......So this was the first time I had clearly seen any of the seven stakes, let alone Mammon.

"Mammon.  The fifth sister.  Controls the deadly sin of greed.  ......An incredible kid."
"Greed also controls aspirations, the desire to improve oneself, and the strength to live.  It definitely doesn't mean only bad things.  ......She's rude, but she's a girl who tries really hard."

"......I see.  You could say that without desire, there's no reason to live."
For a while, I heightened my concentration and digested the information that was written about Mammon.
......The more the summoner knows about the target that's being summoned, the better...
Knowledge is tied to magic power.

......I began to fill my head with knowledge about Mammon, and raise a necessary amount of magic power for a summoning.
"......Grimoires are a bit interesting.  It might be much more interesting than reading some lame novel.  ......And it really takes me back."

"For a grimoire, it is demanded not only that you understand the letters, but that you fill up the world of the space between the lines, and give birth to a world from the pictures, creating things in various ways.  ......The power to give birth to something.  For someone who has that, such as you, a grimoire should be more interesting than any book.  ...Maria has always known that you would be able to understand that."

"............Knowledge of Mammon...that should be enough for now.  .........Yes.  I've remembered it, more or less.  ...I'll give it a try."

"Take care.  ......In preparation for the worst, here is my talisman.  ......You are not protected by the alliance now.  That Mammon is a quarrelsome girl.

...And, she may still bear a grudge・・・・・・・・・.  Be careful."

"Yes.  ...I'll wear it."

The Seven Stakes of Purgatory, as furniture used to make sacrifices for a ceremony, were treated as beings inferior even to weapons.
But that is only when it comes to demons.  To humans, furniture is something to be feared.
I fished through the knapsack again, took out a bracelet charm with a scorpion medal that I had gotten from Maria onee-chan long ago, and put it on my arm.

......In the past, I hadn't needed something like this.
But I need insurance...
".........It's alright.  That has already been fitted with the required amount of magical defense.  As long as you wear that, you'll certainly be fine."
Maria onee-chan's magic power that had been specially put into this charm was enough to earn even Beatrice's admiration.

......While it would have looked like something cheap to a human who couldn't understand about magic, its magical worth was incalculable.
"........................Come, arise.  Forgive the sin.  ...One of the Seven Stakes of Purgatory.  Mammon of Greed."
..................
I concentrated my mind.
I made the magic-repelling toxin that filled my body zero.
Imagine an untainted, vast space.
......Doubts and common sense all resist magic.

Make the resistance zero and erase the burden towards magical power......
........................
......Inside my head was the image of a vast space.
It was a nighttime world where I floated in the air and the neon stars over the ground sparkled.

A world where the stars that should have covered the sky were wiped away by the light from below, which covered the ground.
In the world of a vast night sky with no obstructions, ......I imagined the wind blowing through at will.

At that time, ......in the room, where there shouldn't have been any wind blowing, ......the free nighttime wind blew in a cyclone.
The long forgotten sensation raced through my entire body.
............It was the unique feeling of exultation felt when using magic.
Mammon's stake, which I held out in my hand, gradually began to make me feel a pale light.

A twisting cyclone with the stake at the center.
......The hefty stake floated a bit into the air.
"............Wonderful.  ...Looks like the gap in your training hasn't stolen your talent."
"......Come, arise.  Forgive the sin.  ...One of the Seven Stakes of Purgatory, Mammon of Greed.  ......Show yourself to me......"
The stake I held out rose bit by bit, rising higher than my head, and as though it was being attracted upwards, Mammon's stake once again floated up high into the air, ......and gradually began to shake.

That shaking began to grow faster, .........and it burst.
With a speed faster than the eye could follow, it flew around, violently rebounding off the walls of the room.
......The terrible sound of it dancing around threatened to make me flinch.

......However, I must not lose my mental concentration.
Then, the stake, which had been flying around at an incredible speed, finally restrained itself and faced me...

......It was in the air, just a few centimeters away from my forehead...held back by the defensive barrier created by the scorpion charm.
It had tried to break the defensive barrier, eating into it with an incredible power, but Maria onee-chan's barrier wouldn't be broken so easily.
"............No good..., I can't break it......"

The stake muttered hatefully.
......You could probably say that I had been saved thanks to the scorpion charm.

Without that, my way of killing time until I got sleepy would have become a way to kill time for all eternity.
When Mammon's stake realized that it was unable to gouge me, it gave up and grew docile, changing its form from that of a stake into a human.

In that same old outfit that I'd never be able to walk around outside in.
Although you could say it suited her, in a demonic sort of way.

"............Ange-sama?  ............But that's some pretty shabby magical power.  ...Is it really Ange-sama?"
"It's been a long time, Mammon.  ......Have you been well?"

"...............And here I was convinced that furniture which has already fulfilled its function would just be left to rust away in a closet.  ......So, what kind of side show is this?  You aren't going to say that you're my owner, are you, Ange-sama...?"
".........Yes.  Ange is your master."

"Lady MARIA............How unsightly of me.  Was that barrier just now yours, Lady MARIA?"
"Yes.  Because I thought that as she is now, Ange might just have gotten finished off by you.  I lent her a talisman."

".....................If I am told by Lady MARIA that Ange-sama is my master, I cannot refuse.  .........Ange-sama, please, your orders.  Am I required for a new ceremony?  A new sacrifice...?  However, that's only if you're willing to handle me yourself and get your own hands dirty."

".........That role isn't something I'm asking for anymore.  .........All you have to do is just talk with me, like you used to."

"........................"
"..................."
".........Heheh.  ...Yes, if that is what you desire.  Furniture is furniture because it is used.  It is an honor just to be summoned.  Ange-sama."

Mammon had a slightly complicated smile on her face.
......She accepted her new master because Maria had told her to, but it looked like she hadn't gotten over her discontent at working for Ange with her frail magical power.

Perhaps she had some other reason for hating Ange, ......but for now, it seemed that she couldn't disobey Ange even if she was discontented.
".........So?  What should I do?"

"I don't know.  .........Just do something lively.  Like old times."
"Well now.  This liveliness you speak of is probably the bustle from when we sisters are together.  It may be difficult by myself.  ......Did you forget?"

"......That's right.  The Seven Sisters were really lively when they got together.  ......But with Ange's magical power now, I think summoning Mammon is the best we can hope for.  The stakes for the other six have been lost."

"My apologies, Lady MARIA, but I wonder if it may not be impossible to summon the Seven Sisters via my own stake.  ......If I am to be employed, I would hope that Ange-sama has at least that much power, you see......?"

Mammon giggled.

......Apparently, she wanted me to summon the other sisters without a vessel.

I see.
Since she's unable to satisfy herself with being summoned alone, she's asking for the other sisters to be summoned as well.
...I get it, greed.  Yes, she was like this back then, wasn't she......
.........To furniture, the times during which they are used are bliss.
No matter how badly they are exploited, being used is a furniture's joy.

Not only that, but no matter how polite you might put it, not being given a job would be more painful to them.
Mammon spoke as though to provoke me, but she wanted me to summon the other sisters somehow and rescue them from the world of nothingness.

.........In that case, all she has to do is honestly say so.
These demon people really aren't honest.

".........Ange.  Don't overdo it.  You'll need enough rehabilitation just from summoning Mammon."
"Oh, I'll need rehabilitation just from one?  Well, I'm just killing time anyways.  .........Alright, Mammon.  I've already got myself started.  I'll call as many as I can."

"Really......?!  Not bad, Ange-sama!  Alright, quickly, quickly!"

It seemed that even though she had said it, Mammon hadn't really expected Ange to do this.
She hopped around, badgering Ange to summon the other sisters.

......The consumption of physical and magical power used to call Mammon alone was considerable.
...It will probably be pretty tough to do six more.

......I'm awed by the magical power of those who could summon sisters like this at will with a snap of their fingers, and who therefore reach the level where they can be called witches.

"Mammon, don't make Ange overdo it.  Ange still isn't in her normal condition..."
"Hu-h?!  Ange-sama said that she'd summon everyone!"

Actually, I only said that I'd call as many as I could.
......Guess this is greed.

"Don't overdo it, Ange.  You should rest for today.  You're tired enough."
"It's alright.  I'm just killing time anyway.  Let me get tired enough so that I can just fall over asleep."
......This time there's no vessel.

I'll have to strengthen the image from my knowledge of the grimoire, and materialize them with just that.
I held my hands out into the air, replaying in my head the sensation from when I had summoned Mammon......

I'm acquainted with all of the Seven Sisters, right?
......Remember, in the past, ......the time I talked with them.........
Once again, ......the power of magic began to fill me up.
It let off a faint, and yet distinct pale light from both of my hands......
"Ange-sama...!  Hold on, hold on, good luck...!  Hey, Lady MARIA.  Ange-sama will definitely summon everyone, right?  The Seven Sisters will get to be reunited again, right?  Right?!"

"Yeah, definitely.  ......But there's no guarantee that it will happen tonight."
"Ange-sama can do it...!  Please, Ange-sama...!  Start from the youngest sister, Asmo...!"
".........Asmodeus.  The seventh sister.  .............Got it.  I'll call them in order starting from the youngest."
A strand of hot sweat dripped down from my forehead.
......This really is going to be one hell of a burden.

The pale light in this space, ......began to slowly form into the outline of a girl...
".........Come, arise.  One of the Seven Stakes of Purgatory, Asmodeus of Lust..."
There was no vessel.
......However, with a strong conviction that she definitely did exist there as a core, ......her form began to crystallize...

Her outline became distinct, .........and the form of the youngest of the Seven Sisters, Asmodeus, was finally created.
"Asmodeus of Lust, right here...............Where is this?  Am I alive......?"

"Asmo...!!  I'm so glad!!"
"Mammon nee-san!  ......Where in the world is this?  Who summoned me?"

"Ange-sama did...!  Ange-sama said she'd revive all of us...!"

...No I didn't.

"Ange-sama, thank you!  Next is Belz...!!  Do Belz please...!"
"......Beelzebub.  The sixth sister.  ......Beelzebub of Gluttony.  Come, arise..."

At this rate, ......I wonder how many I can summon.
If I can't concentrate, ...this is probably it.
The pale light made an outline, .........and formed into Beelzebub.
"Beelzebub of Gluttony, right here......"

"Be-lz!!" "Ange-sama, awesome, awesome!!"
Mammon and Asmodeus jumped onto Beelzebub, celebrating their reunion.

......Summoning three people at once.
...My head was throbbing.

Without resting, summon the next one.
"......Come, arise.  One of the Seven Stakes, Belphegor of Sloth..."
"Belphegor of Sloth, right here.  .........My, ...to think that I would be needed again..."

"Belpha-neeeeee!  I'm huuungry!  I mean, I'm glad to meet you again!!"

"To think that the Seven Sisters would be able to meet again...  Ange-sama, we are truly thankful!"
"Keep it up and do Satan-nee next!  And Levia-nee and Luci-nee...!!"
".........Yeah, ...I get it.  ......So please, try not to be so loud.  ......Doing four people at the same time, ......is pretty...tough..."
"Ange, don't overdo it any more than this.  You did a good job summoning even four of them after such a long time."
"...Stop it, Mammon.  Right now, Ange-sama is being pressured with the burden of summoning us.  Ange-sama, I beg that you do not strain yourself too much..."

"No way!  Ange-sama promised!  She said we'd all play together again!"

...No I, ...

"Right!  Ange-sama!  You said everyone would meet again!  You promised that we could meet again right away!"
"...........................That's right, .........I promised.  ......I didn't promise anything about when, ......but I certainly did...promise."

"So keep that promise!  If you don't, I'll never forgive you for forgetting that until today, Ange-sama...!"
".....................Come, arise.  One of the Seven Stakes of Purgatory, Satan of Wrath..."
My mind's getting hazy.........But...I'll call.
Even though I've forgotten those days.
Even though I hadn't thought of those days as anything but sadness and loneliness.

......Because certainly...the short time I've spent with them, ...... was fun, without a doubt.
"Satan of Wrath, right here.  ............What the hell are you people doing!!  Do you realize how much it's burdening Ange-sama just to let us have an idle chat?!"
Satan, who had apparently figured out the situation immediately after being summoned, cried out in a loud voice, telling her sisters off.
......That loud voice made my consciousness fade again.
"We are furniture who have been granted rest by Beatrice, and whose duty has been finished!  Not only are you not honored at being given another chance to be of some use, but you're putting a burden on our new master, you disgrace to furniture!!  Erase yourselves right away!!"

"Yes, it's like Satan-nee says.  I'll erase myself.  You all erase yourselves too.  In this moment, that is the best way for us to be of use to Ange-sama."

"No way.  Not until everyone's summoned!"
"Same he-re!  I'm hu-ngry!  I mean, I'd hate to leave again so soon after being reunited!"

"Don't be so selfish!!  Come on, erase yourself quickly!!  Come on, Asmo!  Disappear right now!!"
"Waaaah, Satan-nee's bullying me...!  It's not fair if you always bully the youngest one!"

".........Yes, they really are lively.  ......It doesn't.........bore me......"
"That's enough.  You've surpassed your limits for now, Ange."

"......You're, ......right.....................
In a situation where I had summoned five of them, and where they were messing around as they pleased, the load was far too heavy for me currently, with my meager magic power......

......This is, ...............it......
As my consciousness went hazy, I fell over onto the bed.
......Have beds always felt this soft......?
..................
It seemed that the sisters were still squabbling together as much as they liked.

......For a way to kill time until drowsiness comes to get me, ......this is enough............
Feeling something warm and nostalgic in the sisters' liveliness, I sank into a world of deep sleep.........
At the entrance to my dream world, I felt Maria onee-chan, ......and Sakutarou waiting to receive me.

"............You worked hard.  ......And...good job."
『Uryu.  ...Welcome back, Ange...』

......Welcome back...is it?
Then I should respond like this...

.........Glad to be home.........
That's right.  Just once in the past, I took some training which should have let me step into the world of witches.

I accepted that the only power which could save me from my sad, painful days at Saint Lucia Academy, was the thing called magic, and I received Maria's introduction to the basics......
"............Imagine...a vast space............The scene from when I looked down at the base from the rest stop at the peak...............Like this......?"

I projected that scene from a memory into my mental world.
......Normal girls get over admiring witch girls when they leave elementary school.
So seriously training to use magic at this age, ......was embarrassing even for me.

But even that embarrassed emotion felt pleasant to me now.
Right now, I was learning mental concentration from Maria onee-chan in order to use magic.

But it wasn't going very well.
......It was about as hopeless as teaching a person to wiggle their ears by showing them...
It seems that you need to imagine a vast space to gain the mental concentration for using magic.

So I remembered the time from my younger days when my family had gone on a small vacation, when I had looked down towards the base from a viewing platform at a rest stop on a peak, and I tried painting this scene in my mental world.
"No, still far too small.  Imagine a much, much wider space.  And create your own mental world.  Your image is still far too foggy.  There's no temperature in the air, and there's no wind.  No smells either.  The world is still very faint.  ......You can leave those for later, so for now, imagine an even wider space."

『Uryu.  ......Why do you have to imagine a vast space?』
"From the time they're born, humans have inside them a toxin that blocks magic.  If that toxin is not purified, you can't use magic well.  ...One effective method of achieving this is to imagine a vast space."

".........Just now, I thought of the world as seen from the window of an airplane, but that didn't work.  ......I can't even think of, .....a world more vast than that."
『In that case, Maria just has to teach Ange about the vast world Maria has...!  Won't that make it easy for Ange to imagine as well?  Uryu!』

"......That's right.  And, I'm interested in the kind of world Onee-chan imagines when she uses magic.  ...I'll also use that."
"Uu-, won't work.  The mental world must be vast and isolated.  A world with no obstructions other than yourself.  ......So if you teach someone about that world, it won't be isolated anymore.  So you must not reveal your mental world to anyone.  So if you draw up a good mental world, you too must keep it a secret only for yourself."

『Uryu...  So stingy, Maria...』
"Thanks, Sakutaro.  I guess there are no shortcuts in training.  ......I'll make an effort.  It's alright, I've been given plenty of hints."
『Uryu...!  Do your best, Ange...!』
I had come to think that I couldn't be saved by something like magic.
After all, magic doesn't exist in this world.
That kind of thing is supposedly nothing more than an illusion, a delusion, a daydream.
......However, Maria onee-chan had shown that she could fill her own world with happiness using a power that was impossible for me.

I had come to look down on that happiness as an empty happiness.

......I had denied everything, thinking that, because I didn't accept magic, I couldn't accept the happiness that came from it either.
But slowly, bit by bit, Maria onee-chan's world grew happier.
In the past, I had disparaged it, thinking it too pitiful to look at.
But, ......that might have been nothing more than jealousy.
I had to admit that.

And this had been my first step in my search for happiness...
A vast space.
A dry wind that could blow without being blocked by anything.
......Let me feel that wind blowing through my own hair.
......I see...even the ground might block me as I am now.
Then, I don't need a ground.

.........Brush the ground away, downwards, downwards.
In other words, ......it was as though I had floated up, leaving the ground far behind.

After pushing the ground further and further downwards, ...the ground grew foggy and faint, ......and for the first time, it began to feel like the sky.
.........Then, I understood its vastness.

In that instant, I felt the vivid wind go right through even my body, in other words, blowing through me without any resistance.
"...........................Yes.  Maintain that sensation."
"......Yeah, I get it.  ......I get that I've been, ......released from all hinderances."

『You did it, Ange, you did it, Ange...!  You've taken your first step into the world of witches...!』

"............This is, ...the world of witches......?"

"Yeah.  So, let's try practicing the magic that you've always wished for, Ange.  .........Magic that will summon friends.  ......A magic that will create allies who will save you from your loneliness, and thereby bring you happiness."

『Will Ange also be able to summon friends like me?!  Uryuuryu!』
"......As she is now, it's still far to early for Ange to summon friends like Sakutaro from the sea of zero.  ......To begin, let's start by practicing with friends that are easy to summon."
"...............What will we begin with...?"

"Because you are a witch of Mariage Sorciere, you are also permitted to use those who are employed by the witches' alliance.  ......For example, Sakutaro is my friend, but since you're in the same alliance, Ange, he's your friend too, and you can summon him.  ......You wanna try summoning Sakutaro one of these days?  When you're so lonely it gets tough, I'm sure Sakutaro will cheer you up."

I see.  You could call Sakutaro a being employed by Onee-chan.

So as a witch in the same alliance as Onee-chan, it's also possible for me to summon Sakutaro......
I met Sakutaro's gaze.

......How pleasant it would be to have him just be there by my pillow, so he could talk to me a bit on lonely nights.

"......If I call out, will you appear, ......and talk to me......?"
『Uryu-!  I look forward to being summoned by you, Ange!  Uryuuryuuryu!』

Looking happy and making his eyes round, Sakutaro pressed his head against me like a cat.

Suddenly getting a cute younger brother, ......felt a bit confusing, a bit embarrassing, and a bit pleasant.
.........Unable to understand why I couldn't honestly accept this feeling, I felt tears well up in my eyes.

"Right.  ......I'll give it all I've got, Onee-chan."
"Then let's try and practice.  .........Let's try summoning the furniture of a witch from the same alliance, Beatrice."
"...........Beatrice's, ...furniture."

Hearing Beatrice's name gave me a slightly strange feeling.
When it came to the crime on Rokkenjima, the public had kept going on and on in a frenzy about how it was a sacrifice ceremony of the witch.
......And that witch was Beatrice.

So if the culprit of that crime was a witch, ......it would mean that she was the culprit who stole my family.
However, Maria onee-chan said that Beatrice was a good witch.

She would get mad if I held negative emotions towards Beatrice, get into a nasty fight, and refuse to talk for a while.
......At this moment, Onee-chan was my only close friend.

...So to avoid worsening the mood of my close friend, I had decided to think of Beatrice as nothing more than Onee-chan's magic teacher...
......Also, I believed that the crime was a conspiracy cooked up by Eva oba-san.

......I would definitely expose the truth about that someday.........

"Ange.  Obstructions are mingling inside your body again."
".........Sorry, I lost my concentration.  ...One more time..."
I'd expect no less from you, Onee-chan...
You instantly noticed that I was being overcome with idle thoughts.

After shaking my head just once, I re-imagined the wind blowing through a vast space...
"............The Seven Sisters of Purgatory?  That's a pretty creepy name."
"But they're very energetic and fun kids.  They might become your new friends, Ange.  ......First, I'll show you how to summon them.  Watch."
Maria onee-chan lifted both hands up to the level of her head, and quietly unified her mind.

......The state that I had not been able to reach after meditating for a long period of time, she reached in the span of a few quick breaths.
Then, a pale light began to gather in her palm, .........and one by one, the girls began to show themselves.

1, 2, 3 people.  4, 5, 6, 7 people...

The way they were summoned one after another in a line was a masterpiece.

......Incredible.
Just like the illustrations in Onee-chan's grimoire, ......the Seven Sisters of Purgatory...

The younger sisters were behind the eldest, Lucifer, who saluted Onee-chan.

"The Seven Sisters of Purgatory, right here...!  Lady MARIA, it has been quite some time."

"Yes.  Long time, no see.  Is everyone well...?"
"We furniture are furniture because we are used.  I think of being summoned after so long as an honor from my very heart!"

"Kya-♪  Sakutaro-!  It's been a whi-le!"
"You look as delici-, I mean, cu~te as ever!!"
"Me fi~rst!!  Kya-, today he's so fluffy, squishy, and cu-te~!"

"A~h!!  Let me hug him too, let me hug him too~!"
『U, uryu-!  Can't brea~the!  I won't run away, so let me go everyo~ne!』

"Hey, you all!!  Are you trying to break Lady MARIA's furniture?!  Anyways, get away from him, hugging is prohibited!!"
"......Even though you're saying that, it looks like you want to hug him the most, Satan-nee.  *giggle*."

"Ack!!  I, it's not like I have any i, interest in something so fluffy, squishy and cuddly!"
"Hey!!  Be silent in the presence of Lady MARIA and Ange-sama, you foolish sisters!!"

They were so energetic...
I was shocked by their sudden burst of activity right after they appeared.

And on top of that, I was surprised that the innocent Sakutaro was on such good terms with the Seven Sisters.

"......That's unexpected.  To think that Sakutaro would be so loved by such shady people."
"They're fellow members of the same alliance.  There's nothing to be scared of, right?"

"But on the off-chance that their mood worsens, it looks like they could finish Sakutaro off in an instant..."

"It's alright.  The witches of the alliance and their furniture are all friendly.  So Sakutaro can play without worrying.  ......Of course, that goes for you and me too, Ange."

One of the pacts of Mariage Sorciere.

"Mutual nonaggression and noninterference".
Member witches must respect each other's magic and creations.

Even the sisters, who were normally shady and belligerent, interacted with fellow alliance members as friends.

So to the Seven Sisters, Sakutarou was a mutual friend.

He was loved by all the Seven Sisters, and they were even trying to steal him away from each other.

This scene as they squeezed him and loved him was a bit charming.

"......I see.  They're fellow members of Mariage Sorciere."

At a glance, you'd think that Sakutaro's casual atmosphere and the Seven Sisters' shady one would be like water and oil.
It looked like they definitely wouldn't be compatible.

And yet, they were interacting in a friendly way like it was completely natural......
If this wonderful alliance could join all the peoples of the world, ......I wonder if everyone in the world would be able to become friends right away.

"All you Seven Sisters, listen.  Right now, Ange is in the middle of magic training.  So I want everyone to lend their power."
"Certainly, Lady MARIA.  ...But what specifically?"

"The magical power that makes you materialize will move from me to Ange.  In that state, I want you to be by her side all the time.  You just have to talk with her."
".........My apologies, but I wonder if Ange-sama's magical power will be able to easily summon all seven of us around the clock..."

The oldest sister, Lucifer, gazed at my complexion as she advised this, speaking reservedly.

...In other words, she was saying that the burden might be heavy for me at that point in time.

"That's the kind of training it is.  Ange has more talent and magic than everyone imagines.  I think it will be pretty tough, but I think it's worth it for Ange to take this challenge as she is now.

......Ange.  Starting now, I will switch the magic power that is making them materialize over to you.  ......In other words, it will become as though you had summoned them."

So what Maria onee-chan was trying to say was something like this.

To keep the Seven Sisters materialized, you are continuously burdened with a significant amount of magical power.
......Maybe you could say it was like training while wearing a weighted wristband.

『Uryu......  Doing all of the Seven Sisters would be pretty tough......  Isn't that asking a lot of Ange all of a sudden...?』
"Thank you, Sakutaro.  But this is training to become a witch.  I want to see how far I can go."

......The seven of them certainly do seem boisterous.
But even if this is for training, having them with me would surely distract me from my loneliness, at least a little.

I understood it would be an ordeal, and wanted to give it a shot.

"Don't overdo it if it gets tough, alright?  And everyone, if it looks tough for Ange, take it easy."

"Certainly.  Get it, you guys?!"
""""""Ye-s, Onee-samaa!""""""

"Well then, Ange-sama.  For now, we, the Seven Sisters of Purgatory, will become your furniture.  .........Lady MARIA, if you would."

"Yeah.  ......So, Ange.  Can we start?"
"......Sure.  ...I'm a little nervous."
『Uryu...  This might be tough all of a sudden...  If you feel like you're getting a headache, lower your magic power immediately......』
"Then, I'll move the source of magic power over to Ange.............................."
"...........ah..."

In an instant, the inside of my head felt very heavy.

......This is......, I see, .........it's tough...
Until then, the inside of my head had only been used for myself.
It was almost like it was now being used for seven other people.

......If they just stood there and blinked once or let out a single sigh, that would put a strong pressure on my head...
"......Lady MARIA.  My apologies, but I wonder whether the burden from all Seven Sisters at once might be too great after all."
"I, ......I'm alright........., ......ack........."

"...No...  It won't work after all.  You're using all of your energy to materialize them.  There's no point if the burden is such that you cannot balance it with your everyday life.  In any event, this is a little unrefined for a witch."

『Uryu...  That's why I said doing so many suddenly was impossible...  Everyone, erase yourselves for a bit...』
"Right.  It seems it would be better to lower the number of people.  Asmo, erase yourself."

"Me agaain?  I'm opposed to youngest-sister-bullyi~ng!!  Disappear starting from the top every once in a whi~le!"
"That would mean I'd have to disappear second, right?!  No no no-!"

"Don't make a ruckus, Asmo and Levia-nee!!  That kind of disturbance will become a burden to Ange-sama!!"
"The noise you're making is also a burden, stupid Satan!!""Eek!"

".........aah, .........ack............gah........."

The Seven Sisters started arguing over who should erase themselves first.
......The energy from that fight all became a burden, forcing Ange with an even greater headache...
In the end, they decided the order with rock, paper, scissors, and 1, 2, 3 of them disappeared.

But even at that level, Ange was still far from comfortable.
In the end, once six of them had erased themselves, I was finally able to calm my breathing.

With my magical power, forget the Seven Sisters, just one person is my limit...
"......Aaa~aah, this way it's not the Seven Sisters, but just me, right?  You're a bit unreliable, Ange-sama."

Mammon, who had won all of the rock, paper, scissors and was permitted to remain until the end, complained.

『Uryu...  Mammon, you mustn't say such a thing...  Ange is still just starting her training.  ......Are you alright, Ange?  Is your headache okay...?』

Sakutaro stretched up on his tiptoes, trying to pat Ange's head.

Watching this, Maria scratched her head, acknowledging that this sudden training had been too difficult.

"Uu-.  Maybe that was a little too austere.  Maria is perfectly fine with this much though.  Because the more friends you have, the more fun it is."
".........Now I'm even more aware of how incredible you are, Onee-chan..."

If I reached Maria onee-chan's class, I would be able to summon enough people to perform in an orchestra.

For a witch apprentice, that's awe-inspiring...

"Are you alright?  Ange-samaa?"
"............I'm sorry...  It looks like summoning you is the most I can do."

"Well, I guess I'm alright with that.  After all, of all the Seven Sisters, I get Ange-sama all to myself.  ......What do you think, Ange-sama?  Will I be a burden by myself?"

"No, I can manage you alone somehow..."

"Great!  Then please train a lot and cultivate your magic power a lot.  Then someday, for sure, please bring the Seven Sisters together and let us serve you.  Promise?"

After checking that, for the time being, there was nothing wrong with her own materialization, Mammon immediately returned to a good mood, and tried to make me promise to work harder.

I see, so this is greed.
...But maybe you could also call it forward-looking.

"......Yes.  I promise.  ...I have to be able to do at least that much someday."
"Thank you, Ange-sama!  I, Mammon of Greed, will surely serve you until that day...!"

My headache finally abated, and I relaxed both hands, which had been clutching at my head.
Then Mammon stuck out her hand, helping me stand back up...
『Uryu?  ......Ah.  ......Maria, Ange, it's about that time.  If we don't return to the room, you'll be scolded.』
".........Huh?  .........Oh..."

I hadn't expected Sakutaro to talk about the time.
......I was brought back into reality.
As though the light had disappeared, the vast world sunk into the darkness, .........and I was in a tiny, tiny bathroom stall, sitting on a toilet...

Onee-chan's grimoire was open on my lap.
I looked at the clock.

......It was almost 20:00, time for lights out.

If I show up late for the roll call before lights out, not only do things get pretty annoying, but it causes trouble for my roommates and floormates.

......I couldn't care less about causing them trouble, but I'd rather not have them get annoying...
Haah............
My free time by myself is already over for today.
I'll sleep, wake up, tomorrow will begin, and another long, long gray-colored day will repeat again.
I closed the grimoire and rose from the toilet seat...

At that time, Onee-chan appeared again, and spoke.
"......Hey, Ange.  You're forgetting your training.  ............Take Mammon with you."
I'd forgotten.
...The moment I'd returned to reality, Mammon's materialization had stopped...

One more time, I created a strong image of the existence of Mammon in my mind...

"Sheesh, you're so mean, Ange-sama.  Why'd you erase me so suddenly...!  At this rate, you won't be able to call all Seven Sisters easily!"
"............I'm sorry.  I got careless."
"It's been incredibly long since I've materialized in the human world, so I'm interested in absolutely everything.  I'm getting a bit excited.  Where is this?"
".........The Saint Lucia Academy dormitory.  This is a stall in the shared bathroom.  ......Each room has its own bathroom, so no one comes here.  It's quiet, and perfect for reading books."
"In this dorm, you have to hide in a toilet stall even to read a book?  Do they burn books or something?"

............
I have a two person room, so my roommate is always there.
Our relationship is gloomy and it feels like I'm always ignored.
......The atmosphere's bad, so I really can't relax there.

And, as long as I'm not there, she can go all out, call her friends and have a chatting party.
It's more convenient for them too if I don't return until just before lights out.
There's also a library, but there's a group that uses it as a meeting place who're always talking behind my back.

So I don't like to go to the library.
......During lunch, it's the bushes behind the school building.
During the night, it's the stall in the shared bathroom in the dorms.

Those are the only hideaways where I can be given peace...
I opened the door to the stall, ......and went out.

I turned around, signaling with my eyes for Mammon to come with me.

".........I don't really get it, but I realize that it'd be hard to call this place pleasant for you, Ange-sama.  Let's go out quickly.  I hate the air here."
"Really?  .........I think the air here is the most decent."
When I left the bathroom and entered the corridor, because it was near lights out time, there were several kids who had gone to play in other rooms dashing back to their own.
When it came time for lights out, we had to change into uniform pajamas that we hated and called prison clothes, line up in the hallway, and go through the dorm leader's roll call.

......On the off-chance that someone was late, we would take collective responsibility, and all of the floormates would have to undergo a punishment called volunteer work...
As long as I avoided this, the girls would look at me coldly, but they wouldn't get in my way.

......That alone was enough for me.
Mammon looked at the passing kids and the furnishings of the dorm with interest.

......Without paying her any particular attention, I hurried back to my room.
In front of my room was my roommate, who had already changed into her prison clothes, chatting with some kids from the room next door.
When they noticed me hurrying back, their topic of their conversation noticibly changed.
They lowered their voices, stealing glances at me.

I acted like I didn't notice, went into my room, and changed.
Then I hastily went out into the corridor.
Everyone was already lined up.
".........Hey, this is weird.  Isn't this a a school for rich girls?  Feels like a prison.  Feels stupid."
"You think so too?  That's what I think.  And you could say the thing that makes it more strict than a prison is that you don't get out early for good behavior."
......After abusing the place, I noticed.

Having someone to listen to your complaints, ......feels surprisingly good.
Fortunately, Mammon's form can only be seen by the summoner, me.
And of course, there was no need to speak out loud for this conversation.
All I had to do was speak inside my mind, so no one could listen in.

.........Magic, and the friends it creates, ......might actually not be so bad.
"These guys, all of them are sheltered brats.  Feels like they aren't even alive.  Kyahahaha."
"Stop it.  If you're seen by some chance, it'll be pretty bad, right...?"
"Humans without a fragment of hopes or dreams are like a lump of anti-magic.  There's definitely no way they can see me.  These lower life-forms can't even see.  *giggle*giggle*!"
".........Are you alright being around so many humans with that magic-resisting toxin?"
"I'm fine as long as you continue to make me materialize, Ange-sama.  ......Although, you probably have to keep concentrating to materialize me, so there's a chance you'll neglect your daily life.  ......Look, that girl you're sharing a room with is calling you, right?"
"......Huh?  .........Oh-"
"Ushiromiya-san, are you listening?  About the weekly duty next week, there's something I wanted to talk about."
......She's probably talking about pushing a few more chores onto me.
My roommate, who normally never even looked me in the eye, was smiling at me unpleasantly.
But it'll be easier to have the weekly duty pushed onto me alone, rather than doing it together with her.

That's a small price to pay to have her continue to ignore me non-stop...
Even so, with a completely shameless excuse, she sidestepped the issue for some reason and insisted on flipping the situation around, as though I should have come forward and done it of my own initiative.

......One of the special traits of this academy is that it's full of girls who don't know how to ask a favor.
"......That kid.  She pisses me off.  I'd love to just gouge her right in the forehead."
"Yeah.  I'll leave it up to you then."
..................
......Yeah.
Having a friend nearby all the time to complain to, ......makes me happier than I thought it would.
It really was lively with all the Seven Sisters gathered together.

......I'm sure that just watching them mess around would be a lot of fun.
......I want to gain the magical power to summon all the Seven Sisters at once, and soon.

So I'll train much, much more, .........then take the thing that I really want to call to me, ......and summon it.
".........?  What is it that you really want to summon, Ange-sama?"

Mammon noticed my conversation with myself inside my head, and asked about it blankly.
I hesitated to talk about it, but then thought that there was nothing to hide, and told her.
"..................My family.  .........Dad.  Mom.  Onii-san."
"So you mean, the souls of the dead...?  Calling a resident of another world is summoning, but calling back the souls of the dead is called resurrection, and they're completely different.  ......Resurrection is supposed to be very high-level magic."
I know.
......So much so that even Maria onee-chan can't do it at all.
But that's the thing I want to call with magic...the most.

......I've been warned that it's a very difficult high-level magic.
...So great that, in the worst case, I might not necessarily reach that point even after training for my whole life.
Furthermore, I have no vessel.
A vessel is something vital for making magic succeed, whether it be summoning or resurrection.

Because I don't have that, .........what would have been just difficult magic became hopeless.
That's right.  I have nothing to remember Dad or Mom by.
However, ......by an extraordinary coincidence...
I do have something to remember just Onii-chan by.

And that's, .........this.
"......That hair accessory with the pink jewel?  What the hell, I hate to say it, but it looks a little cheap for you, Ange-sama."
"Long ago, without telling Dad, I went with Mom to meet Onii-chan, and we went to play at an amusement park.  ......This is a prize from the crane game there."
I know it's something cheap, I realize that it doesn't match my style, and I get that it's too childish.

......But this hair accessory is the only thing that makes me feel as though Battler onii-chan is by my side.
The glass case had been filled with plastic capsules packed with fun-looking things.
It seemed that each capsule had some cute accessory in it.

The game was to grab those with the crane, ......but I was young and it was too hard for me.
I tried it several times but I didn't even get close.
Mom said that whatever was inside was probably cheap anyways and we didn't even know what it was, so there was no point in getting all upset over it.
But whether it was something cheap or not wasn't the problem.  ......The process of grabbing happiness with my own hands felt very important and sacred to me.

So I wanted the cheap thing inside more than anything.
Then, Battler onii-chan came over after finishing a game of shooting soldiers with a gun, ......and tried to do it for me.
...With his arms that were longer than mine, Onii-chan grasped the happiness that I couldn't reach.
......Onii-chan really was coordinated.

It seems that he often played with his friends at the arcades.
After only one or two attempts, he grasped that thing on the other side of the glass with the crane that I hadn't even been able to touch, .........and threw it into the exit chute.
When Onii-chan tossed me that capsule, I remember that he looked very, very reliable.
For several days, I had felt like opening the capsule would be a waste.

Then, one day, I finally opened it up.

......What then revealed itself inside, was this pink-jeweled hair accessory.
Since that day...
It has been a symbol of Onii-chan.
Since I was young, I've thought that having a four person family gathered, including Battler onii-chan, is a precondition for a happy family.

So I wanted Onii-chan and Dad to make up quickly.
......In my own way, I had made this hair accessory a charm to bring my whole family together.
So I always used to wear it.

I wanted to feel my reliable, fun, and wonderful Onii-chan by my side all the time, and let him live in our house.
"But, ......my memories of Onii-chan...are very distant.  ......I can't do it as easily as Maria onee-chan created Sakutarou from a lion stuffed animal.  ......One day, I will surely possess the high-level magic to revive the souls of the dead.  And the only key...the only vessel...that can make that successful is this."
"...........................I see.  I did feel an incredible magical power from that hair accessory, but now I know what it is."
"Magical power...?  Magical power resides in this thing of Onii-chan's...?"
"Maybe I should say that it resides in you, Ange-sama.  ......Your strong desire to call your brother to you gives you magical power.  ......Resurrection certainly is a high-level magic, but there can be no mistake that you are steadily and unconsciously climbing the stairs towards that magic."
"............I'm glad.  It's nice to hear someone other than myself acknowledge that."

Your own effort isn't something that you can observe by yourself.
In that sense, ......even though these words came from a shady demon girl who controls one of the seven deadly sins, ......they made me very happy.
"Well, I can't guarantee that you will obtain the resurrection magic before your life is over.  ......However, your power as a witch is proportional to the height of the mountain you dare to climb.  If you don't lose heart, I'm sure you will one day become able to rival even our former master, Beatrice, as a Great Witch."
"......I wonder if I can.  I wonder if I can become a Great Witch and revive Onii-san, ......no, my family."
"The Witch of Resurrection, Lady ANGE...!  Kyaah, wonderful!  A Witch of Resurrection is a very rare kind of witch.  Having a master like that would make me pretty proud.  Actually, I'd love for that to happen.  Because furniture's worth is also proportional to the class of its master!
Please pass Beatrice-sama up and become a peerless Great Witch!  As a representative of the Seven Sisters of Purgatory, I support you from the bottom of my heart!  Kyaha!"
.........I'd thought that if a magical friend were to appear for me too, I'd have liked a cute kid like Sakutarou.

But even this fifth sister of the shady Seven Sisters who controlled the seven deadly sins was enough to calm my heart so much all by herself.
......Maria onee-chan has probably known that since long ago.
That's why she had recommended the world of witches to me over and over and over again.

And I kept on stubbornly rejecting that......

I should have given in and started my training as a witch sooner.
A year for a child is worth ten years for an old person...wasn't it...?

Now I find my past self, which only ever complained, deplorable for wasting my precious time.
Long after I turned off the lights and slipped into bed, Mammon continued to talk to me alongside my pillow.
......I promise.
One day, for sure, I'll develop a magical power that can summon the Seven Sisters.
And I'll let them have a lively and fun time.
The seven of them make a single whole.
......None can be left out.

Family must be together.
I must, ......bring them together.........
"........................"

My awareness began to return slowly.
I hadn't been able to stand watching Rosa oba-san and Maria onee-chan's relationship, ......and had run away from Beato's and Onii-chan's game, hadn't I...
......I've got to go back.

I've got to go back, support Onii-chan, and quickly bring him back from this strange world of the witch's game.

Because as long as I'm here, ......I am not permitted to call myself Ange.
......At that time, I felt someone's presence.
When I turned around, .........I could see Mammon there.

"Gretel-sama.  Beatrice-sama said that if you do not return soon, it will become a hindrance to the progression of the game.  I beg that you return swiftly."
"............Thank you.  ...I'll go back now."

"Isn't it great?"
"What is...?"
"That you were able to meet Battler onii-chan."

"............Sarcasm?"
"Well, it's alright if that's how it sounds, okay?"

".........I'm sorry.  I should accept it literally.  ...Yes, it is.  Even in this screwed up world, being able to meet Onii-chan makes me happy from the bottom of my heart."
"And you'll win against Beatrice, for your Onii-chan's sake...?"

"Yes.  ......Can't have him playing around in a world like this forever.  ......It's about time for him to return home.  That's why I came to call him."
"............Please do the best you can.  Although I can't support you, seeing as my current master is Beatrice-sama."
"I know.  Until October 5, 1986, ...you are Beatrice's furniture.  And eventually, you become my friend."
"But eventually, you'll throw that friend away.  In any event, ......ng, .........gah..."
Mammon moaned as if she had bit her tongue, staggering as she clutched her chest.
Apparently, the rules apply to people other than me as well.

"Are you alright?  That's pretty...painful."
".....................Excuse me.  G, ...Gretel-sama."

"No.  Thank you."

".........?"

"I'm glad.  Glad I was able to meet Onii-chan.  That's the answer to your first question.  .........Well, let's go back.  If I grumble too much, you'll get in trouble with your current master."
"Yes.  I'm glad you understand.  Well then, th

"...............Mammon?  ............Huh?"

I'm sure Mammon was about to say "Well then, this way..."

But, ......as though the film had been torn off, she had stopped.
It looked like she had suddenly frozen.
...Then I noticed.
She wasn't the only thing that had frozen.
......Even the air and floating bits of dust had frozen in place in empty space.

A world where it seemed even time had frozen.

......Yes.  This looks like a portent that Bernkastel will appear.
But the atmosphere was different somehow.
Then I understood.
.........It wasn't Bernkastel.
...It was the other witch.
"How are you feeling, Ange...?"

"............Lambdadelta.  ......The rules don't apply to you, do they?"
"Of course not.  Rules exist to bind others.  What kind of idiot would bind themselves with them?"

Bernkastel is a witch who supports me, ......but this girl is different.
This witch supports Beatrice.  ...In other words, she is a being on the opposing side.

But there's some kind of difference between her and Beatrice.

Even compared to Bernkastel, there's something strange about Lambdadelta's existence.
......How should I put it, ...maybe like she's a being from a higher dimension...

In any event, I was still unsure about how to deal with her.

......The only thing that was certain was that she was my enemy.
...No, just knowing that might be enough, but...

"So, ......do you have some business with me?"

"Not really.  When I listened in on your conversation, it started to get a bit interesting.  I thought I'd let you hear something good."

"You're supposed to be my enemy.  I can't think of a reason for you to tell me something that would help me.  So the moment I start listening to you, I lose.  Bye, <see you next time>."

"Don't misunderstand.  My opponent is Bern, not you.  ......In other words, it is possible for there to be a topic that benefits both you and I."
"...............Sorry, but I don't feel like listening."

......Although I said that, I probably won't be released from this frozen time until Lambdadelta is happy.

......This itself might be proof that she's in a higher dimension than me.
I haven't been given the option of not listening to her.

All I can do is try not to be shaken by anything she says, and strengthen my mental guard.

She'll probably try to make me believe something disadvantageous to me, and threaten me...

"*giggle*giggle*.  There's no need to square off like that.  I just came to resolve your misunderstanding.  ......No, that's not quite it.  I came thinking I'd inform you about the lie Bernkastel told you."
".........Bernkastel, .........lied?"
"Didn't Bern make it sound as though, if you defeated Beato, your big brother would come back?"
"............Who knows.  ...I don't feel like talking with you."
My brother coming home...  I hadn't been promised anything that dream-like.

Getting just one person only if I was lucky..., had been a promise without very high hopes.
But that is enough for me.

......After being promised an eternity of isolation, having a faint but still not zero chance was like a shining beacon.
"In a way, that promise of Bern's wasn't a lie.  ......If Bern promised, then I'm sure that if you defeat Beato, Battler and your parents will be released and will come back to you."
"Then there's no problem."
"............Seriously?  .........That kid is surprisingly cruel.

To think she'd deceive you, even though she・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・ knows."
".........How are you saying I was deceived?"

Damn...
I'm letting her take the initiative.
...But I won't be released until I lend an ear to her story.
...So it's something I'll have to hear anyways...

Even though I realized that I was falling into a trap, I urged her forwards.

"What year is it now?"
"......You're talking about the world of the game board?  ...In that case, it's October 4, 1986."

"That's right.  So if you win against Beato, then on October 6, when the typhoon has passed, the people who were trapped on the island will return.  ......On October 6, 1986, that is, right?"

"............So what?"

"How was your October 6, 1986?  ............You were at your relatives house, right?"
......I had been at the house of the only Sumadera my mother trusted, Grandpa.

.........We had gotten a call.
When I had been playing with building blocks in the tatami room, we had gotten that call...
After watching to see that I had remembered, ......Lambdadelta laughed unpleasantly, ......and spoke.
"HEY.  ON YOUR OCTOBER 6, 1986, DID BATTLER ONII-CHAN COME HOME?"
".............................."
Even though I didn't understand what she was saying, I noticed an unpleasant sweat seeping out all over my face...

......Aaah, I don't get it.  I DON'T GET IT.
......What is, ......this witch saying.........?
"See?  If you defeat Beato, Battler will certainly be released.  And he'll probably return home.  To his home in 1986.  After all, that's how it is, right?  Battler was locked up from the 4th to the 5th of October in 1986.  It's only natural that he would return the next day if he were to be released, right?  ......And you?  You're a person from the year 1998.
You're Ushiromiya Ange of the year 1998

where Battler did not return・・・・・・・・.  Know what that means?"
"............What...are you talking about?  .........If my family came back home on October 6, ...wouldn't that be wonderful?  I would come home from Grandpa's house right away.  And then we'd meet.  ......Everyone's happy..."
"Yes.  Ushiromiya Ange probably would be able to reunite with her family.

...The six year old Ushiromiya Ange from 1986・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・ would, right......?"
".........Who am I?"
"Ushiromiya Ange.  An 18 year old one.  .........No, that's not it.  You aren't Ushiromiya Ange.  You're a witch's piece with that name.  Strictly speaking, the name ANGE Beatrice belongs to a completely different person.  ......Know what that means?"
I don't...really get it anymore......
.........Huh?  ......Huh?  ......Who, .........am I?  ............Huh?

"......And thaaat's why I think Bern's cruel.  No, I think she's a meanie.  Especially since it's not like she hasn't had that experience."
".........Am I............, ......somehow, .........being tricked.........?"

"Yeah, but please don't blame Bern, okay?  After all, depending on how you look at it, that kid isn't lying.  ......If Beato is defeated, your family will be returned.  Returned to Ushiromiya Ange.  ......But she probably didn't say that this Ushiromiya Ange would be you, right...?"
Was it like that...was it like that......?
What did Bernkastel say to me, again......?
Your assistance is needed.
......Your family needs it.

Bernkastel had started speaking by saying that.

Then I had spoken.
If I save them, does that mean my family will come back?
......And how did Bernkastel answer that, again......?

Umm, umm......

'I cannot promise that.'

Uh, umm......!
That kid did promise me.
In exchange for accepting this fight...!
Yes, this is what she said!
'In exchange, I will search for the kakera of the ideal world that you wish for, the world where your family comes home.'
............Yeah, that's right.
......She didn't say any more than that she'd look for it.
She didn't say she'd find it.
......But I was, ...prepared for that from the beginning.

But even so, ......that child promised that as long as I didn't give up, there was a faint chance of it happening......
And, ......in the end, she said this.
'I'm giving you a chance for revenge.  ...In exchange, if it is possible for you to receive it, I promise to search for the happiest resolution for you.'
".....................I've known it was a tough bet from the very beginning.  ......After all, I have no family in my 1998.  If I could have a small chance of shaking that certain zero, ......that alone would be worth it.  I was warned beforehand that even if I succeeded in my revenge, it might be a wasted effort.  ......So, .........umm........."
"Yeah, there's no lie in that part.  Beato's game board is perfect.  Even having you around makes the chances of Beato losing so slim that it's doubtful you could even dream of it happening once in your life.
In other words, that chance of winning is almost zero, so certainly that it could be regarded as infinitely close to zero.  So Bern can be forgiven for saying it in such an evasive manner."
"......But I can say for sure that she was tricking you when she let you get your hopes up.  After all, even if you could overcome astronomical odds and win, the person your family will return to is not you.  It is the six year old Ange that exists in this 1986, the true Ushiromiya Ange.  Not YOU.
......Bern will still probably go around the billions of kakera, searching for the best world for you.  But didn't she tell you?  That she planned on bringing you a present, but wasn't able to find it?"

"............She did......"

"Ufufufufufu, *giggle*giggle*giggle*...!!  You're finally starting to notice, aren't you...?  No reward has been prepared for you in this battle.  No, to the contrary, when smashed, Beato's game board will disappear.

Then you, as a piece, will disappear・・・・・・・・・・・・.

.........The goal you can accept is completely, .........no.  I'll proclaim it upon my name.  Upon the name of the Witch of Certainty, Lambdadelta!  I proclaim that it 'certainly' doesn't exist...!"
"...............This can't be........."
"That's Bern's lie.  ......Or should I call it speaking in riddllles?  She made you misunderstand and think that you could be saved.  I came to clear that up."
"............In other words, ......no matter how hard I fight, no matter how hard I pursue victory, ......my family won't come back to me.........?"
"Right, they won't come back!  With 'certainty'!  Oh-hoh-hoh-hoh-hoh-hoh!!  The Witch of Certainty says it with certainty!  Isn't this incredible?  There have been several ancient kings who dedicated historical buildings to me because they wanted me to give them certainty!  I am graciously giving that to you as a present.  Isn't this reeally wonderful, cute and marvelous?  Oh-hoh-hoh-hoh-hoh!!  Buut!  I have a single good proposition for you."
.........Damn.
...I'm getting completely overwhelmed......

I knew I shouldn't have listened, ......and now I'm starting to be overwhelmed by the witch Lambdadelta......!
"My opponent is Bern, not you.  I think I just said that it's possible for the two of us to talk about something that benefits us both.  I've been saying I'd talk about something like that from the beginning.  So listen to me.  You have no choice but to...!"
"............I'm listening..., I'll listen............there's nothing wrong with that, is there?!!"
I finally lost control over my emotions and exploded from the inside.
I don't have a clue anymore.
......I believed that I was Ange.

But at some point, I stopped being Ange.
That's right, I'm ANGE.  Not Ange...!

Who am I?
I'm not my parents' child, nor my brother's little sister.
......I'm just a piece, ......in a witch's game...!
"There's no need to be so pessimistic.  ......I mean, think about it, okay?  Right now, you're together with Battler onii-chan.  While it's true that you can't tell him your name, at least you're positioned as his ally in a game where he battles a witch, ......and you're able to be with him for all eternity.  ......Know what it meeeans......??"
.........I can't stand it, .........but I understand...
In other words, .........as long as Onii-chan keeps getting a tie in this game, it will continue forever.

Continuing to tie means continuing the game for eternity, and it means that I can remain with Onii-chan as a piece.

......But if Onii-chan wins, or else loses, and the curtain closes on the game...
"You, as a piece, will disappear."
"........................"
"What is the happiness of a game piece?  ......Nothing more than playing in the game.  It doesn't come when the game's shut in the closet, gathering dust, right?"

......In the past, the Seven Sisters of Purgatory said it as well.
Furniture's happiness is being used, not being stored away.

That's right.  I am now, ............the witch's, .........furniture.
"Let's change things around a bit.  ......Actually, I want this game to continue in a tie for all eternity.  An unending game is an eternal cage.  ......A certain closed room that never opens for all time and that will finally make Bern surrender.
......You know, Beato does want to win a bit.  Victory by making Battler surrender.  But that's actually a problem for me.
After all, if the game ends, the closed room will fall apart.  ......So I'll go easy on Battler to a certain degree, so that he does not surrender.  Don't worry, alright?  When Battler's about to surrender, I'll become his ally."
".........But you know?  I get the feeling that Beato is faintly starting to realize.  ......I think she's starting to realize that her victory won't come for all eternity in this game.
But she is, of course, the Endless Witch.  Beato's stupid, so she optimistically thinks that even so, she'll surely win eventually, and just has to repeat this game on and on endlessly.  Of course, blonde-haired girls are almost always stupid, *giggle*giggle*!"

".........In this game of witches, .........there's no such thing...as victory or loss......"

"I won't let her win.  And I won't let her lose.  With certainty!  ......Bern has noticed that.  So she found you to be the most powerful piece for breaking that deadlock, and threw you in.  To make this game end, you see?"

".........To make this game...end......"

"What's a piece's role when it ends?  .........I'll state it clearly.  Your existence is a contradiction.  ......Your reason for existing is to bury yourself in the darkness and despair...!"
My goal is to defeat Beato and release my captive family.
......And yet, even if I succeed, I won't be rewarded.
"You cannot lose.  And you won't be rewarded if you win.  ......So I've brought you a third choice.  And with that choice, our interests match each other."

.........Continuing the tie...for all eternity.........
"Yes.  ......As long as the tie continues for all eternity, this world will not crumble.  ......What is this world?  .........It is the world of the game with the witch.  A world where Beato and Battler fight for all eternity.  ......And at the same time, it is a world where you can be with Battler for all eternity......!!"
"..................Uu, ............uu......ah............"
My head was spinning.

That confusion became a hot liquid, and I felt it pouring from my eyes...
It was so hot......, that it felt like it would burn my face...
"Riight......?  ANGE Beatriiiiice...??  Since Bernkastel's goal is to end the game and end the world where you and Battler can interact, why should you be her ally...?
......That kid tricked you, you see?  She made it look like you might be saved if you became her piece.  But I won't deceive you there!
......So I'll say it, ANGE.  Become my chess piece.  Unlike Bern, I won't offer you rewards based on lies that certainly can never be granted.  As long as you become my piece, and help me so that this world 'certainly' never ends...With 'certainty', I'll swear upon my name that this world will 'certainly' continue!
That's not all.  I'll add on a bonus.  The rule that binds you.  ......I'll clear it away for you.  Well, of course, that's only after you've sworn to become my piece, alright?"
In my own throat, ......there was a thick, loud gulping sound......

Aah, I shouldn't have listened......
If I hadn't listened, I could have remained an innocent little sister, praying for my brother's victory.
......But I might be different now.

...I might have been degraded into a witch's furniture, .........that can only be by Onii-chan's side......
"......I'm not telling you to betray your brother, alright?  If it looks like Battler's gonna lose, you can save him with all you've got.  ......On the other hand, when Battler closes in on Beato too much, I want you to hold back a little, ......and that's all I'm asking, alright?
Don't worry, there's no need to actually betray Battler.  ......Battler can't win against Beato alone.  That's why Bern threw you in, you see?  ......As long as you don't lend a hand, Battler will be unable to win against Beato for all eternity.
See?  It's really simple, isn't it?  ......*giggle*giggle*, hohhohohoho, ahhahahahahahahahhahhahhahhahhahha!  Kahhahhahhahha, kyaaahhahahahahahahahhhahahahahahahha!!"

My World


"Hey!!  That's mi-ne!  Give-it-back-!!"
"No, no, I'll eat i~t!  Asmo, Asmo, pass!"
"Kya-hahahaha!  Over here, Levia onee-sama~!"
I wonder where they swiped it from.
They were fighting over a donut or something, playing around really loudly.

"Heeeeey!!  Ange-sama is reading, so can't you be a little more quiet?!"
"You're the loudest one by yelling that, Satan!  Be silent!!  You foolish sister!"
"Y, you're the loud one, Lucifer onee-sama!!  D, do you have a complaint?!"

The oldest and the third oldest sister were already used to arguing with each other.
Even though they're both so quick to anger, it's a bit funny how they're both having to hold back a little.

They might be surprisingly like each other.

"*cackle*cackle*.  You were told to be noisy, but this is a bit too much.  Won't you lower the volume a little?"
"............They can mess around all they want.  It's a hundred times more pleasant than the shrill laughter in the classroom."

"Ange-samaa, go to the next page quickly!  You read really sloow!"
"You like to read, Mammon?  And you looked like you'd be the worst at doing plain things."

"Mammon controls greed.  ......That also includes a thirst for knowledge.  Still, she wants to keep that knowledge all for herself, so be warned that she refuses to let people read any book you give her, and sometimes burns them after reading them."

"I like learning things that no one else knows.  I like being able to do things that no one else can do.  So I like studying and practicing.  Because I want to keep intelligence that no one else knows about all to myself."

As Mammon said that, her eyes sparkling, she peered down at the page that was open and read through it again.
You could see the greed that made her covet the same page even more thoroughly than I did.
As you can see, my magical power has grown much stronger than it was on the first day I summoned them.
By now, I've gotten so that I can summon all of the Seven Sisters of Purgatory at once and still calmly read a book like this.
This place, although I can't recall where it was, is a quiet and calm street-side bench.
I had been young back then, so I don't remember where this is.
......Still, I remember that my days walking here had been a lot of fun.

Together with Dad, Mom, ...and even Onii-chan, it was a memory of a very rare and very happy day when everyone had been together...
The people who walked by every once in a while didn't notice me.
They just pleasantly ignored me and passed by as though everything was normal.

Even the Seven Sisters' incredible outfits weren't embarrassing or anything, because it wasn't like anyone was actually watching.

Come to think of it, I'm getting pretty used to it.  As long as they don't make me wear those.
I was sitting on a stylish bench, memorizing a timeline for world history.

......In an academy system where everything is based on collective responsibility, there's no tolerance for dunces.
It seemed that I was considerably below the average grade for the class.

According to those extremely intellectual girls, if I alone improved my grade, the average would rise drastically.
......They had been kind enough to show me with a graph drawn by colorful pens on a B4 sheet of drawing paper.
...Just thinking of the effort it had taken to draw that was repulsive.

But I've already spat out all of those complaints.
......I've already spat out at them with my constant and furious anger and sadness.

The Seven Sisters were sometimes indignant, sometimes compassionate, and sometimes mourned along with me.
......I was truly happy to be able to share emotions like that with friends.

It's said that they were originally furniture that existed to carry out Beatrice's cruel sacrifice ceremony.

......According to the occult message bottle, which I didn't like, ...it seems that several of them even attacked my family.

But I don't believe that, and it's pointless to question them about it.
They are furniture, so they only respond to their master's requests.

Even if they really did attack my family, I can't hate them.
......What I really hated, ......was the Golden Witch Beatrice.
.........Or else the ringleader of the Ushiromiya Suspicion, Eva oba-san.

"......Ange-sama, quickly, the next page."
"Oh, sorry.  .........I'm tired.  Mind if I take a break?"

"Kyahaha!  Ange-sama said break!"
"Let's play, let's play!  Ange-sama, let's pla-y!!"

When they noticed that I had interrupted my studying, the most energetic youngest sisters gathered around me.

That wasn't all.
Even Maria onee-chan and Sakutaro showed themselves.

They had probably been very close by, but they must have hid themselves so that they didn't interrupt my studying.

『Uryu-!  Ange~!  How's studying?  How's studying?』

"Kyaaah!!  Sakutaro-!!  How are yooooouu?!"
"Wait a second!  Let me squeeze him tooooooooooo!!"

"Don't we always say that the first one wins?!  Kyaa, cute, cute!"『Ukyuu--, you're crushing me-!  Uryuu--!』

"Your luck ran out when you showed up when all of the Seven Sisters were gathered.  Give up and let us squeeze you."
"Come on!  It always turns out this way!!  I apologize for my stupid older and younger sisters...!"

"Ahahahahaha.  Everyone's happy to meet Sakutaro.  ...How's it going, Ange?  How is studying?"
"Thanks.  Well, not bad.  They were nice enough to pass around printouts from a quiz that another class took earlier.  Their beautiful sense of solidarity is enough to bring tears to my eyes.  ......Well, at least it's probably better than just putting a timeline into my head."

『Uryu.  You sure are good at studying, Ange.  You'll be able to get a lot of points, uryu~~.』
"Good work.  Maria was just awful at studying, so jealous of you for being able to get a good score if you study hard."

"You're joking.  When it comes to English, Latin, and knowledge of the occult, you're much more amazing for being able to remember everything."
"Maria can remember anything when studying magic, but can't remember anything boring.  So that didn't help at all for tests."
"Well, it's true that occult knowledge would be like that, but your grades must have been pretty good in English, right?"
"In the first year of elementary school, on a Japanese language test, there was a problem when Maria was given a picture of a gun and four squares, and was told to write its name in the four squares.  Got punished for writing 'rifle' (ライフル/raifuru)."
"Why?  Doesn't that fit?"
"It was supposed to be the Japanese word for gun (てっぽう/teppou).
Rifle/Teppou

The first characters kids learn to write in Japan are Hiragana, which is a phonetic set like Katakana but used mainly for Japanese words instead of foreign ones.

For example, Katakana is used to pronounce the foreign word rifle, while the Japanese word for gun, 'teppou' would be written in Kanji, or else hiragana if the writer was a kid who hadn't learned Kanji yet.

There are several thousand Kanji in common use in Japan, so students keep on learning more and more of them from elementary school until high school.
 Maria was told that it was wrong because you don't learn katakana in first grade.  ......Maria didn't really get it, so from that day on, on tests, Maria wrote everything in hiragana.  But got in trouble with Mama for some reason.  Got in trouble with the teachers too."
"....................You were probably born in the wrong country, Onee-chan."

"Then Maria would like to have been born in the country of witches, and enter a witch school.  Uu-."
『If that happened, you might have had friends with much, much more wonderful magic!  Uryu-!』

"Uu-♪  But it's not like Maria minds it now.  After all, Maria can use a lot of magic, and has a lot of magic friends.  Just Sakutaro would be enough for Maria."

『I'm not the only one!  There's also Sakusuke and Sakukichi, the animal band, Shimoda-kun the seal, Sanae-san the rabbit, Mr Pig-kun, and plenty more!』

......Incredible.
The number of Onee-chan's friends keeps increasing.

Every time I ask, the number of names for her friends increases.
But there's no doubt that Sakutaro is her best friend.

...I'm a little jealous of all those close friends.

"......What do you think?  About the Seven Sisters?  Do you get along with them?"
"Those sisters are really energetic.  They sometimes say shady stuff, but they aren't bad.  ...I'd wanted to get a cute kid like Sakutaro, but I think being with them now is more than enough."

"*giggle*.  If I had learned the Magic of Origins more, I'm sure I would be able to give birth to friends you would like, Ange.  Creation would still be a little too hard for you now."
"There's a difference between creation and summoning.  ......And, resurrection is also different."
"............So your greatest wish really is to revive your family...?"
"Yes.  .........I have a vessel for it.  This."
"That's right.  ...I'm sure that hair accessory will eventually become the key to summoning Battler.  ......The rest is up to your training, Ange."
"Although not knowing how long that will take is enough to make me cry."

『Uryu...  Stay strong, even if it's tough...  If you don't give up, Ange, it will definitely definitely be granted someday...』
"If someone gave me some proof that it would definitely be granted, at least that would calm my heart."

『Uryu!  Then I guarantee i-t!  Without a doubt, Ange will surely have her wish granted someday!』
"......Thanks.  I'm happy even for consolation."

『It's not consolation, uryu-.』
"Stop it, Ange.  That kind of emotion will become the magic-resisting toxin.  The feeling that your dreams will definitely come true is the best seed that buds into magic power."
"..................That's right, sorry, Teacher."

"You need to be a bit greedier, Ange-sama.  Go however far for the thing that you desire!  You're lacking the willpower to never give up until you get it!"

『Uryu-!  That isn't true, Ange is doing her best...!』
"Thanks Sakutaro, Mammon.  Crying about it won't help anything.  There's nothing I can do except hang in there.  I'll try hard.  I'll grit my teeth.  I'll definitely make my dreams come true.  Certainly."

『Uryu!  You're awesome, Ange, do your best!  Mammon and I will support yo-u!』
"Yes, we'll support you.  The greedier our master is, the more our worth will increase."

"More importantly, Ange-samaa!  We've finally got 10 people gathered he-re!"
"We planned to have everyone play shiritori or something!"
Shiritori
Shiritori is a Japanese game where players take turns saying words that start with the last syllable of the previous word. Anytime someone says a word that ends with nn (ん), they lose, because no Japanese word starts with that sound.

E.G. Ootsuki->Kyrie->Ange->Jessica->Kanon

The person who said 'Kanon' loses.
"If you lose, there's a punishment game!  Let me nibble someone's ea~rs!"

"Come on, is there anything inside your head other than food?!"
"Please forgive my foolish sisters' stupid proposals...  Is it really alright for you not to return to your studying about now?"
"No, no, nooooooo!!  I waited so long for you to finish studying, so I can't stand it if you don't play with us!"

"I don't think it's a bad idea.  Perhaps playing every once in a while is good for softening the mind."

"............You controlled sloth, right Belpha?  What you're saying sounds reasonable, but you're actually being sneaky."
"Hmph.  My apologies.  ......You are diligent, Ange-sama."

"If it's okay with Ange, I'd also like to play with everyone.  Everyone noisy.  It'll definitely be fun."
『Uryu-!  Ange, Ange, let's play, let's play!  Let's all do shiritori-!』
"In that case, let's start from Sakutaro's 'uryu-'.  .........In this case, what do we start from?  'Ryu'?  'Yu'?"

"From 'uryu-'?  ............I wonder.  Maybe it really should be 'ryu'?"
"......It's rare for a word that ends like that to come up."

"Then I'm first!!  I'll start from 'ryu'!  A 'watch ste~m' (ryuuzu)!"
"I wanted to say it first!  'Lute' would have been wonderful!"
"'Zu'?  Feels like we keep getting tough ones.  ...Wait a sec, what order are we going in?  Who's next?"

『Uryu.  I don't think it matters who.  Whoever thinks of something first.』
"What's that?  Sounds interesting.  The person who can say the most wins?  It's fast-talking shiritori!"

"Then I'll go!  'Zucchini'!  'garlic stir-fry' (ninniku itame)!  'mekabu and pasta'~!  All of them delicious!  Kyaha, I said three of them!"
"Belz takes three points.  ......Can you use conjunctions?"

"If you could use 'and' then anything would work!!  That last one doesn't count!  Minus one point!!  Let's start from 'me'."
"Then Maria.  'Meringue'~!"

『'Ge'??  ...U, ...u, ......uryu-!』
"'Drainage system' (gesuidou), 'reclaimed land' (umetatechi), 'basement' (chikashitsu).  Something like that?"
"Onee-sama, those are all pretty unrefined words, *giggle*!"

"S, so what, then why don't you try following up with something refined!!  Anyways, that's three points for me.  The next one's 'tsu' alright, 'tsu'!"

"Never played such a weird shiritori before.  Uu-uu-!  Interesting!"
『Uryu-!  I don't get it at all, but it's interesting.  Uryu-!』
I've played normal shiritori before, but I've never experienced a shiritori this weird before.

There is only the lively Seven Sisters, Maria onee-chan, Sakutaro, and me.
I'm now surrounded by friends that are just so fun.
......The courage to accept a world of magic, a world of witches...

...That alone didn't change the fact that I was still locked up in an academy, without a single friend in my class.

But despite that, I'm able to have such a fun and lively time.
.........I'll also become a witch, like Maria onee-chan.

And someday, I'll add my family to this fun circle.
Dad, Mom.  And Onii-chan.

......If possible, George onii-chan and Jessica onee-chan.  And the other relatives.
I'll call everyone, everyone here without a single person missing, ...and we'll all gather together.
"......This is my...dream.  ......That's right.  Until I make that come true, I definitely won't lose heart."

"I'm sure you'll become a Great Witch, Ange-sama.  As long as you believe that.  We Seven Stakes of Purgatory will always serve by your side until that day comes."
"You'll be there...?  No matter how long, ......you'll lend me your strength?"
"Of course.  After all, I'm your friend, right, Ange-sama?"
".....................Yes, that's right.  Let's all stick together and play together.  Today, and in the future...always...always."
"Until the day that your dream comes true, Ange-sama."
The lively, ten-person game of shiritori, cut off from time alongside the street, under the constantly bright rays of the sun, could have continued forever......
".........Wait, seriously?  What happened, Ushiromiya-saan?"
"........................."
......In the end.  I hadn't been able to make a very good grade on my test.

I had tried to memorize things in my own way, but if you could manage anything by cramming all night like that, no one would worry about tests.
"Normally, when you know the problems beforehand, you'd be able to pass easily, right?  Easily!"
"It's true that we didn't go so far as to write the answers into the blanks for you.  Because we had thought you'd studied at least that much."
"What the hell?  Come on, are you serious?  I can't believe it!  They're almost all wrong, aren't they?  Did you really study properly?!"
".................More or less..."
"This isn't what you call more or less, Ushiromiya-san.  ......It's so horrible that it makes me dizzy, get it?"
"Oh, God.  Please forgive her for getting a miserable grade on such an easy test, and making the average score for the entire class plummet...!"
"*giggle*giggle*giggle*, *cackle*cackle*cackle*, ahahahahahahaha."
......The same test had been given in another class first.
That test paper had been obtained, so the average score for this test had been unusually high.

Enough to obscure my slight improvement.
However, ......there were some things that I couldn't make an excuse for.

If I had spent that entire day studying like mad, I might have been able to get an even higher score.
......But I hadn't gone that far.

After all, after that on that day, ......I had spent the time having fun playing shiritori with the Seven Sisters, Sakutaro and Onee-chan.

As expected, the winner had been Maria onee-chan.
She had been a strong player because of her various bits of random knowledge.

Sakutaro had gotten the punishment game.

He had spent the whole time cheering for everyone else's answers, and had completely forgotten to think of any himself.

......Because of that, he had been squished by the Seven Sisters and had his ears thoroughly nibbled, hadn't he?
"Heey, are you listening, Ushiromiya-san?!"
".................."

They were surrounding me, twittering like small birds.  They were annoying, smelly.

On the outside of that circle was Mammon, a shocked expression on her face...

"This is a messed up school, just like usual.  Shouldn't you be more than happy as long as your own grades are good?"

".........It's probably because of that collective responsibility thing.  Instead of worrying about their own grades, they're more concerned about how embarrassing it is for the class average to be low.  Or maybe it's because they really hate the volunteer work they're forced to do as punishment."

"So in other words, they aren't studying because they want their grades to be good, but because of collective responsibility and since they hate volunteer work?"
"......They're jealous and embarrassed.  They don't want to be inferior than anyone, and they don't want to be humiliated.  That's the only feeling that drives them to study."

"What noisy people.  If they want to study, why can't they just do it themselves?"
"In the end, without collective responsibility and volunteer work, they'd have no desire to study.  ......How foolish it is to study without knowing the meaning of studying."

"Still, these guys are so annoying and stupid!  Don't disturb Ange-sama's precious day for a minute!"

"Waaah, hate those gu-ys!!  Just go awa-y!!"
"I'm hungryyyyyy!!  Disappear noooooow, waaaah!!"
".....................Sorry, everyone.  I wonder why humans are so shameful."
"It's probably because, instead of working hard themselves, it's easier to make you work hard and earn them a higher class average to satisfy their greed.  ......Humans are all greedy.  And they'll burden others with that to make things easier for themselves.
...We'll eventually be reunited with them on the mountain of Purgatory.  When they get to fifth terrace, they better watch their step..."
Mammon controls the fifth terrace of the mountain that reaches to heaven, Mount Purgatory.

......Since she's saying this, you can probably be sure that after those girls die, their journey to heaven will not be an easy one.

...No, on the contrary, why don't they just fall into hell.
The class committee went to the student council and applied to use a classroom during lunch and after school.
The purpose of use was for a class study group.
A wonderful little gathering so that they could all surround me and make me study.  I'm so grateful I could cry.

Which meant that every day, all of my lunch and three hours of my afternoon would be stolen.
The academy and its student council, with its theme of student self-government, instantly approved of this pleasant activity that the students were taking up of their own initiative...

In other words, I was no longer able to escape after school by leaving the classroom...
After school, the first class study group meeting started right away.

Would they open a textbook, then kindly and carefully explain so that even I could understand it?  Of course it didn't turn out to be like such a naive illusion.
After school in the classroom, dozens of my classmates crowded around my desk.
First, before we started studying...

Why were my grades so bad?
What was the reason?
It was decided that we couldn't start until I could clearly answer those questions, become aware of the problem, and show regret for my actions.
......Of course, there's no way for me to respond when asked a question like that.
They have come to loathe me by now.
And they have come to reject me and keep me at a distance so that I can't join in on their community.

So I've started avoiding their community myself.
There shouldn't have been any conflict for either of us that way.
So even in this group that was enthusiastic about raising the class average, they obviously kept me at a distance.

Even if I tried to join in, they would probably ignore me, like they always did in the past.
"If you ask, we'll teach you whatever you want.  Okaaaaaaaaaay?!"
"""Okaaaaaaaaaaaaay?!!!"""
They were getting themselves all worked up.
......I've already had enough of the hypocrisy in their little postscript there.
"Ushiromiya-san, the thing that's bad about you is that you're lacking a cooperative personality.  You must not think that everything's fine as long as it's alright for just you."
"Those who gather in Saint Lucia's place of learning shall have a cooperative heart.  It's written right there in the student handbook, right?"
"I think having a cooperative heart is what gives birth to the desire to study together and contribute to the entire class.  I believe that itself is the thing you lack before you even start studying, Ushiromiya-san, but what do you think?!"
"Heeey, have you been listening to us?!
We went to all the trouble of staying after

school to say this for your sake・・・・・・, you see?!"
..................I'm so grateful I could cry.
Of course, they didn't like that.

'This way, it almost makes it look like we're bullying you', they reprimanded me.

Fortunately, I'm normally all cried out anyways.
If I'm told not to cry, I can hold it back.
First, I was made to write a letter of remorse and read it out loud.
Of course, this was to be done by today.
The class committee politely applied to the student council and the staff room for an extension on the use of this classroom.
......It seems it was accepted right away.

Which means that starting now, I'll be forced into self-criticism for at least a full five hours here......

――Ushiromiya Ange got a low score on her test and caused trouble for her classmates.
"That's not it, riiight?!?!""You getting low grades and causing us trouble isn't the root of the problem, right?!"
"It's a cooperative attitude, right?  A cooperative attitude!!"
"Come ooon!!  Why do we even have to direct Ushiromiya-san on how to write a letter of regret!"

Their abusive jeers flew about one after another.
I followed their 'directions' and erased it.

――Ushiromiya Ange didn't have a cooperative attitude and caused trouble for her classmates.
"Hey, wait a sec, it's pointless if you just write whatever we say, right?!"
"Do you really know what 'regret' means?!"
"It's pointless if you don't write it in your own words, pointless!"
"I've always thought you were a bit strange, Ushiromiya-san, but you really are weird!  *giggle*giggle*giggle*!"
Even following their directions didn't change the jeers much, and now it felt like they were mocking me as well...
So for several more hours, without rest, without even being allowed to go to the bathroom, and of course not permitted to have dinner, as I was continuously abused...

......I was coerced into writing a paragraph which humiliated myself......
And at about 9:00 that night, ......I was told to stand up and read it aloud.

The contents, ......were smeared black with tears and eraser marks.
It certainly was my handwriting, ......but it was like a list of soulless letters, whose contents I couldn't even remember.
Everything had been copied down according to their orders.

So while I had been the one to write the letters, they weren't my words.
I was being coerced into writing it down, and even coerced into reading it aloud.

.........Even after all this time, I was surprised to find that in addition to ignoring them and hiding their things, there are other ways, like this, to bully people......
"Heey!  Read it aloud quickly!!"
"Look how many people are staying this late just for you, Ushiromiya-san.  Why not thank us a little?"
"Isn't the fact that she doesn't feel gratitude a sign that she doesn't have a scrap of a cooperative attitude?"
"It's alright, Ushiromiya-san.  We'll always be with you from now on.  Why not study with us and remake yourself?  Okay?"
"*giggle*giggle* "Ahahahahaha "Kyahhhyahyahyahya!!"""
As I stood by my seat, surrounded by them, ......I dropped my gaze towards the blackened page.

And then......I spoke those humiliating words, but right away, jeers flew at me saying that they couldn't hear and to speak up.
............I can't read it.

I had no idea...that being forced to read a paragraph humiliating me would be so painful.

My throat shook.  My fingertips shook.
......The paragraph of humiliation written in my own handwriting made my eyes burn with a hot liquid.
So my world blurred and twisted.

I saw the girls surrounding me twist and bend.

......I saw them twist and bend into the impression I had of them.
In other words, ......that was my true field of vision.

Beyond that twisted crowd of people, ......I could see my friends.
Compassion could be seen in all of their eyes.

".........Ange, .........stay strong..."
『Uryu-.........』

Maria onee-chan and Sakutaro were looking at me with sad eyes.
Probably because they realized that even cheap words of compassion would hurt me.

......They kept alternating between trying to say something, and hanging their heads.

"What the hell's wrong with these people...!!"
"They're just the worst!  Really pisses me off!  What's so fun about gathering around Ange-sama and torturing her?!"
"Resentment that can't be spat out despite their jealousy.  It doesn't matter who, as long as they can spit it out.  They're the worst."

"Ange-sama!  In this kind of situation, it's alright to go mad with rage for your own honor's sake!!  Anger is an appropriate emotion and an appropriate reaction!  If you don't get mad now, when will you get mad?!!"
"Stop it, don't stir Ange-sama up with cheap anger!!  If Ange-sama could do that, she would have done it already!!"

"............You should do so only if the situation could improve by getting angry.  However, from a objective viewpoint, it seems doing that would only aggravate the situation further.  It may be humiliating, but the wisest thing to do now is to withstand it."
"Ahha!  You really are a sloth, Belpha!  Quit fooling around, I can't stand this!!  I can't forgive them!!"

『...E, everyone, calm down...  It'll become a burden for Ange...』
"A burden?!  What are you talking about?  Is this the time or place to be calm?!  We furniture are not so cruel as to cooly watch when our master is humiliated!!"

"Ange-sama!!  You have no obligation to read such a humiliating letter!  If you can't let out a cry of rage, then at least throw it onto the floor!!"

"You don't need to trash talk them, you don't need to yell so loud that they bend over backwards!  Just throw the notebook on the floor with all your might...!!  By doing just that, you'll be able to show your strong will!!"

"Don't start running on by yourself, Mammon!!  I told you, right?!  If Ange-sama could do it she would have done so long ago!!"
"Nothing will be resolved by the eruption of momentary emotions.  Why don't you understand that doing that will only worsen the oppression towards Ange-sama?!"

"Waaaaaaaaaaaaahh!!  Why is this happening to Ange-sama when she didn't do anything wrong?!"
"Not letting her eat dinner, and making her stay so long after school!  I hate iiiiiiiiiiiiit!!"

"And it's not just tonight, but tomorrow and the day after too!!  That's enough, you can't simply sit there bearing this humiliation!!"

"Hey!!  Are you really listening to us?!"
Someone tugged at my hair.
......I was torn back into the tragic reality.

...I was no longer even permitted to listen to the Seven Sisters speaking on my behalf in my heart.
My hair was lifted upwards, one of my hair ornaments came off, and I could hear the sound of it rolling on the ground.
......No one picked it up.

To the contrary, they casually avoided it as though something filthy was rolling towards them.
I tried to follow it with my eyes, but my hair was tugged upwards again.
"Why do you ne-ver listen to us, even though we're talking about something so serious?!"
"In one ear and out the other, is it?  Does anything get into that thick skull of yours?!  Get a grip, alright?!"
"Are you really conscious of the trouble you're causing us?  You aren't going to start saying that you just wrote it grudgingly because we told you to, right?!"
"Until you really show regret of your own will, this seriously isn't gonna end, right?!  It's not just for today.  It'll seriously keep on going tomorrow and the day after, you see?  Don't fuck with us, okay?!?!"
"I mean, why are you still even alive?  Is it normal to go on living like this?  If it were me, I'd just die!"
"You can't live like this, can you?!  'Cause you being alive just means getting in other people's way all the time, right?  If it were me, I definitely couldn't live on!"
"Yeah, yeah, I'd die too.  If doing that's better for the world, then I'd die right away!  Riiiiiiiiight?!!"
......Then die.

"Ange-sama......"
"Kill all of them now, you guys!!  Lucifer, can you hear me?!"
"Uh, ......ah..."

"You Seven Sisters of Purgatory are incredible furniture that can massacre mere humans in a flash, right?!  You're always boasting about it to me!!  Then do it!  Massacre them right now!!  Right here, right now!!"
".........Well..............."

For some reason, Lucifer hesitated.

......Why?  What's wrong?!
You're certain-kill furniture that can fly around faster than the eye can see and instantly pierce the hearts of a witch's enemies, right?
And I am giving you an order as your master!!

Carry it out right away!  Kill!!  Kill them aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaall!!
"..................A, Ange-sama.........Please, calm down......"
If they had immediately followed my brutal order, making heaps of corpses with me at the center...

......I was ready to reflect on my own reckless actions of stealing human lives so readily...ready to regret and repent, just as they had wanted me to.
I was prepared to do that.
And yet, Lucifer just let an unsure expression rise to her face, and didn't move to carry out my order.
...............I've understood.

I've understood for a while.  ......Vaguely.
No, that's not it.  ......I've known from the beginning.

So I've......, ......understood that this magic is all empty, haven't I......?

"......The Seven Sisters of Purgatory?  Yeah, right.........Foolish, foolish...............And I've known that from the beginning......"
"............A, ......Ange-sama...............a, aaaaaahhh......!!!"

I glared into the worthless Lucifer's eyes.

...And it seemed that pain accompanied that gaze.
As though she was being assaulted with a violent headache, Lucifer grasped her head with both arms.

But it looked like she couldn't tear her eyes off my gaze.
......So she was assaulted with a pain that grew more and more violent.
"........................"
"Guhguhguh, ah......gahgaaa, agaa.........!!  Gyack!!!"
Useless, useless......!!
I hate you!!  Disappear...!!

You're nothing but a delusion inside my head・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・...!!!
Hopelessness and disappointment.
Resignation and a dream's end.
A cracking sound, like you'd hear from a frozen lake's surface during a fierce winter, rang out just once.

At the same time, Lucifer's form, which was being tormented by a violent pain, stiffened in place and grew cloudy.
......It was almost as though a beautifully polished glass window had been heartlessly smashed and turned white from the countless fissures.
And that was an accurate analogy.
At some point, Lucifer's form had turned into a glass ornament of the same shape.
Countless fissures ran through it from the inside, and as the head and arms collapsed, it crumbled to the floor.

"Eeeek?!!"
"L, Luci-nee...!!"
"............Who's the second sister...?  Leviathan?  Carry out my order.  Massacre them right now!!"
"N, no, um!  ......Err, Ange-sama.........Please calm your heart and listen...  We, umm, .........aaah, gwaagahhgguguggah, kyaaggghh!!"
I'm not looking for excuses or back talk or an answer.
......I want nothing more than a swift confirmation of my order to eradicate the girls who are humiliating me.

If you're going to say anything else, there's no need for me to listen until the end.
After Leviathan also turned white due to countless cracks throughout her whole body, she fell over backwards, split into separate parts along her neck, hips and arms.
If she had been smashed to bits and lost her original form, it probably wouldn't have seemed so brutal.

So seeing the two of them halfway left over made the remaining younger sisters shake even harder...

"......Why won't you listen to my orders...?  Why?  Why?!!"
"M, my apologies...!!  H, here, under the current conditions, the anti-magic power is...e, extremely strong and..."

"What's that?  You can't do it because humans are here?  That's your logic?  Isn't killing humans what you do?!  If you can't do that, then what use are you as furniture?!!  Die!!!"

"Eeeeek!!  P, please spare me, Ange-samaaaaa......ah, aaaah, khhagah, gihh, ack!!"
As she clutched her head with both arms, Satan also turned white and fell down face first.

Apparently the neck is the most slender part after all.
Her head slid off and rolled over to Belphegor's feet.
"You can't do it because there are too many humans?  Then later on, I'll call them into the shadows one by one, and you can make a bloodbath of all of them, right?"
"......With your current magical power, it may be easy for you to converse with us.  However, you still lack the training in magical power to materialize us in front of all of the people here...!
I deeply understand your anger, but even if you could use us to attack, and murdered everyone here, that would only make the situation worse...!  I do think it humiliating, but please control your anger for the time being...,
.........ahgah, ......gaaaahaahh, kwaaaagghhgh!!"
"............Will I get the same answer from the next three...?  Are you gonna tell me you can't do it because the anti-magic power is too great?  Are you gonna tell me you can't do it because my magical power is too weak?  ......Then I won't ask you to kill all of them.  Just one person's fine, so try and kill them.  Right here, right now...!!"
As Asmodeus and Beelzebub held each other, they crouched down, cringing in fear under my glare.

......If they had been able to obey my order, they would probably have carried it out immediately.
And yet, here they were crouching down.
......Empty.  Sad.  And pathetic......

That's right, I've known.
These girls can't even touch reality with one of their fingers......

"N, ...no, no...!!  Belz, I'm scared, Be-lz!!"
"Ange-sama, spare us, spare us...!!  I don't want to diiiiiiiieee!!"
"Die, useless furniture!  Why are you guys even alive?  Why are you alive when your lives are worthless?  It doesn't matter if you die, right?  Die.  I'm telling you to die!!  Do you think any idiot would leave furniture that has no use lying around?!"
""Eeeeeeekkk!!  aaaahh, gaaahh!!!""

"P, please stop, Ange-sama!!"

"......Whaat is it, Mammon?  Will you be the only one to fulfill my order?  That's right.  You're my best friend.  ............You alone will do it for me.  Get them!"
"............A, as you are now, Ange-sama, ......even if you use us, you are not capable of committing murder!!  It is furniture's duty to help with things their master can do...!  Things that even the master can't do, we can't do...!!  Do you hate them, Ange-sama?  You do hate them, right?
I really understand why you want to kill them!!  Alright, in that case, go ahead and kill them, Ange-sama!  If you stain your own hands with blood then we, the Seven Sisters of Purgatory, will go along with you however far!  However far!!"

"......I'm, ......asking you guys, .........because I can't do it myself, aren't I............Isn't being able to do things I can't the thing that makes you furniture!!"

"Yes, we are furniture.  Furniture to be used...!!  Please, go ahead and use us to kill!  You'll be the one killing, Ange-sama!!  If you're saying that you want to kill, then go ahead, be my guest!  No need to hesitate, go and carry it out right now!!

And once you've prepared yourself mentally, once you're prepared to dirty your own hands, then we will help you!  But you haven't done that, Ange-sama!!"
"Pft, .........*cackle*cackle*, ahhahhahhahhahha...  Ahhahhahhahhahhahhahhahha, don't speak, you furniture.  You delusion!!  I get it already, you don't all have to tell me.  ...You guys can't do anything.  You are nothing more than my delusions, illusions, daydreams...!  I haven't had a single friend from the very beginning.  You are just a phantom, a pretend friend I created in my heart, in my isolation, right?  I've known from the very beginning!!!"
"Ahhahahahahahahahahahaha!!  Yeah, that's right!  We're an illusion inside your head, Ange-sama, but so what?  Yes, that's truue!  We're just imaginary friends created to soothe lonely, lonely Ange-sama's heart because she doesn't have a single friend, but so what?  If you want to look at reality, just look at it.  You can stop looking at us and return to being surrounded and bathed with jeering over there!!
C'mon, c'mon, go back, welcome home to reality!!  Just call on us only when it's convenient for you and pretend you have friends, then spur us on even though you don't have the guts to dirty your own hands, then deny and erase us once you realize that it's hopeless!  Yes, please enjoy it, I'll leave with a shriek of anguish just like you want, Ange-sama!!
Just copy the jeering that you're being showered with right now, and do the same to us to get it off your chest.  That's also furniture's duty!!  Getting slammed against the floor when someone's pissed off is also a chair's important duty!!  If that alone can absorb their master's bad mood even for an instant, there can be no greater honor for furniture.  Kill me, deny me, your first and final friend...!!!"
At the end, Mammon had a mocking expression on her face, ......but for some reason it looked splashed with tears.

Mammon, Beelzebub and Asmodeus were smashed and fell to the floor......

『.........U, ......uryu..................』
"............Come over here, Sakutaro.  Ange is a little agitated right now.  ......So you must not get close."

『What about everyone?  Are all the Seven Sisters alive?  Did they die...?』

"......It's alright.  It looks very gruesome, but those are the remains of the vessels after being deported from the human world.  They're shells that have been shed.  ......So it's alright.  They're probably deeply injured, but they're alright.  Everyone is alive.  I'm sure we'll be able to meet them again someday."

『Uryu.........Thank goodness.........thank goodness............』

"......Ange has violated the contract of Mariage Sorciere.  ......Doing such a horrible thing, ......even though witches of the alliance must respect and accept one another......  Even though everyone was an important friend of yours, Ange......"
"No witches' alliance has anything to do with this.  Magic friends?  Give me a break.  .........I killed them, erased them.  I smashed the Seven Sisters!"
『Uryu......, that's so cruel......, so cruel.........』
"......Just give it a rest with this playing witches thing.  .....I beg you.  Maria onee-chan and Sakutaro, I want you to disappear by yourselves.  .........Because even amidst my delusions, ......I don't want to kill and erase you."

『W, ...we aren't delusions......  We're your friends, Ange..., uryu.........!』

Sakutaro said that as he hid behind Maria onee-chan, sobbing.

.........Sakutaro doesn't exist.

Sakutaro is also...a delusion Onee-chan created to distract herself from her loneliness.........

『U, ......uryu, .........it hurts, ......it hurts, Maria............Why?  Why...?  Uryu.........uryu.........』
"Stop it.  Denying my friend is the one thing I will not permit."

The same power that had smashed the Seven Sisters was probably eating into Sakutaro as well.

......But Maria onee-chan was apparently protecting him with some other power.
So Sakutaro's form didn't break and scatter.

Onee-chan glared at me sharply.
......A serious expression that I had never seen before.

"Sakutaro is my furniture.  You cannot erase him, Ange.  ......However, trying to deny someone is the greatest form of scorn for a witch."
"Sakutaro didn't exist from the very beginning.  He's just a lion stuffed animal.  A phantom you personified in the delusions inside your own mind!"

"Uu-!!!  That's not true!!  Sakutaro is Maria's friend!!  He was a stuffed animal once, but now he isn't!!"

"No, he's a stuffed animal.  A stuffed animal made of cloth and cotton!  He can't move or talk by himself!  You're just talking for him like a ventriloquist, right?!  Is that what you call magic?  Is that what you call a witch?!  Is that what you call, ......a friend?!  I can't accept that!!"

『.....................Uryu...............Am I, .........not me......?
......Am I......just a stuffed animal that, ...can't really talk..., .........and not Maria's, .........friend............?
U......ryu.........』

As though struck with a high fever, Sakutaro weakened bit by bit.
As he clung to Onee-chan's body, he did all he could to continue standing, ......but his body began to slip down bit by bit...

As he did, Onee-chan held him, yelling at me as tears streamed down her face...

"Uuu--!!  Stop iit!!  Don't burn Sakutaro with the magic-resisting toxin!!  Don't bully him!!  Don't insult him!  Don't deny him!!"
"*giggle*giggle*giggle*!!  Maria onee-chan, you're we-ird!!  There is no Sakutaro-!  Stuffed animals are stuffed anima-ls!  I learned from Mama that they're made of cloth and co-tton!!  There's no way they can walk or ta-lk!!  *giggle*giggle*, *giggle*giggle*giggle*!!!"
『.........Uryu..............., .........u...yu...............』
"Sakutaro!!  Sakutaro-!!!  You aren't a stuffed animal, you aren't a stuffed animal, you're a friend!!  Uuu--!!!  Waaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhh!!!!"
"*giggle*giggle*giggle*giggle*!!  *giggle*giggle*giggle*giggle*!!  Instead of playing with stuffed animals, it's better to play outside with everyo-ne!!  I'm bored with stuffed animals already-!!  *giggle*giggle*!!"
"I don't care about you, Ange!!  Uu-!!  Why say something like that, hatehatehatehate!!  Haate!!"

We're through, we're through!!  I won't let you be one of us witches anymore...!!
Upon my name, the Apprentice Witch of Origins MARIA, I hereby expel the apprentice witch ANGE from the Mariage Sorciere Alliance of Witches......!!
.........And then.

...What had been peaceful days to me became a daydream and ended.
By now, it's unverifiable.

No one can verify whether that really was magic or whether those really were my friends, or else nothing more than a daydream.

......I, the sole observer, concluded that they were a daydream.
......So that became the truth.
Perhaps, in the farther future, I will observe it again, and when that happens, maybe I will acknowledge that it wasn't a dream...that the Seven Sister's really were my friends, and that along with Maria onee-chan and Sakutaro, they did everything they could for me in my isolation.
............Something so vague is neither the truth nor an illusion.
Maybe the reality here and now is the only world with the real me.

Where is the real me?
The person standing amidst the girls' exposed wreckage similar to broken glass sculptures, who is breathing harshly, her shoulders heaving...is not me.
The place I am, ......is over there.
The me that's surrounded by a crowd and being showered by jeers, ...and who is hanging her head, her eyes red.........

......Isn't the me over there, .........the real me......?
I won't dream anymore.
Because there's nowhere left to run.
I am...going back.
......I'll return myself to the cage made of flesh......
"Hey!!  Are you listening to us?!  It's not like anything'll be resolved if you just stand there hanging your head, ri-ght?!"
"..............................I hear you."
"Ah, you finally answered.  You aren't thinking that this'll end if you stay silent, or that we'll forgive you if you cry, right?!  We're asking if you are aware!  We're asking if you are aware of the trouble you're causing those around you...!!"
.........I, ...slowly nodded.
...I acknowledged it.
I acknowledged that I had slipped into the world of my daydream, trying to remain separate from the others in my class.

......To disgrace them and separate myself from them, those girls who spoke to me with reliable and kind words, but couldn't help at all now that I really wanted them to, ......I acknowledged that.
"...I, Ushiromiya Ange, do not have a cooperative attitude and caused trouble for my classmates.  There is nothing to blame for that except my excessive inferiority complex towards all of my classmates because I am unable to study.  And, .....................
.........it's a shame that I am alive."
Starting there, I was no longer reading the paragraph they had made me write.

......It was my...improvisation.  And...what was in my heart.

They also noticed that it wasn't what they had anticipated, but while they did frown, no one spoke.
So I continued.
"......That's right.  It's a shame that I am alive.  ......I should have had them take me with them on that day in 1986.  ......And yet, I was the only one that wasn't taken.
......Why am I here, I wonder?  ...This is not the world I'm supposed to be in.  ............No one will save me.  ...For a time, ......I felt as though only the fictional friends I created inside myself could save me.  But those friends were nothing more than a delusion, .....and they didn't save me.  After all, this isn't a world of delusions, but a world of reality.
.........So, in short, ......up until today, ......I've been having the same daydream.  ...I hated my real classmates and only lived by interacting with the friends in my delusion.  .........Just now, I split up with those friends.  So I am here.
............I have no family.  I've thrown my friends away too.  ......There is no longer anything left for me.  ......Why haven't I died?  Someone asked that a short while ago.  ...I think they're right.  Why, .........am I alive, I wonder?  ............I should have died, ............in the year 1986.  ...No, I must really have died.
But even so, ............my soul that was killed is still locked up inside this cage of flesh.
So I'll ask someone.  If no one answers, ......I'll do it myself.
"Someone, ..................please let me die."
I spoke that sentence, and looked around.
Dumbfounded girls.
Shocked girls.
Girls who looked like they didn't know what this kid was saying.

And, a bit late, more and more girls with faces that said 'Is this girl alright?'
*whisper*.  *chatter*.
And then, *giggle*.

.........When I ordered the friends in my daydream to kill, they couldn't do it.
And so.
I asked real humans to kill me, ......but of course, these girls can't do it either.
......In other words, both daydreams and reality are the same.

Doesn't this mean that, including this world...
.........Absolutely everything is a daydream?

Then, ......there's no problem, right?
After all, ......on that day when I lost my family, I was already dead,
......Everything that happened afterwards is my delusion, my life flashing before my eyes after I failed to die.
Once I understood that, ............it felt like the scenery surrounding me began to twist and bend slightly.
.........Yeah.
...I'll finally, .........wake up.
...I'll be released from this daydream world.
I feel my consciousness sliding away.

......That's alright.
Fade farther and farther away, ............and take me to my family......
Therefore, no matter what happens in this twisted, stale world, I won't mind it at all.
I saw the crowd get pushed aside as a teacher stepped in.

Perhaps a teacher doing the rounds happened to notice a strange disturbance.

The teacher was vigorously shouting something, moving to protect me.
......Watching that, I knew that an ally had appeared for me, even if there was only one, and I felt my awareness return very slightly.
...............

......The only ones who can save me in the world of reality, ...are real humans.
Never again.  ......Never again will I seek rescue from daydreams.
.........This is the world of humans.

The only ones who can save a human...are other humans......
"........................I see.  If that's what you think, then that's your world, Ange."

『......Can Ange, ......become happy this way.........?』
".........If Ange believes that is the only way to become happy, then it is the only way.  ...If she cannot accept the blue bird in the cage for what it is, ...then she must go and search forever."

『Uryu.........Maria, are you, ......breaking off relations with Ange.........?』
"..........................No, nothing like that.  I only did that because that was what Ange wanted.  ......We witches are sometimes persecuted.  However, we always remain by everyone's side.  ......And our aid can always be asked for."

『......Will the day come, .........when Ange will play with us once again......?』

"Or it might be forgotten and never come.  ...In the human world, we call that growing up and drifting away.  ............Still."
If Ange just remembers, we will always be by her side.

......And until then, ......we will be waiting.

Sakutaro

..............................

『..................Uryu............Maria, ...won't you answer......?』
"........................"
『.........Uryu.........So I really am, ......a stuffed animal...?  ......I'm made of cloth and cotton, ......so there's no way I can...talk......?  ......So, ......I can't talk to Maria.........?』
Sakutaro looked up at Maria, looking sad.
Maria's face was covered with tears, and it looked as though it had even lost all traces of sadness......
".........Uu-.  ......Maria can hear you, Sakutaro.  ......You aren't a stuffed animal made of cloth and cotton, Sakutaro.  .........You are Maria's...friend.  ............Hate Ange.  ......Uuuuuuuuuuuu......"

『Uryu..., sorry Maria, sorry Maria......!  Uryu......!』

Sakutaro felt regretful.
By freezing her heart, Maria had finally been able to escape from her sadness.

...By speaking up and calling her back, he had caused her to be overwhelmed with sadness again...

Sakutaro tried hugging Maria, letting go of her, and gazing at her appearance uneasily, lost as to how he could bring Maria's spirits up.

......He might have looked a little humorous doing that.
In the end, that was able to distract Maria's feelings from sadness......

"Sorry.  .........Crying won't help anything anymore."
『You got in a fight with Ange, but you still have a lot of friends, Maria...  I'm not the only one.  .........Everyone's here.  Sakusuke and Sakukichi, the animal band, and many, many more......』

Maria looked at the many stuffed animals around her pillow, which were gathered together as though they were having an idle chat.

『......Everyone...is worried about you, Maria.  They're all talking over and over about how to cheer you up, alright......?』

".............................Everyone won't, ......go away...like Ange...?"
『They won't.  We'll always be together.』

".........Really?  All of you are only with Maria at home.  Can't go out together when Mama's around, and can't go to school."

『Since you aren't supposed to take us to school, you'll get in trouble if the teacher finds out.  But if no one finds out, we can be together at any time.』
"......Sakutaro, you're big so you'd be found."
『Then you can take one of the kids that are small enough to walk around with.  ......For example...what about them?  If you take the friends in the forest band, ......look, they're small so you can hide them in your pocket and go to school together.』
".........There's a lot of them in the band.  Can't fit them all in Maria's pocket."

She collected all of the forest band pieces that were scattered across her bed.
There were about as many of them as pieces in a chess set, so it would probably be impossible to fit them all in her pocket...

『In that case, you can just take friends that you're especially close with.  ......You can take the four rabbits, the ones you're closest to in the forest band.』
"......Four could fit in Maria's pocket.  ......Yeah.  This way, they won't be found."

『So this way, you won't be alone even at school, Maria.  Those kids will be with you even where I can't go.』
"............Yeah.  ......Maybe, ...won't be lonely that way.  ......Maybe Maria can hold out, ......until coming home from school..."

『As long as we aren't found by the teacher and Mama, we can be with you at any time.  So let's be together, play together forever.  We definitely won't leave you all alone, Maria.  Uryu!』

Maria's expression finally regained a little of its brightness.
......That's right.
In the beginning, Maria's world didn't have Ange in it.

Even without Ange, it was fun with everyone.
And yet, strangely enough, it suddenly became sad without Ange, who had come in at the end.

...All that's happened is that Maria has returned to the world right before Ange entered it.
......So there's nothing to be sad about.

"......Yeah.  Not lonely.  Sakutaro and everyone else is with Maria."
『Uryu-!  Lo-ve you, Maria...!』

"Maria won't let any more humans come into her world.  ......Mariage Sorciere is an alliance only between Maria and Beatrice.  ......In the beginning, Beatrice even opposed letting Ange join.  .........It's alright this way.  Ange was still too young."

『......For now, until you can be friends with Ange again, I think it's okay to forget about it.  You can play together once you've regained your high spirits, Maria.  Until then, all of us will be by your side.』
".........Thank you.  ......Sakutaro, ......everyone."
Then, Maria once again regained her former world.
She regained the world that wasn't lonely, and where she was surrounded by many friends.
Just like usual, she didn't have any human friends at school, but her magic friends were always with her.
The rabbit band that she hid in her pockets talked with her during class, sounding like they were having fun.

Just listening to that greatly embellished the time she spent during class.
Maria made it so that, as long as Mama and the teacher didn't find out, her other friends could always be with her.

When Mama told Maria to go play outside, Maria would secretly pack Sakutaro and Sakusuke and the rest into her bag, and play together at the library or somewhere.
Even when Mama was late coming home and Maria went shopping for dinner, she always went with Sakutaro.

The man at the convenience store and the other people were nice to Sakutaro.
He sometimes gave a second portion free for Maria and Sakutaro.
When Mama found out, Maria would get in trouble for bringing Sakutaro and the rest outside.
When the teacher found out, Maria would get in trouble for bringing toys to school.

The toxin must be strong in Mama and the teacher.
So Sakutaro looks like a normal stuffed animal to them.
After all, the man and the others at the convenience store say hello to Sakutaro.

.........Not all humans are worthless.
There are a ton of people who, unlike Ange and Mama and teacher, can say hello to magic friends like I can......
"Oh, Maria-chan.  Welcome.  Was your Mama late coming home tonight too...?"
"Yeah.  ......But Maria's with Sakutaro, so Maria isn't lonely.  Right, Sakutaro?"

『Uryu.  It's not just Sakutaro today.  Other friends are also with us.』
"Oh, other friends, is it?  What kind of friends did you bring today?"

"Today, the rabbits from the forest band are also with Maria.  ......Look, in my pocket."

Maria began to line up four ceramic rabbit dolls on the register.
As the owner of the shop looked at it smiling, he sent a signal to a part-timer with his chin.

Then, the sign on the other register that said 'closed' was taken down, and a voice called out for everyone to move over there.
All of the people in line behind Maria lined up behind that one...
"I see, I see.  You do have a lot of friends, Maria-chan.  But I hope your Mama comes home soon."

"Uu-.  Mama is busy with work again, so she's staying at the company.  It's been very busy lately.  ......She hasn't even been able to get much time to talk to Maria on the telephone.  But Maria isn't lonely!  Maria has Sakutaro and the rest!  Ri-ght?"
『Uryu-!!』

"All of the rabbits in the band are together.  Look.  Kyu-kyu-♪"
"Is kyu-kyu- the sound a rabbit makes?  My, I've never heard that."

After smiling at Sakutaro, who was poking his head out of her knapsack, she played around with the rabbit band on the register, making them frolic around.

Although the shop manager gazed at this pleasantly, he had slightly pitying look on his face.
......This was apparently a family without a father, and where the mother had to work hard and couldn't come home very often.
On top of that, it looked like this girl didn't even have any friends.

As he watched this girl play around happily with her dolls and claim that she wasn't lonely despite everything, he couldn't help but feel a kind of compassion.
And actually, this wasn't limited to him alone.
Maria had become very famous in this shopping district...
"Maria-chan, you should eat some oden every once in a while.  If you don't eat your eggs and fish paste, you won't get big."
"Uu-?  Can't get a cream roll...?"

『Uryu.  If you don't eat certain things, you won't get big.  How about oden for today?』
"Uu-.  ......Then Maria will have oden."

"Yep yep, that's the ticket.  Why don't I stick a whole bunch in there.  Want mustard?"
『Uryu.  I can't handle spicy things......』

"Alright, I see.  Then, you make sure you don't let it spill on the way home.  It'll sure be delicious while it's hot."
"Uu-.  Thank you."

She had planned on getting some sweet pastries for dinner, but since oden had been recommended to her, she would be having that tonight instead.

Letting someone else determine the menu makes for an unexpected and interesting meal.

......Very often, Maria had to decide what her dinner would be on her own, so it was easy for the menus to get a little one-sided.  So it felt fun to have a meal she hadn't anticipated...
『Uryu-!  Thanks for giving us extra, Mister!』
"Send my regards to your other friends at home.  No stuffing yourself on the way home.  Go straight home and eat it there."

"Uu-!  Thanks Mister!!"

Maria raised the bag with the oden container high......
"..............................Huh......?"

『......Uryu?  What is it, Maria?』
".........The key isn't in Maria's pocket."
Standing in front of the door to her house, Maria searched all over her body.
......The key to the house wasn't there.
She always methodically put it in the same pocket.
So there was no way she had put it in another pocket, but she searched her whole body just in case.

......Unsurprisingly, it wasn't there.

『Did you drop it when you took your wallet out......?』
"No.  When Maria took her wallet out, definitely felt it.  Also felt it when Maria searched her pocket partway here.  ......It was there until partway.  Didn't drop it!  Uu-uu-uu-...!"

Even though the late autumn wind had been bearable when Maria had been thinking of returning home, where the heater was, now that she was confused and had lost her key, she had to deal with it.

But no matter how hard she searched, she didn't find it.
She turned out all her pockets, and even tried taking off her jacket and hitting it, but to no avail.

......Of course, she also turned the knapsack Sakutaro was in upside down, but the key didn't come out.
".........Uu-.  .........Uu-uu-uu-!!!"

Something that should have been there...wasn't where it was supposed to be.
Why isn't the key there, when Maria didn't do anything wrong?

......Why isn't it?!
Why?!  Why...?!!!
Maria was cold and frustrated and angry, and she stamped on the ground...
The bottom of her foot throbbed, but that didn't lessen her frustration.

......At the same time, her tears poured out.
"......Uu-.  ......Uu-!!  Uuuu---!!"
It wasn't her fault.
So it's someone's fault.

But Maria didn't know who that someone was, and could do nothing but continue to let out a moan of anger.

『......Uryu......  I'm sure you dropped it partway...  Let's look for it, okay?  Let's return on the road we came by and search, okay...?』
"......Uu-...  Even though Maria went to all the trouble of buying oden, ......and got eggs and stuff for free......  Can't eat it while it's hot...............Uuuu----!!!"

『...Maria......, I know it's frustrating, but let's search, okay...?  It's no one's fault..., let's search...』
Maria finally lent an ear to Sakutaro's words, and began to trod back down the road she had come on.

......The wind was colder than it had been, and it felt like it was blowing in through the corners of her jacket in a mean way...
『Uryu...  Let's watch our feet closely and search, okay...?  Then let's get home quickly, get warm from the heater, and eat oden, alright?  I'm sure it'll be delicious.』
".........Uu-.  ......Not here.  ......Uu-.  ......Not here..."

As Sakutaro encouraged her, Maria searched for the key...
But she made it all the way back to the convenience store where she'd bought the oden.
......She hadn't found it.

Just in case, she asked the man at the convenience store whether they had found a dropped key, but they hadn't found anything.
......One more time, she returned home, paying close attention to the area around her feet.
But, unsurprisingly, she didn't find it.
She was no longer frustrated enough to stomp her feet.
......But hot tears dripped down her face.
The oden had cooled down completely.

...Even though she had been told it would be delicious when warm, she hadn't been able to eat it.
......Even though that man had given her so much free stuff......
『......Uryu......  Don't cry............Mama isn't coming back tonight.  ......Let's do our best and search......』
".........Why can't Maria find it.........Uuuu......, ......uuuuuuuu!"
『Maria, don't cry...!  Let's do our best and search...!  .........Maria......』
Maria was no longer able to hold back her tears.

Sobbing, she clutched Sakutaro and held the bag of oden, returning once more down the road she had come by.
Perhaps because more and more houses and stores had turned their lights off by now, it was even darker and harder to search than before.
......And, once again without finding the key, she returned to the convenience store.
"Maria-chan, ......still can't find your key...?"
"...Uu-.........Key, ......not here..."
"Wasn't your mother away for the night?  So you can't get into your house without a key?"
"Uu-............Can't get in......"
"Yes, that does seem troublesome...  Did you try going to the police?  They might be able to help you."
"............Mama said not to talk to policemen, even if they start talking to Maria."
"Oh?  Well, why is that?"
"........................"
It was probably because Rosa was liable for making such a young girl like Maria watch over the house by herself, and because she knew that this was not something that would be permitted by society.
So Maria was indoctrinated into changing the stores she bought things at so that she didn't catch the eyes of adults, and into saying no more than a greeting to policemen, even if they talked to her.
Maria had obediently done as she was told.

Instead of considering why she must do that, she was much more concerned with meekly obeying because her mother had told her so.
But the manager of the convenience store probably didn't think of it that way.

......Naturally, seeing such a young girl being forced to watch over the house alone, and so frequently...would cause anyone to worry......
......And then.
After making the round trip between her home and the store once more, and arriving at the convenience store for a third time...
...A policeman was there.
"It's that child.  ......Maria-chan, did you find your key?"
".........Uu-.........Didn't find it......"
"What's your name, little girl?"
".................."

The policeman asked her name, but Maria didn't answer.
"Did your mother tell you not to talk with policemen?  Huhuhuh-!  Don't worry, no need to be scared of me.  Have you eaten dinner yet, little girl?"
"............Bought it, but couldn't go into the house, so couldn't eat it."
"What is your mother doing?  Is she not coming home today?  Is it her work?"
".............Uu-."
"Do you know where we can contact your mother's work?"
".................."

Maria hung her head limply.
......She didn't understand why the policeman was getting mad at her.

No, he probably wasn't getting mad at her, but if this reached her mother's ears, then she would definitely be in trouble.

Even if she didn't understand the reason why she would be in trouble, she at least understood that much.
But the policeman wouldn't let Maria go.
And her head was swimming from hunger.

The policeman noticed that, and it was decided that he would listen to her story as they ate in the police box.
......Maria was taken to the police box.
She had her oden heated in a microwave oven, and there were even salty rice cakes and hot tea brought out for her.
She had been told not to talk to policemen, ......but after being asked about Sakutaro, she responded, starting to feel that this wasn't a bad person.
...And otherwise, she wouldn't be able to return home, so she didn't know what to do.

.........She told him Mama's work phone number, ......which she had been told to tell no one of and to use only in a very, very serious situation.
In the tatami room inside the police box, as she ate the oden that was so hot it felt like it would burn her, she watched the policeman making the phone call, lazily thinking, ......'aah, I'm probably gonna get in trouble'.
"............Will Mama, ...get mad at Maria.........?"
『......Uryu.........』
He must have been listening to the phone ringing for a very long time.
With the receiver up to his ear, the policeman looked up at the clock, grumbling.
".........Maybe they aren't picking up because their business hours are over.  ......Hmmmmmm.  ......Huh?  Hello?  Hello?  Is this Anti-Rosa Ltd.?  This is the Komatsugawa Police Department police box in front of the Senbonzakura Station.  Is President...umm, Udaikan...no wait, President Ushiromiya available?  ............Yes.  ......Whaat?  She's on vacation?"
"Yes.  Starting yesterday, the president has been on a three day vacation.  Umm, is there some business you have with her...?"
"Oh no no no, never mind.  So, do you know where she may be?  You haven't heard where to contact her, have you?"
"Sure, ......could you hold on for a short while?  ............Hey, has anyone heard the president's destinatio-n?  How to contact he-r?"
"Heard she was going for all you can eat crabs in Sapporo with her boyfriend.  Aaaw, I'm sure such a cold place would do wonders for shrinking the distance between them, don't you~?  I haven't heard how to contact them."
"Yep, understood.  ......Oh, hello-.  I hear she went to Sapporo, but I'm not sure about how to reach her.  ......Should I take a message?"
"Hmm, I see, what a shame.  Well then, if you make contact with her again, could you tell her that we called?  Sure, yes."
......After that, I was taken to the police department, which was even bigger, and was made to spend the night there.

And, they asked me various things about myself.
A lady who called herself the district welfare officer came by and asked about various things.

And I was told 'You poor thing'.
When I heard that, I learned for the first time.
"............Is Maria, .........a poor thing......?"
『......Uryu......  That's not true..., you're happy, Maria......』
"............Uu-..."
Then, ......Rosa came back.

Maria was told to go to her room, ...but on her way back from the bathroom, she hid by the entrance to the living room and listened in on the exchange.
The person who had come to visit...was the female district welfare officer who had asked Maria various questions on that other day.
"Don't be so pushy!!  Maria's heart is too innocent and delicate, so if there was an insensitive kid there, she could be hurt!!  Please stop your pointless meddling!!"
"But in that case, Miss, if the child is so delicate, why leave her home all alone?  Shouldn't a mother be together with her child?"
"I am together with her as much as I should be!!  I don't need to take instructions from you for something like that...!!"
"Oh, really?  She is very well known in this area.  They say that your daughter frequently goes out at night to buy things and eat.  Everyone was worried and looking out for her."
"How do you know that was my child?!!  There's got to be plenty of children around this town, right?!!  Don't just suddenly decide that it's my Maria!!  Kids sometimes walk around outside at night, right?!  How can you prove that all of those are my child?!"
"It's a very famous story around the shopping center that a girl holding a lion stuffed animal often goes there to eat dinner and buy things.  Everyone treated Maria-chan with care out of concern for her.  Sometimes, people even escorted her home, thinking the night roads might be dangerous, you see?"
"Y, you can find lion stuffed animals anywhere!!  It was none of their business, escorting her home!!  Are they thinking of kidnapping Maria?!  Don't bother her!!  Maria is my child.  I am raising her!  I have no intention of putting her in some strange institution!!  Stop your needless meddling!!"

『U, ......uryu......  Does that lion stuffed animal, ......mean me......?』
"......It's alright.  Maria's the one that's in trouble...  It has nothing to do with you, Sakutaro......"

Maria hugged Sakutaro, continuing to watch her mother fearfully...
"I, I also wish I could be with Maria every day!  But I'm a single mother, so I have to work!  I may not look it, but I'm a president of a company, and I bear the responsibility for my employees' well-being!!  I'm busy with my work all year round, so there's no time for me to rest!!"
"Re-ally?  But you've been on vacation these last three days, haven't you?"
"I, I have not been on vacation!  I've stayed at my company all night working!!  There's a mountain of matters to be taken care of that the other unreliable employees can't handle!!"
"Why are you lying like that?  Someone from your company said that you were taking a three day vacation, you see?  You went to Hokkaido with your boyfriend, right?  You left your daughter by herself for three whole days...!"
"I, I don't know anything about this boyfriend I don't know anything about Hokkaido!!!  Why all this bullshit?!  Why, why?!  Got any proof?!  What the hell, don't just start talking about someone else's family matters!!  I love Maria I have my own way of loving her so just keep your mouth shut!!  I didn't go on a vacation I was just working the whole time!!
I was trying to finish things up at work with all my strength, all my strength because I wanted to see Maria as soon as I could!!  I stayed at the company the whole whole whole whole, whole whole whole whole time!!  I don't know I don't know I don't know anything about Hokkaido don't just go ahead and say something like thaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat!!!  Just get out!!  Get ooooooooout!!  What's wrong with yoooooouuu!!  Get out!!  Get ooooooooouuuut!!!"
Rosa raged, her hair flying wildly.

A teacup fell over from the force of her standing up, and far louder than that noise was the sound of her beating the table with both hands.

When faced with this rage that could accurately be described as wide-eyed derangement, the female district welfare officer couldn't help but be taken aback.
......And the same went for Maria, who was secretly watching this from the hallway.

She had already seen her mother in a rage several times before this.
But she had never seen her this mad with anger.
When she saw this, Maria was sure.
......This was no longer her mother.

It was some other evil being that was possessing her mother's body...
And then, she herself was discovered by the evil being.
Maria knew that she was being reflected in the evil being's eyes.

Her mind went blank, and she felt as though her field of vision was racing off into the distance......

After fiercely closing in on Maria, Rosa mercilessly slapped her on her small shoulders, ......and dropped her gaze towards the stuffed animal Maria was holding, Sakutaro.

".........Maria.  Even though I told you so many times not to bring that outside, ......you brought it with you, didn't you?"

『U......, uryu.........  I, it isn't Maria's fault......  I told her to take me......』
"Th, that's not true......!  Maria brought Sakutaro on her own because she was lonely...!  So Mama, it isn't Sakutaro's fault...!!"

『Uryu......, Maria.........』
"It's not Sakutaro's fault!!  It's not Sakutaro's fault!!"
Instead of Maria, the brunt of Rosa's anger was aimed at the lion stuffed animal Maria was holding.

......A girl went shopping in the middle of the night, always clutching a lion stuffed animal.
Because of that, she had become well known in the shopping center...
"D, ......d, ...didn't I tell you not to take stuffed animals with yooooooooouuu!!!  Why...can't you...listen to what Mama says!!  Why?!  Why, why?!  Why can't you follow Mama's ruuuuuuules!!"
With every single word, she stamped her heel and banged furiously on the wall.

......Of course, she didn't make direct contact with Maria.
However, the violence of the harsh sound certainly beat against Maria.
"M, Miss......, stop that......!!"
"Let go!!  I said let go, damn iiiiiiiiiiiit!!"
The district welfare officer had come back to her senses and was pinning Rosa's arms behind her back.

But the instant Rosa was touched, she went wild, furiously throwing the welfare officer off.
......She hit the table and fell to the ground.
A teacup on the table smashed on the floor, making a violent sound...
『M, ......Maria didn't do anything wrong......!  It's my fault!  So don't scold Maria......!!』

"Maria's the one who brought Sakutaro...!!  It's not Sakutaro's fault!!  It's not Sakutaro's fault!!  So don't look at Sakutaro with those scary eyes!!  Don't look at hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiim!!"
『Don't scold Maria...!  Don't scold Maria...!!  Uryuu--!!!』
"..................Y, .........you...  Just what do you think you're doing?  Did you also play with dolls like that, ...outside?  Did you do it in front of the people at the store......?  ..................So that's why they remembered yoooooooou, die you brainless moron!!  Why are you such a dumbaaaaaaaaaaaassss!!!
Answer me honestly.  When you went out, you always walked around with that stuffed animal without telling Mama, right?"

『.........U, ......uryu.........』
"Stop using that weird stuffed animal talk!!!  Speak with your own words, not a stuffed animal's!!!"

"S, Sakutaro isn't a stuffed animal!!  He's Maria's friend!!  Don't call him a stuffed animal......  Doooooooooooooooooooon't!!"

"Yeah, yeah, I get it, it was called Sakutarou, was it?!  You took him with you all the time when you went shopping, without telling Mama, right?"

"Y, ......yeah............"

Maria admitted it honestly.

If she hadn't admitted it, then Sakutaro would have said something to take the blame, so by admitting it right away, she was protecting her small friend.

"Only Sakutarou?  Any others?  ......You haven't been bringing weird things to school too, have you...?"
"......M, Miss!!  Your daughter has done nothing wrong, surely?!  Stop this interrogation at once!"
"You, stay quiet!!!  I'm talking with my daughter, aren't I!!!  ......Alright, Maria, look at Mama when you talk.  What's the answer to Mama's question?"

"U, ......uu-............Not just Sakutaro.  ......Together with all the rabbits too......"
".........Do you have them with you now......?"
"Uu-........."
Maria fished around in her pockets, ......pulling out four ceramic rabbits with her tiny hand...
The rabbits were her close friends, who could be together with her at school in Sakutaro's place.

But when Rosa saw that, she shook her head slightly as though dizzy...
On a school notice, it had been written that Maria was apparently bringing toys to school and playing with them, and her family was instructed to try and prevent this.
But Rosa had rejected that, blaming the teacher and phoning in a protest of her own to the school.

...Saying that there was no way her child would bring toys to school.

For nearly an hour, she had shouted at the vice principal to stop making false accusations about her daughter.
......To a certain degree, those at the school had grasped that Maria was a pitiful girl.

They knew that the small toys she brought in were her only friends.
......So they had done their best to overlook it.
But when the other students caught sight of them, some of the boys had started complaining that only she could bring toys, and the school had racked their brains on how to cope with this......

They had tried to gently send a warning by way of the mother, but after Rosa's overreaction, even Maria's teacher decided to overlook it.
.........But now Rosa knew.

She had been the one who was wrong, ...and her daughter really had been bringing toys into school.

.........And those at the school...had known that she was a disgrace who brought toys into school and played with them as though they were her only friends.
To Rosa, who thought her daughter was just a little different from normal children, having this peculiar side of her daughter exposed and found fault with was, more than anything else, something she couldn't bear.
.........So she howled.

She raged.

The district welfare officer tried to cut between Rosa and Maria again, but she only met with Rosa's wrath again.
Rosa once again threw the woman off with a face like a demon, and when even that failed to curb her anger, she stomped on the ground over and over again so forcefully that it seemed she might break through the floor.
Then, after seeming to come back to her senses for a second, .........she immediately froze her harsh breathing, and asked Maria.

"........................Maria.  Those rabbits in the band, are they your close friends?"
"U, .........uu-........."

"I see.  Isn't it great that you have a full four friends."

As she said that, Rosa grabbed one of the rabbits from Maria's hand.
Then, she shoved it in front of Maria's eyes so she could see it very well.

......The cute rabbit holding a trumpet was a small doll like a chess piece.
She slowly lifted it into the air.

......Of course, Maria's and Sakutaro's eyes also followed it......
And then, with a speed that the eye couldn't follow, she smashed it against the wall.


"Eeek!!!!"
『............!!!』

She had half imagined that this worst possible thing might happen.
So she instantly realized what had been done.

......So Maria let out a short, despairing scream...
It was in pieces.

It had been small and sturdy, but that hadn't been enough to accept her mother's fierce rage.
".........Because you didn't listen to what Mama told you, I broke one of them.  From now on, every time you disobey something Mama says, I'll break another one.  ......Remember that!!!"
"Miss......, you think to call yourself a mother after doing something like that?!!  You think you can do something like that and not hurt your daughter?!"
"Hurt Maria?!  I'm also hurting, right?!  Who's gonna take responsibility for my wounds?!  Weeeell?!  Who iiiiiiiiiis!!!  Didn't I tell you to shut uuuuup!!!"

"S, stop it, Mama......!  It's Maria's fault...!  Don't get mad at this lady......!"
『It isn't Maria's fault..., it's mine......!  Don't get mad at Maria...!  Uryu, uryuuryuuryu, uryuu--!』

"D, .........., didn't I tell you to stop playing with stuffed animals like thaaaaaaaaaatt!!  In the first place, it's disgusting, you say a stuffed animal is your friend just how old are you?!  How old?!  Weeeeeelll?!
This is just a gross, crappy stuffed animal made of cloth and cotton, right?!!  Is this the only kind of friend you have?!  If you have enough spare time to pretend this monstrous stuffed animal is your friend, go out and make some real human friends!!
Why can you never make any friends?!!  That's why your class always treats you like a weirdo and makes fun of you!!  Give it a rest and get a hold of yourself already!!  Grow up from this stuffed animal play!!"
『Uryu......, uryu.........』
"Like I said, stop playing with that stuffed animaaaaaaaaaall!!"
"Aaah!!  Mama, Mama!!  Give him back!  Give Sakutaro baaaaaaaaaaack!!"
『Uryu-!!  Uryuu--!  Uryuuryu-!』
Mama grabbed hold of Sakutaro's head, and grabbed him from me...
Then........., she smashed him against the wall, over and over.
『Uryu-!!  It hurts, it hurts, hurts hurts hurts hurts...!!』
"I said stop, damn it!!  I said stop playing with that stuffed animaaaaaal!!  It's because of this stuffed animal!!  That's why you can never make any friends!  That's why you alone are pushed off to the side in your class, and treated like a weird kid!!  I should never have given you a stuffed animal like this!!  I should never have given you such a disgusting stuffed animal!!"

"Stop iiiiiiiiiiiiit!!  Give Sakutaro back, give Sakutaro back!!  Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhh!!  Sakutaro is Maria's friend!!  Maria's best friend!!  As long as Sakutaro's there, Maria doesn't need anything else!  So give him back!!  Give him baaaaaaaack!!"

......For some reason, my frantic request just added oil to the fire of Mama's anger......
Mama pushed my arm aside as I tried to grab Sakutaro and snatch him back, and in a bizarre way, she stuck her fingernails on both hands deep into Sakutaro, twisting him......
The red muffler, which I had carefully wrapped for him every day, came off and fell to the floor...
......Sakutarou, who had been so, so precious to me......

It was twisted, smashed, torn at with fingernails so much......

It was twisted painfully, its face grimacing...in sadness.........
Then Mama's fingernails, ......found a stitch on the neck......and tore it...
......With the fingernails of both hands......she tore it apart............
In that instant, .........Sakutaro's yellow cloth, .........and the cotton inside...burst apart......

It looked almost like moist cotton candy......
『......U, ............ryu..................』
"...kutaro............?"
『......Ma......ria.........』
".........Sakutaro............"
『U......ryu......―――』
"............kutaro........."
『――...... .. .・    "
".........ta...ro........."
『』
...

.........The crumpled yellow cloth and the cotton candy that was flowing out were thrust right in front of my eyes.

Then, ......through Mama's face, the evil being...stated it clearly.

"Sakutarou is dead・・・・・・・・."

mabapennedbisgeck.

gikuguki......kutaro......sakuta...o...ecknaped.........
......Uuuuu.

Uwaaaaaaaaaaaaauuuuuuuuuu......  Waaaaaaaaaaaaauuuuuuuuuuuu......
gudaro......, sagudaro......, ......waaaaaaaaaaaaaaauuuuuuuuu............
"MARIA......, ......MARIA............Do not cry......"

"Beatrice, Beatrice...!!  Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhh!!  Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhh!!"

"Sakutaro was a good friend...  As long as you do not forget that, he will always be with you...  So do not cry..."

"Bring him back to life!!  You can use a lot of magic, Beato!!  You can even bring Sakutaro back to life, right?!"
"............A, about that.........Of course, if Sakutaro had been my furniture, it would be easy.  However, Sakutaro is your furniture.  ......That makes it difficult for me."

"If you say it's difficult, that means it isn't impossible, right?!  Bring him back to life!!  Bring him back to life with the Endless Magiiiiiic!"

".........Hmm.........To tell the truth...  Sakutarou's vessel was a stuffed animal Rosa made herself, correct...?  That Rosa has denied Sakutarou.  ......A life that is not permitted by its own mother cannot exist..."

Beatrice's words were feeble.

...Because she knew that, no matter what the excuse, it wouldn't be enough to calm Maria and make her accept it.

But she had to communicate the painful truth to her disciple and close friend.

.........She had to tell her the fact, ......that even with all of her own power, even she could not revive Sakutarou.

"As long as you continue to strongly believe in Sakutarou's existence, that soul will not disappear......  So, MARIA..., please, do not be sad...

Even now, look, ...I believe that Sakutarou is smiling right over there......"

"No!!!  No no no!!  You have to bring Sakutaro back to life!!  No no no!  Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhh!!"
"Give it up...!!  There is no magic to revive Sakutarou...!  And despite that, you must strongly believe that Sakutarou will continue to exist as your close friend...!!  That power will become magic...!"
"That's not magic, that's not magic!!  You have to bring Sakutaro back to life...!!  Can't do it because Mama made him herself?  Why did Mama make Sakutaro?  It was to give him to Maria as a present, right?  It was to make him Maria's friend, right?  But why...did Mama make it herself...and break it herself?  Why did Mama give birth to it by herself, and try to break it herself?  Don't get it, don't get it!!"
"Hate Mama, hate Mama...!!  Frustrated frustrated sad sad...!!  Want to smash Mama up like she did to Sakutaro...!  Want to stick my fingernails in and tear her, turn her into cloth and cotton!!  Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhh!!  Can't stand it, I can't stand it, Beatriiice!!  Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhh, Sakutaroooooooo!!!!"
From the darkness behind Maria's back, two massive jet-black arms crept out, twisting around Maria as she sobbed in anger.

Then massive fingernails stuck into Maria's chest and stomach......
Maria could not see that.
......But Beato could see it.
Anger and sadness without any place to go will tear you apart.

......Beato knew that.
She could see that.
Yes.  ......In the end, those massive arms were Maria's own.

Those fingernails slowly started to eat into her chest and stomach......
......With their immense size and strength, those arms could probably tear Maria into bits easily......
But Maria herself couldn't notice.

Drowning in a sea of her own tears, ......she couldn't notice that her own arms were trying to tear apart her own chest......
"Can't stand it, can't stand it...!!!  If Sakutaro can't be brought back to life no matter what, ......Maria wants revenge!!  Wants to make Mama meet the same end!!  Wants her to meet the same end as Sakutaro...!  Beatrice!!  Teach Maria magic for that!!  Teach me magic to finish Mama...!!"

"..............................Is that your true intention?"
"Kill Mama!!  I'll kill her!!  No, that isn't Mama!  It's the bad witch possessing Mama!  I'll kill the witch Mama!!  Uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu!!"

"........................Very well.  I shall give you that power.  ......For tearing you and your beautiful heart apart......for giving you that pain, it is fitting that your heartless mother be torn apart considerably.
............I shall teach it to you.  ......I shall teach you of the depths of the magic world's abyss, where no light reaches......"
"Uuuuuuuu, Sakutaro, Sakutaro...!!  Hate, hate, haaaate everyone!!  Hate Mama too, hate Ange too!!  Hate everyone, everyooone!!  Uuuuuuwaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhh......!!"
I had planned on taking a nap, ......but the boat really was shaking bad.
I gave up on sleeping and went up onto the deck.
I was welcomed by the shining sun and a strong sea breeze...
Amakusa had been doing some stretches on the deck.

......He probably had a lot of time on his hands too.
Since it'd take a while longer to reach Niijima.
It would only have taken a couple dozen minutes by airplane, but there had been the chance that the Niijima airport was under the Sumadera family's web.

The harbor would probably be the same.
For that reason, I had obtained a boat that would let me land while avoiding the harbor, no questions asked.
I'd bumped into a cheery boat captain, plied him generously, and he had decided to help me out, amused......

"Still going to be a while?"
"I just asked the captain, and it sounds like it'll take a full two hours more.  Well, you can't call this luxury."

".........The weather sure is nice.  Feels like I'll burn."
"Going to read on the deck?  You'll damage your book."

Amakusa apparently thought that since I was clutching Maria onee-chan's diary under my arm.
I'd been reading it half asleep, which was why I had come back up still clutching it.

"How's it going?  Think you'll be able to find the truth of Rokkenjima from Maria-san's diary?"
".........Who knows.  No matter how much I investigate what happened on that island, it won't make for anything more than a theory.  There's no truth written in the message bottle or Onee-chan's diary, just a fairy tale with a witch walking around.  ......I'm stuck."
"Looks like you've got nothing to look forward to except questioning those involved on Niijima."
"I imagine the Witch Hunters have showered them with questions over and over, so I'm pretty sure I won't find any new facts."
"Hehhaha...!  So even though your hopes are that low, you're willing to spend a half-day trip on a boat to go to Niijima anyway!  You really are fickle."
".........It's like a journey of self-satisfaction, so that I can say 'I investigated'.  I'm not so naive as to seriously think that the truth of 12 years ago will be revealed."

"When you've finished with your self-satisfaction, what do you plan to do?"
"Who knows.  Haven't thought of it.  .........I'll go to Niijima, ask some people who were involved.  ...Then, after going to Rokkenjima in the end and leaving some flowers, my journey will be over."
.........Several days have already passed since this journey began.
After being told by Bernkastel on the roof of that building to search for the truth of 12 years ago, I had left on a journey like trying to grasp a cloud.
At the time, I'd felt something mystical, and had had the feeling that I might be able to grasp some kind of miracle at the end of this journey.

......But after several days passed, my excitement died down.
On that day, when I stood on the roof of that skyscraper, my heart had been completely cornered, and dead.

......So I had wanted from the bottom of my heart to be released from the cage of my body and rise into the sky, ......and had crossed the fence in order to die.
Maybe experiencing the desire to die and actually stepping forwards, throwing my body down...caused some kind of mystical experience inside my head, making me think I had received a message from a witch.

.........The excitement from jumping down lessened over time, and the more I came back to my senses, the more this journey lost its meaning.
But I didn't consider suspending this journey just because of that.

If I stop this journey, it will mean acknowledging that the message from that witch was an illusion.
And I could imagine that meant throwing away the promise the witch had made, and any chance that someone from my family might come back.

So, because it was hard to believe that those events were an illusion, I've continued on my journey.
I don't seriously believe that this journey will change anything.
......It's even up to me when to end this journey.  It's up to me to choose where the final destination is.

In the end, this journey is only for my self-satisfaction......

"............Self-satisfaction, is it.  It sounds bad when you say it, but I think that's actually what life is all about."
"......Heh.  If that's the answer you've reached after hovering over the line between life and death in the mercenary business, that's probably pretty deep."

"Don't take it so lightly.  What I'm trying to say is that the only one who can acknowledge you in this world is you yourself."

Amakusa continued stretching as he spoke.
In a mortifyingly brisk way.

Hearing it told to me as though from a teacher made me instinctively want to resist, but what he was saying was extremely sensible.

"........................That may be true.  People work hard when they want to be acknowledged by someone.  ......In most cases, that someone is their parents.  Children learn how to work hard because they want to be praised by their parents.  .........Although that's why I never learned."

"Sorry, that's not what I intended when I spoke.  ......What I want to say is that self-satisfaction is usually alright.  No matter who praises you, it's meaningless unless you can accept that.  ......Turning it around, even if no one praises you, that doesn't matter as long as you can accept it."
".........Self-satisfaction and aspirations contradict each other, so we're usually taught that the former is bad.  Your argument seems somehow fresh, Amakusa."
"The anguish of the human world comes when you want someone to acknowledge you, but you don't know what it is you should be striving for.  I had a time like that too.  I wanted someone to acknowledge me, but I didn't know what I wanted them to acknowledge about me.  And since I didn't know what to strive for or how far I should go to be acknowledged by someone, I did a lot of crazy things."

"And the answer you reached, ......was self-satisfaction?"
"It sounds bad, but that's how it is.  Rich is the one who is content with what they are, they say.

.........If I live my life believing that this is enough, that's not something to be nagged over and criticized by others.  It's the same for your life, and for this journey.  No one has any right to criticize you other than you yourself, Ange-san.

You are the only one who determines the meaning and results of your journey, Ange-san.  If it's been a meaningful journey for you, then that's more than enough."

"...........................I'd thought you were a guy who liked to talk nonsense, but you really do say some weird things every once in a while.  I'll bet you think saying things like that every now and then will get you popular."

"You must be joking.  That's not what I had in mind when I said it.  .........It looks like you want to be alone.  I'll head over to see the boat captain.  Please, take your time."
It seemed Amakusa had decided I was in a bad mood.
......Although I didn't feel that way myself.

Or he might have finished a set of stretches and wanted to cool off in the shade.
The sea winds were strong, but not enough to cool the rays of the sun.
Amakusa disappeared.
Only I remained.
".........Self-satisfaction is life itself, he says."
"That's just boring.  Life is nothing without greed."
I noticed that Mammon had suddenly appeared, her abundant hair fluttering over by the prow of the ship.

"It's true that a life of greed would be fun.  But unlike you, humans have a limited life-span.  If greed remains for eternity, that means that a person has desires even in the last moment before they die.  Having desires means that there's something they want.  Something they don't have, some way they aren't complete.

......I'm sure it's tough to die when you can't think of your life as being fulfilled.  So I'm sure self-satisfaction is necessary."

".........I see.  Because of the existence of a life span, you have to find a common ground there?  All of my masters had very long life spans, so I've never thought of it."

"I wonder if humans live so that they can be satisfied.  ......If so, unselfishly is probably the easiest way to live.  ...I see, I understand why greed is one of the seven deadly sins."

"*giggle*.  Your praise honors me."

Apparently that counted as praise in Mammon's eyes.
She turned and gave a graceful bow.
"Ange-sama.  Do humans live so that they can be satisfied at the moment of their death?"
"......Wouldn't it be pretty tough if you were unsatisfied about something at the moment of your death?"
"If so, then humans live only so that they can meet a satisfied death.  They live so that they can have a better death.  They live so that they can die."

............This kid's saying something pretty incredible.
...I see, as I'd expect from a demon stake.
However, that might be the truth.
Humans suffer because they aren't satisfied, and live only to be satisfied.

In other words, that might be the same as a desire to die while satisfied.
"I can't counter that.  ......People live in order to be satisfied.  And they hope to die while still satisfied.  So, not knowing how to make yourself become satisfied is very tough."

"What can they do to become satisfied?  In a human's life."
".........Being acknowledged.  Hearing 'you are happy'."

"If it doesn't matter who acknowledges them, then I will do so."
"Yes, there's that.  .........People don't know who they should have acknowledge them."

"So, searching for that person to acknowledge them is the journey of life?  Hmmmm."
"It sounds strange.  Whether you're acknowledged or not, it supposedly doesn't change your circumstances.  ......And yet, if you are acknowledged you will be satisfied, while if you aren't then you won't.  ...It's almost like the blue bird.  ......Because you can't notice the blue bird even though it's already in the cage, you have to go out on a journey searching everywhere."

"What the heck.  Kyahhahaha.  Human lives sure are stupid."
"That's right.  Amakusa said something really good.  ......Rich is the one who is content with what they are...was it?  I don't know where that proverb came from, but it has a deep meaning.  ......In short, if you won't be satisfied enough unless someone acknowledges you, that's the same as not acknowledging yourself.  ......The ultimate in self-fulfillment is acknowledging yourself."

"That's right.  Because if you can become aware that you are fully satisfied, there's no need to be acknowledged by anyone.  Just by taking notice of the small things, the humans' foolish journey of life can be ended easily.  You can spend the rest of your life playing and having a good time.  A human's life is so ridiculous, kyahhahahaha!"
Mammon's choice of words was bad, but it was surely the truth.

If most of a human's life is a journey where they wish that someone would acknowledge them, so that they could achieve a satisfied death...
.........Then when they realize that the person to acknowledge them is not someone else, but they themselves, that pointless journey can end.

Humans who have ended that journey can probably spend the rest of their lives as they wish with their chests stuck out.

......How sublime, how praiseworthy would that be.

"You know, it seems Amakusa's on pretty bad terms with his parents.  ......That makes sense.  He's in the kind of trade that'd have proper parents wanting to make him wash his hands of it."
"Isn't that alright though?  As long as it's fun for the person in question."

".........Exactly.  That's what it comes down to in the end.  Criticism of yourself as you're observed by others doesn't matter.  If your existence is firmly acknowledged by you yourself, that's enough.  ......If you can live with confidence in yourself, surely you can accept any kind of lifestyle.

I'm sure Amakusa will eventually eat a stray bullet on the battlefield and get seriously injured.  ...He might even die.  But I don't think Amakusa thinks that's unreasonable.  I'm sure he'd cackle about how that's also part of life."
"What a great way to live.  I'm enchanted."
"......Pitiful humans who aren't acknowledged by themselves...wander about searching for that their whole lives, and without anything being accepted, they do nothing but grumble and die while still unsatisfied.  ......How pitiful.  Compared to people whose lives drag on without any purpose, Amakusa is more likely to eventually die by the roadside, but I think he's much more noble for living his life with his chest stuck out."
"Aren't the winners in life those who achieve enlightenment?  If they can do that even a little sooner, they'll be able to live that much more of their life effectively."

.........With Mammon's words, ......I finally accepted a certain fact.
I've......described her as an abnormal kid, as a little strange.

However, ......that wasn't true.

She did nothing but stick her chest out, .........so that she could finish that journey faster than anyone else.
"..................Maybe that's what made Maria onee-chan, ...so amazing.  When she was at the age where she might or might not enter the first year of elementary school, she had already reached that point."
For other people like us looking at her life from the outside, her life isn't something we could say was blessed.

But even though days such as that were engraved in her diary, ......they always finished up by saying it was a happy day.
Even though the part of her mother that didn't love her daughter came and went, she believed that her mother loved her.

The mother's love that didn't exist, she created herself, filling her world with love.
Others might observe her as an unsatisfied pitiful girl, ......but she herself had acknowledged that she was satisfied.

And so, she was happy that way.
It is easy to observe that as something pitiable and sad.
But to her, that was an outsider's opinion, and didn't matter.

'Whether it was happy for her', was the only important thing.
It's just like how, when people who live in the city point to the lifestyles of those in rural areas, and mourn their inconvenience and feel sympathy for them, it's really none of their business.

If those who live there are satisfied with what they have, that's more than enough.
".........I've finally noticed something.  I noticed it just now.  ......I did something horrible to Maria onee-chan.  .........And to you all and Sakutarou as well, on that day."
"........................"

"Whether magic exists, or not.  ......That's not up to other people to decide.  It's up to you yourself.  Whether magic exists to Maria onee-chan is a problem for Maria onee-chan to decide, and not for me.

......And yet, when I was young, on that day, I said it.  By saying there was no way magic exists, ......I hurt her."

Magic not existing in my eyes...matters in my world.
Denying it even in Onee-chan's world just because of that was totally barking up the wrong tree.
"Mariage Sorciere is the Witches' Alliance Maria onee-chan created.  I was invited into that, and told to become a witch with them.
Thinking it a new, interesting game, I went along with that for a while.  ......But, because of the cruelty of youth, I got tired of it half-way through.  And, ......I tore her pure heart apart with sharp words.
......At that time, we must have gotten into a huge fight.  I forgot about it right away, but she couldn't forget about it.  ......After all, to her, magic was a natural power that certainly existed, and she had believed that she would be able to share that with me.
......To Maria onee-chan, magic is a power that can interpret the world as blessed, ......no, which can truly make everything blessed.  She just wanted to share that with me too.  The young me tore that feeling apart.  ......So when no one would understand magic together with her, she closed herself up in a shell."
".........If so, then Lady MARIA's journey through life wasn't over after all.  If she could accept herself, then there would be no need to collapse just because you denied her, Ange-sama."

"Onee-chan was young.  She still hadn't reached a philosophical viewpoint like Amakusa.  ......Yeah, now I understand...  Why the witches' alliance called Mariage Sorciere was necessary."


――An alliance where each acknowledges that the other is a witch.

"...That's right, I'm pretty sure that was the first article in the agreement of Mariage Sorciere.  ......Witches of the alliance would acknowledge each other and respect each other.  That is the deepest and the only meaning of the witches' alliance......"
Maria onee-chan wanted to share with me the secret laws to make the world happy, called magic.

But I was young.
And she was too.

......I hurt her with innocent cruelty.
".........On that day, I said it...reckless words.  To you all and Sakutarou.  I said there was no way you exist."

"How rude.  We acknowledge that we exist ourselves.  We're not like humans, with their souls half-asleep.  ......'I think, therefore I am'.  Whether you acknowledge or deny magic, the existence of the magic called the Seven Stakes of Purgatory...is therefore a fact.  ......As long as we acknowledge that ourselves, to borrow your words."

"It truly would be violence for another person like me to deny that.  .........I'm sure that would be like having your true mother yell 'I wish you had never been born', no, 'disappear'."
......Even after being slammed by all those words, ......Maria onee-chan's magic, .........made her believe in her mother's love.

Sakutarou, her magic friend, always encouraged her.
......He kept saying that her mother loved her, that she was coming home late because of her work, and that she would definitely bring back a present...

Even after Maria learned the fact that it really wasn't because of work, magic still kept her believing that.
So by believing that her mother loved her, by acknowledging herself, she filled her world with love and peace and serenity, ......and established it perfectly.
"What happened 12 years ago, ...what happened to my family.........This was not...a journey to search for that."

"............Then what is this journey?"
"It was a journey, ......to apologize to Maria onee-chan for what happened that day."
"........................"

"I don't know why, but that's what I think.  ......If I hadn't hurt her, .........the incident 12 years ago might not have occurred.  ......That's what I think."
I have no basis for it.
I don't have a clue how hurting Onee-chan would connect with a mysterious incident several years later.

But for some reason, I can't imagine that there is no connection.
A witch caused that incident.

And the culprit is the Golden Witch, Beatrice.
And Beatrice was part of the Mariage Sorciere Alliance of Witches.

I had horribly hurt the other witch of that alliance.

I had hurt her with the thought of magic not existing.
.........So several years later, a crime due to a witch occurred, and that two day period which can't be explained with anything but magic was thrust in my face, thanks to the message bottle.
"......I'm sure that I'm not unrelated.  .........I don't get it.  It could be chance, it could be fate.  .........For some reason, I've starting thinking that way on this journey."

"And your basis?"
"None.  That's just what I'm thinking."

"Hmmmm......  The Japanese sure are interesting.  Even if they're the victim, they feel as though they did something wrong, and apologize for no reason.  ......I could understand if you said 'I hate Beatrice for stealing my family!' or something, but you really are weird, feeling guilty for no reason and apologizing."

"Of course I hate Beatrice.  I couldn't continue this journey without that feeling.  But it's alright to select yet another purpose for this journey.  There's nothing wrong with adding on a goal of apologizing for past sins, in addition to getting revenge on a witch for 12 years ago.  I can at least go to Rokkenjima, apologize for my reckless remarks, and offer flowers.

......No, .........there's something better than flowers.  And I think that would be more fitting for Onee-chan."
I stood up, and, not minding that the sea breeze scattered my hair, I concentrated my mind......
I lifted my palm up to the height of my head, ......and imagined a vast space......

"............Ange-sama, ..............."
"......Be quiet.  .....................Come, arise.  ......I am the witch apprentice, ANGE Beatrice.  ......I was excommunicated, but I was once a member of the same alliance, and you are dearly-missed furniture who played with me.  Answer to my call........."
It was hard to tell in the middle of the day, but a faint blue light gathered around the palm of my hand.

.........Then, .........Sakutarou's form was revived.
It truly was long-missed, that figure.
His cute ears, his bright-red muffler.

......It came off easily, so Onee-chan faithfully re-wrapped it all the time, didn't she...

"......Sakutaro............Can you see?  Do you know who we are...?"
『...Uryu......?  Uryu......?  Mammon...?  Ange.........?』

With a sleepy face, as though waking up from a long slumber, Sakutarou looked all around him as he spoke.

"It's been a long time, ......Sakutarou.  I'm pretty sure this is the first time I've summoned you with my own power.  ......And now, I am the only one who can summon you."
『..................Uryu......』

Those words might have been a bit cruel.
Sakutarou's face clouded over...

"In the past, I denied you.  .........Now that I have summoned you, ......that means that I have accepted your existence."
『.........Is it alright......?  Is it alright...for me to be summoned into Ange's world......?』

His eyes were slightly frightened.

......It was only natural.
I, who had played with him like a friend before, had suddenly denied him and tried to burn him with the magic-resisting toxin.

It was only natural that he was scared......

"I apologize.  For that day.  .........To you too, Mammon.  And to the rest of you."
At some point, ......the rest of the Seven Sisters had gathered on the deck.

No, they are there at all times.
Always by my side.

As long as I acknowledge that it's okay for them to be there, they will always appear.
"You certainly do exist.  Lucifer.  And Leviathan.  And Satan.  And Belphegor.  And Mammon.  And Beelzebub.  And Asmodeus.  ......And Sakutarou too."
"......Is that alright?  You are one who is challenging Beatrice-sama, Ange-sama.  ...Is it alright for one in a position of denying witches to acknowledge us?"

"About whether magic exists or not in my world, sorry, but let me put that on hold.  It's not like I myself acknowledged the existence of magic."
"......But then, what about the contradiction, of you acknowledging us?"

"Because magic exists for people who believe.  Even if I don't.  If someone believed, then magic will exist in the human world.

That will not be interfered with in any way, whether I believe in magic or not.  No, it must not be interfered with.  That person just had to hold their head up high and believe in their own magic.  I acknowledge that.  So even if you all exist, that isn't strange at all."

".........Quite a play on words, that...but it's an interesting interpretation."
"What you're saying, Ange-sama, is probably a Devil's Proof."
"A Devil's Proof......?"

"After all!  To prove the existence of demons you just need to bring one with you."
"But it's impossible to deny the existence of demons."

"Kyahha!  And we are here.  That means that whether Ange-sama believes in magic or not, our existence is unshakable."

『......Uryu?  The magic-resisting toxin, .............is disappearing, ......from Ange......』
"Y, you're right............Even though you're in a position of denying magic, ......why......?"

"That's probably............because I learned what it's like to respect and acknowledge.  Right now, ......I might be able, ......to understand the depths of Maria onee-chan's, ......and Beatrice's magic."

In the past, I didn't believe in things like magic.  Thinking something like that couldn't exist, I acted like I was closing my eyes tightly and couldn't see anything.

But now I'm different.
I get the feeling I can look right at the thing called magic, and close in on its true nature......
"......How frustrating.  It's truly rare to find a human so free of the magic-resisting toxin in this day and age.  And she has such an uncommon genius for being a witch..."

"That's right.  .......If Ange-sama tried to become a witch right now, ......she could grow to be a Great Witch, maybe even at Beatrice-sama's level."

"Even so, she has acknowledged our existence, and is our master.  ......Most likely, Ange-sama will be our final master.  Let us think of this as our final service, and apply ourselves to the fullest."

"......Ble-ah.  But I just can't sta~nd that Ange-sama still doesn't believe in magic herself."
"......Ange-sama, please believe in magic to~o.  Feels like a waste to finally have a master and have it not be a wi~tch."

"Even though you have outstanding talent which could make you one of the greatest of witches, your goal is to attack witches.  It's so frustrating.  ......Well, even so, that's your life, the way you live, and in the world where you've decided that, there's nothing we can do to complain."
"Thanks for understanding me.

Yeah, whether magic exists to me・・・・ or not, that's up to me to decide.  Whether magic actually does exist somewhere in the world or not, you see?"
When I think about it, the world is so vast, .....and yet small.
Billions of people live on the earth.
But I probably won't meet even 1% of those people.

Even so, I will speak of a world.
'My world', which doesn't know even 1% of the world.
"I'm not qualified to deny the laws of a world I don't know.  ......So just because magic doesn't exist in my world, I can't deny that magic exists in a world I don't know.  That makes it a true Devil's Proof.  No, maybe it's more like 'when in Rome, do as the Romans do'."
I can be confident in the world I know.
So even if that is denied by a complete stranger who doesn't know a thing about my world, that's nothing to worry about.

And in the same way, just because I don't know something, that doesn't make me qualified to deny a world I don't know.

"Therefore.  Regardless of whether there is magic in my world or not, ......I cannot deny the magic Maria onee-chan taught me."
『Uryu!  After all, even if you've never seen it, ......magic exists!』

"Yes.  That's why, as I've already said, ......you friends of the witches' alliance, Mariage Sorciere, cannot be denied by me or anyone else."

I proclaimed the most important part again.
.........Even though the sea breeze and crashing of the waves were noisy, it was a time of silence.

Both Sakutarou and the Seven Sisters of Purgatory, ......reflected upon my words.

And, probably, I did too.
Whether magic exists.
Whether witches exist.

Because, ignoring what the answer would be for my world, ......I had proclaimed a contradiction so openly by acknowledging its existence.

『Thank you, ......Ange.』
"If you will acknowledge that much, acknowledge witches too.........No, that was a foolish question.  You already have a clear answer to that question."
"Sorry.  Although I do acknowledge that witches might exist somewhere in this world.  But that does not shake my world."

"......You won't acknowledge witches or magic.  You'll definitely expose the truth of Rokkenjima.  ......Right?"
"Yes.  That is my world.  Even if a real witch exists, I won't acknowledge it in my world.  No matter how much that witch tries to convince me."
"Your position is to attack witches, Ange-sama.  ......And I understand well that you have not the slightest wavering in that feeling.  We are your furniture, the Seven Sisters of Purgatory...!  We will always be by your side.  We will always be waiting for the day that we can be useful...!"

"Although since you don't believe in magic, we can never be anything more than someone to talk to."
"That's enough for now.  We've been left room to exist.  For that alone, we should thank and acknowledge Ange-sama."

"In short!  All of u-s!"
『Are all together again......  Uryu-!!』
"Kya-h!!  Sakutaro-!  Let me squeeze youuuuuuuuu~!!"

When Sakutarou was overcome with emotion and tears came to his eyes, the Seven Sisters closed in and mobbed him.

......They were also celebrating a long-missed reunion.

If their existence is permitted, they are definitely capable of existing here.

No, even if I don't permit it, they can exist.

Because I acknowledged them, they

showed their reunion's joy to me as well.・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・.
As I watched over that scene, .........I reflected over what this journey of mine meant.

".........I wonder if everyone will forgive me this way."
"That is enough.  We are furniture.  Just being summoned, just being allowed to be by your side makes us happy."

『Uryu...!  Ange, thank you very much......!』

"......Come to think of it, why was I able to summon Sakutarou?  ......No, it's the other way around.  Why wasn't Onee-chan able to summon Sakutarou?"
Maria onee-chan had despaired, thinking that Sakutarou had died.
Which meant she hadn't been able to summon him anymore, like this.
In the past, Onee-chan said it was more advantageous in a summoning to have a vessel.
However, a vessel is like training wheels, and it shouldn't be absolutely necessary.

......In other words, even if the stuffed animal lion that was Sakutarou's vessel didn't exist, it should be possible to summon him.
......No, when you put it like that, it's even a little doubtful whether things summoned are limited by life and death.
Moreover, Sakutarou should have been an especially important friend to Maria onee-chan.
She should have been able to strive hard to summon him one more time.

It certainly was sad that the original stuffed animal vessel had been torn apart, but why did he 'die' and become impossible to summon again......?
『...That's because, ...at that time, Maria saw my stuffed animal torn, and

decided・・・・ that I had died.』

"It's the same as the existence of magic.  ......If in Lady MARIA's world, Sakutarou has died, then Sakutarou cannot exist in her world."
『............Uryu......』
The shock of having her beloved stuffed animal torn apart...had left a wound in her heart serious enough to prevent her from summoning her irreplaceable close friend.

In Maria onee-chan's eyes・・・・・・・・・・・, Sakutarou died.

So even if Sakutarou can exist like this to me, he cannot exist before her.
『I......was always together with Maria............When Maria cried, I was always right beside her, telling her not to cry............But my form, my voice, ......nothing of me will reach Maria......』

Sakutarou hung his head, looking sad.

"......After that incident, the nature of Mariage Sorciere rapidly began to change.  Before then, the alliance was a peaceful thing.  But after the incident, it grew full of shadier things, focusing on how to curse people you hate.  ......Onee-chan's diary began to show a clear change."
A diary is a mirror that reflects one's heart as it is.

It probably showed the personality called Maria die, and be reborn as the evil witch personality MARIA.
When she buried the diary in hatred and sadness, ......her heart surely was not satisfied.

Because it wasn't satisfied, she had to bury it with hatred and sadness.
And while still unsatisfied, she met with death.
......I wonder if her unsatisfied soul has a hole opened in its chest from sadness even now, and continually wanders, tears dripping down and calling Sakutarou's name......

........................

"............You, ......are needed by Onee-chan."
『Uryu.........』

"What can I do to revive you in Maria onee-chan's world?  If I learn that method, I'll be able to save Onee-chan.  ......That is the method of atonement imposed upon me.  What can be done to revive Sakutarou?"

『......To Maria, my vessel had a very vital significance......』
"The vessel.  ......In other words, if we could revive the lion stuffed animal..."

『But............Mama Rosa made my stuffed animal herself, so only Mama Rosa can make it......』


Even inside the diary, Maria onee-chan had asked this of Beatrice, and was refused for that reason.

The magical significance of a stuffed animal being unique and handmade is very large.

Then, if we could make the same thing once more......

But Rosa oba-san is already gone from this world.
We can't make the same thing again.

"......Was there ever another identical stuffed animal made, or anything like that?"

"He is a stuffed animal made for Lady MARIA's birthday present, and is the only one in the world.  ......A handmade and unique vessel.  So it conceals a great magical power.  And, ......if lost, it will not be obtained again.  It will not revive..."
『.........Uryu.........』
......Because she had known that, Maria onee-chan had watched that stuffed animal, which was unique in that world, be torn apart, .........and despaired.
Because it was a stuffed animal unique in the world, and she couldn't allow a compromise such as buying another one, ......she had despaired from the bottom of her heart......
"......But, Sakutarou is right here.  Even without a vessel, he's here.  Because I acknowledge that, he certainly exists in my world.  .........Even if Maria onee-chan doesn't acknowledge him, that cannot be denied.  Right...?"

"Logically that's true, ......but I think using the same logic to make Lady MARIA accept him could be difficult."
『......Maria...............I'm not dead...  I'm right here...............Uryu......』
"I'm sure that on Rokkenjima, ......I'll be able to be reunited with Maria onee-chan.  And, ......no matter what, I will revive the you that's inside Onee-chan, and let you be reunited."

『Can you do it......?』
"It will probably be hard.  ......Just like how, after being invited into the witches' alliance, I rejected it without understanding what it meant, she might also reject your existence.

.........But, I've got to do it.  That's the only way I can atone for my sins."
"............Ange-sama......"
"What is waiting on Rokkenjima?  And what will happen, what will be created?  ......Although maybe nothing will happen."
『........................』
"That island, which was the beginning of everything, is the final destination of this journey.  .........I will bring all of you, and as your master, furniture of the witch,

......(I have to return,/・・・・・・・・)

to the witch's island, to Rokkenjima."
Even though the rays of the sun had been so strong, at some point clouds had started to hang down.
The spray that hit my cheek might not all have come from crashing waves.
"Ange-san.  It looks like a light shower is coming.  Shouldn't you be going down?"

Amakusa called out to me, with an expression that said 'oh, you're still here?'.
When I looked up, I saw that the island's silhouette had gotten much larger.
We might reach land very soon.
I remembered that the weather report had mentioned scattered rains.

The sky wasn't dark enough for rain clouds.
It'll probably be just for a short time.
Even if the rain was light enough not to be a bother...
......Having rain start to fall as we approached the island felt like some kind of fate.
It was raining on October 4, 1986 as well.
I am approaching the Rokkenjima of that day, ......and not just in distance......
I went back down with Amakusa.

Amakusa was carrying what looked like a quite large and heavy golf bag.

It was something Amakusa had brought back from a day when we had split up.
......I didn't inquire as to its contents, but it's hard to imagine that they're anything peaceful.
".........I won't go so far as to ask what's inside, but it looks heavy."

"Why is it that these are so heavy?  A French instructor taught me something interesting about that once.  He said that these always should be heavy.  .........After all, a human life is heavier than the world.  So these should be even heavier."

".........It'll be nice if you don't have a chance to use them."
"That would be nice."

Amakusa set the golf bag-like luggage down beside him.
A two-propeller aircraft touched down on the runway.
With the weather in these conditions, it could not have been a pleasant flight.
Everything after this flight had been suspended due to the weather.
Cutting through the drizzle as she traversed the runway, Sumadera Kasumi entered the lobby with two black-suits as guards.

The four black-suits who had been waiting inside the lobby stood up and respectfully lowered their heads in salute.
"""Kasumi-sama...!!"""
"Propeller planes sure do shake......  I wouldn't want to ride one again."
"We have a car prepared!  Please, this way."

They went into two luxury cars that had been rented...
"......Ange should be heading for Rokkenjima.  A deserted island would be truly convenient.  .........You are preparing the tools, correct?"
"Yes Ma'am......!"
The black-suit in the passenger seat put a heavy bag that had been set by his feet onto his lap, opened the catch with a *click*, and showed Kasumi what was inside.
Inside were several silver lumps of carefully wrapped aluminum foil.
......He peeled one open to show her.

A black, blunt automatic pistol peeked its face out......
It was already approaching 10:00 at night.
By now, the typhoon had wrapped itself around Rokkenjima.

Even the rose garden that had looked so beautiful midday, was beaten down upon by the fierce winds and resisted with all its might, undulating and trying to keep the flowers from blowing away...
In that rose garden, with Shannon in the lead, Battler, who was holding up an umbrella, Jessica, and Maria who was sleeping on George's shoulder were heading for the guesthouse.

"We can at least make it to the guesthouse from here.  Shannon-chan, it's fine, you should go back and rest."
"It's fine, because seeing you off is also my duty...."

"The family conference is going on inside, and Mom and Genji-san are probably getting stressed.  If we keep you, they'll misunderstand and think you were being lazy."
"That's right.  Just graciously accepting our offer might be the best way to avoid burdening people.  ...Thank you, Shannon."
"Not at all. ......Certainly, as Milady has said, it is very tense inside the mansion today.  Therefore, coming with all of you allowed me a breath of fresh air, and I have been able to relax a bit."

"The family conference, huh.  .........They went to all the trouble of chasing us kids out, so they're probably talking about something ill-natured."
"Probably.  I'm sure there's nothing we can do to help out.  Just trying to stay out of their way is probably the best way for us to be useful."
"Heh......!  I'm sure they're just talking about 'money money money!'.  ...Even though they act like they're so rich most of the time, when it gets tough, they all start getting pushy.  Why don't they just be graceful and split it evenly between everyone?"

"Ihihi.  That'd be awesome.  It'd be nice if I got a share too.  Since if I got some too, I'd split it with Shannon-chan right away."
"Th, thank you very much....  Well, I appreciate the sentiment."

"Shannon isn't greedy at all.  Normally, girls of your age would have tons of things they want to buy."
"I guess.  But none of the things I want can be bought with money."
"Ooh!  How unselfish!  If you lined up all the things I wanted, all the gold in the world wouldn't be enough."

"That's if you're talking about things that can be bought with money.  I wonder what these 'things that can't be bought with money' that Shannon wants a~re.  Do you have any idea, George nii-san?"

"W, well, I wonder.  I'm not Shannon, so how could I know?"
"I, ...I don't know either."

George and Shannon looked down with their faces red.

Battler had also heard the details, so he knew what Jessica was teasing them about.

"George-aniki is a person I respect as well.  I think you've met up with a really great person, Shannon-chan."
"Yeah.  I also feel relieved that we can leave Shannon to George nii-san."

"St, stop teasing.  It's a serious issue for us.  More importantly, what about you, Jessica-chan?  Have you been able to get a little closer to Kanon-kun?"
"Whaaaaaaaaat?!  So, you and Kanon are like that?!"

"Ah, um, well!! Th-, that's dirty, George onii-san, twisting the conversation around like that is dirty!"
As they had an animated discussion with ups and downs, the four kids headed for the guesthouse.......
The annual family conference was extremely important to the Ushiromiya family, and this year seemed like it was going to be especially important.

Apparently, the family head, Kinzo, was personally going to be making a very serious announcement, and everyone other than the adults had been strictly ordered to leave.
Battler hadn't attended the family conference in six years, so he didn't really notice, but according to Jessica, there seemed to be a very tense atmosphere tonight, completely different from a normal year.
......Common sense made it clear that Kinzo, whose remaining life was short, was going to make some big announcement about the succession of the head and the distribution of his fortune......

"But I'm suprised.  .........To think that Grandfather actually made an appearance......."
"......I see.  So, this is the witch's counterattack."

"*cackle*cackle*cackle*!  I wanted to leave the Joker called Kinzo face-down a little longer, but it's probably about time to turn it over.  Trump cards exist to be used.  *cackle*cackle*!"

"Damn.  My theory that Grandfather was dead since the beginning, and a different 18th person had snuck in, ......is now suddenly torn apart."

"I had foreseen that you would begin to doubt Kinzo eventually...!  Alright, now your reasoning has all gone back to square one again, right?

With this, your theory that Kinzo was dead at the very beginning and I was hiding as the 18th person goes poof!  *cackle*cackle*cackle*!!"

".........Fuck...  But no way I'll lose heart.  That's only one theory gone.  I'll attack you like a storm, like a tornado......."

"*cackle*cackle*!  I'd have it no other way!  Even the first twilight has not yet begun.  It is far too early to give up."
"That's right.  And, it's not like it was denied with the red truth.  .........At this point in time, Battler's theory hasn't been defeated.  It's too early to say that you've won."

"Yeah, that's right.  ......It's still to early for me to simply swallow her story.  ...Grandfather is supposed to finally appear, but there's a chance that he'll talk about how his health has gotten worse and not appear after all.

......Krauss oji-san might be trying desperately to hide the fact that Grandfather really is dead until the last second."
"Ha...!  I see, I see, you could also think of it that way.  Do as you please.  It will be resolved soon.  Very soon...  *cackle*cackle*......!"
All of the relatives and Nanjo could be seen in the dining hall.
Nanjo sat alone, quietly watching the wind and rain outside.

Krauss sat down in the seat of his own rank, with Natsuhi standing motionlessly at his side.

The other siblings were gathered at the opposite end of the long table, whispering to each other.......

"......Is that true?"
"Yes.  ......Maria said...the person who gave her the umbrella......was Father."

"What in the world...?  In other words, our strategy has collapsed from the roots...!"
"Not just our strategy.  Since Father is healthy and has said that he will make an announcement himself, our trivial bargaining with Nii-san was completely pointless."

"Yep.  ......That old bastard.  Why couldn't he have just shown himself right away without making a show of it?  Thanks to that, we've just been quarreling with Aniki uselessly."
"............Don't you think he may have wanted to test us?  Maybe I'm not one to talk, since we aren't related by blood, but your Father is very intelligent, correct?"
"Our arguments during the day were probably overheard by one of the servants, and reported to Father.  .........Incredible.  The fact that we were making a fuss with Father's inheritance as our goal is now right in the open............Ah, just incredible..."

Eva uncharacteristically held her head, dejected.
If, as Kyrie had said, everything had been going according to Kinzo's plans from the beginning, and if this was a huge setup that had been kept up for over a year, trying to find the siblings' true intentions, then they had fallen for it completely...
"......Still dunno for sure whether or not it's reached Father's ears."

"No, it definitely has!  ......Everyone but Nii-san claimed that Father was dead, and none of us believed in Father's good health...!  Aaah, it's already over.............Father will make an announcement.  Nii-san will become the successor, and he will say that we aren't even qualified to wear the One Wing.............Oooh, I............"

"Nee-san......, get ahold of yourself......."

"......Rosa-san.  I wonder whether Maria really received that umbrella from Father."
"Huh?  What do you mean......?"

"......Maria-chan might have met Father.  However, we haven't met him.  Maria-chan only claims to have met him."
"What are you saying.......?  ......Are you saying that Maria is telling a lie?!"

"Calm down, Rosa.  ......Maria-chan didn't necessarily lie.  However, isn't Maria-chan an innocent child?

......For example, if Genji-san came up to her and said something like 'I was told by your Grandfather to hand this to you, Maria-sama', then even if Maria-chan hadn't met Dad, she still might say that she got an umbrella from him, right?"
"Th, ......that's right.  That trick could work...!"

"However, what was it that Maria-chan said? 'Grandfather came, and then handed me the umbrella'."
"Yes, that's what she said. She clearly said that she had received an umbrella directly from Grandfather."

"......Directly, huh?  Then we're stuck."
"............................They often say that stupid thoughts are no better than sleeping.  If you think about it a bit, all this about the umbrella is a trivial problem."
"Why's that?  Couldn't Maria-chan have been bribed by Nii-san to lie and say something that made it seem like Father was in good health?!  There is no evidence that Father actually handed the umbrella to her...!"

"No matter who Maria-chan received the umbrella from, and even if she never was given an umbrella in the first place, Father will appear very soon.  With Father in front of us, the problem with the umbrella would become completely trivial.

.........In other words, this is not the time to gossip about the problem with the umbrella."
"What do you mean, this isn't the time?"

".........I see, ...got it.  ......This is probably what Kyrie-san's sayin'.  .........Father is supposed to come here very soon, but the chance still remains that he'll criticize us again and won't appear in the end, right......?"

"I, .........I see.  That's true...  Maybe Nii-san just said Father was going to appear at random in a desperate bid to buy time against our investigation.  Father really is dead already, and Nii-san is still lying and saying he's healthy...!"
"In short, if Father appears, then no schemes will be effective.  There's no need to even think about it.  We're fish on the chopping board.  We'd have no choice but to leave fate to the heavens and attend direct negotiations with Father.  That means we'd have no choice but to prostrate ourselves and beg for money.
......But on the other hand, if Father doesn't appear, then our primary strategy isn't hampered in the least."

".........I see.  In short, no matter which way it goes, there's absolutely no need to get flustered now."
"That's it.  If Father shows up, we just have to carry out the normal family conference.  .........If he doesn't, we just have to constantly investigate Krauss-san."
"We definitely must not let him talk his way out of it..., like by saying Father's mood has suddenly gotten worse."

"......It seems what we really should be trying to figure out is what scheme Nii-san is going to try and trick us with.  The way he just doesn't know how to give up is something I know better than anyone."
"If Father is well, ......we'll prostrate ourselves and beg for money.  ......If its Krauss-san's farce, then we continue our ugly sibling fight.  .........Sounds like this year's family conference is going to be just wonderful."

"Yep.  So, stupid thoughts are no better than sleeping.  It's almost 22:00.  ......Should we press Aniki?"

Rudolf and the rest looked at Krauss.
He sat down, and looked like he was awaiting Kinzo's arrival with an air of composure.

......They couldn't tell whether that really was composure, or whether he was scheming about how to tie together his lie.

"............Dear......"
"......Calm yourself.  We won't get anywhere by making a fuss after all this.  .........Let's leave it to Genji-san."

"It's almost, ......10:00, isn't it."

That was the time that had been set for tonight's family conference to open.
And at the same time, it was the time that the Ushiromiya family head needed to appear......
Right then, they heard the sound of footsteps approaching from the hall.
There were multiple sets.

Natsuhi raised her head, relieved......
But because of the sound of a knock, her expression was filled with disappointment.
Because Kinzo probably wouldn't have knocked.

"......Please excuse us.  I have finished closing up the mansion for the night."

It was Gohda and Kumasawa.

Unlike the powerful Gohda, it was rare for Kumasawa with her old body to be forced with work this late.

Of course, Krauss also seemed to know that.

"Hmm.  Good work.  .........My apologies for making you work at such a time, Kumasawa-san."
"Oh, it's nothing.  I may not look it, but staying up late is still one of my specialties.  Hoh-hoh-hoh-hoh...!"

"......Wouldn't it be alright to at least let Kumasawa leave without being an observer?  It really will be difficult on her body, I imagine."
"............The order was to gather all of the servants as well.  I cannot disobey."
Tonight's family conference was clearly different from a normal one.

On a normal year, no one was able to attend the family conference except relatives.
It had been impossible for any servants to be there too.
But this year was different.

All of the servants were told to attend the family conference.
Of course, they were not allowed to talk.
.........They were there as observers.
Just what in the world was there that needed five servants to observe?
......Even Krauss didn't know.

"Hoh-hoh-hoh.  I don't look it, but I'm good with late nights.  If you stuff yourself with mackerel too, Krauss-sama, you'll be able to be more manly at night."
"Hahahaha.  I see, you're still in high spirits.  I'm sure you'll be working in such high spirits until you're a hundred."
"Madam.  Forgive my arrogance, but I have prepared a light snack.  I can serve it at any time, so feel free to order it."

"Thank you.  You really are considerate.  ......Please get refills of coffee for everyone else."
"Certainly."

After nodding, Gohda took the pot towards the relatives gathered at the other end of the table.
As he did, more footsteps approached from the hallway.

......It was a single set.
And it was light.

Even before the knock, they could imagine who it was.
"Excuse me......I have taken the children to the guesthouse."

"Good work.  Tonight is a special evening.  Make sure you stay alert."
"Y, yes.  Certainly, Madam......"
Genji had gone with Kanon to meet Kinzo.

......There was still no sign of their return.
The hand of the clock passed 22:00 slightly.
Once sure of that, Eva spoke to Krauss.
"......Nii-saaan?  It's time.  Will you still not start the family conference?"
"............The arrival of the guest of honor has been delayed.  Wait a short while."

"How long?  Sorry, but time's up.  I won't have you saying 'Father hasn't quite shown up yet' over and over until dawn."
"How could I make a promise about the time Father will show up?  Why are you in such a rush?  Why not drink some tea and calm down for now...?"
"Aniki, we're gathered here for a family conference.  Not a farce.  We'll wait 30 more minutes.  But if that doesn't work, you'll let us intrude on the study, right?"

"Wh, what a word, intrude......  That would be an action quite lacking in respect for the head!"

"That's right, sorry?  We'll be good for 30 more minutes.  Uffuffuffu......"
"...............Hmph."

"..................I look forward to seeing whether you can keep that same smile 30 minutes from now."
"......So, you honestly believe that Father is dead?"

"I have no desire to discuss that now.  We can wait until Father comes here.  There's absolutely no need for me to argue you down, Nii-san."

"The Ushiromiya headship will be passed on to the proper person in the proper manner.  ......No matter what you may scheme, you cannot resist.  Of course, the same goes for me."

"What are you trying to say?  ......And after bragging all these years about the next head being you...!"

"I'll turn your own words back on you.  I have no desire to discuss that now.  All that matters is for Father to come here and proclaim it with his own mouth.  There's absolutely no reason for me to argue you down.  ......Right?  Heheheh!"

Krauss casually turned Eva's words back on her.
Of course, that added oil to Eva's anger.
But it didn't ignite.

Because in that instant, the sound of a very loud knock rang out.
Both Genji and Kanon were usually very reserved when they knocked.
They wouldn't hit the door with such a violent strength.
......It was like a judge's gavel slamming down in a call for silence.

So everyone fell quiet......
The door opened slightly, ......and Genji showed himself.

Then, he spoke with a serious tone different from his usual one.
It wasn't the tone he used when carrying out his duties.
......It was the tone he used when speaking for Kinzo himself.

So just by hearing Genji speak like that, the siblings were struck with a sudden tension.
"Please take your seats, everyone."

At those words, the dining hall fell into complete silence, and everyone hurriedly returned to their designated seats.
It was as though students who had been bustling around just before homeroom had suddenly returned to their seats when the teacher came, and it might even have felt humorous.

......But there was no way anyone would joke about it.
Everyone sat in order, and Shannon, Gohda, and Kumasawa stood up straight in a row by the wall.
"......The head of the glorious Ushiromiya family, and lord of Rokkenjima, the island that sparkles gold.  Lord Ushiromiya Kinzo is present."
Of the double doors that led to the dining hall, Genji opened the right door from the inside, and Kanon opened the left door from the outside.

......And, welcomed by a respectful bow from those two, majestically fluttering his cape, ............Kinzo appeared......

Kinzo's gait had a dignified weight to it, and it was hard to believe that he had reportedly been at the end of his life.

Genji pulled back Kinzo's seat, and motioned for him to sit.
But Kinzo stayed standing, signaling with his chin for Genji to move back.
"*cackle*cackle*cackle*cackle*cackle*, fuhhahahahahahahahahaha...!!  Welcome to Rokkenjima, ladies and gentlemen.  Why the frightened face, Evaa?"
"N, no, why would I be frightened...!  I'm just relieved to find you in excellent spirits, Father......"

"Wahhahhahhahhahhahha...!!  Evaa, you're as interesting as ever, aren't yoou?  You might try honestly saying how frustrated you are at losing your bet with Krauss.  ......*cackle*cackle*, you can't say it, can you?  *cackle*cackle*!!"

Eva realized that their conversation during the day had indeed been leaked to Kinzo, and she hung her head, turning red.
"Well then, my sons and daughters, and their companions!  Regarding my wealth and the succession of the head that you all seem so infatuated with, I believe I will make an important announcement tonight.
But first!  I think I will mention how incredibly disappointed I am.  That is because until today, no one had been able to solve the riddle of the epitaph."
Even though Kinzo said he was disappointed, a condescending smile, as though there was no way the likes of these could have solved it, rose to his face, and his gaze passed through all of them.
"......I had been planning on handing over everything to the person who could solve that.  But now we have reached this point, with no one having solved it, and nothing of mine being passed down to anyone.
How shameful...!!  The fact that not one among you has come forward with the qualifications to succeed me, I find truly disappointing, and shameful, and patheetic!!  Wahhahhahhahhahhahha!!"
The siblings hung their heads in silence.

Of course, they would have solved it if they could.
If they had just needed to take a swing at it, that would have been the end of it, but it was just so hard...
"Therefore.  I am proclaiming here and now that I will suspend the use of the epitaph's riddle as a method of choosing my successor.  In short, time's up!  This is game over.  ......What a shame, you all.  Even though that should have given you all an equal and fair chance, that has now collapsed!  .........Nffuffuffuffuffu!!"

It truly sounded like Kinzo was making a victory proclamation.

"In that case, will my oldest son Krauss succeed the headship...?  *cackle*cackle*!  The answer is <no>!!"
"Wha...?!"
"............"

"......You understand, right, Krauuss?  I certainly gave you the title of next head.  But you just lost your head over it...  Do you know what it means to be the next head......?"

".........It means...to succeed after you, Father..."

"Wrooooooooooooooooonnnng!!  The next head isn't something that's guaranteed by the current head at aaaaaaaaaaall!

.........Listen up, Krauuss.  I won't tell you this again.  The next head?  That's what you call someone who finds everyone else who's after the headship, thoroughly breaks their noses, and makes it so that they can never disobey him again.

This is not only something that can be said of the headship.  It's the same with money!  A 'rich person' doesn't mean someone who has money.  It means someone who crushes everyone who had more money than himself, and who scrabbles together more money than anyone else."
"It's the same with talent.  A genius is not what you call a person blessed with talent!  It means a person who crushes everyone with more talent than themselves!  A person who can coerce geniuses and all other people to call them that by using strength and charisma!!  You have a mistaken impression when it comes to all of these things.  ......So you aren't of the right caliber to be the next head.  *cackle*cackle*cackle*cackle*cackle*!!"
"............N, now I have learned..."
Perhaps that truly was Kinzo's philosophy.

As a result of faithfully carrying out that philosophy of his that sounded like a rant, Kinzo had glorified the Ushiromiya family to the state it was in today......
It may be hard to imagine after his immersion in the occult in recent years, but that brutal overbearing quality was itself Ushiromiya Kinzo's charisma and aura...
"Such an unsatisfactory person is not qualified to inherit everything of the Ushiromiya family.  In that case, is Eva, Rudolph, or Rosa qualified?
That is also <no>!!  You were unable to solve the riddle, and despite that, you were unable to use a scheme to drag Krauss down!  All the three of you managed to do was gather together in a united front to try and extort money from Krauss.  And even that scheme was thoughtless!  You can't even corner Krauss all by himself!  .........There could be nothing more shameful!
You lack the avarice to steal away the position of next head by any means!!  In order to get what you want, you should pay all sacrifices, become as covetous, as greedy as possible...!!  The goddess of luck smiles upon the greedy!!  You three, who don't have that wild spirit, are as unfit for the succession as Krauss is!!"
Eva and the rest had no words to respond with.
And they couldn't calculate what it was Kinzo was about to say...
Was Kinzo actually planning to proclaim that no one would succeed the head?
If so, that would work to Eva, Rosa, and Rudolf's advantage.

Because in the end, they would just have to retune everything between the siblings after Kinzo's death, and split the inheritance evenly.
It would surely be more troublesome if a specific person's name was raised and proclaimed to be the one to succeed the head.

......But would Kinzo really say something that would benefit any of the four siblings after demeaning them so much?
"......You don't think...he's going to say that because no one will succeed him, he'll donate all of his fortune to charity or something, right......?"

".........I'm afraid I wouldn't put it past Father."
"The blood's just risen to your head......  We can do nothing but hear him out."
"W, ...well then, Father.  What thoughts do you have regarding the next head?"

"Hmph.........  Since I am so completely disappointed in all of you, I've lost the desire to hand it over to anyone.  Therefore, the Ushiromiya family will end here.  It ends with my generation."
"......Th, that cannot......"
"The Ushiromiya family was crushed long ago in that earthquake.  The current Ushiromiya family is nothing but an illusion of gold I have seen for an instant.  ......The likes of which will end when I awaken from my slumber.  Fuffuffu!  Everything in this world is a dream, an illusion.  ...Life is but a daydream before the awakening called death.  Aaah, yes, that's how it was in the beginning!!  That I should lose everything when I die was Beatrice's contract, and her curse!  Fuhhahhahha!!  You think that will work, Beatrice?!  I will be the one to capture you!!  Tonight, that should become reality.  *cackle*cackle*cackle*!  Wahhahahahahahahahaha!!"
For a while, Kinzo was overcome with cackling, and his eyes bulged.
Whenever he talked about Beatrice, it was always eloquent and insane......
"Foolish children such as yourselves are truly a daydream!!  It's as though you were never there from the beginning!!  Disappear!  Wake up!!  Disappear from the doze of the truth that is me...!!  You failures that have not built up anything that makes you worthy to succeed me!!"
"K, Kinzo-san.  If I may......"
"What?  My friend."

Nanjo nervously raised his hand, asking to speak.  Kinzo allowed him to.

"I understand how you feel, Kinzo-san.  Because you love your children, you expect a lot of them, and as a parent and grandparent myself, I understand the parental affection that can make you feel as though these expectations were betrayed.

......However, you are extraordinary, Kinzo-san.  A genius.  Isn't saying that it's only natural for them to catch up to you a little too harsh...?  And even so, Krauss-san, Eva-san, Rudolf-san, Rosa-san, and all of their partners have done their very best to catch up with you..."
"Hohoooooooooohhh???  And just how much money have they built up with this 'doing their best'?  After these cowards fail completely in ventures and gain debt, and still try to sponge off me, how can you say that they did their very best...?!!
Money is the crystallization of everything in this world.  If you cannot grasp that, then you cannot grasp the world!  If a life cannot strongly grasp this world, it doesn't deserve to live!!  Disappear!!  Disappear from my life and reality!!"
"......That is a reckless argument.  With that logic, even I must not live.  ......Even so, I believe that the time I spend playing chess with you was worthwhile for both of us, Kinzo-san.........You should know better than anyone else that there are many things in this world which cannot be bought with money."
".........Hmm.  ......Hmph."
As the siblings motionlessly hung their heads, they cheered Nanjo on inside their hearts.

Not one of the siblings could offer their opinion in front of Kinzo in a rage, but Kinzo's close friend Nanjo alone was allowed to...
Even though Kinzo had raged so fiercely, after being admonished by Nanjo, he nodded several times as though in agreement.

......His surprisingly obedient side might have seemed cute, but there was no one who could laugh.

"It may be true that your children haven't built up as great a fortune as yourself, Kinzo-san.  ......Well, even so, from my point of view, they're rich enough to make me jealous.

But besides money, they have also built up many things that cannot be bought with money.  When it comes to that, they are in no way inferior to you, Kinzo-san."

"Hoh.  What are you saying they have built up that cannot be bought with money?"

"Happiness.  Family.  ......They have found wonderful partners, had children, and each has built up their own happy homes.  They have glorified your family name, and have brought back grandchildren.

Grandchildren are good.  We older people can look at these young grandchildren, who will live on into a new era that we will not even be given a chance to see, and in these grandchildren, we can imagine an endless future.  ......Isn't that the sole entertainment for old age?

Remember, Kinzo-san.  Remember your joy when they first brought back their grandchildren...!  Your children, and your grandchildren, will carry your great works on to future generations, and will set an example.  That is something that an individual cannot accomplish no matter how much money they have."
The siblings all nodded in agreement...

Certainly, Kinzo had looked happy when his grandchildren had just been born.
......Back when he still had some sanity in his heart.

......However, was the warmth of a human still left inside Kinzo's heart......?

"In other words, in exchange for the vast riches I created!  Instead of gaining money, I have gained my grandchildren, you mean."
"N, no, no, that's not what I..."

"So, in exchange for the several tens of billions in wealth that I have built up, I have gained a single grandchild from each of my children!!

Hahhahahahahahahahahaha!!  This is wonderful!  So, I have created a single life using ten billion yen!  That's how it is!  Interesting, truly an interesting example in the alchemic sense, riight...?!

Hooh, what valuable grandchildren!  Wonderful, ......wonderful!!  Wahhahhahhahhahha!!  Is that right, Krauss?  ......Is your daughter worth ten billion......?"
"............"
Krauss couldn't answer instantly.
......It wasn't that he didn't have confidence in his daughter.  It was because he didn't have a clue what Kinzo was trying to test him with in this question.

But when Natsuhi was then pressed for an answer, she responded, breaking Krauss's silence with an answer of her own interpretation.

"......Y, yes.  Jessica is a daughter who I wouldn't let go of even for ten billion yen.  In that sense, I believe she has a value that can't be counted with money."
"Hoh.  So you can state for certain that she is worth ten billion.  Hoh hoh!  What about you, Eva?  What about your George......?"
Since Natsuhi had answered that way, Eva naturally came up with her own answer as well.

......Even though Eva should have known better than to respond to a provocative question like this, she answered as well.
"Yes, Father.  George is worth ten billion, ......no, even more than that.  And that's not in the abstract sense of things money cannot buy.  George will certainly build up a fortune equal to his worth.  He should become a grandson worthy of carrying on your great works, Father...!"
Eva sent a glance at Hideyoshi and Natsuhi as though laughing.

......When she heard what Eva had said, Natsuhi was about to add more praise for her daughter, but stopped at a glare from Krauss.

"Hmm, I see.  .........Then what about you, Rudolf?  What about your Battler?"

"Compared to George-kun, ......there's nothing about Battler I can brag about.  If he was kidnapped and we were threatened with a ransom of ten billion, I'd feeling like sticking a bow on the guy and letting them have him."
"*giggle*giggle*......"

"On top of that, he's an idiot and reckless.  He talks about grand dreams and things that couldn't be done.  ......I guess in that way, he's a super idiot worth the equivalent of ten billion normal idiots.

But I'm sure that guy could do things that even a group of ten billion average people couldn't do.  Well, I'm pretty sure he'll fall flat on his face.  The world isn't easy.

......But at the very least, there's no doubt that watching over his life will be more pleasant than looking at ten billion average people."

Eva clicked her tongue at the clever style of speech that would probably match Kinzo's tastes.
Apparently Rudolf had been after this himself, so he grinned back at her.

"......What of Maria?"
"M, ......Maria is my cute and only daughter.  Her value cannot be measured with money.  ......That is all."
"Hmm.  ............I see.  Dreams and the future, miracles and possibilities are the source of my magical power.  No magic without hopes holds any power.
......Hmph, I will not be able to expect anything more from all of you after you have proven to be average, but I see, my grandchildren have the possibility of the future, and it is possible that they are worth expecting a magical miracle from.
If with this, you say that they are worth more than ten billion, hmm, it's not like I don't understand.  ......Hmmm, hmmmm......"
When Kinzo got in a rage, he wouldn't let anyone speak up, but even so, he would sometimes accept something on his own while yelling by himself, and change his own opinion.

......That's what this felt like to the siblings.
Apparently, even though Kinzo had been dumbfounded by his unsuccessful children, and had cast them away as being unfit for the inheritance of his title or his fortune, he wasn't sure about his grandchildren.
......At this rate, he might soon say that the inheritance would go to his grandchildren instead of the siblings.

As the siblings sat in fear of what their fickle and short-tempered father would suddenly think of next, they carefully watched his every move...
"......Hmm.  ......Let me change my thinking a little.  I have absolutely no desire to hand over everything of mine to any of you.
However, it will be quite interesting to question the grandchildren to see whether one of them is qualified......  I've always thought of them as little kids, but there is a chance they will show me a glitter of ore that will surprise me.
And testing them for that would be, ......yes, that would be hard to abandon as a final hobby in my remaining life.  ......Hmmmmm, ......well then, what shall I do...?"
"I, ...I can recommend, with confidence, George as someone fitting to follow after you!"

Eva claimed that right away.

Natsuhi looked like she was about to follow along, but Krauss gave her a look telling her to restrain herself, so she swallowed her words.
"Fuffufufufufu!  How bold.  ......Then, let us do this.  I will individually question the grandchildren to see whether they are qualified to succeed the Ushiromiya family inheritance and wealth."
"...Father......"
"Howeeever!!  .........That does not mean that one of you will directly receive the inheritance.  I am already disappointed in you all.  There is now nothing that I will give you.  Nothing!  The ones I will question are the grandchildren.  And the ones that might succeed me are the grandchildren.  ......Make absolutely sure that you do not mistake this, alright......?"

".........I'll follow Father's decision."
"Same here.  I'll follow what he determines.  ......What about you, Aneki?"

"O, of course.  ......I believe that Father will make a wise judgement."
"I, I will also follow Father's decision......"
"I shall think of how I will test the grandchildren.  And that no longer has anything to do with you.  Because all of you no longer have anything to do with the succession of the head.  ......So right here, why don't I talk about something else that does have something to do with you."
"Something else......?"

"Hmm.  That is the true reason for tonight, and for the final Ushiromiya family conference.  ......*cackle*cackle*cackle*!!  What I demand from you is neither a discussion nor your opinions.  It was to demand cooperation.  For my ceremony!"

".............Ceremonyy...?"
"Quiet...!  Father is talking now...!"
Rudolf and the rest had automatically narrowed their brows at the occult-like word 'ceremony'.

Was he talking about starting a strange ceremony involving Beatrice's resurrection again......?
He was demanding that they help...?
What in the world is he planning to start?
In the past, he had carried out many eccentricities that he called by the same name, such as starting to burn a strange incense and filling the whole mansion with the stench.

To the siblings, a ceremony was nothing more than one of the aged Kinzo's obnoxious hobbies.

"Father...  Just what do you mean by.........?"
"If we can assist you, we'll do anything.  Right, Rosa?"
"Y, yes......  But, what in the world...is it...?"
"A ceremony as inscribed in my epitaph.  ......A ceremony to revive Beatrice, and open the door to the Golden Land.  That witch, who escaped her cage of flesh and sneeringly slipped through my fingers, I will now capture, and make to surrender with my greatest hidden art.  .........For that purpose, I must offer 13 people as sacrifices.
......Fuffufufufufu!  It is not easy to gather 13 people's worth of sacrifices.  But tonight is the family conference!  Many adults have gathered on Rokkenjima.  There could be no other day on which to carry out this ceremony."
If you were to take that literally, it could only sound as though he was telling them to become sacrifices for his dark ceremony and die.
Ridiculous.
Is this some kind of metaphor...?

But they didn't even have a clue what he was trying to illustrate.

The siblings whispered together about what Kinzo was saying......

"......What's Dad saying?  Is it his usual bad sickness...?"
"Probably.  Listen silently for now."

".................."
"I'm sorry, Father...  I don't understand how you mean that."
"What is it you don't understand?  I am speaking extremely simply.  I have said that I shall choose 13 people from among the humans on this island and offer them as sacrifices for the ceremony to revive Beatrice.  Even worthless people like you can be very useful as sacrifices in my ceremony.  Wahhahhahhahha!!
......Listen!!  This is not a joke nor anything of the sort.  This is my final bet, my final ceremony, the last one I will desire in my life!  There are now more than 13 humans on this island.  In short, that's a head count which can easily satisfy the massive number of sacrifices!  Become the sacrifices for my ceremony!!"
"......Kinzo-san, ......you weren't...possibly......serious about what you said back then...?!  It wasn't a joke......?!!"

Unusually for him, Nanjo's face changed color as he stood up and shouted.

It seemed this wasn't the first time Nanjo had heard all this dark talk about 13 sacrifices.
"Sorry, my friend.  That was not a joke nor anything of the sort.  It is what I bet my life on, the final ceremony, the final game that I will challenge.
Yes, this is a game!  If gaining my fortune and leaving the island is your goal, then there are only two ways to achieve it!  Will you escape being chosen as one of the 13 sacrifices and spectacularly survive, by finally solving the riddle of the epitaph and stopping the ceremony, ......or will you kill me!  And thereby stop this ceremony.  Those are the only two ways!!"
By now, everyone wasn't just whispering, but chattering and muttering away.
Even the siblings had noticed that Kinzo was beginning to act abnormally...

"......Father, are you a little tired?  Genji-san, has Father been drinking?"
"............No.  The Master is sensible."
"Sorry, Dad.  I don't have a clue what you're talking about......  Dad's free to start up any weird ceremony he wants to revive the witch he loves.  That's his hobby.  But getting wrapped up in that, ......ahaha, and being made into a sacrifice is a little more than I can handle."

"Rudolf, are you trying to interrupt Father?!"
"What are you talking about, Aneki?!  You expect me to listen to something that shady and say 'Oh, really?'?!"
Was the 'ceremony' Kinzo had mentioned literally something disturbing, or was it some kind of test to choose the next head?

It seemed that Rudolf had taken it literally, but Eva apparently still believed that it was something like a test or examination to find the proper next head.

But Kinzo responded to that with a clear smile.
"Well then, that is all I have to say.  Nooo objections or viewpoints are necessary...!!  I will simply awaken from my dream of having four unsuccessful children.  To all of you, what will occur now before your very eyes may seem like a dream, an illusion, something that couldn't conceivably be of this world, and a world that defies understanding.
But that itself is my reality!!  Now, I will finally awaken from the shallow, useless dream that all of you are!!
Come, the game has already begun, see?  With this many of you here, I can take lives starting with anyone...!!  Good bye, my unsuccessful children.  And for the final and only time in your lives, be useful, for my ceremony...!!  Arise, Pendragon's Memorial Troops...!!"
When Kinzo raised his arms high like an opera singer, and yelled as though towards a packed audience, the air shattered like glass, .........and the outlines of three people who supposedly hadn't been invited to this island appeared......

"Siesta 45, right here...!"
"Siesta 410, right heere!"
"Siesta 00, right here sir."

Three girls with strange forms suddenly appeared behind Kinzo.

Where from?  When?  Who?  Who are they??

......The humans were thrown off balance and their minds went blank.
Because they had spent all that time thinking, they had lost their last chance to survive.
"You have permission to shoot six people to death.  The targets are up to you.  Begin attacking."
"Unrestricted Firing Understood, sir.  Thank you for the good targets.  Everyone, Commence Unrestricted Firing."

"Nihi!  First one in, nyeh!!  Hyahhah!!"

When 410 scratched the air with her finger, a golden bow appeared in empty space, and she pulled its string.
The golden arrow that had been readied there was fired off without any hesitation, flew around the room leaving haphazard gold loci everywhere, .........and chose Natsuhi from among those sitting at the table of the family conference, pulverizing the left half of her face.
Flesh and deep-red blood scattered around, leaving massive amounts of deep-red spatter marks on the relatives' faces and the pure white tablecloth.
......There was silence.
Even though there was a massive number of deep-red spots left on the tablecloth, .........no one could understand why Natsuhi's head was half smashed, nor why she was hanging her head as though dozing while still sitting, .........and they watched on in silence.
......Those sitting on the right-hand side from Natsuhi were silent for a relatively long time, but those sitting on her left were not.

......Because the people sitting on that side had been shown how her head had been smashed open like a watermelon or a pomegranate, and could even see inside her......
"Na, ......tsuhi............"

"......The first one.  Natsuhi was it?  A luckless woman to the end.  ......Next!"
"00, Firing."
After scratching the empty air in the same way and readying her bow, 00 fired as well.

After it flew around and around at high speeds like the golden arrow 410 had released, drawing a convoluted locus in the same manner, ......it smashed half of Rudolf's head in the same way as he looked at Natsuhi in shock, killing him instantly.
This time, everyone did not stop thinking altogether.  They realized that a fearsome murderer was killing according to Kinzo's words right in front of them.

And they understood that Kinzo would probably kill again......!
""Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhh!!""
""Kyaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhh!!!""
Shrill screams burst out.
Even so, they did not know what to do.
So they could only keep screaming and flapping their wide-open mouths like goldfish......

"F, ......Father......, what do you think you're doing......?"
"...Y, ya fool!!  Run now!!"

As Eva asked Kinzo that in total shock, Hideyoshi, who had come to his senses faster than anyone else, pulled at her arm from behind.
However, merciless fate's choice for the third sacrifice, .........was Hideyoshi.
Just like the two before him, half of Hideyoshi's head was neatly smashed, ......and the left side of his head, which had happened to be facing that direction at the time, ......had been blown away with its contents exposed like a watermelon or a pomegranate.

So, still holding Eva, ......Hideyoshi slumped backwards and fell down.
Still held by her beloved husband, Eva fell over backwards with him.
"Dear......?  Dear...?!  Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeekkkk!!!"

Eva screamed.
...It was only natural.

The face she had been looking for, ......had been half lost, and the crushed skull, the mashed brains, and the crushed jaw were all bared......

"45, Impact, Hit...!"
"Spectacular.  Fire again.  There are three people left."

"F, Father...!!  W, w, w, w, w, what, what...is this supposed to be?!?!"

When Krauss stood up forcefully, and was about to rush Kinzo, 00 blocked him.

......With her slender-looking body, she held back Krauss's body with just the palm of her right hand.
He still tried to resist and attack Kinzo, so 00 lifted Krauss by the nape of the neck, and twisted into his Adam's apple with her thumb.

It seemed to be very painful, and Krauss was overcome with agony.
"Gghh, oooooooohhhh......!!!  Everyone, ...run...!!  Get the police......!  An ambulance...!!  Quickly......!!"
"Everyone, let's escape!!  Escape!!"

Nanjo's sharp words finally dissolved the spell that had been holding them down in their chairs.

When Gohda and Kumasawa each tried to escape from the dining hall first, 410 moved in an instant and appeared there, blocking the way.

"Nihi!  You sure are slow nye~h.  Did you thiink I'd let you escape nye~h♪"
"Hiieeeeeeeeeehhhh!!"
"H, help meeeeeeeeeeeee!!"
"Gohda-san, duck!!"

Even though Gohda didn't understand, he crouched when he heard Kyrie's sharp voice.
......Then, a burst of air rushed above his head.

Kyrie had taken a big swing with a chair to mow 410 down.

But 410, still with an expression as though she was making fun of them, easily caught that widely swung chair with a single hand.

"......Tch!"
"What a scary woman nyeh.  You really want to go the same way as your husband that muuch?"
From the cuff of her arm where she had caught the chair, something like a shining golden snake appeared, ......wrapped itself around the chair, and burst open.

It was a fearsome power, like a vice.
When Kyrie realized that the being in front of her, which looked like a girl, was actually a being that surpassed human knowledge and which a human could not even begin to oppose, her head was filled with an great alarm bell that welled up from inside her...

Genji, Shannon, and Kanon, all of the servants permitted to wear the One-winged Eagle, continued to stand calmly at attention by the wall even with a scene like this before their eyes, making them look very bizarre and eerie.

For an instant, Kyrie thought that their calmness was achieved because they were with the enemy, and had been guaranteed that they would not be killed.

......But as soon as she thought that, the side of Genji's face was blown away before her eyes.
"G, Genji-san......"
"45, Impact, Hit...!"

"......Hohoh, Genji, how unfortunate.  ......Sleep in peace, my friend.  *cackle*cackle*cackle*, your death will not be wasted.  You will become one of the 13 keys essential to the resurrection of my beloved witch.  Fuhhahahahahahahaha......"

The half of Genji's expression that remained, ......was as indifferent as ever.

He tilted, ......fell over, and sent a blood-red splatter out across the floor......

".........Genji-sama..............."
"............We're nothing more, ...than the witch's pieces.  .........Nothing more..., .........nothing more......"

From the meek, ...and frustrated, no, ......resigned expressions on Shannon and Kanon's faces, you couldn't feel any naive expectation that they would be saved.

That's right.  Kinzo was, in the truest sense, .........carrying out these murders at random.
In the truest sense, ......he was killing like it was a game to see who would be saved and who would be killed.
"We-ll then, whoo'll we go for next nye~h.  Nihhihi!!"
410 looked at Kyrie for a second.
In that second, ......Kyrie was prepared for her own death.

But when she readied her golden bow in midair, 410 was looking at someone else over Kyrie's shoulder.
......So, as imprudent as it was, Kyrie felt as though she had been saved......
Again, an ugly, exploding, popping sound rang throughout the room.
......Who was it this time?

When Kyrie turn to face the direction of the sound, .........there, as blood gushed like from a fountain, Eva could be seen lying on her husband's chest.

...Of course, her face had been half smashed just like her husband's......
410 had mercilessly targeted Eva as she had clung to her husband's corpse sobbing.

"L, let go of Nii-san...!!  Let go of Nii-san...!!  Just stop it, Father!!  Just stop this brutal thing!!"
"......Run away, Rosa......  Ggh, ack, .........!"

Rosa's objection didn't reach Kinzo as he continued to laugh loudly in the blood-spattered dining hall, so she wasn't able to lessen Krauss's pain at being lifted up by the nape of the neck by 00.

So Rosa had no choice but to use force.  She lifted up a chair beside her, and gave a warning.

"Father...!!  Order her to let go of Nii-san!  Just stop them from doing this!!"

"I cannot.  If that is what you desire, then prevent it using your own power.  ......Cut a path through to your own fate with your own hands.  You who have always hid behind the backs of others in fear, show me the final bit of self-denial that dwells within you...!!  Fuhhahahahahahahahaha!!!"
"F, ......Father...............Whaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhh!!!"
The chair that Rosa had lifted up, .........swung down at the father who had reigned as a symbol of terror for her entire life.It was the greatest, and final...act of bravery and self-denial in Rosa's life.
What Kinzo had said might have been true.

......If she had grasped that courage much sooner, her life might have become more free, unrestrained by anyone else.
Then, there was a bursting sound.

......The sound of Rosa's chair fiercely hitting Kinzo, ...could not have been this.

With the chair still lifted up, .........she neatly lost half of her head, and slumped over.
Still holding Krauss up with one hand, ......00 stuck her other hand out towards Rosa.

The golden snake released from that arm...had constricted Rosa in a helix, ......and had smashed into her head.
"......Defensive Firing.  I apologize for the discourtesy of a point-blank shot, sir."

"I do not mind.  Hmm, so this makes six people."
"Yes, Lord Goldsmith.  This makes six people."

When she indifferently communicated that, 00 let go of Krauss, who she had been lifting up this whole time.
"Hmmm.  So, the sacrifices of the first twilight were Eva, Rudolf, Rosa, Natsuhi, Hideyoshi, and Genji.  *cackle*cackle*cackle*!!"
It was a massacre that happened in an instant.

The interior of the dining hall had been dirtied by blood spatter, ......and the six unlucky victims lay with their heads brutally exposed.

In a way that was fitting for that abnormal space, Kinzo's abnormal laugh alone echoed......
"Hahhahahahahaha, wahhahahahahahahahahahahaha!!  The curtain has finally risen!  It's the beginning of the ceremony to revive Beatrice...!!
You lucky ones who have managed to escape the first twilight, allow me to introduce you to my friends.  Arise, my friend!  Ronove...!!"
When Kinzo called Ronove's name, the demon butler showed himself in midair, bowing respectfully......
"Pleased to meet you, everyone.  And good day to those of you I haven't seen for a long time.  Pu ku ku ku...!  It seems this place is once again spectacularly untidy."

"Very well.  This level of stimulant is necessary to wake me from my daydream like days.

I shall introduce him, my friend, the reliable butler and one of the 72 Great Demons, Ronove."

"I am pleased to make your acquaintance."

Just who was he aiming that introduction at?

......Krauss and Kyrie, who were still down on their backsides, and Nanjo, Gohda and Kumasawa...could only look up at this middle-aged gentlemen who they didn't know in shock......

Only Shannon and Kanon seemed to recognize him, and they bowed deeply...
"......So, I wasn't able to greet Genji.  I hope that he was at least able to fulfill his purpose painlessly."

"It was an instant death from a direct hit to the head...!  He didn't have the time to feel the pain."
"Is that so?  Very well."
"Allow me to introduce another friend.  Arise, my friend, Virgilia...!!"
Once again, a silhouette of someone the relatives didn't know appeared from empty space.
She appeared in a refined dress while making an elegant greeting.
".........Thank you for summoning me, Master.  Although I would rather not have been summoned into a bloody place such as this."

"Allow me to introduce her too.  This is both my friend and reliable counselor, Virgilia.......I want to borrow your great power as the Witch of the Finite.  Lend me that power!"

"......Even if I tried to refuse, that wouldn't be permitted for someone under your powerful summoning subordination.  Your will, Master."
"............Even so, he is a fearsome fellow.  To think that he summoned three of the Siesta Sisters Corps, and then me, and even Virgilia.........Even though it is only in the area of summoning, to think that he far surpasses Milady, ......frightening.  I shudder at the Ushiromiya blood."
"In order to carry out Beatrice's resurrection ceremony, I gave it my all as a summoner.  It's still not enough.  In order to perfectly succeed in the ceremony this time, I shall summon more.
The Pendragon Memorial Troops and Ronove and Virgilia.........I can still call more..., with my magical power, I can still call many more......!!  Answer to my summons......, one of the 72 demons, Gaap!!"

"Gaap...?  You can even summon her......?"
"It probably means that the corrosion has advanced even more on this island.  ......It's enough so that we can materialize.  Even if he can summon greater demons than this, that's nothing to be surprised about."

"Has Rokkenjima already been completely sucked into a parallel world then?  ............I hope he does not surrender."

".........He learned a lot last time, correct?  After all this time, he won't surrender over this much.  Probably, I should say, right?  Pu ku ku!  .........Well then, shall we enjoy this stage?  It seems the main character is the Master this time.  Let us expect a script of a different flavor than Milady's."
When Kinzo strongly concentrated his magical power, ......a pale light gathered in the air, twisted, ......and a magic circle was drawn with a deep-red light.
And with a sound like glass breaking, .........a new demon could be seen there.
"......You did well to answer to my call.  ......Gaap, one of the 72 Great Demons...!"

"............You sure summoned me to an incredible place.
Did you call me to clean up this blood-stained room?  Goldsmith...?"

The literally devilish woman, wrapped in a venomous, ominous costume, looked at the scene which should have made her cover her eyes, and twisted her mouth in a grin......
"If that had been the only reason for calling you, it would be like using a cashmere muffler to mop the floor."

"It's been a long time, Gaap.  ......To think that a Great Demon such as yourself has finally appeared on this island.  ......I wonder if this island has nearly sunk into fantasy."

"This all-star cast is more surprising than the gruesome state of the room.  .........A full three Siesta Sisters, the Great Demon Ronove, the Great Witch Virgilia, and even me.

What's going on?  Is this Pandemonium?  Are you trying to start a concert from hell or something?  .........I see, as a conductor for that, I couldn't think of anyone better than you, Goldsmith."
"I will have your assistance as facilitator in the completion of my ceremony to resurrect Beatrice.  You have no objections to my summoning contract, right...?"

"Of course not.  There's no way I could resist the summoning subordination of the legendary great summoner, Lord Goldsmith, who enslaved the famous Great Witch Beatrice.

......I'll assist you.  Although I will of course charge a fitting price.  ......So?  What's my first job?"

"Capture the cowards who made it through the first twilight.  Fortunately, there are still seven here, aren't there?  Nanjo, Shannon, Kanon, Gohda, Kumasawa, Kyrie, and Krauss...!

Hoh, if these seven are all offered as sacrifices, that's exactly 13 people!  Until it is time for the second and later twilights to be carried out, throw them into the cage of sacrifices, *cackle*!!"

"............A cashmere mop, I see.  Understood."
As Gaap shrugged her shoulders, she looked at Krauss, who was still down on his butt.

She glared.
Then, when she snapped her fingers, ......as though a round pitfall had opened up in the floor, Krauss was swallowed up by the floor.
"Uu, waaaaahhh........."
"One down."

There was no hole in the floor.
But it had certainly looked as though Krauss had been swallowed up by a hole and disappeared......
".........!!"

Searching for her next prey, Gaap's gaze crossed Kyrie's.
She snapped her fingers.
Kyrie jumped back as though repelled.
She had felt it instinctively.
Because, in the place where she had been until a second ago, a round, jet-black hole had appeared, the same kind that had swallowed up Krauss.
However, before she could catch her balance, another pitfall appeared and swallowed her up.

......Even Kyrie had no way of eluding Gaap's capture.
"Waahh......!!"

When she snapped her fingers again, a shocked Nanjo was swallowed up by the floor and disappeared.
When she did it again, 410 let out a short yell and jumped back.

This time, a slightly larger pitfall had opened, swallowing both Shannon and Kanon, who had been standing in a line by the door.
But because 410 had jumped away from the door, the way was no longer blocked.
Instinctively aware that he would be next, Gohda dashed out through that door.
Of course, Kumasawa also escaped with lightning speed, chasing after Gohda.
As Gaap snapped her fingers over and over, round, jet-black pitfalls opened one after another behind them, chasing them.
However, it did nothing but drive the recklessly fleeing pair away, and couldn't swallow them up.

Gohda and Kumasawa had escaped in a matter of seconds......

".........I've dulled.  I let two get away."
"Don't worry, we are currently locking onto the escapee targets."

"Data Link ready.  Nihi!  Shall we snipe?"
"No, I cannot authorize that.  They are precious sacrifices.  Wait for the Master's authorization."

"Great Lord Goldsmith...!  We await your orders...!"

"It is still too soon for the coming of the second twilight, ......is what the source of my magical power is whispering to me.  It must not be now.  Let them do as they like.  It isn't as though they can escape from this island."

"The source of the Master's magical power is noise and risk and tests of luck.  ......Hoh-hoh-hoh, in other words, it means being fickle, it seems."

"*cackle*, perhaps you could also put it that way.  Good work, Gaap.  Let us steadily advance the ceremony from here on.

.........Well then, that is that.  Next is my grandchildren.  .........I will test them to see whether they are qualified to become the next head.  Let's see, how shall I check their qualifications?  *cackle*cackle*...!!"

"If it is determined that they are qualified, ......do you intend to abandon Beato's resurrection?"
"Of course.  And despite that, I will test them.  ......Hmph, a woman may not be able to understand that contradiction, or my madness.  *cackle*cackle*..."

".........Men are as weird as ever.  I can't understand the very concept of playing with risk."
"Oh my, and I thought you loved that sort of thing?"

"Of course.  If a man whispers to me about a dangerous risk along with love, I go head over heels.  ...But only if he's hot!""Pu ku ku ku ku ku...!"

"Be quiet.  Try to refrain from whispering."
"Hmph, truly noisy women.  But at least they aren't boring.  ......This is why summoning is pleasant.  All of you will bear one side of the scales of noise and risk in my ceremony.  That is the work I expect of you...!"
Six brutally murdered corpses lay in the dining hall, and it was contaminated with red, gruesome decorations......

It was now unimaginable that, until just a second ago, 13 humans had been arranged here in a well-organized manner.
Kinzo lined up the famous demons and their subordinates, loudly declared the beginning of a night of overwhelming mass murders, and swore to himself that he would certainly revive Beatrice, and open the door to the Golden Land......
"Sorry to keep you waiting!!  Now the curtain finally rises on the first twilight!!  *cackle*!  That Kinzo, he loves being flashy as usual.  So, that man who can be more persistent than anything when he follows you around, can shine so when on the stage."

"Damn......  Always killing in a grotesque way, as usual......  Smashing half of the heads?!  The bad taste you witches and demons have always pisses me off...!"

"Smashing half of the heads......, I see.  So she's noticed that, in the games up until now, that is the most ideal method of killing."
"Ideal?  How is such a grotesque way of killing ideal?!"
"......Isn't it truly ideal?  Try and remember the very first game."

"You......!  So, you're that new demon or whatever that just appeared...  Damn, so does this mean that the witch's corrosion continued and that there are now even more unsavory characters...?!"
......The more the witch's corrosion advanced, the more Rokkenjima tilted towards the spirit world.

That's why strange, insane people have kept appearing one by one.
Since this island was closed off by the typhoon and no human could leave it, of course new humans couldn't appear either.

But the more the corrosion advanced, the more witches and demons could appear, without limit.  Increasing one by one.
By now, perhaps there are more demons than humans among the characters appearing in this insane tale.  ......Their numbers might be the thing that represents this mad corrosion.
Yeah, I'm sure that's true.  And not only is the number of people corroded, her fashion sense apparently is as well.

If the corrosion advances any further and even more weird people appear, just what in the world will they be wearing?  .........It's so scary I can't imagine...
......Aaaah, seriously, give me a break...
Don't make these weird guys increase in number anymore...!!
"*cackle*cackle*cackle*!  I can't do that, they'll keep increasing more and more!!  I'll defile the foolish 'closed circle' rule humans speak of, over and over again...!  Welcome to my elegant game!  Gaap!"

".........It's been a long time, Riiche.  Have you been well?  ...Why do I ask, you look great!  Have you gotten younger?  You look 2, 300 years younger than when I last saw you.  ............Ah, I see."

The demon Grandfather had summoned and introduced as Gaap...took a glance at me, and then grinned as though figuring something out on her own.

......It felt like an honestly unpleasant smile.
"Looks like she's Beato's friend.  ......Which means she must be an extremely unsavory character.  So, they were saying something about a closed circle or whatever, but what does that mean?"

"Serial murder mystery novels that occur in places isolated from the outside world, like Rokkenjima is now, are sometimes called closed circles.  Since it's isolated from the outside, it's like a circle that's closed.  ......Therefore, in general, the characters and suspects are limited.

Having new suspect candidates added on one after another from outside the circle goes against the etiquette of mystery novels.  ......In other words, the witch is probably trying to desecrate humans and the mystery genre."

".........You're Gretel?  I see, you look like a wise kid, ......*giggle*.  I like that kind of kid.  ......Their taste is so sweet and tantalizing."
"Gross.  ......Keep the jokes to your clothing."

"It's <Devilish Pretty>'s newest, <Jack the Ripper, Christmas Blood>.  Sorry for having a style that a country bumpkin from the human world couldn't understand, okay?"

"......At least we know it's breathable.  Why don't you add a gap to the head part as well?  That might help the breathability you're so worried about."
"Gaap is always sensitive to the fashions of the spirit world!  But this year's fad truly is bold.  I think I'll order one sometime...!"

"For you, Riiche, I'd recommend Ali-Gray, <Alice and the Graveyard>.  Let's go to 666 sometime soon to look at the western clothes.  You should head over to the spirit world every now and then."

"When this game is over, I'll be sure to do that.  *cackle*cackle*!"
".........Still, your two opponents are pretty cute, Riiche.

It looks like this kid has figured out the meaning of the corpses with their heads half smashed.  .........Get iit, girl......?"

"......Just now, she told me to remember the first game.  ......What did that mean...?"
"Just what it sounds like.  ......Remember the first twilight of the very first game.  ......When the adults' corpses were found in the gardening shed with the magic circle drawn on it.  Remember?"
Episode 1.  The first twilight.

Six people: Krauss, Rudolf, Kyrie, Rosa, Shannon, and Gohda had each had their heads pulverized and died.........
"At that time, there were two types of corpses.  They were the ones with their faces pulverized, and the ones with half of their faces pulverized."

"That's right.  The ones with their faces smashed were Rudolf, Kyrie, Rosa, and Gohda.  The ones with the sides of their heads smashed were Krauss and Shannon.  ......At the time, I had fickly created two types of corpses, but I realized that the former, more atrocious type was actually disadvantageous for me."
"......Disadvantageous for you, Beato......?  .........Right.  I get it."
That's right.
The smashed faces might look atrocious.

......But that made it hard to confirm the identity of the person.
For example, at that time, Krauss oji-san and Shannon-chan had their heads half smashed.

That itself was of course atrocious, but because half of their faces remained, it was easy to confirm their identity.
But Dad and the other three were different.

Because his face had been completely destroyed, even I, as his son, could only guess by inference that it had to have been Dad because of his clothes and the like.

......In short, it remained vague until the end whether that really was Dad's corpse.
"If this reasoning battle had taken place during the first game as well, I would probably have claimed that, since the identities of Dad and the rests' bodies were impossible to confirm, there was a possibility that one was a fake corpse.  ......After all, Beato didn't state anything in red during that game."

"Well done.  Correct.  .........A faked death is one of the basics of the mystery genre.  Even if you make a doctor perform an autopsy, you can't trust the results if you suspect him of being the culprit's accomplice.  Therefore, corpses that can't guarantee a death for certain are always disadvantageous for the witch's side."

"You can suspect faked deaths for all corpses, and hypothesize that they are the culprit for the cases that follow.  ......It's a move Battler doesn't like, but it's the most elementary move to use against a witch."
"Yeah, that's right.  That's why Beato started using the red.  ......With the red truth, she can carry out a perfect autopsy."
"*cackle*cackle*!  That's how it is.  Normally, for the first twilight, I would use the red truth right away, confirming the deaths of these six.  However, as you know, my battle strategy this time is the complete opposite of previous games, and I have switched to using red truth starvation tactics...!
Since you use it as a grounding from which to counterattack, I will not use the red easily.  I can just make you come apart at the seams by using red in just a single place, as rarely as possible!  In the end, it means I will permit all rants regarding your guesswork for all the closed rooms, and I only have to smash one of those once with the red truth."
"Ihihi!  Even though you've always teased me, once I start counterattacking, you now hole up back inside your shell.  Quit kidding around."

"Anyways, I do not want to use the red, I want to be stingy!  I want to bully Battleeer!!  But how could I guarantee a death for certain without using red?  I worried and worried over it.  ......Then Gaap gave me an idea!  It truly is a simple method.  *cackle*cackle*!"

"......I just said something obvious and you hit upon the idea, Riiche.  I simply said that you only had to create corpses whose identity could be distinguished and whose complete death could be known."

"Kuhhihihihi!  In short, I put those two things together!  The face which is necessary to distinguish their identity, and the perfect symbol of death, which is the pulverization of the head, the vessel for the soul!  When I put those two parts neatly together, aah, wonderful!  I came up with the perfect answer of corpses with their heads half-smashed!"
"I'll bet you love two-colored bread and two-colored ice cream.  A shameless hobby of a greedy kid..."

".........In any event, even if half of their heads are smashed, we shouldn't assume that they are dead at this point in time."

"I get it.  ......Since Beato is trying to act tough and refuse to say anything in red, I have to suspect everything.  ......Of course, I'm definitely not going to swallow the magic mass murder by the Siesta ass nee-chans."
"*giggle*.  You sure have gotten prudent.  ......If this were the first game, you would have swallowed everything."

"*cackle*cackle*!  It wouldn't be interesting if a rival wasn't like that.  Since there is fortunately no red now, he can imagine whatever he wants and reason over and over again as he likes.  At the very end, at the very sweetest spot, I'll cut him down at once with the red truth...!"
"............Ah, ............uu........."
Silent.  Black.
Cold.  Painful.

Rosa regained consciousness bit by bit......

And the first thing she thought...was that it would have been better if she hadn't.
After all, with her body this cold and hurting, ......it became more painful the more her consciousness returned.

It felt like she had been sleeping on ice-cold marble in the darkness, lying face-down for a long time.
......Aaah, this is why I always tell myself.
Even if its just for a nap, at least get on the sofa.

Even though I always know that, if I naively try and close my eyes for just a second, and end up sleeping on the floor or in the study chair, it'll hurt my body later and make things difficult......
Since I slept on such a cold and hard floor, even my bones are ice-cold.

Since I slept on such a hard and cold floor, the half of my face pressed down against it hurt a lot.
......If I were to look in a mirror right now, I'm sure I'd see an embarrassing mark.

I didn't think that just rubbing it would make that mark disappear, but I stroked the hurting side of my face for the time being, trying to smooth it over...
......I wonder, .........where this is.
I thought it was pitch black, but it looks like it isn't.
After all, I can faintly see my own body.
......Without a doubt, there was some source of light, but even if I looked up at the ceiling, ......or else the sky, there was only an expanse of blackness, and I couldn't see a proper light.
My body alone was slightly lit, whereas everything else was sunk in darkness, ......that's what this world was like.
It was almost as though Rosa alone had been abandoned in a forgotten world.

As her mind grew clearer, she started getting nervous about why she was all alone in a lonely place like this.
......When she was about to call out, asking if anyone was there, ......*patter*, ...*patter*, she could hear footsteps coming towards her.
They were light footsteps, so she thought it was probably a kid.  She didn't sense anything disturbing, so she wasn't afraid.
But they also weren't Maria's footsteps, so, wondering who in the world would be in a darkness like this, she stared in the direction she could hear the footsteps from.

.........As she did, ......a faint, approaching silhouette came into view.
It looked, ......like a child much younger than Maria.

......Who is it?
I don't know this kid.
But, the expression on his face was like a lost child separated from his parents.
...As a parent with a daughter herself, Rosa felt as though her chest had been torn apart...
『.....................Uryu.』
"......Ah, ............"
The instant the kid muttered that infantile word, ......she felt pain in the half of her face that had started hurting from the cold floor, as though it had been pierced by long, thin, hard needles.

Without thinking, she pressed her hand against that side of her face.
『......Are you alright......?  Does it still hurt......?』
"...Thank you, little guy.  .........Where is this...?  It's really, ......cold."
『......Come this way......  You must not be here......』

That child took my other hand and pulled with a grim expression on his face.
......I didn't have a clue what was going on.
However, a single honest expression on a child, can often tell the truth better than a hundred words from an adult.

She didn't know the situation, but even so, Rosa dashed along with him, still being pulled...
But this was a world where nothing could be seen in the darkness except for their own forms.
She couldn't even really feel like she was running and moving forwards.

......Even though she was running, she couldn't even feel any wind.
It was as though she was still inside a nightmare...that kind of unreal feeling...
So even though I was running, I couldn't maintain my sense of balance, and my legs got tangled and I fell.

......Even in a world that didn't feel real, the pain of smashing my face against the cold, hard floor was reality itself.
『Uryu......, are you okay......?』
"Uuh, .........nn.........I'm sorry, my head hurts."
......When that kid said that, ......infantile word 'uryu', pain like being stuck with needles ran though my head again.

Even though it had only happened twice, I was somehow able to understand that the child's word was the cause of my pain.
......So I said so frankly.
"I'm sorry.  Could you stop saying that 'uryu'...?"
『Uryu......』
"Nn, ......wait a second, didn't I tell you to stop..."
『U, ...au, ...uu-!  Sorry......』
I had the feeling that this child's words of apology made me feel a sharp pain in my forehead this time.
.........What is...this child......?

I know there's no malice in him, ......but when I'm around this child, ......my head hurts......
『......Are you okay......?  Let's go, quickly......  You must not be here.......』
"Why shouldn't I be here...?  Hey, where is this......?  Who are you?  Where is your Mama...?"
『.........The one who made me, ......is Mama, right...?』
"......Huh......?"

That child stared at me with round eyes.
......This kid's Mama, .........is me......?
......Who?  Who is...this kid?

I don't remember at all.
『Did you, ......forget about me......?  Mama made me, right......?』
"......Wait a second, stop kidding around.  ...Maria is my only child.  .........That's right, where is Maria?  Where is Maria?!  Maria......?!"
I suddenly grew nervous about Maria not being there.
Why am I all alone in a place like this?

Where is Maria?!
I'm only able to be me because Maria's there for me...!
『...Maria is here, ......but she's not Maria now.  It's better if you don't meet with her now.  That's better for your sake, and Maria's as well.  .........For Maria's sake as well, escape.』
"Huh......?  What are you saying?  Where is Maria?  Maria?!  Answer me-!!"
『Maria will find you...!  Come this way, quickly, Mama...!』

That child pulled on my hand again.
......He was probably pulling me in the opposite direction from Maria.
So I stopped walking.
"Let go...!  Just who are you...?!  I don't remember you ever calling me Mama...!"
『......Mama is the one who made me...  Did you forget......?  For Maria's birthday present, ......you made me with your own hands...did you forget......?』
"..................You, ......couldn't be...............Maria's, ......Sakutarou............?!"
『Yes.........  The lion stuffed animal Mama made...!』
"Gyah!!"

A fierce, sharp pain struck me.
It came from the palm he had grasped with his hand.
When I knocked his hand away without thinking, and looked at my palm, .........a hole the size of a thumb had opened there, and deep-red blood gushed out.

...It was a hole so big that I could see through to the other side......
『U, uryu......!  Are you okay?!  Are you okay?!  What's wrong...?!』

Sakutarou also noticed my wound, and panicked.

......As far as I could tell by looking at him, he couldn't understand why my hand had sustained a serious injury.
But in my eyes, it felt like I had sustained that injury because he had grabbed my hand.

Whether there was malice in him or not, ......I understood that this child was something that would do harm to me, and he instantly became eerie......
"Go away......!!  I don't know anything about you...!  Sakutarou was just a disgusting, crappy stuffed animal, right...?!!  I don't know, I'm not your Mama...!!  Go away...!  Disappear!!"
『.........U, ............yu.........』
Slowly, ......the base of Sakutarou's neck, ...was sliced in a horizontal line.
It gaped open, and pitch black insides peeked out.
......No blood poured out.
Only an empty blackness peeked out.
Then, .........from the insides of the gash..., cotton snow poured out, ......and as bits of cotton scattered, he slumped over.
There, ......was only crumpled yellow cloth, and bits of cotton that looked like sticky, crushed cotton candy.
.........A lion...stuffed animal.

Without a doubt.
It was the remains of the Sakutarou stuffed animal I had torn apart on that day, overcome by my emotions.
The instant I realized that, ............a long, sharp shriek that could rupture an eardrum tore the world apart......
"Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhh!!!  Sakutaroooooooo, Sakutaroooooooooo, waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaauuhhhh!!  Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaauuuuhhhh!!"
Like a flood from a broken dam, or like a broken TV...
......Maria cried out in a high-pitched voice.

.........Maria's voice, which made the ears throb, brought up two emotions...
One was regret..., 'yeah, I was overcome by my emotions and went overboard'.
A mother's desire to kneel down right away, hold Maria's head, cry with her and apologize.
......Actually, I did that right away.
I held Maria's head and apologized for that, crying.
But Maria didn't stop crying.
On the contrary, she rejected me, the one who had torn her closest friend apart, and pushed me away forcefully with both hands.

Since I had been on my knees in an unnatural position, I fell backwards easily.

Maria scraped together the yellow scraps of cloth and cotton bits, ......buried her face in them, and cried even more...
Watching that, another emotion welled up.

It welled up rapidly.
......And then burst.
After all, she didn't make up with me after I apologized, and there was nothing else I could do now, and it was all Maria's fault in the first place...!!

Since she was too busy playing with stuffed animals all the time like this, she couldn't make any friends, and is treated like a weirdo...!!

This is a good opportunity, for instructive guidance!
It's not like I was pampered all the time myself...!!
Things eventually break, are stolen, are broken!

Even I had lots of toys and treasure stolen, broken, made fun of, and thrown away by my brothers and sister and Father and Mother...!!
But when I cried about that, ......while I might have shed a few tears......, not once did I sob like this and trouble my parents, throw a tantrum, get mad, hit the floor and kick and make a racket...!!
Even though I always wanted to, I'd thought I'd get in more trouble if I did, so I always, always held it back.

It's because I held it back THAT I WAS ABLE TO BECOME THE WONDERFUL ADULT I AM NOW!!!
At that time, I felt something strange.

The same feeling as when you use a tool recklessly, and it finally breaks, so that only the base is left.
But I wasn't using a tool.
I had just been repeatedly hitting Maria's head with both hands.
So, ......I looked at my hand.
......From my wrists onwards, my hands broke off, splintered, ......and disappeared.

As though only that part of my arms had become ceramic.
......No, as though all of me from the wrists onwards had suddenly become ceramic, and had broken and fallen.
They had gotten covered with cracks because I had hit Maria too much, and had fallen off.
......After all, look, ...aren't both of my wrists lying smashed by my feet......?
"Ee.........?  Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeekkk...!!!"
There was no pain.
But the shocking sight of my hands breaking off from the wrists onwards made me scream......
"Wh, what's this?!  What's this?!  My hands, ......hands, hands...!!  Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeekkkk!!!"
"...........................This way, ......you won't be able to hit Maria anymore."
Ignoring my confusion, ......Maria spoke that with a very cold voice, ......slowly moving her hands away from her head, where they had been defending against my barrage......
"......What is this?!  My hands, my hands...!!  What did you do, Maria, what is this, what's this what's this...?!"
Behind Maria's back, a black silhouette had appeared.
......It was the silhouette of an adult.

............Who?!

".........Since an arm could pat her daughter's head, flip through a picture book, and make warm meals, ......I thought it might be alright to leave it."

"Mama hit Maria's head more than she patted it.  ......She doesn't turn the pages of a picture book.  She doesn't even make food.  ......Maria goes to buy it herself.

......But Maria must not go to the same store multiple times, must not have her face remembered, must not talk to the policeman............Why?  Why's that?  Did Maria do something wrong?

Is Maria not supposed to have Mama pat her head, have picture books read to her, eat dinner together with Mama...?  Why?  Why?!  Maria didn't do anything wrong!!  Not Maria's fault, Mama's!!  Mama's fault!!"

"Mama won't play with Maria, but Sakutaro did!  He even read books, watched TV and ate meals with Maria!!  He was a much, much more important friend than Mama was!!!"
"...I, ......I'm not proud of it...!  B, but what am I supposed to do?!  Mama's busy with work, work!!  You know that Mama's busy with work, right?!  What am I supposed to do?!!  There's nothing I can do!!"

"That is true.  There is nothing to be done.  Nothing to be done about injuring your daughter, tearing her heart apart, and making her tears run with blood...!  Then there's nothing to be done about the same thing happening again, right here, right now...!!

Come, MARIA...!  That is enough for the excuses of the woman who calls herself a mother.  Can you forgive her, or not...?!  Is she innocent, or else guilty?!?!"
"Won't forgive her!!  Mama is guilty!!  I'll make Mama meet the same fate she gave to Sakutaro...!!  Take Mama, ......from the seam at the neck, ......and tear her apart, exposing the cotton within!!"
......Maria's eyes ominously flashed blue.

In that instant, invisible, massive arms stuck their fingernails out and tightly grasped Rosa's entire body.
As the bones all over her body made a sound like twigs being stepped on, they cracked readily and broke.
.........Rosa had understood vaguely.
The massive arms were probably, ......her own arms, from the time she had torn Sakutarou apart.

From a stuffed animal's perspective, her arms must certainly be this massive.
So I could imagine what would happen next.

......The sharp nails stuck strongly into the base of my neck, ......and I heard the skin tearing with my own ears.
Then, as the two witches watched over her, Rosa's flesh was split in two, top and bottom.
When Sakutarou had been torn apart, bits of cotton had flown about like snowflakes.

But in Rosa's case, something like black, thick tar came out, filthily flying all over the place.
There wasn't even a trace of the red of blood.
......It was something black, filthy and thick.

It was probably what a bloodless, tearless human kept inside their body instead.

"This is incredible.  Hideous!  What filthy insides...!  That was splendid, MARIA.  Well then, is this enough for your revenge?  Can you forgive your mother, or not?  Innocent, or guilty...?!!"

"Can't forgive!!  Still can't forgive, guilty...!!!"

When Beatrice brandished her pipe cane, gold butterflies seeped up and restored Rosa's broken flesh in an instant...
".........Ack, ......gwah!  *cough*cough*......!"
"Feel your great sin, which cannot be paid for by a single human life.  And remember your own deep sin...!  Come, try and remember...!!  Remember how great a sin you committed...!!"
.........Hello.  ......Is it Mama?  ......When will you come home?
"I'm sorry.  I'm busy with work today, so I'm staying over."

......Staying over for work again.........?  ......Looks like work is tough for you again today, Mama...
"Yeah, sorry.  I really am busy.  I'll be holed up in the company the whole time.  I can't even get a breath of outside air.  Mama can't just finish her job quickly.  Unless I give them a better design, I won't be given another job...that's how tough this job is.  So it'll just have to take some time."
...Yeah.  Understand.  .........Maria will be a good girl and watch over the house, so do your best at work, finish it quickly, and come back, okay......?
"Thank you for understanding about Mama's work......  I promise that I'll buy a delicious cake tomorrow and take it home."

Don't need cake.  ......Instead of taking time to go to the cake store, Maria would be happier if Mama came home that much sooner.
"Don't worry.  I'll come back quickly, I promise.  So let's eat the delicious cake together.  Let's drink delicious tea together.  Let's read a new picture book together.  Let's play with that Wolves and Sheep Puzzle I bought recently.  Both of us together.  ......I promise."
.........Yeah, promise.  Maria will be waiting.  ............Do your best at work, Mama......
"Hohoh.  It's a lonely story, but isn't this good mother-daughter love, with both looking out for the other?  Do you see any problem with it, Maria?  Rosa?"

"..............................Th, that promise, ......I believe I kept it.  The next evening, didn't I do as I promised and buy a cake, returning earlier than usual?"

"That's not it, Maria knew...............That evening.  A pay-on-delivery package came for Mama, but there wasn't enough money in the wallet, so Maria called Mama's company to ask what should be done.  ......Maria had been told only to call at special times, ......but thought it would be bad if the package was something important for Mama's work...  So Maria called."

"........................."
".........Then, Maria was told that Mama had the day off.  ...Maria was told that it had been decided long ago that Mama would have the day off, .........and that she had gone far away to play.  ............Maria knew.  The whole, whole time, .........Maria knew that Mama was lying...!"
But you know what?  ......Sakutarou scolded Maria, saying that wasn't true.
Every day, Mama was very busy with work.
There was no way she would abandon Maria and play.

He said that the person who told us Mama had the day off had made some kind of mistake...!
That's what Sakutaro said.

So Maria believed it.
......Maria believed it!

Love Mama, love Mama...!

Of course, Mama says that she loves Maria, loves Maria!!
"............Yes.  Me too.  I love you, Maria......"
Rosa let out a deep sigh.
......Maybe she felt the weight of her words.

Then, she set the receiver on the bedside phone.
The dark room made the starry sky on the ground below the window stand out even more beautifully.

On the table in front of the terrace was a very cold wine cooler, and the one she shared a glass with was gazing at the scene below...
".........You didn't tell your daughter that you were on vacation?"
"I told her I'd go once, but she was so noisy that I decided not to tell her anymore.  It's less of a pain that way."
"......If you were worried about your daughter, you didn't have to force yourself to put this in your schedule, right?"
"But that way, we'd never get our schedules to match...  Didn't I say not to worry about that?"
The slender, middle-aged man clad in a white robe gave a small sigh.
Rosa reacted instantly to that slight action......
"Come on!  Let's not talk about my daughter.  It'd be a waste of this precious wine."
"............I find you fascinating as both a woman and a human being.  But for that very reason, I feel bad about taking so much of your time that it strains your relationship with your daughter."
"Don't I always tell you not to worry about my relationship with my daughter...?!  I try not to talk about her when I'm alone with you, right?  I wouldn't even have phoned from here if it weren't for the noisy drunk laughing stupidly in the lobby downstairs...!"
"Rosa-san.  Couldn't you reconsider sudden vacations like this in the future, for your daughter's sake...?  Isn't it alright if we only do it when our schedules match?"
"That way our schedules won't match at all, right......?!  And I, ......always want to be with you......!"
"That's a child's way of lovemaking.  Lovemaking between adults should be a little more stoic.  ......Not being able to be with you for long periods of time makes me lonely too.  However, I think we can enjoy more than enough adult lovemaking during that limited time."
"So you're telling me to be with my daughter more.  ......Don't be a woman, be a mother?"
"......That's what you wish for too, right?  I think you also want to spend lots of time with your daughter.  I won't run away.  I'm trying to say that I think it's sad for you to sacrifice your daughter so you can prioritize your time with me."
"..............................Did you get back on good terms with your wife?  .........Looks like you've started to dislike being separated."
"I don't want to talk about my wife.  Just like you don't want to talk about your daughter."
"......I'm sure you think single women with children are a pain."
"I have never said anything of the sort before."
".........Whenever someone finds out I have a child, they desert me.  ......Even if I tell them not to worry about paying that child's living expenses, they all desert me.........And I, ...thought you would understand about my daughter, .........but it looks like you really don't like single women with children......"
"That's not what I'm saying.  I haven't started to dislike you, Rosa-san.  I'm just trying to tell you to take better care of our daughter, which you should wish for yourself, so I don't want you to hurt yourself by lying to your daughter.  That's all I'm saying."
"Liar!!!  I've just become a burden for you, right?!"
"That's not what I'm saying...!"
"No, I know, I understand.  After being abandoned so many times because of that child, I know, I can tell by your mood, yes, you're already like the other men!!  You don't want a woman with a child, you don't want a divorcee, because that's a pain!!
You don't want to become the parent of a child made with another man, right?  Yes, that's right, I re-ally get it!!  I once went out with a man with children, so I re-ally understood that feeling...!!  So, ......I believed that I would be able to be together with you, a person who understood about my daughter!!"
"Gwah!!  *cough*, ......*cough*............That's right......  You were, ......always in the way......"
"........................nn."
"......If only you weren't there, ......I would have been able to grasp my happiness as a woman long ago......  Because you exist, ......you were always in the way of my happiness......"
"............Ma...ma........."
".........Even I didn't want you to be born...  No, that's not it.  ......I thought I might be able to build a happy family together with you.........But that guy disappeared right before you were born.  He said he'd build a warm family with me...he tricked me...and disappeared from my sight for all eternity...!!
Only you were left.  No love or memories or anything remained!!  Where did that man go?  He probably just turned my days with him into a warm memory, and met with a new love.  And this time, he might have been able to create a happy family...!!  And me?!  I have you!!  I can't even look for a new love!!
Men can go between women as they like and brag about it!  But for a woman, for me!!  I have you!!  I had you as a stone weight, and because of you I can't search for romance, I can't get love, and I can only live alone!!
No, I wasn't even allowed that, I wasn't even allowed a night to drink myself drunk all alone!!  Who are you?!  Who?!  You made my life a waste, and won't even let me have a new life...just who are you to my life?!  Die, disappear, I've hated you since the time you were born!!  I've hated you since the time you were in my womb!!!  I've been doing my best to act like a good mother so that I'd be accepted by the outside world.  Yes, I've done my best!!
As I watched other women of my generation praise being single, sometimes playing with passion or even being joined with someone in love, I was stuck being both a mother and a woman...!!  Who ever showed appreciation for my efforts?!  No one admired me, no one praised me!!
I got what I deserved?  Secondhand goods?  Divorcees should die?  You don't want anyone who's not a virgin?!  I'm the one who doesn't want anything to do with you, you damn inexperienced virgin brats!!!  I was so desperate, I probably looked like a easy woman to you...yes, I was desperate!!  You probably couldn't imagine how desperate a woman like me, who's still at the age where she wants to know love, was...when I realized that my time was being filled with work and caring for my child so that I would probably grow old and end my life still like this!!  
Of course I hate your real father too!  But we both share the blame for bringing about that catastrophe.  I myself might have been persistent enough to make him run away!  But the catastrophes after that were all your fault!  When did I ever scold you for that?!  Never, riiiiiiiight?!
The day after one man left me, when I wanted to drink myself dead drunk, was Parent's Day at your school!!  When I tried to hide my tear-stained eyes with heavy makeup, the way I felt when you said something off the mark and the whole class laughed at you, is something that not only you, but probably everyone in the world couldn't understand!!  I hate you, loathe you...!!!  And until now, I've never really loved you even once!!!  Whhaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhh!!!"
Maria's face was still stiff......

If the words really had been blades, ......Maria's whole body would probably be stained red with fresh blood by now.
Even after gaining the power of a witch and resolving herself to take revenge for Sakutaro, ......she couldn't stand these curses coming out of her mother's mouth...
"............Ma.........ma..............., .....uuuwau......, uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu!!!"

"Ugly.  Aaaaaaaahh, how ugly is a woman drowning in lust...!!  This is this woman's true nature!!  Even I, as a witch who has explored the depths of evil, find this most difficult to watch!!

Aaah, MARIA, now is the time to part from her!!  Smash the ugly lump of meat that calls herself your mother...!!  It would be pointless for your pure soul to be bound by the chains between mother and daughter any longer!  With your own hand!  Release your own soul now!!  You have now gained the tooth and claw to protect yourself!!"
"Uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu!!  Now you'll learn the pain Maria had to go through...!  Now I'll take revenge for those painful days...!!!"
"Ahhahahahahahahahaha!!  Aren't you the one that's been hurting me?!  I'm the one who wants revenge...!!  I should have done that before you were born!!  If only you hadn't been born!!  Disappeeeeeeeeeeeaaaar, woooooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhh!!  ......Gagyah."
As Rosa howled, in a way that can only be described by the word *splat*, her upper body was crushed, and in an instant, was turned into something similar to a wrung, bloodstained towel.

"Be crushed.  Can't forgive, ......can't forgive...!!"
"Kuhhahhahha......!!  You filth.  That form suits you...!"
......Even though Rosa's waist and below was standing normally, just the upper half of her body was pinched, and that extreme difference was bizarre.

Then she fell over, but the instant she fell, her body was restored.
"*cough*cough*!  *cough*!!  .........Die, you.  ......Kuhhihihhihhihhi......!"
"Come, Maria.  Is this the limit of your anger and sadness?  Now is the time for revenge!  Time for the settlement of anger and sadness...!!  Hit her, spit it out!!  Push out all of the wedges driven into your chest, and fling them back!!!"
"Uugaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhoooooooooooooohhhh!!!"
Maria's howl was adorned with the ugly sound of flesh and bone being crushed at the same time...

As Rosa, who had foully insulted Maria, lay spread-eagled, a neat, perfect circle was cut out of her chest and crushed, as though her chest had been trampled by an invisible elephant.
Her heart and her lungs and her ribs were trampled so mercilessly that they were completely indistinguishable.

......That might have symbolized the pain in Maria's heart up until today.
"So, Maria.  Are you satisfied with this?  Can you forgive your mother's sin?  Or not?  Innocent?  Or guilty?!"
"Can't forgive!!  Still can't forgive!!  Mama is guilty, guilty guilty guilty, can't forgive!!!"
"Certainly, how could your days of bitterness be equal to this level of punishment?!!  Know it, Rosa!  Come, try to remember, what form did you have?!  Revive in order to be killed!!  Be killed so that your sins can be purified, over and over!!!"
When Beato waved her cane, the body was restored again, and Rosa sat up, coughing violently in apparent pain...

And once again, she spat out curses rejecting Maria.
".........You aren't Mama.  You're a witch, a witch tormenting me and Mama!!  I won't forgive you just because you look like Mama!  Won't forgive you!!"
"......Aren't you the witch......?  You're always reading creepy books and playing witches...!!  You're the one that should disappeeeeeeeeeeeear!!  Because of you, even I'm treated like a weirdo!  Because of you, because of yooooooooooooouuuuuuu!!!  If only you hadn't been born!!  Don't be born...!!  I hated you since before you were booooooooooooooooorn!!!"
"Uwaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhh...!!!"
.........Maria screamed.

Was she unable to bear her anger and sadness?
Or else, was she taken over by an indescribable emotion......?

It was surely...a cry of hopelessness.
And yet, it was a reality that had to be accepted.

Maria knew.
She knew that she was thought of as a burden.

But even though she herself had known that, she did not believe it.
She had believed that her mother loved her, and had done her best to positively interpret several events that could have made her doubt this...trusting and clinging to her mother's love.
But, .........she had no one except Mama.

Even so, she really did like Mama, ......and wanted to return to the days when she had believed that Mama loved her......
So she howled...

She brought everything to nothing.
She didn't accept it.  She denied it.

She denied the black witch that had made her mother say things like that, and, .........the part of herself that couldn't forgive that mother......!!!
But she couldn't deny it!

This is reality, fact, truth, the answer.

Without any mistake, this is certain, ......reality!!
Maria turned Rosa into a lump of meat over and over.

Over and over, in the dark world that reflected her heart, the ugly sound of flesh and bone being torn apart, which would make one want to cover their ears, rang out......
Each time, Beatrice revived Rosa.

She dragged her back into the world of endless torture, which could not be escaped from even by death.

This was the true deepest hell that the Endless Witch Beatrice could create.
However, this world was not made endless by Beatrice's will.
......Because every time Rosa turned into a lump of meat, she asked the same question to Maria.
*cackle*cackle*!  Are you satisfied, MARIA?!  Can you forgive your mother with your anger?!"

"How could I forgive her, how could I forgive her!!  Won't forgive, won't forgive!!  Teach you all of Maria's pain...!!  Teach you much, much more...!!  Still not enough, not close to enough...!!  Since I was born, since before I was born...!!  I just can't erase the anger and sadness that have been scorned since then......!!"
".........Fuhi, hahaha............I hate you, haaate you...  Fuhihiha, haha......"
"Ugaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhh!!!"

Revive over and over again.
Return to a meat lump over and over again.
In various ways, she crushed, smashed, beat, tore to bits.
Flying blood spatter and flesh turned the once pitch-black world into a world with mixed red and black.
Maria's anger still hadn't calmed down.

It was as though she was spitting out all of the suppressed rage from the time of her birth until today.
If that all became poison to her heart...

Then would the repeated murder of her mother purify her soul...?

Would even this wasteful murder save her soul, at least a little bit......?
This endless torture...might have become a slight diversion from her sad, unrewarded life.

After all, ......it seemed that she had finally been able to regain her smile.
"Learn it!!  You, the source of Maria's unhappiness!!  Learn it!!  Learn that my pain is greater than this!!  Kihhihihahhahahaha!!  What's wrong?  Why'd you stop laughing?!  Try and laaaaaaauuugh!!"
"......Fuhi, fuhihihi......  Gyack...!!!"
Half of her skull collapsed.
Eyeballs flew out, and black cranial fluid gushed.
Fragments of teeth scattered.
"Come on, revive...!!  Try and laugh...!!  Come on, come oooooon!!!"
".........Ihi, ......ihi.  ......Gyaggh!!"
Her whole chest along with her ribs turned inside out, exposing her filthy innards.
All of them writhed, looking like an impure creature.
"Come on come on come on!!  Revive!!  Can you still laugh?  Can you still laugh?!  Kihhihihihihi?!"
"....................."
Rosa couldn't let out a laughing voice anymore.
......But her face was laughing.

It was filled with a twisted laugh, which was covered with a malice that rejected her unwanted daughter.
I erased that laughing voice.
Next, I'll erase that laughing face.

I'll erase it, I'll crush it, I'll tear it to bits...!!
"Laugh, try and laugh, Mama...!!  Kihhihihihihhahahahahahahahaha?!  What's wrong, Mama, let's wake up, read a picture book, and go take a walk...!!  Let's say we love each other, make a promise for next Sunday, let's go shopping, let's go to the movies...!!  And of course you'll break that promise!!
Kihhihihihihihihihihihihihihi, isn't it fun, Mama?  Isn't it fun, Mama?  Maria is playing with Mama now, right?!!  Kihhihhahhahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!!!"
"That's right, you are now playing with your mother, having fun with her...!!  Tell me your emotions now!  I believe they are not of anger or sadness or pain...!"

"Yeah, that's right, I get it, Beatrice...!!  I'm having a lot of fun now..., I'm playing with Mama, so it's tons of fun!!  And even though I'm killing Mama over and over again, she can be revived with just a single bit of magic!!  I took care of my toys because I couldn't fix them if they broke...!!  But if the toy could be fixed, I'd want to break it over and over again!!  Kihhihihihihihihihihihihi!!  Hihihihihihi, hihi........."

"......But, ............Sakutaro won't be fixed.  ...He can't be fixed......... .........Because Mama, who made him, ......Mama, who gave birth to him, ......won't acknowledge him."

"....................."

"I wasn't acknowledged by Mama either, was I.........So the broken Maria won't be fixed either.  ..............................Kihihihi.  Kihhihihihihihihihihihihi!!  Kyahhahahahahyahhyahhyahhyah!!  Aaaaaaaaaaahhh, it's fun, it's fun, Mama...!!  Since it's gotten so fun, I somehow get the feeling that I could forgive Mama...!  Hey, Beato, this is a ve-ry strange emotion...!  Why?  Why has Maria started to feel as though she could forgive Mama?!"

"That is the enlightened state that is only reached by witches who have gained the power to control life and death at will.  ......You can kill at any time.  You can revive her if needed.  If that's a pain, then it's alright to kill her again...!  Once you've learned that you can do this at any time by simply snapping your fingers, all nonsense spoken in the world of humans becomes a chirping of insects that isn't worth listening to...!

You did not begin to think about forgiving your mother because your eyes were opened to your mother's love.  It was because now, you stand at the entrance to the world of true witches...!!  Welcome, Maria, to the profound and sweet world of witches!!"

"I've done it...!!  Maria is no longer Maria...!!  Still an apprentice, maybe, but I've surpassed the human world...!  I am now, the apprentice Witch of Origins, MARIA......!!!  There's nothing to frustrate me, nothing to make me sad!

Mama, I'll forgive you.  I'm sure I can forgive you!  I think I'll be able to forgive you after doing just a bit more!!  After all, I am a witch!!  Ki, ......hihhihihhihhihhihhihhihhi!  Kihhihihih!!!"
Maria probably would forgive her mother eventually.

......After brutally murdering her countless times.  Graciously.

".........Whoa, that last thunder was huge.  Was it close?"
"Looks like it.  No matter how old you get, thunder still makes you jump."

Battler was looking at the dark night through a crack in the curtains.
Every once in a while, a pale white lightning bolt would shine, and he seemed to be enjoying it.
"........................"

"......Oh?  Look at that, you were so noisy Battler, Maria's woken up.  Sorry, Maria.  Sorry Battler's so noisy...!"
"What the heck, it's my fault?  Sorry, Maria.  It's alright to sleep.  Good night."
Maria was a bit hazy, with drowsy eyes.
......She was probably half-asleep, and couldn't think straight.

"...............Uu-.  ......That's alright.  Won't sleep."

"Don't worry, sleep.  You're still half-asleep, aren't you.  Ihihi."
"......Not half-asleep!  ............Uu-!!"

"What's this, you're really half-asleep, aren't you?  Sleep, sleep."
"Not half-asleep!  Not half-asleep!!  Uu-uu-!!  Uu-uu-uu-uu-!!"

"Quit it, stupid Battler...!  Aah, sheesh, what are you thinking, getting a kid who's just woken up into a bad mood...!"

"Not half-asleep!  Not half-asleep!  Uu-uu-uu-uu-uu-uu-uu-uu-uu-!!!""I understand, Maria-chan...  You aren't half-asleep.  So calm down......"
"Not half-asleep not half-asleep!!  Uu-!!  Uu-uu-uu-uu-uu-uu-!!"

Maybe it was because of her dubious mental state after waking up, but Maria suddenly threw a tantrum.
Battler had only been trying to tease her a bit, so he was confused at this extreme overreaction.

George held her head, trying to calm her down, but Maria's tantrum wasn't quelled easily.
Battler and Jessica were trying to push the blame on each other, saying 'It's your fault' 'It's your fault too'.
"Hey, be quiet, you two...!  Jessica-chan, there was still some hot water in the pot, right?  Could you make some tea for her?  .........Did you calm down?  Maria-chan."

"............Uuuu---."

It looked like her tantrum was dying down bit by bit, but she still glared at Battler, who had made fun of her, with sharp eyes.

"Battler-kun was just messing around.  He doesn't really think you're half-asleep.  So calm down.  Alright?  .....................?"
"........................"

George noticed.
......Maria was staring at Battler with incredible eyes.

And, ......despite having just displayed all that emotion, ......she laughed in a small voice.
Kihihihihihihihihihihihihihi.

Instead of a laughing, it seemed more like she was muttering while considering, or else counting, each 'hi'.

As though each time she said 'hi', something brutal would happen over and over.
George felt something creepy for just an instant, ......but he couldn't notice the madness that peeked out of the depths of the girl's eyes for a only moment.

After he remained shocked for a short period of time, Maria stopped her bizarre quiet laugh, and pushed George's arm aside, as though telling him to let go.

".........Uu-.  Forgive you."
"R, really?  You're such a good girl, Maria.  ......Battler-kun, Maria-chan forgave you.  Make up."

"Yeah, sorry for teasing you.  Forgive me..."
"Hey, Maria...  Let's make cafe au lait as a sign that you've made up.  I'll put in lots of sugar so it'll be sweet."

"Don't need it.  But forgive you.  ............Because Maria's a witch.  ...Kihihihi."

One more time, Maria laughed in a creepy, quiet voice.

But it was only for a very short time, so Battler and Jessica didn't think much of it.

......They decided to think that, probably, it had only looked that way when the lightning lit her cheek with a pale, white light for an instant.
At that time, they could hear the sound of loud footsteps coming from the hall.

It was already past 10:30, late at night.
Late at night is usually a time when you aren't to be disturbed.

Hearing footsteps like that at this time wasn't very peaceful at all...
Then, along with a clearly unrestful knock that repeated fiercely, they could hear Gohda and Kumasawa's voices.

......That clearly told them that this was an abnormal situation.
"Children...!!  Are you there?  Are you there?!  It's Gohda!"
"It's Kumasawa, is everyone alright?!  Aaaaaaah, what has happened, what has happened...!"

When George opened the door, the two of them tumbled in, sopping wet.
It looked like they had dashed here from the mansion without an umbrella.

"Wh, what's wrong, you two......?  Did something happen......?!"
"I, it was, it was...!!  Th th the Master and Krauss-sama, and everyone, awawawawawawawawawa
......It was......, a pitch black room.

There were no windows, and with the weak light bulb, one could just barely make out the state of things around them.

It appeared to be an old forgotten underground storehouse, with some kind of dusty furniture haphazardly thrown into it......
However, even with just a little light, one could at least tell that it probably wasn't a storehouse.

......Because that room was sealed off with iron bars.
"......Where....is this.........?"

"I don't know.........I wonder, is this place underneath the mansion......?  Was there this kind of room......directly underneath the dining hall......?"

They had dropped into what appeared to be a pit,

and fallen・・・ into the room.

Therefore, it was appropriate to think that this room was directly under the dining hall.
......However, not even Krauss could bring himself to believe that there were pitfalls rigged in the beloved dining hall, where he had enjoyed his meals for years, ...and that directly below it was this dungeon-like room.
But the ceiling above was of crude stone craftsmanship, ......and they could not understand how they could have fallen from somewhere up there.

No, all five people who had been dropped here thought the same thing.
Although they had had the sensation of falling into a pit, ......there was no way there could be pitfalls in the dining hall, nor could this dungeon-like place be directly under it.

......But, the truth was that they actually had fallen into this place and were locked in.
......And so, ...they had been confused.
"......It is lucky that no one was hurt after falling such a height..."

"........Shannon, Kanon.  Did either of you two know about this room...?"
"......No.  We did not know of this room either."

"..................Really...?"
"R, really......  We really......don't know about a room like this......"

Despite their age, Kyrie apparently wouldn't have found it odd that, as servants allowed to wear the One-winged Eagle, they might know of the mansion's secret tricks.
There was a long silence, as if Krauss was evaluating their answer...
"......No, it's probably true that you don't know.  Afterall, this is the clean-freak Shannon we're talking about.  If she knew about this room, she'd probably scrub this place until it was sparkling.  The filth of this room is proof that you two don't know of it.  ......More importantly than that, I think we should worry about what to do now."

"E, exactly.....  We need to call the police....o, or rather administer first aid as soon as possible......"

Nanjo's words were hollow.
...Obviously.

Six people had been killed in the dining hall.  
Everybody had seen the exact moment when they had been killed.

Besides, since half of their heads had been destroyed, anyone could tell that the deaths had been instant with just a single glance.
Everyone understood that first aid no longer held any meaning......
"Thank you, Doctor Nanjo.  ......We already understand that our partners are no longer alive.  .........Thanks for trying to console us by mentioning first aid."

".........Natsuhi......................................."

Once again, a gloomy silence gained control of them.

But Krauss shook his head harshly over and over, and, for the time being...decided to forget the pain of losing his wife, and to dedicate himself to figuring out where they were.
"Everyone, listen to me.  ...............Father is.........hopeless now.  There is no longer any way...to ask him for an explanation or reason."
Nobody answered.

......Without any kind of discussion or mercy, six people had been killed in an instant.
And, Kinzo had even been so bold as to proclaim that we would become sacrifices for a ceremony involving 13 murders.

......Since we've been locked up in this place, we too will probably become the ceremony's next sacrifices soon.
Around this time, our eyes became used to the darkness...and, bit by bit, we were able to understand more about the dungeon's interior.
......What we thought was furniture haphazardly left in the dungeon turned out to not be furniture at all.

They were, ......things like small cages to lock people in, restraints, or else, ......torture racks.

.....At any rate, it was obvious that it was eerier than a mere jail cell.
Since the objects were rusted together and coated in thick dust, there was no doubt that they had been forgotten.

......Maybe you could even call these things Kinzo's sealed and forgotten madness.
However, we had been locked away in this room.

......Those objects weren't exactly comforting to people who were locked up, hoping to be released without harm...
"......Anyway, let's get out of here.  We've lost loved ones and friends and would like to spend some time shedding tears, but more than that, ......I'm worried about the children."

".........I...I wonder if the children are safe......"
"All we can do is pray...  ......Come to think of it, Kumasawa and Gohda aren't here."

"Perhaps, ...they were able to get away safely..."
"You never know.  It'd be a relief if they were able to meet up with the children..."

"When it comes down to it, Gohda-san is reliable, and Kumasawa-san is knowledgeable and calm...  I'm sure they would be helpful to the children..."

"......Hahaha.  Well that's good."

Shannon and Krauss smiled bitterly a little.
But they quickly realized how improper that was, and stopped, clearing their throats.
".........We can't be optimistic, Nee-san.  There's a chance that they have already been attacked after we were."

"I agree.  What Father carried out in the dining hall was......the six murders of the first twilight from the witch's epitaph, right?

Then, the second twilight is to 'tear apart the two who are close'.  ......We can't deny the possibility that Gohda-san and Kumasawa-san may have been killed after escaping together.  ......We can't cling to the optimistic idea that they definitely got to the guesthouse and are protecting the children."

Kyrie coldly analyzed the worst case scenario.

For her, it was heartbreaking to have lost her beloved husband.
.......But right now, the most important thing was protecting that husband's son, along with the other children, from becoming the insane family head's sacrifices.

She overcame her sadness with the parental urge to protect children from sorrow.

......It seemed that both Kyrie and Krauss were strong enough to forget about their grief, if only for the time being...

They would let their tears flow later.

......In order to protect the children, they had to act.
"Anyway, let's get out of here...  It seems to be a rather old cell.  Couldn't we break the bars with something?  Let's try searching the entire room for some way to escape."

"I wonder if there are some torture tools lying around all these torture cages.  They might be useful as weapons, or to break the bars."

Kyrie pulled a lighter from her pocket.

She herself didn't smoke, but she kept one tucked away in her pocket to light Rudolf's cigarettes.
......It was an extremely valuable source of light for searching in this dim dungeon.
"Shannon, help Kyrie-san search the room.  Kanon, you'll help me check out the bars.  This is a very old cell.  The bars could be loose."

"W...what should I help with......?"

"Please just keep up your strength.  ......Father will probably come soon.  You're the only one whose words will reach him.  In a way, you might be holding our lives in your hands."

"......My words, ...will no longer reach him, I think.  I'm sorry, but I don't believe I will be of any use......"
"Then lend us your expertise as a doctor.  .........I wonder if there is a drug that makes people instantly faint."

"......A drug that makes people instantly faint......?  What are you talking about......?"

"We believe we fell through a pit, and landed in this dungeon.  ......In that panic stricken place, that's what we believed happened.

......But I measured the breadth of this room and came to a realization.  This dungeon cannot be underneath the dining hall."

"Why do you say it cannot...?"
".........You're an idiot, Nee-san.  If you compare it to the dining hall, this dungeon is too narrow."

"Exactly.  The first person to fall was Krauss nii-san.  The second was myself.  When you fell into this room, did you move from that spot, Krauss nii-san?"
"......It's embarrassing to say, but the landing hurt, and I lied there groaning in pain.  Immediately after that, Kyrie-san came crashing down next to me."

"The distance between where we were standing and the places where we landed is clearly strange."

"C, ...certainly, when you put it that way.  ......I was the next to fall, so I remember fairly well where you two were standing.  ......The distance between you two in the dining hall might have been greater than this entire room."

"We fell into a pit, and directly dropped down here.  ......It's not like we fell into multiple interlocking pipes, and were all collected here.  The fall was instant, wasn't it?  I don't remember rolling around in some sort of elaborate water pipe system."

".........Surely, we can't explain it with a pitfall.  ....What a strange tale."
"What does that have to do, ......with the drug that makes people instantly faint that Kyrie-sama was talking about...?"

".................................Kyrie-sama is probably thinking that there were no pitfalls in the dining hall, correct?"

"But in reality, we fell."
"To put it accurately, we had the feeling that we fell into a pit.  ......Obviously.  That's the only way we can describe that experience."
"I...I see......  In other words, this is what you want to say.........We did not fall through a pit........We were attacked with something like a blowdart, for example, and lost consciousness instantly.  It could be that we just remember the instant we fell to the floor as though it were falling through a pit......"

"............I see.  That's a much more persuasive argument than there being numerous pitfall traps in the dining hall that we've never noticed, even after decades eating there."

"......Nee-san.  Do you have a watch?"
"Eh?  .........Y...yes.  I have a pocket watch.  ........Umm, it's about 22:40."

".........Yes.  My watch says the same.  ...In short, it hasn't been more than ten minutes since that uproar in the dining hall."

"My watch is the same.  ............That's much too short a time to knock us out and carry us somewhere.  .........Judging only from the time, it's appropriate to assume that we did fall through a hole leading directly underneath the dining hall."
"They can tamper with the watch hands as much as they want.  ......While we were passed out, they may have wound everyone's watches back.  We are incapable of proving that this possibility doesn't exist."

"...........................Whether a pitfall, or else a drug that induces fainting.........it does not change the fact that we need to be on guard..."

"......Well then, Doctor Nanjo?  Is there a drug that can do that?"
"Well, ..................It's the same as your logic, Kyrie-san.  ...I cannot prove that there is not a drug with that effect of which I do not know."

"......As they say, you can never be too careful.  ...Sorry, it was a useless question.  I just thought that with my hypothesis, I could suggest that this dungeon is not necessarily directly underneath the dining hall."
"I see..........There's always the possibility that we were carried off to the hidden mansion they say Father built in the middle of the forest.  ......If we can escape from here and get outside, then we'll know.  We'll save worrying about that until after we get out."
"Exactly.  I'm truly sorry.  I've only been asking and prying into useless things."

"No, it's quite promising.  If you notice anything else, please tell me.  It might become a hint to escaping from here.

.........I always heard from Rudolf.  He was always surprised by your advice, and it would sometimes become a valuable hint.  ......The fact that you're here is a blessing within a tragedy."

"......Thank you.  I heard something from Rudolf-san as well.  He said that you usually just swagger about, but when things get serious, you overflow with a sense of responsibility, and are a very dependable older brother."

"Hahaha..., that's too kind.  .........Dammit, at any rate, these iron bars are pretty sturdy.  How are things on your end, Kanon?"
".........No, this side is no better."

Krauss and Kanon tried wiggling the bars in various ways.
......There were a few bars that could be twisted...and a few had enough space to rattle a little bit around in...but they could not be broken with human strength alone.

......However, there was still hope if they could use some kind of lever-like tool.
It was still far too early to give up yet.
The children's lives were hanging in the balance.
......Even if there was no hope, they couldn't stop their struggle.
And, it was better for them to act this way.

......If they were to stop...there's no doubt they'd once again be overcome by the grief of loosing their loved ones, and crouch down, clutching their knees......

"How are you doing, Kyrie-san?  Find anything?"
"......I've found some small stones that we could hold onto and hide.  Something like this could probably be a weapon.  Though, it'd be impossible to whittle down those iron bars.  How about you, Shannon-chan...?"
"No, nothing.  .........Ah, this is............a phone."

"I doubt it's connected.  ......But, we might be able to use the cord as some form of string-based weapon.  If we break it, we could take out the metal parts.  Krauss Nii-san, there's a keyhole for opening the bars, right?"
"Yeah.  It's a pretty large hole, quite old fashioned.  ......If we twist some wire into it, we just might be able to pick it."

"We might be able to use the metal parts of the phone as a substitute for something.  ......This phone will become our weapon."
"It's the same as an investment.  Information is our weapon."

Krauss and Kyrie laughed together at how they hadn't once thought of using the phone as a means of communication.

"............What are you doing, Nee-san."
"Ah, ......um, ...I just wondered if maybe the phone was w, working......"
"............You dummy, Nee-san.  (*whisper*)"
"Eh...?  .........Huh?"

At this point, Shannon let out a small surprised cry.

"K, Kyrie-sama...!  .....This phone, it's connected."
"What did you say...?"
It was like when people move out of an office, taking everything with them, leaving only the telephone behind...that's the feeling the phone gave off, having been left in the corner of the cell.
The cord was wound into a coil, the tip of it being swallowed by the wall, and at a glance, it wouldn't seem surprising if it were connected.

......But, to think that it was actually was connected somewhere...
Kyrie took the receiver from Shannon and pressed it to her ear.
Certainly, the electric hum of a phone was a familiar sound.
......And this phone was certainly live.

"Wh...what good luck...!  Let's contact the police...!"
"Hold on...!  This is too good to be true.  It's bugged, isn't it...?!"

"If they were planning a trick like that, normally they would cut the telephone line.  ......There's a good possibility that they actually overlooked this.  If they notice, then they might actually cut the line this time.  There's nothing that we could tell the police that would be problematic for us if they overheard."

......Surely that is true.
The point of a wiretap is to overhear some important piece of information...but the way things are now, she could not think of a single thing that would come up in a conversation to the outside world that could be troublesome to have heard.

Kyrie instantly concluded that it was more likely to be a mistake on Kinzo's part than a trap......
"Y...you do have a point......  I believe that you start with 0 to make calls to the outside......"

"Kanon-kun, I'm going to make a phone call, so will you watch how things are out there for me?  If you sense somebody coming, let me know."
"Y, yes......!"
Kanon raced off towards the iron bars, silenced his breathing, and strained his ears......
As everyone present watched her, Kyrie dialed 110...
110

This is the number for calling the police in Japan.
However, she pushed the hook down and re-dialed many times.

......It didn't seem to be working very well.
"......The outside line begins with 0?  110 would be 0110 then, right?  It doesn't seem to want to go through..."

"Hand it over here, I'll try to call..................................."

Krauss took the receiver in Kyrie's place, and tested various things......
But in the end, they were unable to notify the police......
The phone itself was definitely live, but the circuit was apparently cut somewhere.

......Did this mean that 'they' were not so naive?

"......So it's useless after all......"
"This means our enemies aren't naive themselves.................."
Kyrie let out a deep sigh, leaned against the wall, and hung her head for a while.

As severe a girl as she was, for a brief moment, she might actually have had the naive hope that the phone could actually work.

......She sneered at herself mockingly for holding onto that naive hope for even one moment.
And then, ......she remembered just what was happening here.
......Honestly...regardless of having been shown such a thing right before her eyes, ......or rather, exactly because of that...

......She still could not think of that gruesome mass murder as something real...
Rather than that she couldn't believe it, it was that she didn't want to.
Ushiromiya Kinzo killed six family members.

He summoned strange witch-like, demon-like people, ......right out of thin air...............and with something like magic, ......began to kill people one after another..........

..........................

It's just all so screwed up.
......Even though she definitely saw it, there was no way she could accept that spectacle......
".........There's no way that's what happened.  .........Those were obviously Grandfather's friends, or something.  ......They just hid somewhere in the dining hall beforehand and used some tricks to appear suddenly and fool us.  ......There's no other way to explain something as screwed up as that."
But when those six had had their heads blown apart, a golden arrow had flown around and around the room.

......That had truly looked like, ......magic.
Was that another thing we just saw wrong?
There's no way it was magic.  It was definitely some kind of setup.

......Since those heads were smashed, there's no doubt it was some explosive.
For example, a styrene toy plane like they sell at candy stores, painted gold...and with a powerful explosive loaded onto the end of it.
.......However, at a glance, it had seemed to be flying at random...but Kyrie couldn't imagine that after being fired six times, each time had perfectly hit the victims square in the head, one after the other.

It couldn't be that there was a computer control system for finding and hitting targets, which would make it a high-tech styrene plane on the same level as a guided missile, right...?
".........Would he invest such a large amount of money into developing some stupid trick like that?  .......For that insane entertainment......?  Does this come back to the old 'I wouldn't put it past Father'......?"
A number of mysterious people appeared out of thin air, ......6 people had had their heads demolished by a mysterious golden flying object, ......the five of us were locked away in a mysterious dungeon by a mysterious set of pitfalls, or else put to sleep by some fainting poison dart......
The family conference had started a bit after 22:00.
......It's only been about 30 minutes since then.

Probably, even though I witnessed it myself, ......since that event took place in such a short amount of time, I still can't understand it, and I still can't come to grips with it.
For argument's sake, even if we did get ahold of the police, it would probably be impossible for anybody to accurately explain what we saw......

Regardless of having just seen it, ......my brain's fried, and I have no self-confidence even in what I saw myself...
Kyrie tried her hardest to cheer herself out of her overwhelming confusion, to just hold onto her sanity......
"Dammit......what's going on here, ......dammit, ...dammit...!"

Krauss started to become desperate, hitting the hook multiple times, resetting the dial.