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Katabasis

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"...Fumi, are you sure about this?"

"I am. You have more than enough capable hands on board, don't you think?"

"Even so–"

A hand suddenly tapped at her shoulder, and Shiori jolted away from the door she had been eavesdropping against, biting back a surprised yelp. Had someone not grabbed her arm to steady her, her backwards momentum would have had her falling flat on her bum. Raising her head to look for her assailant-turned-savior, Shiori's wide eyes took in the sight of a mischievous face, framed by wavy blue hair.

"My, you're rather quick, Shiori-han," Kaoruko said, lips curled into a familiar smirk. "People that quick tend to have something to hide, hm?"

"I-I wasn't…! I mean, I don't…have anything to hide..." Shiori sheepishly trailed off, averting her gaze from the older actress. "I wanted to ask Onee-chan if she'd practice with me today, but it seems like she's talking to Tomoe-san about something important…"

"Probably the troupe's finances, or something equally as dry."

Kaoruko unfurled the ornate, delicate fan she never went anywhere without. The fan's sakura-patterned leaves concealed the lower half of her face, muffling incoherent mumbles. However, it didn't hide how Kaoruko's eyes glanced briefly toward the room where Tamao and Fumi were conversing.

Before Shiori could ask the older woman to clarify, Kaoruko moved her fan away from her mouth while releasing a short exhale. "Honestly, that sister of yours is so straitlaced when she's off of the stage. It's no wonder Tamao-han recruited her without a second thought."

Shiori straightened up, rising to her full height to match Kaoruko's stature. "Onee-chan is an amazing person. I'm sure Tomoe-san recognized that."

"Yes, yes. Of course she is." Kaoruko smirked. "But so are you, Shiori-han. Which is why you'll be perfect for the job I have in mind."

The tensions winding up in her dissipated at Kaoruko's pace. "Job?"

"It's nothing strenuous, otherwise I would have gone to Futaba-han or even Akikaze-han instead. But you see, those two just won't do for the task I have in mind."

"And what would that be?" Shiori asked with a slight tilt of her head.

Kaoruko smirked, snapping her fan shut. "Why, preparing my afternoon tea of course!"

Shiori blinked in confusion. "Um, you'd like me to… make you tea?"

"Yes! Only you understand the importance of a good pot of tea. Well, your sister does too. And I have to admit Tamao-han isn't so bad herself. But since they're both busy right now, I finally get the opportunity of having the younger sister all to myself!"

Before Shiori could get another word out, Kaoruko grabbed her hand and tugged her away from the door. For someone who wasn't known for a love for physical activity, Shiori couldn't do much except let Kaoruko drag her along with her.

"W-Wait, Hanayagi-san!" Shiori tried to protest.

"Who cares what those two could be gossiping about?" Kaoruko's grip tightened around Shiori's hand. "I'm sure whatever they're talking about doesn't concern you, Shiori-han. Let those two talk about whatever foolish things they want to discuss. The rest of us have more important things to do." Kaoruko turned her head around to smirk. "Who knows? Maybe the smell of chamomile will make them jealous. Or bring out ponzu to lure Yumeoji-han in."

Shiori offered a small smile. "Onee-chan does like her ponzu…"

"A little too much, honestly. But I suppose it's just like Futaba-han with her kinako sticks. And Kuro-han with her macaroons. Oh, we can steal some of those too. Those go particularly well with afternoon tea."

I think Onee-chan is a little more extreme than Isurugi-san and Saijou-san though…

As Kaoruko took them further away, Shiori turned to look back one last time at the room where her sister and Tamao were conversing.

The short conversation Shiori managed to catch came to mind again. Her sister's terse words and Tamao's concern weighed on her like an anchor dragging her down to the deep depths of the sea. Would the heaviness continue to fall deeper into the abyss of her doubts and unease?

Shiori shook her head. I'm overthinking things. Like Hanayagi-san said, if it was important, then Onee-chan will tell me herself. I just have to wait.

And so she would wait. And wait. And wait.

Until the day came when there was nothing for Shiori to wait for anymore.


It came all too soon. If Shiori had to resent anything, it would be the fact that she wasn't even given the time to prepare for everything that was to come.

Fumi suddenly took her leave a few days after her talk with Tamao, spiriting away into the night like a princess running away from her castle. All Fumi had left behind for Shiori was a short note that said she was taking a hiatus from her acting career for the foreseeable future to search for something of interest. Shiori would have thought it all to be a joke, if she hadn't opened the door and nearly ran into Tamao standing outside with her fist raised for another knock.

Tamao wouldn't tell Shiori about her sister's plans or her whereabouts, only reassuring Shiori that Fumi would be fine. To this day, their benefactor–and her current guardian in her sister's place–remained tight lipped about Fumi's situation. But as the months had marched on into years, Shiori couldn't stand to wait any longer. She couldn't shake the feeling that something was horribly wrong.

Especially after more and more members of their troupe started taking extended vacations for reasons no one wanted to divulge to Shiori. One by one, each of their departures gouged a hole into Shiori's comfortable life–a hole that deepened with every absence.

First Claudine patted her on the head and left her with a smile and a box of her favorite macaroons. Then Rui came to Shiori in the middle of the night, asking her to look after Tamao in her absence.

Weeks turned to months, then to years. Roughly two years, to be exact.

The void didn't become uncomfortably clear until Shiori saw Kaoruko alone one day, the morning after Futaba had shown Shiori her hidden stash of candy, trusting her to refill them when the time came.

Shiori wished she hadn't kept count of the days that passed. She wished she hadn't sat at home every day after practice, waiting by herself for the door to unexpectedly open and her sister to apologize for being gone for so long. She wished she hadn't hoped for the others to return and tell her they didn't know what souvenirs to buy, so they each got her various versions of horse-shaped gifts and the best tea they could find.

Such nice fantasies; that's all they were.

Reality was different. The world didn't baby her with the time to live in those dreams.

Since then, Shiori had tried to go about her life as if nothing was wrong– as if so many people who had once offered her such strong support hadn't just left her without so much as a goodbye. But even if the emptiness of their departures left Shiori hollow, none of them would have wanted her to stagnate. They had left her with enough to live by.

Shiori focused on improving her acting abilities, so that one day when Fumi and the others returned she could dazzle them with her brilliance. Tamao continued to run her troupe as if nothing was wrong, though there were days that Shiori could hear harsh whispered conversations between the troupe leader and her closest confidant. She tried not to think about how Claudine's box of macaroons had long since been emptied, instead reminding herself to check on Futaba's hidden candy stash. Futaba had left her with an important responsibility to refill it– should the time come, after all.

She didn't expect that time to come so soon.

"Futaba-han was never good at hiding things from me."

Shiori whirled around, slamming her back against the cabinet where the now empty jars were contained. A shadow loomed over her with her arms crossed, brows furrowed in annoyance, impatience, and an unexpected hint of uneasiness.

"K-Kaoruko-san…?"

"Like that time she wanted to buy those boots from that shady auction held in town?" Kaoruko scoffed. "Hah, as if I wasn't going to notice how suspicious she was, trying to sneak off on her own without telling me! Then when she suddenly said she'd be leaving me for whoever knows how long, it was obvious just where she was going to go."

"I don't… I don't follow."

"Of course she would go there. The same place they all went. Akikaze-han, Kuro-han," Kaoruko's eyes found Shiori's, holding her gaze in place, "Fumi-han."

Shiori's breath hitched in her throat. "O-Onee-chan too?"

"All of them–out of their minds! What's so good about a mysterious rumor anyway? How is it worth risking every–"

Shiori surged to her feet to grab Kaoruko by the lapels of her flowery robes. No, at that moment it wasn't Kaoruko staring back at her with harsh exasperation, but her older sister's gentle smile whispering comforts and reassurances to assuage her concerns.

But that person wasn't here. That luxury had long since disappeared from her life. The one in front of Shiori wasn't her sister, but someone who did know where to find her.

"Kaoruko-san, where did Onee-chan go?" Shiori repeated the question she had asked many times over. But this time she added, "Where did they all go? Please… Please tell me."

Kaoruko pursed her lips. Seconds passed, until finally Kaoruko looked to the side and heaved a sigh heavier than Shiori had ever heard from her.

"Tamao-han was dead set on keeping at least you away from that place. No doubt in agreement with your sister's wishes." Kaoruko stared pointedly back at Shiori. "But what did she expect? You're all fools, after all. Tamao-han most of all for allowing Fumi-han to go."

"Even so...I have to know," Shiori insisted, releasing Kaoruko's lapels and taking a step back. She mustered the sternest face she could, clenching her hands into fists at her sides. "I'm not a child anymore."

Kaoruko huffed, crossing her arms and turning her face away again as her cheeks flushed in irritation. "As if age has anything to do with it… All of them older than you, but even a child knows to be wary of chasing ghosts!"

Ghosts? Dread shot down Shiori's spine, pooling uncomfortably in her stomach. "Onee-chan...is she…?"

"Fumi-han went searching for a ruined theater near a certain city along the coast. Whether or not your foolish sister or the others that went after her are still alive is uncertain." Kaoruko uncrossed her arms to pluck her fan from the sash around her waist, unfurling it with a practiced flick of her wrist. Turning her gaze back to Shiori and lightly fanning herself, she continued, "The others took most of Fumi-han's notes with them, but there should still be something left for you to look through."

Her sister's room. Shiori hadn't been able to bring herself to enter ever since her sudden departure.

"Getting cold feet, hm?"

"N-No!" Shiori dug her nails into her palms, hoping that would stop her shaking hands. "I'm...thinking of how to tell Tamao-san. If I leave, the troupe will be down to half of its members. It was already going to be difficult performing The Lost Princess with so few of us remaining, and our performances have been a struggle lately. Tamao-san was trying so hard to make our next act a success to make up for it all…"

"Then don't leave."

Kaoruko stopped fanning herself, narrowing her eyes at Shiori. The fan concealed the lower half of her face, but no doubt the frown on her lips had deepened.

"As you said, the troupe has been struggling with its shows. It's vexing when I have to use my funds to keep this place afloat rather than educating Tamao-han on proper cuisine. And with Futaba-han still gone, chasing after Kuro-han, things have grown even more inconvenient for me." Her voice lowered to a grumble. "At this rate, I might be tasked with cleaning, of all things…"

"I… I don't want to cause you or Tomoe-san any more trouble," Shiori shakily began, ignoring that last bit. "You've both taken such good care of me, even before Onee-chan left, and I can't thank you enough. I don't know how I could begin to repay you."

"Then–"

"But!" Shiori bit down on her lip, gnawing at her next words–steeling herself for the decision she needed to make. "But… I can't just sit here and wait for Onee-chan to come back anymore. It's been two years, Kaoruko-san. And if Kuro-san and the others also went to the same place Onee-chan did and are also in trouble–!"

"We don't know that," Kaoruko huffed, snapping her fan closed and waving it in some vague direction. "They could have found their stupid treasure and left us all for a better life."

"I don't think any of them would do that." Shiori raised her head, locking eyes with Kaoruko. "You knew Futaba-san better than any of us. You know she wouldn't."

Kaoruko averted her gaze, cheeks puffing into a brief pout. "Clearly I didn't know Futaba-han as well as I thought I did... No," Kaoruko sighed, resting her forehead against the base of her fan, "it's because I knew exactly what'd she do that it's such a bother!"

"I-I'm sure, especially because you're both childhood friends…"

"It isn't just Futaba-han! Kuro-han, Akikaze-han, and your sister too!" Kaoruko then mumbled under her breath, "No, no, in the first place it might have even been Tamao-han's fault. If she had just refused Fumi-han from the start we wouldn't have this problem right now! Always causing problems for me... Honestly, what would everyone do without me?"

"Kaoruko-san?"

Kaoruko shook her head with a small sigh. "Anyway, it's too late for all of that now. Right now… Shiori-han!"

Shiori straightened her back as if she was standing at attention for a military officer. With the way Kaoruko was now pointing her fan at her, eyes narrowed, she might as well be. "Y-Yes?"

"You said you didn't know how to repay us for our good will. Well, there is something you can do."

"And-And that is…?"

"It's simple, really." Kaoruko's lips tugged into a familiar smirk. "Go find Futaba-han and bring her back. And if you happen to find those idiots who left on their own while you're out there, well...do as you wish. Tamao-han would be upset and even more hopeless if you never return, so make sure you come back safe and sound too. I won't accept anything less than that! Do you understand?"

"Uh-" Shiori gulped. "Y-Yes!"

Kaoruko nodded, withdrawing her fan to tuck it back into her sash. "Good. If there's nothing else, hurry up and get what you need from Fumi-han's room. I take it you don't need me to show you how to snoop around your sister's things for those notes she left behind?"

Shiori shook her head. "No, I… I think I can manage on my own. Thank you though, Kaoruko-san."

Kaoruko huffed. "Don't thank me yet. I can't help you once you actually start your journey. Now go on! Shoo! The sooner you get started, the faster you can start repaying us both."

Once the realization that she had gained approval from Kaoruko fully sunk in, Shiori's shoulders drooped at the thought of informing her actual leader about what she planned to do. Although she had made the choice to inconvenience her employers and guardians, she still needed to actually tell Tamao that she would be leaving for an indeterminate amount of time.

Shiori sighed. "What should I say to Tamao-san…?"

Kaoruko waved a hand in dismissal. "Oh, don't worry about that. I'll tell Tamao-han myself after rehearsals. If you do it, she might become so distraught with worry that she won't even let you leave. The others were different, but she seems especially fond of you."

Something cold twisted in the pit of her stomach. "Are you saying I should...sneak away?"

"Shiori-han, what did you think you would need to do? And sneaking away from Tamao-han is painfully easy, I'll have you know. She'll never beat me in gift-giving with how oblivious she is."

"But to leave without saying anything…" One way or another, Tamao was going to be hurt. If, at least, she could avoid repeating the same pain that Fumi had inflicted with her sudden absence…

Kaoruko softly exhaled, turning around to leave the room with brusque steps. "No doubt you'll have to do things you don't want to if you're going to bring them back. If you can't even do this much, then this task is too much for you."

"No!"

At Shiori's outburst, Kaoruko paused in the doorway, glancing at her from over her shoulder. Her amber gaze had turned dark and piercing, rooting Shiori in place like a lion would its prey.

"I...I can do it," Shiori said, taking a shaky step towards her. I have to do it. "I just...need time."

"Then what are you waiting for? Tamao-han may enjoy being in my company, but even I can't capture her attention forever, you know." Heaving another sigh, Kaoruko turned her head to face forward once more. "As a wandering scholar once said, 'All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players.' I'd suggest keeping that in mind while you're out there."

Finally, she swept out of the room, leaving behind the floral scent of cherry blossoms and peonies in her wake, and one final quip.

"...Break a leg, Shiori-han."


True to Kaoruko's words, there wasn't much left of Fumi's notes. Shiori could only find a grand total of three pages of notes hidden within one of her desk drawers, protected behind a simple padlock that had seen better days. Shiori broke it while muttering apologies, reassuring herself that a broken lock was a small price to pay for finding her sister.

Two pages of Fumi's notes seemed to be diary entries that Fumi herself had annotated, though they were so illegible that Shiori could only make out a few words about desertion and a deceased family member and not much else. Fumi's annotations were just as cryptic, featuring unfamiliar names that might have been places or people. The final–and most legible–page seemed to be the beginning of a rough itinerary to her destination: a portside city by the name of Deion. The draft detailed what belongings Fumi would need to pack, how many hours it would take to travel there, and possible places to investigate for more information on where to find…

A devil?

The oddity continued to weigh on Shiori's mind as she tried to steady herself in the back of the supply wagon she had found herself in, bound for Deion and her third wagon so far. To take her mind off of her soreness from the bumpy rides, Shiori dug into her knapsack for the one page of Fumi's notes that she could read.

Find the Devil of the Crypt beneath the stars.

No matter how many times Shiori reread Fumi's notes, she still couldn't understand what that could mean. Was it someone's pseudonym? Her sister couldn't have left to find the actual devil, right?

Putting that point aside, at least Shiori had a hint of what to look for once she arrived at Deion. She wasn't familiar with Port Deion or its city, so she would have to ask the townsfolk about any crypts nearby.

"Yumeoji-san?"

The wagon driver's voice startled Shiori from her thoughts. "Y-Yes, Sakuragi-san?"

"Try to get comfortable. The road is going to be a little rough from this point."

Rough...? Lowering the page in her hands, Shiori shuffled to the front of the wagon, peering over Sakuragi's shoulder to see for herself.

Bits of stone and other masonry jutted out of the road ahead, the elements and who knows how many years' worth of travelers having worn down their rough edges. And although most of it seemed to have fallen into ruin, Shiori could still recognize what looked to be a fort rising up nearby to the left of the road, perched atop a small hill. A tattered flag flapped lazily from its highest point, and squinting her eyes, she barely made out the faint emblem of a white lion.

"Oh...this is one of those battle sites, isn't it?" Shiori asked, her gaze sweeping down to the other ruins scattered between the fort and the road. Time had rotted away most of the wooden structures, but bits of stone and iron still poked through the tall grass.

"One of the minor ones. The city was named after this fort, you know," Sakuragi explained as the wagon rumbled along. "Of course, that was back when it was a town. After that, several nations occupied it over the decades until it transformed into the port city it is now."

As if summoned at the mention of Deion, Shiori picked up a faint hint of brine wafting on the breeze.

"Oh! That means we're almost–"

A sharp bump in the road cut off Shiori's words, sending her backwards to fall on her bum. Sakuragi's chuckle drifted to her reddened ears as Shiori shakily picked herself up, using a nearby crate to steady herself.

"I did warn you."

"S-Sorry…"

"You would think they could spare a mage to fix this road, but I suppose they wanted to preserve the ruins…" Sakuragi gave a brief glance over her shoulder, smiling faintly. "And yes, it shouldn't be long now until we reach Deion."

Indeed, it didn't take long at all until they rounded a bend, with Deion waiting just ahead. Like most settlements that had sprung up due to the wars, high walls encircled the city, protecting it from attacks by land and sea. Various flags from different nations hung from the ramparts, declaring Deion's neutrality. The only flag that had been raised, fluttering proudly above all of the others, was that of a star–an emblem Shiori didn't recognize from any of her past history lessons.

Is it unique to the city? Shiori wondered as they passed through the open gates. The guards standing nearby had it emblazoned on their tunics and shields, so it must be.

Shiori ducked her head in embarrassment after one of them caught her eye and waved in welcome. Did she make it too obvious that this was her first time in a city like this? Deion from a distance didn't seem that big as far as cities went, but it was still far bigger than her hometown.

She suddenly felt small and alone in this foreign world; a new frontier to brave by herself. And for a fleeting moment, Shiori wondered if it wasn't too late to turn back.

The pungent scent of the sea grew in strength as they left the city's entrance behind. Past the guardhouses and barracks, the rest of the city and the port came into view. Ships of various sizes lined the docks, with a few coming and going out to a glittering sea. Shiori closed her eyes to bask in the cool ocean breeze that blew by, letting the chill calm some of her nerves.

I've come this far. I can do this.

As they entered further into Deion, they passed by numerous townsfolk going about their day with their own shopping and errands. Despite their busy activities, many waved in greeting and wished them a good afternoon. When Sakuragi answered back with natural greetings of her own, Shiori followed her lead and did the same with a few awkward waves and hesitant hellos.

"Are you familiar with the townspeople, Sakuragi-san?" Shiori asked the woman once they had left the main thoroughfare, heading towards the port for her delivery.

"Not in particular. The people of Deion are simply amiable by nature, since they get plenty of travelers from their port. Their charm is quite contagious, don't you think?"

Shiori nodded in agreement. "Everyone did seem very nice."

"Deion wasn't always like that. The wars took a toll on everyone–this land was no exception." Sakuragi lightly tugged on the reins to slow the horses down some more. "Once the survivors managed to rebuild the town, I'd imagine the people here wanted to start anew with a fresh outlook to move past all the death and senseless violence bred from the fighting. And as you can see, their descendants inherited that feeling."

Sakuragi sighed, shoulders drooping a little as she muttered, "Places like this make you forget it was never really resolved."

Shiori greeted another kind woman with a small wave and smile. Once they passed her, Shiori lowered her hand to her lap and dropped her courteous smile. "I can only imagine what the survivors must have felt back then. It must have been so painful to lose everything and have to rebuild."

"I'm sure. But what's important is to keep moving forward, not lingering on the pain." Sakuragi's eyes glanced toward Shiori for a brief appraisal. "I'm sure you've experienced your own hardships. In the future, there will be obstacles that you'll have to overcome with all your strength. It won't be easy–and maybe the pain might seem too much–but you still can't give up. Remember that there are things worth fighting for. Do you understand, Yumeoji-san?"

Reacting just as she would for her old acting instructor, Shiori straightened her back and responded, "I-I understand. Thank you for your insight, Sakuragi-san."

Sakuragi chuckled lightly. "An old habit of mine from my teaching days. Now, where did you want me to drop you off?"

"Anywhere is fine. But if it wouldn't trouble you much, then the nearest inn will be best."

"Staying for a few days?"

"Hopefully not too long. There's somewhere I need to go, but I'm not sure where to find the place." Shiori pursed her lips. "Would you happen to know if there is a crypt somewhere nearby?"

Sakuragi shook her head. "Can't say I do, since I never stay long. But the inn I have in mind might be a good place to start looking for the answers you want. Since travelers frequently check in and out, it's one of the most popular places in Deion where all sorts of people come and go. The staff are also well-versed with attending to visitors; one of them may have the information you're looking for."

It was a start, at least.

After gathering her things and bidding Sakuragi farewell, Shiori followed her directions to the inn. Thankfully it wasn't too far, and she soon caught sight of the coiled snake that marked the Whispering Medusa inn. Even from outside, she could hear the boisterous laughs and loud revelry of the patrons inside.

Clenching the strap of her bag, Shiori took one more calming breath before entering the Whispering Medusa. She immediately had to suck in another sharp inhale to mitigate the shock of seeing so many people gathered in just the common area alone. Only a few heads turned her way, otherwise most of the patrons continued with their conversations as if nothing else mattered. Judging by the tankards and plates of food in their hands, it would seem there was a bar attached–no wonder it looked more crowded than an inn would normally be.

And with this many people, someone is bound to know something!

A tap on her shoulder pulled Shiori out of her thoughts. "Excuse me, are you just going to stand here and block the entrance? You're letting the cold in."

"Oh!" Shiori jumped to the side and into a hasty bow. "I'm so sorry!"

"Don't worry about it. There's no need to bow, either–it makes me feel funny on the inside."

"Ah…" Shiori raised herself back up, blinking in surprise at the black-haired woman standing before her.

Shiori had expected someone larger based on the stern voice that had greeted her. Instead, the woman is only a few centimeters taller than her, at most half a head above her. She also didn't seem to have a significantly larger build than Shiori either. Despite her lithe appearance, the woman's subtle frown and firm stance alone was enough to convince Shiori that she could probably survive just fine on her own. The ornate staff by her side also looked sturdy enough as a weapon, though Shiori herself wasn't well versed with those to reach that conclusion with certainty just from a glance.

She could make a confident guess that the woman's social standing was well beyond her own, if her sleek black cloak with its gold trimming was anything to go by. The clothing by itself looked more expensive than everything Shiori had packed with her.

I wonder where she was able to buy such a nice looking–

"First time here?" the woman asked, gaze critical as she took in Shiori's simple appearance. "And not the traveling type, either. But you don't look like another runaway noble or reckless scholar. In fact you kind of remind me of–" The woman's eyes narrowed further. "Hmph. A musician, I would say."

"I… I'm a performer, actually. Although I don't look like it right now," Shiori said, hugging her bag closer to her and suddenly self-conscious of her clothes. It wasn't as if she had a lot of time to grab her favorites. "I'm...on a small break from the troupe."

The woman raised an eyebrow. "From my experience, small breaks usually wind up being not so small. One thing leads to another, and the next thing you know you prefer a new life of endless indulgences."

"B-But I'm not–"

"It's not easy budgeting your relaxation time and remembering that you need to go back to the daily work and toll. You can only run for so long, after all."

"Like you, Amemiya-san?" a new voice cut in, light and cheerful in comparison.

A single black eyebrow twitched as its owner addressed someone next to Shiori. "Hold on, I do plenty of work. Especially whenever I need to run errands for you."

Turning to follow her gaze, Shiori nearly jumped at the sight of a shorter woman with long brown hair standing near them. She hadn't heard her approach, although that could be due to the hustle and bustle of the inn. The kind expression on her face was also much less intimidating compared to… Amemiya's?

The brunette giggled at the frown Amemiya directed toward her. "Yes, and then you'll disappear for a few days before coming back to my inn to try to lecture any unsuspecting visitors."

"I'm just being amicable. And offering advice is never bad."

"You're frightening the poor girl." The brunette poked a finger onto Amemiya's cheek. "With your oh-so-scary and serious frowning."

"Not everyone can smile as much as you do on a daily basis, Masai-san."

"It comes with the job and all. That said," the woman flashed Shiori a kind smile, "welcome to the Whispering Medusa! I'm Masai Kiriko, one of the employees here. If you would like to arrange a stay, I'd be happy to help you with that. A few rooms just opened up." She then gestured to her acquaintance, "And this is Amemiya Shion-san, a long-time friend of mine. Unfortunately, Amemiya-san won't be of any use to you when it comes to the inn, so it's best not to trouble her about that."

"If you need any artifacts made or appraised, however, I can help with that." Shion's frown softened into a faint smile as she tapped Kiriko's shoulder with her staff. "And if you need a lantern lit, Masai-san knows how."

Kiriko huffed. "It can't be helped that it's the only spell I know."

"And there's no problem with that. I think more people should at least know the simplest spells in case of any trouble."

"Or carry more matches with them," Kiriko sighed.

"Spellwork?" Shiori muttered in confusion. Come to think of it, Sakuragi-san mentioned something about mages before…

"Wait, are you unfamiliar with even the basics? Please tell me you at least know how to cast a spell to light a candle?"

"Um, I've always had enough matches on hand…?"

Shion scowled. "Oh great, another 'pragmatic' person who thinks they can survive without innovation. Let me guess, you still do your laundry by hand, don't you?"

"How else would anyone?"

Shion's scowl shifted into a milder frown at Shiori's own question, although it carried a hint of confusion rather than disapproval. Actually, there's some disapproval there too, Shiori thought, trying not to flinch when the mage moved to cross her arms.

Kiriko sighed with a slight shake of her head, bringing her hand to rest on Shion's shoulder. "Now now, no more lectures for today. I'm sure our weary guest would like a room to rest in after a long trip." Kiriko's reassuring smile helped alleviate some of Shiori's concerns about upsetting Shion. "If you're curious about learning some spells, Amemiya-san will be around to answer any of your questions once you've settled in. She spends most of her time here in the Whispering Medusa–the inn has already become her workshop, so to speak."

Shion's lips pulled up into a proud smile. "All of my treasures are stored here, after all."

Her eyes had fixated on Kiriko, eliciting a blush from the other woman. "A-Amemiya-san! No flirting in front of my guests!"

"I wouldn't say that was flirting, but if that's what you'd like to call it then I won't object."

"A-Anyway!" Kiriko stepped away from the mage to steer Shiori toward the front desk. "Let's get you paid for and settled in. I'm sure you have plenty to do in Deion yourself. Once you have a comfortable place to store your belongings, you can get right to it!"

Unsure of how to respond, Shiori could only allow Kiriko to guide her to the front desk. The process was simple and didn't require much except for an upfront payment for her total stay. Meals would also need to be paid for, but at least the baths were free to use. Since she was lodging alone, Kiriko recommended a small room on the second floor close enough to the baths for convenience and to the stairs should an emergency arise.

"My inn is the safest in Deion, especially thanks to Amemiya-san's wards," Kiriko said as she wrote Shiori's name down. "But you can never be too cautious."

After handing over a portion of the funds she had managed to bring with her–and panicking a little at the higher-than-expected price–Kiriko gave Shiori her room key and pointed her toward the stairs on the right in the general direction of her room. Upon reaching her floor, Shiori noted a few lodgers exiting what she guessed to be the baths at the end of the hall before entering her assigned room.

Just as Kiriko had recommended, the room wasn't large at all. A single bed big enough to comfortably fit herself was placed in the corner, away from a window with its curtains partly drawn shut. Next to the window was a small, round table and a single chair. There was also a dresser across from the foot of the bed. The only decoration in the room was a single painting hung on the wall opposite of the window, depicting a ginger-haired bard playing beneath the stars.

After checking the room for any abnormalities–she had heard stories before of peepholes in places like these–Shiori took a seat on the bed, dropping her bag at her feet. The fatigue from an almost full day's travel finally kicked in, tugging at her eyelids with a weight she could no longer ignore.

Masai-san did say to get some rest first… I think… I'll do that…

Collapsing onto the bed, Shiori closed her eyes and allowed herself to take a break for now.

She had made it this far. She could plan her next step once she had enough rest to think properly.


"Shiori. If you're reading this, by now I'll already be on my way–"

The books and stories and plays always set this sort of thing during a rainy day. A dramatic departure beneath cloudy skies that mirrored the grief of the one being left behind. It was almost unfair how warmly the sun bore down on them; how cheerfully and energetically everyone went about their morning as if nothing was wrong.

Did they know? Why weren't they as troubled as she was?

"–unsure of how long I'll be gone–"

The words on the page blurred before Shiori's eyes; or perhaps that was due to how badly her hands were shaking.

"–Please, don't follow me."

They always spoke of the rain and the tears. But they never quite captured the way the ground slipped beneath her feet, nor the rush of blood in her ears from the fall, pounding incessantly and drowning out all further thoughts. Her body felt hot and itchytoo small to contain the feelings welling up from her broken heart.

Why?

She had noticed that their conversations had grown fewer these days; her sister too busy to practice with her; meals taken alone or among the others instead.

Was it because of me…?

"...Do you always have to make it about you?"

At that hiss, the scenery abruptly changed. Her room bled away into darkness, surrounding her and the one other person in this void. A stage light flared to life, illuminating them both in a pale yellow.

"Always so annoying, chasing after me!" Fumi spat, lips curling back into a snarl. "It would've been better if you never existed!"

She didn't notice the swordbreaker in her sister's hand until it was too late. All it took was a single lunge forward for the blade to race towards her heart.

And then Shiori woke up.

Her hands immediately patted at her chest, searching for a wound to match the one she felt inside, newly reopened. Breathing became difficult with her panicked gasps, and the gloom of her room felt too much like the darkness in her dream.

It was just a dream… Only a dream…

Eventually–after counting slowly and controlling her breaths–she calmed herself down, rising out of bed and properly preparing for another attempt at sleep. Night had already fallen, and judging by the moon's journey through the sky, it was too late to visit the baths. Her dream had also robbed her of any appetite she would've had, not that she would've been able to bring herself to bother Kiriko for a midnight meal.

Which left sleep as her only option.

Onee-chan would never say that, Shiori told herself as she slipped under the covers, properly dressed and boots kicked off. She wouldn't try to kill you. She cares about you, even if she hasn't shown it lately. Just think of happier thoughts; think of when we went fishing together...

But her sleep was fitful after that, too haunted by jade eyes burning with hate.

Chapter Text

It had taken Shiori two years of considerate questioning to learn where Fumi had gone. Even then, Kaoruko hadn't been clear on where exactly her sister had disappeared off to, let alone why she had left without leaving more than a short letter behind for Shiori.

But that was back when no one had been willing to answer her questions. It was different here in Deion. As long as no one had anything to hide, Shiori was sure it'd be easier to find the answers she sought this time.

Shiori first started with the Whispering Medusa itself, since she was already there. Because neither Kiriko nor Shion were around when she descended to the common area, Shiori began by hesitantly asking the strangers lingering around about any passing travelers resembling her that they would be able to recall, and if they knew any crypts that could be found nearby. Belatedly, she asked after the other missing troupe members. But neither travelers nor locals had any recollections, so Shiori branched out of the inn to the other places in Deion.

The Whispering Medusa wasn't the only high traffic hub in the portside city. The locals helped direct her to other places that many people gathered around, like the Capella Library, Procyon Market, and Sirius' Armaments. There was even a street vendor that sold spices popular enough to draw a continuous line of customers no matter how many times Shiori passed by.

The spices were certainly delicious, if Shiori's burning tongue could attest.

Unfortunately, no one was able to remember if a woman bearing her resemblance had come by the city during the past two years, or the missing troupe members. With so many people coming and going in the city, they said, anyone would be hard-pressed to remember every face. They also told her that crypts were typically found beneath churches, and the only one in Deion didn't have one open to the public to anyone's knowledge. Shiori made sure that was true by heading to the church next to the Aldebaran Bridge and double checking for herself.

"A crypt? Yes, of course there's one. Where else would a sacred burial ground be located? Why do you ask?"

Shiori's eyes brightened. This was a good lead. "Has a woman resembling me come through this church before in the past two years? She would have the same hair color but styled straight, and she'd be slightly taller than me."

The priest hummed in thought, stroking his round chin. "A woman who looks like you… I do kind of remember someone like that. If you mean she was also as pushy as you're being right now."

Shiori pulled back with a blush. "I-I'm so sorry. It's just… I'm looking for my sister, you see."

"Well, plenty of blondes come by our illustrious church. But just like everyone else, none were ever allowed into our crypt. That place is reserved for only the most pious members of our religion, such as myself."

Her sister wasn't looking for this crypt? No, that can't be right. Fumi's notes indicated she was definitely looking for a crypt, and she had come to this city to do so. If not here, then where could Fumi have gone?

"That can't be right," Shiori protested. "Then are there any other crypts that can be found nearby? Maybe in the ruins, or built over an area where a church was previously loca–?"

"I have no idea," the priest answered tersely, his black eyes narrowing as he jabbed a finger at her. "There are no crypts other than ours. None, understand? Now I'm sorry, but I need to attend to other matters of higher importance."

"But–"

"Priest Andrew!" one of the church's assistants called out. "Ukagi-san says she needs your referral again!"

"Ah! I'm coming~" the priest gave Shiori one last stiff nod. "Well, have a nice day."

The priest turned his back to Shiori, leaving her alone with a sinking sense of cold defeat. Her view of the world narrowed until all the chatter around her became nothing more than white noise. Her legs moved of their own accord, following her instinctive habit of doing as others say to avoid causing an inconvenience.

Shiori had no idea what to do from here. She wasn't sure what to do after running around trying to find answers with only marginal success. And since her only lead was a bust, was there even a point asking the same questions to others who would just give her the same answers that she had already heard?

She stopped by the bridge at the edge of the water. Her legs lost the last of their strength, dropping her body into a sitting position. Unsure of what else to do, Shiori pulled her knees to her chest and rested her forehead on her kneecaps. Her body curled in on itself. She just needed to breathe.

Where did you go, Onee-chan? What did you leave me for?

Shiori tightened her arms around her legs. What am I supposed to do now?

HONK.

"AH!" Shiori shrieked in surprise. Her body jumped up on instinct, arms flailing in the air to balance herself. But no matter how much she struggled to right herself, her body had tipped too much to be saved. There was nothing she could do to stop herself from falling over the edge into the cold waters of the sea.

Quickly kicking herself back upward, Shiori took a deep inhale once her head surfaced above the waters. Through her ears half clogged with seawater, she could hear various murmurs of a gathering crowd as they flocked over to see what the commotion was about. Louder than them all, the honking of a swan pierced through her muffled hearing.

Shiori rubbed her eyes of seawater, frowning at the bird floating on the water. "Are you sorry at all for frightening me?"

It cocked its head to the side, giving her another loud honk.

Shiori dropped her head back down into the water, wondering how she could have messed up so much for even animals to forsake her.


At least one person in the crowd was kind enough to help her out of the water. They had also offered her a change of clothes, which Shiori declined. Trudging through the city with clothes soaked in seawater wasn't the most ideal, but going back to the Whispering Medusa to change seemed like the better option. She didn't want to trouble anyone else.

Shiori wrapped her arms around herself, hoping any amount of heat could stop her body from shivering. Although it wasn't a very cold day, even the slightest sea breeze blowing through her wet clothes was a danger to her, especially given her previous disposition for illness. Thankfully, her body wasn't as weak as it was in her childhood so she should be able to make it back to the inn without catching a cold.

Thanks to Onee-chan taking care of me.

Shiori shook her head, tugging her soaked coat closer to herself. I've relied on Onee-chan too much already. I need to get a hold of myself.

… I wonder what she would say if she knew I fell into the ocean because a swan scared me.

"Whoa! What happened to you? You look like a drowned rat!"

No, not that. I think Onee-chan would be more worried and– Wait–

Shiori whirled around so fast that drops of water flung from her still-wet clothes. "A-Amemiya-san?!"

The black-haired mage stood with her hands on her hips, eyes appraising Shiori up and down. "What? Were you so unsatisfied with the baths at the inn that you decided to take a swim in the sea instead?"

"N-No! This was just an unfortunate accident!"

"An accident, hm?" Shion's lips twitched into a faint smirk. "So why are you still wet? Don't you have any matches that could dry you in an instant?"

Shiori's shoulders slumped. "I didn't bring any with me. I was planning to save them for dire situations–"

"Wait, I was just joking. And I would think being soaked from head to toe is a pretty bad situation to be in." Shion raised an eyebrow, her usual frown returning. "So how were you planning to get dry? Don't tell me you were just going to walk back to the inn to change."

Shiori rubbed her legs together, both in embarrassment and to create friction for some much needed warmth.

"Look, you…" Shion sighed. "Alright, I'll help you out. Stand still for me. This will only take a few seconds."

"Oh no, you don't have to–"

A single glare stopped whatever protests Shiori was going to say. Unable to fight against the mage's stern frown, Shiori only nodded in silence and did as she was told.

Satisfied that she wouldn't move, Shion flicked her wrist like one would to pluck a flower–except it wasn't a flower she plucked out of nowhere, but her ornate staff instead. She gave it a single twirl, the head carving a glowing, orange circle in the air with the motion, before slamming the butt of the staff onto the ground. Shiori watched in awe as the circle filled itself with runes and other symbols she didn't understand.

"Remember, stand still."

As the circle's glow brightened, Shiori felt an intense heat emanating from it.

"A-Amemiya-san…?"

Shion thrust her staff forward, sending the circle flying towards her. Shiori shut her eyes out of instinct as it approached like a hot wind, fighting the urge to flee as the heat consumed her…

...And abruptly died. Just like that.

"See? That didn't take long at all," Shion's calm voice drifted to her ears, tinged with amusement.

Slowly, hesitantly, Shiori opened her eyes to see an equally-amused smile on the mage's face. The next thing she noticed was how warm and dry her clothes were now, as if they had been freshly laundered. But without the soap, of course. Surprisingly, her clothes no longer smelled of the sea. Even her hair had returned to its usual volume.

"Was… Was that really necessary?!" Shiori asked, ducking her head to hide her reddening cheeks as she brushed the salt from her sleeves. "I thought I was going to die…"

"Snapping my fingers would have been anticlimactic. And it didn't seem like you've seen a mage cast a spell before, so I...elaborated a little."

Shiori raised her head just in time to catch Shion averting her gaze. Her grip tightened around her staff as she continued, "Performers...like that sort of thing, don't they?"

Her cheeks heated up even more from Shion's unexpected abashedness. It was hard to think of a proper response, so Shiori could only stutter in response, "O-Oh, well… It was… nice of you to do so. Thank you very much." And added a low bow for comfort.

Shion sighed, dismissing her staff with another flick of her wrist. "Look… I'm sorry about yesterday. For frightening you, that is. All too often, people come to this city and don't understand what they're getting into. I've seen others like you who come here, hopeful, and walk away penniless or de–" Shion paused to clear her throat. "–demotivated. Young as you are, I'd hate to see you leave the stage, Yumeoji-san."

Now that I think about it...I never introduced myself, did I? Shiori's cheeks flushed again. "Um, how did you…?"

"Masai-san told me. I suppose that's another thing I should apologize for."

"No, no! I was also caught up in the flow–I should've introduced myself properly back then."

Shion stared at Shiori in silence, her eyebrows slightly furrowed as she kept her thoughts to herself. Right as Shiori felt herself start fidgeting again, Shion broke the silence to remark, "You're not very assertive, are you?"

The blush that had started to disappear now returned in full force. "I– Um… Yes, so I've been told."

"Interesting. That's… different."

"Different?"

"From...other performers I've met. Although I suppose you'd likely become someone wholly different once you step onstage and assume your role." Shion crossed her arms, turning her gaze to the stars carved onto the bridge nearby. "I was once a scriptwriter, you know, before I decided to properly study magic. I'm not sure how it is where you're from, but it's not uncommon for mages to help with plays to embellish the action or set the mood. I took an interest in the process, various things happened, and now here I am."

Tamao's troupe didn't have a mage among their members as far as Shiori was aware, nor did they use any magic for their shows. In fact...

"Honestly, you're the first mage I've met," Shiori sheepishly confessed.

Gaze still turned away from Shiori's, Shion's cheeks flushed a faint red, traveling to the tips of her ears. Uncrossing her arms with a sigh, the mage ran a hand down her face. "So not only was it your first time seeing magic at work, but it was your first time meeting– I'm terribly sorry, but not all mages are like me, I promise."

"I-I think you're fine as you are, Amemiya-san!" Shiori hurried to reassure her. "I'll admit it was a little intimidating to talk to you at first, but you were nice enough to help me and offer helpful advice."

"I can't help it, with you looking so lost. It's like watching a bullied puppy." Taking her hand away, Shion's gaze swept back to hers. The flush in her cheeks had disappeared, and her dark eyes had gained a piercing glint to them. "Yumeoji-san, what is it that truly brought you to Deion? You claim you're here on a break, but for someone intending to enjoy what the city has to offer, you aren't carrying much with you. And the Aldebaran Bridge is hardly a place that visitors often pass through."

No one else had given her much of an answer, no matter the questions she asked. Amemiya-san seems well-informed, and she might know some spells that could help. Maybe it wouldn't hurt to ask...

"I was…at the church," Shiori finally said.

"The church?"

Shion's gaze looked past Shiori toward the aforementioned location in the distance. Her harmless frown then dropped into a full on scowl, lips downturned so much that it almost seemed like she had tasted something foul.

"Ah. That place. I'm guessing you ended up talking to that irritating priest?"

"Um, I believe someone called him Priest Andrew." Shiori hesitated at the moment when Shion's displeasure seemed to intensify. "Do you… not get along with him, Amemiya-san?"

Shion huffed. "You can say that. There are some things–well, a lot of things–he'd rather I remain silent about. Not that I'd ever listen to someone like him, which just upsets him more."

"Things like…?"

"Like–" Shion snapped her mouth shut, worrying her lip. "Never mind about that. So, what did you end up asking him to leave him in another sour mood then?"

"I...asked if he knew of any crypts in the city," Shiori said, watching the mage carefully. After all of the disappointment from today, she wasn't sure if she could handle another look of confusion or annoyance. "Do you happen to know, Amemiya-san?"

She fought back a flinch when Shion's eyes narrowed, and prepared herself for yet another rejection. Her fists clenched at her sides as Shion opened her mouth…

… to release a long, drawn-out sigh.

"So that's what you're looking for? Of all things…" Shion pinched the bridge of her nose. "Now I get why you've been running around the place for the whole day. Of course everyone wouldn't give you any concrete answers, let alone that priest."

Shion dropped her hand to stare down at Shiori with the most intense frown she's made since their first meeting. Shiori took a small step back on instinct, her trembling hands warming with sweat.

"You really have some nerve coming all the way here just to ask for that." Shion crossed her arms over her chest, keeping her gaze on Shiori. "I won't deny the existence of it at least, but I will ask you this: why? If you're another one of those eager travelers looking for an adventure, or another ambitious treasure hunter hoping to make a quick fortune, I'm sorry to say–"

Shiori waved her hands frantically while stuttering, "N-No! I'm neither of those! I'm just…" Shiori paused to take a breath, then resolved herself to continue, "I'm looking for my sister. She left two years ago to come here looking for… the Devil of the Crypt beneath the stars."

One of Shion's eyebrows twitched at the name, though she remained silent. Since she wasn't interrupted, Shiori mustered a bit more courage to continue.

"I-I don't know what that means, but Onee-chan hasn't come back since she left. And it isn't just her–there were three others who left after her over these last two years, coming to this same place. None of them have returned since then…"

"And you came all the way here to look for them? Have you considered the possibility that maybe they just ditched your group and decided to leave you all behind?"

"That's impossible!" Shiori's hands stopped shaking as she answered with certainty. "Onee-chan wouldn't just abandon her career like that! Claudine-san, Rui-san, and Futaba-san wouldn't either. We've all worked together for all these years… I can't imagine them treating our bonds like that…"

Shion held up her hands, frown no longer as stern. "Sorry, sorry, I didn't mean to imply anything. I don't know them as well as you do, but it's definitely a possibility. People are capable of doing some pretty nasty things. Though…" Shion slowly dropped her hands to her side, head turning away, "they didn't seem like the type from what I can remember."

Shiori blinked, perking up at what Shion was implying. "Amemiya-san, do you… Do you know who I'm talking about?"

"I hear from a lot of people on a daily basis, but there are only so many idiots who would venture into that place even after a fair amount of warning. If you're looking for them," Shion turned her back to Shiori and gestured for her to follow, "then it's best if we discuss this elsewhere."


"...Oh! Amemiya-san, Yumeoji-san, welcome back!"

"Sorry Masai-san, but we'll be in my workshop," Shion said in reply to Kiriko's friendly greeting; the brunette having just exited a room that looked to be the inn's kitchen. She materialized her staff in her hand once more, turning to address the girl hurrying down the stairs. "Yumeoji-san, you have what you need, right?"

Shiori clutched her bag against her chest. "Y-Yes. The notes Onee-chan left behind are in here, along with everything else I've brought."

"Good, good. You're going to need all you can get if you plan on going there."

"Amemiya-san?" Kiriko called, eyebrows knitting together in worry.

"I'll explain later. Apologize to the patrons for me, won't you? Although I'm sure most of them are used to it by now."

Shion beckoned Shiori over to her. Once she was within Shion's reach, the mage wrapped her free arm around Shiori's shoulders and pulled her close to her.

"A-Amemiya-san?!" Shiori's cheeks burned at the sudden proximity. Her eyes darted to Kiriko, who remained standing in place with an unreadable expression.

Shion smiled down at her. "Don't let go. Spatial dislocation spells are a bit tricky sometimes."

Before Shiori could ask Shion to elaborate, Shion raised her staff to cut across the air. A glowing circle, its intricate patterns different from before, manifested beneath their feet. Shion then brought the staff down to the ground. Energy surged upward when the tip made contact with the sigil, forcing Shiori to close her eyes and lean into Shion to block the sudden brightness.

The world turned dark. For a second all sound even disappeared, until Shiori heard Shion's familiar firm voice.

"You can open your eyes now. We're here."

It took Shiori's vision some blinks to adjust to the dim lighting of the room they were now in. Unlike the lobby, only a few candles provided light–burning with an odd, purple flame and just enough for Shiori to make out most of the details in the enclosed area. The stone walls had no windows, just shelves full of organized books and artifacts. There was a single large work table at the center of the room, papers and tools covering its surface.

"This is your workshop?" Shiori asked, her eyes glancing across the room to take in every detail of the space. "It… feels like a basement."

"Well, where else is a mage supposed to set up the most efficient workspace? This isn't like in the time of the wars, where mages were veritable monsters with how powerful they were." Shion tapped the stone floor with her staff. "Nowadays, the closer we are to the earth, the easier it is to 'work our magic' so to speak. It grounds us, quite literally. Besides, it's not like I can have any peace if I'm working up there with the rest of the rowdy bunch."

"So...is it the basement…?"

Shion sighed. "Yes. Or rather, next to the basement. It's easier to have would-be thieves believe your workshop is located elsewhere, after all. But nevermind that–you had some notes your sister left behind?"

Shiori nodded, reaching into her bag to retrieve them. She held the pages out for Shion to take, but the mage simply gestured for her to lay them out on the workbench. With her other hand, Shion raised her staff slightly. Something must have happened, since the candles suddenly burned brighter, illuminating the room more than before.

"Now, let's see here…" Shion peered at the diary entries first, narrowing her eyes. "This seems incomplete. Is this all she had?"

Shiori's ears burned a little. "N-No, the others took the rest with them. This was all I could find."

"Well, you did say there were… what, three who went after your sister? I'm surprised they didn't take all of the notes in the first place. You said their names were…?"

"Isurugi Futaba-san, Akikaze Rui-san, Saijou Claudine-san," Shiori answered, "and Yumeoji Fumi, my sister."

Shion nodded to each one. "Their names do ring a bell. Short girl with pink hair, a tall brunette, a blonde who looks mixed, and your sister who looks exactly like you except a bit taller and with straight hair. Am I right?"

Shiori nodded fervently. "Yes, that's right! So you do know them…"

"I didn't talk directly with any of them. From what I know, none of them stayed in the Wandering Medusa. Though like you, they were asking around the town for the location of the crypt. I guess they had better luck than you and found the answers they needed without coming to me." Shion squinted her eyes at the sheet of paper. "Well, there are a few people here who aren't as tight-lipped as that priest, so I shouldn't be entirely surprised. Not that many, though."

"And…" Shiori fidgeted with the hem of her shirt, "how were they? Did they… seem well?"

"From what I heard, they seemed in good health and all in one piece. Granted, I didn't speak to any of them directly, so this is all hearsay, really. I'm sorry I can't give you any more information than that."

Shiori looked down with a sigh. "I'm glad they were alive at least…"

"Frankly, I'd be more worried about what happened to them after they left for the crypt," Shion muttered, donning a familiar frown. "But that's also something I can't speak for, and something you'll have to find out for yourself."

"Right…"

With nothing else to say, Shion moved onto the next page.

"Hmm... Now I can see why they didn't take this along with them," the mage continued. "Not only is the handwriting for this particular page awful, but the contents in the diary don't speak of the crypt itself, specifically. It's little more than a copy of an account from some maid or bodyguard about Deion. Fortunately for you, I can fill in the gaps."

Shiori's shoulders drooped. Kaoruko-san was kind enough to buy me time to check Onee-chan's room, yet I couldn't find anything helpful at all…

"Oh, don't make that face. I'm sure this is still useful from a historical point of view." Shion stood back up to her full height, crossing her arms as she regarded Shiori. "As for the crypt your sister and the others were seeking…as I said, it does exist in this city. I'd say it's Deion's worst-kept secret, but only among the locals–visitors can't spread secrets if they're dead, after all. Of course, that doesn't stop them from asking and going in anyway."

Shiori paled. Her arms stiffened by her side, her voice clogging in her throat. All the warmth in the room seemed to disappear–sapped right out of her body. Even being in close proximity to one of the candles wouldn't mitigate the chill coursing through her veins.

"De… Dead…?" she managed to utter.

Shion pursed her lips. "Well, we don't know that for sure–at the very least, no one has ever returned from it. I certainly haven't gone inside the crypt myself to know; I don't have a death wish. Everyone in their right mind knows to avoid that place like the plague, let alone seek it out to pursue some baseless rumor."

"Then why would Onee-chan and the others put themselves in that danger…?"

"Who knows? You can ask them that yourself. That is, if you believe they're still alive." Shion turned to fully face Shiori, her expression hard. "I'll be frank, the chances of any of them surviving this long are slim. Your sister in particular has been gone for way too long for me to have much confidence in her survivability. Describing that place as 'dangerous' would be an understatement. There's so much down there that even I don't know the full extent of its mysteries. So if I were you, I'd cut my losses and head home."

Shiori clenched her fists to calm the trembling of her arms. She understood Shion's logic. Two years was a long time, especially for anyone exploring a place like a crypt. It should be impossible for anyone to stay down there for that long without ever coming back to town to replenish their supplies.

Then there were the other unknown threats that could be down in the crypt. Shiori herself wasn't a strong fighter–or a fighter at all, really. She had brought along a dagger in case she ran into trouble on her travels, but it was nothing more than a trinket to ease her mind rather than something she knew how to properly use to its full potential.

"But…"

But?

"But I'm also pragmatic and… don't have any siblings," Shion continued, heaving a sigh. "I can't imagine what relationship you have with your sister or your other friends. If it were Masai-san going off to do something stupid, however…"

"I know it's unreasonable for me to go into such a dangerous place alone. But I can't leave them…" Shiori insisted, pausing briefly to take a deep breath. "I can't wait for Onee-chan to come back anymore. She's been gone too long, and if something did happen to her and the others…"

Shion worked her jaw, frowning once more in thought. "I see... You're the kind of person who won't leave people behind, stranger or not. So I'm going to assume that telling you to ditch this idea and go home isn't going to work."

She abruptly slammed the butt of her staff onto the ground. Shiori jumped a bit at the sudden vibrations cutting across the stone floor.

"Fine. If you're dead set on pursuing your missing sister and friends so much, then I'll do my best to prepare you." Shion gave her a brief once-over. "You're going to need a lot more than what you brought if you plan to make it far. Especially for someone as inexperienced as you. But first–"

Shion summoned a chair and seated herself next to her worktable. She shifted through the papers on the table until she found the right one. From what Shiori could tell, it looked to be a map of Deion and its surrounding area.

Shion waved her staff to summon another chair. "Take a seat. We're going to start with where this forsaken crypt is in the first place. You'll need to know where to go, right?"

Shiori nodded, doing as Shion told and sitting on the offered chair. "Onee-chan's itinerary didn't say where she was going after reaching Deion. And I couldn't read anything from the diary entry."

"Don't worry about the diary pages. Those are useless to you, anyway." Shion grabbed a quill and circled an area to the north. "I'm assuming you didn't enter the city from this direction, otherwise you would've had more luck with your questions. This is Deion's...historical district, I suppose–it's the oldest part of the city. If you head east…"

She drew a line pointing towards the right, and circled another area that seemed to spill over into the mountain range nearby.

"...you'll come across a ruined theater on the outskirts of the city. The entrance to the crypt lies beneath. There are some guards patrolling the area on occasion, but that's only to deter any children from going in. If you're old enough to carry a weapon and use it, they won't care if you go inside. There's no sense in getting in the way of someone with a death wish, after all."

Shiori swallowed down any lingering doubts. Voicing them would only delay Shion from helping her. She's come this far already; there was no sense having second thoughts if she wanted to find her sister and the others.

"As for supplies, I hope you've considered how long you'll be down there for," Shion said, passing a hand over the map. Before Shiori's eyes, the ink immediately dried. "I can try to teach you the spell for a simple flame, but if you're pressed for time," Shion turned her head away to grumble, "it might be easier just to stock up on torches. Since you can carry plenty of those around."

I do want to find Onee-chan and the others as soon as possible. But Amemiya-san has already shown how resourceful magic can be... And if there's a chance I'll be down in the crypt for a long time, I'm sure casting spells will come in handy.

"Actually, Amemiya-san…" Shiori hesitantly began, "If it wouldn't trouble you too much...could you teach me a few basic spells that would be helpful to know? F-For an emergency, of course!"

Shion snapped her head back to Shiori, eyes gleaming almost brighter than the candles. "So you get it now?! You understand me now?!"

"Um… yes?"

Shion leaned back and cleared her throat, cheeks flushing the faintest pink. "A-Anyway, that's good. Since you're pressed for time, I'll make sure to teach you the important basics, at least. It's good to be eager, but even the easiest of spells can't be learned with a snap of your fingers. I don't have anything better to do right now, so unless you want to call it a day we'll start your lessons now."

Shiori sat up straight, giving her temporary instructor her full attention. With no time to waste, she nodded and said, "I'm ready, Amemiya-sensei!"

"Please don't call me that. It makes my insides feel tingly." Shion shuddered. "A little too tingly. Reminds me that I have to consider taking an official apprentice at some point. But, now is neither the time nor place for that. You're on a pretty tight schedule, so unfortunately we're going to have to speed through the fundamentals so you can at least use the basic spells within the next day or two. Any objections?"

Shiori shook her head, then regarded Shion with her full attention. "Whatever you believe is best, Amemiya-san."

Shion grinned. "That's what I like to hear. Since you're so eager, we'll get right to it."


Just as Shion said, the two spent the next few days going over the fundamentals of spell casting and mastering the basic spells she would need to survive underground: lighting a flame, destroying rocks, forming holes in the earth, summoning water, and creating a standard protective barrier. It went surprisingly quickly; even Shion was impressed–and bemused–at Shiori's remarkable learning rate.

Shiori didn't linger on how strange it was to learn and apply the spells so quickly. Every day lost was another day her sister and the others were out there in the unknown. It didn't matter how fast Shiori picked up Shion's condensed teachings–she only needed to learn everything she needed to so she could be better prepared to pursue her true goal.

Once Shion was satisfied with the teachings she imparted to Shiori, she left Shiori the map she had used to identify the location of the crypt and went over everything Shiori needed to know one more time. She was still asking Shiori questions even as Shiori checked out of the inn and prepared to leave.

"Don't you think you've asked Yumeoji-san about each spell you taught her enough times already, Amemiya-san?" Kiriko asked, her eyes twinkling with amusement as her lips pulled up into a twitching smile.

Shion braced her hands on her hips with a light huff. "You can never be over-prepared, especially if you're heading to that place." Her eyes softened as she looked over Shiori one last time. "I just don't want anyone else losing their life to such a place anymore."

Shiori pursed her lips. She lowered her head to Kiriko and Shion. "Thank you for your concern, and all of your help. It's more than I can repay you both."

Kiriko covered her mouth to smother her giggle. "Oh, don't worry about it. After all, you've already paid the fee for staying in my inn."

"But…"

Shion scoffed. "If you really want to repay us that much, then come back alive once you're done with your business." Her lips curled up into a grin. "I still have plenty of spells to show you. Don't think you should stop at just the basics, with talent like yours."

Shiori's chest swelled with warmth. "Th-Thank you for your generosity, Amemiya-san. I'll be sure to take you up on your offer!"

"Now get going." Shion waved her hand, shooing Shiori off. "You've got a long journey ahead of you. I hope you find what you're looking for."

With one last thanks, Shiori bid the two farewell and began her trek toward the crypt. She followed Shion's directions through the city and up the mountainous terrain, taking small breaks whenever she needed to. The number of people she came across gradually dwindled the further away she went from the heart of the city and into the mountains. The buildings, too–serviceable ones, at least–until she eventually found herself passing nothing but dilapidated structures and boarded-up houses.

It took a few hours to walk on foot to her destination, since no one was willing to drag a wagon or even a single horse up to a place most people would rather avoid. Shiori would have liked at least an animal companion, but she knew not to make any more trouble than necessary.

It was already bad enough that she was going to such a forbidden location in the first place.

The crypt–or rather, the abandoned theater housing the crypt's entrance–wasn't nearly as hard to find as Shiori thought it would be, thanks to Shion's detailed markings and repeated questionings. Like Shion had mentioned, there were only a handful of guards patrolling around the area. They were all armed with at least one weapon, though they didn't look too imposing compared to what Shiori had imagined. And just as Shion had said, the guards let her through relatively easily; they just had to ask approximately ten times whether her head was alright and if she was sure she wanted to proceed.

"That's hell you're walking into," one of them called after her.

Shiori pursed her lips. Well, her sister and the others had been searching for a devil of sorts, hadn't they? Hell would be strangely fitting in that sense.

"Thank you for your concerns!" Shiori called in return, continuing along the cobbled path winding up to the theater without looking back.

The theater itself was definitely ruined–a stony, decrepit shell of its former glory, barely standing and crumbling in more places than Shiori could count offhand. Various pieces of rotting wood stuck out to block her way, either breaking off from the structure itself or littering her path. Shiori made sure to watch her step and avoid colliding with any to the best of her ability, though it became more challenging the further into the theater she went–away from the entrance and the soft glow of the setting sun.

It might be a little dangerous with all this wood, but if I can keep the flame small enough…

Shiori stopped to look around for a small piece of wood she could use as a torch. Once she found a reasonably sized piece, she held one finger above the tip and concentrated on that spot. Recalling Shion's teachings, Shiori imagined her magic flowing from the core of her being, traveling up along her arm and coalescing into her fingertip.

"It's almost unsettling how quickly you're picking this up. Are you sure you haven't done this before?" Shion had mused during her impromptu lesson, dousing the corner of the table that Shiori had accidentally set fire to in her panic. "If you can do this much already, perhaps I should teach you an earth spell for in case you're buried alive…"

Shiori tried to envision it–the wood setting itself aflame. According to Shion, most beginners and basic users would use a magic circle for something as simple as this, but apparently Shiori would have no need for one with how potent her innate abilities were.

"Just be carefulyou're not used to adjusting the output of your magic yet. You have a good start, but finer control is something that comes with casting it more often."

And just like before, the fire that suddenly burst into life was far bigger than Shiori had intended. Shiori yelped, instinctively holding the blazing torch away from her and frantically waving it in an attempt to lessen its flames. When that didn't work, she resigned herself to simply being more careful to keep it from accidentally burning her.

Now armed with a proper light, Shiori hesitantly continued her trek deeper into the theater. From what Shion had told her…

"There's only one easy way to access the crypt. You'll find that beneath the stage."

Shiori came to a stop in front of two large double doors, open just enough for someone to slip through. Although they were chipped and dented in various places, the doors were surprisingly intact compared to the rest of the theater she had just passed. It was even difficult for her to push at one of the doors with just one hand, so she braced her shoulder against it, throwing all of her weight to open it further.

The door dragged open slowly, kicking up a handful of dust that Shiori waved away with her free hand, coughing all the while. Once the dust settled, she took a tentative step past the entrance to take a first glance into what was hopefully the auditorium.

The inside verged on the edge of being pitch dark. However, there wasn't as much debris obstructing her way, and the ceiling here seemed like it was much higher than the crumbling foyer. Shiori dared to push a little more magic into her torch, augmenting it with a slightly larger flame to guide her through the darkness.

"The theater was built a century or so after the wars started to die down. Supposedly, it was one of the bigger buildings in Old Deion before the city expanded to the size it is now," Shion had explained, rolling up the map with a sigh. "I don't think the architects back then realized just how far the crypt had extended underground. They wouldn't have built the theater there otherwise."

With her torch bright enough, Shiori could see that she was on the mezzanine overlooking the stage down below. She took a few careful steps down the aisle stairs to test their durability. When they didn't immediately give way, she continued down towards the stage, passing worn-out seats with broken backs and missing cushions. Once she reached the rusted balcony rails, Shiori took a moment to bring her torch over the edge to look down to where she'd be descending further.

There were more seats like the ones she had just passed, encircling the half-collapsed stage at the center. Most were riddled with age just like the ones on the upper level. Unlike the mezzanine, however, the lower area was submerged in water that went up past the armrests of the seats and halfway up to the stage itself. It didn't seem like there was anything inhabiting the waters, if the stillness of its surface was anything to go by.

For good measure, Shiori picked up a small piece of debris and threw it over the guardrails into the depths. She heard the rubble plop into the water, then waited.

The water stilled on its own.

"Once the wars slowed down as generals went missing, Deion had little need of the crypt and sealed it off...or so the records say. Most of the accounts from back then were little more than hearsay and ramblings, so who knows what truly happened?"

Shiori found the stairs leading down to the lower area. Like the aisle stairs above, they remained sturdy enough for Shiori to descend without much trouble. Once she reached the last step, right at the water's edge, Shiori grabbed another piece of rubble and tossed it into the water.

Once again, there was a short plop, a ripple, and then stillness.

Shiori breathed in deep, calming her nerves, before taking her first step into the water.

"Time passed, people forgot, they constructed the theater as Old Deion grew… Things seemed fine for a short while."

Shion had paused back then, her stern gaze shifting away from Shiori's as her lips pursed into a thin line.

"And then the 'hauntings' started."

Shiori ignored the frigidness seeping into her trousers and pooling in her boots. Keeping her torch raised, she waded through the water until she reached the stage. Removing her bag from her shoulder, she placed it onto the platform before pulling herself out of the water. Her clothes clung to her, threatening to drag her back down, but a nearby cutout of a white lion submerged halfway into the water served as a stepping aid to make the final push onto the stage.

She raised her torch back up, using the light cast by its fire to glance around at the remnants of the stage.

"Supposedly, people could hear a violin playing at night after the theater had closed. And then it started to play during the day, too. Performers began to speak of a shadowed figure skulking about at the end of a hall, up in the rafters, waiting in the wings… It didn't take long for everyone to be on edge from the rumors and hallucinationsperformers and patrons alike."

Shiori stepped around a rusted swan fountain. A large hole bore into its side, revealing its hollow innard. She managed to take a few more careful steps before having to duck her head to avoid a cutout of a giraffe, broken at the neck like a forced display of a deep bow.

"But like every ghost story, things have to start off negligible before they take a turn for the worst."

"Did… Did someone die?" Shiori had asked.

"Not...exactly."

After bypassing the giraffe, Shiori prepared to straighten up–

"AH!"

Her leg jerked back to stop herself from leaping away from the thick spider web extending from the giraffe cutout. A single butterfly was stuck in the middle of the web, unmoving–long since dead. The immobile insect didn't appear to be wounded in any way. It was almost as if it had succumbed to its fate without a struggle.

Shiori placed her free hand on her chest, waiting for her racing heart to calm down.

"Within a month of the theater's grand opening, the stagehands had discovered a part of the flooring beneath the stage had collapsed. Perhaps too many people had walked over it, maybe there was a water leak, the equipment and supplies they stored under there was too heavywe don't know."

Shion had handed over the map, gaze locked onto hers.

"They sent a couple of stagehands to investigate, and that's when they discovered that Old Deion's crypt had reached this far. The city sent guards down below to investigate further, and they never returned. They sent mages next. ...They went missing too."

Shiori lifted her torch to move the spider webs away, doing her best to avoid touching the silky strands with her hand. Once that was clear, she stepped past the giraffe and raised her torch higher to get a better view of the stage.

Although the darkness made it difficult to estimate its overall size, Shiori had a feeling she was nearing what she was looking for. All she had to do was do her best to find the center of the stage…

"The city deemed the place too dangerous for ordinary citizens, and the theater was abandoned. But the entrance to the crypt still remained," Shion had continued. "That said...as a performer, I'm sure you know what Position Zero is?"

Shiori had nodded, brightening a little. "It marks the center of the stage, where the lead is supposed to take."

The mage had chuckled at her expression. "And if we remember that the theater was built on top of something…"

Shiori's eyes had widened as understanding dawned on her. "That's the entrance to the crypt?"

"It's close enough to the entrance. And as you know, Position Zerothe center of the stagetends to be marked so it'll be easy to locate. In this case, look for something on the ground in the shape of a T." Shion had imitated the shape by bringing her hands together, the tips of the fingers of one hand touching the palm of her other. "It might be hard to find at first, depending on the condition of the theater. You'll probably have to move a few things around."

…just as Shion directed her to.

Shiori stopped in front of an overturned white column blocking her path. Two flat, four pointed stars adorned the top of the prop, one bigger than the other. She used the tip of one foot to nudge the column, testing its weight. It barely moved even after she put more weight into her foot.

Shiori lifted her torch to look to the sides for a way around the prop. Overturned crates of broken glass bottles blocked one end. On the other was a giant broken chandelier missing all of its adornments except for a single flimsy crown hanging off one of its arms. Both looked to be too dangerous to try to move on her own, leaving her with no choice but to try to go through the overturned column.

Or rather, to go over it. The column seemed to weigh just enough that Shiori couldn't move it with one hand. However, it was at least sturdy enough for Shiori to use as a support to propel herself over.

She took a second to regain her bearings after her successful vault, particularly checking on her torch to make sure the fire didn't alter in size or intensity. Once she made sure everything was in place, she moved the light around while eyeing the ground until she found the recognizable T marking the stage floor.

"Position Zero…" Shiori knelt down and ran her fingers across the peeling purple paint. "If this is it, then…"

"Once you find Position Zero, it won't be hard to locate the actual way to get under the stage. I'm guessing there will be a huge hole somewhere near it that the others used to make it easier. I doubt the city was keen on making their investigators take the long way around."

Shiori lifted her head and raised her torch to look around. As Shion had said, there really was a noticeable gap in the stage just a little beyond Position Zero. It looked like the planks had been ripped open, creating a hole with plenty of space for Shiori to jump through.

Once she made her way over, Shiori directed her torch down into the darkness to get a better glimpse at what was beneath the stage. There didn't seem to be anything sharp or dangerous from a cursory glance. The ground wasn't too far from the surface of the stage either.

Deciding it was safe enough, Shiori first dropped her bag down before pulling herself through the hole into the enclosure. Her boots made contact with a cobbled floor that was more earth than stone at this point. Some water from the pool outside had seeped below here as well, forming puddles nearby that Shiori carefully avoided as she retrieved her bag and continued on.

The area beneath the stage was bigger than she had expected, but the crates, barrels, props and various broken equipment made the space feel smaller than it actually was. Just ahead of her, barely illuminated by the radius of light cast by her torch, was a large hole.

"Once you've made your way under the stage, you'll need to find something to take you further down the earth into the crypt itself. The investigators would have needed something to bring them down to the crypt, and I'd imagine a length of rope wouldn't do much good with how many people they've sent."

The 'something' in question came into view as Shiori pressed onward. It looked like an archaic version of a pulley system, situated above the deep hole that extended into an unknown abyss.

Shiori knelt down and grabbed a nearby pebble. She tossed it over the edge down into the hole, then listened carefully for the rock to make contact with the bottom.

"There should be a contraption of some sort to carry you down. I can't guarantee that the woodor whatever it was they usedhasn't rotted away, though."

Seconds passed in silence. There was no sign of the end.

Shiori swallowed the lump in her throat. Is it really that deep? She looked up at the pulley. Can I control it long enough to lower myself down?

The uncertainty crept up on her like a snake wrapping around her limbs. She suddenly became hyper aware of her still-soaked trousers, the flickering flames from the torch shaking in her hold, her clammy palms, the sweat sticking to her skin, her uneven breaths–

Shiori closed her eyes and placed her free hand against her chest, allowing the heat from her palm to seep through her skin and calm her erratic heart. She took a few slow breaths to normalize her breathing, drawing upon the techniques that Tamao had so graciously taught her.

Claudine's stern yet kind voice also came to mind. "Straighten your back. That's it. Feel better already, right?"

And Futaba's. "Widen your stance, Shiori. Not too wide, or you'll lose your balance."

"Fumi-san… has been gone for quite awhile, hasn't she?" Rui had asked her. "Is it strange that I miss her criticisms? I appreciate Tamao-san's kind remarks, but it was only after Fumi-san gave me that rough scolding that I was able to break out of my shell and really stand on stage with everyone. I…"

Rui had looked away, as if seeing Shiori induced a kind of discomfort that Shiori couldn't understand.

"I miss her."

Shiori missed her too. But it wasn't just her sister she missed. Rui, Futaba, Claudine–she missed all of them. She was sure Tamao and Kaoruko did as well.

Which was why she couldn't turn back. They had all been gone for too long. And Shiori swore to herself that she'd find out what happened to them, no matter what she needed to do. She had to push her own fears away; there was no time for hesitation.

Taking one last deep inhale, Shiori prepared her nerves to face the unknown. Skirting around the hole to reach the pulley, she held her torch close to the contraption to assess what needed to be done. The hoist seemed simple and easy enough to handle, even with her small frame. Thankfully, there was a small space to stick her torch in so she wouldn't have to decide whether she needed to descend with one arm controlling the pulley or give up visibility altogether.

Once her torch was notched in place, Shiori grabbed one length of the rope and slowly lowered herself down.

"From there… you'll be on your own. I can't give you much information on what you should look out for, since I've never gone down to the crypt myself. But even without firsthand knowledge, I can give you the standard warnings any adventurer should heed."

Shiori kept her eyes down toward the darkness, hoping to catch a glimpse of the bottom she needed to reach. Although she expected a long way down, she hoped it wouldn't take too long. Her arms could only keep the motions up for so long, and she wasn't keen on staying suspended in the middle of darkness for longer than she needed to.

"You're going to be heading into an old structure. A really old structure. The abandoned theater is one thing–you have to remember that the crypt was built before the theater was even conceptualized. So whatever you do…"

Crack.

Shiori's ears perked up at the irregular disturbance. Her head snapped upward, eyes frantically searching through the dimness for the source.

"… I hope you don't find yourself in a position where some rickety dinkety thing you're relying on breaks down on you. Because once you're down there, there's no one who can save you but yourself."

Squinting her eyes, Shiori managed to notice a tear high above her in the thick rope in her hold. The frayed section grew larger as gravity and upward tension pulled the rope in opposing directions.

Shiori's grip tightened on her lifeline. She could only stare, wide-eyed, as more and more strands broke apart. For all the basic spells Shion taught her, none had been about mending ropes.

And more importantly, Shion hadn't taught her how to act under distress. Shiori had learned how to improvise on stage, but she couldn't recall any of her acting skills at that moment.

In fact, she couldn't think of much at all besides the sudden realization that she was going to–

SNAP.

–fall.

She was falling, plummeting, screaming, crying–

The stories said a dying man's last moments were spent watching his life flash before his eyes. As one approached death, they would quickly relive their life right until the very end.

That did not happen to Shiori.

By the time Shiori could even bring the image of her sister's face to mind, all warmth was replaced by the excruciating agony of her body breaking beyond comprehension. Shiori didn't know how bad it was. She didn't want to know.

She couldn't know. Everything had been crushed. Everything was broken.

She had reached the end.

If only she had the capability to be disappointed in herself.


...So this is death.


The sound of hooves clopping against stone echoed throughout the chamber, followed by the mournful sigh of a violin.

"Within the tragedy of the Minotaur's solitude, Europa reminisces of the past," its owner sang as she walked, bow languidly sliding against string. "To the bull, not a single regret."

Perhaps she should quicken her tempo to greet her latest guest, but there was really no rush. Death itself had waited for her–a mere human could wait too. Especially one brimming with so much potential; so much love for the stage. But where had those bonds brought them? To their demise.

Poor thing, to still be bound by such rules.

"Can that really be said to be a sin?" she asked of the broken form lying amidst the rubble the fallen contraption had wrought. "As for you...are you, therefore, a sin?"

Illuminated by the flickering light of the girl's torch, she danced. Her bow glided across the strings, matching the fervor and surety of her steps. The burnt out sconces lining the chamber's walls flared to life with her performance–even the girl's dying flame grew back to its former size.

"Unruly emotions become a maelstrom," she called, twirling once and giving a sharp flick of her wrist.

The girl's limp form rose from the debris with the motion, suspending her in mid-air. A pale blue light began to emanate from the girl's chest, growing in size and strength as the violin worked its magic. Wounds began to close themselves, bones snapped back into place, color returned to her soft cheeks.

She pivoted on her heel, giving another quick flick of her bow and tugging the girl's heart out from her chest with her music. "Sorrow thus becomes a monster."

The heart floated over to hover in front of her, bubbled in the same blue light that was still healing its owner. Once still and lifeless, it now began to shakily beat once more.

"Does the light of the gods shine even here, in this crypt?" she hummed, gently guiding the thrumming organ towards the jeweled pendant resting upon her wavy, ginger mane. The heart coalesced into light, vanishing inside in a flash of pale blue.

With her treasure obtained, she stepped closer to the floating body as the last of the girl's wounds knitted closed. The blue light that had encompassed the girl now compressed into a thin wisp trailing from her chest to the pendant. She raised her bow and rested the flat of the bow hair against the ethereal strand.

She couldn't help but gaze at the connection in wonder. So light, yet so vibrant.

"Every time I persist with love…" she whispered, caressing the chord as if it were the most delicate instrument she could play.

So young. Just like–

Her head throbbed. Her other hand, still grasping the violin, came up to rest against the rhythmic pulse searing into her temple just below her horns.

" … the edge pierces me," she hissed, rising to her full height and plucking at the gilded strings in a sharp, hasty staccato. "I lose those I love."

The pain dulled, retreating to the back of her consciousness once more. She swept around with a flourish of her bow, dropping the girl back to the earth. The blue light receded from the girl's chest toward her pendant until there was no visible trace of any connection between them remaining.

She left one last note from her violin, a mournful tune soaring toward a crescendo. As she retreated, the winds carried one final verse to the newest addition to her crypt:

"I am Maesterion. Accept solitude and stand in the center of my heavenly stage."


Ba-dump.

Chapter Text

Ba-dump.

Ba-dump.


Consciousness slammed back into Shiori as if a horse had kicked her with its hindlegs. Reflexively, she jerked up into a sitting position while one hand slapped against her chest, fingers clenching her shirt in a feeble attempt to ground her shaky sanity. Chopped breaths heaved in and out from her lungs while her wide eyes darted across her body to check for signs of irrevocable damage.

Nothing. 

Her light, smooth skin was as unblemished as it should be; or rather, as any living human who hadn’t just dropped from an immeasurable height should be. Her other hand patted her body, finding all of the bones rightfully connected and unharmed. As she checked herself from head to toe, she found even her clothes to be in perfect shape. No tears in the fabric, no bloodstains–it might as well have been brand new.

Her fist clenched in front of her intact chest, eyes wide in disbelief. No, no, this isn’t right! I… I died, didn’t I…? 

Shiori’s panicked gaze landed on the broken remains of the pulley nearby, smashed beyond recognition. There was no way anyone could have survived that. The blood staining the floor beneath the wreckage was proof; a faint trail leading to where she sat. 

I definitely died... So how am I still alive...? Shiori thought, heartbeat pounding in her ears. 

Except that wasn’t her heart that she felt. 

With her hand still clenched against the front of her shirt, breaths ragged, Shiori couldn’t feel her heart beating at all. Instead, the beat seemed to come from all around her–the ground pulsing beneath her, the flames swaying in time from the sconces lining the chamber’s walls, her own torch dancing to the rhythm. A strange feeling tugged at something inside of her, growing more and more urgent as the unearthly tempo quickened. 

Move. 

I have to move.

Gritting her teeth and pushing down the rush of panic, Shiori hastily stood up. A sense of danger gripped her–one last warning before pain pulsed from her chest. The suddenness of it shocked her more than whatever intensity it had, bringing her to her knees. 

She couldn’t move. Nothing would obey her.

What’s going on?!  

The pain subsided as quickly as it had arrived. Unfortunately, control over her own body hadn’t yet returned–even twitching her fingers was still beyond her. At the very least, the strange tempo all around her began to pull back in both pace and intensity until it was a faint hum; like listening to a musician playing from several rooms over. 

Faint enough not to overwhelm her anymore, but loud enough to remind her of its existence. 

And then her finger twitched. 

Shiori paused in her ongoing struggle to move, mind racing as she tried to recall what it was that had changed between now and then. Fighting against the fear that threatened to consume her thoughts, Shiori forced herself to take stock of the situation. The strength of her efforts had been the same. As far as she could tell, nothing had changed inside the chamber, and the beat had continued to march on… 

The beat. The timing between each note, could it be…? 

Breathing was still something afforded to her, so Shiori inhaled deeply, trying to calm herself as she counted. 1 and 2 and 3 and 4, and 1 and 2 and 3 and  

There. 

On the fourth note, Shiori’s hand successfully clenched. On the first note after that, she raised her head. With the second, she tucked her feet under herself, recalling her performance training. By the third note, Shiori shot up to a stand, albeit a little too quickly. She caught herself on the fourth, hastily flowing into an impromptu dance to keep up with the beat. 

It worked! It actually worked!  

A nervous giggle escaped as relief wound its way through her, leaving her fingers tingling. With that problem out of the way, however, the elated feelings quickly disappeared as she realized that someone must have revived her. Someone had done something to her heart. Someone had cast this strange spell on her. 

As she shifted her weight from one foot to the other, matching the unearthly rhythm, Shiori’s gaze swept over to the lit sconces lining the chamber walls. She had noticed them earlier, but hadn’t paid much attention amidst her panic. Someone had to have lit them. No sconces would stay burning for more than a day–weeks, months–otherwise. 

Which meant she wasn’t alone in this crypt. 

Pain flared in her chest again, stealing away all movement. Shiori couldn’t even grit her teeth for some semblance of comfort. But she more or less understood how the spell worked now–it only took a few beats for her to fall into the rhythm again and regain control. It was her fault for not paying attention in the first place, too caught up in the fear her realization had brought. 

This is no ordinary crypt, either, Shiori mused as she retrieved what she could from the wreckage. Her bag had burst open from the impact, spilling everything she had brought. What food she had was either buried or dirtied, her water flask had burst, the papers she had brought with her were pinned somewhere amidst the rubble or sticking to– 

Shiori took a moment to look away, hand on her mouth to stop the bile rising up her throat. A frigid chill settled at the base of her spine, curling around like an unwanted, icy cat.

That’s right. I died. That’s mine.  

Shiori swallowed hard, trying to time her breaths to the beat of the crypt as she circled around. Now that she was finally here, she would have no need of those papers, anyway. With her bag destroyed, she wouldn’t be able to carry much from this point on. Her torch was thankfully still intact and burning bright, which left one hand free for something else. 

A glint caught her eye from the edge of the wreckage–the dagger she had brought for protection. The point had snapped off from the impact, but a blade was still a blade. In a place as unknown as this crypt, Shiori would need what she could to fend off whatever awaited within. 

For some time now, there had been a faint feeling somewhere inside of her, tugging her a certain way and beckoning her to delve deeper into the crypt. There was little doubt this was the work of whoever had revived her. If she followed this feeling, surely she’d find the culprit at the end of it. 

And maybe her sister and the others, too. 

Torch in hand and dagger in the other, Shiori made her way towards the lone doorway at the far end of the chamber. The flames from the sconces had changed as she matched the beat of the crypt, glowing different colors with each note. That was a good sign, right? 

More sconces flared to life as she approached the doorway, slowly illuminating the hallway beyond. There would be no turning back now, with the crypt inviting her in like this. 

How did the others feel when they came down here…?

There was no use thinking about that now. She would ask them herself when she found them. Shiori breathed in deep, steeling her resolve. 

I’m on my way, Onee-chan.


It quickly became clear that bringing the dagger had been a good idea. 

“S-Stay away!” Shiori shouted, swinging her blade at the blue slime bouncing back and forth. Her dagger sliced between its eyes, and the monster exploded in a burst of blue goo. Some of its remains landed on her arms and the front of her shirt, which she hurriedly brushed off. Thankfully, the goo wasn’t the sticky kind. 

That was her fourth slime thus far. She should have learned to avoid its goo by now. 

Compared to the other monsters she had encountered, however, the slimes were relatively harmless. Demonic bats, moving skeletons, zombies, ghosts… Monsters she had only heard about from stories and old wives’ tales had appeared before her, ready to kill. What Shiori couldn’t strike down, she retreated from as best as she could to the crypt’s beat. It was a dangerous place for everyone–human or monster–with traps and crumbling floors here and there. 

If not for how dire the circumstances were, perhaps she would have been more concerned about taking the lives of monsters or undead–especially the latter. 

Shiori wasn’t blind. Unaware of most things, maybe, but she could still recognize the faded emblem of Deion on their tattered clothing and rusted armor. When it came down to it, it was kill or be killed, and if she died here–again–she’d never be able to find Fumi. 

All she could do was offer an apology and hope that their souls would finally find rest.

Although… I’m not sure if this place would allow it, with its strange rules.

The monsters had a pattern in their movements that they never deviated from. Shiori had stumbled across a treasure chest containing some sort of protective amulet. Another chest contained a better torch. The traps themselves were things one normally wouldn’t find in a crypt. And most of all...

“Awoooo!” howled the werewolf guarding the locked door up ahead. 

...A boss monster. Shiori ducked around a corner, hoping that it hadn’t spotted her. This isn’t just a crypt anymore–this is more like a dungeon!

She had heard stories from Futaba about them–places that had absorbed enough magic from the land to transform into something else. Sometimes a mage was behind it; sometimes it simply happened on its own. Regardless of which, Futaba had mentioned that only skilled adventurers or soldiers could hope to clear them. 

Can I do this? Can I really do this…? Shifting her weight from one foot to the other, Shiori chanced a peek around the corner. 

The werewolf continued pacing in front of the golden door, dark brown fur bristling and crimson eyes alert for any who would dare to approach. It was bigger than any monster she had faced so far, probably towering at almost twice her height. Its claws looked sharper than any of the rusted weapons the skeletons and zombies had wielded. 

And definitely sharper than her broken dagger. 

The beast paused in its pacing. It lifted its head upward, nostrils twitching sharply while snapping its head back and forth.

Just as its red eyes glanced in her direction, Shiori swerved back against the wall and shut her mouth to temporarily stop her breathing. A werewolf’s natural instincts were dozens of times better than a human’s. If she made too many unnecessary movements, it would surely catch her either by sight, sound, or scent.

Except this wasn’t a normal hunt. She wasn’t allowed to hide and stop moving.

Pain flared within her, centering around her chest. The feeling of having her senses and agency robbed from her was exactly the same as the few moments after she arose from her… descent. Her mouth opened in a silent cry, eyes clenched shut. Both hands dropped the items in her hold to claw at her chest instead.

The chamber resonated with their echoes.

Oh no, the werewo–!

A low growl drifted around the corner, past Shiori’s still recovering senses to her ears. She only had a moment for the dread to register before rapid footfalls followed the beast’s snarl. She pried one eye open just in time to see the large monster swerve around the corner on all fours, claws sparking against the stone floor.

Its crimson eyes glinted dangerously, illuminated by the light of her fallen torch. Saliva dripped from its snarling jaws. For a moment Shiori wondered if it had smirked . But that would mean–

The werewolf shot forward, the sudden movement pulling Shiori from her half finished thought. Most of her senses had returned, though the muscles in her limbs weren’t ready to cooperate just yet.

However, her mouth was fine. And she could think again as the pain subsided. If she couldn’t move to dodge, then that meant putting on some defense.

The werewolf’s crimson eyes shined in tandem to her magically conjured flames.

“You’re not used to adjusting the output of your magic yet. You have a good start, but finer control is something that comes with casting it more often.”

Shion’s words remained engraved in her memory. Well, it was a good thing Shiori didn’t need fine control right now.

Shiori focused her attention on the torch lying on the ground. Throwing caution to the wind, Shiori willed the flames to grow as large as they could within the boundaries of the crypt.

The embers shot upward into a blaze, forcing the werewolf to skid to a screeching halt with a high pitched yelp. As it whimpered pathetically behind the fire, Shiori regained full control of her movements once more. She snatched her fallen dagger and took advantage of the werewolf’s surprise to retreat and find another corner to duck behind. It meant moving away from the door leading to the next area, but she wouldn’t be able to safely proceed if it meant the werewolf could easily catch up to her.

Which meant she needed to somehow kill a beast that could squash her like a fly. And all she had was a broken weapon on hand…

Shiori shook her head, making sure to shift her weight from one leg to the other to keep up with the beat. I can’t back down now. I’m sure Onee-chan and the others had to survive against these monsters. If they were able to overcome them, I’ll have to as well.

Shiori tightened her grip around the handle of her dagger. As she considered her options, Shiori recalled another matter she had discussed with Shion before leaving for the crypt.

“Given the disappearances, rumor has it that the crypt is home to… fantastical creatures, so to speak,” Shion had said as she gathered a few tomes from her bookshelves. “I can’t give you any specifics, since none of this has been confirmed by anyone alive or sane. But if they’re anything like the monsters we do know about, then you’ll have even more to worry about than just a barely stable crypt.” Shion’s eyes had glanced at Shiori, trailing up and down from head to toe. “Especially considering your stature.”

After regaining her bearings, Shiori glanced around the corner to check on the obstacle she now must overcome. Although her excessively large fire was still burning strong, the werewolf was no longer whining with fear and had returned to sweeping its head back and forth, growling lowly in search of its prey. Even with its large body, her conjured flame was large enough to block most of its view; Shiori herself could only make out half of the beast’s face from her hiding spot. 

However, the fire wasn’t wide enough to cover the entire expanse of the chamber–the rest of its body should come into her line of sight if it moved. Neither of them had full view of the other.

That could be worked around.

“You’re small, inexperienced,” Shion’s gaze had fixated on her arms, “and physically weaker than you should be for this. Which means you can only fight like a weak person–” Shion had tapped the side of her head, “with a little bit of compensation.”

Steeling her nerves and grip on her dagger, Shiori darted out from her hiding spot with her steps as light as possible, rushing toward the flames. She then circled around the fire at the last second to come up behind the large beast. With its back to her and its immense size easily dwarfing hers, there weren’t many vitals she could target. So she aimed for the best way to cripple the werewolf’s movement–by stabbing her dagger where its Achilles tendon should be.

The beat. I have to keep moving!

Shiori crouched low in tune to the rhythm of the crypt, ripping her dagger out from the werewolf’s leg as it whirled around. By chance the instinctive movement saved her head from being caved in by the werewolf’s sudden swing of its arm. The thick limb sailed over her head, ruffling the tips of her hair.

Her breath hitched sharply. I almost died. The dagger shook in her hold. Again. I almost died again.

The werewolf howled in pain, the sound shaking Shiori from her stupor and reminding her that she needed to stay alive. The wound in its leg brought it down to its knees, now closer to her height and opening up a few more vitals for Shiori to target.

I have to move. I have to–!

In time to the next beat, Shiori ran forward with both hands on her dagger, ready to pierce the blade through its heart.

At the last moment, the werewolf regained its bearings and snapped its head in her direction, crimson eyes flaring in anger. It crouched down and surged toward her with its jaws wide open, large enough to engulf her whole–

–with its throat in her dagger’s trajectory now, instead of its heart.

Shiori barely had time to yelp in surprise before the werewolf was on her. She felt some resistance against her grip on the weapon before the beast pushed her down to the ground, knocking the breath out of her.

The crushing weight above her wriggled and gurgled unintelligibly, then fell completely still.

Warm liquid pooled onto her hands. She had taken its life. She couldn’t move with this realization. She… had stopped moving.

“Ngh–!”

Pain pierced through her again, robbing her of her freedom. It took a few seconds for the pain to subside enough for her to think again, then a few more moments before she could twitch her first finger.

I can’t stop. I need to… I need to keep going. I can’t–!

Shiori wriggled from side to side, slowly tugging herself out from the body collapsed on top of her. Between timing her movements to the beat of the crypt and dislodging her dagger from the werewolf’s throat, it took a few minutes for her to fully pull herself out. Once freed, she rose to her feet on shaky legs and took another beat to catch her breath.

Shiori’s free hand clenched in front of her chest, her eyes unable to leave the werewolf’s fallen form. I did it. But why… why do I not feel relieved?

No, there was no time to linger on matters that she had no control over. Shaking her head and giving her cheeks a good wake up slap, Shiori doubled back to retrieve her still burning torch.

The flames were still burning strong and showed no sign of abating any time soon. Shiori couldn’t even try to grasp the piece of wood with how much it continued to flare. She could extinguish the magically-powered flames with a water spell, but that would render the torch useless as well.

Shiori sighed, her shoulders drooping in defeat. I’ll just hope there’s something to use to light a new torch in the next chamber.

She looked down at her shirt, now stained with the werewolf’s blood. Thankfully, none of it got above her chest and onto her face. Unfortunately, Shion hadn’t taught her the laundry spell, and so she had no way of cleaning herself up. The blood was already starting to dry–at this rate she’d permanently smell putrid. But there was nothing she could do about it. Lamenting about spilled milk–or in this case blood–was only wasting her own time and energy.

Fighting back the urge to gag and gathering her nerves once more, Shiori turned her back on the defeated monster. She made her way to the golden door that would take her to the next part of the crypt, stopping in front of it for a moment to take a deep breath. Once she was ready, she pushed the door open and proceeded to the next set of challenges awaiting her.


The door had led her into a flight of stairs descending down to the next area. There were walls creating distinct “rooms” just like the last floor except the ceiling was much higher, extending many meters upward. To Shiori, it seemed more like a labyrinth in a cave than an underground tunnel.

Most of the monsters in this second floor were similar to the first, crawling with less dangerous enemies like the slimes and zombies from before. But there were undead mages and skeleton knights mixed in among them–some bearing the emblem of Deion, some with the white lion, others with a crimson phoenix, and more that Shiori didn’t recognize. 

Although she was able to find another stick to start a new torch, her dagger was barely usable after she had abused it against the werewolf. Its hide had been thicker than she had expected, warping the blade after she had stabbed into the beast twice. But for now, it was still fine against the lesser monsters. As for the undead mages and skeleton knights, they thankfully weren’t as intelligent as they were in life. Baiting them towards the traps and holes littering the place took care of them. 

But it probably wouldn’t work as well against the giant crow circling near her current hiding spot. Its dark, feathered body blended in with the shadows of the crypt so well that Shiori would’ve had a hard time tracking it if it weren’t for the monster’s beady golden eyes and streaks of white and red lining its wings. The single feather sticking out from the top of its head would have been comical if the massive bird didn’t look like it could swallow her whole.

It wasn’t flying particularly fast, but it would be difficult to kill if it remained airborne. She could try shooting it down with magic–that is, if her aim and reach were good enough. Her damaged dagger at the very least didn’t leave her many options.

A dungeon had treasure chests. Surely there would be some on this floor too that could have what she needed?

Palms clammy with sweat and fear prickling up her spine at the thought of not finding anything, Shiori retreated from the crow’s domain as silently as she could. At the very least, most of the monsters on this floor had already been dealt with, leaving her free to search. 

Though a spell to locate things would be useful to know, Shiori inwardly lamented, eyes darting back and forth as she hurried down the stony halls. There were a great deal many things she should’ve asked Shion but hadn’t thought to. 

The crow’s high-pitched cry sounded nearby. Had she accidentally doubled back? 

Or did it somehow follow – 

Before Shiori could complete her thought, her boots snagged on something as she rounded a corner, pitching her forward. Hands flailing, she barely managed to stop herself from smashing her face against the rough floor.

It was a good thing there was no one nearby, and the crypt so dim, because Shiori was certain her cheeks were flushed scarlet from nearly face-planting so pathetically right now. Spinning around on her knees with an indignant huff, her eyes searched the ground for the offending object that had obstructed her path.

A dark red crossbow laid on the ground, partially poking out of some debris nearby. Whether Shiori had tripped on the rubble or the weapon itself, it didn’t matter–it was exactly what she needed. She shuffled forward to get a better look, gaze sweeping the area for its bolts. While a crossbow would be handy, it would be useless if it couldn’t fire anything. 

There! Shiori placed her torch down and tossed aside her dagger. Both hands now free, she set to work retrieving the sturdy bolts from amidst the rubble. She was only able to find three of them, but she hoped three would be enough for the job.

Um… I think you put these in like this–  Shiori let out a small squeak as one of the bolts notched into place. She slapped her free hand over her mouth, holding her breath and waiting for the inevitable attack from the monster who should have noticed her.

The giant crow didn’t approach. It continued to circle in place, oblivious to the nervous human below.

Shiori released a sigh of relief. Maybe crows can’t hear as well as wolves.

With one bolt notched in place, Shiori tucked the other two into her belt to test the weight of the crossbow in her hand. It was different from the crossbows they had used as props for their plays–lighter, more compact, and designed to be held in one hand while the other hand could support the foregrip.

It was also unlike typical weapons in another regard, if the magic flowing through the crossbow was of any indication. Shiori was no expert on magical weaponry, but she guessed she should have no problem with firepower.

Now if she could only aim right. Shooting from a distance while bending her knees up and down to the beat of the crypt wasn’t exactly the easiest feat. The alternative was to shuffle side to side, but that would waste more of her energy while still obstructing her aim.

Keeping one finger resting on the trigger, Shiori squinted one eye to focus her aim on the moving crow. Yet even with her left hand resting on the foregrip to steady the weapon, she just wasn’t used to adapting to her movements to aim properly.

Shiori nibbled her lip, drawing shallow breaths to follow the rhythm. Its body is big. I can hit it even if I’m not completely dead center. I just have to…

Trust her instincts. Her finger pressed against the trigger, releasing the bolt from the crossbow. The recoil jerked Shiori back a bit, forcing her leg to shoot back to catch her balance.

She looked up just in time to see the bolt nick the crow’s left wing, eliciting an ear-piercing screech from the monster. Although Shiori mostly missed her mark, she did enough damage to lower the crow’s altitude and tilt it off balance.

Its beady gold eyes snapped in her direction, blazing with fury. Releasing a long cry, it flapped its wings and dove straight toward her.

Shiori dodged out of the way just in time as the crow swooped past her, missing her by a hair’s breadth. However, she was unable to catch her footing with the whirlwind surrounding the monster knocking into her.

“Ah!” Shiori flew back with a surprised shout, tumbling across the floor until she rolled to a stop on her forearms. She had only a moment to regain her bearings before the crow had changed its trajectory for a second attempt at its revenge.

This time when the crow surged toward her, Shiori called a small gust of wind of her own to give her legs an extra push. With the added force, she was able to evade the crow with enough space to avoid the crow’s momentum. At the same time, she pulled out the second bolt, notched it in place, aimed the crossbow at the crow’s eye, and pulled the trigger without a second thought.

The second bolt stayed true to its target. But before it could come close, the bolt was knocked back by the wind generated by the crow’s flapping wings.

There’s not enough force?!

The crow didn’t give Shiori another moment to rest. It swooped in once more, forcing her to move out of the way again. Once she was out of its immediate range, Shiori reached for the last bolt tucked in her belt–

Shiori’s hand froze above the bolt. This is my last one. I can’t waste this!

She channeled wind to the bottom of her feet again to avoid the crow’s relentless assault. It’s bullheaded movements gave her easy access to its vitals, but it was all useless if she couldn’t break past the wind serving as a pseudo barrier.

She needed more force. What little magic remained in the crossbow wasn’t enough. She needed something else to supplement it. Some magic of her own…

Shiori skidded to a brief halt, the wind around her legs tousling her long blonde hair. She looked down at the magic giving her the added strength to fully avoid the crow.

That’s it! If I can apply the wind to my legs, then for the crossbow bolt…!

Mindful of the beat, Shiori reached for the last bolt and notched it in place. Once it was ready, Shiori added another wind spell around the weapon, concentrating on the bolt.

Once the crow flew toward her again, Shiori evaded its attack just as she did before. This time, she kept a steady aim on the crow’s eye, even past the wind circling around the bolt notched in place. This time, she kept her free hand on her right wrist instead of supporting the crossbow directly.

Please… Please hit !

Shiori grit her teeth and pulled the trigger. The recoil was even stronger than the first two times, jerking her back hard enough to knock her onto her back. She quickly shook her head and jumped back to her feet–she wasn’t keen on missing a beat and becoming immobile when she hadn't made sure her last bolt had hit its mark.

Shiori looked up, and her eyes widened in horror. The bolt hadn’t just hit its target. It had completely torn the now-static crow’s large head off. Nothing remained above its neck except a gaping emptiness.

With its large wings no longer flapping, the headless monster crashed back to the earth with a reverberating thud . Shiori slowly staggered toward the fallen crow, her eyes still wide in disbelief.

“Just be careful you’re not used to adjusting the output of your magic yet.”

In her desperation, Shiori had forgotten any ounce of restraint. She hadn’t realized it was possible for a simple crossbow bolt–that couldn’t even break through wind at first–to suddenly tear off a massive beast’s head. Even if this monster wasn’t human, it still bled and died like she could and did.

Her boots stepped in a puddle of the crow’s fresh blood. The stench of iron wafted up to her nose. The urge to gag clogged her throat. She had to turn away with her free hand over her mouth.

No, it was too hard to stay calm. She was too weak for that. She had no choice but to release her distress from her throat onto the ground.

Unfortunately, the crypt waited for no one. Even through the shock, Shiori remembered what she came here to do, and the relative rules that this place seemed to impose on her. She didn’t have the luxury to stop now.

Shiori straightened herself and wiped her mouth with her free hand. Her right hand still held the mysterious crossbow, but now that she was out of bolts it was just another short ranged blunt weapon. She either had to find more bolts, or another weapon.

Her eyes drifted back to the dead crow for a second. She tore her gaze away before she could get a better look.

Perhaps another weapon that didn’t require magical augmentation, then.

Assuming the crow was this level’s boss, its death meant Shiori was free to check around for any new weapons to use. She only hoped she wouldn’t find the next one by tripping over it like she had for her last weapon.

After going back to pick up her torch, Shiori wandered around the area to search for anything resembling a weapon or something that could house one. She eventually happened across an alcove near the golden door the crow had initially been guarding, with a treasure chest tucked inside. Just like the others she had found on the first floor, it gleamed with a certain newness that seemed out of place in this decrepit crypt. 

Except Shiori didn’t care about opening it right now. Not when her gaze had landed on an achingly familiar swordbreaker lying forgotten on the ground a few meters away. She could never mistake that weapon for another–not when there was only one swordbreaker she knew of with a green jewel embedded between the guard and the hilt.

Why…? Shiori shuffled over to the isolated weapon, gingerly picking it up as if it were a forgotten memento. Why was this left here?

If Shiori had any doubts that her sister had come through this crypt, they were gone now. Fumi had definitely passed through this area. She had discarded her weapon for some reason, but there was no doubt that Fumi had been here.

Shiori clenched her hand around the leather hilt of the swordbreaker, once more determined to continue through the crypt to find the ones she sought.

Without her bag, Shiori had nowhere to store any extra weapons. Considering she was out of bolts, Shiori chose to leave the crossbow behind and take the swordbreaker with her instead. Though, choosing to leave something of Fumi’s was never an option.

But the swordbreaker was just another short-ranged weapon; a rather niche one, at that. The chest nearby may have other items of use, so Shiori turned her attention back to it and opened the lid to check its contents. For all of its size, the treasure the chest housed inside was small in comparison–just a silver ring nestled amidst layers of velvet cloth. But if it was anything like the protective amulet she had found on the first floor, it was bound to be useful in some way–even if she had no clue how at the moment.

Shiori slid the ring onto her left middle finger. Grabbing the swordbreaker and her torch, she rose to her full height and stretched out her sore muscles while checking her body for any serious issues. 

Despite the rough treatment from the force of the crow’s enormous gusts of wind, she had somehow walked away with only a few dirty patches on her skin and clothes. It must have been due to the amulet she had picked up earlier. Shiori herself certainly wasn’t sturdy, and she didn’t know a spell that could toughen her body.

Unfortunately, the amulet did nothing for her clothes. In addition to the dirt stuck on her from being tossed around, there was the blood staining the front of her shirt from killing the werewolf, and now the blood that caked her boots as well.

The scent of iron continued to cling to her as she made her way to the golden door marking the exit. With slumped shoulders, Shiori grew more convinced that she should have asked Shion for her laundry spell before parting ways.


The monsters here were even more difficult than the previous floor, consisting of mostly skeleton knights and undead mages. With Fumi’s swordbreaker in hand, Shiori had a better time taking them down directly instead of relying solely on the traps. But not by much, unfortunately–each encounter still wore away at what stamina and strength she had left. This floor also had a faster tempo compared to the previous two, forcing her to increase her pace. 

She had once dreamed of performing for hours. Now that wish had been granted. 

“Is it bad that I’m starting to miss those slimes?” Shiori sighed out loud, stabbing another undead mage in the chest. “They don’t leave smelly stains…”

At least she stopped flinching whenever they screamed before disintegrating into black smoke. Compared to the boss monsters she had faced so far, they weren’t quite as scary anymore. Disturbing, perhaps, but they no longer made her tremble in fear like they had at the start of the second floor. 

Shiori could save her trembling for the dragon that guarded the golden door up ahead. 

Unlike the other doors, this one was more ornate and bore the emblem of a stylized violin. As for the dragon itself, its red scales stood out starkly in the light of the chamber, hard and definitely difficult to pierce through with a mere swordbreaker. Targets were more limited than the werewolf and the giant crow, but not all of the dragon was impenetrable. As it raised its head to yawn–dragons could yawn?–Shiori spotted a patch on its chest devoid of scales. 

It was oddly convenient, but she wasn’t going to look a gift from this crypt-turned-dungeon in the mouth. 

A faster beat. An incompatible weapon. A small weak spot. A veritable dragon , of all things. Shiori was no knight or hero–could she really defeat it with so much stacked against her?

It’s not as if I have much of a choice. She tightened her grip around Fumi’s swordbreaker, shifting anxiously on her tired feet to the crypt’s rhythm. I’ve defeated the others, haven’t I? If I don’t defeat this one too, I won’t see Onee-chan ever again.

The dragon’s scaly nostrils twitched sharply once. Twice. Thrice. It swept its head back and forth in a manner Shiori had seen before from the werewolf, lumbering further away from the golden door. 

Her clothes. There was no way a beast like that could ignore the scent of blood. 

The dragon’s brown eyes found hers, and legs charged with adrenaline, Shiori dashed into the large chamber that served as its lair. She dodged to the side just as a blast of scorching fire shot past her, singeing the tips of her boots. Had she stayed in that corridor leading into the boss room, she would’ve been burnt alive. 

Move, move! Shiori urged herself, tucking into a roll and launching herself back to her feet. She nearly stumbled from the force, but caught herself just in time to the beat. Her leg muscles ached from the strain. 

A loud roar reverberated throughout the chamber, causing even the stones beneath her to vibrate. Her ears rang from its volume, but thankfully the crypt’s rhythm could still be felt through her temporarily muffled hearing. 

Shiori turned her attention back to the dragon and nearly sighed in relief at seeing that it hadn’t moved too far from its previous position. Although the dragon was larger than the other two bosses, it didn’t share the same speed as them. But what it lacked in speed, it made up for it with strength and defense. Flames were already gathering in its maw, ready to aim another blast of fire that would consume her whole.

Fire… She had a water spell, didn’t she? And a basic barrier, if needed. 

Shiori tossed aside her torch–she would have little need of it now between the dragon’s flames and the sconces lining the boss room. She thrust her free hand out as the dragon’s mouth opened wider, calling upon what scraps of magic she had left inside of her. Shiori tried to imagine water shooting out from her hand. 

What formed instead was a small barrier. 

What?!

Shiori barely had time to process the change before the dragon’s fire crashed against the botched spell. All thoughts about her failure were knocked to the back of her mind. Her body nearly followed suit if she hadn’t dug her feet into the ground to hold her stance. She concentrated on fortifying her barrier through her shaking hands, gritting her teeth as the fire threatened to push her back.

CRACK.

Shiori ignored the sound, nodding her head to match the beat of the crypt as she tried to hold against the dragon’s flames. But even through the fire’s burning intensity, the increasing fissures in her barrier were spreading like spiderwebs and growing impossible to miss. If she had to guess, her spell wouldn’t last the next two measures.

But what could she do? If she lowered her hands or even moved them from their place, the barrier would immediately break and there would be nothing stopping the fire from burning her to a crisp. That meant throwing her swordbreaker wasn’t an option, even if it could somehow pass through the flames to hit the dragon in its small vital spot. 

Repairing her barrier on the fly was out of the question as well. It was clear by now that she hadn’t practiced magic enough to master fine control. Instead of mending the cracks, too much magic could cause the spell to explode in her face.

Wait, that’s it! I wouldn’t want the spell to blow up on me, but if I redirect the flow in the opposite direction…

Just like everything so far, it was a gamble. Shion hadn’t specifically taught her how to redirect her magic, but it should be simple in theory. Casting spells relied partly on the mage’s imagination, after all. As long as she didn’t think about her earlier failure, she should be fine. 

Probably. Besides, she was used to overdoing things by now. She just had to make sure it exploded away from her, and not in her face.

Breathing in deeply, Shiori focused on shoving her magic outwards and away from her. As she poured one last burst of energy into the cracking barrier, she imagined the magic accumulating in front of her to swirl in circular movements like the movements of her arms and legs during a dance. And just as her limbs would need to flare outward to strike an arabesque pose, Shiori concentrated on directing the backlash of the explosion away from her body and toward the dragon and its flames.

Her energy rammed against the jet of fire, overwhelming it within seconds. Her magic dispersed the flames and shot into the dragon’s face, blowing it back and off balance. Before it could fall, one of its hind legs shot back to catch its tittering mass. It whipped its head side to side, a low growl rumbling deep in its throat.

In its confusion, Shiori ran forward with the swordbreaker aimed at the soft spot on its chest to end the fight before the dragon could recover. But she underestimated how fast it could shake itself from its stupor. Its fierce brown eyes locked with her gaze, drawing her attention away from the tail that flicked at its side. By the time she noticed it moving in her periphery, the tail had whipped around, aiming for her head. She didn’t have time to brace for impact.

She didn’t need to.

Right as the tail was about to strike true, the ring on her finger flared to life in a blinding flash of white light. Magic shot out from the band, encasing the tail in a block of ice and stopping its momentum.

Wha–?

The dragon’s roar pulled her from her confusion. It swung one of its claws down towards her head, too fast for her to put up any kind of defense. But just like its tail, the ring shone with white and froze the claws before they could slash into her. When the dragon tried to attack with its other set of claws, the ring froze that arm in place as well.

Before Shiori could discern how the ring worked, the band cracked and shattered into numerous tiny pieces. Her blood ran cold as she realized every convenient object must have its limits. In this case, it seemed to have reached it all too soon.

The dragon reared its head back, gathering fire into its jaws in one final act of desperation. 

Shiori’s arms tensed, muscles recalling the strain she went through just to survive the dragon’s fire the first time. Shiori didn’t know how the ring worked, but she couldn’t rely on it now that it was broken and useless.

Though as the dragon drew its head back to fire, the movement opened up its one weak spot for her to target. It was her chance.

Shiori surged forward, swordbreaker aimed at the dragon’s chest. All other thoughts were shoved away. Her eyes only focused on the dragon’s weak spot, her muscles tensed to stab her weapon into its one area of soft flesh.

Shadows danced around her. The fire built in the dragon’s mouth. It prepared to release its flames–

–just as the swordbreaker stabbed into its chest.

The dragon’s entire body tensed. The flames gathered in its mouth dissipated as it took its last breath, smoke rising from its open jaws. Its eyes rolled into the back of its head as its body teetered backward. The opposite momentum helped Shiori tug the swordbreaker out from its chest as it fell onto its back with a reverberating thud.

“Hah… Hah… Hah…”

Shiori gasped for breath, holding the swordbreaker in her trembling hand. The dragon’s blood dripped onto the ground from the blade, forming a puddle at her feet.

A small voice in the back of her mind sighed in relief. At least this time she didn’t have any new blood stuck onto her person. However, it was too small of a comfort for her to linger on.

She had to keep going. She had already come so far. She needed to head for the door.

She took one step, and collapsed onto her knees.

Eh?

The dragon’s warm and sticky blood soaked through her trousers. She should be disgusted–she just thought about how she’d come out of this fight without any new stains–but her body refused to cooperate. She tried to stand, but sat back onto her haunches instead. She tried to lift her arms, but they weighed down by her sides like lead was tied to her wrists. Her breathing still followed the beat of the crypt, but they were shallower and more difficult to keep steady. Even twitching her fingers seemed so difficult. 

She was… Shiori realized she was exhausted . When was the last time she felt this tired? When was the last time she pushed herself so hard for so long? Had any of the troupe let her overwork herself to this extent?

“Working hard all the time might seem like a great idea, but it’ll be troublesome if you overdo it so much that you set yourself back,” Kaoruko had once chided her after Shiori had gotten sick from practicing too much. “No experienced performer would make such a trivial mistake. You’d best keep that in mind, Shiori-han.”

Shiori had been so focused on her goal that she forgot the limits of her own mortal existence. Her health was never a strong point for her either, so the consequences of pushing herself this much was bound to creep up eventually.

Shiori closed her eyes and focused on taking slow, calming breaths. She collapsed into a better sitting position and let herself rest for this moment, stilling all movement. The boss for this floor was dead and no more monsters were around–she could afford to stop and catch her breath.

Pain flared in her chest, as expected. But that was fine. She didn’t want to move, anyway. 

Once she had recovered enough, Shiori stood up and went back for her discarded torch. After retrieving it, Shiori swept her gaze around the chamber now that she finally had the freedom to do so. She spotted an alcove, and much like the second floor, a treasure chest waited inside. Thankfully, the lid was easy to open even with Fumi’s swordbreaker still in her hand. 

“...Ah.” 

Nestled among layers of red cloth, a gold and black mace awaited her. The green crystal embedded in its golden head glowed softly when Shiori raised her torch for a better look. For a dungeon item, however, it seemed as if it had already seen use before, with scratches along its black shaft. 

I can’t use this . Shiori shut the chest closed with a sigh. Ideally, a mace would require both hands to wield. Even if she were to try swinging it with one hand, that would require leaving Fumi’s swordbreaker behind. 

“A strengthening potion would be good too, you know?” Shiori lamented out loud, voice starting to rasp from lack of use and water. How long had she been down here for her to miss the sound of human voices?

Kaoruko and Tamao… Shiori wondered how they were doing since she left. Were they as worried about her as she had been about her sister and the others who left before her? Was Kaoruko still upset at Shiori’s decision to leave? Was Tamao? If Shiori never made it back–if she lingered for too long–she may never know the answers, just as none of the others before her would know.

Shiori shook her head, standing up and leaving the chest and its contents behind. No, I’ll make it back. I’ll go back with everyone, and then we can all be scolded together.

After Shiori herself gave a few choice words to Fumi first, though.

Matching her steps to the beat, Shiori made her way over to the golden door, carefully skirting around the dragon’s fallen form. With the boss’ defeat, the lock had disappeared and the emblem of the violin began to glow as she drew nearer. If it was anything like the others, it would open on its own at the slightest touch. 

The master of this crypt could be waiting on the other side. Shiori paused, sweat gathering on her palms at the thought. Onee-chan could be waiting on the other side. 

She gave the door a light push.


ZONE 1:
Moonlit Partners in Crime - BOSSA NOMINA


The crypt’s music changed as soon as Shiori stepped through, the door shutting behind her. The tempo slowed; a smooth, languid melody drifting through Shiori’s ears. The volume had changed, as well–whereas it had been a faint song always in the distance, this time it sounded more like a proper performance with Shiori onstage. 

Braziers flanked a red carpet leading into the largest chamber Shiori had seen so far since falling into the crypt. Red and black tiles covered the chamber’s floor, alternating in color like a massive chessboard and pulsing in time to the sconces lining the walls. Near the end of the chamber, rows of giant, marble chess pieces dutifully waited. Behind them, situated on a raised platform bearing a gilded throne, sat what Shiori assumed to be the king and the queen in this game. 

Or rather...queen and queen?  

Unlike the other bosses Shiori had encountered on the previous floors, both figures sharing the throne were humanoid in form. They were even wearing human clothes, although it looked too refined for the common folk. Both appeared to be wearing long black coats with red spiderweb-like tendrils patterning the fabric, as well as black top hats bearing the same motif. However, the one situated to Shiori’s left with long, white hair had a smaller hat than the one on the right. Her hat was large enough to cover most of her hair, save for the ash blonde curls draped over her right shoulder in a loose, drill fashion. 

But only their attire hinted at any amount of humanity. As Shiori warily approached, she noticed that their skin was as pale as snow, almost sickly in color. Once she was a tile away from the first row of chess pieces, both pairs of golden eyes twinkled with barely-contained glee.

“Oh? Is this our new challenger?” the curly-haired one purred, lips pulling up into a cheshire grin. “How wonderful! And don’t you just look adorable , covered in blood and all. A shame it isn’t your own, don’t you think? Though, that can be remedied .”

Shiori took an instinctive step back, her grip tightening around her weapon. Although neither of them had moved from their spots, Shiori couldn’t be sure if they would act within a heartbeat with a long-ranged attack.

“That won’t do, Nomina,” the other chided in an almost motherly tone. “If you scare her off so soon, who will entertain us then? It’s been a while since the game has been played.”

“I can entertain you plenty, Bossa,” the curly-haired one–Nomina–bantered back, turning her gaze away from Shiori to trail a gloved finger along her partner’s sleeve. “Consider snipping this loose thread the opening act to my performance for you.”

Bossa stopped her finger’s lazy ascent with one of her own, lifting Nomina’s hand to brush a thumb over her knuckles. “Your gambit, I presume?” 

“Of course. It won’t take much for someone like her, after all~”

Shiori’s cheeks flushed at the blatant show of… what she assumed was their way of affection. Though she didn’t think the implied violence toward her would be any good for her at all. Clearing her throat to catch their attention, she ventured to ask, “I don’t suppose you’ll just let me pass–”

Pain seized her chest again. She had been so caught up in their conversation that she had forgotten to move in time to the slow melody. 

Nomina’s golden eyes narrowed at Shiori’s frozen form, her grin tense. “Oh, my... It seems Maesterion has found another pawn. What do you think, Bossa?”

Her partner released her hand with a flourish; green magic trailing from her fingertips to form ghostly piano keys in the air. Bossa gave a grin of her own as the keys arranged themselves before her. “How about the Nordic Gambit instead? I’ll support you.” 

“That’s all I ask,” Nomina purred, pink wisps forming in her hand and coalescing into a ghostly lute. 

The chess pieces that had remained still and lifeless shuddered as she plucked a chord. A note from Bossa fitted the pieces with deadly armaments and weapons that had Shiori quickly backing away as soon as she was able. While the black pieces formed two rows in front of the duo, the white pieces mirrored the opposing side and slid into place in front of her.

Nomina’s golden eyes twinkled with mirth. “Black, hm? An interesting choice you’ve given us, Bossa.”

Her partner chuckled. “Don’t you think it’d be more fun this way?”

“Oh, how I love the way you spice up our games~”

Shiori regarded the pieces warily, eyes glancing across the tiled battleground. “A life-sized version of chess?”

Bossa’s lips pulled up into a small, pleased smile. “Good–you’re familiar with the game. It would be oh-so-tragic if we were challenging an entirely fresh player.”

Shiori wouldn’t consider herself experienced in any way. She knew of the game, and had played a few matches once or twice in the past with the troupe. She was really nothing more than a novice with a few losses under her belt.

The grin split wider across Bossa’s lips. “Nervous, are we? I suppose that’s better than the others who came before you who tried charging in to kill us directly.”

Shiori’s breath hitched in her throat. Her momentary stasis caused another bout of pain to shoot through her. But she was too preoccupied with her worries to focus too much on the now-familiar jolt of pain.

“The… ones before me?” Shiori gasped. “Like–”

“Asking us to remember each and every past challenger is futile.” Bossa took Nomina’s right hand and pressed her lips gently against her gloved knuckles. “There are more important things to remember, after all.”

Nomina hummed softly in delight. “Why remember identities when the fun is more important? Why remember others when we are the only stars we seek? Why worry–?”

“–When you will soon know peace?” Bossa finished.

Shiori tightened her grip on her–her sister’s –swordbreaker. Her breathing evened out, falling back into the same rhythm as the pulse of the crypt. 

“It would be easier to stop, but I can’t. I have to find everyone. I have to know what happened to them. And if you both can’t give me the answers I seek–” Shiori raised the swordbreaker, blade pointed at the duo, “–then I can’t stop here. If you won’t let me through, then I will do my best to overcome you.”

Nomina separated from her partner, adjusting her position by sitting fully on the throne’s armrest. “Admirable, I’ll give you that. What do you think, Bossa?”

Bossa positioned her hands onto the ghostly piano keys floating before her, grin widening. “An interesting little lamb. One that could have served as a knight or rook. But alas…”

“Maesterion already has her sights on her, hm? Ahh, such a shame. Well, there’s no use crying over spilt milk.”

“Indeed. Now, without further ado…”

“Shall we begin?” Bossa Nomina echoed together.

Bossa’s fingers pressed against the piano keys, the resulting soft melody following the tune of the crypt’s rhythm before quickening in tempo. The sconces lining the chamber’s walls burned with greater intensity, illuminating the room to an optimal brightness.

White moved first. It was in Shiori’s hands to start the game.

How do I start the game?

Was she supposed to command one of the pieces? The marble statues had moved when Bossa had used her magic, but did that mean they were enchanted to listen to Shiori’s commands as well? And what was she supposed to do? Was she just supposed to sta–

“Unable to convey my feelings to you,” Nomina’s voice sang to the music, her soft and melodic tone breaking Shiori out of her thoughts.

She looked up at Nomina in surprise. The woman remained on her seat next to Bossa, observing Shiori with an amused grin as she played her lute.

“It seems she needs an extra hint,” Nomina teased with a small giggle.

Bossa returned her smile, her fingers repeating the same melody from before. “I suppose a little help will do, especially since she is playing as white.”

“Okay~” Nomina leaned back, crossing one leg over the other before addressing Shiori. “You don’t have to give any verbal commands. Your pieces will move according to your will regardless if you speak aloud or not.” Nomina briefly took a hand away from her lute to gesture at Shiori’s pieces. “That also means if you yourself won’t advance, nothing will happen either. Which would make an awfully boring game, wouldn’t you say~?”

Shiori frowned. “I can move? But I’m not a chess piece.”

“You’re standing on the king’s tile, aren’t you?” 

That, she was. 

“However, if we played this like normal chess, the game would take an awfully long time. So we’ve...loosened up the rules a bit, to make it a little more fun for all of us.” Nomina held her lute closer to her, the neck pressed almost against her cheek as she plucked at the strings. Her lips curled into a smirk. “And I’m sure it’s in your best interest to keep moving, anyway.” 

“Poor thing,” Bossa chuckled, “to still be bound by such rules.” 

Shiori swallowed hard, shifting on her feet. “And the song?”

Lowering her lute, Nomina’s eyes widened briefly in what seemed to be genuine surprise. Even Bossa’s notes slowed down. “You’ve come this far without knowing why? Oh dear, this won’t be as much fun as I thought... A performer who can’t even see the stage she stands upon–what was Maesterion thinking?” 

“Nomina,” her partner called, picking up the tempo once more, “perhaps we should quickly put this stagehand out of her misery. I’d hate to see you sing and dance in vain.” 

“Is it truly in vain if you’re here with me?”

Bossa’s grin fell into a pensive frown. “As much as I love how you entertain me, I don’t particularly fancy having your beautiful performance sullied by a lost lamb who has no place on our stage. End this game quickly, and I may just give you a fitting reward.”

Nomina’s golden eyes flashed with barely restrained hunger, a low growl thrumming in her throat. “I’ll hold you to that then, Bossa.”

Shiori took a step back as Nomina stood up from the throne, panic crawling down her spine and spreading to her limbs. Fumi’s swordbreaker shook in her hand. 

Nomina’s lips curled into another smirk. “You’ve made your move. Do forgive me for making mine.”

The black pawns before the platform hopped forward two tiles, making way for their queen to descend. Nomina’s fingers plucked at her lute in earnest, coaxing forth a more distinct melody to pair with Bossa’s. 

“H-Hey, you can’t move two pieces at once!” Shiori called, hastily willing a knight to make its way over to her. 

Nomina laughed. “I never said you could only move one piece now, did I?”

Shiori quickly evaded as Nomina closed the distance between them. The white knight she had called loomed over Nomina from behind, raising its sword to strike. But as it swung its weapon down, Nomina ducked out of harm’s way, gracefully sweeping around to the knight’s now-vulnerable side. She shifted into a spinning kick, crashing her heel into its side. The strike blew a giant hole in the white marble, halting the knight’s movements and taking the piece off the board.

Shiori balked at Nomina’s violent movements, barely remembering to keep herself moving. “Are-Are queens allowed to attack like that?!”

“This is no longer what you humans know as chess, little lamb,” Bossa answered, eyes closed as she continued to play. “This is our stage–the manifestation of our partnership. This is where we play, where we sing and dance, and what all who have challenged us must overcome. If you can’t even grasp your role on this stage–”

Her partner flashed Shiori a feral grin. “–Then you have no place in our duet!”

Nomina continued to chase after her. No matter how many pieces Shiori willed to attack her, the black queen would simply destroy any pieces that dared stand in her way. All too soon, the number of pieces on Shiori’s side dwindled down to nothing but herself and a single white pawn.

One more strike, and now it was just Shiori alone.

Shiori’s eyes darted side to side, assessing her situation. It was terrible, that much was obvious. She had no more pieces on her side, Nomina was closing in on her, and none of the black pieces on the other side of the board had shifted. Bossa herself was still seated on her throne, making no move to do anything except continue playing her melody.

Shiori didn’t have time to keep thinking. Once she was close enough, Nomina planted one foot on the ground and spun around to aim the heel of her other foot at Shiori’s head.

Shiori ducked, then shot up to stab Nomina with the swordbreaker. If Nomina tried to move forward, she’d run right into her weapon just like the werewolf had–

Nomina did not move forward. In fact, she lowered her leg and relaxed her stance, darting a hand out to catch the blade of the swordbreaker between her index and middle fingers. She gave a languid wave with her other hand, dismissing her lute in a burst of pink magic.

“Ho-How…?” Shiori stared at the weapon caught so effortlessly in Nomina’s hold, the shock stealing away her ability to speak further.

She had made a mistake. It was wrong of her to believe these two were anything like the monsters she had previously faced. Their capabilities were far too different. They were… leagues ahead of Shiori herself.

Nomina shook her head, reminding Shiori of how Kaoruko had done many times when Shiori had failed to take care of herself. But Kaoruko had never been so condescending or cruel. Or looked at her with such boredom .

“How disappointing,” Nomina drawled. “And here I was hoping you’d have more to show as a candidate. Sadly for you, it looks like this is all you have for us. Bossa!”

“Nomina.”

The king’s hands stilled on the keys, bringing the song to a close. Her golden eyes flicked open, awaiting her partner’s next move.

At the next beat of the crypt’s rhythm, Nomina yanked the swordbreaker from Shiori’s grip with her fingers. Before Shiori could even recover from having her weapon turned against her, Nomina flipped the blade around to fully grab the hilt, then rammed Fumi’s weapon straight into where Shiori’s heart would have been.

Shiori froze. Pain flared from her chest. Was it from the weapon stabbed into her, or as a consequence of failing to keep up with the crypt’s tempo?

No, that didn’t matter. Pain was pain. Regardless of the reason, it didn’t change the fact that Shiori had failed.

Bossa Nomina were true performers on the stage, unlike the monsters she had fought before. They were truly, truly–

 “A–” Blood gurgled from Shiori’s throat, spilling out from her mouth.

Nomina released the swordbreaker, pushing Shiori away like discarded trash and letting her fall onto the ground. Agony flared from the collision, adding to the burning in her body and the heaviness from her chest.

Her senses began to fail her. She couldn’t see clearly, nor could she hear what Bossa or Nomina were saying anymore. She could barely hear the beat of the crypt, either. Soon even the pain started to fade, until all she was left was one final fleeting thought.

Onee-chan… I failed again… I… I always...


Ba… dump.

Ba…


Time marched on. How many had this crypt already taken? How many had fallen into Maesterion’s grasp? How much longer would this continue? How many more deaths and losses must she witness?

Another had been ensnared by her. Another would become her pawn.

Not this time.

She had vowed to end all of this. But there was very little she could do on her own. It was frustrating that she herself didn’t have the power to stop Maesterion–not like this, not as she was now. She had no choice but to cultivate the means to retaliate, and then to rely on another who could challenge the crypt in her stead.

It would be hard and painful for the one designated with this responsibility. She had to make sure the one who would carry her will would adapt to her role and never run away. Not many had that kind of resolve.

But perhaps this one would meet those expectations. Bossa Nomina may not have recognized much potential from the young girl, but what she was lacking in skill was compensated with boundless determination. Sadly, this crypt was not kind to those who did not have the time to gather enough experience to survive on such a deadly stage...

Then if time was needed, that was what she would bestow. The spell was complete, after all. 

She would break this cycle no matter what had to be sacrificed.

Chapter Text

...

...dump. 

...Ba-dump.


“–an…hear…m–?”

Fingers brushed against her cheek, feather-light and barely there. 

“–ill out...see…”

Shiori blearily opened her eyes, like a deep sleeper surfacing from the abyss of dreams. A comforting brightness greeted her from above, masking the features of the shadow peering at her from off to the side. 

“Tama...o...san…?” she breathed, mind still foggy. 

“I’m afraid not,” an unfamiliar voice said, gentle and light and similar to Tamao anyway. “Can you sit up for me?”

Her limbs felt heavy, but not so unbearable that she couldn’t lift them. Slowly, Shiori pushed herself upright, arms shaking from the effort. She nearly faltered at the end, only for a hand to rest on her back and support her. 

It was then that her mind finally caught up. 

Much like the last time she had woken up from an obvious death, Shiori’s hands immediately patted at her chest, curling against the fabric of her shirt. Her breathing shifted into hitched gasps as the memory of Nomina stabbing her with Fumi’s swordbreaker returned. 

“Ah! Try to take deep breaths, alright? If you keep going like that, you’ll wind up lightheaded!” 

No wounds. No sign of a blade piercing through. Not even dried blood, be it hers or the monsters’. She might as well have been restored to when she had first awoken in the crypt. 

“The beat,” Shiori gasped. “I have to move. I have to–”

Except she couldn’t hear the beat. Her own heart remaining still was a given at this point, but she couldn’t hear the crypt’s musical pulse. The only pain she felt was in her lungs from her panicked breathing. 

“The beat–” 

“–won’t hurt you here. This place is safe from Maesterion’s rules.” 

Shiori turned her head to face that voice, now able to properly see her supposed savior without the backlight in the way. 

A young woman around the same age as Shion and Kiriko sat there, green eyes crinkling a little at the corners from her gentle smile. Blonde hair poked out from underneath a white hood trimmed with gold, matching the rest of her mostly-white cloak and clothes. The emblem of a red phoenix stood out starkly on her shirt, clutching a flower in its talons. Loosely held in her hand, resting on her lap, was an ornate golden staff. 

“You’re… You’re a mage,” Shiori said, as if it weren’t already obvious. 

The woman’s smile grew. “So there are still mages in your time. I’m glad.”

“Who are you?” Shiori asked, eyes frantically darting to and fro as she finally took in her surroundings. The sunlight shining on them was blinding to her still-adjusting eyesight, making it difficult to get a good look at the rest of the environment around her.

Wait, sunlight?

Shiori rubbed her eyes and looked up, squinting against the brightness cast from above. Yes, it was most certainly sunlight. This wasn’t the illumination from a fire or a momentary flare. It was most certainly sunlight from a warm sun bearing down from a blue sky–aspects of nature that should not exist within a crypt dug deep beneath the earth.

From the trees surrounding them, Shiori and her mysterious companion appeared to be in a quiet, open forest clearing. The grass beneath her was cool to the touch, much different from the hard earth making up the surfaces of the underground crypt. Although the atmosphere was a pleasant temperature, there was no sign of wind disturbing the stillness of the air. In fact, the world around her seemed eerily stagnant.

“Where am I?” Shiori wondered aloud as she continued to scan the area. “Am I outside? But that’s impossible! I was just–”

“Deep underground in a crypt filled with monsters and magic you had never encountered before?” the young woman supplied. “We’re still in that crypt, unfortunately. But as I said, this space is safe from its dangers.” 

Lifting her staff, she gave a vague wave with it. The scenery around them abruptly changed with the motion, shifting into a large common area not unlike the Whispering Medusa, complete with furniture and a roaring fire pit nearby. Even the grass beneath Shiori’s hands gave way to hard, wooden flooring. Another wave of the mage’s staff reverted everything back to the forest clearing. 

“How did you do that without a magic circle?” Shiori asked, plucking a blade of grass and staring at it in wonder. A laugh reached her ears, and turning her gaze back to the mage, she spotted her trying to hide a smile behind her free hand. 

“You don’t need a magic circle for something as simple as this. Even apprentices are capable of blanketing a small room with a different reality,” she explained. “Although, I will admit that this space is on the larger end of the scale... And that most wouldn’t go for the same degree of detail...” 

This is simple?!  

“But it seems like you’ve calmed down, at least. That’s good!” the mage said as she lowered her hand, now smiling freely. With that same hand, she reached over to pluck the blade of grass from Shiori’s fingers. “To answer your other question, my name is Nana. Daiba Nana. Just a friendly mage trying to do what she can.” 

Shiori tilted her head. “Dai...banana?” 

Flicking the blade of grass away, Nana reached a hand up to tug her hood down. Twin pigtails came into view, oddly shaped like bananas. “Yes, Daiba Nana."

Shiori blinked her eyes, staring hard at the woman’s strange hairstyle. “...Is it naturally like that? Your, um…” Shiori brought both her hands up to the sides of her head, cupping invisible pigtails.

Nana mirrored her movement with her free hand, grinning. “For as long as I could remember, yes.”

A giggle bubbled up in Shiori’s throat before she fought it back, remembering the situation at hand. Nana had said they were still in the crypt, after all. Even if this was a supposedly safe place and not bound by the crypt’s rules, that fact hadn’t changed. 

“Did you save me back there?” Shiori asked, lowering her hands. “From Bossa Nomina? Or… Or even earlier, after I fell?”

Nana lowered her hand as well, her smile shifting to something more pensive. “Technically speaking, I did save you from them. But it’s...a little more complicated than that. As for your fall…that was Maesterion’s doing, not mine.”

Maesterion. She had mentioned that name before. So had Nomina.

“Who is this… Maesterion?” Shiori asked, testing the name slowly. It seemed like a strange mishmash of a name–though she supposed Bossa Nomina wasn’t exactly normal either.

Neither was Dai Bana– No, Daiba Nana. Though it was closer to the human names Shiori was used to than the other two.

“You can consider her the dungeonmaster of this crypt. She’s the reason why you encountered all of those monsters earlier, including any...human-like ones, such as Bossa Nomina. She’s also the reason why none ever leave this crypt the way they came in–if they leave at all.” Nana’s expression turned somber, her eyes falling on Shiori in sadness. “Everyone who’s had their heart taken by her become prisoners in this crypt. And that includes you now.”

Shiori placed a hand over her chest, right where her heart should have lied beneath. “But how am I still alive? If my heart was taken–”

“Metaphorically, really,” Nana cut in to elaborate. “Technically speaking, the organ itself should still be in your body. Instead, she breaks the link between the physical and conceptual aspects of your heart and takes the latter.”

Shiori frowned in thought, trying to understand what Nana meant. “The… conceptual aspect?”

“Think of it like redirecting the reins of a horse away from the original rider, extending the straps, and now having a new person control the horse instead of the rider.”

“In this case I would be the horse?” Shiori asked to make sure. For once she wasn’t ecstatic about being compared to her favorite animal.

“Right. Though, the actual amount of control Maesterion has over your heart is rather limited. She’s restrained by certain arrangements novel to...her situation, and this crypt.”

“Like following the beat of the crypt?”

“Right again! You’re so sharp–” Nana’s eyes widened. “Oh my. I never got your name.”

Shiori had been so preoccupied with her confusion and Nana’s strangeness that she had forgotten to introduce herself back. 

“Oh! My name is Yumeoji Shiori. I’m so sorry–it’s my fault for not introducing myself sooner.”

Nana shook her head. “No, I’m sure you have plenty on your mind. You’ve been through a lot in the past few hours, after all.”

The mage snapped her fingers, summoning two magic circles to hover in the air between them. Much like Shion’s own magic circles, runes and other symbols filled in the space with glowing, silver strokes. But the symbols dissolved as quickly as they had appeared, giving way to what seemed to be...moving pictures? 

“I’ve been watching your progress, ever since Maesterion moved from her...lair, for lack of a better word,” Nana said, gesturing towards the circle on Shiori’s left. 

She had expected Maesterion to look more human, like Bossa Nomina had. And while her face was mostly human, there were beastly features mixed in, too. Long, black horns protruded from her head, curling around and back like a ram’s. Her wavy, ginger hair fell over her shoulders and around the front to form a lion-like mane, framing a pale face and violet eyes bearing slitted pupils. Her red cloak, patterned with the same stylized symbol Shiori had seen on Bossa Nomina’s door, covered most of her body from view, save for a pair of goat-like hooves and human hands plucking at the strings of the golden violin in her grasp.

Why does she seem familiar…?

“Your heart–and everyone else’s that she took–is sealed away inside a pendant around her neck,” Nana explained, her voice nudging Shiori out of her thoughts. “If you were to break it, theoretically that should return those hearts and free them. Of course, that’s assuming you can get to her, when she’s usually waiting in the deepest part of the crypt.” 

“What made her leave?” Shiori asked, brow furrowing as she tried to recall where she had seen Maesterion’s likeness before. Or rather, something similar to it; minus her monstrous features. 

“To revive you ,” Nana said, shoulders drooping along with her sigh. “Judging by the wreckage, no one could have survived that fall. Not unless you were a mage, though it seems you’re a beginner in that regard... A wind spell has a low chance of slowing your fall, but a spell to slow down your inner time or summoning a magical platform would work best.” 

Those are definitely beyond me. Shiori swallowed hard, fighting down the horrible memory of freefalling. Her hand, still pressed against her chest, balled the fabric of her shirt into her trembling fist. 

“So…I died.” 

“You did.” 

“And she brought me back from the dead.” 

“With powerful magic that would have normally taken a long time to complete, yes.” 

“Why me? You told me we’re all prisoners here, but Nomina said I was Maesterion’s pawn. A… A candidate for something,” Shiori said. “It was only for a moment, but...they almost seemed wary when they found out I had to follow the beat.” 

Nana pursed her lips, eyebrows drawing together in thought as she averted her gaze. Her fingers drummed against her staff. She almost looked like Tamao, the day after Fumi had disappeared from all of their lives. 

Shiori swallowed again, forcing her hand to uncurl and release her shirt. “I can handle it, Daiba-san.” 

Nana exhaled softly, her fingers stilling against her staff. “I’ve already given you so much information at once–I don’t want to overwhelm you. Something like this… We can wait until you’ve rested up a bit, Shiori-chan.” 

“But I don’t have time to–” 

“You do. You have all the time in the world.” 

Nana’s features hardened as she swept her gaze back to meet Shiori’s. Gesturing towards the magic circle on Shiori’s right, she continued, “If there is something else I have to tell you right now, it would involve what I had to do to save you.” 

The circle featured a familiar pair of monsters wearing human forms. Unlike when Shiori had met them, however, Bossa and Nomina were slumped against their shared throne. With their eyes closed and heads bowed slightly, they looked to be sleeping. Before them, all of the chess pieces that had come to life during the battle appeared to have been restored, waiting dutifully once more in pristine rows. 

There was no sign of Nomina’s destruction or Shiori’s blood anywhere. 

“Zone bosses usually remain dormant until someone enters their floor, you know,” Nana quietly explained. “If they successfully kill their challenger, they only have a short amount of time before they return to their slumber–not that they would know that. And if their challenger kills them, well...there you have it. Unless Maesterion decides to revive them to serve her again.” 

“So what you’re saying is…” Shiori swallowed, unable to tear her gaze away from the sight before her. Her chest tingled with the memory of blade sliding through flesh. “I haven’t fought them here...have I? Not yet.”

For all of the ‘help’ Nomina had given her in explaining the rules to their game, she couldn’t imagine her being so gracious as to restore and clean everything up with her magic. Not with Bossa right there and her promise of a ‘reward.’

Which could only mean one thing. 

Nana nodded, dismissing both circles with a wave of her staff. “I finally finished casting a spell on you towards the end of your fight. It only activates once you die in this crypt, sending you back to the start of the zone and effectively reversing Time itself to ensure that you return to life.” 

She gave a tired laugh, leaning back a little to gaze at the blue sky above them. 

“True resurrection is beyond me right now, so this is all I can do. It took me so very long to research and perfect it, but I’m glad it worked.” Nana’s green eyes misted at something unseen. “I’m glad I was able to save someone, after all this time.”

Shiori’s jaw dropped in awe. After some moments, she finally found her voice to stutter, “Re-Reversing time is already amazing! How…? Daiba-san, who are you?”

There was no way this could be the work of an ordinary mage. 

Nana chuckled as she rose from her place beside Shiori, dismissing her staff with a casual flick of her wrist. “That’s also something that might take a little long to explain. We can save that for later–after you’ve gotten a bit more rest. For starters, how about something to eat? I may have turned back time for everyone else, but your own internal time still thinks that hours have passed.”

Shiori shook her head, waving her hands around frantically. “Oh no, I couldn’t impo–”

Grrrrrrrrrrr

Shiori squeaked, slapping both hands to her stomach as her cheeks flushed red. Above her, laughter spilled out from Nana’s wide grin behind a hand held to her face to control herself.

“It’s really no trouble at all! Besides…” Nana’s smile loosened a bit, her eyes softening into a warm gentleness. “This was originally a place where adventurers through the crypt, such as yourself, can rest safely away from Maesterion’s influence. So there’s no trouble at all–taking care of you is what I’m here for. Now then...”

Nana clapped her hands twice. The space before Shiori’s eyes warped and twisted into an entirely different scene. By the time Shiori blinked next, she found herself in a small cabin, sitting on a comfortable small bed.

Nana turned toward the crackling flames in the hearth nearby. “I’m thinking of making some stew. Shiori-chan, how do you feel about rabbit?”

Shiori blinked again, raising a hand to rub her eyes in case all of this was just an illusion. Though technically that wasn’t inaccurate–Nana was just the type of person powerful enough to make imagination into reality.

Oh, her head was starting to hurt. Maybe some rest for now would be nice.

Finally convinced, Shiori replied to Nana with a small, bashful smile. “Then if you insist… I’d love some.”

Nana beamed. “Great! I’ll get started on that then. Just sit tight and I’ll have a steaming pot ready soon!” Nana rolled up her sleeves, eyes darting left and right. “Now where did I leave my knife…?”

As Nana set to busying herself, Shiori relaxed on the bed and looked around to survey the small cabin. Though there wasn’t much decorating the small interior, every detail looked and felt real. The soft, light sheets beneath her reminded her of her bed back at home. The mattress was sturdy beneath her, and Shiori guessed the single table and accompanying pair of chairs wouldn’t break if she put weight on them either. The fire crackled in the hearth across the room, filling the cabin with warmth. The faint scent of pine from the wood composing the cabin surfaces melded with the scent of Nana’s cooking as she prepped the last of the ingredients. 

It really felt like Nana had conjured up this reality just from her magic alone.

“Daiba-san, why do you prepare your own food if you can just create anything with your magic?” Shiori couldn’t help but ask. She gestured around her, “If you can alter the world around us, already cooked food shouldn’t be outside of your capabilities, right?”

Nana slid the chopped vegetables into the boiling pot of water over the fire, humming in thought. “You’re right about that. But a meal is different from objects and tools we use. We need to eat for nourishment, but also enjoy the food as we eat it. In that case, a meal will taste many times better when made fresh by your own hands than it was conjured from who knows where, don’t you think? They do say love and effort add another kind of flavor you can’t find any other way, after all.”

Shiori nodded in agreement. “I suppose that’s true. Even when she was busy, Onee-chan would have tried to make meals for me herse–”

Shiori’s eyes widened. In the wake of everything that had happened when she woke up and met Nana, she had forgotten about her ultimate reason for journeying into the crypt, and the one finding that had grounded her as she made her way through the monsters to reach Bossa Nomina.

“Where is–?” Shiori looked around for the object in mind. When she didn’t find what she was looking for around her, she jumped to her feet to search around the cabin.

Nana tilted her head to the side, frowning in confusion. “What are you looking for?”

“A swordbreaker,” Shiori said, placing her old dagger back down on the dresser where it had been resting on, along with an unlit torch. “It was one of the items I had with me when I–”

“When you fought Bossa Nomina, right? Did you have it when you first entered the crypt?”

Shiori froze. “No... I found it on the second floor down from where I started. It was on the ground next to a chest that I came across after beating that giant crow.” Shiori’s shoulders drooped as realization dawned on her. “You brought me back to the state I was in before I entered the first floor, meaning...I wouldn’t have found it yet.”

“That’s correct.” Nana looked back down and continued preparing the rabbit. “Is that particular weapon important in some way?”

“It belonged to my older sister.” Shiori sighed, only for her shoulders to perk back up as she recalled Nana’s earlier words. “Daiba-san, you said you created this place for adventurers in the crypt to rest, right? Did you meet someone named Yumeoji Fumi, perhaps? Or… Or Isurugi Futaba? Akikaze Rui? Saijou Claudine?” 

Nana gently set down her knife, reaching for a bottle of seasoning with her other hand. “I thought you looked familiar,” she muttered.

“So you–” 

“I didn’t personally meet her, I’m afraid. I needed to complete the spell above all else. And it didn’t seem like she needed my help, with how viciously she cut them all down...” It was Nana’s turn for her shoulders to droop as she resumed her preparations. “I let so many people pass me by after I started. I left them all to their fate, promising myself that I’d fix everything once it was finished. With this spell, I could save them all.”

For a spell to take more than two years to complete… For a novice like Shiori, she couldn’t begin to wrap her mind around the difficulty of such a thing. And supposedly Maesterion could achieve something similar in a far shorter time. 

Monsters. Shiori sat back down on the bed, legs trembling. This crypt is full of monsters.

“Did she seem all right?” Shiori ventured to ask, gripping the sheets beneath her hands. If her heart could beat, it would have been pounding frantically enough for her chest to hurt. But she wouldn’t need a heart to still feel pain. “Is Onee-chan...alive…?”

For a moment, only the low crackle of the fire and the bubbling of the stew broke up the silence between them. Whatever warmth the cabin gave off slowly turned cold, matching the ice crawling down Shiori’s spine to pool in her stomach. Her nails dug painfully into her palms through the sheets. 

“...She is.” 

And warmth returned. 

Nana stepped away from the pot to retrieve a few utensils, catching Shiori’s eyes with her own deep stare. “I can’t be certain of her location, but I can at least guarantee that your sister is alive somewhere in this crypt. Unfortunately, as for determining her exact whereabouts…that will mostly be up to you.” Suddenly, her pensive expression morphed into a wide grin. “But don’t worry. I’ll make sure to help you throughout your journey as much as I can–”

As she spoke, Nana drew a few ladles of stew into a large wooden bowl. She then walked over to the table and placed the serving and a wooden spoon down, gesturing for Shiori to come.

“–Starting by filling up your belly with a nice meal. You must be starving after making it this far!”

Shiori’s eyes widened at the sight of such a large serving, cheeks aflame in bashfulness. “Th-This is too much, Daiba-san! I can’t accept this kindness!”

Nana frowned, glancing back at the pot still sitting over the fire. “But I made so much. What else am I supposed to do with all this food?”

“E-Eat some yourself! I’m sure you need to ration the resources rather than treat a stranger so nicely!”

“But you’re still a growing girl, Shiori-chan,” Nana argued back. “If you don’t get enough nutrients, how else are you going to reach your full potential?”

For some reason, Shiori felt the need to hug her chest and turn away from Nana as her cheeks flushed even more. “I-I already went through puberty! I stopped growing years ago!”

“Growth continues even later into life, though. I’m sure you’re destined for a second growth spurt! Who knows? Maybe you’ll grow taller than I am!”

Shiori glanced up to Nana’s head, dropped her gaze down to her feet, and then back up to Nana’s face. “That’s too much to grow!”

“Not if you eat enough~”

“Daiba-san, I really can’t accept such genero–”

Groooooooooowl.

Shiori slapped both hands over her abdomen, face burning as hot as the fire heating the rest of the stew. Meanwhile, Nana blinked, eyes fixating on Shiori’s traitorous stomach before a smile slowly split across her face.

“So, shall we eat then?” Nana chirped.

Shiori dropped her chin to her chest, shoulders slumping. With a sigh, she replied with a defeated, “Thank you for the food…”

Perhaps it was because it had been so long since she had eaten anything, but the stew rivaled even Tamao’s cooking. Creamy and rich, bursting with flavor in every spoonful. And yet, carefully balanced so as not to overwhelm her sense of taste. 

Across from her, Nana chuckled as Shiori consumed her stew at a faster pace. It didn’t take long before it was gone, despite her efforts to maintain her table manners. 

“I’m glad you seemed to have liked it, Shiori-chan,” Nana laughed, setting down her own empty bowl. 

With her stomach full and the day’s events catching up to her at last, Shiori’s eyelids began to droop. Once she started nodding back and forth, Shiori quickly snapped her head back up before she could face plant into her empty bowl. She rubbed her tired eyes to refocus them, finding Nana favoring her with an understanding smile.

“Rest all you like, Shiori-chan. You’ve had a long journey, and only more awaits you. Take this chance to gather your strength.” Nana’s smile dropped into a frown. “You’ll need it.”

As much as Shiori wanted to argue, the change in Nana’s demeanor was enough to persuade her to trust the other woman. Besides, she had already lost against Nana’s insistence to make her food. And the bed Nana was offering was too comfortable to resist in her fatigued state.

“I’m sorry to trouble you so much, Daiba-san,” Shiori apologized once more as she shakily stood up, collecting her bowl and utensils.

Nana shook her head, sweeping over to Shiori and taking the items from her hands. “It really is no trouble. I’m here to help, however little I can do in that regard. At the very least, I can do this much.”

Shiori’s arms dropped to her sides, scooting back to sit down on the bed. The moment her body sunk into the soft mattress, Shiori’s eyes began to droop.

“You’re already so kind, Daiba-san.” Shiori muttered as she laid down, eyelids finally shutting. “Is there really more you need to do?”

Consciousness quickly slipped from her. As her body gave into the lull of sleep, Shiori heard one last whisper from Nana.

“Not enough. If I had done more sooner, then…”

Nana’s voice trailed off, and Shiori was too tired to ask for more.


Nana shook her head, placing the empty bowls and utensils into the wash-bucket. There was no time to dwell on the past now. They wouldn’t be able to defeat Maesterion and save everyone if all she thought about were her failures. She had to focus on her current chances–hope in the form of the young girl whom she had managed to save.

A girl who had no idea how way in over her head she was.

Nana quietly made her way to the bed and gazed down at Shiori. For a moment, she simply stared at her sleeping guest, transfixed by her serene face and the gentle rise and fall of her chest. She laid half curled on her side, so exhausted from her battles so far that she had fallen asleep without even pulling the blankets over herself.

Though, none of us knew how dangerous this place could be–how powerful Maesterion could be. Not any of the travelers before Shiori-chan, and not me. But Sayo-chan–

Nana shook her head to pull herself from her thoughts. She pulled the sheets over the sleeping girl and looked back at Shiori’s belongings on the dresser–what little there was, at least.

Nothing but an old dagger and a torch. Well, whatever she brought must have been ruined when she fell into the crypt from the broken pulley. And given she had barely any information about what she was getting herself into…

She had a lot to do. There was the matter of informing Shiori about the crypt and Maesterion, how finding her sister related to their ultimate goal, and the ways which they–mostly Shiori–would need to proceed from here.

But first, Nana needed to craft some better equipment for her; preferably a weapon that wouldn’t bend or break so easily. While this dungeon did provide weapons of its own, it wouldn’t do for Shiori to rely solely on chance. Starting off prepared would give her the advantage. 

Dimming the fire to a small ember, Nana opened the door of the cabin as quietly as she could without disturbing Shiori. Once she stepped through and the door was shut behind her, she snapped her fingers, igniting the lanterns of her workshop.

Spacious, organized, quiet… and hers. It was all hers. It wasn’t supposed to be, but that was a past Nana couldn’t change no matter how hard she wished. In other circumstances she might have tried to pursue that avenue, but there was no time for that. True time travel wasn’t feasible with her current skillset. The most she could do now was support others with the resources at her disposal.

Nana summoned her staff and gave it a wave, levitating a few starry diamonds and tools over in her direction. Magic swirled through the air, shaping the materials into the form she desired. She held up a hand to direct the flow of her magic as it crafted a fitting weapon for her current guest.

A sword would probably be best, but what type? Maybe something lighter for Shiori-chan? I don’t want to burden her too much–

Nana froze. Her hand tensed in the air, though her magic continued to work as it followed her subconscious will to finish what she had started.

I’ve already forced this responsibility on Shiori-chan by saving her life with this ability to revive until she finally succeeds. Does adding any more hardship make a difference?

She didn’t need to voice her thoughts to answer herself.

Her head bowed low as Nana clenched her eyes shut, willing the tears budding at the corner of her eyes to recede. She failed to hold them back, a few streaks escaping to run down her cheeks. 

She had become too familiar with failure over these many, unknown years.


It took a few more seconds before the feeling in her hands receded, bringing back a familiar warmth. Her heart remained unmoving in her chest, but at least here the crypt’s beat had gone silent once more.

“...Hey, Daiba-san. Tell me, what do you think of her? From one mage to another.”

Nana furrowed her brow, tightening her grip on her white staff as the viewing circles vanished with a dismissive wave from the other mage. Her breathing still hadn’t settled yet; quick and harsh from the realization of what her life had come to now. 

“You said her name was Maesterion, right?” Nana replied with a query of her own. “That violin… I’ve heard rumors, but it can’t be the same, can it?”

Her questions earned a sad smile her way, soft and fragile. “The very same.”

“If that’s true, then why hasn’t S

“Oh, believe me they tried to retrieve it for themselves,” her companion sighed, shoulders slumping from an unspoken weight. “Unfortunately, she grew too powerful for even their best general. If I’m correct with what has been happening in the world above, you should have already seen the tide shifting in your nation’s favor.”

It had. The fact that Nana had been able to leave was proof of it. 

“Of course, now that you’re stuck here too, I wouldn’t be surprised if things shift once more.” Naruse Sayo, self-proclaimed dungeon shopkeeper, sat down on the floor with a tired huff. She dismissed her ornate golden staff, hugging her arms and curling in on herself so that her forehead rested on her knees. 

“I’m sorry, Daiba-san,” came her muffled words. “I don’t know what else to do. I can’t stand up to her right now, but it’s not like I can leave her be, either... Even now, she's still my...my..." 

Nana’s shoulders hunched to her ears at the sight. It wasn’t the first time she had seen someone like this; so lost and wondering what could be done to end it all. “I really wish I could help. Unfortunately, as I am now…I think it would make matters worse. I wouldn’t have enough time.” 

She had felt it; in the moment Maesterion’s eyes had met hers and the violin had violently pitched. If she were to be fully enticed by its song, an unspeakable disaster could occur. 

“I’ve thought about running away, you know. Several times,” Sayo mumbled, raising her head a bit and peeking over her knees to meet Nana’s gaze. “I’m a coward who doesn’t deserve to be the one to end this. I had my chances to stop her, but whenever I thought about doing it, I… I couldn’t.” 

Nana’s breathing had finally slowed. Dismissing her staff with a tired wave, she walked over to Sayo as best as she could. The feeling in her feet hadn’t fully receded yet. She knelt down in front of her, and from here, she could see the tears flowing from the mage’s eyes. 

“I’m a coward too,” Nana said, offering a fragile smile of her own. “Would you like to hear? About a gentle girl named Osaka, and the girl who abandoned her duties to find her...”

Chapter Text

Shiori stirred awake from her third sleep that day–or was it fourth?–slowly opening her eyes to the sound of a blade repeatedly slicing through wood. Her initial reaction was to treat it like an attack from one of the crypt's monsters, leading her to quickly stumble out of bed and nearly trip in her haste.

Nana was nowhere to be found.

"Daiba-san!" Shiori called, hurrying towards the only door in the cabin and throwing it open.

Nana stood in the middle of what appeared to be a workshop, albeit larger and more brightly lit than Shion's. There was also the fact that one of the walls seemed to open out to a small glade with an equally-small pond. But Shiori knew by now that the scenery was just a complicated illusion, no matter how prettily the pond shimmered. They were still inside the crypt. The possibility of being attacked wasn't at zero.

That thought quickly faded to the back of her mind when Nana turned around to face her with a calm, confused frown. "Shiori-chan? How did you find me?"

It was Shiori's turn to frown in confusion. "I heard the sound of a blade and assumed it was from an enemy attack. I followed the noise outside the cabin…"

Nana blinked with wide eyes, her frown morphing into a flat line. "You… ran out of the cabin? Just like that?"

Shiori looked down at herself, belatedly realizing the state she was in. In her haste, she had rushed out without even fixing her clothes or making herself presentable.

Her cheeks flushed. "Oh! I hadn't realized! I wasn't thinking when I woke up and heard the noises…"

Nana's expression softened, though her eyes sparked for a reason Shiori couldn't place. "You're really something else, Shiori-chan. You don't have much combat experience, but your instincts are as sharp as many of the soldiers I've met. And your magic potential… Yes, I think this will be a good fit."

Nana turned around to face Shiori fully with a friendly smile. A sword floated in front of her, following her motion and allowing Shiori to see its radiant blade, golden guard and jeweled pommel. "Sorry about waking you, but your timing couldn't have been any better. I was just testing out your new weapon."

Shiori took a step closer, hands clenching at her sides. "A new weapon...for me? Then that sound earlier…"

Nana raised her staff as an answer. Heeding some unspoken command, the sword smoothly flew through the air, heading for a row of wooden blocks arranged on one of the worktables. It cleanly sliced through all of them, not faltering once with its speed.

"Of course, I should probably test this by hand and not with my magic," Nana mused once the weapon returned to her. "But my swordsmanship is a little rusty, and this way I have a better range of motion if I handle it from a distance instead. Though, since you're here now, we might as well have you test the weapon yourself!"

Nana tapped the butt of her staff to the ground. A magic circle appeared in the short distance between them, golden particles of light forming above its center and quickly coalescing into a ghostly, humanoid monster standing at the ready. A pair of wings flared out from its back as it took an attacking stance; long straight hair framed the fox-like mask covering its face from view.

Shiori took an instinctive step back, her wide eyes fixated on the misty manifested monster as the magic circle vanished. She clenched her shaking hand into a fist, resting it on her chest where she should have been able to feel her frantic heartbeat, if she still had a physically-working heart.

"What is…?" Shiori gasped.

"Oh, don't worry! This is just a training dummy I conjured up. I based it off of the monsters you'll eventually run into as you progress through the crypt. Of course, I'll make sure it doesn't harm you."

Nana then lowered her voice a little, muttering something that sounded like, "I can't say the same for the real deal..."

The creature gave a mighty flap of its large wings, propelling a gust of wind strong enough to nearly knock Shiori off her feet. She barely held her ground, bending her knees and holding up her arms to cover her face.

"I figured this would be a good chance for you to get some extra practice in, so I tried to reproduce its skills and abilities. The more realistic, the more reliable our results!"

Daiba-san wants me to fight right here? Right now? Against that?!

"That's–!" Shiori started to protest.

Nana's expression sobered. "You might be able to restart at the beginning of every zone if you die and fail, but wouldn't it be better to avoid prolonging your attempts and aim for success as fast and efficiently as possible? Dying is painful, as I'm sure you know well enough by now."

The burning agony of her bones rupturing from within her body; a swordbreaker thrust into her chest, sharp blade and protruding grooves digging into her flesh–even if her mind were to break, her body would not forget her first experiences with death. Did Shiori want to relive that? Did she want to die again, perhaps in an even more painful manner?

Nana offered Shiori a small smile. "I can't do much to protect you once you're in the crypt on your own. But right here and right now, I can create the perfect environment for you to practice without fear of death. As long as you are under my care here, I won't let anything happen to you."

As if reflecting Nana's promise, the monster hadn't moved from its spot. It continued to flare its wings and assert a dangerous aura, but it made no movements to attack. It was almost as if it was waiting for a cue to do anything beyond scaring her.

Shiori took a deep breath to calm herself. Once she was stable, she turned to Nana and held out the hand she had kept clenched to her chest. "I'll trust you, Daiba-san."

With a flick of her wrist, Nana called the floating weapon over to Shiori. Shiori took the offered item and gingerly tested its weight.

"Is this a short sword?" Shiori wondered. It didn't feel too heavy. But the blade also looked different from the steel of a typical sword. It almost looked as if it was crafted from gems.

"I figured you'd prefer a one-handed sword if you needed to carry around a torch with you for visibility," Nana answered. "Its reach might be a little shorter than other swords like a broadsword, but you're also a novice at swordsmanship. Something easier would be better for you to start off with."

Shiori's chest swelled with warmth. "Thank you for your considerations, Daiba-san."

Nana smiled kindly. "Now go on, give it a test. I do have to warn you though. The monster won't kill you, but it is still somewhat dangerous. It wouldn't benefit you if I babied you entirely, right?"

Shiori nodded in agreement. While fighting monsters was terrifying, it was inevitable if she wanted to progress through the crypt and find her sister. And there would be many more than just the ones she had encountered so far.

"Actually, come to think of it...this one in particular wouldn't fight you with only punches and kicks." Nana's smile fell into a slight frown as she glanced at the fake monster under her command. "But arming it wouldn't leave you much space to maneuver with."

"I don't mind if you need to change the scenery," Shiori said, settling into the stance Rui had taught her once.

Nana's gaze swept over to Shiori's, and she stilled. Her green eyes, usually so warm, grew piercing. Shiori shifted nervously on her feet.

"Um… Daiba-san…?"

"Sorry, sorry–just remembering something."

With a snap of Nana's fingers, the workshop and glade transformed into a spacious courtyard lined with hedges, and the occasional tree or bush trimmed into various shapes. A majestic marble fountain bubbled behind the mage, bearing a statue of a charging bull poised in its center. Stone buildings with stained glass windows rose up around them, and Shiori could see towers in the distance, flying orange flags.

"Is this...somewhere inside of a castle?"

"Supposedly. Although I've never been there myself," Nana said, briefly tapping her staff to the ground once more. "This should give you both enough room now."

Before her, the monster calmly raised its right hand. Part of the golden mist comprising its form surged down its arm and extended in its grasp, shaping into what seemed like a lance. Weapon now obtained, the monster shifted its attacking stance accordingly.

Something tugged at the back of Shiori's mind. Had she seen this before?

"Shiori-chan?" Nana called, her voice drawing Shiori's attention once more. "You might want to tuck your elbows a little bit closer to you, and widen your stance."

Cheeks flushing at her mistakes, Shiori immediately made the adjustments. "Like this?"

She barely had time to react.

The monster surged forward without warning, faster than Nomina, lance aimed for Shiori's heart like a giant, deadly arrow. Shiori instinctively raised her sword to parry.

Her blade caught the strike just in time, the body of the lance grating across her sword instead of shearing her face. Despite Nana's reassurance that the monster wouldn't kill her, Shiori had to put all her weight into the sword to press back against the monster's strength.

It wouldn't kill her, but it would try to kill her. Yes, there was a difference.

"Daiba-san?!" Shiori squeaked, arms trembling from the effort in holding the monster at bay. Her knees buckled as the pressure on her blade grew too much. Taking advantage of the opening she had given it, her ghostly opponent sent her flying backwards to land painfully on her bum. Her sword flew out of her hand, clattering across the courtyard's tiles.

"Sorry, Shiori-chan!" she heard Nana call. "Not every enemy will give you a warning beforehand!"

A warning still would have been nice...

Biting back a groan, Shiori tried to stand back up...only for a lance to whistle past her head, nearly grazing her left ear as it violently impacted into the ground just behind her. The monster stood over her–hand still gripping the lance, wings flaring from its back, and mask betraying nothing. Its unseen eyes seemed to bore into her.

She hadn't heard it approach at all. Were its wings that silent?

No, I simply wasn't paying attention, Shiori chided herself. Her left hand curled into a fist against the rough tiles, shaking. The only reason why I'm alive right now is because this is practice. If I continue to take this lightly, that would be a waste of Daiba-san's efforts!

Perhaps it was because of the knowledge that the monster wouldn't kill her. Or perhaps it was because someone was relying on her now to see things through. Whichever the case, a newfound determination gripped Shiori, enabling her to roll to the side and lunge for her fallen sword. Her hand wrapped around the hilt just as a powerful gust blew over her.

Here it comes! Shiori quickly jumped to her feet, sword at the ready.

Her blade deflected the monster's attack before it could skewer her, sending a violent tremor down her arms. Its powerful attacks nearly threw her off her feet, forcing Shiori to put more weight into her stance to keep herself steady.

She called upon everything she had learned from her previous instructors. Even though stage combat didn't place anyone in danger with its scripted moves, knowing the basics behind a real fight helped build a more believable scene for the audience. It had also doubled as self-defense.

She pictured Rui and Futaba, enthusiastically showing her the proper way to handle a sword and the stances necessary to counter potential strikes during their sparring sessions. She recalled Tamao's patience and Kaoruko's firm yet gentle scolding, reminding her to be aware of herself and her opponent, but also her surroundings. She drew upon Claudine's reassuring confidence, blending both skill and experience to best even Rui and Futaba despite their expertise. Then there was Fumi, her sister who she swore to reach and catch up to. The one who pushed her to be better–to never stop or give up.

Shiori kept all of this in mind. Slowly, she found herself gaining a good grasp of the mock battle.

I can do this. Shiori parried the monster's thrusts once more, gritting her teeth to stave off the burning of her trembling muscles. I can do this!


After approximately ten minutes of nonstop movement, Shiori finally declared that she could no longer do this.

Collapsed flat on her back on the ground, Shiori laid with her arms spread out and chest heaving up and down. Off to the side, the monster dissolved into particles as Nana made her way toward her with a proud smile.

"How do you feel, Shiori-chan?" she asked, crouching down beside her.

"I–" Shiori gasped for breath, "I'm okay. I just need a minute. And then I can… can…"

Nana shook her head with an amused chuckle. "I think that's enough for right now. You did well for someone with so little combat experience. You can get some more practice in after a bit of food and rest."

Shiori frowned. Did she really have the luxury to take it so easy? "But…"

"You won't be able to perform well without the proper rest and nutrients," Nana stated as a matter-of-fact. "I'm sure at least one of your friends has mentioned this before."

Kaoruko's chiding came to mind; the same words that had passed through her thoughts after Shiori had killed the dragon and collapsed from exhaustion. The warm memory sent a twinge of nostalgia through her chest, reminding her of the simpler life she gave up to pursue her current goal. One that she was now fully starting to realize she had come much too underprepared to tackle.

"Really though, you did well, Shiori-chan. Most battles won't last more than a few minutes, given their quick pace and the need to end a confrontation as quickly as possible to preserve energy and resources," Nana said, her voice pulling Shiori from her thoughts. "I can at least gauge that your stamina will be fine, so long as you don't fight many consecutive enemies one after the other. And I can give you more tips on your swordsmanship, though it looks like whoever taught you the basics imparted enough to you. It's just a matter of getting used to fighting now. But first..."

Nana stood up, stretching her back. She looked down and flashed Shiori a bright smile that warmed her aching chest.

"Let's get you something warm to eat!"

Shiori's lips pulled up into a beaming smile. Eager to try Nana's delicious cooking a second time, she pulled herself to her feet, using her new weapon as support to stand up. As she got her bearings together, Nana waved her staff and changed the scenery so that they were once more in the small, warm cabin they had their last meal in.

This time, Nana took the time to prepare a cheesy potato casserole. The necessary changes to her "kitchen" were easily implemented with another wave of her staff. In just under a half hour, the smell of melted cheese and warm potatoes overwhelmed Shiori–she had to keep herself from salivating.

The two exchanged small talk as they ate, with Shiori mentioning that she was a performer before all of this began. Nana's eyes lit up at that, and she enthusiastically asked for more. She grilled her on the plays they had performed, their set pieces, the costumes and stage fights...

Was Daiba-san a performer too, once...?

Though Shiori wanted to learn more about the mysterious mage–who really seemed like she could do anything–Nana was particularly tight lipped about her life from before the crypt. She did offer some more information about the crypt itself, such as what monsters Shiori could expect to encounter beyond the ones she had fought already, and which traps she could use to her advantage. Her confidence rose as she learned more about what awaited ahead.

With her belly full, her body now rested, and her newly forged sword leaning against the table by her side, Shiori set her utensils down onto her empty plate and declared, "I'm ready to try again."

Nana smiled in agreement. "That's the spirit! I'll set up another training ground and a different mo–"

"The crypt," Shiori clarified, swallowing the lump of shame she felt for rudely interrupting her new mentor. "I'm ready to try another run through the crypt."

Nana's smile fell. She pursed her lips, then slowly set her own utensils down. "Are you sure, Shiori-chan? You've only had one practice run with the monster. I did say you had all the time in the world."

Shiori reached over to grasp the hilt of her sword. This time when she lifted it, the weapon didn't feel as foreign as it did the first time Nana had passed it to her.

"The training monster was helpful," Shiori admitted as she placed the blade flat on her lap, "but training isn't what I came here to do–it's not who I should be fighting. The sooner I defeat Bossa Nomina, the sooner I can progress through the rest of the crypt to find Onee-chan and everyone else."

"With such limited combat experience?"

Shiori squared her shoulders, trying to sound more self-assured than how she really felt. "What better way to learn than in actual, real combat? I have all the chances I need–you did say I'd reset to the beginning of every attempt when I die."

"You're willing to repeatedly suffer rather than taking the safer option? I understand your concerns, especially since Maesterion has your heart. But being too hasty will only hurt you."

Shiori looked down where her hands rested flat on the blade of her sword. She remained silent for a moment, letting Nana's concern linger in the air.

"For as long as I could remember, Onee-chan always took care of me. Even when we still lived with our parents, it was Onee-chan who was making sure I was healthy and safe." Shiori's lips pulled up into a small smile, gaze fixated on the blade. She could almost imagine the memories playing out on its gleaming surface. "Then, we joined Tamao-san's troupe. As I told you before, I was the youngest, so everyone always checked on me and made sure I was okay. It was like I had gained more older sisters. Of course, Onee-chan continued to take care of me as if nothing had changed."

"It did sound like you were well-loved," she heard Nana remark. Raising her head, she caught the warm smile on the mage's face, only for it to drop into a frown. "But?"

Shiori's hands pressed down on the blade as her chest ached for the times lost. "I always wanted to repay her. Onee-chan and everyone… they took such good care of me. I wanted to become strong enough to stand on my own two feet, so that one day I'd be able to return the favor and help everyone just as they had done for me. But then…" Shiori swallowed the lump in her throat. "Then Onee-chan left without telling me why. Then Claudine-san, Rui-san, and Futaba-san did the same. It worried me; but I couldn't do anything…!"

"So you came looking for them, tracking them to this crypt."

Shiori relaxed her hands, steadying herself to continue. "If Onee-chan and the others are still in here, then I want to save them. I can't go about this at my own leisure–not when there's so much danger waiting. I don't know what could have happened to everyone. So even if they are still alive, I have to do my best to find them as soon as possible." Shiori's lips pursed into a thoughtful frown. "I know I'll make many mistakes, but I'll learn from them along the way."

A few seconds passed as Nana stared levelly at her, eyes piercing like when the practice fight had begun. Finally, the mage's shoulders drooped and her frown shifted upwards into a small smile.

"There's no convincing you, is there?" Nana shook her head with a light chuckle. "In that case, I'll just have to do my best to support you as you jump straight into the fray."

Shiori relaxed as well, warmth spreading within her chest. She exhaled softly in relief. "Thank you, Daiba-san."

The cool surface of the sword in her lap seeped into her warm hands. With this new weapon that Nana had kindly forged for her, along with Nana's own resolute promise, all doubts left her mind. Shiori was ready to reenter the crypt to try again.


"How does it feel?" she heard Nana ask from somewhere behind her. "I tried to make it as light as possible so it won't slow you down."

Shiori adjusted the leather pouch attached to her belt, shifting it to just behind the holster for her dagger. It definitely felt light and barely there despite its size–it could likely hold another dagger if Shiori found one. Or…

Inhaling sharply, Shiori turned around to face the mage, a question in her eyes.

Nana favored her with a gentle smile. "I figured you wouldn't want to lose it a second time. If you find anything else, feel free to place it in there too–it's enchanted to be near-limitless."

Shiori tilted her head slightly. "What is its limit, then?"

Nana hummed thoughtfully. "If you can remember all the tea you've drank in your lifetime, then that might come close to a tenth of that capacity."

That's far too much!

Shiori's shocked expression drew an amused chuckle from Nana. "In any case, it's an amount you could never hope to carry in your lifetime; so don't worry about running out of space. Oh, and you don't have to worry about accumulated weight either. In addition to the extra space, I added another spell to alleviate the effects of gravity within the bag too."

Shiori patted the object in wonder. From a glance, the leather pouch didn't seem different from anything else she could have owned. It was hard to believe its true worth.

"Thank you, Daiba-san. You've already provided me with a weapon and a means to successfully traverse through the crypt despite my inexperience." Shiori sighed heavily. "I can't thank you enough."

"I did promise you that I'd support you in any way I can. And besides, I want you to succeed too." Nana's lips pull down into a grim frown. "I don't want to lose anyone else to this crypt. As long as I'm alive, and as long as you're willing to keep trying, I promise to do everything I can to make sure that you're the last person to fall victim to Maesterion."

"And here I was hoping you'd have more to show as a candidate."

Shiori frowned, recalling Nomina's comment right before she had stabbed her through the chest with her sister's–

Absentmindedly, Shiori's fingers curled around her shirt to press her clenched fist over a wound that didn't exist. "Why… Why is Maesterion looking to trap people who come into the crypt? Does it have to do with why I'm a 'candidate?'"

Nana's gaze shifted toward Shiori's chest as she replied, "I think it'll be easier to understand with your second run. This time, pay attention to the mini bosses after you defeat them."

Shiori frowned. "The mini bosses? You mean the werewolf, the giant crow, and the dragon?"

Nana nodded. "Yes, those. Last time you were in a hurry and left their bodies after you defeated them, right? Take the chance to rest this time–renew your energy, but keep your eyes on them. The truth that is revealed at a certain crucial time… that will be important to understanding the reality of this crypt."

"What is it that I should be looking for?"

Instead of answering, Nana shook her head. "You'll know when the time comes."

Shiori opened her mouth to protest, but quickly turned away and thought better. She didn't want to bother Nana more than she was already doing; the mysterious mage was already doing so much to help her. If what Nana said was true, then Shiori only needed to do what she had already set out to do and she would eventually have the answers she sought.

For now, she'd settle with that.

From the corner of her eye, she saw Nana tap her staff to the ground; a magic circle etching itself into existence starting from the point of contact. Shiori's gaze swept back just as the circled flared briefly in a golden light, dying down to reveal a set of stairs leading underground, much like a way into a cellar.

"Before I forget… While you're there, I would appreciate it if you could keep an eye out for some starry diamonds," Nana said, dismissing her staff with a flick of her wrist. In its place, she conjured a diamond shaped like Deion's starry emblem. "As I'm sure you've noticed, this crypt has turned into a dungeon, meaning that the air is thick with magic. Sometimes that magic condenses and forms these diamonds."

"That's–!" Shiori's words lodged in her throat for a moment, "That's Deion's symbol, isn't it?"

Nana blinked. "Deion…? You mean Fort Deion?"

"I don't know about that old fort, but at the very least, it seemed like the city's symbol." At Nana's unreadable stare, Shiori's shoulders hunched to her ears, suddenly self-conscious over her outburst. "I-I guess it makes sense, considering this place is underneath it…"

"...I suppose it does. Still… A city, hm…?" Exhaling softly, Nana gestured to the diamond in her hand. "Anyway, I can use these as crafting materials. Your sword was forged from some, in fact. I would go looking for them myself if I could, but I need to stay behind to maintain this place."

Shiori brightened at that, giving an enthusiastic nod. "I can help with that! Just leave it to me, Daiba-san!"

Dismissing the diamond, Nana clapped both hands together, lips pulling up into a bright, encouraging smile. "That's the spirit, Shiori-chan!" She gestured toward the waiting stairs. "The path is open for you. Whatever you encounter, whatever truth is revealed to you… You'll be fine."

Shiori trusted Nana. She also trusted her own abilities–what she could do, and what her limitations were. Even if she wasn't the most experienced fighter, she had already gone through this first zone once. It was an advantage she was going to utilize to the fullest.

Giving Nana one final nod, Shiori descended down the path Nana had created for her. Without looking back, Shiori left the safety of Nana's protection and ran headfirst into the dangers of the crypt.


The first floor looked exactly the same as the last time Shiori had passed through. Even the monsters she encountered were the same, albeit in different locations from before. Was this a result of her faster progress? The sword Nana had given her made cutting them down astoundingly easy.

Compared to Bossa Nomina and that winged monster, this is nothing…! Shiori allowed herself a smile of relief as she opened the treasure chest containing the protective amulet from before. Even the crypt's beat felt easier to follow in this second attempt of hers.

It didn't take long for her to reach the chamber where she had faced the werewolf. And much like before, it paced restlessly in front of the golden door on all fours, its bushy tail wagging in time to its twitching ears and snout. Its dark brown fur shone under the light of the multi-colored torches, crimson eyes sharp and alert.

A sense of familiarity gripped Shiori, keeping her from charging in at once. Perhaps it was the knowledge of knowing how the monster would react...or perhaps it was something else entirely.

Nomina had called her a candidate and Maesterion's pawn. Nana had asked her to wait after killing a mini boss.

Shiori could be slow to grasp some things, yes, but even she could connect the dots that had started to form.

Fighting back the fear and panic threatening to rise up at the thought, Shiori set down her torch as silently as she could, mindful of the crypt's beat all the while. If she could keep the werewolf inside of the chamber, she wouldn't have to worry as much about her stamina in trying to evade its hunt. Freeing her other hand also allowed her to factor magic into her attacks–something she had belatedly realized last time.

Who was it? Shiori slowly rose back up to her full height, palms clammy around the hilt of her sword. Who did you used to be?

Gathering her resolve and allowing that rush of fear to drive her, Shiori darted inside of the chamber. Doing nothing to conceal her presence, the werewolf instantly noticed her intrusion. It snapped its head in her direction with a snarl, pushing off its hindlegs to charge toward her.

Its speed and ferocity were just as she remembered. Fighting back a shiver, Shiori suddenly pivoted her foot and kicked off to the side, changing her trajectory toward the closest rock wall. She didn't look back, focusing on ducking behind the wall to hide. Without looking back, she heard the werewolf skid to a halt before changing its angle to chase after her.

Slipping behind the wall, Shiori raised her sword and took the chance to take a quick breath. At the same time, she counted the werewolf's pounding footsteps as it closed the distance.

Shiori recalled Nana's advice as they had prepared for her departure. "Remember, my enchantment on you lets you restart every time you die, but that's not its only benefit. You've already fought these monsters once. Only you have changed. So try to remember their behaviors."

The werewolf swerved around the wall, entering Shiori's line of sight. In that instant, Shiori lowered her stance even before thinking about where the monster would attack from.

"And take advantage of their habits this time."

Its arm swung over her head, colliding against the wall beside her. Shiori ignored the small rain of debris and slashed her sword horizontally. The blade cut across the werewolf's unguarded front, blood spilling from the open wound.

The werewolf howled, a sound closer to a yelp, and swung its other arm vertically down onto her. Before it could hit, Shiori leapt out of the way and put her guard up to gauge the werewolf's next move.

During her first run when Shiori had disabled its movements, the werewolf had lashed out at her with surprising precision. Its thick and powerful arm would have killed her from the sheer impact force alone if she hadn't gotten lucky and lowered her body to match the beat of the crypt.

Such an instinctive reaction was beneficial on the battlefield to keep the opponent from relaxing. Although it hadn't been explicitly taught to her, Shiori had remembered this tactic used many times in a few mock battles, though with greater variability. It had been the times when she was watching…

Her wooden training sword parried her opponent's, swinging around with the momentum of the strike to bear down onto her opponent's head. Smooth, practiced, instinctual–it was practically second nature to…

The werewolf clutched its chest where Shiori had inflicted the wound. It snapped its head toward her, its crimson eyes flashing with anger and pain.

Shiori's chest clenched for a reason she couldn't place.

Another howl, loud enough to echo within the chamber, pulled Shiori from her confused thoughts. With one leap, the werewolf closed the distance, claws and teeth bared.

Shiori only had time to bring up her sword before it struck her. The blade sliced into the werewolf's paw, but that didn't stop the monster from pushing her back against the wall hard enough to knock her breath away. She coughed out something warm and sticky as her vision blurred.

The werewolf raised its other arm. Before it could attack, Shiori mustered all her strength to push the sword deeper into the monster's flesh. At some point the pain was too much for the werewolf and it pulled back with a pitiful yelp.

Shiori leapt forward with her sword aimed at its heart. She struck as the werewolf continued to stumble back; even before the beast had the chance to counterattack.

The tip of her short sword stabbed into its chest, the blade easily sliding through its hide, bones, and muscles. She grit her teeth and pushed the sword deeper into its body, making sure to pierce its heart through.

The beast released one final, weak whimper before its body went slack. As it fell backwards, Shiori pulled the sword from its body and took a step away.

Shiori watched as the werewolf took its last breath, clutching her heaving chest with her free hand. At her side, her tainted sword dripped blood onto the stone floor.

The first mini boss was dead. And now… she just needed to wait.

"What is it that I should be looking for?"

Instead of answering, Nana had shaken her head. "You'll know when the time comes."

An uneasy feeling curled around her chest. Her fingers dug into her shirt as she kept her eyes on the werewolf's prone form.

The werewolf's blood continued to trickle from her blade onto the ground, forming a small puddle of red. For a while, the only sounds in the chamber were her own heaving breaths, slowly evening out, and the barely audible dripping of blood falling to the ground over the crypt's ever-present beat.

Then, a great gust enveloped the werewolf's body. Shiori took a step back, releasing her grasp on her shirt to cover her face from the sudden wind.

Is this what Daiba-san meant? Shiori wondered. What… what will happen…?

The cyclone of wind burst up, pulsing green for a moment, then slowly lowered back down and dissipated.

As Shiori waited with baited breath, a stray thought came to mind. Defeat. Is that the same as kill?

She didn't have time to ponder that. Once the wind died down and the monster–no, and the human–reemerged, Shiori could no longer breathe.

She could no longer stand, falling to her knees as all the strength left her body. Her sword clattered to the ground as both hands reached up to cover her mouth. She ignored the stickiness clinging to her lips, focusing on pushing back the bile rising in her throat and–

She secured the oodachi strapped to her back, brushing her long, brown hair to the side. She turned back with a warm smile, red eyes crinkling at the corners; the last smile that Shiori had seen in years. And with a gentle voice, she vowed to find Shiori's sister no matter what it took.

–her not-so-lost friend, long brown hair strewn over the ground where she laid unconscious.

The same one that she had run through the heart.

Shiori choked on a sob. "R-Rui…san?"

Chapter Text

Nana's breaths hitched into painful gasps as she ran through the crypt, mindful of the beat even in her...current condition. While darting past enemies, her white staff nearly slipped out of her grasp once or twice. Thrice. After all, a dragon's claws were not meant to hold such things, even though her hands were still partly human.

For now.

Magic circles floated around her, attempting to cleanse the curse or analyze its composition. As soon as one circle shattered, the curse too much to bear, another took its place. She needn't have bothered attempting to reverse its effectsshe knew what the true cause wasbut it didn't hurt to try anyway. Just in case. Just in case the worst scenario could be avoided.

Sweat dripped down her brow. The budding antlers on her head had grown heavier. I'm running out of time, she thought, setting a Lich on fire before it could send its spell her way. How far did that monster go? Did it already retreat to the very bottom?

The one who inflicted this curse was thorough. There were few things more effective than taking someone's heart to hold hostage.

"Ah!"

Nana stumbled, and then fell. Her white staff flew out of her claws, clattering across the stone tiles. Glancing behind to see what she had tripped over… Well. If only it were as simple as tripping over a rock.

Her feet had begun turning into hooves.

"It shouldn't be this fast," Nana muttered, shaking her head and dismissing her magic circles. Raising a clawed handmore dragon than humanshe called her staff back to her side and used it as a crutch to help her stand. "That thing must desperately want me."

"...I can't speak for Maesterion herself, but it sure looks like it," a new voice called out.

Shakily straightening back up to her full height and ever-mindful of the beat, Nana raised her head. A girl her age stood before her, garbed in the warm, autumn colors of a kingdom older than her own. A mage's cloak hung from her shoulders; dark material broken up by intricate orange designs and held together by a white, bull-shaped clasp.

To the girl's side, nestled into the stone wall, was a golden door Nana was certain hadn't been there before.

"Quickly! If you stay out here any longer, the transformation will run its course," the girl said, opening the door with a wave of her golden staff. With her other hand, she reached for Nana's wrist, tugging her along.

"Who… Who are you?" Nana managed to ask, allowing herself to be led over the threshold. Almost immediately, she could feel the curse's progress halt. The girl glanced back. 

"I'm–"


"R-Rui...san?"

Brown hair. Brown fur.

Red eyes. Red...eyes.

Rui. The werewolf had been Rui. Akikaze Rui.

Rui had gone into the crypt after her sister. Rui hadn't returned. Why was she a werewolf?

Then, earlier, during her first attempt, did that mean–

"Rui-san…" Another sob tore from Shiori's throat. "Rui-san!"

She stumbled forward, practically crawling on her hands and knees to reach the fallen figure of her friend. Shiori missed the beat more than once in her haste, but the pain of seeing Rui again–in this way of all ways–hurt more than whatever the crypt's curse could inflict.

"Rui-san, Rui-san...!"

Although the tears had begun to blur her vision, she could still see the same clothes Rui had worn the day she had left. As Shiori shook her shoulders, frantically urging her to wake up, she noticed that Rui's oodachi was missing, along with its sheath.

That was fine. They could look for it together. They were together now.

A groan escaped from Rui's lips, faint and barely there, but Shiori heard it all the same. She hiccuped, managing a watery smile of relief as Rui slowly opened her eyes.

"...Shi...ori…?"

Her blood ran cold. Or warm, rather. It dripped from Shiori's chest, where claws had just gouged through as easily as if tearing paper.

Rui's red eyes lacked any human warmth–not when the rest of her had already transformed back into a fearsome werewolf. Shiori fell to the ground, strength fading from her limbs as the monster raised herself to her full height with an eerie calmness.

It had all happened too fast. Or perhaps Shiori had lowered her guard too far.

"Rui...san…"

Black encroached upon her vision, mixing with her tears. Her chest hurt for reasons beyond her mortal wounds. Towering over her, the werewolf let loose a slow and trembling howl.

To Shiori's ears, it sounded like a eulogy.

Ru...i...

And so Death took her for the third time.


Ba… dump.

Ba…

...

...dump.

...Ba-dump.


Shiori's eyes shot open. Gasping for breath, she sat up with enough force to make herself a little dizzy. Her hands patted at her chest, trying in vain to staunch a wound that no longer existed.

But the pain still lingered. Shouldn't she be healed?

"Shiori-chan," Nana's gentle voice drifted over to her; quiet, careful, and tinged with something else she couldn't quite place. "Shiori-chan, can you take a deep breath for me and count to five?"

Haltingly, Shiori did as she was told.

"Now exhale."

Her hands trembled against her shirt as she did so. Nana urged her to take another deep breath, repeating the entire process a few more times until her breathing finally calmed.

"...The w-werewolf," Shiori began to say, voice cracking, "was Rui-san. Akikaze Rui-san."

She felt Nana's hand against her back, rubbing soothing circles to calm her further. "Yes. Earlier, I recognized her stance in yours. I'm… I wanted to tell you then, but it was best if you saw the truth for yourself."

"She… She turned into a monster. I kill–" Bile rose to Shiori's throat; her hands flying up to clamp hard over her mouth.

Beside her, she heard Nana quietly sigh. "Yes. You did. But this time, you saw that you briefly brought her back. You–we–still have a chance to save her."

To save her…?

Swallowing hard, Shiori forced herself to lower her hands. Tears had escaped at some point, blurring her vision so she couldn't even see Nana beside her. Blinking them away, Shiori managed to ask, "I'll turn into a monster too...won't I? That's what Nomina meant by being a candidate. And...that's true for everyone who had their heart stolen, isn't it?"

Nana's gaze carried something far too heavy for Shiori to immediately name, pulling the mage's features into a tired, melancholic smile. She reached for Shiori's hand, guiding it to her own chest.

"Yes."

Nana's heart was as still as her own.

"But here in this place, you don't have to worry about its effects. If you bring them here when they're human again, we can keep them safe until you defeat Maesterion." Nana lowered Shiori's hand, returning it to her. "The timing will be tricky, since I can't anchor this place right away. You might die several more times in the process. Even so...do you wish to save them, knowing that you are also at risk?"

Nana's expression hardened as she withdrew her hand.

"Or will you prioritize defeating Maesterion first and saving them that way? While you're still you, you can progress faster and further into the crypt."

Shiori retracted her own hand, bringing it to her chest. Just as before, it remained hollow. "What if I fail?"

Nana's frown deepened. "My spell should be foolproof. As long as you remain yourself, and as long as you're inside this crypt, you'll continue to reset at the start of the last zone you started at. You won't ever die in the truest sense."

"But I won't remain myself forever, will I?" She swallowed, willing herself to stay strong as the next worries gnawed at her. "What if I turn into Maesterion's minion before I can defeat her?"

"The possibility of that happening will be lower if you can progress through the crypt with as few detours as possible. But…"

"It can still happen anyway. And if I'm just not fast enough…" Shiori took a calming breath. "I want a safe space for Rui-san and the others to stay in. Even if I can't save all of us at once by defeating Maesterion in time, I can at least save the others one at a time and bide you all some time for future attempts." Shiori gave Nana a small, weak smile. "You'll have help if I'm gone."

Nana's shoulders drooped, a weak smile of her own pulling at her lips. "No… It has to be you, Shiori-chan. Only you."

Heat rushed to Shiori's cheeks. "D-D-Daiba-san?!"

Nana chuckled weakly. "I mean it. It literally can only be you. I don't have enough magic in me to cast it again–not for a long while. And I usually have a lot, I'll have you know."

"Oh…" Shiori looked down, her embarrassment sobering into guilt. "I'm sorry you had to waste your strongest magic on me. If it were anyone else, your chances of success would have been much higher."

"Perhaps." Nana's smile grew a bit warmer. "But that doesn't change the fact that I chose you. And that's something we'll both have to live with, hm? Your mistakes are mine, just as mine are now yours. We can share the burden together, Shiori-chan."

Together. That's right...she wasn't alone anymore.

"That said, if anyone were to truly bear the blame for all of this, it would fall to me." Whatever warmth Nana had regained turned into melancholy. "Or rather, I guess you could say I inherited it."

Shiori frowned, not following what Nana could mean but unsure if she should pry. "Daiba-san…?"

In an instant, Nana's usual worried frown returned. "Never mind that. As I said, I'll do my best to support you in whatever challenges await you. And if you decide to take the harder route, well...there's not much I can do to stop you. But I do have to ask you again: are you sure?"

Shiori straightened up, nodding with complete confidence. "Yes. I'm sure."

"It could lower your chances of overall success."

"Even so, it was never guaranteed in the first place," Shiori argued. "Since I don't know if I can defeat Maesterion in time, no matter how fast I try to reach her, I want to save everyone on the way."

"Everyone…?" Nana's eyes widened. "Even those who have been turned into monsters that you don't know?"

Shiori smiled sheepishly. "I won't be able to tell who they are until they've returned to their human forms anyway. In that case, I've already done the hard part of defeating them. I might as well save them too."

"That's… That's hubris. You're lowering your chances of success even further!"

"But not if you help me, Daiba-san. I might not be strong enough on my own, but you're…" Shiori's eyes lit up with confidence, "you're a powerful mage! There has to be a way that we can save everyone!"

Nana sighed, exhaling heavily from her nose. "Well, yes, but it'll require very careful timing–"

"So you can?!"

Nana furrowed her brow. "Well, yes. You were the one who said it."

Shiori chuckled nervously. "I was kind of hoping more than believing it. In all honesty, I'm not sure how to save even Rui-san. By the time I had realized who she was, she had already…"

Shiori pressed her hand against her chest, willing the phantom pain to lessen. She clenched her eyes shut to push away the memories of Rui, no longer the kind and tall girl but the massive werewolf, towering over her and plunging her claws through her–

A warm hand rested on top of hers, the soothing touch pushing the haunting memories back. Shiori slowly opened her eyes to focus on Nana's gentle green gaze.

"I might have an idea. It'll be risky, but," Nana smiled apologetically, "you're already getting used to that. And I've been living with danger for the past… well, you don't want to know how many years." Nana gently pulled Shiori's hand away from her chest, giving it a small squeeze. "Are you sure about this, Shiori-chan? I hope you understand how much more you'll be burdened with if you make this decision."

Without hesitating for even a moment, Shiori nodded resolutely. "What do I have to do, Daiba-san?"


"For the most part, all you have to do is what you've been doing already: fight and defeat the boss monsters."

Shiori plastered her back against the wall, holding her breath and quietly tapping her foot to the crypt's beat. She strained her ears to better hear the lumbering steps of the werewolf guarding the door to the next floor.

No. Not just any werewolf. This was Rui. A...furrier kind of Rui. One who was bigger, more dangerous, and could easily kill her.

Who has killed me. Shiori reminded herself, holding back her shudders. She closed her eyes and took a small, calming breath. I can't think about that now. I need to focus on beating the were– beating Rui-san, so Daiba-san can save her afterwards.

It should have been easy, especially since she had already won twice. But that was before she had realized this monster wasn't just a mindless beast–that it was actually a long lost friend of hers.

No, if anything… The revelation should further strengthen her resolve, not hinder it. I can do this. I have to.

Shiori managed to calm herself after a few more breaths. Once she could think clearly, she tried to remember everything she had done previously to win.

First, I set down my torch to free up my other hand. Following that memory, Shiori put the torch down and tried to remember what was next. Then came… a fire spell? No that's not right. I did that by accident. I ran out of my hiding spot to get the– to get Rui-san's attention. I then ran… ran… ran…?

The footsteps were getting further away. She was losing her window of opportunity.

If I run out, my body might remember where to go.

Follow her instincts. Yes, that was something that both Futaba and Rui had advised her to do. It had always worked for them, either for acting or for their fighting styles. So Shiori did the same, spinning out from her hiding place.

From here, where–?!

Her foot caught a piece of uneven earth, knocking her off balance. Before she knew it, Shiori had struck face-first into the ground, eating dirt.

It was then Shiori remembered that, as Kaoruko had once said, she was horrible at following her instincts.

The werewolf stopped in its tracks, snapping its head toward her. Once it saw her, it howled.

Oh no. Shiori scrambled to her feet and darted behind the closest wall–the one she had just emerged from. Oh no oh no oh no oh no oh no–

She had no time to worry about the sting in her most-likely split lip. Not with the werewolf charging in her direction. It advanced toward her so quickly that Shiori didn't have time to stand back up.

The werewolf rounded the corner, claws outstretched and jaws wide open as it towered over her. Letting her fear and panic drive her, Shiori lashed out with her sword and managed to cut across the surface of its knee. But it was just a surface wound; barely deep enough to do anything but annoy the monster.

Shiori rolled to the side as the werewolf swung one claw down where her head used to be. Debris kicked up into the air from the impact, pelting her shoulder as she shakily stumbled to her feet.

In a corridor this narrow, the werewolf wouldn't have as much freedom to move. Unfortunately, the same could be said for Shiori herself.

Biting back a yelp, Shiori hastily dodged to the side as the werewolf's claws once again aimed for her head. Instead of her soft flesh, its blow knocked a nearby torch out of its sconce on the wall, sending it sliding away and plunging the corridor into semi-darkness.

What do I do? What do I do now?!

As if in response to her fear, a small flame began to gather in Shiori's free hand. Her magic pulsed from her core, burning through her veins to her limbs. In her panic, the flame began to grow in size. Rapidly.

"St-Stay away!" Shiori shouted, both to the fire and the werewolf. She blindly thrust her hand out into the gloom just as the flames narrowed into a fiery blast, lighting up the corridor on its way.

She had missed the werewolf. Mostly.

It yelped in pain from the burn on its arm, scrambling away from the fire still shooting out from Shiori's palm. If she didn't know any better, she could almost see fear in its crimson eyes.

That's right… That first time, it was afraid of fire, wasn't it?

Emboldened by the thought, Shiori swallowed hard and gathered her nerves as best as she could. The corridor was tight enough, her fire was large enough, and the werewolf was being backed into a corner. She could just trap it within her flames and… burn…burn...

I don't… Shiori bit her lip, tasting iron from her already split lip. I don't want to hurt Rui-san even more…!

But she knew she had to. If she wanted to truly save her friend, she needed to defeat her now. And to defeat her, Shiori needed to put her down.

"Aim for the heart. You were lucky last time and did so without knowing, but stabbing their heart sends a panicked response back to the one in Maesterion's hold. It disrupts her control over it for a short time, reverting them back to human form," Nana had explained. "And by short, I mean they'll only stay human for ten seconds, at best. The transformation from monster to human takes thirty seconds, and I'll need a full minute to properly anchor the safe zone."

Nana meant what she had said with the tricky timing. After alerting her, Shiori would need to stab the werewolf–to stab Rui–through the heart in thirty seconds.

Counting normally was fine. Counting under duress was a different story, especially with the crypt's beat following its own time.

"Daiba-san!" Shiori called, trusting that the mage would be watching her progress. "I'll start now!"

At her shout, the werewolf snarled at her from where it paced anxiously near the wall. It had dropped back down to all fours, tail raised and bristling. That wasn't good–she would need to force it to give her a clear shot at its heart. And fast.

Twenty seconds now. Shiori grit her teeth, bringing the column of fire closer to the werewolf in an attempt at intimidation. Unlike before, however, it didn't yelp in fear. Its eyes instead fixed on her own, claws scraping against the stone floor.

It was going to lunge. In such a tight space, there was nowhere for Shiori to hide or evade. If the werewolf pounced, it was going to come straight at her.

She wouldn't have time to draw this out for much longer. There was only one option left to her now.

Ten seconds.

The werewolf lunged, fast and like an arrow let loose from a bow. Lowering her free hand, Shiori cut off the flow of magic to dismiss her flames. With the other, she tightened her grip around her sword for the move to come.

She met the werewolf head-on.

Ignoring the claws raking over her shoulders and drawing blood, Shiori ducked down to hug the werewolf. She dug her heels into the ground, arms straining and endeavoring to push back against its overwhelming weight.

Five.

Claws slashed through her back next as Shiori readied her sword arm.

Four.

Her entire body burned. Her fingers tingled from the pain assaulting her senses, threatening to loosen her grip on her sword.

Three.

The werewolf howled above her, loud and vibrating through her ears.

Two.

Tears ran down her cheeks, hot and searing.

One

Gathering what strength she had left, Shiori released the werewolf and moved her sword in the same breath. The werewolf's weight brought it down on her blade, easily impaling its heart.

Limbs ceased their thrashing, falling limply at her sides. Shiori clenched her hands around the hilt to support the werewolf's full weight. She leaned her face into the werewolf's thick fur, taking in its pungent scent to take her mind off of the warm blood pooling onto her hands from her sword.

Thirty seconds. Daiba-san said it takes thirty seconds. Thirty… Shiori choked down a sob. Twenty-nine…

Slowly, ever-mindful of the beat, she lowered herself onto her knees to ease the werewolf's body down to the ground. Swallowing her tears, Shiori quickly pulled out her sword. She chucked the sword to the side and wrapped her arms back around the corp– the unconscious beast, burying her face in its fur again.

Twenty…

A large gust of wind encircled the werewolf's body, tinged a faint green. Shiori held on tighter, refusing to let go after all she had done. Pain flared in her chest from the missed beats, but that didn't matter–not when the rest of her body was this battered and torn.

Fifteen…

The werewolf's pungent scent slowly began to disappear, replaced by the familiar sweet smell that reminded Shiori of the pastries her friend would often offer her in the past. Fur pulled back into skin, bones cracked and reshaped, and the crushing weight on top of her lessened into something more bearable.

Five.

A small, barely-felt shift in the body over her.

Four.

"Wha…?" A small groan that would have been inaudible if Shiori had taken a breath at that moment.

Three.

"Shi-Shiori…san…?"

Two.

Shiori swallowed the lump in her throat. She had no time to cry. She… didn't have the energy to, either. Why was she so weak?

"I'm sorry, Rui-san," Shiori whispered. Black encroached on her vision; her head felt oddly light.

One.

A bright, golden light flashed from what little she could still see, soon followed by Nana's panicked call. Shiori's arms slackened and fell from Rui's back, too weak to keep them up any longer.

"Shiori-chan!"

"Who are–?! What's going– Shiori-san?!"

"Nevermind that now! Help me pick her up and get her inside!"

"But your hands–"

"We don't– You don't– Shiori-chan doesn't have the time!"

Shiori's eyes slowly slid closed, lacking even the strength to keep them open. Her body felt too heavy. Even her ears felt like they didn't have the energy to keep listening, as the voices faded into a dull murmur.

And then there was silence.


"..."

"..."

Shiori fiddled with the hem of her blouse, unsure of what to say next. Her gaze remained on her shoes, unable to meet the eyes of the tall girl next to her.

Finally, her sister breathed out a long, tired sigh. "Oh come on, you two. I know you're both shy, but you're in the same troupe now. Shiori, where are your manners?"

Shiori perked up, cheeks flushing in embarrassment. How shameful that she needed to be reminded by her sister when she was already almost an adult herself.

"And Rui! Where's your usual fighting spirit? You're never this awkward even on the stage!"

"Eh? I– Um– Well… it's just…"

"Um…!" Shiori's eyes darted upward, meeting flickering magenta eyes for a moment before they both looked away from one another.

Fumi groaned. "Oh come on!"

"But–!" The other girl… whined? "It's your sister, Fumi-san!"

At that, Shiori frowned. Why did that matter?

"What does that have to do with anything?" Fumi asked, voicing the same question Shiori just asked herself.

"Well– It's just–" The taller girl's eyes darted side to side, looking from one blonde to the other. "I– Um…"

Fumi rolled her eyes. "Oh for heaven's sake. It's just Shiori! There's nothing to be scared of. If anything, she's nicer than me."

Strangely enough, the other girl groaned. "Ohhh no. A nicer Fumi-san…"

"Wait, is that what you like?!" Fumi asked incredulously.

Shiori looked back and forth between the two of them. Slowly, the pieces started to fit together in her mind. The slight change in Fumi's stern but gentle nature, as well as this stranger's awkwardness around them both, but mostly her sister–it all made sense.

Shiori beamed. "I'm happy for you, Onee-chan!"

Fumi's eyes nearly popped out of their sockets with how wide they were. Meanwhile, the other girl was sputtering so hard that it was a miracle she hadn't passed out from all the blood rushing to her head.

Shiori giggled and held out her hand. "My name is Yumeoji Shiori. It's nice to meet you…?"

After some incoherent mumbles and a slap on the back from Fumi, the other girl finally recomposed herself and hesitantly took Shiori's hand. The grip shook a little, but held firm enough.

In that moment, Shiori couldn't help but liken the girl to one of the loyal warriors that she had read so much about in the past.

"And my name is Akikaze Rui. It's a pleasure to finally meet you, Shiori-san."

Beside them, Fumi grinned with pride. And Shiori couldn't help the swell of warmth that blossomed in her chest from seeing her sister so happy.


Shiori woke to the smell of something horrible.

Did someone fart? Gagging at the putrid stench, Shiori tried to sit up.

Or rather, she would have, if she weren't laying on her front. Her body laid on top of something cool and prickly, reminding her of the grass in the forest clearing Nana had conjured before. She had laid down to rest back then too, except this time she was lying on her front instead of on her back.

Am I back with Daiba-san then? Shiori wondered. But if I'm here, then where…?

The realization resurfaced the memory of her fight with the werewolf. The last thing she remembered was holding the werewolf, who then turned back into Rui, who was then…

Shiori's eyes snapped open. Rui-san. Where's–?!

She tried to push herself up again, only for her back to flare up in pain. Shiori fell back onto the ground, whimpering from the stings of her apparent wounds.

"Oh no no no no, please don't get up! If you move around too much your wounds will reopen again!"

The familiar voice grounded Shiori's consciousness. Slowly, she willed her breathing to return to normal. Gritting her teeth, she managed to only tilt her head up.

A familiar brunette stared down at her, worry swirling in her magenta eyes. Long brown hair was tied up into a high ponytail–not as fur covering her whole body. She was human and alive. She was…

"Rui...san?" Shiori gasped. "You're… You're okay!"

Akikaze Rui breathed a sigh of relief, falling back onto her haunches. Clutched in her hand was a box of...something. A smelly something that was most definitely not fart. Maybe. "Oh thank goodness. Daiba-san's first aid was a success."

"It should be, especially since I've been taking care of you adventurers for all these years," Shiori heard Nana reply from somewhere behind her. Suddenly, Nana's face was in front of her. "How are you feeling, Shiori-chan?"

She felt… a lot of things. Her back felt like it was on fire, her head ached like someone had smacked it a few times too much, the corner of her mouth stung from her literal face-plant into the earth, and even her shoulder felt heavier than it should have been. There was also the fatigue weighing on her, as well as the relief that Rui was alive and not a monster.

But the apparent grass beneath her was cool, she no longer tasted iron on her lips, she and Rui were alive, and that was already better than what she could have hoped for.

Dying meant she had to restart and save Rui all over again, after all.

"Everything hurts," she answered truthfully. "But I think I'll be… okay. Are we back in the safe zone, Daiba-san?"

Nana nodded, leaning back so Shiori could see more than just her face. The forest clearing was just as Shiori remembered it–the top of the tall trees mostly masking the blue skies above, a few white clouds littering the sky here and there, the infinite expanse of cool grass that stretched along the grounds of the forest, the occasional zephyr, and even the light smell of dew and wood now that Shiori wasn't smelling… whatever Rui had been holding.

"I was able to anchor the safe zone successfully, thanks to your efforts," Nana said with a light, proud smile. "You did well to last as long as you did. Even after… your minor mishap."

Blood rushed to Shiori's cheeks as she remembered how she had fumbled even before her battle with Rui had begun. "You-You saw that?!"

Nana chuckled. "Don't worry. Even the best of warriors can be overwhelmed by a scary ordeal. And you're still learning, Shiori-chan." Her expression sobered in an instant, her gaze drifting down to her back. "I was able to save you and Rui-chan in time, but I had to pull you back in as well to treat your wounds."

Rui nibbled her lip. "I'm sorry. You were just trying to save me and I hurt you this much…"

"Oh no, that's not–!" Shiori tried to protest, but her injuries protested for her.

Nana sighed, gently pushing on Shiori's good shoulder to press her back to the ground. "As I already explained, it really isn't your fault, Rui-chan."

First name basis already?! Shiori gaped up at Nana. Daiba-san is… something.

"It was reckless for Shiori-chan to charge in like that against a bigger and stronger opponent, but," Nana looked down at Shiori with a small smile, "even I could understand that there was little else you could do in your panic. Well, what matters is that you succeeded and Rui-chan is now back to normal."

"But…" Rui began, but Nana shook her head.

"No buts! You're safe and not a monster now, and that's all that matters." Nana sighed, taking a seat beside them. "Besides, Shiori-chan knew what she was getting herself into. It was her decision to risk her life to save you, as she'll be doing with the other boss monsters who were once human."

Rui frowned. "By herself? But that's…"

"Dangerous? Unwise?" Nana's shoulders lifted briefly in a shrug. "Still, Shiori-chan has made her decision. Since you've known her for longer than I have, you should know better than me that she won't change her mind after coming this far."

"But having her go through the crypt alone? That's too dangerous!"

"You challenged the crypt yourself, Rui-san," Shiori pointed out.

"And I failed." Rui clenched her fists, turning her head to the side. "I couldn't find–let alone save–Fumi-san. And now even you're stuck here."

"We won't be," Shiori tried to reassure her. "We–I can save everyone who has been transformed and trapped here, then defeat Maesterion."

"It'll be easier for Shiori-chan if you tell us what you know," Nana cut in, adding in some logical sense before Rui worried her head off. "Any additional information can help her, and help me while I'm supporting her."

Rui shook her head. "I honestly don't remember much. I didn't make it very far–I couldn't beat the boss for this zone at all. I think their names were… Bossa Nomina. They were a duo. The battleground was a giant chess board, and I was never very good at logic games…"

Shiori giggled. "No, you weren't. Onee-chan always beat you in chess. Though you were able to turn the tables during our stage fighting sessions."

Rui's shoulders slumped. If she were still a werewolf, her ears would've slumped as well. "And what good was that? I still lost." Rui gripped her chest. "I would truly be dead if it weren't for Maesterion bringing me back."

"Is there anything else you can tell us about those two?" Nana asked. "Shiori-chan has also fought them before, so you both already have more practical information than I do. But any additional information can help Shiori-chan form a strategy for her next attempt."

"Shiori-san has already… fought them? How did you…?" Rui snapped her head to Nana. "Is that what you meant by the revival spell?"

Nana nodded, then looked back down at Shiori. "While you were unconscious, I explained to Rui-chan about the spell I cast on you. And also why only you will be able to reliably progress through the crypt." She looked back to Rui. "Which means no one can help Shiori-chan."

"Except for you," Rui dejectedly pointed out.

"Only a little, just to bring all the humans who Maesterion has cursed back into this place to keep them safe. But I myself can't step outside for long."

Rui's eyes widened. "So that's why your hands had changed when you saved me and Shiori-san."

Nana clenched said hands, then opened them back up. "Maesterion has my heart as well. At this point, she has all of our hearts. And aside from this place, nowhere else is safe from her. At least here, the wards that were set up will stop Maesterion's curse from restarting as long as we remain inside. Shiori-chan is the only exception because her heart was only recently removed compared to the rest of us. She still has time before she completely falls under Maesterion's control."

"So I have to make it through the crypt and find Maesterion, then defeat her, before my time runs out." Shiori placed her palm flat on the ground, mustering all of her strength to push herself up.

Nana leaned over to help support her. She laid her hand on Shiori's back, careful to avoid the bandages and stitches. "I'm sorry I couldn't completely heal your wounds. I would if I didn't need to conserve my magic. But anchoring this space sucks up a lot of magic, and Rui-san isn't the only one you've decided to save."

Shiori tried to give them both a reassuring smile. "It's okay. I'll be fine. But…" She gritted her teeth, turning her attention to Rui as she fought against the stinging in her back, "I can't do this entirely on my own. I don't have as much experience as you, Rui-san. And I'm nowhere near Daiba-san's level as a mage. I have to make up for my shortcomings where I can. So please, Rui-san. Any information will help."

"Shiori-san…" After nearly a minute of silence, Rui's shoulders finally slumped in defeat. "I do want to help however I can. But I really don't know much more about those two. My memories are hazy, and all I know is that it ended fast."

"Can you recall any tactics?" Nana suggested. "How did those two kill you? And Shiori-chan, how were they when you fought them?"

"They were very… um…" Shiori waved her hands around, smacking the tips of her fingers together. Her cheeks flushed as she remembered just how intimate the pair were. "Like, um…"

"Like…?" Nana pushed.

Shiori shut her eyes and slapped her palms together. The resounding echo sadly did not drown out her embarrassed stammering of, "N-Nomina said she could 'entertain' Bossa all she wanted, a-and that Bossa would give Nomina a… a… 'fitting reward' after defeating me..."

Blank stares answered her in silence.

Shiori's shoulders slumped. "They were looking at each other like you and Onee-chan used to, Rui-san. Except with more… um… passion. Desire? No, wait. More like…" Shiori briefly squeezed her eyes shut, feeling her cheeks heat up more, "L-L-Lu–"

Rui spluttered something that might have been words, cheeks burning to match the same shade as her eyes.

Meanwhile, Nana's mouth formed an 'o' in understanding. "So they're very close. Like lovers!"

Shiori squeaked. "Yes!"

Nana hummed in thought. "Hm. That makes a little sense, seeing as they're the only duo among the zone bosses I know of."

"Really?" Not that either Shiori or Rui would know, as they hadn't even cleared the first zone yet.

"Maesterion herself works alone, you see, as do the other bosses. So having an actual pair, a true duet, makes them a special opponent." Nana frowned. "As a pair, together they would theoretically be more powerful than a single opponent. But what if their bond is also their weakness?"

"How can that be?" Rui asked. "If their connection is strong, there should be no weaknesses."

"Maybe. But relying on one another too much can be a problem if you do it too much. It's like placing your entire happiness and well-being on a single entity. If you lose that, it'll be catastrophic for you, won't it?"

"I suppose…" Rui hesitantly agreed.

"Not to say that Bossa Nomina's human selves were this extreme," Nana added. "But Maesterion has a habit of turning certain qualities of her victims and warping them to fit her amusement."

"They… did seem to rely on cues from one another," Shiori remarked. She recalled how Nomina would always follow the beat whenever Bossa led the song with her piano. There was also how both their tunes were always in sync, as well as their thought processes.

"They might have beaten me before I could fight back, but I do remember they had attacked together," Rui remarked. "Not like a pincer formation. It was more like the one playing the piano–Bossa, I think she's called–suggested the plan, and the one with the lute–Nomina–would carry it out."

Shiori nodded. "It was like that for me too. Bossa remained seated while Nomina was the one attacking me."

"In terms of pairs that have entered this crypt…" Nana leaned back, closing her eyes in thought. "I can't say there were many, especially a pair that could fight in sync like that. Lupin and Moriarty, was it…? The other treasure hunters? Or perhaps the scholar and her partner...? No, no… But if we were to figure them out based on appearances..."

Opening her eyes, Nana gave a wave of her staff. A magic circle appeared in the air off to the side, silver runes filling in its shape before dissolving into moving pictures. Or a still picture, rather. Once again, Shiori found herself looking at the sleeping forms of Bossa Nomina, still slumped against their shared throne.

Before her, Rui made a noise that sounded suspiciously like a squeak. "Th-That's them!"

"You could say they're in hibernation for now," Nana rushed to reassure her. "They'll awaken once Shiori-chan gets close enough to the room."

Something tickled at the back of Shiori's mind. Those hats. Their gaudy clothing. And something Nana had mentioned just now... Lupin and Moriarty.

Where have I heard those names before…? Shiori's eyes widened. "Rui-san!"

"Y-Yes?"

"Do you remember that play we performed a few years ago? The one based on that old book, the...the…" Shiori furrowed her brow, trying to recall the title. "The Thief Who Spins the Spider's Web! Kaoruko-san played Arsene Lupin and–"

"–Tamao-san played James Moriarty!" Rui finished for her, nodding enthusiastically. "Tamao-san's costume was so amazing… But Moriarty was a man in the book, though?"

Nana chuckled. "I suppose some things can get distorted with time. She introduced herself as Jay Moriarty, from what I can remember. But I'm pretty sure both of their names were aliases." Her eyebrows drew together in thought. "Their clothes were nothing like Bossa Nomina's–they seemed more like treasure hunters to me."

"Were they as close as Bossa Nomina?" Shiori pressed. "In the book, Lupin may have flawlessly carried out Moriarty's plans, but it always felt like their partnership was tenuous. They were both thieves with their own separate agendas… I can't imagine they would want to share the same treasure for long."

Rui frowned, crossing her arms over her chest. "Weren't they bound by their honor as thieves? For two people in that line of work, I thought they were pretty close. Lupin visited Moriarty often enough."

"Well… I've never read that book, but if you want to know what those two were like…" Nana began to say, giving another wave of her staff.

Immediately, the safe zone shifted from the familiar forest clearing into what seemed to be a large, military-style camp with white tents lined up in neat rows. Flags flew here and there, bearing the same phoenix emblem on Nana's tunic. Nearby, pacing in what seemed to be an outdoor workshop, was a ghostly version of Nana herself.

"...something like this, maybe?" the current Nana finished, dismissing the viewing circle and pointing at something past it with her staff.

Not something. Someone. Two someones, in fact.

This time, Rui did squeak. "Bossa–"

"–Nomina," Shiori breathed, unable to believe how different these two seemed compared to their counterparts.

The duo before them now was like a mirrored version of the two who had toyed with Shiori to death. While Nomina's curled hair was styled the same, it was now a striking pink color instead of the ash blonde that Shiori remembered. On the other hand, Bossa's long white hair was now raven black, though there was an additional thin bang tied on each side of her head. Both of their skin tones were warmer compared to the almost sickly paleness of their counterparts.

It also struck Shiori how… normal their eyes were. The black-haired woman's grey and the pink-haired woman's teal contrasted with the chilling gold that Bossa Nomina shared. There was no trace of crazed madness within their depths.

Their clothes were also much less formal than Shiori had seen on Bossa Nomina. Dressed in tunics and vests with simple accents and travel-worn boots, they seemed to Shiori like a normal pair of adventurers. Perhaps as a disguise, given that the two were thieves? Both also had packs strapped to their backs–definitely more prepared than Shiori had been. A green scarf was wrapped around the black-haired woman's neck, along with a gold and black mace strapped to her pack.

Shiori narrowed her eyes at the weapon, eyes lingering on the green jewel fixed to the top of its gold crown. That mace… Why does it look so familiar?

A glint caught the corner of Shiori's eye. As she turned to study the pink-haired woman, she noticed the crossbow bolts strapped to her thighs, lined just below the hem of her shorts.

Those look like the crossbow bolts I shot at the crow monster. Shiori shifted her gaze to the back of the pink-haired woman's pack. Then…

Her eyes widened when she found what she had expected: the red crossbow she had used to kill the crow monster after defeating the werewolf apparently Rui the first time.

"Those weapons," Shiori mumbled, loud enough for Nana and Rui to hear, "I remember seeing them in the areas leading up to Bossa Nomina's lair."

"You do?" Rui asked.

Nana raised an eyebrow. "You don't?"

"Well, it's been a while since I was last human," Rui defended with a small pout. "Besides, these two are clearly Bossa Nomina! You can tell just from one look! Nomina even has the same weird hairstyle!"

Nana shrugged helplessly. "To be fair, it's been even longer since last saw them."

"Actually, I think the pink-haired woman's curls are less… drill shaped than Nomina's. They're still very curled though," Shiori remarked. "But yes, they do look almost exactly the same as Bossa Nomina. They just look much nicer."

"Well, this is when they were still human, after all," Nana said, gesturing with her staff. "The one you know as Nomina is Lupin. Bossa is Moriarty."

Arsene Lupin favored a crossbow in the book, and Kaoruko had struggled with using it during their rehearsals–now that Shiori understood who they truly were, it all made sense. She fought down a surge of giddiness at the thought of having used a weapon wielded by the greatest phantom thief.

Come to think of it...the original stories were very old. The legend of Lupin and Moriarty dated back to when the wars were still being fought in earnest, from what Claudine-san told me. Shiori furrowed her brow a little, glancing at Nana as discreetly as she could. If Daiba-san met them in person, then...just how long has she been here?

Not to mention the phoenix emblem. If Shiori didn't know any better, she would almost say it looked like an old version of the emblem for Sei–

"It's not too late to turn back. Daiba-san said she could get us back to the surface," Bossa's–no, Moriarty's–voice drifted over to them, interrupting Shiori's train of thought. She nearly jolted from the uncharacteristic worry and gentleness of her words. "Something about this crypt doesn't entirely sit right with me."

Lupin waved a ghostly hand, smirking slightly at her partner. "The two of us have been through worse. And it's hardly the first time we've stolen from the dead."

"But this is the first time we're going against a rumored Devil." Moriarty frowned, her hands fiddling anxiously with her scarf. "If the rumors are true, your illusions and my support magic might not be enough. I know you were once part of Siegfeld's Order of Edels, but...demonic beings like this haven't been seen since the Ebisu dynasty fell decades ago."

"True. This crypt must be especially nasty if even Siegfeld's best general in all their history couldn't return from here. But it's not like we haven't been through our fair share of ugly situations." Lupin shrugged, offering a small, lopsided grin. "You don't think Lupin and Moriarty will be able to pull off our last hurrah here?"

"That's…!" Moriarty sighed, letting go of her scarf. "That's not it. It's just… We've managed to come this far together. But no amount of treasure is worth losing you for…"

"We've risked our lives before though. There were a lot of times where we– Hm? Me?" Lupin blinked, her eyes wide as her cheeks started to flush. "Eh?"

Moriarty's own cheeks were already burning. Her eyes darted everywhere except at Lupin. "Well, you know, it's just– We've been partners for some time and… And…"

Shiori stared at the two, looking back and forth between Moriarty's flustered stammering and Lupin's speechless confusion. Beside her, Nana's chuckling mirrored her phantom self from her memory.

"I forgot how these two had fumbled with their true feelings back then,." Nana's lips pulled up into a serene smile, eyes softening. "It's refreshing, to see young love like this."

It was definitely difficult to reconcile these two with how confident Bossa Nomina had boasted their feelings, to the point where they were doing more than just flirting in front of their enemies. Here, Shiori wondered if either two had even confessed to one another yet.

She was also still trying to recover from seeing Moriarty flustered in contrast to Bossa's cold ruthlessness. Lupin and Nomina's languid easiness were somewhat similar, though Lupin didn't seem like the type who would try to kill her for sport.

"How can they be so different?" Shiori wondered aloud.

"Maesterion's magic warps those under her direct command by using their own negative emotions to alter them. As I said before, she can amplify certain qualities to extremes," Nana explained. "For example, it can make an anxious person express a confidence that they had lacked in life, or it might push a spiteful person to madness because of a long-suppressed grudge. With these two, they may act so close to each other as Bossa Nomina to compensate for what wasn't said between them before they died."

"What wasn't said?"

Nana's smile turned sheepish. "Well…"

Shiori glanced back at the pair. Moriarty's emotions seemed to have stabilized as Lupin spoke calmly once more.

"And we'll continue to be partners, at least for one last run." Lupin's lips pulled up into a lopsided smile. "That was what we decided on, didn't we?"

For a moment, Shiori swore she saw Lupin's smile falter. But the change was so miniscule that she wondered if she had only imagined it.

Moriarty frowned. "That's true, but what if this one is too much for us to handle?"

Lupin's smile grew. "A treasure too much for Lupin and Moriarty, after all we've accomplished so far? Seems a little unlikely, if you ask me. Not when I have such a capable partner~ Or do you think I can't live up to your expectations?"

Moriarty shook her head. "It's not you. There's a limit to how much can support you, since my spells don't work on myself. And possibly fighting a Devil carries so many unknown variables..."

"Well, it works out better this way, anyway. You issue the commands, and I carry them out. While you support me, I make sure to get rid of anything targeting you–be it a Devil or the ghost of the lost princess." Lupin chuckled. "It's been so efficient that even I'm a little shocked. I really don't think we'll lose here."

"There will be more powerful monsters as you progress through the crypt," the Nana of the past warned, interjecting for the first time. "Even I can't predict how dangerous they'll be."

Lupin only shrugged. "Challenges are what makes a treasure hunt more fulfilling. But of course," she turned to Moriarty with a small, almost nervous smile, "it's your call, Moriarty."

Shiori watched a range of emotions flash across Moriarty's face. Finally, the black-haired woman settled on a tired sigh with a small smile of her own. "Well, I really don't want to say no to one last gambit. Especially if it's with you, Lupin."

Lupin's nervous smile shifted into a pleased grin, reminding Shiori of one of the smug cats in her hometown. As for Moriarty, she squared her shoulders, grey eyes flashing with determination as she turned to address the Nana of the past. "We'll be continuing from here. No matter what happens, I'll spin whatever threads I need to take us to our goal."

"And I'll make sure that it all works out, while keeping you safe," Lupin added, equally as confident. "So what's the plan, Moriarty?"

Both Nana of past and present sighed. As the past Nana relayed a few more pointers to the duo, the current Nana waved her staff once more to revert the world back to the forest clearing from before. "And that's that. From then on, they would come to me to trade for a few extra items as they progressed. But after some point, they stopped visiting me all together as I started working on the spell in earnest," she explained. "If they became the boss of the first zone, that would mean they made it all the way to Maesterion's lair, or encountered her somewhere earlier. Only those whose hearts she has taken have a chance to become zone bosses, after all."

Shiori's gaze lingered on Lupin and Moriarty, human and not their warped selves as Bossa Nomina, one last time. Once Nana's spell fully dissipated, she turned back to Nana and remarked, "I see… They really do work closely as partners, just like Bossa Nomina."

"Treasure hunting and heists are a lot better than murder at least," Rui grumbled to herself.

"Was there anything you learned, Shiori-chan?" Nana asked.

"I'm not sure, but I can't help but think about how close they are. How they rely on each other a great deal. Maybe a little… too much."

Rui frowned. "Really? They seemed to have a good strategy in place."

Nana hummed in thought. "No, Shiori-chan may have a point. From what I remember when I asked the two about their strategies, Moriarty's self-appointed role was to provide support to Lupin while Lupin fought as their first line of defense, so to speak. I wouldn't say one was the 'brains' and the other the 'brawn,' but Moriarty definitely leaned towards the former. Remember, Moriarty mentioned it herself–her support spells can't be cast on herself."

"Which… would make Lupin the better choice as their main offensive fighter," Shiori realized. "In a way, that would mean their fighting style relies on Moriarty to strengthen Lupin, while Lupin keeps Moriarty safe."

"And if Maesterion's curse amplifies certain qualities to extremes…"

Nana waved her staff, creating another viewing circle of the final chamber where Bossa Nomina slept. This time, she shifted their view to a bird's eye view of most of the chamber, clearly showcasing the battlefield–all of the red and black checkerboard floor, along with the mirrored black and white chess pieces lined at the ends.

"Their battleground is a chess board," Nana added. "It's easy to assume that they're both queens because of their gender, but what if Bossa Nomina each follow the rules of a specific piece?"

"The king hardly moves, and the queen is the most powerful piece on the board," Shiori noted. Her eyes widened as the pieces started to fit together. "Then, to win against them…"

"Shiori-san will need to target the piece that would end a game of chess," Rui commented.

"The king–Bossa!" they concluded together.

"However, that's also what Bossa Nomina will expect," Nana pointed out. "Reaching Bossa won't be easy; not with Nomina protecting her. The queen shouldn't be underestimated."

Shiori's shoulders slumped, her confidence quickly draining. Her hand reached up to rub her chest absentmindedly, the memory of being stabbed still fresh in her mind. "How should I defeat her, then?"

They both turned to Rui, but the taller girl only shook her head despondently. "Sorry, that's not something I can answer either. I charged headfirst at Nomina to defeat her." Rui winced, rubbing the back of her head sheepishly. "I didn't exactly get very far with that strategy."

"Well, the direct route never would have worked for Shiori-chan, given her smaller stature and lack of experience in comparison." Nana hummed thoughtfully. "What if you resorted to shaking them up?"

Shiori frowned. "How could I do that? Those two don't seem like they'd be scared of anything."

"They're scared of losing each other, aren't they?" Nana's features hardened, gloom darkening her gaze like one of the clouds passing above them. "I can understand that feeling too well. And although it pains me to say it, that's something you can definitely take advantage of. If you can remind them of their former selves, maybe they'll remember how they lost each other."

A chill ran down Shiori's spine. The coldness in Nana's eyes wasn't as cruel as that of Bossa's, but they spoke of years of untold experience–decades that Shiori wouldn't be able to fathom if she knew the true depths. She once more had to question just how long Nana had been in this crypt.

She wasn't sure if she should ask.

"That's… That's too mean!" Rui cut in.

"So is killing people, but Maesterion and her minions have no problems with that," Nana pointed out.

"That's true, but…"

Nana was right. Against formidable opponents like Bossa Nomina, and the other unknowns of this crypt, Shiori would need to utilize every tactic she could if she wanted to find her friends and sister while also saving everyone else. She didn't have the luxury to feel guilty about using immoral strategies like taking advantage of a couple's bond.

"I understand." Shiori clenched her fists, meeting Nana and Rui's gazes with resolution. "There's no time to hesitate, right Daiba-san? If I want to be selfish and save everyone, I'll need to do everything I can to succeed."

Nana nodded. "Are you ready to continue, Shiori-chan?"

Rui looked back and forth between the two, worry palpable in her expression. Shiori wished she could reassure her friend that everything would be alright, but that would be a lie. Shiori didn't know what would come in the future.

She just had to face it head on.

Shiori answered Nana with a firm nod of her own. "I'm ready."

Chapter Text

Though her wounds hadn't fully healed, Nana diagnosed Shiori well enough to reenter the crypt. The worst were the lingering stitches pulling at her back, but Shiori believed Nana had done a good enough job closing the wounds. She promised Rui that she would take care of herself.

Shiori would try her best at least. But her main goal as of now was to defeat the next two mini bosses, save whoever they were, and reach Bossa Nomina. Once the duo's identities were confirmed, she could think of what to do from there.

"Be careful, Shiori-san," Rui pleaded one last time, wringing her hands anxiously.

Shiori nodded, both to Rui and then to Nana. Once Nana signaled that her exit was ready, Shiori turned her back to them and ran down the conjured set of stairs to delve back into the crypt.

The stairs and pathway behind her disappeared once she stepped fully onto the rough cobblestones of the zone's corridors. Looking around, it seemed she had returned to the same spot where she had defeated Rui as the werewolf monster. It was just as she left it, devoid of any monsters since she had last cleared it.

Right, I haven't died yet this time, Shiori remembered. Nothing has reset yet. That means the next section will be… the giant crow.

Recalling how she had defeated that mini boss, Shiori mentally itemized everything she would need to do. Unlike a werewolf, the crow could fly around above her at a distance her sword wouldn't be able to reach. She would need the red crossbow–Lupin's weapon–and augment it with her magic to have it pierce through the crow's heart instead of blowing off its head like she did last time. All of that needed to be timed correctly so that she could cue Nana after. After the crow had reverted to their human form and passed to Nana, Shiori would be free to find a certain treasure chest once more. Next to it would be–

Shiori shook her head and slapped her cheeks. One thing at a time. I have to beat the crow monster first. If I think too much, I'll trip over my feet again and endanger myself even more.

Tripping had been how she had found Lupin's crossbow the first time. She didn't need to repeat that to find it a second time.

Shiori took one last calming breath, running her plan through her head again. Once she was ready, she rushed into the next section and into the familiar labyrinth with its high ceiling.

She quickly cleared the weaker monsters roaming the area. Thanks to Nana's sword, she made short work of all of the slimes, skeletons, demonic bats, and all the other minor monsters in her way. Once she progressed far enough, she spotted the crow monster circling above her with hunger shining in its beady golden eyes, eager for its next meal.

And if it's there, then the crossbow should be–!

As she expected, she found the weapon lying on the ground after turning a few more corners. After putting her sword away and placing her torch down, she quickly swiped the weapon from the ground along with the crossbow bolts lying nearby. Just like before, there were three in total; she tucked two of them into her belt and notched the last one into the crossbow.

A mighty flap of wings overhead was her first warning.

The crow released a high-pitched caw next, diving towards her at high speeds. Shiori took aim, only to be forced to dive out of the way to avoid the monster's sweeping attack. The resulting wind nearly blew her off her feet even after she had successfully dodged.

I can't aim while it's diving at me. Shiori realized impatiently. Then I should try to hinder its flight first. Can I time it with my cue for Daiba-san?

She didn't have much of a choice. Failing and having to repeat all her efforts so far wasn't an appealing thought. Not after she had gone through so much to save Rui-chan–to have her friend human and safe again.

I can't hesitate!

"Daiba-san!" Shiori called out, once again knowing that the mage would hear her just fine.

Once the crow circled around and flew at her again, Shiori ducked out of the way by pushing off the ground with a burst of wind magic. With the crow's backside to her, Shiori took aim with the crossbow. Wrapping it with some wind magic as well, Shiori pulled the trigger and let the bolt soar through the air toward its first target: one of the crow's wings.

The giant bird screeched in pain. Its altitude lowered a considerable distance as one of its wings struggled to keep its large body in the air. It turned its angry gaze toward Shiori and charged toward her again, seemingly disregarding the blood that was flying off from its torn wing.

Shiori skidded out of the way with another burst of wind magic. Once she was stable, she notched another bolt and waited for the crow to circle back around and aim for her again. It did so, but at a much slower speed than it had before.

She hadn't expected the crow's speed to have decreased a considerable amount after injuring it. But that worked for her. The steps to disable the monster in order to get a clear shot at its heart were happening much faster than her initial calculations, but she could adapt.

There's still ten seconds until the halfway mark. I can do this.

With the crow's form more wobbly than before, Shiori was able to aim at its heart without obstruction. The crow released an ear-piercing screech, plummeting straight toward her.

Five–!

Shiori grit her teeth and pointed the crossbow at the crow's heart. She needed to kill the monster to save the human it used to be.

Four!

She calmed her shaking hands.

Three!

The crow's beak opened wide to screech one last time.

Two!

Breathing in–

One!

–and pulled the trigger.

The bolt struck through the air, piercing through feathers and into the crow's giant body. Its golden eyes bugged outward upon impact. A sharp caw escaped from its vocal chords, but nothing else.

With its life lost, the monster plummeted straight down into the labyrinth. As its giant body collapsed onto the ground, Shiori released the breath she had been holding in.

I… I did it!

Still gripping the crossbow, she slowly made her way toward the crow's crumpled form. As she did so, wind encircled its body just as it had done for Rui when she was still a werewolf. This time, in a burst of pale purple instead of green.

Shiori gulped, stopping a short distance from the body. Who will this be? Will it be someone I know, or a stranger? What if it's Claudine-san? Or Futaba-san? Or Onee–?

A single strand of lavender hair poked up as the wind began to die down. Shiori frowned. No one she remembered had lavender hair, or an ahoge.

Once the transformation was complete, Shiori took a quick look at the person she had saved. Other than the ahoge, the rest of her long hair was also lavender in color. The clothes she wore were mostly a darker purple, and her light armor was reminiscent of the guards back home. She looked to be around her sister's age, though her youthful complexion made Shiori wonder if she might have been slightly younger.

Shiori didn't have time to ponder, as the next thirty seconds were up. With the full required minute complete, a bright, golden light flashed next to her with Rui and Nana throwing open the golden door soon after.

"Shiori-san!" Rui called, smiling in relief. "Bring her to us! I'd help, but Daiba-san said it was best if I didn't step outside of her safe zone!"

"Just in case!" Nana added. "She won't turn as fast as I would, but we can never be too careful."

Shiori nodded, quickly placing the crossbow down so she could pick up the dazed stranger lying on the ground. She slung one arm over her shoulder, then made her way over to where Rui and Nana were waiting.

"Good job, Shiori-chan," Nana said, shoulders slumping from her own relief. Next to her, Rui took the lavender-haired stranger into her arms and brought her inside. "But you still have another mini boss to defeat before getting to Bossa Nomina. As always, be careful."

Shiori nodded. "I will, Daiba-san."

Nana gave her an encouraging smile. "Now, go find the items you need. Remember," she pointed at the pouch strapped to Shiori's waist, "the pouch I made for you can hold practically anything that's available in this crypt. So, if you find something you think you'll want and need in the future, don't hesitate to pick it up and keep it with you."

With a wave of her staff, Nana closed the door and vanished in a burst of golden light, leaving Shiori alone once more in the crypt.

Now, then…

Free to explore at her leisure now that the boss monster had been dealt with, Shiori rushed off to find the alcove containing the treasure chest from her first attempt. If her heart could still beat, it would have been loudly pounding in her ears from the anticipation of finding her sister's swordbreaker again.

Please be there, please be there…! Shiori pleaded, nearly stumbling in her haste and trying to keep in time to the beat. If I remember– Then it'll be–!

Rounding a corner, the corridor opened up into a wider space. At the end of the room was the same gold door that led to the next floor of the current zone. At the center was the treasure chest she was looking for. And shifting her gaze a few paces to the side…

It's here! Shiori beamed. She rushed into the open space, falling on her knees as soon as she got near. Gently, she picked up the swordbreaker laid on the ground, the weapon just as she remembered it last.

"How disappointing," Nomina's cold words suddenly echoed in her mind. Shiori could almost see her now, along with the glint of the swordbreaker in her grasp as she smoothly stabbed–

Shiori tightened her grip around the swordbreaker's hilt, hand trembling as the leather groaned in protest. She fought back the memory of what her sister's weapon had done, choosing instead to focus on the happier times associated with it. Of Fumi showing her how to defend herself with the blade; of Fumi throwing it with practiced precision to impale Kaoruko's nth snack that day against the nearest wall.

"Let's get you back to your rightful owner," Shiori muttered, slipping the swordbreaker into her pouch. It had done her little good in the fight against Bossa Nomina, and it would be safer there.

But first, there was one final monster she had to beat–and save–before reaching the bosses of this zone.

Giving her cheeks another brief slap to help her focus, Shiori opened the chest to retrieve the ring she knew would be waiting inside. The dragon had been terrifying with its defenses–she would take all of the help she could get. Especially something powerful enough to freeze her opponent in place.

After slipping the ring onto her finger, Shiori looked down at her side, eyeing the crossbow she had picked up. Having a clear shot at the dragon's heart would be easy once she disabled its movements with the ring. But she only had one bolt left. The thought of using it so soon gnawed at her insides for a reason she couldn't name. The uneasy doubt was enough to convince Shiori to also place the crossbow into her pouch, fishing out the sword Nana had crafted her instead.

Its blade gleamed under the light of her torch, sharp and sure. Nana had used those strange gems–diamonds?–to make it. Maybe it would be strong enough to pierce through the dragon's defenses?

Shiori sighed as she moved on to the golden door leading to the next floor. Defeating the dragon the first time technically made her a dragonslayer, but she wasn't like the heroes in the stories. Luck had factored into that fight more than actual skill.

I need to recreate that luck. Shiori shook her head. No, this time I'll do better than before. I fumbled around a lot the first time. She held up her hand, eyeing the ring worn on her middle finger. But I know what this does now, and what its limits are. If I use this with the sword Nana made for me…

To defeat Rui as the werewolf monster, she had used fire magic to keep it at bay. With the crow monster, she had imbued Lupin's crossbow bolts with wind magic to tear through the its wings. Once its flight was hindered, she could then aim for its heart and save whoever the monster used to be. Now, she would have to time the ice magic within the ring to deliberate against the dragon.

I can do this. Shiori repeated to herself, not for the last time. have to do this.

Squaring her shoulders, grip tight on her sword, Shiori took one last calming breath while aligning her rhythm to the beat of the crypt. Once the nervous haze had settled, she pushed open the door and raced into the final area of this first zone.

As before, her weapon cut through the easy monsters with no problem. All she had to worry about was her own movements, carefully evading every monster that tried to attack her while also keeping her pace in tandem with the crypt's beat. Skeleton, slime, demon bats, zombies–she cut through all of them until she finally made her way into the final chamber where the dragon laid in wait.

The dragon reared its head at her arrival, turning toward her from its place in front of the ornate, gold doors it was tasked to guard. It took one step toward her, moving away so that Shiori could see the violin etched into the surface of the door. And behind them were the two she had first lost against–the two who had mercilessly killed her.

Shiori shook her head, calming her thoughts just as the dragon opened fire on her–literally. She rolled to the side, barely avoiding the singeing flames that burned through the corridor where she had just been moments ago. She dropped her torch as she did so, freeing up one hand in case she needed to improvise with additional magic.

I can't think about Bossa Nomina now! Shiori chastised herself, avoiding another breath of fire while slowly closing the distance. Right now, I need to beat this dragon! Again!

Instead of immediately moving in to attack, Shiori kept her distance and observed the dragon while avoiding its long range attack. As she avoided each fireball, at times propelling herself far enough with a small burst of wind magic, Shiori noticed a trend with the dragon's movements. Whenever it prepared a blast, it would lean back, craning its neck and opening up its chest.

But its claws were still held up in front of its chest like a makeshift guard. With those in the way, she wouldn't have a clear shot at its heart lest she gamble with the ability to pierce through its claws then its chest. In addition, it was firing its flames at her rapid-fire, so the time window where it geared up its flames was short; it was most likely no longer than a second.

That's right. That's how there was an opening for me to stab through its heart the first time. Shiori recalled. She clenched her hand around her sword, feeling the ring dig into her finger as it pressed against the hilt of the sword. In that case, if I time everything with the ice magic in this ring… I can do this!

"Daiba-san!" Shiori called out once more, signaling the start of the one minute Nana required to anchor the safe zone. But most importantly, now began the thirty seconds Shiori would need to stall on her end.

Thirty!

With a burst of wind magic, Shiori propelled herself across the chamber toward the dragon. Stopping her magic, she skidded to a halt just as the dragon tilted its head back for another blast of fire. She held up her right fist, pointing the ring on her middle finger straight at the dragon.

Ice burst into being along its left shoulder, the dragon halting briefly in surprise. Instead of fully opening itself up, it raised its right arm and swung down on her with all its might. With no time to move, Shiori raised her sword up and blocked the dragon's claws with her blade.

Shiori grit her teeth, pushing back against the dragon's strength with all she had. But no matter what reserves she tried to draw from, she was no match for its superior strength. I can't–!

With one more push, the dragon completed its swing and swatted Shiori across the chamber. She slid backward on her back, gasping as the coarse floor ripped against her stitches.

For a moment her mind blanked from the sharp pins and needles screaming from her back. She skidded to a halt; she was going to miss the next beat of the crypt–

BOOM.

The dragon's echoing footsteps pulled Shiori from her haze. Without thinking, she dove out of the way just as the dragon swung its claws down on her again. Before she could catch her breath, she was forced to jump back when it swung its closest arm toward her next.

T-Twenty…

Shiori heaved for breath, barely remembering to keep her movements synchronized with the crypt. It's-It's no good. If I get close enough too soon, the dragon won't use its fire and instead attack with a close range strike instead. I need to somehow get it in the position to fire at me, but then rush in right before it actually attacks. But that's less than a second. And now I have…

Fifteen–

Once Shiori was far enough, the dragon resumed its long range fire attacks instead of pursuing her. It was exactly what she wanted, but she had to get the next timing right or it'd be a repeat of her blunder from before.

The stitches on her back tugged at her skin, wordlessly warning her that such a mistake would not be allowed again.

I can do this. Shiori took a calming breath. can reach the dragon in time. I did it before. I just have to wait a moment longer so that it prepares far enough. Maybe… Her eyes widened in realization. While the fire is gathering in its mouth?

She was once more on the opposite side of the chamber from the dragon. It reared its head back, opening its mouth to gather its flames.

Ten…

As it took a large inhale, its chest puffed outward. The embers slowly gathered within its open mouth.

Now!

Shiori pushed off the balls of her feet, propelling herself forward with one large burst of wind. It took her far enough to stop right in front of the dragon. Already, it was beginning to close its mouth to attack her with her claws now that she was in range.

Five…

She wouldn't let it. Holding up her right hand, the ring on her finger flared to life with a bright, ice blue glow. As the light grew in intensity, ice began to encase the dragon's body, starting from its chest and claws where Shiori was aiming the ring at.

Four…

The dragon roared in pain, its cries loud enough to pulse in Shiori's head. She held her ground with clenched teeth, willing the ring to trap the dragon further in ice.

Three…

CRACK.

The light from the ring began to die down. Fractures spread across the surface of its metal. The ring wouldn't hold for long; its magic was running out.

Two…

The ring shattered, breaking into multiple fragments that cut into her nearby fingers. Shiori did her best to ignore the warm blood dripping from her hand, pulling back her sword arm instead.

The ice hadn't fully covered the dragon–maybe only about halfway up its neck, slightly down its thighs, and down half of its tail. Would the dragon be able to force its way through its icy bindings?

One…

Shiori wasn't going to wait to find out. Pointing the tip of her blade at her target, Shiori pushed forward and stabbed her sword straight through the dragon's frozen chest. Though it met some resistance against the ice and the dragon's naturally thick muscles, she was able to pierce through it all and into the dragon's heart.

The dragon roared in pain one final time before going silent. Losing all strength in its limbs, the dragon collapsed onto the ground with a loud thud.

Shiori stood over the dragon's fallen form, eyes wide and chest heaving at the same rhythm as the crypt's beat. A few moments passed before she remembered that she didn't have the time to stand around and stare at her accomplishment.

Twenty…

She reached down to pull out her sword from the dragon's chest. As she did so, wind was already starting to gather around the dragon, tinged the same red as its scales. She stepped back just as the column enveloped the dragon's entire form.

Who will this be? She wondered. The crow monster from the last chamber hadn't been anyone she knew. Would that be the same this time? Or…?

As the thirty seconds required for the transformation came to an end, the wind surrounding the dragon died down. No, now the figure lying before Shiori was purely human just like her. Gone were its red scales, replaced by human skin. She also appeared to be around her sister's age, though similar to the lavender-haired girl from before her youthful complexion made Shiori question if she could be younger. A cracked red crown hair pin outlined in gold was clipped to some bangs of her short, brown hair. Much like the lavender-haired girl, her blue and red clothes seemed like that of a guard's.

A gold light shone from beside her, tugging Shiori away from further observations. The door to the safe zone opened, revealing Nana and Rui once more.

"Shiori-san!" Rui called, exhaling in relief.

"I know you're tired, Shiori-chan, but there's no time to wait," Nana cut in. She looked down at the unconscious brunette. "Hurry and bring her to us. Then you can rest up and gather what you need before…"

Before challenging Bossa Nomina, again, Shiori finished for her internally. Nodding, Shiori crouched down and picked up the dazed girl, carrying her with one arm over her shoulder. She quickly brought her to Rui, who took her further inside Nana's safe zone.

With a proud smile, Nana commented, "That was good timing, Shiori-chan. You're getting better at fighting already!" Her lips then tugged down into a frown, her gaze sweeping over her form toward her back. "How are your injuries?"

Shiori brought her free hand up to tentatively poke her back. She winced when her finger touched a sore spot, but thankfully she didn't feel anything wet seeping into her shirt.

"I think I'm okay," she answered. "I don't think any of the stitches tore. My shirt doesn't feel wet."

Nana nodded. "Be careful. We wouldn't want your injuries hindering you during your fight against Bossa Nomina."

Nana stepped back, holding her staff up. It seemed they had run out of time.

"Good luck, Shiori-chan."

Before closing the door, Nana added, "I know you're technically short on time, but make sure you catch your breath before jumping into your next fight. Oh, and take the time to look around this area now that you've defeated all the monsters. If I remember correctly, there's something else you'd be interested in that's here."

Something else? Shiori's eyes widened. She spun around and ran off even before Nana had fully shut the door.

First, she went to pick up the torch she had discarded when she first stepped into the chamber to fight the dragon. Once she had her source of light again, she ran toward one side of the chamber where a small opening was. Within the alcove was the treasure chest she was looking for. When she opened the lid, she found a mace nestled within layers of red cloth–the same gold and black mace from her first run, as well as the exact same weapon that had been strapped to Moriarty's back in Nana's memory.

Ah! Shiori beamed, placing both her torch and her sword down to lift the weapon from the chest. Taking a closer look at it, the weapon really was the same mace Moriarty had. Even the green crystal attached to the gold crown of the weapon was the same.

Now that she held it in her hands, she was fully certain that she definitely would need to use both hands to use it properly. It would most certainly give her more destructive force. But she needed to be fast and light on her feet against opponents as skilled as Bossa Nomina.

With that in mind, Shiori opened her pouch and placed Moriarty's mace inside to join Lupin's crossbow. For now, she would rely on the sword Nana had given her.

With everything calm and her curiosity sated, Shiori took advantage of the downtime to rest up. She pulled out the water flask and food that Nana had packed for her, taking a few sips and bites to refresh herself. Once she was rested enough, Shiori grabbed her torch and sword and stepped in front of the looming golden doors.

Standing in front of them, she stared at the intricate surface, frowning as a thought came to mind.

This door is different from the other three that led into the next area of this zone. I know it leads to the boss of this zone, but… Shiori reached up, grazing the back of her knuckles against the violin etched into the doors, why a violin? It looks like the violin that Maesterion was holding when Daiba-san had shown her to me. If this symbolizes her rule over this crypt, why does she have a violin of all things?

That wasn't a question she could answer right now. Maybe she could ask Nana at a later time. Right now, she had a duet she needed to overcome. Or more importantly, she needed to actually survive against this time.

Taking a calming breath, Shiori gathered her wits once more and pushed against the doors.


ZONE 1:
Moonlit Partners in Crime - BOSSA NOMINA


Stepping once more into the zone bosses' chamber, Shiori's ears picked up the distinct shift in the crypt's music. Languid and smooth, knowing what she knew now, it sounded like a love song. It wasn't a piece about passion and celebrating their bond, however–she could feel the melancholic yearning and regret in each note and rest.

"Unable to convey my feelings to you," Nomina had sung back then.

In a crypt ruled by music, there must have been a deeper reason as to why she would suddenly sing in battle. Their instruments, too, and that stylized violin on the door–a violin that looked similar to the one Maesterion had been holding in Nana's viewing circle.

"You've come this far without knowing why? Oh dear, this won't be as much fun as I thought... A performer who can't even see the stage she stands upon–what was Maesterion thinking?"

As the door shut behind her, iron bars shooting up to block off escape, Shiori found herself gripped by a thought. Several thoughts, even.

So far, she had treated this crypt like the dungeon it clearly was. So had Nana. And Rui. And Lupin and Moriarty and likely everyone else who had come before Shiori had ever stepped foot inside.

Shiori's hands trembled; her knees threatened to give out at the possible truth.

But what if this crypt is simply an elaborate stage?

If she was the latest intruder to the crypt, would that mean she held the lead role in this theoretical performance? Perhaps one lead among several? Or was it little more than an audition for Maesterion's amusement?

'A performer who can't even see the stage.' That's what Nomina had said. Performer… I… Shiori's eyes widened as understanding began to dawn on her. I have to… perform?

There was a beat she needed to follow. Bossa Nomina sang and danced as they attacked. Nomina herself moved faster than Shiori could perceive; she almost couldn't follow her movements the first time. Shiori had chalked it up to some monstrous ability, but maybe it was simpler than that?

"Oh? Is this our new challenger?" Nomina eyed her with a purr, just as she had the first time. "How wonderful! And don't you just look adorable, covered in soot and all. And is that some blood on your chin I see? A shame there isn't more, don't you think? Though, that can be remedied."

There were some differences; her run this time hadn't been exactly the same as the first. But Nomina's overall demeanor was the same. She was here for entertainment, but not in the ways that Shiori would agree to be fun on her end.

Shiori calmed her trembling fists, twitching her arms to the beat of the crypt. Mustering all the courage she had, she met Bossa Nomina's gazes with a firm glare of her own.

"That won't do, Nomina," Bossa chided in an almost motherly tone. "If you scare her off so soon, who will entertain us then? Though," she met Shiori's glare with her own chilling golden eyes, "it doesn't look like this little one will be startled away so easily."

"Perhaps she'll make for a good court jester," Nomina drawled. "At least hopefully better than that poor soul who only knew how to charge straight at me."

"I was quite jealous of her ferocity, you know." Bossa shook her head ruefully. "How bold of that swordswoman, trying to take you for herself while I am here. I nearly flew into a rage on my throne."

Nomina hummed thoughtfully. "I did enjoy the improvisation you imposed upon our song. Not as crazed as the baroque that grim reaper in the third zone sings, but I would never want to sing something like that for our duet."

Bossa lifted her arms, a flash of green magic trailing after her limbs. Once her ghostly piano keys manifested in front of her, she rested her hands upon them. She began to play the melody to the same song Shiori had heard during her first run.

"Our special duet, only for us," Bossa whispered, barely audible to Shiori from where she stood.

"Indeed." Nomina held up her hands. Her own ghostly instrument manifested from pink wisps of magic and dropped into her hands.

"Song?" Shiori asked, taking a gamble to cut into their conversation. It was one of the things that she couldn't understand, despite this being her third attempt through this zone. She understood that she needed to follow the crypt's beat. Now, she was also starting to understand there were other factors in play. But what was it about the songs that these zone bosses sang?

Just like before, Nomina's eyes widened briefly in what seemed to be genuine surprise. Even Bossa's notes slowed down. "You've come this far without knowing why? Oh dear, this won't be as much fun as I thought... A performer who can't even see the stage she stands upon–what was Maesterion thinking?"

However, this time Shiori cut in before Bossa, "This is your stage though. I'm supposed to perform on it, but I'm nothing more than your guest."

Yes, that was how Shiori understood this. There were rules to this crypt that she didn't understand. There was an act that she didn't know about yet; at this point, only the bosses knew. It was like she was a guest performer on a novel stage, told to perform without even being given a script.

"Our stage? How humble. But that speaks volumes about your naivety." Bossa sighed, fingers gliding along the keys to her piano once more. "From what you've demonstrated thus far, I'm inclined to believe you are nothing more than a stagehand intruding upon our stage, as you say. It will do us no benefit to keep you here. All it will do is waste our time. And I'd hate to see my dear Nomina sing and dance in vain."

Nomina's lips curled into a lopsided grin. "Is it truly in vain if you're here with me?"

Bossa sighed. "As much as I love how you entertain me, I don't particularly fancy having your beautiful performance sullied by a lost lamb who has no place on our stage. End this game quickly, and I may just give you a fitting reward."

Nomina's golden eyes flashed with barely restrained hunger, a low growl thrumming in her throat. "I'll hold you to that then, Bossa."

Shiori gulped. So they were not only sadistic, but they had no intentions of explaining anything to her. In the end, she would need to ask Nana more about the rules to the crypt.

For now, she needed to survive.

The dialogue was similar, but not entirely the same. For that matter, things were occurring out of order. But Shiori still had knowledge from her last run. The game hadn't started yet; she still had time to mentally prepare herself.

Shiori's gaze swept across the battleground, eyeing each familiar chess piece and taking note of their positions. "If you won't answer my questions, then I would at least like a debriefing on this game of chess you want me to play with you."

Nomina's grin sobered into a frown, narrowing her eyes at her. "You're rather cheeky, aren't you?"

"Nomina…" Bossa sighed.

"Alright, alright. I'll give her points for at least knowing what chess is." Nomina raised an ash blonde eyebrow at her. "You do know how to play, I hope?"

Shiori twitched. "I–Uh… the basics."

It wasn't a lie. But telling her enemies that she knew how to play their version because she had already experienced–and died from–it didn't seem like the smartest thing to do. She needed all the advantages she could get, and she vaguely recalled Kaoruko had once told her that playing stupid wasn't always a bad thing to do.

Bossa Nomina sighed together. Nomina threw a lazy glance at her partner, asking monotonously, "What color do you wish to designate us with, my king?"

Bossa flashed her a lazy smile in return. "Why don't you pick, my queen? I'll support whatever choice you make."

"How accommodating~ I may just fall in love with you all over again."

Plucking a chord from her lute, the chess pieces that had remained still and lifeless shuddered into their designated spots on the board. Like last time, a note from Bossa fitted the pieces with deadly armaments and weapons. While the magic commanded them in place, Shiori took a few careful steps back toward where she knew she would need to stand. Just like before, the white pieces mirrored the opposing black pieces across the board, sliding into place in front of her.

Bossa's golden eyes twinkled with mirth. "Black, hm? An interesting choice you've given us, Nomina."

"Don't you think it'd be more fun this way? I know just how much you love a good game~"

Nomina turned her chilling gold eyes to Shiori. She slid off from the armrest of Bossa's seat on her throne. As she stepped into her own designated space on the board, Nomina flashed Shiori a smirk, daring her to begin. "Your move, little lamb."

Shiori was white again. She eyed the pieces standing in front of her, wondering which one she should move first. Last time she herself had moved–not a strategic first move, but one of fear–and that had prompted the start of the game. This time she could choose better.

But last time, Nomina had made short work of the pieces I threw at her. Shiori recalled how the supposed queen piece of her enemy had easily broken every chess piece Shiori sent her way. It didn't take long for only Shiori to remain on her side. On the other hand, Bossa and the other black pieces hadn't moved an inch.

Targeting Nomina wasn't the plan. Both Shiori and Rui had made that mistake. That meant…

Shiori looked past Nomina toward Bossa, slowly still playing a few notes with her ghostly piano keys. The king piece was nestled behind the front row of black pawns, flanked by the rest of the black chess pieces on each side. Reaching her won't be easy.

But what if I relegated the chess pieces on my side to create an opening? Shiori frowned, running that strategy through her head. That would mean I need to hold off Nomina myself until I can get a clear shot at Bossa. How can I do that when I lost to her even with my pieces last time?

Nomina, with her powerful strikes and ruthlessness, would overpower Shiori in an instant if she were alone. That wasn't even factoring in Bossa's support magic. If they had a weakness, then Shiori could take advantage of that to even the playing field.

But what… Shiori's eyes widened. Daiba-san had said something. She had said…

"They're scared of losing each other, aren't they?"

Shiori looked back at the duo. As close as they were, it was also something she could use to her advantage. She just had to get the timing right. But that would still mean holding Nomina off on her own until the right moment to strike.

"Perhaps I shouldn't have given our stagehand the white role," Nomina drawled, pulling Shiori from her thoughts. "At this rate, we'll never get on with the performance."

Bossa hummed in agreement. "It might have been an overestimation to think a lost lamb can lead our dance."

If Shiori were less terrified, she would have pouted. The two refused to disclose the rules she should be following–of course she'd hesitate. Even with one–failed–run under her belt, she didn't plan on jumping in without a proper strategy. She had enough chances to organize her thoughts with Nana and Rui; she wasn't going to fail now.

But at this point she had kept Bossa Nomina waiting long enough. It seemed they were just as bound to their own rules as she was to theirs; it was highly likely they really never would move so long as her side with the white pieces didn't. However, there was also a chance they would decide to make an exception to speed things up.

Whatever they could decide, Shiori didn't plan on deliberating long enough for that to happen.

If I can't defeat Nomina on my own, but I need a few pieces left to create an opening to target Bossa…

Shiori waved her right hand, mentally commanding two of her pawns to move forward toward the other side of the board. She didn't need to wait long before the other side reacted, beginning their twisted game of chess.

Bossa closed her eyes, beginning to play and sing, "I had always been looking at you…"

"Looking at you…" Nomina followed with a haunting lilt to her voice. As a single black pawn moved forward to intercept, Nomina dashed behind it to meet the pawns Shiori had sent out.

Black and white pawns collided together, taking each other out. Meanwhile, Nomina smashed her heel into the other white pawn, easily obliterating it.

Nomina giggled with glee. "Well, color me impressed! Sending two pieces out from the start? What kind of chess did you learn to play?"

Yours, Shiori thought to herself. Instead of answering though, Shiori used the opening in front of her to dart out from her row of pieces. She willed a rook and knight piece to flank her sides as she circled around toward Nomina. She tightened her grip on her sword, ready to strike when she got close enough.

From the side of the black pieces, Bossa continued to sing, "It felt as if I had left my loneliness behind."

Nomina raised an arm, parrying Shiori's first downward cut. "Left my loneliness behind…"

Spinning around, Nomina side stepped and thrust her leg out at the knight by her side. Shiori barely had time to move it out of the way, causing Nomina's foot to only destroy the horse's nose.

Did it really have to be the horse?! Shiori groaned internally. She jabbed her sword at Nomina in quick successions, her annoyance fueling her so much that she almost moved faster than the beat.

"Oh my, what's got you so upset?" Nomina broke from the song to ask. If Shiori were less angry, she would have done a double-take at the genuine curiosity in Nomina's voice.

Behind them, Bossa exhaled a heavy sigh. "Nomina… Even the moon is smiling at me tonight."

"Ah. Sorry, sorry~" Nomina cleared her throat, gliding back to avoid Shiori's next strikes. "At me tonight…"

Nomina stepped back into her range, attacking her with careful strikes. They were mostly kicks; for the most part her arms were preoccupied playing her lute to match Bossa's music. But there were times where Bossa's piano was enough for the song. During those times, Nomina would strike with her lute instead. The one time Shiori used her sword to block it, she was surprised at how sturdy the instrument was.

Panting, Shiori recalled her short training with the dummy monster Nana had conjured to block and counter another one of Nomina's attacks. The two pieces she had originally pulled with her were looking worse for wear. Only half the rook remained, and the knight was mostly destroyed.

But she had lasted longer than last time. And judging by Nomina's feral grin, her opponent hadn't expected her to either.

"Well look at you," Nomina purred, briefly taking her hand away from her lute to snap her fingers at a black pawn. "You do show some promise."

Just as Shiori swung her sword at her, Nomina jumped back to the center of the board. The notes from Nomina's lute joined in perfect harmony with Bossa's keys.

"Please look this way…" Bossa Nomina sang in unison, "oh, fly me to the star."

At the end of the last word, Nomina shot toward her with blinding speed. Shiori turned her blade to the side, using it to guard against Nomina's charge. Although she managed to block most of it, the resulting force pushed her off balance and sent her tumbling across the board.

As the instrumentals continued, Nomina pressed her attack. To buy herself time to regain her footing, Shiori summoned her barely-intact rook and knight pieces to intercept Nomina. She made quick work of the two pieces even with just her legs, but it was enough time for Shiori to get back to her feet.

With another pluck of her strings, the second verse began.

This time, it was Nomina who led the song. "Unable to convey my feelings to you…"

"My feelings to you…" Bossa followed, an unexpected tenderness in her voice.

"I imagine all sorts of lives." While she sang, Nomina's movements never ceased. She attacked relentlessly, never giving Shiori enough time to rest. "And act them all out…"

Shiori managed to pull three pawns to her. But Nomina easily defended and attacked against everything Shiori threw at her. She never stopped, moving so fluidly that Shiori couldn't help but marvel at how smooth everything was. It was like she was getting caught in the rhythm; one almost stronger than the beat of the crypt. It was like she was participating in the dance that Nomina was weaving together with Bossa.

"… to draw your attention." Nomina glided past Shiori, smashing apart one of her pawns. "Oh, fly me to the star."

The instrumentals picked up once more. As Bossa's keys resonated with the beat and Nomina's strings followed, Shiori couldn't help but marvel at their synchrony.

They really are a perfect duet. She thought. And these lyrics. They're so haunting. As if…

Shiori's eyes widened. She parried one of Nomina's attacks and skid back, summoning one of her bishops to slide toward the queen. Nomina easily evaded and prepared to strike back. Shiori quickly pulled her piece back before the queen could break it, taking its place herself.

"Our heartbeats pile upon each other…" Nomina plucked the strings to her lute, timing it perfectly with Bossa's piano keys.

What was it that Daiba-san had said? Shiori tried to recall. She had said..."With these two, they may act so close to each other as Bossa Nomina to compensate for what wasn't said between them before they died." And from what they're singing… Shiori gasped. Is it their regrets from when they were still Lupin and Moriarty?

"Sometimes I become afraid...because it seems like you will leave me behind," Nomina led this time. She pushed back against Shiori, giving her barely any time to think.

However, Shiori had at least a second to process those lyrics, then remember how Nomina–no, Lupin's–eyes had flickered when she had mentioned their duo going their separate ways after their last run together.

But behind her, Bossa was singing those same lyrics as well. Her voice trailed after the last few words of Nomina's verse, her own fear of being left behind palpable in her voice despite their distorted selves.

"Bossa Nomina…" Shiori breathed. "You two…"

Bossa's fingers danced across her keys as she took the lead this time. "I want your glittering eyes to reflect…"

Nomina pushed Shiori back. Her eyes trailed downward in what almost looked like sorrow. "To reflect…"

Together, "Nobody but me. Oh, fly me to the star."

It was the end of another verse. Shiori still had pieces left. And these two… These two were…

"You two… Why…? Why didn't–" Shiori grit her teeth. Drawing upon her own frustrations, Shiori shouted from the top of her lungs, "Why didn't you just tell her how you felt, LUPIN?!"

The music came to an abrupt halt. Bossa's hands hovered over her ghostly keys, her own expression so ashen that she looked even paler than before. In front of Shiori, Nomina stared at her with wide eyes, hands on her lute frozen in place.

"That… That name…" Nomina grit her teeth, hunching over while grabbing her head with her free hand. "Why…? How do you know...that name?"

"No...min...a?" Bossa gasped out. Her fingers shook from their place above her piano. "No, why does that name feel so strange now? Why…?"

"What is this name...?" Nomina stumbled on her feet, swaying slightly. "Why does it resonate with me more than our duet?!"

"B–" Shiori held her tongue. Anything she said in addition could be detrimental for her. Right now, Bossa Nomina was faltering. This was her chance.

She looked toward Bossa. She was just as shocked as Nomina, though she seemed to be more frozen than pained. There were still black chess pieces surrounding her, but Shiori also had a few pieces of her own.

Move! Shiori willed the last of the pieces on her side. The white pieces flew across the board, past Nomina, and crashed into the black pieces immediately surrounding Bossa.

Dust kicked up from the impact. Shiori couldn't see, but she knew where to aim.

Wind gathered around Shiori's sword. She didn't have time to pull out the crossbow, let alone notch a bolt to the weapon. She had no other long range weapons either. Which meant she needed to improvise with what she had on hand.

Nomina snapped her head toward the destruction. Still grimacing, she gasped, "Bossa!"

Before she can stop me!

Once she had conjured enough wind, Shiori swung her arm and threw her sword straight at the spot Bossa should have been. The blade pierced through the dust cloud–

A blur flew past Shiori.

–and her sword stabbed through flesh.

An ear-piercing scream echoed throughout the chamber. Shiori recognized it as Bossa's, but it was so broken that she had nearly mistaken it for a banshee or another monster.

The chilling realization that Bossa was still alive seeped into her veins. Shiori stumbled forward, legs shaking with that in mind. If Bossa is alive, then who did I hit?

Shiori reached into her pouch and pulled out Lupin's crossbow, notching the last bolt to the weapon. She slowly made her way to where she thought she had struck Bossa, making sure her footsteps were as light as possible while still following the crypt's beat–the beat she could now easily match now that she had interrupted Bossa Nomina's duet.

By the time she got close enough, the dust had settled. The first thing Shiori noticed was the crimson staining the board and Bossa's elaborate black coat. In the back of her mind, Shiori remembered that these two were once human; she shouldn't have been surprised that they would bleed like humans as well.

"Nomina…" Bossa cradled the body of her lover in her arms, avoiding the sword sticking out from her chest. "Oh, why did you have to do that? Why did you jump in front of me?"

Nomina's lips pulled up into a bloody smile. A trembling hand raised upward to tenderly cup Bossa's pale cheek. "Somehow… this ending feels better. Than…"

"Nomina?"

The hand raised to her cheek fell. Bossa caught Nomina's limp hand in hers, gently squeezing it. "Please… Nomina."

Something twisted in Shiori's chest. Her physical heart should have been missing, these two were her enemies, these two had killed her first. So why was she hesitating now?

As if sensing her presence, Bossa raised one hand to resummon her keys. At the same time, Shiori raised her weapon and took one last gamble.

Bossa froze. "That weapon…" Anger flared in her golden eyes. "Why do you have that crossbow?!"

"This is…" Shiori swallowed. She needed to follow through with this. "This was Lupin's, wasn't it? It belonged to your partner. Moriarty's partner."

Bossa grit her teeth. Green magic gathered around her, raising her long white hair. "That name… Don't say that name!"

Shiori bit her lip. She wanted to close her eyes, but she needed to complete what she had to do. This was her best chance. No, this was her only chance.

"I'm sorry," she whispered, pulling the trigger.

The crossbow bolt released, piercing into Bossa's chest where her heart should have been. Her mouth parted in surprise. Her eyes widened for a moment as her body tipped back and collapsed onto the ground.

Bossa's eyes began to dim as she barely held onto her life. Shiori had no more bolts; all she could do in her shock was watch as Bossa weakly reached a hand toward Nomina's still body.

"I'm… I'm sorry…" Bossa choked, coughing out blood. "You… You're going to hate me for this, but… I'm sorry…"

Bossa's eyes closed. Breathing her last, she whispered with heartbreaking heaviness, "I'm really sorry… Yachiyo-chan..."

Shiori froze. Pain gripped her chest when she forgot to move to the crypt's beat. She sunk to her knees, dropping the empty crossbow to grab her chest.

Ya...Yachiyo? Who's Yachiyo?! Shiori shook her head, moving too fast for the beat. Her chest clenched again and again, but the crypt's demands couldn't overpower her panicked confusion.

"You've really done it now."

Something grabbed the back of Shiori's head. It tossed her back with a dismissive throw. Shiori cried out as she skidded on her back. When she finally stopped, she felt the familiar sensation of blood soaking into her shirt.

Tears slid down her cheeks from the pain. Prying her shut eyes open, she could make out a humanoid figure standing over the two bodies lying on the ground.

No, there was only one body left. Only Bossa's body remained. Where's… Where's Nomina's…?

The figure sighed. A chillingly familiar voice drawled, "Ah. In the end, we've still come to this. It looks like no matter what I'm still… the one who gets left behind. How truly cruel of you, Mahiru-san."

Ma...hiru? Who… Who is that? Shiori didn't recognize the name. She only knew Lupin and Moriarty.

But...had Nana mentioned something about this? Shiori couldn't think straight. She couldn't really think at all, actually.

Raising a hand, pink wisps gathered and formed into the shape of a familiar lute. Bringing it close to her, the familiar voice began to sing, "Oh, bird that signals the break of dawn, please stop the clock in this moment…"

Within a flash, Shiori was pinned down by a foot on her chest. It pushed down on her bones, keeping her in place with enough force to nearly stop her breathing. More pain shot through her as she missed every beat of the crypt. She couldn't move–there was no way she could move.

"H-How?" Shiori gasped with chopped breaths. "I… I…!"

The ash-blonde woman shook her head. She raised her hand to the side. "You poor dear. So you really didn't know how to play chess after all. Don't you know the basic method to turn the tables in a game of chess?"

"Turn…the… tables…?"

The crossbow Shiori had discarded flew into Nomina's hand. Pink magic gathered around the slot a bolt should go in. "You really shouldn't have left a single piece on the board, especially if it's one of our pawns."

Pawns…?

Of all times, a memory shared between her sister and Rui came to mind. A memory of better, simpler, and happier times…

"Onee-chan, you're so amazing!" Shiori had praised after Fumi had beat Rui in another game of chess. "You completely beat Rui-san after even losing your queen!"

"How is that fair?!" Rui had asked with a pout. "How is it allowed to revive the queen, the strongest piece in the game, with a single pawn?!"

"You should have kept an eye on all the pieces," Fumi had chided, even as she fought back a pleased grin. "A game of chess doesn't only involve the king and queen pieces, after all."

Once her magic had shaped a makeshift bolt, Nomina pointed her weapon–yes, it was rightfully hers–down at Shiori. "An eye for an eye, wouldn't you say? Oh, but you shot Mahiru-san in the heart, didn't you? So let's go with that."

That's… right. Shiori recalled, her thoughts becoming fleeting. Onee-chan had done it before, hadn't she? If you get your pawn to the other side of the board, that pawn…

"Shooting star that gently goes through the morning, please fall down here. Oh, fly me to the star."

… becomes a queen…

Piercing agony struck Shiori's chest. Gasping, she raised her hands to alleviate the pain from her body. But there was still something holding her down. Nomina's foot? The beat of the crypt?

She couldn't keep up with them all.

"Please take me along…"

She had failed again. She had been almost there, and yet she had failed at the last moment from a simple oversight.

The last thing she heard before her consciousness faded was the last of Nomina's melancholic voice singing the final lines to a duet that had become an elegy.

"Oh, fly me to the star…"


Ba… dump.

Ba…

Chapter Text

...

...dump.

...Ba-dump.


"...I was so close!" Shiori shouted, eyes flying open as she shot up into a sitting position. Her hands bunched up the grass she knew would be waiting beneath her, clenching the strands in frustration. "I almost did it…! I almost…"

Gentle hands gripped her shoulders, grounding her in place. "Shiori-chan, take a deep breath for me."

Shiori huffed, breathing out through her nose angrily. "I was… If only I hadn't made that one mistake–!"

"Which you know not to make next time." While Nana's soothing voice helped ground Shiori's thoughts, one hand slid off her shoulder to give her a pat on the back. "Right now, you need to think back on everything you did, take note of what worked and what didn't, and plan from here. Unlike anyone else, you have the ability to take note of your mistakes and prevent them from repeating. So there's no need for you to linger on past frustrations, okay? Now, can you take a few slow breaths for me?"

Reluctantly, Shiori did as she was told. A slow inhale, followed by a frustrated huff. By the fifth breath, it was too much effort to stay angry and better to breathe normally like Nana told her to.

As the tension left her, Shiori relaxed her fingers away from the grass she had been gripping. Looking around, she took note of the familiar landscape signifying the safe zone, Nana waiting patiently for her to the side, and… no Rui.

Although the frustration flared within her again, it was quickly drowned out by the exhaustion finally settling into her. "I'm back to the start, aren't I?"

Nana nodded sadly. "Yes. It means you'll have to save Rui-chan and the others all over again. But you've already done it once before. You'll be able to do it again. And who knows? Maybe this time you won't need to trip and fall to do so!"

Shiori pouted, feeling the heat rush to her cheeks. "It's… It's hard to keep track of everything!"

Nana giggled, patting the top of Shiori's head. "Sorry, sorry. You're technically coming at this with zero experience with dungeon crawling and fighting monsters. Honestly, I'm very proud of you, Shiori-chan. You're picking up the basics and learning from your mistakes as fast as Os–some other mage I know."

"Well, it's not like I have much choice," Shiori mumbled dejectedly. "If I don't learn from my mistakes as fast as I can, then it'll only take longer for me to save Onee-chan and everyone else."

"Don't forget, you do have all the time in the world." Nana crossed her legs, taking a seat next to Shiori. "With how I crafted my spell, you can theoretically keep repeating without limit. But here you are, on your third run, and you already have many of the pieces you need to defeat Bossa Nomina and proceed to the next zone."

"I did make it further against them than I did last time," Shiori admitted, frowning thoughtfully. "I was surprised that I was able to last as long as I did. I think Bossa Nomina had finished their duet by the time the battle was over."

Nana's warm expression shifted into something Shiori couldn't quite name. Pensiveness? Hesitation? She didn't understand why Nana would feel that way.

Finally, Nana asked, "Their lyrics weren't the only things you learned, were they?"

That's right. She had resolved to ask Nana about her findings when she had the chance. It wasn't just how the lyrics of Bossa Nomina's duet reflected Lupin and Moriarty's tragic love story. There had been other things Shiori realized were strange–other music-related things.

"Daiba-san, don't you think it's strange? The crypt's beat, the patterns to the minor monsters, the music in the zone bosses' chamber, the violin on the door and in Maesterion's possession," Shiori began, eyes lighting up with the excitement of someone at the edge of a breakthrough. "It's like everything in this crypt is set up to be like… like a performance! Nomina even said so herself, that I was intruding on her and Bossa's stage. That I was just a stagehand…"

"Shiori-chan…"

"Then there was how Nomina fought." Shiori furrowed her brow, recalling the fluid movements of her opponent. "I can remember clearer this time, but it was more than just the efficiency of an experienced fighter. It was almost as if she was dancing. Every strike was calculated and smooth, like a choreographed performance."

"Shiori-chan!" Nana suddenly grabbed Shiori's wrist, wrenching her from her thoughts. The mage's green eyes flashed with worry and unexpected fear. Even the grip on her wrist felt like it was shaking a little.

"Daiba-san?"

"S-Sorry." Nana peeled her fingers off from Shiori's wrist, drawing herself back. Her expression sobered into just her usual worried frown, no trace of the peculiar hesitation from before. "You were listing a lot of things just now and I couldn't really… follow. What exactly did you learn from your last run?"

"Aside from the fact that I need to get better at chess?"

Nana smiled wryly. "It isn't like Bossa Nomina play normal chess to begin with."

Shiori gave a smile of her own, albeit one of excitement. "Anyway… I think I figured it out, Daiba-san! Singing and dancing seemed to give a boost to their abilities, even without Bossa's support magic at work. And if we're all the same, having lost our hearts and following a beat, then maybe...it would work on me too?"

She had expected Nana to join her in her excitement, or at the very least look pleased at her discovery. Instead, her expression from earlier returned, tugging her lips down into a pensive frown. Nana's green gaze, normally so warm and wise, betrayed nothing.

Shiori's smile faltered. "A-Am I wrong…?"

"No, no… You're right, Shiori-chan. It did seem that by performing, Nomina's abilities were strengthened." Nana closed her eyes, exhaling deeply. "I just… I seem to be more tired than I thought. I'm sorry."

Shiori's enthusiasm deflated. "You went along with my selfish wishes to save everyone, after all. I'm sure you're exhausted after anchoring the safe zone so many times to bring everyone inside."

Nana chuckled weakly. "It's nothing terrible, really. I have a lot of mana in me. Just doing it in succession after so many days– Oh, it technically hasn't been that long, has it?"

Now that Shiori focused on her more, she realized that the mage didn't look nearly as put together as she had before. Wait, days…?

"Daiba-san… when was the last time you slept?" Shiori slowly asked. "While I've been sleeping, you've always been taking care of me. And you had even made a sword for me within a few hours…"

Nana scratched her cheek, sweeping her gaze up toward the sky as she thought about her question. "Hm… I… Well actually, I can't remember."

Oh, that wouldn't do at all.

"Daiba-san!"

Nana laughed sheepishly, hands held up to placate her. "I wanted to make sure you had everything you'd need as soon as you were ready. And as you said, the faster you can progress, the sooner we can save everyone and resolve this curse that's been placed on all of us. Besides, I've had plenty of rest leading up to this!"

Shiori highly doubted that. For such a grand spell like resetting death, she was sure it required a tremendous amount of time and dedication to reach perfection. Then there was this place, which Nana had to keep hidden from Maesterion. Shiori didn't know how much maintenance was required, but she figured the level of stress and effort was similar to how rulers had to maintain their kingdoms.

Now that I think about it, Daiba-san must be off maintaining this safe zone whenever I don't see her around me. Which is already rare enough, considering she's always taking care of me.

"Daiba-san…" Shiori crossed her arms over her chest, doing her best to emulate her sister's disapproval whenever Shiori did something she wasn't supposed to do. It probably didn't work very well because Nana broke out into an uncontrollable fit of giggles.

After a few moments–a few moments too long, if Shiori's burning cheeks were an accurate metric–Nana wiped the stray tears from her eyes and stopped laughing. Still smiling, she finally replied, "Alright, alright. Since you insist, I suppose it won't hurt to take a nap for a bit to restore some of my reserves. Will you be alright on your own though?"

"I'm...not actually sure what I can do without you around," Shiori sheepishly answered. "I don't have the sword you made for me yet, and I'd rather you rest up yourself before you make it again. But it isn't like I can go anywhere else here, right? I wouldn't be able to affect your magic when I barely have a handle on the basics..."

"Hmm… With latent talent like yours, perhaps you could. But maybe it is time that you practice that too," Nana suggested, standing up and brushing off the grass from her pants. "You've done really well to fight with traditional weapons along with what little magic your instructor taught you. But it can be better, and I'm sure you'd appreciate a tighter grasp of your abilities to help you through the rest of the crypt."

It would be nice if I could incorporate some of the other spells Amemiya-san taught me, Shiori thought. So far I've been using the wind spell enough that I think I have the hang of it, but there may be other spells that can come in handy for other times. Like the fire spell…

If she could perfect that, then she wouldn't have as much trouble against Rui–the werewolf–as she had the past three times. She knew for a fact that fire worked against the werewolf, so she could stick with that strategy and hone it from there.

"But it's true that you won't be able to do much in this current setting as long as I'm not here."

Waving her staff, Nana summoned a simple door a few paces away from Shiori. Strangely enough, Shiori felt like she had seen that particular door before.

"This will lead you to the cabin area where you slept and ate in," Nana explained, answering Shiori's unasked question. "That way you can get some rest of your own and eat any food if you get tired of training in the meantime. Is there anything else that you think you might need?"

Other than all that Nana already provided and thought of? Actually…

"Would you happen to have any books or scrolls where I can read about the crypt?" Shiori asked, perking up. "Anything written down about its history and how it came about could be helpful, since the page I got from Onee-chan was illegible. Amemiya-san was able to translate most of it, but from what she told me it didn't seem like it gave a detailed account of this crypt; just the general history of Deion. If I can gather some more information, I think it might help me survive the crypt better."

Nana's smile faltered; it was so quick that Shiori had almost missed it. "That… might be easier if I answered your questions myself. I don't think there are many physical sources of information I have that will be of help to you."

Shiori deflated. Well, there goes that idea. She had wanted to do her own research without bothering Nana if she could; she had already troubled the mage enough. But it seemed there was no avoiding that.

"In that case, um… Is it alright if I have a more selfish request?"

Nana's smile warmed once more. "Ask away, Shiori-chan."

"Would you be able to recreate a place for me? A theater, to be exact," Shiori said, uncrossing her arms to fiddle anxiously with the hem of her tunic. "It's been a few days, and...I'm starting to miss home a little."

Nana blinked in surprise. "Shiori-chan–"

"I know, I know… I sound like a kid," Shiori huffed, already feeling the heat returning to her cheeks. "Not to mention that I left without saying anything to Tamao-san…"

"No, no! That's perfectly fine! Being a little homesick is perfectly normal, especially with our circumstances," Nana hurried to reassure her, only for the smile on her face to falter. "Unfortunately, I can't change the scenery to a place I haven't seen before. Not easily, at any rate."

More heat gathered in her cheeks. "Oh… Then–"

...Hold on. Didn't Daiba-san say something about that before…? Furrowing her brow slightly, Shiori tried to recall that particular conversation. It was when she summoned that training monster, wasn't it?

"Is this...somewhere inside of a castle?" Shiori had asked.

"Supposedly. Although I've never been there myself," Nana had answered.

If that's true, then how was she able to easily change this place to that castle? Shiori's hands bunched against her tunic as she recalled how Nana had been able to show them her memory of Lupin and Moriarty. Could she have recreated it from someone else's memory, then?

Someone else who could perform the same sort of reality-altering magic. Another mage on par with Nana.

Who could it have been? A fellow intruder into this crypt? Someone from her life before all of this?

"That said, if anyone were to truly bear the blame for all of this, it would fall to me," Nana had said at the start of her previous run. "Or rather, I guess you could say I inherited it."

Inherited. Now that she thought about it, Nana had never called this place her safe zone. She had never mentioned that the special wards around it were hers.

"Shiori-chan?"

Nana's confused voice tugged Shiori out of her thoughts before they could spiral further. She shook her head to clear the rest of them. For now. "S-Sorry, I was just...thinking."

"I can see that," the mage chuckled. "Did you decide on something?"

"If there isn't anything I can read concerning the crypt, then...could I view whatever memories you have of Lupin and Moriarty?" Shiori asked, sheepish once again. "I might be able to learn something else from them to use in battle later. O-Only if it's possible to do so while you're resting, of course!"

Nana smiled. "Yes, that's something I can do. The memory I showed you last time is actually pulling from events that have happened in the past within this safe zone. It's not strictly tied to my memories alone, so the spell should still carry on even if I'm asleep."

Daiba-san really is in an entirely different league...

"I do have to ask you, though: are you prepared for what you'll see? From what I recall, the two of them could still act close even if they hadn't confessed to each other yet."

Shiori's cheeks flushed anew. She hadn't considered that.

"But the two of them were rather skilled in magic," Nana continued, tapping a finger to her chin in thought. "If you can get past the awkward parts, I'm sure you can find something that could help with your own practice. Aside from support, I believe Moriarty had an affinity for wind spells as well."

"What about fire spells?" Shiori asked, willing the heat in her cheeks to cool down faster.

"Lupin used fire magic a few times, although I'm not sure how useful her spells would be. The fire magic she used was mainly for diversions or scare tactics rather than the blast you used before."

Shiori sighed, her shoulders drooping. "Unintentionally."

"Which is why a little practice wouldn't hurt," Nana laughed, readying her staff. "Now let's see here…"

Taking a few steps away from Shiori and the door, she tapped the butt of her golden staff to the ground. A large magic circle flared out from the point of contact, glowing the same silver as Nana's viewing circles. But unlike those viewing circles, golden runes and symbols began to fill the space instead.

"No, no… Not that," Shiori heard Nana mutter under her breath.

The gold vanished a moment later, replaced by white strokes instead. As the final symbol drew itself into place, the safe zone's scenery abruptly changed into the same military-style camp from before. Compared to before, however, the ghostly past versions of Nana, Lupin and Moriarty were nowhere to be seen.

Nana snapped her fingers, summoning a much smaller magic circle to float in front of her. With that same hand, she beckoned for Shiori to join her.

"As long as you stay within the larger circle, you'll be able to see the memories," Nana explained as soon as Shiori came to a stop beside her. "If you ever need a break from them, all you have to do is step out–simple, right?"

"It does seem simple enough." This sort of magic was far from simple, but Shiori liked to think she was getting used to Nana's absurdities at this point. "And the smaller circle?"

"If you place your hand on it, you can control the memories by stopping them, moving on to the next, or going back to a previous one," Nana answered, placing her hand on the circle to demonstrate. The runes and symbols briefly glowed white in response. "Thankfully for you, this safe zone only has a few memories of Lupin and Moriarty, so you don't have to sift through too many."

At her touch, a ghostly version of her past self appeared near one of the tents, along with a golden door leading into what seemed like a lava-filled cavern. Shiori watched as Lupin and Moriarty stepped through, the door vanishing behind them; both seemed wary in their own ways as they spoke with the mage.

"A safe zone, you say? I suppose a dungeon would have one, although your timing was rather...fortuitous," Lupin's voice drifted over to them, the glint in her teal eyes at odds with the easy smile on her face.

"...And there you have it," the current Nana said, tapping at the circle. The scene before them appeared to freeze in place, with Lupin left smirking at the mage and Moriarty in mid-sigh. "Is there anything else you might need while I'm away?"

"No, I don't think I'll be needing anything else." Shiori flashed Nana the most grateful smile she could muster, fighting down her eagerness to test out the spell for herself. "Thank you so much, Daiba-san!"

"Good! I'll leave you to it, then." With a wave of her staff, Nana summoned another simple door by her side. Opening it, she took one step inside before glancing back with a worried frown. "Are you sure you don't need anythi–?"

Shiori giggled. "Yes, Daiba-san. I'll be fine. Please get some rest for yourself."

"Ah…" Nana rubbed the back of her head, sheepish. "Well, if you insist..."

And insist she did, pushing lightly at a laughing Nana's back in order to get her moving along. Just before the door shut fully closed, Shiori caught a glimpse of bookshelves lining the walls, extending far beyond what she could see.

The door vanished almost as quickly as it had appeared.

"Now, then…" Taking in a deep breath to steel herself, Shiori turned around to face the smaller magic circle.

Its runes and symbols were simpler than the ones she had seen so far. And placing her hand like Nana had demonstrated, they briefly flared to life with a pale blue glow. With something as easy as that, the scene before her continued on.

Shiori watched as Lupin and Moriarty introduced themselves, carrying an air about them that felt similar to Bossa Nomina, albeit lacking the sadism the duo had. The Nana of the past offered her assistance by crafting items for them, and from there the memory played out the same as last time.

It was still jarring to see how normal the two were compared to their counterparts. Moriarty in particular seemed to take on a more confident persona when speaking with Nana, only shifting into a gentler–but prone to worrying–nature around Lupin. It was as if the cold and calculated James–or rather, Jay–Moriarty was merely a role to play.

Come to think of it...

As Shiori watched, the memory of her recent battle against them resurfaced in her mind. Bossa Nomina had called each other by a different name near the end.

Yachiyo. Mahiru. Could that be their true names?

The duo left after discussing their strategy and receiving their items from Nana. As soon as they descended down the steps, the scenery around Shiori shifted to that of the inn-like common area from Nana's first demonstration of the safe zone. But unlike before, a grand piano stood in place of the fire pit. And seated on its wide stool before the keys, hands loosely clasped in her lap as if unsure of what to perform, was–

"...Moriarty," came Lupin's tired voice from her spot beside her partner. "Can you play me that song again? The one with the star."

Somehow, her drill-like hair still remained the same in spite of her somewhat-battered appearance. Bandages wrapped around one of her arms, marked with faintly glowing green and white runes. She leaned against Moriarty, head resting on her shoulder. Dark circles had begun to form under her closed eyes, and her face seemed paler compared to the previous memory.

Moriarty bit at her bottom lip before gently answering, "You should be resting. Daiba-san said the Lich's curse should be fully cleansed by tomorrow."

"Don't worry, I'll follow the healer's orders soon enough," Lupin weakly chuckled. "I just...want to stay like this for a little bit, if you don't mind. It's not every day I get to hear you play."

"Oh, I… I was only trying to distract myself. I didn't grasp the Lich's patterns fast enough earlier, and you paid the price for it," Moriarty sighed, her shoulders drooping slightly. "I should have known they were moving in 2/4 time…"

Lupin hummed, reaching for one of Moriarty's hands. Entwining their fingers together and giving the hand in hers a brief squeeze, she said, "Well, what's done is done–there's little use fretting over it right now, hm? I supply information to you, after all. In that regard, things went well."

"Y-Yachiyo-chan!" Moriarty whispered, a light pink dusting over her cheeks. Even so, she didn't pull her hand away. "What if Daiba-san sees?"

Yachiyo. So Lupin's name was Yachiyo. Then that would mean–

"She's busy researching for her spell; we'll be fine~" Lupin teased, seemingly regaining a bit of her previous energy. She opened her eyes, brushing a thumb over Moriarty's knuckles. "Mahiru-san. What will you really do after this? Are you truly content with going back to your family in the countryside?"

The flush on Moriarty's cheeks vanished as she furrowed her brow, frowning at the piano keys. "I thought the war had taken them, so knowing that they're still alive… I can't ignore that, can I?"

Lupin chuckled, turning her face to bury it into her partner's shoulder. "Even though you're the villainous 'Jay Moriarty'? Undermining the war efforts with your schemes? Sending nations like Seisho and Siegfeld on wild goose chases to find you?"

This time, it was Moriarty's turn to give the hand held in hers a squeeze. Her troubled expression reminded Shiori of Tamao's own moments; when she thought no one was looking, and the responsibilities of managing a troupe had weighed too heavily that day.

"I became Jay Moriarty for my family. Since they're alive, there's...there's no point in continuing the role." A faint smile tugged at her lips. "Who knows? It could be nice to take it easy for a while and not have to worry about rival groups or soldiers coming after me. It would take some getting used to, I'm sure..."

Lupin's eyes slowly slid closed. Tiredness seeped into her voice once more as she murmured, "A pity, that. I'm sure the authorities...will be happy with you stepping away, but… I like having you around, Mahiru-san."

Moriarty's expression softened. Fighting down the pleased smile that clearly wanted to form, she quietly replied, "I like having you around, too."

Shiori watched as Moriarty swallowed hard. A faint flush rose to her cheeks again as she anxiously flexed her free hand.

"Yachiyo-chan, I…! That is… Um..."

You can do it!

"Would you… Would you like to meet them? My family, that is. We can go together, if you'd like."

For a short while, there was only silence between them before Shiori realized Lupin had fallen asleep. The runes on her bandages seemed to glow just a little brighter, as if accelerating the healing process.

Moriarty had grown crestfallen from the apparent rejection, but now confusion passed over her features. "Yachiyo-chan…?"

Shiori hadn't known Lupin–and by extension, Nomina–for long, but even she knew that some sort of answer would have been given by now.

Moriarty seemed to have realized it too, carefully repositioning herself so she could gently scoop her slumbering partner up in her arms. Heat blossomed in Shiori's cheeks at how easily–and comfortably–Moriarty carried Lupin like a prince would a princess in the fairy tales. It was obvious from her movements that this wasn't the first time, either.

Once again, frustration welled up inside of Shiori at the thought of their missed opportunities. The lyrics from their duet came to mind once more, filled with longing and regrets. She could almost hear Bossa Nomina singing them.

"I had always been looking at you…"

No, not Bossa Nomina. It was Moriarty this time–only Moriarty.

"It felt as if I had left my loneliness behind," Moriarty softly continued her song, cradling Lupin closer to her as she stepped away from the piano. As if sensing Shiori's intent to keep watching, the view within the memory shifted to follow them.

"Even the moon is smiling at me tonight."

She continued singing as she walked towards an open door along the inn's wall, leading into a simple room with two beds. Even with the weight of her partner in her arms, her pace didn't falter or slow in the slightest.

"Please look this way…"

Pausing just before the doorway, Moriarty pressed a kiss with almost heartbreaking tenderness to the top of Lupin's head. Her eyes closed for a brief moment, brow furrowing. When she opened them again, she breathed a yearning sigh against Lupin's hair.

"...Oh, fly me to the star."

...Eh? EH??? Shiori stared at the pair with wide eyes, cheeks rising in temperature at something so intimate. Wait, isn't that really close? I thought neither of them had confessed yet? Is this what friends do?

She tried imagining herself doing that to any of her friends. Rui; no her sister would be upset. Futaba or Claudine; no that's too strange. She couldn't even consider Tamao or Kaoruko.

There's no way that's just platonic! Shiori groaned internally. Oh, these two are too much!!!

Shutting her eyes wasn't enough. Her free hand slapped over her eyes to provide another layer of coverage. Still, the image of Moriarty carrying Lupin, looking at her with such tender fondness, was just… too much.

The circle– Slamming her other hand onto the smaller magic circle, Shiori willed the memory to change before she could intrude on even more… private matters.

Thankfully, Nana's magic worked as it should. When Shiori chanced a peek through her fingers, the scene had changed from the indoor inn-like setting to an open forest space. Based on what she could see from the limited viewpoint, it seemed identical to the current environment Shiori usually found herself in after death.

Standing in the center of the clearing was Lupin and Moriarty, looking healthier and more rested than they did in the previous memory. Beside them was Nana, speaking to them inaudibly until the memory focused.

"–see what I can offer," Nana finished. "Feel free to let loose here, since the safe zone currently isn't physically anchored to the crypt. Though I have to say, if you rampage too much, it might damage the structural integrity of the spell."

Lupin chuckled. "There's no need to worry, Daiba-san. The point is for Moriarty and I to showcase our magic so you can give us some pointers, right? In that case, there's no need for us to do anything too crazy unless you yourself ask."

"We promise to not cause too much damage," Moriarty reassured her.

"That's what the general had said back when she needed a sparring partner," Nana grumbled to herself. Shaking her head, her usual friendly smile returned. "Well, not that I expect many people to be that crazy, so I'll trust you both to behave. Now then...let's start with both of you individually, and then I can take a look at your combined spells."

"Well, actually…" Moriarty sighed. "I'll need Lupin to demonstrate my support magic. For some reason, I can only cast it on others."

Nana stared at her in surprise. "You can't cast it on yourself?"

Moriarty shook her head. Off to her side, Lupin crossed her arms over her chest with a frown. But she remained silent.

Finally, Nana shrugged. "Well, there are all sorts of magic out there. And as far as I can tell, this setup has worked for the both of you thus far. I'm sure you've honed your skill sets to work optimally with one another. I was actually interested in assessing both your shared elemental affinities."

Now it was the duo's turn to stare at Nana in surprise. "Elemental affinities?"

"I think you might be mistaken, Daiba-san," Lupin said with a deeper frown now. "While I am able to cast elemental spells, I primarily work with illusion magic."

"And I use wind magic from time to time, but I don't often need to when I have my support spells," Moriarty followed closely in reply.

"Right, right. But have you ever wondered why your magics meld so well with each other?" Nana asked.

The pair exchanged a look. Lupin shrugged, aiming a smirk at her partner that only grew when Moriarty's cheeks briefly flushed. "I figured we were just that good of a match."

"Well, personality is one thing. But there's actually a logical reason why Moriarty-san's support spells synergize with yours so well. Magic tends to have greater success when the recipient is of the right affinity." Nana hummed in thought, tapping a finger to her chin. "Like for example… you'd use ice or water magic against an ifreeta made of fire to destroy it. Then, you'd use fire magic to enhance an ifreeta familiar. It works the same way with mages supporting other mages."

"I'm not sure if I follow," Moriarty said. "But it is true that I have an affinity for wind magic. I never found much use for it compared to support magic, though."

Lupin poked Moriarty's arm, her smirk turning devious. "Oh? Then what was that spell you used to carry me from the authorities the first night we met?"

Moriarty pulled back, cheeks already beginning to glow red again. "Th-That was just a spur of the moment decision! You were being chased by swords and pitchforks!"

"But you can use other spells that aren't just for support," Nana piped up, clearly trying not to giggle.

Moriarty quickly regained her composure, although some of the blush was still present. "Ah, well, yes."

"But you say you're not good at it." Nana hummed in thought. "Then that's exactly what I want to see!"

At that point, Moriarty's expression completely sobered into a thoughtful frown. "Is there a particular reason? Not to question your judgment, but I don't see a point when I won't be using much–if any–wind magic outside of this practice environment."

"Wouldn't critiquing the spellwork we'll more likely use be more beneficial?" Lupin pointed out.

"Of course. And it's not like I expect either of you two to have mastered support or illusion magic. But if you only rely on what you're good at, you'll never get out of tough situations when you need other resources."

"Is that a tip from a more experienced mage?"

Nana chuckled. "You can say that. But it's also just a life lesson I learned throughout the years. "

Moriarty gave a curt nod to Lupin. With her cue, Lupin stepped back to give her partner some space. Taking a deep breath, Moriarty stretched her arms outward to the side–as if she were preparing for a show. Green magic swirling around her feet, surging up to surround her from head to toe. After it died down, Moriarty emerged wearing clothes more reminiscent of her outfit as Bossa.

Shiori's eyes widened. That black cloak and hat… Those jewels… No, it's a little different from what Bossa was wearing. The blue in her outfit stands out more, and it's missing those red tendrils that Bossa Nomina both had. Is this how Jam– Jay Moriarty appeared in the past?

The books had left Moriarty's appearance to the readers' discretion, given how secretive he had been in life. Even for their play, Claudine had needed a few days to plan out a design.

Once her magic calmed, Moriarty lowered her arms and directed her attention back to Nana. "Is there anything in particular that you're looking for, Daiba-san?"

"Let's start with something basic," Nana suggested. "If you manipulate the wind around you, I can gauge how well your control is. In a sense, I can probably also estimate how well your overall magic control is too."

Moriarty raised an arm, splaying out her fingers. Closing her eyes, a green magic circle formed beneath her feet. The symbols were similar to what Shiori remembered from Shion's displays of magic, but her knowledge of magic was so rudimentary that she wouldn't have been able to understand the differences anyway.

What mattered was the air around Moriarty. As the green magic solidified beneath her, the wind started picking up around her as well. Traces of green light flashed here and there within the wind Moriarty controlled. But even with the wind around her and her flapping clothes, nothing ever flew out of place. It was as if her outfit–from hat to boots–was all within her control just as much as her magic was.

Like a spider at the center of her web.

"Good, good," Nana noted. "Now let's see how well you can control it. Why don't you try condensing it into a weapon?"

Moriarty raised a questioning eyebrow. "A weapon? What purpose does that serve when the wind is already so versatile?"

"It may come in handy for close quarters combat if you ever find yourself disarmed of your usual weapons. But more importantly, it's a way for me to see how well your fine control is."

Moriarty frowned, seemingly ready to protest. But she held back, closing her eyes instead. The magic circle beneath her flashed a stronger green. Turning her hand so that her palm was raised up, the wind around her slowly began to coalesce above her palm. Sweat formed on Moriarty's brow as she focused on refining the object.

With one final sigh, Moriarty completed her weapon crafted from wind. It dropped into her waiting palm, where her fingers gently wrapped around its long, thin handle. Despite the wind's lack of color, Moriarty's magic gave it a light green glow so that it was easy enough to discern its appearance.

It looks… exactly like Moriarty's mace. Shiori noted with awe. Moriarty even included a likeness of the stone on top of its head.

Moriarty gave her weapon a few practice swings. It seemed like every swing did more than just strike through air. It was as if the air was moving with it.

To the side, Lupin whistled with a proud smile.

"One final test." Nana raised her staff. Pointing it at the space in front of Moriarty, numerous rock slabs shot up from the ground. None of them towered over the trees of the forest, but each one was as thick as at least the height of Shiori's entire person. They spanned across the forest floor, past what Shiori could see.

Unruffled by the sudden obstacles, Moriarty remarked, "I assume I'm supposed to smash through as many as I can?"

"Exactly! I don't expect you to get through all of them, but however many you do break through will tell me how destructive your magic power is in this refined state."

"If you insist…"

Moriarty stood in front of the first rock slab. Curling both hands around the handle of her wind mace, she pulled her arms back and took her stance.

Huh, that stance reminds me of a batter–

"HOOOOOOOME RUUUUUUUUUUUN!"

Unwinding her body, Moriarty smashed her wind mace straight into the first wall. It completely demolished the stone, the wall crumbling to pieces. However, it didn't stop there. A blast of wind erupted from the collision point, bursting through the wall immediately after it. And the wall following that. And the next one. And…

Shiori balked at the display of sheer strength. No, that was an extension of her own strength aided by her wind magic. But… Could she really have destroyed all of those walls with just wind magic?!

Nana clapped in awe. "Amazing! Your output really is amazing, Moriarty-san! Since you can't use your support spells on yourself, I'm going to assume that was all a product of your wind magic. But…" She walked to one of the walls, reaching a hand out to trace over what was left of it, "this isn't all of your output, is it?"

Moriarty froze. Lupin's eyes widened. "Is that true?" she asked her partner.

"I…"

Nana sighed. With a wave of her staff, the broken stone walls disappeared and the forest returned to how it was before.

"I'm sure you have your own reasons to limit yourself. But there may come a day that your hesitation will hinder you. Well, whatever the reason, I'm not going here to scold you about what-ifs. My purpose is to observe your magic capabilities and see what tips I can offer." Nana clapped her hands again, turning to Lupin. "Now then… Let's move on to our next act, shall we?"

"So it's time for my debut?" Lupin stepped forward with a smirk, flourishing her arms just as Moriarty had done, albeit with a more dramatic flair. "Well, let's hope that I can top Moriarty's splendid performance!"

Pink magic wrapped around Lupin's entire form. Once it dissipated, Lupin emerged in an elaborate maroon outfit. Similar to Moriarty, it reminded Shiori of Nomina's outfit, complete with the large hat and gold monocle. However, the overall color scheme of her clothes was not as dark and lacked the red tendrils that Nomina had. On the other hand, compared to Moriarty, Lupin's stockings were more transparent and didn't cover… all of her… legs…

Shiori slapped her hands over her heated face. That's–That's not possible! The length of that skirt has to be illegal! Don't her thighs get cold?!

Shiori peeked from between her fingers. For now, she focused on Nana and just Lupin's face to stop her eyes from trailing where they shouldn't. No, no, no–look up, not down! I really shouldn't look down!!!

Sending a challenging smirk Nana's way, Lupin drawled, "And what act would you like me to put on?"

"Hmm..." The smile Nana returned matched Lupin's eagerness. "I'm a bit curious about your illusion magic. So let's start with that."

"Anything in particular?"

Nana shrugged. "Surprise me."

The mage's smile sobered instantly into a frown. Tapping her staff onto the ground, an opaque barrier formed around her and stopped something from striking her. Once the mysterious objects fell to the ground, the magic around them dissipated to reveal thin crossbow bolts.

Those are… Lupin's? Shiori turned her gaze to Lupin, who was still standing in place with her nonchalant smirk. But how? She didn't move at all, let alone grab her weapon!

"Impressive!" Nana beamed, spinning her staff with a flourish. "There aren't that many who can cast a spell as difficult as illusion magic without a proper magic circle!"

Nana aimed her staff at a seemingly empty part of the forest, releasing a few bursts of magic. They collided with a few of the trees in the forest, but didn't seem to hit anything else.

Her eyes flicked to the side. Bringing her staff to the right, she conjured another transparent shield to block a second barrage of crossbow bolts aimed for her.

"I see…! So that's how your illusions work." Nana's grin widened. "In that case…"

Nana brought down her staff, hitting the point on the ground. The earth below the three burst open from the contact, spewing out dust and debris.

"And…!" Nana spun around and pointed her staff straight ahead. She shot one large burst of magic from her staff. The energy soared through the dust that had kicked up, blowing a hole through the smoke…

… and revealing Lupin within the debris, grinning nervously without her hat.

Lupin raised her arms in surrender, maintaining her grin. "And what would that say about you, casting spells willy nilly without a magic circle of your own?"

"Oh, don't mind me. It's just a little bit of an innovation I've come to develop over the years~"

Lupin chuckled weakly. "Right…"

Nana glanced back over her shoulder. "This was just a small test. All I did was match your partner's tenacity. No need to worry so much, Moriarty-san."

The dark-haired woman lowered her wind mace from where it had been poised to attack, the magic dissipating within her clenched fist. "That was… certainly a display. I've never met a mage as powerful as you."

Nana gave another shrug. "It's understandable that you'd be wary. To be fair, you two are rather remarkable to have so much potential even without the proper training."

"We went to a proper academy, you know."

"Hmm… A difference in teachings then, I suppose." Once Moriarty stepped back and Lupin rejoined them, Nana continued, "Moriarty-san's wind magic output is astonishing, especially since she doesn't use it often. Then there's Lupin-san's illusion spells just now…"

"I assume you figured out how it works," Lupin said with a sly smile, snapping her fingers. In an instant, her hat reappeared on top of her head.

"Rather than manipulating your target's five senses, you're affecting what they can immediately see in front of them. Is that right?"

Lupin chuckled. "As expected of a proper mage. You got it."

"But, do you know what exactly you're doing?" Nana wondered.

Lupin gave a nonchalant shrug, shaking her head. "Honestly, not really. This kind of magic comes naturally to me. Even when I first started casting them, I didn't think too much about the details of how I wanted my illusions to come alive. I just had them happen how I wanted them to."

"So you don't know exactly what you're manipulating to create your illusions." Nana hummed thoughtfully. "I suppose that explains why you didn't know you have an affinity for wind magic. That's the trick behind your illusions."

"Wind magic?" Lupin glanced at Moriarty, who held up her palm to conjure a small gust of wind above her hand. "That doesn't seem… relevant."

"There are a few ways one can create illusions with magic. One is affecting the five senses. There's also implanting specific thoughts into your targets' brains. Then there's magic that affects the world itself." Nana raised her staff. In that instant, the forest clearing they were in shifted into the inn-like common area from before. "The most difficult will be using your magic to change all of the world. In that sense, your illusion becomes an actual reality. But your magic isn't on that level. It's actually much simpler than that."

Lupin raised an eyebrow. "I wouldn't have thought my magic was as complicated as yours to begin with."

Nana tapped her staff on the ground. The air around them seemed to… vibrate?

"Instead of widespread changes to the world we stand in, you're only manipulating one component of it. Specifically, the air particles around us." When Nana lifted her staff from the ground, the air stilled. "Air isn't exactly nothing, after all. By willing it to coalesce in the form that best illuminates the illusion you want to conjure, you're basically pulling a fake, see-through curtain over our eyes."

"And that's how Lupin's apparent affinity to wind comes to play?" Moriarty asked.

Nana shrugged. "Apparently! I can't explain how your affinities came to be, but it is what it is. Now the question is...how do the both of you want to work with this?"

Lupin and Moriarty turned to each other. An unspoken conversation occurred within those seconds of silence before the two turned back to Nana and said, "What do you suggest, Daiba-san?"

Shiori stepped back, taking a deep breath and rubbing her eyes. So much information had been thrown at her in such a short time.

Lupin and Moriarty… The two of them are so amazing. It was helpful of Daiba-san to explain the mechanics behind Lupin's illusions to them, but I wonder if I could ever do something like that with what little I can do. And then there's Moriarty's wind manipulation…

Shiori took a step outside of the larger magic circle. Holding up her hands, she tried picturing the winds gathering between her outstretched arms like Moriarty did. Although the air around her swirled and tried to condense, she was only able to get them to form an oblong shape with no form. It looked nothing like a proper weapon.

Dropping her arms to her sides as the wind dissipated, Shiori released a heavy sigh. "Maybe I should ask Daiba-san about magic circles once she wakes up..."

Once she was ready, Shiori stepped back into the larger magic circle. Coming close enough to the smaller circle, she placed her hand on it, willing the memory from the one she had left off to shift into a different one.

From there, it didn't seem there were any more instances of Lupin and Moriarty training. A few more memories of their rest periods–too close, too flirtatious–came up, which Shiori quickly skipped through with a hitched breath and reddened cheeks. Overall, each time the pair left, they returned to Nana's safe zone with injuries more severe than the last.

Finally, she stopped on a memory that began with Nana examining Moriarty's mace. Other than the mage, only Moriarty was standing beside her–Lupin was nowhere to be found.

Lifting up the mace to survey its form from all angles, Nana concluded, "It's taken a lot of damage, but I'll see what I can do to repair it. Maybe reinforce it with some of the diamonds that you two have brought back."

"And Lupin's crossbow?" Moriarty asked, a hint of impatience in her voice.

"It took less damage, but she's out of bolts and I'd imagine she's not in a state to conjure more. I'll make some replacements for her once I'm done repairing your mace." Nana's lips pulled up into a small smile. "In the meantime, why don't you check on her? I treated her as well as I could, but taking a direct hit from a red ogre could phase even the best of generals."

Moriarty sighed heavily, eyes closing as her shoulders slumped. "I worry one day she–we–won't be so lucky. I can't stand the thought of losing her. Not in front of me."

Nana's smile sobered into an impassive expression. Looking straight at Moriarty with a heavy gaze, she said, "Then you should cherish the time you have with her. There are still more challenges that lie ahead of you, both in this crypt and outside of it. And when the time comes, make sure you do everything in your power to prevent such a tragic ending from becoming your reality."

Shiori's surprise matched Moriarty's own. Daiba-san… You almost say that as if you've experienced such a heavy loss yourself…

"Is that coming from your own personal experience, Daiba-san?" Moriarty quietly asked, a hint of her truer self in her voice.

The smile Nana returned was not one of happiness. "I don't have the luxury to regret for long. Just as you two entered this crypt for your own reasons, there's something I must do here myself."

Moriarty stared at Nana in silence. Finally, she shrugged and turned away from Nana. "Lupin and I are here to steal the treasures of this crypt, specifically the one said to be waiting in its very depths. Its overall secrets and history are less of a concern to us. And that includes how you factor into all of this, Daiba-san."

Nana's smile widened, less melancholic than before. "I'm glad you understand."

But Shiori didn't understand. There was still so much about Nana that she didn't know. All she knew was that Nana was an unusually powerful mage who had entered this crypt for her own reasons. She also had her heart stolen by Maesterion and couldn't leave the crypt. In that case, Shiori wanted to do what she could to save her as well. However, she didn't understand why a powerful mage like Nana couldn't just venture through the crypt on her own.

What was tying her to this crypt? Why was this unseen shackle stronger than the curse placed on Shiori and the others? And how strong was this curse if even someone like Nana couldn't break free from it?

The memory followed Moriarty as she took her leave from Nana. Most likely she was going to check up on Lupin as Nana had suggested, but Shiori didn't want to intrude upon another private moment. Tapping at the smaller magic circle, she switched to the next memory.

But with thoughts of Nana's secretive past still poking at her mind, Shiori didn't notice the white runes and symbols beneath her feet briefly flash gold.

In the next memory, neither Moriarty nor Lupin were seen. Instead, an unfamiliar woman with auburn hair was tugging… something, into the safe zone by its furry arm. That something could barely stand on its own two feet–own two hooves, to be exact. The partially-humanoid monster clutched its dragon-like claws to its chest, bowing its head so that Shiori could clearly see its curving antler-like horns.

But there was something familiar about its mess of blonde hair. Even the patches of fur growing on its body were a shade of yellow that Shiori felt like she had seen quite often. Looking at what remained of its mid-length messy hair, she noticed the ends of its hair seemed to curve like…

The ends of a banana bunch?

Once the two were fully in the safe zone, the monster crashed onto its knees, gasping for breath with its head still bowed. The door behind them closed and disappeared with a twirl of the unknown woman's ornate golden staff.

Shiori squinted her eyes. Wait, isn't that Daiba-san's staff?

"Phew, that was close! A little too close..." The unfamiliar woman plopped down beside the monster, exhaling a deep sigh of relief. Reaching over to gently pat the beast's hunched back, she continued, "Geez, that thing must really like you. I haven't seen a reaction like yours since… Well, you might just be more favorable than the violin's current musician."

The monster lifted its head, wide green eyes meeting the woman's own gaze. Although its voice was raspy, Shiori understood its speech perfectly. "You're… also a mage. Do you know something about that thing?"

Gold magic surrounded the monster, and when it died down, a little bit of its original human form returned. Although Shiori would still consider it mostly beast-like, the affliction receded enough for Shiori to recognize the monster's true identity.

Shiori took a step back. Then another, and another, until she was outside of the larger magic circle and could no longer view the memory.

"Da… Daiba-san...?!"

Shiori shook her head, attempting to calm herself. That was definitely Daiba-san. Was that memory from a time when Nana had first lost her heart? Then who was the other person with her?

Her red and orange clothes bore a different style from the white that Nana was currently wearing; they could almost be considered archaic, like the ones in the old paintings. She didn't know why, but this stranger was also wielding Nana's staff. And Nana herself confirmed it in that memory–the unknown woman was also a mage.

More importantly, this person was a mage who had been in the crypt even before Nana.

Shiori sat down on the ground, taking a moment to process everything she had just seen in the past… however long it had been. So much had happened that she wasn't sure how much time had actually passed.

Confirmation of Lupin and Moriarty's true names. Wind magic and all that she didn't know. The difficulty of the zones–of course there would be more–to come, where even a duo like them couldn't return from. Nana's near-transformation into one of the monsters. The unknown mage.

Grrrrrowl.

Shiori's hands rubbed her vocal stomach in soothing circles. I guess now would be a good time to take a break. There was a lot going on in those memories, especially that last one, but… I can think about that after I've had some food.

If she thought about it any further right now, her head might explode.

Standing while patting her stomach in reassurance, Shiori tiredly walked over to the simple door that Nana had conjured for her–the one that should lead to the cabin from before. Her hand wrapped around the door handle. But instead of opening the door right away, a random thought suddenly came to mind.

I had thought the cabin was shaped based on Daiba-san's preferences, but that doesn't feel right. Shiori frowned, recalling the interior of the cabin. There was barely anything there. The bed she let me sleep in didn't seem like it had been used in awhile either. Is it just a space she created for travelers? Or… Or did someone else influence her? Someone else, like that woman…

There had been an unfamiliar mage who had led Nana into this very safe zone. The Nana in that memory had seemed surprised to see the mage, so that must have been their first encounter. Then...who was she? What was her relationship to the crypt? What did Nana know about her?

Daiba-san… Shiori tightened her grip around the handle, finally pushing open the door to enter the cabin. I know so little about you. Why won't you tell me–?

Shiori froze. She could see clearly into the space she had stepped foot into. She wasn't supposed to, though–the cabin was supposed to be dimly lit with just the fire of the hearth.

Where… Where am I?

Instead of a hearth lighting a small cabin, candles and torches illuminated the wide expanse before her. Books lined every winding bookshelf that Shiori could see with her bare eyes. There were so many that they stretched far beyond Shiori's line of sight in every direction–front, back, right, left, and even up. Though the ceiling appeared to be dome shaped and illuminated by a yellow back lighting, Shiori wasn't sure if she could actually reach it herself; it seemed to stretch beyond her physical capabilities.

It was a room she had never seen. More specifically, this seemingly infinite library was definitely a place she had never stepped foot in before. However, she did feel like she had been in a similar kind of space before.

This… feels a little like Amemiya-san's workshop underneath the Whispering Medusa, Shiori realized. Then could this be Daiba-san's workshop?

After fully entering this new place, Shiori whipped her head around when she started hearing the door swing shut behind her. By the time she considered rushing forward with her hand outstretched for the door handle, the door had closed and disappeared, dissolving into pale blue particles between her fingers. Leaving while she had a chance was now completely out of the question.

What do I do? Shiori retracted her hand and looked around the overwhelming environment around her. I can't leave now that the door Daiba-san made for me is gone. And if this really is her workshop, I know I'm definitely not supposed to be here...

Wait… How did I get here in the first place?

Nana had said that she had created the door to lead to the cabin area if Shiori needed food or a place to rest. So unless Nana herself made a mistake when setting up the connection, why did the door take her here instead of where she should be?

Shiori shook her head. How she got here was a matter that she could ask herself later. For now, she needed to find a way out. She didn't know any spells to manipulate space, so leaving with her own power was out of the question. Her next option was to ask Nana. However, finding her in this place didn't seem like it would be easy.

If Daiba-san is resting here, I have no idea where she could be. Shiori sighed. And I specifically told her to rest. I don't want to bother her about something so trivial after all that.

But if this was Nana's workshop, then there should be something here that could tell her how to find her way out. Or at the very least, there should be some information on what magic would be needed to make her own exit if it came down to it.

Shiori took a few steps further into the library-like workshop and looked around. There were so many bookshelves that she didn't know where to start.

Swallowing down her anxiety, she walked toward the closest bookshelf and glanced across the spines of the books for a clue as to how they were organized. However, it didn't seem like the book titles would be of any help to her.

January 552 AD to December 552 AD. January 553 AD to December 553 AD. As she continued her search, Shiori found that all of the books on this bookshelf followed the same pattern. These aren't titles, they're dates. Could these be texts of recorded history? They're not dated like most history books though.

Stepping past the current bookshelf, she found that all of the books nearby were titled in similar ways. There were even books that dated back to 300 AD.

Daiba-san really is amazing, Shiori thought. She has so much information stored here. It would take more than my single lifetime to get through all of these…

Pulling one off the closest shelf, Shiori opened the book to a random page to see if she could at least get a sense of the information stored in these books. She started reading from the first paragraph of the page she stopped at.

"I tried leaving this safe zone today to see if the curse had loosened its hold around me. Just like the previous times, my body started changing in an instant. It seems that thing really doesn't want to give up on me."

'That thing...?' What could Daiba-san mean by that? Could it be something important that powers the magic in this crypt?

Shiori read on, hoping to find answers to clarify her confusion.

"When I returned, the wards Sayo-chan had put in place immediately started taking effect."

No, Shiori was even more confused now. 'Sayo' was a name she didn't recognize. But based on the context, Shiori wondered if this person had anything to do with the other mage she had seen in Nana's memory before.

"The process is still rather slow. I wonder if I should refine the spells to accelerate the transformation back? It might come in handy one day. I won't be able to save everyone who has been cursed in this crypt, but maybe… No, I shouldn't bring my hopes up. Not when it's already so difficult for many to survive to the end.

But maybe I can change that? I'll start looking through my recreation of my spellbooks to see if anything can be useful. Right now, I'll try to see how I can help this mage who is the latest adventurer in this crypt. She hasn't had any proper magic training, but she seems to have a natural affinity to wind magic. I'll see how I can help her.

Strangely, she says that adapting to the underground environment of the crypt hasn't been too hard. According to her, she's a night owl who works better at night. I've never met a person who calls themself a night owl before.

I wonder if I've become a night owl? Time is hard to keep track down here when there's no sun or moon in this crypt."

Shiori closed the book, uncomfortable with reading more as an awkward realization settled within her.

These aren't history books. They're more like Daiba-san's journal entries. She looked around, eyeing the dates on the spines of the books. I wondered this before, but Daiba-san must be from a time long past if she's had accounts dating so far back. These dates run farther back than any normal human should have lived through. Is it because of the curse on us both?

There were too many things unknown about Nana. Shiori knew she could learn more from reading these entries, but she had a feeling she'd also just be confused without the context. And it wasn't like she could sit down and read through all of them from start to finish.

Shiori shook her head and gave her cheeks a quick slap. I can't think about that now! I need to find a way to leave. I've already overstayed my welcome here, especially since Daiba-san never invited me in herself.

Shiori placed the book back where it belonged. She then ran down the line of bookshelves, trying to find a different set of books that would aid her current dilemma instead.

An abnormality pulled Shiori to a sudden stop. On the bookshelf next to her was a book that stood out amongst all the others around it. While the others had the same light green color with dates as their titles, this one was pure white with nothing written on the spine. When Shiori reached over and pulled it out from its spot, she found that there was nothing written on the covers at all.

That's odd. I wonder what this one could be. Flipping through the book, she picked a random page and began to read from the first paragraph.

"I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry I'm so weak. I'm sorry I couldn't help you when it mattered most.

I failed you. I failed as your guard. I failed as your friend. I never should have convinced you to leave your life behind and run away with me to pursue your dream. We never should have touched that violin. That thing should have never been–"

The next few words were blurred. Running her fingers over the pages, she noted how the paper crinkled as if water had dried on it.

The only other words she could read on the page were toward the end. And all it said was–

"I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry." Over and over again until the end of the page.

Who wrote this? The entry on this page–or what Shiori could read from it–didn't specify any names. At the same time, the handwriting and the style of writing didn't read like the last book she had read through; that one read and felt distinctly like Nana.

As she started to flip to the next page to keep reading, a strange sound to her side pulled Shiori's attention up from the book. Squinting her eyes and straining her ears, Shiori began to recognize what kind of noise it was. It sounds like something is… flying over really fa–?!

Whatever it was rammed right into her, knocking her clean off her feet and sending her skidding across the ground. The book in her hands flew out of her grasp. The object that crashed into her took its place, lying on top of her protesting body as she tried to regain her wits.

Wha… What was that? Looking down, she found the source of her discomfort to be a long, wooden staff. The shape was familiar. This… Is this Daiba-san's staff? No, the staff Daiba-san had was gold, and this is white. So whose is this?

Shiori reached up with her right hand to remove it from her chest. As soon as her hand wrapped around its length, a piercing pain shot through her head.

What–?!

Images flashed through her mind. It was like scenes from a picture book were being rammed into her head, only they were being transmitted to her too quickly for her to piece them together. There were many flashes of Nana with that mage from before–a mage whose name Shiori still didn't know. There were also instances of Maesterion herself, a golden violin, flashes of gold magic, shouting, then screaming, then…

Shiori saw Nana hunched over someone–an unmoving body. The cries coming from the mage sounded foreign to Shiori. Her chest ached for her, hurting more with every cry.

"I'll end this," Shiori heard Nana choke out. "I'll make sure that thing never sees another owner. Even if it takes an eternity, even if I no longer know who I am, I'll shoulder this burden in your place. So please… find peace in the afterlife." Nana lowered her head, pressing her forehead down onto the body she cradled in her arms. "Then one day you'll be reunited with your princess, Sayo-chan."

Shiori rolled to the side, removing herself from the staff. Hunched over with her eyes clenched shut, she harshly exhaled short breaths through her gritted teeth to ride through the sudden wave of nausea. Thankfully, no bile rose to her throat. The discomfort slowly came to pass; her breathing evened out. After a few moments, Shiori was able to peel her eyes open and glance at the discarded staff warily.

What was that? Shiori sat back onto her haunches, staring at the prone staff. Did it… Did it show me someone's memories? Daiba-san's? No, the angle doesn't match. Could it be… the staff's own memories?

That would mean Shiori believed the object to be sentient. Although, after all of the fantastical encounters she has had so far… well, time was strange for her now. Regardless, a sentient staff was probably the least strange thing she could encounter at this point.

Then the mage in the memories I saw before was someone named Sayo. She seemed to be someone important to Daiba-san, though she's not… here anymore. Wait, Sayo? Shiori rubbed the side of her head to help facilitate what she was trying to remember. That was the name that Daiba-san had mentioned in her journal. I wonder if she had helped Daiba-san set up this safe zone away from Maesterion's influence?

Slowly, Shiori picked herself up and knelt next to the staff. She reached down to pick it up, hand hovering just short of touching it.

Will you show me more?

Her fingers curled around the length of the staff. Nothing happened. No bombardment of information that she couldn't make heads or tails of. There wasn't even a twitch from the staff itself.

Shiori's shoulders slumped. "Maybe I've already seen more than I should have. Is that what you're trying to tell me?"

The staff didn't answer. She had only half expected it to speak, but now she just felt silly for talking to an inanimate object. Though, it's not like it was completely inanimate. Unless Daiba-san is awake and watching me.

That possibility didn't seem likely. As little as Shiori knew about the mage, she had a strong feeling that Nana wasn't the type to test people in the shadows.

Now then… Holding the staff in both hands, Shiori wondered what she should do from here. Theoretically I should be able to create a way to leave this place myself, but I have no idea how to do it. Daiba-san always made it seem so easy. All she did was wave her staff and things would just happen.

Shiori smiled to herself at the thought, giving the staff a wave like she had seen Nana do multiple times before. If only it were that easy.

"...Eh?"

It really was that easy.

A familiar simple door appeared from literally nowhere next to her in a brief burst of pale blue light. Shiori cautiously moved to stand in front of it, eyeing the door as if it were a monster waiting to attack. When it didn't, she reached out with her free hand to run her fingers over the smooth wood, then down to the door handle.

The staff suddenly removed itself from her other hand. It floated a few paces away from her, hovering in silence.

Shiori blinked at it in surprise. "Oh. Um, thank you?"

Again, the staff didn't reply. But it also didn't move from where it was hovering, as if it was waiting for Shiori to move first.

Shiori looked back at the door. Her hand clenched around the handle. I need to get it right this time. No more stray thoughts. I want to leave. I don't want to intrude where I shouldn't be. I'd like to go back to the resting spot Daiba-san kindly reserved for me, see what there is to eat, and then take the time to actually rest. I've taken a long enough detour from what I truly need to do here.

Without further ado, Shiori threw open the door and stepped through…

… into the cabin area that she had been looking for this entire time.

"Oh, thank goodness." Shiori breathed a sigh of relief. Barely hearing the door close behind her, she immediately hurried over to drop onto the bed face-first.

Her stomach growled, reminding her of the reason why she had stepped away from the training area in the first place. But she honestly felt too tired to get up from the comfortable bed right now.

I think… I think I'll follow Daiba-san and take a short nap myself…

As Shiori's eyes slid closed, she briefly thought about the other mage Nana had known and wondered when would be the right time to ask Nana about her past. Or rather, whether such an opportunity would ever come up at all.


"...I heard there was a powerful artifact somewhere to the south. A violin from the time of the Ebisu reign; maybe even before that."

Nana looked up from the map pinned to the table, widened eyes falling on the downcast gaze of her fellow mage sitting nearby. "From the time of the Ebisus?"

"Mages were a lot more powerful back then, as you know. Supposedly, this artifact can grant wishes," came the mumbled reply. "If we could get our hands on it...we could probably wish to stop this war."

Nana pursed her lips into a thin frown, turning her gaze back to the map. "We don't need something like that to end this. If Seisho takes these two cities, the outcome of the succession struggle will be clear to all. Even Siegfeld would have to back down from their claim."

"Or so General Tendou would say…"

"The decision isn't mine to make," Nana said, breathing a heavy sigh. "You know this, Osaka-chan."

"But she'd listen to you."

A crack in her voice; a hitch in her breath. Nana immediately swept over to kneel before her, map and strategies forgotten as her hands reached up to gently cup Osaka's face. Tears continued to roll down the mage's cheeks as she hiccuped.

"I'm here, Osaka-chan," Nana murmured, brushing them away with a thumb. "It's okay. You can let it all out."

Osaka's shoulders trembled, hunching up to her reddened ears with every hitch in her breathing. "A-Aren't you tired, Nana-san? This… This has gone on for so long…! H-How is any of this right?"

"None of this is right. Which is why we need to do what we can to ensure there are minimal casualties," Nana said, leaning forward to rest their foreheads against the other. Osaka's eyes shut closed, tears still brimming at the corners as her bottom lip trembled. From this close, her hair tickled at Nana's nose.

"I want… I want to end this, Nana-san..."


Consciousness returned to Nana like trickling water dripping down from a crevice, washing away the remnants of her dream. Sitting up with a small yawn, she rubbed the rest of the sleep from her eyes. Nana remained sitting on her cot for a few more moments, mildly surprised that the world wasn't spinning and her head didn't throb.

Shiori-chan was right. I really did need that nap.

Flicking her wrist to materialize her golden staff, Nana rose from her resting spot and prepared to summon a door to check on Shiori. Before she could cast the spell, she felt a familiar object flying toward her from the main section of her workshop.

"Oh, there you are. I was wondering where you disappeared to this time."

The white staff flew around her in a frenzy. What's wrong with it? It only acts like this whenever something is… wrong.

Nana's eyes widened. "Is there an intruder?!"

Quickly grabbing her old staff with her free hand, Nana focused past her own magical energy to detect traces of other lifeforms that may have entered her workshop. She located the abnormality in an instant; whoever the intruder was, they hadn't even bothered to mask their presence or remove traces of their magic.

The pale blue traces of energy were… familiar. After being around it for long enough, it only took Nana another second to recognize and remember its source.

"The intruder was… Shiori-chan?" Releasing the white staff, it floated back a few paces to give Nana some space. "But how did she get in? I didn't set up a door to lead to my workshop."

The staff didn't answer. The answer came to Nana on its own. Her eyes widened in realization. "Shiori-chan… tampered with my spell? No, this wasn't on purpose. But she did affect enough of it that she was led to a different destination than what I had set up."

But still...she essentially performed a spatial reconfiguration spell, even if it was first using my existing spell as a basis, Nana thought with a frown. I didn't set up a door for her to leave, and considering she isn't in my workshop anymore...that means she must have conjured one on her own. It seems like my staff helped her focus her magic, but that doesn't change the fact that Shiori-chan essentially cast the spell on her own.

Now that she knew it was only Shiori who had entered the workshop, Nana allowed herself to relax. Before leaving, she found the bookshelves that Shiori had apparently come across and checked which entries the young girl had perused through. Nana could only find traces of Shiori's presence from two books: a random journal entry of hers, and the white book that did not belong to her.

Nana's fingers traced the spine of the white book. Memories nudged at the edge of her mind, but she shook them off to carefully replace the book to its proper shelf.

I'll have to be careful around Shiori-chan from now on. Raising her golden staff, Nana conjured a door that would lead to the training area she had left for Shiori. I don't know how much she's read from Sayo-chan's journal. But if she learns too much about the nature of this crypt… there might not be much I can do to protect her from Maesterion's gaze.

Nana opened the door and stepped through. As her feet moved from the wooden floor to soft grass, she heard Shiori call out, "Daiba-san! You're finally awake!"

Shutting the door and letting it disappear behind her, Nana approached Shiori with a light chuckle. "'Finally?' I can't have been asleep for that long!"

"I'm not sure how long it was, but it was long enough for me to get my own nap in and make something to eat. Oh! Speaking of which, there's some leftover soup if you'd like something to eat. I'm sure you must be hungry after a good night's rest."

"Shiori-chan's cooking? I'd definitely love to try that." But first, Nana turned her attention to the young girl. More specifically, to what her arms were doing. "Maybe later, though. I'm curious to see how your training has been going since I took my unexpectedly long nap."

Shiori's arms were outstretched before her. Some of the air around them vibrated at a different frequency from the cool wind blowing through the forest. As Nana concentrated harder, she could just make out the faint traces of Shiori's magic at work.

"Practicing wind magic?" Nana guessed.

Shiori nodded. "Apparently both Moriarty and Lupin had an affinity to wind magic. I saw them demonstrate their magic in one of the memories and wanted to replicate it."

"And how is that going?"

Rather than replying, Shiori closed her eyes and brought her hands closer together. The air picked up around them, circling around Shiori like she was in the eye of a hurricane. Gusts of wind flew toward the space between Shiori's hands. As the seconds passed, Nana started to make out a shape forming from the wind.

Shiori suddenly heaved out a heavy sigh. The wind slowed down, no longer coalescing around them. Within her hands was a small rod-shaped object made of pure wind.

Shiori turned to Nana with a disappointed frown. "Moriarty was able to make a replica of her mace with her wind magic. I don't know how to use magic circles, so this is the best I can do right now."

The best she could do right now? As Nana stared down at the creation in Shiori's hands, she thought, Well, that's certainly true. But this is already more advanced than any novice should be able to do!

Shiori looked up at Nana, determination shining in her eyes. "Daiba-san, I was wondering if you'd be able to teach me how to construct a magic circle for myself. I'm sure I'll be able to cast some higher level spells and control my magic better that way."

"That is true. But I'll have to advise against that." Tapping her staff to the ground, Nana summoned a basic magic circle beneath her feet. "Forming magic circles may be considered the most basic of magic knowledge, but it takes years to learn and fully understand. It isn't just something you can 'feel' or learn intuitively." She pointed the tip of her staff at one section of her circle. "Each symbol and rune mean different things, which means you'll need different magic circles for different spells. Teaching them all to you would take too long."

"I thought I had plenty of time with your spell cast on me," Shiori argued, the frown on her face dancing closer to a pout instead.

"In terms of loops by way of resetting your death. But time still continues, so long as you haven't lost your life yet." Nana smiled sadly. "We both may not age due to the effects of the crypt's curse, but that doesn't mean time has stopped for the world. And I don't think you want to spend the next decade learning magic basics. You have people to save, don't you?"

"Right…"

Nana reached over to pat Shiori's shoulder, offering her an encouraging smile. "For now, I'd say focus on doing however much you can at your current level; take advantage of the tools you have now, rather than asking for more. Who knows? Maybe creativity and being able to adapt to whatever the situation demands may just be more useful than using fancy spells."

"Creativity…" Shiori gasped. "Like how Lupin was able to create her illusions by manipulating the particles in the air."

"Oh, you managed to see that memory, huh? It was pretty surprising even for me. That's actually a more advanced method of generating illusions. For Lupin-san to do so without a magic circle was even more astonishing."

Shiori nodded. "Both Lupin and Moriarty were amazing. I won't be able to replicate their abilities with my current level of experience, especially if I can't create magic circles, but I'll do what I can!"

"That's the spirit!"

Nana took a step back to survey the young girl. Compared to her frustration from before, Shiori was brimming with vital energy. The Shiori now was practically the complete opposite of the lost and frightened girl from her first death. Even when Nana turned down Shiori's request to teach her magic herself, Shiori hadn't let her initial dejection keep her down for long. She really was taking Nana's words to heart.

It's one thing to have a strong will. It's another to find courage when all seems bleak. Then there's her immeasurable potential and ability to quickly pick up on things, even learning when she may not be aware of it. If Nana still had her heart, she was sure it would have swelled with pride. With Shiori-chan, we might just be able to beat Maesterion and remove the violin's existence. And then I can find out where–

"Daiba-san? Are you alright?" Shiori asked, her concerned tone pulling Nana from her thoughts. "You've been staring past me for a little while now."

Nana shook her head, donning her usual reassuring smile. "Oh, just thinking about the sword I'll have to reforge for you! Even if you're ready to try again, you won't get far without a trusty weapon in your hand."

Shiori averted her gaze. "I'm sorry for troubling you so much, Daiba-san. If I didn't fail so often, we wouldn't have to start over from scratch every time."

"It really is no problem. Remember, it's my responsibility to make sure adventurers in this crypt are well taken care of." Nana's smile grew. "You can say I'm just investing in you a little bit more than anyone else. Now then…"

Waving her staff to conjure a door once more, Nana left Shiori to train on her own while she prepared to tackle her other responsibilities.

As she reached to open the door, Shiori called out, "At least eat something first!"

Her hand froze on the handle. In the back of her mind, a different voice scolded her to take care of herself more. A voice she hadn't heard in so long…

Nana glanced back at Shiori with the best smile she could muster. "Now who's the one taking care of whom? At this rate, you might just steal my job from me, Shiori-chan."

Shiori shook her head, cheeks faintly flushed. "Of course not! I wouldn't be able to come close to your knowledge and magic abilities! I'd never be able to run everything here as well as you do!"

"You never know. With time and the proper training, you could even become the best mage of this time."

"Now you're just teasing me, Daiba-san!"

Nana chuckled. Shiori-chan really doesn't see her own potential. Well, it'll come in time.

"It really might be true you know. But first, you'll want to work on what you can and refine them into usable spells."

"That's what I'll be doing while you're busy," Shiori said, nodding decisively. "I might not be able to form an actual weapon with wind magic like Moriarty did, but I'll try to see how much of the air I can manipulate. It definitely won't be on Lupin's level, though…"

"Start small, Shiori-chan. I'm sure you'll get there with time." And maybe even surpass their capabilities while you're in this crypt, Nana added to herself.

Allowing Shiori to return to her training, Nana changed the destination behind the door to their shared cabin space. Opening the door, she stepped into the small, warm space with one final glance at Shiori.

"Please help yourself to as much of what's left as you need to!" Shiori called out to her.

Shiori-chan is too sweet. "I will!"

Nana shut the door behind her. Leaning against the smooth surface, she closed her eyes and sighed.

"There's a lot of work that needs to be done, and Shiori-chan still has a long way to go. But…"

Nana pushed off from the door. Rubbing her eyes, she quickly found the leftovers in a large bowl on the table. The top layer of the soup was covered with a thin sheen of ice.

Chuckling at Shiori's attempt to prevent the food from spoiling, Nana grabbed the bowl and brought it over to the fire.

But first, I want to see if Shiori-chan has as much potential as a cook as she does for magic.

Chapter Text

Perhaps it was the experience of running through this floor three times prior, but the short sword gripped in Shiori's hand started to feel like an extension of her own arm. With every successful slash and thrust, her movements grew more confident and fluid. Even the patterns to the enemies became easier to read and time.

Daiba-san never did answer my question, Shiori realized, hopping over a pitfall to smoothly duck and swipe at a skeleton.

The beat had grown easier to follow now that she had faced the likes of Bossa Nomina twice at this point. If she were to test her theory, it would have to be against the duo, or one of the mini boss monsters. Perhaps she could even start with…

"...Rui-san," Shiori breathed, gaze focused on the werewolf restlessly pacing before the door in the distance.

In her prior attempts, Shiori had to somehow corner the werewolf, disable it, and land the finishing blow. All while considering the timing needed for Nana to anchor the safe zone. At this point, Shiori knew that the werewolf was weak to fire. However, that might also have been because of her uncontrollable output; even she was a little worried about its destructive power. But in the end, she hadn't had the time to refine her fire magic.

Daiba-san had said to work with what I can. In her free hand, Shiori gathered a small gust of wind. Her leg muscles tensed, ready to move. In that case…

Shiori ran out into the chamber, leaving herself open and in full view for the werewolf. The monster snapped its head toward her even before she came to a stop, its ears perking up at the sound of her loud footsteps.

Red eyes narrowed her way, full of hostility and nothing like the kindness her friend used to show her. The werewolf threw its head back and released a deafening howl that rattled her bones. Brandishing its claws, it rushed toward her with one arm raised for a downward swipe.

It's fast! But, compared to Nomina–!

Shiori swept her leg back to sidestep the werewolf's lunge. Following the beat of the crypt, she bent her knees to duck under the werewolf's counterattack with the same outstretched arm.

Then spin… Shiori imagined the kick that had struck through stone, channeling those movements for herself, …just like she did!

Twisting her body, Shiori struck out with her sword arm in an upward slash. Her blade cut across the werewolf's other arm, splattering blood from the open wound. The werewolf jumped back with a pained yelp, snarling defensively.

For a second, it wasn't a monstrous werewolf Shiori saw–it was her close, long-time friend, cradling her injured arm as if it were the result of an accident during rehearsals and not because of the sword dripping with her blood. I'll be fine! Rui would have said, reassuring Shiori to avoid worrying her. But hiding things from Shiori, just like everyone else had done, would only cause her to worry even more.

So just like those times, Shiori pressed on and took matters into her own hands. To help her friends–to save them…

Keep moving. Shiori closed the distance that the werewolf had created. More than just stepping, her feet slid across the ground as if she were executing a choreographed routine on a stage. Feel the beat. Follow its tempo.

Energy flowed through her veins to her limbs–adrenaline or magic, Shiori couldn't tell the difference. Once she was close enough, the werewolf slashed at her with its uninjured arm, claws glinting wickedly in the torchlight. Raising her arm and pivoting on her heel to the side, Shiori parried its claws. She brought up her free hand just as it lunged with open jaws, gathering her magic.

Wind!

BANG!

The werewolf rammed snout-first into an invisible barrier in front of Shiori with enough force to nearly knock her off her feet. Digging her heels into the ground to remain standing, Shiori pushed her free hand forward to shove the werewolf away with her magic. It weighed more than she expected it to, so the push only made the monster stumble on its paws. But it was disoriented, and that was what mattered most.

"Sorry, Rui-san," Shiori muttered to herself. Raising her voice, she yelled, "Daiba-san!"

Shiori began the count in her head. Thirty seconds. I need to create an opening to stab its chest in the meantime.

While the werewolf clutched its snout and swayed in a pained daze, Shiori advanced with her sword poised upward in front of her. She calculated each step forward, imitating her memories of how Nomina had glided across the chessboard to attack her. Her muscles felt lighter with each step, adrenaline roaring in her veins to the same tempo as the crypt's beat.

The werewolf's ears twitched. Just as Shiori was three steps away from striking range, the monster lashed out with one of its arms. Shiori ducked and spun away from the incoming claws, following with an upward slash that cut across the werewolf's hide.

Too shallow, Shiori mentally chided herself, twirling away from the werewolf's claws as it shifted to offense. A trained fighter would have scolded her for such excess movements; all she was doing was wasting energy.

But this was not a normal fight. Rather than growing tired, Shiori felt her movements quicken with every calculated move that matched the beat of the crypt. Her sword easily sliced through hide as she evaded each of the werewolf's strikes. Its speed–once so daunting in her first attempt–now felt slow in comparison. In her mind's eye, Shiori could almost see ghostly images of where the werewolf intended to move next.

I can react to it. Whenever it moves forward, whenever it prepares to strike–I won't lose!

Every strike left some part of the werewolf's body open. If it lunged forward with its jaws, the back of its neck was a target. And if it aimed its claws at her, it left a part of its frontside open.

The werewolf pulled back its arm, raising it over its head.

Like an overhead swing– One that would most definitely break more than a few bones if it hit her head-on. But it required momentum from a large circular motion–one that Shiori could clearly see coming, and opened up her one main target.

Now!

At the next beat, Shiori surged forward and stabbed her sword straight into the werewolf's chest. The beast's entire body froze, arm still poised over Shiori's head for a blow that would never come.

It was a clean strike. A second later, the werewolf dropped to its knees and lowered its arm. As the monster began to fall forward, Shiori pulled out her sword and dropped it to the ground.

The familiar whirlwind surrounded the fallen werewolf not long after. Shiori didn't wait for it to subside, sinking to her knees next to the monster with her hands hovering as close to the body as possible.

As soon as the wind died and Shiori saw a head of long, brown hair, she reached down to grab her unconscious friend, pulling her up. By the time she had Rui's arm slung over her shoulder, a golden light erupted from the side.

Seeing Nana's familiar face after the conjured door opened, a wave of relief swept through her. Trudging over to Nana, Shiori gently passed her dazed friend to the mage.

"Good job again, Shiori-chan," Nana congratulated her, offering a small smile once Rui was safe in her arms. "You've really improved since the first time you fought against Ru–against the werewolf. I was surprised at those movements, though. It's not her fighting style, but it was almost as if I was watching Nomina for a second."

For a moment, Nana's warm gaze had hardened. But it was gone before Shiori could consider it any further.

"I don't have many references when it comes to fighting," Shiori sheepishly admitted, "but Nomina seemed like she knew what she was doing. I figured it wouldn't hurt to imagine what she would do."

Nana nodded thoughtfully, adjusting her hold to sling Rui's arm over her shoulders. "That strategy certainly...helps, I suppose. Mini boss monsters can't compare to their zone bosses, after all. Just be careful that you don't get swept up trying to emulate her exactly."

"Of course I won't!" Shiori hurried to reassure her, mustering a smile. "Overthinking almost led to my death last time, and not thinking enough also led to another. I'll try my best to find a balance."

Nana exhaled softly, a wistful smile tugging at her lips. "Your best is all I ask for, Shiori-chan."

Beside her, Rui groaned. "Wha…? What's going on...?"

The desire to stay and properly talk with Rui again flared up, strong and overwhelming, but Shiori willfully pushed it down. She had taken long enough to gather information and train–there would surely be time to catch up after she had accomplished what she needed to do.

"I'll be back soon enough, Rui-san," Shiori said, echoing the same words her friend had spoken to her all those years ago. "Wait for me, okay?"

Rui's red eyes blearily blinked up at her, still dazed. But even then, there was a comforting warmth to them. "Shiori-san…?"

Biting at her lip to prevent herself from saying anything more, Shiori moved to close the golden door for them. As the door began to shut, Nana's eyes widened in understanding. Her gaze briefly swept down to Rui, still groggy from the transformation, before lifting them back up to meet hers. She gave Shiori one last encouraging nod.

A beat passed and Rui's eyes grew wide in realization as well. A moment too late. "Wait, Shiori-san!"

The door fully swung shut, fading in a burst of golden light. Now alone once more, Shiori's knees gave out, leaving her to plop on the cold, stony floor whether she wanted to or not. Much like the aftermath of her fight against the dragon in her first attempt, it felt as if all the strength had left her limbs. Her hands trembled of their own accord.

I have to keep moving. The beat– Shiori gritted her teeth at the pain flaring in her chest. A hand came up to press against the ache in a vain effort to alleviate the pain, but clenching her fingers into her shirt was all she could do with so little energy. Or maybe not.

Try as she might, her body felt too heavy at the moment to move. The fight must have taken more out of her than she had expected, which meant there was little she could do until the feeling passed.

I shouldn't be surprised. I was moving nonstop and matching the werewolf's movements without taking a single hit. Collapsing onto her back, Shiori closed her eyes and tried to recall everything her body did during her fight against the first mini boss.

It hadn't been a perfect imitation of Nomina's dance, but it had been an emulation nonetheless. She would need to refine her personal choreography for better efficiency. At the very least, there were plenty of enemies left for Shiori to practice on.

One down, Shiori thought, willing her breathing to calm during this forced break. Four left to go.


Shiori had once described the stage fights their troupe would sometimes put on like a carefully choreographed dance. Claudine had agreed, proclaiming that it was a performance she would put on better than anyone else. Futaba had then warned her not to get cocky before challenging her once more, and Rui had taken Shiori off to the side to teach her a few disarming techniques.

Fumi had warned Shiori afterward that real battles weren't this showy. Real soldiers didn't have time or energy to waste, leading to short battles that were often over in the blink of an eye. War especially was bloody, gruesome, and unforgiving–even more so during the height of the wars long ago. There was no beauty to that kind of bloodshed, which was why performances such as theirs were so crucial for healing after the great wars finally came to an end. Everyone could be at ease knowing that no one would truly die.

Yet somehow, this crypt demanded the struggle against death to be both realistic and a performance. Emulating her movements against the werewolf, yet also refining them to be more efficient, Shiori was able to easily defeat the crow monster and the dragon without sustaining a single injury. She did have to sit down and rest after defeating each mini boss, but her recovery time shortened with each victory.

It was as if the crypt was telling her that the best way to avoid death and injury was to perform like her life depended on it.

Maybe it does, Shiori thought as she stepped back and watched the red dragon revert back to its human form. Kneeling down beside the body, she placed her sword on the ground and grabbed the short-haired brunette just as Nana's golden door opened nearby.

On the other side, Rui held out her arms and accepted the dazed girl. After Shiori passed her to her friend, the two troupe members stepped back into their respective spaces.

"Daiba-san is keeping an eye on the girl you saved after me," Rui finally said. "It seems I got my bearings a little faster than she expected me to. She said it was a good thing–that I can help her help you."

Shiori bit her lip, stopping herself from voicing all of the worries welling up within her, threatening to spill over. She could have all the long conversations she wanted once she survived her next challenges–or at the very least, the immediate challenge to come.

"I know there's a lot you want to ask, Rui-san. But… can you wait for me? I promise I'll answer any questions you have. It's just, right now…"

Rui frowned, shoulders slumping in dejection. "You have two very evil bosses to beat. I understand; I died against them, you know? They defeated me so fast, I couldn't do anything." Red eyes shone with fear and desperation. "They're not human, Shiori-san. They… They–"

"I know, Rui-san." They won't be easy, but this time… This time…

Rui furrowed her brow. "Shiori-san, what…" She shook her head. "No, I promised I wouldn't hold you up for long until you've at least beaten those two. I'll… I'll honor that promise. So please… please, just be careful."

Shiori lips pulled up into the most encouraging smile she could offer to her friend. "I will. Thank you for the warning, Rui-san."

As Rui retreated further into the safe zone, calling for Nana, Shiori shut the door and watched it fade into wisps of gold. Once she was alone, Shiori finally allowed herself to fall onto the ground and rest. She wasn't as exhausted as the previous two times, but her current condition wasn't one she would dare challenge Bossa Nomina in.

At least I can move my limbs still, Shiori thought, twitching her legs in criss-cross formation to follow the crypt's beat. Recovering from missing the beat wouldn't be difficult with all of the monsters on this floor defeated, but the pain still wasn't something Shiori wanted to re-experience often if she could avoid it.

Once her strength returned, Shiori rose and found the alcove housing the treasure chest near the mini boss chamber. Opening the lid, Shiori stared down at the familiar mace nestled in velvet cloth.

Bossa froze. "That weapon…" Anger flared in her golden eyes. "Why do you have that crossbow?!"

Shiori recalled Bossa's unexpected shock. It was more than just seeing a stranger use her partner's weapon–it was as if the remnants of their past were painful to see. They had also reacted similarly when I called them by their aliases. I'll keep that in mind.

For now, Shiori opened her pouch and placed Moriarty's mace inside. Joining Lupin's crossbow and her sister's swordbreaker, they were all weapons Shiori may need if her sword wasn't enough. She could just enter Bossa Nomina's lair with either the mace or the crossbow to surprise them, but both were weapons that she wasn't accustomed to using. Although the swordbreaker was slightly better, it lacked the durability and reach offered by the sword Nana had forged for her.

I'll have to thank Daiba-san again for making such a good weapon for me, Shiori thought as she rose from her crouched position. With her strength and stamina restored, she made her way to the large golden doors that would lead her to the bosses of this zone.

This would be her third time challenging Bossa Nomina. Would she need more attempts? Shiori didn't put the possibility past her. However, she didn't believe the chances of winning were zero either.

I can do this. Pushing against the door, Shiori fought down her nerves and strode into the final room. have to do this!


ZONE 1:
Moonlit Partners in Crime - BOSSA NOMINA


Once more, the crypt's music shifted into the smooth, languid melody of Bossa Nomina's love song. With every longing note and measure, Shiori took a step forward on the red carpet leading into the large chamber housing their checkered battleground. The flickering flames of the braziers flanking her almost seemed to dance, pulsing with different colors.

Green. Pink. Pale blue.

Shiori's palms felt clammy; her fingers and toes tingled with anticipation. If her heart could still beat, it would've been hammering against her ribs, driven by the same sort of giddy nervousness that always came with stepping foot onto the stage. The music seemed to swell in response to her feelings, growing in volume to something suitable for a true and proper performance.

On the other side of the chamber were her final targets for this zone–her co-stars in this underground stage. Unlike the scene shown in Nana's viewing circle, the duo were fully awake and waiting. And as Shiori came to a stop near the edge of the board, Nomina leered down at her from her perch atop the throne's armrest.

"Oh? Is this our new challenger?" Her lips curled up into a cheshire grin. This time, Shiori noticed that her smile didn't seem as wide as her past two greetings. "Don't you look rather promising? Bossa, are you seeing what I'm seeing?"

Her partner's hum reverberated across the chamber, cold, golden eyes narrowing down at Shiori. "Based on her young appearance, I had expected a lost little lamb too scared to dance. But this child seems to have grown into her shoes. She may perhaps threaten our position on this stage."

Nomina giggled, reaching for her partner's hand. "Now, I wouldn't go that far. Not just anyone can defeat the two of us when we're together."

Bossa's frown deepened even as Nomina brushed a placating thumb over her knuckles. Her calculating gaze sent shivers down Shiori's spine. But Shiori held her ground, dropping her torch and striding onto the chessboard that would serve as both their battleground and their stage.

"Regardless of whether I can defeat you two on my own," Shiori swallowed down her nervousness, fixing her gaze onto her two opponents, "I'm here to challenge you both on this stage. Even if I wasn't invited, I won't back down. This time, I'll definitely show you I'm more than just a stagehand!"

"'This time,' you say?" Bossa snapped her fingers, willing the chess pieces around them to move into place. "Then to answer your eagerness, let us begin at once."

One by one, the pieces fell into an orderly line. But unlike before, the black pieces took their positions in front of Shiori while the white pieces formed their rows on Bossa Nomina's side.

Nomina raised an eyebrow. "White for us, hm? So you're serious, Bossa."

"This girl may look like a lamb, but she has done little to hide her fangs–however small they currently are." Bossa lifted her partner's hand to press a brief kiss to her knuckles. "Nomina. It would be rude not to answer her budding brilliance with our own power, wouldn't you say?"

"How thoughtful of you, Bossa," Nomina purred, slipping her hand from her partner's grasp and uncrossing her legs to jump off the throne's armrest. She descended the steps of the dais, taking her place on the queen's square. "In that case, I suppose my usual Gambit may not suffice?"

Bossa waved one hand in front of her, green wisps of magic trailing from her fingertips to coalesce into ghostly piano keys floating across her lap. "Perhaps not. How about the Nordic Gambit? I'll support you."

"That's all I could ever ask of you."

Shiori also took her position on the board, standing between the queen and the bishop. The Nordic Gambit? That was the strategy Bossa Nomina had used the first time. But that time, they had controlled the black pieces while I started with white. So they have the advantage of starting first…

Bossa arched a snowy brow, amusement dancing in her eyes. "This one will most certainly make for a good guest on our stage. It helps not having to explain the rules."

"That does tend to be obnoxiously boring. Though I do savor their confused, frightened faces before the game begins. But this isn't one of those times, is it?"

"No, my love. Perhaps I'll reward you for your efforts after we've assessed our guest."

Nomina mimicked her partner's movements, pink threads of her magic weaving together into the form of a ghostly lute. Nomina breathed a longing sigh as she shifted her hands to their proper positions, lips curling up into a soft smile. "I'll hold you to that, my love."

Without further ado, Bossa closed her eyes and allowed her fingers to glide across the keys. "I had always been looking at you…"

At an unspoken command, the white pawn immediately in front of the duo moved forward. Nomina trailed behind the advancing piece with her own haunting whisper, echoing, "Looking at you…"

They're not wasting any time! Shiori sent her own pawn forward, dashing behind it as well. Keeping in mind her black pieces at her periphery, she fixed her gaze on Nomina to observe every step and glide as the queen advanced across the board.

Move like that. Fluid, beautiful, synchronized to the beat…

Black and white violently collided, taking out their first pawns. Without waiting for the debris to settle, Shiori swung her blade as soon as Nomina came into range. The queen arched her back to evade the horizontal cut, kicking up her foot like a ballerina's forward leg-raise.

… Like a dance.

Shiori tilted her head back to avoid the tip of Nomina's foot, torquing her body to dodge the rest. She flared her left arm down while pointing both her fingers and the tip of the sword down diagonally, making sure the pose was struck even as she moved away from Nomina.

With her left arm still pointed down, Shiori flicked her wrist and summoned a few more pawns forward, along with her open bishop. White pieces intercepted most of the black pieces Shiori had commanded. The rest were easily destroyed by Nomina herself.

A wide, gleeful grin nearly split Nomina's face in half. "Well, color me surprised! Not only do you know how to play, but your own movements are splendid. I'm rather curious about where you learned to perform so well."

"I've had to observe and learn from…" Shiori ducked and spun away from a white rook and Nomina's next strike, "…some challenging opponents in the past!"

From the side of the black pieces, Bossa continued to sing. "It felt as if I had left my loneliness behind."

Shiori raised her sword and struck down at Nomina's shoulder. When her opponent raised an arm to parry, Shiori twisted her torso to change the trajectory of her slice to deliberately miss. As the flat end of her blade glanced off Nomina's forearm, Shiori flicked her wrist to cut across her exposed torso.

Nomina jumped back to evade most of the slice, leaving the lapels of her coat only slightly torn. But before she could regain her footing, Shiori pressed her advance and sang, "Left my loneliness behind…!"

Nomina's eyes widened. Pivoting to avoid Shiori's next thrust, she slid back to put some distance between them. A white rook, knight and bishop rushed in front of Shiori to intercept her.

Seated on the throne, Bossa faltered in her song. It was so brief that Shiori would have missed it if she hadn't been paying such close attention to the melody.

Bossa narrowed her eyes a beat later, resuming her playing. "You…"

Shiori's sword tore through the incoming bishop. As the rook rushed toward her, she thrust her left hand out to punch a gust of wind through the piece's core, blasting a hole through the marble. Before the final knight could collide into her, Shiori's own black queen moved to intercept it. Black and white marble exploded from the impact, rendering both pieces useless.

Remembering the next set of lyrics, Shiori continued, "Even the moon is smiling at me tonight."

"At me tonight…"

Following Nomina's haunting voice, Shiori spun around with her sword raised, just in time to block Nomina's kick from striking her.

CRACK.

Shiori redirected Nomina away from her, using the momentum to twirl back and assess her sword. A bit of the edge had rolled and chipped. There might have been further microfractures as well.

She cracked it with one kick?! A bead of sweat rolled down Shiori's face. Across from her, Nomina had recovered her balance with a crouch. If she hits me directly, who knows how much damage she'll cause?!

Nomina rose to her full height, fingers plucking at her lute. "Please look this way…"

Together with her partner, Bossa Nomina finished off the first verse of the song. "Oh, fly me to the star."

The melody continued even with none of them singing the next set of lyrics yet. Shiori raised her sword warily, glancing from the chipped blade to her remaining pieces, then back to Bossa Nomina staring at her with unreadable expressions as they played.

"Well look at you," Nomina said, her voice lacking its usual languidness, "you certainly show quite some promise. I have to ask, have we met before?"

"No, that's not possible," Bossa answered instead. "We may have crushed many opponents before, but we would most certainly remember one as promising as her." Drilling her cold, golden eyes onto Shiori, she asked, "Tell me, where did you learn of our duet?"

Shiori pursed her lips into a thin frown. Choosing her words wisely, she answered, "This… is my first time hearing it. But I knew of you both; you two are famous in my time. Not as Bossa Nomina, but as…" Shiori took a calming breath, "Arsene Lupin and Jay Moriarty, the infamous gentlewoman phantom thieves."

The two froze, staring at Shiori with wide eyes. But unlike the last time she had mentioned their aliases, their combined surprise sent a physical shock through the chamber, strong enough for Shiori to feel the pulse beyond the song's torches lining the walls flared in strength, settling on a pale blue.

This was her chance. This performance was not over, and this time Shiori would be the one to lead it.

Resuming her improvised dance, sword at the ready, Shiori advanced toward Nomina. "Unable to convey my feelings to you!"

"That name… No, no…" Bossa regained her bearings first. Pressing down on her keys with more force than Shiori had ever seen from her, she commanded two white pawns to intercept, shouting, "Nomina!"

That pulled Nomina from her stupor. But by the time she responded to Shiori's charge, Shiori had already destroyed the pawns sent to hinder her, continuing with, "I imagine all sorts of lives!"

Adrenaline coursed through her veins. Her sword slashed and jabbed relentlessly, giving the addled queen no opportunity to rest. At the same time, Nomina had no chance to take her place in their duet–not when she also had to keep track of Shiori's left hand, periodically firing small bursts of wind to also attack her with.

Which left Bossa to trail after Shiori's lines, whispering with growing uneasiness, "And act them out to draw your attention."

Thrusting out a hand, Shiori tried to push Nomina back with a gust of wind. At the same time, green magic enveloped the queen to protect her from the force of the spell.

Together, it was Bossa and Shiori that finished the verse. "Oh, fly me to the star!"

With no means to play music on her own, Shiori could only allow Bossa Nomina to synchronize their instruments during these measures. Taking this chance, she noticed that the fractures had spread further along the blade of her sword.

"Nomina," Bossa called out, voice flat and sharp.

Nomina pursed her lips into a thin line, her usual playful nature replaced by a foreign solemnity that Shiori hadn't even seen from the memories of Lupin the safe zone had shown her. Spinning a three-sixty once and plucking a chord, the music rising in volume at her command, Nomina turned her cold, golden eyes to Shiori. "I know, my love. I'll take this seriously now."

A green aura once more wrapped around Nomina's form. The surge of magic was palpable even to a novice like Shiori standing many paces away.

Mori– No, Bossa's supporting magic?!

Shiori slid her foot back to pull her body away from Nomina's next charge. Kick after deadly kick, Shiori had no time to stop if she wanted to keep her body intact.

Nomina's fingers continued to pluck at the strings of her lute. At the same time, Bossa's hands flew across her keys. The song's rhythm seemed to change with their movements.

Did the tempo speed up? Shiori wondered, quickly adjusting her movements to follow the shift. Nomina matched her pace as well, occupying most of Shiori's attention with her rapid attacks.

Before Shiori could begin the next verse herself, Bossa's strong voice stole the lyrics from her. "Our heartbeats pile upon each other!"

"Sometimes I become afraid…" Nomina followed immediately after, aiming a roundhouse kick at Shiori's side.

Shiori jumped back to avoid the blow, then launched a counterattack, meeting Nomina's next move with her sword. She managed to cut in before the duo, "Because it seems you will leave me behind!"

Something white flashed in Shiori's periphery. That's…!

Nomina advanced once more, singing the next verse with increasing tempo, "I want your glittering eyes to reflect!"

Shiori blocked Nomina's frontal kick with her sword, ignoring the audible crack from guarding against such a strong blow. Digging her blade into Nomina's obsidian shoe heel, Shiori swung her sword in a horizontal motion to spin the queen away from her, disengaging them. Shiori herself jumped back a few paces to put some distance and catch her breath.

Wind gathered around her sword. More and more, until the swirling air was visible to the naked eye.

Bossa narrowed her eyes. "Nobody but me."

Once she had regained her footing, Nomina advanced toward Shiori. With Bossa's supporting magic and the augmentation from matching the song's rhythm, blocking Nomina's next attack would definitely break her sword.

Together, Bossa Nomina harmonized the beginning of the last line for this verse, "Oh!"

Before either of them could finish and before Nomina could come close enough, Shiori swung her sword in a wide, horizontal arc. With a loud cry, she released the wind gathered around her blade and blasted it in an outward crescent of destruction.

"What?!" Nomina dug her heels into the ground to stop her advancement. She barely managed to duck to avoid being bifurcated. The wind arc sailed over her head, slicing her hat in half. Shiori's gust of wind crashed into the pieces across the board, kicking up a cloud of dust and debris.

CRACK. CRACK.

"–Fly me to the star," Shiori finished the verse, tone almost solemn, as her sword finally gave in from the damage it had received.

Half of her blade shattered to the ground. But Shiori didn't bother glancing at her broken sword, keeping her eyes on Nomina as she rose to her full height.

While Bossa warily continued to play her piano for their song, Nomina lowered her arms. Placing a hand on her hip, her lips curled up into a sneer. "And here I thought you were someone with remarkable intelligence. I'll have to retract that thought, considering you just sacrificed your only weapon in what seems like an ill-timed final attack. We're still in the middlegame, you know?"

However, Bossa's gaze flicked from the destruction across the board and back to her partner. "Nomina. As much as I hate to admit it, her sacrifice was not in vain."

Glancing back, Nomina narrowed her eyes at Bossa before widening in realization. Spinning around, Nomina swept her gaze across the board to discern exactly what Shiori had destroyed with her spell.

"Our pawn…" Bossa slowly stated, eyes narrowing at Shiori, "our last pawn, has been intercepted. She wasn't trying to herald the endgame early. She was preventing her inevitable downfall without making her intentions obvious."

Nomina hummed, resuming her strumming on her lute. "So it seems this girl knows something about chess. Alright, I retract my retraction. But what will you do without a weapon? Unless you're going to suddenly tell us that you're actually a master at hand-to-hand combat?"

Even if she had learned how to fight bare handed, Shiori didn't think she'd be able to match Nomina's prowess–even more so when Bossa was boosting her with support magic. She had expended the weapon she was most familiar with, leaving her with very few options.

However, that didn't mean she had lost.

Reaching into her pouch, Shiori willed the weapon she had in mind to come to her hand. Bossa Nomina waited from their positions, watching with morbid interest.

Their expressions paled when Shiori pulled out the heavy, blunt weapon she needed.

"You…!" Nomina's hackles rose, reminding Shiori of a cat wary of its prey. "Where did you get that?!"

"I… found it," Shiori answered honestly. "It's familiar, isn't it? Especially to you, Bossa. No… calling the one who wielded this mace Moriarty might be more fitting."

The woman in question clenched her teeth, one hand gripping the armrest of her throne hard enough to break off chunks within her grasp. "That name again… Why does that name and that weapon sound so… so...?!"

"I see. We've made an error this entire time." Nomina plucked a chord on her lute, followed by the song speeding up in tempo. "Bossa, keep playing. I'm going to end this now."

Shiori's left hand came to join her right around the mace's handle. She's…

Nomina shot forward. In one leap, she came to a crushing stop in front of Shiori and lashed out with a side kick. Shiori barely had time to bring up the mace to block Nomina's heel before it could actually hit her. A shockwave blew past her, nearly throwing Shiori off her feet if she hadn't dug her own heels into the ground.

… She's serious!

"Oh, bird that signals the break of dawn!" Nomina continued her onslaught, smashing her foot into Shiori's defenses without relenting.

I can barely dodge, let alone sing the next verse! Her eyes briefly glanced past Nomina toward the white side's throne. But it looks like Bossa is also still recovering from her shock from earlier. Then–

A strong side kick sent Shiori skidding back. As soon as she regained her bearings, Shiori's gaze only saw Nomina's sadistic grin as she planted her foot and spun around with her leg raised.

Oh no–!

Shiori tried to raise a guard to block the incoming back kick. But instead of aiming for her chest like Shiori thought she would, Nomina's foot veered lower and struck her stomach instead. The bile didn't have time to rise up her throat before Shiori was sent flying back, slamming into a wall hard enough to crack the stone.

"A– AGH–!"

Blood shot out from her mouth. For a second, Shiori's vision blacked out. The mace had fallen out of her grasp. Both her hands were free, but raising them felt like she was trying to lift the world.

Her head rang incessantly. All she could hear was her own voice, shouting at herself, Move, move! I have to move! Before–!

Wind gathered in her left hand. Despite the ringing, Shiori heard Nomina's haunting voice loud and clear. "Please stop the clock in this moment!"

With a trembling right hand, Shiori reached into her pouch–

Nomina's foot crashed down in a burst of inhuman speed.


Dust and debris showered around them, rendering sight useless. Pressing her foot further down, Nomina crushed through the rest of the earth for good measure before pulling her leg back.

"Did you get her?" Bossa asked.

Removing one hand from her lute, Nomina waved the dust cloud away from her face to clear her immediate sight. She had definitely hit something, but an unexplainable dissatisfaction nagged at the back of her mind.

Her leg twitched in agreement. "I broke something."

"That's a rather vague answer," Bossa drawled.

Nomina stepped forward. As the dust settled, she knelt down in front of the body slumped against the broken wall. A hole as big as her foot had caved into where the chest should be.

She reached her free hand out toward the corpse, fingers grazing… through air. She felt nothing.

No, that wasn't right. Wafting her fingers back and forth, it felt like there was a bit more resistance than normal air should have had. As if the particles aren't… quite right.

Bossa narrowed her eyes, leaning forward in her seat. "There's something… familiar about all of this. That body… It's not–?!"

Still in her kneeling position, Nomina glanced back at her partner. "Bossa?"

A blur rammed into Bossa, knocking her off her throne. Before she could get up, the black figure slammed back into her and pinned her to the ground.

"Bossa!" Jumping to her feet, Nomina leapt forward to help her fallen partner. But as soon as her foot made contact with the ground, a piercing pain shot through her thigh.

"Ngh...?!" Looking down, she found a single black bolt protruding from her leg. "What is– this?!"

A memory, not hers, flashed through her mind. There was someone handing her multiple bolts resembling the one embedded in her thigh. This person reaffirmed her trust in her, smiling at her with the warmth of the sun. Black hair, not white. Blue-grey eyes, not gold. Sun-kissed skin, not pale.

Bossa? No, you're

Her head throbbed, completely desynchronized her from her duet with Bossa. Clutching her aching head, it took all of Nomina's strength of will to remain standing.

A blast shook Nomina from her stupor. Snapping her head up, it seemed Bossa had castled, switching places with their last rook. The black piece easily destroyed theirs, leaving her partner to keep it at bay with a gust of her wind magic. Strangely, despite Bossa's spell manipulating the air, the shadows surrounding the black piece continued flickering around of its own accord, refusing to disperse. She could barely make out chains and a crown of stars.

Bossa narrowed her eyes. "It seems the girl's black queen piece has revived. Promotion? So one of her pawns somehow made it to the other side of the board without either one of us noticing…"

"What purpose does that serve when she's already–?" Nomina's eyes widened, sweeping her gaze back to what she had seen as a dead body. "I hit something. I hit something."

She had felt her foot nudge something on the ground, but that sensation was not necessarily the collapse of human innards. If anything, it felt like she had broken something long and thin, not a human body.

"Then that means…!" Condensing the wind, Bossa blasted the shadowy black mass into pieces. The resulting gust blew away the rest of the dust cloud hindering their vision.

Bossa immediately froze as her eyes found a familiar weapon pointed at her chest from many paces away.

"Shooting star that gently goes through the morning…" a melodic voice sang, too soft and gentle to be from either Nomina or Bossa.

Despite her pained grimace and the blood dripping down her chin, the young girl Nomina had thought she had killed stood strong against them. She kept her right arm steady as she aimed the crossbow at her target. The bolt was securely fashioned. With her finger on the trigger, she was ready to fire when the chance came.

"That weapon…" Nomina muttered, tone flat like she was in a trance as her world began to narrow. She took a shaky step backwards. Her heel kicked something, nudging it out of place. Looking down, she saw two distinct parts of a mace that now captured her attention as well.

"This is… that mace…?"

More visions in her head. Someone was calling out to her, using a name that didn't belong to her. No...it was more like a name she had long discarded.

From the edge of her vision, she saw Bossa surge forward, wind gathering around her hands. "That crossbow as well?! You… Who are you?! Why do you have that?!"

"It's not mine."

Of course…it isn't. It's…

Lifting her head–so heavy, so slow–Nomina watched as Bossa brought up her hands in preparation to blast her away. The young girl before them took a single, shaky breath.

"It's not mine, so I'll return it to its rightful owner once this is all over. Its rightful owner… Arsene Lupin. No… she's Yachiyo-san to you, isn't she?"

Bossa froze. Golden eyes, suddenly seeming to lack their previous calculating coldness, stared at the girl in shock. The wind in her hands abruptly dissipated in a shockwave that ruffled their clothing and nearly put out the torches on the walls.

"Y-Yachiyo…san…? No, no… She's Yachiyo-chan…"

Ya–?! Nomina's hand shot up to cup the side of her head. Her fingers dug into her hair, tugging at a few strands from their roots. Nomina dipped her head down and clenched her jaw to ride through the piercing agony rampaging through her mind.

Yachiyo. Yachiyo. Yachiyo. Someone kept repeating that name to her. The girl, her partner, her partner, her… Her…

From the corner of her eye, she saw Bossa raise a black-gloved hand to her own head, fingers curling against snowy strands. Her features morphed into one of pain, reflecting Nomina's own confusion. Bossa–her proud, strong partner–stared at something past Shiori; past their current battle. Tears had even begun to gather in her golden eyes.

"No, no, no… Yachiyo-chan can't be here. I… I bought time for her to get away! I couldn't bear losing her, so I… I…!"

"I knew it." The girl closed her eyes with a resolute sigh. "There's so much that hasn't been said. To give you both the second chance you need, I won't… I won't let your journey end here!"

"Don't…" Nomina took a shaky step forward. Blood trailed down her leg from her injury, pulsing to the same beat as her aching head. Neither rhythm matched the song that should have belonged to her and Bossa alone. Not anymore.

"Please fall down here…" The girl's eyes shone with sickening hope under the pale blue torchlight, singing the lines as if they were a plea from the bottom of her heart.

"Don't you dare!"

And with no mercy, pulled the trigger of that god-forsaken crossbow.

"Bossa!"

The bolt pierced through Bossa's chest, sending her staggering back. Trembling hands came up to hover around the protruding bolt. But her partner quickly lost all her strength and couldn't stop herself from falling to her knees.

"Oh, fly me to the star…"

Bossa pitched to the side, falling with a dull 'thud.' Her golden gaze swept up to meet Nomina's, pained–so very pained–for reasons beyond the bolt in her chest. She reached for her partner with a trembling hand, choking out, "I'm sorry… I'm really sorry, Yachiyo-chan…"

Her black-haired partner collapsed before her, mace rolling out of her gloved hand. The laceration from the axe that had been meant for her had nearly split the woman in two. Barely clinging to life, the one she cherished most whispered her last words, a hand reaching up to cup her cheek.

"I'm sorry… I'm sorry, but I didn't want to lose you. If… If only one of us can live, it has to be you." The dying woman favored her with a watery smile, blue-grey eyes shimmering. "You're going to hate me for this, but… I'm sorry. I'm really sorry...Yachiyo-chan."

Nearby, the violin pitched in fervor and intensity. A voice too melodic and beautiful for a beast continued her song, "Beloved Europa, be together with me…"

She didn't care about that. Not now. Not when the light had begun to fade from blue-grey eyes; not when the hand on her cheek had slackened, leaving her to catch it with her own.

Cold. So very cold. The sun shouldn't be this cold.

"Mahiru… san? Mahiru–"

Nomina swayed on her feet. Her arms fell limp at her sides, ignoring the incessant chaos within her head. The pain was negligible compared to watching her partner die in front of her.

Again.

"Oh, you've really done it now."

Grasping the bolt in her leg, Nomina ripped the hindrance out and threw it to the side. She raised her lute over her head and leapt forward, swinging the instrument down onto the girl's unprotected head.

Before her attack could land, the girl raised that achingly familiar crossbow as a guard. Nomina's lute smashed into the weapon, breaking both into smithereens. Chips of wood and metal cut across Nomina's exposed skin and the girl's face while larger pieces smacked against their heads. Blood ran down both their faces–the girl even had to shut one eye.

"Please take me along…!"

"This is not your duet!"

Her entire body hurt. These minor injuries were nothing compared to the rapid pulsing in her head, the hollowness in her chest, and the roaring of blood in her ears as this girl, after all of this, continued to sing their duet.

When Nomina lunged, she missed. When she kicked, she missed. But the girl wasn't attacking, simply avoiding her attacks with infuriating ease. The girl reached into the pouch attached to her hip and said, "This may not be my song, but it isn't Bossa Nomina's either!"

"Have you gone mad? If we aren't Bossa Nomina, then who are we?!"

"You know, Yachiyo-san!"

Pain flared in her head; stars danced across her vision. Her next lunge was even more obvious to evade.

The girl spun out of the way once more. "You know who you are. And you know that your true partner is not Bossa. Your true partner in crime…"

From the corner of Nomina's eye, something glinted from within the girl's pouch.

"…is Mahiru-san!"

The world fell silent and numb. Nomina could no longer hear the song she shared with her partner, nor could she hear the beat of the crypt. Even the pulsing in her head had disappeared.

Bit by bit, she realized that the only thing she could feel was the short blade stabbed into her chest.

Then, her ears picked up the final lyrics of their duet, sung by the girl who had defeated the moonlit duo of Bossa Nomina.

"Oh, fly me to the star."


The final lyrics, as well as the absence of any working instruments, signaled the end of the song. As Shiori's voice trailed off into silence, she adjusted her breathing and minute movements back to the crypt's ever-present beat.

Nomina sighed from above her, lips pulling up into a smile far too soft for a monster who had just tried to kill her. "Ahh... So it wasn't just that your fangs hadn't grown in. You had a few more tricks hidden up your sleeve… Or well, pouch, I suppose."

"I don't think I could have tricked you if you hadn't lost your persona as a phantom thief. Someone like Arsene Lupin would have seen through my illusion right away," Shiori admitted. Her hands began to shake with every passing second, quickly losing the strength to hold up Nomina while she was still stabbed with the swordbreaker.

"Who knows? I myself would love to see how far you can go… before you succumb… to Maesterion's song entirely…" The weight above her grew heavier; an unexpected warmth seemed to emit from Nomina as she took her last breath, eyes sliding shut. "Perhaps Mahiru-san was right… This crypt was...bad news…"

Nomina fell completely silent. The rest of her weight collapsed onto Shiori, bringing them both down to the ground. Gritting her teeth, Shiori managed to pull the embedded swordbreaker out of Nomina's chest with what little strength she had left. Once she had reclaimed her weapon, she gently rolled Nomina onto her back.

"Hrk–!" Slapping a hand up to her mouth, Shiori barely managed to turn her head away from Nomina before coughing out a mouthful of blood. Her body protested with every movement. The pain in her torso especially reminded Shiori that her insides were probably not how they should be.

After wiping the blood from her mouth, Shiori tried to lift Nomina like she had for the previous mini bosses. But with her arms so weak, she couldn't get a good grip.

I need… I need to move these two together. Rubbing her eyes to try to alleviate the black spots dotting her vision, Shiori forwent her normal carrying method and grabbed one of Nomina's arms instead.

Shaky legs stumbled forward step by step. Despite the dull throbbing in her head, Shiori did her best to time her movements to the crypt's ever-present beat. It was easier to focus on that rather than the iron taste in her mouth or the churning in her stomach. Timing was important–step, step, step.

Although she couldn't look back, Shiori whispered a small apology under her breath at the body she was literally dragging across the ground. I wish I could carry you, but I really can't even lift you.

How much time had passed? Shiori hadn't been counting. By the time she reached Bossa's unmoving body, Shiori realized she had made a grave miscalculation. Or rather, she hadn't calculated at all.

Did I… ever signal to Daiba-san? Shiori collapsed onto her knees, gaping at the duo that she had just defeated. "Dai-Daiba-san…!"

Blood rose in the back of her mouth, drowning out her words. The resulting coughs didn't allow Shiori to finish her call for help.

If I don't bring these two into the safe zone before they transform back–

Shiori closed her eyes. It was growing too hard to keep them open. Yet strangely, the darkness behind her eyelids receded even though her eyes were still closed.

"–ori-san! Shiori-san! Shiori-san, please!"

Rui… san? Peeling her good eye open, Shiori turned her head to the side. That sounds like Rui-san.

There was so much golden light. In its center was the familiar figure of her friend, arm stretched out as far as she could from within the boundary of the safe zone. Red eyes glistened with unshed tears.

"You can't go out! There's a possibility you'll turn back into a monster!" Was that… Daiba-san?

"But–!"

Oh, Daiba-san is here. Shiori placed her hands on her knees. Somehow, she managed to pull herself onto her feet. I need to– Before I run out of time...

Reaching down and grabbing Bossa Nomina by a hand each, Shiori dragged the two of them towards the opening where Rui and Nana were waiting. Every step sent lances of pain up her legs and through her body. More coughs racked her battered form, inevitably releasing blood as well. With her hands preoccupied, she could only leave the blood alone.

She had no choice but to grit her teeth and keep moving. I can't fall now. Not when I'm so close. Not when… Shiori looked back at Bossa Nomina's serene faces. Not when these two need their second chance!

"Shiori-san!"

"Almost there, Shiori-chan!"

With one final surge of energy, Shiori brought herself and Bossa Nomina close enough to the edge of the safe zone. She thrust both arms forward as her body started to fall.

The last thing she remembered was Rui taking her into her arms, calling her name and telling her to hang on.


...Ba-dump.

Ba-dump.

Ba-dump.


She remembered a vast expanse of blue. A great warmth shone from above. Shadows cooled her skin from clouds passing overhead.

"■■■■■■■-■■■■, where do you want to go?"

She remembered a girl. Auburn hair and friendly smiles, so unlike the stern and scheming faces around her. Her hands felt soft. Her magic made her laugh.

"Your music is so beautiful–if only the whole world could hear it."

She remembered the stars. She remembered gold. She remembered music.

"■■■■■■■-■■■■...do you even remember me?"

She opened her eyes, a name dancing at the tip of her tongue. Her bow glided across the gilded strings of her violin, mournful and longing for something out of reach. What was it? What could it be?

The pendant around her neck gave a brief flash of green and pink.

"The curtain rises; a battle of fate," she sang, standing up from her throne. Her hooves clopped sharply as she descended the steps of the dais. "Raise your voices to the stars."

So the lovers had fallen. Will that girl proceed to the next round of auditions?

"A lineage and a duel–who will spill blood?" she wondered, shifting into a dance as she played.

Perhaps she will not even make it that far. Defeating the lovers was an accomplishment, but not one so remarkable. The general would not share their weaknesses.

Then, would the next stage be the last that girl sees?

With no one to join her in her performance, she answered herself in song, "Nobody knows, not even I."

And thus, Maesterion continued to sing and dance in her hollow chambers–only the echoes of her own distorted voice to keep her company.


RUN SUMMARY

Zone 1: CLEAR
Resets: 3
Star Score: 64077

Chapter Text

“Although my body decays…”

All she could feel was pain. Pain from the axe that had dealt its fatal blow. Pain from the thought of the end, dying in a gloomy crypt. Pain from knowing that the one she loved most would be left on her own.

At that moment, she couldn’t help but curse her lack of strength. Not only because she hadn’t been strong enough to support her partner when it mattered most, but because she could no longer even reach out to the woman who had given her warmth and courage for all these years.

Her fingers ached to run through soft, curly strands of hair. Or at the very least, wipe those tears threatening to trail down dirt and blood-matted cheeks.

But as of now, Maesterion had taken nearly everything from her. That monster had robbed her life shorthad tried to take even her greatest source of comfort away. How morbidly fitting, for a thief like her who had stolen more than she could count. At that moment, there was nothing she could do beyond apologizing for her weaknesses.

And so her arms fell. Against her will, her eyes closed in the midst of a green light; her ears failed, just as she caught her partner’s name on her lips

“…my love persists.”

and Maesterion’s final eulogy to her, the violin soaring in its song.

And thus she reached her end. Tsuyuzaki Mahiru, Jay Moriarty, and Tsuruhime Yachiyo’s partner in crimethat woman was no more.

Instead, all that remained was…


...A hollow, empty shellthere was no better way to describe her current state. (Re)opening her eyes to this world, she felt as if everything had lost the vibrancy she once knew in life.

In life? I remember it to be… After some time, with nothing but blurred faces and washed out scenery coming to mind, the woman closed her eyes and sighed. Nothing that mattered, I suppose.

“Hm? Are you finally awake, Bossa?”

That’s right. Her name was...Bossa. Subordinate of the Eternal Star, Maesterion, presiding over the first zone of the cryptthe first Audition. She was the king of their checkered stage, supporting her queen. Opening her eyes and turning her head at the sound of that languid voice, light and teasing, she regarded her other half. 

“Nomina.”

At the sight of her partner’s ash blonde curls and impish smirk, familiarity tugged at her unmoving heart. She had called herself hollow and empty, but it would seem there was something still theresomething reflected in Nomina’s eyes. Fondness colored her queen’s golden gaze, softening further when Bossa reached out to gently grasp her hand. Nomina’s perch on the throne’s armrest made it easy. 

“Good morning,” Bossa said, briefly lifting that hand to press a kiss to her knuckles. “Did I keep you waiting for long?” 

“Waiting is part of the thrill, isn’t it?”

Indeed. The thrill laid in the tense moment before the actual theft, before… before…? Bossa furrowed her brow, but little else came to mind aside from traces of trust and ghostly elation. Before… what, again…? 

Nomina’s hand gently squeezed around hers, nudging her from the growing void of her memory. “Is something wrong, Bossa?”

“...No. Nothing’s wrong, Nomina.” How wonderful that name was. “I simply wonder if I was being too forward.”

Her partner giggled, clear and beautiful in its sound. “It’s hardly a crime to be affectionate with your queen. I don’t mind this forward side of yours, you know? It’s…relieving, I should say.”

Relieving. Yes… It had felt as if the chains weighing her down had been broken by her rebirth. Uninhibited, she could act as she pleased on this stage their benefactor had prepared. She could play the part her past self never… never… what…? 

Something. There was something she had never gotten to say.

“If you keep staring at me like that, I have to wonder if I said something strange.” Nomina’s lips curled into an easygoing smile, at odds with the faintest note of worry in her eyes. “Not that being strange concerns me.”

Bossa shook her head. “No, it isn’t strange. I’m...thinking of how to say that I love you.”

Nomina tilted her head slightly to the side, the faint worry in her eyes giving way to something unreadable. “...You love me?”

“I…” Something tugged at the back of her mind, the ghost of her past life reaching out to burden her once more. Shame? Fear? Regret? Whatever that life had been no longer matteredif it had, she wouldn’t have forgotten it so easily. With something that weak, it took little effort for Bossa to shrug off the remnants of hesitation and confidently answer, “Yes. Very much so.”

Weak though everything else had been, the feelings swelling in her unmoving heart were strong, at least.

Nomina hummed in thought. “May I offer a suggestion?”

Bossa gestured with her other hand for her partner to continue. “By all means.”

“If simple words are not enough, then why not a song? Perhaps even orchestrate a performance?”

“Oh?”

Nomina raised her free hand to tap a finger to her chin. Her golden eyes gleamed with amusement as she smiled. “After all, we’re here to perform. Might as well make it interesting for us both, hm~?”

“In that case… A duet would suit us best, given our roles as king and queen. I believe I have a song that will be a good fit for our musical capabilitiesit should be fine in conveying my love for you, as well,” Bossa said, nodding along in agreement. She moved to slip her hand away and demonstrate with a sample, but Nomina held fast. “...Nomina?”

Soft lips pressed against hers before she could realize that her partner had leaned down. A hand cupped at the side of her face, slender fingers threading through her snowy hair to draw her closer. Bossa sighed into the kiss, eyes momentarily sliding closed. 

Finally.

Nomina pulled away a second later, her golden gaze so soft and tender that Bossa thought her still heart would burst from the warmth. 

“A duet goes both ways, as I’m sure you know. I feel as though I’ve been waiting for a while to hear that you love me,” her partner said, dropping her hand to take Bossa’s free one in hers. Nomina’s smile grew mischievous. “And so much, it seems. I wonder how it will compare to my feelings for you.”

Bossa chuckled. “We need not compare.”

“Where’s the fun in that, then?” Nomina pouted, only to release her partner’s hands and hop off the throne. Her heels clicked sharply on the dais, and with every step as she descended to their checkered stage. “But I suppose we’ll see soon enough. Our first challenger should be here soon~”

“So it would seem. We should greet them with a properly fitted stage.” 

Bossa snapped her fingers, conjuring a set of ghostly piano keys before her in a burst of green magic. Positioning her handscomfortable, practiced, as if she had done this many times beforeshe began to play a languid melody. Green light flared in the first two rows of squares before her, dying down to reveal giant chess pieces at the ready. 

Standing on her square as the queen of their board, Nomina flourished her hand. Pink wisps formed in her palm, extending further before coalescing into a crimson lute accented with gold. A strum from her partner caused pink light to flare for the next two rows, dissipating to reveal the set of chess pieces their first challenger would command. 

Or rather, would have commanded. 

“How disappointing,” Nomina drawled, lowering her lute and rising up from where she had been slightly crouched for her attack. The body of their dying challenger lay crumpled near the door of the chamber, where her partner’s swing had launched them. “Not knowing the rules, and breaking so easily after one hit... I could have sneezed and that would’ve been enough.” 

“Yes. Our debut was unfortunately lukewarm, if you could even call it thatwe didn’t have the chance to sing,” Bossa sighed, leaning forward to rest her elbows on her knees. Steepling her fingers and frowning down at the board in thought, she continued, “Nomina. If you ever do feel under the weather, let me know. I’ll do my best to think of a strategy that won’t burden you.”

Nomina glanced back over her shoulder, eyes slightly wide in surprise. “Is this about the sneeze? How accommodating of you.”

“I’m your partner, after all. Of course I’ll take your needs into consideration.” Bossa reached out a hand to her piano once more, fingers dancing across the keys to play the beginning of their song. Her frown softened into a fond smile. “After all… I had always been looking at you.

“It felt as if I had left my loneliness behind,” Nomina sang in return, favoring her with a smile equally as fond. “So you wanted us to perform that song, hm?”

If her heart could still beat, it would have given a little skip. “You know of it?”

“Of course I do. Someone very special to me would sing it every so often.” 

Dismissing her lute with a casual flick of her wrist, Nomina made her way back to their shared throne. As her partner ascended the steps of the dais, Bossa leaned back in her seat and snapped her fingers, calling on her magic. Her piano keys disappeared in green wisps, fading upwards like verdant smoke as Nomina drew nearer. 

But unlike before, Nomina didn’t take a seat on the throne’s armrest. 

“N-Nomina?” 

“So I can still fluster you. How reassuring,” her partner murmured from her new perch on Bossa’s lap, hands coming up to rest on her shoulders. “Do tell me if I’m ever being too forward, okay?” 

No, no. That wouldn’t ever be a problem. But there was a different issue at hand...

“Nomina, wait.” 

Even amidst the excitement and mild embarrassment welling up inside, Bossa could feel something else encroaching upon her minda rule from their benefactor, coming into play. Nomina immediately withdrew her hands at her strained words, her weight on Bossa’s lap instantly disappearing as she moved to sit beside her instead. Their throne was large enough to accommodate them both, but somehow, her partner found a way to maintain a careful distance. 

Nomina’s lips twitched into a wry smile. “I suppose it’s too soon for that, hm?” 

“No, it’s...not that,” Bossa said, shaking her head and reaching for her partner’s hand. She would hate for Nomina to ever feel unwanted. “While I would love to continue, it would seem that isn’t in the cards for us this time.”

Already, her partner’s eyes had begun to droop from Maesterion’s embedded command. “Bossa, what do… you…” 

With her eyes sliding shut, Nomina slumped against their throne. Her breathing slowed as she fell asleep, hand growing limp in Bossa’s gentle grasp. Even her partner’s features softened, relaxing into something that once more tugged at Bossa’s unmoving heart. 

It reminded her of the faint vestiges of her past life, and all that she had discarded. Things too weak for Maesterion’s eternal stage; things too weak to be remembered for long. 

She had been reborn anew. There was no sense in returning to her old self, whoever that had been.

“Even the moon is smiling at me tonight,” Bossa murmured, crushing the last remnants of that life. She leaned over to press a kiss to Nomina’s forehead, familiarity wrapping around her heart as Maesterion’s rule pulled down at her own eyelids. 

She had been the last to awaken. It was only fitting that she would be the last to sleep. 

“And yet… this doesn’t… feel right at all…” Bossa breathed as the void of slumber finally took her.


...I shouldn’t be the one to outlast you.


Their next challengers followed in a similar manner to their first. Too weak, too easy, too disappointing. Some knew the rules to chess, but could not meet the standards their performance demanded. Others couldn’t even tell the difference between flat and sharp, let alone think of carrying a tune. 

But none of them could hear the music. None of them were bound to Maesterion’s heartbeat. None of them were candidates—juvenile stars yet to be reborn. 

“These Auditions are rather taxing, aren’t they? We never know how long our time together alone will last,” Nomina said, properly taking a seat on their shared throne. ‘Properly,’ meaning that she had decided to rest her legs across Bossa’s lap, her back leaning against the armrest as she toyed with the lapels of her partner’s jacket. 

After their second awakening, Bossa had explained the rule Maesterion had placed over them: a forced slumber, to await their next cue; their next Audition. As king, it had seemed she was the only one aware of its activation between them, and had clarified that she wasn’t resisting Nomina’s advances back then. If anything, she welcomed them wholeheartedlysomething they both took advantage of in their subsequent awakenings.

“I’m almost tempted to drag the battles out if it means I can sing with you a little longer,” Nomina sighed, folding her hands over her stomach. “But that wouldn’t do, hm? Having our challenger flail about for too long would ruin the overall performance.” 

“All the more reason for us to cherish the moments we have,” Bossa said, furrowing her brow at her current dilemma. Where was a safe place to put her hands?

Nomina made the decision for her, shifting so she could sit on her partner’s lap like the first timeand the few times after that. Bossa’s hands settled on her waist as Nomina’s came up to adjust her partner’s red cravat. 

“Our latest challenger appears to be taking longer than the others,” Nomina mused, sighing again as she smoothed out the fabric. “They could either be a weakling with a bad sense of direction…” 

“...or someone thorough, wanting to confront us prepared,” Bossa finished, brow furrowing in thought at the chess pieces past her partner’s shoulder. They had managed so far with simple gambits, but maybe it was time for more aggressive openings and plays.

“I believe we should err on the side of caution this time. What do you think, Bossa?” Nomina said, tilting her partner’s chin up with her finger. 

Bossa’s eyes swept over to meet her gaze, the crease on her brow softening at the expectant smirk on Nomina’s lips. She leaned forward to embrace her queen, arms wrapping around even as she felt Nomina twitch in surprise. Her hand clenched against the back of her partner’s black jacket. “I don’t want to lose you.” 

She felt Nomina’s sigh tickle her ear. “Neither do I.”

If only they could stay like this for longer, but their challenger was finally approaching. As the muffled, dying shriek of the banshee guarding the chamber reached their ears, Nomina slipped out of her embrace and off of the throne. Descending the steps, she moved to take her place on the queen’s square, summoning her lute with one hand. 

“Bossa.”

The braziers’ flames flickered purple. The ever-present music in their chamber, courtesy of Maesterion, grew in volume. 

“I know.” With a wave of her hand, Bossa manifested her piano keys before her. “Be careful.” 

The door opened, and a young woman with long, dark purple hair stepped through. Dressed in black and white military garb accented with purple, and a white jacket hanging from her shoulders, she stood out from the unremarkable challengers that had faced them in the past. Even the way she carried herselfconfident, eager yet wary, and in full control of her movementsproved she was in another league from the others. The spear grasped in her hand radiated magical energy on par with their own ghostly instruments. 

“I am Liu Mei FanEdel of Siegfeld, bearing the rank of Rubin!” the woman declared, coming to a stop at the edge of their checkered stage. She gave her spear a twirl, slamming its end against the ground and sending shockwaves from the point of contact. “Followers of the Starry Devil! If you stand in my way, I’ll cut you down!”

None of their previous challengers had announced themselves like this, let alone try to take the initiative to stun them with an unspoken spell. 

“A candidate…? No, she doesn’t seem to be bound by the music.” Bossa clenched her hand, exerting her own magic to shrug off the spell’s effects. “Nomina. Are you ready?” 

No response. 

“Nomi” The rest of her partner’s name died on her tongue at the sight of Nomina standing stock still. A spell like that should have been easy enough to shake off, especially with her skill level. Why wasn’t she moving? 

Fear shot down her spine, cold and terrifying. It pooled in her gut, twisting and churning with enough force to make her hands tremble over her piano. She couldn’t entirely trust herself to play properly; to play the notes they needed. 

But she had no choice. That woman, Mei Fan, had already charged forward with a speed surpassing the others. If she didn’t act soon, Nomina would be slaughtered like a common pawn. 

“Nomina!” Bossa shouted, fingers slamming down on her ghostly keys. At her command, four white pawns leapt forward to intercept their opponent. “Nomina, please!”

Mei Fan slid to a stop, smoothly sweeping her spear in a wide arc with her momentum. Purple flames flared along her wavy blade, melting through the pieces as easily as she reduced the rest of them to rubble from her strength alone. Bossa wasted no time in ordering the white knight and bishop pieces to occupy her attention next. 

“Nomina,” she tried calling again, the apprehension driving her to stand up from the throne. “Nomina, what’s wrong?” 

“...del…”

Faint and barely audible over the destruction and music, but Bossa heard it all the same. 

“E...del… She’s...an Edel.” Her partner’s words sounded distant and light, cracking slightly. “I was… That’s right… Perle. They gave me Perle.” 

A knight and both bishops had fallen. Hand sweeping in a brief, hasty glissando, Bossa sent out the rest of the white pawns to rush their opponent. In addition to the knight, the rooks and the white king, they still had the black pieces left. But with the ease in which Mei Fan seemed to deal with them… 

We’ve skipped the middlegame and gone straight into the endgame. 

She hated the thought of doing so, but with so few options remaining, Bossa called on her magic to continue playing the piano for her. Shoving the ghostly instrument off to the side, she jumped from the top of the dais to land beside her dazed partner. 

“Nomina,” she tried calling once more, grasping her queen’s hand. “Please, look this way. Can you hear me? Nomina!

Slowly—too slow, Mei Fan had already decimated most of their pawns, the rooks wouldn’t hold for longNomina turned to face her. Her golden gaze seemed to be fixed on something distant and beyond the moment, but after a blink, some clarity returned. Another blink, and her eyes finally focused on her partner. “...Bossa?”

Bossa’s shoulders slumped with relief. Reaching up to cup Nomina’s face with both hands, she pulled her into a brief kiss. Nomina jolted, clearly caught off guard, and as Bossa pulled away a scant beat later, her eyes had widened in surprise. 

That was fine. That was normal. That meant she could react and move. 

“I’ll buy you time,” Bossa said, lowering her hands and glancing over at their persistent opponent. Mei Fan had already laid waste to all of the white pieces. “She will prioritize me over our other pieces. That should give you a chance to breathe.” 

“What is Bossa, wait!” 

Bossa darted forward, commanding two of the pawns to charge at their opponent. Leaving the rooks to guard her queen, she called the knights and bishops to circle around behind Mei Fan as green wisps of magic gathered in each of her palms. From her periphery, the rest of the pawns marched onward in their typical rhythmic, slow pace.

Green wisps gathered above her fingertips, coalescing into small columns of wind. She attempted to spread her magic further, but the spell refused to meld into her own body. Even now, I can’t overcome this weakness?!

‘Even now’? Had this happened before…?

Forgoing the application of support magic on herself, Bossa swung her arms across her body to fling the wind gales at Mei Fan. Upon release, each cycling twister sucked in more and more wind until they grew into full blown tornadoes as tall as the chamber ceiling. Her hat had long since blown away; even Mei Fan’s white jacket seemed like it was barely holding on. 

“Wind magic?” Destroying the black pawns sent to intercept her, Mei Fan readied her spear with a flourish, purple flames flaring up at the wavy blade head. “My flames will not lose to mere air!”

Swinging her spear laterally, Mei Fan cut into the closer tornado with ease. But instead of a clean cut through, the blade jerked to a stop midway into the column of wind. Stuck in the cyclone, the purple flames around the spearhead vanished entirely; not a single ember remained.

“While it’s true that air can feed a fire, enough pressure can also snuff it out.” Bossa slapped her right palm to her left. “Something so stifling is rather dangerous for humans too, Edel.”

The other cyclone slammed into Mei Fan’s back, crushing her into the first twister. Her mouth opened in an inaudible gasp, eyes widening from the lack of air.

Bossa clasped her palms together, leaving no space left between. “I don’t know what your goal is, but your journey ends—”

The body between the cyclones stilled. Briefly, Bossa wondered if her opponent had succumbed to suffocation so quickly. Before she could finish the thought, Bossa felt a miniscule shift in the wind.

Then, in a blink of an eye, both her tornadoes erupted into purple infernos.

Gritting her teeth, Bossa clenched her clasped palms to regain control of her wind. But it was as if the air surrounding Mei Fan weren’t hers to command any longer; as if they were no longer purely wind.

“Then, if the wind cannot feed my flames…” Mei Fan swung her spear in front of her, then dipped it down to one side to begin spinning it around both sides of her body, “…I just have to substitute it with my own magic!”

Embers once more enveloped her spear. A stream of purple followed the wavy blade of the weapon as Mei Fan spun it around both sides of her body. With each dip and rotation, the now-purple cyclones gravitated toward the weapon— as if it were sucking the magic into its blade.

Giving one last dip on her right side, Mei Fan spun the shaft around to tuck it underneath her forearm. With the back of her left hand, she pushed the spear up and continued spinning it over her head around her left palm.

The fire was too large. Unless Bossa removed all air in the room, any additional bursts of wind would only feed its flames. But that was beyond her capabilities, and that would mean suffocating herself and Nomina as well.

Redirecting the rest of the black pieces did little to deter Mei Fan as well. As soon as they came close, the stone would instantly disintegrate from the sheer heat. Even the ends of Mei Fan’s own jacket were singeing from the close proximity.

I need to evade. No. Bossa planted her feet, raising her arms and conjuring as much wind as she could. If she releases that now, it’ll definitely hit

Catching the shaft of the spinning weapon with her right hand, Mei Fan brought the weapon down diagonally with a hard snap, purple embers dancing from the wavy blade. Sliding one leg back, she pointed the spear behind her and readied her arms to swing, “Au—! Oh wait, it’s a little bigger than usual. Then…”

The purple inferno condensed into a giant ball of fire. Balls of flame flickered off from the main body, scorching the ground they touched.

It was like staring at a burgeoning star—a violet sun that overwhelmed her own brilliance.

Stepping forward with one foot, Mei Fan swung her spear and shouted, “Groß Auflodern!”

The air was stifling. As the giant ball of fire flew toward her, Bossa felt each layer of her protective wall dissipate from the blazing heat. The fire stole every last bit of wind it blasted through, leaving Bossa little to manipulate with her magic.

I won’t let you through. Her magic pulsed in her hands, pushing back against the purple flames. Not when the person behind me is someone I!

With a final push, Mei Fan’s fire pressed into Bossa’s defense with too much force for her to bear. Her feet lost their footing, and her body began to tip back.

The last of her breath was stolen from her. But not because of the stifling flames, or because the fire had turned her body to ash. Her body wasn’t burning, simply warm; warm in the arms of the one she had been ready to die for again.

Instead of blazing purple, Bossa found herself looking into golden eyes, the side of her cheek tickled by the ends of curled, ash blonde hair. “No-Nomina?!”

Nomina bit her lip, darting back and away from the flames as fast as she could with Bossa in her arms. “I left my king to the frontlines for too long. You shouldn’t have had to step out for me like this.”

“Are you all right now? What was—?” Bossa held her tongue. Now wasn’t the time to ask those questions. “We need to strike back. Together. But that Edel—” When Bossa felt Nomina tense upon that word, she quickly amended, “that spearwoman has already destroyed all of our pieces. Only we remain.”

“And this ball of fire is really large. I’m not sure how far I can run away from it in time.”

“I’ll support you.” Wisps of magic left Bossa’s fingertips, wrapping around Nomina in a green hue. Unlike before with Bossa herself, the magic settled within Nomina’s body. “With this we should be able to evade her fire.”

Nomina kicked off the ground, gaining another meter with her enhanced speed. But the flames were still growing closer. They had to reach the very corners of the chamber to avoid it at this rate.

If Nomina can’t make it with her current speed, then I just have to

Without stopping, Nomina sighed. “Ah... Bossa, you really are a great partner. If only I hadn’t tripped up when it mattered most. I have to make up for that mistake somehow. So…”

“Nomi—”

Closing her eyes, her lips twitching up, Nomina’s resigned smile was one Bossa never wanted to see again. “I’m sorry. I really am, Bossa.”

Skidding to an abrupt stop, Nomina pulled back her arms with Bossa still held in them. Then with a powerful heave, she threw her king away from her.

And away from the deadly inferno.

“NO—!” Bossa’s hand reached out for her partner. It remained outstretched even when her back collided with the wall and she fell to the ground. She still tried to reach for her queen…

… even after Nomina’s body had burned to ash.

The flames crashed into the adjacent wall, clouding the chamber in a cloud of dust and ash. She didn’t hear the collision. All she could remember was Nomina’s final apology before the realization of what had happened truly sunk in.

They had lost. It meant nothing if the king still stood—not when every other piece, especially the queen, was gone. She could have revived Nomina if even a single pawn remained, but that was impossible with her world turned to ash.

Her head felt empty, yet it throbbed and ached as much as her chest. Her hands yearned to hold her partner again. Her beloved—

So this is loss.

Wind gathered around her right hand, taking the shape of a mace she vaguely recalled using in some past life. It was too difficult to remember. Thinking at all required too much effort.

Her body rose on its own. She broke through the cloud of dust, raising the weapon threaded with wind over her head.

Despite the initial, brief surprise, Mei Fan blocked and parried her assault with ease. Though her magic had been reduced to small purple embers that barely affected her wind, the physical spear only needed to breach Bossa’s poor defenses.

One careful parry was all it took. Too slow—too hurt, too empty, too useless—to react, Bossa could only accept her defeat once the spear pierced through her throat.

It was expected. In reality, Bossa Nomina had lost long before the final piece had fallen. If anything...


Ah... I really shouldn’t be the one to outlast you.


“...Crashing at the edge of the world; the burning radiance of stars.” 

The notes of a violin pierced through the void, coaxing her from the abyss of death. 

“Here where gods live, melt into the cosmic sea…and be reborn.” 

Opening her eyes, Bossa immediately met the violet gaze of their benefactor. Maesterion calmly stood before their throne, bow gliding across the gilded strings of the violin as she continued her melody. Ghostly musical notes danced through the air, their orange hue matching her wavy, ginger mane. 

“The mistake of a single revue,” Maesterion sang in a voice too beautiful for a beast, tilting her horned head towards something to Bossa’s left. The musical notes followed her command, dancing their way over to—

“Nomina,” Bossa breathed, reaching for a hand she never thought she would hold again. “Oh, Nomina…”

Her partner appeared to still be asleep, resting peacefully beside her and alive; so very much alive. She had been revived in full—or rather, she was still reviving, with the musical notes shifting from orange to pink as they healed her wounds, fading entirely once used. 

“Unruly emotions become a maelstrom. Sorrow thus becomes a monster,” Maesterion continued, claiming her attention once more. “Tell me, Bossa—do you still love the stage?” 

An easy question to answer. “Of course I do. Our duet… I wish to perform it for as long as I’m able.” She would not hesitate for that, at least. “I’ll see to it that Nomina shines even brighter.” 

Maesterion nodded, fingers deftly switching on the strings. “You were denied your song together—how unfortunate. I understand. I sing alone now, after all. But Bossa...when will you take care of your own brilliance?” 

Bossa frowned as her brow drew together in thought. “My own brilliance? What does that have to do with anything?”

“Repeated mistakes,” Maesterion sighed, closing her eyes and turning around. With every clop of her hooves across the massive chessboard, the red squares briefly pulsed orange. “Again, in this way, you are alone.” 

She came to a stop at the center of their checkered stage. With a simple flick of her bow against the violin, a dizzying amount of runes and symbols flared to life on every surface of the chamber, flooding the space with a near-blinding orange. No sooner did Bossa squint her eyes against the intensity did the runes and symbols abruptly disappear, leaving only spots dancing across her vision as traces of their existence. 

“I shall give you another chance. As many chances as you need, in fact, to become a star worthy of burning brilliantly on my heavenly stage.” Maesterion glanced back at her, violet eyes glinting with something Bossa couldn’t quite place. “After all...an old wish echoes in your heart. I will respect the song it still yearns to sing.” 

Something in her chest seized, even as her strength began to fade from her limbs. Her eyes felt too tired to keep open for much longer. 

“Tsuyuzaki Mahiru. Your grandmother truly loved the stage, didn’t she?”


“If it’s you, M■■■r■, you can definitely—”


How many people have told me this? 

Her g■■■dm■■■er, her p■■rs, her u■■■rlin■■, her partner—Y■■■iy■, Lu■■■, Nomina, she donned her lives as easily as the actress she was—even her benefactor. Over and over, round and round in these duets of trust, they placed their faith in her, and yet…

... How can all of you say that when I’ve never done anything right on my own?


“I’ll support you,” Bossa would say.

And Nomina would reply, “That’s all I ask.”

Better. I need to do better.

It wasn’t enough to simply support Nomina with her magic. As the king and tactician of their performance, she needed to weave strategies that would overwhelm their challengers. For every plan Bossa devised, the next had to exceed the last.

They redeemed themselves after their first loss against the Edel named Liu Mei Fan. But their first defeat was not the last. Despite her best efforts, there were challengers who could outmaneuver and overpower Bossa’s tactics even with Nomina’s battle prowess. Bossa made sure to learn from her mistakes—committing the synchrony of the pirate pair to memory, adapting the carefully-wrought plans of the scholar and her guard for herself and Nomina, and intensifying her strategies so that no other threats could take what little she still held dear.

Why is it not enough?

Yet she still knew of loss—round and round, over and over. In particular, the despair was harder to shake off whenever she would revive before her partner. Left alone to her thoughts, the ashen taste of failure fresh on her tongue, she would wonder why she had been chosen for this role she could not seem to fulfill. And when Bossa questioned herself during those times, Maesterion would appear before her, gazing down at her with pity in her dull purple eyes.

“Repeated mistakes,” she would sing. “Again, in this way, you are helpless.”

Better. I need to do better.

But she was doing her best. Wasn’t she?


“Please fall down here—”


She had failed. Once more, she couldn’t do anything for the ones she loved. Powerless and weak when it mattered most, pathetically clinging to the convenient belief that everything would be better in more capable hands.

Another checkmate. This time, by a girl who was apparently Maesterion’s latest candidate. Blonde hair—wavy, not straight like one of their past challengers who had also worn an identical rose hairpin—and so young. It was a girl who Bossa had thought was of little consequence. How could someone with such rough magic and so little experience threaten a duo like Bossa Nomina?

She was wrong. They were wrong. It was a mistake Bossa only realized when she found herself staring into determined green eyes, so full of strength and convictions that Bossa knew she could never grasp.

And now, they would once more pay for Bossa’s weakness.

“I’m sorry… I’m really sorry, Yachiyo-chan…”

I’m sorry I’m leaving you alone again, Bossa whispered to herself, lacking even the strength to speak aloud.

Once more, she had failed. Another strikeout; another failure.

Round and round in this duet, she had danced until she couldn't. And yet it had amounted to nothing more than another regret piled on to her existence.

How could she illuminate their battlefield when the embers of her life could be extinguished so easily, so frequently? She wasn’t the shining sun that Nomina had once likened her to.

With such incompetence, how could they go on with their game at this rate? They were supposed to be the strongest partners, yet evidently that was not the case. Not only had Maesterion stolen their lives from them, but now another adventurer had trampled on their duet to progress.

As the chill of death spread throughout her, Bossa wondered when this cycle of bleakness would end. She wondered, with her last breath, if she would ever become the shining sun everyone else saw her as.


“—Oh, fly me to the star.”


A damp coolness seeped into her from below. The surface beneath her felt hard—an unexpected deviation from her usual awakening, already seated upon her throne. And instead of the stillness she had expected, a small breeze brushed across her exposed skin.

When Mahiru finally managed to slowly open her eyes, it took her a few seconds of rapid blinking to adjust to the gentle light of a morning sun.

Wait, the sun?!

Shooting up into a sitting position, Mahiru glanced around to quickly survey her surroundings. Numerous trees lined her vision, forming what seemed to be a forest clearing. A memory tugged at the back of her mind; a nagging reminder that she had seen this scenery before.

In addition to the trees, the forest floor was indeed covered with short, damp grass. There didn’t seem to be any animals around, either at the ground level or flying amongst the white clouds in the calm blue sky. From what Mahiru could tell, there was nothing else in this place besides herself and—

Wide eyes—teal, not gold—stared back at her from the side. One hand was raised, fingers loosely curled and kept close to her chest. It rested just above the ends of curled hair draped over her right shoulder—not ash blonde, but pink.

This was her partner. Mahiru’s vibrant, living partner.

The unassuming travel clothes were an achingly familiar sight. Besides the fatigue lining her eyes, it didn’t look like there were any injuries marring Yachiyo’s body. She was just as safe and beautiful as Mahiru had truly last seen her.

The sharpness in Yachiyo’s gaze relaxed, her lips curling up into a small grin. “Are you finally awake, Mahiru-san?”

Despite sharing the same voice as Nomina, there was a distinct kindness in Yachiyo’s tone that momentarily took Mahiru’s breath away—just as it had in the past. Out of habit, Mahiru responded in kind, “Good morning, Yachiyo-chan. Did I keep you waiting for long?”

For a moment, Yachiyo only stared back at her with an unreadable expression. Slowly, she drew her knees up to her chest and shifted her gaze up toward the sky. “Not really. I’m sure you needed the rest.”

Mahiru frowned. While Yachiyo wasn’t wrong, the dismissiveness rubbed her the wrong way. “I’m sure we both do, considering everything—everything…”

They had shared so many performances and Auditions since their respective losses against Maesterion. However, it wasn’t as Mahiru and Yachiyo, or even Lupin and Moriarty. Recalling scenes from their past many… years as their alter egos felt like looking through eyes akin to cracked, opaque glasses stained with grey and red. A lot had happened—too much for Mahiru to put into words.

Despite her missing heart, her chest ached for their lost humanity. The only solace came from Maesterion’s mercy, apparently having kept them together even after turning them into her subordinates. Though, Mahiru would have preferred if she had successfully kept Yachiyo from following the same fate as her.

Evidently, that hadn’t been the case. 

How? Why? What happened after I died the first time?

“Yachiyo-chan—”

Do you really want to know? A small voice, cold and eerie and awfully familiar, whispered in the back of her mind. Will you be able to cope with the truth? Knowing that your weaknesses infect even your most loved ones?

That you had left your moon to die? Your beloved—

“It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?”

Yachiyo’s lilting voice anchored Mahiru back to reality. The calmness exuding from her partner—her light voice, her relaxed posture as she leaned back against her arms, her soft expression—felt like the soothing quietness of nightfall washing over a long day’s worries. Drawing upon her past, long before they had become Bossa Nomina, Mahiru latched onto that comfort to push back her own dark voices.

“Sorry?”

“Since we got to look at a clear, open sky.” A short pause, then Yachiyo clarified, “We’re not outside of the crypt, by the way. Otherwise our hearts would be working again.”

A part of Mahiru knew that wasn’t the case either. Not only because of the unnatural stillness in her chest, but also the magic in the air—familiar, but an artificial tint to this landscape. “Then this is…”

“Yep, one of Nana-san’s fabricated worlds.”

Mahiru raised an eyebrow. “Nana… san?”

Yachiyo shrugged. “She told me to call her by her first name when she came by earlier; I had just woken up a little bit before you. Strangely enough, she seems more trusting now than when we had first met her. Something must have happened to her while we were gone.”

Mahiru took a moment to take another glance around them, surveying the familiar forest area. “Her magic is just as amazing as before. This place is still exactly as we last saw it all those years ago. But if we’re in Daiba-san’s safe zone, is that why we’re…?”

Yachiyo’s lips pulled up into a wry smile, more teasing than cynical. “Normal? That’s what I concluded. There was more I wanted to ask, but Nana-san seemed to be in a rush and left before I could press her further. She mentioned something about making more food than she was used to, so I’m guessing dinner—or whatever time of the day it is—will be ready soon.”

Mahiru placed a hand over her stomach, smiling faintly at memories of steaming potatoes, marbled steaks the size of her face, and even the sweet and sour pork she periodically cooked for Yachiyo. She never did get past her dislike for the pineapples in that dish, Mahiru recalled.

Not that she had to over these many years, just as Mahiru hadn’t needed to overcome her dislike toward fava beans. There was no point when neither of them required human sustenance to survive as Bossa Nomina.

“It… would be nice to appreciate food again,” Mahiru said, managing a small laugh. “It feels like it’s been so long since we first tried Daiba-san’s cooking.”

“Not that Nana-san can answer how long it’s been either.” Yachiyo rolled her shoulders, gaze still fixated on the sky. “When I asked her, all she told me was that it had been too long. But, at least it hadn’t been even longer.”

“Was she the one who saved us?”

“Sort of, but not exactly.” Yachiyo closed her eyes and sighed. “I think you remember who defeated Bossa Nomina. And even though they both have blonde hair, it was definitely a different girl from Nana-san.”

Blood dripped from the girl’s chin. Along with the blood and grime, a grimace marred the girl’s face. Even her legs seemed a bit shaky. Yet, despite the beating she had taken, the girl’s green eyes continued to shine with determination. Her brilliance tugged at her hollow chest, reminding her of another pair of teal-green eyes that had once shined so strongly as well…

But the one who had been holding that crossbow was not her beloved. It did not belong to her, so why…?

And then that girl had pulled the trigger, and all Bossa Mahiru knew was pain and cold regret.

Mahiru’s hand reached up to curl against her chest, right over the spot where a crossbow bolt had once pierced through. “Then it was that girl who saved us? But this hadn’t happened with the others who came before her. We always woke up in our chamber, not...here. And never as ourselves.”

This time when Yachiyo chuckled, Mahiru detected a hint of true amusement in her voice. “It would seem the crypt’s newest challenger is a little special. Nana-san told me she plans to save everyone under Maesterion’s curse by bringing them back into this safe zone. That way we’ll at least keep our humanity until our dear benefactor is truly defeated.”

Mahiru’s eyes widened. “Everyone?! Our fellow zone bosses aside, who knows how many there are here? In the first place, is it even possible for everyone to be reverted?”

Yachiyo finally glanced down from the sky, but kept her gaze away from Mahiru’s direction. “Well, she seems to have done it for us and the three others who were guarding our zone. I wonder if Nana-san will explain it if we asked her for the details.”

Mahiru’s fingers dug into the fabric of her vest. “Even if we’re here… our hearts are still with Maesterion. How do we know she won’t call us back somehow?”

“Apparently, the safe zone keeps Maesterion’s influence at bay. If we leave it, however, we’ll definitely revert back to being Bossa Nomina.” Yachiyo sighed. “I suppose that means we’ll have to freeload off of Nana-san until Shiori-san can make it to Maesterion and defeat her.”

“If even we couldn’t do it, then—” Mahiru blinked. “Shiori-san? Is that the girl’s name?”

“Oh, right. She never did introduce herself during our battle, did she? Yumeoji Shiori—that was the name Nana-san gave me when I asked. It seems she took some serious damage during our Audition, so she’s still resting.” One of Yachiyo’s legs twitched. “I vaguely remember breaking something when I kicked her, but it’s hard to distinguish everything I’ve done these past many years. Everything starts to blend together.”

Mahiru frowned, recalling the girl’s complexion through her foggy memories. “She looked so young. For someone like that to challenge this crypt, let alone save everyone she can from Maesterion… I can’t say it doesn’t worry me, leaving things in her hands.”

“Well… Regardless of her age, she’s already caught Maesterion’s eye. There’s no avoiding a confrontation. So I suppose we should count our blessings that she’s considerate enough to think of us, too. Even if it is reckless on her part,” Yachiyo said, shrugging her shoulders. “Not even you were like that in our academy days.”

Mahiru could only care for so many, after all, limited as she was.

“She followed the beat of our song, and her abilities were enhanced the more she sang and danced and with us,” Mahiru mused. “Then… Maesterion had already taken her heart?”

“Seems so. Why did she intervene this early, though? What did Maesterion see in that girl? Of what she’s shown us, the most promising would be…” Yachiyo pursed her lips together, eyes crinkling in that cute way she did whenever she was thinking of every contingency plan they’d need for a heist. “Hm. I think I can see why Maesterion would be interested in her.”

Mahiru tilted her head to the side, placing a finger on her chin as she tried to smooth out her memories of the girl who had defeated them. “When she first entered our—or rather, Bossa Nomina’s chambers, she held herself with more determination and confidence than I would have expected for someone her age. There must have been a level of potential that Maesterion had gauged even before she reached our floor, but for someone to die so early on…”

“Maybe. I can’t imagine what Maesterion is thinking, with how arbitrary her decisions have usually been.” Yachiyo finally lifted her gaze up and shifted toward Mahiru’s direction. “Not that I would wa—”

Teal eyes widened, a red flush suddenly washing over her careful expression. Although they only had each other for all those years as Bossa Nomina, having Yachiyo’s gaze fixated on her with such intensity made Mahiru’s own cheeks blush. Her heart certainly would have been beating like a drum if it was still working properly.

“Um… Ya-Yachiyo-chan…?”

“Ah.” Yachiyo dropped her forehead onto her knees with a dull smack. “This… isn’t good.”

Her hand twitched, but Mahiru stopped herself from reaching out toward her apparently troubled partner. She shifted from her sitting position into a seiza so she could rest her palms flat on her thighs. If she kept them there, she wouldn’t make the mistake of overstepping her boundaries.

“I’m sorry. We wouldn’t be in this situation if I had supported you better. If I was stronger, then you—”

“I’m assuming you’re referring to our last confrontation against Maesterion.” Yachiyo sighed into her knees. “That mistake wasn’t yours, Mahiru-san. You weren’t the one who tripped up when it mattered most.”

“My magic wasn’t enough. Despite everything we could do, Maesterion still got the better of us.” Mahiru’s hands clenched into fists against her lap. “And now we’re prisoners in her crypt until someone else can defeat her.”

Yachiyo gave a noncommittal hum. Mahiru wasn’t sure what that was supposed to answer, but it was usually Yachiyo’s way of communicating that she didn’t think the topic was worth discussing anymore.

Neither her last moments against Maesterion nor her endeavors as Bossa were experiences Mahiru particularly wanted to relive. Compared to the fog surrounding the latter, however, her death against Maesterion was a nightmare she couldn’t forget no matter how hard she tried. If she closed her eyes and let her mind wander, it was almost as if she had thrown herself back to that final fight—when she had leapt in front of that axe, hoping her mortal body would at least make it in time before—

“The sun is really beautiful, isn’t it?”

Although Yachiyo’s voice was muffled by her legs, Mahiru heard her partner’s remark loud and clear. She turned her head to the sky, holding up a hand to shield her eyes from the sun’s rays.

The comforting warmth washed over her, coaxing her lips up into a small smile. “I missed it. I know this isn’t the true outdoors, but Daiba-san really is phenomenal. I don’t think any mages from our time could replicate a world so close to reality like this.”

Yachiyo hummed again; another neutral reply. “Right.”

Shifting her legs into a more comfortable position, Mahiru turned her gaze back to Yachiyo. With her knees drawn up to her chest for her forehead to rest on, Yachiyo looked smaller than how Mahiru remembered her. Her partner—either as Arsene Lupin or just Tsuruhime Yachiyo—had always kept her cards close to her chest, making sure others regarded her with a certain image. She never held herself like a powerful general or knight, but by no means did she appear truly vulnerable.

But those moments did exist. Mahiru recalled how Yachiyo had felt whenever Mahiru had taken her into her arms in secret—relaxed and unguarded, trusting Mahiru to keep watch. The soft, heartfelt words she shared only with Mahiru and no one else. And that was because she—they—

“I love you.” Static.

Mahiru closed her eyes, willing her breathing to stay even. I know. It took me too long to realize. I should have known sooner. I should have said something sooner.

She had technically said it, after all. But that was as a monster under Maesterion’s curse, not of her own free will. Does that even count?

There were so many memories of close embraces, lips brushing against skin, kisses shared alone as well as in front of their challengers, and frequent hand-holding. Although the memories were hazy, the experiences burned themselves into her senses. If she focused, she could almost feel Nomina’s—Yachiyo’s—lips against hers…

Oh, that’s right. We’ve even kissed. Mahiru blinked. Her cheeks slowly rose in temperature as the fragmented pieces of her memories clicked together. We’ve… kissed. We’ve held hands. No wait, we’ve done a lot more than that. Oh my gosh, I let Yachiyo-chan sit in my lap. And then we… we…

Mahiru slapped her hands over her burning cheeks. The same cheeks Nomina had caressed as they kissed and Mahiru’s tongue—

Oh my god, what have I DONE?!

She was too mortified to keep her groan to herself. Her mild panic caught Yachiyo’s attention, who finally shifted closer. “Mahiru-san?”

Mahiru kept her head down, her face cradled in her palms. “Ohhhh, what have I done?”

“That’s a bit too vague for me to answer seriously.”

Mahiru wanted to bury her head six feet under. Actually that’s where she should have been if Maesterion had just let her die properly. But no, she had her heart metaphorically taken instead, turning her into a monster that apparently shared all of her pent-up feelings toward her partner but was actually able to act on them.

No matter how much Mahiru disliked it, she couldn’t detach herself from Bossa. Bossa was still her—just bolder, much more willing to do evil, and had no qualms in following through with her feelings. Bossa had done what Mahiru couldn’t do, and probably refused to do even in her wildest dreams. But Bossa had done them, and Bossa was technically Mahiru, which meant Mahiru had done every act of affection that Bossa had committed. Including…

Mahiru slid her hands down to gently slap her heated cheeks. Once her breathing stabilized, she looked up to Yachiyo with her head still partially bowed to ask, “Yachiyo-chan... I know I’ve asked you this before, but have you ever considered wearing pants?”

Yachiyo raised an eyebrow. “I have. I prefer the mobility that shorts and skirts give me, though.”

Mahiru dropped her head back down, this time managing to bite back her defeated groan. “H-How about making them just a little bit longer than they are now? To protect your…legs.”

“Protect them? From what?” Mischief lined her voice; a familiar and—usually—welcome balm to her frenzied state… except this time, it only reminded Mahiru of Nomina’s ‘ideas’ to ‘shake things up.’ “...From—”

Her voice suddenly cut off. In the ensuing silence, everything disappeared. The emptiness was broken by the sound of a clipped sigh, followed by Yachiyo’s careful reply, “ …From you?”

Something within her nearly broke. It would have truly reached its limit if Mahiru hadn’t caught the change in Yachiyo’s tone.

Looking up from her own mortification, Mahiru saw Yachiyo turn away from her again, arms still wrapped around her legs. Although her cheeks were slightly tinged pink, Yachiyo’s expression gave nothing away. Her contemplative frown wasn’t enough for Mahiru to guess at what she could be thinking. Even during their time together as Lupin and Moriarty, she hadn’t been able to unlock all of Yachiyo’s secrets and tells. 

But this wasn’t the same. Nomina’s confidence, Yachiyo’s usual sly teasing—Mahiru felt neither of those two personas. The reservation gnawed at Mahiru’s chest, unfamiliar and cold.

“Yachiyo-chan—”

But before she could say more, a wooden door suddenly manifested beside them in a burst of golden light. Mahiru jumped to her feet, magic starting to gather at her fingertips in case she needed it.

“Ah, that should be Daiba-san,” Yachiyo said. Slowly, she rose to her feet just as the door fully solidified and opened.

But instead of familiar blonde hair styled into strange pigtails, the one who poked her head out from the half-open door was a brunette with her long hair tied up into a ponytail. “Is this really the right—?” Looking around, her red eyes widened when she found the two of them. “Oh, it is. Daiba-san really is amazing.”

Yachiyo placed a hand on her hip, humoring the muttering girl with a lopsided smile. “Did you need something from us?”

The girl sputtered, “Oh, um… right. Daiba-san said the food is ready.” She glanced between the two of them before hesitantly settling her gaze on Mahiru. “Did I interrupt something?”

Before Mahiru could come up with a reply, Yachiyo answered first, “Not at all. In fact, your timing couldn’t have been better. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Nana-san’s cooking since I saw her again.”

As Yachiyo made her way toward the door, the girl having already darted back inside, Mahiru couldn’t stop herself from calling out again, “Yachiyo-chan!”

“Hm?” Yachiyo stopped. Turning her head to look back at her, her usually vibrant eyes were too dark for Mahiru to read.

Everything Mahiru wanted to say died on the tip of her tongue. Though, she wasn’t sure if she knew what she had wanted to say anyway.

So she looked down, unable to meet Yachiyo’s unreadable stare, and shook her head. “Never mind. Let’s… Let’s go eat.”

Some things didn’t need to be said. At least not yet.

Mahiru just didn’t know when she should address them.


Upon entering the dimly lit cabin area, Mahiru and Yachiyo were instantly dragged by their arms to the table by two chatterboxes. The auburn-haired girl with pigtails—introducing herself as Aijou Karen—sat Mahiru down across the table from her. The other girl with long, lavender hair—apparently named Otonashi Ichie—sat Yachiyo down across the table from herself and to Mahiru’s left. Meanwhile, the ponytail brunette—who had awkwardly introduced herself as Akikaze Rui—sat at one end of the table closest to Yachiyo and Ichie, leaving one seat at the head of the table open by Mahiru and Karen.

Nana swept into view a moment later, flashing them both a warm smile as she placed down another dish. “Mahiru-chan, Yachiyo-chan, welcome back! Have you familiarized yourselves with everyone else already?” 

Mahiru stiffened, her hands clenched into fists under the table. How does she know our real names?

“No more than names, but I’m sure we’ll all get to know each other soon enough,” Yachiyo answered before she could, voice light and friendly as if the tension from earlier had never happened. She turned her gaze to the other three. “Since you so kindly gave yours, it’s only proper that I return the favor, right? Tsuruhime Yachiyo, at your service—though, you might have known me better as Nomina.”

Mahiru didn’t miss the way Rui jolted at the end of the table, her red eyes darting everywhere except in their direction. Ichie and Karen, meanwhile, didn’t seem all that perturbed over meeting a former zone boss. 

“Hey Ichie-chan, isn’t she the one that was flir—”

“Shh! There are some things you shouldn’t say outright, Karen-chan! Not now, anyway!” 

Their energetic voices may have been lowered, but Mahiru’s sharp ears caught them all the same. And when their bright eyes turned to her next, expectant, she cleared her throat. 

“Tsuyuzaki Mahiru,” she said, adopting the same polite tone she had used as Moriarty. “As you can see, I was Bossa. Nomina’s—” 

‘Partner’? Could she still call herself that after all of her mistakes and shortcomings had caused so many of their deaths? Not to mention every act of affection she had done as Bossa—of course Yachiyo would be distant after remembering any of that, however hazy some of them had been. Playing the roles Maesterion had given them, Mahiru had essentially forced her feelings upon her. 

“—partner,” Yachiyo completed for her, voice careful yet languid. “Chess features a king and a queen, after all.” 

“To be fair, your brand of chess wasn’t the most orthodox. But at least some things stayed the same!” Nana chimed in with a smile, setting the last of the food on the table. 

Despite being surrounded by strangers and her confusing partner, Mahiru joined the others in a chorus of amazed gasps at the assortment of food laid out before them. The myriad of smells alone was enough for Mahiru to question whether she had finally made it to the right afterlife. The choices all seemed delectable: steaming potatoes, glazed pork chops, seasoned vegetables, beef and onion stir-fry, corn soup—even the salad was mouth watering.

Actually, Karen and Ichie were both literally salivating from across the table. Not that Mahiru could blame them; she just had a bit more self restraint than to gape at the food on the table so blatantly.

“Is this really all for us?!” Ichie asked, eyes shining with unbridled joy.

Standing at the head of the table, Nana nodded. “Yep! Feel free to dig in. I’m sure you’re all absolutely starving.”

Being hungry was one thing, but this would be Mahiru’s first time eating human food in years. She didn’t know when the other three had gotten trapped in the crypt, but it was no short amount of time for herself and Yachiyo.

Speaking of which, Yachiyo was doing a much better job of keeping her enthusiasm to herself. But her wide eyes shone with the same level of happiness that the others, and no doubt Mahiru as well, harbored at all this food. Although Yachiyo was holding herself back, it was clear how much she wanted to start eating.

It was the same expression she had back then, when Mahiru would treat them to a nice, personally cooked meal whenever they had the resources. Although this meal wasn’t prepared by Mahiru this time, it seemed some things didn’t change.

“Oh, bananas!” Karen remarked with a loud gasp, pulling Mahiru from her thoughts. Compared to Yachiyo’s more reserved smile, she didn’t hold back her enthusiasm for the food before her. In fact…

“Aijou-san’s already started eating?!” Rui exclaimed.

The girl finished chewing with a wide grin. “Ahh, your food really is great, Nana!”

First name basis too?! And no honorifics?

“Just one bite and I feel like I’ve got my heart back already!” Karen paused, blinking for a moment before her eyes widened. “Oh, that’s it! Banana!”

Nana blinked. “Huh?”

“You’re sweet and kind and nourishing! You’re there for adventurers when they’re in a pinch. You’re dependable, like a banana!”

How do any of those arguments work? Mahiru wondered with increasing bewilderment.

“Nana-chan is a… banana? Banana-chan?” Ichie mumbled to herself, then, “Ah, that’s a little too weird even for me. I guess I’ll stick with Nana-chan!”

“Eh?! Am I the only one who’s going to be calling her Banana-chan then?!”

Yachiyo’s lips curled up into a familiar grin of her own. “Probably. But I do have to admit it’s a cute nickname.”

“Really?!” Rui squeaked. Mahiru couldn’t help but silently nod in agreement. Sure, Nana was a dependable—if not mysterious—mage in this dangerous crypt. But to compare her to a banana of all things?!

Well, her hairstyle certainly doesn’t help argue otherwise, a small voice in the back of Mahiru’s mind pointed out. She couldn’t deny that fact.

Ichie snapped her gaze to Nana, eyes glancing up and down her entire form. “I mean, even your height is banana-like!”

“And you smell good too!” Karen added.

Rui groaned. “Her smell of all things?! Since when did you get to sme— Never mind, I don’t want to know. If anything it’s her hair that should be your main argument!”

“So you agree Nana-san is like a banana?” Yachiyo asked, smirk growing wider in that way Mahiru knew she had found a new target to tease.

“W-Well, I mean. It’s just…” Rui sighed. “I guess.”

Mahiru glanced at the tips of Nana’s pigtails from the corner of her eye. I don’t think even Maesterion can defy whatever is going on with Daiba-san…

Beside them all, Nana’s eyes drifted down to the food on the table, lips tugging into a small smile. “‘Banana’… huh? I see, so I’m like a banana.”

In the dim lighting, Mahiru swore she saw Nana’s green eyes glisten. The mage closed her eyes before Mahiru could be certain, dipping her head down as she finally took her seat at the head of the table.

Pushing the thought aside, Mahiru plastered on a courteous smile reminiscent of her dealings as Moriarty. “Thank you for helping us again, Daiba-san.”

When Nana lifted her head, her returning smile was as happy as before—devoid of any worries. “Of course! I’m here to assist all the adventurers who are trying to conquer this crypt. And that’s still true even after you’ve lost. Now, let’s eat and relax! No need to hold back; there’s plenty to go around.”

Mahiru helped herself to a spoonful of steaming potatoes, adding a ladle of the mushroom sauce to the side. “This really does feel like a dream. Normally, we shouldn’t even be here. And yet…”

Nana sighed, offering a sheepish smile. “Well, that was until a certain someone decided she wanted to save all of you. Even as she fights to reach Maesterion to save herself as well.”

Mahiru’s other hand curled against the table. “That’s… Shiori-san, right?”

Across from her, Rui sighed, frowning deeply at her food. “I wouldn’t put it past Shiori-san to decide on that. But she wouldn’t have acted so selflessly and put herself in more danger if you hadn’t told her this, Daiba-san.”

“I only told her that there was a way to temporarily reverse the effects of the curse on those under Maesterion’s command. I never forced Shiori-chan to make the decision she came to,” Nana said, grabbing a porkchop for herself. “And besides, she entered this crypt to save you and your friends who came before her. Since she doesn’t know which monsters you all turned into, she can’t exactly be picky about who she chooses to save, can she?”

“So that’s what Shiori-san decided to do,” Karen muttered through a mouthful of food. Swallowing, she turned to Rui with wide eyes, “Rui-chan, your friend is amazing!”

“Yeah… she is.” Rui stirred her soup, muttering to herself, “I just wish she didn’t have to almost die for it...”

Although the words weren’t directed at her, Mahiru couldn’t stop herself from frowning.

Ichie leaned over the table and slapped Rui in the back. The blow was hard enough to make Rui nearly spit her food out. “Don’t worry so much, Rui-chan! Shiori-chan is going to be just fine thanks to Nana-chan. Right?”

Nana nodded. “She’s still resting in another room, but all of her injuries have been treated. What she needs is some sleep, and I’m sure she’ll be catching up with you in no time, Rui-chan.”

“Well… It seems as if Shiori-san has already ‘caught up’ to Rui-san, if not completely surpassed her capabilities,” Yachiyo remarked, cutting into her porkchop. “She was able to defeat all of us, including Mahiru-san and I. That’s more than what I would have expected from someone who strikes me as a complete novice when it comes to fighting.”

“Maybe Shiori-chan’s the kind of person who’s actually super cool even though she doesn’t look like it?” Ichie wondered, tilting her head slightly in thought. 

Rui shook her head. “As far as I remember, Shiori-san didn’t have much fighting experience beyond stage fighting and the self-defense basics she learned from me and Futaba-san. But then again, I haven’t seen her in some time…”

Through her hazy memories, Mahiru recalled the young girl who had challenged and defeated Bossa Nomina. Although she couldn’t have known how Yachiyo—or rather, Nomina—had been defeated, she could at least trace back all of the steps that had led to her own loss. The girl’s movements were no expert’s, but they also weren’t amateurish either. More importantly, she had sung and danced to match Nomina’s own performance.

No, at some point she had even surpassed Nomina. Mahiru recalled how the girl had taken Bossa Nomina off guard, inserting herself into their duet with her own pace. She had even utilized magic well enough to deceive them into thinking Nomina had killed her, only to sneak up on Bossa and deal a fatal blow. It wasn’t a perfect performance, but she had both of us fooled. She moves too well for a novice; too familiar with our performance. But how?

“Support magic?” Mahiru muttered aloud. “No, that would only boost her physical abilities; something already accounted for by performing in tandem to Maesterion’s heartbeat. That doesn’t account for her actual fighting capabilities...”

“Unless her movements were being directed by someone with more skill,” Yachiyo commented.

“But that would be difficult—if not entirely impossible—unless the mage casting the spell was right beside her. And as far as we knew, there was no one else with her.”

“Impossible for most mages,” Yachiyo took a bite into her food, her teal eyes sweeping over to Nana, “but not for a one who can manipulate space as easily as she can cook a meal for six. Isn’t that right, Nana-san?”

The mage in question chuckled lightly. “Maybe. But casting a persistent support spell on Shiori-chan on top of everything else would be too much to juggle—even for me. What you saw as Bossa Nomina and as Maesterion’s monsters were all Shiori-chan’s doing. My only influence was creating her storage pouch and her sword, which I’ll need to replace now that the blade has shattered.”

Yachiyo raised an eyebrow, a piercing glint in her eyes. “No longer completely preoccupied with that spell of yours?”

“Spell?” Ichie placed a finger on her chin and hummed thoughtfully. “Now that I think about it, you did seem kind of busy with something when we first met...”

“It was true for us too, although it seemed like a rather big spell even back then. Perhaps something that would clear this crypt?” Yachiyo guessed, the corners of her lips twitching into a knowing grin.

Nana only continued to smile. “Something like that. Sadly, it’s a spell I can only cast once. So Shiori-chan will be the spell’s only recipient.”

“But what if she fails?” Mahiru asked, the shadow of her own doubts and failures curling around her spine. “What if she becomes like us? Many with talent and experience have fallen to Maesterion—even Seisho and Siegfeld’s most renowned generals never returned after venturing into this crypt.”

Beside her, Yachiyo hummed thoughtfully. “Especially since it seems Maesterion’s already taken her heart…”

Rui snapped her head toward Yachiyo. “Shiori-san has already lost her heart?! But she’s still herself! If Maesterion already took her heart at some point while she was in the first zone, shouldn’t she have already transformed by now?”

“Not necessarily,” Yachiyo replied. “Transformations vary for different people, and Shiori-san doesn’t seem like the type who would give up so easily.”

“Well, no, but what does that have to do with anything?”

The answer gnawed at the back of Mahiru’s mind. Explanations about these transformations due to Maesterion’s curse were another one of Bossa’s memories. However, attempting to recall that specific memory was like trying to grasp onto the last wisps of nightly fog at the break of dawn. Her memories as Bossa largely remained as elusive as they were when she had first awakened as herself once more.

“Shiori-chan won’t fail,” Nana cut in, her voice sure and unwavering.

In response to the mage’s unusual confidence, Mahiru narrowed her eyes. “Because of your spell? Or is there something else you have up your sleeve?”

Nana shook her head. “While it certainly increases her chances of success, it doesn’t guarantee it. Shiori-chan will defeat Maesterion,” she glanced around the table, “and save all of us, because that’s what she’s set her mind to do.”

“Not to be a downer, but that’s quite a bit of confidence for someone who’s currently bedridden after just the first zone,” Yachiyo bluntly remarked. 

Doing her best to ignore Rui’s pointed frown and Ichie and Karen’s wariness, Mahiru added, “Words don’t mean anything against someone as powerful and arbitrary as Maesterion. If determination and proclaiming your desires were enough, she wouldn’t have ensnared so many victims. What she’s interested in…”

“Tell me, Bossa—do you still love the stage?”

“…isn’t something so simple.”

Instead of dejection, however, Nana only shrugged and offered a helpless smile. “You’re right. Determination alone isn’t going to defeat Maesterion. But regardless of the odds, this is what Shiori-chan said she’ll do. And since I’ve already decided to wager on her victory, I’ll do everything I can to make sure she succeeds.”

“Or she dies trying,” Yachiyo pointed out.

Nana’s smile slightly grew, tinged with the same sort of mischief that Lupin had sometimes worn. “Yes, that’s partially true. She can try, and wind up losing her life in the process. But it’s not as if a mild case of death will stop Shiori-chan from trying again.”

Both Ichie and Karen tilted their heads with a frown. “How does that work?”

“Ah, I see.” Yachiyo finally broke her gaze away from Nana, returning her attention to her plate. The faint grin on her face matched the mage’s. “So that’s what you’ve done. I see... That’s rather bold of you, Nana-san.”

So it is a kind of support magic. Though I imagine it’s at a different level than what I can do. 

Mahiru closed her eyes, pinching the bridge of her nose as she tried compiling every bit of relevant information. She was a little out of practice as Moriarty, but familiarity returned soon enough.

Daiba-san’s unknown spell, a powerful convictionsomething that not even death can stop… Is she reversing causality? No, that’s absurd for any mage. Even if it’s someone from an older time period… Maybe. The Ebisu dynasty and earlier were said to have been the golden age of magic. Mahiru held back a sigh. It might be easier to just ask Daiba-san directly. Or try to find information on her myself. Although, espionage was more of Yachiyo-chan’s forte…

Mahiru pulled herself from her thoughts, looking up to find Yachiyo’s growing smile as she chewed. Her partner’s gaze was once more carefully directed at Nana as the mage reassured the others to continue eating. At the same time, Nana had grabbed another serving of vegetables and was in the process of spooning them onto Mahiru’s own plate.

“Wha— Daiba-san, this is too much!” Mahiru protested.

“Is it?” Nana asked, her hand frozen in midair with her ladle. “I figured the more, the better. It’s been quite a while since you’ve had your last meal, after all! And I doubt Maesterion’s magic had any nutritional value.”

“Well, yes, but my stomach hasn’t grown in proportion to the time that’s passed!”

Across from her, Rui slowly lowered her spoon, gaze shifting down with a frown. “I… really wish Shiori-san could be here too to enjoy this with us.” She looked up at Nana and asked, “When did you say she might wake up?”

“I estimate a few more hours or so, but that depends on how much rest her body needs,” Nana answered, settling back down in her seat. “It might be more, considering all she’s been through. But no need to worry! I’ll make sure Shiori-chan has something to eat once she wakes up and joins us.”

“‘All she’s been through,’ huh?” Yachiyo took a sip of her soup. “Seems like she’s gone through a lot. Maybe more than the average person in this crypt would.”

“Well, Shiori-san isn’t a trained soldier; her fighting experience is limited to the stage,” Rui defended. “If anything, I’m surprised she knew magic at all. None of our troupe members were skilled enough to cast a single spell, and we never had to learn how to use magic since our troupe didn’t rely on it for our shows. Not that there were any mages close by who we’d be able to afford...”

“Fortunately for Shiori-chan, it seems she had a crash course from another mage before entering the crypt,” Nana said, her shoulders lifting in a brief shrug. “Just the basics, but they were enough to work with.”

Mahiru’s eyes widened with surprise. “Shiori-san had no prior training with magic before entering the crypt? But that’s impossible! Not when…”

Trailing off, she glanced at Yachiyo from the corner of her eye. Her partner had focused on her food again, though Mahiru noted her hand movements had slowed down ever so slightly.

“…Not when she was able to use wind magic to create such convincing illusions,” Mahiru finished, voice slightly stilted as she pushed down the memory of Bossa’s defeat. 

Nana chuckled. “I was surprised too, you know? I take my eyes off of her for a few hours to rest and come back to her emulating the both of you. After that, seeing the fruits of her efforts in live combat was a different experience altogether.”

“She was...emulating us?”

“Your true selves, not Bossa Nomina,” Nana clarified. “She had asked if there was anything she could learn from your fighting styles—weaknesses that could apply to Bossa Nomina as well. I wasn’t aware of what she had in mind, but it all seemed to have worked out.”

“As well as she performed with wind magic, it doesn’t seem to be as refined as Mahiru-san—given she had to sacrifice her sword,” Yachiyo commented.

“Which is expected for a beginner,” Mahiru noted, reminding herself that the crypt’s latest challenger, no matter the feats she had displayed against Bossa Nomina, was still a girl younger than herself and Yachiyo. And with less experience than perhaps everyone at this table. 

Yet somehow… What was it that Daiba-san cast on her?

A fragment of a memory tugged at the back of her mind; words said by herself—or rather, Bossa—when Shiori had first entered the chamber where they were waiting. But no matter how hard Mahiru tried, she couldn’t push past the murkiness surrounding the finer details. She recalled a low level of apprehension as she replied to something Shiori had said. But what was it that she had said?

Ichie beamed. “On that note, Shiori-chan did pretty well for herself, didn’t she? You’re all saying she’s just a beginner, but she even defeated the zone bosses and passed the first Audition!”

“But not without a great deal of trouble,” Rui pointed out. “If it weren’t for Daiba-san going ahead and anchoring the safe zone on her own, Tsuyuzaki-san and Tsuruhime-san would have reverted back to Bossa Nomina. Shiori-san’s efforts would have gone to waste.”

“That’s true,” Karen agreed, nodding along. “So Banana getting the timing right, even without Shiori-chan’s cue, was the nail in the coffin to all of this.”

Mahiru sighed. “I think you mean ‘the key to success,’ Aijou-san. No one is… dead. Technically.”

“Oh, is that the right saying?” Karen giggled sheepishly. “Whoopsies.”

Nana waved a dismissive hand. “I can’t take all the credit. In the end, it was Shiori-chan herself who made it to the final chamber where she could defeat Bossa Nomina and clear the first zone. I was only there to pick up the pieces she couldn’t hold on to. Although…” 

Nana pursed her lips, tapping a finger to her chin in thought. A gleam appeared in her green eyes, much like Yachiyo’s whenever she had gone into further depth with her reports or their plans for the heist that night. 

“...It would be easier on Shiori-chan if I knew when to anchor the safe zone myself without burdening her. But that’s difficult if all of this relies on when she properly defeats the monsters. In the end, is it truly the best option to rely on Shiori-chan’s estimated cues? None of us can go out and bring the bodies back ourselves, and there’s a chance Shiori-chan will be too exhausted to bring them to us herself...”

“Daiba-san?” Mahiru called as the mage continued to rapidly mutter to herself.

“…Bring the bodies to us? Move the… bodies…” Nana’s eyes widened. “That might work, if I can work around Sayo-chan’s protective wards…”

“Banana?” Karen gave a try of her own in a louder voice.

Nana jolted in her seat. “Oh, it’s nothing! Just thinking out loud to myself.”

“More things to do?” Yachiyo wondered.

Nana smiled sheepishly. “Unfortunately. But don’t let my own business keep you all from relaxing! Now that Shiori-chan has brought you back here, you’re free to do whatever you wish.”

As Karen and Ichie opened their mouths, Nana quickly added, “Except leave the safe zone, of course. It wouldn’t be good if you fell under Maesterion’s curse again and wasted Shiori-chan’s efforts.”

“Are you at least going to stay with us and finish eating too?” Ichie asked, pointing to Nana’s full plate of food.

“Oh! Yes, don’t worry.” Nana chuckled nervously. “I can’t imagine how much of a scolding I’d get from Shiori-chan if she found out I wasn’t taking the time to rest again. Ha ha…”

Rui smiled brightly. “That’s just how Shiori-san is. No one can escape her concerns.”

Nana nodded knowingly. As she continued to eat, Mahiru thought she heard the mage mutter to herself, “So she’s the type to overly worry about others without taking herself into account… That’s a little too similar for my comfort…”

It was probably too soft for anyone else to hear, especially with the clamorous conversation drowning out anything under a murmur. Were it not for her years as Jay Moriarty, wielding the wind itself to carry whispers of information and movements to her ears, she likely wouldn’t have heard it. But Mahiru didn’t have much time to think about Nana’s strange behavior.

Not when Karen and Ichie pulled her into their conversation, and Mahiru had little choice but to join. Over time, her tension dissipated as her worries moved to the back of her mind.

The only thing she couldn’t shake was the occasional feeling of her partner glancing at her from her left. But Mahiru wasn’t sure what to say about that, if she even should at all.


Mahiru should have known this would happen, but she was still surprised to find the entire table devoid of food after almost two hours of eating and small conversation. The topics had mainly been about Karen’s difficult knight training, Ichie’s prior adventures with her squad, and Rui describing a few of the plays her troupe had performed. Thankfully, the three had been kept busy enough that the conversation had never shifted to either Mahiru or Yachiyo’s pasts. And Mahiru knew that Yachiyo wouldn’t change the topic to herself either.

As Nana stood up and began clearing the table, Mahiru followed her lead and started picking up a few of the empty plates herself. “Let me help with that, Daiba-san.”

Nana flashed her a reassuring smile. “Ah, don’t worry about it, Mahiru-chan. Oh, and feel free to just call me ‘Nana.’ I think that’s only fair if I’ll be calling you ‘Mahiru-chan’ from now on.”

Mahiru froze. “Um, okay? Dai—” She shook her head, “Nana-san.”

Nana nodded. “Good, good. Anyway, you should take the time to rest; enjoy your regained humanity! But I guess that’s pretty hard when you’re limited to this safe zone, though I’d say it’s better than following Maesterion’s commands as her minions.”

Unable to interject, Mahiru could only watch as Nana cleared the rest of the table and went about with her own tasks. Eventually, she was able to relax with a defeated sigh. Yachiyo-chan did mention that Dai—Nana-san seems different now than how we remember her. If she’s grown comfortable with us, does that mean she expects us to stay around her for longer than the normal adventurer would?

There were too many questions Mahiru wanted to ask. But just like her current tentative relationship with Yachiyo, Mahiru wasn’t sure how willing Nana would be to share her secrets.

Except comparing Nana-san to Yachiyo-chan isn’t exactly fair, Mahiru sighed to herself. Nana-san has always been an enigma to the adventurers who have encountered her in this crypt. But the tension with Yachiyo-chan right now… that’s my fault.

“And I have no idea how to fix this,” Mahiru groaned.

“Hm? Did you say something, Tsuyuzaki-san?” Karen asked.

“Eh? Oh, it’s nothing.” Turning her attention back to the table, Mahiru noted how everyone had also stood up from their seats. She thought she saw Yachiyo’s gaze lingering on her, but she had turned her head before Mahiru could be sure.

Instead of thinking about that, Mahiru noted how both Ichie and Karen had put on their gear and armor. “Are you all heading somewhere?”

Ichie grinned. “Yep! We’re going to do some training!”

“Training?”

Ichie slung an arm over Karen’s shoulders, drawing her close to her. “It’s been a while since I let loose—as a human, that is. And after learning that Karen-chan’s a soldier in training, it’d be a waste not to test our mettle against each other!”

Karen chuckled nervously. “I wonder how I’ll fare against someone who led a squad of mages, though.”

“And what better way to find out than a training session of both magic and might?” Ichie craned her neck back to look at Rui. “Wanna join us, Rui-chan?”

Rui shook her head, fidgeting with the hem of her shirt. “Um... I’m not sure how much of a challenge I’ll be since I have no experience with magic. And since I don’t have my oodachi, there’s not much I can do at all. I really think it’d be better if I went to check on Shiori-san to see if—”

“Non non dayo!” Karen placed her hands on her hips, straightening up so fast that she threw Ichie off of her. “You’re worrying too much! Banana said it herself, remember? Shiori-san will be just fine as long as she continues resting.”

To the side, Mahiru heard Yachiyo mumble, “So Karen-san has a specific way with words.”

Meanwhile, Rui wrung her hands and worried at her bottom lip. “But…”

“If it’s a sword you need, I’d be happy to provide you with one,” Nana said, returning to grab the rest of the cutlery from the table. “It won’t be anything extravagant or anywhere near as durable as the one I’m making for Shiori-san, but I can put together a practice sword for you in about half an hour. Unless you want a wooden one like these two?”

“Oh, you really don’t have to—”

“Sounds great, Nana-chan!” Ichie cut in. “In the meantime, Rui-chan can watch me and Karen spar. Oh, maybe we can teach Rui how to use some magic, Karen-chan!”

“Eh?!” Karen pointed at herself, jaw dropping open. “Me, teaching someone magic?!”

“That… might become a disaster,” Nana muttered to herself. Turning to Mahiru with a sheepish smile, she asked, “If they’re going to practice together, do you mind keeping an eye on them for me, Mahiru-chan?”

“Tsu-Tsuyuzaki-san will be looking over us…?” Rui squeaked.

Nana redirected her apologetic smile to Rui. “I’d do so myself, but…”

She was going to be busy with other things—things that she’d rather do on her own. As much as Mahiru wanted to know what Nana was planning, she also agreed that leaving Ichie and Karen together—especially to train someone completely inexperienced with magic—was probably a bad idea. A very bad idea.

There was no evidence; she had just met these three. But just from watching and conversing with them in the last couple of hours, Mahiru had a feeling anything could go horribly wrong if two people with similar energies were placed together. And Karen and Ichie meshed too well.

They reminded her of the rowdier groups she had wrangled under her control as Jay Moriarty, before her first run-in with Arsene Lupin. Eventually, those underlings—no, she wasn’t a thief anymore, let alone a crime lord—had properly followed her orders, but not without a great deal of headache. The ghost of those headaches came back in full force, bringing with it a sigh as Mahiru reached up to adjust her glasses and pinch the bridge of her nose like she had done so many times before. 

Oh. That’s right, I don’t wear those anymore. 

Fighting down the faint flush that wanted to form at her mistake, Mahiru immediately lowered her hand. Nana seemed like she wanted to chuckle, but thankfully said nothing. Clearing her throat and channeling some of Moriarty’s level headedness, Mahiru answered, “Of course. You made that wonderful meal for us, so it’s the least I can do.” 

“Great! I’ll leave you to it, then.” 

Flicking her wrist, Nana conjured her golden staff. A memory sprung unbidden to Mahiru’s mind from years long gone, just like it had the last time she had seen the mage cast her spells. 

“I’m sorry, Tsuzuyaki-san. But with your current progress in the Support curriculum, you won’t be able to use a staff of your own,” her instructor had said, setting aside another graded exam. “Perhaps you could borrow one, but a mage’s staff is like a part of their own selfsomething so closely bonded won’t get you very far on the battlefield. Not unless its original owner dies.” 

“But that’s…!” Mahiru’s hands had clenched into fists at her side, trembling. “I’m not going to wish death on my peers, Professor.”

“Death will find them anyway. Although not as fierce as the days of General Tendou and General Yukishiro long ago, I can’t say that the current battles are pleasant.” Her instructor had sighed, looking up from the exams to meet her gaze. “You don’t seem to have much trouble with your magic circles, which makes this all the more baffling. I’ve never had a student with your condition before.”

Biting at her lip, Mahiru had done little more than avert her gaze to her shoes. 

“Tsuyuzaki-san, could it be that you’re afraid of something? If the problem is a mental one

A tap on her shoulder jolted Mahiru out of her memory. Physically jolted, even, with her flinching away from whoever had gotten this close without her noticing. Teal eyes met her own surprised gaze, and before she could process that her distant partner had passed by, Yachiyo had already turned her head away. 

“Nana-san, is there something I can help with?” she asked, voice light and languid. “If you’re looking into what I think you’re looking into, two heads trying to slip through those defenses would be better than one.” 

“Hmm… I suppose a thief’s perspective would be useful...”

While Mahiru had been preoccupied, it seemed Nana had already conjured Rui’s wooden sword and summoned two open doors. One led into the forest clearing from before, while the other led into a familiar common area. Ichie and Karen were already trying to nudge Rui through the former, while Nana stood beside the latter, stroking her chin in contemplation. 

“How about displacement?” the mage asked of her partner, lips twitching into a faint smile. “I would assume so, given your line of work before.” 

Yachiyo’s shoulders lifted in a brief shrug. “I’m no slouch at it, but I preferred doing the dirty work myself.”

She had to cover for Mahiru’s shortcomings, after all. 

“Of course...that depended on the job and the sort of spectacle I wanted to perform,” her partner continued, a certain lilt in her voice that meant she had donned her usual smirk. “Sneaking entire galleries’ worth of paintings away is one thing, but I would assume this will be easier since we’re dealing with b—”

“Mahiru-chan, are you ready?” Ichie’s cheery voice interrupted her eavesdropping, drowning out whatever Yachiyo had said next. “Karen-chan’s already scouting out a spot with Rui-chan.”

Fighting down her curiosity and concern over what her partner would be up to in the meantime, Mahiru managed a nod. Right now, she owed Nana for her hospitality—she could ponder and worry over Yachiyo’s increasingly distant behavior later. The three currently under her care should be enough to occupy her attention, especially with their enthusiasm.

As Mahiru followed after the trio out of the cabin space, she took one quick glance back at the two who wouldn't be joining them. For a moment she thought she saw teal green eyes snap away from her, but it didn't seem like Yachiyo had been looking her way at all with how immersed she was in her conversation with Nana.

Oh, what am I thinking? Mahiru sighed to herself. I doubt Yachiyo-chan would send me off with a normal “good luck” with how things are between us now. We’re not the same as our past selves, after all.

“I wonder if we could go all-out in here,” Ichie said as they stepped into the forest space, leaving the comfort of the cabin behind. “To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how Nana-chan’s safe zone works. Whenever I try to feel it out with my magic, it’s like a tidal wave suddenly pushes me away. And when I try to fight against it, everything feels all...murky.” 

Mahiru blinked, eyes slightly widening in surprise. “That’s how it feels to you?” 

“Eh? Is it different for you?”

“Well… I did feel something trying to push back the last time I tried. There was more substance to the wards compared to your appraisal, from the sound of it—I could grasp a little of its composition.” A bit of her Moriarty self returned as she frowned. “I’m sure it must be magic older than my time period, which would make it even older for you. But I can’t imagine magic theory having declined enough to… Unless…?”

“‘Unless’ what? Wait, you’re older than me?!”

“I would think so, considering we—” 

A flash of Nomina’s hand in hers, Mahiru’s thumb brushing over her knuckles before she sent her off with a parting wish of good luck. A quick battle; another nameless challenger. An Audition ending in their favor once more.

“—entered the crypt before you,” Mahiru finished, her throat dry as she pushed down fragmented memories she’d rather not call her own. Not entirely. 

“Oh, yeah. That makes sense!” Ichie rubbed at the back of her head, offering her a sheepish smile. “You know...there weren’t that many mages around in my time. We could barely find enough for my squad, and even then most of us weren’t from the academy. I wish I could’ve gone, but they only admitted twenty each year for the course with how few instructors there were...” 

Only twenty? If I recall, admission wasn’t limited at all… No. It would make sense, if the wars progressed how I think they did. Mahiru fiddled with her green scarf, her brow furrowing to match the depth of her thoughts. With so many mages trying to kill each other, of course it would eventually lead to a deficit in knowledge. If you send your best out onto the field and they never return, who would be left?

Breathing a sigh, she asked, “The Pleiades Academy, right?”

“Oh, that’s the place Hikari-chan and I went to!” Karen’s voice suddenly cut in before Ichie could answer. 

Properly focusing on the scene before her with Karen and Rui walking over to meet them, Mahiru noted that they had chosen a part of the forest not unlike where she and Yachiyo had awoken earlier. It was more open in comparison, providing enough room for four people to comfortably spar if they only used weapons. Casting magic would mean a potentially greater radius for damage depending on the type used, but there wouldn’t be civilians around anyway.

If I were a better mage like Yachiyo-chan and the others, I could alter this illusion to give us more room. Mahiru’s hands left her scarf to clench at her sides. If only I still had my mace...

It wasn’t a staff, but having it had made her feel better. 

“Hikari-chan’s the friend you’re looking for, right?” Ichie asked, crouching down to stretch her legs.

Karen pulled her arm across her chest to warm up as well. “Yep! Hikari-chan was always better at magic than me. I can do the basics, and she said my magic output was pretty good, but I could never get the spells to work right. It was no good even with all her help, so I ended up in the main knight track after I failed the entrance exam for the magic course.”

Ichie’s eyes widened. “You failed the entrance exam for the magic course? I heard that test was hard, but I didn’t think they’d outright fail anyone who could at least cast a few spells. That means you didn’t even make it to the second half of the assessment, huh?”

“Heh heh… They didn’t like how I kept casting the wrong ones…” Karen turned her head away to mutter under her breath so softly that Mahiru almost didn’t hear, “And all the things I accidentally blew up.”

“But at least you could cast the spells,” Rui piped up to add. “I understand someone like me not being able to get in, since I’ve never considered using magic my entire life, but that seems unreasonably strict of them to turn you away so early.”

Mahiru frowned. She recalled the exam being difficult for her as well, especially with the requests to cast a variety of spells beyond her specializations. But the entrance exam was mainly meant to weed out those who had absolutely no grasp on magic from those who had the potential to do well with training. For Karen to fail even with the ability to perform magic was surprising.

“Well, they could only admit twenty people each year for the magic course, so I can see why they wouldn’t bother if there are better applicants... But how bad can it possibly be?” Ichie wondered.


The gap in abilities between the two quickly became clear. Compared to Ichie’s quick footwork, Karen’s movements were slower than they should be, and far more direct. Her attacks were easy to read and plan around, driven by the heat of the moment rather than tactics. 

In addition, despite being a knight-in-training, Karen’s talent for magic really was absolutely awful.

“She set Otonashi-san on fire again,” Rui mumbled in awe. Unlike the first time, Rui managed to keep a firm grip on her practice sword without dropping it in her shock. “This is the third time in the last… half hour. How do you make someone spontaneously combust so many times so fast?!”

Mahiru had to admit that Karen was rather amazing, but in the worst ways possible. While Karen may have had the stamina to produce an unbelievable amount of magic, her control and capabilities to manipulate her magic—even her elemental affinity—were so poor that Mahiru couldn’t help but feel better about her own shortcomings.

Mahiru had been pulled aside from her classes so many times for her inability to reach the standards her peers could achieve. She couldn’t imagine how many scoldings Karen must have received for doing too much but incorrectly.

Karen scratched the back of her head with a sheepish smile. “Hikari-chan used to say the same thing. She’d put it out with her water magic though…”

“Which I can use,” Ichie smacked the back of her thigh to smother the last of the embers that were burning her cloak, “just not very well. Wind’s just so much more useful and flexible.”

While Mahiru nodded internally to herself, Karen argued, “Non non, fire has to be the best! You can use it to keep warm, cook things, dry yourself—”

“Well sure, but… I’d imagine that’s only true if you can control it.” Rui looked down at Ichie’s noticeably singed clothes. “There’s no point if you, you know, randomly set people on fire.”

“Maybe it would be better if Otonashi-san focused on honing Aijou-san’s magic first?” Mahiru suggested. “At this rate, unless you both sparred without the use of magic, we might accidentally end up destroying Nana-san’s safe zone. Somehow.”

Ichie tilted her head. “Just me? What about you, Mahiru-chan?”

Mahiru just managed to keep her lips from dropping into a frown. She really had to get used to Ichie’s unusual lack of formality. “I don’t think I’d make the best instructor when it comes to magic. I have my own specializations, and I can’t say they pertain to fire magic at all.”

“Really?” Ichie hummed, then shrugged. “Okay, then! While I help Karen-chan with her magic, you can teach Rui-chan some of the basics!”

“E-Eh?!” Rui squeaked. “Tsuyuzaki-san and—?!”

“Oh come on, she doesn’t actually bite! Besides, there’s stuff you wanna ask her, right?”

“Well, yes, but…” Rui’s gaze shifted to Mahiru for a second before snapping back to Ichie. “It’s just…”

When Rui started to half-heartedly shuffle away from her, Mahiru nearly reached up to fix her nonexistent glasses again. Instead, she sighed and curled her fingers to pinch the bridge of her nose. “I don’t mind answering… questions. However, I can’t guarantee to be of much help regarding magic, even with the basics.”

“Really? Even though you’re from a time when magic was used more than ours?” Ichie asked.

I just can’t compare to Yachiyo-chan and the others from my time. Mahiru pursed her lips, pushing those thoughts back. “It’s… complicated. I should be able to gauge whether Akikaze-san has any affinities similar to mine, as well as if she has any aptitude for non-elemental magic. I had mages among my underlings, after all. But a thorough assessment should be reserved for someone with more experience, like Dai—Nana-san.”

Ichie opened her mouth, only to snap it shut a second later. Mahiru guessed she wanted to say more, but for whatever reason only shrugged and slapped Rui on the back so hard that she nearly tripped. “Okay, then! You two have fun talking! I’ll try to see what I can do with Karen-chan.”

Karen scratched the back of her head, standing up to follow Ichie away from the others. “Heh heh. Thanks, Ichie-chan.”

“Sure thing! Okay so, funny story is I also took a while to control fire magic. I mean, I don’t use it often, so there’s a chance I could also set something on fire on accident…”

“Eh? Really?”

Are those two really going to be alright…? Mahiru wondered, watching the energetic duo move to a separate part of the forest clearing. Nana-san asked me to keep an eye on them too, even if I can’t help much in terms of teaching. But…

“Wait, you’re going to—” Rui regained her footing as she glanced back and forth between Mahiru and the two retreating away from them. “EH?!”

Mahiru sighed. One thing at a time. I’ve dealt with multiple people who have needed help at once. I just have to remember how I did it. Or rather, how Jay Moriarty did it.

Which was unexpectedly easier said than done. When she tried to recall her experiences as the Napoleon of Crime, it was not as herself standing in front of miscellaneous underlings with Arsene Lupin skulking around nearby. Instead, all she could see was a chessboard of stone pieces, murky faces of past challengers, and Nomina as the partner by her side.

By her side? Yes, but also closer than that. On her… everywhere…

“I don’t mind this forward side of yours, you know? It’s…relieving, I should say.”

Mahiru slapped her face with both hands. Heat seeped into her palms as she fought down a groan. If only that were normal for me…

“Um… Tsuyuzaki-san…?”

Mahiru snapped her head up from her hands. There was no time to fight against the clear blush heating her face. “Y-Yes?”

Rui blinked. “Is… Is there something wrong?”

Everything is wrong, Mahiru mentally groaned to herself. But that wasn’t a thought a stranger like Rui needed to know. “I-It’s nothing; I just remembered something embarrassing from my magic classes as a student,” Mahiru said instead, forcing her hands to lower to her sides as calmly as she could. “I wasn’t...the best, in all honesty. I had to drop out.”

“Eh?! But you’re James Moriarty!” Rui said, taking a step forward even as she clutched her practice sword closer to her. “Or, um…rather, Jay Moriarty. From the stories, it seemed like you knew so much and could do anything! I don’t agree with stealing from all those people, though…”

‘James’? To think my reputation carried on long enough to be distorted like that… 

It was a strange feeling, knowing that she had been remembered in some form for all of those decades. The heated flush on her cheeks quickly cooled off with the sobering reminder that fiction didn’t always equate to reality. 

“Was everything I did really worth remembering?” Mahiru muttered, her hands clenching into fists as her gaze briefly swept away from Rui and down to her boots.

“Tsuyuzaki-san?”

Mahiru sighed, pushing down her usual anxieties once more. There was no point in roping Rui into problems she wasn’t privy to. “It’s...nothing. I’m just surprised people still know of me after all of these years.”

“Really? But you and Tsuruhime-san did so much at the time. Or at least...it sounded like you did.” Rui shook her head quickly. “Not that I think stealing from others is right, but the stories of your thefts and activities stood out more than just the random crimes you hear about. Like the escapades of the pirate duo behind the Maera Marauders, it seemed like your heists were more…focused? Like there was meaning behind them; not just because of greed.”

Greed? No… At least on her end, it had never been about greed or the desire to surround herself in wealth and fame. The treasures had been a nice byproduct, managing all of those underlings under her command had made her feel more reliable than she probably was, and the thrill of the heists had been intoxicating, but the end goal was still to—

Mahiru managed to hold back her indignation, releasing only a single, quipped huff. “Of course. Yachiyo-san and I might have been thieves, but there’s no dignity when you simply take from others with no plan or organization. You’d be little more than a thug on the streets or a plunderer on the battlefield at that point.”

Rui’s entire stance seemed to have shifted; her once-stiffened shoulders starting to relax. “The James Moriarty from the stories was cold, calculating, and meticulous. That person sounded like an unapproachable genius who made sure everything went their way.”

Well, that was certainly how Mahiru tried to be. It would be impossible to wrangle together unruly underlings who thought they could take advantage of her, after all. Warring nations like Seisho and Siegfeld needed to see her as a threat to their operations, too. The warm, helpful girl she had been in her academy days had no place in the grand scheme of things. 

“You’re a lot different from the stories, though,” Rui admitted, shifting her body weight from one leg to the other. While both hands were still wrapped around her practice sword’s hilt, the grip didn’t seem to be as tight as a vice as before. “Even as Bossa you weren’t the same as the Moriarty I’ve heard and read about. You’re… nicer.”

Mahiru tensed. She had originally thought Rui’s shyness was a result of her own general reservations around people. But now that Mahiru considered it, the reason for her distance to Mahiru must’ve been much simpler than that.

“Did you think of Yachiyo-san and I as selfish murderers?” she asked in a quiet voice.

She wouldn’t be surprised. She couldn’t recall Rui, Karen, or Ichie very well, but she had a hunch that Bossa Nomina must have defeated at least one of them. Although none of their noteworthy challengers seemed to match any of the three, Mahiru was certain that their ends must not have been pleasant at all.

“N-No!” Rui bit her lip, averting her gaze from Mahiru’s. “Well, truthfully, a little bit. N-Not because of your past as Moriarty! But because… well… you look very similar to Bossa.” Rui sighed. “I’m sorry. I know it’s unreasonable to think so; I have to keep reminding myself that the things you did as Bossa Nomina don’t reflect your true selves. But…”

“The things I did as Bossa…” This time, it was Mahiru who turned away from Rui. “There is a lot that I don’t remember too well. I can’t even clearly recall when you or the others challenged us, let alone how we might have… defeated you.”

Rui chuckled nervously. “To be fair, I was never very good at chess. It sounds like I did better than Otonashi-san, though. Apparently she’s absolutely no good at logic games.”

Ah. So that was Otonashi-san. Mahiru did recall someone falling to them so fast that Yachiyo—or rather, Nomina—had been so displeased, she almost went too easy on their next challenger.

“I’m sorry for all of the trouble we’ve caused,” was all Mahiru could offer, glancing back.

“Well...it’s not really your fault, I guess? I fell under Maesterion’s curse, too. I could have hurt Shiori-san, but it all seems to have worked out.” 

Finally removing one hand from the hilt to lower her practice sword, Rui placed her other hand over her heart. 

“Shiori-san gave us another chance by bringing us here. I may not be able to leave this safe zone for now, but I should be ready for when I can help her. What I’ve done as a monster under Maesterion’s control isn’t something I should worry about.” Rui’s shoulders drooped as she sighed. “I don’t think Shiori-san would let me worry about that, anyway. She was always reassuring me whenever I was troubled.”

“She sounds like a good friend.” If anything, this Shiori sounded too nice of a person. Wasn’t there anyone telling her that she was risking too much? Then again, I don’t know who she has in her life. The only person who seems to have been helping her is Daiba-san, and if anything she seems to be encouraging this behavior…

Mahiru’s lips tugged into a thoughtful frown. “But… Another chance, you say?”

“Ah! Not to atone for what you did as Bossa or anything! Although, I wouldn’t stop you if you wanted to...” Rui rubbed the back of her head, sheepishly glancing away. “I was thinking more along the lines of after all of this, and living out the rest of your life that you couldn’t. You’ve been here longer than Otonashi-san, but you don’t look that much older. I’m sure there were a lot of things you wanted to do before you lost to Maesterion. You and Tsuruhime-san.”

Mahiru stiffened. “Eh? With… With Yachiyo-cha—cha—san?”

Rui tilted her head to the side, eyebrows knitting together in confusion. “Am I wrong...? She’s your partner, right? I’d imagine you two would continue traveling together after this.”

“C-Continue traveling with Yachiyo-san? What we’re going to do after leaving the crypt…” 

Emotions sobering, Mahiru dropped her gaze away from Rui again. 

“No, no… That wasn’t part of the plan. Stealing the artifacts in this crypt was supposed to be our last operation together as thieves. After that, I was going to reunite with my family. And Yachiyo-san…” Mahiru’s shoulders hunched to her ears. “I didn’t want to trouble her any more by dragging her along with me. She always faithfully executed my plans, even when they posed significant danger to herself. I couldn’t ask any more from her.”

“Then… you and Tsuruhime-san would have gone your separate ways?”

“Yachiyo-san would have continued her career as Arsene Lupin. I didn’t want to leave her alone, but she was the one who convinced me to go.”

Rui’s eyes widened. “Tsuruhime-san was the one who urged you?”

“Yachiyo-san would be just fine without my help. She’s extraordinary even on her own.” Unlike me. “In the end, I was the one walking away from that life. Discarding the mantle of Moriarty and going back to my family… that was what I had decided was right.”

Everything she had done as Jay Moriarty—every theft, every crime, every act of defiance—had all been for their sake. To undermine and end the wars by imploding the nations from within; to cripple the leading powers so thoroughly that no one would lose their families to battles like that again. 

“And Tsuruhime-san agreed? You would think—” Rui muttered something under her breath that Mahiru didn’t fully catch. “—but that’s… unexpected.”

“‘Unexpected’?”

“At least for me it... doesn’t align with what’s been passed down about you two. When Shiori-san and I discussed our troupe’s performance of The Thief Who Spins the Spider’s Web together—”

The Thief Who Spins the Spider’s Web? Wait, performance? As in… on the stage? Mahiru endeavored to fight back the heat creeping onto her cheeks. So stories of our lives were passed down in that format as well…

“—Shiori-san had mentioned that your partnership seemed tenuous at times, but I always thought you two were rather close.” Rui frowned, taking a small step toward her. “That said... the accounts might not be entirely correct, since apparently you’re not a man at all. But is it true that Lupin visited you often?”

“They even kept that detail?” Mahiru coughed into her fist, trying in vain to stop the growing flush on her cheeks. “Yes, that… that part is true. Yachiyo-san and I were aware of the locations of our respective hideouts. She would visit me from time to time, even when we had no prior engagements together.”

“You two didn’t share one hideout?”

“We were partners, but that didn’t necessitate the same base of operations.”

“And Tsuruhime-san would just… pay you a visit? Without telling you beforehand?” Barely audible, Rui muttered, “Isn’t she like one of those cats that come and go as they please?”

Mahiru shrugged helplessly. An observation like that wasn’t wrong; she had thought so too on more than one occasion. “I grew to expect her random visits. Sometimes she would even stay for the night, so I eventually made a guest room for her to use.”

“Then...isn’t that the same as moving in with you?” A slight heat gathered on Rui’s cheeks. “Standards must have been so different back then…” 

“R-Really? Is it strange for people nowadays to have guests over from time to time?”

“It’s not that it doesn’t happen,” Rui said, lowering her free hand to fidget with the hem of her shirt. “But when someone comes over that often, and for you to give an entire room to that guest…”

Mahiru coughed into her first again. “It was really to give Yachiyo-san an actual bed to sleep on instead of my settee. In reality, she treated my entire hideout like it was her home.”

“That’s even weirder!”

Mahiru jumped at Rui’s sudden outburst. “H-How so?”

“That’s more than just an uninvited cat! If you were fine with it, then that’s like… like… like you two were already a couple living together!”

“Th-That’s not true.” Mahiru looked away, wringing her hands together. Dropping her voice, she whispered, “If that were true, wouldn’t Yachiyo-san have told me how she felt?”

“She hasn’t?” Rui’s eyes widened. “Wait, have neither of you said anything?!”

“What difference would that have made? What purpose does that serve between two accomplices in crime?”

“I’m sure it would have been nothing if you only treated Tsuruhime-san like a business partner. But that never seemed like that was the case. Not from stories passed down through history, as inaccurate as they may be. And not from what you’ve just told me.”

“It’s not as simple as you think.”

“Actually, I don’t understand anything at all.” Rui scratched the back of her head, gaze turned downward again. “I don’t want to ask too much, but it’s not like I know anything about how thieves and heists work.”

“But you’re curious,” Mahiru deduced.

Rui snapped her head up. “O-Of course!” Blushing again, she reined herself back and lowered her voice. “Well, it’s just— Knowing that history got your gender wrong of all things makes me wonder what else about Moriarty and Lupin might be different. Particularly the bond between you two…”

Suddenly, Rui’s blush and her fidgeting started to take on another meaning. The epiphany hit Mahiru like an ogre’s bludgeoning club. Oh. Akikaze-san wasn’t only wary of us because of the fate she suffered. She’s surprisingly a romantic… 

When was the last time Mahiru had spoken to anyone about her feelings? Barring the years she had spent under Maesterion’s curse, the last person would’ve been Yachiyo herself. Not that Mahiru could talk to Yachiyo about Yachiyo, and asking her underlings for love advice would have only led to outrageous suggestions. So the only option would have been her family, whom she had planned to return to after leaving the crypt. And that hadn’t happened.

Meanwhile, Rui was a complete stranger; strangers shouldn’t have to listen to her problems. But at the same time, it was perhaps precisely because Rui was someone so far removed from herself and Yachiyo that made her a good candidate for…dumping her feelings.

No, not dumping. Just… talking. Yes. A casual discussion. I’ll go about this slowly, making sure I speak my thoughts in a way that’s not directly asking Akikaze-san for her help. If she’s willing to listen, then…

Mahiru sighed, shoulders falling in defeat. “You’re right—I never told Yachiyo-san about how I felt toward her. There was never a good chance, given the wars and our own busy lives. And even if I did, this isn’t something I wanted to burden Yachiyo-san with.”

“B-But you were both so close as Bossa Nomina! I get that Maesterion’s curse may have warped your personalities and memories, but it really felt like you two were already far past the early stages.” Rui took a step back, eyes widening. “Actually, doesn’t this mean you haven’t even made it to the starting line?!”

Mahiru winced at hearing that observation out loud. I’ve thought of it before, but it sounds too pathetic when Akikaze-san puts it that way. Wait, in the first place…

“You seem surprisingly knowledgeable about relationships, Akikaze-san,” Mahiru pointed out. It was one thing to be a romantic; it was another to offer insights that seem to come from personal experience. And there was something about Rui that Mahiru felt strangely connected to. 

The slight flush that had been present on Rui’s cheeks before grew in strength. “N-Not really. I’ve only been dating for a year—that is, if you don’t count however much time has passed since Fumi-san first came here.”

“‘Fumi-san?’ Your partner also ventured here?”

“She was actually the first member of our troupe to leave in search of the Devil’s Crypt,” Rui sheepishly admitted. “I’m not sure what she was looking for, but she was gone for long enough that the rest of us were worried. Especially Shiori-san, since, um… since Fumi-san is her older sister and all...”

“Her older sister?” The pieces slowly came together in Mahiru’s mind. Once the dots were all connected, Mahiru could only stare and blink back at Rui as she remarked, “You’re dating your friend’s older sister, and now they’re both trapped in this crypt with you… No wonder you’re so protective of Shiori-san.”

“I-It isn’t just because of that!” Rui’s tense shoulders fell. “I feel like it’s partially my fault that Shiori-san followed the rest of us here, too. If she came looking for us, that means we’ve all lost to Maesterion. But the selfish part of me hopes that Shiori-san succeeds where we’ve all failed. I’ve missed everyone, and I can’t wait to see Fumi-san again…”

Rui’s grievance toward her partner was understandable. But the difference between them was that Mahiru had already been preparing for the inevitable future where she wouldn’t see Yachiyo for years—or perhaps longer.

In a sense, Mahiru was lucky to have had Yachiyo as her partner even after they had turned into Maesterion’s subordinates. So why do I feel so dissatisfied anyway?

To be so close to one another, yet still so far from mutual understanding. Yachiyo had been right there, yet it hadn’t been Yachiyo at all. At least, in the same way that Mahiru couldn’t completely reconcile herself with Bossa as of yet.

Disconnection because of a physical or metaphorical distance—Mahiru wondered which was worse.

Rui’s soft sigh pulled Mahiru from her maelstrom of thoughts. “Still, I’m grateful for Shiori-san’s efforts. If she can really pull this off, then it’s only a matter of time until we’re all reunited. At least, that’s what I believe.”

Memories of twin axes, blades dripping with her blood, and the haunting echoes of a song sung by a solo star. Despite her fragmented and blurred memories, Mahiru didn’t think she could ever forget how dangerous their enemy was.

“This crypt won’t be so easy to clear,” she warned, her throat running dry at the thought of facing Maesterion again as a human.

“I know. But Daiba-san said not to worry; that we should trust in her, or at least...we should trust in Shiori-san’s determination to save all of us.” Rui’s red eyes shone with a naivety Mahiru had left behind long ago at Pleiades. “I don’t know what she meant by that specifically, but I know we can’t go out there like this and clear it ourselves. So I’ll do whatever I can to help Shiori-san, and we can all go home together.”

“That’s… very hopeful.” And a small part of Mahiru really wanted Rui to be right—that the crypt’s newest challenger would be the one to defeat Maesterion and save them.

Rui’s hopeful expression suddenly sobered into a thoughtful frown. “But Daiba-san also said nothing is guaranteed, so bringing us all back into the safe zone is at least a backup in case things don’t work out on Shiori-san’s end. Even if we’re trapped here, at least we’re all still human and out of Maesterion’s influence. So if things do go horribly wrong, then this place would be where we could form another plan and counterattack somehow.”

“I suppose that’s true. But who knows how long that could take, with the limited information we have and our limited means to gather more.” Mahiru glanced down at herself, recalling Nana’s appearance—her unchanged appearance, after all this time. “Can we afford the time? Do we even age here?”

“I guess that’s something we can ask Daiba-san.”

Yes. There are definitely a lot of things we need to ask that mage.

“There are a lot of things I want to ask Shiori-san and the others, too; Fumi-san most of all,” Rui continued, shifting her weight from one leg to the other. “I wish I hadn’t hesitated back then—if I had known what was troubling her, then maybe… maybe she wouldn’t have come to such a dangerous place. There were so many things I wish I could have told her, but didn’t. And now…”

They were similar, Mahiru realized. How many times had she come close to speaking her true feelings? How many times had her doubts convinced her to hold herself back? When would she be able to escape from this cycle of uncertainty? In the first place, did Mahiru even have the strength to do so?

“What...should I do?”

“Tsuyuzaki-san...?”

“The things I want to tell Yachiyo-san… If I could—”

“AAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!”

Mahiru’s heart would have leapt up to her throat if it could still move. Somber thoughts pushed to the side, she shifted to a more cautious stance as something raced past herself and Rui. The blur circled around and ran back to them, stopping between the two as she patted the top of her head to put out the embers at the tip of her ahoge.

“Okay, not that. Definitely not that,” Ichie grumbled to herself.

Karen’s cry filtered past the trees, growing louder as she stepped out and ran toward them. “I’m sorry, Ichie-chan! I thought I’d get it right that time!”

Once her lavender hair was no longer on fire, Ichie straightened up and called back, “Me too, actually! I swear there’s something we’re both missing…”

Karen stopped in front of them, glancing back and forth from Rui and Mahiru. “Uh… Were we interrupting something?”

“You look like there’s something important on your mind, Mahiru-chan,” Ichie said as she placed her hands on her hips, eyes bright and expectant.

Mahiru shook her head. “No, it’s noth—”

“Is it about Yachiyo-chan?”

Mahiru stiffened. “What… What makes you say that?”

“Heh heh. Call it Ichie-chan’s intuition!”

Karen chuckled sheepishly. “And because you were glancing at her almost as much as she was looking at you while we were all eating. At least, that’s what Ichie-chan said.”

“I thought you were both immersed in the conversation going on…” Rui mumbled.

“Heh, you can say I have a knack for reading the mood!” Ichie winked. “I just learned to ignore it and try to make things less awkward if there’s an elephant in the room. But since I don’t know Mahiru-chan or Yachiyo-chan all that well, I didn’t know how to do that.”

“Th-There’s nothing going on between Yachiyo-chan and I!” Mahiru protested.

Ichie wiggled her eyebrows. “Oh ho? ‘Chan,’ huh? You two definitely sound close.”

“Closer than just business partners, at least,” Rui piped up. “You let Tsuruhime-san visit without complaints, and even gave her a room.”

“Really?” The smile Karen offered her was as warm as the sun above. “Tsuyuzaki-san, you must really like Tsuruhime-san a lot!”

Her face felt like it was going to burst into flames, much like Karen’s spells. Her cheeks were definitely flushed by now. “Th-That’s not… I…”

She did. Oh, Mahiru cared too much. As much as she wanted to deny it, she knew that everything she had done as Bossa—at least in terms of her affections towards Nomina—were all acts she had wanted to share with Yachiyo that she had previously locked away. Every lingering touch, every embrace, every kiss, every desire—it was all true.

They were all true to Tsuyuzaki Mahiru, but also desires she had to deny herself. She may have wanted Yachiyo to stay with her, but that wasn’t something she could impose upon her partner. Not with everything else Yachiyo had already taken on for her. 

Mahiru’s shoulders drooped, hands clenching by her sides. The flush on her cheeks died at the reminder that the two of them had also died, long ago. And more than once after that. “I can’t burden Yachiyo-san with more than I already have.”

No matter how much she wanted Yachiyo to be with her.

Karen frowned. “If that’s how you feel… But, did Tsuruhime-san ever say it was too much?”

It was just a simple question, but it sent a new sense of doubt—different from the usual—through her. “What?”

Ichie nodded fervently. “True, true! Yachiyo-chan seems like the type who’d voice her dislikes if she really didn’t like them.”

“Really?” Rui wondered. “I get that she seems to be the honest type, but that doesn’t seem right either…”

Ichie tapped a finger to her chin, humming thoughtfully. “Yeah, she does come across as a little hard to read. But she seems fun! Is there a reason why you think she wouldn’t want to be with you, Mahiru-chan?”

“I can...think of several,” Mahiru sighed, trying to clear her head of the unruly maelstrom of thoughts that had sprung from Karen’s question. “Every time something went wrong… Even against Maesterion, it was my mistake that caused us to fall into her grasp.”

“Is it really? I mean, Maesterion’s a pretty tough enemy. I don’t think it’d be any one person’s fault.”

“And I don’t think Tsuruhime-san would blame you anyway, Tsuyuzaki-san,” Karen cheerfully added. “I mean, it wouldn’t be fair to.”

Mahiru pinched the bridge of her nose in lieu of adjusting her nonexistent glasses. “I don’t know what Yachiyo-san could be thinking. I’m supposed to be her partner, yet I feel like I can’t understand her at all. And with how she’s been avoiding me since we revived…”

“Maybe Tsuruhime-san is having the same doubts as you are?” Karen pointed out. “She could be trying to sort out her own thoughts too, and gave you your own space to do that. Hikari-chan did that sometimes.”

“In the first place, you won’t know what she’s thinking unless you ask her!” Ichie grinned, tugging at Mahiru’s arm. “After all, communication is the best way to resolve problems!”

“But—”

“No buts!”

“Non non dayo!”

Beside them, Rui sputtered into an awkward giggle. As for Mahiru, she had no idea how to deal with these two forces of nature.

Where do these two get their confidence?!

Ichie huffed. “We’re going to be spending a lot of time together in Nana-chan’s safe zone until Shiori-chan can beat Maesterion. And since she only just got through the first zone, who knows how many more challenges she’ll have to go through first?”

“So it won’t be good if you and Tsuruhime-san stay awkward around each other!” Karen said.
“While we’re all here—”

“And stuck here,” Ichie added.

“—this is the best chance for you to confess your feelings!”

Something in Mahiru’s brain short-circuited. She should have known this was leading up to this, but she hadn’t expected people she had just met to state it so bluntly.

Ichie took a step back, eyes wide as well. “Wow Karen-chan, that was a pretty big leap. I just wanted them to talk about stuff, but that’s really jumping the gun.”

“Eh? Isn’t that the whole point? I thought both Tsuyuzaki-san and Tsuruhime-san needed to be completely honest with each other.”

“That’s way too much at once!” Rui exclaimed, the heat on her cheeks matching the one that had returned on Mahiru’s.

Ichie shrugged. “Well, in any case...something needs to be said! No point in standing back and twiddling your thumbs. If you don’t know what Yachiyo-chan thinks of you, and she won’t tell you herself, then you just have to get it out of her!”

“I-Is it really okay for me to be so… forward?”

Karen nodded. “Of course! I’m sure Tsuruhime-san would appreciate it too.”

Hadn’t Yachiyo mentioned something like that? Actually, it was technically Nomina, but if Bossa was Mahiru then Nomina would be Yachiyo as well. Because they were the same person, that would mean those had been Yachiyo’s sentiments as well.

Mahiru internally groaned. My head hurts…

Ichie shuffled over to pat Mahiru on the back. “Don’t worry, Mahiru-chan. I’m sure it’ll all be fine!”

“I’m sure it’ll be just fine, Mahiru-chan!” Karen added with a wide smile.

“‘Cha—?!’ Aijou-san too?”

Karen scratched the back of her head with a light chuckle. “It feels better that way. Don’t you think? Being able to talk freely with each other?”

In the past, longer than it should have been, that was what Mahiru had thought as well. Yachiyo had skipped straight to using her first name, but it had taken Mahiru longer to switch the names herself. Even so, Yachiyo had never pushed. She had made sure her own comfort was known, but never forced Mahiru to reciprocate.

“I don’t mind this forward side of yours, you know?” Nomina had said. “It’s…relieving, I should say.”

Yachiyo-chan has always been like that. And even now, she’s waiting… for me. Mahiru realized. When I first woke up here, she was the one who was by my side. Things were awkward, but she still answered what I wanted to know. Then there were the glances I barely noticed, even though everyone else did...

Slowly, too late, understanding began to dawn on her. Is Yachiyo-chan… also worried about something?

Clenching her fists at her sides, Mahiru swallowed hard and asked, “So I should just… talk to Yachiyo-san?”

“Yep!” Karen and Ichie chorused. Beside them, Rui hesitantly nodded, but it was still an affirmation nonetheless.

Their encouragement was contagious somehow. Their confident expressions sent a brief wave of calm through Mahiru, loosening her tense muscles enough for her hands to relax at her sides. She was finally able to take a deep breath, her thoughts a little clearer for now.

Though from an elderly woman, the bright smile sent her way dazzled Mahiru just as much as an innocent child would. “You be safe, Mahiru. Good luck.”

“But what if I can’t?”

The woman shook her head, tutting her like Mahiru was still five years old. “If it’s you, Mahiru, you can definitely find your place in this world. Even if you can’t see it now, we all believe in you.”

Obaa-chan had said that once to me, hadn’t she? But it wasn’t just her grandmother who had seen the potential in Mahiru that she herself could not. Her family, her friends and peers, her underlings who had followed Moriarty’s command, and even Yachiyo in her own roundabout way had been patiently waiting for Mahiru to actualize her true strength.

I’ve kept everyone waiting for long enough. Gathering all of her own courage, she spun around and marched toward the door leading back into the cabin area. At least, starting with this…!

“Good luck, Mahiru-chan!” Karen and Ichie called from behind her.

“She’s not going off to war or anything!” Rui protested.

With how clammy her hands were, Mahiru honestly felt like that wasn’t entirely inaccurate. Although this didn’t compare to the violent battles that had taken her family, nervousness and fear were still emotions she was far too familiar with. But she needed to know if Yachiyo shared the same feelings—that their personas as Bossa Nomina meant more than just their roles on Maesterion’s stage.

So Mahiru took another deep breath, gathered her wits, and threw open the door to find her partner to solve the mystery of this complicated romance.

Chapter Text

"Are you all right...?"

The girl before her jolted in surprise from a spot between the bookshelves, knees drawn up to her chest and arms wrapped around her legs. Long dark hair framed a face flushed from crying as the girl looked up, blue-grey eyes misty with more tears to come. Affixed to the lapel of her uniform's jacket was the red starburst pin of the Support course.

"I-I'm…" The girl sniffled, averting her gaze back to the floor. "I-It's nothing. Just...mock exams, and all. I didn't do so well."

"Well… Things like that do happen." She took a seat to the girl's right, legs stretched out in front of her as she fiddled with her own starburst pinpurple, for Illusion. "With final exams for the semester coming up, I'm sure the instructors are just as on edge as the students. Guests from the different nations will be around, after all."

The girl groaned, dropping her head to her knees. "Don't remind me…"

"Sorry, sorry~! I thought it would be reassuring to know that everyone else is also in a mess right now."

"I doubt they're in as much of a mess as me, though..." the girl lamented, peeking her head up from her knees to look at her. With another sniffle, she asked, "Why are you here?"

"Books for class; what else?" she answered, tilting her head with a faint grin. That grin softened a moment later at the girl's watery blink. "Although… it seems I've found something more important than an essay. While I can't promise I'll be of much help, I suppose I can lend an ear if you're willing."

The girl's shoulders hunched further. "I-I wouldn't want to be a bother…"

"You're hardly being a bother." She lifted her own in a brief shrug. "And besides, I'd feel a little bad if I did nothing while someone's crying right in front of me."

For a moment, only the girl's quiet sniffles broke the silence between them. Her gaze had averted back down to the library's wooden floorboards. But, at the very least, her tears seemed to have stopped.

"I… This is something have to deal with," the girl said at last, only the barest quiver in her voice. "You have your own studiesI can't ask that of you. I don't… I don't know what I'd do if I caused someone to fail again because they were trying to help me."

'Again,' hm?

She sighed, shaking her head and rising to her feet with the same deftness from her performances. "Well… if that's how you feel, there isn't much I can do about that. Though I must say, thinking I would fail so easilyisn't that taking me a little too lightly?"

The flush on the girl's cheeks grew. Her gaze swept up to meet hers, wide and panicked. "N-N-No, I meant…! That is, I didn't mean!"

That's better.

"Just kidding~! I do appreciate your concern, though," she said, her lips curling into an amused smirk. Brushing any traces of dust off the trousers of her uniform, she continued, "That said, it never hurts to take a break, especially in times of stress. I'm sure you're aware of the academy's different clubs?"

The girl blinked owlishly. "Clubs?"

"Oh, dear. There is such a thing as taking things too seriously, you know? They may be preparing us for war in this academy, but our youth is still our youth." She gave another hapless shrug. "If you ask me, it's best to enjoy it while you still can."

They were borrowed words, but the sentiment was still genuine. Or at the very least, it was as genuine as she would allow herself.

"I-I still have so much to do…"

"And that's completely up to you. Just a suggestion, and nothing more." She tapped a finger to her chin as she walked over to the bookshelf to the girl's left. "But if you do find yourself with time, I hear the theatre club is performing a short play tonight."

A twitch of the girl's shoulders from the corner of her eye; quick as can be and barely there, yet she caught it all the same. It took skill to keep track of marks, after alleven the smallest of movements could go a long way when parting someone from their valuables. It was a careful, intricate, partnered dance of timing and finesse to steal in plain sight.

This girl, however, was no mark worth stealing from. She bore no emblem of a noble house, and her hands were too rough from hard work. As with many of the Pleiades Academy's students, she was likely a victim of the warsanother potential soldier seeking to do her part to end it one way or another. Or a healer wanting to save what she could.

There was also the possibility of personal recruitment by the headmistress herself, but that didn't seem likely. It took a monster to find other monsters, and this girl was more of a lost lamb than anything else.

A girl like that shouldn't be living this sort of life.

"Do you like plays?" she asked, breaking the short silence that had fallen between them. She plucked a book from the shelf, pushing aside the familiar discomfort that had begun to coil around her spine from her thoughts. "Even if you don't, I'm sure you'll find something to like about tonight's performance. At the very least, it's fine enough as a distraction."

"My…" She heard the girl swallow. "My grandmother loved them."

"And you? I did ask about you, after all."

She idly glanced over the book's cover as she waited, her thumb brushing over the gilded letters. History had always been one of her stronger points in her studiesan essay regarding the final, tumultuous years of the Ebisu reign wouldn't be difficult at all. If she recalled correctly, this book was one of the more reputable accounts due to the author's moderate views.

The perks of completing an education in neutral territory, Yachiyo mused as she tucked the book into the crook of her arm. It's too bad there aren't many primary accounts to pull from, especially from the princess herself.

Beside her, she heard the girl shift before finally replying in a quiet voice, "I don't...dislike them."

A layered answer; one that had her lips quirking into a faint grin. "'If it weren't for these wars', hm?"

The girl jolted in surprise. "How did you…?"

"It's not an uncommon sentiment among the students, you know. Even the faculty and staff harbor similar thoughts." She turned to face the girl, teal eyes meeting a surprised blue-grey. Offering a wink and holding a finger up to her lips, she continued, "But don't let the headmistress hear that, okay~?"

A light pink dusted over the girl's cheeks, slowly spreading to her ears. Her mouth parted a bit, lower lip quivering as her fingers twitched around her knees. It even seemed like the mini twin pigtails tied on each side of her head were twitching in time to her fingers. The sight was unexpectedly cute, causing her to almost miss the girl's next words.

"Um…! What is your name? I-If you don't mind me asking..."

"Tsuruhime Yachiyo," she answered, tilting her head slightly with a disarming smile. "And yours?"

"I'm—"


Tsuyuzaki Mahiru. Come to think of it, she had heard that name in passing before. While there were many students known for their failures, there were few among them so perplexing.

She was a mage capable of above average support magic, yet she couldn't cast a single one on herself. Not for lack of trying, from the sound of it. If anything, she often tried too much. Taunts from her peers had slowly turned to pity; pity had eventually turned to encouragement. For a girl who continued to desperately try, and remain unrewarded for her efforts… Well, anyone with common decency would end up frustratingly wishing for her to succeed, if even by the barest amount.

Yachiyo sighed, reaching for the pendanta fake devoid of any true value, merely fashioned as a prop by one of the conjurerson the dresser. As she slipped it around her neck, fingers deftly working the clasp with practiced ease, her fellow cast members hurried around the dressing room like mice in search of food.

Fifteen more minutes until their show would beginWhile its scale didn't compare to others they had done so far, a production was still a production. She appreciated how seriously each club member took even the smallest of plays. Having been raised by professional performers herself, Yachiyo knew their skills and dedication would give them no problems in finding theatrical careers in the future.

...If it weren't for these wars, of course. Each one of them bore magical skills or martial strength desirable to several of the warring nations. So long as that throne remained empty, there was no way they would be permitted a normal life.

If their lives were more normal, perhaps even Mahiru could get by.

But as it stood, Pleiades and the nations in power would have no need for a support mage who couldn't protect herself in the chaos of war. She would be a liability on the battlefield, her weaknesses outweighing her usefulness.

Yachiyo reached for the earrings next, carefully fixing them on with the dresser's mirror to guide her. Reflected on its smooth surface, she saw a little girl with dirtied cheeks and dull, matted hair. An unforgiving cold nipped at her nose, turning it red. Soot blackened her fingers from the matches held between them.

She briefly closed her eyes, clasping the earrings into place from muscle memory alone. When Yachiyo opened them again, that pitiful girl was gone, replaced by the theatre club's rendition of the lost princess.

It was strange to see her usual pink curls tucked beneath a wig of ginger hair, matching the royals of the Ebisu lineage. The ball gown was a little tight on her, but it was nowhere near the restrictiveness that the true princess must have experienced; Yachiyo had adjusted it herself so that it wouldn't be uncomfortable for her.

However, the comfort didn't take away from any aspect of the design. The naked eye would have mistaken the maroon and orange fabric of the dress to be made of the finest cotton, not something repurposed from a previous play. And due to the puffy dress, there was no need for her shoes to be overly decorated; if anything, the solid burgundy heels were perfect for her.

"Tsuruhime-san, are you ready?" a voice called out amidst the excited bustle of the room, nudging her from her thoughts. Glancing over her shoulder, she spotted a familiar head of wavy, strawberry-blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail. Slightly flushed cheeks stretched into a bright smile her way, brown eyes warm and crinkling at the corners as the girl carefully slipped through to reach her.

Yachiyo offered a smile of her own, albeit faint. "I see you're as eager as ever, Sakura-san. Are all of the props and set pieces in order?"

"Of course! Banbaen-senpai finished her final checks for the set a few minutes ago," Sakura said, holding out the golden scepter she had been clutching in her arms, among other props. A playful gleam danced in her eyes. "And I believe this is yours, Your Highness."

"I suppose this imitation will do," Yachiyo said, accepting the offered item with a mischievous smile and a haughty, regal laugh. Despite the heavy-looking bull ornamentation curling around the scepter's head, it felt as light as a feather. She gave it a brief wave to get used to its weightor lack thereofagain, just as Sakura giggled.

"Oh! We have a bigger audience for this time of the year, according to the others."

"Well, things do seem more stressful this year. It's all the more reason for us to give it our all, hm?"

Sakura nodded enthusiastically, her eyes twinkling like the stars decorating their set pieces. "Would you like to see? They said that even Headmistress Fawsley is here!"

Now that was surprising. The headmistress rarely left the administrative building, only making appearances for ceremonies or when guests came to visit the academy. On the off chance that she was seen roaming about, her face was masked by a thick black veil long enough to cover her entire head and wrap around her shoulders. Crowned upon her head was a laurel wreath of roots so old that they had become wilted and grey, nearly matching the color of her long, floor-length dress.

Fawsley's appearance aside, her capabilities were so great that she could cast spells without a circle or a visible staff, at least for magic such as opening doors and teleportation. Not that Yachiyo considered the latter 'simple,' by any means. Her astronomical capabilities were a mystery that everyone wanted to solve.

...to most of the students, at least. Yachiyo knew better than to poke sleeping monsters.

Yachiyo followed Sakura out of the dressing room and down the hall, slipping through a door leading into the area backstage. All sources of bright light had been put outtorches and candles alikeleaving only a faintly glowing path in the gloom to show the way, courtesy of one of her peers in the magic course. Sakura bounded over to one side of the large, red curtains, where a handful of cast members and stagehands were vying for a chance to discreetly peek through the gap.

"Where is she? Does anyone see her?"

"Shh! What if the audience hears us?"

"Ow, you're stepping on my foot!"

"I can't believe all of you," Sakura chided, lowering her voice even as the audience made a stir of their own on the other side of the curtain. It was doubtful they would hear anything going on backstage. "Why didn't you form a line and take turns? Especially in the dark like this, it's no good to bunch up!"

Yachiyo chuckled, standing a few paces back to avoid any unexpected contact with her costume. "You can hardly blame them for being so excited, if the headmistress really is here."

"I'm excited too, but I can't see!" Sakura huffed, her pout barely discernible in the gloom. "If only I was as tall as my sister, or even just a few centimeters taller!"

"I wouldn't be surprised if you got a growth spurt within a year or two." Yachiyo stepped closer to Sakura, moving her hand from her forehead to the space above the girl's head. "At this rate, you'll probably be taller than me in no time."

"Really?!"

Sakura's louder outburst caught the attention of the rowdy girls crowded around the curtains, cutting in before Yachiyo could reply. Upon noticing the two of them, they released simultaneous gasps in surprise.

"Oh, Tsuruhime-san is here!"

"Yanagi-san, why didn't you tell us you were bringing Tsuruhime-san over?"

"Tsuruhime-san, your eyesight is usually good, right?"

"Oh, yeah! She's always been able to estimate anyone's three sizes just from a single glance!"

Yachiyo giggled. "I've had a good amount of practice over the years, after all."

That, and I would make for a terrible thief if I couldn't get a good view of what I needed to steal, even from a distance. Not that any of these girls needed to know that little detail in her life.

"Do you think you can get a good look for us?" Sakura asked, eyes gleaming with anticipation. "If Headmistress Fawsley really is here…!"

"I suppose I can try to spot our elusive headmistress," Yachiyo said as they made way for her. Peering through the gap, she could see that the audience had settled into their seats. Students, staff, and faculty alike from both courses were in attendance and chatting among themselves. But with this limited view, she could only observe the first few rows.

Calling on her magic, Yachiyo allowed it to shroud her in an illusionone of invisibility, to be precise. A spell like this would usually need a magic circle for it to be cast correctly, but such spells seemed to come easy for her. Even her instructor hadn't been able to detect her for the exam.

Now properly concealed, Yachiyo poked her head out a little more until she could see the audience in their entirety. Like locating a mark in a busy street or plaza, her gaze roved over the crowd in search of her target. Someone as important as a headmistress would normally be found in the best seat of the house, drawing the stares of everyone around her.

But her monstrous magical abilities aside, the woman known as 'Headmistress Fawsley' wasn't exactly normal.

Yachiyo grinned once her gaze met brilliant blue eyes, impossibly locking onto hers from the tenth seat in the third row. Not only had Yachiyo been partially shrouded by the shadows backstage, but her magic had rendered her invisible to everyone else.

And yet, there was no question that woman alone was staring right at her.

Framed by long, wavy blonde hair, those blue eyes narrowed slightly. A grin of her own tugged onto the woman's features as she calmly raised her index finger before her lips. In the distance between them, Yachiyo understood the silent request.

Her peers had made the mistake of searching for 'Headmistress Fawsley,' the veiled enigma overseeing the esteemed Pleiades Academy.

What they should have been searching for instead was

"Um… Tsuruhime-san, are you still there?" Sakura asked from behind her, voice lowered into a stage whisper. "Do you see the headmistress?"

Before Yachiyo could step back and release her spell to answer, her gaze caught something else. Or rather, a lack of something. For in spite of all the people gathered tonight, a certain support mage was nowhere to be seen.

Hm… At the very least, I hope she's taking a break somewhere. Mentally shaking her head, Yachiyo finally slipped back fully behind the curtain. Dispelling her invisibility, she turned around to face those eagerly awaiting her report.

"I suppose you can say that I did." Her lips curled into a smirk as she mimicked the silent request she had been given. "But you'll have to try and spot her for yourselves. It's not fun if I just tell you, hm~?"

A chorus of exasperated "Tsuruhime-saaaan"'s answered her in return. They likely would have tried again in their search, if not for one of the other club members coming over to usher everyone along with the remaining work to be done. Sakura was the first to dart away, nearly dropping her props in her haste.

"I understand being excited, but we still have a show to put on…"

"The final checks are done, aren't they? A little excitement wouldn't hurt at this point, Marina-senpai." Yachiyo mused, giving the scepter a little wave in her direction.

"I guess that's true…" Marina sighed, crossing her arms with a nod. A knowing glint danced in her eyes in the gloom. "So? Was it 'Fawsley', then?"

A monster sought other monsters, or ones close to their level. Perhaps she should feel a little offended that the headmistress had thought of her as something so artless.

Yachiyo's lips twitched into a smirk. "Knightley."

"Ah, no wonder." Marina shrugged. "And none of those girls are in the advanced classes for the knight course. It was a loss from the start, huh?"

"I wouldn't say it was a complete loss. In knowing that she really is here, they'll have to look beyond their own perceptions to find the truth." Yachiyo said, her smirk growing. She pointed with her scepter to where Sakura was peeking through the curtain from the other side of the stage. The props she had been holding were gone, and her expression was one of serious concentration.

"As expected of someone from the Illusion course. You'd make a good senpai."

Yachiyo chuckled, using her scepter to wave off the praise. "I don't hold a candle to the senior students."

"So you say," Marina said, offering a slight smile. "But as our lead tonight, you have no choice! You'll just have to do your best."

"I always do my best, you know? With or without the headmistress in attendance."

"That's true. If anyone among us could stand up to that kind of pressure, it would be you." Marina gave a chuckle of her own, turning around to head further backstage. "Well, good luck out there, Yachiyo-san."

...Luck, hm?

Her early thefts had relied on luck, yes. But as she had developed her skills over time, she had eventually arrived at the point where she could create her own luck. While leaving some things to chance was thrilling in its own right, even those instances were still within her expectations.

Of course, that had extended to the stage as well. She had tempered and refined her acting for this play like a brilliant blade, leaving no room for error. And as the curtain rose and their narrator began their story, Yachiyo felt that not even the headmistress' presence could shake her performance tonight.

Until a sudden burst of movement from the back of the hall caught her eye, halfway through their show.

With her face flushed, eyes wide, and chest heaving for breath, it was clear that Tsuyuzaki Mahiru had run all the way here. Her head turned this way and that, searching for something—was it for an empty seat or Yachiyo herself? She couldn't know for sure.

Not unless, of course, she created her own chances.

"I welcome you, esteemed guests, to the Kingdom of Hyades," Yachiyo said, delivering her line with perhaps more volume compared to their rehearsals. As she dipped into a curtsy, she noted in her peripheral that Mahiru's gaze had whipped around to fully fix in her direction. A faint smile briefly twitched onto Yachiyo's lips, unseen.

"I hope you enjoy your stay, and all of the sights we have to offer." She paused for a moment, then chose to add, "You all have traveled far and wide to our gracious home. Tonight, I hope you may leave your current troubles behind, no matter how pressing they may seem. For tonight, enjoy yourselves, and I will make sure all remains well."


Weeks passed before she saw Mahiru again. Or rather, heard, to be more accurate.

Piano notes drifted to her ears, soft and tender, on her way to a meeting with an advisor. She still had some time, and the song had tickled something at the back of her mind. Following the gentle melody, she found Mahiru seated before a grand piano in one of the recreational rooms. Other instruments lined the room for students to play as they pleased—something Yachiyo had done on more than one occasion in her free time.

Although Mahiru seemed to be engrossed in her song, Yachiyo partially hid herself behind the door for good measure. A faint smile pulled at Mahiru's lips, her blue-grey eyes fixed on the keys before her and gleaming with the light of someone clearly having fun. How different they were, from the worry Yachiyo had first seen in them.

And then she began to sing.

"I had always been looking at you…" Mahiru's fingers glided across the keys, graceful and sure. "It felt as if I had left my loneliness behind…"

It was an old song, composed from a time before their own by an unknown bard. Her parents had sung it to each other, long ago—back when they still had a roof over their heads and war hadn't found them yet. With their gazes so warm and their voices so light, Yachiyo had known even then the sort of song it was.

Mahiru's rendition lacked the palpable affections that her parents had shared between them all those years ago. Instead, a sense of longing laced her voice as she sang the duet on her own. The gentle song nearly tugged Yachiyo from her hiding place to join her, but Mahiru's serene smile kept her from intruding further.

So a worrywart like Mahiru-san is able to relax. Yachiyo's lips tugged up into a small smile as she leaned against the wall. Closing her eyes, she let the soothing melody wash over her own tension.

"Even the moon is smiling at me tonight…"

Upon hearing the next line, Yachiyo took another peek into the room. What she saw was… so bright.

For a girl who had struggled so much to be at ease, the smile Mahiru adorned was brilliant enough to rival the sun. Despite doing nothing more than simply play the piano and sing by herself, it felt as if Mahiru's silent tranquility was a soothing balm to Yachiyo's weary heart.

For a moment, Yachiyo heard a different pair of voices singing the next verse. Closing her eyes, she imagined warm embraces and soft head pats. Memories of a kinder life, of safety and warmth and a full stomach; not the uncertain danger that came with surviving the deadly frigidity of winter on her own as a helpless child.

By her side, Yachiyo opened and closed a fist. There were no matches for her to hold.

"Please look this way…"

"Oh, fly me to the star…" Yachiyo whispered to herself, allowing the song to wash away those memories.

This was the present. She may be alone, but she was alive and safe. The war and its effects loomed outside of Pleiades' walls, but for now she had no reason to worry—not like she had in the past.

There was warmth here. Like a moth drawn to a flame, Yachiyo remained hidden to listen to the rest of Mahiru's song. It was rare to bear witness to such a heartfelt performance, after all. Despite the talent amongst the theatre club's performers, none of them could come close to adapting a duet into a solo as well as Mahiru. And in an informal setting, no less. The intricacy in which Mahiru weaved the melody into a small performance for herself was on a different level from what Yachiyo was used to with her peers.

It reminded her of the first time she had met her guardian—the years she had come to understand that singing and dancing could bring joy to even the bleakest of lives. Yachiyo wondered if Chitose would have taken an interest in Mahiru if the troupe were still around.

The papers in her arms weighed minutely on her mind; her meeting could wait. Right now, Yachiyo didn't mind being the butterfly ensnared in this spider's web of notes. Closing her eyes, another smile quirked onto her lips at the thought.

It wouldn't be the worst end, I suppose.


Every now and then, she would hear Mahiru's piano playing drifting through the air, performing songs beyond the first and just as skilled. She overheard her continued efforts as well, how helpful and supportive she was to her own peers, and her continued failures.

Even the worst student at Pleiades could use a staff of their own. And yet, it was something Mahiru couldn't do either.

Her condition was like a mystery to be solved, whispered in the halls among students and instructors alike. Yachiyo herself had briefly searched through books in the library out of idle curiosity—medical notes, magical theory, and curses.

But even a mystery like this couldn't be solved if the girl in question dropped out of her own accord.


"...Captain Victoria of Siegfeld has expressed interest in recruiting you into the Edels."

Judy Knightley, true headmistress of Pleiades and advanced swordsmanship instructor, calmly slid the letter across her desk as she spoke. Despite the faint smirk on her face, her blue eyes remained as infuriatingly fathomless as ever.

"The choice to accept is, of course, up to you. Though you should be aware that an honor like this isn't offered to just anyone, let alone an illusionist in her second year."

Yachiyo maintained the pleasant smile on her face; if she gave in now, she would lose the battle. Taking the letter, she stated more than asked, "You told her of my other abilities."

"She ascertained your worth on her own at the Stozhary Festival. If she happened to pick up on something beyond your illusions there, well...that's not my fault, hm?" Judy leaned forward to rest her elbows on the desk, steepling her fingers. "Disguising the nature of your spells for another is an admirable feat, though fooling the eyes of that woman is still something beyond you."

Oh, so she's a monster just like you.

"Flattered though I am at being noticed by someone so important, I can't say I entirely understand why she would want me as an Edel. Wouldn't she prefer someone with… you know, more destructive power?" Yachiyo said as she unfolded the letter. Emblazoned at the very top of the page was the proud, white lion of Siegfeld. The message itself was short, written in neat, flowing script.

Across from her, Judy chuckled. "Don't underestimate how destructive dreams can be. Even a single dream is capable of ruining a kingdom and ending a dynasty."

Yachiyo paused, running through her next words to herself in her head. Ultimately, she decided to test her luck and asked, "Is this spoken from personal experience?"

Though the majority of her face remained a mask, Yachiyo detected a minute shift in the headmistress' deep blue eyes. Her pupils narrowed, coupled with a barely perceptible crease in her forehead.

For the first time, Yachiyo thought she could finally grasp at something about this woman.

"It depends." Leaning back in her seat, Judy rested her chin atop her knuckles with a goading grin. "Which aspect would you be referring to, Tsuruhime-san?"

Or maybe she was the one being lured in.

Yachiyo masked her annoyance with a shrug. "There's only a single dedicated section to dream magic within the Illusion course, since there aren't enough students with that affinity to direct resources into an actual one. I figured the headmistress of our illustrious academy would have at least some knowledge on this kind of magic."

Yachiyo couldn't sense any hostility from the headmistress in question, though it wasn't as if she could sense anything from Judy in the first place. Like always, it was hard to gauge the woman's thoughts. I'll just assume it's a good thing that I haven't been expelled or lost my standing yet.

Judy hummed thoughtfully. "While you're not wrong, my role as the headmistress is to oversee this academy in a way that allows students to successfully awaken their latent abilities. It is rather unfortunate that Pleiades no longer has the extensive resources dedicated to a specific course to foster dream affinity users. However, there is perhaps someone I can refer you to."

"Oh?"

Judy's persistent smile now felt like she had spun around and flicked her on the head. And at that moment, Yachiyo realized it was a poor decision to even attempt to play mind games with the headmistress of Pleiades.

"If you wish to know more, perhaps Victoria may be of some assistance in that regard."


"—And there you have it."

Amidst the low bustle of the tavern, her visiting companion remained quiet for a moment longer, then closed her eyes and exhaled the breath she had been holding. "It's...certainly a big decision, yes. Did you give her an answer?"

"I told her I'd think about it," Yachiyo sighed, plucking another pastry from the plate between them. "I have five days to make my decision. And although she said the choice is mine, somehow I doubt a battle-crazy kingdom like Siegfeld would take no for an answer. They can't do anything in neutral territory, but once I step outside of it..."

Siegfeld was the second-largest force in the war. Sparing an Edel or two to confront her after graduation wouldn't be entirely out of the question.

"I'm sorry. I had hoped Pleiades would help develop your magic, but I didn't expect you to be involved in the war." Another sigh as green eyes opened to meet her own. "Or at the very least, not this soon."

Yachiyo's shoulders lifted in a brief shrug as she ate. "It isn't your fault, Chitose-san. A star is meant to shine brightly. If anything, I'd be upset with myself if I made little to no progress with my skills."

"I suppose that's true," Chitose conceded with a begrudging nod. "Under any other circumstances, I would be proud at how strong you've become to be recognized like this. I'm sure your parents would be too. But I can't say I'm not concerned about the idea of you dying on the battlefield."

"This would hardly be the first time I've brushed with death."

She hadn't forgotten the unforgiving cold and the weight of the matches in her hands, or the gnawing hunger that had led her to discover her gift for thievery. Rather, she couldn't forget them even if she tried.

And further back, she couldn't forget the chaos of smoke and fire that had taken her home.

"Melodrama aside, your parents trusted me to take care of you when I became your guardian," Chitose sighed again. "They wanted you to be happy and well. I sent you to school for the possibility of a better life, not to increase your chances of dying young."

Yachiyo finished off her pastry and leaned back in her chair. Lips tugging into a wry smile, she said, "If I play my cards right, I won't die. I suspect what they want me for is something that doesn't involve the frontline, anyway. Though I suppose I can't be sure if it would be any less dangerous."

Chitose groaned into her hands. "You're too smart for your own good, Yachiyo. Why couldn't you have used that pretty little head of yours to settle down with a steady income and a reliable roof over your head?"

"I mean, if you would rather I revisit that profession—"

"I did not mean robbing corrupt nobles in the dead of night who have no eye for anything except their vaults of gold. What is it that folks do these days? Building a stable future, or something along those lines? Maybe finding a significant other, since you find a partnership in that sense appealing." Chitose grabbed another pastry and took a rather aggressive bite. "I was hoping there was someone at that prestigious magic academy who might have caught your eye. But if you're entertaining the thought of going off to war, I guess that was also a failure."

Yachiyo raised an eyebrow. "I thought you wanted me to go to school to focus on my studies."

"I wanted you to experience a normal life. Learning and studying is one thing, but matters of the heart are important too!" Chitose flicked her wrist, crumbs from her half-eaten pastry falling onto the table. "For that matter, when was the last time you've even had a crush?"

"Last year," Yachiyo answered without missing a beat.

And then immediately ducked to the side to avoid Chitose's spitting crumbs. "So there is someone!"

"Was."

"Does that even make a difference?" Chitose gasped, her eyes lighting up in that way whenever romance was involved. "Unless this mysterious someone met an untimely fate. Oh young love, to experience the star-crossed lovers treatme—"

"No one died, Chitose-san. This isn't like one of the plays we used to perform as a troupe." Yachiyo's forefinger traced the rim of her teacup. "She dropped out; that's all. I'll admit she was an interesting person and her songs caught my ear. But nothing came out of it."

"Oh. Well, that's rather unfortunate." Propping her elbow on the table, Chitose leaned her chin on her palm. "But her songs, you say? You've always had a good ear for music. Almost as good as those perceptive eyes of yours."

Yachiyo gasped in mock indignation. "That offends me. You don't think my ears are as fine-tuned as my perfect eyesight?"

"No, I'm saying your eyes are too perfect. No one should be able to tell everyone's three sizes just from a single glance. But maybe those eyes of yours are also what led you to that…" Chitose frowned, "person? Can I at least get a name?"

If Yachiyo's suspicions were right, she doubted anyone would know of Mahiru outside of the academy. She didn't have the martial aptitude that came with a knightly family, nor did she have the mannerisms of a noble. It was unlikely Chitose would know of her, so there should be no harm divulging that information.

Still, Chitose was well-connected around these parts, both from her traveling troupe days and her current job as a merchant. If she had any information she could share…

"Tsuyuzaki Mahiru," she supplied. "Ring any bells?"

Chitose hummed thoughtfully. "I can't say it does. Do you have any other information on her?"

Yachiyo ran what she knew through her head; it wasn't much. "Her affinity was apparently support magic, though she seemed to struggle with it. Aside from a grandmother who loves plays, I'm not aware of her family background or other private details."

"Oh my, and here I thought you would have put in some more effort on researching your crush."

Yachiyo shrugged. "It was just a passing feeling. Something fleeting, like the sun's rise and fall over our sky."

"Oh?" Chitose leaned forward with a smirk, her eyes twinkling. "But you do know that this is an unbreakable cycle for the sun. Even if the sun sets, it'll inevitably rise again to begin a new day. Who knows? Maybe you'll see her again in the future."

For her part, Yachiyo did her best to smother the heat creeping up her cheeks. Judging from Chitose's wink, she was failing spectacularly.

Yachiyo sighed. "Well, I suppose the chances of meeting again are higher as an Edel, if I'm required to travel around. An Edel's mission isn't necessarily confined to the kingdom of Siegfeld—the war has everyone looking to capture territories from others. I'm sure they've tried infiltrating an empire like Seisho, not that I'm aware of what the details surrounding those missions could be."

Chitose's teasing smile sobered into a thoughtful frown. "The Edels are Siegfeld's most elite forces. And fighting on the frontlines isn't the only act of warfare that exists. If you're really going to accept that kind of life…"

"It's not something I'd prefer. But…" Yachiyo grabbed the last pastry on the plate, trying to ignore how the letter in her pocket felt like it was burning through her jacket, "if the Edels are comprised of individuals comparable to the legendary Yukishiro Akira, I'd rather not have those kind of people breathing down my neck."

"Yukishiro Akira, huh? I've always wondered what it would be like if I could have met someone as renowned as Siegfeld's strongest general." Chitose signaled to one of the servers to ask for another cup of tea. "What would you do? If you could meet her?"

"Me?" Yachiyo took a bite out of the pastry to feign a moment of thought. She already knew her answer. "I suppose I'd ask her why she disappeared when the war could have ended in Siegfeld's favor, had she remained on the frontlines. But it's not like that matters anymore. We're the ones who have to deal with this war now."

"And you can do that as an Edel," Chitose stated—whether as a fact or in begrudging acceptance, Yachiyo couldn't fully discern.

So Yachiyo could only offer her a wry smile. "Better than chasing after ghosts, wouldn't you say?"


Apparently the most valuable pearls occurred spontaneously in the wild, but were extremely rare. At least, that was what Captain Victoria had remarked when she had crowned her with the rank of Perle after bringing a traitor to justice. It had been a grand ceremony, attended by most of their order and overseen by the royal family and their court.

But was what she had done truly worth it?

From the start, it had become clear what the Edels needed her to do for the sake of this war. As she had expected, they didn't send her to the frontlines where the battles raged most. Not exactly.

Using her dream magic at Victoria's command, Yachiyo had manifested the worst fears of each opposing soldier, paralyzing them in place as they begged for mercy. After that, it had been a painfully simple matter for Siegfeld's forces to slaughter them where they stood. With such little resistance, their gazes fixed in horror on the nightmares Yachiyo wielded, Siegfeld had emerged victorious in several territorial battles.

If you could call them victories. If you could call them battles. If you could call it something other than a wholly one-sided mass execution.

She had known this was what war entailed. It wasn't the first time she had seen corpses, or people dying before her eyes. But it had been the first time she was directly responsible for them. Even her time as a thief—after her parents died, during Chitose's troupe, before they disbanded—hadn't led to any direct deaths by her hand.

Or at the very least, none that she could witness firsthand. But when she stood directly on the battlefield—whether it be on ravaged terrain or in the shadows of populated cities made no difference to her—there had been nothing to hide from the fires of war. As an Edel, she had been expected to pave the way for Siegfeld to achieve victory. As a soldier, she had no right to look away and cover her ears even as the defeated crawled on the ground begging for reprieve.

There had been no room for mercy when Yachiyo herself could be stabbed in the back at any moment.

Perhaps the Edels under the command of Yukishiro Akira had no need for underhanded tactics such as what Yachiyo had to employ. But that was might and magic prowess that had not been blessed to the generations after Siegfeld's strongest general. Whatever their tactics were back then was something Yachiyo and the Edels didn't have the luxury of utilizing. To survive and advance, she had to keep doing what she excelled at. All she had to do was harden her heart.

"Don't underestimate how destructive dreams can be," Judy had said. "Even a single dream is capable of ruining a kingdom and ending a dynasty."

Yachiyo had thought something so exaggerated was only possible for someone on the level of Pleiades' headmistress or the captain of Siegfeld's Edels. How could she compare to monsters like them?

In hindsight, she should have been more suspicious of Judy's interest in her. Or, perhaps, this simply confirmed something she had known all along.

Monsters sought other monsters, even those who were still fledglings. A few years ago, Yachiyo wouldn't have considered herself anywhere close to that level. Even now, she was barely a graduate with only two decades of life under her belt. That was nothing compared to however long Judy and Victoria had been around. She was talented, but she wouldn't have considered herself as someone who should be feared.

But that was before she had stepped onto the stage known as war. Against the backdrop of ruined towns and crimson fields, it was a setting that cultivated the worst in everyone and everything. There was no room for idealism or congeniality—only the need to survive for a half-remembered cause that no longer mattered to them.

Yachiyo had lost her home and family to these sorts of battles. Now, standing on the other side, she was the one taking them away.

Her parents wouldn't have wanted this. She didn't want this.

Perhaps it had been a small blessing when the opposing forces eventually enacted countermeasures to her magic, warding off what mental attacks they could. Seisho was chief among them as the largest army in this war, favoring quantity over quality in their mages to combat against her. In response, Victoria had reassigned her to other missions while they looked into countermeasures of their own—missions that fell more in line with what Yachiyo had initially expected they needed her for.

From reconnaissance to infiltration, spying and all manner of subterfuge, Yachiyo had found these missions reminiscent of her time as a thief. They suited her more than the battlefield, though it had been no less dangerous. It had been a small victory for her consciousness; as repugnant as it could be, at least espionage didn't typically require taking lives by the masses.

The need to constantly travel and integrate herself into the surroundings of her next target had given her the chance to explore and learn in ways that she never had a chance to. She had met plenty of new people, though it was never her intention to make new, lasting relationships. And meeting old faces would just be detrimental to her mission.

She could never find the one face she wanted to see again anyway.

Disappointment and bitterness had gone hand in hand as the months went on, keeping her up at night. Not that Yachiyo had cared much for dreams lately.

Her dream magic was supposed to be a source of happiness and comfort, meant to put the audience at ease by coaxing forth their hopes. It wasn't meant for killing, nor was it meant for routing out dissent or spies within their ranks.

And yet, Siegfeld had given her medals for it. They had crowned her with the rank of Perle, as if her actions had been as pure and brilliant as the polished pearl it had taken inspiration from.

But real pearls weren't as heavy as the medals adorning her breast. Unlike the actual object, the rank of Perle weighed down on Yachiyo like the peine forte et dure, every accrued success pressing down on her with increasing force.

Anyone weaker would have relinquished their position within the first month, either dead or gone insane. But Yachiyo had stepped onto this stage of her own accord. She would see to it that she completed her role with nothing more than a few offhanded quips to her superiors.

In the end, she was doing more for the war than she had ever done. Her magic was taking lives, but her efforts profited her home country in the long run. As long as there was a purpose to this madness, it was enough for Yachiyo to return to Captain Victoria after every mission with her head held high.

This time was no different.

After a short chat with one of the older Frau Saphirs, Yachiyo entered the council room and stood at the opposite end of the table from where Captain Victoria sat sifting through papers. Yachiyo tucked the folder Kuon Reina had passed her behind her back and gave the captain a bow in greeting.

"I trust you'll take up the responsibility of investigating potential weaknesses in Rinmeiki's empire, then?"

Yachiyo blinked in surprise as she straightened up. "You heard?" Even with the stone walls separating them, it wasn't as if she and Reina had been standing right outside the door.

"These walls aren't as thick as they appear. At least, not for me." Victoria leaned back in her chair. "It shows that you're still green, Tsuruhime."

It took Yachiyo a moment to realize what Victoria had implied, in more ways than one. "Then you heard my conversation with Reina-senpai. Not only that, but Reina-senpai knew you would hear. Was this her way of dumping her work on me?"

"Her position as Frau Saphir isn't simply for show, after all. Her shrewdness could possibly rival the late Ootori Michiru's. And her reconnaissance abilities certainly come close to Yukishiro Akira's closest aide." Victoria fixed her gaze on the folder tucked behind Yachiyo's back. "I'd assume whatever intel she gathered on Rinmeiki's economy will serve us well. Though, Kuon Reina isn't the only capable Edels among our ranks. You'd do well to remember that, Tsuruhime."

Yachiyo chuckled wryly. "I'll keep that in mind. Will you be sending me off to Rinmeiki, then?"

"No." Victoria slid one of her papers across the desk. "You'll be in Siegfeld this time, though I expect you to keep your ears open for any wayward information on Rinmeiki while you're at it. The town is a point of trade for the kingdom, and just so happens to be close to the border there—short of entering the empire itself, you should be able to pick up a rumor or two."

The details written on the paper were short, as per usual for her briefings. A location, any relevant dates, and any people of interest. Her mark this time was a mage specializing in hypnotism and animal familiars. The crude sketch to the side was hardly clear, but at least she had a name she could ask after in town.

Yachiyo furrowed her brow as she read on. "This is… a request from the royal family? Why would they want to kill a mage like this?"

"She supposedly holds information the royal family would rather die with her. Even I don't know what that information is." Victoria crossed her arms over her chest, her ever-present frown deepening at the signature on the paper. "I would go myself, but I'm leading an inspection a couple of towns over. Kuon has her own missions, and you're the best we have left for subtle work."

Yachiyo's lips quirked into a wry smile. "Are you sure you should leave something this important in my hands? A request from the royal family is hardly fitting for a first year Edel."

"You're the youngest to ever reach Perle, your track record is in good standing, and you have Judy's approval. That's enough for me," Victoria readily answered, freeing one hand to pinch the bridge of her nose with a sigh. "Or rather, it has to be enough."

Yachiyo carefully folded the paper into quarters. As with all sensitive documents, she would have to burn it later after properly memorizing its details. "I'll perform to the best of my abilities, as always."

"So you say."

Her years of acting allowed her to betray nothing when Victoria leaned forward, elbows resting on the desk as she steepled her fingers. The captain's eyes were as fathomless as Judy's on that day in her office. But there was no hostility there—at least, none that Yachiyo could sense—rather, it felt almost like pity.

"Your dream magic and illusions can still do more. But, I suppose, it does take skill to forge shortcomings where there are none." A wry smile of her own tugged at Victoria's lips, barely there. "While I can't trust in your complete loyalty, I do trust in your sense of self-preservation. Along with any...mutual interests."

Monsters sought other monsters, after all. Despite their individual interests, there was no doubt that they all wanted this age-old conflict to end. So long as they could win the war and bring it to a close as soon as possible, the individual's concerns were of little importance.

Or at least, that's what I assume the captain is thinking. As long as I continue to produce results, she'll turn a blind eye to my own personal misgivings. Yachiyo fought down a wry smile. What an understanding, terrifying woman.

"Two years of service is the unspoken minimum, as conveyed to me by the royal family. Depending on your performance here, you might not need to wait that long." Victoria spread her hands, as if gesturing to all that laid between them. "Of course, how you conduct this performance is up to you. I recall Judy mentioning you're rather versatile with your roles."

So it all comes back to her. Not entirely surprising, just concerning in more ways than one. Although her curiosity toward Pleiades' headmistress never waned even after graduating, Yachiyo doubted that Victoria would be so forthcoming about that mysterious woman. And it's not like I can just ask her why the headmistress kept such a close eye on me for so long.

"I suppose I should be flattered that the headmistress spoke so highly of me," Yachiyo settled on as a response. "I'm a little worried that I won't live up to expectations."

Victoria grunted, and Yachiyo had to wonder if it was her way of scoffing. "This kind of modesty doesn't suit you, Tsuruhime. You wouldn't be alive right now if you couldn't reach our expectations, let alone standing before me with such a sharp tongue. Though if you're looking for open praise, you've come to the wrong place. Settle for world peace as your reward—if you can accumulate enough successes to reach that point, that is."

'Our' expectations, hm? Well, that's more than I thought I'd get from our esteemed captain in one conversation. It was still unclear what Victoria's history was with Judy Knightley, but Yachiyo figured she could look into that on her own at a later time. For now, she had to 'live up to her expectations' with the current matter at hand.

"Well, I suppose I should be on my way, then. It will take some time to reach Deion, after all," Yachiyo said, slipping her missive into the pocket of her black uniform.

Victoria gave a nod, waving her away with one hand while the other resumed sifting through the papers on her desk. "I'm assuming this doesn't need to be said, but don't let yourself be distracted by what the town has to offer. A newly established trade point attracts all sorts of characters, after all."

Yachiyo raised an eyebrow. "Including someone that the royal family wants removed?"

"A bustling town established on an idealistic hope for peace is the perfect place to hide. And there are plenty of people who can take advantage of that." Victoria's hands stilled, papers clasped between her calloused fingers. "You're young, but you're not stupid. I trust you know what to do."

An unexpected warmth swelled in Yachiyo's chest. The captain of the Edels wasn't known for giving praise, but it was even rarer for her to show concern. Even if it was a rather roundabout way of doing so.

With that in mind, Yachiyo answered with a curt nod and a final bow before taking her leave, making sure to keep Victoria's parting words in mind as she made her preparations.


Fort Deion had first been established decades ago, likely during Yukishiro Akira's time. But whether or not that legendary general had overseen its construction or manned its forces was another matter. Nowadays, the fort had fallen into disuse as the fighting moved to other, more critical fronts. Even so, it remained a part of the Kingdom of Siegfeld and an outpost that any Edel should still offer respect to.

Not that Yachiyo had done more than dip her head in acknowledgement as she passed. She knew of the past well enoughit didn't change their current situation in the present. There were more pressing matters in need of immediate attention; she could take time to investigate and sightsee on another day.

As she entered the town proper, Yachiyo's careful gaze swept over the crowds going about their day. Despite the fact that it was a point of trade, Deion was still only a newly-formed town in comparison to other settlements. Security and enforcement was lax, attention would be given more to the merchants and craftsmen compared to the common folk, and there were likely enough new faces passing through everyday for Yachiyo to blend in.

It wasn't as if she were wearing her Edel uniform, but she couldn't be too careful. Even in a town as distant as this, there still remained the possibility of someone recognizing her.

"...Eh? Yachiyo, is that you?"

Like that.

Chitose stood nearby, half-eaten pastry in hand and paused mid-air for another bite. Tucked away in the crook of her other arm was a small cloth bundle that contained more baked goods, based on the sweet scent. Her green eyes had widened, matching Yachiyo's own surprise at their impromptu reunion.

While her guardian's sudden presence shouldn't affect her mission too muchtheoretically, at any rateit was still an unforeseen development. Not that she had any specific plans in place yet with such little information, but she certainly hadn't expected to run into someone so personal out here.

"Are you here for work, Chitose-san?" Yachiyo asked, quickly composing herself and managing a teasing smirk at her pastries. "Though I suppose it's fine to enjoy yourself, too."

"Hey! I'll have you know, I sold a lot this morning," Chitose defended, waving the pastry at her. The pout that had formed on her face quickly sobered into a more serious frown as she continued, "But you're here for a mission, aren't you? I can't see any other reason why you would visit a place like this."

Yachiyo's shoulders lifted into a brief shrug. "Who knows? Maybe I'm here for the local shrimp."

"Right, right…" Chitose nibbled away at the remains of her pastry, brow furrowing and eyes clouding with worry. "It isn't anything too dangerous, is it? Like an inspection, perhaps?"

Yachiyo's gaze passed over the crowds around them, keenly aware of every gait and glance and guise. Discussing her mission in an open street carried risks, especially if she didn't know who was acquainted with her target. "Maybe we can talk somewhere else, hm?"

"...Oh. So it's something like that."

"Unfortunately."

Chitose suggested heading to the docks after that, with the two of them catching up along the way. She had come to Deion to establish new trade connections, and to sell her wares as usual. Yachiyo, for her part, divulged as much as she could regarding her life as an Edel.

Or rather, as much as she could bring herself to. There was no need to worry Chitose further with the weight on her shoulders.

"Hmm… I believe she works at the apothecary on the east side of town. But I could be wrong, since I haven't personally gone inside yet," Chitose mused later at the docks, after Yachiyo had informed her of her current mission.

Few ships were arriving at this time, and the closest fishermen around were on the other end of the rickety boardwalk, barking at each other over who had the largest catch. Chances were low that someone would eavesdrop, and her magic didn't reveal anyone trying to disguise their presence.

"So either she works there, or she's a patron who visits frequently. That's usually where you would find her, based on what I heard from the locals."

"The fact that even an outsider like you would know of her so quickly is a little concerning," Yachiyo sighed, taking a bite of the pastry Chitose had offered to her earlier.

Beside her, Chitose shifted restlessly on her feet. "Well, she's… I'm not sure how to describe it, but she's not exactly...normal."


Normal. Perhaps the only thing normal about her was her appearance. With simple clothing, light brown hair tied back into a low ponytail, features lax and disinterested, she hardly looked like someone wanted dead by the royal family. But her senses were uncannily sharpno sooner had Yachiyo stepped inside the shop for further information gathering did she discern her true intentions. Victoria had been right to be wary.

Yachiyo just hadn't expected to be greeted with an explosion to her face that she barely managed to evade, leaping back outside and summoning a hasty magical shield to absorb most of the blast.

"Rosalie Addams, I presume?" Yachiyo asked after her spell had broken, endeavoring to remain calm even as Deion's citizens ran away and screamed in fear from the collapsing building around them.

She had expected her to flee after realizing what Yachiyo was here for. There was no doubt that Rosalie knew she was being targeted. Someone with that knowledge would have immediately retreated to buy time. But that was not what had happened.

For all of the scenarios Yachiyo had run through her head, she hadn't expected Rosalie to immediately react in the worst way possible, drawing attention to the both of them and carelessly involving innocents in the process. On the list of worst case scenarios, this was most certainly one of the possibilities Yachiyo had wished wouldn't occur.

The captain's information mentioned hypnotism and animal familiars, but that explosive blast was on par with our veteran fire mages, Yachiyo noted, hand open and ready to summon her staff in a heartbeat. Maybe her magic output is just that strong?

If that were the case, then perhaps even the countermeasures she had prepared wouldn't be enough.

"You… You're one of Judy's, aren't you? I can see her shadow behind you, in the way you control your magic." Stepping out from the collapsing building as well, Rosalie regarded Yachiyo with an almost bored expression. Even though her voice and features remained aloof, Rosalie began to sway almost unsteadily on her feet. "Does she think you can reach the stars? That they'll accept you? What's so important about that throne, anyway?"

Yet another tie to Judy Knightley. How many more secrets could the headmistress of Pleiades hold?

"I was her student, yes. What does she have to do with this?" Yachiyo replied, legs tensing and ready to move when needed. Those caught in the blast had already fled, but a small crowd had begun to form in her periphery. Unless she incapacitated Rosalie or led the inevitable fighting away from all of them, more innocents would be involved.

Rosalie chuckled, tilting her head to the other side as if in curiosity. "Follow the bull. Follow the throne. Follow the stars. Isn't it a miserable existence, to always follow while everyone else falls behind? I'd like to fall too, but I'm still scared, you see. I don't like pain."

"I don't think anyone in their right mind does."

"But I'm not in my right mind," Rosalie said, the warmth of her smile belying her words and the destruction around them. "I know that much; I can recognize that much. I'm not like Judy, after the bull ran away. I didn't care for any of the bulls they wanted to pick, and eventually there were no more bulls left. But I still had to follow, somehow."

There was a story somewhere in this madness. And if it wasn't for the threat of placing more of Deion's denizens in harm's way, Yachiyo would have liked to unravel more of it.

"I don't suppose you'll make this easy for me, hm?" she ventured to ask, slipping her other hand into her pocket. Her fingers wrapped around the monocle therea tool she had crafted to better guard against mental attacks.

"'Easy'...?" Rosalie straightened up, her brown eyes briefly sharpening with a clarity not present before. "Weary though I am, I'm still a knight of the stars. Of course I won't go down that easily. Surely you would have known that from Judy?"

So her target was a knight more so than a mage. None of the details in her missive had mentioned that. And while magical knights were certainly a viable profession, their methods of attack weren't quite the same as mages.

"Judy Knightley kept her cards close to her, but I can work with what I've gathered from her." Yachiyo's fingers twitched in preparation. "Like cornering my opponent!"

Her hand darted out of her pocket, fixing the monocle over her eye. Her rosewood staff materialized in her other hand in that same breath, jabbing forward to send eight illusionary soldiers rushing for her target. Most of the apothecary had already crumbled, and the lingering fires had spread inside rather than outside, following the scattered herbs and other ingredients. Rosalie would have little room to flee or counterattack. While she was distracted, Yachiyo would be able to

But instead of dodging the soldiers' attacks or engaging them in combat, Rosalie simply ignored them altogether.

Walking leisurely towards Yachiyo as their weapons uselessly slashed at her, she passed through their armored bodies as if she couldn't see them at all. Rosalie even stepped through the small fires as if they were little more than a nuisance, her boots and the hem of her trousers briefly setting aflame before being put out immediately from an unknown spell.

The light of madness had returned to her eyes.

...I see. So illusions won't work on someone whose world is so warped. Yachiyo gave a flick of her staff, dispelling her fake soldiers. There were still three knives hidden on her person, but there was no guarantee they would be effective against a former knight, no matter how mad. Assassination methods were out of the question now, and her hand-to-hand combat skills weren't suitable for an unstable opponent. I suppose elemental magic it is, then.

Yachiyo tapped the butt of her staff to the ground, calling upon the earth for assistance. Several small magic circles briefly flared around Rosalie as earthen pillars shot up from them to cage her in.

"Stone and earth don't suit you, although perhaps in another life they would," Rosalie giggled, placing a hand on one of the pillars. It crumbled immediately at her touch, with the others around her following suit. "Free as the wind, that's who you are. Adrift on dreams and realities of your own make. But you won't reach the stars that way."

Stepping aside with a smoothness unbefitting of her disinterested stance, Rosalie calmly evaded the final earth pillar meant to bludgeon her from behind. A casual touch from her hand disintegrated that one too.

So she's skilled enough to dispel manipulated elements by touch. I didn't think this would be easy, but it looks like I'll have to resort to more troublesome spells.

Yachiyo spun her staff at her side, converting her magic into a different kind of energy. As the energy built up in her staff, Yachiyo placed her free hand on her shoulder to support the strain on her moving arm.

Crackle.

"Oh?" Rosalie's grin widened. "Now this is sur—"

Catching her staff in her hand, Yachiyo pointed the end at Rosalie and released the energy built up within it. The lightning shot straight into her target, striking too quickly for any normal human to avoid.

Except Rosalie wasn't normal.

The lightning had not torn through her. Instead, it was now wrapped around her, engulfing her in a near-blinding light. Although her entire body was flooded in enough energy to fry the strongest man, Rosalie giggled as if she were only being tickled.

"This is definitely surprising! You didn't even make any clouds! You just went snap, crackle, and pop! It almost feels like an actual lightning strike!" The laughter died in an instant, her expression sobering into a bored deadpan. An arm raised in Yachiyo's direction, a lazy finger pointing straight at her. "You can have this back now."

She's—! Yachiyo's body moved on instinct, shifting her staff directly in front of herself.

Flicking her finger upward, all of the energy surrounding Rosalie was flung back to its original caster. Before it could directly hit her, Yachiyo managed, against all odds, to catch the lightning with her staff and fling it upward into the sky.

The heavens rumbled with the excess energy, lightning tendrils stretching across the entire area and beyond. Those from the next towns over would have been able to see such an abnormal elemental discharge as well.

Once the spell had been fully redirected, Yachiyo dropped her arm down at her side. Her muscles tingled from the exertion and excess electricity; squeezing her bicep could only alleviate it so much.

I didn't plan on signaling to the captain this way, but this works out. Yachiyo's gaze swept to her opponent, clicking her tongue when Rosalie only giggled back at her. Since nothing else is going so well...

"How excellent! There aren't many like you nowadays, you know?" Rosalie dropped her chin to her chest, then threw her head back with a heavy, dramatic sigh. "Ah... But you're still bound by so many rules and limitations, just like Judy was. You could be more free without them, you know?" Righting herself, Rosalie pointed at the rosewood staff. "Like that silly stick for instance. Such a relic of the past! Your hands could be holding more important things than that burdensome old twig!"

Yachiyo swallowed, managing a shaky smirk as she tried to calm her twitching arm. "Not only can you easily dispel elemental spells, but you can even take lightning and redirect it like it's nothing? All without a staff or circle? Now this isn't fair. I thought you specialized in hypnotism and familiars."

"Who told you that?" Rosalie wondered, flashing her a lazy smile. "But they're not entirely wrong, I suppose. I can demonstrate, if you'd like."

I'd rather not, to be honest.

Casting complicated magic without a staff or a magic circle was both admirable and terrifying. Although Yachiyo had expected something like this to a degree and had not entered this town underestimating her target entirely, it was clear that she was now trapped in a battle with too little information to work with. The safest option would be to retreat and find a different way to gather more information before trying to accomplish her mission again, but she doubted Rosalie would let her leave so easily. Especially with her ties to Judy, however thin.

And she latched on too quickly. Yachiyo glanced from the destroyed building nearby to the panicked bystanders scrambling about. With her current mental state, there's a chance she'll harm these people just to keep me in her sight.

Crack.

It was faint and barely there, but she heard it all the same. And soon enough, spidery cracks spread across her monocle's glass too.

"What a nice toy you came prepared with," Rosalie said, tilting her head slightly. "But that's cheating, isn't it? I can't show you if you're guarding against mental attacks. Unless… Oh, I understand now! You wanted to see the real thing, right?"

'The real thing'? Yachiyo's blood ran cold.

"Hypnotism and possession are fickle, you know? It's always about the mind and penetrating your mental defenses; all that nonsense." Rosalie flicked her wrist, rolling her eyes with an exaggerated scoff. "Yes, your head is important, but a body is so much more than just the top. There are plenty of other aspects just ripe for the taking. If you know what to do, at least."

A sharp tingling spread from the tips of Yachiyo's fingers, shooting up her arm. At first it felt as if her limbs were going numb, but they were still able to move.

They were just not moving of her own accord.

What…? Her left hand shook in front of her, slowly rising to her face. Moving against her own volition, it cupped the eye covered by her monocle so that her palm rested over the cracked glass.

Fingers wrapped around the side of her face and dug into her temple. Yachiyo would have grimaced at the stinging pain if her facial muscles had been allowed to move more freely.

"Oh, you look so confused!" Rosalie giggled, her expression contorting into easy madness. "Didn't Judy teach you anything at her magic school? Granted, this isn't something I thought about until seeing so much of it spilled over the years. But I suppose I can give you a hint."

Nails pierced into her skin, scratching through the first layers and drawing blood. Warmth trickled down the side of Yachiyo's face. It felt… liberating.

Yachiyo took a single breath. Suddenly, realization settled in place.

"You're… manipulating blood," she managed to gasp. "That's how you control people."

Rosalie clapped, her lips pulling up into a wide grin. "My, you are sharp! Yes, yes. You can say the brain controls everything, but what else spans the entire body, including that clump of flesh? What else do humans have so much of, just unguarded and ready to be taken? That's right, blood! So, little countermeasures like your eyeglass…"

Yachiyo's bloody nails curled inward, grabbing the monocle on her eye. Removing the accessory from over her eye, her hand enclosed around it and tightened its hold while the glass cracked further.

"…won't be of any help to you against me~"

The monocle shattered within Yachiyo's hand. Glass pierced into her palm, crimson leaking from her open wounds. But as the blood flowed out from her hand, so did some of the unsettling numbness that had taken a hold of her.

Yachiyo twitched her fingers. She twitched her aching hand. For a moment, clarity and control returned, and Yachiyo wasted no time latching onto her one opening of freedom.

Pulling her arm back, Yachiyo snapped her bloody fingers to summon the pink and white coat bestowed to those with the rank of Perle. The makeshift cloak settled around her shoulders, blanketing Yachiyo in both familiarity and awareness.

While Yachiyo didn't prefer wearing the gaudy article of clothing for her more subtle missions, it was still a symbol of an Edel. Just as she had earned her rank, so had she earned the privileges and resources that came with the position.

The numbness subsided, and Yachiyo was finally able to move and breathe.

Rosalie's madness sobered into an irritated frown. "Cheating again? But that coat… I don't remember those things being effective against my magic."

Yachiyo wiped the blood from her eye before answering Rosalie with a weak grin, "I think you're giving the Edels too little credit. For a group that specializes in magical combat, of course they have countermeasures for a broad range of spells. You won't always know what tricks your opponent has up their sleeve, after all."

But it didn't seem as though Rosalie was listening to her. Much like in the beginning of their confrontation, she began to sway a little on her feet.

"Coats and magic and Edels. Countermeasures… Is that what it is?" Rosalie muttered to herself, only to pause. Slowly, her hands lowered to her sides as that same sharpness returned to her gaze. "Are you here to do what Akira failed to do, then? Under the orders of King Franz, are you dabbling in matters you shouldn't? Beneath the starry diamond, a fragment of Spring's soul..."

King Franz? But he's been dead for—

Whatever clarity Rosalie had regained for the moment quickly slipped back into madness. She smiled, spreading her arms out to her sides.

"You should be a little more careful with yourself. Cheating—" Her unsteady eyes snapped to the side, glancing at movement behind the buildings near the destroyed apothecary, "—and sticking your nose into places it doesn't belong? Now that just won't do."

At that last word, several distressed cries rose up nearby. Yachiyo chanced a glance to where Rosalie's gaze had been. Unfamiliar faces stumbled from their previous hiding places, expressions frozen in fear and contorted discomfort.

The guards? And some of the townspeople?! Yachiyo took a hesitant step back, gripping her staff tighter. "You're bringing unrelated bystanders into this? Aren't you the one who's cheating now?"

Rosalie shrugged. "If my magic won't work on you, it's only natural to turn to others who can't cheat. And since you've done so well to resist me so far, I do wonder how long you can continue to last."

Rosalie raised an arm and flicked her hand at Yachiyo's direction, motioning for those under her control to inch closer to their target. "So just this once, I'll help good ol' Judy out. I'm curious as well, you see. Whether you can reach the stars when so many continue to fail!"

The guards rushed at Yachiyo first, weapons drawn and terror in their eyes. A flick of her staff quickly summoned smaller earth pillars to stop them and cage them in place. While Rosalie herself was an abnormal magic user, non-mages like them would have trouble freeing themselves, even under her command. Using a sleep spell to knock them out would have usually been another option, but Rosalie's ability to control their blood carried far too much risk.

The townspeople came next, which Yachiyo dispatched in the same manner. She may have found ways of dealing with those under Rosalie's control, but that still didn't solve the heart of the problem. If she didn't take a more offensive approach soon, Rosalie might resort to using the whole town against her.

"How boring, how boring. It's like you're not even trying!" Rosalie sighed, only to perk up a moment later. A warm smile spread across her face as she clapped her hands again. "Oh, but there's a heart beating nearby with memories of you. You'll try for her, won't you?"

Her?

For a moment, Yachiyo thought she caught a glance of familiar green eyes behind one of the buildings. The same eyes that had comforted her for all these years since she was left alone as a child. The last person she could call family was here—someone she could not lose.

And now someone as dangerous as Rosalie Addams knew that as well.

This was not cheating; this was war. Although Yachiyo understood that, she refused to involve someone who should have never set foot on a battlefield in the first place.

Slamming the butt of her staff to the ground, Yachiyo called up various earth pillars to trap Rosalie in place. Like before, they were easily dispelled by a single touch. Even while swaying on her feet, Rosalie was practically swatting her spells away like they were flies.

"Earth again? Didn't I say—?" Rosalie flicked her arm outward, cutting across a gust of wind. Her lips widened in glee. "There we go."

She's guarding even against simultaneous spells… Yachiyo clicked her tongue, continuously circling her staff to manipulate the air around her target. Even though Rosalie couldn't see the attacks as clearly as an earth or lightning spell, she was still dancing around everything Yachiyo was throwing at her.

She needed more output. But her staff could only do so much so quickly. And her other hand was…

Yachiyo twitched her left hand. The bleeding had slowed, but it continued to pulse from the glass shards embedded in it. She wouldn't be able to hold her staff like this. But… she could at least move her arm around.

She flung her wrist upward, and a separate gust of wind joined the ones directed by her staff. Instead of evading like before, Rosalie brought up her own hand to dispel the air thrown at her.

The spells cast without her staff were even more predictable, and weaker without the support. But it was one extra thing for Rosalie to worry about. It caught her attention, and that was all that mattered.

Rosalie quirked an eyebrow in amusement. "Now that's more like it! You're getting closer and closer to the edge." Rosalie swung her arms to the side, simultaneously dispelling two air currents hurtling her way while snapping her fingers. "Can you feel it? Are the cosmos calling for you? Not that I know what that even means. Does anyone really?"

A sudden group of guards and civilians suddenly jumped toward Rosalie, forming a makeshift shield. Yachiyo barely managed to stop her spells from hitting them, gritting her teeth and clenching her fists even though her left hand throbbed in protest.

Again?! Yachiyo raised her hand to incapacitate them once more to reach her actual target.

Wide green eyes stared back at her, and Yachiyo's blood ran cold.

Chitose...san?

Numbness spread throughout her body. It was different from the control Rosalie had over her before. She simply could not feel anything—not the throbbing in her temple, nor the shards digging into her bloody hand.

Her guardian stared back at her, overwhelming fear visible even though she was immobile under Rosalie's control. Yachiyo wished she could reassure Chitose that things would be fine, but that wasn't what she needed to do right now. She needed to stop Rosalie before she did more damage—empty words would do little here.

Behind her human shield, Rosalie's giggles rose into a shrill cackle. "So this is the one! What wonderful despair, the rise of chaos! You won't hurt innocents; you won't hurt your loved ones." Rosalie raised a hand, and snapped her fingers. "But what will you do when they try to hurt themselves?"

Her guardian's name fell from her lips just as her staff dropped to the ground. Pointing her mangled hand at Rosalie, Yachiyo attacked her in the only way she knew that could actually affect her while also bypassing the people shielding her.

Rosalie's mouth dropped open, her eyes widening from something beyond her own madness.

"Oh. So when reality becomes too cumbersome, you resort to dreams?" Rosalie tilted her head at Yachiyo, throat choking on short, clipped laughter. "Dreams can be wonderful. But you know—?"

Screams. All Yachiyo could focus on next were screams. Rosalie's, the townspeople's, Chitose's, her own; they all mixed together in a cacophony of chaos.

"—My nightmares are quite ugly."


"Don't underestimate how destructive dreams can be."

This was different. Destruction was exactly what she wanted, as long as it meant stopping this woman drowning in madness.

Yachiyo just hadn't considered how twisted certain dreams could become.


"—severe property damage all across the east side of town, involvement of bystanders and civilians, eight left traumatized, thirty-six injured and twenty-six dead. Including—"

Yachiyo failed to stop her face from twitching.

Victoria sighed. "…Including Rosalie Addams. Regardless of the casualties, at the very least you successfully executed your mission. The royal family expressed their pleasure at this outcome."

Yachiyo simply nodded. She didn't really care what the royal family thought, but at least someone was happy.

Victoria placed down the notes from Deion's town leader, leveling an impassive stare her way. "I'm guessing you have something else to report?"

Yachiyo tightened her grip around a certain letter. For once, she wished the healers weren't so thorough in their magic. She would have gladly preferred an aching hand from broken glass shards over the heaviness in her chest.

Taking a calming breath, Yachiyo stepped toward the desk and slid the letter to her captain. Once Victoria had taken the piece of paper and began to read, she stepped back and waited.

Victoria's expression didn't change even after reaching the end. Carefully placing the paper down, she closed her eyes with a small huff. "I see."

The captain said nothing else after that. The ensuing silence stretched on for so long that Yachiyo couldn't help but break it with a confused, "Is that all?"

"Of course not. I have plenty to say about your decision. But I won't."

Victoria interlaced her fingers together, opening her eyes to regard Yachiyo with the same cold stare she always did. But there was a hint of warmth somewhere underneath; not exactly pity, but calling it compassion wouldn't have been right either.

"You have every right to question me as my superior, though," Yachiyo pointed out.

"How long do you think I've been in this war, Tsuruhime? I know how loss affects even the strongest of soldiers. I understand your reasons," Victoria pointed down at Yachiyo's notice of resignation, "even without your flowery excuses. As your superior, I could destroy this document as if it had never been written and force you to retain your position. But that's only if I wanted a less-than-optimal soldier who would become a liability sooner rather than later. I don't need an Edel who can't perform to my standards."

"Then… you're allowing me to resign? Just like that?"

"Were you expecting to fight your way out? We've ceased that custom for years. No, my word is enough to placate King Johann." Victoria dropped her hands to the desk, leaning back in her seat. "There's something else you need to do. As long as you're aware of what steps you'll take next, I have nothing else to say to you. As of now, you are no longer part of the Order of Edels, and thus, I am no longer your captain. That is all. Unless there was something else you wanted to say to me."

Yachiyo stood in silence, thinking over the appropriate decorum. There were plenty of questions she wanted to ask Victoria, especially after everything Rosalie had vaguely thrown at her. But Yachiyo hadn't had the capacity to think about those details. Not now. Whatever Rosalie Addams had known, and how it related to Judy Knightley, was none of her business at the moment.

Finally, she decided to ask, "Do the benefits truly outweigh the costs of this war?"

Victoria took a moment before answering, "That is what we've reasoned. Do you disagree?"

Yachiyo refrained from answering. But her silence was enough of an answer.

Victoria closed her eyes again and sighed. "We Edels fight for the Kingdom of Siegfeld and our own homes. So long as your efforts are for the good of the people, I won't criticize your methods. As you are no longer my subordinate, all I will say is this: find your own answer."

Victoria left the question there. With nothing else to say, Yachiyo bowed to the captain of the Edels one final time, and left the Order behind.


"Pecking my heart with your sharp, cold beak and flying away…"


Dream magic was different from the illusions she favored, drawing directly from the recipient's mind instead of her own. That had been but one mistake among several, in hindsight.

Perhaps it had been the desperation of the situation. Perhaps it had been the nature of Rosalie's broken mind. Perhaps Yachiyo had simply pushed past her limits. Perhaps it had been a combination of all three.

"—My nightmares are quite ugly," Rosalie had said.

But Rosalie's nightmare had been anything but ugly, at first. With Yachiyo's dream magic, stronger than anything she had cast before, a gleaming knight resplendent in her starry armor had physically manifested before them. The curving horns of a dead kingdom had been proudly emblazoned on her autumn cape, and the light brown hair pulled back into a low ponytail had been unmistakable.

Rosalie Addams' nightmare had been herself. Sane and loyal to an unnamed sovereign. A knight who had sworn to uphold her duties, regardless of the consequences.

Even when faced with her own nightmare, Rosalie had only smiled. "Follow the bull, follow the throne. Which is it, which is it? Between the two of us, who was late and who was just in time? Do you know what I know?"

"...So this is what I've been reduced to." Her dream self's voice had been clear and unwavering, almost melodic. "A fallen star; a pitiful shadow upon the Pleiades. Allow me to release you from your oath."

If the real Rosalie had been one who refused to accept her past, this Rosalie had been a dream unable to accept someone so bellicose, especially herself who had fallen so far. Both had sought to right a wrong, without regard to the current situation.

Even while holding herself back, one Rosalie had already been too much. Two was entirely beyond Yachiyo's control. There was little sheor anyonecould have done against two monsters so far above her.

Although Yachiyo had given her report to Victoria, in truth there had been little detail to give. It all could have been simply summarized as an instantaneous storm of destruction that ravaged everything in the vicinity. Buildings caved in; people fell in mangled heaps, caught in the flurry of blade and magic.

Chitose had been among the first to fall. Yachiyo would have followed suit, if not for the sudden weakness in her knees that had her stumbling forward in an attempt to catch her guardian. She had inadvertently ducked at the moment both Rosalies had begun to shift their fighting elsewhere, saving her from the worst of their blows.

Yachiyo had called her name, pressing her hands against her wounds and channeling all of the magic still within to heal the only family she had left.

But she wasn't a healer. Her support capabilities hadn't been enough for injuries of that scale. There was little she could have done as Chitose's life slipped through her hands, spilling onto the ground.

"Sorry, Yachiyo." Despite death looming over her, Chitose had offered her a final, warm smile. "Guess I'm… going ahead first, too."

In the middle of a burning town, Kakuyuki Chitose had breathed her last with nothing more than a small grin and a whisper of her name. Perhaps it had meant to be reassuring, but Yachiyo had felt no solaceonly a heavy numbness as realization slowly sank in. She hadn't even registered when the fighting had finally stopped, or when Victoria had arrived to answer her earlier signal. Even when Victoria had informed her of Rosalie's death by her other self, Yachiyo couldn't tear her gaze away from Chitose's closed eyes. Not when they were never to open again.

She had made too many mistakes. Miscalculations and lack of additional contingencies were factors, as well as the sheer, overwhelming capabilities of her target. But that didn't change the fact that too many had paid for Yachiyo's shortsightedness.

And now, for the first time in years, Yachiyo was once more on her own.

Yachiyo sighed, placing another bouquet of flowers down onto the third, new grave. Once the offerings were set, she remained standing over her guardian's resting spot. It would be rude to show Chitose that she couldn't stand on her own after all that her guardian had done for her.

By the third day, Yachiyo had fallen to her knees, broken apologies repeatedly falling from her dry lips.

Chitose had once voiced her concerns about Yachiyo joining the Order of the Edels, fearing she would lose her life too soon. How ironic it was, then, for Yachiyo to be the one standing over another grave of her lost family members.

By the eighth day, her tears had dried and her apologies were spent. All that remained was a heavy heart, fractured with sorrow and regret.


"...What have I lost?"


Perhaps her natural affinity related to wind in some way, just as Rosalie had alluded to. But Yachiyo had always found solace in handling flames of any kind, be it small or large. If she thought about it more, the preference likely originated from her younger days relying on matches to sell and survive.

Arguably, fire should have been preferentially used in battle. But Yachiyo had always likened it to a comforting warmth, rather than a destructive force. It had saved her life against the frigid chill of winter and loneliness as a child, after all.

The flame in her hand burned bright and warm as she tossed it into the air, catching it just as she tossed another ball of fire from her other hand. At the same time, her body danced in tandem to the slow melody of the troupe's small orchestra. The fluid movements came easily to her after the many hours of practice over the past few months.

It was better to immerse herself in what she truly loved, rather than linger on a past that occasionally seized her brittle, healing heart. Chitose and her parents wouldn't have wanted her to stagnate and waste her youth grieving.

And for whatever reason, the stage did always have a calming effect on her.

Yachiyo threw each of the flames into the candelabras decorating the stage, smoothly transitioning into her next lines. The play progressed as it should, just as she had rehearsed with this new troupe for the past few months. And before she knew it, Yachiyo was once more standing onstage with her fellow actors and actresses, bowing before the audience's thundering applause after another successful performance.

Her life was not yet over. Chitose and her family had wanted her to live long and happily, and it wasn't Yachiyo's intention to die young anyway. Moving forward would be difficult, but performing had always been among her specialties.

As the saying went: the show must go on.


Performing, however, wasn't the aspect of her past that Yachiyo settled on as she healed over the months. Acting was certainly a passion of hers, but there was another calling that she found more fitting of her capabilities. One that took up most of her time; one that she preferred to immerse herself completely in, even if it meant leaving behind the troupe she had recently joined.

Before the Edels, before Pleiades, before Chitose's troupe, even before the skirmish that had taken the lives of her parents, Yachiyo had once donned another role. It wasn't a particularly impressive role at the time, all things considered. Her performances years ago had been unpolished as a child, desperate to help support her struggling family some other way.

In the past, she had been limited to small thefts that ultimately amounted to nothing more than minor pickpocketing or taking food when the stall vendors weren't looking. It was all she could do as a child with no formal training, after all. This persisted even after Chitose had adopted her and thieving became more of a pastime, though her guardian had never been particularly enthused about this specific interest. As much as she wanted to hone her skills further, there wasn't much Yachiyo could do as an average citizen living her life with an ordinary performance troupe.

At least, until Chitose's troupe had to disband.

But things were different now. Years of physical and magic training granted her capabilities and options that her younger self had lacked. Not that her education at Pleiades or her tenure as an Edel had originally meant to be used for fraudulent activities. But Yachiyo was—if nothing else—good at adapting things to suit her needs.

It just so happened that larceny was a hobby she had not only taken a particular interest in, but also something she excelled at.

Not that these nobles are making it difficult to deceive them, Yachiyo remarked to herself once she had slipped away from the party's host with a flimsy excuse to powder her face. She had also left a flirtatious wink for good measure, which was more than enough to turn the simple-minded lord into a lovesick puddle.

Now then… Time for the main event~

It had been fairly easy to put her name on the guestlist—courtesy of her theatrical connections—and mingle among the attendees earlier to further scope out the manor from the inside. It hadn't taken long after that to catch the host of the party off guard, coaxing the location of his valuables from his loose lips, drunk with wine. But the lord was still a man of decent standing, possessing the resources to guard his wealth even when he himself was riddled with weaknesses.

Guards were a given. Spells and wards covering every inch of the treasure vault were safety measures Yachiyo had accounted for as well. While the former could easily be circumvented with some basic illusions—just a harmless vision of vermin that had them scrambling away from the door—the magic protecting the room was slightly harder to break through.

However, it was only slightly more difficult. In this case, all Yachiyo had to do was trace a gloved finger across the heavy iron door to the doorknob, a small magic circle following her touch. Within seconds, she was able to get a sense of how the lord had set up his magic.

A bit sloppy. Not entirely amateurish, but not as refined as the higher-ranked mages in Siegfeld's army, Yachiyo noted as she bypassed each layer of his spells. It feels as though he had cast these protective wards himself—he did seem to have quite a bit of an ego, after all. I wouldn't be surprised if he had refused to hire a proper mage because of his pride.

The door swung open after the last spell had been broken, revealing a large room with elaborate paintings adorning its stone walls, interspersed with magical torches. Tucked in each corner, finely crafted tables displayed numerous glittering jewels and trinkets. Heavy bags of gold were scattered here and there, open and spilling coins or bars out onto the exotic rugs lining the floor.

So this is the extent of Lord Edward's treasury. On the surface, it seems his treasury is quite vast. But I wonder if his displays are as inflated as his own ego…

Flourishing a hand, a magic circle flared beneath her feet as pink wisps of magic wove around Yachiyo to form a new set of clothes. Her floor-length red ball gown shortened into a skirt down to her mid thighs, granting her the mobility she preferred. While her footwear remained unchanged, a pair of stockings trailed up her legs. Her bare shoulders were replaced by a maroon coat with twin trailing coattails, the coat held closed together with three gold clasps. A pair of black gloves weaved over her hands, followed by a white bow tied around her neck. To complete it all, a black and red top hat with gold trimmings sat atop her head, its brim large enough to veil her face should she tip it down.

Yachiyo gave a few experimental steps with her red high heels to get used to the mobility available to her now. Properly donning her role as a phantom thief, Yachiyo adjusted the golden monocle over her right eye to survey the treasures available.

Ah, I thought this would be the case. Only about half of the objects in this room are real.

Although the treasure vault certainly contained real gold and jewels befitting Lord Edward's status as a baron of Siegfeld, the true riches were mixed with some saturated in magic. It was normally invisible to the naked eye and unperceivable to most people, even experienced mages. But the accessory Yachiyo had crafted herself could pick up even the most minute of magic traces, and so every counterfeit was easily discernible under her keen gaze.

Still, the near-perfect copies were randomly intermingled with the real treasures. While Yachiyo didn't know what defensive measures were placed specifically on the counterfeits, it wasn't her intention to find out either.

Removing her hat and snapping her fingers, she summoned a few small gusts of wind to guide each real treasure in the room into the modified space within her headwear. Yachiyo carefully sidestepped the fakes strewn about, making her way to the center of the room as she continued to collect the true valuables. Despite the wealth the baron possessed, all of the real jewels and gold were easily stored in a space enlarged by magic.

For a first major heist in a long while, things were going scarily well. A small part of her felt sorry for the poor man, but it wasn't like his assets were being put to good use in the first place.

Might as well be used for better things than gambling. Especially when he lost more than he gained. Though, watching her target embarrass himself in the midst of other nobles with better luck and investment abilities had been an interesting sight at least.

"Hey! Who goes there?!" shouted a gruff voice from the entrance.

Whoops, guess time's up. Still grasping her top hat, Yachiyo greeted the guards with a courteous bow. "Oh, no one really. Just a local thief perusing some foolish lord's treasures on this fine night."

"Wha—" The guards brandished their swords at her. "How dare you steal from Lord Edward! Who do you think you are?!"

"My name? Don't you think it's rather rude to demand a lady to introduce herself before giving your own?" Yachiyo giggled, pulling out a card from her coat pocket. "I suppose decorum doesn't apply to those you consider criminals. But if you really want to know so badly…"

Yachiyo kicked a nearby block of gold absentmindedly. Upon contact, an identical piece of gold popped into existence, followed by another. And another, and another. It continued to multiply and touch the other counterfeits in the room, activating the counterspell cast on them as well.

Oh, so that's what the baron had as his defense. That would be rather troublesome if I got caught in it.

Yachiyo flashed the guards a final wink and dropped the card from her fingers. "...you can simply call me Lupin~"

The air shimmered as Yachiyo cast another illusion spell—one of invisibility. Although she herself hadn't moved from her spot yet, the guards could no longer perceive her with their eyes. To them, she had disappeared in the middle of the room that was slowly being filled by multiplying counterfeits of treasure.

A single card remained in her place. A simple white sheet, marked with a cursive L in magenta.

"She disappeared?!"

"Magic?! But she wasn't using a staff!"

As the guards scrambled about in a frenzy amidst the sea of infinitely duplicating counterfeits, Yachiyo silently stepped past them and headed for her previously-prepared exit—a side window down the hall, just large enough for her to slip out of. Before leaping from the windowsill, she heard the guards' last shouts as they tried to search for a now-invisible thief.

"Damn it, that doesn't matter now! Our priority is to find that thief and retrieve what was stolen! Find that thief! Find that phantom thief Lupin!"


"Did you hear about what happened to Lord Edward last night?"

"A true disaster! They say he was completely robbed! Supposedly some phantom thief had done it."

"Phantom thief?"

"Apparently they're calling her 'Arsene Lupin' around town. Completely bypassed all of his defenses, guards and magic and all. They say she could use some magic herself."

"A mage turned rogue? Not to mention using magic for larceny? A shame that's what magic has fallen to. What with this and the wa—"

"Now don't you say that."

Yachiyo tuned out the rest of the townspeople's gossip, taking another sip of her drink. "'Arsene' Lupin, hm? I didn't cause any significant property damage, though. Well, I'll admit it does have a nice ring to it. Not as fancy as something like the 'Napoleon of Crime' to the north, but Arsene works."

It's not like I can find whoever this Jay Moriarty is and claim the epithet for myself, Yachiyo thought. It wasn't as if she assumed she had earned a title as grand as 'Napoleon of Crime' either. One had to build up quite a reputation to be given an epithet on the level of a mythical figure like Napoleon.

Yachiyo was well aware that she didn't possess such resources or influence yet. This had only been her first formal act as the phantom thief Lupin, after all. There were plenty of chances in the future for her to show the world her talents.

Yachiyo placed a piece of paper on the table, followed by an inkwell and a quill. Not bad for my first heist in a while, but that wasn't nearly as challenging as I would have liked.

Her eyes scanned the various markings on the map. Finding a suitable target, she dipped her quill into the inkwell and circled the location of her next act.

"Now that 'Arsene Lupin' has made her debut, let's see what else she can do, hm?"


Most of her following heists were successes like the first, though not all were so easy. There were also plenty of setbacks and failures where she had to retreat with less than she would have liked.

But none were as disastrous as this time.

Yachiyo sighed as she tried to put distance between herself and the angry shouting behind her. Well, I suppose that's what I get for challenging a member of the local thieves guild. I knew he had significant influence even with the town guards, but aren't there too many at his beck and call?!

It was supposed to be a simple heist. Yachiyo had made sure to gather enough information, scoping out the main location where the guild's wealth was said to be stored, and taking into account who would be on guard that day, along with potential backup. She didn't think that backup of the backup would come so quickly as well. Fortunately for her, none of the guild members chasing her seemed to be mages.

A shard of ice flew past her, missing its mark to smash into a nearby barrel instead.

Well, then.

Using a nearby crate as leverage and a bit of magic as a boost, Yachiyo leapt up to the rooftops and continued her escape from above. Another blast of ice shot past her, sailing over her head from another poorly aimed shot.

An untrained magic user, perhaps? Either way… Yachiyo glanced behind her at the group in pursuit, removing her hat and reaching into its magically expanded space. I need to do something about this angry mob.

Other than the inexperienced mage shooting haphazardly at her, the others were only chasing her with swords or pitchforks and a number of lit torches. From a glance they painted a picture more akin to a group of witch hunters than a guild of thieves, though Yachiyo couldn't blame them. She had, after all, sabotaged their armory as a contingency before she had pocketed their treasure.

Still, being poked with a few swords and pitchforks isn't exactly how I want to end my night. Her fingers wrapped around the handle of her latest weapon, pulling it out from her hat. At least none of them are archers. So it would seem have the advantage here~

With no convenient opportunity to notch a physical bolt, Yachiyo condensed a bit of wind into the flight groove of her crossbow and fired at a nearby stack of barrels. One of the barrels in the lowest row burst upon impact, breaking the neat pyramid they were in to roll onto the street.

Yachiyo grinned at her handiwork. A full-sized crossbow really would have been too much of a hassle to lug around. I'm glad I chose to modify one into something more mobile.

"Move!" one of her pursuers shouted as the barrels collapsed in front of their path. While the impromptu obstruction scattered most of them, a few simply leapt over the barrels and continued chasing after her.

Including the ice mage, whose aim remained as terrible as ever. Except his next shard struck the roof right where Yachiyo would have stepped to next if she hadn't pivoted away at the last moment, jumping off the roof to evade. Although the dodge came at the expense of her footing above her pursuers, she managed to land far enough away from the thieves to continue running should she choose to.

As the shouting grew closer again, Yachiyo raised her crossbow with another magically condensed bolt. I've come far enough. I suppose it's time to make a more decisive getaway.

But before she could prepare her spell, a different magic circle flared to life beneath her feet, illuminating her in its green glow. A gust of wind burst from beneath her, just strong enough to lift her off her feet and into the air.

"Wha— Wind?!"

Her muscles tensed to counter, but the momentary uneasiness was replaced by confusion when she found strong arms catching her fall. With one arm wrapped under her knees and the other cupping her shoulders, another burst of wind had them propelling into the air up to the rooftops.

"She's getting away!"

"The hell is this wind?!"

A good question, Yachiyo agreed, calmer than she should have been. But her savior—or kidnapper—continued putting distance between them and their pursuers without saying a word. Yachiyo would have protested the abrupt and unnecessary rescue, but it wasn't as if she was being manhandled in any way. In fact, the stranger's hold was surprisingly gentle for someone she had never met before.

Well, if this mysterious savior isn't going to break the silence first…

Yachiyo glanced up, her usual smirk curving onto her lips. "Isn't this moving a little fast for our first meeting? At least treat me to—"

Whatever else she had meant to say abruptly died in her throat.

In the moonlight, blue-grey eyes stared ahead towards some unknown objective. A pair of simple glasses perched on a button nose, framed by long, dark hair flowing along the wind. Her rescuer's clothes were equally as dark, including the small black hat adorned with a blue ribbon situated atop her head. A faint flush had dusted over her cheeks at Yachiyo's words, much like that day in the library.

Yachiyo swallowed. "You're—"

"Jay Moriarty. A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Arsene Lupin."

"—Mahiru-san? Why are you dressed like that?"

Before Yachiyo could fully register the introduction, the both of them came to an abrupt halt so quickly that the woman's boots skidded across the tiles on the roof. The wind cloaking them dispersed into the air, allowing Yachiyo to get a proper view of the indignant blush raging on Moriarty's—Mahiru's—cheeks.

"Wha— Who are you to judge what I wear?!" Her flustered gaze swept down to the arm looped under Yachiyo's stocking-clad legs. "All these jewels decorating your coat—of course you'd be slowed down! And this… this impractical skirt!"

Yachiyo quirked an eyebrow, the rest of her uneasiness dissipating in the face of someone familiar. "Impractical? I would argue it offers more mobility than trousers."

"There's hardly any protection!" When Yachiyo started to protest, Mahiru quickly cut in, "And no, those thin stockings don't count!"

Well, she had to give Mahiru that. "While you do have a point, that's what magic is for, you know?"

Mahiru groaned. "Do you lack any sense of shame?! And how are you not cold?!

"And yet your eyes convey a different opinion, Moriarty. As well as your current choice of grip." At the last word, Yachiyo brushed her index finger over the gloved hand on her knee. "Or would you rather we held hands for our escape~?"

It wasn't every day Yachiyo found herself being carried like a princess. But it wasn't an unpleasant feeling, especially with the identity of her 'prince' in black. Not to mention Mahiru's amusing reactions.

"I—!" A slew of incoherent sputtering followed before Mahiru found her voice again. "This is just how things ended up! Are you suggesting I shouldn't have intervened?"

If anything, I'm surprised Mahiru-san hasn't dropped me yet. Instead of voicing that thought or thinking further on the arms still holding her up, Yachiyo replied, "Well, I won't ignore help when it's given. You have my thanks, Moriarty."

Mahiru's lips drew into a frown, her cheeks slowly returning to their normal color. Regaining her composure, Mahiru carefully lowered Yachiyo onto the roof so she could stand on her own.

Yachiyo tried to ignore the twinge in her chest as Mahiru stepped back. It was strange seeing a ghost from her past—one that Yachiyo hadn't expected to meet again, especially in these circumstances. Although Mahiru's general appearance hadn't seemed to change much, her current attire and the posture she held herself with confirmed that this was indeed a crime lord that anyone should be wary of. Including Yachiyo.

While some things haven't changed, it seems you've become someone different from the timid student from Pleiades. Yachiyo fought down the urge to smile wryly at the irony. I wonder if you would share the same opinion if you knew who I was as well, Mahiru-san.

Standing a few paces away, Mahiru kept a steady gaze on Yachiyo as she adjusted her dark coat. "I don't believe we've met before, Lupin. And yet you address me as if we are somehow acquaintances."

Yachiyo's lips pulled up into a languid smirk. "Curious? Someone of your caliber should be able to deduce my identity with the pieces in your possession."

"That seems rather inefficient when you're right in front of me." Shoulders tensed; a shift in Mahiru's stance that was barely perceivable. But it was just to release an exasperated sigh. "Though, coercing the answer from you wouldn't be fair either. If you prefer to keep your identity a secret, then I'll just have to do my own research."

Yachiyo wasn't sure if she should sigh or laugh. Ah, so this part of Mahiru-san hasn't changed. Maybe she's become a little more capable, but that endearing politeness is still there. I wonder…

Her shoulders pulled up in a small shrug. "Well… if that's how you feel, there isn't much I can do about that. Though I must say…"

Removing her monocle from her right eye, and thus lifting the spell cloaking her identity, Yachiyo chuckled lightly as Mahiru's eyes widened in recognition.

"…thinking my secrets could be revealed so easily through other meansisn't that taking me a little too lightly?"

"Y-You— How—?!"

"Oh, don't feel too bad, Mahiru-san." Yachiyo turned the monocle over in her hand, smiling at the variety of emotions playing across her old schoolmate's face. "My monocle obscures my own identity, yes. But I had also designed it to see through all kinds of spells, including ones meant to mask someone's appearance. I'm guessing that isn't an aspect you included for your glasses?"

Mahiru shook her head. "That's… well, including something like that is beyond me. But that's not—!" Mahiru pinched the bridge of her nose with a small, frustrated groan. "Why are you here, Tsuruhime-san? As a phantom thief of all things?"

"Should I not be? After all, you're standing before me as Jay Moriarty, the infamous Napoleon of Crime, aren't you? I'd say a crime lord trumps over a mere thief."

"That's—!" Mahiru turned her gaze away with a frown. "I didn't exactly intend to pursue this life. But there's something I want to do—that I need to do."

"As a criminal."

Of all professions, Yachiyo wouldn't have expected the timid girl she had comforted in the library at Pleiades to pursue such a dangerous specialty. It was one thing for Yachiyo to dabble in the field of larceny—she had enough experience with small acts of thievery during her childhood, both to make ends meet and as a side hobby. But Tsuyuzaki Mahiru, or at least the woman Yachiyo thought she knew, was kind and caring to a fault. A crime lord of all roles seemed ill-suited for her.

Of course, that was what Yachiyo would have thought years ago. But standing before her now, Yachiyo had to admit that Mahiru had stepped into her new shoes rather well. If the rumors and news carried by the town criers were of any indication, at least.

Yachiyo offered Mahiru a wry smile. "It sounds like quite a bit has happened since we've last seen one another."

Blue-grey eyes swept back to her in silence. A range of emotions flashed through Mahiru's eyes at that moment—too quickly for Yachiyo to name.

"To you as well, Tsuruhime-san?" Mahiru whispered, almost quiet enough for the wind to carry her voice away.

'As well'?

Months later, the memories of her long year as an Edel and the loss of her last family member remained a sore wound to her heart. Although she had managed to stand back up on her own two feet and move forward, they were not memories she planned to speak of anytime soon.

Or at least, she hadn't planned to. Not fully.

Yachiyo sighed, shaking her head with a lazy smile. "It's too eventful for me to even summarize. And telling the whole story would take too long, what with the both of us still being pursued. I'm sure those thieves will soon catch up to us."

"You won't have to worry about that." Mahiru glanced behind her, adjusting her glasses. "My subordinates should be diverting their attention right about now. Tonight wasn't supposed to be anything more than an initial reconnaissance mission, but the results remained within my calculations."

"Oh? And did you include me in your plans against a rival guild?" Yachiyo wondered.

Mahiru pursed her lips, her tone taking on the formality befitting a leader of crime. "You were… certainly not in my initial plans. But I couldn't resist a chance to speak with the infamous Arsene Lupin about the possibility of a joint venture. In the future."

Excitement welled in Yachiyo's chest, just like all the other times she had planned for any grand heists. She herself had entertained the idea of reaching out to Jay Moriarty in the past, but had preferred to gather a bit more intel about the crime lord before forming any sort of alliance. If Moriarty herself was going to take the initiative to arrange a partnership, that only worked in Yachiyo's favor.

"Oh? And what would the terms of our collaboration be?"

"That would require further discussion. Perhaps somewhere more private, where we can discuss without fear of anyone overhearing? And… I'm curious about how things have been since we last saw each other." Mahiru's gaze darted to the side, the formality slipping into a familiar shyness. "While I can't promise I'll be of much help, I can lend an ear if you're willing. If… If you wanted to talk to an old acquaintance, of course!"

The familiar words—albeit somewhat different—ignited certain feelings that Yachiyo had thought she had long since forgotten about. But it seemed they had only been lying dormant, waiting for the chance to resurface.

"Even if the sun sets, it'll inevitably rise again to begin a new day. Who knows? Maybe you'll see her again in the future."

Yachiyo smiled to herself. She could almost see Chitose smirking at her with a teasing, "I told you so!" as she nibbled on the pastries she loved so much.

For the first time in months, the fleeting image of her late guardian no longer hurt to recall.

"Since you've invited me so kindly," Yachiyo chuckled, "I suppose it would be rude to refuse, hm?"


"I'll reach out to grasp that hand as if I were on a trapeze…
...Like a jack-in-the-box jumping out, return that love to me."