[Clover's Regret] Chapter 3 - The Phantom Orchestra

Unfortunately, the only editor who had been helping me with Clover's Regret has informed me that he will not have time to work on all of his projects, thus he will have to drop most of them. Clover's Regret is one of them. Seeing as I have no one else to count on for editing, I've decided to release the translation unedited, as leaving it to rot in a GDrive folder is a waste of all the labour involved. As such, I hope that you, the readers, will help by pointing out any errors or parts that are hard to understand/don't sound so good so that the translation can be improved. If I eventually find some grammar/style nazi willing to help with the editing, the translation will be updated to reflect any improvements made. The final chapter is also translated, but I'll release it in a week or two to give more time for people to notice that this chapter was released. Prepare for some obvious... and some not so obvious, though foreshadowed reveals. As for this chapter... it's loooooooooooooooooooooong, but nice. Especially if you're here for the Sleeping Knights references.

Bold text marks the use of boutens (dots beside the text that are used for emphasis) in the raw. Comic sans font is used for unusual text, like English words in hiragana (rather than katakana) or katakana for Japanese words. We also make great use of furigana for both when the original text used it and for explaining Japanese text when we had to keep it in the translation for the discussion to make sense (or to show the puns that would be lost in the translation otherwise). Remember that the big text at the bottom is supposed to be the meaning of the phrase, while the little ruby text above it supposed to be how the text is read. Parentheses covering a paragraph seems to be the author's way to denote the character's monologue/thoughts.

Thanks to all of those who contributed to the SAO Scans project for helping us get the raws.

Any feedback is appreciated.

Credits

Raws: SAO Scans Project
Translation: Gsimenas






Chapter 3 - The Phantom Orchestra


For the bedridden boy, the new computer bought by his grandfather was a window to a new world.

As he had been practically shut inside a hospital room until then, his world, through the open window, became a junction point to an even bigger world.

Beyond the window was a crowd of people whose faces he could not see.

Even if he extended his hands, he could not reach them, nor could he step outside the window with his own feet, but just being able to gaze at the outside world was a great change to the boy.

And, several years later──

The sudden and rapid evolution of VR technology turned the boy's 〝window〟 into a 〝door〟.

The world he thought he could not reach no matter how much he longed for it… opened up before him in all five of his senses.

The virtual space that he could only experience through sight and hearing until then began to involve smell, touch, and taste in the form of faint electric signals to his brain, and he even gained the sensation of freely moving his limbs.

And so, he──

Met 《companions》 who were in the same position.



§

A matsuribayashi could be heard in the distance.

The high-pitched flutes, the light tsuzumi, and the elegant koto together formed a merry racket.

As if to say that life is but a dream, go crazy,(1) they played a dreary song with desperate-sounding vigour.

They already knew the source of the sound.

Even if the musicians couldn't be seen── their souls were currently imprisoned in the gigantic castle in front of them.

At least, it seemed that that's how it went according to the scenario.

The Battle Miko Nayuta, standing in front of the castle, sent a gaze of bewilderment to her small animal-like partner clinging to her back.

"……Koyomi-san, are you all right? Your knees are trembling, your face is ghastly pale, your eyes are blank, and it seems like your real body could be drenched in cold sweat──"

The ninja Koyomi responded in a trembling voice.

"……Of course not…… That gramps could have just left out that scary bit before we went in…… Even if he didn't know what you were talking about, he should have just pretended to know about it and said something like 〝Oh, that kitsune-masked boy! I know I know〟; if he was good adult……!"

In an outburst of anger, she said something so absurd. Due to the effect of her childish appearance, her figure, trembling in fear, looked quite pitiable.

Just before this test play began, Torao, the person in charge of inspections, told Nayuta and the others the following thing.



『There's no player guide-like NPC in the 《Phantom Orchestra》.』──



──In that case, what was the 《kitsune-masked child》 that appeared when they first entered the castle as if to greet them?

The cowardly Koyomi was completely convinced that this was a kind of ghost story.

Although it seemed like a good idea for her to give up on the test play and wait outside, her courage to enter the castle nonetheless was praiseworthy.

The kitsune-faced detective, Clevel, sighed as if appalled.

"Is it really something to be so scared of……? It was unexpected that the administrators were unaware of the 〝kitsune-masked child〟, but you're being too rash by arbitrarily deciding that 〝it's a ghost then〟. Thinking sensibly, it's more appropriate to think that we encountered a 《hidden character》 that even the administrators were unaware of. For a submission whose detailed workings are unclear, that's quite plausible."

Koyomi growled like a puppy.
"Uugh….. Q-quit it with your poor comforting! Nayu-san is making an appalled face that's practically saying〝Detective-san is telling another pack of lies〟!"

That was entirely mistaken, as she was actually currently appalled by Koyomi.

Stroking her head like that of a child, Nayuta formed as soft a voice as she could.

"I did not make such an expression. My thoughts on the matter are mostly the same as Detective-san's. I do not know the requirements for encountering the hidden character, but it could be a low probability coincidence, or it could have been the effect of Detective-san's pointlessly high Luck── or it could be that we unknowingly met some requirement for its appearance; either way, I believe that it was a simple oversight on the part of the administrators."

In that regard, Nayuta's intuition was completely sensible and rational. Actually, a real ghost would be a more interesting topic for conversations, but the probability of that was awfully low.

The Detective lightly pressed against the ground with the tip of his stick.

"If I were to express a slightly more detailed guess── he could be a kind of independent AI, rather than a mere NPC. Meaning that he's along the lines of an artificial intelligence with the capability of hiding himself from the administrators and appearing only in front of players that he himself wants to meet. That is the most plausible way for him to work, I believe."

Koyomi looked up to the Detective with suspicion.

"……Really? You're not lying……? When I get back home and look at the mirror, I won't see the child standing behind be or something……?

"……You know, you're not suited for the 《Hundred and Eight Apparitions》 in the first place? Actually, on the contrary, you might be too suited for it……"

Being so honestly scared of a haunted house was, in a sense, enviable. It could also be as proof of enjoying the events more than the administrators had anticipated.

Even Yanagi chimed in with concern.

"Umm, Koyomi-san…… I believe my grandson Kiyofumi was a very kind-hearted child── he was not the kind of person to ever cause problems to others, much less commit something as discourteous as arbitrarily following a girl to her room, thus──"

──Assuming that an actual 《ghost》 existed in the quest, the most likely candidate for that would be the deceased creator, Yanagi Kiyofumi.

At this sincere though somewhat off persuasion, Koyomi quickly became at a loss for words.

"…………I-I wasn't expecting such a response…… ugh…… I'm sorry for treating him as a suspicious person……"

Even while bowing down, she did not release Nayuta's back.

Taking advantage of the course of the conversation, Clevel touched upon the part that was hard to bring up.

"Yanagi-san. Inquiring about this would be rude, but…… do you believe that the kitsune-masked boy we encountered is the ghost of your grandchild?"

Yanagi took several moments before answering.

"……I believe… that is not the case. Though, if you are asking whether I am absolutely sure that there is no 〝chance〟 of it happening…… In any case, he and the quest itself is certainly things that Kiyofumi 〝left behind in his final moments〟. Even if he is not a ghost, he is the child's other self, or his last will…… or some other sort of being of special meaning, I believe."

While he used words and reason to say that, it was easy to guess that he still held unresolved sentiments.

Either way, a ghost of one's deceased grandchild was not the kind of topic that was easy to hear. If he was an imitation, it would just be vain, while if, by any chance, he was real, it would mean that he was roaming the world, unable to rest in peace.

"Besides, Kiyofumi passed away in his mid-tweens, thus…… while the kitsune-masked child looks just like Kiyofumi when he was a child, he looks like seven or eight years old. Perhaps…… he is a being that Kiyofumi made based on his younger self as the model."

The Detective quietly nodded.

"…Yes. That interpretation is just about right."

Nayuta arbitrarily assumed that she heard him add 'unfortunately'.

The group turned their steps toward the castle entrance.

Buried in the centre of the somewhat short, stone stairs was the small hokora that served as the trigger for the castle to appear.

The stone statue of the child enshrined in it was ominously expressionless and, depending on your point of view, more freaky.

Having passed by the side of the hokora, the group stood right in front of the huge entrance that imitated Yōmei-mon.

The inside was pitch-dark, but once they stepped in, they should each be forcibly transported to a random place inside the castle.

Supposing that the places would be the same as the last time they entered, Nayuta would appear in the castle's underground passageway, Koyomi in the open air bath where mermen live, Yanagi in the infinite hall, and Detective Clevel in the topmost castle tower.

Aside from Nayuta, the other three had yet to acquire one of the key items, 〝musical instruments〟, they would need to obtain to regroup.

First, they'd need to find the musical instruments, followed by meeting up and then dispatching the boss── if possible, they wanted to finish all of it in just one day.

"Koyomi-san, are you prepared?"

Nayuta gently asked the girl who looked to be the only one in the group who had yet to prepare.

Koyomi finally released Nayuta's back and, slightly trembling, nodded.

"I-I'm fine……I think…… probably……Nayu-san, when we meet up afterwards, be sure to praise and pamper me a lot, okay? I don't think I can take it unless I have such a reward to look forward to……"

"Hah……well then, let's be off."

Deceiving her by not giving any promise, Nayuta stepped toward the darkness one step ahead.

Not wanting to fall behind her unhesitant gait, Koyomi quickly followed suit.

Clevel and Yanagi, too, followed after the two──

And thus, in the darkness, the four were scattered throughout various places inside the castle.



§

When asked about "the meaning of life" by his young grandson, Yanagi was unable to give a clear answer.

There were several so-called textbook answers.

It was possible to say 'Searching itself is what life is about', or 'Play hard and study hard', or explain about biological happiness by saying 'Spend time with your family and leave some offspring behind'.

But in the first place, he was speaking to a child. By all rights, he could have found plenty of "reasons to live" by just talking about hopes for the future.

However, Yanagi── could not answer.

At a loss for words, he inclined his head, and with a gentle smile, "Grandpa doesn't really know either" said to the best of his ability.

His grandchild Kiyofumi knew himself that he would not live till adulthood.

Practically unable to leave the hospital, go to school, or play with friends──he had constantly asked himself how much meaning such a life had ever since he was young.

Even now when Kiyofumi was dead──

Yanagi was unsure how he should have answered his grandchild's question.

Although Yanagi could see his own time of death coming not so long after the death of his grandchild, being a man who would die having lived to his heart's content till he grew old, Yanagi's situation in life was far too different from that of his grandchild, who could not even reach adulthood.

(I……could not do a thing for Kiyofumi.)

Harbouring such regrets, Yanagi was now standing here in this fake body.

In Yanagi's field of vision was the same pillar-less hall that he had visited on Saturday.

Despite there being no source of light, somehow he was able to clearly see that the floor was made out of tatami and the ceiling of wooden boards.

Yanagi had received a lecture, mixed with conjecture, from the detective about this large hall that continued endlessly as if reflected in opposing mirrors.

〝I have several theories regarding how to escape from the looping room. Finding some kind of hint, a hidden switch, using a special item, or defeating the enemy controlling the room…… it is also possible that you need to wait for a certain amount of time or walk a certain distance, but as far as I can see based on the workings of the hokora the other day, your grandson was a fair developer who is sure to have left a hint. On the other hand, he has probably not made it so that you could solve the riddle by accident, so rather than suddenly walking out after being transported, please carefully inspect your surroundings.〟

Recalling his advice, Yanagi surveyed the area.

In this room, there were no pillars or walls. The only things present were the ceiling and the tatami.

Assuming that there was a hidden door or switch, it could only be either on the ceiling that his hands couldn't reach, or one of the tatami stretching out on the floor.

(Last time, while walking randomly, I ended up falling into pitfall trap……)

Essentially, it wasn't the kind of trap where you would die instantly, but the level 1 Yanagi didn't have that much HP for starters, so he was easily driven out to the exit.

As he was in a test play this time, his level was adjusted; nevertheless, walking out recklessly couldn't be called a good plan.

(Well then, I don't see anything abnormal about the tatami──as for the ceiling……)

Looking fixedly overhead, Yanagi noticed that the wood grains of the ceiling boards was strangely distorted.

──Suddenly, he recalled something Kiyofumi had once said.

When his disease was not yet serious, Kiyofumi had said that the wood grains of the ceiling in a ryokan traveller inn looked like the face of a person.

This was often the case with children, so his parents took delight in scaring him that it was a ghost or monster, but Yanagi knew a different "answer that Kiyofumi wanted to hear".

Compared to his parents who were busy with work and care for their child that much, Yanagi, who was always in contact with his grandchild due to being retired, knew his personality much better.

Kiyofumi was a rational child.

He was not scared of ghosts, but rather wanted to know the reason 〝why the wood grains look like the face of a person〟.

So, Yanagi gently explained what Kiyofumi wanted to know with care.

Wood grains were created through the growth of the tree.

For the majority of people and beasts, their eyes and mouth are arranged in an inverted triangle.

Because of this, when you see 〝three dots〟 arranged in an inverted triangle, people unconsciously end up associating it with a 〝face〟.

This was called a simulacra(2) phenomenon and there were a lot of cases in the past when spots on the wall or the shadow of leaves on trees were mistaken for ghost photography.

Whenever he was acquiring knowledge like this, Kiyofumi's eyes always glittered.

The memory that suddenly crossed his mind was not unrelated to his current circumstances.

(……Wooden ceiling…… wood grain……)

The wood grain on the ceiling boards above him was obviously and unnaturally distorted.

However, the pattern it formed wasn't the face of a man.

It was close to being an inverted triangle, but it had an acute angle and extended in a line like a tail.

(……An arrow?)

It was pointing behind Yanagi.

Having turned around, Yanagi noticed that the arrows on the ceiling boards continued in succession.

Even someone as inexperienced about games as him immediately understood that this served as a substitute for a guidepost sign.

It was likely that the arrows made from the wood grain of the ceiling boards were indicating an escape route out of the infinitely continuing hall. Once he figured out the workings, he realised that it was a trivial and very simple riddle.

Yanagi formed a bitter smile and began walking along the arrows.

The kitsune-masked child had yet to appear.

Assuming, like the Detective guessed, that it was an AI that had a way of escaping the eyes of the administrators, he would not have the chance to encounter the child during this test play.

On the other hand, Yanagi held doubt about this view.

(Would Kiyofumi create such a thing……?)

No matter what, he could not believe that Kiyofumi, who loved the game called Asuka Empire and even held respect for it, would go out of his way to create a mechanic with the purpose of outwitting the administrators.

The kitsune-masked child probably had a special requirement to appear.

A 《special requirement》 that the administrators didn't notice, but Kiyofumi didn't intend to hide, yet Yanagi and the others were able to achieve without knowing it──

While being guided by the arrows, Yanagi pondered with his old head.

(One of the substitute offerings for the hokora…… not. The administrators should also be aware of it. 〝Something〟 that only I and Detective-dono had done…… Clevel-dono's abnormally high Luck…… no, however, if that was the case, the administrators would have noticed it. Something more special……)

──Something 《special》.

There obviously was something.

Rather, with a head like his, that's the only thing he could think of.

Facing the unchanging hall, Yanagi cast his voice.

"……Kiyofumi, don't tell me…… you've been waiting for 〝me〟 to come……?"

──The special factor that only they had.

To have Kiyofumi's 〝grandfather〟 Yanagi as a party member.

Assuming that that was the condition for the child's appeared, it was natural that the administrators couldn't grasp it, and the chances of other players encountering it accidentally was practically null.

In Yanagi's field of vision, the empty room was suddenly distorted like smoke.



§

Having charged ahead of the other members, Nayuta began investigating the castle itself.

She alone had already acquired the musical item needed to meet up, the 《Flute of Springtime Haze》.

Giving it a blow, even an amateur such as herself was able to produce a nice sound with it, but due to lack of knowledge on how to manipulate it with her fingers, she couldn't expand it into a melody.

It seemed like she could use it like an actual instrument if she practiced, but due to not having any particular interest in doing so, she was lost on what to do with it after the quest.

The wide underground passageway with stone walls on the left and right was a bit chilly.

There were light stands stretching out at a high point, but despite there being light, the area in front of her was nevertheless plunged in gloomy darkness. As for the ceiling, it was so high that it couldn't be seen.

The extent of her vision was limited to three metres──

With this much distance, she would generally be able to deal with any surprise attack from an enemy. It was too late to fear the uncertainties, though Nayuta wasn't awfully worried about them.

This was, after all, a game.

──In reality, it would have been much more scary to her.

While making footsteps with her zori(3) as if they were wearing thin, Nayuta leisurely advanced forward.

From beyond the wide passageway with stone paving, she heard clatter and metallic sounds.

(《Skeleton Warriors》 ……? They number over five, but less than ten──)

As their armour made characteristic clatter, they were enemies that were very easy to sense. Their individual strength wasn't all that great, but due to their coordinated attacks with all sorts of weapons, they were a bit of a pain in the ass as their numbers increased.

Nayuta cast her eyes down and took a single deep breath.

Soon, from the darkness came a group of corpses reduced to skeletons, wearing dirty helmets and armour.

The mouth of the skulls clattered with joy having found a prey.

Before they could get ready, Nayuta broke into a dash.

Clenching her hand covered by her kote into a fist, she unleashed a yell── and drove a silent punch into the face of the Skeleton Warrior standing in the lead.

The heavy attack enveloped in a Battle Miko's divine power sent the pitiful head of the dead flying along with its helmet.

Without a moment's delay, her left fist went for the skeleton's trunk as the monster searched for its fallen head.

That wasn't a move for beating it up. Drawing in one's fist and unleashing an exorcising wave afterwards; it was a close-quarter fighting skill──called 《#Purifying Strike#(Haraiuchi)》.

For a grappling-type player, it was a simple yet effective anti-spirit skill; it wasn't restricted to just fists, as it could be used for kicks, head butts, and other such attacks, effective in the strike range of the player's limbs.

The Skeleton Warrior, unable to defend due to the inflicted damage, suffered a follow-up attack, which caused it to crumble away along with its armour, as if sand scattered by the wind.

(One for starters──)

Unconcernedly, as if solving a problem in a workbook, Nayuta decided on her next enemy.

Three of them coming from the front── if she tried dealing with them one at a time, she would be flanked.

Making use of her selectively strengthened leaping ability, she jumped up softly.

Her pure white sleeve fluttered like wings, while her red hakama billowed out in the wind.

Her slender legs kicked the helmet of a Skeleton Warrior, then used it as a stepping stone for another brilliant, high jump.

The 《#Leaping of the Eight Ships#(Hassoutobi)》 that enhanced the player's jumping ability was a basic skill, but with its advanced form, the 《Unparalleled Jump》, kicking off would be regarded as an attack.

It didn't have much power, but in the case of an easy-to-tumble bipedal opponent like the Skeleton Warrior, it was possible to succeed in toppling the enemy with the attack.

That was exactly the case here; the skeleton whose head was trampled by Nayuta clumsily hit the floor with its face.

When this happened, even its ominous appearance felt somewhat humourous.

Nayuta leapt over the heads of the other Skeleton Warriors and landed behind them without a sound.

Her body was undoubtedly as light as a feather. In this space, she could simulate a move that would be impossible in the real world as if it were perfectly natural.

Forgetting everything and, as if dancing──skillfully turning her body round and round.

Giving herself to the matsuribayashi that suddenly came out of nowhere, she magnificently avoided the Skeleton Warriors' tachi swords, and counterattacked.

Stepping on the back of the blade that was swung downward, she leapt up and smacked its chin with her knee.

She avoided the tip of a spear thrust at her, shortened the distance while going around the enemy's flank and, using the centrifugal force, she dealt a backhand blow.

She cut a bowman's bowstring with a shuriken before it could fire, then mercilessly kicked its torso as it was flustered by the loss of its weapon.

The lone maiden reduced the number of the Skeleton Warriors in the group just like that.

The last remaining skeleton brandished its hexagonal pole, giving off a tragic impression.

Using the sweeping pole as a foothold, Nayuta leapt over its head.

Her landing spot was behind the Skeleton Warrior.

Aiming for the skull's ear, she took a gentle breath──

"──May you find peace."

She dealt a sharp blow, her tone soft.

Leaving behind a faint echo and ray of light, the Skeleton Warrior died on the spot.

Confirming no more signs of enemies in the area, Nayuta straightened herself.

Normalising her not so disordered breathing, she listened carefully to the timbre of the matsuribayashi that came unnoticed.

She tried to determine for the direction of the sound, but because of the echoes off the walls of the passageway, she couldn't discern its origin.

(If I recall the lore correctly── an apparition enslaved the souls of the villagers to create musicians for itself, and to undo the curse, we need the sacred musical instruments that were guarded by the village……)

According to Torao's explanation, it seemed that during the quest you could only meet up with members who had gathered musical instruments.

Last time, Nayuta had already acquired one, but the others were only beginning now. Naturally, she didn't expect to be able to meet up with anyone for a while.

Should she fight against some small fry to kill time, look for treasure or something, or take a break somewhere──

Even if she did take a break, she wanted to do it not in this dreary stone passage, but a more relaxing place.

Having decided on a plan and begun to walk, Nayuta suddenly sensed the presence of a person behind her.

(Another enemy──!)

Promptly leaping forward to take some distance, Nayuta turned around.

However, what stood before her was neither an enemy, nor a comrade, yet still a familiar being.

A very young child, wearing a splash-patterned kimono and a kitsune mask──

He looked like a child actor in a historical play, but, of course, he was not human.

"……We meet again. Umm…… Kiyofumi-kun?"

Looking up at Nayuta through his kitsune mask, he didn't answer her question, but instead something else in a voice lacking intonation.

"──Onee-chan, you sure are strong. Those Skeleton Warriors you fought just now shouldn't have been enemies that easy to beat."

At the pouting tone unbefitting an artificial intelligence, Nayuta unconsciously smiled.

"It's not like I beat them as easily as it looked. I focus on speed and have weak defence, so I've developed a habit of defeating enemies in a swift attack── I did plan to run away if I suffered even a single clean hit."

As he was obviously younger, Nayuta naturally changed her tone to suit talking with a child.

──《He》 was an artificial intelligence and definitely not some ghost. Unlike Koyomi, Nayuta could discern as much.

In the past tens of years, artificial intelligence has seen tremendous evolution. Even now there were individuals in the virtual space that were on a level making them hard to distinguish from humans.

Research and development in that field was advancing in various places, especially in commercial enterprises, and as a result, even amateur-like creators were now able to easily obtain copies of such artificial intelligence.

The latest cutting-edge── well, that would naturally be difficult to obtain, so on the level that could be used for a game, there was data on stereotypical men and women of all ages rolled out to the world of the Internet, including both paid and free content.

The creator of this quest, Yanagi Kiyofumi, had probably also applied this data and created his other self, the 《Kitsune-masked Child》. If he just had data to use as a base for personality, he could add more intricate lines for him later on.

The kitsune-masked child fixedly gazed up at Nayuta.

Nayuta, too, fixedly gazed down at him.

Their gazes couldn't meet because of the mask, but she was able to understand that she was being observed.

"Kiyofumi-kun── is that how I should call you?"

Nayuta asked once again for confirmation.

The child shook his head.

"Kiyofumi has passed away. I am just an artificial intelligence born through Kiyofumi's will── so, I was given a different name."

(……Huh? He admitted……?)

She had firmly believed that he would lie or try to deceive her to maintain immersion in the game.

Yet, he frankly revealed his identity and pulled on Nayuta's sleeve.

"There's no point in lying to someone who knows about Kiyofumi. And besides, it doesn't seem like you're even a teeny bit scared even when I'm this close, Onee-chan."

"……Sorry. It seems that I'm more thick-skinned than the average person, or I'm just unfamiliar with such an emotion."

Feeling apologetic for some reason, Nayuta unconsciously bowed.

"Umm……If you're not Kiyofumi-kun and have received a different name……What is your named?"

"〝Clovis〟 is my name. Cool, huh?"

For a moment, Nayuta was at a loss for words.

Moments earlier, she would have been able to honestly answer with 'it's cool', but because of the similar impression given by his words, she ended up imagining the shady smile of the Detective, making her pause for a moment.

Moreover, they even had the same kitsune face.

"……How should I put this…… despite your Japanese outfit, you sure have a very Western name, I see?"

Facing Nayuta who harbored complicated emotions, the child proudly puffed his chest.

"It's the name Kiyofumi had as a player. The name was based on a hero that busted dragons in an old game or something.(4) I received that name── and together with Kiyofumi, we created this game."

Nayuta became bewildered.

"Created…… the game? You?"

"Of course, the important parts were all done by Kiyofumi….. but Kiyofumi gave me instructions and I set up the map and the mechanics── it sure was fun. Until Kiyofumi died, I was always with him."

The kitsune-masked child smiled sadly beyond his mask.

Nayuta ended up speechless.

(This child……created it with him? This quest……? Meaning…… that he was a co-creator……?)

While surprised, she astonished at herself that she had completely forgotten this possibility.

Thinking about it, an artificial intelligence's original role is to assist people.

Controlling mechanisms in the place of a person, analysing information in the place of a person, carrying out 〝the role of a person〟 in the place of the person── This kitsune-masked child was probably a reliable partner to Kiyofumi.

Though, in order to take an artificial intelligence on a level that an average person could obtain, and make it so proficient, it was indispensable for the user to be knowledgeable and be skilled at modifying it; it wasn't as simple as it sounded.

Actually── it seemed like an even more difficult experiment than 〝developing a quest〟 itself.

(Perhaps, Yanagi Kiyofumi's actual goal…… wasn't to develop this quest, but to nurture this 《artificial intelligence》 through creating it……?)

Although low, there was the possibility that the quest was just a camouflage to hide the artificial intelligence 〝Clovis〟.

Nayuta decided to voice her suspicions.

"Do…… you have any purpose in being here?"

Suddenly, the child inclined his head questioningly.

"Onee-chan, do you have any purpose in living?"

"Wha……?"

Having received a question in return, Nayuta was stumped on how to respond.

Answering a question with a question was bit rare for the behaviour of an artificial intelligence. It is possible that Kiyofumi expected such a question in advance and inputted an answer to respond with, but in that case, she had a mysterious sensation that her thoughts were seen through.

The artificial intelligence named Clovis slowly added to his words.

"──If I don't have a purpose, I can't be here?"

"That…… I……"

Having hesitated for a bit, Nayuta squatted down, matching the the height of her eyes with his.

"……You're right. You don't need a purpose. Besides, you'll probably find one along the way, and can decide on it someday yourself……Though, allow me to ask one thing. Could it be…… that you were asked by 《Kiyofumi-kun》 to do something important?"

The child slipped out a chuckle beyond the kitsune mask.

"Yeah. He did ask for a favour. But…… right afterwards, Kiyofumi also said that he didn't want to bind me with any promise. He said that I didn't need to care about the promise and that I could act freely as I wished── so, I can't tell you yet."

The child gently jumped a big step back.

Like a ghost, half of his body sunk to the other side of the stone wall.

"Ah! Wait!"

"……See you later, Onee-chan. But then── if you can't clear the quest, we might not meet again."


Just like that, the child disappeared into the wall.

The area was engulfed in silence as if there had been no one there from the start.

Putting her hand on the stone wall where the child had disappeared, Nayuta pondered for a while.

(The artificial intelligence the administrators overlooked…… was of course not a ghost, but int that case, what about the other 〝ghost〟──)

The thing she wanted to ask him about as she asked him to stop, and the biggest reason why this quest was driven to a suspension── that is to say, the 〝ghost of one's close acquaintance that shouldn't be present as data〟.

She had heard that in the detective's case, his deceased bosom friend appeared, in Yanagi's case - his grandchild Kiyofumi, and in Koyomi's - her old pet.

Even in Nayuta's case── a person that should have been dead showed himself.

(If we clear the quest, will we be able to understand how that works too……)

At any rate, right now, she wanted to meet up with her comrades.

With renewed energy, Nayuta corrected her posture.

And, right after she once again began walking through the underground passageway──

She suddenly felt vertigo.

Her vision swayed for just a moment and she unconsciously closed her eyes.

──Nayuta has experienced this sensation the previous time, too.

With some confidence and discomfort, she opened her eyes.

At that moment, she saw a person she couldn't forget.

A young, pale man, wearing a policeman uniform and standing stock still absent-mindedly.

While alive, he looked very gentle, but now, his expression, hidden by the shadow of his cap, couldn't be seen.

The matsuribayashi could be heard, strangely far away.

"……Onii……chan……?"

Nayuta let out a hoarse voice.

It was a little dim, but there was no mistaking it.

──When she had entered the castle the previous time, she had also come across the figure of her elder brother.

During the mere moment she had thought that she had been mistaken, Nayuta's thoughts suddenly came to a halt.

Then, without a thought, she just unconsciously and indifferently brought down the enemies in the area, and by the time she came to, she was standing by the escape route.

She remembered it all well. In contrast to Clevel and the others, she had reported "I saw the ghost of someone I knew", but she had not lied about it.

She had just shut down her emotions.

If she couldn't think a thing, she wouldn't feel fear or loneliness. Even if she couldn't completely overcome them, she could 〝paralyse〟 them.

Even now, at this moment──

When the figure of her elder brother entered her view, without any panic, she killed her emotions with cold thinking.

(……It can't be…… a ghost──)

She didn't believe in ghosts and the like. Actually, she even wished to encounter such a thing, but the elder brother she saw before her was different.

It was 〝something〟 that had taken the form of Nayuta's elder brother and was of no concern to her.

His figure could only be seen for a mere few seconds, and that being had already disappeared.

After the faint vertigo had passed, Nayuta took a deep breath── and then continued with a long expiration to empty her lungs..

──Her elder brother Kushiinada Daichi had died while playing 《Sword Art Online》.

She didn't really have any clue what had happened in-game.

But in the real world, her brother, wearing a NerveGear, had his brain suddenly fried in a hospital, and died.

His family, who had been praying for his safe return, fell into despair── and she didn't want to remember what happened afterwards.

To protect herself, Nayuta killed the majority of her emotions.

When Detective Clevel voiced clear hatred towards Kayaba Akihiko.

Nayuta thought of Clevel as slightly dazzling.

Nayuta had run away from even hating the perpetrator.

Casting aside her resentment… was a nice-sounding scenario that didn't happen. In order to feel hatred, she also had to face the sorrow of having lost her elder brother.

Nayuta had run away from all such emotions── Thus, she continued playing another VRMMO aimlessly.

Coldly gazing into the darkness where the ghost of her elder brother disappeared, Nayuta formed a light fist.

She put in some force. There was no hindrance to fighting.

(I have to hurry and meet up with Yanagi-san and the others── I wonder if they have been able to find a musical instrument by now……)

With such thoughts in mind, she began walking in a state similar to sleepwalking──

The 《#Two-mouthed woman#(Futakuchi-onna)》 that closed in on her from behind… was hit with a backhand blow with all of Nayuta's strength without her turning her eyes.



§

The importance of a life was relatively different.

Between the life of a complete stranger and the life of a family member, the family member's life would generally be more important.

The case would be different if the relationship with the family was filled with discord and hatred, but as long as such special circumstances aren't involved, it'd be safe to say that the death of a relative would make you shed tears.

On the other hand, for an unfamiliar person who died in a traffic accident, you wouldn't feel anything other than "condolences".

It was impossible to live one's life grieving and moaning every single time such a frequent event occurred, and actually, there was not a moment without some unknown person having just passed away somewhere in the world.

For a person to feel sorrow about another person's death, 《information》 about that person is essential.

If there was just some information, even a fictional character's death in a story would make people shed tears.

In the first place, you wouldn't even be aware of a death that you had no information on.

Just now, even though a child in the corner of some slum who had been abandoned by their parents suffered from medical poisoning and died, there was no one in particular to grief about the child's death.

It isn't a matter of good or bad; that's just how the world works.

This is a very healthy thing; if people mourned for every single death of an unknown person, they would not be able to smile even for a second throughout their life.

The importance of a life was relatively different.

The more the person is familiar, the bigger the importance; the more a person is unacquainted, the less important their life is

To Detective Clevel, the deceased 〝Yanagi Kiyofumi〟was an unacquainted stranger.

As for his death, he did think that "it's a pity for someone so young", but he didn't have any more sentiments for it in particular.

So──even regarding the kitsune-masked child that appeared before him, his response was very disinterested.

Clevel was not one to feel that much compassion for every person. He knew that this was impolite.

Outside the window was a castle tower, overlooking the stars in the sky.

Having been transported to the same place as last time, Clevel shrugged at seeing the kitsune-masked child.

"So you came, 〝ghost〟 boy. I'd like to have a chat with you. Kiyofumi-kun, hm? Or do you have some other name, I wonder."

The child inclined his head in wonder.

Clevel thought that he was Kiyofumi's other self.

There were two 〝special mechanics〟 made by the deceased Yanagi Kiyofumi in this quest.

The appearance of one's dead acquaintance as a ghost.

And, the existence of the 《kitsune-masked child》, an artificial intelligence that even the administrators hadn't noticed.

Unless the safety of these two points can be proved, or a program correction is performed, the suspension of the quest will not be lifted.

The particularly problematic one was the 〝appearance of one's dead acquaintance as a ghost〟, but the administrators doubt the possibility of this phenomenon being a terms of service violation.

A VRMMO using a feature to access the brains of people and, in-game, performing the act of "reading and recreating the memories of an individual"── this was clearly a breach of Asuka Empire's rules.

Yet, the creator Kiyofumi probably did not think that this would become a problem.

In fact, if Clevel's conjecture was correct, he did not engage in illegal conduct. Though, he created something close── some gray zone mechanic that would naturally be misunderstood as a transgression.

Based on the fact that no problems occurred during the application judging phase, it can be deduced that the mechanic wasn't the kind to work on everyone.

The kitsune-masked child pointed at Clevel.

The rude action was somewhat awkward, reminiscent of a puppet.

"……Onii-san, who are you? I don't know you, Onii-san, but you know me?"

"Yeah. I haven't met you while you were alive, but I do know you. I'm a friend of your grandfather, Yanagi Teiichi-shi. I'm named Clevel."

When he squatted down, offering a handshake, the child inclined his head, and said something strange.

"Clevel…… that name sounds like mine, huh."

The detective frowned.

He couldn't understand right away what the child was saying.

"……You…aren't Kiyofumi-kun? Of course, not the person himself, but a being that should be called his alter ego──"

A chuckle escaped from the mask.

"〝Kiyofumi〟 has died, y'know. I received a different name. But……"

Ignoring the detective's handshake, the child jumped a step back.

"While I have told it to Onee-chan, I can't yet tell you, Onii-san. To people who haven't even found a 《musical instrument》, I'm not saying a thing."

Like a child playing tag, he broke into a dash downstairs.

Energetically like a leaping rabbit, he disappeared just like that.

Clevel unconsciously formed a bitter smile.

"So that's how it's going to be…… I didn't really think he'd suddenly tell us everything. 〝Torao-san〟, did you hear that. That child really did come out."

From the three-leaf-patterned clasp fastening his bolo tie came an exhausted-sounding voice of a middle-aged man.

『We caught him on our side too. He really does exist……Those guys who were in charge of screening are really getting it now."

In the course of the test play, Clevel and the others were monitored by the administrators.

On top of that, Clevel alone also had the ability to contact Torao.

Yanagi was just playing a quest made by his grandson, Nayuta and Koyomi were, in the end, just assisting, but Clevel had the 〝job〟 of identifying the error in this quest.

Literally, this might be a game, but it's not something you play. To him, this was a source of income for earning his daily bread, as well as a way of gaining trust.

From the communication device imitating a bolo tie clasp came Torao's voice.


『However, I dun get it. Why did that hidden char appear only to you guys. Seeing as it was overlooked on the test play, it doesn't sound like merely the effect of Luck──』

Clevel cautiously stated his opinion.

"I had figured that it was an AI designed to hide from the administrators, but despite us being monitored, he still came out. Assuming that he has no particular intention of hiding…… I believe that, probably, Yanagi-shi's existence is the key. It is probably devised so that it would react to any party with, not limited to Yanagi-shi, any player that seems like a family member or a friend. The information essential for the filtering would be the player's name, age, and also…… maybe uttering the name 〝Kiyofumi〟 or reacting to it, or something like that."

Torao sighed. The emotions included in it were just a bit heavy.

『……A will from the creator directed at his family and friends, you mean. We'll investigate the rest. Matters related to artificial intelligence would take a bit of time, but──it seems like those guys are sharing info about the ways of hiding from administrators. 』

These Torao's words, at the current time, were still a joke, nearly like an urban legend.

But Clevel knew from experience that, in VR, artificial intelligence evolution was advancing at a tremendous rate.

Despite the exceptionally few examples, artificial intelligence on the level of being capable of escaping administrator control and even responding to dialogue in a way that makes them indistinguishable from people have been appearing sporadically.

For starters, the great majority of people aren't as clever to be compared to artificial intelligence, nor did they have anything exceptional in particular.

Excluding the small fraction of brilliant geniuses, ninety-nine percent of people couldn't win at shogi or chess against artificial intelligence.

Of course people couldn't oppose then when it came quiz-like information challenges, but because artificial intelligence don't have the risk of dozing off or drinking alcohol, people lose to them when it came to driving safety; because artificial intelligence don't have sexual desires, they don't fall for honey traps; due to not having timidity, as well as knowing moderation, artificial intelligence ability at communication is also higher.

Additionally, they were even so flexible that their character and behaviour could be changed to a great extent depending on the settings.

Clevel… felt fear from the bottom of his heart about their existence.

However, strangely──he didn't hate them just because he feared them.

Just like you wouldn't particularly hate beasts like bears and tigers as beings despite fearing them, Clevel observed the evolution of artificial intelligence with great interest despite fearing it.

"Well then, Torao-san, I shall follow after that child. Let me know if something happens to the others."

『Yeah. Yanagi-san seems to be doing okay. The two girls are also advancing well. Well……currently, the one with the biggest chance of being driven to retiring is you, I guess…… 』

At his voice, mixed with concern and lack of resignation, Clevel gave his usual faint smile as a response.

In fact, that was exactly the case; as Torao feared, the results depended on how things would turn out as of this moment.

Having ended the call, Clevel turned towards the stairway leading to the floor below the tower.

Last time, he was done in by several jorōgumo that appeared here.

It was even still unclear whether that was a fixed enemy, or a random encounter, but he brought along a counter-plan just in case.

Distraction smoke bombs, flash bombs to surprise the enemy, poisonous smoke to reduce the enemy's strength, white lotus aroma to reduce the probability of encountering an enemy, a Scapegoat Charm to lead the enemy astray with a decoy phantom── although neither of them were damage sources, they would be enough to escape the small fry.

Immediately, Clevel rolled down a flash bomb downstairs. The small sphere with paper, imitating a firework ball, *koton*, *koton*, kept falling down, bouncing along the stairs.

After the faint explosive sound and flash of light a moment later, several footsteps clattered away into the distance.

Having driven away the jorōgumo waiting in ambush downstairs, Clevel leisurely began descending the stairs.

Due to his status, he was weak against surprise attacks, but if he just knew how the enemy would act, he could thus cope with them to some extent.

Below the tower, a corridor with wooden floor continued forward and back.

One side faced the outer wall, the other had a wooden wall.

In an actual castle, there were plenty of cases where there was a large hall with no particular partition below the castle tower, but this castle was, in the end, designed just as a dungeon.

Emphasising reality, or prioritising conditions for a game──even points like these told about the creator's personality and preferences.

It seemed like inconsequential detail to other players, but to Clevel the detective, such minute details were also important hints.

(Now then, I have to find the 〝musical instrument〟 for meeting up with the others…… I was told that there's no particular need to defeat enemies, and that the items should be hidden in wicker baskets or beyond trapdoors.)

These were hints he had heard from Torao, but he had conjectured that there was no need to 〝defeat strong enemies〟 before meeting up when he was forced to act alone.

In the case of classes unsuited for individual battles, assuming that the person wasn't skilled, would be quite capable halting any progress. Even if the creator planned out such a situation maliciously, the administrators would adjust the balance at the time of its release.

Although he couldn't let his guard down, the situation was far from being desperate.

Moving quickly before the fleeing spiders could return, yet still not abandoning caution, Clevel began walking through the dark corridor.

Before five minutes of no changes passed, one did occur.

A faint figure rose up in the front, engulfed in darkness.

Clevel, feeling faint dizziness, came to a stop.

(……So it came.)

This sensation wasn't new.

Without even concentrating his eyes, Clevel saw 〝him〟 having appeared before him.

A young, athlete-like man with broad shoulders and wearing a platemail unbefitting a Japanese castle──

The sword in his hand was halfway broken, and black blood flowed from his atrociously cut abdomen.

His face couldn't be seen, but it was easy to guess that it had an expression of anguish.

The detective made a groan.

(So he did 〝come〟──a bigger problem than the artificial intelligence of the kitsune mask person──)

Due to the uproar caused by the hospitalisation of a player shocked by this 《ghost》, the 《Phantom Orchestra》 quest was driven to suspension.

Clevel did not know what the man had specifically seen, but it was undoubtedly a close 〝someone〟, like a relative, lover, friend, or acquaintance.

Currently, the young man in platemail standing before Clevel was also a familiar being to Clevel/

Frowning as if glaring at the man, the detective opened up communication through his bolo tie.

"……Torao-san, do you see it? The next one came out. Not the kitsune-masked one, the real 〝ghost〟 that caused the problems."

──No answer.

Clevel unconsciously clicked his tongue.

(The connection……was interrupted, huh.)

Impossible──is what could hardly be said.

Actually, if the 〝ghost〟 worked as he had guessed, such a thing was to be expected.

The console was not displayed.

The item list would not come out.

In addition to the minute dizziness, his limbs felt weird, as if chained down. This by no means meant that he couldn't move his body, but it seemed like all of his five senses were enveloped in a thin coat of exhaustion.

──It felt like he was in a 〝dream〟.
Clevel's deceased friend staggeringly approached him, without creating any metallic sounds with his platemail.

As the area around his eyes became distorted at seeing this pitiful state, the detective unconsciously spoke out the name he used in Aincrad.

"You're the same slowpoke as always, huh, 《Yakumo》…… Even after death, you've still neglected your Agility. For a guy who cared so much about being strong, how exactly did you end up dying in one attack."

Despite him saying that with irony, his voice trembled for some reason.

His former friend continued walking staggeringly. Though, despite his feet moving, he did not close in on Clevel.

As his footpath was moving in the opposite direction, his body had not moved from its fixed position.

The ghost figure could only be seen for less than even a minute, then he disappeared into the darkness just like that.

After feeling slight dizziness once again, Clevel heard a familiar voice calling him.

『……i-kun……Kurei-kun! What happened? Answer me!』

Unlike his usual self, Torao was panicking.

While taking deep breaths, the detective just barely managed to pick his words.

"……Torao-san. Excuse me. I… dozed off for a bit──"

Through the bolo tie communicator, he clearly felt Torao's relief.

『Dozed off…… you do know you've been sleeping just now? Well, rather than sleeping, it was more like your brain waves entered a state close to REM sleep──』

Unlike the others connecting to the game from their homes, Clevel had logged in from a medical institution, arranged for by the administrators.

It wasn't a safety policy, but rather a measure to check on his brain waves and mental state during the test play; the role of a test subject, so to speak.

"……Is that so. So I was sleeping."

『It was just for a mere moment, so I did think that it might have been a sensor malfunction. It was as if you had been forced asleep by magic or an item. Right now, the staff is trying to do a detailed analysis. We do want a bit more data, but can you still continue?』

Clevel unconsciously gave a wry smile.

"Obviously, Torao-san. Just now, I encountered that 《ghost》. In the end, it was just a false image created by the brain── the product of a 〝dream〟. It seems we have proved that it is not dangerous."

Clevel had certainly been 〝sleeping〟 just now.

FullDive technology itself included a factor close to sleep and anaesthesia, but, in the end, it was just a phenomenon caused by mechanical control of the brain; even in-game, sleep was required.

Even the victims of the SAO Incident slept in-game; the sleep itself wasn't particularly unusual.

However, differently from such a corporeal and physiological phenomenon, what Clevel had experienced just now was a forcibly and momentarily being forced to sleep── and he experienced a 〝dream〟.

This was the true nature of the 《ghost》 set up by Yanagi Kiyofumi.

"The ghost that should not exist as data and imitates the individual's deceased friend or acquaintance── the true nature of that ghost is a false image created in one's own mind. Making a player sleep for a time that can be counted in seconds, then, during that meager time, stimulating the brain to create an illusion of the deceased. The ghosts we have seen were not data that manifests in the game but 〝one's own memories themselves〟──isn't that right?"

According to Clevel's conjecture, this wasn't a particularly novel technique. Psychic phenomena like out-of-body experiences and near-death experiences were largely known as illusions created by the brain.

At a time when there wasn't even a sign of VRMMOs, it was reported that artificial near-death experiences were induced by stimulating the Sylvian fissure in the temporal lobe with electrical impulses.

Naturally, just because the same impulse was given didn't mean that the same phenomenon occurred for everyone. Individual differences in the test results were big, and the fact that the test player didn't actually see anything reinforced this theory.

The human brain was endowed with a 《function to create illusions》 from the start.

The majority of people experienced them in the form of dreams, and VR tech was nothing but a method of mechanically manipulating this function of the brain.

Torao gave a superficial sigh.

『……We'll be inspecting that now, but you're probably right about that. Just for that moment, you were shown a short dream due to the interference of the FullDive system. Because it was in a dream, you were, naturally, unable to use the communication device or your items. The vital part of the tech is to align the setting of the dream with the scene of the game. Moreover, due to it being very short, the player doesn't notice that it's a dream, and end up having an optical illusion that they had encountered a ghost in-game──when you've figured out the trick, it doesn't sound all that big. As they say, the ghost turned out to be a beckoning flower. Because it's the individual's dream, what they saw doesn't get logged, and, in the first place, doesn't exist in the data. What a ghost.』

Despite the circumstances having become clear, Torao's voice was bitter.

"……Torao-san, you seem to want to say something?"

『Don't ask what you already know……Despite this not being a violation of the terms of service, it does violate ethics. Although it depends on the player's relationship with the deceased, there really aren't that many people would could remain calm after suffering a trauma. The reason why this mechanic didn't activate for our test players was likely because of either compatibility issues for the mechanic to work, or because the players just happened to not have any dead relatives, or something along those lines. Conversely── the deeper the 〝scar〟 a person holds, the stronger mental damage they suffer from it. How vulgar.』

Clevel burst out in laughter unconsciously.

"It is natural for horror to be vulgar. Eh…… I do understand what you are trying to say. For what reason did the boy named Kiyofumi create such a mechanic. That certainly makes one curious. If he was the kind of person to take joy in hurting others, it would not really be the kind of thing to praise, but──"

Unlike the detective, Torao wasn't laughing.

『At any rate, revisions are needed. We can't reimplement it like this. I dunno where got the tech from, but it is an elaborate mechanic made by a child half for fun. It's reasonable to assume that someone……and that someone is a researcher or an active developer, provided him with the tech.』

On this point, Clevel's opinion slightly differed from Torao's.

"I……do wonder about that. It could be that the mechanic was an original creation of his. Based on the fact that he created the quest himself… and in a short period of time to boot, he is undoubtedly a genius. Of course, he must have consulted the findings of specialist researchers, but……The concept is one thing, but it does not mean that he was doing something awfully absurd technically. 〝Showing a dream to a player of their deceased acquaintance in the scenery of a game for just a few seconds〟──in my case, it just happened to be a deceased friend, but Koyomi-jou saw a microbe that she used to keep as a pet. For the majority of people, I believe it would only yield a reaction on the level of〝that surprised be a bit〟."

Torao groaned at his advocacy.

『It's fine for the majority. But as I've said before, the problem is the 〝minority〟 of cases that actually have scars. Remember when I asked 〝can you still continue like this?〟 moments ago? You were quite the actor in playing calm, cool, and collected. But even for a man like you, your vitals don't like ──Your heart rate, blood pressure, brain waves - all of them displayed a very large change just now. Although he might have already calmed down──even the university student that caused the quest to be suspended had received a huge shock and fainted, thus being carried to a hospital. It's awfully hard to say that it's not dangerous.』

The detective put his deerstalker hat over his eyes.

"……Was I that agitated? As a matter of fact, despite him being a fake…… I did feel just a bit happy to see him."

It wasn't a bluff.

It was heart-breaking to see such him in such a pitiful shape, but to Clevel, Yakumo was unmistakably his friend and comrade in arms.

He was an acquaintance from the same university, a contemporary even at the police academy, and, since becoming policemen together, a man with whom he grumbled about the brass.

He was literally a jack of all trades both physically and mentally, being only slightly above the average as a policeman; in exchange for not having any special or amazing skills, he didn't have any obvious flaws──that's the kind of young man he was.

With a faint smile, Clevel calmly spoke to Torao through the communicator.

"In any case, we can save the judgement for when we reach the end. In the first place, speaking of heart rate, blood pressure and other such changes, the horror genre itself could be considered dangerous. Like the 《Subjugation of a Tiger on the Folding Screen》……that one sounds like a decent challenge, no? Compared to that, the trick in this quest is cute."

『Well that one is…… to be honest, I had a problem with it too. Eh…, but that one was equally scary to everyone. It wasn't the the kind of thing to exacerbate an individual's trauma.』

The detective grinned broadly.

"Torao-san. Speaking of traumas── a wound may rot if left alone. Before that happens, it forms a scab, even if it hollowed out, and one can get used to the pain; I believe that is also a method of coping."

『Hmm……and what if it festers even worse because it was hollowed out?』

"……Well, let's consider it a step at a time."

He wasn't the kind of guy to be swayed by eloquence.

The detective made progress through the corridor.

──As he was in the process of fulfilling his original goal of〝allowing Yanagi to play this quest〟, there was no need to sway Torao. Whether the quest was left suspended or reimplemented was a matter unrelated to the request.

Though, Clevel had already ended up receiving a message from 《Yanagi Kiyofumi》.

Koyomi and Yanagi hadn't noticed. Nayuta could have noticed, but she had a habit of sealing her thoughts in her mind.

As the boy named Kiyofumi's last will was 《here》──the quest remaining in suspension left a slight, bad aftertaste.

(Now then……what kind of sophism to I need to use to change this 〝guardian's〟 mind──)

The head of the Error Inspection Cell Torao was reliable as an ally, but on the other hand, but he was quite the handful to persuade.

Conversely, if he could just convince such a hard-nut-to-crack, he could persuade the higher-ups with the same reasoning.

As a fox that borrows the authority of a tiger, Clevel had to bewitch him.

Sticking out his tongue to moisten his thin lips, the detective swung his beloved stick around.



§

When he finally saw an end to the hall that he thought had none, Yanagi stopped for a breather.

He had come this far by following the wood grain arrows on the ceiling; the kitsune-masked child had shown his face for a bit, but disappeared without starting any conversation in particular.

Looking ahead, at the end of the hall was a fusuma with a beautiful with a gorgeous picture on it.

The reason why Yanagi stopped was because he recalled an important point he had heard from Clevel.

Beyond an opened door or fusuma, there were frequently enemies waiting in ambush──

This appeared to be a convention in the horror genre.

While taking a breather, Yanagi stared at the picture on the fusuma. He had just learnt how you could find a hint if you look for one.

(Now then……The picture on the fusuma is quite the big one……?)

It seemed that a single picture was formed from ten screens.

The touch of peaceful sumi-e was excellent and, despite the lack of colour, it was clear that it was depicting a battle scene.

A swordsman and a samurai, a ninja, and a priest── there were generally people of all kinds of occupations, but they were all uniformly opposing a huge dragon standing in the centre.

Someone experienced would have sensed that the composition of the group assaulting it from left and right in a pincer attack was created by merging multiple screenshots with a touch of sumi-e, but Yanagi's eyes were not that trained.

And, one of the people depicted on it was a man that Yanagi knew well.

(……Kiyofumi……?)

The kitsune-masked child was based on Kiyofumi as a child.

On the other hand, the version depicted with sumi-e was him just before he passed away── a Kiyofumi in his mid-teens, a somewhat matured boy.

Holding a staff in one hand, he was protecting a beautiful young swordswoman.

There was another swordswoman on the other side; the two of them looked similar as if they were sisters.

The painting, filled with lively motion, really caught Yanagi's attention.

(Could this picture possibly……be depicting Kiyofumi and his friends……?)

Kiyofumi, who was disabled and spent a long time in hospitals, had met other children in the same circumstances in a medical VR space and had become friends with them.

The name of the group that was born in the miniascape known as 《Serene Garden》 and came to 《Asuka Empire》 seeking adventure, if he recalled correctly──



"……The 《Sleeping Knights》──"



Yanagi unconsciously muttered the term he often heard in his conversations with his grandchild.

──The change was dramatic.

The fusuma pictures stretched out in front of him were pulled to the left and right with great force, as if working by spring.

And seeing the open scenery in front of him, he couldn't believe his eyes.

A meadow full of blooming flowers and white pillars lined in a row──

The sky with dazzling sunshine was blue and the wind that reached him was clear and pleasant.

Despite clearly not being inside the castle, this space was directly connected to the dark hall.

Having even forgotten about the detective's warning, Yanagi walked forward as if he had been invited.

Confused by sensation of the grass and soil, Yanagi once again surveyed his surroundings.

No sign of any people. Naturally, no sign of any enemy.

In the distance, he could see a mountain range; up close, white swings and benches, as well as stone tables among other things were placed.

Stone paving was laid out like a pathway, but the majority of the ground was covered in grass, with vivid flowers growing en masse everywhere.

Turning around, he saw the same dark hall he had been moments ago still there.

Bewildered by the scene change, Yanagi took off his braided hat.

Before he could even take a few steps, he found a huge stone monument in a corner of the beautiful garden.

Its silhouette was slightly elliptical, a size comparable to the ten fusuama paintings, and its well polished surface let out a beautiful brilliance.

Having slowly stepped up to it, Yanagi began reading from the middle the numerous characters engraved on its surface.

"……June eighth, Oonamuchi subjugated──June tenth, Houraiju(5) acquired; June thirteenth, barbecue party in Kiyomihara……"

This was an activity record of the 《Sleeping Knights》.

As the enumeration of events continued, several bolded characters caught his attention.

"……Ran and Yuuki's birthday party, Merida's birthday party…………Clovis's birthday party……"

《Clovis》 was Kiyofumi's name as a player.

Upon clicking on any of the characters, commemorative screenshots of the event appeared mid-air.

And, the in-game Kiyofumi──Clovis… and his circle of friends were cheerfully smiling.

Having gazed at the monument for a few moments, Yanagi unconsciously pressed on the inner corners of his eyes.


That didn't mean that tears were flowing out in sorrow.

──He had been convinced that the life of his grandchild, shorter than of most people and the majority of which was spent in a sickbed, had nothing fun in it.

After all, games were just a substitute of life that he believed was but a mere consolation.

──That wasn't the case.

Kiyofumi was, certainly, here.

《Living》 together with his friends.

Right now, Yanagi experienced this truth for the first time.

The fact that his grandchild had actually been living made him very much happy now. At the same time, he was ashamed at himself for arbitrarily deciding that his grandchild was "unhappy" due to a misunderstanding.

Having offered a silent prayer while weeping, Yanagi suddenly heart footsteps of a person behind him.

As he turned around, his teary eyes the kitsune-masked child there.

He wasn't alone.

He was followed by two white foxes from the left and right that looked like the messengers of Inari.

They sat down with their forepaws aligned and seemed just like stone statues, but their fur was beautifully clear.

"…… Are you……Kiyofumi?"

He asked in a trembling voice, and the child inclined his head in wonder.

"Kiyofumi is already dead, you know?"

The child carelessly asserted.

Yanagi was at a loss for words.

That was obvious. But, in the depths of his heart, he had been anticipating a different answer. His alter ego or a being that had inherited his memories──even if it wasn't Kiyofumi or his ghost, he was hoping for an answer along those lines would come.

However, the voice of the child was cheerful and magnanimous, not allowing any smidgen of misunderstanding.

"The dead don't come back to life, nor do they appear as ghosts. Kiyofumi had no belief in things like that at all. That's exactly why he felt regret. 'Even as illusion, it would be nice to meet the deceased again', he said──So, he developed a trick to meet with the 〝ghost〟 inside everyone's memories. Though, because he slightly lacked enough time, it ended up depending on the person himself who and in what form would appear……Ojii-chan, what do you think?"

With practically the same voice as Kiyofumi's, the child asked.

Having lost his composure, Yanagi nodded.

"……You're……right. Even knowing that it would be an illusion……I do believe I would want to meet them; that is probably the weakness of men──"

The child again inclined his head.

"It's not a weakness. It's not like it's something bad, and if you want to meet someone, why not meet them. It wouldn't be good to mistake them for the real thing, but thinking of them as a mere moving and speaking 〝album〟, it's not like there's anything ridiculous about it, right? That's what the progress of technology is, I believe. Though, I'm just relaying 〝Kiyofumi's〟 thoughts."

Having received the child's answer, Yanagi deliberated.

"……You are, that is to say……an artificial intelligence created by Kiyofumi, is that right?"

"Yep. Actually, this was supposed to be a secret, but it's fine to tell people who knew Kiyofumi to avoid misunderstandings. Oh, and──people who have found this place get special treatment."

The child left his foxes there, sat on the nearby swings, and, *kiiko* *kiiko*, began swinging.

"Nevertheless, what is this place……it feels too different from the inside of the castle──"

Yanagi wiped his eyes and once again surveyed his surroundings.

The child answered indifferently.

"This place is the Sleeping Knights's 《record room》. Though, it was beyond our expectations that someone other than the members found this place…… Muttering the keyword 《Sleeping Knights》 at the fusuma painting connects it to this room. It's Kiyofumi's little prank……or rather, a memory album, I guess. Even when creating the quest, Kiyofumi and I frequently spent our time together in here."

The child muttered nostalgically and opened a menu window mid-air.

(This child was helping Kiyofumi with his work……)

Meaning that, although it was an artificial intelligence, it could be called one of his friends.

Yanagi gave a deep bow.

"It seems that you have been a great help to my grandchild──"

The kitsune-masked child burst into laughter.

"Ojii-chan, you really are a nice person. Just like Kiyofumi said. That Battle Miko Onee-chan and the Detective-san were a bit too intuitive and I was stumped on how to handle them, but……I guess I wish the Ninja girl and you, Ojii-can, good luck clearing the quest."

Swinging on the swings, the child waved his to the foxes.

One of the white foxes gracefully approached Yangagi's feet.

"Kon."

With a little bark, a kotsuzumi appeared on its forepaws.

Yanagi picked up the musical instrument, gently presented to him, with care.

"Could this musical instrument possibly be… the one needed to meet up with one's comrades……?"

"Yep. It's something that you'd have gained by breaking through that hall anyway, but, Ojii-chan, you look like you're in a hurry. It seems like the Ninja girl has also acquired one just a few moments ago, so I think you'll be able to meet up very soon."

It seemed that Koyomi had also advanced successfully this time.

He raised his face to thank the boy, but there was no longer anyone there.

The kitsune-masked child was a given, but even the two white foxes had disappeared without a trace.

At this sudden disappearance as if he had been talking to ghosts, Yanagi was taken aback for a few moments.

"……Well now well now, that was really weird……"

Eventually breaking into a smile, he gave a deep bow to the uninhabited garden──

And pushing his staff forward, he returned to the dark hall.



§

Singing cheerfully, Koyomi timidly walked through the long castle corridor.

"……Oh, Yaanagiimochi, theeey're so taaasty……♪ Good as presents and economical……♪"

It was a commercial song for Yanagi's company, Yanagi-ya Ryuuzen-dou, that was played long ago, but that didn't mean it was a song she particularly liked.

The reason for her singing was to trick her fear of being alone, while her choice of song was to appeal to the staff, hoping that they could at least show some consideration with their traps; in a nutshell, she was awfully scared at the moment.

Her continuous ringing of the gong-like 《Bell of the Sixteen-Day-Old Moon》 instrument she had obtained through her search was because of her wholehearted wish to just meet up with anyone, to hell with appearance.

"Uuugh……! There ain't anyone here! What the, wasn't I supposed to be able to meet up with Nayu-san when I found the musical instrument!? Why do I have to walk around the castle like this I never heard about this impossible stop fuckin' with me manager come out……ah sorry sorry sorry actually you don't need to come out scary scary scary!"

As she banished bats that were drawn in by the noise with a single strike from her ninja sword, Koyomi continued complaining.

"Nayu-san, where are you!? Yanagi-san is good enough too! Though I truly don't care about Detective-san! Wait, if Detective-san and Nayu-san are flirting alone, I'll blow my top! I'll blow my top even if they're not flirting!"

She just shouted random things due to being overwhelmed with fear, but her wish to meet with Nayuta already was undoubtedly sincere.

As she made a racket, a group of Spirit Soldiers suddenly appeared from a corner of the corridor.

They were a lower form of the Skeleton Warriors. If Skeleton Warriors were regarded as samurai, these Spirit Soldiers would be close to foot soldiers.

They appeared like zombies wearing light Japanese-style equipment and their movements were slow, but, since they appeared in large numbers, if you let your guard down down, you could end up being flanked.

"Hii!? E-enemieees!?"

Filled with horror at the appearance of the large group, Koyomi unsheathed her ninja sword.

"Don't come near me! Don't you dare! If you come any closer, I'll put a curse on yooooou!"

Along with this shout──

She rushed right in front of the enemy in a straight line without hesitation.

She beheaded two of them in one go, drew the attention of the other enemies being kicking away one of the two heads, and used that opening to attack further, her body lowered.

She mercilessly mowed down the knees of several soldiers and when they collapsed due to losing their balance, she swung a finishing blow at their upper bodies one after another, then nimbly stood in the way of the remaining panicking enemies that were trying to escape

"Kyaaaaah! I'm scared! I'm scared! Somebody save meeeee!"

As she was practically crying, Koyomi's blade assuredly slaughtered the enemies with a flash. Contrary to her voice and expression, she didn't make the slightest redundant movement.

The pitiful Spirit Soldiers, frightened by Koyomi and trying to escape from her, fell victim to her blade one after another, exposing their rotten remains.

"Higuh……! Eguh……! I can't take it anymooore……"

As Koyomi, having mostly finished cleaning up, sobbed like a child, a dying Spirit Soldier attempted to crawl away from her feet.

Without even turning her gaze, she violently thrust her blade into the enemy's back and, upon adding a second thrust just to be sure, she obtained a measly reward of experience points money.

Having blown away the jorōgumo that came late to their aid with an fire bomb without even seeing them, she wiped off the spurt of blood with her arm warmers.

"Uuuh……ganging up on an innocent maiden, you're such brutes…… I'll prosecute you for sexual harassment……"

Ringing the bell as she once again began walking forward, her trembling voice once again began singing.

"……Oh, Yaanagiimochi, theeey're so taaasty……♪ Thooose who waaanna die, steeep forwaaard……♪"

Perhaps because of her fear, her lyrics subtly changed.

A single weasel that felt lucky enough to try a back attack on her was sent off quaking without being able to do a thing.

──Those who harboured fear were not necessarily always weak. The guarantee that a person afraid of a single cockroach would be weaker than the cockroach was nowhere to be found.

A moment of relief visited the small slaughterer, ringing her bell, several minutes later.

"……Koyomi-san? Why are you singing……?"

"…………Na-Nayu-saaaan!? Waaaaah!"

Koyomi jumped at the Battle Miko beauty that appeared from around the corner with no shame or honour.

Taking advantage of the confusion to bury her face in the ample bosom to get her fill of its softness, she let out an unacted sob.

"I-I-I was so scaaared……! Nayu-san, what took you so long! Even though it's been over an hour since I obtained an instrument!"

"Ah……sorry. I was exploring some places…… on top of the castle being too huge, there are also seem to be some automatically generated zones. I was worried by how mapping turned out to be not all that useful."

Stroking Koyomi's head as if she were a child as she clung to her, Nayuta gave her usual intelligent voice.

While quickly throwing a kunai at a karakasa-obake she saw at the edge of her view, Koyomi repeatedly took deep breaths of relief.

"Uuuh…...I've finally……finally been able to meet up with yooou... I really had it hard you know. The kitsune-masked child only stuck his head out and, after saying something like 〝no problem with Onee-chan〟before instantly disappearing, then an Itsumade bird shat on me from atop my head, then when I came out of the open air bath corner, I was treated as a groper by an ohaguro-bettari, then a nurarihyon made me tea at a tearoom when I got lost and my legs became numb due to sitting in seiza……though the tea cakes were tasty!"

"…………It seems you had quite the fun."

Koyomi intended to convey the fear she had felt as she told her about her experiences, but it seemed this didn't go through to Nayuta.

"And, what about you , Nayu-san? Were you okay? You didn't go through anything scary?"

"Yes. I was especially disappointed── at the not very good results from the treasure chests."

Koyomi felt discomfort at that answer.

"Although you call them results…… this is a test play for starters, so there's point in obtaining rare items along the way, y'know? Well, I too had been securing experience points due to my usual habits."

Upon this being pointed out, Nayuta froze up for a few moments with a dazed look.

"Ah……That was the case. I completely forgot. I just ended up following my usual habits."

For someone who as scrupulous as her, it was an unusual mistake.

Unable to shake off a sense of discomfort──Koyomi stared up at Nayuta's face.

"……Nayu-san. Did something happen?"

Nayuta looked down at Koyomi in wonder.

"No? Nothing in particular. I was just exploring as usual……"

Koyomi stared at Nayuta's pupils.

They were not actual "eyes". Although facial expressions and other bodily information was reflected to some extent, in the end, they were just eyeballs created in a VR space from character data.

The real Nayuta was somewhere else, using her AmuSphere as an intermediary.

Koyomi knew that── and yet she felt something in the colour of her eyes that she couldn't leave alone.

"Nayu-san. Sit down a bit here."

Pulling on Nayuta's sleeve, she sat her down on the spot.

Because of her good upbringing, Nayuta naturally sat down in seiza, and elegantly inclined her head.

"Koyomi-san? What is the matter?"

Without a moment's delay, Koyomi embraced Nayuta's head with her arms. If Nayuta was sitting, the difference between their heights would naturally be covered up.

Nayuta was at a loss of breath in surprise.

"……U-umm……Koyomi-san……?"

"……You know, Nayu-san. I think you don't really need to talk about things you don't want to talk about. Everyone has things they don't want others to know and I don't think I can for you……but……but you see ──"

Koyomi chose her words slowly and with unusual care.

"When you want to be spoiled, you can just allow yourself to be spoiled without saying a word, okay? Of course, if you have something you want to talk about, you can let it all out; no matter how strong a character you have, you're still a high school girl, Nayu-san, and no matter how unreliable I look, I am still a working adult, so…… that is to say that, ehm……well, what I'm trying to say is……"

Because she was trying to say something unusually serious, she just couldn't get the right words out.

On the verge of repeating herself, Koyomi became serious.

"In short, Nayu-san, you should allow me to spoil you more! It feels frustrating when I'm the only one being spoiled anyways!"

"H…… Huh……?"

Nayuta let out an obviously bewildered voice.

Unlike moments ago, there was a sign that something returned to the empty part. This could have been an optical illusion Koyomi saw, but at least it wasn't a bad change.

"Yeah……well……I do think there are some things I want to whine about some day……"

"Yes, of course. I'll be waiting for that. Be sure to talk with me before you get involved with some bad man or something, okay? If you want, you could live with me in Osaka? I have an open room, y'know.?

"……Well, I do understand that you mean no ill intent……but I shall still pass on living together. More importantly, let's find Yanagi-san. I do not really care about Detective-san, but we cannot clear the quest calmly without meeting up with him."

Releasing her from her arms, Koyomi also nodded.

"You're right. I wonder if he's yet to find a musical instrument……? Though I do hope he hasn't retired……"

"Nonetheless, this is a test play, so he can quickly return without any death penalty. It might take some time, but we should meet up with him eventually."

"Yeah. The problem is where he is, huh. Assuming we have to take a different route than the route I came through and the one you came through……"

Koyomi's eyes spontaneously looked up.

Having left the open air bath, Koyomi had mainly gone around the first floor.

Nayuta should have also mainly wandered around the basement and the first floor, so despite the huge castle being filled with warp zones, it seemed like they have mostly investigated this floor.

The problem was──

"……Nayu-san. Did you happen to see any stairs leading to the upper floors?"

Nayuta shook her head.

"There were stairs leading from the basement to this floor, but…… I have yet to finds stairs leading beyond the second floor."

That was certainly strange.

(……Which means……there's hidden stairs or a warp zone somewhere?)

Koyomi and Nayuta exchanged looks.

Due to clearing even other quests together, they knew what the other was thinking even without putting it to words.

"What shall we do? Do you want to split into two groups to investigate?"

"I don't want that!"

Koyomi instantly refused and clung to Nayuta's arms.

"Although you're fine, Nayu-san, my mental strength is relatively at its limit already! Because I was seriously scared, y'know!? The most important thing is to go together for now……I wonder if there's some kind of hint or something. Something that would allow us to go to the upper floors──"

Nayuta pondered with a serious look.

"Such problems seem like Detective-san's forte, but……perhaps, you can see the hidden stairs by playing an instrument, or the stairs come down by pushing a hidden switch; something of that kind ──"

"Yeah. That sound plausible…… either way, we've got no choice but to still wander around in each direction for a while. I wonder where Yanagi-san is……"

While beginning to walk through the dark corridor in a line, Koyomi suddenly noticed a strange noise.

──Somewhere in the distance, a matsuribayashi was playing.

She had heard it now and then during her search, but she didn't read into it more than it just being created for the atmosphere.

The musicians couldn't be seen, bust listening carefully at it again──

The timbre seemed to be coming from the upper floors through the ceiling boards.

It seemed that Nayuta had also felt the same thing.

"That matsuribayashi, could it be that it is marching towards the upper floors?"

Their figures couldn't be seen, only their timbre could be heard──and yet, seeing as they could not encounter the instrumentalists on the same floor, thinking about it calmly, it meant that the source of the music was either on an upper or lower floor, blocked by the ceiling or floor.

The timbre was fading into the distance bit by bit.

In a rush, Koyomi pulled Nayuta's arm.

"Nayu-san! Let's go after that sound. We don't know where it's coming from, but let's move in the direction where we can hear the sound better. Perhaps…… that's the hint for the hidden stairs!"

She was almost certain about this insight. Even based on the quest's name, the《Phantom Orchestra》, it was highly likely that the sound of the orchestra would be some kind of key.

"……I see. The reason why you cannot catch sight of them is not just because they are ghosts, but because they are on a different floor for starters, is that it?…… I kind of feel tricked."

It could have been her imagination, but Nayuta's words sounded like they were filled with dissatisfaction.

Koyomi laughed at her grumbling.

"Well, it sounds like we were the ones who just arbitrarily made that mistake. Thinking about it well, we did get this far with practically no text hints…… It kinda sounds like, you know, it's aiming for a level where〝the interpretation depends on the player〟, or something……"

Nayuta suddenly twisted her eyebrows.

Noticing the change of her expression, Koyomi inclined her head.

"Ah……Did I say something weird……?"

"No……Koyomi-san, once in a while, you say something that sounds sharp, going right into the core of the matter……True. You probably……are right about that, I believe. How this quest looks depends on the person playing it──by limiting information, you can create it to be like that."

Nayuta nodded and began walking at a fast pace. Koyomi rushed after her.

Changing their course when they heard the timbre of the hayashi becoming distant, and retracing their steps at a corner at times, the two spent some time continuing to move in pursuit of the sound coming from the upper floors.

"This map really is automatically generated, right? It's a bit too large, and the construction looks strangely randomish."

"I do believe so. Unless you noticed the hint, it does seem like you would end up wandering forever."

Even while talking, Nayuta didn't stop.

The place the two finally arrived to was a dead end, surrounded by plaster-covered walls.

The timbre of the matsuribayashi came from right above them, and passed to the other side of the wall.

"……Nayu-san. There."

"……Yes. That is suspicious."

The white plaster wall, faintly flamboyant in the darkness, looked like just a completely ordinary dead-end.

If it weren't for the matsuribayashi overhead, it would just be ignored, but now they certainly couldn't just pass it by.

Koyomi propped her hand on the wall, in search of some kind of hidden switch.

──Suddenly, the wall turned.

"Uwaoh!?"

"Koyomi-san!?"

Too surprised by the smooth movement, Koyomi collapsed forward. The wall didn't serve well for support, nor were there any spots to latch onto.

Without a moment's delay, she was caught by the nape from behind by Nayuta and held her ground somehow.

Beyond the revolving door disguised as a wall, a narrow straight path and wooden stairs continuing to the next floor could be seen.

"T-thanks, Nayu-san….. Wow, jackpot?"

"Right. I hope that Yanagi-san is above──"

Passing through the dim hidden passage, the two began climbing up the stairs.

The timbre of the matsuribayashi was close.

Taking into account the possibility of having to fight the instrumentalists, Koyomi placed her hand on her ninja sword.

Nayuta's back as she looked up the stairs looked somewhat ephemeral while still the same as always. She even felt that it could disappear if she turned her eyes away.

Scared of that, Koyomi unconsciously became awfully concerned about her.

Compared to ghosts, zombies, or tigers from folding screens──to Koyomi, the regret of "noticing but not being able to do a thing" was far more scarier.

In order not to fall behind Nayuta as she hurried to the next floor, Koyomi chased after her.

The double footsteps of the two stepping on the stairs resounded rhythmically yet melancholically, as if a percussion instrument had mixed in with the hayashi above them.



§

Just as she climbed upstairs, Nayuta called for the attention of Koyomi, walking behind her.

"Koyomi-san, it is a Dark Zone. I shall ready a lantern, so please wait a bit."

"Gotcha……Ugh. I really hate Dark Zones… For starters, there's something scary set up."

Grasping Nayuta's sleeve, she let out a scared voice.

The dungeons in the Hundred and Eight Apparitions were generally dim, but while there were no sources of light that actually looked like light sources, the lighting was adjusted so that it would be possible to grasp one's surroundings to some extent.

However, as for Dark Zones, they were entirely pitch dark and, even with a lantern, you could only see a few steps ahead.

In the dark room they couldn't see, the timbre of the hayashi resounded grandly.

(It would be a pain if we were surrounded……)

Based on the echo of the sound, it seemed they were in a rather spacious room, rather than a passageway.

Illuminated by the light of the lantern, the wooden floor could be seen several steps ahead.

At that moment, Nayuta noticed the strangeness of the ceiling.

"……Koyomi-san. I shall say this in advance so you would not get scared, but the ceiling is awfully grotesque. Please do all you can to avoid looking at it."

"Wha? The ceiling……gyaah!?"

Koyomi's shriek was unfemininely rough."

Filling the entirety of the ceiling was a group of large serpents── -imitating carving.

Although they weren't actual snakes, their large bodies, with elaborately engraved scale patterns, formed multiple layers, their heads sticking out here and there.

Because the illumination of the lantern covered only a very narrow range, they could only a very small fraction of the ceiling, but they could predict that the carving probably continued very far.

"……S-someone's got poor taste……"

"If your goal was just to set the atmosphere, it works well……but I do feel that some real snakes might be mixed in and will launch a surprise attack on us. Let's advance with sufficient vigilance."

Koyomi nodded and firmly clung to Nayuta's left arm. It's was problematic that it made it hard to move, but she was grateful that there was no worry of getting separated.

Nayuta strained her ears and carefully listened which direction the sound of the matsuribayashi was coming from.

The echo wasn't all that big; she could clearly tell the difference in volume by turning her ears in each direction.

It seemed that the sound was surely coming from their floor.

The moment Nayuta began walking in the direction she deduced the sound was coming from, a snake fell down right in front of her.

"Fugya───h!"

Letting out a cat-like scream, Koyomi swung up her ninja sword.

The snake's body was bisected before it could reach the ground and Nayuta once again admired Koyomi's excessively quick work of it.

"That was typical of you, Koyomi-san. I cannot mimic those reflexes of yours."

"Why are you so calm!? Why are you so calm!? This is an important matter, so I'm asking several times, but why are you so calm, Nayu-san!?"

Due to seeing the half-crazed Koyomi so close, she instead looked──was naturally hard to say.

"Since I do not hate snakes that much……though I of course would not touch them, but I hate insects with plenty of legs more."

"I hate insects too, but that's not the point. A snake just dripped down from the ceiling in the darkness ya know!? You're supposed to be just a little bit scared by that, normally!"

"You say dripping, but that was still only the first one…… I feel that the way you reflexively landed a critical hit on it before it could fall down is relatively more abnormal."

This much was not a result of stats and so on, but the person's nature.

Koyomi had said that she was been defeated in a surprise attack by mermen in an open air bath during their previous time in the castle, but as for Nayuta, she wanted to praised the enemies that managed to catch her by surprise. Perhaps she had slipped on a wet stone, but surpassing Koyomi's reflexes was a next-to-impossible task.

Watching as Koyomi's sword flashed each time a snake fell down afterwards, Nayuta unconcernedly moved towards the sound of the matsuribayashi.

Although it seemed that the musicians were also moving and the distance to them didn't really become shorter, she could conclude that "we're getting closer to the goal" nonetheless.

And, assuming that goal was nearby──her concern was Yanagi.

"……I hope Yanagi-san is safe. Even if it cannot be helped that he might retire once or twice, he is an unaccustomed beginner, so I wonder if he will manage to get so far alone……"

Koyomi inclined her head.

"……That reminds me, that kitsune-masked child said something weird to me…… Just a little while ago, you see, he said 〝no problem with Onee-chan〟; Nayu-san, I did tell you about that, right?"

"Yeah, you did say something like that right after we met up. And something about being treated as a #male groper#(chikan) by some ohaguro-bettari."

Koyomi put her head in her hands.

"I didn't even touch her! It'd be one thing if it was a beauty like you, Nayu-san, but for the breasts of that literal monster; I don't know what she's crying about! In the first place, we're of the same sex, so it's not #male groper#(chikan), but #female groper#(chijo)!…… Wait, who cares about that! We were talking about the kitsune-masked child!"

Shouting this, Koyomi cut down another falling snake with one strike.

Nayuta seriously believed that the reason why Koyomi was a coward was possibly because she saw too much of her surroundings.

"So, when I questioned what 〝no problem with Onee-chan〟 meant, you see. He told me 〝just do your best〟 ……It's just my hunch, but could that AI be in charge of adjusting the difficulty for the players?"

Nayuta unconsciously blinked.

"I see…… Koyomi-san, I am surprised that you noticed that. I do believe that such a mechanism is certainly possible. Actually……a lot falls into place then."

In short, the kitsune-masked child was possibly the quest's 《supervisor》.

"It is a bit unusual to leave it to an AI to tune a quest for the Hundred and Eight Apparitions. If your level does not reach the recommended level, you level up before taking up the quest, while if it is an easy quest, you clear it at ease; that is norm, I believe."

At Nayuta's indication, Koyomi lowered her voice.

"Well, because……what if he thought that his grandpa would play this game alone after his death──it would be necessary, don't you think, to adjust the difficulty. If he had set it so that the quest could be easily cleared at a low level, it would be too easy for other players; on the other hand, if he set the difficulty high, he would feel sorry for his newbie grandpa being absolutely unable to clear it……"

──Yanagi didn't have that much time.

The creator of the quest, Kiyofumi, had probably understood this.

"But, in that case…… the administrators raising Yanagi-san's level for the test play was possibly more meddling than help, no."

Koyomi shook her head.

"I don't think so. Torao-cchi did say this, right? 〝at level 1 you're definitely gonna be unable to clear it〟……Those words sound like they were said specifically because the difficulty was adjusted by the administrators before release, don't you think?"

'Ah', Nayuta unconsciously let out.

She had ignored Torao's words as just the usual thing to say for an administrator, but assuming that Koyomi's conjecture was correct, that adjustment itself ended up robbing the AI of one of his jobs.

Kiyofumi sought for "a difficulty where anyone would be able to clear the quest", so he created an AI for adjusting the difficulty.

However, the administrators couldn't let that be, and re-adjusted it so that "without having reached a certain level, it couldn't be cleared".

It wasn't a question of which was right. The creator, the distributor, and the players all had their own considerations and circumstances.

"It's only obvious, but an administrator's authority is higher than the authority of an AI supervisor. So, in exchange for being unable to tone down the enemies and trap, he had been at least secretly supporting Yanagi-san, who was unaccustomed to the game, as much as he could, I wonder…… just now, I just kinda felt like that was the case."

Agreeing with her words, Nayuta unconsciously let out a sigh.

"The suspension had probably made things easier for him instead. If Yanagi-san's level was still low, I wonder if he would have been able to clear the quest within the deadline……"

"……Is Yanagi-san's condition that bad……?"

Nayuta was stumped on how to respond.

"Honestly speaking, I do not know. Though, when we visited him, he could not even get up. Yanagi himself should surely be thinking that today's test play is his final chance."

Koyomi strongly gripped Nayuta's arm.

"So that's how it is…… Alright! Let's do our best as well. To meet up with Yanagi-san, and then the quest boss will……"

The timbre of the matsuribayashi suddenly stopped with no warning.

At once, Nayuta picked up Koyomi and leapt nearby.

A moment late, a train-like large body knocked down the spot the two had been at with a thunderous roar.

Correcting her posture, Nayuta placed Koyomi on her feet next to her, while she herself turned around to see the 〝enemy〟.

"Hii!? W-what!? Something came! What is that!?

In front of the screaming Koyomi, the owner of the large body that attacked them raised its snakey head.

A lustrous, white, cylindrical body; a long and narrow, wriggling tongue; golden eyes cool-headedly gazing at its prey──it was practically identical to the 〝snakes〟 that Koyomi had cut in along the way, aside from one major difference - its size.

The large snake that failed its surprise attack once again pulled its head after baring its sharp fangs menacingly, and hid inside the darkness in front of them without a sound.

"Na-Na-Na-Na-Na-Nayu-san…… Snake…… snake……! Snake-san!"

"……A large snake, huh. That is probably the boss. That attack of its just now was probably its way of greeting us. We have been unable to meet up with Yanagi-san yet, but── to work out a plan, I would like to have a fight with it."

As Nayuta was about to calmly advance forward, Koyomi pulled on her sleeve while trembling.

"Ho-hold on! I need to steel myself first! ……Wait, such a reptile-type large monster is hard to beat from the front! Let's go around it!"

Nayuta thought for just a moment.

"Going around it would probably be difficult. Snakes sense their prey through heat and smell. Of course, that large snake does not necessarily have the same sensory organs as an actual snake……"

If a snake's characteristics were included in the monster's design, it would approach its prey from somewhere in the darkness, and grab them.

Koyomi opened her menu window.

"Mmmmmm……Then, how about some handy item for times of emergency! Ehm…… something…… anything…… yeah. Nothin' here……"

In a situation where their opponent sensed its prey through heat rather than vision, a 《Smoke Bomb》 wasn't really useful. Instead, it would snatch away Nayuta and the others' ability to see, thus it would leave them at a disadvantage, aside from when they were running away.

A 《Scapegoat Charm》 that confused the enemy with an illusionary decoy also wouldn't work on a type of enemy that sensed heat.

"For a heat-sensing kind of enemy, if I recall correctly…… you can use fire to confuse it, right? A fire bomb should do the trick."

"……I figured that their firepower was weak, so I used them all up on the small fry along the way…… Aside from that, It's common to use fire-type techniques, but……"

Nayuta and Koyomi exchanged glances.

On the one hand, a Battle Miko that focused on agility with her empty hands.

On the other, a Ninja that focused on speed and relied on reflexes.

There was a difference between punching and slashing, but as both of their fighting styles were similar, they could exhibit quite the destructive power if they cooperated in a two-top(6) formation.

──But, because they could only use elementary techniques of #Buddhist magic#(houriki), #shamanism#(fujutsu), #cosmic force#(onmyoujutsu), and other schools, they weren't practical. It would have been great to have a Spell-user friend here, but it was pointless to ask for the impossible now of all times.

"……Koyomi-san, you can use Katon(7) no Jutsu, right?"

"……Well, I technically can use it. But the skill level is at 1, so it's just for emergencies, or igniting an open fire…… frankly, I've used it so few times that I could even list them, y'know?"

Encouraging Koyomi, who didn't seem to have much self-confidence on that, Nayuta nodded.

"That should be enough, I believe. For now, let's just figure out the enemy's attack patterns and then retreat. We will defeat it earnestly once we regroup with Yanagi-san── first, we shall do some intelligence gathering before the actual fight."

"……Yeah! In that case, I'll do my best!"

Koyomi nodded and too out her ninja sword.

The straight blade was slightly shorter than a regular tachi, but for Koyomi's height, it was long enough. It could be said to be just barely the size where she could brandish it nimbly.

"……So, I wonder if it'll work on those scales? This sword of mine."

"I do think that it will stab through, but the size of the enemy is a problem. Playing by the book, you would aim for its eyes, nose, or tongue── sensory organs like that, but I shall take up that task instead. Koyomi-san, you draw the enemy's eyes with your katon and create an opening by concentrating on evading its attack as a decoy."

"Okay……the……n? ……Oh? Huhuh……?

Koyomi turned her head to the left and right in a fluster.

Nayuta also immediately noticed several dots of light wriggling in the Dark Zone.

The dots numbered six──

Two on the left. Two in front. Two on the right──

The three pairs of light dots were clearly giving off signs of huge creatures being there.

Koyomi's face became distorted and Nayuta frowned.

"……Koyomi-san, sorry. Change of plans."

"……Yeah. That's fine with me. I'm all for it……!"

The two made a great jump away at almost the same moment.

A group of light dots pressed on from the front, and large jaws came assailing at them from the left and right as well with a slight delay.

The large, train-sized snakes that suddenly increased to three mercilessly bared their fangs from within the darkness.

Unable to deal with the coordinated attack from three directions, of course, Nayuta and Koyomi instantly lined up and began their retreat.

"Shi……! There are three of those things all together……!"

"That's unreasonable, right!? That's not a boss; that's an unbeatable special trap! If not, an illusion or something!"

Nayuta had also considered that last possibility, but she didn't feel like intentionally taking an attack to confirm that.

If they at least got out of the Dark Zone or lured them one at a time to a place where they could be easily beat them, they would see a way out, but staying here to fight was nothing but reckless.

For their size, the large snakes were relatively quick to move and it seemed like the snakes would catch up to them even if they ran at full speed.

"Crud crud! ……Oh right! Katon!"

Koyomi turned back and formed a symbol with her fingers.

*Pon*, a sound of a small explosion resounded as a bonfire-size flame and smoke erupted several steps behind her.

The large snake that came from the left opened its big mouth and bit into the fire.

During that opening, Nayuta and Koyomi made some more distance.

The three large snakes continued wriggling after them.

After several seconds of running, they suddenly saw a strong light in a corner of the large Dark Zone.

"The two ladies! Come here for the moment!"

The elderly priest shouting earnestly while holding a kotsuzumi was the person Nayuta and Koyomi were looking for.

"Yanagi-san!? I see you have been all right!"

"He's even using houriki properly! Wow, that's awesome!"

The monk's houriki skill, 《Mantra of Light》 illuminated a much greater area of the Dark Zone than the lanterns.

The exorcising light emitted upon activation of the handy skill kept away enemies weaker than the caster and also gave a slight increase to all resistances for allies.

Using the houriki light as a landmark, the two ran through the spacious room.

Behind Yanagi, they saw a stone wall and a not-all-that-big steel door.

If they leapt into there, they could escape from the large snakes behind them.

The two almost simultaneously ran through the door that Yanagi had opened.

After immediately closing the door and confirming that that the large snakes had stopped pursuing them, the three finally rejoiced about their reunion.

"Yanagi-san, so you found a musical instrument, I see! We were worried about you."

The elderly priest lightly raised his braided hat with a gentle smile.

"Yes, thank you kindly. I too had been wondering how it would turn out for a time, but…… the kitsune-masked child assisted me. It seems he is an artificial intelligence left by Kiyofumi── although he was not my grandchild himself, I did have the privilege of having a valuable experience."

Yanagi's expression changed to a somewhat allayed and relieved one.

Despite not having yet cleared the quest, he appeared as if he had already accomplished his goal.

"Yanagi-san, it seems like something good happened to you."

She indicated, and Yanagi smile somewhat embarrassed.

"Yes. I am unsure how to put it…… I was convinced that I had understood my grandchild, but I realised that this was not, in fact, the case."

Normally, if you realised something like that, you'd get depressed, but Yanagi seemed satisfied.

Unconsciously inclining his head, Yanagi smiled again.

"That things would come to this. Now then……I see Clevel-shi is not with you."

"It is highly likely that that person has retired. Let's leave him be and aim to clear the quest ourselves."

Coldly forsaking the detective who wasn't here, Nayuta lightly struck the steel door with her fist.

Beyond the door, the three snakes were probably still there.

Koyomi said that they could be some special trap, but Nayuta still considered the snakes to be the quest's boss.

Though, she didn't think they could win fighting head-on.

With some time for a break, she once again surveyed her surroundings.

The Dark Zone ended at the steel door; Nayuta was currently in a wide passage facing the outside.

It looked like an accessway leading from the keep to a separate building. The roofless hallway went around the castle and was outfitted just like a promenade.

It was so large that it seemed like it was the stage of Kiyomizun(8) but enlarged tens of times; rather than just being a foothold, the corridor was the roof of the dungeon on the first floor.

Depending on your point of view, it looked nearly like some sort of sanctuary or a huge open deck.

"So huge…… Waah, the stars are so pretty……"

Tempted by Koyomi's mutter, she turned her eyes to the sky── The sky was clear and stars were twinkling throughout.

Due in part to the open feeling after leaving the Dark Zone, and the relief of escaping from the large snakes, Nayuta unconsciously became fascinated by the scenery.

On the other hand, being quick to adapt, Koyomi began surveying the outskirts like a puppy.

"Ehm…… Yanagi-san, did you, perhaps, come from that outbuilding over there through the passage? You didn't go through a Dark Zone, right?"

Yanagi gave a nod, mixed with a wry smile.

"Yes. When I crossed over to this side, I heard some sort of ruckus beyond the door── and when I entered through it, I was surprised to see you two being pursued by snakes. Oh dear, their size was quite troublesome."

Contrary to his words, his voice sounded somewhat delighted.

Looking at the stars, Nayuta pondered motionlessly.

She had started in the basement. Koyomi came from the open-air bath on the first floor, and the large hall Yanagi was sent away to appeared to be in an outbuilding.

The Detective should have also been sent away to the same castle tower as last time and could be confined on the upper floors.

(So everyone started in different locations and the surroundings of this Dark Zone was the goal and point of reunion…… is that how it is……?)

As Nayuta pondered, Koyomi pulled on her sleeve childishly.

"Nayu-san Nayu-san, there seem to be stairs upwards and downwards. Oh and──this place isn't just a passage, but a hallway that goes around the castle. It looks quite big, but there could be some trick, wanna investigate?"

The outside stairs leading below could probably be seen as an emergency exit for a temporary withdrawal in order to save.

However, right now, during the test play, the items and experience they received would not be passed on to their personal data, while, conversely, the event flags were set to be always maintained for the test play, hence there was practically no reason to return.

Because the outbuilding was already explored by Yanagi, the routes left were either the upper floor or the circular corridor itself.

"For starters, let's go upstairs. Detective-san may possibly held up by something, anyway."

"Ah. That guy started from the castle tower, right?……Okay. Then, excuse me──"

The moment Koyomi rushed up to the stairs──

A cry resounded in the dark night and a long shadow, obstructing the starlight, passed over their heads.

Nayuta quickly raised her head.

Several huge, rectangular holes were opened in the wall of the upper floors──

From one of those holes, a large snake had crept its snakey head out.

Its whole body could not be seen, while its long and narrow figure looked like a hand that grew out of the castle, its bared sharp fangs in place of the fingers giving off a fiendish presence.

Glaring back at the monster giving a piercing-sharp look at its prey, Nayuta immediately put herself on guard.

The large snake drew near Nayuta at such a speed as if it was falling, attempting to swallow Nayuta whole.

Jumping aside to dodge, she went around the enemy's flank.

Without even letting out a yell, she smacked the snake's temporal region near the jaw joint.

Missing her mark, she just hit struck a nearby place, but wincing from the blow, the large snake clung back to the castle's outer wall.

──There was feedback.

A hit point gauge was displayed next to the snake, and it had certainly decreased, even if by a measly quantity.

Upon ascertaining the change, Nayuta amassed her strength into her knees in preparation.

"Na-Nayu-san! Are you okay!?" Are you hurt!?"

"I certainly did not expect the large snake to come all the way outside……!"

Maintaining her focus on the snake, she sent a quick glance at the two friends who hastily rushed over to her.

"……As I thought, that large snake appears to be the boss rather than a trap. Let's bring it down here."

"Ue!? W-we're not running away!?"

Nayuta did not loosen her stance.

"In the Dark Zone just now, three of them appeared all at once in a room with poor visibility, hence we pulled back… but right now we can see far and we are only facing one of them. Let's do it."

"B-but, you know! That thing can't reach us if we run away upstairs……"

"Far from running away── I am going straight at it."

Nayuta dashed frontward.

The large snake that had retreated up the wall once again leapt straight at her like an arrow.

"Aaaaah! Geez! Let's do dis thin'!"

Having become serious, Koyomi also began running with a Tokyoite-ish yell for some reason.

Due to leaving the rear to Yanagi, the two vanguards had a need to go to the front. If this turned into a melee in such a cramped space, the essential Yanagi would be in danger.

Avoiding the large snake's jaw, Nayuta went around its side, and once again sent a punch from at its scales.

It wasn't just a blow. The Battle Miko's 《Purifying Strike》 for crushing evil with her divine power was generally quite effective against apparitions.

For her first strike, having concluded that the large snake was a living creature, she had tried using her anti-creature skill, 《Crushing Palm》, but even though there was feedback, it had not become a critical hit.

This time, her attack decreased more than twice as much HP as before.

Due to the strong impact, the large snake writhed mid-air.

"Koyomi-san! This large snake is not a creature, it is a youkai! Anti-spirit attacks work better against it!"

"Gotcha! Rest in pieces!"

With an appropriate yell of her own, Koyomi stabbed her ninja sword into the snake's body.

At the same time, she activated her ninjutsu, 《Thunderclap》, sending an electric current through her stabbed blade.

A flesh bursting sound resounded.

Nayuta jumped on the snake's brow in pursuit of the flinching enemy and hit its open eye with her fist.

It did not pierce it, but her attack to a sensory organ seemed to splendidly hit its weak point as the large snake's HP greatly decreased.

"Wha!? This thing is surprisingly weak!?"

Koyomi let out a screech.

Nayuta's thought was similar to her's. As she had not yet defeated it, she couldn't call it too quick, but she felt an anticlimactic sense proportionate to her resolution for a hard battle.

(……For the boss of a not-so-difficult quest, I guess this much is just right?")

As there were still two more, they couldn't let their guard down till the end. Though, it seemed that the first one was on the level of a warmup.

"Nayu-san! Let's beat it in one go!"

"Okay!"

The two leapt at the large snake from the left and right at almost the same time.

Koyomi's ninja sword pierced the large snake's brow, while Nayuta's fist, glowing with an evil-purifying light, hit its left eye.

A roar pierced the darkness── and the pitiable large snake lay on the spot.

"Alriiight! If that's all they've got, we can bring the other two down together!"

"Well now…… all I got to do was watch."

The energetic Koyomi and wryly smiling Yanagi were a good contrast, but because the path to clearing the quest was in sight, the atmosphere was light.

Nayuta loosened her stance in relief, but, before long, she noticed something out of place.

──The defeated large snake's corpse… was taking its time to disappear.

On the contrary, starting with its tail, which had been still in the castle, the snake had begun to be pulled.

Koyomi's face became distorted

"……Huuh……? Its HP reached 0 but it's still not disappearing…… Wait, it's moving…… huh? How? ……Is someone pulling it in the castle……?"

Nayuta also watched the situation in silence.

The battle wasn't over. Instead, the battle just now seemed to be the signal for its start.

Several moments after the large snake was pulled into the castle── it happened.



〝Oooooooo……〟


With enough force to shake as far as the eye can see, a low exclamation surged out like an earthquake.

Looking up in surprise, she saw the foothold encircling the upper floors of the castle was filled by a group of half-transparent instrumentalists.

The group of gold-coloured musicians had no expressions at all.

The 《phantom orchestra》, wearing eboshi and karaginu, or kachie, began playing the instruments in their hands all at once, and their solemn timbre overwhelmed Nayuta and the others.

Nayuta involuntarily forgot to even breathe as she was lost in the tune that was out of this world.

The musical performance by the large orchestra of hundred of musicians, who were in perfect order, went beyond grand and even felt bizzare.

As the common sense surpassing matsuribayashi played, an abnormal event occurred with the castle's outer wall as well.

The faint creaking turned into a tremor, and finally, the front of the wall crumbled away on a grand scale.

What appeared there was an eight-headed and eight-tailed snake monster.

The large body, converged to one, lay heavily on the upper floor.

The eight tails dangled down the castle's sides, but even if the creature swung them, they could not reach Nayuta and the others from there.

What served as the enemy's method of attacking, and the sign for monster's attacks to Nayuta and the others, was its seven heads, glaring at the ground.

One of the eight heads was already lying senseless due to Nayuta and Koyomi's attack. Although it was connected to the same body, it did not function; while the other seven heads wriggled, a single one lay limp in the castle.

And the seven heads, matching the rhythm, bared their fangs at once.

Koyomi clung to Nayuta's back.

"Ya- 《Yamata no Orochi》……!? I saw it but once in an event! But I think that that thing was the boss at a battle where hundred of people…….!"

"──Please take a closer look at it; it is probably a hatchling."

Somewhat more calm than Koyomi, Nayuta sized up their opponent.

The Yamata no Orochi that she had seen in a previous event was a literal #large monster#(daikaijū) with each snake head the size of a river, and a body longer than a mountain.

Compared to that, the large snake in front of them, whose heads were only the size of trains, was a monster far smaller in scale.

──However, for "an enemy that they faced with three people", it was far from slightly harsh. Even its heads still numbered seven.

Dazed, Yanagi muttered behind them.

"This one is another strange…… and outrageously large creature, but is it a troublesome enemy?"

"W-well, that's…… Hey, Nayu-san. The Yamata no Orochi from that battle had a different special ability for each head as I recall……?"

"Yes. Flames, freezing, wind, poison, paralysis, petrification, bewitching eyes, super healing──right?"

The battle against the 《Yamata no Orochi》 that came up in the conversation wasn't an event of the 《Hundred and Eight Apparitions》.

It was an isolated group event battle that was held last year when she had not yet known Koyomi, and thinking about it now, she could guess that it was a test event for the implementation of the 《Hundred and Eight Apparitions》 .

The Yamata no Orochi during that event battle had an oversized, clunky body; the grand, cooperative battle was so large that each of the monster's heads had been assigned squads of about twenty people to handle.

Whenever a squad of about twenty people responsible for handling one of its heads was wiped out, the large snake would come to the assistance of another head, thus the more of squads were beaten, the harder the remaining groups had it.

In contrast, when a head was killed, the players assigned to it could come to the assistance of the other groups.

The battle of mutual attrition that continued till either side was annihilated had given Nayuta quite the hard time.

As for Koyomi, she heard that the girl gave up on clearing it in one battle and left it alone until the event concluded.

Although it was now small in size── when facing such an eight-headed large snake with a small number of people, one could only give an empty laugh.

"……That reminds me, the administrators released it in the free material for quest creation, the 《Yamata no Orochi's》 model I mean── I believe your grandchild used it for his quest."

Although its colour was also changed, it was shameful for her not to have recognised it.

As Nayuta thought over it, Koyomi moaned beside her.

"……Say, Nayu-san. This means the ability of the large snake we defeated is──

There was no breath attack. Its defence was low and, in a nutshell, it was anticlimactically weak.

Assuming it had some special ability──

Yanagi grinned broadly and pointed the tip of his bishop's staff at the large snake inside the castle.

"Good gracious…… you two. It seems the large snake that you should have defeated is awakening──"

The lying large snake slowly raised its head.

The HP that should have been depleted had recovered to twenty percent, and the other heads supported it anxiously.

Nayuta unconsciously pressed down on her forehead while Koyomi dropped her shoulders.

"……A-as I thought, it's super healing……!"

"……It was a nice warmup, let's think of it that way."

As the magnificent matsuribayashi continued playing──

Nayuta's eyes saw the eight head-snakes seemingly sneering all together.



§

The fire breath avoided by a paper-thin margin.

The freezing breath grazed their apparel.

The poison breath showered them, forcing them to use antidotes; the tremendous wind swept them away when they were paralysed; petrified while lying on the ground, they were rammed by a snake; although they managed to heal despite the danger, their desperate counterattack ended in vain because of the bewitching evil eyes──

Before the group of huge snakes baking use of special attacks, Nayuta and the others were completely tossed about, forced into a hard defensive battle.

Although the eight heads had each received damage, they lacked the numbers to focus their attacks and had yet to defeat a single head.

"……Haah……! ……Haah……!"

Although this was in-game, a sense of fatigue assailed them IRL.

Intensely moving her shoulders up and down, Nayuta avoided the large snake's ramming attack, kicked the head, and leapt in another direction.

Although she landed a punch with a yell at a nose of another head there, the strong wind that assailed her broke her posture, and she ended up suffering a direct fire breath attack from another direction as well.

"Kuuh……!"

"A-are you all right, Nayuta-dono!?"

Before she noticed, Yanagi rushed over to her rear.

At almost the same moment as she suffered a direct flame attack, Nayuta's vision was covered in a white light. It seemed that Yanagi's houriki 《Kongou(9) Barrier》 made it by a hair's breadth.

Although the damage had been largely reduced, because of her naturally low defence, it was hard to call it a minor injury.

"……Yanagi-san, you can't come too close to the front l……!"

"We cannot have that. I shall hurry with the healing──"

While Yanagi applied a healing houriki through his bishop's staff, Koyomi somehow managed to turn away the eyes of the large snakes by using her poorly developed katon.

She was leaping about with the agility of a ninja, but even Nayuta could see that she was close to her limit.

(We can't win at this rate……! We have no choice but to pull back and start o……)

──Her reason appealed to her. However, Nayuta ended up hesitating on her decision.

Not only Nayuta and Koyomi were tired, but the elderly priest before them was as well.

Several hours had already passed since the play started and it was clear that they would need to temporarily dissolve the party if they retreated here.

'See you tomorrow', it could end if they could play the game.

However, in reality── Yanagi's condition probably did not allow such a conjecture.

Koyomi's casual leave was also probably limited to a day, making the situation even worse.

'I want to clear this quest today, no matter what── mustering her willpower and resolving herself, Nayuta once again got up.

"……Yanagi-san, please focus on evasion and defence! If we managed to defeat even one of the heads for starters, it would rapidly get more and more easier──"

Figuring out how to pull through the initial fierce attack was the greatest key in this battle against the Yamata no Orochi.

If half the heads were defeated, the enemy's power would also be halved, making it easier for allies to focus their attacks on the remaining heads.

Koyomi continued fighting in such a disadvantageous without uttering any complaints was also nothing short of her realising this special characteristic through instinct.

But, at this rate─ it was highly likely that they would be driven to retire without even defeating a single head.

"Funya───!"

As the matsuribayashi-turned-BGM continued playing, Koyomi's strangely animal-like scream resounded and her small body was sent flying like a ball.

As the situation atop the wide passageway kept changing, she got stuck in the handrailing and became unable to move.

"Koyomi-san!? Yanagi-san! Please handle the healing!"

"Okay! Right away──!"

Yanagi rushed over to Koyomi, who collapsed at the edge of the passage, at full speed.

In her heart, Nayuta also wanted to rush over to her, but right now, she had to serve as the decoy until Koyomi's healing was complete.

(Yanagi-san's houriki isn't going to last forever either……! Quickly, we need to quickly open a breach──!)

As she went impatient──

Nayuta committed a blunder.

Overly focused on attracting the attention of the enemy's eyes as a decoy, she had ended up leaping at the 《centre》 encircled by the snakes.

Front, back, left, right, and overhead── if all of these directions were blocked off by the eight heads, even she wouldn't be able to dodge.

(Dam……!)

At this kind of mistake that would normally be impossible for her, she resolved fatal injury, when──

A flashed gleamed in an unexpected direction.

Along with the sound of explosion, sparks scattered and smoke rose in the air; the gazes of the large snakes all turned to it at once.

(An opening! Now's my chance……!)

Making use of the slight gap, Nayuta jumped aside.

Her back came into contact with an 〝obstacle〟 that shouldn't have been there just moments ago.

The kitsune, wearing an inverness coat that was out of touch with the setting of the world, and a deerstalker, looked down at Nayuta with an arrogant smile.

"Yo, Ojou-san. It seems you're having trouble."

"De-detective-san!?"

At the awfully unnatural wink from the young kitsune detective, Clevel, Nayuta was unconsciously about to throw a forefist punch.

But because the man was older than her, she barely halted her action and instead gave him a look as cold as the freezing breath.

"Since you were so awfully late to regroup, I was practically sure you had retired── where on earth did you get lost like a child during all this racket?"

"Calling me a child is very disrespectful. And here I brought some presents with me, ya know?"

The detective pulled out some fire bombs from his pocket and threw them high in the air.

The same kind of explosion as before occurred and the group of large snakes once again looked up in the same direction.

The way they seem to be hypnotised by it looked like a cat who had discovered some catnip.

The detective, calm and composed, grinned broadly.


"They're quite effective. I picked up these 《snake fireworks》 from an explosives storehouse, you see. They're a special item used to distract large snakes, but so valuable that you couldn't get them if your Luck wasn't high. If this weren't a test play, I'd give you some as a present as well."

Correcting her rough breathing, Nayuta hit the proud-looking detective with a minor question.

"……Umm. I thought that snake fireworks were supposed to form a snake-like shape with their cinders……"

Clevel sneered.

"It's a staple of a fireworks set. I don't dislike that indescribable atmosphere when I look at it."

At this young man who didn't break from his aloof manners even in the middle of a boss fight, Nayuta felt just a bit of relief.

In any case, he did stall enough for her to catch a breath and calm down.

At the same time as the large snakes turned around, Nayuta prepped herself.

"……Although it pains me to say this, our condition is as terrible as you can see. Since I think you will not be able to fight, Detective-san, please go to the back with Yanagi-s──"

"Nah, I shall help. If I left it to you guys, Torao-san would need overtime pay."

Muttering as if deeply shocked, Clevel struck at the ground with the tip of his stick.

"……Wha……? Umm, Detective-san, with your stats, no matter how much you struggle……"

'You'd just be in the way', Nayuta was about to say, but was interrupted by the detective's faint smile.

"Five…… no, three seconds."

"Excuse me?"

"I can turn that large snake into bones in three seconds. You can just watch from there."

Even now, she didn't quite understand whether the way he declared this full of confidence was arrogant or deluded.

As the enemy was the Yamata no Orochi, she thought that perhaps he had found the Yashiori-no-sake──(10)

Slowly, the detective took out a wooden percussion instrument and a pair of drumsticks wrapped in a cloth.

Nayuta couldn't believe her eyes.

The roundish…… or more like nearly spherical form was indeed familiar. But, she was not just a bit hesitant to call it a 《musical instrument》.

Its surface gave off a glossy brilliance, as the detective began playing on it.



*Poku*, *Poku*, *Poku*, *Poku*, *Poku*……



"……That is a mokugyo,(11) right?"

As his instrument let out a heart-easing, rich bass, the detective leisurely nodded.

"This is the 《musical instrument》 needed for regrouping that I've found. Though…… to display the true value of these musical instruments, it seems you need to have regrouped first."

Clevel boastfully exaggerated.

The detective playing the mokugyo while standing upright was quite a surreal sight, but without the time to laugh or be shocked, a 〝change〟 began to take place steadily.

The performance of the 《phantom orchestra》-turned-battle BGM began to fade in response to the sound of the mokugyo.

Koyomi, who had made a comeback due to Yanagi's healing, let out a shrill voice having suddenly noticed this.

"The hayashi is becoming weaker…… huh!? My instrument too……!"

The handbell Koyomi took out from her item list was emitting a faint light as if resonating.

Nayuta's flute and Yanagi's kotsuzumi, taken out from their inventories following her lead, had similarly began to shine.

The detective gave a bewitching smile.

"You should also play your instruments. Remember what Torao-san had said? These are, essentially, sacred ritual tools that had protected the village. Because that large snake had stolen these instruments, the villagers had their spirits taken and were used as musicians for the snake. Meaning── what gives the snake its power is the matsuribayashi of the villages, and what negates that are these sacred ritual tools; that's how it works."

Hearing the proud explanation, Nayuta placed her lips on the flute's mouthpiece.

Blowing into it, the vibration of the air created a timbre.

When the timbre reached the 《phantom orchestra》, they stopped their own performance and listened to the sound of the sacred ritual tools.

And then, when the performance of the 《phantom orchestra》 stopped── the Yamata no Orochi lost its energy, and became flustered at the change of the situation.

The detective sneered broadly.

"The reason why the large snake wanted the musicians was to strengthen itself. By stealing the sacred ritual tools that would hinder this and enshrining them in its castle to control them, the ruler of the castle placed itself as their 〝god〟. However, the vital sacred ritual tools were stolen by us…… and this time, we were the ones who used their power. Now then, let's turn the tables."

Having accomplished a sudden reversal of the situation in just a mere few seconds just as he had proclaimed, the detective continued playing his mokugyo with disinterest.

Nayuta wasn't all that satisfied with the explanation, but it was true that she had not noticed this trick, thus she had no excuses now.

Luckily, there were eight targets she could take her anger out on.

Holding her flute in her hand, Nayuta leapt in front of the large snakes.

Unlike just moments ago, the weakened snakes' reaction had been dulled.

Although they were still baring their fangs, their vigour was far from the level of the battle they had just had; they had been practically turned into huge targets.

Nayuta mercilessly pounded them with her fist.

Koyomi followed suit, and the two-top extermination began.

"Nayu-san! You can leave this half to me! Yanagi-san, supports pls."

"Very well. It seems…… victory is at hand."

Yanagi, who supported the two while continuing to play his kotsuzumi, was giving healing and elaborate support with such skill that you wouldn't think that he had been a newbie just a few days ago.

As the HP gauge of the large snakes decreased at a fine speed, Nayuta glimpsed back at the detective.

Clevel didn't join the fight.

Because he would just be a hindrance even if he did step forward to the front line, she didn't mind his inaction, but she wasn't happy with the fact that he was useful in a good way.

Though, it was true that if he had not used his instrument, they would have lost to the large snakes. In the first place, if he weren't here, they wouldn't have been able to clear the quest in the form of a test play like this.

In that sense, it was miraculous guidance that brought Yanagi and his request to him in the first place.

As the detective enjoyed watching the spectacle of the subjugation carried out by Nayuta and the others, right next to him──

She thought she had suddenly seen a phantom of the kitsune-masked child.



§

The ending of the 《Phantom Orchestra》 quest was signaled by a large number of fireworks rising to the sky.

The moment they defeated the hatchling Yamata no Orochi, the souls of the villagers who were trapped as the 《phantom orchestra》 rose to the sky one after another── while the castle that lost its master began collapsing, as if dissolving into emptiness.

While watching the fireworks all together, Nayuta let out an exhausted-sounding sigh

"……Somehow, I feel like Detective-san stole the show in the end."

What was the point of all that trouble they had with the large snakes before they were weakened──

Thinking about it, her own carelessness was deplorable. The use of key items was the basic of basics, but she got limited by the perception of the musical instruments as 《items for regrouping》, and, influenced by her impatience, she lost track of the timing to use them.

Looking up at the fireworks, Clevel nodded with not much boasting.

"If you guess what the creator likes, you naturally start to see the way to clear his quest. When we offered botamochi at the hokora, you should have felt it too. That 〝is it really okay to solve it so easily?〟."

Nayuta was taken aback. The series of offerings that began with the request "I wanna eat some botamochi" didn't actually require getting the necessary items one by one, as it accepted the goods written on paper as a substitute.

If they had gone looking for the necessary items regularly, it wasn't hard to imagine that it would have required a lot of effort and time.

"……Even though the problems look hard, there is always an easy way to solve them…… that is the policy of the creator?"

Yanagi, who was watching the fireworks lost in thought, did not hear their conversation.

The detective breathed out.

"That's right. Whether you notice the hints or not. Solely depending on that, the difficulty greatly varies── That is the special trait of this quest. It had probably taken into account Yanagi-san. He made it so that even at a low level, you could clear it if you just noticed the hints── although, due to the administrators adjusting the difficulty, it did become a bit troublesome.

Nayuta felt a subtle sense of discomfort about his words.

On the surface, he was pretending to be talking to her, but in fact, his tone was stiff, as if he was trying to relay something to 〝someone other than Nayuta〟.

"Are you complaining about the administrators?"

The detective sneered.

"No? Because of them, I did get to make money, so I didn't have such an intention. Though…… it is true that the late Kiyofumi-shi's dying wish is strongly reflected in this quest. I believe that if his dying wish was twisted, the administrators needed good faith, consideration, and a reason for that. Since this quest is 〝a contributed work〟 ……as long as they're not too distorted, the creator's sentiments should be reflected as much as possible."

Nayuta carefully simplified the detective's roundabout phrasing.

"Meaning……that it should be reimplemented as soon as possible and without too much tinkering done with it?"

The detective shrugged.

"Though I'm not the one to make that decision. As for my personal thoughts, well…… that's about right."

──There was still one obstacle to reimplementing the quest.

The 《ghost that shouldn't exist in the data》 which was the reason why the quest was suspended in the first place.

The administrators, carefully examining the results of this test play, would now be deciding on how to handle it.

And it seemed like the detective was also hesitating about something related to the ghosts.

Nayuta still didn't know much about him. She hadn't been socialising with him enough to guess what he was worried about, nor did she intend to dig deep.

Though, as they say, even a chance meeting is due to fate, thus she couldn't think of him as a complete stranger.

"……Detective-san, whose 《ghost》 did you see?"

Her voice covered by the sound of the fireworks, Nayuta silently asked.

The detective frowned.

"Hm……? I told you about it, didn't I. A close friend that had died in SAO."

"I did hear that, but…… I still do not know the details. Such as, 'she was actually a girl', 'she was my unrequited love', or the circumstances of when the person died."

The detective looked at Nayuta as if shocked.

"I didn't expect you to ask something like that── and here I thought that you had the kind of personality where you didn't pry into such fine details about others."

Even Nayuta herself actually thought it was unexpected.

"Of course, if you do not want to talk about it, please ignore me. Just a little while ago……I was told by Koyomi-san. That 〝if you have something you want to talk about, you can let it all out〟── but, it does not seem like you have such a person, Detective-san, so I thought I would ask."

She intentionally sounded patronising as she said that so that it would be easy to brush it away as a joke if he was reluctant; that was her consideration.

As if her words went through, Clevel laughed scornfully.

"How cheeky are we── Well, it's not something that I'm hiding. I…… was unable to stop him from going into the jaws of death."

Nayuta senseda negative connotation in the detective's voice.

"He was my friend from university days. He wasn't of the opposite sex, so no need for your trifling suspicions. We both liked games and had agreed to log into SAO…… and then we were dragged into that incident."

Hearing his story, Nayuta felt a slight pain running through her chest.

"It would be a long story if I told you all the details, so I'll make it brief…… I prioritised surviving and chose to be safe. However, he was too much in a hurry to return to the real world as quick as he could── dragged out by an incompetent superior, he went straight to the front line, and died."

Nayuta unconsciously pressed down on her chest.

"……Detective-san…… you did not happen to be there?"

Clevel shook his head.

"No. I heard about the situation from a survivor afterwards. So, the ghost of his I saw…… could practically be called a product of my imagination. I don't know what kind of expression he had when he died. Because I was trapped in SAO, I couldn't even go to the funeral. And, even now── I have nightmares about him. A pitiful story, no."

The detective's voice was unconcerned to the bitter end.

"The fact that I was unable to stop him from going into the jaws of death…… to me, this is the biggest regret in my life so far. That day, if I had stopped him in town, even if I had to tie him down…… I believe the guy would have lived on, and I myself would have gone down an entirely different road in life now."

Nayuta gave a faint smile.

It was a serious topic, but she ended up feeling just a bit of relief that even such an arrogant detective had such a person with him.

"He was a precious…… very precious friend, I see."

The detective took a deep breath and loosened his shoulders.

"I do know that I have to get over it already. Good grief…… I was supposed to only help Yanagi-san clear the quest, but I ended up facing my own regrets in an unexpected form. Now then── your turn. Shall I hear you out."

Nayuta nodded and firmly closed her eyes.

She took a breath, a second one──

After clearing her thoughts, she opened her eyes and saw large-flowered fireworks blooming in the sky.

"──The ghost I saw was of a very close person to me. I had somehow been able to keep a lid on my feelings, but…… but seeing him as a 《ghost》 during this quest, I thought over again. That 〝aah, he really is dead〟──"

The detective didn't say a thing.

So, Nayuta continued her monologue with unconcernedly.

"I believe, I had been running away. Because of this quest, I had realised this again. The way that 《ghost》 appears…… is an illusion seen only by yourself, or something more like a dream, right? It wasn't something as grand as reading memories, it was something simpler…… You randomly see 〝something〟 that was on your 〝mind〟──essentially, that is all there is to how it works."

Not meeting her eyes, Clevel gave a short nod.

"That's right. What one saw depended entirely on the person── and the administrators consider this to be a risk factor. What── do you think?"

Nayuta slipped out a smile. Absurd… calling it that badly was rude, but the question truly seemed absurd.

"A person 〝having a dream〟 while sleeping is a risk factor?"

"Well…… it depends on the content of the dream. This is a VR space, so strictly speaking, it's not like the person is sleeping either──"

──His words…… didn't convey his own feelings.

The detective's feelings were probably the same as Nayuta's.

However, precisely because of that── he refrained from voicing his own thoughts, and instead was trying to say them through 〝Nayuta's〟 mouth.

Most likely, he was trying to make the administrators secretly monitoring their 《conversation》 to hear the opinion of a real 〝player〟.

Having guess this much, Nayuta gave the detective the answer he wanted.

"I am thankful to this mechanic. It was something I had to face at some point, and, most importantly── treating the freedom to have a dream as a risk to a person is just too much meddling. I would of course be against memories being pulled out as data, but if that's not the case, I do think I want to leave this mechanic for the people who will be playing the quest afterwards. Whether that will bring about good results or bad…… that depends on the person himself, right?"

Gazing up at the fireworks, the detective shrugged and smiled.

It seemed that he got the answer he wanted.

"How unexpectedly extreme you are. In that case, when something happens…… how do you think the administrators should take responsibility?"

"There is no need for someone to take responsibility for what someone else sees in their dream. Just disclosing about the mechanic would be enough. You keep saying risk risk, but that kind of risk…… is on the level of a measurement error compared to the risk of 〝using quests contributed by the users〟. To follow the dying wish of the late creator, the administrators should put up with it; if they do not have the resolution for that, they should not have done this event itself in the first place."

Suddenly, the detective friendly patted Nayuta's head.

Nayuta's shoulders tensed up for a moment in surprise.

It seemed that it was mostly an unconscious action, and when she looked at him, she saw the detective laughing uncontrollably.

"……Oh, excuse me. How wonderful. Such sharp words coming from such a graceful woman surprised me. You could really be cut out for the work of a police officer. If you were able to display such incisiveness as you did now on top of your skills at interrogation, you'd end up being quite the fine officer."

Nayuta gave a deep sigh.

"IRL, I have trouble with stamina and physical fitness, so no thank you. I believe that working as a clerk at your office, Detective-san, would be a much better option."

After laughing for a while, the detective corrected his posture and breathing.

"……Wow, that was amusing. Well, I did become indebted to you, so if you ever have a need for it, I could give you advice on place of employment. We're apparently shady, so forget about us, but I could give you recommendations for a proper occupation, like that of your acquaintances. At the very least, you would have nothing to lose."

Speaking strangely generously, Clevel suddenly turned his eyes into the wrong direction.

Nayuta became interested and also looked in the same direction.

Illuminated by the rising fireworks──

Standing there absent-mindedly was the 《kitsune-masked child》.

Yanagi and Koyomi also noticed his appearance and slowly stepped up beside him.

He looked up at Nayuta and the others and uttered in a strangely clear voice.

"──Congrats. So you managed to clear the quest."

The detective nodded and put out his hand for a handshake.

"Yeah. Thanks to you. I have to thank you…… for all the hints you've given us."

The AI boy inclined his head.

"And here I thought I didn't do anything more than needed…… Oh well. To all the people who've cleared the quest… well, not really, but to people who know Kiyofumi, I have a message from him. 〝Thank you for playing〟, he said."

Koyomi moaned.

"W-what an unexpectedly broad comment…… wha, that's it? I'm not an acquaintance or anything, but ain't there anything else?"

The kitsune-masked child turned his gaze towards the fireworks.

"Hmm……there are several messages for individual players, but they're not meant for your group, Onee-san, so I can't tell ya. Sorry. Though……"

The child suddenly pointed at a nook below the entrance of the castle.

"It seems the one for Ojii-chan was unlocked at the hokora after the quest was cleared. To a guy who solved the initial riddle, I don't have to point out every single thing, right, Detective-san? Because there was a chance that my actions would be sealed by the administrators── the truly important stuff was hidden there."

Having said this much, the kitsune-masked child waved his hand.

"So long. Goodbye."

"Ah, hold on a bit!"

Nayuta reflexively called him to a stop. The child who had already started leaving turned around.

"What is it?"

"Umm…… are you alone here?"

She spontaneously asked, as the child chuckled.

"──Onee-chan, you sure are nice. Don't worry, it's not like I'm only 《here》…… We spend our time more freely than you probably think."

The kitsune-masked child spread out his arms.

"Just like people have people as friends, artificial intelligence has artificial intelligence as friends── Right now, we're continuing 〝growing up〟 at tremendous speed. Though…… I myself don't have much interest in that. 〝I〟 am here, but another 〝me〟 that has elements of 〝me〟 could appear in some other place. At that time── let's play together again."

Leaving behind the sound of a fragile bell, the kitsune-masked child disappeared as if into a haze.

Feeling, just as the saying goes, that she #couldn't trust her eyes#(had been bewitched by a kitsune), Nayuta exchanged glances with Koyomi.

"Detective-san, that just now……"

"What what? What just happened?"

"I can't really answer that, but…… we just got one more job to do to finish up. Let's return to the entrance of the castle."

The 〝hokora〟 the kitsune-masked child pointed out before leaving──

The kitsune-masked child had said that this was where Kiyofumi had hidden his important things.

The detective seemed to have already realised what that was.

Just then, the fireworks ended.

The castle the large snakes appeared it had collapsed into ruins, but the foothold where Nayuta and the others had been still remained.

Going through the one-way warp zone from the stairs leading downwards, the group were able to quickly return to the entrance.

The huge gate that looked ominous when they entered now, after clearing the quest, looked pleasant as if it were a papier mache.

In the centre of the short steps going down from the gate, the hokora that they had given 〝mochi〟 to when they first entered was buried.

The statue of a child enshrined within was now sleeping soundly and peacefully.

"What are we……going to do here?"

Excluding the know-it-all detective, Nayuta and the others were bewildered.

The detective stared at the hokora with kitsune-like eyes.

"Well then……what was requested here. Anyone remember?"

At this question, Koyomi inclined her head.

"Botamochi, right? Also, Koorimochi, kuzukumochi; various things from the mochi series──"

"What was the order?"

"Wha."

Koyomi was suddenly at a loss for words. Nayuta, too, did not remember that much, of course.

Yanagi seemed to be in the same spot, as he stared at the statue with a troubled expression.

The detective chuckled.

"I see. So I was the only one who got that message? The order was thus. Botamochi, kuzumochi, habutaemochi, koorimochi, kobanmochi, nikkimochi, isobemochi── and finally, the hint 《#Even a lapis lazuli or crystal shines if illuminated#(Ruri mo hari mo teraseba hikaru)》."

After some thought, Nayuta let out "Ah."

At the same time, she understood why the detective accurately remembered even the order of the offerings.

Koyomi seemed to have yet to realise this as she pulled on Nayuta's sleeve.

"What do you mean 'ah'. What do you mean 'ah', Nayu-san. Did you realise something. Don't put on airs and tell mee!"

"No, I am not acting pretentious…… umm, it is the initials. If you read the first characters in a row, what you get──"

After answering, she hesitated a bit on whether she should have said that in front of Yanagi.

"Initials…… err, botamochi, kuzumochi…… ah."

Koyomi's expression suddenly turned into a serious look.

A bit late, Yanagi's also frowned with his grey eyebrows.



──#I am present here.#(Boku wa koko ni iru)



The sentiments put in such a message by a dying person was by no means light.

The detective turned to Yanagi.

"This is the late Koyomi-shi's self-assertion…… his final lamentation in preparation for death, his own earnest feelings put into his work── is what I believe…… Though it is possible it was not that solemn. More simply, it could have the implication 〝I am present here, so if you have something to ask, ask it here〟."

"Wha? Umm, does that……"

Being told something so unexpected, Nayuta became bewildered. This strong message seemed like a scream by someone who, fearing death, wanted to at least leave behind proof of his existence.

Without answering her question, the detective spelled out some characters on the piece of paper for offerings.



《 Yanagimochi 》



This was the name of nationwide-established cake that represented Yanagi's company, Yanagi-ya Ryuuzen-dou.

The cheap and popular product that contained an assortment of eight flavours of mochi cakes was known by practically everyone.

The offered piece of paper immediately disappeared a sealed letter appeared in its stead.

Without breaking the seal, Clevel handed over the sealed letter to Yanagi.

"──This is something that you, rather than us, should open. Here you go."

With his faintly trembling hands, Yanagi took the letter.

Unlike the requests for mochi, the content of the letter was quite long.



【 To the person who found this letter

I believe this letter will probably only be found by my grandpa.

If someone else found this latter── please ignore it and leave it alone.

The following is my last will to my grandpa.



To Ojii-chan.

What I wanted to say I have practically already told you while I was alive.

But, there was one last thing──

Although this may be repetitive, there is something that I wish to tell you, no matter what, from the bottom of my heart.

Ojii-chan, you brought me, a boy who would not be able to live long because of an illness I was born with, the best medical care and the best environment.

Ojii-chan, you and the others pitied me, but I felt very blessed──

In the world, there are plenty of people who die without receiving proper treatment.

I should have died sooner like these people, but the reason why I was able to live so many years was of you and the others.


I received a life.

You bought me a computer and a phone.

I received a grace period till my death, and the chance to learn a lot of things.



I made some friends in the world of VRMMOs.

Everyone from the Sleeping Knights.

Ran, Yuuki, Merida, Jun, Siune, Talken, Nori, Tecchi──

I have memories with them all, so even now with my death before me, I have no regrets.


And so, I was finally able to create a quest for my favourite game.

There were a lot of stuff that I thought about when creating the quest for the 《Hundred and One Apparitions》.

I gave the artificial intelligence that had helped me create it my own player name.

He is a mischievous boy, so he could have confused you, Ojii-chan.


I felt like Ran and Merida had also helped me with creating the quest.

They are no longer with us, but── while working, for some reason I felt that they were with me.

After this, I shall also be going to them. This could be imprudent, but, actually, I am just a bit looking forward to that.



From the point of view of the people around me, VRMMOs were probably 〝only a game〟.

But, to me, these few years have been truly precious, like treasure.

All of this was what I had received from you, Ojii-chan.



──Ojii-chan.

Thank you for giving me 〝time〟 and 〝possibilities〟.

Sorry for not being able to give anything in return.

Thanks to you and the others, my life was truly fortunate.



Yanagi Kiyofumi】





──Having fallen on his knees on the spot, Yanagi sobbed, his shoulders trembling.

While Nayuta and Koyomi gently stroked the elderly man's back.

The kitsune-faced detective just continued motionlessly staring at the stars shining in the sky without saying a thing.





Notes

1. ^ This is a line from the Kanginshuu (閑吟集), a collection of ballads from the Muromachi period.
2. ^ The term in Japanese seems to specifically mean "a phenomenon where the brain assumes that three dots are meant to be a face", but it has a more general meaning in English.
3. ^ Zori (草履, lit. grass footwear) is the name for Japanese sandals.
4. ^ Probably referring to Dragon Buster, a platform dungeon crawl action role-playing arcade game released by Namco in 1985.
5. ^ Hourai (蓬萊) is the Japanese name for Mount Penglai, an enchanted land of perpetual youth from Chinese mythology. Ju (樹) is Japanese for "tree". I left the term untranslated because I thought that it was some item name or something.
6. ^ A wasei-eigo term for a soccer formation where two forwards are placed at the very front.
7. ^ Katon (火遁) is a form of tonjutsu (ninja art of escape) that makes use of fire.
8. ^ This is referring to a temple in east Kyoto.
9. ^ Kongou (金剛) is a Buddhist term for a practically indestructible metal or diamond.
10. ^ A strong alcoholic drink that was used to drug Yamata no Orochi to sleep in the original myth, making it vulnerable to attacks.
11. ^ A mokugyo (木魚), also known as "wooden fish" or "Chinese temple block", is a fish-shaped wooden temple drum.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for the release. Sorry about the editing situation, but here are some suggestions:

    Not wanting to fall behind her UNHESITANT gait, Koyomi quickly followed suit.

    Clevel and Yanagi, too, followed after THE TWO OF THEM──

    Even NOW when KiyoFUmi was dead──

    He could see his own time of death coming not so long after the death of his grandchild, but, in the first place, YANAGI'S SITUATION--DYING having lived to his heart's content INTO OLD AGE--,and his grandchild'S--UNABLE TO even reach adulthood--were MUCH too DISSIMILAR.

    HARBOURING such regrets, Yanagi was now standing here in this ARTIFICIAL body.

    In Yanagi's field of vision was the same pillar-less hall he had visited Saturday.

    Despite there being no source of light, somehow he was able to clearly see that the floor was made out of tatami and the ceiling of wooden boards.

    Yanagi had received a lecture, mixed with conjecture, from the detective about this large hall that STRETCHED ON endlessly as if REFLECTED IN opposING mirrors.

    ──Suddenly, HE recalled SOMETHING Kiyofumi had once said.

    Giving it a blow, even an amateur such as herself was able to produce a light sound, but due to her IGNORANCE OF how to MANIPULATE it with her fingers, she couldn't produce a tune WITH it.

    There were light stands stretching UP INTO A high place, but despite there being light, the area in front of her was nevertheless plunged in gloomy darkness.

    The LIMIT OF HER FILED OF VISION was about three metres ahead──

    As their ARMOUR made A characteristic CLATTER, they were enemies THAT WERE very easy to sense. Their individual strength wasn't all that GREAT, but THEY coordinated THEIR attacks, wielding all sorts of weapons, SO they were a bit of a pain in the ass as their numbers increased.

    Without a moment's delay, her left fist SOUGHT the skeleton's trunk as it searchED for its LOST/DISMEMBERED head.

    The Skeleton Warrior, unable to defend due to the INFLICTED damage then sufferING a follow-up attack, crumbled away along with its armour, LIKE sand scattered by the wind.

    Unconcernedly, as if solving a problem IN a workbook, Nayuta CHOSE her next enemy.

    Her pure white sleeve fluttered like wings, while her red hakama BILLOWED out IN the wind.

    In this room, she could PERFORM a move that would be impossible in the real world as if it were PERFECTLY natural.

    She avoided the tip of a spear thrust at her, CLOSED distance by spinning around the enemy's flank, and using the centrifugal force, she dealt a backhand blow.

    She cut a bowman's bowstring with a shuriken before it could fire, then mercilessly kicked its torso as it was flustered BY THE LOSS OF its weapon.

    The LONE maiden reduced the number of the Skeleton Warriors in the group just like that.

    Using the SWEEPING pole as a foothold, Nayuta leapt over its head.

    Leaving BEHIND a faint echo and RAY of light, the Skeleton Warrior died on the spot.

    Normalising her not so QUICKENED breathing, she listened carefully to the timbre of the matsuribayashi that came unnoticed.

    She tried to DETERMINE the direction of the sound, but because of the echoES OFF the walls of the passageway, she couldn't discern its origin.

    Having TERMINATED the call, Clevel turned towards the stairway leading to the floor below the tower.

    ...average on aspect of being a policeman; in exchange for not having any special or amazing skills, he didn't have any obvious FLAWS...

    On the other hand, quick to RECOVER, Koyomi began surveying the outskirts like a puppy.
    "In any case, we can RESERVE judgement for when we reach the end.

    AN EXPERT would have sensed that the composition of the group assaulting it from left and right

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for your suggestions. Here's an overview of what I changed:
      1. Unhesitant - changed
      2. Not sure about adding "of them". Isn't really necessary.
      3. Typos corrected.
      4. Not sure about this one. Will come up with something.
      5. Harbouring - changed, artificial - not quite the right word. The original word has a negative nuance - fake, sham, forgery, bogus etc.. Artificial is more or less neutral.
      6. Disagree with removing "on".
      7. Changed.
      8. Made most of the changes, except continued -> stretched on. The original sounded better.
      9. Changed.
      10. Made some of the changes, along with some of my own ideas on how to improve the sentence.
      11. "Up into" makes it sound like the lights form a vertical line, rather than a horizontal one.
      12. Tried going for something else.
      13. Made some of the changes. Considering some. Made some of my own.
      14. Not sure about "sought".
      15. Made some of my own modifications.
      16. Not sure about "chose". That's too different.
      17. Changed.
      18. Made some modifications to the suggestion.
      19. Not sure about this one.
      20. Changed.
      21. Changed.
      22. Changed.
      23. Changed.
      24. Made my own change.
      25. Changed
      26. Went for a different word.
      27. Changed.
      28. Made some changes of my own.
      29. Made some changes of my own.
      30. Made some changes of my own.

      Delete