[Clover's Regret] Chapter 2 - The Visiting of the Fox

Well, it's been more than half a year since the last update, so it's time for a new Clover's Regret chapter. Sorry for taking so long, but these chapters are just so long that it's hard to find the time to translate them. The next chapter is actually nearly 1.5 times larger than either this or the previous chapter... Luckily, I've just finished translating it (and it was a fr***in' pain in the ass, mind you), but we still need to edit it... so I wouldn't expect it to be released all that soon.

Anyway, back to the topic. With this chapter, we take a break from the actual quest for some real world time, background stories, discussions about VR and similar stuff... and, apparently, cats and gods. Don't know how on earth it came to that, but, oh well, let's just go with that. The entirety of the next chapter will be about the quest. And it'll also have some Sleeping Knights stuff, in case you were wondering if this story was going to tie in with them in any way.

We had a poll on how many notes we should make for Clover's Regret and, although the majority of the small number of people who actually bothered to vote decided that the number of notes we had in the previous chapter was acceptable (strangely, closely followed by the demand for more notes... I was actually expecting the opposite situation, but people are weird, I guess ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ), we didn't actually have much to note in this chapter. And with a lot of the things we could have made notes for, we just got around with furigana or other tricks, so we only ended up with 6 notes in total. Surprisingly. Don't worry you eight people who actually want more notes, the next chapter has a bit more stuff that needs noting.

On a side note, I'm nearly done with the Hopeful Chant translation, but I'm going on holiday as of tomorrow, so I wouldn't expect the translation to be released for another week at the very least. Depends on how fast editing will be done.

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
Editing: ZeHaffen




Chapter 3


Chapter 2 - The Visiting of the Fox


The cat is god.

God is an existence that transcends human understanding, inspires awe, and is an object of worship.

Faith can make even a sardine's head sacred, as some people say; as long as there are believers, even the head of a sardine can become god.

"……Not to mention cats, which those guys chose to worship."

The kitsune-faced Detective Clevel pointed to the neighbouring room on the other side of the hall beyond the wall, with an expression that implied he was rather fed up.

The Battle Miko Nayuta and the Ninja Koyomi both glanced in that direction.

The room neighbouring Mitsuba Detective Agency was rented by a suspicious organization known as the 〝Cat God Faith Society〟.

Although their true nature wasn't known, it didn't seem like they posed any real harm for now.

Koyomi, with the bot nekomata on her lap, smiled feebly while stroking the cat's chin.

"Well, the kanji for #God#(神様) and #cat#(猫様) do look alike…… Also, they do seem to have a lot of relatively common features, like being indifferent to humans, treating them as slaves, and not providing any compensation for their care──"

At those remarks that were befitting of Koyomi, Nayuta turned to her with a sigh.

"Koyomi-san, your words sure are dark sometimes. You will make devout people mad, you know."

"……It's because of those devout people banding together and ripping away my grandpa's land and other property that I have to work as a dull OL(1)……even though I could have lived as a NEET for my whole life with that inheritance!"

It wasn't like she never thought of what would have happened if things had turned out differently.

Feeling half sympathetic and half appalled, Nayuta stroked Koyomi's head.

"That's unfortunate, Koyomi-san. More importantly…… aren't the people of the neighbouring Cat God Faith doing it as a joke? If they are believers, what about having a doctrine or something……"

With his elbow on his work desk, Clevel gave a smile and shrugged.

"Well, they do. I think it was…… 〝The cat is a sacred animal〟,〝Worship the cat〟, 〝Don't give too many snacks〟, 〝Set up a scratching board〟〝Pay heed to a balanced diet〟, 〝Ensure vaccination〟, 〝Clean the litter box〟?"

"……Aren't the third one and onwards just principles of keeping a cat?"

Having gathered in the detective's office, three people were engaging in small talk early on a Sunday morning.

The kitsune-like silver-haired young detective, Clevel.

The full-fledged working adult, despite looking childish, ninja, Koyomi.

And finally, the bare-handed Battle Miko who focused on agility, Nayuta.

All three of them were dispirited.

Although it was the early morning, it was dark outside the window this day as well. Ayakashi Bystreet was a district of eternal night, thus the morning sun never rose into the sky here.

Nayuta and the others' state of mind was, currently, far from daybreak as well.

Due to the sudden suspension of the 《Phantom Orchestra》 quest, their actions were currently impeded.

Although they had all gathered in the office for now, Yanagi, the person who had requested their help, had yet to come.

The bot nekomata and Koyomi let out yawns at the same time.

"Fwah…… hey, Nayu-san. I kinda want some sweets…… Shall we go to the bakeneko tea house? Let's just mail Yanagi-san and meet up there."

Having eaten some sweets, an ingenious idea would── likely not come, but it would likely reduce the stress they were all feeling currently.

"All right. Detective-san, you're going too, right?"

"……The bakeneko tea house…… Ah, I'll send an email to Yanagi-shi myself."

The detective stood up while operating his menu window.

Nayuta and Koyomi left the office one step ahead of him.

Like yesterday, there was a black cat Buddha statue that was at least three metres tall sitting there.

──It seemed as though the angle of its forefeet was different than yesterday.

Pretending not to have noticed this while passing by, the three of them came out of Twilight Street and returned to the main street of Ayakashi Bystreet.

Even though it was an eternal night in-game, it was actually morning on a day off, thus there was a reasonable number of people on the street.

Looking up at the night sky, they saw lots of long hands extending from the cloudy sky, and they were wriggling as if they were jellyfish tentacles.

"……Does that have any other purpose other than looking 〝kinda ominous〟?"

"Hmm. I guess they are 〝#being vague#(grasping the clouds)〟."

The detective laughed scornfully.

Nayuta strangely agreed with that joke-like answer.

This district was filled with 〝who knows what〟 squirming about meaninglessly, after all.

Putting it nicely, it was broad-minded; putting it bluntly, it was unprincipled.

Allowing meaningless things to exist in a meaningless way── in that sense, there were a lot of people that found this place unexpectedly comfortable. Although it was meant to be a horror setting, it was strangely lively.

There were customers constantly entering and leaving the bakeneko tea house that they eventually arrived at.

During the few moments of entering or leaving, they all looked like ghosts.

At the boundary of the store's entryway, the bodies of people going inside turned hazy and disappeared; conversely, those going out emerged and materialised.

This entrance and exit worked like a teleport gate; it sent all the customers to multiple different copies of the store, thus preventing congestion at all times.

Nayuta and the others entered in a line and were sent to a virtually empty store with no one but them inside.

While they were being led to a random table, Koyomi stroked the chin of the nekomata that was serving them.

"It's still morning, so I could do with something refreshing. I'll go with mamekan today! Nayu-san, same as always for you?"

"Yes. Mamekan."

Koyomi frequently changed her order depending on her mood, while on the other hand, Nayuta ordered mamekan seventy percent of the time.

It was a simple sweet that consisted solely of peas and agar, but the agar had a nice consistency and the sweetness of the honey was just right. The peas were also special and different from those found at other stores.

These peas, providing a burst of deliciousness with each bite and filling one's mouth with a faintly sweet aroma reminiscent of vanilla beans, did not exist in reality.

Setting aside those who wished for pure mamekan, this miraculous flavour that blended both Japanese and Western styles was related to the popularity of the store.

Opposite to Nayuta and Koyomi sitting in a line, the detective also sat down.

"I'll have the same thing. Three servings of mamekan please."

The happi coat-wearing munchkin gave a slight nod and, while writing down the order, walked over to the kitchen.

"Detective-san, do you also come here often?"

When Koyomi asked, Clevel vaguely nodded.

"It's a standard spot to bring my tourists. This place is well-known even to foreign guests. Though── I've never eaten the mamekan. Even though I've ordered it many times."

Then said something strange.

"Ah, could it be that your order was mixed up? I first met Koyomi-san because we also happened to have our mamekan and warabimochi orders mixed up──"

"……No, it wasn't really a mixed up order……"

Just as Clevel was about to say something, the nekomata brought a tray.

Two ceramic and porcelain bowls of mamekan.

And in addition to those two was a single navicular glass container that they couldn't really remember ever seeing before, filled with an extravagant combination of a large yellow column of fresh cream, multicoloured fruit, as well as caramel sauce and chocolate as toppings; it was a gem of a dessert with no obvious indication of it being wagashi──

"……Wha. What the. Wha?"

Ignoring the confused Koyomi, the nekomata placed their respective bowls in front of them.

But in front of Clevel it placed the extravagant 《Purin a la Mode》.

The order was three servings of mamekan. Nayuta had no idea what and how could be mistaken to end up with this.

"……We ordered… three servings of mamekan, right?"

She asked the nekomata serving them, but the munchkin just tilted its head in wonder, climbed up a nearby cat tower, and lay down in a circle on the topmost floor.

It seemed that it would not be making any replacements.

Clevel placed his fingers on his forehead.

"……Due to the influence of my exceedingly high Luck, whenever I come here I always get something special that's not even on the menu. I don't really like fresh cream……but it's already the third time I’ve gotten this purin. If you'd like, you can divide it amongst yourselves."

Clevel pushed the Purin a la Mode served in a navicular bowl to Nayuta and Koyomi.

It wasn't clear whether he was lucky or not anymore.

With the deluxe sweet, a rare encounter in the bakeneko tea house, in front of her, Koyomi's eyes glittered as if she were a child.

"Seriously!? Waai, ittadakkimaasu!"

Having thrust her spoon into the purin unreservedly, taken some of the fresh cream, and stuffed her cheeks with it, she gave the biggest smile she could.

"Delish!? What the, this is so delish! It's better than the highest-class Itsmarden Purin from De Lota Ba Parlour! Nayu-san Nayu-san, here, have a taste!"

Going with the flow, Nayuta took the purin from the spoon presented to her into her mouth.

Not too sweet, a refreshing texture, the rich flavour of the custard and bittersweet flavour of the caramel taken into account, it was certainly tasty.

──But, Nayuta prefered the faint sweetness and consistency of the agar.


At the same time, she felt a bit of pity for Clevel; he seemed to not yet know of that flavour.

Nayuta presented Clevel the mamekan that she had not yet touched.

"In that case, I will give you my mamekan in exchange, Detective-san──help yourself."

Clevel faintly squinted his almond eyes.

"This is what you ordered. Are you sure?"

"I always order it. Don't worry."

Koyomi leaned on Nayuta like a spoiled child.

"In that case, Nayu-san, shall we divide the purin and mamekan in halves between us? That way we can both enjoy both of the dishes. Okay, it's settled."

And then presented a cut watermelon to her mouth.

Obediently accepting Koyomi feeding her, Nayuta faced the detective with a serious look.

"……Now then, Clevel-san. About our conversation hereafter……"

"……Already? Let's escape from reality for just a bit more……"

Despite Koyomi whispering that beside her, she could not do that.

Yanagi's request was to clear the 《Phantom Orchestra》 quest within a week──

With the quest in question being suspended at the moment, there was nothing that Nayuta and the others could do.

There had not yet been any follow-up report from the major game info site MMO Today, nor was there any new info from the official site.

"A suspended quest passing through review and being reinstated takes at least half a month in the best case scenario── usually it takes about a month. Yanagi-san's request…… unfortunately, can no longer be fulfilled."

There was no escaping this truth. No matter how they struggled, there was no way to play a quest that wasn't available.

The kitsune-faced Clevel chuckled.

"Good grief, this is quite the hassle. Even I hadn't expected this to happen, but for now, let's wait for a message from Yanagi-shi. Then we'll know whether he's cancelling the request, extending the time to wait for the quest's reinstatement, or…… we'll be told about Yanagi-shi's 〝true goal〟 and react accordingly."

While nibbling on her melon like a hamster, Koyomi tilted her head.

"True goal? Wasn't it to clear the quest?"

Clevel lowered his eyes.

"You had the same concern yesterday, didn't you? 〝It's not normal to spend a million and several hundred thousand yen to clear a quest like this 〟── that's correct. However, if Yanagi-shi is willing to spend such a large amount of money, it means he has some reason as to why he wants it cleared so quickly. Based on that── there could be other ways to grant his wish other than just clearing the quest. That's what it means."

Koyomi tilter her head into the opposite direction.

"Ehm…… In the first place, why does Yanagi-san wish to clear that quest?"

The detective put some mamekan into his mouth.

"──Hmm. This truly is tasty…… As a matter of fact, I can already guess his reasons to some extent. But, it's related to his privacy and I can't voice irresponsible deductions without confirming them. I believe it's better to hear it from Yanagi-shi directly. After all, everything depends on him──including whether he wants to talk about it."

It didn't seem like he was putting on airs. There was a sense of sincerity greater than ever before in Clevel's tone.

Nayuta had no intention of overstepping her boundaries. Each person had their own reasons.

With an expression that said she did not get the point, Koyomi calmly nibbled on her cut watermelon.

"I dun quite get it, but is it safe to assume that we're not giving up yet?"

"Personally, I have no intention of giving up, but at the end of the day, it all depends on the client's intentions."

Clevel abruptly opened his menu window. It seemed that he had received some sort of message.

"Speak of the devil, Yanagi-shi promptly…… Wait. No── This is……"

Clevel's eyes became a bit more grim.

"What is it? Could it be that the request was cancelled……?"

Nayuta bent forward; conversely, the detective pulled back.

"It's from Yanagi-shi's relative. Yanagi-shi is currently in poor shape and can't log in, thus he can't come here…… If possible, he'd like us to meet him directly to hear him out in detail; that's what the email written on behalf of him said. There's no signature, but based on the content of the letter, it seems that it came from his wife."

It seemed that he did not receive a message sent from within a game, but a forwarded email.

Nayuta instinctively met glances with Koyomi.

"In poor shape and can't log in…… does that mean that something happened to Yanagi-shi?"

"An email from his wife…… d-does that mean the complaint that led to the suspension of the quest by the game's management originated from Yanagi-san……? 〝Ojii-chan's health deteriorated because of a game!〟, something like that……"

An elder's health deteriorating after playing a game and his relatives sending a complaint to the management about that── Whether or not that were the case here, it was a possible scenario.

However, Clevel shook his head immediately.

"No. Last night, I researched the complaint the game's management received. It seems there was another party that had succeeded in entering the castle slightly ahead of us. And…… One of them was scared by a 《ghost》 , which should not be in the game's data, thus he fainted and the AmuSphere's safety was triggered, forcibly logging him out. His relatives panicked, called an ambulance, and, afterwards, the game's management was contacted by the hospital── to ensure safety, the quest was quickly suspended; I hear that's how it all went. The person who collapsed was a university student in his twenties, it seems."

Nayuta was considerably shocked.

The announcement from the game's management did not touch upon such details. Not only was this not reported anywhere, even the online rumours stopped at "I’ve heard that an actual ghost appeared".

"Where on earth did you get such details……?"

The detective evaded the question without care.

"Business instinct and a variety of sources. Incidentally, the real reason why the quest was suspended wasn't the complaint…… Due to the complaint, the management noticed an oversight from their initial review of the quest. That 《ghost》 was apparently beyond their expectations as well."

Koyomi moaned.

"An unexpected ghost, you say…… Hey, I thought I'd talk about this when Yanagi-san came, but may I ask where you two were teleported to and what you saw there?"

Clevel gave a big nod.

"I was teleported to a castle tower. What appeared before me was a friend…… a contemporary colleague who had died. Afterwards, a child wearing a kitsune mask came out, so I asked him to guide me, but── right after that, I suffered a surprise attack from jorōgumo and, despite putting up a good fight, I was defeated."

"……Knowing your stats, Detective-san, that ‘good fight’ thing is clearly a lie, right?"

At Nayuta's retort, Clevel only gave a faint smile.

With a change of attitude, she began talking about her own progress.

"The place I was first teleported to was a passageway like the one we had leapt into, extending to both sides. The kitsune-masked child then appeared and said 〝let's play hide-and-seek〟── afterwards, while looking for him, I explored some passageways at a dungeon and the bottom of an old well, found some things that looked like event items, then saw an exit nearby, so I temporarily withdrew."

Koyomi and Clevel looked at Nayuta as if they were observing an incredible animal.

"A dungeon……"

"An old well……"

"Yes. I saw a figure that looked like the ghost of someone I knew, but I only saw a glimpse of them, so I do not have much of an impression on them. There were several traps but they were mostly the type to scare someone rather than deal damage. It would be a bother to dismantle them alone, but I don't think the difficulty was all that high."

Koyomi suddenly trembled and the detective, seemingly shocked, pressed on his glabella as well.

"……Mmm. Yeah…… that's not……"

"……You explored that place alone, right? You were speaking disinterestedly about it, but I'm surprised that you went through all that without giving up. In the first place, what prompted you to enter an old well anyway…"

Nayuta did not understand their reactions. The less need there was to protect her companions, the more of a stroll in the park it was to her.

"There were no really strong enemies, though? I defeated two demon spiders and five skeleton warriors. I didn't count the warrior spirits or the bats but neither should have been more than ten-odd at best. I happened to see a golden-scaled serpentess but it looked like a unique rare enemy, so I retreated."

The result of her battles wasn't bad, but it wasn't worth bragging about either.

Koyomi gently stroked Nayuta's back.

"……Nayu-san, you don't have to overdo it if you get scared, alright? Onee-san will hear you out anytime, okay? Oh, and even if you aren't scared, you can still trick any man by saying something like 〝Eek, I'm scared〟 ……At this point, you could even say 〝I'm scared of my own beauty〟 or 〝I'm scared of manjuu〟 ……"

She sounded as if she were admonishing a child, but the content of her lecture was, as always, a little weird.

"Well, after all, the chance of actually getting hurt or getting involved in an accident was low…… Even I would find an actual dungeon or old well scary. Koyomi-san, how about you; what kind of ghosts did you see?"

As Koyomi tasted the purin, she gave an expression like she was on the verge of crying.

"Well, you see…… I was teleported to some random, huge, open-air bath…… and I got done in by a surprise attack from lurking mermen there, but right afterwards, beyond the steam……"

She sniffed a little.

"……I saw Lin-chan, my brine shrimp who died two months ago…… dancing in a yukata."

"………………I'm sorry. Could you repeat that."

The detective asked with a serious look, as if he thought he misheard what she had said.

Koyomi cast her eyes down with a sad look.

"Brine shrimp…… those things that you get as powder-like dried eggs that you put in salt water to hatch. At first, they're so small that you can't see them at all, but if you raise them well, they grow up to be about a centimetre long…… They're treated like water fleas, but they can be preserved for years as dried eggs──"

The detective pressed on the inner corners of his eyes.

"You mean those things used as bait for tropical fish……? I am aware of them. So, of the hundred of them that you can raise from a single spoonful, you distinguished a specific one, gave it a name, and raised it……?"

Koyomi nodded, her eyes solemnly looking far away.

"Though, enlarged to human size, it was, of course, gross…… but, I did feel a bit happy seeing it looking healthy……"

Nayuta was stumped on how to react. Koyomi spoke about it as if it were a nice story somehow, but it did not appear to be so.

"Umm…… Was it cute?"

"Nope. Not really cute. Not at all."

She was surprisingly unsentimental.

She didn't really understand her tastes, but Koyomi being weird wasn't anything new either.

Having pulled himself together, the detective corrected his posture.

"Anyhow, it's clear now. The 《ghosts》 that appear in that quest are the players' lost acquaintances from the real world…… or pets, as the case seems possible, but either way, they're essentially things that don't exist in the game as data and are based on personal information. A 《ghost》 in the true sense of the word. At the very least── I've never heard of a precedent for such a thing in previous quests."

"……But, it's impossible for them to be actual ghosts."

At the frowning Nayuta, the detective gave a teasing smile.

"Indeed. Nevertheless, in the sense of not having a physical existence, ghosts are very similar to VRMMO NPCs. For some of the cases called psychic phenomena, there is a theory that the ghosts are products of brain signals, in addition to a fair number of some kind of malfunctions…… There is a high probability of the 《ghosts》 we have here being one of such 〝phantoms created from memories〟that take form via the brain."

Nayuta nodded. Her own deduction was practically the same as the detective's.

Since the ghosts took the form of one's acquaintances, logically thinking, it was right to assume that players’ 《memories》 were appropriated as material for in-game objects in real time.

Indulging in the purin, Koyomi glanced upwards.

"……Hm? Wha? Hey, isn't…… that bad? Umm, look…… in the sense of human rights or that privacy thing, or something in that direction…… isn't it crossing the line?"

The detective gave a deep sigh.

"Right. It's a deed equivalent to 〝stealing a glance at an individual's memories〟. It's still a gray zone due to the legislation being behind, but, supposing such a mechanism were made, it would be a violation of Asuka Empire's own ethics code. That's probably the greatest reason for the prompt suspension of the quest. On the other hand, there's a more fundamental question. Reading a person's memory and visualising it practically in real time in the game── 〝is such a thing really possible〟, that's the question."

"……Is it technically impossible?"

Nayuta was also using 《The Seed》as a hobby. Though nothing but an amateur, she did happen to have knowledge on VRMMO production, more or less.

Last year, she aimed for applying for the 《Hundred and Eight Apparitions》, but her schedule became packed midway, thus she was unable to finish and eventually abandoned her idea.

Based on this knowledge of hers, she had yet to hear of any successful cases of such technology.

Clevel squinted his eyes like a long slit-eyed kitsune.

"I won't say that it's impossible. It would probably be possible to a genius like Kayaba Akihiko, and there is even a chance that he had hidden such a function in The Seed. That program package is a Pandora's box that we have yet to open the cover of. Though…… 〝at the present time〟, the chances of a technology that can, 〝individual to each of the unspecified large number of players〟, 〝read memories and instantly reproduce them in-game〟 being easily realised in such a way is exceedingly low. Also, 〝passing through the game management's inspection and being executed by them〟 is a considerable extra to all that. Thinking conventionally, it's impossible. I'm guessing that the trick we have here is something simpler…… and yet tricky."

Midway through the detective's speech, Koyomi's open eyes began spinning round and round, losing focus.

The difficult speech did not get through to her.

While plugging Koyomi's ears, Nayuta lowered her voice.

"……Stealing a glance at someone's memories using a VRMMO… in a word, you mean interrogation technology, right? For example, the possibility of this quest being a test case for gathering data is……"

The detective closed an eye.

"Although an interesting idea, you can safely eliminate that possibility. There's no merit in leaking such a dangerous technology to the outside in this way; if, conversely, the goal was to call attention to or raise the issue, a more conspicuous method would have been chosen. I wouldn't know the details without investigating it a bit more, but── more importantly, our issue right now is Yanagi-shi. It seems he's currently admitted to Yokohama Kōhoku General Hospital. It also appears that Yanagi-shi's wife has something to ask of me, thus all the more reason to visit him.

Quickly finishing his mamekan, Clevel was about to leave his seat.

(Yokohama……Kōhoku General Hospital?)

Nayuta knew that hospital.

Faster than she could call out to him, she grasped the detective's arm reflexively.

Slightly surprised by her own action, she stared up at the detective.

"Umm…… could I come to the hospital with you? The hospital is quite close to my home. It wouldn't even take thirty minutes by train."

It was one of the most outstanding hospitals for serious illnesses in the region── or rather, it was rather prominent in the whole country.

It was also known for promptly introducing trials for a large-scale medical FullDive machine called the Medicuboid, as well as for admitting many patients with incurable diseases.

Nayuta had once been admitted to that hospital for some time as well, when she suffered injuries in a traffic accident.

Although, of course, she did not have a chance to used the Medicuboid, the hospital had a rental for AmuSpheres, which a lot of patients made use of to kill time.

Perhaps Yanagi was also in such a position.

After moments of silence, Clevel averted his eyes from Nayuta's.

"If you're feeling inquisitive, you should let the matter drop…… is what I think. You do know the reason, right? The place is recognised for its terminal care for patients who are near death. The elderly man too── is probably one of them."

Nayuta was taken aback.

The deadline of clearing the quest in a week.

The exorbitant payment.

And, a situation where a relative had to write an e-mail for him──

It wouldn't even take a detective to easily presume what the situation was based on these three points.

Koyomi gave a faint moan.

"……So that's it…… that's why the ojii-chan was in such a hurry──"

Nayuta put her strength into her eyes as she once again gazed at the detective.

"That's all the more reason to go, then. I would like to confirm it directly── to hear from Yanagi-san's own mouth whether there is anything I can still do to help."

This time, without much of a pause, Clevel nodded.

"Alright. In that case, you can come with me. Our meeting place shall be the gate of the station closest to the hospital. As visiting hours should begin in the afternoon, come there at noon."

Nayuta was, on the contrary, bewildered by the sudden request.

"……I am surprised that you were so unexpectedly quick to give in. I thought you would have brought out your duty of confidentiality or something and be more reluctant……"

Having stood up, Clevel took back the the hem of his coat.

"I have yet to even make a contract with Yanagi-shi, so there's no duty of confidentiality── though that's just a quibble, seeing as you two are important companions in the first place. I shall accept the request as soon as possible. You are in a position to help and, depending on the situation, we might still need your help."

Koyomi sniffed.

"Uuu…… I-I want to go too…… but……!"

"Where are you accessing the game from?"

"……………………Osaka."

That was rather far away. It wasn't impossible for a day trip, but a round trip would cost about thirty thousand yen.

Nayuta grasped Koyomi's hand.

"I believe it would be better for you to instead be on standby as is, Koyomi-san. You would be able to immediately log in if you’re needed for anything, and a day trip for a hospital visit would surely be hard on you, right?"

Putting force on her brow, Koyomi nodded.

"Right…… It's a regular day at the office tomorrow…… Nayu-san, send my regards to Yanagi-san, okay? ……Oh, and Detective-san, if you lay a hand on Nayu-san IRL, I'll skin you alive. I mean, I'll obliterate you socially. If you do something to a high school girl, I won't wait a single second to report you, so be sure to keep yourself in check, alright? Don't think I'm just playing tough like an Osakan typically does, ‘kay? I was born on an island, so I don't follow that convention. It won't end with〝I was just kidding〟; I'll hunt you down, got it?"

With a cordial smile, though her eyes didn’t show a hint of laughter, Koyomi made some modest threats.

Clevel pressed down on the inner corners of his eyes as if he were exhausted.

"……Such a possibility hadn't even crossed my mind, but…… sorry, could we call off that plan of travelling together? I'm feeling a bit of an irrational danger to my person. In the sense of false charges."

"I'll be waiting at the gate at noon. I don't mind a slight tardiness, but if I am stood up I'll appeal to Koyomi-san, saying 〝I got played〟 in tears."

Nayuta informed him with a serious look, thus Clevel looked up to the ceiling in a resigned manner.

"……Understood. I've already been driven into a corner, huh── For now, let's decide on our signs for our meetup. I should be wearing a gray suit and viewing a terminal with my back to a wall. My hair is black, but my face is not much different from my current one, so you should have no problems with that. You could send me an e-mail when you arrive."

"I…… have not decided what to wear yet, but I believe I shall go for something that will not stand out. As for a sign, the only thing I can think of is a boo……"

Koyomi stared at Nayuta's chest.

"A sign……"

"Koyomi-san. If you say anything more, I shall have to rethink my relationship with you, Koyomi-san."

Immediately, Koyomi closed her lips tight and then began silently stuffing her cheeks with the purin a la mode.

Although she couldn't handle difficult subjects, she happened to be clever enough to know when to quit.

Nayuta and Koyomi had only met once in the real world.

Just last month, Koyomi went with her boss on a business trip to the capital and, making use of her half a day of free time, the two went to a sweets store.

Until then, it seemed that Koyomi was convinced that Nayuta's breasts were "fakes exaggerated by the game".

The moment she realised that they were unmistakably the real thing, she gave an unprecedented, serious look as she said "Take care not to get involved with bad men"; "Actually, every single one of them calling out to you is sure to be bad, so take care to give them the cold shoulder", she took her advice a little bit too far.

As a matter of fact, Nayuta was aware that her own wariness was on the strong side.

She herself was perplexed that she was going to meet with a suspicious detective alone, even if it was for visiting someone at the hospital.

But she did feel that this was a boat that had already left the dock, and she didn't feel like giving up as a player just yet.

But her biggest motif of all──

(Could it be because of that 《ghost》I saw ……)

Just yesterday, Nayuta had also seen one.

A ghost that looked like a departed familiar face, one that should not have existed in the game as data──

Just as she had told Koyomi and Clevel moments ago, due to having only seeing a glimpse of it, she hadn't really been afraid. In the first place, she didn't even think of it as an actual ghost.

Though── despite not being scared, when she saw the ghost, she ended up recalling the scary 〝loneliness〟 she had once experienced.

To quickly forget this loneliness, she needed some sort of beacon for action. If she did nothing and remained gloomy, she felt that she'd be depressed till tomorrow.

After Clevel stepped out of the store one step ahead with something needing investigation, Koyomi let out a sigh with a spoon in her hand.

"I wonder if Yanagi-san is alright…… It might be weird to say this about someone we met just yesterday…… but I hope he gets well."

"──True."

Nayuta too could feel how difficult such a wish was. If it wasn't, there wouldn't have been a need for a request like "within a week".

(Though, what are we supposed to do if the quest is suspended……)

Right now, she was worried about Yanagi's condition in the hospital. If the deadline could be extended just a bit more, the quest could be reimplemented in time after adjustment by the management.

Nayuta stared at the empty mamekan bowl left by the detective.

'If possible, I want Yanagi to discover that taste as well'── such a thought momentarily crossed her mind.


§

Noon on Sunday.

Right after leaving through the ticket gate, Nayuta found the 〝detective〟among the congestion.

Leaning his back against the wall was a handsome young man in a suit, engrossed in thought as he looked at the screen of his terminal──

The odds of mistaking the person were practically non-existent. Only his hair had changed from silver to brown, but his looks and aura were practically the same as in-game.

His standing posture, his attention caught for a moment by any woman passing too close to him, seemed strangely picturesque.

However, the story didn't end simply with good looks.

The young man's presence was somehow reminiscent of a trickster, like kitsune, tanuki, or some other youkai.

Standing out by not standing out.

His outfit alone was that of a salaryman, but because of the neat and tidy impression drifting about him being awfully supernatural, it was impossible to conceal his foreign nature.

In short, he looked like a fox-man, diligently attempting to blend in with modern society.

Not only women but children too stared at his figure in wonder. In their eyes, the detective undoubtedly looked like a youkai.

(……That person doesn't really look suited to being a detective……)

He looked like he'd be exposed in an instant if he ever tried tailing someone.

Before calling out to him, Nayuta quickly checked through her own appearance.

Her brown, long-sleeved, knitted top and black long skirt were indeed plain, but that did not mean she avoided a pomp outfit because she was going to visit someone at a hospital. Her plain clothes were generally always like this as she did her utmost to refrain from wearing anything that revealed her skin when she went outside.

"On the contrary, that outfit is sure to be popular with men", Koyomi ridiculed her, but Nayuta was unable to calm down while wearing flashy garments. On top of her expression becoming hard as a rock and the clothes not suiting her, she was mostly an indoor person and didn't really go out much, thus she didn't have many opportunities to wear something like that in the first place.

Having slightly adjusted her hair with her fingers, Nayuta silently approached Clevel.

"Detective-san, nice to meet you. I am Nayuta."

She called out as if she were whispering and bowed.

Looking up from his terminal, Clevel knit his brows without so much as returning the greeting.

"……What a surprise. Your appearance barely differs from your in-game one."

"……Oh no. Not as much as you, Detective-san, I believe. There's no need for any signs at this point, right?"

The Battle Miko Nayuta was at least quite different in terms of her outfit. Wearing a suit, he was closer to his in-game impression.

The detective stared at Nayuta with a rude gaze.

"──Could it be that you're the daughter of a good family?"

"Oh no. I come from a regular old family. Why do you ask?"

"Your attitude is nice. You use proper language and have no flippant sides. Your aura is quite different from that of usual high school students."

It was hard to tell whether she was being praised or suspected.

"I am not sure if this is related, but my mother is a former policewoman and both my father and elder brother are policemen."

"……I understand. So it's that kind of family."

Nayuta spoke frankly, though restraining herself a bit.

The detective faced the hospital and hastily began walking.

The sidewalk, limited by guard rails, was narrow, thus the pedestrians coming from the other side made it hard to walk side-by-side. Inevitably, Nayuta followed a few steps behind the detective.

"Seeing as your parents and sibling are all policemen, are you planning to follow their path?"

"Oh no. I plan to go to university as normal and find employment at a regular business. Seeing as police work sounds demanding and I do not do well with physical activity."

Put bluntly, her breasts were simply too heavy. Running was her dread and, recently, she had a hard time with even her physical education classes. One of the reasons she desired agility in-game was to solve her dissatisfaction with the real world.

Not knowing this reason of hers, Clevel nodded with an off the point I-know-how-it-is look.

"How wise. That field requires a lot of aptitude. It would be one thing if you were accustomed to the hierarchical sports clubs, but for a quiet type like you it must be hard."

"……You seem to be knowledgeable about the subject, I see? Do you have any acquaintances on the police force?"

"Quite a few. It's the nature of the business, you see──ah, I'm not referring to detective work."

A business card came from the inner pocket of his suit.

Accepting the card, Nayuta discovered Clevel's real name for the first time.

"……Clover's Network Security Corporation…… Representative Director Kurei Kaisei…… director?"

A director this young was shadier than a detective.

Perhaps having noticed Nayuta's cold gaze, Clevel shrugged as he began explaining.

"It's just a title. My colleagues and I founded a security-based venture business and I was the most honeymouthed of the group, so everyone just went with the flow."

"Hah…… Is your company going to be all right if the director is off playing games……?"

She unconsciously voiced this, knowing that it did not concern her. For their initial arrangement, Clevel had declared that, as of tomorrow, he would devote practically all of his twenty-four hours a day to clearing the quest for Yanagi.

"That is not an issue. The income from my detective and tourist work is included in the company's profits, so in a word, it's part of the business as well. Also, there were a lot of clients that I got to know through the game. Stopping my business in-game would only hinder meeting new clients. Word of mouth is, unexpectedly, not something that you can sneeze at."

It seemed that his tour guide affair also served as a business activity for acquiring future clients.

"That is to say that Yanagi-shi and his family are important candidates to be my clients── Though, have you already realised anything about his background?"

Nayuta shook her head.

"All that I could say was that if that payment were real, 〝he is probably rich〟. Also…… based on his knowledge of mochi I considered the possibility that he was a chef or a researcher, or a teacher, but I believe that that is probably not the case."

Turning around, Clevel squinted his eyes

With perfect timing, they stopped due to a red light.

"Your reason for deciding so?"

"To begin with, my intuition is unreliable. If I must say, it would be his manner of speaking. It was humble yet elegant and implied a good upbringing── the impression of a merchant. And it was not the self-assertive founder type, but instead a second- or third-generation merchant, abiding by traditions while taking the current state into account …… he sounds like a grand merchant or retiree from a historical play."

The detective gasped in surprise.

"──Far from unreliable, your intuition and analysis are quite accurate. Indeed, he is a retiree from a well-established store── the current head of 《Yanagi-ya Ryuuzen-dou》"

Nayuta could not believe her ears.

On the portable terminal that Clevel presented to her, the homepage of Yanagi-ya was displayed.

The features of the man in the photo next to the company president's greeting were indeed remarkably similar to Yanagi’s in-game appearance.

Yanagi-ya Ryuuzen-dou, which had points of sale in various department stores all over Japan, was a major, well-established store in the wagashi business.

Their standard product, 〝Yanagi mochi〟 was a mochigashi with the flavour of fruit kneaded into the dough; the wide-ranging varieties of the mochi included apple, yuzu, peach, orange, and grape, as well as seasonal varieties such as cherry, watermelon, persimmon, and chestnut.

A box came with an assortment of eight types of mochi and the price was reasonable, thus it was a gem long loved by its fans.

Because it was standard merchandise for a present, naturally, Nayuta had also eaten some not just once or twice.

When the light turned green, the two began crossing the street.

Although there were no other pedestrians around them, the detective slightly lowered his voice.

"Yanagi Ryuuzen-dou's fifth generation and current president, Yanagi Teiichi── that is Yanagi-shi's identity in the real world. It seems that he had exercised his talent as a confectioner in his youth and had also worked as the director of a confectionery vocational school until a few years ago. Strictly, he's neither a chef nor a teacher, but taking into account that it's close enough, your intuition hit the mark with surprising accuracy. Could this be the police lineage?"

"Just a coincidence. More importantly…… how long have you known Yanagi-san's identity, Detective-san?"

Considering that their destination, the hospital, was still far away, Nayuta examined Clevel's profile.

The detective smiled, pretending not to notice.

"I knew from the start. Because I confirmed the client's background when the middleman emphasised 〝mind your manners〟. Though…… I have yet to hear anything about why he's obsessed with the 《Phantom Orchestra》. That's what I'm going to find out now."

"……You pretty much already have a conjecture, I assume?"

Clevel replied with a sigh.

"Yeah. You probably suspect what it is too, but you don't have to say it. Most likely, today…… it'll all be explained."

Nayuta nodded in silence.

The detective then added, as if it weren't a big deal.

"Speaking of which, Yanagi-shi's condition worsened not right after logging out…… but after seeing the 《suspension》 announcement, as I hear. It must have been a great shock to him."

It was unbearable to think of the dejection Yanagi felt at the moment.

Finally, the two arrived at the front of Yokohama Kōhoku General Hospital.

Being Sunday, there were no outpatients, but people visiting patients entered through front entrance now and then.

Following them, Nayuta again looked up at Clevel's profile.

Although he did indeed have the impression of a fox-man, he was by no means an actual youkai.

But even excluding this── for some reason, his clear eyes looked blank, like empty shells.


§

Yanagi's room was quite small.

It had a single-size electric bed and three stools, which could be stacked, for visitors to sit. Aside from those, there was no special furniture, and even the wall to the adjoining room was so thin that it barely served its role as a partition between the rooms.

Based on the information she received during the journey, Nayuta had expected a special VIP suite, thus she felt quite let-down.

Beyond the window was a slightly cloudy spring sky, beside which only the neighbouring skyscrapers and roads could be seen, thus even the view wasn't all that great.

'Were the deluxe suites all occupied or was Yanagi just that modest──probably the latter', Nayuta guessed.

What greeted them in the room was Yanagi, asleep from the medicine, and a smiling old woman.

"Oh, my my……I can't believe you managed to make such young and beautiful friends at this age….. I'm rather jealous. Nice to meet you, I am Yanagi's wife, Suzuka."

The old woman in a kimono gazed at the two visitors in turn with an innocent, gentle smile.

"Err……are you two dating, I wonder?"

A bombshell came quickly after the greeting and the detective dealt with it calmly.

"Oh no. She is a student who guided Yanagi-san and is helping with clearing the quest in the game. I, too, only met her yesterday."

Suzuka inclined her head like a child.

"Oh, is that so? You looked like such a great match that I was sure── excuse me. Well…… there are regulations on that, right? On the outside, right?"

It didn't seem that her misunderstanding had been corrected.

With amiableness of a person serving a guest, Suzuka gave Nayuta a smile.

"Even so, you are a truly beautiful lady…… Did this man flirt with a such a young girl in-game? Obaa-chan is really shocked that he's actually cheating at this age──"

Nayuta gave a wry smile at her very jestful words.

"Oh no, Yanagi-san was lost, thus we were the ones who called out to him. Afterwards, we arbitrarily thought that there was something we could help with……"

Suzuka let out a chuckle.

"This person has always been like that. I don't really know how, but he always gets help from various people at the perfect time…… As his wife, this is probably not something I should say, but I guess it's because he's well-behaved? Well, this person's greatest fortune was marrying a lovely woman like myself, no?"

Based on the way she playfully praised her spouse, it seemed that their relationship was extremely good.

Smiling, Suzuka continued the chat.

"Miss, be sure to carefully pick your partner, okay? Ah, but you shouldn't be too prudent either. There's no such thing as love at first sight or a perfect partner. The Detective-san looks good and it seems that you can handle him to some extent, so he's not too bad a catch y'know? Even if there's a bit of an age difference, when you turn sixty or seventy, it's no big deal. Even I am a dozen years younger than my husband, so……"

"──Please excuse me, but we truly are not in such a relationship, so please go easy on us. I have no intention of being arrested yet."

The detective, pulled into the flow of the conversation right after their meeting, stopped the wasted explanation and attempted to somehow return to the topic.

"This might be sudden, but how is Yanagi-san's condition? Another colleague of ours who plays the game was awfully worried──"

Using Koyomi as a pretext, he smoothly transitioned the conversation.


Yanagi was sleeping on the bed with an intravenous drip being administered.

His face looked considerably more worn out than in-game, and his body looked diminished as well.

Suzuka formed a smile as she gently brushed Yanagi's bony hand.

"Oh he is fine. He is currently sleeping on medicine, but he will be waking up soon. I'm sorry for having you come here so suddenly….. The truth is that I should be the one visiting him, but I wanted you to be here with him, and I don't really understand the topic of games. Vee ar…… em em oh, was it……?"

The detective responded in a whisper.

"VRMMO. Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online──In short, it means an online game, based in a space that is so realistic that it could be mistaken for reality, that is large-scaled and has a large number of people playing simultaneously. There, I act as a tour guide."

Harshly ridiculed on variety shows concerned with the SAO Incident, this abbreviation had become widely established throughout the country, but, of course, it didn't reach the people who did not watch such shows.

Perplexed, Suzuka inclined her head.

"This is quite complicated, I see…… I'm sorry, I still don't quite get it. But, Yanagi is grateful to you all. Just yesterday he looked unusually happy….. He looked truly energetic until he saw the suspension announcement in the game. Once again…… thank you very much for your concerns and sorry for troubling you."

With a tinge of resignation and loneliness drifting about her gentle expression,the old woman gave a deep bow.

──She already knew about the impending death of her partner. And she was appropriately prepared for it.

Nayuta closed her eyes and slowly took a breath.

The topic henceforth would probably be heavy.

The one who broke the silence was the detective.

"……Could I enquire about something? I would like to ask why Yanagi-san is so── obsessed with that quest."

"Kvest……?"

Suzuka inclined her head. She seemed to have no knowledge of game terminology, as could be expected.

"Excuse me, by quest, I am referring to the 《Phantom Orchestra》. Based on the large sum of money offered, I assume that an important reason is involved."

Suzuka cast her eyes downward.

"……What have you heard from Yanagi?"

"I have not asked him a thing. Though…… I do have a guess, to some extent."

Slightly showing some concern, Clevel deliberately lowered his voice.

"I fear this would be breaching your privacy, but…… The 《Phantom Orchestra》 is created by someone from your family── likely your grandchild. And that person has, unfortunately, passed away…… do I have it right?"

The detective's quiet voice was filled with confidence.

Nayuta had come to the same deduction.

The current 《Asuka Empire》 event, the 《Hundred and Eight Apparitions》 consisted of works by its userbase.

Naturally, those works had creators, and those creators had families.

A desire to see the entirety of one's grandchild's earnest work on the game── the motive that drove the near-death Yanagi to VRMMOs for the first time was a very human sentiment, natural for a family member.

And, based on the fact that Yanagi requested the help of a strange detective to clear the quest, one could imagine that the creator was currently in a state where he couldn't show Yanagi the game himself.

Most importantly──when they met Yanagi in-game, he had a somewhat mournful look, a sign that could not possibly be ignored.

With her eyes still downcast, Suzuka gently brought a handkerchief to her mouth.

"……It's just as you have guessed. Last December── our grandchild Kiyofumi passed away. He was still in his teens…… he had yet to have lived even a quarter of our lives, let alone half…… He had barely gone to school due to struggling with an illness, until he breathed his last──"

Nayuta could not say anything. A young girl like her could not think of any words to comfort the elderly woman who had lost her grandchild.

Nayuta began to faintly suspect the circumstances while at the gate of the castle that appeared in the 《Phantom Orchestra》, when Koyomi had said "I went to Nikkō on a school trip in elementary school".

At that time, Yanagi had been disturbed by the term "field trip". In her own style, Nayuta had made several guesses as to the reason for that, but it seemed one of them had hit the mark.

Because of the circumstances, she was not glad that she had guessed it right.

Clevel frowned.

"……This might be touching on a painful subject, but…… it seems that your grandchild was informed about his impending death long ago?"

Suzuka slowly nodded.

"Yes. The 《Phantom Orchestra》 was Kiyofumi's first and last work. The child── desperately wanted to leave behind proof of his existence before his death. He was truly happy when he was contacted by the game's management and told that his work had been accepted; he was looking forward to the day when everyone could enjoy it…… but the child's body was already at its limit, I believe."

Her voice cracked.

Heatbroken, Nayuta unconsciously cast her eyes downward.

The detective lightly tapped on Nayuta's shoulder.

"What do you think you're doing, getting dispirited yourself. You should have already realised…… the reason why Yanagi-san kept quiet about it with us."

Nayuta nodded.

He probably did not want to share his gloom with Nayuta and the others who played the game his grandchild had created── or perhaps he wished to see other players simply enjoying the work of his grandchild with his own eyes.

Knowing the heavy background circumstances, they would by no means be able to feel relaxed.

Although── now that the Phantom Orchestra was suspended, Yanagi would probably not get the chance to play the quest anymore.

Right now, that truth felt especially hard on Nayuta.

And it seemed that Yanagi's wife Suzuka was also concerned with this.

"……Say, Detective-san. I am not really knowledgeable about games, but…… how long would it take for it to be reimplemented……?"

At her uneasy voice, Clevel responded with a genuinely meek expression.

"Honestly speaking, I do not know. It depends on the management, but based on the precedent thus far, I believe it would take at least around a month."

"A month……"

Suzuka's expression turned visibly dim.

It seemed that Yanagi's body would be unable to hold out that long. At present, it seemed that Yanagi, to whom a week was the limit for clearing the quest, could not be ensured to wait that long.

"……Suzuka-san. This is not something that you should bother the detective with……"

Having awoken unnoticed, Yanagi said in a muffled voice from his sickbed.

Unlike in-game, his voice was so feeble that it was difficult to hear.

"……Yanagi-san."

Nayuta unconsciously approached the bedside.

"……I am truly sorry for having you come all the way here. Ojou-san…… you are Nayuta-san, yes……?"

Nayuta nodded to Yanagi, giving a smile as he lay sprawled.

"Yes. I am Nayuta. Koyomi-san is in Kansai, thus she could not come, but….. she is awfully worried about you, Yanagi-san. Please get well soon so you can be ready for when the quest gets reimplemented."

As she told him this wholeheartedly, Yanagi feebly nodded and cast his eyes downward.

"……I had a bit of a dream. My deceased grandchild came to me…… and seemed to be saying something, but I could not hear him…… For some reason, a kitsune appeared midway and I woke up. Speaking of which, that kitsune looked just like Detective-dono──."

His interest piqued, Clevel gave a faint smile.

"I am frequently told that my face looks like that of a kitsune. When I went to the Inari shrine, some people on the way decided to worship me."

At this joke, the tension left Yanagi's face.

"……I am truly sorry for having you come all the way here. I will handle the payment for the deposit later, but because of the circumstances, the request will have to……"

"Yes. About that request. I came here today to enquire about it."

With a change of attitude, Clevel uttered a strangely clear voice.

"Although we did not attain an agreement yesterday, I believe there is no need to wait for Monday. Given the current state of things, I would like you to decide whether or not you would like to make a contract with me. The payment will be as discussed yesterday── and, in the case we make a contract, I will exhaust all my resources to 〝clear the quest within a week〟. As for the means to that, I would like you to leave that to me──"

"H-hey, Detective-san……!?"

Nayuta reflexively chimed in.

The《Phantom Orchestra》 quest was currently suspended. Far from being able to clear it within a week, it was currently impossible to even play it. Even he was aware of that.

Clevel closed one eye as he looked at Nayuta.

"Just as I said this morning── I have yet to give up. Yanagi-san, if you still have the energy to play the game, I will support you as best as I can. Depending on your ability to enter into FullDive, we can even resume the quest tomorrow if you are able."

Nayuta glared at the detective as he carelessly said this.

"Detective-san, as I am saying, the vital quest is…….!"

Ignoring her indication, Clevel glanced at Nayuta.

"You have school tomorrow, right? It's still too early for spring break, huh."

"……It will be over in the morning. I only have to retrieve my test results and take supplementary classes, thus I will be able to return home by noon. I have not entered any clubs either."

The detective lightly clapped his hands.

"Perfect. In that case, let's meet up at the office at 13:00. Yanagi-san, if you are able to, please come as well. Also── I will have you two sign a contract for a 《part-time job》 at that time."

"……Wha? Errr……ehm, what are you saying?"

Still unable to comprehend the situation, Nayuta exchanged glances with Yanagi on the bed.

As he gazed at the two with a smile, Clevel's figure seemed like the personification of a wicked kitsune-turned-man.


§

The cat is god.

In Ancient Egypt, there was a goddess of cats named Bastet.

The fox was also god.

In the Inari shrines all over the country, Ukanomitama, the deity ruling over the five grains, was enshrined and the fox was its messenger.

"……So, you see. Both the Cat God and Inari co-exist on this second floor, and the kemoners(2), with great joy, have a theory that this is a shrine of syncretism between the cat and fox unlike the syncretism of Shinto and Buddhism……!"

"……Koyomi-san, you sure like to use technical terms that I have never heard of from time to time. What is a kemoner?"

"……Umm…… A person whose love is wider-reaching than normal people?"

Monday, a day after visiting Yanagi at the hospital, at Mitsuba Detective Agency──

At Nayuta and Koyomi's rambling as they sat on the sofa in the office, the detective, who had just come to work, found something to object.

"My face just looks like a kitsune; I have no relationship to any Inari shrine…… More importantly, I believe I told you to 〝meet at 13:00〟 ……and what time is it now?"

"Oh, Detective-san, cheese. There's a fine looking clock on the wall, y'know? Umm…… It says 11:00."

Koyomi answered as if she were bothered while enjoying Nayuta's lap pillow.

The detective pressed down on his glabella.

"Setting the lock so that it could be opened by party members was my mistake, perhaps…… Nayuta, what about school?

"Only in the morning, I believe I said so yesterday? I live about five minutes away from school on foot, thus it barely takes any time for a round trip."

"……Koyomi, what about your work?

"What? Detective-san, have you never heard of the concept of 〝paid vacation〟? Uwah,  how shady…… Do your best not to get spotted by Labour Inspection, okay?"

Sitting at his desk, the detective gave a deep sigh.

"Indeed, compared to a workplace where you can exercise such a right on a Monday so close to the end of the fiscal year, my business could be considered somewhat shady── I'm surprised that you were able to pass your application on such short notice at a time like this."

Taking in the detective's sarcasm, Koyomi's eyes turned empty.

"……Fiskal iear…… mandai……Nayu-san…… Detective-san is teasing me……"

"Yes yes. I am on Koyomi's side. I am grateful that you took a day off to help with the quest during such a busy time."

While comforting Koyomi by stroking her hair, Nayuta lightly glared at the detective.

Clevel faked a cough.

"……Well, it's not like I'm not grateful to you── though you'll be bored lying around here, so how about going somewhere else for now? There are still two hours till Yanagi-shi comes."

Rubbing her cheek against Nayuta's hakama, Koyomi purred like a cat.

"Oh, don't mind us. This place is surprisingly comfortable…… The faint smell of black tea in the air reminds me of a cafe. And there's no one here to see us, so Nayu-san isn't embarrassed to give me a lap pillow."

It wasn't as though Nayuta didn’t have an opinion on the matter, but she had to make some sort of a compromise for Koyomi, who went so far as to use up a paid leave to come. And besides, both of them were using fake bodies in a virtual space.

The detective tapped the desk with his finger.

"I see. By the way, you haven't forgotten about my existence, have you?"

Koyomi pondered for a bit.

"……Detective-san, you're too shady and kinda feel like an NPC."

"Just like our first meeting, you truly are someone who says whatever is on their mind, I see."

Giving up on his persuasion, the detective opened the notebook on his desk.

Suddenly, Koyomi opened her eyes.

"……What is that immersion-breaking, retro computer……is it the real deal?"

"I only refined my work system into the shape of a notebook. It's an application of the Virtual Office function. I dare say── the creator of the 《Phantom Orchestra》, the boy named Yanagi Kiyofumi, similarly used 《The Seed》 from a virtual space to make progress on his work."

The detective continued speaking as he operated his computer.

"Even if, for argument's sake, he was inconvenienced by his body in reality, such a handicap would not have affected him in this space. Even a person who had lost an arm could use both hands in this world; you'd also barely get any eyestrain, stiff shoulders, lower back pain, or other such corporeal issues of fatigue. The issues of mental fatigue and lack of exercise still remain…… but, in the sense that the implemented environment allows even bedridden people to work freely, it has crossed the boundary of games and medical care to bring about a reform in work environment.

Koyomi inclined her head.

"Hmm……I haven't really heard anything about that, though?"

"Because it's considerably limited by the type of work involved. We're only talking about desk work here; occupations where the conventional work environment is more convenient if the person has no corporeal handicap constitute the majority. Though─ the field has a prospect of growth in the future. The rent would be cheaper and, if you were able to put an end to going to work by just using your AmuSphere from home, you could also get rid of travelling expenses and commuting time. It's incomparable to the old generation virtual offices where you would just connect to the network via your home computer. These merits can even be applied to school."

"……So, you're saying that I wouldn't have to go on crowded trains, right? Uwah…… that sounds good…… that sure would be great……"

As Koyomi muttered in a trance, Clevel sighed.

"That doesn't mean that everything about it is great. If the trend sped up, the rental value of office properties, as well as the value of personal property would probably slump, and transportational facilities would also fall into a deficit due to reduced demand. Stores relying on salarymen and students coming to eat would also see a drop in customers, and if there were no need to commute to work or school, cosmetics, women's clothing, menswear, and uniform stores would also suffer damage. The influence would involve various other fields……"

Koyomi's expression became befuddled.

Operating his computer, the detective continued disinterestedly with his pet theory.

"We're not talking solely about companies and schools here. The role of businesses is to satisfy the demands of the people. If we reach the age where there is no necessity to satisfy the needs of people in real life and it is possible to satisfy them solely through low-cost data instead of the real thing, a lot of manufacturing and service industries would take a big hit. As a flow of the ages, that's the end of the matter…… but there are more businesses that are pessimistic and troubled about the future than you can imagine."

His mutters sounded like this were all someone else's problem. It probably was actually someone else’s problem, but there were signs of him testing Nayuta and Koyomi's reaction with his extremes.

Koyomi stroked Nayuta's lap through her hakama.

"Hmm……? But, even the 《Hundred and Eight Apparitions》 has tie-ups with various businesses. I think that, far from being pessimistic, it's relatively hyped?"

"Those businesses are trying to encroach on the VR market by any means while they can. For example, whether clothes created from data instead of real clothes would sell, or if a commodity in-game could be made into an actual product── various businesses probably want to investigate how much of a need exists for such items in order to find a solution. The 《Hundred and Eight Apparitions》 was born from a merger of goals between the 《Asuka Empire》 administration, who wants to increase their playerbase through an exciting event, and various business, who want new business know-how as they conduct market research. That is specifically why── now, when the event has just begun, unnecessary trouble is unwanted. This is probably one of the reasons why the 《Phantom Orchestra》 was suspended so quickly."

Nayuta pondered.

Real and data.

The real world and the virtual world──

As humans are living beings, the real world is indispensable. Starting with things like electricity and hardware, without proper infrastructure, it would also be impossible maintain a virtual world.

Nutrients needed for the body cannot be absorbed through data, so the agriculture, fish, and livestock industries, as well as the infrastructure for distributing their products, are also essential.

But, regarding the many affairs excluding these essential industries── the merits of the virtual world are quite easily capable of surpassing the demerits of the real world.

In a virtual world, corporeal handicaps can be largely abated.

Being able to drive on an abandoned highway at high speed.

Being able to soar through the air like a bird, swim to the depths of the sea like a fish, act freely like a cat.

Having dinner at a popular restaurant at whatever time you please, for a low price, without having to wait in line or make reservations; experiencing a one-night date with a beautiful member of the opposite sex without any future trouble; facing adventures that make your heart leap, and imminent fear without the danger of death.

Even if all of these were imitations── they can stay unrelated to the worthless self in reality.

The closer VR technology gets to truly simulating the five senses, the more reality becomes unable to compete with its charm.

It's possible that, in several hundred years, some people will no longer have a need for reality.

There are several old SF works which depict such worlds as their theme.

In such completely supervised societies, all menial labour was mechanised, with even the repair of broken machines being handled by machines, as people continued spending their leisure time in dreams, while even children were born through artificial fertilisation on culture medium.

If some sort of natural disaster took place at any time as they continued to drift about in such dreams from birth till death, everything would fall to ruin in that moment── Nayuta would not be surprised if such an age came at some point.

Although, of course, this was an extreme possibility of a far away future taking place after her lifespan, as well as those of generations of people, came to an end, but perhaps 〝the present〟 was the turning point for it.

It was a matter of personal values whether an individual would be "jealous" or "disgusted" by such a future.

Speaking of extreme examples, if an epidemic capable of annihilating humanity spread through the world with the survivors isolated in a shelter, and there was a need to preserve the seed of humanity── a《virtual world》 such as this would probably serve as the ark for it.

In front of Nayuta, who was lost in thought, a black cat placed a refill of black tea from the depths of the office.

Coming to her senses because of the strong aroma, she sent a glance to the detective.

Noticing this, Clevel returned a forced smile.

"What's wrong, Nayuta? Lack of sleep?"

"……No. I just dozed off for a bit. Umm…… Detective-san, what do you think of the progress of VR technology? Considering your work here, you seem cold, or sceptical, or, at the very least, not optimistic about it for some reason──"

Clevel grinned broadly. That didn't mean he felt like he was smiling; he went silent for a bit to think.

"Such a question coming from your mouth is unexpected…… but you're right. If I had to answer whether I'm positive or negative about it, I would say somewhat positive. But I don't feel like accepting it blindly, and there are lots of things that I have my misgivings about. Also, although this is an important matter── regardless of whether you accept or reject it on a personal level, the world already knows the flavour of this fruit. Even if there's poison mixed into it, it's probably too late to relinquish it. After all, this fruit is too fascinating. In that case, we── to avoid a future disaster, we must consider all the dangers and continue to deal with them. Regardless of whether you like it or not, you see."

The detective's tone sounded as if he were warning himself.

Interested by his answer, Nayua added a related question.

"……Can I ask something else? About the researcher Kayaba Akihiko, who was the mastermind behind the SAO Incident and caused VR technology to advance rapidly── Detective-san, what do you think of him?"

The smile disappeared from Clevel's face.

To Nayuta, this was an unexpectedly dramatic change.

Right after he noticed how shaken he was, he employed his talent for acting to feign being calm.

"……Why would you ask me such a question?"

"I…… do not understand. Why he, the most knowledgeable person on VR technology, would cause such a massacre. Even though he should have been aware how many people would be doomed── I wonder, what on earth was he aiming for by stealing the lives of thousands, and even distorting the lives of tens of thousands of family members affected through that incident──"

Clevel gave a serious look.

For just a moment, a warped light that seemed a step away from madness appeared in his kitsune-like eyes.

"……Regardless of what the answer may be── I shall never forgive him."

Speaking in an indifferently clear voice, Clevel crossed his fingers on the desk.

"I despise him from the bottom of my heart. I detest him so much that, if he were still alive, I'd like to kill him with these hands. Having committed a massacre for his own one-sided dream, essentially, he is not much different from the historic people who committed the crime of massacre to protect their power. I can also presume that, seeing as he committed the deed despite knowing what he was doing, he lacked awareness of his crime. I happened to hear how scientists often suffer the results of their research being used for weapons── but in his case, the intentional killing of numerous people wasn't done by someone else, but by his own, willingly set trap. There's no room for his defence."

Nayuta was bewildered by the unimaginably stubborn response coming from someone who had been so aloof till now.

Koyomi on Nayuta's lap also became serious. Engulfed by Clevel's force, she could not let out her usual frivolous talk.

His voice was calm and it wasn't like he was yelling, yet that was the reason she felt a bizarre force behind his words.

A hatred-filled light, like that of a vengeful kitsune, clearly appeared in Clevel's small pupils.

"……If asked what I think of the man named Kayaba Akihiko── my answer would be simple. 〝A conceited murderer that should be regarded with contempt.〟Simply considering what he was trying to do is pointless. No matter what the answer would be, in front of the reality of family and friends lost, it would only be absurd nonsense."

Faced with his rage, Nayuta realised.

"Detective-san…… you are an SAO survivor, I see."

Clevel's serious look changed to his usual faint smile.

"……It seems that you're more suited to be a detective than I am. How observant of you to notice, hm? Indeed, I was once imprisoned in that game."

There was a conviction in his rage that could only be possessed by someone who clearly knew the target of their hatred.

Perhaps Clevel personally knew the man named Kayaba Akihiko── or the character Heathcliff, Kayaba's disguise in Sword Art Online.

──In that sense, he was slightly different from Nayuta, who only knew Kayaba as a person by name.

She also finally understood the reason why the smile plastered on his face the first time they met looked shady.

Even when smiling, he didn't feel like smiling.

He only had his expression shaped into a smile, yet the emotion dwelling within it was clearly different.

Tensed up, Koyomi timidly rose from Nayuta's lap.

"W-wow…… first time I've seen an SAO survivor……"

"Please don't treat me as a rare animal. There are about six thousand of us in the world, so we aren't that rare."

Clevel ridiculed in his usual detached voice, but Koyomi frowned.

"I see……Detective-san, you must have had a hard time…… Sorry for calling you shady. Having gone through all that…… it's no wonder you’re so distrusting of others……"

"……It's not like I've come to distrust others…… but in the first place, I managed to survive, so the ones who had a hard time were the people who lost their lives. Even the ghost of a contemporary I saw in the 《Phantom Orchestra》── was a friend of mine who died in Aincrad, you see."

A prickling pain ran through Nayuta's heart.

The detective cast his eyes downward.

"──Putting it simply, he came wearing the metal armour he had at the time of his death. It did feel out of place, but…… until the identity and workings of that 《ghost》, which should not exist as data, are confirmed, the game's management will not reimplement it. Just as I said at the hospital yesterday, that's our chance. With my pride as a detective on the line── I'll make absolutely sure that Yanagi-shi's request is fulfilled."

At his unusually serious voice, Nayuta nodded emphatically.

Reimplementing it would take a month at the very least.

This one month was the time necessary to investigate and amend the quest.



And who would be performing that 〝investigation〟──



That is what Clevel had his eyes on this time.

It seemed that, since the suspension of the quest, he succeeded in making use of his personal connections to push 《Clover's Network Security Corporation》 as a dispatcher of players for testers to take part in the investigation.

They did not know the particulars, but it seemed he had deep connections with the management.



〝For starters, the management of 《Asuka Empire》 is one of our company's important clients. We have a well-developed trust and have produced splendid results. Also……Yanagi-shi's existence did its work as well. Bigwigs with personal friendships are quite like what you see in a naniwabushi.(3) Once I told them about the situation, I got an immediate reply.〟



Clevel gave them such an explanation in a light, swindler-like tone just yesterday.

Though it seemed that, for the most part, the conversation took place before he went to the hospital, meaning that he had advanced the negotiations with the management based on his deduction, before confirming the truth about Yanagi's deceased grandchild.

Moving before the other party was able to verify the story… he probably had such a drive, but the speed of his work left Nayuta astonished.

Due to the success of his scheme, Nayuta and Koyomi would henceforth be employed by Clevel's company to both conduct a test play and an investigation of the 《Phantom Orchestra》.

"……Nevertheless, I am surprised that you were able to obtain permission to use us for the investigation. I had thought that they would have just conducted an in-house inspection."

The detective nodded at what Nayuta pointed out.

"Of course, the 《Asuka Empire》 administration also has an inspection team. Though, they will basically be busy checking on the new quests that will be implemented next week and later. They don't have the free hands to respond to these unexpected problems.That's why they have a division for dealing with such issues, but even they always have multiple issues to deal with and thus lack the free time, so it takes time till a quest can be reimplemented. On the other hand, because of issues of expenses and security involved, it's also hard for them to request help from the outside. If an affiliated security company that they had regular dealings with asked 〝let us help, you can even pay us barely anything for it〟 in dogeza,(4) things can work out one way or another."

"……Did you? Beg in dogeza?"

As Koyomi asked in a whisper, Clevel gave an unusual wry smile.

"As an action, no, but I did something that felt like it. Now I owe one to the management. Nevertheless, it's not a bad deal for them either. As part of the contract, even if some problem occurs to the players, it'll be on my head, and we can reduce the time needed to reimplement the quest if we do well. Though, you'll have to abide by the duty of confidentiality. You cannot say a word about anything you see or hear to anyone. I'm not all too worried about Nayuta, but Koyomi…… you do look like you have a loose tongue."

Koyomi took offense and objected.

"Whatcha talking about. Sure it's a bit loose, but I won't talk about stuff that I really shouldn't, y'know? Like Nayu-san's 3 sizes or her cup size."

"If you did say anything about those, I would no longer give you lap pillows."

Koyomi immediately shut her mouth. She was someone who never learnt her lesson about saying something she knew she'd be scolded for.

Just at that moment came a knock.

"Excuse me, it's Yanagi. I came earlier than planned──"

Clevel stood up from the desk.

The meet up time was at 13:00, but it wasn't even noon yet.

"Geez, everyone's so hasty…… Yanagi-san, the other two are here for some reason as well. Please enter."

After opening the door, the elderly monk gave a deep bow, carrying his braided hat under his arm.

"I apologise for causing you trouble yesterday. Thanks to you, I am now able to move again── I look forward to working with you today."

Compared to his real, bedridden body, this Yanagi had better complexion and was overflowing with energy.

"Good day, Yanagi-san. Umm…… have the doctors tried to stop you……?"

At Nayuta's concern, Yanagi returned a troubled smile.

"Yes, they did. It seems that if it were a normal virtual space and I instead rested peacefully, they would have no problem with it, but when the genre is horror, they are worried about its negative effect on blood pressure and heart rate……though I somehow managed to get something close to a tacit approval when I explained the situation── well, it is the final whim of an old man. And my wife supported me."

"Good to hear. Even I would not be able to chime in when it came to persuading doctors."

In the first place, if Yanagi hadn't come, Clevel's scheme would have gone down the tube as well.

The detective offered the elderly monk a chair and spread three documents on the desk.

"The contract for the part-time job. Digitalised and saved…… no, digitalised from the start, but just in case, I would like your signatures as a formality. Although troublesome, with your real names, of course, not character names."

Both Nayuta and Koyomi extended their hands to the documents.

Their contents consisted of conventional things, like warnings and hourly pay, with no particularly odd sections.

"In a situation like this, I do not really feel like taking money……"

"Sorry, but I can't register you as testers without a contract. Appearance-wise, we set it up that 〝our company will gather part-time testers〟. Without an employment contract, their side will also have trouble."

Koyomi moaned.

"Hmmm……. Our company is relatively lenient, so something like this should be okay…… just don't let anyone know, okay?"

"As long as you yourself don't have a slip of the tongue, there won't be any problems."

Clevel's reply was probably intended as a joke, but to Nayuta, it instead felt like it was a very likely scenario.

Yanagi gave a smile tinged with exhaustion.

"I am paying the Detective-dono for the job and necessary expenses, yet getting a part of those expenses as an hourly pay. This is one strange contract."

"I am humbly sorry about this. This will probably be the first and last time a great proprietor like you, Yanagi-san, will be employed for such an hourly rate."

Displaying a smile of his own, the detective retrieved the contract signed by Nayuta.

And his glance abruptly stopped on it.

"Is there something wrong?"

Not taking his eyes off the document, the detective squeezed out a flat voice.

"……Nayuta…… your, this surname……"

Her signature was 〝#櫛稲田優里菜#(Kushiinada Yurina)

To Nayuta, this wasn't a particularly unusual reaction.

"Ah, it's read as 〝Kushiinada〟. Unusual, right? It seems that the surname was filled with a wish that their #rice#() #paddy fields#() would stretch out like a #comb#()…… but it is a bit awe-inspiring how it sounds like the #奇稲田姫#(Kushinadahime)(5) of legend. Precisely because of this, father once wondered whether some ancestor changed the reading of one of the characters."

The detective nodded with a strangely tense expression.

"……Strange indeed. It's an unusual name──"

Thinking back on it, she had never given her name till now. In online games, the character name was like a real name instead, thus it was hard to even graze the topic of real names.

"Hoi, Detective-san. Have mine as well."

〝Koyomihara Shiori〟 was written on the document Koyomi held out.

This also seemed like a rather unusual name, but the detective didn't say anything in particular about it.

As it stood, he put on the coat that was hanging on the wall and picked up his favourite stick.

At this awfully unconcerned-looking attitude, Nayuta felt a slight sense of discomfort.

(Though he seemed to be interested by my surname……)

Without the time for her to ask the reason for this, Clevel collected the contracts and headed for the door.

"──Alright. It's still early, but let's head out. That said, if they haven't finished the preparations, we'll have to return again──"

"Eeeh. Wouldn't it be better to go at the last minute? I don't know where we're going, but going all the way back and forth is a pain, don't ya think?"

"It's not far enough to feel like a pain. It's right next door."

The detective didn't even turn around. Nayuta and the others hurried after him.

"Umm, Detective-san…… by next door, you can't be meaning……?"

"It's exactly that. Among the things that fall under the duty of confidentiality, this is something that I particularly want you keep hushed."

In front of the entrance to the detective's office was the black cat statue that they had become used to over the past few days.

Its golden-tinged pupils gazed at empty space, while both of its forepaws showed peace signs.

The pose was clearly different from the one it had till yesterday, but that was not much of a problem.

Clevel stood in front of the cat statue and poked the bell on the statue's collar with the tip of his stick.

*Karan*, *karan*, *karan*, a dry sound resounded thrice.

Something flashed at the edge of Nayuta's vision.

Directly opposite the detective's office──

The cat eyes engraved on the door to the 《Cat God Faith Society》had an orange radiance.

"The collar's bell is the switch, you see. If you open the door without ringing it, you can only enter a room used as camouflage."

While explaining this on the side, Clevel peered into the shining cat eyes on the door.

Suddenly, the carving spoke in a high-pitched voice.



《Retina pattern on player data confirmed. We will now check your voice print.》



"This is Kurei. We gathered our members faster than expected. If it is not a hindrance, please open up."

The voice of a sleepy man came from the speaker.

『Mm, roger. One moment……』

The door, which looked like it would open normally, rose up as if it were a shutter.

Beyond it was a research building-like passageway, surrounded by white walls, that looked inappropriate to both Ayakashi Bystreet and Twilight Street.

Without regard to Nayuta and the others in their bewilderment, the detective swiftly moved forward.

"……So this means that the 〝Cat God Faith Society〟 is……"

The detective nodded without a care.

"On the surface it looks like a suspicious religious group── while in reality, it is a virtual base created by the administrators to watch and adjust for cheats and other unlawful conduct. Of course, the main surveillance system is somewhere else, but you can see errors and points of improvement by investigating from within the game, as well as collect rumours flowing from players. I was told to keep its existence as secret as possible, thus it's only opened up to our staff, but── you all are my subordinates for the day, you see."

Taken aback, Koyomi looked around the passageway with curious eyes.

The white walls seemed to be made out of something like strengthened plastic, giving the impression of lustre and cleanliness.

"……Hoee…… It kinda looks like the inside of a spaceship……?"

"True. It does seem like an alien or a combat android would come out from around the corner at any time."

As Nayuta let out such an impression, Koyomi suddenly clung to her arm.

She hadn’t intended to scare her. It was just her honest impression.

The detective chuckled.

"Have you got the same tastes as the supervisors here, I wonder. The system for intercepting intruders that activates whenever anyone suspicious enters takes the form of a creature and machine that looks precisely like that. They're set up to be unbeatable no matter how hard you struggle, so a regular player wouldn't be able to break through. Well…… if you weren't accompanied by someone with permission in advance, the doors wouldn't open in the first place, though. Doubling and redoubling security is fundamental."


Yanagi, following behind them, also let out a half-shocked voice of wonderment.

"Hahaa……I was told that this was a game whose selling point was a Japanese-style world, but this is……"

"As this is the administration's virtual office, it is essentially a place that normal players would not get to see. In a word…… it's for the convenience of the supervisors."

A trifling question popped into Nayuta's mind.

"Detective-san, your office neighbours 《this place》 ……did they come here after you moved in? Or did you borrow this building due to following them?"

It was, naturally, hard to think of this as a coincidence.

Depending on the answer to this question, she could guess about his relationship, or the sense of distance, with the administration.

Clevel gave a faint smile.

"That's quite a complicated thing you ask. As a matter of fact……I should say that it was about simultaneous. In my eyes, they are one of our important clients. To them, I am a useful errand boy── In the end, you could say that I am a fox that borrows the authority of a tiger."

It wasn't quite possible to tell whether he was joking or being serious, but it did seem that they had close a connection.

The white passageway was shorter than Nayuta had expected.

Turning the corner, their field of vision opened up and she gazed in awe at the scene.

Before her was a modern, bright office space that was unsuitable for Ayakashi Bystreet.

It was about as large as a gymnasium.

A beautiful, deep blue sky was projected on the glass ceiling, and the approximately ten people working below it were facing their personal consoles in partitioned workspaces.

Their outfits varied but went in-line with ninja, samurai, oiran, and other staples of《Asuka Empire》. They wouldn't feel out of place if they went out into the town like that.

Aside from them, cat bots operated by AI moved around everywhere in large numbers.

It was hard to tell from a single glance whether they were helping with work or just ornaments, but it did seem that there were roughly thirty or more of them.

Additionally, in the four corners of the office were open spaces, as if they were wide stages, where 3D models of bosses that appeared in the game were displayed.

It seemed they were performing checks on the appearances and movements of the bosses, as they continued to play them frame-by-frame, stop, and rewind.

Taken aback, Koyomi grasped Nayuta's arm.

"I've seen this before…… a research establishment that appears in SF movies……! And it's the kind where they develop zombies and cause a panic!"

"The impression is similar…… but in this case, it's a game development room, I guess?"

"No, we don't develop anything here."

Before she knew it, a short, hunchbacked, middle-aged man stood right next to her.

He was wearing the costume of a Shinto priest, but the eyes beyond his round spectacles were truly sleepy and he had not a single particle of Shinto priest-like majesty.

He smoothly cut into their conversation and continued talking to them as if he were having a carefree chat.

"What we handle here is just investigation, adjustment, and error verification of all kinds── oh, and we also sometimes deal with various troubles, so in short, we're just managing routine tasks. The main development is done in another post."

The Shinto priest man complained in a worn-out voice.

"Since we're in a virtual space, we at least made a nice-looking office, but in reality, it's a window-sided post.(6) There's nothing astonishing going on here── yo, Kurei-kun. Long time no see."

The hunchbacked, middled-aged man raised a hand at Clevel.

The detective gave an elegant bow.

"Thank you for your assistance, Torao-san. How is your back pain?"

The middle-aged man smiled like an old man.

"Not all too good. Well, thankfully, I don't feel any pain in here── So this elderly man is the Yanagi-san you talked about, and these ladies are the part-timers for muscle?"

The man named Torao stared at Koyomi.

"……Kurei-kun, isn't this bad? Employing a middle school pupil is against the Labour Standards Act."

"……Aight, Occhan, ya've got some nerve. Want me ta flood the game community with tons 'a half truths about ya, ha."

Koyomi gave a friendly smile. Strangely, she loved acting like a child in front of Nayuta, but being treated like a child by a stranger would commonly set her off.

Torao's shoulders suddenly trembled and he meekly bowed his white-haired head.

"……Sorry. You looked about the same age as my daughter, so I couldn't help myself. Ah…… I am Torao, head of the Error Inspection Cell for the 《Hundred and Eight Apparitions》, as part of the Development Department Systems Management Division. Also, as a side job, I'm the priest of the Cat God Faith as well…… Ah, thank you."

A tabby cat at his feet, which they met along the way, handed him some documents.

"It's earlier than expected, but since we don't know how long this matter will take, it's better than being late. I want to explain some things, so let's get to work without delay. Follow me."

"Ha. Sorry for the trouble──"

Yanagi gave a deep bow.

Immediately, Torao gave a wry smile.

"Ah, no, how rude of me…… I should be the one apologising. I am not really accustomed to greeting such an important person, thus please excuse any rudeness of mine. Since entering the company, I have always specialised in technology, you see."

Talking to a senior proprietor, his tone naturally became formal.

The detective added a follow-up in a whisper.

"Torao-san is…… exaggeratedly, one of the 〝guardians〟 of 《Asuka Empire》 . The person himself claims that the post is window-sided, but it is instead a refuge. It seems that it is customary for people from other posts to come crying to them whenever they have issues."

Torao sneered.

"Stop with the obvious flattery…… after all, we only get pressed with bothersome issues."

Guiding Nayuta and the others to a corner of the open space, Torao gave a deep sigh.

"Well……the 《Hundred and Eight Apparitions》 truly is an event where we can't let our guard down. We had been sent quite a few quests with viruses and backdoors. Of course, they should have all been handled in the selection phase, but it can't be helped that the higher-ups are nervous that something could have been overlooked. Well, please sit down."

As they were told this by Torao, Nayuta and the others encircled a white table used for meetings.

"So you mean that you actually overlooked something? The 《ghosts》 were unexpected to you, right."

"Yeah, it's as you say, Ojou-san. I didn't have anything to do with the selection so I don't know the whole story, but we ended up with this fuss because it was unexpected. Though──"

Torao scratched his head.

"……I wonder. What I'll say could probably be self-flattery, but our selection team should be quite excellent. If something as unbelievable as 〝reading memories〟 of players in the quest were taking place, it would burden both the machines and the people. It would be one thing if it were the future, but it's very doubtful that this could even be possible with current technology, and if something as strange as this were going on it would definitely be hard to notice, but……"

At his vague words, Clevel inclined his head.

"Torao-san, you haven't begun the investigation yet?"

"Don't be absurd. Because of your behind-the-scenes dealings, I only got the job pushed onto me just this morning, you know? Of course, I do have a vague grasp on the matter, but I practically haven't begun inspection of the part that caused the problem.

Torao unnaturally raised his brow with his fingers. Still having a sleepy expression, he couldn't really put much force into them no matter how much he tried.

Yanagi bowed down apologetically.

"Forgive us…… for my grandchild's creation causing you so much trouble."

While on one hand he wanted to be proud of his grandchild’s genius, it seemed that he was also feeling guilty about the situation caused by it. Considering how taciturn she was, Nayuta also found it hard to chime in with some careless words.

As if having forgotten the delicacy of Yanagi's situation until now, Torao hastily bent forward.

"Ah, no no. It is not your grandchild's fa…… well, it is indeed your grandchild's work, but we should be the ones to blame for not noticing it. The quests submitted by users through The Seed are quite the pain to analyse…… and, after all, it was not something that we ourselves had created, so it was hard to grasp the details of its workings. At the current level, I would have wanted and requested for a longer preparatory phase, but it seems that it did not go well with the higher-ups…… That is obviously no excuse, though."

While speaking detachedly, Torao shrugged, seemingly troubled.

Clevel took over the rest.

"As a matter of fact, the VRMMO creation tool 《The Seed》 itself is like a black box. While it is a tool easy to use even for amateurs, we have yet to find the end of its capabilities to this day── I, too, had tried using it and it felt out of place, as if I were touching a program that had come from the future. As for the quests created using that tool, I believe that it is unfair to expect a complete analysis of them in a short period of time with the current level of our technology."

At this follow-up, Torao let out a smile while on the verge of tears.

"Haha…… that's the nature of the job, though I can't say that either…… So, in the place of us worthless workers, we will have you take the first steps to investigating the matter. I'll explain some of the important points."

Torao lowered his gaze at the document.

"First, the 《Phantom Orchestra》 quest that you will be heading to will be hosted on a test play server, separated from the usual 《Asuka Empire》. Therefore, you can't use the teleporter to town. If your HP hits 0, you will return to this office without the death penalty being invoked. Also, for convenience, we will have you use a copy of your player data. As changes to the data will not be reflected on either side, I'd like your agreement on this point first."

Koyomi blankly inclined her head.

"I dun get it...... Make it simpler. Explain it like I'm an elementary school student."

Treating her like a child was a taboo, yet the consideration she demanded was practically that.

Torao pressed down on his brow.

"……Alright. I'll only get the main point across. During the test play, you will be using a copy of your player data. Meaning, the items and experience you obtain along the way will not be reflected on your current data. Nor will you be able to bring back the quest reward. All you'll get is 〝the ability to play it〟."

Nayuta nodded. As this was a test play, such a development was within her expectations.

"In return, all the consumables that you use there will not be lost either. Well, you will temporarily lose them, but the moment you return here, the contents of your tool bag will return to its current state. Meaning, nothing lost, nothing gained── were you able to understand this time?"

Koyomi finally nodded.

"Yeah…… all we want is for Yanagi-san to get to play the game, so I don't care about stuff like that. Actually, how about letting use as many of those precious consumables as we want……? Oh? Wouldn't that be great!?"

Clevel smiled.

"That's some splendid forward thinking. Indeed, the more free we are to use those items, the less difficult the quest will be. Also, Torao-san, about the matter with Yanagi-san……"

"Oh, no problem with that. You can adjust it as you please."

Yanagi tilted his head in puzzlement.

"Oh, is something the matter with me……?"

Clevel nodded mildly.

"Yes. As you could expect, clearing the quest at level 1 is a bit unreasonable…… if we had at least a bit more time, I would have you go through some other quests with good experience point efficiency for at least the minimal of leveling, but in this case, we are just 〝test playing as work〟. Thus, I have arranged for you to use different character data, adjusted for the minimum of balance, while keeping your appearance the same. Simply put── 〝for now, you won't be sent to retirement in one attack.〟"

Torao supplemented his explanation.

"Of course, we could just make it so that you would not suffer any attacks from the enemies for the test, but…… if we did that, it would feel more like mere work than a game, you see. I do believe that your grandchild would not want anyone to play it like that, so for now we have set your level to be slightly below that of the ladies accompanying you."

Yanagi cast his eyes downward and gave a deep bow to the two.

"My my…… I am greatly obliged for your consideration. I am sorry for being such a burden on you, please do as you wish──"

Torao hastily had Yanagi raise his head.

"Oh no no, going on a quest at level 1 would be very one-sided on you and inappropriate for the test play── thus, this is for your convenience. Please understand."

Nayuta also felt relieved by the detective's and Torao's consideration. If there no longer were any worries that Yanagi would be killed in one attack, Nayuta and Koyomi could act without worrying about protecting him. This should make battles considerably easier.

Then Torao turned round to face Clevel, who was, in a sense, an even more one-sidedly bad example.

"……Now, about you being high-leveled yet having the same problem for some reason……"

"Yeah, I am maintaining the status quo. I do not see much of an issue here."

"……Just as I thought, so I didn't give any particular instructions on that."

Torao seemed to be quite shocked as well.

Unlike the beginner Yanagi, he was quite happy reaping what he sowed, though Nayuta still felt a slight issue with it.

"Are you sure? Detective-san, your stats are so one-sided that they are unsuited for a test play too, I believe──"

Torao shrugged.

"Well, it will be a 〝precedent for performing a test with high luck〟 ……I know that in the case of the level-1 Yanagi-san, far from testing, he'd retire again and again, making no progress at all, but I do feel like this Detective-shi will somehow pull through. Well, he'll still be useless when he's useless, but…… if he's useless, his uselessness can be ridiculed later on."

It seemed that this priest was also the kind of man who'd make you question how serious he was being.

But then, there wouldn't be much of a problem if the detective were absent during the quest. The goal, after all, was to let Yanagi experience the quest.

The tabby cat that came to Torao pulled on his hakama.

Looking over the note given to him, he stroked his unshaven chin.

"Alright. Preparations for the test field seem to be completed. Let's get ready to move out."

Once Torao operated the console displayed in mid-air, a teleport gate imitating a red torii archway rose up beside the table.

"The event flags will be taken over from your data right now. As the castle has already appeared, there won't be a need for offerings at the hokora. Though── the point where you all get forcefully dispersed in the castle probably won't change. It seems that the quest works in such a way that, as long as you all have obtained some items needed to regroup, you'll be able to meet up inside. Nayuta-jou has already acquired it, but the others retired, so they still haven't obtained them, you see."

Nayuta confirmed the items she had through her menu window.

She had acquired several items when they rushed in the day before yesterday. Among them, she narrowed down the possibility to three unknown items that looked like they could be related to meeting up with her partners.

"A 《Papier Mache Cat》, a 《Flute of Springtime Haze》, and the 《Stone of Complaints》── which of them will that be?"

Torao grinned broadly.

"Ah, that would be the 〝flute〟. Due to the quest being the 《Phantom Orchestra》, the items for linking up are musical instruments. Since the Ojou-san has acquired the flute, the others have to find some kind of other instrument, like a kotsuzumi, taiko, koto, hichiriki, wind instrument kind of sho, percussion instrument kind of sho, samisen, or anything else of the kind. Essentially, you'll be able to find such instruments in wicker baskets or something like that while exploring. There's no need to defeat any enemies, so even Kurei-kun should be able to work something out."

Suddenly, Koyomi's eyes began darting back and forth.

"Phantom orchestra……musical instruments…… that kinda……sounds like a bad end where we inadvertently equip cursed instruments and become part of the phantom orchestra, though……?"

Torao shrugged.

"Actually, it's the opposite. Those instruments are sacred ritual tools offered by the village. A certain monster snatched away these tools and used their power to take control of the villagers' souls, turning them into its own musicians. Your role is to take back those instruments and eliminate the monster nested up in that castle of ayakashi── but because of Kurei-kun easily activating the quest, you skipped over several prologue events. In addition to hints on activating the quest, there should have been journals about the tragedy of the village in the main temple building and the mansion of the village headman……"

Nayuta moaned unintentionally. The detective, too, averted his eyes with an innocent look.

She did explore the shrine, but she didn't even know where the temple itself was. As for the mansion that appeared to belong to the village headman, she decided to postpone exploring it and kept passing by the gate.

"We overlooked those…… I am surprised the flags for activating the quest were raised."

Torao scratched his head as if he were troubled.

"Well, that's all fine as far as we see it, but…… if we made it obligatory to discover the journals, people would end up reading most of the story before going into the castle. It seemed that the creator wanted to avoid that as well, and I agree with him. For horror, 〝not getting what's going on〟 is particularly essential to spice things up. As they say, #if you look carefully at it, it's more ordinary than it appears#(the ghost, when examined closely, was withered silver grass); it won't be scary if you know the logic and background. But nothing can be done about that for the test play."

Koyomi burst into laughter.

"There really are quests like that; ones that you don't quite get. The kind where, even after receiving your rewards for clearing the quest, you still don't get the story in the end…… and then understand it by reading commentaries later on."

With a forced smile, Clevel pointed the tip of his stick at the gate.

"In that case, we have more room for imagination and enjoying the mood, I believe. Now then…… it's about time we headed out. Our goal is clearer than the other day as well. First, we find a 《musical instrument》, then link up and eliminate the boss── everyone ready?"

Just as Clevel was about to step towards the torii gate, Koyomi hastily grasped his hem.

"Wait, wait! There's still something else I want to confirm. There was that kitsune-masked boy, right? He kinda looked like a guide, but can he really be trusted? That kid won't turn out to be the last boss or anything?"

"That NPC is probably on our side. I have no concrete proof, but his existence itself is definitely one of the hints and keys to clearing the quest. Am I right? Torao-san."

At the detective's leisurely question, Torao replied with an expression of wonder.

"A kitsune-masked boy……?"

"That's right. A child that appears right after you enter the castle. He wears a kitsune mask and a splash-patterned kimono──"

Nayuta added, and then Torao's eyes contorted.

Then, he muttered in doubt, without an accent.

"……There's no player guide-like NPC in the 《Phantom Orchestra》. What…… on earth are you talking about……?"

Torao's bewilderment spread to all of them, ushering in a subsided silence.

Nayuta unconsciously formed a fist and took a deep breath.



──From somewhere far away, as if noise, came the timbre of a gloomy matsuribayashi.


Chapter 3


Notes

1. ^ Short for "office lady"
2. ^ A kemoner is a person who likes beasts. The term is created by adding the English suffix -er to the word kemono (beast).
3. ^ A naniwabushi (浪花節) is a genre of traditional Japanese narrative singing, usually accompanied by a samisen, that was popular during the Edo period. The comparison to these ballads is usually used to describe something as sentimental due to the dual themes of obligation and compassion that are apparently characteristic of the naniwabushi.
4. ^ Dogeza (土下座, lit. "sitting right on the ground") is the act of prostrating oneself on the ground with one's head touching the floor. In Japanese etiquette, this is used when making deep apologies, or an extreme way to beg for a favour.
5. ^ A kami in Shinto mythology. One of the spellings of her name looks just like Nayuta's surname, except for one kanji.
6. ^ This is referring to people who are given no real job to do as they're close to retirement.

5 comments:

  1. Thanks for the translation. It might be my mistake, but I get the impression that references to Nayuta and Koyomi sometimes get mixed up. A case in point would be the lap pillow scenes, as well as the ending where Torao treated Nayuta/Koyomi as an elementary school girl.

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    1. I'm not sure which part you're referring to exactly, but if it's the one I think you mean, then I don't really see much of a problem, as there seems to be sufficient context to identify who's talking about whom.

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  2. Thank you very much for the translations!!

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  3. Thanks for the release! The story just gets more interesting. I've only read about half-way, but I noticed this line and it seemed a lil' odd.

    He is currently ON SLEEPING-MEDICINE, but he will be waking up soon.

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    1. The reason we didn't go with that is that we don't really know what the medicine was intended for. Your suggestion makes it sound as though the medicine was designed for making someone sleep (i.e. melatonin or anesthesia) whereas, for all intents and purposes, the sleeping could merely be a side effect of the meds. The way we have now makes it more ambiguous to coincide with the ambiguous nature of the raw.

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