Part 142: The Visitor Who Came Late III
I've never regained consciousness to a smell before. Slowly, I opened my eyes. Wait, when did I lose consciousness in the first place? I don't remember going to sleep or falling unconscious. That's right. Bernkastel invited me to come to a place better for drinking tea... That's when my memory gets hazy. And, since the smell of black tea is what woke me up...
"Auaurora's study. I hate to admit it, but her taste in tea really is excellent."
I was sitting on what appeared to be a sofa in a dimly lit study. Bernkastel sat across from me. And, right before my eyes, was a beautiful cup filled with hot, steaming tea.
"...Isn't... this place..."
I remembered. I've been here before. Wasn't it...
"How pleasant it is to see you again, child of man."
...Yes, that voice. Just hearing it brings back memories.
"Long time no see, my master."
BGM: A Single Moment
"...It won't be continuing much longer. This is the end, the true final game."
This was the study of Featherine Augustus Aurora. The majestic Witch of Theatergoing, Drama, and Spectating. Once in the past, I was summoned by her and ordered to be her Reader, or miko.
"Don't tell me you want me to Read again..."
"I wasn't the one who called you here. My miko brought the two of us together."
"For what reason...?"
"Isn't it obvious? To show you the path that leads to the truth."
"You'll show me the way, Featherine?"
"...I am the Witch of Theatergoing. Though I dislike interfering with the actors on the stage."
"So, between Battler's boring play and my exciting one that manipulates the branches of fate, which would you rather watch? I know you can't stand even a minute of boredom."
As Featherine rocked her rocking chair, she looked up at the ceiling and chuckled. She clearly holds some key to the truth I seek.
I don't remember saying anything out loud, but Featherine answered my question as though I had. Come to think of it, that's right. Featherine can read the thoughts of a mere child of man like me as easily as she can hear me speak. Well, I guess that'll help us get to the point quicker...
"Onii-chan gave me this key. Still, he just said something about how I'd know how to use it when the time was right. He didn't say a word about what it was used for. Do you two know? What is this key for? Onii-chan said it was something very precious."
"Explain, my miko."
"No way. You explain."
"...You demand that your master explain?"
"You've got to participate on the stage every now and then. Otherwise you'll just go senile all the faster."
"My, my... And yet, the memory of my long-overdue appearance on the stage when Ange was Reader should have been enough to last me a few more centuries."
"Tell me. What is this key?"
"A physical manifestation of the decision you are to make. This tale, this game... will end by asking you to make a certain decision. What you hold there is the act of your decision embodied in the form of a key."
"The physical manifestation... of my decision..."
"Exactly. At the end, Battler was probably planning to put you in front of two doors, both of which can be opened by the key. Then, he would ask you to choose which door to open. He must have told you that much, right?"
"...He didn't tell me anything at all. He just kept saying things like 'you'll know when the time comes'. No one will tell me anything. Not Onii-chan, not anyone..."
"Battler probably wants to respect a decision that you make by your own free will."
"But Ange. You should've at least started to figure it out by now, right?"
"...Figure what out?"
Those words... made my heart jump in my chest. It was what I had been thinking. Onii-chan is clearly trying to trick me with a vague tale, almost like a daydream, that'll take me even farther away from the truth.
At the 1986 family conference... Everyone had a wonderful time as they faded away. Everyone is smiling down on you from heaven, so you don't need to feel alone, even in 1998. So give it your all and live on by yourself. I've clearly felt Onii-chan's intention to end it like that. And every time I asked him about it, he'd dodge the issue and say something about how the decision would be mine in the end.
"That's right. It may appear that Battler is giving you a fair choice, but he's actually scheming to get you to choose one of the two answers. You've already seen the farce of a tale that he's using to do that, right?"
...That bizarre Halloween party. Everyone so strange and friendly that it was almost sickening. I've already seen more than enough of that tale, so sickly sweet it makes me want to vomit, where Ushiromiya Kinzo showered me with affection, where his children swore to support each other, where everyone was filled with happiness and hope.
"...He's trying to trick me with those chummy scenes... so he can keep me away from the truth. He's such a... coward..."
"Certainly, he might be called a coward from your perspective. But remember. If you are a player in this game and Battler is the Game Master, what does that mean?"
"In the past, Battler was a player and Beato was the Game Master. And they each fought for their own respective truths. So, what is it this time?"
Could it be... that I've misunderstood everything from the very beginning? Onii-chan said he'd tell me what happened that day, so I was under the impression that I'd learn everything if I followed him. How would that be any different than, say, Onii-chan accepting everything Beato said about the crimes being the work of a witch? What... a stupid mistake I've been making...
"...This game... has always been a fight between me and Onii-chan...?"
"I'm surprised you participated in the game without realizing that."
"Battler really is sly. He just started up the final game without letting you realize that simple fact. Well, it was the same back in Beato's games. Battler was drawn into her game before he knew what was happening. Before he even knew how to fight. That's why I taught him how."
"And now, it's exactly the same. You were forced to start this game before you understood anything about it, and I've come to tell you the truth. To tell you who you're fighting against, and for what."
And finally, I realized what I needed to accomplish in this game. I've always been passive. I was sure that Onii-chan would tell me everything, so I naively thought I just had to believe whatever he said...
"No. That was wrong."
This is a battle... between me, the one who wants to reach the truth, and Onii-chan, who wants to trick me and chase me out into a 1998 where I'm all alone... All this time, I've kept on saying that Onii-chan was foolish and naive, and now I see that I was more naive than anyone else... And yet, Bernkastel didn't sneer at me. On the contrary, she looked at me with that cold gaze, as if to say 'so you've finally taken the first step'.
"...Now do you understand? Your own purpose... and the purpose of that key."
I gripped the key that Onii-chan had hung around my neck... and for a while, I shook with an emotion that even I couldn't understand. Now that I know Onii-chan tricked me, it would be easy to hate him. But hating him would be missing the point. After all, this is a game between me and him. Onii-chan has done nothing but make the optimal moves to win against me. If games aren't just a playful way to communicate, if they're the process that decides who wins and who loses... Then there can be no fair games. The best strategy is always to trick your enemy into defeat without telling them the rules, before they even know what's going on...
...In that sense, Onii-chan hasn't done anything wrong. He's... using that sickly sweet illusion to trick me... and force me out into a lonely future... They'll be the only ones having a good time in the cat box, and I'll be the only one chased out.
"Please, don't hate Battler. After all, one-sidedly tricking the opponent is what Game Masters do."
"...I know. Onii-chan took the best option from his position. That's all there is to it. So, I need to make the best possible moves from my position."
My goal is now clear. October 4th and 5th, 1986. What happened on Rokkenjima that day. I need to tear off the veil covering the truth. Nothing more, nothing less.
"...Onii-chan gave me this key... probably because he wants me to put it into the keyhole of his choosing. That's why he keeps showing me this sentimental illusion. But I won't be fooled anymore. I'll open the door I want to open."
"Certainly, this is more my kind of tale than one with an Ange who does whatever Battler says."
"So, this time I'll let you take over the rest. Tell Ange. Tell her where the keyhole that leads to the truth is."
"Tell me. Where is the keyhole?!"
"...Very well. First off, have a seat. I'll bring it over right now."
When Featherine rose from her rocking chair, my vision seemed to twist and bend. What? Some kind of interference? Why now, when Featherine's about to show me something important... Why is my head getting... suddenly... I dug my fingernails into my knees, clenching my teeth to keep from losing consciousness. However, the world just kept twisting more and more... Except for the feel of the sofa beneath me, I couldn't sense anything at all...
BGM: Scar Sound
"It looks like she's here."
What's going on? This isn't the world of witches... but the world of humans...? I was sitting on the sofa... and Amakusa was behind me.
...There's no need to feel confused. Featherine and Hachijo Toya are the same being. To her, the difference between the two worlds is a trivial thing. To put it in the words of that lover of theatergoing, it's like having a slightly different background behind the stage. So, there was no reason for me to feel hesitant.
"...Should I call you Hachijo this time?"
"How complicated names are. Even though both of us are still here, just like before, you have to wonder what to call me."
"...True. Calling you Featherine would be a bit rude to you now. For an actor, the name of the role they act is only temporary."
"Precisely, child of man."
Amakusa's eyes went wide as he wondered what I was suddenly talking about. I ignored him and continued.
"...So, what are you going to show me?"
As I spoke, my eyes were caught by that heavy-looking object she held under her arm. At a glance, it looked like an encyclopedia with a fancy binding...
As Featherine spoke, she set the heavy object on the table. My first thought... was of a grimoire. The heavy book had a mysterious, mystical feel to it, like something Maria onee-chan might carry around. And the most remarkable feature of it... was the large, sturdy lock that held it shut. Why would someone go so far to keep people from reading a book...?
"Why don't you take it and observe the back?"
I flipped the heavy book over on my lap. And, as soon as I saw it, I gave a small gasp.
Without a doubt, those words were written there with the letters of the alphabet.
"What is this...? Aunt Eva's... diary...?"
"Could this be... that rumored..."
"Do you know something about this...?!"
"Just a rumor. They say that President Eva had a secret diary, and that she always kept it locked up. They say she took it with her everywhere she went. At least, that's what I heard from some of the other bodyguards."
"...A secret... diary... And why is that here...?"
"It was in the hospital room where Ushiromiya Eva passed away."
So, it remained in that room for some time after her death before it was found. Then, by coincidence, it was probably found by someone who worked for the hospital, or else a patient or their family. Of course, by that time, there was a huge movement dedicated to the Rokkenjima mystery. A locked diary found in the hospital room where Ushiromiya Eva spent her last moments... would be absolutely priceless.
The discoverer probably handed it over in secret to one of the 'Witch Hunters', who would be able to accurately determine its worth. Luckily, the Witch Hunters who got their hands on this book were all noble and upright people. Not content to boorishly destroy the lock and reveal the truth, they simply satisfied themselves with the fact that the truth of that day slumbered just on the other side of this mysterious lock. Thanks to that, Eva's diary has remained undamaged to this very day...
"It is already known that Natsuhi, wife of Krauss, the oldest son of Kinzo, sealed all of her complaints and repressed feelings by writing them down in a diary, which she treated like a sort of charm."
"...So, Aunt Eva did the same thing?"
"It's possible, at least. Unlocking the hinges of this diary would be a pain, even if you had a key. It's sealed up tight like a corset."
Amakusa was right. This wasn't a diary made to be casually opened and reminisced over. It's probably safe to assume that this diary was used to forget things by writing them down and sealing them away, just like Ushiromiya Natsuhi's. And on top of that, Eva brought it with her into her hospital room, then hid it behind the bed without telling anyone about it...
"By reading its contents, you will probably learn everything. However, we don't know where the key that unlocks it is."
I jumped. Then, I looked down at my chest. That's where my brother hung that key...
"Huh? I, it's gone! Th, the key's gone...!"
"...What's wrong, Lady? What key?"
"It's been hanging from my neck the whole time, hasn't it?!"
"...I never noticed it. You had a key hanging from your neck...?"
I understood almost immediately. In the world of humans, I haven't found the key. The 'me' with the key... is on the game board in the world of witches.
"Make me the 'me' with the key! I'm going to unlock this diary."
Featherine lifted a finger, spun it around, and the world twisted again.
But at the same time, the diary on my lap popped out of existence.
"Where'd the diary go?!"
"It should exist somewhere on the game board. Since it is one of the keyholes you are to be given, it must exist somewhere."
"Did Onii-chan hide it somewhere...?"
"...Since Battler is trying to make this a game between you and him, it probably isn't completely hidden."
"What do you mean...?"
"Even if Battler thinks of it as a king that mustn't be taken, there would be no game unless it existed somewhere on this board."
"In other words, it's somewhere in the Ushiromiya mansion...?"
"Or, you may already have been given an opportunity to witness it. Like how a swindler has already hidden a trap in microscopic letters on the first page of a contract you sign."
"...If Battler follows the rules of mystery as the Game Master, 'clues must be shown', so the choice that leads to Battler's defeat must have been shown. Ange. Try and remember. You should have seen Eva's diary already in Battler's world."
In that instant, from the back of my mind... drifted the very first scene of this final game.
BGM: End of the World
A book lying on the altar, a book with a lock on it... As soon as I showed interest in that book, Battler suddenly got serious and told me not to touch it...
"That... was Aunt Eva's diary..."
"That's right. Ushiromiya Eva's diary. The Book of the Single Truth, with the truth of that day written inside it."
"...The Book... of the Single Truth... And is the truth really written inside it? After all, there's a chance that it's just something Aunt Eva-"