Part 153: Siege of the Fleet II
"I've heard that each one of these books has a tale like ours inside it."
"After all, this is a world of gods."
"You can tell at a glance that it's no place for scum like you to be in, right?"
After passing through the barrier, the three of them had finally made it inside the City of Books. For some time, they were overcome by the countless otherworldly sights before them, but they quickly remembered their original objective.
"Are you listening? First off, don't get the wrong idea. You two came here to fight Bern, but that doesn't mean walking up to her and attacking her directly, okay?"
"In the first place, you were only able to fight the Great Beatrice on an even footing because the game board protected you with rules that made it that way. If you leave the game board, you're more like something that'll leave a small stain on her palm when she swats you. Don't forget that, got it?"
"...Makes sense. This isn't the game board we're familiar with."
"We didn't come here to fight. We came here to take something back with us."
"Exactly. You're here to prevent the Book of the Single Truth from being exposed to the public. That is your only goal, your only fight. You'd better not be confused about that."
Battler and Ange nodded to show their understanding.
"The Book of the Single Truth itself is being displayed openly in the middle of the party, so stealing that'll be impossible. However, bringing in the key is a big part of the ceremony."
"Which means the key must be stored in a different place."
"...But there's no guarantee that it'll be undefended."
"After that, it's all up to your luck. I hope it's good, for your sakes..."
Lambdadelta pulled her head back from around the corner of a bookshelf. The others hurriedly followed suit. In the distance, they saw emerald green lights floating about and leaving trails.
"...Did she guess that we would come?"
"No. Don't forget how huge this place is. Those are staff cats, out looking for idiot guests who've gotten lost so they can be taken to the lost children area."
"And that's not where we want to go at the moment."
"...If it looks like one's about to find us, should we take them out...?"
"I'd advise against it. Maybe if this were some other territory or game board, but this is Bern's home base. That single cat should make you as scared as being surrounded by a crowd of vicious beasts. Plus, they're cats. They've got good senses, and they'll call for their friends. If they spot you, you'd better be prepared for what happens next. I'm not going to save you. Just taking you here has been troublesome enough."
"...If I surrender, I might get off the hook with being stripped naked and thrown into the worst sort of crappy Fragment for just a century. How wonderful. I think I can sympathize with Bern's feelings a bit now."
Lambdadelta wasn't laughing. Most likely, even this punishment she spoke of was pretty optimistic. Even though she keeps saying that she won't help anymore... She's already risking everything. Why?
"...Isn't it obvious?"
Lambdadelta brushed her hair back and grinned.
Lambdadelta hugged their heads at the same time, making their foreheads bonk together.
"...Yeah. We'll show you. A certain ...happy ending!"
"We'll... certainly take this cat box back...!"
"Let's go. This way, and swim quietly."
The three of them swam out into the darkness of the deep ocean trench that was the City of Books. In that massive, vast trench of bookshelves, they vanished into the darkness almost immediately. The library defied the common sense of the human world. The City of Books. The word 'city' was no exaggeration. And, it was filled with the green, glowing eyes of Bernkastel's countless cat familiars. Trying to count them would be almost as crazy as counting all the fish in the ocean. They formed schools that swam all over the place, on the lookout for any fools who might miraculously have managed to slip in and disturb their master's party.
If Battler's group was found, the cats would report it instantly. They would probably form a pack, open their large mouths and swallow them in a single gulp. There would be no fight. In this place, Battler's party would be swallowed like tiny fishes if they were discovered.
Each of them had dozens of cannons pointing at the door to the Golden Land. The goats that packed the decks of the ships numbered in the tens of thousands. Each one of them carried enough anti-magic toxin in their fangs to completely deny one of the game board pieces. This time, they would chew apart and eat away everything. The crowd of goats unleashed their rotten breath and dangling drool. At that time, Erika, who wanted to avoid trouble and hoped Beato would be able to convince Lambdadelta to surrender peacefully, was sitting alone, calmly enjoying the tea Ronove had poured for her. Of course, even Erika wasn't planning to give them unlimited time. In her mind, she had already decided to allow them three yawns before stepping in.
"Indeed, it is impressive that our short-tempered mistress has managed to become such an adult. Pu ku ku ku."
"...What's so funny?"
"Oh, pardon me. Are you ready for another cup? Please feel free to enjoy our collection of great teas from across the globe at your leisure."
The messenger cat shook its head, then continued to dispassionately meow its report.
"...Even Lambda isn't that stupid. She should know what it means to have Auau as her enemy..."
Even as she said this, Bernkastel was chewing away at her thumbnail...
"Despite how she looks, that kid has a lot of strange friends... And those are all idly curious, crazy monsters... Even so, to take up arms against the Senate..."
...It was possible... She could think of many monsters among Lambdadelta's friends who would love to see a losing side get support and make a comeback victory... Before she realized it, the finger Bernkastel was biting was covered with sweat.
"...She might do it. She really is a moron sometimes, after all! Get me a phone, quickly!!"
The cat leapt away, then flew back with a phone and receiver.
"I'm going to call up her friends...! I have to warn them not to get involved in this stupid game...!"
However, perhaps 'room' wasn't a fitting word to use. It was large enough that you could probably fit two domed baseball stadiums in it, if you tried. Even so, in this city, these were called 'rooms'. Floating in the center of this vast room... were several sacred magic circles. Wrapped around by these magic circles... was Ange's gold key.
Surrounding this were countless emerald green stars, which looked like a slowly revolving planetarium. The eyes that numbered the same as the stars... were all glaring in the same direction.
One of the cats cat-paddled towards EVA, meowing that no one was allowed to enter this room.
"Lady Bernkastel has ordered me to guard that key. So, why don't you leave this to me and get lost?"
After looking at each other with suspicious eyes, the cats glared at EVA again, as though saying that they hadn't heard any such order.
"By the way, cats have pretty soft bodies, don't they?"
"Much easier to chew that way."
The reaction from the cats was lightning fast. They realized instantly that this was hostile behavior. The entire emerald green constellation writhed and became a single, massive, deep-sea fish, which charged at EVA with its massive mouth open wide. However, at the same time, the red lines on the floor and ceiling... the massive spiderweb... pinched itself together and crushed the fish, twisted it, spun it around and around, and compressed it to the size of a small ball. Then, that ball-shaped thing burst open, leaving nothing left. It all happened in an instant.
"Why don't you just give up and diiiiiiie?? Ahhahahahaha!!!"
After all, when Ushiromiya Eva's diary was opened, the endless cat box would be lost, along with the countless imagined stories that had entertained them for so long. So, this final convention was a time for them to air their best theories one last time. While the opening of the cat box did give them a slightly lonely feeling, they couldn't contain their excitement as intellectual rapists, not when they knew that the Rokkenjima mystery was finally going to be solved, once and for all. If that box were opened, a single girl would be hurt. However, their jaws and fangs couldn't care less. The witch-hunting goat nobles kept licking their lips, wanting to chew apart the guts of Beatrice's cat box as soon as they could...
Seated upon a grand throne the size of a pillar, Featherine listened in on the nonsense being spewed from the mouths of the goat nobles. A black cat wearing a cape silently appeared and whispered something into Featherine's ear.
The cat bowed humbly and vanished. Featherine raised her wine glass high, and laughed as she looked through it to the light of the chandelier, which was as beautiful and majestic as the moon.
"This should be enough to thank you for your excellent reading, child of man. Well now. Just who is weaving this tale? Am I for you? Or are you for me? Heh, heheheheheheh."
...As Battler's group moved forward, darting from bookshelf to bookshelf and avoiding the eyes of the cats, they found something strange. Written with a faintly glowing, red substance... was a letter and an arrow. That's what it looked like to them.
"...Do you think 'K' means key?"
"Those marks only appeared when we got close. This is a message aimed at us."
"Is there anyone here besides us who'd be willing to help...?"
"...Can there really be someone here who's on our side?"
Ange traced the red arrow with her finger. It was written with very faint, thin strings that had been tied together. This red stuff, which melted away like cotton candy when you touched it...
"...How can you be so sure?"
"...Yeah, I get it too now. Lambda. We can trust the person who wrote this. She'll probably be able to guide us to the key safely."
"Are you sure? Then let's go...! We don't have time to be standing around!"
"...Thank you, Mom...!"
Every now and then, a small fight would break out, which fortunately ended up delaying Erika's third yawn. However, they didn't know how long they would have to continue this fake fight. Keeping this high level of tension going was physically stressful. The instant they tired out and the tension faded, Erika would probably demand a verdict. They had to constantly appear to be trapped and agitated. It was a battle of weariness and tension. This was their fight.
Erika waited patiently. Now that she had tired of tea, she was watching Ronove perform some magic tricks, and seemed to be enjoying herself considerably. Even Ronove, who was usually aloof from the world, was fighting. If Erika got bored and had a tantrum, an all-out attack would probably begin at once. He was also putting his life on the line in the fight to buy time for Battler's group...
As the fiercest leader in the argument, Beato wore out the quickest. She breathed heavily, and her face was so pale, it seemed she might faint at any moment.
"...Beato, hang in there. Your body won't hold out much longer at this rate."
"Pretend to suddenly burst into tears and rest for a while. We'll pick up the slack."
"I am still... fine... I can do this... just one more push. Let's go...!! So, who's up next? Who wants to be beaten down first?!"
"In that case, I, Gohda, am prepared...!! W, we must fight!! It would be outrageous to accept defeat without fighting!! As I've said from the beginning, fighting with all we have is the only option!!"
Erika suddenly rose from her chair. Ronove tried to coax her back into her seat, but Erika's attention was completely focused on those arguing under the arbor.
"...I am... the detective. My memory of what I hear is as good as a recording."
"We are aware of that, of course... You are quite an excellent detective, after all..."
"I'm not interested in you. Gohda-san. I have one question for you."
"Y, yes ma'am! Have I done something to cause offense...?"
"'Hold on. Don't forget that some of us are opposed to fighting. I think we should surrender.' Those were the first words I heard from you when I arrived here. However, you just said this: 'We must fight. It would be outrageous to accept defeat without fighting. As I've said from the beginning, fighting with all we have is the only option.' That's what you said."
"W, well, uh... did I say that...?"
"...It is hardly strange for an opinion to change in the course of a discussion."
"I, i, indeed...! All of us have been feeling doubts about our position lately, so an occasional change of opinion wouldn't be...!"
BGM: Closed my Heart
An uncomfortable, moist wind blew by. Everyone was silent, frozen as though time had stopped. In that silence, Erika continued with a blank expression.
"...This can lead us to two conclusions. First, it may be that Gohda-san has no opinion... and is just a loser who will say anything that goes with the flow. Second, it may be that none of you has an opinion, and that this entire argument exists only for its own sake."
"Aren't you... over-thinking this a bit...? Here we are, in a desperate debate that will decide our fate. I hardly think it strange that some people would act abnormally under such pressure..."
"If you have some reason for prolonging a meaningless argument, that can only be to buy time. Do you have anything to gain by buying time? Is it because Lady Lambdadelta's reinforcements will come? That can't be true either. After all, for some time now, I have heard all of you speak to Lady Lambdadelta and Battler occasionally, but not once have I heard them reply. Taking all of this into account, we are left with only one conclusion."
That Lady Lambdadelta and Battler are not here now. And, that these people have won Lady Lambdadelta's assistance, with Lady Lambdadelta and Battler probably planning to sneak into the City of Books. In which case, their goal is probably to steal back the golden key... and Ange. And your plan was to act as bait and buy time until their mission was complete.
With a blank... yet ruthless expression, Erika spoke these words and returned to her seat. Everyone else was frozen, unable to move. No one spoke.
...However, time was moving. As evidence, a bead of sweat dripped down someone's cheek, fell, and hit the table with a tiny yet audible splat.
BGM: Worldend Dominator
The stakes of the Seven Sisters of Purgatory and the high-velocity rounds from the Chiester Sisters hit the chair at exactly the same time. And a few moments after that, the Erika sitting in that chair faded and vanished.
"She's fast!! Kill her!!!"
In an instant, Erika had moved to a spot behind the chair. Her expression remained as blank as it had been. However, there was now something in her hand that wasn't there before. As the seven lightning strikes of the Seven Sisters raced at her once more, she batted all of them away with her scythe.
Erika lifted her left hand, the one that wasn't holding the scythe.
"Very well, allow me to answer...!!
This Golden Land belongs to me, to all of us!! If you wish to enter with your shoes on, then let us give you a proper welcome!! In other words, to put it elegantly..."
"...All cannons, prepare to fire. Target: the Golden Land."