Part 104: The New Guest
BGM: String Quartet #1 in G Major
"What do you mean, pleasant awakening...?! I was so excited, I couldn't sleep a wink. After all, the curtain is rising on the fun, fun fourth game...!"
It seemed that she truly had been so excited that she hadn't gotten any sleep. Did she show absolutely no signs of lacking sleep because she was young, or because she had the mind of a little kid? Ronove chose not to say that aloud, and laughed 'pu ku ku' instead.
"I really ran that Battler into the ground last time! Ah, the look on his face when he was like 'You tricked me'! That was so patheeetic! Even so, is that guy still feeling down?"
"Feeling down, you say...?"
"Hmm, well, that's right. That man's a bit too trusting for his age, isn't he?"
"Indeed. Although you could call that his charm. Pu ku ku..."
"*cackle*cackle*cackle*! Ain't it the truth, ain't it the truth? Well, speaking of which. Didn't he totally fall for that one last time?"
"Yes, totally and splendidly. You violated the purity of one never deceived since the time of his birth, as well as his rosebud-like innocence, all to your heart's content. Even the joy of dashing across a field covered with beautiful new snow on a winter morning and trampling it completely wouldn't even begin to compare."
"Most people would be crushed after something like that. Pukukukuku, so much so that they wouldn't want to see your face ever again."
"I-I know that much...! I also... umm... thought that if he was too disheartened to join us at the table, even though the fourth game is finally starting, that would be such a pain, so I came to you, thinking that it'd be better to prepare a counter-measure for that case beforehand...!"
"Hmmmm... In that case, perhaps it really would be best to prepare such a counter-measure. I am sad to say that your 'North Wind and the Sun Strategy' gave Battler-sama quite a shock."
"H-Hoh... A shock, you say? How bad of one...?"
Beato lowered her voice slightly, asking timidly. Ronove followed suit... and lowered his voice in the same way.
"...Th-That is... troublesome... Is he really feeling that down...?"
"Pukukukuku. It is only natural. After all, you thoroughly beat him down, Milady. That would make most people start to distrust humans."
"Hoh, distrust of Humans? How convenient! Let him give up on Humans and trust witches, wahahaha... O-Oh, *cough*. Sorry, I shouldn't fool around too much."
Beato had tried to joke about it, but the situation seemed to be quite serious, so that even she took the hint and hid her laughter.
"...Is it really that serious...? Sh-Should we wait just a little longer before beginning the fourth game...?"
"Lady Bernkastel's guest will be arriving, so it may be best to open the fourth game quickly. However, perhaps you ought to show a little concern for Battler's feelings, Milady."
BGM: Monochrome Clock
"When a person's heart is dark and closed off, interacting with them in a dark manner gains you nothing. Your only option is to shine with a brightness stronger than the dark."
Battler's stomach involuntarily growled at the fragrant smell of the croissant. His breakfast plate was empty, but Battler hadn't eaten any of it. The biggest glutton of the Seven Sisters of Purgatory, Beelzebub, had waited for Ronove to leave, and had then come to snatch the food away. Battler had noticed, and they'd been really noisy ever since.
Even though Beelzebub only had to give it back immediately or else throw it into her own mouth right away, she intentionally ran around in circles, making fun of Battler.
"Give my breakfast back, dammiiiit!! If you give it back now, I'll let you off with a single flick to the forehead. But just you try eating it!!"
"What, are you gonna eat me up insteeead?! Kyaha! If you think you can, just try it! I'll bet I'll be as sweet as honey pancakes."
"Gotcha!! Right now, I want to eat that bread even more than your thighs. Be a good girl and give it heeeeeeeeere, fugagigigigi...!! So, you resist until the eeeeeeeeeend...!!"
"Ugugugugu!! No way, no way, I won't give it to yooou!! Even the croissant wants me to eat iiit!!!"
...She flung the door open. Like a marathon runner drawn on a certain caramel box, with her hands held high and an idiotic cheeriness, Beato appeared. For some reason, flags from around the world and confetti scattered about, perfectly completing this magnificent entrance.
Battler and Beelzebub, who had been fighting over the croissant, completely forgot about their argument, speechless.
"K... Kyahahahaha! Good morning, Beatrice-sama! I'll just be on my way now! Here, Battler-kun, say aaah!"
"Mmnng!! Mmm mmm, *chomp*, *gulp*. ...H-Hey, morning, Beato... Glad to see you're cheery this morning."
...Beato and Battler looked at each other. It seemed neither had a clue what was going on with the other.
"Pukukukukuku!! No, no, he was sleeping like a baby in his futon, clutching his knees. I informed him that it was time to wake up, but he just wouldn't rise. I tried to feed him, but it seems that a naughty cat wandered in and prevented that. Pu ku ku, pu ku ku ku ku!"
"...G-Gwaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhh...!!! You tricked meeeeeeeeeee...!!"
"Tch, you should talk. Weren't you the one who played that massive trick last time? I don't have a clue what's going on, but it looks like you got what you deserved."
"...By the way, Ronove, nice one."
"Pukukuku, thank you very much, Battler-sama."
BGM: Organ Short #200 Million in C Minor
For a while, Beato was very energetic, trying to hide her embarrassment...
"Heh. Don't take me so lightly. Did you really think I'd still be hiding in a corner, holding my knees?"
"*cackle* Then who was that person crying their eyes out in frustration last time? You could've gathered your tears in a jar and called it face lotion."
"Sh-Shut up. That was, um, just because I was a little surprised by your crappy act. I might've looked a little lame, but don't think the same move'll work twice."
"Of course not. And don't disappoint me by falling for the same move over and over again, okay? *cackle*cackle*!"
"Ihihi, yeah, just you watch. I'll show you that I'm a guy who gets stronger every time he's beaten down."
"Hoh? Why's that? So you really are weak against a rear attack?"
"...You and I are enemies, and we'll certainly never join forces... I now understand that clearly. So don't you ever try to trick me about that fact again."
"*cackle*cackle*! You say that, but knowing your weaknesses, I'll..."
Beato thought they were still joking around, but that tone had disappeared from Battler's expression some time ago. Beato felt as though his eyes were like the surface of black tea that had cooled down...
"You hear me? Don't do it again."
"...I don't get it. I might do it again when you've forgotten, right...?"
"Don't do it again."
Pierced by his strong and forceful gaze, Beato held her tongue. Maybe she was certain that Battler would break that silence with laughter. However, Battler's serious expression didn't change in the slightest. So to break that silence, Beato had no choice but to start laughing herself.
BGM: The Candles Dance
"...That's right. I almost forgot you were my enemy for a second there."
" "I won't embarrass myself like that again. I won't fall for your rear attack again. Never again...!"
"...Hmph! Hahhahahyahhahha!! It seems I'm not the only one who cannot wait for the fourth game. I am pleased, Battler. Come, take your seat."
"...Yep. Just how I like it. Clever little tricks won't work anymore."
"Stop acting so tough. You remain in a state of surrender for the last mystery in the previous game, the mystery of Nanjo's murder...!"
"...My answer for that one's still on hold for now. But that doesn't mean that I've lost heart. I'll definitely break your 'red truth'... and show that I can deny witches...!"
"Hmph. A commendable attitude. You truly are a man like a phoenix. Don't betray my expectations! With that, let us raise the curtains on the fourth game."
"But before that, it seems we must welcome a new guest."
"You remember as well, correct? That mystery girl, who appeared at the very end of the last game without an invitation, ruining my fun."
"She says she wants to join our game. I sent her an official invitation, inviting her to join this match. Ronove, summon our guest."
The voice that answered Beato's call came from the darkness in a corner of the room. When Battler turned around in surprise, he could now see that mystery girl there.
"My, my. How rude. All you had to do is greet us as soon as you arrived."
"Hoh, and what would you say?"
"<Good night, have a nice dream>."
"*cackle*cackle* Hahhahhahahahahahaha! How amusing, how truly amusing...!"
Beato cackled and clapped her hands. But that was only Beato, and nothing rose to Battler's face except a bitter smile.
"...Whew. You sure are a fighter."
Battler and the girl's eyes met, and he shrugged his shoulders as he spoke. But the girl didn't answer, giving only a cold stare in return.
"I don't need your gratitude. You were just slacking off. I only told you to open your eyes."
"Kuhhyahhyahhya! That's so true, stop slacking off, Battler, hyahhyahha!"
Beato tried to laugh as though sympathizing with her, but it didn't reach the girl's ears. She did absolutely nothing except stare at Battler with ice-cold eyes.
"...Well, it looks like someone hates me."
"I'm just annoyed that you aren't taking this fight seriously."
"Are you saying I'm not serious about this...?"
"Don't tell me that travesty earlier was you being serious. Don't take me for a fool. How long do you intend to play along with the witch's farce like this?"
"...I'm fighting Beato in my own way. And doing it seriously, of course."
"Seriously? Don't make me laugh. You keep on drinking tea and chatting with a witch for all eternity and call that fighting seriously? Keep the jokes to just your hairdo."
"...Well, that's because I wasn't used to this witch's game in the beginning, and I've been through a lot of harsh stuff. Still, I'm finally starting to see how to fight, and I'm getting the knack of doing it. If the pathetic way I've been acting makes it look like I haven't been serious to you, you're just wrong."
"...Is that so?"
"Of course, I know I've gotta close in a lot more before I can grab Beato by the collar. But no matter how long that distance may be, it's still finite. And in each game that passes, I'm steadily closing that distance step by step!"
"No matter how long it takes, I'll close in on that witch, and I'll definitely checkmate her. It might take a thousand years, to use her phrase. But even so, I'll definitely win sooner or later. Why? Because I definitely won't accept losing. I definitely won't stop moving forward, closing in on her! In other words, there's just one thing I can say for sure."
"I will definitely win against that witch someday! That's how it is."
"You really don't sound like you're in a hurry. Are you even trying to win? Even the finite can become endless if you treat it the wrong way. By now, you've become an Achilles who couldn't even outstrip a turtle."
"I get it. So this is why I'm needed. At this rate, there's no way you could win against the Endless Witch even after a billion years."
"...Who are you? It's not like you'll be struck by lightning if you just tell me your name."
BGM: Melting Away
At first, Battler faltered under the firmness of that look, and his gaze wavered slightly, but then his eyes gradually began to be sucked into the pupils that were staring at him. Then, inside those eyes, he saw a light that he'd seen sometime before...
Battler was struck by how strongly they resembled the eyes of a girl who definitely couldn't be here, even though that was completely impossible.
"...I know it's stupid, but for some reason, it feels true to me."
"But that can't be right. That person's supposed to still be six years old. You couldn't possibly be... Ange, could you...?"
"I'll put it another way. If I said 'I am your ally, so trust me', would you believe it? Would you unconditionally trust some unknown girl you're meeting for the first time just because she looks a little like someone you know?"
"...It's because you're such a softy that you got tricked so easily in the last game and cried so bitterly. You said it yourself. That kid is six, right? Do I look like I'm six? If I were to claim that I'm that kid despite that, would you just swallow that story?"
"...If you say it like that, there's no way I can argue back."
"...Sorry. That's right, I am a softy. And that should've been made clear to me after the last game. Is that what you meant when you said I wasn't being serious?"
"Yes. You may think you're fighting against a witch, but you're just getting along with her and playing. You're just playing at fighting in a friendly game of chess."
"That may be a serious contest for you two, but looking at it from far away, I only see you playing around and following the rules like you're good friends."
"...Ihihihi. That's harsh."
"But as long as you're unable to win at this game, you won't be released from this place. That's why I came. I came to bring this game to its conclusion. You claim that you're closing in on the witch, but you're just like a hamster running around in a wheel."
"At a glance, you might think that running around in a wheel is endless. The Endless Witch Beatrice. It's just like you. He thinks he's fighting, but he's actually just running around in a wheel while making a fool of himself."
"...This isn't a game. This is nothing more than a cage to shut him up in... for all eternity."
"Hoh. You liken my Endless to something like a wheel that a mouse plays in? Interesting, interesting, *cackle*..."
"Something that's endless in a certain dimension can be less than endless in a higher one. The fact that a Menger sponge has infinite surface area only matters in a world of less than three dimensions. In the three-dimensional world of reality, it has zero mass. Not only is it not endless, it doesn't even exist."
"*cackle*cackle*cackle*...! What an assertive woman. It seems you are worthy of being called my enemy."
"...Who... are you?"
"No one can prove that I really am your ally. On the contrary, it's more desirable that you keep your guard up strongly enough to find me very suspicious."
"...That's right. Last time ended up pretty bad. I've got to be at least that careful. I don't plan on getting tricked twice."
Beato laughed in a truly pleased way, which was humiliating only to Battler.
"People don't just get tricked out of the blue. That only happens when they fail to check things for themselves and leave it to other people. Saying that you thought the light had turned green just because you saw other people start crossing doesn't count as an excuse for getting into an accident. Get it...?"
"Yeah, I get it. You're telling me not to swallow information given to me by others, but to think for myself. In the past, I swallowed all the magic Beato showed me. I stopped thinking. So I was useless."
Battler grimaced as he remembered his many painful losses. The witch watched and laughed again, putting on a bold appearance.
"I'll offer you advice in a way that works to your advantage. Of course, you shouldn't swallow everything I say. Because no one can provide certain proof that I'm your ally."
Battler couldn't rid his head of that eerie smile worn by Virgilia, a person he'd once even thought of as trustworthy and reliable.
"So I don't need you to unconditionally trust me. You might as well take my advice as nothing more than an opinion to be considered. After all, the player who's fighting in a game against the witch is you."
"...That's right. Saying I lost because I followed the moves of an outsider would be just too pathetic of an excuse."
"Oh yes! My opponent is Battler. You are nothing more than an outsider. You should bear that in mind. *cackle*!"
"No, I'm not an outsider. With Beatrice and Ushiromiya Battler... and I who gaze down from above, it's almost like a fight in the shape of a triangle. At a glance, it might not look like a united front, but having a united front doesn't necessarily mean fighting together."
"Hoh. What an odd thing to say."
"Just now, he described fighting with you as closing the distance. But you can't measure distance with a single eye. Only with two eyes are things visible in three dimensions, and only then can distance be judged. And even when you have two fields of vision, it's pointless if they're in the same place. You can pin down witches more accurately when they're far apart."
"...Shooting from different positions and different angles. So, basically, it's crossfire. Heheh, interesting."
"We're shooting...from different positions... and different angles. So I won't get along with anybody. That's how I'll keep my own position separate and catch the witch in a pincer attack."
"...Are you okay with this, Battleer? This girl may actually be an ambush I set up, right? She might just be saying something plausible to gain your trust, right...?"
"...Maybe. She's been saying that over and over again herself. So of course, I can't blindly accept her advice."
"But as to whether she's worthy of trust or not, I can think for myself and make a decision. As long as I don't stop thinking for myself, I won't be tricked by anyone again...!"
"*cackle*cackle*cackle*!! What confidence, Ushiromiya Battleer! After you've said so much, it makes me want to trick you all over again, you see...? I can't wait to see what kind of face you'll make when you realize you've been duped once more! How pleasant, kuhhahahahahahahaha!!"
"...It looks like you know my name, but I don't know yours. Tell me."
For a while, the girl remained silent, without changing her expression even once. She looked as though she couldn't decide whether to say her name or not... or possibly, as though she was deciding on the name she'd say on the spot.
BGM: Melody (instrumental)
"Girdle? You wear one?"
"That's my name, dumbass. Call me Gretel."
"Then should I call myself Hansel? Ihihihi, just kidding, I'm Ushiromiya Battler! Call me Battler."
"...Nice to meet you. I hate handshakes. Don't take it personally."
"...Ah, really? Sorry. After all, it isn't certain that you're my ally. And you just told me to keep my guard up too."
Battler drew back his right hand, which he had stuck out. His bitter smile disappeared... and was replaced with a strong resolve directed at this new fourth game.
"...Because there is definitely... someone waiting for you to come back. For that kid's sake as well..."
Maybe there was something she wanted to say. Gretel clenched her fists in front of her chest and hung her head in silence, at a loss for words for a short while. As though smashing through that silence, Beato spoke up in a forceful voice.
At the same time, as though it had been blown by a sudden gust of wind, the clock that had been turned back to October 4, 1986... started to move. While we remained in the witch's tea room, the blue-gray sea and the green Rokkenjima spread out beneath us, and we could see a boat heading there, its wake trailing behind it.
The sky was already cloudy, and it seemed that the barrier of the typhoon would soon shut the island away.
Then, once all of its passengers had disembarked, the boat began to separate from the shoreline.
The relatives were gradually swallowed up by the island.
"Maria-chan, you'll trip if you aren't careful. Look out...!"
"Uu-uu-uu-!! Gonna faaall, faaall, siiink, siiink, *giggle*!"
...The long-missed cousins I had loved dashed across the beach, getting swallowed by the forest path that led to the mansion, and disappeared. And of course, Onii-chan could be seen among them too.
"*giggle*! Uu-uu-uu-! *giggle*giggle*!"
Maria onee-chan, whom I'd loved, started dashing, and Onii-chan chased after her. They were swallowed up by the forest. Following them, Father and Mother were also swallowed up. The rest of the parents were swallowed up... They were swallowed up, leaving only me behind...
Dumbass... How long are you gonna joke around and play with a witch in a place like this...?
Come back quickly, Onii-chan...! Don't leave me all alone...!