Actions

Work Header

A Beautiful Song for a Marionette

Chapter Text

It was sudden.

We’ve been livin’ peacefully in a mansion, avoidin’ people at any costs. My Master wasn’t fond of them - they were simply a problem, a nuisance. He wanted t’ focus on his work rather than socializin’. So he ran from the cities and decided t’ hide in the darkness.

From time to time, we had quests. It was easy to remember all of them, even for someone as problematic and stupid like me. 

Well, of course, we’ve also had to deal with adventurers who believed he was the Evil Lord, just because he had no mercy for people when angered. 

Dunno what happened to ‘em. They’re probably dead or turned into dolls, if my Master was in mood. I didn’t care because I was a mere doll. The only thing I cared about was the orders. 

Thinkin’ too much wasn’t one of ‘em. 

Ya know, ya might think livin’ without free will might be bad, but I actually liked it. Back when I was still alive, I almost died. People were afraid of my mismatchin’ eyes and thought that I’m definitely some kind of demon or something like that, so I had to run from ‘em.

Back then, Master was traveling. He was fond of every kind of beauty and offered lost souls his ‘help’ in maintainin’ it. And then he found me. I forgot the entire conversation, but I remember that one sentence which changed everything. He said:

“If you are willing to give yourself to me, I will make you beautiful.”

I’ve been given a chance.

That was enough.

At first, I felt a bit odd, because I wasn’t as emotional as I was before, but it was only for a few weeks. I let the Puppeteer decide for everythin’ while I simply followed his orders and took care of him. And I was happy.

But then, somethin’ happened and when I woke up, my Master was gone.

I couldn’t believe this. He felt safe in his own castle, why would he disappear like that? Without his orders, I slowly started to feel emotions like when I was a human again, and it was… Scary.

I was waitin’ for him, but for nothin’. Alone again, I didn’t actually know what can I do. Why did it happen? Have I done somethin’ wrong? I was afraid. Really, I wanted t’ find him, but someone had t’ protect our home.

But waitin’ was tiring me up. I lost all hope.

That’s why I decided t’ risk and find him by myself. Hell only knows how long I’ve waited. And I still believed he wouldn’t just abandon me without sayin’ anythin’. 




“Hey… Are you alright?”

He was willing to ignore the unknown voice until the person would leave him alone, but they turned out to be pretty stubborn. The sudden touch on his shoulder was enough to wake him up.

“Stop it!” 

He grabbed his weapon and pointed it at the stranger who was kneeling in front of him. 

It was a young boy with a blue hair tied to a short ponytail with a big, gentle lavender eyes. He immediately moved back and squeaked when he saw a weapon, waving his hands nervously. 

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry! I didn’t want to scare you…!”

He gave him a second to calm down a bit, waiting impatiently for a reason why he was bothering him. The young boy took a breath, tightening his arms on his chest.

“I won’t hurt you, I promise… I can’t even kill a single fly,” He started, his voice still shaking. “Your energy is so weak, I thought something bad happened… I couldn't just walk by and ignore it.”

He listened to him, still unsure what to do. The person in front of him was so fragile, he wasn't looking dangerous at all. To be frankly honest, he believed the boy was the lucky one - if the person he decided to wake up was a bandit, he would probably try to fight back or do something bad. 

That’s why he slowly lowered his weapon, much to this boy’s relief. He wasn’t a bad person.

“Sorry, kid. ‘m not a fan of sudden touch from strangers. Could ya stop lookin’ at me like that?”

“Ah, I’m so sorry!” He apologised again, lowering his head. “Your eyes are really beautiful, I couldn't stop looking at them… Ah, I probably sound so strange again! Uh, please forget about what I said!”

“Ya do like apologising, don'cha. Who are ya, by the way?”

The boy laughed nervously.

“Yes, I do hear that a lot… I’m Shino Hajime, p-pleasure to meet you!” He nodded his head and slowly stood up, giving him a hand to help. “Sir…?”

“Kagehira… Mika.”

Kagehira gave him a glaze before he used Hajime’s hand to stand up. The boy quickly turned red and took his hand back. 

“Ah, sorry… I’m doing this again.”

Now since he was standing, Kagehira could examine him properly. And to be honest, his looks weren’t what he expected - he was pretty sure people in the country weren’t wearing this type of outfit. 

“I-Is something wrong, sir?” Hajime noticed the gaze Mika gave him and turned even more red, avoiding eye contact. 

“No, it’s okay, just… ‘m not sure where am I now.” 

“Yumenosaki Kingdom! I don’t look like local people here, don’t worry…! But to be honest, your outfit also looks more exotic, if you let me use that word. Why are you here, sir?”

Kagehira scratched his head and closed his eyes, giving himself time to think. 

To be fairly honest, he didn’t know as well. He was wandering around, looking for him… And at some point he felt like his head exploded. 

“Maybe I fainted from hunger or somethin’...” He muttered to himself. “I don’t remember last time I did, but hell only knows how long I traveled.”

“What… You’re definitely not okay!”

Much to his surprise, Hajime heard his mumbling and immediately panicked, looking around. 

“Ah, don’t panic! Oshi-san would definitely scold me if he was here!” 

“O-Oshi-san…?”

“Mhm, my Master! I’ve been lookin’ for him… Have ya seen him maybe? That’d be very helpful~”

Hajime looked at him slightly confused, forgetting about his previous statement about fainting, while he tried to guess who was the “Oshi-san” Mika was talking about. He wasn’t sure what to do as he started looking around nervous, until he hit his open palm with a fist.

“I don’t know who are you talking about, but I might be able to help you!” Hajime smiled kindly at him. “I’m working in an inn nearby, so… Do you mind if we’ll go there? I made you feel awkward, so I’d like to repay it, and my friend might be helpful! We also have rooms and food-”

“Nah, ‘s really okay, kid. I’d feel even worse for wastin’ yer time, ya don’t hafta make up for somethin’ so trivial.”

Hearing his words made Hajime’s smile disappear, what surprised him. Why was this boy so stubborn? He didn't know him, he could be someone dangerous - and here he is, wanting to help him. 

But for some reason, something was telling him we won’t give up soon, and he personally would be a bit sad for making Hajime worry over someone like him. 

“Uh…” Mika scratched his head. “Okay, for one night, maybe?”

“O-of course! Please follow me!”

His face lightened up as he grabbed a basket laying right next to him, filled with herbs. 

Damn, that was quick. 



The Inn really was close to them. Kagehira wondered at first how he didn’t notice it before - the building was eye-catching, close to the road. It wasn’t the biggest Inn, but with its warm colours and type of architecture, it’s hard to miss it. Mika’s grip tightened on the basket he took from the young boy as he entered, looking around curiously. He was pretty sure he never saw that style before, so it was both interesting, as well as slightly frightening. He couldn’t say he disliked that, though.

“Ah, welcome back, Shinonon!”

An unknown voice came out of nowhere, scaring him to the point he almost let out of the basket. When Mika calmed down a bit, he gazed upon the person who came closer to Hajime, wearing a big, friendly smile on his face. 

The redhead was slightly higher than Hajime, with his clothes resembling the same style as his. He was holding two cups in his hands. 

“Good work, Shinonon~ Take a sit and rest before you’ll get back to your shift, okay? There’s not that much movement right now, I can easily handle it for now! Oh, and of course, I’ll make some tea for you.”

“S-sure, thank you…” Hajime nodded his head, slightly embarrassed. “Ah, let me take that basket. Do you mind tea, sir?” 

“I’m okay with it. Thanks for takin’ me in…” 

Kagehira’s face wasn’t that much different - especially when suddenly the redhead noticed him and came closer with a curious look. He furrowed his eyebrows when he gazed on Kagehira’s face.

“I feel bad for you for having a golden eye,” He mumbled under his nose, but before Kagehira could ask what he meant, a big smile appeared on his face. “Ah, Shinonon, I’m jealous! Whenever you come back, there are new guests and you doon’t even say who they are! You’re so famous~”

“Ah, no, it’s just…” Hajime shook his head. “This is sir Kagehira. I just met him nearby, he seemed very confused and tired, so I hoped I could help.”

“Hm, hm, I get it! Long journey, right?” 

Mika nodded his head, not sure what he should say. 

“I’m Akehoshi Subaru, Shinonon’s helper!” The redhead saluted. “I used to be an adventurer, but now I’m working in this peaceful place to make sure Shinonon’s okay~”

Mika almost sighed when he heard the name of his previous job, but managed to stop himself. 

“I’m still shocked you agreed, to be honest,” Hajime said with a weak voice. “Trickstar used to be quite famous… They definitely gave you better options in the capital.”

“Yeah, the others used it, but I just wanted to continue doing what I thought is right! Shinonon, you're just to modest~ This Inn is pretty much important for travelers between the Kingdom and the Empire, especially now! Right?”

They started talking more about the journeys and other job propositions Subaru received, so Kagehira quickly lost the possibility to join their conversation and focused on his tea instead. 

“Ah, I’m sorry!” Quickly enough, Hajime noticed they left him alone and apologised again. “I tend to get too much distracted while talking about this, so…”

“Nah, it’s okay. Don’t mind me.”

“No, no, you came with me so I could help! Um… Your Master, right?” 

“‘Master’?” Akehoshi quickly caught the topic and looked at the Marionette again. “Hm, you look really good for someone who has a Master! With such good looks I was almost sure you might be a lord yourself~”

“What? No way, never! ‘m nothin’ more than a d- Than a servant!”

He almost said “Doll”, of course… But something told him it’d be better to use a different word in front of Subaru.

It’s hard to tell what other people think about him, but… He never looked at this like that. Well, since the topic finally got on a proper track, he gave them a quick description about Shu, avoiding the biggest details that would make them suspicious. Since Subaru used to be an Adventurer, he could heard something misleading about his dear Master - and that would be problematic, right? Right.

Both Hajime and Subaru closed their eyes and started nodding their heads, trying to think about it.

“To be fairly honest, I’ve never seen anyone who would look like him!” Subaru was the first one to talk, furrowing his eyebrows. “No idea, sorry.”

“Hm. I do remember my teacher used to have different guests, but I was really young and too nervous…” Hajime’s face turned red as he pressed his hand to his face. 

Ah, that’s no good then. He was just wasting their time, wasn’t he? 

“I shouldn’t be surprised,” Mika sighed with a sad face. “He doesn’t like crowds, so lookin’ here won’t help too much… And I still dunno how can I repay ya for takin’ yer time to help.”

“Use it wisely, boy! We still prefer to be nicer, not everyone here in Yumenosaki wants to help!” 

“H-huh.”

Yes, that bright smile of his was sometimes too strong for him. It’s like he was looking directly at the sun.

“But! But, but…” Subaru giggled and crossed his hands. “One of my friends is working in the capital, and it is a great source of informations, see? He might have a clue for you if you give him an evidence I’ve sent you!”

“You’re talking about Isara, right?” Hajime interjected. “Do you still have a contact?”

“Yup! Maybe we’re not travelling as we used to, but I still tend to meet with him whenever I’m going to the capital! Damn, I wish I could see both Hooke and Ukki as much, I kinda miss them~”

“I thought sir Hidaka was working there as well?”

“I heard he left. None of us heard from him. Still!” 

Subaru noticed that they both started to lose the topic, so he clapped his hands. 

“I still have no idea how to thank ya… Ya don’t even know me…”

And Kagehira meant it. 

Hajime just met him few minutes ago, he wasn't just a typical kid who could play the “I’m the innocent small kid, help me!” or anything… How did they trust him so much to the point of giving contacts from the capital? 

He jumped when Akehoshi started laughing. 

“Ah, you’re such a shy boy!” He came closer to him once more and patted his shoulder. “I can tell! My intuition is as sharp as my blade, you really want to find your Master! And after all those years I’ve spent with people I learned helping those in need can be really funny, you know? Everything thanks to my group and Shinonon as well!”

“Please, stop it. It’s really okay, sir,” Hajime brought all of his courage so he could sent a warm smile without getting nervous again. “If you really feel like you need to pay us, hm… The second shift will be harder and we are one person short today, so maybe?”

“I’ll do my best!”

Though, to be honest, he wasn’t sure if he won’t turn into problem itself. Oshi-san was always asking him not to get close to work like that. He’s not a butler, so he might fall down and break something. There was a lot of people and with his eyes, there’s no way they wouldn't look at him with at least curiosity.

But those two were really kind, and Mika didn’t want to leave with a debt, that was also something Oshi-san was avoiding. He can do it if he wants, right?

What he didn't notice though was the fact that he was looking at Hajime the whole time, up to the point the boy’s face turned so red he had to put his cup back and hide his face. Subaru laughed again. 

“Ah, almost like a love from the first sight, Shinonon!”

“No, it’s just… Awawa…”

“Hm, I can’t hear you~ I might have to tell that Mr. Knight you’re already cheating on him~” 

“Please, stop it!” He almost screamed that, making other guest tur their gazes, interested in such a commotion. Akehoshi quickly covered him and stood up, apologising for their lively conversation. “Uuu, Akehoshi is bullying me… What am I supposed to do?”

“I'm just honest! You’re such a cutie people tend to believe you’re a girl, I can’t stop that?” 

“Yeah, he’s right,” Without thinking too much, Mika nodded his head with a soft smile. “‘m pretty sure Oshi-san’d agree on that.”

“Stop it, you two…”

They gave him a second to collect himself. 

“I’m just kind of jealous my Shinonon is so popular, forgive me!” At first, Subaru’s face was bright as always, but he suddenly calmed down, and a smile disappeared from his face. “But you know, Kage… You should avoid knights at any costs if you’ll meet them.”

You couldn’t ask for a more sudden change of the atmosphere. Even Hajime’s face turned darker. 

“The old warriors of the Kingdom…”

“They’re damn dangerous. Hell only knows what’s the real deal with then since the war technically ended,” Subaru continued. “But they are considered a real threat for everyone. Up to a point the Emperor is the one who’s protecting us, rather than our King!”

“Scary. How are ya ‘sposed t’ recognise them?”

“Well, if you’ll meet a crazy warrior with golden eyes too eager to end your life, run. And don’t look back. They have that specific aura around them. If you’ll become their target, you’re as good as dead.”

Sounds serious… Oshi-san never mentioned knights before. Who the hell are they? Psychopaths with a fancy name to hide their real face or what?

“Ahaha, we got really gloomy right now…” As quick as before, Subaru forced a smile and scratched his head. “I just remembered, so I had to say a word about them! That knight we mentioned earlier was just a wanna-be and more real case, though right now calling someone else a “knight” is considered an insult....”

“I believe Kagehira should know, so it’s okay,” Hajime took another sip. “But, to be honest… If he’ll just go to Isara, he might just avoid him, thinking he just heard your name somewhere.”

“Oh, right! So clever, Shinonon!” Another bright laugh, after which Akehoshi leaned over Kagehira, speaking quietly. “Ask him why he stopped travelling and remind him about that one arrow he got right into his knee while calling him ‘Sari’ all the time, he’ll remember how much I laughed back then.”

That sounds painful. Why the hell were you laughing at him? That’s what Mika wanted to ask, but he managed to stop himself. 

 

Soon they’ve been forced to stop all the fun chatting, the more clients has come. And some of them weren’t really as patient as others, so both Hajime, as well as Subaru, had to go back. 

Of course, Kagehira went with them - Akehoshi suggested that in order to get used to people, he could help him with the orders. He only asked him to hide his golden eye.

First hours were the worst, Mika was still a bit confused where he should go, but soon enough, he got the grasp on the basics. 

But… Something was off. It took him time before he could tell he felt if someone was observing him. Even though there was a lot of people looking at him. But in this crowd, one person was giving him goosebumps. Was it real, or was it simply his fear towards humanity? 

When Hajime walked towards him seemingly worried, it stopped. But it still was bothering. Thankfully, Hajime let him sit down for a bit. 

Luck was still on his side, because the rest of the shift turned out to be peaceful. On the evening, they contacted one of the merchants who was going to the capital in the morning of the next day and persuaded him to take Mika with him, saying that he’ll be able to guard him without paying too much. 

It looked like he needed it, so he agreed. So Kagehira could sleep peacefully and get ready for the next day. 

Sadly, he couldn’t sleep in the night, but that didn’t get in his way later.

Fate was really on his side for now. Not only he got in touch with those two nice people, got a nice cup of tea, managed to find someone who could get him to the capital… This was too good to be true. Yet it was happening right in front of his eyes. 

Shu always told him the outside world is unforgiving, that it will try to kill him as soon as he’ll leave the safe mansion. 

 

The capital also filled his heart with hope. Seeing such a bright, beautiful town was like a strange dream. Not all people were smiling, but he didn't meet anyone who could bother him for his outfit or eyes - of course, people glanced at him, some better-looking higher class even whispered, but nobody really stopped him. 

The town was big enough to the point where Mika’s head hurt, but the merchant was kind enough to tell him where the Archives were. Isara should be there.

He spent a lot of time in darkness. It was pretty, but his eyes were in pain. Thankfully, they spent few hours on the road, it was already evening. Time sure has passed quickly.

But… Maybe the world has finally changed? Maybe he and Shu will be able to see it after such a long time…?

 

When Mika entered the Archives, he was greeted with a silence, really nice a change of pace. The town was pretty loud. There wasn’t too many people inside, so he decided to go and look for Isara on his own. Subaru said he should be somewhere on the second floor…

He didn't notice how silent his steps were, so when he bumped into another worker, they both jumped. After a quick talk, she was kind enough to point out which room was occupied by Isara and his co-worker. She also added that she’s not sure if he’ll be able to meet with him, as he got a job straight from the higher-ups few days ago.

Well, great. But maybe the second guy will be helpful. There’s always hope, right?

Oshi-san would definitely call him naive if he was here.

But he still decided to go there after thanking the lady. Before he entered it, he knocked the door, since he didn't want to scare him the same way as the lady before.

“Hello, is sir Isara here?”

There was no response. Not even from the co-worker. Maybe he was out of office as well?

In this kind of situation, most people would give up and go, but something just tempted Mika to open the door and look. 

Another knock.

Nothing. 

His rand rested on the doorknob. The doors opened easily and entered the room with caution. Weren't they locking them? Strange. 

He was greeted by the darkness. The only light source was coming from the single rays of the moon, making the room even more eerie. Mika’s eyes quickly adjusted to the darkness as he stepped forward. He noticed a figure laying on a desk, his face hid behind his arms. 

“Good evenin’, sir…” Mika came closer to him and gently patted his shoulder. 

Just now his nose caught the familiar stench of blood, and when he withdrew his hand, it was dirty. 

Without thinking, he grabbed the person by their shoulders and pulled him towards the chair to see their face.

The blood was coming right from their neck. The wound was deep enough to make the head bounce. 

Whoever this person was, they were already on the other side. 

Chapter Text

He couldn’t believe his eyes.

There, in front of him, was a fresh body of the archivist, their blood on his hands. 

At first, Kagehira was just standing there, wondering what in the world happened or who took their life. The view itself wasn’t nothing new for him.

It changed when he heard a shout behind his back. 

The lady noticed the unusual scene and immediately started crying for help, cursing the Marionette.

“Murderer!” 

Mika shook his head, but no voice has escaped his throat. He wanted to deny it, but the shock has paralyzed his entire body. 

Goddamn emotions, go back! Nobody needs you right now, I need t' focus!

Soon enough, he was running between the shadows like an animal, hearing the steps of other people that started gathering nearby. They heard the screams. They called the guards. 

They also believed this poor doll had to be stopped. 

Kagehira understood that staying in this place will end bad for him, so he ran. His body was moving automatically – dancing between the shadows, keeping an ear whenever he felt someone else’s presence. Something deep inside him was even telling him that he shouldn’t feel bad if he kills them.

But he ignored that. He knew it won’t do any good. Don’t kill when it’s not necessary.

Mika managed to get to the first floor of the building without any troubles, but one of the guards noticed his movements and blocked the stairs. Without too much thinking, he used the window nearby as the other escape route.

The fall wasn’t painful so he continued running away, hiding his face. Reaching the side streets turned out to be fairly easy, but this town already proved itself to be too damn big for him to move freely, and he found himself lost.

And his hunters, on the other side, were getting closer.

“This way, sir Kagehira!” 

The shock almost caused him to stop and throw his dagger in that direction. Who in the hell was in this town, how did they know his name? He ignored that, but at some point, someone grabbed him by his hand and pulled closer towards the dead end. 

“Okay, Teacher, we can go now~” The voice came right next to him. “Don’t worry, we’re friends!” 

Before he got any time to rebel, a portal appeared behind them and the doll was forced to cross it. 

 

After the adrenaline went down, Mika needed a bit of time to catch his breath, still seemingly confused. Not as tired as he expected, but terribly confused. He closed his eyes for a second, giving himself time to concentrate, and then opened them, looking around. 

“HoHo~ Are you still with us?” A voice called him, the same he heard in the town. “Master, Sora thinks he’s okay!”

“Heh, isn’t that greAT? Welcome to my domain, you’re still aliVE.”

Unlike the person which brought Mika here, this voice was familiar to him – or at least that’s what he thought, so he waited for the person to come closer. The owner turned out to be a young man around his age with characteristic, asymmetric haircut and sharp, golden eyes. Mika focused on his face for a longer second, reminded of the warning Akehoshi gave him in the Inn, but his gaze wasn’t as devil-like as he said. He seemed pretty normal.

“Uh… Thanks for yer help.”

“Not a problem, just please, don’t try going there anymoRE. What an irony you’ve been accused so faST.” 

Mika blinked.

“How did ya- Wait, no! It wasn’t me!” He grabbed his head. “Uh, that’s why Oshi-san didn’t like people, they see ya an’ already think whatever they like…”

The young man grinned.

“That’s right, people can be really problematic in situations like that, bUT… In that case, you’re either unlucky or someone tried to push their guilt onto you, my dear MarionetTE.”

Kagehira hissed.

“Why?” 

“Because we love shooting naïve protagonist’s in the face whenever we cAN,” His grin widened even more. “So get ready for that or face the consequencES.”

He wasn’t the nicest or most helpful person when it came to answering questions, but Mika knew he wasn’t at least hiding the reality. Now that they saw him on the crime scene, running immediately after being spotted, the Capital was out – or even more, if they’ll spread the news fast. Of course, things couldn’t go easy, right?

But there was something else that was bugging Kagehira. This person… He had a feeling he saw him somewhere in the past, maybe he was one of Oshi-san’s guests. He tried to remember them, but some weren’t the nicest ones and he preferred to avoid them. Mika scratched his head and closed his eyes, trying to find out if he knew him.

“Ah,” When an idea came to his mind, he opened his eyes and pointed at the man. “I remember ya… Yer that alchemist Oshi-san invited once, yer name was Sakasaki?”

Upon hearing his name, the alchemist clapped his hands.

“How sweet of Shu to make sure his Marionette remembers ME,” There was a hint of amusement in his voice. “I’m honorED. Yes, my name is Sakasaki Natsume, a humble alchemist living in the Kingdom as of now, nice to see you agaIN.”

Mika frowned, but said nothing.  

“So? Why did ya help me?”

“To be honest, it wasn’t me, but SoRA.” 

As he said that, he pointed with his hand at the blonde mage, who was already in the air with a sweet smile on his face, keeping a book in his hands. 

“Sora was sure at first they were chasing us, so he panicked a lot!” He gazed at Mika. “HeHe, that’s why he contacted Master and asked for advice, and he told me to bring you here~”

“Us?”

“Yup, me and Teacher!”

That… Wasn’t saying too much.

“He’s talking about that idiOT,” Natsume sighed. “Where is he now, has he lost his wAY? That’d be interestiNG.”

That still wasn’t saying too much, but thank you for your opinion, sir. 

“I see,” Mika smiled. “Sorry fer bein’ suspicious, but too much happened at once an’ stuff, I needed a second to calm down. Thanks once more.”

“HoHo?” Sora flew closer to him. “Are you playing tag, sir?”

“Yes, with the Yumenosaki’s guards for going to the wrong place in the worst time possibLE,” Natsume sighed again and shoved his hair from his face. “But there’s something I don’t understaND. Why you, a simple Marionette, went to the enemy’s town without the Puppeteer’s guidanCE?”

Mika furrowed his eyebrows, taking a second before answering.

“I dunno,” He admitted. “It was… I thought it was the best decision to look for him. There’s no way he left me on his own will.”

“Hm… Yes, I think we’re both on the same boat in that regaRD. The problem is, there’s no way he could go to the capital he hates so muCH. Already forgot about IT?”

“Mmh… I didn’t remember. Truth t' be told I feel like my head could explode at any given moment…" Mika clicked his tongue. "And, well, I was told I can ask an archivist for help.”

“And you found a dead boDY. Good jOB.”

“Like I said, I didn’t do that!” Mika clenched his fist. “I don’t even know who died!” 

They weren’t going anywhere talking like that. What was his problem?

“Ah, if you’re wondering who it was, the victim turned out to be Isara’s co-worker!”

Mika tilted his head upon hearing another unknown voice, as if someone would try to attack him out of nowhere. Soon enough a portal opened in the room, and the third, tallest man with dark blue hair entered with a small package in his hands. 

“He was lucky, though~ Few days ago, Isara left the capital with some orders and he’s still on his mission, or so I’ve heard.”

“Great, for once you’re usefUL,” Natsume rolled his eyes. “So it wasn’t him, good for yOU. It's hard to tell what can one ex-adventurer DO.”

All of them didn’t say anything at first, thinking about possible answer. Kagehira stayed out of it, knowing the wouldn’t be much of a help anyway.

„Hm… Speaking about people,” Sora tilted his head. “Sora remembered you said not so long ago a spy has been discovered in the dungeons?” 

“That’s right, there was somethiNG,” Natsume put his fist to his mouth. “InterestiNG. If that archivist and the spy are the same person, things might get a little bit complicatED. Unless we know moRE.” 

Both him and Sora gazed at the third mage standing nearby, who just started shaking his head. 

“That’s everything I know, I’m sorry! I didn’t expect this to be that important…”

“Good job breaking it, heRO.”

Tsumugi sighed heavily and hung his head.

“If I knew before, I’d be able to gather more intel, I promise… Wait, truth to be told, I still can!” He raised his head again with an innocent smile. “I’m sure I can do that if you’ll ask me nicely, Natsume- Ouch!”

Natsume pressed his lips together and grabbed the nearby book, sending it flying in Tsumugi’s direction. He caught it in the last second, saving his face from a hit. 

 “Oh please, I’m against the violence!” 

“Take a goddamn hint and stop blabbiNG,” He waved his hand. “Changing the topic, I don’t like the connection between them, it’s too obvioUS. Connecting the dots in this world shouldn’t be that eaSY.” 

“As I said, I can try to go around the town and gather as much as I can, but there are also those books you wanted me to take care of, didn’t you?” 

“Right, that’s far more important that playing hide and seek with this excuse of a countRY…” 

Natsume’s gaze stopped on Mika. 

“On the other hand, making friends is always a good idea, maybe Isara has a bit more knowledge since he’s worked in the archivES,” He scratched his chin. “So that crazy run might get useful in the futuRE. Don’t forget the main goal, we’re not here to cause ruckus, but to find Itsuki… Meaning we have to start from you, MarionetTE.” 

Kagehira raised his eyebrow. Thankfully they weren’t going too far, or he’d be lost in their discussion faster than he wanted. 

“The accusation, right. Should I worry that much?”

“Yes, since you’re looking so out of place, they won’t have a trouble identifying you…” Tsumugi narrowed his eyes. “But that shouldn’t be a problem for you, Natsume.”

“Could be worse, I can work with thAT,” Natsume grinned. “Be aware that’ll cost you a nice deBT.”

This gaze Natsume gave to him made Kagehira shiver, his hand immediately moved towards the handle of the dagger. He couldn’t tell why, but for a second, Sakasaki had entirely different aura around himself. 

As if he knew something more. As if he was scheming as they were talking. 

“Well, just be ready for thAT,” Natsume moved closer, hiding his hands behind his back. “Let’s get back to the main topIC… As much as I’d prefer not to play too much with your face, we’ll have to change quite a bIT. Especially that golden eye, locals will get crazy upon seeing IT.”

“And different clothes would do the work – even though it’s such a shame, it fits you so well!” Tsumugi smiled at him and fixed his glasses. “Oh, by the way, I think we’ve never had a chance. I’m Aoba Tsumugi, an ex-ar-“

“We didn’t ask for your autobiograPHY,” Sakasaki frowned at him. “Stop wasting your breath and do something usefUL.”

“Rude! Just a few minutes ago you said we don’t have to rush?”

“Case in point, ruSH. But that doesn’t change the fact work is waitiNG… You’ve stayed too long in the dusty room, that’ll be a good change of pace for yOU.”

“Ah, are you worried?” Tsumugi’s smile widened and Sora nearby giggled upon seeing Natsume’s face. “I knew you’re a sweet person- Hey!”

Another book traveled through the room just to meet Tsumugi’s face, but he managed to avoid it. 

“I get it… I’ll go to my room and finish the chapter, then I’ll go to the capital.”

And after that, he slowly moved to the other part of the library, making Natsume smile genuinely for the first time this day. Kagehira sighed. It was amazing how fast his confusion from the attack turned into ‘why the hell am I even here, can I just go back looking for Oshi-san please?” type of confusion.

Well, at least now he didn’t have to worry this day would turn into book-throwing contest, sponsored by Sakasaki Natsume himself.

 “Great, now we can focus on that poor archiviST.”

“Are we finally becoming a full-time detective agency, Master?” Sora jumped and grabbed a loupe laying on the table. “HoHo~ Sir archivist, please allow us to take this case~”

“Sort of, I gueSS. At least we’ll be playing wannabe heroes of the weEK.”

“Not to destroy yer plans,” Mika laughed, scratching his head. ”But ya have no evidence that Isara guy is the spy.”

For a second, nobody answered him. Sora and Natsume were just looking at him, then at themselves.

“You’re no fUN.”

“Aww…”

“Try to get in my damned shoes!” Kagehira gritted his teeth. “My Master’s gone an’ I almost got caught by guards!” 

Come on, who was the insane one in this situation? They’re making fun of a serious case, how in the hell they expected him to take it easy?

“I’ll contact lord Rei tomorrow so I have this covered, don’t worry too much about IT,” Natsume scratched his head. “That doesn’t make any senSE. The archivist and spy, walking Marionette, people are getting out of hand as we speAK… I don’t think a small doll like you can unravel this mysteRY.”

Kagehira clicked his tongue. Deep enough he had a feeling this might get too complicated far too fast - and his one journey to the capital showed him how naive he was, and how much Oshi-san was right whenever he said people outside shouldn’t be trusted. Not only he still had no idea where to look, now someone tried to dirty his hand in the blood he didn’t spill. 

“Take it as a good life lessON,” Natsume added after a pause, as if he could hear his thoughts. “Anyway, let’s get down to busineSS. Outfit won’t be enough with that face facials and golden eye of yours, even if they don’t know who are you and what’s your naME.”

“Does that mean we’re doing a magic show, Master?” Sora clapped his hands enthusiastically. “Let Sora help, he trained that skill long enough!”

“Yup, I’ve been thinking of a little show, you’re more than welcoME~”

Upon seeing their gazes, Kagehira gulped and moved back. 

“I’ve got a bad feelin’...” He almost managed to get out when Sora appeared out of nowhere behind him and grabbed him. “Hey, let go of me!” 

“Good, you’re a good chiLD,” Natsume grinned at him and moved closer. “Don’t worry, it’s going to be just a li~itle change, enjoy our performanCE.”

Mika tried his best to run away, but Sora’s grab turned out to be stronger than he expected - and he didn’t want to hurt him, so that left him with only one option. 

To watch in horror what type of performance Natsume prepared for him. 

 

Luckily, it didn’t turn into real nightmare, Sakasaki’s idea was pretty innocent for the entire farce he made few minutes later. After a bit of thinking, he didn’t change that much in his appearance - just his facials, including his right eye, so it matched the left one. He was even nice enough to teach Kagehira how to use this spell so he could use it at any moment. Mika wasn’t sure if he was good enough to understand any type of spells, but it turned out to be easy as pie. 

Well, it’s not like the entire town saw him, so that should be enough, maybe he’ll try to stop his dialect a bit to make him even less recognizable from the crowd. Worst case scenario, he’ll think about getting a new haircut. 

After making that little magic show, Natsume left the room with his head raised high, leaving Kagehira only with Sora, who was still gazing at him with his curious eyes. 

“HuHu…” Sora moved closer to him and scratched his chin. “Your colors seem pretty dark and sad. Is there something bothering you? Sora will be glad to listen!”

“Ah… Sorry. I guess ‘m still confused and all. And your Master wasn’t even better.”

Natsume’s way of speak and manners could make him raise a brow once in a while, even when he wasn’t that cryptic. Being unable to say what was going in his head was probably the reason why Kagehira was feeling so nervous around him.

“It’s okay, it’s not that unusual - but Sora can promise Master isn’t a bad person!” Sora stopped gazing at him and made a quick circle around with a big smile. “Thanks to him Sora is here.”

Mika raised his eyebrows. 

“You weren’t here from th’ beginnin’?”

“Nope, Sora has been kicked out from his village, then lived in a ruins before Sora’s Master has found him. But that’s okay, Sora learned a lo~ot of things on his own and he’s very glad he had a chance to meet them!”

Ah, that wasn’t the most pleasing thing to hear. Just before he noticed, Mika’s hand has been laying on Sora’s head and gently patting him, while he was looking at him confused. 

“Yer stronger than ya look, kid,” Mika smiled softly. “Glad t’ know fate haven’t destroyed yer will. “

“HeHe~ You sound like a Master right now. In a good way, of course,” Sora grinned back at him. “But now I want you to smile more, you know? You look way better when you’re happy. So Sora has an idea, he’ll take you a on a small tour around the library! Do you mind?” 

“Ah, I might get lost fast… But thanks-”

“No, no, nobody’s going to move on their feet,” Sora laughed as he jumped from his broom and grabbed it with his left hand. “We’ll use this!”

Mika narrowed his eyes as he poked the broom with his finger. 

“Ya sure that’s a good idea?” He asked. “It’s okay, I can just sit here and wait-”

“Nope, you can’t. Allow Sora to escort you~”

Sora’s gaze was so intense Mika moved back again, only to notice how hard was for him to just say no and hide from him. He could tell Sora had no ill intentions, so he lost this battle, approached him and sat behind the mage on a broom. Sora nodded his head and pointed at the door with his fingers, making it open, and then forced the broom to float.

“It’s time for some magic then, just for you!” Sora clapped his hands. “HaHeHiHoHu!” 

 

One second later, Mika was together with Sora in the air, now noticing how enormous the library was. The room was on a plan of a wheel, with a centre being lightened up by the pillar of light going all the way up to the ceiling, which was giving a feeling of looking at the galaxies. The bookshelves were standing all around it, going so high nobody could reach them if they weren’t able to fly. Of course, there were many stairs and smaller passages, but those weren’t enough to go everywhere you wanted. 

Mika was astonished how different this place was. 

“How did ya manage to build this place…” This question escaped his mouth, making Sora laugh. “How was it possible?”

“Sora doesn’t know, but Teacher and Master are strong magicians, so maybe they did it!” He said. “They never stated that they made it, so Sora can’t tell. Ah, since we’re here, do you mind picking some books for them?” 

“Sure, go ahead.”

With that, they both flew around the library, with Sora looking around and grabbing books he thought Aoba and Sakasaki needed, while Mika was taking those from him, just so he young mage could focus on his work without a need to go down and lay them on the table. Thanks to this, it went pretty fast.

They wanted to stroll for a bit longer after finishing their job, but before Sora flew higher, a portal has opened in the middle of the library.

“Ah, this town really is going crazy, it’s hard to stay hidden…” 

Aoba closed the portal soon as he went through it, mumbling under his nose. He had a small pack in his hands. Sora and Mika approached him and jumped from the broom. 

“Ah, hello there, I hope you’re enjoying your stay?” Tsumugi welcomed Mika with a weak smile. “I’ve managed to grab something for you. Not as pretty as your current outfit, but I hope it’ll do the work…”

“I don’ have a choice for now, do I?” Mika waved his hand. “Don’ worry ‘bout it, thank ya kindly for takin’ yer time to get this.”

“You’re welcome. Just remember not to stay for too long, okay? It’s getting pretty late, it’ll be better for you to stay in good shape. Natsume might get something at any given time.”

Mika scratched his cheek with a finger. 

“Ya don’ hafta worry for me, thanks.”

“Sora is good as well! What about you, Teacher?” 

Tsumugi gazed at the table where they put all the books they’ve gathered.

“I have a bit of work to do and I want to make sure Natsume won’t overwork himself, so please, go first,” He nodded his head. “He can be harsh sometimes, but I know he’s a good kid. And he really wants to find the Puppeteer, I think… Just go rest, everything will be good. Have a good night!”

 

Just as Tsumugi asked, both Sora and Mika left. 

The thing is, Mika couldn’t really feel any fatigue, so it was hard for him to fell asleep. Whenever he was able to, he could wake up soon after in a cold sweat, worrying. But even after some time, he was still fine. 

Due to a lack of proper daylight, he couldn’t tell how long he stayed with the mages, but it could be even few days, judging how many times they were saying “good night” to each other. Mika spent most of his time with Sora and Tsumugi, Natsume nowhere around. 

That is, until he came back.

“Good neWS,” Natsume did his best to stop a yawn and look confident. “No hint on Itsuki sadly, but I’ve confirmed my theory about Isara was rigHT. He’s the spy they’ve been talking about and he’s in demon’s hands as we speAK.”

“T’ be honest, that sounds both good an’ bad…”

Mika had a feeling that won’t go too easy. Nobody liked spies.

“For him, that’s bad - unless he’ll give us reason to vow for hIM. He was sent by the Empire, so in no way they greeted him with the tEA,” Natsume tilted his head. “The thing is, Rei wasn’t there when he was caught and he’s still outside, so we don’t even know if he’s aliVE. But if, a bad ending is awaiting hIM… Archivists are a great source of knowledGE.”

Mika gulped upon hearing those words. Yes, he could tell the demons wouldn’t play family-friendly games to get what they wanted out of him. Bad luck. 

“Wouldn’t be surprised if he wasn’t even an archivist,” Mika said after a bit. “Maybe it was only a disguise? An’ it might be hard t’ negotiate without their Lord.” 

“Good poiNT. And since I can’t just send a message to the Demon Lord, that means we have to there and hope the demon who caught him is willing to talk until he’s baCK. If you want, go for IT. He’s your targET.”

Yeah, Natsume did what he could, asking him for more wasn’t a good idea. If Lord Rei is coming back soon, he also might be a bit helpful. And he might know something about Oshi-san. 

“Hey, Master…” Sora raised his hand. “Can Sora go with Mika?”

Both Natsume and Mika jumped in the almost same time. 

“No no, ya don’ hafta to!” Upon seeing Natsume’s death glare, Mika waved his hands fast. “I’ll be more than good!” 

“But it’ll be a good training for Sora, right?” Sora jumped to Natsume instead. “Sora will be careful, he promises…?”

Natsume tried to find an argument, but Sora’s power was too strong. He just sighed heavily and ran his hand through his hair. 

“I don’t like the fact it’s too hard to say no to yOU,” He clicked his tongue and sent Mika another glare. “If something will happen to him, I’ll personally ‘ talk’ with yOU. Don’t you even try failiNG.” 

Mika just nodded his head. 

Yeah, for some reason he was damn sure he didn’t want to anger him, so he took his threat to hit heart. And obviously he also wanted Sora to be safe and good. 

After a bit, Natsume gave them directions. Tsumugi was already resting, so he couldn’t help them.




H-Hello?

Nothing. It’s like you’ve been thrown into a hole and nothing could save you. What’s going on?

“Hey, Aniki.”

There was a voice coming from the distance. Who was it?

“What’s wrong?” 

“I heard they’ve caught someone.”

“Yep, some sort of a spy, I think. But ‘he’ rescued him. I wonder why.”

“Wait, him? Is that guy still alive then?”

“Definitely, but hell knows for how long. Now I’m actually kind of feel sorry for him?”

“He was stupid enough to come here, so he’ll get what he deserves. But yeah, he couldn’t ask for a worse ending.”

“Or maybe he’ll get something out of him. He’s a spy, right?” 

“Huh… If you two have so much time to gossip, why don’t you do something useful instead of sitting around?”

A third voice joined them. 

“You’re not usually asking for help.”

“I do now. That man will be… Useful.” A short pause. “But I need some information to move along. You two enjoy playing with human’s minds, Anija taught you well. Use it. But remember - he’s mine.” 

“Got it… I hope we’ll be getting something in return?”

“I’ll think about it-”

Chapter Text

A sunset bathed the forests around the village in the warm tones as Mika and Sora approached it, welcoming them with an eerie atmosphere. 

Thanks to Sora’s kindness, Mika spent the entire ride sitting on his broom, thinking about the current situation – which was pretty ironic, considering they were rushing to help a man he’s never met before, no matter how risky this could end to either him or the little boy that accompanied him. Natsume was pretty clear that even though Rei and Shu knew each other, his absence could be a problem should they get into trouble. And nobody was sure how helpful Isara was. 

If only Oshi-san was where he was supposed to be, he wouldn’t worry about anything – hell, he’d be somewhere else, living his peaceful life. But life can’t be this easy, right?

During their ride, Sora told him what he’s learned about the demons up until now. 

“Well, Sora believes it should be obvious, but demons never are the nicest creatures living on the earth, no?” He scratched his nose. “The thing is, they weren’t supposed to attack people for no good reason~ Either they or the Kingdom forced the demons into some sort of Pact, so both them and the village could live peacefully… Well, as peacefully as they can since vampires and other creatures like that exist!” 

“If they had a Pact, maybe someone broke the rules?” Mika asked. “That’d explain why they’re aggressive or somethin’.” 

He’d soon change his mind when they’ve arrived. The village, bathed in the sunset’s rays coming between the trees, welcomed them with an unsettling silence. Not a single person was walking around. Not a single animal as well. 

It was just as if everyone ran away and the village could burn at any given second.

“Huh… Maybe they’re hidin’,” Mika tilted his head. “But it’s too quiet if ya ask me.”

“HuHu, Sora doesn’t like the colors of this place… But if we’ll convince them we’re not here to hurt them, they might answer us, you know~?” 

Unlike him, Sora approached the houses while humming a pleasant song under his nose and knocked on the door. 

“Knock knock~ Is anyone in there? Sora wants to ask a question!”

But nobody answered. Mika sighed. 

“Try with the other house… But I don’ think they’ll answer ya. Sorry.” 

At this point Mika was sure either this village was abandoned or scared to the point where every guest was a potential danger to them, so in no hell people would answer the poor kid. While Sora was jumping from one house to another, Mika stayed on high alert, listening to the sounds of nature around, trying to catch something out of the ordinary. This village was too quiet for his likings. 

“So Sora and Mika have to work their best instead…” 

The only thing that caught his attention was Sora’s voice as he approached him with a long face. 

“Not a single soul willin’ t’ answer ya? Rude.” 

“Yeah, they have to be very scared…”

Or maybe nobody was left in the village… But Mika didn’t want to say it out loud. He patted Sora’s head instead. 

“Maybe jus’, ya know, ask yer Master if he knows the way?” Mika grinned at him. “I mean, he should know where t’ go. Sadly I don’t.” 

“Oh, right! Sora got so excited he forgot to ask,” Sora’s cheeks turned red. “Sorry~ But wasn’t Mika a guest in there as well? Why don’t you remember?”

Kagehira furrowed his eyebrows, pressing two fingers to his temple. 

“Uh… I guess we’ve been usin’ a different entrance or somethin’ like this? I’ve never seen this village fer sure.” 

A short “hum, hum~” escaped the young mage’s lips as he closed his eyes.

“Hey, Master~? Can you please guide us to the entrance? People around aren’t really willing to help, you see.” 

As they were talking with each other, Mika once again looked around the village, when his body moved on a glimpse, turning towards the forest. This feeling… As if someone was cackling behind his back, watching his every move, waiting for him to trip… Seeing how many shadows were close to embrace him, Mika moved towards the forest, ready to sink into the hiding and find the cause. 

Just before he managed to sneak in, however, one of the shadows moved back and escaped further into the forest. His first instinct was to follow it, but Sora’s voice was enough to catch his attention, remembering that he wasn’t alone and he couldn’t just leave the boy here. 

That was until Sora pointed out the exact same direction. 

“Huh…” 

“Hm? Is something the matter?” Sora tilted his head to see Mika’s face. “Something good happened? You’re smiling.” 

“Ah, am I?” Mika blinked. “No, it’s jus’… Don’t worry ‘bout it. The thing is, I think we’re not alone in this place anymore, someone jus’ ran away when I got closer.” 

Sora narrowed his eyes as he stared at the point Mika pointed, then jumped on his broom. 

“Sora can’t see any trace of colors in there, so if anyone was in here, they’re really fast,” He scratched his chin. “But is chasing them a good idea, sir?”

“No, we’ll keep th’ safe distance between ‘em and us. Those might be th’ demons after all.” 

After all, who else could be in this forest other than the people from the village or their not-so-friendly-neighbors?  Just to be ready for everything, Mika demanded Sora to stay close to him as they entered the forest, the Marionette already with his weapon in hand. 

Unlike the village, this place offered much less light around other than the magical lamps hiding here and there, accompanied by corpses scattered around. One man had his throat completely wide open. Another lady’s insides were showing from her stomach as the crows were picking them. There was even a small girl who seemed fine at first glance, only to notice she was missing a heart when Mika inspected it. Either wild animals attacked them, or the massacre occurred… Only one body he found later in the bushes was fresh enough to bleed, giving him enough reasons to stay on alert.  Even Sora was already on a ground, clinging to his left side. At least now he was sure nothing that’d attack Sora would escape his eyes, but Mika himself couldn’t sneak around as easily as well. 

Minutes passed by and the sun disappeared as they approached a small entrance which led them to the dungeons, at first looking just like a normal cave. His eyes quickly adjusted to the darkness reigning inside as he watched his steps. That strange feeling of being watched was finally gone, only to be replaced with something even more sinister, as if someone was sticking needles right into his heart. 

As if something bad was supposed to happen at any given moment. 

Sora was still right next to him, his little body trembling. 

“Sora can’t see a single color around without it,” He mumbled, trying to form a small ball of light in his hand. “Ah, please give Sora a second… Sora doesn’t like this, he shouldn’t feel like this.”

“Sure. Take yer time.” 

Mika, on the other side, wasn’t bothered that much, just annoyed, going further into the dungeon with a neutral face – if not the feeling of those damned needles, he’d be more than fine. Death and unfriendly environment were a part of his life. He couldn’t allow himself to feel fear or to lose his head when his Master’s life was entrusted into his hands. A young boy who was shining like a little sun was the exact opposite of Kagehira’s world, so of course he was reduced to his fear right now… Though he expected him to be a little more confident. 

‘Is the taste of your victim’s fear that exciting to you? ’ Shu’s voice echoed in his mind. ‘If so, I have made a mistake during the last maintenance, it seems. You are not an animal, Kagehira. So stop acting like one.’

Mika had to remind himself at least three times that he was supposed to protect him and not, for example, offer him to Shu. He was right. He had to stop himself from acting like this. 

“How long can ya endure in here?” Mika asked with a low voice. “Maybe ya should go back t’ yer Master.”

Maybe it was a bad idea to bring Sora in here at all. 

“Sora can see some colors around. This might be a reason why.”

His firm answer was nothing he’d expect to hear. Kagehira stopped and hid Sora behind, once again allowing his ears to grab on any little sound that’d help him appoint where the danger was hiding. 

“How splendid, look at this little knight, protecting the boy with his own body!” 

His grip on a dagger tightened. He tapped Sora’s hand with his finger so he could let go of his hand. 

“Not to be the nicer one, but Aniki… You couldn’t be more offensive.” 

“We warned them by pricking some needless and fear inside their minds, didn’t we? I was sure the little boy wouldn’t stand it and surprise, he did!” 

Mika’s eyes met with Sora’s. Now that he was standing next to him, he wasn’t even half as shaking as before. So that was the source of his sudden fear? 

Kagehira’s lips twitched.

“So, willin’ t’ come out of th’ hidin’ and welcome us properly now?” 

He was greeted by silence. 

“I think we should greet them properly, Aniki.”

“Okaaay. Everybody in their places? Yes? Attention, please!” 

After a single snap of someone’s fingers, a big magic circle appeared above, allowing both Mika and Sora to look around - only to notice what disadvantage they’ve been put into. Surrounded by demons coming out of every single nightmare one could think about - big jaws, sharp teeth, strong hands capable of taking their fragile bodies and tearing them without a problem. And around them, some smaller demons were sneaking, making Kagehira’s eyes going all around the place, trying to focus on them. 

But the ones that ‘greeted’ them weren’t still in his sight. 

“If you ask me, they won’t be the greatest food for the rest, Aniki,” One voice was on his left. “And our Lord told us not to go too far if we don’t know them.”

“Then get out,” Kagehira allowed himself to smile. “And check out closer.” 

So they’ll be easier to kill? Maybe. At least he won’t leave Sora to get them. 

“Who the hell are they, anyway?” First voice asked.

“I spy, with my little eye~”

“You know, Sora has a feeling we might be on the same side?” Sora leaned out behind from Mika. “No hard feelings, just a will to talk~”

“Huh… Are we?” 

“...Aniki, something’s not right. The second one has that strange scent of a Marionette. A weak one, but it’s there”

“You have to be kidding me. Didn’t that Puppeteer disappear?” 

Mika’s heart skipped a beat. He had no idea how they managed to notice he wasn’t a human, but there was a change in their voices. Their confidence and maliciousness he sensed earlier changed into something different, as the demons around whispered to each other. 

“Aniki, if you’re not sure if we can eat them, maybe we should just kick them into the prison and wait for our Lord,” The second voice, coming from his right side, was so close to him he could try to get them by the collar, but the Marionette stayed still. “If they’re not the empyreal or kingdom troops, we’re more than doomed.”

“I know! But in the other case, the second Lord told us to keep as many people away as we can, you know?” There was a hint of annoyance in the first voice. “Guuh, it’s getting on my nerves, why did he have to come back and just assort his rules as if our Lord left for real?” 

“Good job on talking in front of the potential enemy.” 

“Screw it, they’ll have to answer!” 

Kagehira grabbed Sora’s hand as something in the dark moved – or actually jumped – allowing him to track the silhouettes. One of the demons straightened up and moved towards them as a pair of two young demons got on its shoulders. Mika narrowed his eyes to notice if they even differed – both were redheads with unpleasant grins on their faces, with sharper ears and big, green eyes. After a second, he noticed they had different necklaces – a blue one and a purple one. Both were armed with halberds.

“This is why I don’t like uninvited guests,” The one with a purple necklace scratched his head. “So, speak to us, Crow. For what reason have you come to the place where the devils sign for humans before devouring their insides?” 

Mika raised his eyebrow. The longer he was spending his time here, the more he just believed it was a circus, not a proper parade prepared by the demons… There’s no way he was here, right?

“Oh, nothin’. Jus’ goin’ for a fast sight viewin’ an’ stuff,” Mika pouted. “No, wait, I mean-“

“We’re looking for his Master and we wondered if he came to his old friend~” Sora saved him and spoke on his behalf, smiling. “Is there any chance Lord Sakuma heard about the missing Puppeteer?”

Straight for the main topic, huh. Mika sighed with relief, grateful for Sora’s fast support. He was getting so annoyed he wasn’t even capable of talking like a normal person. 

“You’re a Marionette, aren’t you?” The twin with a blue necklace sat down on the demon’s shoulder, laying his head on his hand. “You should be next to him.”

“As ya can see, his disappearance was so out of place ‘m jus’ as clueless. Hence, we thought ‘bout yer Lord.” 

“Um, um. But he’s out. If you were friends, I’m more than sure you’d be aware of that.” 

“We were!”

“So why did you come anyway?” 

“Uh, there was an archivist-”

“And what, one small archivist could possibly know?” Now the purple was talking. “Even if he was here, he’s just a-”

“Aniki, stop talking too much. You’re going too far, control yourself.” 

The purple twin sighed irritated and jumped off the shoulder, approaching Mika and Sora with the halberd in his hands. 

“So, what we’re going to do now… We could bring these two to that stupid lordsy bitch down there, but knowing him, he’ll just wave his hand and do something our Lord wouldn’t be pleased with. Any ideas?”

“Dunno~ Maybe we’ll just ask them to entertain us~”

When the second twin came to them, Kagehira clenched his teeth. Their eyes gave him a vague idea what “entertainment” meant. His escape route has been cut off, there were too many demons to just fight their way out. They were…

“You’re not a bunch of clowns at this point, but the entire circus…”

…not as dead? 

Not only him and Sora, but also the twins blinked and tilted their heads when the demons moved out of the way, letting someone else to reach them easily. With all those monsters around, the man who approached them seemed so out of place, being around Mika’s height, wearing a rich, black and red outfit, having eyes so mesmerizing just one look at them was enough to just stare. If not for the paleness of his skin and blood-colored eyes, it’d be easy to think he was a human. The twin with a purple necklace bit his lip and averted his gaze when the man stopped right in front of him. 

“Someone warned you, Lord Ritsu?” The second twin spoke to him, bowing his head. “We’ve been sure you were sleeping.” 

“You two never were the masters of subtlety, so you’re always incredibly loud…” The lord yawned as he gazed at Kagehira. “Even if I wanted, I couldn’t just ignore it. So? Why are these two still alive…?”

“There’s a small problem, we don’t know if those aren’t actually serving one of Lord Rei’s older acquaintances.” 

“Are they?” 

Both of them approached the demon and whispered to his ears. Lord Ritsu tilted his head slowly, giving Kagehira a long gaze, focusing mainly on either his eyes, or his weapon. 

“A third group, you say… Someone’s sure popular.” His eyes focused now on Sora, who was still hiding behind Mika. “You there. You’ve been the one who started mentioning ‘friends’, so tell me, who sent you here?”  

“Master Sakasaki Natsume!”

The demons looked at each other and nodded their heads. 

“Yep, that’s a name that rings a bell!”

“He was mostly visiting that alchemist, so we’ve never had a chance to meet his servants…”

“I’m not surprised by it. See, this is why I call you a bunch of clowns – all you needed was a one question,” Lord Ritsu smirked. “One. No need for ambushes, wasting time, nothing. Maybe you’re losing your last brain cells, Hinata?” 

The twin with a purple necklace clicked his tongue. So, he was Hinata. The other one jumped to him fast enough after seeing the demon’s gaze. 

“Well thank you very much for your guidance,” Hinata rolled his eyes. “Allow us to take care of it now and go to sleep, if you want so much. Just because Lord Rei is absent doesn’t mean you get to boss us around however you want.” 

Ritsu didn’t respond. 

“Aniki, just calm down.”

“No, you’re the one to step back-”

“Exactly… Step back, Yuuta.” 

Yuuta wasn’t that eager to do what Ritsu demanded until he gazed at his face. Kagehira couldn’t see what expression the demon had as he was staring at his back, but judging how much shaking Yuuta was as he moved back gave him a good reason to cover Sora’s eyes with his hand. 

“Hinata… Maybe it’s time for us to talk a bit, hm?” Ritsu’s voice was disturbingly calm as his hand landed on Hinata’s face, rubbing his cheek. “You see, I think there is one sma~all thing you’re forgetting. Shall I remind you about it? I am a bit tired if you’ll think about it…” 

Hinata gulped as one of his fingers was right next to his right eye. Kagehira remained still, just averting his eyes. This wouldn’t end nicely for sure.

“P-Please wait, lord Ritsu!” 

Before Ritsu even tried anything however, Yuuta kneeled right in front of him with his head down. 

“Please forgive my brother for his behavior, I’ll make sure he won’t do that again.” 

Ritsu gazed at him with a neutral face, then took his hand down and allowed Hinata to escape his grasp, watching as the demon quickly bowed right next to his brother. 

Much to their surprise, he giggled softly. 

“Mm, now I feel much more alive~” Ritsu nodded his head with a pleased smile. “Young kids are so full of energy, it was tasty~ But remember to think more before opening your mouth, okay? Next time I might not be in a mood to just tease you around. Now…”

Ritsu finally turned and moved towards Kagehira, still with a grin on his face. 

“Let’s see if you’re really on our side, follow me. And just to be clear – don’t think about playing games with me or someone will lose their legs soon. Unlike these two, I’m not going to be that nice.” 

Sora and Mika nodded their heads in silence.

“You two, keep your eyes open… Ah, and before I’ll forget. Hinata?” 

The twin raised his head with a questioning look. 

“Next time try to come with something more creative than ‘lordsy bitch’~”

Chapter Text

After the whole incident, Ritsu took them to the mansion hidden there. Shu let Mika travel here once and he could tell, that the place was real, so he tried to trust him a bit more… But that man wasn’t really friendly and he had that something, which made him feel uneasy around him. Sora wasn’t happy either - he told Mika about the colors surrounding the whole place and Ritsu himself, which wasn’t very reassuring at all. Mika still had to play the cool guy role, because he didn’t forget about the promise made to Natsume about the kid’s safety.

He was pretty sure he didn’t feel that bad when he was there with Shu, so he had to endure it. Ritsu looked at him few times, but never tried to ask if something’s wrong. He probably didn’t care, but still - Mika didn’t want to talk about that, so he was actually a bit graceful.

The main hall was gloomy. The only source of light was from single candles placed here and there, so it was hard to see anything. At the end of the room, he could see a big stairs that were divided at some point, so you could go either right or left in order to enter the higher floor.

But something happened after they entered the mansion. The main hall wasn’t empty, as they thought - in fact, someone already was there, like they were waiting for their great entrance.

- Ritsu - a pair of crimzon eyes looked at them, and a faint smile appeared on a face of the man, when they approached him - Good to see you.

Another man was standing next to him, but unlike the first one, he was trying his best to hide right now.

- Anija… You came back pretty fast, didn’t you.

- I heard about something interesting, that’s why I’m here right now. I’ve been informed that we might have a guest, but I didn’t predict that much, to be honest.

Sora and Mika looked troubled at first, which made the man laugh.

- Don’t be scared, you two. While I’m here, no one will try to harm my dear friends’ helpers, if you let me call you like that.

- So we were supposed to welcome them, huh? Those idiots wanted to kill them.

- Yes, I am aware of that. My bad, I couldn’t inform them before my arrival. They never met before, so they couldn’t trust them just like that, could they?

- Great. Can I go now? Or you’re just going to play something stupid again, Anija? Don’t hide him from me, I can tell.

- And who is the person you’re talking about? - the man sounded amused.

- Don’t play that with me - Ritsu came closer - Why did you bring Isara here?

That one name was enough to bring Mika back to his senses. He looked one more time in the place Isara was supposed to stay and yes - he could see a figure in the shadows, but only that. Ritsu’s brother sighed and asked the hidden person to come closer.

The boy was shorter than him and had messy red-violet hair. His green eyes were looking literally everywhere, trying not to look at Ritsu or the second man. He looked tired and scared, but didn’t say anything.

- Because we need him right now, Ritsu. Isara caused a lot of chaos, didn’t he? I’m surprised he’s still alive, to be honest.

- You look confident.

- You have the tendency to kill boring people very quickly, so I guess he knows something… I suppose those boys were looking for him as well. The biggest surprise is that they aren’t from the Emperor, but our friends, and I wonder - why? But before that, where are my manners - the man came closer to Mika and Sora - Forgive me, you two. My name is Rei Sakuma, and I am the Lord of this place. I’m honored to meet you, both Itsuki and Natsume were talking a lot about you. You might not remember me well, Kagehira, and I understand that you’re both confused, so please, relax a bit and be my guest..

- I do remember you and that place a bit right now… But thanks, nice t' meet ya as well. That kid is Sora. Sorry to come just like that.

- I don’t mind - Rei laughed - But you made my people nervous.

- Nervous? They almost killed them - Ritsu rolled his eyes.

- Since when you started to care, Ritsu?

- Since never, I don’t. But now I can’t just go.

- Because Isara is right here? You can just go if you want.

- You’re annoying.

- You do call me like that all the time… Where is my sweet brother I used to know? - Rei hid his face with his hands and pretended to cry, which made Ritsu even more irritated, to the point when he actually tried to catch Isara and go. Ironically, Mao avoided him and tried to ran away, but in the second, Rei was again next to him and grabbed his arm, so he couldn’t.

- I thought we’ve been talking about that - Rei sighed and looked at Mao - No running until I’ll give you a change to prove being useful to me. Unless you want to die, that is.

- W-wait a minute, okay? - Mika laughed nervously - Just wait, ‘kay? C-can we talk?

- Of course, Kagehira. Don’t mind me, I’ll be only observing you. You should understand that nobody really like spies, so if he’ll insist on running away, we’ll take care of him.

- I don’t have anything to say - before anyone asked, the boy decided to say something - Just kill me, if you want it that badly, I won’t sell my people.

- Look at him, trying to stay cool and everything - a malicious smile appeared on Ritsu’s face when he again tried to come closer to Mao - Nobody asked about your opinion. Or should I remind where are you right now again?

That was enough to make Mao shiver.

- Nah, for… Just let me talk, ‘kay? I really want t' ask ya for help, nothin’ else! And don’t want to harm ya at all. Your friend told me ya could give me a hand…

- W-who?

In a moment, Rei let go of the boy's hand and pushed him towards Mika.

- Wow, watch out! - Mika helped him catch the balance - Akehoshi Subaru, that guy who works with Hajime. Ya used to travel a lot, didn’t ya?

- Not talking, a lot of people know that.

- ...Sari?

Now Mao was the confused one.

- Wait, wha-

- Give me a minute, how that was supposed to go… Somethin’ with the arrow?

- ...Oh my God, I’m begging you, everything but that.

- Arrow in the knee and the end of your adventure life?

- Damn it!

Ritsu and Rei tried their best to stop laughing. Mao looked at them embarrassed, then again at Mika. His face was red.

- Oh for God’s sake, Akehoshi, to say that like that was the biggest tragedy?!

- I-Isara? - Sora waved his hand.

- I wasn’t like that, okay? They didn’t hit in the knee, I can still walk and jump, he just heard about a story that someone did, but not m-

- Calm down here. Or should I help you, mm? - Ritsu’s hand landed on his shoulder - Don’t talk too much, it’s boring.

- Uh… - Mika panicked a bit - Didn’t know you’ll react like that, sorry.

- No, I’m the one who should apologise - Mao shaked his head - But I still don’t get why he said that to you. Never heard about you.

- Yah, I know… Maybe he thought he can trust me? Listen, like I said, don’ wanna harm you, so just let me talk, ‘kay?

- Not like I have a choice… What’s wrong?

- There’s a person I’m lookin' for and Subaru thought ya might be helpful.

- And you really came here to ask me that? Wow, you’re crazy.

- Or lucky, someone really likes him - Rei came closer again - I’m pretty sure he’s talking about Itsuki, you see. Am I right?

- Y-yeah.

- Who is that guy? - Mao raised his eyebrow.

- A Puppeteer.

If there was even a slight smile on Mao’s face, it disappeared.

- First time hearing that name. Isn’t he one of your… Group or whatever you are? There’s no way a simple worker could know that.

- But you aren’t a “simple worker”, Mao - Ritsu stepped between Mika and Mao - You’re a spy. I didn’t caught him to play just like that, even if I was bored, Anija.

- Good decision, Ritsu. I see, so Tenshouin is so determined to know what’s going on here to the point of sending you - to be honest, he gave you a one way ticket.

- …

Mao didn’t response. He simply looked at Ritsu and Mika like he knew about that from the beginning, so he didn’t even start to fight about that. The Marionette felt bad…

...That was still strange to him, to be honest. The more time he spent without Shu, the more he could feel, especially if that was connected to feelings and emotions. Sometimes he thought if was really easier to simply live and serve, waiting for a day when Oshi-san will say that he completed his work. He didn’t really have time to think about other people, so the more he was spending his time with those people he met, the more he could feel. He was here, looking at the man who was sent to hell, and felt bad. He even wanted to do something to help him, even though if the same situation was in their mansion, he probably wouldn't really care… But those brothers looked like if they could, they would make Isara’s life a torture instantly. And he wasn't in their mansion with Oshi-san either. 

If you looked at that from the third person’s perspective, you could say that this is what he deserves. He came here, even if it was an order. He should try better or run and hide. He probably wanted to die anyway…

Ritsu was the one to wake up Mao from his own dream, when he grabbed him and started whispering something to his ear. Both Sora nad Mika saw that the more time passed, Mao’s eyes widened and there was again more life on his face… He also looked scared again. Rei was ready to separate them and say something to his brother, but then he looked irritated at the doors.

- What’s wrong, Mr. Rei? - Sora was the one to ask that question, even if he still wasn’t very talkative.

- Someone tried to teleport to this mansion… I recognise the magic flow, yet I am not sure if I think about the right person.

- HoHo, Sora probably knows! - he raised his hand with a smile on his face - That might be Teacher~? He promised to check out!

- He did - Mika nodded his head - High chance that’s Tsumu.

- Tsumu...? Ah, so I was right. Tsumugi does have that vibe, doesn’t he… - Rei started, but couldn’t end his, because one, Mao looked like he heard about the ghost and that made him laugh, and two - because the doors opened.

- Attention, again… Oh wait, Lord is here! - Hinata wasn’t as lively as he wanted until he saw Rei - My Lord, I have a question, can I?

- Unless you start a new fight with Ritsu, go ahead.

- As much as I want, that’s not it, really. Just wanted to know…

- Since when we are a tourist attraction? - Yuuta ended the sentence and pointed at the man standing next to him. He moved without asking like nothing, which made them take their weapons, but they stopped, when Rei raised his hand.

- I wonder why, but a lot happened. You can rest, you two, he is, indeed, an ally.

- We should think about taking money from people coming here, I mean… We don’t have any cookies, tea or however are people greeting each other on a surface, but...?

- I wish we could, but think about that, we’re not supposed to be that nice. It’s just a one-time event, because our hero decided to visit us.

- Then let’s go back to Isara’s case… - Ritsu sighed - So many people, I’m getting really tired of that.

Fun fact - Isara was even more pale then before, when Tsumugi stepped in. Sora jumped and ran to Tsumugi, who laughed softly and hugged him, saying that everything’s okay, right now really nothing bad can happen - and Isara was looking at him just like he saw a ghost. Ritsu released him and watched as he walked slowly in Aoba’s direction.

- Aoba…?

Tsumugi looked at him, surprised at first. After a moment, he smiled again and waved his hand like nothing happened at all.

- Isn’t that Isara? It’s been a while! Great to see you again, you look well!

Ritsu failed and laughed almost immediately, while Mao just looked straight-up wounded and hit his face with an open palm.

- I-I mean, for a prisoner…? You’re still here beca- Wait, I mean, we’re not technically friends at all! - Tsumugi remembered that after those reactions and jumped - Are you okay?!

- I should be the one asking that question! You are dead!

- No, I'm still alive as you can see, you don’t understand at all!

- Yeah, you’re right, I don’t get what’s going on here anymore… I’m a prisoner, you’re alive, I am as well, stop looking like that at me, you goddamn Vampire, Lord, Demon, whatever you are right now… - Mao jumped quickly towards Tsumugi after he saw Ritsu’s face - Can I… Can I get at least one answer? Please…?

- Ah, probably why I’m here like nothing? - Aoba laughed - Well… That’s right, officially I’m dead. I wonder if anyone still remember me in the capital. But that’s it! You need more help and attention than me!

- He’s right ya know - Mika stopped following their talk for a bit - I mean, what am I supposed t’ say Subaru if they kill ya? And what t’ do with myself, still confused…

- I think Tsumugi will be helpful in final decision - Rei nodded his head - Tell me. You know that boy, don’t you?

- Oh yeah, we used to work together for a while! After his group separated, he was really helpful, Isara is such a good kid.

- And he’s something more than a simple Archivist, right?

- I suppo-

- Spy is a bad term as well.

Everyone looked at Mao. He closed his eyes and said that, like he simply stopped playing innocent and decided to talk. Tsumugi patted his shoulder and proposed to say a bit more as well.

- I was supposed to check the whole killer incident and try to find some clues here, that’s all… 

- Finally something more than a stupid dialogue over who’s more dead now - Ritsu nodded his head and looked at Mika - Do you know what he’s talking about?

- Prob’ly… - Mika scratched his head - Ya mean that one in a capital?

- You’re not from a town. How can you know that? - Mao opened his eyes and looked at the Marionette, a bit confused.

- Tried to find ya there, but instead of ya, I saw a dead archivist.

- Wait, another one is dead?!

- Would you tell me about that murderer? - Rei decided to step up into the discussion.

- We really thought it was someone from here… That’s why then sent me.

- So rather than spying on me, he wanted to find some clues about that… Now that’s more convincing. That doesn’t change the fact they sent you to the Hell without possibility to come back safely.

Mao looked away.

- H-hey… - Tsumugi tried to say something - There is a chance for him, right? Me and Natsume found a victim connected to this case as well… That murderer is not in a capital only. One victim was living in that village. Another one - in the northeast harbor. Plus I’m pretty sure he might be helpful, since everyone are looking for Itsuki. You don’t have any contacts in the capital, do you?

Rei narrowed his eyes and thinked for a while.

- That is true, playing with the Emperor in his own town is risky and tiring… But with Isara, that would be easier. so there is a chance for him to return alive.

Mao clenched his fist. Mika could see that he probably knew what Rei was talking about.

- Let the Archivist become a spy and a part of contact between us. I am interested about the Emperor’s plans and the situation in the capital, your help would be appreciated. With Natsume, it will be easier, since both he and Tsumugi knows, how to avoid dangerous people and guards. The Marionette will be able to know how long he needs to keep his head low as well.

- But… - Mao started, but Rei raised his hand.

- I already gave you an order. Do you think you can fight against me? I don’t really think so, so let me continue. We don’t want you to die right now as well, since that little plan won’t work without you. You might get some interesting facts if you proof yourself useful… Who knows, maybe you’ll be able to find an answer about your dear Trickstar as well.

- I do know what happened though! Besides, they will haunt me without even thinking too much, it won’t work… It’s a dead end anyway, I can see that man torturing me…

He fell on his knees and grabbed his head in a panic. Mika wasn’t sure what to do, since some kind of a thought made Mao really scared, to the point where even Sakuma’s voices couldn’t reach him. Sora, who was hiding a lot during that time, decided to kneel down and hug him, which surprised Mao.

- Sora can understand you, you see a lot of death around you and it’s hard to believe anyone, right? - he said softly, patting the archivist’s head - Sora doesn’t understand complicated things, but he wants to help you and give some hope, that’s why he became a magician after all! Master prefers him to learn and send informations, but he can watch Isara from time to time! He never was in the capital, so they don’t know Sora at all~

- That’s dangerous, Natsume will never agree to that! - Tsumugi panicked as well - He will definitely kill me if I agree right now…

- There is another possibility - Rei nodded his head - Ritsu… You used to be on the surface, didn’t you?

- Maaybe. Why?

- You look quite interested in that human and I trust your abilities. Isn’t that enough, my dear brother?

- I’ll think about it.

- Sora will definitely visit you from time to time!

- See, Isara, you’re so popular - Rei tried not to laugh right now - We have a bit to work before we’ll let you go. We need to make something for our Emperor, so you won’t go back without nothing. This time I really am innocent, he should know it. Ritsu will take you all to the surface after everything’s done.

Chapter Text

Rei took Mika, Mao and Tsumugi somewhere else in order to plan something. Quite surprising that Ritsu didn’t join them, but at the second thought - his job was technically done.

Sora still had a problem to stay calm, but the twins decided to talk with him a bit and make up for the whole incident, since they had no reason to fight. It worked, and the three of them were almost ready to go sightseeing because why not, but before they left, the dark lord and his conspirators came back. Rei looked quite pleased.

"How it went, Teacher?" Sora decided to come closer to Tsumugi. The man patted his head.

"Everything will work, Isara will be safe and nothing wrong should happen! You wanted to visit him from time to time, right? You’ll get the opportunity to see the capital, Sora."

"HoHo, Sora is glad to know that!"

"I can’t believe I’m doing that… Wake me up, someone," Mao sighed heavily. "Well, at least I understand the situation better. I do hope they will buy it…"

"They will, don’t worry," Rei was surprisingly confident. "Just do what you have to and everything should work. You have only that or endless date with Ritsu, so you should choose wisely."

Both Mao and Ritsu looked at themselves in the same time, which made Rei laugh. And at least one of them was surely against that idea…

But nothing interesting happened here, so after some short time, they went outside. Tsumugi and Sora had to go almost immediately without helping Mika or Mao with traveling, since they need to make it more natural - it would be strange if they arrived in the capital just like that. Technically Ritsu was supposed to accompany them a bit longer, but he disappeared anyway. Mao looked very happy, so they could go back without any lordsy vampire devils or whatever they were anyway, as Mao said.   

As they thought, the road to capital was long and Mao wouldn’t be able to get there without resting somewhere, thanks to the greetings he received from Ritsu and rest of them, so they stopped at Hajime’s inn. The more Mika traveled, the more he could understand why this place was always busy - they really thought about the location of it.

To make sure they were safe from guards and everything, Mao went to the building first and after few seconds, he let Mika join him. Just after a while, Subaru saw them and waved his hand with a big smile and came to them.

"Long time no see, Sari, I’m so glad! Sit and wait for a minute, okay? There’s another person you should greet, really. Damn, I don’t have anything to-"

"It’s okay, Akehoshi," Mao laughed.  "I just need a rest, that’s it."

"Hey, at least meet with Ukki for a bit, it’s not that common we meet up with almost all squad?"

"Wait, he’s here?"

"Yeah, he is~ Mind if you get the same room? He’ll probably go back the the harbor in the evening, so you’ll get it only for yourself."

"I don’t mind. Oh, Kagehira, don’t stand like that, someone might get suspicious."

"Oh, yeah…" Mika came closer to them. "Maybe I’ll stay outside or somethin’?"

"Wait, I want to make something clear before. Don’t look like that, Akehoshi, give me a few minutes, okay?"

He simply nodded his head, without asking too much right now. Subaru quickly went with the order to other guest, and then took both Mika and Mao upstairs, to the room he was talking about. There was another boy with glasses, who looked shocked at first, but after seeing Subaru and Mao, he calmed down and greeted them.

All three of them looked so happy to see each other and Mika was a bit jealous. He wanted to see Oshi-san even more, thanks to the small chaos he had to endure at first. For now nothing really changed, he simply helped some guys meet again and even with Sakuma’s plan, nobody could say for sure when will he finally see Itsuki again…

"...Too bad Hokke isn’t with us, that would be awesome."

That line from Subaru surprised Mika. So there was another person?

"To be fair, I’m worried,"  Mao scratched his head. "I haven’t seen him in a capital either."

"Nothing in the harbor as well!" Makoto took off glasses and rubbed his eyes. "I’ve been asking if someone seen him, but nothing."

"Damn, Hokke, it’s a bad time to play hide and seek!"

"What about you, uh… Kagehira, right?"

"Don’t ask the person who’s even more confused than all of us, Makoto,"  Mao looked at Kagehira. "Right, I promised to explain something. You literally sent him to me, Akehoshi, so you should know about at least half of it, right?"

"Yep. What’s wrong?""

 

Huh, how to say it… A lot of their conversation was rolling around the same facts we know, so it would be a good idea to summarise it quickly. Mika stopped listening at some point as well, since after saying all facts, they started about some ideas how to help, how not to become criminals and so on…

Basically, they learned about Mika’s situation, at least as much as Mao could say without getting too suspicious. Of course, it was a small lie that he rescued him from bandits and not those crazy vampires, demons or whatever they were, he never ever went to them at the first place, just went to some villages with guards, got some books, got this, got that, everyone were happy, Mika was simply lucky enough to find him… Yes, of course. Your typical optimistic fantasy story, nothing else.

They told them only about the situation in the Archives and claimed, that Mika is innocent and they need evidence to prove that if the guards will decide to arrest him in the future. Mao said that he shouldn’t hide too much, because that will look like he really did something bad - and staying in one place for a bit would be a nice idea in case of finding something interesting.

Nice, but risky, to be honest, wouldn’t Sw- No, forget that.

Subaru proposed getting a job, but after that they reminded him that Hajime was the one who could decide that, and he didn’t want to involve him in that little plan, so they had to think about something different. Thankfully, Makoto was working in the northeast Harbor, and that place was good enough for someone new. It was full of people from distant lands. It was also easier to make you look even more bad, but they had to take the risk. The best informations were either from the capital or the harbor, and Mika was already avoiding at least one of those. Also, you could find a lot of strong warriors there, so even with Mika’s skills to hide and run, he could have a lot of problems with it. So yes, both pluses and minuses, you just have to know how to use them. He couldn’t really complain, Mao was still cautious. Maybe thanks to him he could live a bit longer, but he knew Kagehira was on their side, not his own.

Mika was aware he didn’t trust him that much. Yet he still tried to do something to make both sides happy.

After their conversation, Subaru went back to help Hajime, saying that not only Isara, but also Mika should rest a bit before he’ll continue his journey, just to be sure nothing bad will happen in future. Makoto decided to leave tomorrow, just to give him extra hours of sleep, so he used that time, even though Mika didn’t feel that exhausted.

And just as they planned, they left at the morning of the next day.

 

Yuuki was just as talkative as Isara, but unlike him, he simply looked scared of Mika. Not only he didn’t know him, but also heard about that little accident, so he probably had bad feelings about him or something. Kagehira didn’t want to scare him, so he followed him, making sure he’s safe. That is, until he asked about the harbor out of simple curiosity. It was a good idea, because the young man was full of knowledge useful for every person - that the place wasn’t as big as the capital even though a lot of people lived there, that the biggest group of foreigners were from the East and you could see it easily, because at some point the architecture and lifestyle of people changes drastically.

There used to be some problems because of that, so the guard there is strong and numerous as well - he didn’t tell much details, another reminder that Makoto tried to avoid informations that criminal could use for their own advantage.

"...And just to be sure, there is a one person you should try to be nice, he gets irritated very quickly" He added just when they arrived in the Harbor. "He’s not that scary, but, well… It’s better to live peacefully with people, right?"

Yeah, yer right," Mika nodded his head. "Who is that pers-"

"You’re late, Yuu-kun."

You didn’t really have to wait that long, huh?

Makoto turned his head surprised. The man that just called him was a bit older than him at the first glance and looked irritated. Or tired. Or even both, you never know.

"Hello, Izumi! S-sorry to be late, just… I met both Isara and Akehoshi and I couldn’t help I wanted to spent some time with them?"  Makoto wasn’t confident at all. "You’re mad…?"

"Hmm… Just tired, whatever. Good to know nothing bad happened," Izumi sighed and looked at Mika. "And what’s the deal with him?"

Mika tried to look away, he felt like that man’s eyes were made out from ice. He probably was one of those people who could murder with their own gaze or something…

"Just arrived, really… Don’t mind, I’ll just leave ya two and won’t bother ya or anythin’."

"Great, I like that. Yuu-kun, try to find captain, we received some letters and we need to get everyone. I have to check out for something."

"Sure, no problem!" Yuuki nodded his head and ran as quickly as he could.

Yeah, Mika wanted to leave those two, but something weird happened and actually it was Makoto that went somewhere first… Izumi was still looking at him like he wasn’t sure if he only wanted to go away or kill him for bothering, but after few seconds he just started moving in some direction.

"If you’re new, I suggest looking for job or something like that in the tavern. I’m going there, so come with me," He said without turning to him. "I want to see if that goddamn mercenary is still playing with sailors."

 

The tavern Izumi talked about had a strange feeling. It was small and loud place and the smell of alcohol hit immediately. Both of them found that annoying, but just as the silver-haired man said, he had some small business here, so he had to endure it. He looked at the table where two young people were playing cards.

"Takamine, my dear, your father might be mad if he'll find out you’re staying here playing cards rather than getting ready like a good boy, don’t you think?" The blonde one smiled and threw her cards. "See, I won again."

"Not like he’s better or anything… Uh, I came here to get just a few coins, not to fall into debt..." The second one, probably a bit younger than his opponent, sighed heavily. "You have to give me some time... And, well, turn around."

"Why should I… Oh God."

She looked seemingly disgusted when she saw Izumi.

"My, everyone but you."

"My, everyone but you, you lazy scum," Izumi answered with a mean smile on his face. "I thought you were a mercenary, not a drunken gambler?"

"Do you really have a problem with a fact we’re leaving in a peaceful kingdom or something? You should be happy, you know?"

"That doesn’t mean you can just sit here and scream that you have nothing to do while playing cards! Join the guards if you’re that bored."

"Oh God, no. Never. I might turn as grumpy as you…" Looking for a rescue, her eyes focused on Kagehira's, as she arose from her seat. "Wait, you’re here!"

Seeing her happiness, Kagehira couldn't even more, seemingly surprised. Izumi, on the other hand, raised his eyebrow.

"Sweetie, you made me wait way too long, you know? Come on, or we might end up dying from boredom thanks to that guard."

She grabbed Mika's hand and literally excused herself out of his mess of a tavern, much to Sena's annoyance.

 

She finally let go of Mika's hand after making sure Sena wasn't following them, and took a deep breath.

"Close enough… Sorry for that little play, listening to his complains can actually kill and we probably prefer to enjoy our lives, don’t we?"

"Is he that bad?"

"Terrible, awful, literally the worst!" The blonde laughed. "Stay away from him, you’re way too cute to get caught by him. By the way…"

Coming that close to Mika, he moved back and gulped. The blonde's beauty was outstanding - way too much for his heart to stay calm. 

"...I guess not. I thought I saw you somewhere, but that was probably just my imagination. Still cute though. First time here?"

"Y-yeah. And thanks…?"

"Are you here to join them on a festival?"

Mika raised his eyebrow.

"A festival?"

"...Again I’m wrong, I can’t believe it," She gave Mika back his personal space. "Do you remember that cute boy in a tavern? Takamine Midori, to be precise. His father is a captain of a ship and decided to give him everything. Being popular must be painful…"

"That’s good for him, isn’t it?"

"Who knows. But enough about Midori, you’re way more interesting. And cuter, by the way. What’s your name, sweetie?"

Kagehira found it amazing she had the courage to call a stranger 'cute' without flinching. Combined with her intense gaze, Mika's cheeks turned red in a second as he tried his best to stay calm and remember his own name.

"Mika, nice t’ meet ya." 

"My God, I'm so lucky to be the first one to greet you properly in this town, just ignore the fact I'm a traveler as well, okay?" She winked at him. "Narukami Arashi, at your service. Allow me to become your guide! Ah, and please, call me Naru. It sounds way better."

"I think yer name sounds nice as well, but if you prefer that, no problem~ And will be glad t’ get some help."

 

Arashi was so nice and showed Mika the entire place, making sure that he remembered the most important places like guard station, some shops, inns or where the healer was living in. They spend a lot of time walking around and talking. When they stopped, it was almost dark. Arashi proposed him to stay in one of the inns, but they quickly found that, well…

Mika had no money. There wasn't much in the residence, and just a thought of taking it from Shu was too much. He wasn’t really tired, so he could just walk around, but that made the blonde worried. She suggested that they could spend night together somewhere and then try to get small work in the morning.

Mika laughed since he thought Arashi was avoiding it, but the blonde laughed at him, simply saying she wanted to annoy Izumi for a little bit more for being a jerk. 

But something was wrong… Again. He felt like someone hit his head. Also he could hear some strange voices. Mika looked in the direction the port warehouse was placed and asked Arashi if they could go there for a minute. Naru seemed confused, but agreed.

Her smile disappeared when they went to the door located and the back of the warehouse.

"Strange… It should be normally closed, yet it’s like someone blocked them by force? I can open them only a bit."

They looked around for a bit and saw that one of the windows was opened, so they decided to take the risk and break into the building. Mika helped Arashi reach the window and waited until she could catch him. Surprisingly, Naru was way stronger than she looked. They tried to get to the floor as quiet as they could and started looking around in order to find something suspicious.

He couldn’t hear anything.

The place was dark, the only source of light was from the single rays of the moon… Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Unlike the last time, Mika felt like he was in his natural habitat, moving in the building as if he was back at home. No fear, no stress, just he, Arashi and this place, even those strange voices he heard before coming here disappeared just like they never appeared in the first place.

He almost felt nothing and just started walking, his hand resting on his dagger’s hilt. The shadows were like his old friend, letting Mika stay unnoticed by anyone. Arashi had a hard time staying close to him, but right now he was focused on finding that one thing that made him shiver few moments ago.

Soon enough, there was a sharp breath, and the familiar stench of blood. Mika narrowed his eyes, looking for the wounded.

After finding fresh blood on the floor, they knew they had to continue, since something bad definitely happened. After few minutes, Mika saw a silhouette in the dark. Someone was staying by the wall, using their hand to stay still. They were looking at some direction where the second person was standing with a sharp weapon in their hand. The aggressor stayed in a place that they could block the victim’s way to run.

So yes, victim is pinned to the wall, probably half-dead, and that friendly attacker was standing in the way of freedom. No way to escape, unless Mika and Arashi will try to distract them, so the other one would catch the victim and run for their life. 

Sounds like a murder? Sure.

Tsumugi said something about that harbor. He said that they had some victims here. Damn, he could try to catch the same person who made him run like crazy from the capital - and force them to answer why did they try to frame him. And if they were Oshi-san's enemies? Even better.

It couldn’t be that easy though.

Arashi came closer to Mika and leaned over.

"Work fast, but don’t kill." She whispered right to his ear.

No killing, right. He was not a murderer, even though he felt like if he stop thinking what is he doing, he might really try to do it. But with Arashi...

"Help will be appreciated. I’ll get close, surprise and separate from the victim. Try t’ distract him after, then run."

"Got it."

They separated quickly and tried to surround that aggressor. Mika sneaked behind the attacker's back and catched him in order to get more space between him and his pray. Luckily they didn’t saw him and got surprised by sudden attack, so everything went just as the Marionette planned. While Kagehira took all the attention to himself, Arashi ran towards the victim, grabbing them and escaping the attacker. Then she proceed to run to the window they got in. Mika was making sure the attacker couldn’t get closer to them, but he wasn’t that weak. They were near the door when they heard some shouts.

"Someone destroy that goddamn doors!" Mika couldn’t recognise that voice, but Naru still decided to kick some of the obstacles blocking the door, helping them to open the door.

Three more people stepped in. The attacker understood that they were outnumbered and ran through the same window Mika and Arashi got here. One of those people went after him, while the rest came closer to Mika after he ran to Narukami.

"We need a healer!" He shouted before they say anything.

One of those guys was Midori, who nodded his head and asked to come with him. Arashi gave the wounded to Mika, saying she will stay here and help the guard, so only two of them went in the direction of the healer’s house with a wounded.

Takamine looked way more alive than before. He tried to recognise the person Mika was carrying and probably succeed, since his face changed even more drastically.

When they arrived, he knocked and opened the door without waiting.

"Doctor Shinkai, we need your help! Sorry we’re making fuss, but it is a serious case!"

A few second after that, the door to their right opened and a long-haired man let them in. Mika laid the victim in a place indicated by him. He started giving him some kind of first aid right away.

"Takamine-dono, please go upstairs. I should do that by myself, but we have to start quickly in order to help him." He said without looking at them, clearly nervous. Takamine sighed, but did what he said, while Mika used this time to look at the victim.

He was still a child, maybe around 16 years old. His clothes were dark and supposed to be quite comfortable in order to move freely. His dark purple hair with some yellow strokes covered the left eye. Mika saw a lot of blood and wounds of all sizes on his body, and the worst ones were on his left arm. He was still conscious but too weak to react too much whenever the man was trying to take care of some of the wounds.

"Hang on, Sengoku-dono. You’ll be fine, I promise. Shinkai-dono will help you, just stay awake until he’ll arrive…"

Chapter Text

Thankfully, it didn’t take too much time for Takamine to come back with someone else. The doctor decided to move quickly, so Mika didn’t have a possibility to look at him for longer than few seconds, but it wasn’t a problem. He and Midori were asked to leave this room and wait in the other one, while he and his helper took care of the kid, so they did it.

The place was dark - how many times he had to stay in dark places now? - and filled with a delicate scent of some kind of flowers. Mika sat on the floor and decided to think about the situation - again. Everything happened to quickly, his mind was almost empty, like he didn’t even see that with his own eyes. They went to the building… Then rescued a boy. But everything was so blurry, like the memories of the incident simply disappeared.

Like nothing happened.

Only thanks to the fact that the Marionette and the sailor were waiting here assured him that it wasn’t just his mind making pranks on him.

"He really doesn’t hear me, huh…" The sudden voice of the sailor woke him up, so Mika looked at him, a bit surprised.

"Somethin’ wrong?"

"Oh. Yeah, I tried to ask why you and Narukami went there, but I guess you weren’t really listening…?"

"Sorry, just confused. And that’s a long story t’ be honest."

Kagehira sighed, deciding to avoid talking about the details right now. Takamine didn’t look like he was really interested anyway, and ask the question to break the silence surrounding them.

"Sounds suspicious, if you asked me... Well, not like I want to know that, but I’m sure captain Morisawa will probably ask a lot of questions later on, good luck with him."

Thanks for that, it wasn’t very reassuring. But you know he’s right. Rather than hiding and keeping your head low, you jumped in another action involving a murder attempt. Luckily, this time it was a failure - but for how long? Will the attacker come back to take his life again? What if he tries to attack the Marionette? You never know what might happen in the future, so maybe you should think about looking for Oshi-san without risking another tragedy around.

They didn’t talk until another person joined them, much to Takamine’s dissatisfaction - he asked the man to stay with then for now, since the healer was still busy. They talk a bit about the situation and how much they hope that Sengoku is safe, so Mika stayed quiet. His mind was full of his own worries - also he felt like his right arm wasn’t reacting properly, so he looked at it, seeing as the material was a bit more dark than it should be.

Really, you couldn’t even say that you’re running with a bleeding hand?

Well, not really.

"Hey, are you okay?" The man who joined them looked at the Marionette and saw his hand, what took him by surprise. "Wait, you should say that you’re injured! Ah, give a minute, I think I know what we can use to stop the bleeding…"

He tried to stay calm and looked around for something, and after he got it - tried to help Mika. The Marionette didn’t really move to much - seriously, why is he panicking over that? - but almost jumped, when heard the sound of the door being open. Takamine and the third guy looked at the source a bit later than Mika, but unlike him, they were actually kinda happy.

"How is he, Kanata?"

"He’s 'okay', captain," The doctor’s voice was calm and somehow relaxing, even though he had to wake up in the middle of the night to save a dying child. "He will “survive” thanks to their “reaction”… Don’t “worry”."

"Thank God…" The captain nodded, still trying to help Mika. "He’s in the good hands right now, so I’m sure he’ll be fine."

"Ufufu~ Of course he 'is, captain. He will definitely 'survive', so you can take care of the Harbor’s 'safety'."

"Yeah, that’s going to be tough, so I’ll need to start working right away! We’ll gather everyone in the morning," He tried to sound more confident, even though he was tired as well. "Ah, can I ask you to come later? You saw a lot, so you’re a really important witness."

"Yeah, sure…"

"Cool. Can I finally go sleep? Not like I can do anything right now…" Midori sighed again, looking at the captain.

"Not yet, Takamine! There is a lot to do and I’m sure you care more than you look like, so don’t worry, I’ll let you join us! Ah, and by the way… He’s injured too. I’m really bad at this, so I’m sure I can trust you to help him!"

"Of course, captain~ May the 'gods' let you have a 'nice' and 'calm' night."

Not like it already stopped being a “nice and calm” one, but whatever.

Just before Takamine could start complaining, the captain took him outside, so Mika was left with the mysterious doctor named Kanata. The blue-haired man decided to take him to the different room, thankfully a bit more brighter, and then looked at the wound.

"It is surprisingly 'lively', don’t you think?" Kanata gave him a soft smile. "It might be 'itchy' for a second, so please 'endure' it~"

Before Kagehira could ask anything, Kanata put his hand on a wound and closed his eyes. The Marionette saw a weak energy around his fingers for a second, and after he took his hand back, the wound started slowlyhealing by itself, even though it left a small scar on his arm. Oh God, if Oshi-san will see that, he might lose his mind and start screaming. He hated that a lot. Even Kanata looked quite surprised, but didn’t say anything.

"Huh~ Please 'avoid' overworking this 'arm' for a bit."

"Yeah, sure. Thanks a lot, doctor."

"You’re welcome, 'lost child'. I would like to ask you if you could 'stay here' for a night… You look 'bad'. And 'tired'."

"Hah, not like I feel that anyway…" Mika laughed. "But I appreciate, don’ have a place to sleep at all."

"You can 'stay' here for a bit. But before that, there is 'something' I would like to 'see'…"

When he said that, he gently took Mika’s face in his hands and looked into his eyes, what made him uncomfortable. While doing that, Mika saw that something changed a bit, because Kanata looked troubled at first, even though he stayed quiet again. He wasn’t even sure what the doctor even done to him, because the only thing he felt was...

His head, full of worries and troubles, was suddenly light as nothing happened. A sudden peace was the best medicine he could give him right now, so after a few moments he even forgot that he was here in the first place. And then… He stopped thinking and fell asleep.



There is nothing I can really see. The voices I hear are almost the same - even if I heard them before, I can’t really remember who do they belong to. I can‘t see their faces. I want to make another step, but there is nothing I can do… It’s like a chain wrapped my legs and makes it impossible to move on. All I can do is listen - and that makes me want to cry.

But I want to know. They talk about something. Something really important… And it’s my only chance to hear them. This goddamn ????? really wants me to ?????, but I won’t let them laugh at me.

One of them sound troubled, even though they try to play it cool… The second one comforts them. They say it will be okay, it will stop soon and they’ll be able to end this. I still wonder what is “this” suppose to mean.

“But I have a bad feeling”, the first one continues, “because I think the worst has caught this poor child. This isn’t something you can run from without any consequences. ”

The second person keeps asking what in the world he’s talking about, but they can’t get a proper answer. It’s like they know something…



When Mika opened his eyes, it was already morning. He needed a moment to realise what happened - again. Much to his surprise, he really felt a bit better than yesterday - the voices running in his head like crazy disappeared and his arm was almost like a new one. For a moment, he thought this entire incident wasn’t even real, but changed his mind, when he saw a doctor’s helper, who probably heard that the guest has awaken and decided to visit him.

"Do you feel better now?" He asked softly, giving him a strange cup with a liquid in it. "It is a medicine Shinkai-dono asked me to give to you. Drink it slowly."

"T-thanks," Mika looked at him hesitantly. "Have I passed out or somethin’?"

"Shinkai-dono said that you looked worse than he thought, so he tried to help you. I do not know what happened though, so you have to forgive me for not being very helpful."

"Nah, ‘s okay. Just askin’," Mika tried the medicine and smiled. "Wow, that sure has a funny taste~"

"Does it?" The man looked confused. "Most people do not really like it…"

"That’s not really bad! And, by the way, who are ya?"

"I am just living with Shinkai-dono as his helper and guardian. My name is Kanzaki," The young man bowed his head. "Kanzaki Souma."

"Kagehira Mika, nice t’ meet ya. You have a strange accent and use funny words, don’cha?"

"I came from the East, that is probably why. Is my speech hard to understand, Kagehira-dono? I do hear some people have problem when they want to talk with me..."

"Not that much, thought it could be worse when ya said that," He answered and took another sip, when he realised something. "Ah, wait, I should go now!"

He remembered that the captain asked him to come, he definitely wants some answers about what happened at the night, so Mika drank his medicine as quick as he could - not too quick as he wanted though, Kanzaki literally took the cup and said to wait a moment, they won’t die immediately if he’ll go few minutes later, saying that “Shinkai-dono would try to kick the door of the guard station and hit the captain if he learned that his patient ran there without taking the medicine”, so yeah… Calm down. They don’t want to piss him off after he helped them, right?

He just left that place, when he almost hit something. Or actually someone…

Or even better, Arashi. You never see a blonde mercenary coming, huh?

"Almost!" Naru was just as shocked as Mika, but thanks to her reflexes, nothing bad happened. "Don’t scare me like that!"

"T-that should be my line!"

"Well, yeah..." Arashi sighed and gazed at Mika with a worried look. "Are you okay? I asked them where have you been, but captain wasn’t even sure, he just said you were still at the healer’s place when he left and I was really worried about you!"

"Ah, um…" Mika blushed softly. "Nothin’ bad, guess I was so tired that I almost passed there or somethin’... But I feel really good now, thanks to his help!"

"I'm so glad to know it!" Naru smiled softly. "Shinkai sure is such a skilled doctor, isn't he? Though, ironically, seems like the captain loves going to him whenever he's lost, so better watch out. Wait for a day they'll call him a god..."

"Is he that powerful?" The Marionette asked, seemingly curious. So his saviour was better than he thought, huh?

"I don’t know, I’m here for, like, two weeks or so," Naru shrugged. "Anyway, enough about him. They want us to come and tell them what we saw, since they’re waiting for that kid to wake up. Are you okay with that, dear?"

"Yeah, no problem. Not sure what I can say though."

"I know that. Improvise, believe in your magical intuition and it should work. We haven’t done anything wrong, so we have nothing to hide."

She was right. They tried to help, they didn’t kill anybody and thanks to them that boy is safe, so it’s not like he has to lie or anything, right? That’s what Mika wanted to believe, since he already had some troubles and preferred to avoid getting more attention. They don’t know anything about the incident from the capital, right?

Right...? Let’s hope.

After a small talk, they finally moved towards the guard post. The building was close to the town center, catching one's one with the enormous size. The guardian standing in front of the station wasn’t sure if he really could let them in, but before he went inside to find another person, a boy shorter than Mika with a characteristic hairstyle and light reddish eyes came to them.

"Good morning," He greeted them with a calm, quiet voice. "I was supposed to go look for you, but you arrived. Here, come with me, the captain is waiting."

 

What he didn’t expect was how many people they gathered. Other than him, Arashi and the captain, there was also Midori and another blonde man he never met before. Even the boy who brought them here stayed in the room after closing the door.

"Well, that was quick! Welcome, be our guests, you’re safe here!" Captain Morisawa was way louder than before what took him by surprise. "Okay, we can start."

"Wait, what about Senacchi? I thought you wanted to get as much guardians as you could?" The blonde guy raised his eyebrow and looked around the room slightly confused, but Morisawa just laughed and waved his hand.

"Don’t worry, Hakaze! He’s out with Yuuki on a patrol and already knows the most important clues. We’ll inform him later. We still need guards in a town, don’t we?"

"Good luck to Yuuki then, I sympathize… Well, let’s start, I want to go back as quick as I can. I have other things to take care of."

"Not to be rude, but everything you’re doing is finding women to enjoy your time on a patrol or flex on them…" Midori wasn’t really convinced and ignored the glare Hakaze sent him.

"Calm down, you two. Fighting is bad, nobody wants you to get injured! We really have a lot of work to do, but let’s start from the beginning. Nito, you tried to catch the villain. Can you start?"

"Of course, captain. In the evening, we received a information about the possibility of a break-in, someone saw these two getting to the warehouse through the window. We arrived with Morisawa and Takamine, who was close by and saw that the doors were blocked, so we had to destroy them in order to get there."

"That’s when we saw you two, Sengoku and that unknown attacker who fled, so Nito chased them, while Takamine took you to the healer’s house. But I don’t really get how did you know something bad happened there?"

Both Mika and Arashi looked at themselves, not really sure how to start. How are you supposed to explain that one of them suddenly thought about going there and the second one didn’t even get suspicious at all? It was just a random feeling and nothing else…

"Yes, that’s right, we’re terrible little kids which looked for a shelter to spend a night together to get ready for job hunting in the morning... Sorry about that, we didn’t plan to go there at first," Naru suddenly started talking, so Mika stayed quiet. "Something was off from the beginning, so we looked closer. I mean, the doors were blocked, the windows wasn’t and Mika thought he heard something strange, so we decided to trust our intuition and went there."

"What a strange place for spending a night together," Midori narrowed his eyes, what made Naru laugh. "Maybe Sena was right about you…?"

"Was what? He’s never right, dear. Is he trying to destroy my reputation or something?"

"Yeah, whatever, you can deal with him later," Hakaze waved his hand. "We have real problems here to deal with and none of them is connected to your reputation, sorry."

"Rude. But I get it.."

"Please…" Morisawa looked troubled at first, but forced a smile. "Sena can be rude and you know that, so don’t get mad at him, I’m sure you can talk later. But now I wonder… Why didn’t you come to the guards first? It could end up very bad for you!"

"I’ve seen worse, captain. Besides, I'm a mercenary. I simply trusted my hunch and that was a good idea. Too bad we couldn’t catch them."

"You’re safe and Sengoku is alive, that’s the best outcome."

"Have you seen something unusual?" Unlike the captain, Nito stayed calm and collected, without any softness in his voice. "Something that could help us identify the villain. Eyes, clothes, their weapon?"

"He didn’t expect anyone for sure," Mika closed his eyes and tried his best to remember anything. "Had a hood as well. I think he had some kind of sword…?"

"Almost half of the kingdom is using a sword as their chosen weapon, so without any details, it won’t be helpful."

"Don’t be so cold, Nito!"

Morisawa looked even more offended than Mika, who, fun fact, didn’t even care at this point what the guards were thinking about him.

"Sorry, I focused on helpin’ the child. Nothin’ out of ordinary on first glance."

"So what now? Can you postpone the festival and try to catch the bad guy, please…?" Midori finally decided to stand up and looked at Morisawa with some hope in is eyes, what surprised him a bit. He gave himself a moment before making a decision, walking around the room.

"That’s not something I can simply decide just like that, Takamine. We have to talk with Hasumi at least."

"It’s just a festival made by my father, it isn’t something that has to be done now. I think safety is more important than that, captain."

"I know," He put his hand on Midori’s shoulder, still keeping a smile on his face. "And I know you’re a good kid and you care more than you look, but… I can’t make all decision by myself."

"I mean, nobody wants to have a murderer on a party," Midori sighed heavily and soon after the captain took his hand, went to the door. "I’ll talk with my father, maybe he’ll listen to me… Good luck on your hunt, captain."

He looked at Nito, who without saying anything opened the door and let him leave the room. Chiaki and first looked like he wanted to stop Takamine or at least say something more, but he wasn’t quick enough. For a minute, they stayed quiet, so everyone could think now.

"...Well, I guess that’s it for today," Hakaze looked around. "I don’t know what to think about this two, so maybe let Senacchi deal with them, most suspicious people can’t stay quiet when they have to stay with him for too long, so we can make sure they’re clean. And since it’s over, I’m going back. See you, captain."

And he left, just like Takamine, leaving only the four of them.

"Not the best day… I’m not sure if we really need Sena to take care of those two," Nito came closer to the captain and whispered something to his ear, then looked at Naru and Mika. "Although I think you two should stay in the town for a few more days. It’s easier to hunt down someone while they’re travelling."

That’s what he said, but something was telling Mika it’s not only that… Both he and Hakaze looked like they wanted to say they’re more guilty than they were, and that made him a bit mad. Yes, he might be naive sometimes and he wasn’t even from this place, but he didn’t do anything wrong. Do people here have some trust issues or something?

...Well, sometimes it’s better to just be like that. Oshi-san also didn’t trust others so easily.

"Do whatever you want, I’m staying here for few more days anyway," Unlike him, Arashi looked like she didn’t even care about that. "Let’s go, Mika. We can’t help for know unless we remember more or that kid will say more than us. That’s what you’re waiting for, right?"

"Yes, you’re right," The captain answered and his smile disappeared. "I’m sorry. I think rather than suspecting you, we should make sure you’re safe, but… This place suffered a lot during the war and people are really hostile when it comes to things like this. You don’t even live here, so it’s even worse, I'm afraid..."

"Got it. We’ll try to be nice and good kids then. Goodbye, captain."

And just like that, Arashi and Mika left the guard office.

 

Looking for a job turned out to be harder than they anticipated. Most of them required to leave a town to get this, that, find some nice herbs, hunt poor animals, go to town A and talk with boy B so you can get new informations, or even better - go for an epic journey to fight with the evil lords and rescue the world from the Big Bag Guys, because who doesn’t want to become a great hero?

Let’s be honest, that’s not how you become a one of them. Not here. And none of them wanted to become the new heroes of the month.

Anyway, that was very disappointing.

When they were looking around the harbor, they found a lost child and helped her find her parents, but that was a just a nice and good deed rather than a proper job, so at the end of the day, they had to give up and hope than soon the captain will let them leave this place. At the evening, Arashi suggested to go to the tavern they met yesterday and eat something while getting to know each other better - and when asked why she still wanted to stay with Mika, the blonde avoided answering it, saying that they can talk after eating.

The place was loud and packed with other people, so Kagehira was nervous. He felt like in the very moment they’ll enter the tavern, all of them will look at him, so he was frightened more than he should. Seeing that, Arashi grabbed his hand and left the building, guiding Mika to Shinkai's house.

"Not the fan of crowded places, huh?" Arashi smiled. "Sorry for not noticing."

"No, it's okay... Thank ya kindly for takin' me out of there, my head started hurtin' like crazy."

"Another headache? I thought you said you’re fine."

"I was," Mika scratched his head. "But when I went there it felt like it might start again. Sorry."

"Not a problem, don’t worry. Maybe Shinkai would be nice to- Oh, wait."

She grabbed him and hid behind the wall of the building, pointing at someone standing in front of Kanata’s home. Those two were Shinkai and Morisawa, talking about something, but since they didn’t come earlier, they didn’t really know what was the topic of the discussion.

"...It’s not that bad, though! Let’s just hope Sengoku will wake up soon and we’ll definitely get something!" Chiaki raised his hand and looked like he was full of energy.

"He 'will'. You’re 'worrying' too much… Or maybe you don’t believe in me anymore?" Kanata, on the other hand, played like something hurt him deeply, what immediately made the captain panic, because he started to wave with his hands chaotically.

"No, no, not at all, there’s no way I would do this to you! I just… I really want to make sure we’ll get this criminal soon, so everyone can calm down."

Kanata didn’t respond - instead, he looked into captain’s eyes and stayed quiet for a minute. Chiaki wasn’t really sure what to do or what to say, so he blushed and started looking around That amused the healer, who laughed softly and laid his hand on a captain’s cheek, what took him by a surprise. Mika saw that Arashi at first wanted to say something, but stopped and covered her mouth with a hand, watching.

"‘m not sure we should jus’ stay here like this, Naru…" He kept his voice low.

"Yeah, but if they really want to flirt, they would just go inside or something, trust me," The mercenary sighed. "That’s what Takamine was talking about, they really look like more than just friends. I’m kinda jealous, to be honest?"

"Are you?"

"Every lady wants a cute and strong man standing next to her, you know?" Naru giggled and pulled Mika closer, making sure they won’t be noticed. "I wish I could get some sweet romance as well, but as you can see, no luck."

"‘m sure you’ll find someone, Naru, "Mika smiled softly, turning around. "Yer beautiful and really nice, sooner or later people’ll see that, if they didn’t already."

"Sweet. Thank you, but with my luck, I might end up killing them rather than being a good lover, but I’ll do my best."

A smile on her face changed, what surprised the Marionette. To be honest, that didn’t sound very optimistic.

"'Lost children' are 'rude'~ 'Eavesdropping' an adult conversation just like that~"

Before he could say anything, they suddenly heard Kanata’s voice, what made Mika so nervous that he tried to move away - forgetting he’s literally in Naru’s firm grasp. That, of course, surprised her a bit, but she didn’t flinch, instead allowing Mika to stay in her arms.

"Oh God, sorry, doctor, we didn-?

"Fufu~ I’ll forgive you if you stay 'quiet'. Are you maybe hungry, 'lost child'?"

"Not real-"

"He is, doctor, please don’t listen to him!" Naru jumped before Mika could even end his sentence. "He's a very bad child, if you asked me, doctor. He still looks pale, but plays a hero without even thinking about resting or eating properly."

"Indeed, a 'bad child'. Come, join us~ You’re 'invited' as well, don't be shy."

After a moment of silence, they finally followed him.

Chapter Text

They didn’t talk too much when Shinkai brought them to his house again, letting Mika think a bit before anything and enjoying the view of a nice and calm place as always. It’s not like he wasn’t happy, since he preferred staying here with Kanata and Naru rather than only Naru in a such a loud, dirty and disgustINg place full of unknown people.

That doesn’t really mean he fully love spending time with them or anything, but whatever.

Still, there was one other thing that couldn’t get off his head - he wanted to continue the topic they started before Kanata found them, but he felt it would be hard even if they’ll be alone in the near future. But he wanted to know what happened in Naru’s past to have such pessimistic thoughts. Mika didn’t lie when he said that his companion is beautiful - because damn, she really was - but it didn’t even catch his interest. Maybe she was used to it as well?

Well, he can try again later he’ll find an opportunity.

For now he simply had to act as normal person, since they came for a dinner. Mika wasn’t really hungry and he thought that he might feel even bad if he’ll eat too much, but when he remembered Kanzaki’s words about Shinkai’s tendency to get really mad when his patients weren’t listening to what he’s telling them, he decided to play it somehow. Worst case scenario, he’ll run somewhere else later.

Funny enough, he didn’t really have to try too hard, because someone else took them by surprise. They didn’t even start the dinner when Kanzaki suddenly appeared in the room Kanata invited them, helping a child to sit down next to the doctor. Mika quickly recognized him as the boy they rescued before and took an opportunity to look closer at him. He still was a bit weak, had a lot of bandages and his left eye was covered, but other than that, he definitely looked better.

"He can join us, I think it would be good to let him eat something with us rather than lay in the bed." Souma wasn’t as much confident as he probably wanted to be, at least until he saw a smile on Shinkai’s face that informed him that the doctor agreed. The young boy wasn’t sure if he could say anything, even his greeting was limited to a quick nod and very quiet “hello”, which was really hard to catch if you didn’t pay attention.

"Good t’ see yer alright." Kagehira smiled softly, looking at the child. His cheeks turned a bit more pink than before.

"T-thank you for letting me join…" He started, but quickly paused when the doctor patted his head lightly.

"Do not be so 'shy', Sengoku~ You’re 'safe' here."

"Of course, nothing bad can happen in such guarded place like right now," Naru laughed softly, sending a boy a gentle smile. "But you could have some mercy with all the bandages. It's like I'm watching a mummy..."

"Well, I guess my condition was worse than I thought… Still! I cannot believe I let those villains get me like this, shame on me, de gozaru!"

"Don’ worry, we’re not here t’ question ya for now," Mika quickly raised his hand to somehow stop the boy from screaming, since it looked like he could start a whole monologue about how they catched him off-guard and almost killed without any notice. "Relax an' take yer time t' recover."

"Yes, he is right, Sengoku-dono, you still have time to calm down and think about everything carefully. Captain will definitely question you letter. But, to be honest, I am curious, who was…"

...such an idiot to attack like this and hope for the best results?

No, that's too harsh, avoid speaking about it.

There was a change Kagehira actually wanted to say that, but he stopped before anything, seeing how inappropriate this was. It sounded like he knew more about doing the exact same thing and simply looked down at the person who did that, you should be aware of it… At this point it’s good to stay quiet when you have nothing interesting to say and listen, maybe someone will play it better.

"Let’s not 'think' about that and 'enjoy' the meal, 'everyone'~"

Shinkai gave Shinobu a cup of tea, which the ninja accepted with a joy, and with that, they started eating. The dinner was prepared by Kanzaki - he didn’t say that, they had to wait until the healer did it for him. Souma blushed softly and stated that since he was doing it for years now, he learned few tricks so everyone staying here can enjoy good and healthy meals, what made Arashi say he’ll definitely become a good wife in future - and Kanzaki’s face became even more red. Everyone there laughed and Kanata finally agreed with him.

Honestly, for a minute they looked like a sweet and caring family, even though they never really spent time together. Still, it was so soft and watching it was something really enjoyable.

Even though someone’s smile was more forced than it should. Those headaches came back, since after some time Mika looked a bit more spaced out than before, so he lost some part of what they were talking about.

Focus, Kagehira. Looks like Shinkai wants to say something.

"By the way, I 'think' you should 'know' those nice 'people' were the ones who 'saved' your 'life', Sengoku." He said, pointing his open hand and Mika and Arashi. After hearing that, Shinobu’s eyes (or actually an eye) went full wide open. He suddenly stood up and regretted it immediately, even though he didn’t want to admit it.

"I-I’m honored, de gozaru!" The ninja bowed his head as low as he could. "Thanks to you, I’ll be able to continue my job and this is very important to me! If I can do something for you, It'll be an honour, de gozaru!"

"Yes, of course, no problem - but, you know, you should listen to your healer and rest before anything, okay?" Naru sent him a troubled smile immediately after she saw Shinkai’s face and tried his best to cool down Sengoku’s will. Thankfully, he listened to him and sat down, making Kanata happy again.

"O-of course, de gozaru… I wouldn’t even think about making Shinkai-dono mad after what he did for me, but I also want to thank properly you two."

"You 'won’t' make me mad, because Sengoku is a 'good child', right?" Kanata giggled softly and patted his head.

Ironically, nobody said nothing after that, and soon they decided to finally let Shinobu rest and clean a bit before going to sleep. Kanata also offered that if Arashi doesn’t really have a place to sleep, he doesn’t mind letting her stay here, but the blonde said that no worry, because she found something different when she helped guards with the mess on that goddamn night, but she’ll remember that if she’ll ever need it.

Well, Shinkai really liked letting people stay in his own house, didn’t he… Unlike some people in the Harbor, he was a very friendly person, even if he had some quirks.

 

Later on, Mika stayed in a second room close to his with a small kind-of terrace, letting him watch the breathtaking sea view. It was already late evening, but the moon was giving quite a lot of light tonight. The Marionette stared at the sea, observing one smaller ship and wondering about what he really should do right now. The captain wanted them to help get that murderer, but to be quite honest - why should he care about that and listen to him? Yes, of course, he went here and hoped for the best while playing a plain traveler or something, but now he has more problems than before and he didn’t even know, how long they want him to stay here. Maybe they’ll never catch them anyway, and for God’s sake, he wasn’t even sure if Oshi-san was actually safe. How can he contact Natsume? Will Mao really help them somehow? Or maybe he used last possibility to send him here and block him? Really, just because Ritsu was watching him doesn’t mean he’ll try something stupid, humans could be idiots anyway.

He didn’t even know what will happen if he’ll really meet that villain again.

You look more annoyed than confused, to be honest. It’s stupid, you’re right, but if you’ll simply run from this place, everything will be even harder. Hope they won’t ground you here for too long.

"I wish it was that easy."

Kagehira sighed heavily, not even looking around to find the voice.

"Can I know what’s 'troubling' you, 'lost child'?"

Ironically, this time he turned around to find out who it was, but thankfully, it was Kanata, who entered the room with two cups full of tea and a some sort of material on his shoulder. He used it to lay it on Mika’s shoulders, and then sat next to him, offering a second cup. Mika grabbed it almost immediately, feeling a very pleasant scent.

But he didn’t really want to talk about his problems. At this point he wasn’t really sure if he could trust the healer, even though he took him and gave quite a lot. There is a small chance that Shinkai was aware about something, because he simply stayed in a silence, without hurrying the Marionette.

"When I’m 'lost' and I’m not sure what should I do, there are two 'places' I 'love' to visit in order to 'gather' my 'thoughts'," There was something very soothing in his voice to the point where ignoring it was practically impossible. "It is one of “those”. The 'view' and 'sound' of the 'sea' is very relaxing, especially at 'night'~"

It’s like he didn’t even wait for a immediate response from Mika, giving him as much time as he wanted.

"The 'second' one is a 'shrine' placed in an 'old' part of this 'district'," He continued. "My 'people' used to 'believe' that the 'guardian' of that 'shrine' can listen to you and help you 'fight' for a better 'tomorrow'. Isn’t that “nice' to feel that “someone” might watch your 'back' and give you a 'hand' when you will 'need' it~?"

"Not like I can just leave town, doctor. Yer not lettin' me go."

"Captain has a 'good' heart and I’m sure he’s not 'against' you, Kagehira," Kanata turned his head and looked at Mika. "You just have to believe' him and 'understand' the situation. People are 'scared', some don’t even 'trust' their own 'neighbours'. They want 'answers' directly from the 'captain', who’s working days and nights to find them. But he’s only a 'human', not a 'god'. Even if he’s doing his 'best', the only 'thing' he’s getting is even more 'questions'."

"What made people that unfriendly? That murderer?"

"You weren’t here during the 'war', right? When the Fallen Ones, 'knights' and the Empire’s people started to 'fight'?"

Fallen Ones?

But hey, wasn’t Hajime talking about the same thing before? Watch out for knights, because after the war people are avoiding them at any costs? No clue about the Empire though, pretty sure Yumenosaki is a kingdom.

"Heard somethin’ about the knights. But ‘m pretty sure the Fallen Ones weren’t anythin’ new."

"I see," Shinkai turned his head and stayed quiet for a moment. "It is a long 'story', but you should know it. Knights were 'supposed' to serve the 'king' who ruled the 'kingdom' and before the 'Emperor' came to this lands, everything was 'okay', until he found out what exactly they 'did'. After that, the war 'started', and people saw how 'dangerous' those men were. Not only that, but also they 'learned' about the 'cursed' ones… The Fallen Ones. I still think it wasn’t a good 'time' to tell people directly that the 'danger' was from both sides."

He made a pause here and took a sip from his cup.

"It is 'painful' to learn that not only the 'protectors' of the land turned out to be 'bloodthirsty' murderers, but also that your 'friends', 'family' and everyone you love can forget 'who' they were and 'lost' their minds to the point where taking them down is 'safer' than letting them 'live'."

Forget, huh… That sounds sad.

"Let me guess - that’s why travelers are like a one big surprise box that may turn t’ be dangerous," Mika finally decided to speak. "Or that it’d be better t’ get a fallen one or simple psychopath rather than a knight."

"Exactly," Kanata nodded his head and smiled. "A Fallen One isn’t that 'hard' to 'kill'. A knight, though, may take down a dozen of good 'warriors' before dying. And it takes time to actually 'unmask' them."

"Do ya really think that’s the case? I doubt it."

"Why?"

"Because, let’s b’ real - that one culprit in warehouse wasn’t hard to catch up," He admitted honestly, hoping that he’s not making a bad choice to finally say it. "If those guys are as strong as people believe, they could take down Shinobu with a one, strong strike. Yet he stayed alive long enough for me and Naru to find ‘em."

Again, a pause. Shinkai put his hand to his mouth and stayed like that for a while, probably thinking about the statement Kagehira made.

"I hope you’re 'right', Kagehira," He didn’t turn his head this time, still thinking. "It would be only a second 'victim' if Sengoku 'died', there isn’t enough 'evidence' pointing at 'anyone.".

"Can ya tell me who was the first victim?"

"A guard. A really 'funny', but also way too 'curious' man. Nobody could tell why did this 'happen', but I’m sure it was 'painful' for captain to 'lose' him. He attacked 'suddenly' at night, when he was 'close' to the old part of district I 'mentioned' earlier."

Yes, he was right… Not enough information to think about the real culprit. Just that they were attacking at night, avoiding potential witnesses, that could be anyone! Well, it would be easier if they could find a motive why they attacked Shinobu - maybe his job was more dangerous that they thought?

"Maybe we shouldn’t 'talk' too much about it, you’re 'supposed' to rest as well," Kanata put the cup next to him and sent Mika a soft smile. "I 'think' there is something that 'troubles' you more than local 'problems', right?"

Mika avoided his eyes for a second, hoping he still can get away from talking about that, but he finally abandon that hope.

"Yeah… There’s someone I’m worried about, doctor."

"Who is the 'one' you’re 'looking' for, lost child?"

Kagehira hesitated for a moment.

"Someone really important for me. ‘m not sure where t’ find him and if he’s away from any danger…"

- It must be 'hard' for you, I’m sure. I will 'pray' that you’ll be able to 'find' them as soon as 'possible'," Shinkai nodded his head and finally stood up, giving Mika a hand to help him get up as well. "I also have a 'feeling' you don’t trust me enough to 'talk' too much, so I won’t 'force' you, child. I will be 'open' when you’ll feel 'safer', so please, don’t be 'afraid'. I can give you more 'knowledge' about 'dangers' around the 'kingdom'. And now, let’s go 'rest' a bit. There’s no way to 'guarantee' the next 'day' won’t give us some sort of 'discoveries' or 'tragedies'."

 

After that, Shinkai took Mika to his room and wished a good night, leaving him alone. And believe me, Kagehira really tried to be nice kid and sleep a full night for once, but he couldn’t. He was pretty sure he felt asleep, but quickly woke up with another headache, so the only thing he could do was lay down or get up and go somewhere - even though it was risky as hell. He had to waste a lot of time, unless he’ll learn more about the guards or other dangers, and then he’ll start his little sneaky plays or something.

But then, he heard something that made him grab his weapon. It’s been a long time since he sensed that feeling of being watched, but that disappeared almost immediately, leaving him confused. He laid down again with his dagger still in hand, listening.

“Stop looking for me, I’m not even theRE.”

Now he was even more confused, because he already heard that voice some time ago.

“Long time no sEE… Or actually heAR. Guess you’re still aliVE♪”

"Yeah, yer right. Do ya know somethin’?"

“Wow, someone’s surely annoyED. I thought you were missing me and my informatiONS… But before that, let me aSK - how do you enjoy staying in a Harbor with a murderER~?”

"So ya already know ‘bout that, huh."

“I’ve been listening to people here and theRE… They talked about a Marionette who saved Isara’s little helpER.”

Wait, what?

So he wanted to say Sengoku and Mao actually knew each other? Wow, that could be actually helpful, and he didn’t even start the conversation for good… He really wanted a minute to play a star in this show, so it would be a good idea to let him shine while he still can.

"What’s connectin’ them?"

“Isara works for Emperor, and Sengoku’s helping him, that’s ALL. He didn’t want to say too much, but from his face after we informed him that he almost died, he really must care a LOT. But there’s something that makes me actually worry a BIT,” He could, indeed, feel a concern in Sakasaki’s voice, what surprised him a lot, since that boy wasn’t caring a lot in most cases. “I have a feeling we can start connecting all those attacks we heard aboUT. An Archivist, a “way too curious” guard, that kID… There were also another people before we started thinking about IT. Aoba heard before the Archivist died, a small group of hunters who were looking for fallen ones suddenly disappeared as wELL. Their last mission was from the Emperor’s mAN.”

That means someone really dislikes people working for that Emperor, but the guard was just working for Morisawa rather than the Empire, right?

"What ‘bout the village nearby Sakuma’s place?" Kagehira hid his weapon and got up. "Pretty sure Tsumu’s been talkin’ ‘bout that."

“You remembered, hUH?” Something in his voice annoyed Kagehira, but he decided to keep it for himself. “Twins looked up for that and when they finally found out what happened, they looked extremely irritatED. It was some sort of accident, a boy from the village probably died from dehydration or something like tHAT. That’s not our concern anyWAY.”

Ouch. That was definitely a painful death. Alone in the dark, without any help. Without any hope. With ou-

“As you can see, we do have some sort of clUE♪ But I do have something even bettER.”

"Come at me, I’m listenin’."

“There is a chance we’re getting closer to SHU.”

Kagehira could feel his own heart immediately.

“But also there might be a complicatiON. Ever heard about those sweet, bloodthirsty Kingdom troublemakERS~?”

Another heartbeat.

"Please don’ talk ‘bout knights."

“BINGO♪”

Oh for God’s sake, are you kidding me? Suddenly another person is suggesting they might be a problem, isn’t that ironic?

“The Fallen Ones and their hunters are a trouble itself, but you know, from time to time people do talk about some strange Marionettes being found nearby the places where some Fallen Ones were, huh, living, if you can say it like tHAT. You used to hunt a lot of them before, didn’t you, Kagehira?

"Yeah, I did," He said without any hesitation. "Sounds like somethin’ Oshi-san’d make them do."

That was also suggesting that he was somewhere alive. But… That actually made him a bit sad. He used to take those fallen ones from time to time and Oshi-san looked quite pleased thanks to how quickly he could work, and now… Nothing. Someone’s taking his job.

He really didn’t abandon him, right?

“Stop this, you idIOT, this is annoying as hELL. Do you really think he would abandon anything he creatED? Also, I’m pretty sure you weren’t taking so many of them, so there is a chance he’s trying to do something as wELL. Most bodies of those cursed disappearED. But you know what they SAY…

No matter where the Fallen Ones are looking for prey, the knights will find them. Nobody will cry if they die.

Damn, how many of you were hunting those Fallen Ones?

"I don’ like this t’ be honest," Kagehira sighed and closed his eyes. "It’ll be okay if I stay low, avoid those troublemakers and look for other Marionettes, right?"

“Yeah, and don’t let anyone find out you’re a Marionette as wELL. We’re not sure who’s taking down others, but I do prefer to think knights aren’t a big fans of Shu’s creaTIONS. So if they’ll find yOU…”

It’ll be hard to stay alive. But it wasn’t really easy to know where they are. Shinkai said that earlier - that even neighbours don’t trust themselves because hell only know who’s innocent and who’s dangerous.

It was a real hell outside. Don’t trust anybody unless you an confirm they’re on your side, hope for the best and simply play a nice, innocent boy. Nothing really changed in his strategy and that was irritating. He’s playing here like an idiot, hoping that others will be able to find his Master.

“Anyway, stay safe and don’t think about running away, and everything should be fINE. Have a nice dAY♪”

It was a middle of the night.

Chapter Text

And just like that, Kagehira was left all by himself with his head full of informations that almost made his head spin like crazy. He wasn’t the type to think about what to do in the future that much as now, so he was getting more and more confused as the times goes on - because he really wanted to do something good, but didn’t know what exactly.

The thing that caught his interest was the fact, that there were a few possible parties trying to accomplice different goals and that was the most confusing thing, especially because he could even count himself and some few people as well, since they were looking for Oshi-san. After that, the one was the murderer attacking people connected to those from the Empire - what the hell is wrong with them anyway? - then the Marionettes (probably?) and knights. Especially the last ones. How many things they were doing? They used to hunt the Fallen ones, they might be the party that’s taking down other Marionettes, or at least that’s what Natsume believes, but also some people want to accuse them of taking down other as well.

Honestly, whenever something bad was happening, you could almost guess someone will say knights. Someone died? Definitely knights. Your friend disappeared? Yep, knights have done something bad. You almost lost all of your herbs on the way back home? Damn those Evil knights!

Can’t just somebody give a full history why those guys are so bad and why everybody loves to pin all the crimes to them?

Oh, and those Fallen Ones, but it sounds like they just… are. And that’s it - they just exist and they can be dangerous. End of the line. It’s almost like corpses in Yumenosaki are becoming more and more normal or something.

But let’s be honest, that’s quite a lot of stuff going on. Are we sure we’re not a part of something bigger?

"That’s prob’ly jus’ a mess made by someone too bored in their life…" He said, looking at the ceiling. "It’s really irritatin’."

Definitely. It was a big mess and not enough hints to get it all. But that’s why working in the shadows should work perfectly, no matter what - or who - is causing all that chaos, they might be too focused on their own goal to see a little crow wandering around for clues… If he can do that properly, of course.

But for now, rest. Or at least stay here and wait for a morning. Wandering around right now might be too suspicious.

 

And so, another night passed, and as much as one could guess, Kagehira used all that time to think about the situation rather than sleep, but he didn’t really looked tired at all. Even when Kanzaki came, he simply told him he’s getting better and he wasn’t suspicious at all, so everything worked fine for now.

But he still didn’t know what he could do with his free time or how should he cover his thoughts if someone will try to ask. After all, Shinkai already saw something to the point when he actually asked about it - sooner or later other people might start asking more questions that will start getting problematic. The only thing he could do is look around the town and a bit farther when he’ll be sure nobody is following him.

When he finally decided to get up and leave the house, he heard some voices coming from the room close to his, so he decided to see - or actually hear - who was the visitor.

"...Chiaki, were you 'spying' on me?" Kanata’s voice was surprisingly cold.

"No, I didn’t! One of the guards saw you wandering around that shrine in the middle of the night and followed you until they made sure you were safe, but I was worried! You should understand how dangerous that place can be!" The captain sounded more like a parent who caught his kid at something bad, but still wanted to show his concern.

"I do, but I also do not want to be 'followed' when I am there. Some of the 'herbs' ale still nearby that place and I had to go there, so 'please' do not spy on me. I will not cause any trouble."

"I know, and I trust you, but… What if someone attacked you?"

-"They will not. Besides, I did not 'asked' for a help from the guards because I 'knew' you would be the first one to go with me."

" ...Is it bad though?" Chiaki lowered his voice, what made Shinkai silent for a few seconds.

"You already have a lot of 'responsibilities' to take care of. Chiaki is working 'hard' for the people~ But that’s also 'worrying'. I do not want to see them 'carrying' you if you faint."

"What about those two gentlemen then? They’re still looking for a job and already encountered a possible danger..."

"I might 'think' about it. But don’t 'forget' one of them is resting here as well. It would be 'rude' to ask my guests for a job like this. But enough of that, I’m sure you 'came' here to talk with Shinobu…"

I think that’s the best moment to get out of there, it would be awful if they caught you on eavesdropping just like last time.

Mika agreed on that and quickly left Chiaki and Kanata before they would even notice him. So there was a chance they might be get something after all? That would be a perfect opportunity if that area was really as dangerous as they were thinking, giving him a possibility to work rather than stay in one place like an idiot.

...It somehow still felt quite off, because it was like Mika got more confident than before, being able to take more risk. But it would be bad if he’ll get too much full of himself, it’s still dangerous. Well, anyone might get crazy if they had to sit and do nothing... And Shinkai was still keeping a guard on him, making it impossible to run from the Harbor. How in the hell he was doing it so well?

This is why he thought it would be nice to meet Naru again and mention that there is a nice possibility of a work. After all, they were literally in a similar situation and somehow Kagehira was surprisingly comfortable when the mercenary was close to him - maybe because of how nicely they worked even though they didn’t even know themselves for too long before that. Still, there was a problem…

He didn’t really know where should he start looking for her, so he slowly walked around the town on this cloudy day, looking around for the blonde. It took him some time, but at some point he heard her voice, so he could follow the sound and find her finally.

"Honestly, how many times you asked me to join?" Arashi sounded somehow annoyed, so he could try to guess who was the person he talked to.

"I stopped counting because it’s boring and useless anyway," And, no surprise, Izumi’s voice was a mix of someone’s both tired and irritated at the same time. "It’s not like you’re doing anything better. I can make sure you’ll get kicked out from the place you’re staying in right now, so be a nice mercenary and get that goddamn work for once~"

"My, how scary! I can’t believe a guard is bullying me! I’m not going to find anything that sounds like a pain and unnecessary fatigue anyway. Why do you care so much?"

"...Yeah, I’m starting to wonder as well," Izumi put his hand on his head and sighed. "The whole situation we’re in is soo annoying and I feel like I’m starting to care about some idiots like you and captain."

"Heh, so you can be nice sometimes, that’s actually cute?" Naru started looking hoping for someone to help her escape, until she noticed Mika. "My, look who’s here! Come here, sweetie~"

"Oh great, your partner in crime is here, now you can get an excuse to run away," Izumi rolled his eyes when Mika got closer. "Honestly, do something useful for the town if you’re going to stay here or else people will get even more suspicious."

"Just because we’re not from here doesn’t mean we’re the baddies! God, if that’s how you plan to behave forever, nobody will want to come here in the future."

"Great, less problems…" Sena closed his eyes for a moment and clicked his tongue. "I’m getting out of here, staying here is draining my energy like crazy. Don’t do anything stupid, got it?"

And without waiting for the answer from any of them, Izumi quickly left them, leaving both Mika and Arashi speechless for a moment. Narukami crossed her arms and gave herself a few seconds to calm down, so Kagehira stayed quiet and waited.

"...What a stubborn man, like, why is he getting so nervous every time?" Naru finally looked at Kagehira. "I don’t get it. Does the guards can’t take care of everything up to the point where some of them aren’t even getting enough rest or what?"

"I dunno. What happened exactly?"

"I’m not even sure! Sometimes he’s quite alright, but sometimes it’s like he’s not sure what he actually wants from others. And that can be pretty creepy when he’s talking some nonsense, honestly," Naru shooked her head and took a deep breath. "Well, not only him, there are some other who looks like zombies waiting for their master to say what that they should do. Creepy…

Then make sure you’ll never get nearby the old place he used to live - that’s what Kagehira probably could say right now, but-  

"But anyway, let’s leave that grumpy cat and talk about something nicer, dear~" Thankfully she decided to change the topic before Mika could say anything. "Wanna go somewhere?"

"‘m not sure… I was lookin’ for ya because I heard we might’ve get a chance for a job."

"Isn’t that sweet, hearing that from you of all people? Tell me."

"Can we at least go somewhere else? Can’t focus thanks to that noise…"

"Hmm… Yeah, you’re right, people are looking at me because I got into a fight with that guy anyway and as much as I like attention from time to time, that’s too much."

 

In order to get a nice place to sit down and talk, they had to get out from that part of the town and get closer to the sea. Not all of the lands were luckily packed with buildings, so they could simply stay here. Narukami also said that apparently if they walk a bit on the east, they would see a small forest where the old district could be found. It reminded Mika a small talk he had with Kanata yesterday, since he was talking about the shrine, but decided not to mention it.

When they finally sit down, Mika saw that Naru was definitely happier than before - what shouldn’t be surprising since when they left, she had a cute smile on her face almost all the time.

"Perfect, we finally have some time for ourselves without any murderers or curious guards," She said and clapped her hands. "So give me that juicy informations, honey. What we might get in the future?"

"It’s quite embarrasin’ to admit but I’ve eavesdropped a conversation between a captain and the doctor…" Mika laughed nervously when he saw a sly smile that suddenly appeared on Arashi’s face. "Hey, stop-"

"Huh~ You look like a sweet and innocent boy but you can be quite naughty, isn’t that ironic?"

Well, to be honest, he’s not that innocent, but anyway, continue-

"Oh shut up!" Mika shouted without any warning, but then realised those words that annoyed him haven’t been spoken by Naru at all, so his face got automatically red. "I-I mean… I didn’ wanna shout at ya…"

But Narukami didn’t even response at first - instead, she got a bit closer to him and looked in his eyes like she wanted to get all Kagehira’s problems out of his head - or something like that. You know, eye contact, few seconds, your problems are mine etc. How sweet of her.

Oh, wait… They’re not like that.

"You can talk with me, honey," She said with a softer voice. "After that incident, you’ve become somehow nervous…?"

The Marionette averted his eyes. It was for some reason harder to lie in this case, because part of him wanted to be honest and ask for a real advise, but no, he made up his mind. Not so fast.

So use this opportunity, she literally gave you a false reason to act like that!

"I-I guess… Ya know, it’s scary if ya think we still know nothin’ and all," Mika closed his eyes hoping that he won’t ruin this. "I mean… There’s no guarantee we won’t be next and-"

Ironically, his voice really started shaking with every word, so yeah, he wasn't even acting - even Naru stayed quiet for a second, looking at the Marionette with a concern all over her face.

"I’m used to it, to be honest." She admitted and sat back normally. Kagehira thought that he was was free for a second, but then he suddenly felt a hand pulling him closer, so he opened his eyes only to notice that Naru was even closer than before. His head was laying on the blonde’s shoulder while Arashi started patting his head gently.

"It’s hard to say what’s in your head since you’re such a quiet kid, so I didn't expect you to worry so much about the others," Her voice was so warm that Kagehira almost forgot about his worries for a moment, thinking how nice it was right now, even though he shouldn’t get used to this. "You’ll be fine, I promise."

She wasn’t even getting into any details, but that was fine.

"Mhm… Thanks, Naru," He waited patiently for her to let go of his head, so he could look at Arashi’s face again. "Yer such a great person, ya know?"

"Oh stop, I feel like my face is getting red!" Naru laughed and covered her face with her hands. "But you know… If you prefer to look around for the criminal, we might as well try to do it with the guards, it’s not like we have anything better to do for the time being. And that stalker will have less reasons to bother me that I’m a lazy worker, so we’ll kill two birds with one stone… But knowing those people, they’ll be suspicious as hell."

"I have a feelin’ that no matter what we’ll do, they’ll talk anyway."

"Yeah, true,"  Arashi sighed. "I’d be easier if we had a guardian or someone trusted to back us up."

"A guardian, you say?"

Both of them literally jumped when they heard a third voice - funny enough, Mika almost grabbed his weapon but the moment his hand landed nearby the dagger, Arashi suddenly hugged him with such amount a force he had a real problem breathing. The third person also got shocked and stepped back.

"W-wait, awe you p-p-lanning to stwangle him?!" Nito’s words were literally out of order and mixed so understanding his latter words was way harder than it should be - and to make the situation even more crazy, Mika was still struggling with Arashi in order to catch some air and freedom from a sudden embrace. But damn, she sure had a lot of strength!

"Oh my God, I’m so sorry!"

Luckily Narukami notices Kagehira’s actions and let go of him, while Nito came closer worried, this time capable of speaking in a way a normal person could understand him.

"I-I didn’t want to startle you, I’m so sorry…" He bowed his head. "I just wanted to ask if you still have time."

"Depends. What do you need?"

"I heard that you were looking for a job and, well… There is something that’s bothering few people in the guards, so I think you two will be better candidates to take care of it."

"Huuh~ Sounds fishy, If you asked me, does the guards have some dirty work for such innocent people like us?"

"I promise you won’t do anything bad!" Nito shaked his head when he saw Naru’s face. "We need someone to look out for Kana- I mean, doctor Shinkai if he’ll decide to sneak out again."

Mika almost laughed when he heard that - just when he wanted to suggest they might become legal Shinkai’s stalkers, someone’s actually asking them to do it. This town sure is small, huh? But hey, it’s a great opportunity to stay innoce...

"Wow, it’s like ya can read in minds, that’s cool~"

...Okay, forget I said anything.

"What do you mean?" Nito scratched his head. "How did you know he’s doing it?"

"I kinda heard. He and captain were talkin’ ‘bout that in the mornin’. He asked Shinkai to stop personally."

Nito narrowed his eyes trying to guess how in the hell Kagehira could eavesdrop their conversation. The Marionette clenched his fists when he thought about how stupid it could sound for him at first, but thankfully, at some point Nito hit his fist with another, most likely to indicate he got an idea.

"He lets you stay in his house, I should remember that earlier," He nodded his head. Yep, nothing strange you could hear it. But eh, that captain… He really tried to convince Kanata-chin on his own hoping it’ll work?"

"...Kanata-chin?"  Naru had a hard time not laughing after hearing that.

"I mean, Shinkai! Doctor Shinkai!"

"My, of course~ But you’re more lively than I thought, right? You were such a cold brat back there!"

"Eh? A-ah, there, in the outpost! Sorry, but we've really were on an edge there, and I just-"

They continued that topic for a while while Mika was just standing there listening to them. He really had no idea what type of person Nito was, but yeah, he definitely was more alive right now. But honestly, it looked like some sort of weak comedy right now.

"...But okay, let’s stop right now~ Why is the doctor getting out so late anyway even though so many people are against it?" Naru finally stopped teasing Nito and put on her serious face. "If he’ll get hurt, people might go crazy."

"I know, right? But that’s why I’m asking. He knows a lot about the guards and patrols and I don't get why, but you two… You’re unknown for him. I know it won’t be easy, but there’s nothing else we can send to watch him without being caught and sent back."

God, this doctor is scary…

"He definitely doesn’t have a routine or anythin’ like that, I haven’t seen him goin’ out." Mika crossed his hands and tried to remember if he noticed something out of ordinary before, but nothing came to his mind.

"Yeah, add knowledge about patrols and you guys are out already," Naru sighed. "Honestly, if you can’t take care of one doctor, how can we do it?"

"Well, Sena said you’re a pro when it comes to catching people… Or something like that."

"Don’t listen to him, that sneaky cat is waiting for his chance to strike me down, but anyway," Naru waved her hands nonchalantly. "some advices? Places he might visit during his night trips?"

"The old shrine. Captain talks about that place from time to time and I saw him wandering around that building before, and if I’m right - he has to pass nearby the smaller guard’s station, but other that that… I’ll look for something helpful."

He probably wanted to say more, but they suddenly heard a loud “Nazunaaa!” in the background, so he had to leave then in order to go back to work, so after he promised them he’ll contact them later, they watched him until he disappeared from their sight.

"...Wait, I didn’t ask for a payment, damn it."

"Ya can ask for it later, don’cha?"

"Yeah, I’ll get him later, I don’t want to run and look for him right now. So, we need a plan how to catch the captain’s bride before it’s too late, huh?"

...Captain’s bride? Someone’s surely desperate to call Shinkai this way, but whatever.

Anyway, most of that planning was Narukami mumbling to herself, while Mika decided to simply stay and nod his head whenever he thought he should, because, well - it’s hard to make a plan when you don’t know what exactly they have to do in order to catch Kanata. Narukami simply implied that since Kagehira is living with them, he can listen and watch him as much as he can without alarming him, while she’ll be close to that passage nearby the station and hope for the best.

And, well, Nito, also known as the Nazuna, might get something later.

Still, it’ll take time.

 

And yes, it took long enough, because five days later they still didn’t catch the doctor running away. It was damn hard… Or maybe Shinkai didn’t even try for now?

It’s like he felt someone’s watching him.

Ironically, Mika got another small job - Kanata asked if he could look out for Shinobu from time to time when he young boy could finally leave his house for a bit. Of course, it was mostly his or Kanzaki’s job, but sometimes both of them were busy and the ninja wanted to move around and look for some clues for his mission, as he was calling it.

Well, to be honest, Kagehira wasn't sure what he should do for now. Shinkai still didn't let him leave the Harbor - ironically when Mika tried to do it, they somehow found him easily and forced to go back. One can get really discouraged if their schedule was limited to meetings with Arashi, listening to Izumi’s grumblings or stalking the doctor who was sending some… Unnerving vibes. Damn, it’s really like he knew something more.

And his eyes, whenever he was gazing at Mika, reminded him of how Oshi-san looked soon before he disappeared.

But Shinobu was a really great person. He needed time to get used to Mika but when he broke the barrier made of his shyness and fear, the Marionette learned a very cute side of him. He was like a fire when he got passionate about his job or little frogs he had with himself, even though it was still a mystery how in the hell he found and traveled with them.

On that cloudy day, he asked if Mika didn’t mind going with him since he really wanted to meet with his friend, Midori - and yeah, he didn’t, because he was almost dying from the boredom and those irritating voices in his head.

Sometimes he wondered if Shinobu really needed a bodyguard at this point, he really looked fine now. Humans sure were fragile, weren’t they…

They were in good moods until they heard a strange sound after arriving in front of Midori’s house - something like… A shot? Explosion? They hurried and looked for Takamine. The boy was at the back, sitting on a ground and covering his hand with the other one.

"Are you okay, Midori?" Shinobu rushed to his friend panicked and looked at his hands. "S-Should we go ask Shinkai-dono for help?"

"No, it’s okay… Calm down, Sengoku," Midori seemed to be more disappointed rather than in pain. "Uh, since sir Hasumi has left the Harbor I hoped I could learn how to control it by myself before my father will be back, but I guess I’m not good enough…"

"Huh? Hasumi-dono has left?"

"About two days ago, a strange man with long hair came to him, accompanied by some soldiers - captain should know more about them…"

While they were talking, Kagehira decided to examine the weapon Midori tried to use before. It turned out to be heavier than he thought, and if that required magic to shoot, using it with one hand would be hard for someone who wasn’t trained to do it. The gun itself was really pretty with the palette close to Oshi-san’s liking - mostly in black with some golden accents.

What a strange weapon. Did you met anyone using it, like one of the other Marionettes?

"Not really…" Mika mumbled to himself. "Almost none access in the Kingdom, pretty loud…"

"What’s wrong, Kagehira-dono?"

"Ah? No, just… Where did ya get that, Takamine?"

"My father gave me one of these guns… Since it’s hard to talk with Himemiya about the festival, he decided to train me already and stuff. I’m pretty sure he got them when he came back from the North?"

"It is possible!" Sengoku nodded his head while looking at the weapon. "Back in the capital, I heard that the people on the North are learning more and more advanced things… Not sure what they can create, but some crafters are really interested!"

"Yeah, that’s why he probably had to go there…" Midori wasn’t pleased at all. "I feel bad for him, those people are known to be cold, suspicious and vary a lot, they don’t like travelers at all… And their lands are just as cold as their hearts. But, Sengoku… People weren’t bothering you because of your eye color?"

"No, not at all!" Sengoku stood up full of energy and smiled. "I am quite known here after all and my eye color isn’t even close to those whose name should not be mentioned!"

Hm? Yeah, if you looked at him, Midori really had a reason to ask for that… Shinobu’s eye was quite golden after all. Guess those warriors were really easy to notice if they just tried rushing to the town? No surprise they’re avoiding witnesses.

"I’m glad to hear that," Surprisingly, Midori sent Shinobu a gentle smile, what made the ninja blush a little. "It’s good to know you’re okay after what happened to you…"

"Ahaha... You should really smile more often, Midori!"

"Of course he should, I fully agree! He’d be more popular if he kept that smile on his face, after all!"

Midori’s eyes went wide open after recognising the voice that suddenly appeared out of nowhere. Mika and Shinobu saw the captain accompanied by Kaoru, who tried to keep a neutral face, while Chiaki was literally burning with the energy as always.

"See, I told you to calm down a little, you really didn’t have to drag me all way to this place," Kaoru shaked his head. "It’s not like they’re trying to blow the town up or anything, right?"

"Don’t be like that, Hakaze, we had to check up on them and since you were with me, you could come!" He patted Kaoru’s shoulder. "But yes, that sound was really loud, people got really scared."

"Yeah, sorry…" Midori sighed again. "My bad, just go back to your work."

"Huh? What’s wrong, Takamine?" The captain quickly looked around and saw a gun laying on the ground. "Since when you’re training with that kind of weapon? Don’t tell me you were so worried about Sengoku!"

Both Mika and Shinobu looked at Midori shocked - he almost looked like he wanted to shut up the captain, but somehow kept his cool, limiting himself to sending Morisawa a strange kind of gaze.

"You’re as loud as always, huh… You can be really annoying, captain."

"God, stop that. You sound like Senacchi and I think we don’t need a second one in this town." Before the captain said anything, Kaoru waved his hand.

"Please, no. I’m nothing compared to that-"

"Are you talking shit about me, you sneaky bastards?"

Okay, what the hell?

Suddenly Izumi literally came out of nowhere with that expression that could freeze anybody who would be stupid enough to make an eye contact with him… Shinobu hid behind Midori, while Morisawa started laughing, what was strange for both Mika and Kaoru - they were just looking at Izumi like he was some kind of ghost.

"Now why the hell you’re here, Senacchi?" Kaoru was the first one to greet him, even though the only answer was a raised brow.

"What did you expect after that goddamn explosion? It’s annoying when people are suddenly panicking over a strange sound."

"Uh… How many people are going to come here because of that…" Midori sat down again resigned. "Now I really want to die from embarrassment…"

"Aand ironically," Izumi didn’t even bother to say anything to Takamine since his attention quickly jumped on Mika. "Whenever something’s happening, the little crow is a~always in the centre of it."

"‘m not! It'ds jus' a coincidence!" Kagehira couldn’t even stop himself from standing up to make sure Izumi won’t look down at him. "I haven’t done anythin’ wrong!"

"Oh yeah? That’s so sad, someone sing a stupid song~" He smiled meanly at the Marionette. "Come on, I don’t trust anybody Narukami’s suddenly so attached to, he loves getting closer to troublemakers~ No way you’re so innocent, crow."

"Now, now…" Chiaki stood between them and waved his hands. "Calm down, gentlemen. We made sure everything’s okay, so we can leave them, I’m sure Takamine wants more time to train himself so he can protect Shinobu in the future!"

"Oh shut up, captain…!" Mika wasn’t sure what Midori wanted to do, but even before he could, Chiaki grabbed Izumi’s hand and walked towards the exit, so when Kaoru followed them, the younger boys were finally free from the Morisawa’s sudden statements. But yeah, Shinobu asked if Midori really was doing it for him, so he kindly asked Mika to go back because he might really need a doctor’s help if he won’t give him a hand.

But really, it was such a nice day… Even though those people were struggling and fearing for their lives, some of them still could enjoy their time happily with their friends. Well, it’s not like it was a war or anything - if you’ll count down those murders that happened, life in the Kingdom wasn’t as bad as some would think, honestly. And the rest of the day? Mika stayed with other residents of the Shinkai’s house. He was supposed to stay all night awake as always, but, for some reason, he was tired.

 

...Somehow I can move again at night. Guess that he really has to either lose his consciousness or go to sleep, huh? Well, whatever. It’s a great opportunity, I might be able to ???? !

So I listen. The house is quiet at this hour as always…

No, wait. I hear voices. But this time they are more clear than before, even though I still for some reason can’t distinguish them immediately.

“Please, think about that”, one of them sounds nervous. “I talked with a guard before, he said that they spotted something strange. It might be dangerous.”

“It is nothing,” the second voice remains calm. “I’m sure I’m getting closer. I’m doing my best. Just give me more time.”

“In that case, please let m-!”

Those words are cut like if the person who was saying them was suddenly silenced with force.

“At least one more time. Just… Wait here.”

Finally, I’m able to recognise the voice and the truth is hitting like a stone threw right in my face. It’s Shinkai. He’s going out.

Damn, I’m really starting to think he ????? something, so wake up!

Wake up, Kagehira!

Chapter Text

Mika woke up in a cold sweat, unsure why his heart was beating so fast - as if someone screamed at him. He wasn’t sure if it wasn’t just him being surprised, but yeah - it’s wasn’t normal that he somehow was tired, so...

Even the fact that he quickly calmed down was strange, since at first his heart was racing. The Marionette quickly looked around the house to see if everything wasn’t just a stupid nightmare created by his mind since Shinobu was peacefully sleeping in his own room, but the view of unconscious Kanzaki on the ground floor convinced him that no, something indeed happened here.

I think he was forced to fall asleep, so he should be fine...

After making sure Souma wasn’t injured, Mika moved him somewhere safer - since leaving people right in front of the entrance to the house wasn’t the best idea - and covered him with a piece of cloth he found in the room Then looked for Shinkai, but the doctor was gone.

He left the room and headed towards the passage on the east where Shinkai should go in order to get to the old district. He had to hurry, because the sun was already starting to rise, and that could complicate a lot. Not only his abilities would be limited, but someone might find out that he and Kanata are missing, and that would be, well… People like to talk. Especially about him. Add more guards and the whole mission would be almost impossible.

Mika also wasn’t sure if he’ll be able to Naru to help, but damn, luck was on his side today - he found the mercenary hiding behind the wall, watching the guards. Funny enough, Arashi wasn’t even surprised when she noticed him, because when Mika got closer, she pointed to the passage with her finger.

"The window between the changes is really small here," She said in a low voice without greeting him as she could normally. "Shinkai really knows when the patrols are changing, I saw him few minutes ago. Guess we’re both ready for action, huh?"

"Yeah, gotta work quickly."

"It won’t be hard to sneak into the forest, we still have few minutes… Well, I hope there’ll be no need for unnecessary violence. People around here have a lot of crazy stories about the old part."

"Such as?"

"Everything typical for abandoned places, honey," Naru sighed with a bored expression on her face, clearly suggesting that she didn’t really want to repeat those stories anymore. "You know. Ghosts, fallen ones looking for preys, there’s even something about some sort of curse made by their old god who doesn’t want anyone coming back after they became a part of this town legally. I guess that’s why Shinkai’s going to the shrine first - maybe he has something to soothe that their god or whatever. It’s wasting time on worrying over them, you know?"

More mysteries that sounds interesting that will be probably never answered. But didn’t Kanata say that the shrine’s surroudings are a great place to calm yourself? Well, whatever, you two have no choice.

"If he’s really goin’ there…" Mika looked at the passage. "But that’s our only clue, so let’s go."

And, of course they moved before anyone could see them hiding. They couldn’t just stay here and waste time, Kanata was moving away and only gods knew how many dangers were waiting for him. Well, unless he mastered running around the so-called gloomy looking forest with a bad reputation, you never know.

But, of course… If you have to chase someone, I hope you’re ready to get lost as well.

This place was really quiet up to the point where your own steps were way louder than it should be. But the strangest thing… It’s how calming this place was. It wasn’t straight up gloomy or scary like Mika could think on first after hearing Naru’s words. She clearly was moving forward without many worries, judging from her relaxed expression, just like Mika. Even though he was looking for a doctor that could be in danger.

The fact how easy it was to forgot how long they’ve been here wasn’t helping at all - judging from the flashes of the light, it was already morning. And no sign of Kanata. Are you guys sure you weren’t just played by someone?

But they still moved, hoping for the best. They were passing some building from time to time and finally, finally saw the doctor’s silhouette. Yet they didn’t rushed from their hidings in order to catch him immediately - Mika pointed his finger at him, but Arashi simply put her own close to her mouth, signalising that they should stay quiet for a bit longer.

"Since we’re already here, it’d be nice to see what is our not-so-innocent-doctor trying to do when Morisawa isn’t watching him, hmm?" She whispered after getting close to Kagehira with a grin on her face.

Well… It’s tempting, isn’t it? Dangerous, but tempting.

Even Kagehira had to acknowledge it since he nodded his head without saying a word, so they continued their little investigation.

And of course, Shinkai brought them to the shrine Mika heard about before, which was looking way better than most ruins they saw earlier, although it wasn’t new or perfect. It looked old enough to be considered as some kind of antic, yet it was easy to notice someone was still taking care of it whenever they could, repairing and covering the worst damage so it would not break down in the near future. Shinkai stopped in front of the shrine and prayed quickly, and then went to the back of the building. Judging from his behaviour, he was probably looking for something - or someone - and had a problem with that, what left both a mercenary and Marionette wondering what could it be. They followed him slowly, still keeping a small gap between them - even though it was still dangerous to play hide and seek. At some point, they saw Shinkai examining an object in his hands.

"...it’s the same thing as few day ago, it should be new." Kanata mumbled to himself and decided to put it down, then looked at some direction in silence. Kagehira was ready at this point to get out and inform the doctor that surprise, you’ve been spotted , but before he could, Shinkai was moving again, even quicker than before.

"Oh come on, doctor!" Arashi shook her head with an irritation in her voice as they approached the place Shinkai was standing few second ago. "I guess it’ll be better to simply catch him rather than stalk. What’s that?"

Kagehira stayed quiet and picked up a small basket.

"Reminds me of those baskets people are usin’ to gather herbs or somethin’" He was almost sure because Hajime literally had the same thing when they met. "Maybe he had a helper..."

"What? You have to be crazy if you’re staying here willingly… But whatever, darling, let’s go. This time we’re getting that sneaky man before he’ll be able to disappear in front of our eyes."

Yeah, you should do that at the very beginning! ...I do understand why you didn’t, though.

So after letting go of it, they moved in the same direction as Shinkai - this time they didn’t care that much about hiding anymore. They had to catch up on him as fast as they could.

And everything was fine until a very familiar feeling came back to Kagehira the same he felt back in front of the warehouse. It was only for a few seconds though, as it disappeared. Mika clenched his fist and without thinking, used the last shadows he could see in this forest in order to move even more faster. Arashi’s voice was getting more and more panicked as he made a bigger gap between them…

No, no! What the hell are you doing, don’t leave her! And hide your eye, it’s gold again!

"Eh-?"

Kagehira came back to his senses, but before he went back, he saw Shinkai again, so after making sure his eyes are in one colour again, he gave Narukami few second to catch up to him. His companion tried to say something, but Kagehira silenced her and pointed at Kanata.

And then saw that he wasn’t alone.

Shinkai was crouching right next to someone lying on the floor, his right hand placed slightly above the body. Mika could easily recognise his actions thanks to the energy released from Kanata’s hand - it was the same he used to heal his wounds, though this time it was stronger than before. But why would he…?

... Slightly to the left!

He tilted his head to the left, wondering what was there... And noticed a head. 

It was a woman's corpse. Her clothes were all red from the blood coming out from her chest, suggesting that no matter who attacked her, they did it maybe even few minutes ago. Shinkai clenched his left hand on a right one and made the energy even more stronger, up to a point Mika could feel it from a distance.

"Stop it, doctor."

Unknown voice came up out of the blue.

Shinkai immediately stopped charging his magic and stood up, moving his hand in the direction the voice came from, while both Mika and Arashi got ready to jump out with their weapons - but before they did that, they freezed in a moment when they saw the person who spoke.

As you could guess it, that person was wearing a long cape with a hood in order to hide their identity, going as far to even have a mask on their face… But there was that two elements that immediately made them speechless and nervous at the same time.

One, a sword in their right hand, already covered in someone’s fresh blood. And two…

Golden eyes.

Oh shit. Have we finally met a knight?

Mika could feel as his heart started beating faster. He tried to quickly come out and attack them, but when he tried, a strong hand clenched on his own, blocking him. He looked at Arashi and freezed when he saw her face - the mercenary looked like her eyes could pop out at any moment. She didn’t say anything and pulled Mika closer to herself, as if she feared something terrible would happen if he’ll let go of him,

"Naru, we don’t have time…" Mika tried to fight back and slip out from the mercenary’s grasp, but Naru simply shook her head and silenced Mika with her hand.

"We’ll either wait for a one good moment or we’ll end up as this poor woman."

She whispered and looked back at the scene, but nothing happened. Both Kanata and the unknown person were standing and watching each other in silence.

"You are not even 'hiding' what you 'did'," Shinkai’s hand trembled as he moved back. "What are you 'looking' for 'here'?"

"I thought it was obvious," The second man (man, because that low voice could belong only to male) sighed unimpressed. "I've heard you’re still keeping up the Fallen Ones even though you should be aware how dangerous it is."

"I do 'know' what I am doing, yet you 'came' here and destroyed it. Not 'all' of them are 'aggressive'."

"They are considered a thread, doctor. Is it that hard to understand?"

"I do 'think' hearing that from a 'knight' is even more 'ironic'," He accented the word “knight” so hard the second man clicked his tongue. "You 'killed' her, even though she did not 'harm' anyone."

"She could try. Even though… Do you know that death can better than being used by someone who only play a hero?" A knight’s voice remained cool and collected. "We don’t know what’re you planning, but you’re playing with fire."

"It is not your 'business' anyway. I am respecting the 'rules', you have no 'rights' to-"

"True, I didn’t even plan to interfere," His blunt answer made Kanata smile for a second. "I did what I had to. I will warn you though - you should stop playing with cursed people. From what I know, there are people who already tried it and they’ve lost everything when everything went out of control."

"Leave us 'alone'. This is my last 'warning'," This time it was Kanata who looked more fierce and dangerous rather than the knight. "I do not have any 'evidence' pointing at you, so I will let you 'go' while you still 'can'. But my 'patience' is running out."

That was… Really surprising. This mere doctor was standing in front of a knight - one of those knights people were avoiding at all costs - yet he didn’t show even a smallest tip of fear. His eyes were full of determination as if he believed he could make him go away by showing him he will not run away from him.

And that was actually working. The knight finally decided to hide his weapon rather than try to attack him.

"I hope you won’t regret your decisions, doctor," He said at the end of their conversation. "And that people watching us will even try to believe you’re something more than a madman after what you’ve done, unless you’re messing up with them as well."

Oh shit, he knew?

Arashi immediately released Mika from her grasp and prepared to attack, so Mika followed her - but funny enough, the man just sighed and… Simply left them. Like nothing. Even Kanata was confused as he blinked, but when they finally knew they were safe, the doctor took a deep long breath, releasing all of the stress he hid inside himself. Then he looked at Mika and Arashi.

And, well… I could risk and say he was way more dangerous than that “knight” judging from that strange aura surrounding him.

"Why did you 'come' here?" He asked and waited as they came closer to him. "It was 'dangerous'."

"Sorry, doctor, but people in the town really care about you and they didn’t want to lose you in this forest," Arashi waved her hand frustrated. "Honestly, a knight? And you just let him go away?"

"I had to choose between 'peace' and a very 'dangerous' fight."

"He didn’t look like he wanted t’ fight t’ be honest," Mika looked around. "Yeah, we’re lucky. But that woman… He said she was cursed. What did he mean ‘bout keepin’ her?"

He didn’t even had to ask if that was true - with only one glance at her eyes he was already sure. And those, well… They said knight’s eyes were gold, right?

Her eyes were a mix between a very saturated gold and orange - you could mistake those two on a distance, but after a closer look, there was a slight difference between them.

Kanata probably hoped for a minute they will drop this topic, but both the mercenary and the Marionette were staring at him, so he just sighed and closed his eyes for a second.

"Yes, she 'was'. But I did let her 'live' here. She used to be a 'citizen' and it pained me when I 'learned' she lost her 'mind'," Kanata glanced at her dead body with a pained expression. "Waiting for 'years' hoping that your 'family' will reconnect after a 'tragedy' can be terrifying. May she rest in 'peace', now 'free' from this curse."

"You have no idea how many questions I have," Arashi shook her head. "But first, can we please get out of here? This place is giving me chills and I hope you two are aware of this, but if people will find out we’re gone, things might get worse."

"I 'know'. I do not want to worry the captain. But please, do 'give me' few minutes to look at her 'wounds' - there is 'something' that 'bothers' me."

"Can’t we just tell the guards about it?"

"No," Kanata quickly cut Naru off and crouched in front of the woman. "'People' will panic. I will 'talk' with the captain 'personally' and inform him as 'gently' as I can."

Shouldn’t people know about that, though? And is there really a reason to panic? Shinkai said by himself he don’t have any evidence connecting that knight and the other murderer and that guy really didn’t act as someone who could massacre this poor town, but… Well, it’s not enough to say he’s innocent.

As they were waiting for Shinkai to examine the corpse, Kagehira looked around a bit in order to calm himself and to make sure that goddamn feeling is gone by now. And everything was surprisingly fine, until he saw a very small move around the bushes. He didn’t panic for now and approached it slowly, making sure that it was just a wind or a small animal going around. But for some reason he raised his eyebrow at first. The object that confused him was just a piece of a cloth with a small ornament painted in gold, which look like a clock.

"Honey, what’s wrong?" Before he could grab it, he heard Naru’s voice. "Something caught your eye?"

Mika hissed and gave himself a second to make sure his face won’t betray him. He moved back to them with a soft smile on his face.

"Ah, I thought I saw somethin’ so I looked at that, but that was jus’ a cute little animal~ It fled when I got closer though…"

"Aw, I wish it didn’t! It’s always nice to see something actually cute when you’re stressed, right?"

Mika laughed nervously. Yes, of course Naru. I’m just a liar and I feel bad because of that but we’re fine, Naru.

Sounds like you’re trying to make sure your wife won’t ask too many question.

He shook his head in order to ignore that comment. Thankfully, Kanata was already done with his examination, but he decided to keep it to himself, so he asked them if they could go with him to his house - if someone is aware they are gone, it will be easier to explain it.

 

So they did it. And yeah… He was right, although the person that noticed everything was someone that Mika haven’t seen for a while.

When they arrived in the front of Kanata’s house, Chiaki and Kaoru were standing there, talking with Hajime - his face was literally screaming for a help as he couldn’t fully control himself. That changed when Kaoru noticed Shinkai and informed the rest.

"Please do not make 'ruckus' in front of my 'house'," Kanata forced a smile. "What 'happened'?"

"Oh, nothing. Just few people disappeared suddenly in the middle of the night and Souma looked like he saw a ghost when we asked him where did you go," Kaoru wasn’t even hiding his irritation as he came closer to the doctor. "That kid wanted to meet with you and only thanks to him we’re here."

Hajime hid behind Chiaki when both Mika and Arashi looked at him.

Long time no see, Hajime!

"Ah, h-hello!" He greeted them after a second he gave himself to calm down. "Nice to see you again, Kagehira."

"And ya as well," Mika waved his hand. "What are ya doin’ here?"

"Mm… There was supposed to be that little festival and I was invited, so I decided to come few days before the main event. I was even lucky enough to find some other people traveling here…"

"Well, we’re sorry for that, but we had to postpone it," Chiaki scratched his head. "But you’re always welcome here, Shino!"

"Yes, you are 'welcome' here~" Kanata sent a warm smile and hugged Hajime. "I am so 'happy' to see you again after all that 'time'~"

"Ah, p-please stop it…" Hajime’s face turned red, but he still hugged Kanata back. "I’m glad as well, doctor, it’s been a few years~"

So they know each other. What a small country, huh?

"I don’t really want to be like Sena and destroy all of those sweet moments and everything, but we have a business with Shinkai… Or at least captain has," Kaoru sighed and patted captain’s shoulder. "Go for it, captain. I’ll go back and make sure everything’s okay."

"Ah, yes, of course! Thank you for taking your time, Hakaze! I, uh…" Chiaki looked at Hajime and laughed. "I hope you don’t mind, doctor, but-"

"We have 'time', captain~ Sweet children are 'back' in town, I have to 'greet' them properly and 'take care' of them~"

"I’m afraid we don’t, Kanata," For a first time, Morisawa’s smile disappeared and he used Shinkai’s name normally, so he straightened up and looked at the captain. "Please, we need to talk. We’ve got some news that might be interesting for you."

I think that was enough to catch Shinkai’s attention. He let go of Hajime and glanced at Mika for a second, and without saying anything, he followed captain.

"If you could, please take care of our guest, okay?" Chiaki waved his hand with a forced smile before they disappeared from their sight, leaving Mika, Arashi and Hajime speechless for a minute. They just looked at each other, but nobody asked a question.

"It’s like nothing happened, for God’s sake," Naru finally decided to say something. "But maybe that’s a good time to finally catch Nito or something, it’s not like we technically completed our task and it’d be very nice if he could pay us for it. I’ll take care of that so you can rest, honey."

"Jus’ make sure ya won’t scare him, Naru!" Mika laughed and nodded his head. "Thank ya for yer help~"

"Who do you think I am? Unlike the grumpy cat named Sena Izumi, I’m a cute and gentle as much as I can," Naru winked at Mika and without any hesitation suddenly hugged him and whispered right to his ear. "Just watch out for yourself, okay? Especially around Shinkai."

She didn’t even give Mika enough time to say anything, living him with Hajime, who was probably even more confused than him. Well, great. Mika hoped that after everything he’ll get a chance to ask few questions, but thanks to sudden Morisawa appearance, he couldn’t. The captain literally took his wife and ran away.

"Are you okay, Kagehira?" Hajime gently put his hand on his shoulder. "If you need to rest, I don’t mind… I do remember this place, I’ll be okay!"

"No need, thanks for caring. ‘m surprised yer here, t’ be honest. What ‘bout Akehoshi?"

"Well, someone had to take care of the Inn and I do hope he’s okay… But I really wanted to meet my friends, so I came here. Even Isara was so nice and came here with me."

"Wait, Isara?" Mika blinked. "Why is he here?"

"I’m not sure, to be honest. Probably something connected to his job…"

Or maybe our “friends” are up to something. What are the chances Ritsu came with him as well? Wasn’t he supposed to observe Mao?

"Only him?" Mika asked curiously.

"Mhm. I do remember someone was with him before, but he stayed in the inn. His name was Ritsu, I think…?" Hajime put his hand closer to his mouth, trying to remember something. "I’m not sure, to be honest. His friend could change his mind really quickly."

Yeah, that sounds familiar. It would be good to check up on him later, but for now, it might be a good idea to wait for Shinkai. Even though he could run away now, sooner or later Kagehira will be able to catch him and ask some questions. Why did he let a cursed person stay around that shrine and why that knight was talking with him so casually? And those rules?

Honestly, Shinkai… It was a really small scene, but the amount of questions I have is tremendous. I can only hope he’ll answer at least few of them.

 

There is a chance Kanata knew about that. Later on, when he came back to his house with Shinobu, he glanced at Mika and said that if he want to talk, he’ll be available at night, for now he was busy with something that the guards received from Makoto. He was really curious what it was, but he could say the atmosphere around the town changed a bit.

At some point, Mika hoped he’ll be able to go back to the forest again and look around since that cloth was still bothering him, but when he tried to leave the building, Souma stopped him saying that for now it’d be better for him to stay here.

Are you kidding me?

But why, though? He didn’t say anything. One could think Shinkai ordered him to watch Mika, but the real reason was unknown for now.

Kagehira spent the rest of the day mostly talking with Hajime and Souma, so it was a fairly nice day. He also helped Kanzaki with cleaning the house - because again someone is asking him to wait and blocks him from doing what he actually wants, let him do whatever he wants, talk with whoever he wants, why people are making everything harder than it should be? When it was finally a night, he waited for Kanata in the same room they talked few days before. Just like the last time, Shinkai brought a tea with himself, but this time Mika hesitated before drinking it, at least to the moment when the doctor drank a sip from his cup to give him a proof it’s safe.

What, can you read his mind or something?

"Thank you for giving me time, Kagehira," Kanata started slowly, looking at him. "I do understand it was a long day. But be warned - you are not the only one who has questions."

Chapter Text

It was hard to say what was more confusing at first.

Shinkai sounded different than usual - his voice was pretty normal right now, as opposed to his usual one, which was way slower and with tendency to accent different words. Not only that, he started by saying he also had few questions, and honestly, up until now Mika was mostly the one to ask, not to answer. Witchcraft, I say!

...Yeah, sorry. It’s just a shock, let’s continue.

"Okay, I guess," Mika needed a minute to calm down a bit. "What’s wrong?"

"It’s not like I’m going to 'sue' you, so don’t 'worry'. You can 'start'." And just like that, his voice was back to normal again, like nothing happened. Mika blinked, even more confused, but the doctor only shrugged with a soft smile on his face.

Okay, I have no idea what’s going on, but watch out...?

Kagehira nodded his head.

"I’m still thinkin’ ‘bout everythin’ that happened in that forest t’ be honest," He started, avoiding eye contact with Kanata. "I jus’ don’ get it. Everyone, ya included, say that knights are bad and dangerous, yet ya simply talked with him like nothin’ and let him go."

"Because they are, nothing has 'changed' in that regard," The doctor took a sip from his cup. "But that doesn’t mean they are stupid. They know that taking down every person they meet will not help… Maybe some of them still “believe” they can “protect” people as they used to."

"But that’s ridiculous-"

"Besides, they know 'killing' me is the 'worst' thing they can do right now~" He suddenly put his cup of tea next to him and clapped his hands. "If I 'die', the whole town will 'hunt' them no matter if they will try to commit a 'manslaughter' or not~"

Mika leaned back and stayed quiet. I mean, are you surprised? It was such a sudden change - and to make it even more strange, not the first one - that made him nervous. This is the first time when Kanata started acting like that, especially in the middle of the conversation.

"What do ya-"

"Shhh. The 'point' is, they know what they are 'doing'."

Maybe they’re still planning to attack. But the biggest problem was Shinkai - he clearly knew more than just “some random but helpful facts”, but rather than share with his knowledge, he hid most of it.  

I have a feeling that no matter what will you ask, Shinkai might try to avoid giving you the full answer. But you might try to…

"The fallen one. What ‘bout her?"

"You are very 'predictive', are you 'aware' of that?" Kanata responded with a sigh. "I think you should know that, but well. I decided to let her 'live' so I could 'observe' how one of them behave. I’ve been 'wondering' how are you supposed to 'act' in front of them. It’s not like they are 'attacking' when they see you - they remind me of people so 'lost' in their own 'worlds' that they cannot even tell what is going on 'around' them in 'reality'."

"I mean, they’re dead, doctor," Mika said bluntly and scratched his head. "They’re jus’ a livin’ corpses."

Wait… Are they?

"I know that. But I thought there is 'more' since so many people are hunting them just because knights did that 'before'. Nobody never paid 'attention' to it. There might be something more…"

"Nah, I don’ think so, "Mika waved his hand. "What can ya learn from a dead person?"

"A lot, I believe."

He didn’t even continue the topic and went silent for a while, so both of them were just sitting there, waiting for the other one to start talking. The atmosphere definitely was different than last time, especially with all those things connected to the dead people. You might start wondering how important it was because for some reason, dying here could be different than it should be. What are the fallen ones? What you have to do in order to turn into one of those?

"Is it 'everything' you need to know, Kagehira?" Thankfully, at some point Kanata stood up and looked at the Marionette with a neutral expression. "I thought you 'wanted' to ask more."

Mika was still avoiding the eye contact. He probably had a hard time deciding what he really wanted to know and how much he could believe the doctor. Shinkai wasn’t looking like someone who could lie to him, but that still doesn’t change the fact he was avoiding giving full answers. Small difference, but yeah, still problematic.

"I guess that’s it."

Kanata moved to the door and opened them slowly. At first Kagehira wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, but when Kanata asked him to follow him, he decided to do it without complaining. His hand started getting closer to his weapon as if he feared something bad could happen, but for now everything was normal. Kanata brought him to the room Mika was staying in, then closed the door and put his cup on the floor.

"My 'turn'. I have only one 'question' for you," Shinkai’s hand moved and created a strange gesture in the air as he approached the Marionette. "What are you, Kagehira?"

His eyes widened as he looked at Shinkai. He definitely wasn’t ready for that. The doctor used that time to stand right before him with such expression on his face that at first Mika felt tempted to grab his weapon, attack him and run as soon as he could.

"Do not 'think' I will let you run without 'consequences' in the 'future'. I prefer to take care of it as 'peacefully' as I can, but that does not 'mean' I will not be more 'aggressive'."

Mika narrowed his eyes and waited without even asking why he wanted to know something like that.

"I will be 'honest'," Shinkai sighed. "I have never seen such 'chaotic' aura as yours. Your 'fragments' are almost destroyed, and your 'wounds' heal differently. Also I can see through the 'illusion', your right eye is 'gold'. Take it down."

Fragments and chaotic aura, huh… He sure uses some strange words. Any idea what are those “fragments”?

Kagehira was still quiet and didn’t move. He just clenched his fist and closed his eyes for a moment in order to cancel the illusion learned from the magician before, since there was no reason for now to hold it. When he opened his eyes, Kanata still was looking at him with a neutral expression. However, at some point that changed as the doctor narrowed his eyes and put a hand to his mouth as if he saw something strange, but didn’t know what to think about it. He snapped his fingers and gave himself more time while Mika was waiting.

"I don’t get it… I tried to 'clean' it as much as I could, yet it is still so 'chaotic'," Kanata shook his head with disapproval. "And here I thought the 'cursed' people were 'worse'. What are you, I ask?"

"Definitely not a human, doctor. Never said I was."

"I 'see'."

Mika remembered Natsume’s words and decided to play the same game as the doctor - he answered, but without giving him a proper knowledge. He had no idea how Shinkai would react if he learned that he was a Marionette.

Ironically, he’s way calmer than I thought he could be. But I really don’t like that silence…

"Let’s strike a 'deal', Kagehira."

A smile appeared on the healer’s face.

That was enough to make the Marionette feel even more uneasy - he really didn’t like the way he was looking at him with those eyes.

"Fear not, I do not want to 'hurt' you," He giggled. "There was something in the 'forest' that does not let you sleep at 'night', but you do not want other people to go with you, that 'mercenary' included. Am I right?"

"Y-yeah. How didya…"

"I wonder~ That is why I want an 'equal exchange'. I will help you get there unnoticed and give you an alibi so nobody will try to sue you for that. You will be on your 'own', though. I might not be able to help you if someone will try to 'attack' you."

"Fair enough. What’s the catch?"

"I want to fully 'examine' you in order to see your 'soul'."

And he was serious. The way he looked at Mika right now would make the most strongest people lose their cool in mere seconds. It was like he could see through your own soul and thoughts in one moment. He wanted to know as much about you as he could, as if you were a simple object that caught his interest.

I had to admit Mika had the guts to stay in place without showing too much emotions. I knew he was nervous, but he didn’t show it too much. His hand was slightly shaking, mostly because he had to stop himself from grabbing a weapon to defend himself.

I can’t believe I’m saying this… But maybe that knight was right. You don’t even know how he is going to do it.

"By putting you to 'sleep', that is all. Please do not think about that man’s 'words'. 'Knights' themselves tend to try to 'confuse' others when they know people are getting too close to those they cannot 'hurt'."

Wait, he heard me?! But nobody could…?

"It is your 'decision'. I am sure you will go there no matter if I 'help' you or not, but it will be surely 'harder' not to get noticed by someone," He continued. "There are 'guards' that do not trust you. The 'mercenary' wants to be sure you are safe and from what I saw, you prefer her to stay 'out' from it."

"Yeah, that’s personal."

"I am 'waiting', then."

Shinkai crossed his hands and started wandering slowly around the room in a complete silence, giving Kagehira the time to make a decision. One thing for sure - he had to do it right now. The healer didn’t even suggest he would give him more possibilities.

"What will ya do if I decline?" Kagehira asked out of curiosity. The doctor stopped for a moment and sent him a cold gaze.

"Then I will 'acknowledge' you as a 'danger' to this town and make sure the guards will kick you out within the next 'day"', leaving you open for all 'threads' waiting for you outside."

He’s not joking. I can tell.

Mika looked down at his own feet, still unsure what to do. He didn’t know how safe it was. He didn’t like that from the very beginning, his Master was the only person that could mess in his head, not some random desperate healer with tendencies to hide everything that was inconvenient for them… But on the other hand, being kicked out from the town without talking with Natsume first would create more troubles in the future. He wanted to stay low as long as he could, but that goddamn Shinkai got him faster than anybody could anticipate.

"If that will help you to 'decide'…" Shinkai lifted the cup he put on the floor before. "You see, most people’s auras are like a calm 'sea'. There might be few 'waves', but that’s it. But negative emotions can turn that into a terrible 'storm' nobody can 'control'."

As he was saying it, he started shaking the cup to the point he almost spilled the rest of the tea that was still in there.

"Your soul is like that 'storm', but it calms down from time to time for no 'reason'. I thought my medicine was 'helping' you, but that was not the case. It was like after letting you 'behave' like a normal person, something was 'taking' over. Do you know whose 'auras' are reminding me of yours?"

Mika gazed upon him.

"A fallen one being under someone’s 'control'. Or at least a 'victim' that is still fighting with the 'curse' itself," He finished his tea. "That is why I have to know what are you. I will not let you stay in this town unless you are willing to 'cooperate'."

Does he really thinks you’re a fallen one? Dude, that’s crazy!

Mika clenched his fist and sent a doctor a hostile look. Is it a equal exchange for him? He literally had the Marionette in his own grip and wanted him to dance as he told him to, no matter what. And he can’t run.

You really don’t have a choice, to be honest… Besides, he might help you in the future if he’ll see what’s wrong with your head, if that’s true. I’ll try to remember everything I can, so...

He closed his eyes for a moment, took a deep breath and let the air out from his lungs slowly.

"I hope yer goin’ t’ help me after that, doctor," He finally said and made a step towards him. "I agree to yer… 'Equal exchange'."

"I am glad to 'hear' that~" Kanata’s face lightened up immediately. "Not that you had a choice, 'lost child'. Let us start straight away."

"Wait, what?"

In an instance, Kanata made another strange gesture with his right arm and directed it at Mika. Before he closed his eyes for good, he saw a bright energy that literally exploded in front o f him-

 

...Huh?

Something has changed. Not only my vision disappeared in the very moment Kanata used his power - I feel like I can see more this time. I immediately start looking around in order to get what happened while I was out.

The overall atmosphere is different. Mika is laying on the floor, while Kanata holds his head slightly higher. I also see that his right arm - the same one that was wounded back in the warehouse - lies on his stomach without any bandages. There is also a sweet smell in the room, probably thanks to the incense I haven’t seen before.   

Kanata is fully focused on Mika, but I can see he’s not very pleased. He raises his eyebrow as he examines the wound that surely look strange - like a scattered glass.

“I don’t 'understand',” I hear. “It’s even more 'different' than the others.”

I can only hope he’ll continue, but suddenly, his gaze moves from the Kagehira. He looks before him, confused.

He looks at me.

H-Hello? Doctor Shinkai…? I want to say it, but I feel like no sound is coming from my mouth.

Kanata puts Mika’s head on the ground and closes his eyes. Unsure what to do, I look around the room again. My eyes aren’t sure where should they focus - they jump from the Kagehira to Kanata while I wait.

Something is changing slowly. My vision gets more and more sharp.

“If you are 'here', than speak,” Shinkai says without opening his eyes. “I can hear a 'weak' voice. I am not sure how much can I make the connection 'str onger', but this should help you a bit.”

I-I’m standing right before you, doctor! Please, anyone, I hope that’s truth, he might be the first person outside Mika that can hear me… That’s what I think. And I guess Kanata really can hear me, because I see a soft smile on his face.

“It is weak, but yes, someone is 'definitely' here. What’s your name, 'child'?”

I’m not sure. I’m trying to remember anything outside that small journey in Mika’s head, but everything is even more faint than I want it to be. It’s like I exist, but not really… I’m just a Marionette’s shadow.

“Marionette. Did I hear that 'right', lost spirit?”

...Oh shit. He heard that as well?

“Of course I 'did'. Your voice might be weak, but with enough 'concentration', it is possible to catch everything you 'think' about,” He answers bluntly and shakes his head. “I had a feeling the 'voice' that wants to learn about this 'world' does not belong to Kagehira, so I took all 'preparations' I could.”

Does my voice sounds different? You might call that stupid, but I have no idea how I look or sound, doctor. I don’t know who I am and why I’m in this form.

“It 'differs' a bit, I assure. But that does not make it 'easier' to see who you are, to be honest. You might be a 'destroyed' fragment that under a 'pressure' developed a 'consciousness'… I’ve heard about it before, it is possible. You can also be an another person, but I do not have an idea why would you decide to 'attach' yourself to only one Marionette.”

Because I had no choice. I didn’t want to be like this. I just… I don’t know, doctor.

I probably died, because I feel like I used to be someone before, but suddenly everything turned black. And when I could see anything, I was already connected to this boy I’ve never met before.

Please, doctor. I’m scared.

I… I can’t do anything. Even if I want to help him - or even myself - I have no idea what can I do. Even my vision is weak, I can’t move too much from Kagehira. It’s like I’m chained to him.

And that’s terrifying. Someone one day might kill him and there’s nobody that can tell what will happen to me. Will I be free, or will I disappear, unable to learn who am I?

Shinkai doesn’t say anything. Since I’m not even sure how much he heard, I’m just here, waiting for his response.

“To be 'honest', I am not sure how could I help you, 'lost spirit',” He finally starts talking again with a sad expression on his face. Even his voice is much quieter and softer than before. “Without your 'name' it is impossible to work, and I am not a 'specialist' in that as well. I do know someone who could say more, but…”

But?

“You said you feel like you are 'chained' to him. That’s strange. I have never heard about anything like that 'before'. That’s why I think the most 'helpful' person would be the one who 'created' this Marionette.”

That would mean my goal is the same as Kagehira’s. He wants to find his Master… But can he really separate both of us? I have no idea who is that person.

“I wonder if Mika is really created by that 'man',” His words surprises me. “I had a chance to examine a real Marionette made by the 'Puppeteer'. It’s not the same thing.”

If I had a working heart right now, I’m sure it would skip a beat. What does he mean?

“Now I understand why everything is so 'complicated'. Kagehira is destroyed not only as a 'human', but 'Marionette' as well. His body reacts a lot like the latter, yet his 'heart', as well as some of the 'fragments', look like those human’s. That is something the Marionette should not have by any 'means'.”

I wish I could properly understand what he was talking about, but I do get one thing - something went horribly wrong with that poor boy. I’ve never seen a Marionette before, so I had no idea how they work or how they live. Because of Kagehira, I though they’re like humans, but they feel terrible when they’re separated from the Puppeteer.

Kanata sighs heavily and shakes his head again.

“To be honest, I also might 'understand' that knight’s words and why he is so 'reluctant' to leave the town.”

Do you really think Kagehira is actually the reason?

“He might be. Even if not, I cannot let him stay for too 'long'. Marionettes does not differ that much from the 'knights'.”

Jesus Christ, that’s offending. I wonder what makes him think like that.

“Both are 'dangerous'. Both does not really care about 'other people'. Both can kill without any 'remorse'. Both 'hate' each other, even though they used to work 'together'. Both wish 'Emperor' a slow and painful 'death'.”

They used to what? How the hell he knows that!

No, wait, that doesn’t make any sense. Why they would work together?

And that Emperor? What’s the deal with him, doctor Shinkai, I don’t get it! There was a war, yet there is no king! Has Yumenosaki turned into the Empire but nobody cares about names or what?

“Too much 'questions'. Please stop,” He crosses his hands. “Just 'listen' to me. There is not too much I can do in order to help you, I can only make 'sure' you will be able to hear and see more. I feel 'bad', but you have to leave as 'quick' as you can and 'continue' looking for the Puppeteer. It is 'dangerous', so whoever is helping you should stay 'close'. I have my own town to 'protect', so I cannot leave,” He takes a deep breath and continues. “And, well.. The 'Emperor' is simply a ruler from a different 'country' that was involved in a 'war' with the former 'King' of Yumenosaki. I can leave you the 'books' and turn them into something you will be able to read from, it is 'possible'. If you can read, that is.”

Y-yeah, I should be able to… Appreciated. It’s too much for me right now, I’m not used to getting answers without, uh, “asking” Kagehira to get them for me. But damn, I knew there was something bigger and I really hope we’re not a part of that mess.

To be honest, I’m afraid. As you said, leaving the town will be dangerous. But we have no choice, especially if the only person capable of help is the Puppeteer himself… He should know why is Kagehira broken.

“Whoever turned Mika into… 'This',” He points at him. “Was 'cruel'. It pains me to even look at this 'poor' child. And at you as well. You said the knight was 'right' saying i might 'experiment' on the fallen ones, but even if I do it, that is still 'nothing' compared to this moving 'despair' that is neither a human or a Marionette.”

Yeah… You might be right. That’s why I kind of don’t want to meet his creator. But I have to endure it. Mika is the one who can move and act, not me. I can only watch and advise, but I guess this is better than nothing.

Thank you, doctor Shinkai. I’m so glad I was able to talk with someone after all that time...

Chapter Text

When Kagehira opened his eyes, he was greeted by silence.

So he was able to wake up again, Shinkai didn’t kill him. At some point he feared that might be his end,  the doctor used his abilities immediately when he agreed. Luckily, that wasn’t the case.

Welcome back. Are you okay? ...Can you hear me?

"Yeah, as always," He answered with a weak voice and blinked. "Why?"

Maybe because he looked pale. This is probably the first time when Mika spent that much time sleeping - if that was the proper word to use. It’s like his thoughts were somewhere else and he needed to time to get used to everything again.

I was wondering if you’re okay. Is something bothering you?

Mika took a breath as he stared at the ceiling.

"I dunno. I can’t believe that doctor played with me so easily," He said after a moment of silence and shook his head. "Do ya maybe know what happened while I was out?"

...Why are you so sure I might know something? You don’t even know if I’m not just a creation in your mind.

"Even if, yer used t’ be quite helpful in the past, so I guess I kinda trust ya."

You could say he’s gotten used to the chaos in his head and didn’t mind a second voice. Marionettes sure are strange.

Or whatever he was in the end, if you think about Shinkai’s words.

We should leave this town after making sure your allies will be close. Staying here might be problematic in the future, especially that they think you’re the reason the knights are still here.

Kagehira didn’t answer immediately - instead, he slowly got up and scratched his head.

"Guess ’m a nuisance for ‘em as well, huh… Well, whatever. But before that, I jus’ wanna go t’ that forest one more time."

Ah, no, I didn’t want to make it sound like this!

"Nah, it’s okay. It’s easier t’ get rid of the one random person rather than risk the lives of entire town, yeah?"

Yeah, that might be right, but that’s just sad. And for some reason, that sounds familiar.

But there is something I have to ask.

Kagehira, one question. Are you sure you’ve never heard about knights before?

"Eh?" He suddenly became more energetic. "Nah, not really? Oshi-san never used that term t’ be honest… Though it rings the bell when I think ‘bout that guy earlier. His eyes were kinda familiar. Give me time, I’ll think ‘bout it."

Well, sure. If you want to get out from here, it’d be great if you could recognise the thread, especially if you know something about it.

 

It took Kagehira few minutes to get back to his senses at full. When he decided he’s okay, he slowly went downstairs to see Shinkai again, even though after that night he clearly prefered to avoid him. Before he entered the room in which doctor was in, he bumped into Makoto. He didn’t even say anything as he just gazed at him with eyes full of tears and left. Kagehira gasped and stayed in the same place for a second.

Well, seems like he’s not the only one Shinkai upset.

"Ah, please wait a minute, Yuuki-dono…!"

Souma immediately followed the man and and quickly bowed his head when he saw Mika. Kanata, on the other hand, took a sip from his cup while simply watching the scene.

He waved his hand when they finally were the only one left in the room.

"Hello, Kagehira. ‘How’ are you?"

The Marionette sent him a cold gaze and didn’t respond for now, but judging from Kanata’s face, he wasn’t even that surprised. He put his cup on the table and tried to come closer, but he saw that unlike him, Mika doesn’t really want to talk or play friends.

Well, he was still mad at him.

"That is ‘rude’, so please stop. I really ‘want’ to know if ‘everything’ is okay."

 "Yer the one who wanted t’ see for yourself, ya should already know?"

"I see that you are ‘mad’. You are like a ‘child’," Kanata sighed unimpressed. "I do not like how that ‘day’ started and you are not ‘helping’."

Mika raised an eyebrow, waiting for the doctor to continue.

"They found the yesterday’s ‘victim’, I believe," Kanata decided to let him know what happened anyway. "And there is a ‘chance’ that boy saw something and ‘started’ asking a lot of ‘questions’. People these days really ‘hope’ I know ‘everything’…"

Well, they do have that logic to go talk with Shinkai if something’s wrong, don’t they? Maybe he should blame himself that he let them get used to that. Someday they even might lose the trust they have just because he’ll start avoiding them.

"Anyway, our ‘deal’ is still on," Kanata finally smiled softly. "There is something I have to take ‘care of’, but I am sure I will be ‘ready’ to ‘go’ in about 3 or 4 hours. I ‘hope’ you do not ‘mind’."

"Huh?" Kagehira blinked. "Oh, ‘kay."

"Is something ‘wrong’?"

"No, uh… Thought ya might start tellin’ me t’ get out as quick as I can."

"Do I ‘really’ look that ‘bad’ in your ‘eyes’ now?" Kanata couldn’t hide his amuse as he got closer and patted Kagehira’s head. "You were a ‘good’ kid, I do not have any ‘reason’ to be ‘mad’ as well~ Although I ‘think’ there is ‘nothing’ you can ‘use’ in this town if you want to ‘find’ the ‘one’ you are looking for."

Of course. It’s not like he’s wrong in that regard, staying here even longer is useless. If only contacting Natsume was easier…

But yeah, now what? 4 hours is quite a lot of time and wasting it feels ready bad considering he was literally running in circles just to do something. Maybe finding Isa-

"Oh, I almost ‘forgot’. Isara was ‘asking’ for you."

...And here Shinkai saves the day again! Pure witchcraft, honestly. Even Mika suddenly became more alive when he heard that and nodded his head with a hint of smile on his face. Then he asked where could he find him, but all he got was “Shinobu went somewhere with him so I guess you have to look for them~”.

 

And, of course, Mika immediately left Shinkai’s house in order to find him.

It’d be nice if for once someone looked for you instead… He was the one who wanted to talk with you, so that’s ridiculous!

Life is strange sometimes for sure, but whatever. It’s been quite a while he met him and, to be honest, he was even surprised that he stayed alive and probably still sane considering all the stuff that happened back in the residence he was forced to visit. There is a chance he got used to messed up stuff - he was an adventurer in the past, for God’s sake - but stress can be pretty violent anyway.

It took him time to find him, but he finally saw a familiar face - he was, indeed, with Shinobu. Both of them were sitting on a smaller wall, busy with watching the other people under them and talking.

"...I see. You didn’t waste any time even when Shinkai told you to rest and stay low, huh?" Mao’s voice was surprisingly monotonous, though he was trying to sound more vivid. "I suspected as much. But what do you want to do now, Sengoku?"

"I heard from the captain that man should arrive here tomorrow, so I will leave soon and pass everything I have learned so far," Shinobu, on the other hand, was as energetic as ever. "Soon, my mission will be over, de gozaru!"

"Huh~ Lucky you. Do you have any plans for future, then?"

"A-After that? Um…"

He put a hand to his mouth and thought about that for a minute, but then the got up and looked at the sea in front of him with a big smile on his face.

"I have been thinking about going back to the country I lived before we came here to be honest, de gozaru," He pointed the sea with his hand. "I have not seen them since we left soon after our wars has started. You know about that, right? All countries across the continent wanted to get the absolute power, de gozaru."

"Ah, I heard about that. It ended few year ago, right?"

"Informed as always, Isara-dono, that is correct! They still need time to get up, so they need people, de gozaru. But before that…"

He sat on the same place and hugged his own leg.

"I have been wondering if I could join Midori and become a sailor for a bit," He blushed and looked at Mao. "I mean, it would be wonderful to travel with my great friend, de gozaru. An honor, really!"

"Well, it’s the matter of time, I’m sure his father won’t let him run away for too long."

"Yes, I know that, de gozaru! But… Isara-dono, would you like to join us as well?"

Isara gasped, unable to hide his astonishment.

"Wait, me?" He asked after a while and raised his eyebrow. "I mean, not to be rude or anything, but why are you asking me from all of the people?"

"I am not sure if is it just me, but I have a feeling you do not look happy at all after you started working in the capital, de gozaru," The smile from his face disappeared as the ninja got a bit closer to him. "It is sad, I believe someone who did so much for the kingdom deserves more than just a pile of stress."

Mao laughed nervously and closed his eyes.

"I really have to look terrible if even you can tell, huh… It’s not like you’re wrong. But I don’t really think sailor’s life suits me, to be honest."

"Ah, no, nobody will force you, Isara-dono!" Shinobu started waving his hands. "It was just, uh…"

"No, it’s okay. I appreciate your concern."

They stayed quiet around for a minute. Isara took few deep breaths and let the wind refresh him a bit, while Shinobu started humming a song.

"...Is it about your old companions, Isara-dono?" The ninja asked suddenly after a while, what caught Isara off-guard again. He opened his eyes and slowly turned his head.

"Yeah, kind of.  Sometimes I wish Trickstar could get together as we used to, but it’s literally impossible…"

"Why, de gozaru?"

"Well, we decided to stop, didn’t we?" He laughed again. "Makoto and Subaru already found other jobs they do enjoy, and Hokuto… He’s a real surprise, really. I haven’t seen him after he left the capital. I wonder how is he doing."

"I will let you know if I learn anything in the future, de gozaru."

"Would you? That’d be great."

"Of course, it is nothing, Isara-dono! But then, you can also think about my suggestion, I am sure Midori would not mind if a experienced adventurer joined his crew, de gozaru. He is shy and bad with his feelings sometimes, but I do assure he likes a lot of people, captain Morisawa included!"

"He and captain are a different story though..."

So they really know each other, huh.

Though Isara really looked like he could literally hit the surface with his face at any moment, but in front of the ninja, he tried to stay cool. Hell only knows what happened to him after he returned to the capital, but gods, at some point you would wonder if he’s really okay.

But Kagehira couldn’t just stay here for hours and listen to their stories, so he finally decided to approach them. He waved his hand and called them, catching their attention immediately - they turned their heads when they heard him.

"Hello, Kagehira-dono!" Sengoku was the first one to greet him enthusiastically. "Ah, that reminds me that I was supposed to visit the guard’s station, so I will take my leave, de gozaru."

"Sure, just watch over yourself and stay low, okay?"

"Of course, I will stay in the shadows as long as I have to, de gozaru! May the fate be on your side, farewell!"

And with that, Sengoku finally stood up and jumped downwards the street, disappearing in the middle of the jump, catching not only their attention, but also Kaoru’s, who was standing nearby. He didn’t react to that and continued his patrol while the black cat followed him.

Kagehira slowly approached Mao and took the sit right next to him, waiting for the ex-adventurer to start the discussion.

"It’s been a while," He said without even looking at him. "I tried to catch up as many reports about that murder on the other day, but it wasn’t the easiest task considering who was receiving them first…"

His face instantly turned pale.

"However, it looks like they, how to say it… They believe it was knights work again, but they don’t really pin you to them, so you should be happy. If they did, you’d be already in the capital, if not dead."

Ouch. If that’s the case, then at least it’s not the worst scenario - but for some reason the way Isara talked about that wasn’t very reassuring, to be honest.

"Don’t get too confident, though," As if he could tell, he continued. "I had to give reports in few town before I got here because they might want to interrogate you if they find you, this town included. The way you look right now is enough to fool them, but if I were you, I’d leave while I still can. Especially considering who will arrive tomorrow."

"Yeah, yer not the first one to suggest that," Mika sighed and looked down. "Who’s comin’?"

"Well…" Isara laughed in a way as if he wanted to start crying. "That one man from the Empire you don’t want to even look at, he’ll see through your disguise in an instant. His name is Hibiki."

…?

The bell started ringing again. Kagehira crossed his arms trying to think why does he feel like he heard that name before, but nothing came to his mind as for now.

While he was taking his time trying to gather all his thoughts, Isara’s attention has been caught by the ship that appeared on the horizon. He narrowed his eyes for a moment and when he finally could connect all the dots, his eyes almost popped out.

"Oh God, a ship from the North here, in Yumenosaki?" He asked himself. "Has the Empire finally persuaded them to at least see how’s the situation?"

"Huh?" Kagehira also looked surprised when he saw how Isara reacted. "Why are ya so shocked?"

"Because North sees Yumenosaki as nothing more than just an excuse of a country? They are so ahead when it comes to using magic and technology in everyday life unlike here they think it’s a country full of barbarians and crazy warriors. Honestly, it’s like two different eras."

"...If ya think ‘bout that, Oshi-san said somethin’ like that before," Mika scratched his head and closed one eye. "The place where we lived also differed from what I saw after leavin’."

"What. Are you sure you’re looking for him on a good continent then?"

"Nah, it’s definitely here, I’ve never seen North before. Heard it’s cold as hell."

"Yeah, that’s right. Where could you go if you were a North guy trying to survive in Yumenosaki…" Mao closed his eyes for a second. "Somewhere with a very small population around, maybe even closer to the border with an Empire… Unlike our country, they also use few ideas originated in the North as well, also it’s easier to get potions and other magic items there."

"Yumenosaki sounds like a borin’ place when ya listen ‘bout all different countries around," Mika said bluntly and raised an eyebrow. "Is it even a country when ya don’ have a king?"

"Well, after the war Yumenosaki was literally taken by the Empire," Mao lowered his voice. "Although it’s still considered an independent country, for now at least. It might take time before the Emperor will be finally able to fully control it, but seeing how many people here want to be the part of the Empire… It’s a matter of time unless the King will make some kind of sick counterattack. There’s almost no resistance movement if you’re not counting the last knights here and there."

Damn, Yumenosaki’s status was even more unstable than you could think at first. When you wander around simple citizens, there is no way to say what exactly is going on. People are just enjoying their lives as usual, just watching around to make sure their neighbours won’t try to kill them suddenly.

Well, at least there is no war and they can’t complain about boredom. 

Kagehira didn’t say anything, assuming that more talk about politics and other stuff may be too complicated to him. Besides, it’s not like he’s that much interested about it - he needs to know how much that might make things harder in his life, but other than that, it’s just more lore for other people.

People like me for example, because I actually care. 

"I-Is there something you need to know?" Isara decided to break the silence surrounding them. "I know it isn’t much, but it’s not like I’m working directly for the Emperor or anything, and he tends to watch out when it comes to sharing informations with too many people."

"Nah, it’s okay," Kagehira waved his hand. "I’ll try t’ leave today and hope for the best. Guess I should do that on the very beginnin’. Thanks for tryin’, have a nice day."

Isara didn’t answer. He simply watched as the Marionette got up and slowly left him.

 

He didn’t have to wander too much until he met with Arashi, who almost killed him with a small pocket with money she was able to get from the Nazuna. After all, he did paid them for their work, no matter what. The mercenary told him about the small party Takamine was going to have in a tavern they met the first time, because as she heard, the festival might get even fully canceled due to the situation. That doesn’t mean of course everybody have to stay low in their houses and pray, and a small party in one building for the family and closest friends is easier to handle.

It’s not like Arashi was friends with Takamine, but he still had a small debt for losing in cards few days ago, so she was able to get in. Mika quickly said that he really doesn’t want to join them, because such amount of people he doesn’t know might be bad for his heart. Just before Narukami asked what is he planning to do, Hajime joined them and said Shinkai was asking for the Marionette, so they didn’t manage to talk too much.

As you could predict, Naru wasn’t really happy.

And, of course, Shinkai asked for him because it was finally time to go back to the forest. After a small talk with the captain Morisawa and Nazuna, Kanata waited few minutes as if he was making sure for some reason.

They didn’t talk too much after they left his house. Kagehira’s mind was full of thoughts, while Kanata was simply watching him. The only moment when he initiated the conversation was after they crossed the passage, asking him if he could understand the words he wrote on a paper. Kagehira quickly shook his head.

I do, though. He didn’t forget about me and the lore I asked before will be done in the evening.

Thankfully, the Marionette didn’t ask what his voice was asking for.

 

When they arrived in the same place they found a body before, Kanata nodded his head and told him to cut it short if he could, since he’s going to wait for him so they’ll be able to come back together as well - then left him alone when he made sure they were the only one around here.

He gave him some time, that’s good. And he’s not going to waste it.

So he started looking around, hoping for the best. The material he found yesterday was still here and as he thought, it had to be from the other Marionette’s outfit.

It’d be great if the owner is still here alive. If the knights are trying to kill you, there is a chance it’s already dead. But let’s be more optimistic, right!

He spent quite a time looking around for the clues, but at first nothing useful came to him. The forest was quiet, Shinkai was nowhere to seen, and that arm in the bush is-

Wait, holy shit. An arm?

Mika examined it very carefully - because right of the bat he could tell it belonged to a Marionette. There was no blood around it, no protruding bones or anything that could make it look like a human arm. The joints were destroyed beyond repair.

"Cou ld y ou ple a se giv e it ba ck? It’s n ot yo ur s."

A sudden voice came out of nowhere. Kagehira immediately jumped back and grabbed his dagger, but when he saw the person the voice belonged to, his face lightened up.

What, by the way, looked fantastic, considering that the voice was so terribly distorted that most people would already freak out. I did, almost. Good thing I don’t have a working heart.

But for Mika, it was like a hug, because the one asking for a arm was a Marionette.

A strange one, to say the least.

The doll was a bit shorter than him, and the outfit she wore reminded the one Kagehira had on himself before Tsumugi gave him spare clothes. Thanks to the long sleeves, you couldn’t see at first that she lost her arm before. Other than that, it was dirty and scratched here and there.

"H u h? Is n’t th at…"

"Ah, here!" Kagehira hide his weapon and grabbed the arm, then came closer to the Marionette, giving her the arm she needed. "But ‘m not sure if ya can use it anyway, the joints are-"

"Kagehira? My, is that you?"

Her voice changed drastically. Even Mika was caught off-guard as he almost dropped the arm.

"Mado-nee…? But that’s not how ya look at all…?" He blinked and examined the Marionette one more time.

"Ah, so it’s working then!" Unlike him, the Marionette’s voice turned more enthusiastic, even though there was no change on her face. "This Magician did a splendid job. We can finally talk… I feel like it’s been years since we did. Ah, please don’t cry, dear!"

She used her other hand to wipe the tear that formed in the corner of Mika’s eye.

"How can I not…" Mika tried his best to force himself not to cry. "I was lookin’ for ya! Why did ya disappear so suddenly?"

"Mika, my dear, I’m so sorry…" The Marionette gently took his hand in her own. "That was a nightmare, literally! They attacked us in our own residence, the Marionettes were dying everywhere… The Magician forced Shu to get in that portal even though he was screaming the whole time because he still had to go back for you, but they didn’t listen to him!"

So you were attacked. Way to start the lovely reunion.

"But I don’ remember that, Mado-nee," Mika looked at her confused. "What happened there?"

"Because back then you were deep asleep, dear. Shu told me about something strange in your mind, so he tried to repair you - but when he left for a second, everything started. It is a miracle they haven’t found you…"

Yes, if the attack made “the Magician” literally force them to run away, it had to be. But it creates even more questions, and for some reason I believe we won’t get them too soon.

"Damn it!"

Kagehira clenched his free hand.

"Don’t be mad, please, it wasn’t your fault at all!" She shook her head and squeezed his hand harder. "You being alive is the evidence Sakasaki really worked behind the scenes for us."

"...So Nakkun knows about everythin’?"

"Yes, of course, he was the one who saved us from that tragedy."

"Then why the hell he didn’ say anythin’ or send me to ya the very first time?" Mika narrowed his eye. "If he did…"

"He said one thing wasn’t letting him sleep peacefully," She mumbled and started thinking about something. "He believed someone was already following you and he wanted to eliminate any danger… I’m sorry, but I don’t know everything. Shu was the one who talked with him."

So it wasn’t just his imagination. Up until now, he had that feeling from time to time as if someone was watching his every move, especially before he met Natsume. But was letting him run around the kingdom really a good decision? There is still a lot of possible threads around.

"I trust ya, Mado-nee," Mika sent her a soft smile. "Thankfully nothin’ wron’ happened in the town, but they said it’d be better if I leave before that Hibiki man arrives. Does that name rings a bell?"

"It… Does, surely. He’s working for that Emperor, doesn’t he?" Her head tilted at an unnatural angle. "Then yes, you should leave. This time, for good, so we all be again together. But for that, I’m sure we need to contact Sakasaki and his companions for help."

She finally released Mika’s hand and stepped back.

"Yeah, but before that, ‘m afraid there might be some people who’ll try to follow me," Kagehira crossed his arms. "Would be good if I could take care of ‘em without killin’."

"So you worry. It’s just a bunch of people, their corpses might be useful in the future..." Her statement sounded as if she simply commented how beautiful the weather was. "But if Mika cares, I’ll try to give him a hand."

You guys really don’t care too much about others. Cold.

The Marionette started watching it’s own body and searching through the pockets with only one hand, finding a small bottle full of some kind of liquid. She gave it to Mika, who finally dropped the arm in front of her and took the bottle.

"One of Sakasaki’s creations. It’s a poison capable of knocking down people, knights included. You do need more in order to work on them, though. It doesn’t kill unless you’ll overdose someone with an entire bottle, so it’s great for ambushes," She explained while trying to re-attach the arm, but failed miserably thanks to destroyed joints. "We’ll use this body to make sure Mika will be safe. Sakasaki should be ready either in the evening or in the morning the next day. This time, if someone will try to follow you, we will give them a sweet surprise~"

I don’t like the way she said that.

But that was a great step towards the goal. No more running in circles in the town waiting for others to get more informations, no more playing the dumb little crow.

This time, he also can start working for the one that is waiting for him.

"Understood," Mika bowed his head. "Thank ya kindly, Mado-nee. I’ll see both ya and Oshi-san soon."

"Of course, my dear, we’ll be waiting for you. I wish I could do more, but…"

"No, it’s okay, someone has t’ take care of Oshi-san so please, continue supportin’ him!"

"I will, Mika. See you soon."

 

Something has changed in him. In the morning, Mika looked like a dead Marionette with no will to do anything, yet now, you could clearly see the hope in his eyes.

After making sure the illusion was working correctly - and also hearing that it’d be good if we got his old clothes back, because apparently Shu might get a heart attack if he’ll see him running in those he had right now - he slowly approached the doctor who was gathering herbs nearby the shrine. They returned to the town together as they were supposed to.

But something caught Shinkai’s attention.

At some point, they witnessed Nazuna running in some direction, clearly in panic. They could also hear Izumi shouting as he tried to find other guardians. Shinkai, without saying a word, moved towards his own house. There, at first, everything was fine, until they heard Souma’s and Hajime’s voices.

"I’m sorry, I’m so sorry…" Hajime couldn’t even speak properly as he tried to stop crying. "There is nothing I can do right now…"

"Shinkai-dono cannot see that!" Souma was definitely panicking right now. "I cannot believe I was so blind, I trusted him! There is nothing but death that can clear all my sins…!"

For the first time Mika arrived in the Shinkai’s house, he saw the doctor nervous. He threw the basket his herbs and ran upstairs, trying to find the room both Shino and Kanzaki were, so Kagehira followed him instantly.

When they found them, Kanata covered his mouth with both hands.

"That never happened before," He said to himself, shocked. "What has changed...?"

The room was full of the smell of blood.

The body of the enthusiastic ninja, Shinobu Sengoku, was lying on the floor. His head was barely connected to the rest of the body on his skin only, and his eyes were popped out as he was definitely caught off-guard.

No matter what dreams and secrets he had - all of them were gone.

Chapter Text

That was crazy.

In only few minutes, a great opportunity to leave the town without anything wrong happening around disappeared as Mika watched all those people panic and cry in front of him.

Kanzaki was only looking at Kanata with a fear written all over his face while Hajime was still trying to rescue Shinobu, even though somewhere deep in his mind he probably knew it’s futile. Kanata approached Hajime slowly and put his hands on his shoulders, though he needed few seconds before he came back to his senses. His monologue was terribly chaotic, especially thanks to the fact he was switching between two languages.

"You should ‘stop’," His voice was as soothing as if he was only helping a kid who fell down while playing outside, even though you could catch a subtle coldness if you paid enough attention. "‘Nothing’ can help this child anymore."

His voice was enough to catch Hajime’s attention. The boy glanced at his trembling hands bathed in red and finally lost it. Just listening to his babbling was enough for Kanata to gently wrap his hands around his body and pull closer, letting him cry as much as he needed to.

Jesus, that’s painful to watch… Wait, hold on. Can you see that strange light around Sengoku?

Kagehira narrowed his eyes and looked closely at the body, but nothing caught his interest. For him, it was, well… Just a dead person.

No, no. Look at his chest, it’s like there’s something in it. Can’t you see that?

The Marionette scratched his head in confusion. Even Kanata at some point gazed at the ninja’s body, but for now, he stayed quiet.

Just, uh. Just look at it for a second. I feel like I might be able to reach out with my hand.

It... Wait since when it’s so brightly HERE-

………..

What. Wow, wait, hold on, what just happened?

"What’s wron’ with ya?" Kagehira whispered literally to himself, using the chaos around him so nobody couldn’t really hear him .

I’m not sure! Haven’t you seen that?

The Marionette shook his head. Of course, live can’t be this easy, can it?

Uh. I just saw Shinobu… I think? He was looking at the scroll that was supposed to be his report for someone before he died. I’ll tell you the details later, okay? It should be on a desk nearby, try to find it.

Thankfully, Mika didn’t ask too many questions and looked around, but as you could suspect, it was already gone.

Shinkai probably wanted to ask about something, but he stopped when he heard another voice. He asked Kanzaki to get down and try to hold them back, but it was impossible for the young warrior to move before Morisawa and Takamine entered. The captain was the first one to get what happened and he quickly grabbed the sailor in order to drag him out of this mess.

To make it even worse, Midori also saw it.

No idea why did he came here, but thanks to one more panicking person, everything was even harder to control - at least until Shinkai raised his hand and snapped his fingers. For a moment it was like a time in the room froze, but after that, everyone looked a bit calmer than before. Midori and Hajime stopped shouting and crying respectively, while Morisawa took a deep breath and stepped firmly in the room once more.

"Don’t panic, cooperate!" He said as loud as he could so everyone’s attention was on him. "We have a strong lead, so everything’s in control! Kagehira, Kanzaki, you two will help me secure this place. You, doctor, take care of these kids, please."

Kagehira immediately moved first and patted Kanzaki on his shoulder, so they could follow captain’s orders, while Kanata sent him a soft smile and helped Hajime to get up. Takamine was still in shock, asking to wake him up from this terrifying nightmare.

 

The rest of this mess has been taken care of pretty neatly thanks to the doctor who took away the most panicked people, while Morisawa, accompanied by Souma and Mika, had enough time to secure the place, look around the clues in the room one more time and to gather other people around. Kagehira was surprised he still haven’t seen either Nazuna or Kaoru - whenever something was wrong, these two were ready to work. Yeah, he saw the first one running somewhere before they entered the house, but hell only knew what happened to Hakaze.

Later on, when they finished their work, Chiaki asked Souma to stay in the guard’s station, because he believed he was a key witness - out of all people, he was fairly close to the murder and he already was able to point at someone. When he was sure other guardians could take care of him, Chiaki and Mika left the building and headed to Shinkai’s house, but the commotion in the town made it a bit harder.

And, to make it worse, that wasn’t just something they could ignore.

People around started forming a circle around Izumi and Arashi -  both of them already had their swords in hands, ready to start a real fight. They didn’t even care about their surroundings, looking daggers at each other.

"Just wait a minute, you two!" As expected, Chiaki immediately rushed between people and slowly approached them, even though he still tried to keep a safe distance. "What are you doing, Sena?"

"Oh, nothing, really. Just disposing of garbage mercenaries, pretty normal," Sena stayed surprisingly calm when he saw the captain. "I told you to get rid of them before someone will die."

"Listen up. You have no evidence pointing at me, yet you still insist I’m the villain. Hell, I have so much alibis you should literally be a good boy and stop accusing me like an idiot who lost a brain years ago."

Even though Narukami was clearly trying to protect herself, her grim face and voice weren’t really helping right now - people around were mostly whispering amongst themselves, hoping that the guard won’t be attacked by her.

"I thought we’ve been talking about that, yet you’re still so stubborn," Morisawa scratched his head and made another step towards them. "You’re a guard, you can’t just point at people with your weapon!"

"Then how about a little show, huh?" Izumi grinned and pointed Narukami with his sword. "If she’s so innocent, how about we’ll just cut him a bit? You know, just to see how his eyes will react. If they turn gold, it’s my win."

"I’m sorry, what?" Even Arashi just tossed up her annoyed tone and blinked, looking at Sena as if she saw a ghost. "You’re insane. Haven’t your sweet doctor checked me to assure everyone I’m safe? He almost tried to cut my hand open!"

Even the captain was speechless at this point and Mika couldn’t even stop blinking while he watched that show.

At this point I wonder who’s more determined. And if Kanata really tried to do that, I’d suggest to run while you still can, for real now.

"Yeah, cool. I haven’t seen that," Izumi waved his free hand. "So stop whining. You either do that - and maybe we’ll let you stay for longer - or just get the hell out of here before I’ll throw you to a jail so you’ll wait for gentlemen from the capital to check you properly. Believe me, those guys aren’t better than executioners. Oh, and remember to take your friendly crow with yourself."

"Ah, that’s not going well, is it?" Morisawa clenched his fist while trying not to lose his head in this situation.

Wow, captain, get yourself together! And I don’t get why they let a guard be so aggressive. Kagehira, you’re good at hiding, maybe you can somehow stop them or something?

"That Sena freak might attack me as well."

Mika covered his mouth with his hand and whispered, but he still made a step towards them, observing their every move. Judging from captain’s reaction, a fight right now might be really dangerous, and, well… It was a bit sad to see how their work was wasted by those two anyway.

He stopped when suddenly Narukami turned the sword she had still in her arm and pointed the blade at her left hand, as if she really wanted to do it and give Sena an evidence he wanted. Both Mika and Izumi couldn’t hide their shock after seeing that move. Just before Arashi did it, however, something catched Kagehira’s eye.

A sudden movement in the shadows, as if someone was using them to walk around unnoticed. When he looked at Narukami again, Nazuna was already standing in from of her.

"Stop right there, warrior," He grabbed Arashi's weapon before she used it. "There is no reason to do it. And you, Izumi-"

He let off the weapon after making sure the mercenary changed up her mind and looked at the guard instead.

"Are you kidding me right now?"

He approached Izumi, watching his every move in order to react immediately if he wanted to do something stupid again - but Izumi just stayed there. He shook his head after a minute and blinked, then sent Narukami another glare. The mercenary sighed heavily and after making sure he won’t try to attack him, he stepped back.

"I’m sorry, Narukami, I’ll make sure he won’t bother you next time…" Nazuna looked back at him with a sad face and tried to play it nicely, but Arashi simply waved his hand.

"You won’t see my face anymore, so don’t bother. With his great ideas, he might ask me to kill myself in the future just to prove my innocence, so I’ll take my leave. Have fun."

And without even looking at them, Narukami left this place, making everyone stay in the place speechless. Even Mika didn’t try to call on her - instead, he patted captain’s shoulder to wake him up. Morisawa at first wasn’t sure what to do, but after he saw Nazuna’s face, he rushed to him and Izumi immediately.

God, what a mess. Let’s leave this town already or we might see Sena’s rage pointed on us.  

"I prefer not, honestly," Mika shrugged and watched them for a minute. "I don’ get their logic."

Let’s talk about that later, there is something I need to tell you.

 

And without looking back, he left them and slowly walked towards one of the gates, avoiding the people sending him suspicious looks.

At this point he wasn’t even sure where should he go, because there was still nothing from Natsume - so he let his intuition choose the right direction.

But to be honest, right now it was hard to say what exactly Mika was thinking about other than how to leave. At first you could think he was simply annoyed, but after a while, he simply moved without too many emotions on his face.

God, it’s like everyone starts getting a bit chaotic. If I had a head, I’d definitely get a headache right now.

"Oh yeah, I’ve remembered," When Mika finally got to one of the gates, he started talking again. "Ya said ya saw somethin’ back in the house."

Right, I almost forgot thanks to that guard… It was terribly short and my vision was terrible, so I don’t have much, but I think I saw the actual scene of murder. Sort of.

"Enlighten me, ‘lost’ soul." Right before Mika could leave the town, a well-known voice caught him off-guard. The Marionette immediately grabbed a dagger and directed it at the doctor, who stepped back and sent him a cold gaze.

"Do not give ‘locals’ more reasons to ‘hate’ you." He warned, but it had almost no influence on Mika.

"They hate me anyway, don’ they? It’s jus’ a matter of time ‘til I’ll get th’ same treatment as Naru."

"Do not waste ‘time’ then, your companion ‘knows’ something I do not."

Kagehira raised his eyebrow and slowly lowered his weapon, even though Shinkai’s words were quite suspicious for him.

We’re cool, Mika. He, uh… He knows about me. And I believe he deserves to know.

He still wasn’t fully convinced, but there was no other way - knowing Shinkai he would do something to stop him until he learned what he wanted from them. He let out a sigh and hid the dagger, but decided to stay on guard, while Kanata simply nodded his head and forced a smile, even though it still looked quite creepy on his face.

I don’t have too many details. He finished writing his report - the last name I saw was Hidaka Hokuto. After that, he was ready to get out and leave the place, but he was suddenly attacked from behind. The first strike wasn’t enough, though. Before he died, he saw...  I’m not sure what. An animal for sure, a cat maybe?

Both of them stayed silent and processed all the information they got. Kanata, at some point, started mumbling in language he used before in the house. Something clearly was on his mind, but as always - he didn’t want to share it. Damn it, doctor.

"Thank you, He suddenly changed back to the language Kagehira could understand and bowed his head lightly. He didn’t say more and came closer to him, asking to give him his hand for a second. Kagehira clearly disliked the idea, but after seeing the doctor’s eyes, he did that reluctantly. Shinkai took his hand in his own and gave him a small notebook.

"It is for your ‘hidden’ friend, take care of them. By the way, I suggest heading to the ‘west’. Avoid the ‘main’ road, it will take you to the ‘border’ with the Empire."

Here it is, a man who somehow still gives suggestions even though he’s not even leaving this town. It’s funny how much he’s eager to help Mika leave right now, considering they still have a murderer in the town.

Will you be alright, doctor?

"It is our ‘problem’, not yours. Find your own ‘place’ you belong to, it would be stupid to 'force' you to stay here. ‘Good luck’ on your journey, you two."

And after that, he took his leave. When Shinkai disappeared from his vision, Mika looked at the notebook from all sides and opened it, but it was already too dark to read it for him.

I’m glad he didn’t forget, but whatever, let’s finally leave this mess of a town. Will you go west as he suggested?

"Might as well, we’ll startin’ from the beginnin’ after all. Let’s go."

 

And with that, he finally left this cursed Harbor.

It’s strange to think how long he actually stayed here - to be fair, he lost a lot of time with crazed people, stubborn doctors… And Naru, probably the only sane person in this goddamn place. It was actually surprising he didn’t try to find Mika, but if you think about that, he was definitely pissed off and wanted to get out without thinking about other people. Or maybe he didn’t care that much.

But, to be honest, something was different right now.

Even though I can’t say why.

People’s behaviour in there - especially Izumi’s - was strange. I haven’t noticed it before, but now when I have enough time to think about, people around him were sending suspicious glares. Narukami is one thing, he might have done something before Mika arrived, hell knows. But him? He rescued Shinobu, stayed in doctor’s house for days, listened to captain when needed and actually walked around with Shinkai when the murder took place.

Yet, of course, he had to leave. He was creating problems, he was the most suspicious one.

But nobody was brave enough to say it right to his face - without counting Kanata and Izumi, that is. The first one was so ‘nice’ and said why, the latter was just a pissed off dude with too much free time on himself.

I do wonder why he asked Narukami to wound himself. Does it work?

...Sadly, Kagehira stayed quiet and slowly walked, for now staying on the road. Something definitely was bothering him, but rather than saying it, he kept it to himself.

It was harder to hear him than before.

Please, don’t forget about me. I’m still with you… We need to work together, even if everything I have is my weak vision, hearing, and this unknown possibility to see through dead people’s last moments.

 

Mika stepped back from the main road on dawn.

For now, it was quite easy - from what we were able to see on the map Shinkai provided in the notebook, hiding was easy until we’ll reach the crossroad. The worst will start after that - the road connecting the capital and the border with the Empire. Of course, there is way more guards, so at least he won’t see too many bandits.

But Isara said before the Imperials might try to stop him if they’ll find him. Hell only knows if the situation wasn’t better before that wanna be spy tried to help. Still, no matter what, we had to move and pray for the best.

“I’ll give you an A+ for leaving the town, Wataru came earlier than I anticipatED. But it’s a pain for me because Shu started screaming at me since I couldn’t protect you during a nighT. You really love fall starting, don’t yOU?”

It’s been quite a while, don’t you think?

Before Kagehira answered, he quickly looked around to make sure he’s alone and hid deeper between the shadows.

"Great. But as ya can see, I’d like to learn more ‘bout the situation, playin’ yer game tires me up."

“Get used to iT. I didn’t stop you from going there hoping I’ll learn more as wELL. I didn’t know our doctor is that much desperate, but thankfully, his Harbor worked perfectly as a research arEA~”

"Not only that, ya lied to me," Mika narrowed his eyes. "Ya know where Oshi-san is."

“I keep a lot of secrets, my dear crOW,” Even though normally Natsume would start teasing him, his voice was still surprisingly neutral. “This kind of game needed tHAT. You’re terribly easy to read, our enemies would see through if I told you everythiNG.”

You have a lot of enemies if you start to think about it.

“Just don’t get too salTY. When you were staying in the Harbor and making new friends, I had to look up through every little detail to make sure my plan’s working because not only everyone leave surprisingly weak traces, everything is already all over the plaCE. Add your panicking Master and the torture is reADY,” There was a heavy sigh before he continued his monologue. “How long was it, few daYS? A week, even two mayBE? I feel like at least a year passED.”

"Don’ tell me yer the only one who’s workin’ right now," Kagehira didn’t even hide his confusion. "Oshi-san used t’ have few fellow eccentrics."

“He clearly wants to stay hidden until he’ll see you agaIN. He doesn’t trust thEM. No, even bettER… I’m starting to wonder if he even trust mE.”

Your master have some serious trust issues then, Mika.

"Not everyone at th’ same time, stop it, my head hurts as hell," He shook his head and took a deep breath. "Look, we both want the same. Why do ya make it so complicated?"

“Because, for God’s sake, you’ll both get executed if you let them find hIM!” He clearly lost his cool for a moment and shouted right in Mika’s head, giving him even worse headache. “KHM. Look, I know what I’m doing, I played a game like that few times befoRE. I’m waiting for their moVE. I’ll show everyone I’m a good playER and a stubborn Marionette won’t destroy IT.”

"If ya think I’ll go to another town for a few weeks, forget ‘bout that."

“Why, I thought you enjoyed your little romanCE. Too bad she’s not following you right nOW,” Kagehira rolled his eyes, waiting for more brilliant ideas. “WhateVER. There is a small town and I’d like you to visIT it, so that Blue Bird idiot can create a teleport and end this mess for goOD. Sorry he can’t just snap his fingers and send you to Shu right now, life’s not that eaSY.”

Ironically, he didn’t sound that much sorry. Typical Natsume, you really have to get used to it.

“We’ll also make sure nobody will follow you, and if - we’ll give them a spectacular perfomanCE . Go west, look for the crossroad and take the road to a border with the EmpIRE. I’ll be watching you, but if you’ll need me, call my name three times and I should answER. Good luCK.”

And, of course, he didn’t even let Mika ask more about his game he’s so proud of.

He closed his eyes and clenched his fists, giving himself a moment to properly calm down.

"First Shinkai, now that cursed magician. Not only I wasted my time, everyone jus’ boss me ‘round and throws so many warnings as if I can’t do anythin’." He took a deep breath and released it slowly.

He was right, though.

Are you sure you’re okay? I feel like something has changed. Look, just… Just talk to me. If something bothers you, I’ll be glad to help, even if everything I can do is throwing more words of encouragement.

"Screw that entire Harbor, I hate it. I felt like I lost my brain when I entered that place and now I’m finally gettin’ up from that nightmare."

Maybe there was more than we know. Still, I’m quite interested who was the villain in there.

"I don’ care, really," Mika shrugged and slowly started calming down. "I jus’ want t’ get back where I belong. Let’s… Let’s work together. I don’ know if ‘m gettin’ crazy or yer a real deal, but yer help’ll be appreciated."

You’re welcome. Let’s do our best and find that town Sakasaki wants you so badly to go to.

Chapter Text

The time passes differently when you’re constantly moving. It feels like days and nights are changing faster.

Kagehira was definitely calmer as he could focus on the road since nobody looked at him, stopping only when Natsume had something to say. Yes, he really was looking at him, ready to serve whenever Kagehira asked him to. 

But well, there’s also another reason why we were moving so fast - it’s because Mika was hardly ever taking breaks. He wasn’t listening to the voice suggesting to stop for a few minutes of a short sleep.

The Marionette wanted to get back no matter how broken he will be in the end, I guess.

I had to admit I was surprised. Normal human would at this point hit the ground with their face thanks to the fatigue. But on the other hand, Kagehira wasn’t a human.

It makes you really wonder what exactly is a Marionette in this world. Unlike the doll-like one Mademoiselle used in the harbor, his body was pretty much just as normal as other humans, right?

It’s strange. I literally know nothing about this boy, and even less about the man he’s still looking for. And never had a chance to ask, especially back in the Harbor. It was a bad idea to distract Kagehira, though. He was deeply focused on his journey rather than the voice, even if he had that strange expression on his face, as if something couldn’t get out from his head. He ignored the questions if everything’s okay, so the first part was pretty… quiet.  

But at some point he also understood a break is needed to catch a breath. He found a good place to hide between the trees while he had still about an hour of marching to the crossroad, then took the notebook and looked at the map provided by the doctor. From what he saw, it wasn’t that much far away, but it might take a few hours at least to get closer to the village, town or whatever that place was.

I believe not many people would get that far in such short time, so rest a bit. You didn’t sleep at all.

"‘m not even that tired t’ be honest," He sighed while looking at the different pages of the notebook. "Uh, that language is a mess."

Is it? It’s really easy to read if you ask me. Do you even know how to read?

His glare clearly gave a reason to believe the question offended him. Well, there was a chance his master was from North, maybe he used a different one as well.

Oh yeah… I almost forgot about the big bad of the story - the man so many people met in past, but nobody haven’t seen once after Mika got lost. Literally. If you think about that, even the Marionette wasn’t talking too much about him, so it’s hard to imagine what type of person he is.

And what exactly he can create.

After all, even Marionettes were a real question, especially after meeting the doll back in the Harbor. At first, one could think they were a lot like humans, just maybe a bit more immune to pain and with a need to listen to their master. But now? No idea, honestly. Maybe there are more types.

Hey, Kagehira.

He didn’t answer, as if his head was still full of thoughts. Or maybe he started ignoring the voice. He wasn’t really talkative during his little trip, avoiding all the questions that were asked.

After Shinkai tried to convince me that I was different than him, the connection between us started fading away. His mind wasn’t as open as before.

It’s not as if I was him. I don’t feel that at all. Just what the hell am I?

"Still wonderin’ ‘bout yer own persona?" He suddenly asked out of nowhere. "I dunno If yer aware, but yer voice is pretty chaotic right now. I can hear it."

Oh God. I’m not sure about anything at all. And what do you mean by chaotic, could you expand it?

"Uh… Random words comin’ from nowhere? It’s like yer talkin’ nonstop, but only from time t’ time it’s actually audible or somethin’."

Well, I am talking almost nonstop. That’s literally the only thing I can do right now other than looking at you. I’m just a nice guardian of yours, remember?

He didn’t comment on that. Instead, he leaned his back against the tree and closed his eyes. Well, if that’s the case, I’ll at least make sure he’ll get a bit of rest before he’ll continue the journey… I can at least do that much! Last time he woke up immediately after I started screaming .

"Not sleepin’. Just restin’."

...That won’t work. What a stubborn man. At this point you could only wonder if he needs it, to be honest. His sleeping schedule was all over the place in the town as well until Shinkai gave him some medicine. He also wasn’t eating that much…

What’s the deal with your Master and the Marionettes, really?

At first, there was no response from him. Just before he heard another question, he took a deep breath.

"Depends. I thought it was obvious."

Well, not really. You look like a human, you just don’t sleep and eat too much. Also, the way your wounds heal is strange. But that Marionette in the forest? It was just a doll.

"That’s how most of ‘em look like - he shrugged - Souls these days are hard to find. At least people are as stupid as they used t'be."

Heh. Souls, you say? More haunted dolls then, great.

...Wait. Mademoiselle at some point said that dead bodies can be useful. Now, Kagehira mentioned souls.

If the Puppeteer is what I think he is, then maybe I should reconsider meeting him. If he can use souls to enhance his creations, then sure, he definitely knows what to do, but… In the end, everything depends on his mood and sanity, right?

I’m… I’m getting nervous.

"Why? He’s not a bad person, really!" Kagehira opened his eyes and smiled innocently. "I mean, jus’ don’ make him mad and yer goin’ t’ be okay. ‘m pretty sure he’ll be able to see ya immediately if yer a soul."

Then tell me, please, what should I do to not irritate him .

"Don’ ask too many questions, give him time to think. And don’ play the white knight huntin’ the dark lord or anythin’, those types are annoyin’. Jus’ stay quiet as long as ya can."

That’s going to be hard considering there’s no way questions won’t be asked sooner or later. Kagehira was probably aware of that as well, because after his response, he muttered something to himself.

"‘m sure he’ll be able t’ do somethin’."

It depends on what that man considers helpful.

After that, both the voice and Kagehira stayed quiet for a while. The sun was still high, so there might be a chance that the Marionette will wait until it’ll start to set, letting him move quicker between the shadows as always. It’s almost obvious he prefers night over day, really. His senses are sharper.

He still didn’t want to rest properly, though. He closed his eyes again for a short time, but soon enough, he pulled out his weapon and took a good look on it. You might not be aware of that, but few hours ago Mika applied a bit of poison on it, hoping he’ll get a chance to see with his own eyes how it should work on someone else.

Sadly, this time no “stupid humans” were around. Too bad.

...Is something wrong?

"Jus’ wonderin’," Thankfully, this time he answered the question immediately. "‘m a bit surprised Oshi-san’s actually so desperate t’ the point of askin’ that magician for a poison. If that was lethal, then okay, it’d make some sense - but I don’ get a point of this one. Hence I wanted t’ see how it works."

Either they don’t tell all the truth, or maybe something is in his mind after that attack.

Of course, he shook his head offended. The idea that his own Master is lying to him is something he doesn’t want to believe.

But at this point, you have to think about some… Strange occurrences that happened before. And Shinkai’s words. Yes, there is a chance he simply was confused, but what if...

What if the Puppeteer really did something wrong with Kagehira and now he wants to hide it?

 

Time passed again in a complete silence.

Mika decided to continue when the sun finally started to set. For sure, he lost few hours, but at some point you could say it was actually better decision due to a surprisingly busy road nearby. He spotted few groups of people of a different occupations, but since he wasn’t on the same road, nobody saw him, luckily.

Ironically, fate wasn’t as nice as he thought - because not only him preferred to move at this hour. When he got really close to the crossroad, he had to hide again. He was fairly sure the road was empty, at least until he heard a lively conversation between two people, even though he already felt there was way more people than he preferred.

Of course.

On a road, he spotted a group of some bandits - or, as Kagehira defined them, wanna be bandits, since they weren’t scary that much - which surrounded a lone merchant. Or at least they thought he was the only person until they realized he had, in fact, a mercenary hired to protect him.

Guess who?

"Oh my God, gentlemen. Working hard, don’t you?" Narukami’s voice surprised not only them, but Kagehira as well. "Long time no see!"

One of them, probably the leader, laughed nervously as he saw the blonde approaching him with a unpleasant smile on her face.

"My lady, we didn’t know you’re actually traveling with that scoundrel…" He started hesitantly, his eyes jumping between Arashi and the merchant. The second one sent him an offended look, but that didn’t bother the man as much as the awareness that Narukami’s hand was already resting on the sword’s handle.

"Darling, that’s quite a way to call someone, you know? I thought I learned you how to be a nice person, my heart in breaking right now as we speak."

God, I’m sure if you tried to gather all that venom her words were so full of, you might get quite a lethal poison. Even though she was smiling, it was like Narukami was ready to pull off that sword at any moment and bathe the bandit in his own blood in an instant if he made a bad move.

"It’s not a first time we’re meeting him on that road. People from the town one of my comrades comes from hate him anyway," The leader was still trying to save the day. "Kids can be dying from hunger and he won’t bat an eye and throw crazy costs right at yer face!"

"Look, I have my business, if I tried to be nice all the time someone wants me to be, I’d be already broken!" The merchant finally decided to join the conversation, but Narukami raised her hand in order to stop him.

"Don’t bother, those boys are very sweet and harmless, really. They can only speak loud, throw some threats without fulfilling them and gather informations. See?"

She said that while she finally approached the leader and wrapped his left arm around his shoulder. The bandit froze, unsure what he actually should do in order to get out.

Apparently, Narukami’s aura was enough to threaten them. Other companions also decided to stay in their places. They were just as nervous as their leader.

Kagehira was looking at that scene with a rather neutral face, focusing on the mercenary, the only person he ever met from that group. He quickly recovered from the shock, but you could say the fact Arashi already was already so close surprised him. 

It’s… quite a coincidence, don’t you think?

He was really tempted to just leave them as be and move while those guys were busy, but something was bothering his mind again.

So I focused on the rest again and let Mika think.

Their discussion was really one-sided, Narukami had them in her firm grip from the very beginning - as they progressed in their talk, you could bet they knew each other for a bit longer, even though that acquaintance was based on random meetings from time to time.

"Honestly, I still can’t give you a full mark boys, how much have you earned since our last meeting?" Arashi shook her head with resignation as she reached for a pouch the leader gave to her. "Get a normal job, you’re a failure as bandits. You’re too soft, darling."

"You’d be surprised, but we’re trying," The other man, or actually boy, since he definitely wasn’t an adult yet, raised his hand in order to get noticed by the mercenary. "Technically, uh, we’re trying to find a kid from the village, but nobody knows where is he."

"Ah yes, “looking for someone”," Arashi rolled her eyes and gave the pouch back to the leader."If someone decided to pay me for each time I heard that, I’d definitely become a goddamn millionaire fairly quickly. You’re just looking for an excuse. Soon enough I’ll get too bored and make sure the patrols will find all of you, so…"

"No, the kid’s right this time," Before she ended her sentence, the leader cut her boldly. "After wars and other shit that happened in the past, the demons are finally becoming a real threat rather then our goddamn fallen king and his people."

The statement clearly catched Narukami’s interest as she raised her eyebrow and stayed quiet, letting the man continue.

"Ya know that village famous for being damn close to the underground, yeah?" The man scratched his head. "About two weeks ago we lost contact with our comrade who went there. Sir, from what I remember you know that dashing kid and a tough violet-haired guy, we were sure you already knew about that."

A smile disappeared from Arashi’s face.

"So you didn’t, huh."

"Just continue. You’re talking about Adonis and Mitsuru, right?"

"Yeah, these two. They arrived about a week ago in our town. Wounded, but alive." He looked at the other person from his group and asked him to come closer and continue, maybe because he himself didn’t know all the details.

As they continued about that, Mika got pretty bored. Nothing they were talking about was interesting for him, even though at that point the remembered the village he had to pass when he was going to visit the demons alongside Sora.

So, in fact, the village was dead. No surprise they never met anyone there.

He also lost his interest because he never heard about those people Arashi was asking about. They said that the “dashing kid” left literally the next day because he had to find his friend called Tomo-chan “that was definitely just hiding, and he had to dash to him, since Adonis wants to treat them to a nice dinner”, or something.

Uh, okay.

Anyway, it was interesting for Narukami, not for him. Why should he bother? He had his own priorities.

But for some reason, Kagehira was still unsure if leaving was safe right now, at least until he heard a strange sound. He turned around and calmed down in the second he saw the familiar face. It was the same Marionette he already met in the Harbor. I guess it was able to follow him without losing it’s life - or energy, or whatever it needed to be considered working. It put it’s own finger to mouth to stay quiet and slowly moved, waiting for Mika to join.

But something was off for me.

They didn’t really moved too far away. The Marionette - not Mademoiselle, her voice was nowhere to hear this time - guided Kagehira a bit farther, while it was still observing if those men are following them.

No, wait.

It was observing them in Kagehira’s place while asking to move first.

"Do not ri sk your li fe. She has to be wat ch ed. Go first, Master is wa iti ng for you." Even without asking a question, it answered with that broken voice.

As he was moving, I became even more nervous.

Something is really, really off.

Kagehira, wait a minute!

He clicked his tongue and slowed down, but he didn’t stop.

Don’t you find this strange? You’ve never heard about...

"Can ya jus’ shut up for a- Guah?!"

 

...The sound we heard reminded me of a single bell ring.

Mika suddenly freezed in a very uncomfortable pose. His both hands were trembling and I couldn’t tell why.

Something has changed, but I can’t really say what exactly.

What’s wrong?

I tried to catch a glimpse at his face, so I had to move around him. There was no life in his eyes, yet he was still standing like a statue. He wasn’t answering at all, even though I’m sure I’ve been calling his name all the time.

...Wait. Wait wait wait.

I’m aware of what am I doing right now, and I’m even moving around him. Just what the hell is going on? The only time I could do that was when he was either sleeping or...

Oh.

Those few seconds were as hours for me right now, but finally, he moved with his finger and slowly stood up straight. The entire illusion he was using before to hide his eyes was gone.

I also saw a very thin, golden string reaching to his body.

And I still could tell what I was doing, even though Kagehira was definitely awake now.

He was standing still as if he was trying to concentrate on something. Or maybe someone…? His expression was constantly changing. Shock, fear, then relief - all of those emotions were constantly changing while Kagehira was just standing, and at this point I believed he learned something that was unavailable for me.  

Few minutes passed by and he finally moved towards the Marionette that was still observing the bandits. They had quite a lively discussion with the merchant, while Narukami was trying to stop them as she wanted them to show him the way, but nobody was listening to her until she finally pulled the sword.

Kagehira looked at her only once.

And it wasn’t a friendly gaze at all.

Can you please tell me what’s wrong?

He hissed at me and ignored my question. How am I supposed to help him if he suddenly decided to revolt? I’m really just trying to help!

And for God’s sake, why can I still tell that I see everything clearly? I can’t control anything at all, even myself!

“Who said you are the one in control?”

The sentence was short, the voice - which I’ve never heard before - cold and low.

“We will meet soon.”

Nothing less, nothing more. I’ve been left in a silence, incapable of doing nothing at all.

I could just watch in fear what the Marionette will decide to do.

Chapter Text

……………………………

 

Hello?

Can someone hear my voice and answer?

Nothing. I should expect that. I can tell it’s my voice for the first time and nothing keeps me from losing it, so there is a good thing in the entire mess… Until you add the rest. Now it’s only me, I’m separated from the rest of the world.

I’ve lost control, though, to be honest, I’ve never had too much of it before. Damn, I wish I had! I was able to get out only once and talk with somebody else than Kagehira, because Shinkai turned out to be some sort of hidden godlike doctor that managed to catch me. It took several days for him. And now somebody literally just came through, hit Kagehira in the head out of nowhere and boom.

If I could simply talk with other people, I’m sure half of the problems would be solved immediately. Sadly, now even that one person cannot hear me anymore.

Because of one goddamn voice. The irony is going off the charts.

I… Really don’t understand. When will it be over? When will I be able to get out of this body and finally decide for my own what can I do and where to go…?

 

Not only that, Kagehira’s attitude flipped visibly. Nothing in particular was interesting for him. People around, voices, sudden animal appearances - no reaction. He was calmly following the mercenary, who asked the men to hurry up so he and the merchant could finally move. As it turned out, Narukami was traveling to the same town Natsume suggested Kagehira to go earlier. She stayed with the merchant in order to save few hours on road, but that was it. Kagehira could use it for his own goal, and so he did. Rather than joining however, he followed them, keeping a safe distance.

The journey was rather peaceful at first. Nobody was attacked or distracted during this time, so at least one thing didn’t get messy. The thing is, they weren’t in a big hurry as I thought - judging from Narukami’s reactions, I hoped she might go full speed or something.

At that point I wish I could tell her to hurry up.

As you may guess, this part of journey was also quite boring, so I’ll skip it, unless you’re interested in gazes marionettes were giving to each other. They avoided speaking at all cost. This silence was making me crazy.

But something had to change soon.

Not sure how many hours has passed, but it was almost dark, and the town was already on sight thanks to a tall building - probably a clock tower. The merchant was humming a pleasant song, while Narukami stayed quiet, watching for the eventual danger to appear, still unaware of two marionettes sneaking around.

But this time, Kagehira and his comrade were in a small disadvantage. They were still trying to stay out of view, but looking at the area they’ve been getting closer to, it might become almost impossible soon. The doll’s head moved in a unnatural way two times and pointed at them.

Mika covered his mouth with his hand. He tried to take his time before answering, but at some point, he simply took a deep breath and nodded. They both disappeared in the shadows and left me wondering what I’ll be soon forced to watch.

 

"Wait."

Narukami looked behind them and reached for her weapon about few moments later with a serious face. The merchant stopped the horse and waited for his guardian’s opinion in silence.

Something moved in a bush nearby.

Arashi raised her eyebrow, but she didn’t get any closer to it. She waited few seconds, but nothing happened. While still on alert, she glanced back at the merchant and opened her mouth to speak to him…

Only to discover the man wasn’t on his place anymore.

Arashi slowly approached the front of the cart and looked around, hoping it’ll give her a clue about what happened in such a short span of time, but the only thing she saw was an empty seat. She hissed and looked around again.

Something moved in the same bush as before.

Her fingers clenched on the handle. Her employer, which she was supposed to guard, suddenly disappeared leaving no traces. The most surprising was the fact how calm Arashi was still able to stay, even in this situation. She didn’t want to risk and checked the cart before getting closer. A small blade in a bag caught her attention, so she took it.

The third time’s a charm. When the bush moved again, she threw it towards, waiting for a reaction. The doll went full-speed towards Narukami soon after. Luckily for her, its moves weren’t hard to predict, so just before it launched a hit, she blocked the attack with ease. With a quick move, she managed to pierce through the chest of the doll right before it could run away.

A sound of a glass breaking calmed her down. Arashi let out a sigh and tried to get her sword back - and panicked when she saw the doll’s fingers from one hand clenching on the weapon.

She gasped sharply soon after, but it wasn’t because of the doll. Someone appeared from behind, grabbed her - and stabbed with a dagger.

 

Narukami blinked once while trying to convert what just happened. When she finally realised it, she released her own sword and grabbed the hand holding a dagger, then tried to kick the person behind her. She easily overpowered his attacker and got away from them.

"Ya really got fooled by that, huh?"

Kagehira grabbed the weapon Narukami left and easily pulled it out from the doll, watching the speechless mercenary. He was completely unimpressed, even the fact he just stabbed someone he spent quite a lot of time back in the Harbor wasn’t bothering him that much.

There really was no life in his eyes anymore.

"How does it feel, Naru?" He continued soon after. "Ya wouldn’t know ‘bout the glass sound if ya didn’t kill a marionette at least once before. When ya planned t’ kill me?"

Arashi shook her head rapidly, but she didn’t answer the questions. She tried to move back, but her legs started trembling, giving her one more reason to panic.

Kagehira approached her with both the dagger and the sword in his hands, but stopped, when Narukami finally took a deep breath and closed her eyes for a second. When she opened them, they’ve changed their color from violet to gold.

It was the exact same hue I’ve seen before in the Harbor.

She was still trying hier best to stay straight, even after receiving that hit. It didn’t look that serious, but considering the weapon Mika used…

"Just look at yourself," Arashi said with a weak voice. "You didn’t even realise what happened to you, right?"

The Marionette gritted his teeth and quickly moved towards her, dropping the sword in the halfway. Narukami noticed the fury and tried to move back, but her body finally lost all the energy to stay still, which resulted in falling to her knees. Mika grabbed her collar, pinned her to the ground without mercy and pressed the dagger to her throat, but the mercenary didn’t want to give up, even when all her strength was leaving her body.

"Stop it, little crOW."

Both of them glanced at the same direction.

They didn’t even notice when Natsume got so close to them with a small bottles in his hand. Arashi was the first one to get back into her senses and tried to use the moment to free herself, but before she managed to do it, Natsume brutally forced her to drink the entire content from one of these bottles.

Soon enough, Narukami lost consciousness.

Kagehira watched him in silence a bit longer just to make sure everything worked, and got up.

"So it really was a good idea to prepare a stronger potion, huh… The way you forced her to drink it wasn’t the most stylish one, though."

Tsumugi closed the book he was holding in his hands, showing himself soon after they managed to knock down the enemy.

"I had no choice, so don’t think too much about IT," Natsume only raised his hand and waved carelessly. "I’m more interested about our safeTY.

"Hmm… I believe we’re safe, I haven’t detected any life energy or magic around us. And I really checked it two times already. The first one made me nervous, but it disappeared later..."

"Check it one more time just to be suRE."

Aoba pressed two fingers on his temple and concentrated on the magic flow around them. While he was busy with his own work, Natsume’s attention has switched back to the mercenary. He examined the wound left by Kagehira and scratched his head, but he didn’t make any comment about that. After a while, he poured the content of the second bottle right into Narukami’s mouth, resulting in Kagehira giving him a confused look.

"A mediciNE. It’d be sad if she died too sOON," The alchemist said right before he had any time to ask. "Though I’m interested in one thiNG. Don’t you feel any bad after what you’ve done?"

"Not really," Mika answered bluntly and shrugged. "Considerin’ what Naru was plannin’, we’d have t’ fight anyway. Besides, if Oshi-san wants me t’ befriend someone only t’ stab their back later, I’ll do it."

If that’s the case, then the Puppeteer is a goddamn bastard.

I’m starting to miss the person I’ve used to travel with. What happened to that nice, quirky and kind of clueless boy with tendencies to get too nervous from time to time?

He gave some signals before about his true abilities, but I hoped he’s not that bad. It’s painful to learn the real face of other people, and ironically, this is true to both Narukami and Kagehira.

This is why meeting with a Puppeteer might end even worse.

"Is there anything else t’ do?" Mika asked annoyed. "That second voice in my head is drivin’ me crazy."

Oh, so you still can hear me? 

"It’s safe, I assure you. I sense a weak aura, but at this point I’m sure it has to be the spirit you and Sora were talking about…" Tsumugi opened his eyes and waved his hand, hoping it’ll be enough to get everyone’s attention. "But I wonder where is that man. Have you killed him?"

"Dunno, I’ve tried to silence him as quick as I could."

"I’m sorry, but that doesn’t tell me anything…"

"Most likely he’s deAD," Natsume cut them shortly. "I told you how much they caRE. And by the way, that doll is still moviNG."

Both Kagehira and Tsumugi gazed at the half-destroyed body of the doll, making some strange movements from time to time. Mika rushed to it and examine the hole in the body left by Arashi. Without any hesitation, he put his hand right to the body. At one point, the doll’s head twisted and a second break sound could be heard. Kagehira panicked and pulled his hand back.

"Sorry, didn’ want t’ do that! Ah, I dunno… It’s still workin’, but without Oshi-san’s help, it’ll lose its life soon."

"If you can carry two people at once, then be my guest and take IT. I’m not helping you with thAT," Sakasaki sighed and glanced towards Tsumugi. "Let’s move, unless we want to waste even more tIME. I’d like to go back to Sora, I’m getting a bit nervoUS. He didn’t answered to my voice earliER."

"Ah, he contacted me soon after you’ve asked about it!" Tsumugi said with a more vivid tone and smiled. "I mean, we did left him with that kid, so I get why are you concerned, but with defence systems and those twins, everything should be okay."

Huh? Someone else is in their library and they are actually worried to the point of using additional security measures… Now that’s interesting.

At least for me, Kagehira turned his head back as soon as I thought about it, just like he wanted to give me a clear message.

‘Not today, pal.’

All right, then. Keep your secrets. And have fun destroying other people.

"Two of them is impossible… Yer literally askin’ me to break or leave one of my own comrades!"

Ironically, this is the moment Kagehira got upset over killing goddamn haunted dolls, but Natsume simply rolled his eyes unimpressed.

"Sorry, I don’t have enough forCE. Unless you want me to drag the body on the ground and leave some traces, get over IT. This type can be easily reconstructed by Shu, rigHT?"

"Well, yeah…"

"So give it a peaceful death and let’s GO. We should avoid as many witnesses as we cAN."

Kagehira closed his eyes and clenched his fist, but after few seconds, he pierced the doll’s chest with his dagger, aiming a bit lower than Arashi earlier.

I heard the break, and at first, it sounded almost the same, but… On the other hand, there was a difference if you listened carefully. So yes, it worked perfectly as a trap. Clever.

"Natsume… Are you sure you don’t want me to know the exact location?"

Tsumugi asked concerned while looking for something in his book. If there was even a hint of a smile on Natsume’s face, it disappeared immediately.

"No, you idiOT. If someone capable of detecting your magic will be close there, you’ll give them exactly what they waNT. Especially Wataru, it’s a piece of cake for hIM."

Again, that name. They don’t like him too much, huh... I’m starting to wonder who is that person they’re trying to avoid as much as knights.

But for now, there is something way more important - the final journey to the Puppeteer.

Soon after the mage received an answer, he started drawing a symbol with his finger in the air. When it was ready, he snapped his fingers, and the blue portal has appeared. When they made sure Narukami was sleeping peacefully in Kagehira’s arms, Natsume took the sword laying on the ground.

And they finally left this place.

 

The portal created by the mage sent them… Well, somewhere. But also nowhere, really. It was just a simple, kind of dead-looking forest at first glance.

Tsumugi asked Natsume if he’s really sure about going alone further, but his concern was completely ignored by the alchemist. He simply ‘reminded’ him, as he defined it, why he prefered to do it this way, but to be honest, I didn’t listen too much. I’ve been trying my best to get where we’ve been sent.

When I came back to my senses, Tsumugi was already gone, leaving the Marionette and the alchemist alone.

They didn’t talk much. Kagehira was just casually holding unconscious knight while following Sakasaki. The route he picked wasn’t really hard, they just had to watch out for some sudden drops in the terrain, as well as dead ends.

I tried to catch something out of ordinary, but honestly, the only reason for someone to lose their way would be because everything looked exactly the same. The nature around seemed to be less colourful than, for example, the forest nearby the Harbor, but that’s it.

But finally, finally, they reached… A dead end?

Sakasaki stopped in the center of the forest, where the trees blocked the way, but before anyone got a chance to ask what he was trying to accomplish, he pulled a small violet-blue crystal-like item from his pocket and started drawing something in front of them, just like Tsumugi did earlier.

The thing he created was a small rune, which at first did nothing - until he somehow ‘grabbed’ the energy, directed it at the branches and roots of trees and snapped his fingers. Those quickly turned blue as well and slowly moved out of way, creating a narrow path further into the woods.

The road was slowly getting lower and lower, until they encountered a door, leading them to the underground.

Something moved behind them, but they didn’t react to that. The branches slowly went back to block the way, and nobody could enter this strange place after.

And so, they finally entered. The corridor wasn’t the longest one, but the amount of other passages could make someone unfamiliar with the layout lost in no time. Natsume led Mika to the second to last passage and opened the door.

The view reminded me of some sort of small workshop of a mage. And believe me, I would definitely go on about this place, as it was definitely interesting and kind of similar to the library Sakasaki and his friends lived in, but something caught my eye.

A person standing in front of them.

A man with a sharp look, tall, but with a rather fragile posture, dressed in dark-coloured outfit - most notably red and black with some golden ornaments here and there. The aura around him was taking my breath away. He looked so gorgeous, yet so out of place somehow. Rather than this, I believe this is the kind of person you could meet in some sort of really grand building perfect for an aristocrat… Not in a magician hideout in a half-dead forest.

His eyes locked on Kagehira.

Mika literally dropped Narukami on the floor and slowly approached him, as if he feared that the person in front of him would disappear if he moved too fast.

The man reached out with his hands and gently embraced the Marionette.

They didn’t exchange any word, just as if looking at each other was enough for them. Kagehira wasn’t able to get any word from his throat. Every attempt was resulting in him muttering nonsense.

"Sorry for breaking this touchy momeNT, but before I’ll leave, I have something you might find interestING."

Natsume was the one to break the silence, gathering all the attention on himself. The man released Mika and coughed.

"Of course. First things first, though."

...I’ve heard this voice. Back them, before everything went down to the hell; it was the same voice.

A chill went down on my nonexistent spine.

The Puppeteer worked silently behind the scenes.

But why now, why he was waiting for so long and risked the life of his own creation?

While I was left shocked, he had enough time to summon two dolls, which took Narukami out of the room. After that, he left a gentle kiss on Mika’s forehead and moved his fingers in the air in some strange kind of way. Some golden strings appeared and reached to the body. After a moment, Mika literally hanged in the man’s hands, like a lifeless doll.

Something… changed, again.

"We still have an unexpected visitor."

He looked at me.

"I would like to make sure everything is under my control before we will continue."

He saw me.

"I still have no idea who you are. It’s time to fix it."

He reached with his free hand in my direction and slowly clenched his fist. The strings surrounded me in no time.

...It hurts.

IthurtsithurtsithuRTSITHURTS.

ItslikesomeistryingtoTEARMEAPART .

...Right before I’ve lost my vision,

i  s a w  a  w e a k  l i g h t  c o m i n g  f r o m  m e .

t  h  e    e  x  a  c  t    s  a  m  e    i  ’  v  e    s  e  e  n    b  a  c  k    i  n    t  h  e    h  a  r  b  o  r  -

Chapter Text

It’s cold.

The flashes of light are appearing from time to time, showing fragments of memories. Some of them are pleasant and warm, but the rest feel like little blades, which attack without any warning, reminding of all mistakes made in past. And you can’t do anything but watch it and wonder – if you could go back in time, what had you to do in order to avoid it and get a better ending?  Watching this entire show is unpleasant.

The fragments disappeared soon after, and everything became hollow.

Then, I got the impression that some sort of invisible force is tearing me apart without mercy, strings attached to my body, and there’s no way to escape it. My mind is telling me to fight, of course.

…Ah, now I remember.

The Puppeteer didn’t even give any time to explain. He took the control over everything, just as he said. He believes I’m a thread, so he took precautions. To be honest, it’s terrifying. I can’t say anything! Do anything! I won’t hurt him, I just want to learn something about myself!

So I’m begging you, just listen before you’ll kill me…!

 

The fragments floating around flashed with different colours stronger after the request. After focusing on them properly, it was easy to recognise some of them, seeing those memories.

The field Kagehira woke up at. Hajime’s Inn. The library inhabited by the magicians. The residence of devils deep in the dungeons. The Harbor. There was even more, but those definitely belonged to Kagehira. Some of the fragments were gathering around Itsuki, deadly focused on his work. His right hand was moving in the rhythm known only to him, pulling the memories closer. He examined every one of them carefully, and then decided which one could stand in an arranged pile, and which one had to leave – after rejection, those fragments were slowly approaching the bigger type, sparkling in pale yellow hue.

At some point, Shu realised how much memories gathered around this coloured fragment. He watched it, and then tried to capture it with his hand.

When his hand reached to it, another wave of pain came back.

“Leave me alone!”

Shu hissed and moved his hand back instantly, seemingly resentful after such a quick revolt. He stayed quiet a bit longer, but at some point, he sighed heavily, put something he had in his left hand on a small desk staying nearby him and waved his hands few times, dismissing all the fragments. Everything went back to normal, revealing a small room we’ve been in the entire time. The only person, except me and Shu, was Mika, laying on the bed.

“There’s really no hope for that boy, is there?” Itsuki shook his head and sent Kagehira a glance. “Whoever did this will pay with their head. If your answers won’t satisfy me, then you’ll be the one losing it, alongside that pathetic existence of yours. So let’s start from the very beginning.”

A chill went down on my spine, though I still don’t even have a physical one. His voice, which was just as cold as back there on that fateful day, reminded me how deadly serious Shu was. Not only that, he already showed twice what he’s capable of if I’ll try to fight back.

Ignoring his commands is literally one way ticket to hell.

“Understood. I’ll do my best.”

A weak smile, which appeared on his face, was enough to calm me down for now.

“Very well then,” He said and pointed at one of the fragments with his hand, which appeared again. “Tell me about the first thing you remember, no matter what it was. Was it a voice? Or just a scene that didn’t make any sense at first? Call it back.”

He didn’t have to wait too long. The first thing I saw – or actually heard – was Kagehira’s voice before he woke up nearby the Inn. He talked about a reason, which made him leave the safe fortress in order to find a person he deeply cared about – though, to be honest, it was as if he was talking to himself, rather than someone else.

Itsuki raised his hand, stopping me from continuing, and put it on Kagehira’s head.

“I believe that he didn’t just lose his consciousness due to the fatigue,” He said, running his fingers through Kagehira’s hair. “Not enough, so continue. From what I saw, there was one thing that took you completely by surprise.”

Mm…

Yep, there was a thing, you’re right. At some point, my mind did flip out of nowhere… Well, more than one time.

“I’m interested in one case, as it possibly is the reason everything went out this way – I’m talking about what happened back in Sakuma’s residence. You weren’t there, yet you heard the voices. Am I right?”

Yeah, that’s true. Right now I can even point people I heard back there. After that, my consciousness started jumping around like crazy, mixing with Kagehira’s mind. His thoughts got harder and harder to hear, but also at some point, it was almost impossible to say who’s trying to tell what’s going on around. Both of us were really confused… That is, until we heard your voice.

“Hmph. A small bluff was enough to scare you off? Quite disappointing.” He commented harshly and became silent again, working around fragments again.

I had to stop myself so I didn’t fire back without thinking. His attitude might not be the best, but… It’s hard to forget how easily this man can force you to stop blabbing and cooperate, thus I really don’t want him to get even more mad. He’s already on the edge.

So I had to endure the silence.

“I am speechless. What kind of joke is that?”

He said that at some point after giving himself enough time to think, then began to walk around in the room, his hand still close to his mouth.

“Core fragment of soul without any type of memory isn’t new in this world,” He started with a lower voice. “But two souls in one body? Nonsense! My eyes are in pain whenever I look at it, someone had to let it become like this! Who’s trying to disturb my work? Is that you again, Joker? You and your beloved madman? Are you that desperate to make me join your ridiculous war? Non! No matter what you will try to do, I am more than disgusted whenever I see your actions!”

With every new sentence, his voice was getting louder and louder, his gestures more passionate. If he had anything sharp in his hand, it would be a suicide to come closer.

“Banishing knights from their own country, so they can assassinate people without worrying about politics! Playing with fate of many people and purposely bringing the Curse on them just to test how it is working! Waking up souls which memories are being teared apart due to trauma and guilt! Who’s the crazy one right now, you are the one who’s denying himself! Do you finally wish to die? You do, right? Then let the blade cut your own head - just stop trying to take others with you to hell, cursed hypocrites!”

Itsuki was burning with rage at this point, unable to calm down on his own. He just gave himself few seconds to catch the breath so he could continue - giving me a terrible anxiety mixed with enormous confusion - but someone heard his passionate speech and decided to come here and check on him.

To be more precise, the door to the room opened slowly, and a young lady has entered the room, moving very cautiously towards the Puppeteer. When Itsuki noticed her, he stopped breathing for few seconds, straightened up, and waited for her words in a complete silence.

“Shu, please…” She said and gave him a gentle smile, taking his hand in her own. “I do understand how much everything is painful to you, I really do, but… Rage will only make your work harder. Remember that Mika still needs you, and even that poor soul is watching you in a complete panic, because they don’t understand anything either. You are the one who can guide both of them, right?”

Thanks to this lady, the atmosphere in the room has changed immediately, especially since the man, who was almost ready to tear up the entire world, stayed quiet and listened to her as if nothing happened before, opening and closing his mouth, wondering if he should say something. Shu’s eyes were jumping between her, Kagehira, and my soul somewhere in this room.

He closed his eyes for a second and took a deep breath.

“Forgive me for that unnecessary burst of rage, Mademoiselle,” He finally answered with a softer voice and opened his eyes. “I am ashamed. To think you had to come here and…”

“Fufu~ It’s okay, I’m always here for you. Take your time.”

Itsuki took another deep breath. After that, he forced a smile and nodded his head, so she could release his hand. When she did that, Shu directed his hand at Kagehira and snapped his fingers, summoning the fragments again. With a gesture, he encouraged both of us to take a look at them.

"I will not repeat myself, so I suggest you to listen carefully if you want to understand your case, Observer. I will try to avoid details to make your life easier." He directed his words at me.

Without waiting for an answer, he started.

"The soul of a living creatures consist of many parts, but only one is considered the most important. It's the core, which contains the basic informations about the character of a individual entity. One cannot live peacefully if the core is damaged, obviously."

While Shu was saying that, he waved his hand few times, making two fragments burst with energy - the first one was flashing in dark-green colours, and the second one, which we saw before, in pale yellow.

"Naturally, it should be impossible for two souls to live in a such relationship as you did. If those were just switching out the consciousness, I would simply divide them without any harm. The problem is that right now, both are active and mixed together…"

Shu shook his head with a disgusted face.

"What an absurd. I have never seen something like that. Do you have any idea how hard was it for me to distinguish who was trying to tell me the whole story? Your characters have mixed into a monster that made my head hurt on the entire new level."

Well… I did feel like something is blocking me from taking the lead. So that was simply a core of Kagehira’s mind, huh?

"Exactly. And, to make it even more abstract, your mind has started waking up only recently, after visiting Sakuma’s residence. If not that, my job would be easier."

Ouch. Forgive me, but I have no idea why would I suddenly start waking up there of all places… I’m pretty sure that’s not a place I’d like to live.

Before I could continue my thought, Shu raised his hand.

"I believe this as well," He agreed and raised his eyebrow. "That means the dungeons were the place you have lost your life. Even if there were your memories, you wouldn’t be able to recognise it, since Kagehira’s mind was blocking your own. However!"

He suddenly livened up and chased away the fragments gathered around him.

"There is a positive thing about you, because you can build it from the very beginning," He announced with a strange smile on his face. "Souls like you are not limited as most of living creatures, as well as other ghosts which still remember their miserable lives! Unlike us, you are free from mistakes and tremendously bad memories, you can become anyone you want, the rules will not bend you anymore! Ah, how many years passed since I’ve met such a case?"

His smile disappeared as quickly as it showed. Itsuki furrowed his eyebrows and waved his hand again.

"Honestly, what a waste. If you were not an uninvited guest messing in Kagehira’s head, it would be a pleasure to work with you."

The more he said, the less I understood. If that’s supposed to be the basics, then it’s better not to ask how big the whole topic is… But that’s maybe harder because I couldn’t get out of shock. Sometimes you really wonder if being normal wouldn’t be nicer, huh…

The thing is, that’s not the case. Shu said it by himself, even if it was the unnecessarily complicated version.

Poor Kagehira. Sorry for getting you into that trouble, you already had a lot on your head. If there’s any way to pay him back, I’d like to.

"So many things already need my attention, so I’d like you to shut up and let me work on it as I want to," Shu literally answered me before I even asked him to. "That’s the best pay off. Leave me alone."

So I’m stuck here.

He nodded his head and sent Mademouselle a glare. At first, she looked at him surprised, but after few seconds she already know what to do.

"Ah, I’ll take care of you. This way, please!" She encouraged me with a gesture of her hand to follow her, so I did it.

 

We decided to go back to the main room, so Shu could take his time on his own. Yep, it was the same one I’ve seen him for the first time – having enough time to look around, I really believe this place looked a lot like the library where the magicians live, though it wasn’t as big and luxurious. This place was more comfortable and cozy, where one person could escape from the world and hide without too many guests. The forest itself doesn't look friendly, so the location was perfect.

We didn’t talk too much with Mademoiselle at first. When asked about the potions and books laying in the room, she said that most of it belonged to Natsume. There was a big chance he might take it back to his main hideout, since he was still wandering around. I tried to catch one of the books out of curiosity, but nobody would be able to touch anything if they were a ghost, sadly. Mademoiselle laughed, because she believed there is nothing interesting in those books. She even took one of these she already opened before and showed me the content of it, and she was right. The book was filled with receipts for strange potions, so we had to give up.

Soon enough, she excused me and left for a few minutes, giving me time to think about the whole situation, but… To be honest, there wasn’t too much to think about. Itsuki was nice enough to shed some light on everything about both Kagehira’s and mine state of mind, but it was still quite messy.

And, to be honest, I didn’t want to bother him too much. The cold is hitting me whenever he’s looking at me.

I wouldn’t mind learning about myself, this world, its rules and everything else from, for example, books – because hell, even I’m getting irritated about how much questions I still have – but I can’t even touch them. The notes Shinkai gave us would be useful, but at this point, I’m sure Shu’s the one to had them.

Ah… That’s bad. My feelings are still so mixed. My mind is in ruin.

"Are you okay?"

I almost jumped. Mademoiselle came back quicker than I anticipated, her smile still so soft and friendly it made me want to do the same in return. I’m not sure how should I respond, though.

"Ah, before that," She started and put her fist to mouth. "I believe you should start talking normally. You can do it, Shu told me you did answer him once before. It might sound funny, but you’re not doing it properly, and not everyone will hear you. Just think about talking, as if you had a body."

"Uh… Like this?"

Learning how to behave like a human. No surprises people hate me for being a little baby.

Mademoiselle ignored my comment and clapped her hands.

"Yup, exactly!" She giggled. "Don’t be mad at yourself, most souls are confused when they have to learn how to interact outside the realm of the dead. You just have to work, work~ And everything will be good."

"I’m pretty sure most people wouldn’t be as willing to teach something like this as you… Mademoiselle? Can I call you this, or…?"

"It’s fine, it’s fine!" The girl clapped her hands again, but soon after, she raised her eyebrow. "Though, we need to find a title for you. It’s rude to call someone “a soul” or “that thing”, so… And you still don’t remember your name."

Yes, that’s right. And it makes me feel even more miserable.

"Itsuki called me an Observer before," I remembered and brought it immediately. "It’s still quite neutral, so it might work, unless there is a bigger meaning in that title."

"No… I don’t think so. Let’s hope you’ll remember soon, okay? Do your best!"

Yes, I wish it was that easy. Sorry for being pessimistic, but I’ve already spent a lot of time messing around and wasting time, so now I feel like a little dumb ghost.

Her smile disappeared from her face, replaced by visible concern. She came closer and reached with her hand, as if she wanted to give a gentle pat on my head.

"You’ll be okay," She said with a soft voice. "You’re not the only one who was left in this world alone… That’s why we take care of kids like you. Shu might look cold and unfriendly, but deep inside, he’s a good person."

The doll made a small pause here and moved towards another book, located on a table in front of us. She opened it and grabbed something to write.

"If the situation wasn’t that bad, I’m sure you’d receive a warmer welcome, but now, with Mika’s state, Shu is really stressed, so… Please, forgive him for being cold."

Her voice was really convincing, but it still didn’t mean I could simply nod my head and believe it. I don’t know that man, sorry.

Mademoiselle sighed and stopped writing.

"I do understand. That’s why I want to help you, right?" She still stayed optimistic and closed the book with a big smile on her face. "Since you want to learn about rules, I will be pleased to give you a hand, so get ready for your lessons!"

I opened my mouth, but I couldn’t even say anything, stunned by her generosity. She tried her best not to laugh after seeing it, but soon enough, she bursted out laughing.

Ah, there is a bit of hope. Use any opportunity you can, be nice, don’t ask too many questions, and everything will soon get better.

Yes, that’s right. While I lost time unable to do anything, now it’s time to come back. There is still enough room for growth. Even Itsuki said that… I can become whoever I want.

Because I’m not chained by the rules which applies to most of living people.

Learning how to utilize it, and what those rules are… That sounds like a good start. As they say, learn the rules, so you can break them...? Or something like that.

"I wonder, where should we start…?" Mademoiselle looked at the book again, putting her hand to the mouth again, as if she didn’t hear my little determination monologue.

"Maybe start making sure everyone here stays aliVE."

Both of us immediately glanced at the direction the voice came from.

Natsume, as always, had a great time to come out, carrying a small box in his hand. Mademoiselle blinked few times confused, but at some point she understood what he was talking about.

"I shouldn’t get too close before Shu’ll make sure it’s safe…"

"Then ask hIM. Considering he’s busy working on Kagehira’s mind, it wouldn’t be surprising if he forgot about his own hostaGE," Natsume shrugged. "If he wanted to kill that knight, he had a chanCE. Don’t let him die yET."

Without even watching her actions, his attention went on me right after he said that.

"Since you’re so eager to leaRN… Care for a little walk, ObservER? It’ll take time until that Crow will wake up, so let us enjoy the small break while you still have IT."

Chapter Text

Natsume didn’t want to waste more time – when Mademoiselle left us, he suggested to follow him and leave the hideout for a bit. He was surprisingly sure that the soul, which still couldn’t remember its own name, won’t try to run away.

Well, he had a point. It was technically impossible. But considering how much they used to hide even the smallest hints, it was something new.

There was also another thing that caught my attention – when Natsume left the main hall, he suddenly stopped rushing, going through the chaotic corridors. He used all that time to point out the path one should follow to go back safely and mentioned the traps he made for the uninvited guests in the past, suggesting how to avoid them. Of course, since I didn’t have a body, those were nothing to me… But it’s good to know these are a thing, to be honest. It was a valuable hint. Judging from his words, those were supposed to be quite… Unpleasant, to say the least.

The alchemist stayed quiet after the short monologue, even when his foot finally stepped on the ground outside. He went to the exit, still protected by the branches, and started poking with his hand in the bushes. To my surprise, there was a crystal in his hand when he pulled back, looking almost exactly the same as the one he used before to open the path. Natsume used the energy accumulated in it to do it again in the same way.

„So you’re not even hiding it, huh?” I asked, looking at his actions.

„You’ve already seen it, so I believe that’s not a probLEM,” He shrugged and hide the crystal in one of his pockets. „Besides, you need that crystal to open it. With those cute ghost hands of yours, it’s literally impossiblE.”

Yep, he’s right. Thanks for reminding, I really needed that the most.

„Don’t worry, it was the last one I hid between the leaves, so even if you managed to find some friends, they won’t be any heLP~”

God, Natsume. You really know how to make someone feel better.

„Don’t be surprised I reacted this way. You used to hide everything in front of me, and now you’re showing me the pass like nothing.”

„Hmm, someone sure doesn’t waste all their tiME,” His smirk, which stayed on his face from the very beginning, started getting even more wide as he tried to cover it, but failed miserably. „You’re right, thouGH. Before Shu learned who you are, he was obsessed about getting ready for everythiNG. Thanks to that he stopped nagging me about my genius idea of sending Kagehira to the Harbor back thEN.”

Well, you’re welcome… That surely was a great idea! Not like there is at least one person who paid the highest price because of it. Not only that, now we don’t even what in reality happened there and honestly, it rugged me the wrong way.

His smirk weakened for a second, but he didn’t answer my thoughts. Sasakaki stopped in front of one of the trees few minutes after we left the hideout and focused his mind on the magic flow around. After that, he found a spot hidden between the bushes and gathered a plant.

„So?” After a bit of silence, he gazed at me with a curious look. „How do you feel now, when you can finally move without the Crow’s heLP?”

„Huh… To be fairly honest, something is still keeping me from full freedom…” I answered honestly while I watched the alchemist gathering more plants without looking at them that much. „I guess that’s because Itsuki is still working on it.”

„Yeah, that might be the caSE. You start wondering if a more ordinary life wouldn’t be bettER.”

„I guess. Sorry, I’m pretty sure dying wasn’t the part of my plan while I was still alive. Something definitely went horribly wrong.”

I wish I know what exactly, and why. This is going to be the first thing I have to check out.

Natsume didn’t respond and continued gathering the herbs, sending me a gaze from time to time, as if we waited for me to say something. During this time, while still staying close to him, I looked around, checking everything I saw. This forest was giving me a chill for some reason.

„Maybe because it does have a specific aura surrounding IT,” The alchemist noticed my moves and came closer. „It can even disrupt the magic, causing it to go nuts or stop working like nothiNG.”

„You sure do know a lot.”

„I do, that’s my jOB~”

„I get the feeling you even know more about the whole situation than you want everyone to believe.”

It’s been on my head from the very first meeting with him. Whenever something wasn’t progressing as it should, Sakasaki would pop out from nowhere and guide both me and Kagehira on the proper track back, giving us one more try to get the best possible ending. Even now, he gave Mademoiselle another priority so I could join him.

„Hmm. I havé̓̇҉̟̟ ̱̹̺̲̹͘nͪ̎̈́҉̠͚͖͈o̵͉͍̤̙͔ ̭̦͕̻̲̟̉ͯì̵͔̱̜ͩ͐ͨ̊ḍ̙̄̒̊ͤͪ͒͡e̻̿͜a͂ͩ́ͭ̿̊͏̖̮̬ ̢̪͌̅̃̐ͩ̾ŵ̩̩͈̒͒h͒̊ͣa̴ẗ̤̖̙̙ ̝̦̓ͮ͞y͎̩̮̘̱ͅo̰̟̲̥̞͚̞̐͋ͧ͛̋̇̈ữ͚͑'̶̰̟̦̦͈̈r̝̞̱͉̎̃̆ͬ̒̚e̼̖͖̖͕̠͎͂͡ ̹̹̥̫̇̂͆̇ͥ̂̕t̛̹̃ͯ̏͆ͮa̙̳ͭ͛̇l̺̖ͯ́͘k̳͙̦̠i̤̩̓̂n̹̯̺̹͉͓̒ͫ͛͗g̞̤͕̓̽ͣͬ͛̎ ̓҉̟͙̘̻̙̤a̗ͨ̈́̿͡b̄͜o̞͎̫̳ͮ̎ͮͨͭu͕̞̺̱͓̓ͤ͌ͩ͒t͙̳̺̘͆͆ͦ͑̋-


!!!!!

For a moment, the entire vision went crazy and I couldn’t say what was going on – both inside me and in the outside world. When I recovered from the initial shock, Natsume was already standing in front of me, his hand covering his mouth.

„That took long time to staRT.”

He said to himself and scratched his chin. After that, he straightened up and smirked again.

„So many questions, the world would be so boring if everything was that eaSY. They say you can’t go wrong if you ask long enough, but we managed to get so many of them this mess is getting out of contrOL. And I… Who knOWS. What would you do if I said I might know your real name?

Wow… Hold up. Tell me your reason why you didn’t tell me my real name yet, I’m listening.

„The cores of Observers is a reasON. Unlike most of us, it’s empTY… That’s why you can build an entirely new persona if you waNT,” He answered immediately and shook his head. „If my data are wrong, I might not only destroy Shu’s work, but also your being as weLL. Don’t be surprised I’m avoiding thAT.”

I do remember Itsuki talking about it – he livened up a lot when he mentioned that possibility.

„Wait a minute,” I sent Sakasaki a suspicious look as something in his statement caught my attention. „The Observers?"

„Didn’t he tell you why exactly he decided to call you this wAY?” Now he was the surprised one as he almost dropped the herbs he managed to gather. „You’re not the only one who lost memoriES. The Observers is a term you use when you meet a soul with an empty coRE.”

„Mademoiselle didn’t think it’s that deep.”

„Ah, MademoiselLE. Don’t be surprised, unlike Shu, she also doesn’t know everythiNG. This entire topic about souls and fragments is so big most people prefer to avoid IT,” He sighed hard and started counting all plants to make sure he didn’t lose too much. „Fun fact, even Shinkai is behind the Puppeteer so much he tent to look like a kid trying to pick a fight with a mastER. And besides, the Observers are pretty rare, so she probably forgot about IT. ”

What? That sounds too convenient. But when you start thinking about how the realm of the dead looks like, you can start wondering why people aren’t really interested in that.

„Because dead should be left unbotherED. That’s what people in this country beliEVE.”

His voice went a tone down as he packed all herbs to the bag, so his entire attention went all on me again.

„Besides, the king always wasn’t fond of all mages, alchemists and shamaNS. If you try start the conversation about the souls, magic or the curse, you might get a really bad reactION. Not recommendED.”

Ah yes, the Curse. Another interesting topic that wasn’t touched even once throughout the journey. When my thoughts were focused on it, Natsume started looking around with a worried expression on his face.  

„Well… If you’ll learn about these, you might get into a stage you want to join so mUCH. Maybe you won’t regret it immediateLY.”

He was really enjoying throwing so many clues without caring too much, forcing me to think hard about connecting all the dots. He knew how irritating it was, yet he didn’t mind throwing me into that labyrinth.

„Fate can be painful, Shu’s decisions – hard to prediCT. So start fighting for yourself while you still cAN. If there’s something I can tell yoU…”

Natsume put a finger to his lips and smiled mysteriously.

Your existence is hard to detection when you fully mute your thoughts. Stop commenting and you will become unpredictable. Good look~

 

The time was flowing by and no question has been answered.

Itsuki has spent most of his time in the same room where Mika was – working all days and nights in order to bring his creation back to its full glory. I haven’t felt it that much as before thankfully. My motivation could go down a lot and my vision was blurring from time to time, the noise so sudden I got terrified. Shu told me later that it’s normal due to the core that he was working directly on. He tried to be as subtle as he could, but that didn’t mean it’ll be perfect. So I had to get used to it for now.

I stayed most of the time with Mademoiselle and other marionettes, learning about the world we’ve been living in. Just as Natsume said, she tried to avoid the topics I was most interested in, since she didn’t want to mislead me, unless she had books that could cover her. Truth to be told, I wasn’t really happy with that, but I still let her select more overall ones.

Most of the time I’ve spent learning about the Yumenosaki kingdom and the neighboring Empire. I’ve managed to understand the basics which led to these two being on such a bad terms. They didn’t originally shared the borders as there was a small country in between, but that was taken by the Empire. And at first, they didn’t fight too much – they tried to stay on at least neutral terms. It changed when the current Emperor, Tenshouin Eichi, accused Tsukinaga of working with demons and even genocide, which he was able to prove. Hell knows how he managed to gather the evidence.

Not only that, he also mentioned the curse – it was the only time Mademoiselle could tell me something about it. It turned out that the Curse was a very unpredictable disease, which attacked mostly the mind of its victim, taking their memories away and destroying their moral code, bringing them to the condition between life and death. Most of them had the exact same symptoms – they didn’t feel that much pain, the memories were torn apart to the point they couldn’t understand what was going on around them and they could go full on crazy mode. At the end of the Curse, which was is called by people „a fall down”, their eyes are turning into a orange-gold shade, the exact same we saw back in the Harbor. Hence they are called „The Fallen Ones”.

That definitely force you to think.

The rest of the teachings were about the basics stuff like languages or culture. Even the knights were still a mystery, and Mademoiselle decided to avoid the topic again. Besides, she started getting worried about her Master – Itsuki has been neglecting his needs of sleep and eat, so we tried to force him to stop working at least for a bit. I’ve managed to slip into the room once and watch how he was able to work with Kagehira’s core. When he noticed me, he immediately forced me to leave by threatening me. I really didn’t want to die yet, so I ran away.

At some point, he started leaving the room more and more, going to the part of the hideout that was unavailable to me. When I tried, I received a very sinister look from Mika, as his soul joined us for a small talk. So I had to run again.

 

But finally, on that one day, Itsuki came to us so incredibly happy that Mademoiselle wasn’t sure if he really was okay at first.

„Ah, that’s it!” He screamed, walking around the table. „All of us thought it’s impossible, but there it is! The Rules? Hmph! Of course they made those only to stop us from taking all the glory from them!”

Mademoiselle stayed quiet with a soft smile on her face, clearly not sure what his words were supposed to mean at first. Both of us looked at him, patiently waiting when he’ll finally stop and tell us more about that discovery of his.

„Ah yes, let me start from the beginning,” Itsuki noticed our gazes and stopped, clearing his throat before he continued. „I can finally awake Kagehira without any fears, his condition is good enough for it. However, it’s still impossible to fully disconnect your cores.”

I felt a strong hope coming to me just so it could be harshly destroyed.

„I cannot guarantee there won’t be a shock attack, the connections have to be destroyed slowly when both of you are awake. That’s why it will take more time.”

„Is there really so much…?” I asked and shook my head confused. At this point I wasn’t able to hide my disappointment – at least until I saw that all happiness on Itsuki’s face disappeared in a span of a second, giving me a chill.

„Do you really think I’m that type of person who doesn’t care? Non! If it’s my work, it has to be done perfectly!” He waved his hand with a disgust after hearing my comment. „Besides, I won’t risk Kagehira’s life. He had enough.”

So there is really no options but to wait… Not a best way to wake someone’s motivation. The Puppeteer ignored that and suggested that if we want to see it, we should follow him.

Mademoiselle was, of course, all into it. She really wanted to see Mika again. I wasn’t sure if they really wanted me to go, but they insisted.

So both of us followed him.

 

 

„Oshi-san, Mado-nee!”

When we entered the room where Mika was still sleeping in, we heard a familiar voice.

While his body was still laying on the bed, Kagehira’s soul was flowing around in a room. Mademoiselle needed a second to get where is he, but after that, she clapped her hands and came closer to him with a big smile on her face.

„Good morning! You look better than I imagined~”

„Of course. After all it’s Oshi-san who’s takin’ care of me, right?” He answered with a confident tone. „Even if I transcended the realm of the dead, I wouldn’t be afraid.”

„Living in a world without caring about serious things like an idiot must be nice, huh?” Shu sighed and scratched his head. “Sometimes I wish I could just stay ignorant.”

Surprised with his comment, I looked at Mika.

„Wow, that’s rude. Is it okay for you to live with someone who’s like that to you, Kagehira?”

„Nah, he’s not like that unless he’s annoyed~” He laughed it off with an innocent smile. „Believe me, Oshi-san’s a very nice and good person.”

„I don’t remember the last time someone called me nice.”

„Oh, but I fully agree with Mika? You should smile more often!”

Even if Shu wanted to say anything, Mademoiselle came through like nothing and gently patted his shoulder, making him reconsider what to say back.

„I will let myself smile like an idiot for once after we’re leave this excuse of a continent,” He said after a smile and became serious. „Before this… Kagehira, go back to your body. I won’t be able to wake you up if you’ll continue to float around.”

Hearing this words, Kagehira’s soul immediately started disappearing. When there was no trace left, Itsuki put his right hand slightly above Mika’s chest, letting his magic to slowly build up. The core fragment started glowing stronger and stronger, alongside mine. For a mere second, I saw a one string that was connecting both cores.

Everything tu̷̮r̴̟̍n̴̳̍e̷̾ͅd̸̜̏ ̴̭͘b̸̜͌l̷͓̕ǔ̷̘r̴͙͋r̵̘̅y̸͉͒ ̷̩͘e̷̠̓v̵̧̈́e̸̱̚n̷̤͝ ̵̛͜m̵̗̈́o̷͍̒r̷̟͒ḛ̸̑ ̸͔̓t̴͕̽h̷̘͝a̸͙n̵̳̊ ̷̋ͅb̵̝̓ḛ̴f̵̡̍o̷̝͋ re, the n oi se be  i ng so d̶͇̙͊̄͗̄͝i̸͔̮̗̟͈͖͈̠s̶̛̺̠̎͛̽̋̓͑̌ť̶̨̅͊̈́̚Ư̶̮̯͉̟͛̀R̸̨͎͍̞̻̈B̴̤̉̇̆͠Í̷̠̳̩̣̌̑̾͘N̴̢̯̩̞̩̮̜̑̏͘͠G̴̛̖̟͖̳̞̎̏ that I’ve immediately C L O S E D M Y E Y E S. The la st thi ng I saw w as the gOLdEn striNGs, comi ng from the Puppeteer’s f̵͔̫̮̖̊i̷̬͔̤̻͍͚̥̗͒̂̃̇̕n̴̲̫̗̳͛̓͜͝g̸̤̩͕̙̯͎͒͌̈́̒ͅe̵̠͔̗͋̑͒͒̿ř̸͖͎̮̮͚͔͎̺͆̏̊̇͑̓̚s̶̛̖̤̼͊̍̈́̑͜

 

Hear my voice, as the time has come to look at the script. Surrender to my will, and I shall prepare a suitable-

 

After that, everything turned black.

When my vision came back, the first thing that caught my attention was Kagehira’s body slowly getting up, still in a big shock. Itsuki laid his one hand on Mika’s back and grabbed his hand in order to help him, gently pulling him closer to himself. When the Marionette managed to stand up, he started slowly looking around confused, while the Puppeteer watched the effect of his hard work with a critical eye.  He didn't look too happy at first, but I quickly realised he was probably still worried about Kagehira's condition, since his moves were still stiff. After few minutes, Mika finally gazed upon him and blinked.

"...Oshi-san."

His voice was really quiet, so much that I wasn't sure if he didn't say anything after it. Shu didn't answer him as well, waiting for the final outcome of his work. At first, Kagehira tried to free himself from the Puppeteer, but then the life has came back to his eyes - resulting in him literally throwing himself at his master and hugging him with so much force it was a miracle they didn't fall to the ground.

"Wa-!"

"Ah, finally, finally finally!" Mika ignored his objections as he managed to keep the balance for both of them. "I worried so much!  Why have ya disappeared like nothin', ya left me!"

Now Shu was the shocked one, incapable of reaction at first. He just stayed with an empty look, as if he wasn't sure if it was really okay to do the same. After seeing the happiness of a Marionette though, he decided to hug him back.

"'m home, Oshi-san."

"...Welcome back."

A smile appeared on the Puppeteer's face, as he finally could feel the tiredness, as well as relief, coming back after his hard work.

They stayed together in a total silence before Mademoiselle came closer to them visibly amused, seeing as Itsuki was blushing more and more. And Kagehira definitely wasn't even thinking abotu letting go of him.

"For God's sake," Itsuki tried to keep his cool and sent Mika a glare. "Could you finally stop? It’s becoming-"

"Denied."

Mika looked like an offended child, which really took Shu by a complete surprise.

"Last time I did ya literally left me!" He said that with such tone Mademoiselle couldn't stop giggling, seeing as Shu was still completely shocked by a sudden change. "I won't. Not gonna let ya go again. I'll stay at yer side 'till the veery end~"

"Yet it was me who woke you, due to my will and my order-!"

"Not enough!"

Itsuki gritted his teeth and sent Kagehira an ever more dissatisfied look, but that still wasn’t enough to make him lose this entire battle - much to Mademoiselle’s amusement, as she had a really hard time controlling herself. She finally bursted out laughing when the Puppeteer started pinching Mika’s cheeks. That was enough and Mika finally let go of him, clearly even more offended.

Ah, that’s strange. Before that, I feared that man, the aura around him was suffocating. And now, well… I feel like I’m watching a strange type of comedy. The duality of people is amazing.

“Well,” Itsuki was the first one to calm down as he cleared his throat. “We can start planning-”

“Wait a minute, Shu.”

Much to his surprise, now Mademoiselle was the one to stop him from going back to the main topic.

“I’m against that. Be honest with me - have you eaten properly at least? Or slept?” She pointed at the plates, most of them still full of food. “I’m sorry, but we can’t work this way, you’ll collapse. Mika, my dear child, confirm my theory.”

“Yer right, Oshi-san stayed days and nights.”

Shu didn’t even manage to say anything or stop Kahegira from selling him out. And judging from Mademoiselle’s glare, he also wasn’t sure what he should say, so he just watched them.

The shock value is real and it’s just because they care about you. You should be happy, you know?

“Observer’s right!” The doll didn’t hesitate to use my words immediately. “We care a lot. Just as you do when we’re in the bad condition. That’s why it’s really painful when you’re working yourself to death.”

“Mhm, we’re here to help. ‘m here now, so ya can use that time to rest a bit while we’ll take care of defenses an’ stuff.”

Mika turned so serious in no time, what caught attention of all people in this room in an instant.

“Jus’ trust me, kay? As ya used t’ before,” He said that with a warm smile. “If knights are the first t’ step on the stage, ya’ll have t’ be in the best condition as much as we all.”

His voice was so calming it should be enough to work, but…

After saying that, Itsuki’s eyes started jumping across the whole room, as if he didn’t know where to start, where to look, just if a danger suddenly appeared somewhere here. The marionettes were waiting in a complete silence, but he wasn’t able to answer them immediately.

“Don’t you understand our situation yet?!”

He shouted, losing all composure in an instant. Then, he started walking around nervously.

“We have no time for a break, your condition is far away from a stable one!” Itsuki shook his head. “Hell even knows how long we’ll be able to stay here. Have you forgotten, Kagehira? Those people are demons of war, and to make it worse, there is also that goddamn Empire! They bursted into our residence like nothing!”

He continued until he finally lost all the power he had and sat on the bed, hiding his face in his hands, unable to calm down or stop trembling. Mika kneeled in front of him immediately.

“Ah, it’s the end! The end! They will do anything to bring the deadly song, they’ll carry this execution as if that was their second nature! If not them, then the Empire will do anything to-!”

“‘m tellin’ ya t’ calm down, Shu!”

Shu was likely to continue on his hopeless monologue, but when Mika called him by his name, he suddenly stopped, forgetting even how to breathe. The Marionette stayed in a silence, helping him to catch a breath and calm down, while Mademoiselle came closer. One gaze from Mika was enough for her to nod her head, and she slowly left the room.

Without thinking too much, I followed her immediately. Itsuki needed a break.

Chapter Text

Time has passed by quickly after that incident. It seemed like without help or medicines, Shu wasn’t able to calm down on his own, his attack was that serious. Mika had a really bad time - whenever he thought it was getting better, the panic was coming back again. Luckily, at some point, Shu managed to calm down and felt asleep after quite a big dose of mixtures.

And definitely he slept a lot after, while the marionettes took their time to control the whole situation their own, giving orders to other dolls. Kagehira turned out to be better than I initially thought - but he humblingly admitted that he simply remembered how Itsuki was doing it in the past.

Ah, his memories really came back.

Of course, I got a chance to support them as well, Itsuki was doing his best to work on my case as well, it'd be nice if I did something for him, right? Thanks to my lack of body, I was able to scout the forest without worrying about other people being able to notice me. I could go that far, because the Puppeteer managed to weaken the connection enough to let me move farther from Mika, no matter if he was awake or not.

With every hour, maybe even with every day that passed by, I was getting more and more comfortable with it. Living with those people, those creatures, started being something oddly natural for me, as if I was a part of this community, even though we weren't talking that much. They cared more about the Puppeteer’s condition.

It turned into a routine for me, and I̸͓͌ ̴̤̍s̵͉͂ṱ̸̔õ̶̱p̵̪̽p̵̺̈e̵̫͆d̵̙̍ ̶͓͝t̷͕̕h̶̪̀ȉ̴͔ń̷̰k̸̺̕í̴̼ņ̸̈g̷͈̅ ̴̪̄a̷͈͐b̶̺̄ô̷̼ü̸̥t̸̜̔ ̵̖̂i̶̗̇ţ̴̇.̷̹͗

 

When Itsuki finally woke up, he still needed help. Even after all that sleep, he was still pale and weak, all those days he worked stroke back without mercy. To make it worse, he was getting strangely nervous whenever Mika was disappearing from his sight for too long.

‘Is Kagehira safe?’ ‘Is he alive?’ ‘Have they been attacked yet?’ He was asking both me and Mademoiselle with a distant gaze, as if he didn’t know what day it is.

That’s why the Marionette had to stay as close to him as possible. Even Mademoiselle was having a hard time with Shu, what definitely was saddening for her, but she didn't say anything. When asked why, she simply said she stayed long enough with Itsuki to understand him.

After some time, when he got better, Shu tried to contact Natsume. Ironically though, he asked Shu to wait a few minutes, as he had quite a hard time hearing his voice. At first, Itsuki got so mad he almost tried to throw a book into a wall with all force he had, but after giving it a moment to think about, he suddenly calmed down, sat in the front of the table and drank his tea like nothing happened. Mika looked at him curious, wondering why his Master abandoned the idea of teaching the walls with a book he intended to throw, but Itsuki simply said that he’ll see soon enough.

And yeah, after few minutes someone opened the door and entered the room - of course, it was Natsume, who waved his hand quickly, greeting us.

“No matter how many years you’ll spend in this forest, it’s still impossible to get through all that problems with magIC,” He admitted with a quiet voice. Shu raised his eyebrow and suggested him to sit down and catch a breath. “I’m amazed you have no problems with your dolLS.”

“Years of practice in different places. It has to be perfect. Besides, my magic differs a lot from yours,” Shu answered calmly, his eyes focused entirely on Natsume, as if something caught his attention immediately. He alchemist leaned back instinctively. “Your life energy has significantly weakened, that’s not normal-”

“With all respect, you’re the last person I want to hear about it, old mAN.”

Itsuki narrowed his eyes and a quick “hmph!” escaped his mouth, but other than that, he didn't react too much after Sakasaki’s words. Ironically, Kagehira, standing a bit farther, looked way more offended than his Master.

“I know you love that kind of talk, but I’m sure there are more important things to discuss. What’s the current situation?”

A smile disappeared from Natsume’s face as he straightened up and opened a small notebook he had in one of his pockets.

“It’s… Quite complicatED.”

Shu’s hand was reaching for the cup so he could drink the remaining tea he had, but he stopped halfway after hearing those words.

“The Harbor is a mess at this point, and we don't understand what is going on theRE,” He started. “Rei suggested Wataru has probably affected on them in some strange wAY.”

“It was impossible t’ think logically in that place from t’ beginning, that’s nothin’ new.” Kagehira joined the conversation, earning a gaze from Natsume.

“Of course, tell us about IT,” He smirked. “ You've experienced this first-hand, am I right?

“...Natsume.”

Just before Kagehira answered him, Shu raised his hand and shook his head unpleased, stopping the Marionette from continuing.

“Kagehira might be an idiot, but he’s not that dumb. I saw everything, there is definitely something wrong in there. It wasn’t fully the Observer’s fault as well.”

Their eyes turned on me.

“After that kid’s murder, both Shinkai and the guards became easily irritatED,” Thankfully, Natsume continued after quite long silence. “It went even worse after another attack, because someone shielded a culprIT. And the victim turned out to be something less human than people believED.”

At first, I was thinking about asking who is the culprit.

But i t d o e s n ' t m a t t e r -

Natsume sent me another gaze and leaned on his chair again, waiting. But nothing happened.

“People are surely aggressive in a place that was supposed to be the safest one in the Kingdom,” Shu shook his head again, surprisingly amused. “What an irony.”

“It's not that easy to calm them doWN. They technically found the culprit, but Shinkai is still stating that he’s innoceNT. The guards are clueless, there is no other evidenCE. Add your dolls and the comedy is reaDY.”

Both Mademoiselle and Mika looked at each other confused, but their Master did their best to keep his poker face for now. Natsume smirked again.

“I thought there were no other dolls, Shu…?” Mademoiselle was the one to ask about it, but Itsuki simply waved his hand.

“I... guess there was another one. What a shame.”

“Oh, so you’re suddenly sO-”

“Natsume. What type of game you’re trying to play right now?”

Both the alchemist and the Puppeteer sent each other a suspicious gaze, as if they were playing some sort of game known only to them, leaving all three of us way behind.

“Ah, I don’t, stop worrying about thAT,,” Sakasaki leaned his chin on his hands, his eyes still focused on Itsuki. “I’m just saying that every little detail will make people there aggressiVE. Unless you don’t mind sneaking on the ship sent by the North, the road will get hardER.”

“...Wait. Northern people really are here, in Yumenosaki? You have to be kidding me.”

“Yeah, they are,” Mika found another opportunity to join the conversation again. “I saw it, Isara even identified it immediately. Told ya a lot has changed since yer last trip.”

“If you have a possibility to hear what’s going in the Empire, a lot of changes are getting more and more cleAR. It’s thanks to thEM.”

Shu’s hand visibly flinched when the Empire has been brought by. He closed his eyes for a second and took a breath, while Natsume was waiting for an opportunity to continue the topic.

His eyes locked again on me.

...Maybe he’s not waiting for Shu at all.

However, it was him who sighed and asked the alchemist to focus on the right topic.

“Yes, yes, of courSE. As I said, the EmpiRE. Rei was able to look here and there - and looks like they changed their prioritiES,” Natsume straightened up again. “The King is still the worst nightmare to them, but you’re a close seconD. To make it even funnier, they know everything about Kagehira as weLL.”

Mika pointed at himself with a finger and blinked, completely surprised by the claim the alchemist made. After all, he managed to avoid the Empire, yet somehow they knew about him?

“The Harbor's authorities sold YOU~ Now you’re populAR. Though to be honest, it doesn’t seem like they want to pay them back immediately, unless the doctor has some sort of hidden deals with thEM.”

Shu raised his eyebrow and put the cup, which he picked up literally only few second before, on the table.

“I don’t think so,” He said with a neutral expression. “That man loves his neutrality over everything. If he’ll start working with either of the sides in this war, it will backfire immediately.”

“Everyone these days tries to cheAT. You know something about that .”

Shu clicked his tongue, visibly annoyed with another claim Sakasaki made. They had another moment of silence, while the rest of us just stayed there, like dolls with no intentions of joining again. ...No, wait.

Both Mika and Mademoiselle were watching Natsume. And their gazes differed from the ones they gave him before this entire conversation.

“The knights also are staying as quiet as they cAN. Maybe they finally noticed they lost one of the membeRS?”

Oh, he definitely knew what’s going on.

This stage was getting overwhelmed by the knowledge this fragile alchemist had. And he was enjoying it at its fullest, being able to control it on the palm of his hand.

In front of the Puppeteer, who was getting more and more irritated by that, tapping the surface of the table with his finger. Yet he was still playing along.

“They couldn’t just disappear like nothin’,” Mika noticed how the atmosphere between Shu and Natsume changed, so he decided to take part of it again, laying his body on the chair standing in front of him.

“Can’t say for suRE. One of them is missing because of you, but there is anothER person who just… Went somewheRE. And I’m not talking about their KiNG. My last clue was the town nearby the place where you knocked Narukami doWN.”

“They can be defeated. As long as they don’ try t’ lure us into a trap.”

The change is Kagehira’s voice was obvious, he sounded so confident right now it caused Natsume to smirk at him again. He tried to cover it with his hand, though.

“Yeah, you’ve managed to defeat only one of them in a weakened conditiON. Good job to yOU.”

The tapping was getting louder. Natsume rolled his eyes and stopped himself from commenting too much.

“There is a high change they are working in a group agaIN. Without a proper work, they’ll corner you in no tiME.”

“You have a damned magician capable of using the portals!” Shu finally let himself hit the table with his fist, showing all the annoyance he tried to hide. “Can’t you do something?”

“Aoba has never seen the North, neither have I. We can fool them by throwing you across the continent few times before letting you run away with that shIP. We have to improviSE. Sorry we can’t do better than thAT.”

The more he was saying, the more obvious it was he was getting slightly nervous as well, seeing that the Puppeteer has already lost his patience. Natsume’s hands were slightly trembling, but he was trying his best to hide it. His eyes locked on me again.

In the same time, Shu crossed his arms and closed his eyes, giving himself enough time to think.

“Scout on the surface,” He ordered without hesitation with a low voice. “We will leave this place as soon as we can. Give Us time to change the plans, I’ll contact you by myself after everything will be done.”

While he was saying that, I’ve already moved towards the exit.

“...Looking at your stubbornness few days ago, you’re surprisingly quiet toDAY.”

Of course, it was Natsume. He finally lost his patience and talked to me directly.

“Ah, he’s still mixed, isn’t he?” Mademoiselle jumped immediately between us like some sort of my guardian, smiling innocently.

Sakasaki rolled his eyes dissatisfied.

“I thought he was going to leave soON.”

“Nobody said he’s not allowed to,” The Puppeteer didn't even look at us, but joined this quick conversation immediately. “If he wants to stay though, he’s welcomed here. The most annoying people has turned so quiet lately… Maybe this forest is good for them.”

“HUH. Does that knight finally stopped fighting with yOU?”

“We talked a bit.”

An unpleasant smile appeared on Shu’s face.

“Now it’s not that bad to look at him. Just laying there, like a pretty doll… All of those warriors are incredibly gorgeous outside. I wish I could say the same about the inside of their souls.”

Natsume blinked few times with an open mouth, speechless. It took him a second to collect himself.

“So be IT. Bo honestly, Observer - I’m disappointED.”

 

Soon after the conversation, the alchemist has decided to leave the hideout, visibly discouraged after what he heard there. The rest, on the other hand, easily jumped to the more important topics covering their plans. At first I thought I'll stay with them, but Itsuki one more time asked for a proper scout outside.

A̵n̵d̶ ̷I̴,̷ ̶w̵i̴t̶h̵o̵u̸t̵ ̴t̸h̴i̴n̶k̷i̶n̴g̶,̴ ̷e̴x̶e̵c̸u̴t̴e̷d̴ ̸t̸h̶e̴ ̷o̵r̸d̵e̶r̴.̸

Natsume definitely was right that I've lost most of the stubbornness I had before, and honestly, I couldn't tell why. And if I really wanted to change it, I didn't bother me that much. My mind was getting lighter the less I worried about anything that was happening around me. This whole awakening and wandering around Yumenosaki without any clue about my existence was tiresome...

Only when I moved away from the hideout, my mind turned a bit more free, letting me think about more things at ease while I walked between the trees, listening to the relaxing voices of this forest's spirits - which where still supposed to exist. After all, there is a lot of stories about th̵i̴s̸ ̵p̷l̸a̵c̷e̷. Mademoiselle once told me that this forest used to be important for the Empire. Both mages and alchemists loved it due to the presence of rare plants they needed in their work. No only that, it was one of few places nearby where you could find a very rare energy called Lirium - a magic energy, especially loved in the North, which is used in their latest technology. When the Empire managed to get their hands on these after forging a contract with them, they started utilising as many as they could. Without the strongest energy, this forest started dying, as the ecosystem of this place couldn't work properly without it.

Now not many people wanted to stroll here, since it was pointless. Unless you were lucky enough, you couldn't get your hands on anything. As Natsume said, the magic was getting out of control here - it is said it's a punishment from the spirits living in here, and unless they decided to give you a helping hand, you might even get stuck here. Thankfully, they liked both me and the Puppeteer.

Ah, the time was flowing by so quickly in here. I wonder, how much time has passed since we got here. A day? Two? A week? A month?

Maybe I'm thinking too much.

Luckily, this day was calm as always, while I was taking my time. Even Natsume was nowhere to found.

"Really? Do you really enjoy your life that much?”

...Huh?

I didn’t recognise this voice. At first I thought it belonged to the spirits of the forest, but no, that's not the case. It's not Shu's voice either.

"Have you really decided to close your eyes, Observer? Yet you were so sure no fate will stop you back then."

Another person is suggesting that.

Something is really starting to d I s t u r b me. Someone was here. Shouldn't I inform the Puppeteer about that?

"Ah, I see. So you surrendered your will to him. I guess this is the most typical scenario I could ask for. Boring. I’m disappointed."

...This voice.

So unknown, yet so familiar. Tell me who you are - no, show yourself! There has to be reason why you're following me. Do we share a relationship, or do you simply want to use me? Here, come to me. And show your face.

...B̴̨͉̺̝̘̫̻̔̋̇͛̏ú̵̲̖͋͂̕t̶͉̯͓͎̖̪̱̄͘ ̵̲̥̙̫͙̜͍̲̌́̈̏͂͌͋͝n̷̘̰̘̞̣̟͗̽̿ȏ̷̺͉̟b̵̳̆̂̍̾ó̸̰̩̳͚͔͗̈́̇d̶͙̥̝̣͕͓̹͆͋̔͗͘y̴͔̍͛̈́̏̚ ̸̮͓͇̗̬͌̈́̆́̆͒́ć̶̮͆͗̾̂͝͝͝ā̴̙̠̯̯̍̍̕m̵̞̾ę̴͉͙̦̝͍̦̹̋̋̈̔̒̚.̴̰̳͛̿̀͘͘͝ͅ

 

Whoever this person is, they're really enjoying the situation, watching me from the safe distance. I wish I could get hold of that person's sleeve and force to tell me the truth, since it's not the first time when I feel someone's breath on my neck.

Even though I can't explain that feeling.

Before I noticed, I was running ahead, looking for the smallest anomaly around me which could help me identify the person or at least something connected to them. My anxiety was getting worse and worse as well as the noise again, some force trying to stop me from going any further. Ignoring that resulted in a pain, but I was as stubborn as I could. Why the hell am I letting myself be controlled by someone I've never seen before?

"If the Puppeteer's influence is that strong, your journey will end soon."    

Get out! Everyone here really enjoy manipulating other people without telling them nothing and honestly, it's getting on my nerves so much I want to kill someone! Even you. Is sitting outside of the game board that funny?

"Oh, aren't we on the same level though? Who are you exactly - an actor, or just an audience? The clock is ticking. If your words were true, you might be able to get those memories you've been fighting for so long and get past that tragic end of yours. Then, we will meet again."

The voice started fading away.

"However, if you lost your will... Begone, listen to the last song and turn into a Marionette useful only to the Puppeteer."

Soon after that, the voice disappeared.

And in front of me, a fragment has appeared, some images reflecting on its surface. I looked at it full of suspicions, wondering if ignoring that wouldn't be wiser. The voice in my head was still trying to force me to go away, saying that’s too dangerous.

But, on the other hand… That voice was saying almost the same, if not more, than Natsume. Thinking about that was waking up some sort of rage inside me.

My hand slowly reached to the fragment. When I was close enough, the crystal exploded and broke into pieces as my core absorbed it.

 

No. No no no no-

Stop it. Stop it!

What is it, what’s that supposed to mean? What are those memories, why are those here, what happened! It’s terrifying, I don’t-!

The noise was taking CONTROL OVER-

JUST AS IF

S O U L

̷̡̝̲͙̗̫̈͑̋̒͒ͅͅI T̵̡̺̞̗̝́̈́̓̍̓̈ ̶̯̹͓̥̱͉̦͂̏̒̑̒̆̀̚‘̵̛̞̳̳͚͚̯͎̽̀̌̎̕ͅ ̵͔͙͔̬͔̊͐̈́S̷̼͍̣̹̔͝ ̵̪̺͔͛̀̆̉̾͆́͊ ̶̠̂͂̈́͋̆̒̇̽L̶̫̘͔̦̘͚̼̃́̅́̓͒ ̸̨̭͔͈̺̳͉̇́̀̿Ì̸̞͈̜͕ ̴̛̹̆̄͐͠K̴̢͈͙̺̖̝̟̀̓͋̉̉̒͝͝ ̸͓͔͚̖̆̆̈̎̋͊̈́E̸͓͂̇͒É̴͔̭̍̑̂̚E̴̩̺͇̫̳͆͝͝eE̴̪̹̺̺̽̆͒̈́̾E̷̙̰̎̒̂̾̑̐̍E̵̡̘̮̟̫̖̘͒̈̚͠ͅeE̴̤̣͊̌̽͒͑Ȩ̴̞̺̟͍̽̉̏̏̓̿̿͘͜ͅE̴͇̦̤̙̹̊̈́̀̿̈̈́͝͝eȨ̴̪͔̬͗eeE̷̠̼̿͗̎Ȩ̸̩̥̟͌Ȇ̶̢͇̯͕͇̝̬̰Ě̴̛̝̙͖̩͌͌̏͊͒͝ͅͅeeĚ̵E̷̫̟̰̠̠͆̃̏̐̍̾̓̕ͅÉ̸̗͚͔͇Ë̷̻́̾̒̃̋͋̎eẼ̵̡͓̖͚͖̭̟̉̂̏̌͜E̴͛̉ͅE̷̛͔̬̜͆̀̾̈́͛̅̕E̴͖̹͙͐̐͝Ȅ̶͍̯̫̙́̈͠͝eE̴̢͉̞̻̲͕̎ͅȨ̶̡̩͓̞̐̓͛̌̌̕E̸̛͇͈̦͂̀́̈̈͜ͅeË̷͇̞̣́Ę̴̻̖̱̤̹͕̦͐̄̕̕͝E̴̡̨̙͔̙͍̥͒͗̐̆̈́̕E̷̟̥̘̦͓͊̍̈́̈́͊̊͝E̸̗͖̖̦̊͑͗͋̓̋̈́̕-̴͖͎̝̎̆͛̾͒͝??????????????


That fragment,

was different from the one I saw in the Harbor.

My core absorbed it and showed the whole scene.

A scene too real and personal to ignore.

It showed a group of adults, which gathered in front of the young boy, fully unaware of their real intentions. One of them approached him and punched his face without hesitation. The boy fell down, shocked. He couldn’t understand what’s going on. His friend, which was the whole time standing next to him, shouted at them when he managed to get what’s happening. The adults, however, fully ignored him, saying it’d be better if he just walked away.

The kid who took the hit was terrified.

After a few minutes, they moved away, pulling the kid on the ground without any mercy, while he was screaming and crying out loud, begging for mercy.

He didn’t do any wrong.

He simply wanted to help.

The creatures he met weren’t as bad as everyone told him.

But they ignored him. His voice couldn't reach them.

The last thing he saw was the entrance to the dungeons. After that, they hit him again, and he lost his consciousness.

But that wasn’t the most terrifying thing in all of that. It was his voice, similar to mine.

No - I’m sure it was my voice.

The shock was real. I said I was forced to watch it, but now I'm sure it was even worse - it was too real. As if that just happened. And here I was, screaming, trying to calm down after seeing it. I still couldn’t understand why this fragment has appeared here, it this very moment. My intuition told me that voice was definitely connected to it, and I couldn’t force myself into thinking it was faked. Even that entrance looked the same as the one Kagehira used before to go down, nearby that dead village. Not only that, Shu himself said that my core has awakened due to the fact I died there.

Another part of the puzzle has arrived and I was just sitting here, smiling like an idiot with my eyes closed. I should fight for myself, just as Natsume said.

But how in the hell can I reach the dungeons again?

The road back to the hideout turned out to be way harder than before, as my head was still damn heavy after that crazy ride. Not only that, I started getting more nervous, thinking about the Puppeteer. If that voice was right, then hell only know how he will react after noticing I’m no longer playing the dumb. I was hard to predict his actions.

Again, just as Natsume said.

That alchemist… He really knows what he’s talking about. He’s definitely planning something. Just thinking about him reminded me about one other thing he suggested.

“Stop commenting and you will become unpredictable.”

Ah. There is a way. If I play it cool, I might be able to get somewhere.

Let’s try it.

Chapter Text

...

It's working.

After I entered the hideout, I moved slowly in a complete silence, trying my best to avoid both Kagehira and Itsuki, just in case. I've managed to keep it easy until I saw Mika, who was going back to the main room. Luckily, he didn't notice me.

But that meant one thing - Itsuki wasn't the only one who could go to that part of the hideout, and I had to say I've got quite interested in that regard. The quick conversation between him and Mademoiselle invoked that even more. They've been talking about Narukami, saying that her core got fired up whenever she saw Kagehira - suggesting he should really stay away from her unless Shu will say otherwise.

No matter what was going on between the Puppeteer and her, it was something serious. So serious that whenever knights topic are brought to the talk, Itsuki is getting nervous immediately.

But Narukami, huh... It's naive to think I'll be able to find her without any problems, hoping she'll shed some light on their affairs. But we can't ignore the fact knights themselves are a really hot topic and even the smallest hint about them might be a big clue in this entire so called “mystery”. I have to investigate this place, so let's keep him in mind.

Of course, it was dangerous as hell. The words from that person in the forest were still fresh in my head, reminding that if those were true, I've already lost this war. The Puppeteer was quite a mysterious person who tried everything to hide real facts from the very beginning, and I wasn't the only one who saw it. His conversation with the alchemist proved it even more.

If you want to know something, get ready for a tough battle.

Was it worth the fight, that truth I'm seeking so dearly? I've already died. But that didn't mean I want to lost my chance again.

But living in the dark, when you finally grab a piece of your previous life - that doesn't just feel right. Kagehira might be the type who doesn't mind, but I'm not him. Hell if that truth is really painful, I need to know. I'm not going to wear a mask of someone else, I'll destroy that delusion and find myself.

...That's why there is no going back. Whatever is beyond that doors, it is time to find it.

Using my lack of psychical body, I passed through the door and the corridor that appeared behind them. There was not too much to pass through like other doors after, but I still walked carefully.

...

Thank God, I haven't found other marionettes here yet.

I stopped in front of the door I've managed to find after a bit of time, though I was really afraid to pass them. I took my time to listen and look around myself. If I had a working heart, it would be beating so quick... Well, even without it I could tell my anxiety was building up like crazy.

I took another breath.

Just before I decided to enter the room, I heard a very weak voice from the other side, so I stopped, even more terrified.

My hands tightened on my chest while I listened.

...

But it was only a single sound.

I was still hesitant over going there, but then I heard a sound coming from behind me, sounding a lot like steps, so I panicked and quickly jumped to the room.

But, to be honest... I wasn't fully prepared to see this.

This room, compared to the cozy ones I've seen before in this hideout, looked straight up like some sort of prison. Cold, dirty, without an decorations, filled with boxes full of something I didn't really want to investigate - hell, wasn't that a hand coming out from one of them? I freaked out when I saw it, and the old blood around it was enough to scare me of.

And, between all of it, I found Narukami’s body, her back leaning against the wall.

Without even thinking, I rushed towards her, checking out if xhe was still alive. At first, I really doubted it - there was no life in her eyes, she was staring at the floor in front of her.   

Just like a lifeless doll.

But then I saw that other than the wound she received from Kagehira before, her body was free from any other traces of violence. Since it was hard to see any form of life, I focused on her the same way Shu did before on Kagehira, hoping I'll be able to sense her core. I was able to feel a very weak energy after few trials, so I focused even harder - so it was slowly turning stronger, forming itself to the form of a purple-shaded core.

Arashi was still alive... Or at least her soul was still here.

But her body remained stiff.

I did my best to wake her up through the core, still repeating the steps I saw before, calling her name with a soft voice.

"Narukami, please... I won't hurt you."

The fragment lightened up a bit, but there was no response. I've repeated the same sentence few times, trying everything I could to catch her attention. At some point, I saw that the fingers of her right hand moved, her eyes trying to locate the source of my voice.

"I'm not sure if you can see me," I said immediately when I noticed his moves. "I'm in front of you. Can you hear me?"

"I do. It's hard, but I do..."

Her lips weren't moving, so the voice was coming right from the core. I needed to focus like crazy to hear it. I'm sure she tried to say something while I worked on the connection, but when I asked her to repeat, she stayed quiet. It took me few minutes to make sure everything's working. I was really shocked.

Ah, it's not that easy as Shu made it look. But that doesn't change one thing - I really found her.

"Leave," Just when I stabilised the connection, Narukami already lost her interest. "If your dear Master wants to talk with me that badly, tell him to come here in person."

"Believe me or not, I wish I weren't here either."

Arashi managed to blink once.

"Huh?" Judging from her voice, she got confused immediately. "Aren't you here because you wanted to?"

"What? No, never! Do I look like I wanted to? Hell, it's a miracle I was able to run from his influences!"

We were both confused as hell after hearing each other statements, but honestly, what did you expect? It is the first time someone ever told me I should be here from my own free will - it sounded like a terrible joke. ...Should it be that way?

This silence was getting on my nerves, I feared the connection has broken - but thankfully, after a few seconds I heard a heavy sigh coming from her core.

"I told them," She said, her voice full of disbelief at first. "He was giving so many red flags long before anything happened! I told them we should watch him closely... Itsuki finally lost it."

Narukami was getting more and more irritated with every word, but her facial expressions haven't changed at all, still remaining neutral.

"He's going to drag all of us to the hell itself, should we let him do whatever he wants. Ah, King, my beloved king... Why have you disappeared now, when we need you so much?"

Arashi said that with a calmer voice, looking at the ceiling. She looked like someone in some sort of trance, as if her mind went somewhere else for a minute.

"Talk to me, honey," She got out of her trance and gazed at me, or at least where she believed I am, trying to use a softer voice than before. "You might be the last friendly person in this damned hell, so I'll appreciate if you want to stay for longer. Sorry I can't offer you a better place for a meeting."

She even managed to smile a bit. Hell, she was still better than I thought.

"To be frankly honest, I didn't think we'll meet at all," I laughed nervously. "Not sure where should I start other than ask a horrible amount of questions - and considering your condition, I don't want to do it."

"Ah, that sounds familiar. Let me guess - everyone speaks with riddles, making you go crazy when you only want to know some kind of truth?"

Wow. Narukami, my lady, we are speaking the same language. This is a miracle.

"Yeah, you can call it that way. How did you know?"

"Nothing new lately," She shrugged subtly. "Honestly, I feel like we discovered new type of hell."

"Is the situation that bad...?"

"What do you think, my dear?"

She gave me a second before she continued, still trying to sound friendly as much as she could.

"Looking at few months back, it's surprising he didn't murder an entire town just to get some souls for that war," Narukami's head slightly moved as she tried to shook it. "That doesn't change the fact he's desperate. Itsuki is now as dangerous to the living ones as to the undead."

"Huh. So he used to stay away from living people?"

"Yeah. He preferred to not break the rules," Narukami nodded her head. "Until now."

It's not the first time somebody is mentioning the rules, so that's getting more interesting. So even both Itsuki and the knights know something about them... Another clue to check out.

But, to be frankly honest, the more I hear about the Puppeteer's abilities and past, the more I'm getting nervous. I'm really going to die if he'll find out.

"Ah, it's bad, it's bad..." I tried to stay calm at least outside my head, but those words escaped my mouth. "I'm digging my own grave..."

"Sorry, honey, that might be the case. But something's not letting me sleep well... How did you end up here?"

There was a hint of real interest mixed with care in the knight's voice, making me more willing to talk with her. And, since she already gave me some knowledge, I felt like it'd be rude if I stayed quiet like a mouse.

"Kagehira," I answered shortly after a while. "Because of-"

"Wow, stop. It's impossible."

Her sudden reaction surprised me.

"It's impossible," She repeated. "Kagehira died months ago. If you were brought by him, I would know about that."

Excuse me?

Wait, what is she talking about, that Marionette and I spent quite a long time together outside. There is no way months has passed after he came here, so...?

Arashi definitely noticed that I got so confused after her statement, and tried to call me to make sure I'm still here.

"I'm not lying, nor I'm confused. Even before we started hunting Shu, Mika was already dead," She continued slowly. "Unless you're talking about that disgusting thing Itsuki dares to call with his name, believing that he managed to 'rescue' him?"

That's... Hard to say anything against it. She knew something I've never had a chance to check or anything. Besides, when I thought about it properly, I remembered that Narukami wasn't the only one who believed that something was wrong with Kagehira's condition.

Heart of a human, body of a Marionette.

So Itsuki really was the reason.

"What the..." I stopped myself from ending this sentence, unable to form a proper sentence. "God, no. Who is that kid?"

"A cute, but slightly too naive student of that "Oshi-san". I wish I know what happened exactly," Narukami's voice got quiet again. "I hate the useless violence, but if I could, I'd definitely cut off a head of that psychopath. Quite the irony we are called the bad guys, huh?"

I think the irony itself hides in the fact you said it seconds after suggesting it would be great to chop Itsuki's head off. But I understand this wish. Kind of.

"Look, it's the Empire who made us look that bad," Arashi somehow knew I've turned silent again and to keep the conversation going, decided to continue. "We're not saint, that would be a straight up lie. But even our King, compared to the Puppeteer, isn't as bad as the Empire wants everyone to think."

"And yet nobody knows the danger this man can bring."

I noticed immediately. God damn it, I knew something is wrong in this story, there had to be a second depth! An innocent Marionette, looking for his Master in a country after the war? Shit, I wish it was that easy! What type of show is that, why the hell I've been forced to be the part of it… 

My voice was probably sounding surprisingly confident, but when I looked at my hands, I've noticed those were shaking. This is crazy.

"I'm not sure what do you know about Yumenosaki, but boy, this is a big storm full of madness. To be honest, I don't get everything myself... Well, I don't have reasons to think about it anymore."

"That's quite the pessimistic way to look at it, don't you think?"

Arashi hissed.

"Well, after all I can do whatever I want to, right?" There was a strong hint of sarcasm in her voice as she tried to pull her right hand up. Needless to say, only her fingers moved. "I can't even control my own body, sweetie. To make it worse, in Puppeteer's eyes I'm nothing more than an experimental rabbit, and gods only know what he wants to do. Since I’m unarmed, he can easily destroy my entire soul, or hell, even worse, turn me into something similar to Mika... How can I be positive?"

Yeah, I... I forgot about control over souls. Ah shit, she's right, she's so damn right, we're nothing more than a piece that can be removed with ease! And here am I, playing the good one, hoping for the best.

"Seems like we are closer to the hell than I believed."

That was the only thing I've managed to say. Narukami answered with a slight nod of her head.

"That's the saddest thing. There are moments when you really want to close your eyes and give up," Her expression changed as she gazed upon the ceiling again, looking as if something suddenly caused some pain inside her. "I... I really wanted to do something properly for once. But so many things happened at once, and too many people I used to love forgot me as if all those years never happened. It's too much for my heart."

Her every next word was getting more and more quiet. I started panicking, not able to say if that's because something was really hurting her right now, or if she simply was losing any will to speak any longer.

"I'm tired of this war. There is only one thing that I desire - those beautiful times, where everyone lived peacefully, minding their own business... I wish there was a way to turn back time."

"You're not the only one, but..." I smiled weakly. "I do understand that wish."

Forgetting.

Living in a dark.

It hits home more than it should.

"You have a sweet voice, darling. I feel like I've heard it before."

I blinked, not expecting this type of comment.

"Sorry, I've started talking nonsense," Arashi tried to brush it of with a smile. "Thank for keeping me company for that long."

"Damn it, Narukami! There has to be a better ending for you!"

"I wish there was... It would be nice if a knight on a white horse could rescue me. But in this world, there is no love anymore. Only chaos remained."

Her voice was so quiet it was a miracle I could still hear it. I was fairly sure that was the last words, so I started literally flying around her, still trying to keep her in this room - at least until I thought about it and stopped.

Maybe... Maybe I was the cruel one for giving her any type of hope and keeping her awake. When you want to hope for a better future, it becomes even more painful when it's getting out of your reach.

"I'm not sure how is this working, but..."

Just when I started believing I should leave, I heard Narukami's voice, so I turned to look at her. Her gaze was locked on one of the boxes nearby, where a half-destroyed hand was sticking out.

"I once heard those bodies are using the lirium energy to keep them working after a soul possess them. At least try to get out for both of us, okay?"

Oh, shut up! Your state is way worse than mine, think about yourself...!

Damn it, now I really wish I could help her! She was laying on the floor with a broken connection between the body and mind for only god knows how much time, yet she's still there, giving me even some suggestions how to get out! Screw it if I'm naive, this is what I feel.

Oh, that goddamn-!

"Observer."

Oh.

...

....!

Oh, oh God. I lost my way again, haha... That forest is so confusing even after so much time, I'm so sorry-

"Well. Try better to get back then - there is something important you should know."

 

Of course, I moved as quickly as I could, this time trying my best not to get lost even more. It took me quite a lot of time before I reached the room where Itsuki and the rest could be found. After I entered the room, I immediately noticed that Kagehira was sending me unfavourable look, which contrasted as hell to Mademoiselle, who waved her hand with a soft smile on her face. Their Master was sitting in front of me with a neutral gaze, so it was hard to get what's going on.

Until I made eye contact with him. A very familiar feeling of cold surrounded me. But there was no strings around me which could be the reason, so maybe I was only exaggerating...?

"So?"

My eyebrow went up while I wondered what was going inside his head, but I quickly recovered from the initial confusion.

"Nothing out of ordinary, sir. Is there something you need?"

Shu's eyes narrowed as he gazed upon Mika. The Marionette came closer to him and whispered something to his ear. I'm not sure what was bothering him, but it was making the entire atmosphere is the room way heavier than normal. There was no danger around, right?

"Are you sure, dear?" Mademoiselle moved closer to me, her smile nowhere to seen now. "It took you so much time I was getting worried..."

"Ah, I'm sorry!" I waved my hand, hoping that I'll be able to calm her down. "My head got slightly lighter, so I used the opportunity to cover a bigger terrain than usual... All of you looked really bad after that talk, so I wanted to-"

"Cool. Will ya' kindly shut up for a second?"

I jumped when Kagehira suddenly appeared in front of me, while Mademoiselle stepped back to Shu.

It took me a second to notice those eyes.

I felt like I was looking at fire that could burn me any time.

"Ya really thought I won't notice ya?"

 

Chapter Text

I blinked. 

„Excuse me?”

Our attention was quickly taken by the sound of the tapping finger against a table. We looked at Shu, who was the one making that sound. 

“Interesting, isn’t it? You stayed quiet, making it harder to pinpoint your location. And then, after hearing my voice, you faked as much as you could so I wouldn’t know at first what were the real thoughts... I almost got fooled by that," He sighed." Saddening, really. Such quick knowledge acquisition would make cooperation between us easier.”

…You have to be kidding me. Was it really a bad choice? Only few hours at best has passed by, and they already knew something. Damn it, I was even sure my core wasn’t checked at all!

The crooked smile I noticed on Shu's face gave me a shiver. Something deep inside my head told that I just digged my grave and gave him a real evidence of my “guilt”. 

“Of course. But to be honest, it was just a simple lack of luck that betrayed you.” 

He said that and gazed upon Kagehira, who was now standing a bit farther, leaning his back against the wall with crossed hands. 

Ah. I’m dead, I’m dead… 

“Not so fast. I do have a question.”

There is a big storm coming, and the entire waiting part is terrifying. At some point I believed it would be easier to stay calm - or at least pretend do be calm -  if Shu already lost his patience and started shouting… So I would know how to respond. 

That would give me a proper reason to run away. 

...And he already heard that thought. With a smooth move of his fingers, those cursed, golden strings has appeared and surrounded me, creating a web around. I couldn’t move without touching them with my core, what was causing an enormous pain. He wasn’t attacking me directly yet – he simply made sure I will never leave this place.

“What made you so stubborn, Observer?” 

I’ve started shaking my head, panicking. Other marionettes were gazing at me with smiles on their faces. 

And Shu was still waiting for an answer. 

The fire hidden deeply in my own heart was getting bigger as I was looking at them – panic was giving away to the fury. They were the ones that should answer a way easier question, and that is – why they were trying to force me into helping them and leaving my previous life without telling a thing? The only thing I desired was the truth. I would never oppose them if they simply let me go away and look for my own life without their help. 

But it was you, Itsuki, who closed the gate without mercy. You were the one who said that the connection between the cores required work, yet I have a strong belief that you weren’t really working on it. The more time was passing by, the more Kagehira knew, while my mind was getting blocked. Who do you think is the one that should receive answers? 

The tapping was getting louder and louder, but Shu didn’t answer immediately. 

“Ah, yes. ‘The Truth’,” He repeated slowly, releasing the air slowly from his lungs. "It is the Truth you are looking for so dearly?”

I nodded my head.

In mere seconds, Itsuki got up vigorously and hit the table with a closed fist, what made Mademoiselle even more eager to move away from us.

"Curse that goddamn Truth of yours!"

Not able to hide his anger any longer, he evaded the table and rushed towards me. The strings were following his movements, so I used it to keep a safe distance between us. I've managed to run away to the other end of the room and hide behind the chair. 

"Of course, it's always like that with these souls!" He stopped for a second and sent me a mad glare. "Observers always look for the truth, no matter how many times you will tell them it's nothing more than a pointless fight! Your entire being is focused on the fact that you, and only you, wanted to forget everything that happened because of how tragic it was!"

He scratched his head, still visibly mad. The rest of us were silent. 

"God, if that's not the vicious circle that will continue. And it will, since that crazy man is still producing even more stressed souls. Do I look like someone who has the time and energy to take care of all of them right now?"

You call that ‘taking care of’?! Stop that bullshit, for crying out loud! If you said that in the very goddamn beginning, I would be a different person right now!

I was ready to get everything out of my own heart, no matter how mad will that man be - I'm dead anyway, screw it! He saw that I'm not willing to step back, so he took a second to think, while hiding his face behind his hand and shaking his head with disapproval. 

"Ah, poor soul," Strangely enough, Shu calmed down a bit and said with a sad tone. "There is really no way to help but to put you into eternal sleep. It's either forcing you to wear a fake mask or that. Observers really are the only one on this world that death can take for an eternity. You have no idea how many people wish for a calm death these days."

With a smooth move of his hand, the strings around were filled with energy so bright that even looking at them was painful, as if I was looking right into the sun. But I was still fighting a pointless battle, running away from his influence, even when I was feeling an enormous pain whenever I got closer to the strings. I've been fine until Kagehira got closer to Shu, and one of the string got clO OOOOOO OOOOO OSER-? ? ?   ?

 

I've noticed the small connection between our cores seconds before the Puppeteer's hand reached to it with a string. Just one smooth move was enough to get me out on floor crying.

This pain was impossible to describe. It was like someone was-

T e a r i n g. apart to shreds,

D r i l l i n g. a hole in my stomach,

H i t t i n g . my head with a hammer.

Before he decided to destroy my core, Itsuki one more time looked through my memories. He couldn't for once stop his curiosity what actually went wrong. 

But, to my surprise... When I was sure he's reaching his hand to my core, he actually stepped back, shaking his head in disbelief. His powers significantly weakened, most of the pain was gone for now. 

Both Mademoiselle and Mika couldn't believe their eyes as they rushed towards Shu, who made another step back.

"Why is he there!" 

He didn't use the name of ‘that person’. 

"Sakasaki hasn't said anything about it, the contact with him broke soon after he left! Are you playing against me as well?" 

"O...Oshi-san...?" 

Mika was the one who managed to get closer to him, hoping for some sort of answer. But Shu was still in shock - he just waved his hand, pointing at the exit.

"We're leaving. Now!" 

Something in my memories caused him to lose his cool and cower in fear like an ambushed small animal. It was strong enough that even the punishment for the rebellious soul immediately escaped his head, so I tried to use the situation to get out. 

But since I was panicking and thinking about it, he heard my voice and stopped me thanks to those goddamn strings. And gazed at me with a serious look.

"How tragic." 

His voice was free from the fear and anger he showed just a second ago. 

"I can't even give you a peaceful death."

His hand, once more, reached to the Kagehira's core.

"Farewell, Observer. Soon enough, you will remember my words."

He straightened his fingers and made a move with his hand, just as if he wanted to cut through the air. 

The first time was PAINFUL

THe sEConDF̴̖̳̓̓̓N̶̮̹͌̆W̵̨̛̤̓̈́G̴̘̙͠O̴̘̐̅̕W̷̨͖͍̓Ŗ̶͚̚N̶͍͒̈́̚Ĝ̴̨̼͚W̸̩̕Ọ̷͎̝̃̓̓R̶̭͌Ḅ̷̥̋̐̚G̴͖̯̐O̸͈̗̔̏R̶͎̺̐̈̋I̶̧̤ͅG̶̫͒Ṛ̶͙͑͐G̸̞̩͔̎J̵̣͚̗̄̋G̷͙͎̜̊B̷̬̝̱̎V̷̨̄̌͘J̴͓̓͒B̴̗̳͋̇J̴̼̟̎̚G̴̬̍̚B̴̻͌̎̑G̶̡̡̼̃H̵̟͓̲̽̾̕W̴̥͈̾͗ͅN̵̺̐́K̸͉̘̗̔F̶̮͉̅S̷̯̈́͝D̴͍̀͜͝N̷̡̹̯̓̏G̵̯̲̒̔J̴̮̝͍̈́̒K̵̰͎̈́̈́̇Ḣ̵̨̩̫G̶̫̤̬̓̽͗E̴̖̺͎̒R̴̙͖̃̈́

̵̲͐̕

̵̹͉́͘



.

..

...

 

…?

 

The room was filled with silence.

Nobody was here. 

The first attempt to move was unsuccessful. The entire body was as heavy as a rock.

...

A body…?

 Staying in a complete darkness wasn’t an option, so I had to try to open my eyes. It took time to finally succeed. When I did, I slowly looked around the room, my body still laying on the floor as I was unable to move due to shock. 

I was… Still there. 

Alive. 

But something was wrong. I couldn’t move no matter what I tried to do. And it wasn’t as if someone tied me up or casted a spell – unlike the strings which caused my immobility before, I simply felt a weight in my body. Even the fingers weren’t moving. A strange coldness inside me was making it even more alarming. There was only one pleasant thing in this entire situation – a small ray of hope. A warm energy somewhere inside me, a small fire keeping me alive. I focused on it, wondering if I could somehow affect it with my will. Time was flowing by, the clock was ticking somewhere in the background. 

But at some point, I realized that there is a possibility to direct it in a different part of my body - so I tried with my hand first so I could see how it looks now and why am I feeling this heavy. 

The hand slightly moved in a unnatural way, shaking. The energy was weak, there's no way to make the entire body move at this point. I knocked the floor with my hand and tried to move, still fighting with the energy and the body itself, but that wasn't working at all. So I raised the hand so I could see what in the hell happened with it. 

And I saw a real hand. 

No, real was too much - the sleeve went down, showing a familiar type of joint, the same most of the dolls here had. 

...Wait. 

I'm inside the body of a doll, but without any Itsuki's influence... And he was nowhere around. Pretty strange. 

Something made him to abandon his plan and improvise. No - someone. Hard to say.

While he was messing up my head for real, I have a feeling he said something to Kagehira, but I can't really tell if I remember correctly. But there is no reason for me to think about them any longer. I'm here, alive. My wish has been granted - now I'm the only one who can decide what to do. 

That's why I want to get out. 

The problem is that goddamn body which is not moving!

This energy is too small to power up both of my legs and hands, and the more I use it, the weaker it becomes. Maybe it wasn't freedom, but in fact, agony... 

But I don't want to think about it this way. 

 

With trials and errors, I’ve managed to get up on my knees slowly. One of the joints couldn’t handle the weight though and broke, causing me to lose balance and fall down again. The doors were open, right in front of my eyes. 

I hit the ground with my fist with the last remains of force I had. 

The eyelids started falling down as well, the cold inside my body growing bigger. 

That’s when two little red points in the darkness moved. It reached the entrance to this very room.

Closer. 

Right between the red points, there was something else. It was looking like a crystal filled with some sort of energy. The closer it got to me, the warmer it was. Warm and pleasant, unlike this cold place.  

Some sort of small creature. It stopped in front of my body for a second, before jumping right on my chest. 

This warm energy, which was slowly dying inside me, started getting stronger with every second, making it easier to move. 

“Thanks for buying us enough time.”

...I do believe I heard that voice somewhere. 

My hand moved, which caused the creature to immediately jump out and run away from the room, leaving the crystal on my chest. I slowly got up and caught it. The crystal at first glance wasn’t anything special – it looked a lot like the one Natsume used before to open up the passage. That’s when I noticed a very pale remains of the green-blue energy hidden inside it.

Seems like the passage wasn’t the only thing it worked with. 

Thanks to it, now it was possible to fill the body with the energy, but it didn’t particularly made things easier. This doll was old and rusty – one of the joints in the right leg was half-broken, the other ones also were making quite unnerving sounds, meaning those would eventually break soon. I needed walls to support me while standing up. 

My head was heavy as hell. Not only because of its real weight, but also due to my inner thoughts and worries. 

But at least, I was the only one here. Nobody will try to prevent my own brainstorming. 

I glanced at the book laying on the table, the same Mademoiselle used to note something when we moved here for the first time. Out of simple curiosity, I opened it, wondering what she wrote here – but sadly, the language quickly became a wall impossible to jump through. Well, I tried. She used to note whenever we were talking, so I hoped I would find something interesting. Shinkai’s notes were also nowhere to find. 

I’ve spent enough time listening to others and reading, so it’s finally time to do something fully by myself. 

That is – to leave this place without any regrets. 

 

Moving through the corridors wasn’t easy this time. Using the walls to support my trembling legs, I slowly walked, avoiding all the traps I’ve been able to remember. Thankfully, all joints managed to stay in their respectable places during this walk, even though he sounds those were making were giving a lot of stress. 

Upon reaching the surface, the only thing left was the passage. Remembering Sakasaki’s actions, I tried to make a gesture with the crystal. It didn’t work at first, there was no energy or anything. By the third time, I successfully used it, and the entrance was right in front of me, tempting to run through it and finally enjoy my life. 

 

The forest was calm and silent. Without the guidance of the Puppeteer, this eerie atmosphere wasn’t as pleasant as before. I felt like a small ant in a big world full of giants. There’s no way to not get lost. 

The dungeons were mentioned so many times, yet it is hard to find the way. I don’t even know which country I’m currently in. They did mentioned something about the Empire border… My only option is to improvise and find it myself, no matter how long it will take. 

When you’re in a pinch, you really want someone to give you a helping hand. 

But this time, I’m not asking for it. Last time I did, I almost died. 

I made a step forward. The voices of the spirits recognized a fellow soul. They were nervous and chaotic… Something wasn’t right. 

“All to me…”

My hand moved without my will. 

“The feast has started. Show them the real Art of War.”  

…Itsuki. 

He was still in here. 

And he was pissed.

His voice was getting louder with time as the aura in the forest changed drastically. It was burning with passion, making you willing to go whenever he was and shed the blood from the enemies. 

Yes, kill them! Protect the Puppeteer!

Enjoy the feast! 

In the bush nearby, a doll slowly stood up and moved, even though its body was even more destroyed than the one I was currently using. Even my own legs started walking, while I tried to stop. 

And I stopped when I saw her. 

Mademoiselle was laying on the ground, eyes wide open. Both her head and chest were pierced by arrows. The force was so strong that the material broke showing her insides, reminding what she really was. 

Empty, but beautiful doll. 

Not so far from us, between the trees, I noticed Narukami. Her back was pressed to the tree. She wasn’t really moving, looking the same as when I found her before. Right next to her was a man with a bow in his hand, providing support both for his weak companion, as well to others on the battlefield. He was turned with his back to me, so thankfully he didn’t notice me yet. Besides, both of them were focused on the scene in front of them. 

Itsuki was on the very centre, his left hand drawn towards the person in front of him, breathing heavily. Kagehira was right next to him with his dagger in hand, ready to rush on the enemy. In front of them was a duo as well - a redhead warrior with a long sword, accompanied by a slightly higher person wearing black clothes, barehanded. Both of them had masks on their faces. All around them were other marionettes. Half of them were laying dead on the ground.

The archer standing right next to Narukami prepared an arrow to shoot, while the redhead warrior rushed towards Shu. Mika saw that and immediately disappeared in shadows, only to reappear right in front of warrior's face. The Puppeteer quickly moved back and created more strings full of energy, so other dolls could support him. Watching the fight between the two of them was spectacular. They were moving like experienced dancers on the stage - manoeuvring between each attacks with grace, blocking them, countering. 

It was a crazy dance of death, which could end at any moment if one of the dancers failed to catch up with. 

Mika was disappearing to confuse the enemy, but even with that, the warrior was close to him all the time. The man in black, using some strange type of magic, alongside the archer, kept other marionettes far from them. Shu waved both of his hands, causing another wave of energy to spread up. Few of the broken dolls stood up slowly, their bodies so destroyed it should be impossible for them to even move. It was even more gruesome because not all of them were dolls…

Some of them had more human bodies. Just like zombies.

All of them charged at the warrior. He threw away his mask and reached with his left hand for a second, shorter sword. His eyes changed - the light green shade turned into the gold as he smirked confidently and rushed towards marionettes. He was destroying them with ease, moving on the battlefield as if it was his stage from the very beginning. He didn't hesitate for a second, and his companions gave him as much support as they could. 

Mika disappeared again. The arrow went straight at him, but he easily avoided it, so it only hit the tree nearby. However, soon after the hit, an energy bursted from the arrow and went straight back to Kagehira, getting right into his knee. He didn't see it coming at all, but there was also no real reaction, even though the material all around the wound quickly turned red. 

But due to the hit, he became visible again - before he could run back to Shu, a man in black appeared behind him. 

"Surprise~" 

And he had a scythe in his hand. 

But rather than killing him, he used the handle to strangle Kagehira by pulling him closer with all his strength. He clearly got surprised at this sudden attack, and like most people, he started fighting back.

All while the warrior was getting close to Shu. Right in front of his eyes. 

Itsuki hissed at the sight and tried to move, but his body was already covered in wounds making it harder. He reached with his left hand for the small dagger he had and swung. The archer covered his companion and quickly released another arrow. It hit perfectly Itsuki's hand, piercing his palm. He screamed and lost his balance. 

Those seconds were enough. 

The warrior was in front of him, but there was no smile on his face anymore.  

His long sword pierced through Itsuki's stomach with such a force you could see the blade from the other side. Just as Itsuki’s body was so easy to cut. The fresh blood was dripping from the tip of the sword.

Another scream. This pain was terrible. He coughed, splitting even more blood right on the warrior's face. He tossed his shorter sword and grabbed Shu's collar, pulling him closer. He said something to him. 

Shu, for the last time, looked down on him and smiled proudly, saying his last words. 

The warrior grabbed his sword with two hands and with the all strength started fighting his way back, cutting through flesh.

Split, split. 

Your punishment, dear Puppeteer. You’ve forgotten you’re a mortal, haven’t you?

Blood was everywhere. 

He butchered him without mercy.

The Puppeteer fell to the ground. Even someone who controlled the dead couldn’t survive this. 

And right next to him, a warrior was standing, covered in fresh blood, slowly grabbing the second blade he dropped. 

 

The battlefield turned quiet in mere seconds. The dolls around them fell to the ground alongside their master. Only Kagehira was on his legs, looking at the scene terrified. His grip on the handle weakened as he watched his dear master dying. 

Only when the warrior turned his eyes on him, he started screaming, calling Shu. The man in black slightly let him go, only to turn the blade of the scythe close to his throat, while the warrior came closer to them. The archer, on the other way, took a deep breath and gave Arashi a hand. It’s possible that the Puppeteer’s influence significantly weakened after his death, as she could stand up on her own legs, even if it required a lot of work from her. All four of them locked their eyes on the Marionette. 

“If you want, the last hit can be yours, Naru,” The warrior spoke calmly. “It was once your friend, after all - I believe you want to give him the rest he deserves.”

Arashi hesitated. Her moves were still stiff - getting out from the initial shock was probably why she couldn’t decide. 

Mika gazed at her once. He stopped screaming, his expression slowly turned into cold stare. 

The man in black suddenly grabbed his weapon with both hands and swung it - but Kagehira wasn’t there any longer, even though there was a slight trace of blood on it, meaning he definitely hit somehow. The warrior immediately jumped to Arashi, ready to block any kind of attack. 

But the Marionette wasn’t interested in them. He appeared right next to Shu and kneeled, embracing the body of his master. 

Just as if they were alone again. 

When he opened his eyes and looked back at the group of warriors, they immediately grabbed their weapons, cutting away any access to Narukami. 

Kagehira’s eyes were burning like a fire, fueled by the hatred. Ah, if he could only give back what they did to him. If he could only execute them in the same way... 

“Now you’ve done it.” 

He slowly let down Shu’s body and laid it on the ground. 

“I hope yer satisfied, ‘humans’,” Mika stood up slowly, his expression changing to a cold, emotionless. “We’ve never did anythin’ against ya. And that’s how ya repay us for everythin’ we’ve done to ya?” 

Narukami opened her mouth, but before she could say anything, the archer tapped her shoulder.

“That’s the whole humanity ya so dearly protect, it’s disgusting!” 

The cold, emotionless expression quickly turned into real hatred, as Kagehira reached with his hand to his chest, tightening his grip. 

“To hell with all of ya. Cursed shells of humans, why are ya still alive? The fate shall take ya down, tear your bodies apart and let the crows feast upon yer rotten insides!” 

The sound of breaking glass alarmed the warrior. 

“Suo, now!” 

The archer released an arrow immediately, but Kagehira easily avoided it, even when the magic energy bursted. 

The arrow hit the tree right next to my face. Kagehira gazed at me. 

A smile that appeared on his face… Disgusting, wide grin. 

The rest of warriors ran in his direction, while the archer released another arrow. Another miss, while the Marionette moved so he was directly between me and the archer. 

Another arrow, another dodge. 

But this time the arrow pierced through my own head. My reaction time was nothing compared to Kagehira. The only thing I remember was the very moment when I fell to the ground. 

The voices turned distant.

It was… Quiet again. 

Why… Why do I hear a melody right now? It’s as if something changes in mere seconds…

 

Ah, it’s such a beautiful song. Have I heard it before…?

Chapter Text

The Forest has turned silent again. 

The corpses of numerous marionettes were laying on the ground, surrounding their dear master, protecting his eternal sleep. After all, he finally joined them in the world of the dead.

Between the bodies, an unknown, tall man was calmly walking towards him, humming a melody known only to him. His face was hidden behind a black mask, decorated by golden paintings. 

He didn’t fit this place filled with death. His impeccable, elegant outfit could make an impression on the most demanding aristocrats, his step was filled with unbelievable grace. He ran his hand through his long hair, then looked in the direction of the dead Puppeteer. He nodded toward him in a gesture of respect, then looked around. His attention was caught by one of the dolls, laying near a tree. Half of its face was broken by an arrow, but it didn’t frighten him. He crouched in front of it and reached up with his hand, stroking an undamaged cheek. He noticed the delicate energy that was escaping through the damaged fragment of the head.

“Good morning.”

The corners of his lips lifted.

“It is time to wake up.”

Nobody answered.

“You’re still here. Souls, after all, aren’t that easy to destroy. You need to reach for their core and break it. Bodies that serves as their shells can be destroyed - but you will still live. A piece of porcelain can be so easily repaired… What a shame living people aren’t this lucky.”

“I told you, didn’t I? He tried to control you. But still, he gave you a body… What a stubborn man. He changed a lot due to this war. But that one particular part haven’t.”

With a gentle movement, he grabbed the body in his hands and stood up. He moved towards the Puppeteer. 

??????’s hand slightly moved.

“The truth hides in the fragments. Once we cross the border between life and death, we can see it. The souls of the dead has a lot of stories to tell… Especially him, as he spent years of his life with the dead. Focus on it, and you will feel it. Let the Puppeteer tell his tale - it might be beneficial if you really desire to join our stage. This is what you wanted, right?” 

His smile widened. 

“Your dreams are finally coming true.”

 

“So wake up.

Open your eyes and grab it.

...Mashiro Tomoya.”

Chapter Text

Whenever someone was asking me about the North, I was changing the topic without thinking. People living there were known for their crazy ambitions and a lack of empathy - they had no mercy for both themselves, as well for the others. When I was still living there, it wasn’t as good as now. They were starting to form a one, big country from the small ones scattered across the continent, thanks to the man known as the Hero of the North.

A man they forced to abandon hope and leave this place just because they couldn’t understand his genius - because they couldn’t control him when they wanted to. That’s why they destroyed his legacy, so no more people would even remember him. His good heart was used against him. 

The situation in the city I lived in was terrible. The lost children were dying from either hunger or due to the attacks of the beasts taken from the worst nightmares since the mages, who suffered from the lack of money and students, couldn’t take care of all residents. The aristocracy didn't care that much, focused on their political war, hungry for power. To make everything even worse, more and more souls were wandering around confused. Some of them stayed friendly until the very end, singing old songs and sharing with their knowledge with those who could hear their voices, but a lot of them still remembered the pain and wished for revenge, sending innocent people to the places filled with deadly beasts. 

Me, my grandfather, as well as the lovely lady named Mademoiselle, were born with hearts sensitive for their voices. Luckily, thanks to the old hunter who used to work with the Hero of the North, we’ve learned how to listen and help them to reach the end of their existence peacefully. We’ve been burying them, creating beautiful outfits, talking with them and helping to deal with unfinished businesses on the earth. 

Sadly, someone wasn't really happy with our work, and one day, an assassin has knocked to our doors. Ironically he was the one to meet a dead end when I heard that one voice that warmed me. This soul was a strange case - claiming he doesn't remember a thing about his previous life, but believing that he had something in common with the Hero of the North. So I started reading more about him and his amazing research about various things like the lirium or the land of the dead. I’ve learned a lot of interesting things that could be used to make this country better… But I, too, managed to get extremely disappointed. My own country decided to sacrifice my life, believing that it was a dangerous knowledge.

Those fools had no idea they created a demon.

A demon capable of hearing the souls on a whole new level, with a possibilities to control them however he wanted, like if those souls were just dolls dancing in the way he wanted them to. 

A fool whose heart was taken by one young mage, what slowly lead to a tragedy.

 

“Itsuki Shu, you’ve been found guilty of a murder of the entire clan. According to the council's decision, the death sentence shall be executed immediately.”

This is the day that marked his fate. The day when they put him in front of the false court, framing him for a bunch of murders he never committed – just because he didn’t let them write his future the way they wanted. He managed to wash all the blood from his hands after the only case when he took someone’s life in order to protect himself – but it was enough to frame him for much more. 

His knowledge was too much for them. Welcome in the country where a prize for the knowledge is an execution.

He was standing right in front of the spectators like an animal, feeling their gazes as they listened to the speech of his executor. This speech, filled with so many lies about his life, was like a poison and a torture even worse than the disgrace of being put on a stage that he couldn’t escape. And somewhere there Mademoiselle and the old hunter were standing, worry painted on their faces, who could do nothing but stay and watch his last moments. Even the voice of his guardian has disappeared. 

“Ah, no, my lord…I’m still there. I shall watch your last stage, no matter how unfair it is.”

Itsuki smiled.

“As the living can’t affect the souls, the souls can’t affect the living ones more than you already managed to,” He whispered, as if he was talking to himself. “How disgusting. Look at those people, Hibiki – they eat those lies without thinking. I haven’t found the reason why you died, but still, if I were you, I would be glad to leave this country.”

“I’m not satisfied, though. We were supposed to find the truth together, didn’t we?”

But sadly, they couldn’t do a thing. Itsuki noticed how the executor walked towards the lever. The moment he’ll move it, the floor beneath him will disappear, and the rope will do the rest. The way he was supposed to die wasn’t beautiful at all. 

But he decided that he won’t satisfy his enemies. He will stand on this stage proudly with his head raised high, keeping contemptuous smile to the very end. If he’s lucky enough, he will be reborn as a soul…

“Come forth, you cowards,” He raised his voice. “Try to prove my guilt without your stupid games, I happily welcome you to do so! But be aware of it – if you’ll touch anything I’ve been using for my research, I shall curse you without mercy, you will remember this day to the very end of your lives!”

He will have his time for a revenge.

The expression that appeared on the executor’s face was enough to please him. His hand rested on a lever, while Wataru started incanting a spell, still hoping he could destroy the barrier between them.

Itsuki closed his eyes. 

 

...He was still alive. 

Something changed in the air, so he opened his eyes. He immediately noticed the people nervously gazing at him, their auras so strong and loud his head started hurting like crazy. But nobody was running to him, even his executor. How in the hell they didn’t notice the execution they were looking for so badly failed?

Itsuki had no idea what happened and why was he alive, until he noticed an outstanding person walking slowly towards him, wearing a sly smile on their face. It was a long-haired man wearing elegant, dark outfit and a black mask with golden paintings. 

“Fufu.”

His smile widened as he stopped in front of Shu, reaching out towards him with his hands.

“Looks like we managed to get their attention. I mean - you did, my lord.”

Shu had no idea what he was talking about. This voice changed so drastically in spans of few minutes that he needed time to recognise it. It had to be Wataru, but that was making no sense. His voice was full of sadness just a while ago, and now there he was, so proud and majestic, as if he won something. 

“If the gods themselves decided to mess with the fate, that means they got interested in your fight, my lord. Here, get out from this unfitting stage and let me show you what those people witnessed.”

While he was still hesitant, he did what Wataru asked fim for, noticing that in fact, nobody was following him. He quickly understood why - after the spirit snapped his fingers, he saw his own body hanging as it was supposed to be… For those people, he was already dead.

“What in the world happened?”

“Ah, not too much, my lord. Just a little magic trick - an innocent lie that turned into truth!”

“In other words - an illusion, I assume…?” Shu shook his head. “This is madness. The spirits cannot interact like this with-”

“Yes, I am fully aware of that, my lord! But notice that living people couldn’t interact with us as much as you did. And yet, look how many souls gathered today, praying for your safety.”

He was right. No matter where Shu was looking at, there was at least one spirit standing between the humans with a worried face. He never noticed that many in one place - no, he never could see them, only hear them. Something has changed significantly - is it because he was so close to death? 

“I wonder, my lord,” Wataru sent him a friendly smile. “I was shocked as well. No memories in my head, only small ideas - and a nice young girl who told me that my magic will work if a certain person will believe in me and try to help me.”

With a quick move, he took of his mask and bowed in front of Shu.

“She told me that man shall avoid the claws of death and become a Puppeteer, capable of hearing the voice of the souls and giving them a new life.”

 

Itsuki quickly understood what he was told. While he didn't hear the voice of that “young girl” Wataru mentioned, he noticed how open the realm of the dead became for him. He saw every single soul wandering in the town, he didn't had to focus in order to hear their voices. Those were gathering around him, bowing their heads, asking if they can ask for a favour. Even those aggressive ones weren’t attacking him or trying to lure him - they were afraid of him. 

Some words were still a mystery to him, though. 

Shu spent few days hiding like a criminal, not really sure what he should do. He really wanted to go back to Mademoiselle and make sure she’s okay - few days before the execution, she started feeling bad, and the doctors couldn't tell what was wrong. With Wataru’s help, he managed to get back to home safe. 

Sadly, he discovered Mademoiselle has died to an illness, and a spirit of her was staying right in front of her dead body, crying. When Shu reached out to her, they both couldn't believe their eyes. For her, it was hard to believe Itsuki was still alive. For Shu, it was terrifying to know she has reached this fate. Not only that, he also noticed a strange string connecting the soul to her body, reaching to her heart, which was glowing with a weak yellow energy. He reached with his hand to it, and thus, he saw the entire history from the birth to her death, and he had no idea why this happened. 

But there wasn't too much time to think. Without thinking, he asked her:

“My dear, there is no reason for us to stay in this mess of a country which denied us. Would you be kind enough to accompany me, so we could find the truth about our current state?”

Fortunately, she agreed.

 

Soon enough, it was hard to tell how much time has passed since they left the town. At first, they’ve been moving around the North - Shu still had a debt he had to pay off, and Wataru was still interested in his past. The truth, however, turned out to be painful. Shu promised him not to look at his fragments, unless the Joker would give him permission. The only way to find him was to sense the connection between the soul and the body. They found a remains of what was left of Wataru buried in a improvised small grave somewhere in the mountains. 

“Ah, how unsightly. This country should really disappear from the map if the Ran family won’t be able to get the throne.”

Those was the last words he heard from him. For the next few days, Hibiki stayed silent, and Itsuki, still respecting his wishes, decided to not look at his core. Whatever he saw in his past, it changed him a lot. 

Up to a point Itsuki wondered if that would be better if he never learned about his past life. 

Soon enough, though, Wataru started talking again, believing that it’s his turn to return the debt, even when Shu said rescuing him was enough. His knowledge was outstanding - everything he learned about the Lirium, the spirits he heard as well, even about his first trials to build a golem powered by the Lirium energy. Soon enough, Itsuki was the one who started working on something similar, following Wataru’s instructions.

This is how the first body for a Marionette was created. He managed to create a body that soul could posses, and of course, Wataru was the one to receive it, as the token of gratitude. 

Ironically though, their priorities were already distant, as the lost hero found another reason to go back to those fools in the town. Shu, on the other hand, was so deeply focused on learning about the bodies for souls, that he lost his interest in living people. Soon enough, they parted their ways. 

 

The time was passing by, and Itsuki’s knowledge about his abilities was getting bigger and bigger. The way he could hear the souls, connect them to the cores of the dolls he was creating, how he could manipulate them, modify the memories, force them to listen to him - it was so fascinating. Itsuki was like a real Puppeteer, reaching to the soul with the strings, binding them to the bodies they could use while we wrote the new scenarios for them, so they could forget about their past lives and become a real masterpieces, free of pain and regrets. Especially the ones that were soon called “the Observers”. 

Together with Mademoiselle, who also received the most magnificent body he could create, they’ve been looking for pained spirits, allowing them to either leave this world peacefully, or receive a new chance, no matter if they preferred to travel with them, or stay somewhere else. They left the North so they could learn even more. The shamans from the East gave him some other hints about the spirits. The mages from the Empire already started working on golems, so they also had some knowledge. And the demons hiding in the Kingdom were looking curiously at the Lirium, noticing the energy hidden within the crystals and how could it interact in different ways. 

The Puppeteer spent all those years avoiding the living to learn, creating more masterpieces. Only few people managed to catch his interest. 

The doctor from the East, who learned his lesson after their meeting and fought against his fate, wishing for the safety of his people. 

The demon lurking in the deeps on the Kingdom, who defeated a previous lord and brought his kind towards a better future with a strong hand. 

And there was still the Joker, moving between the countries, bringing the chaos to those who had an interesting future in front of them. 

There was also this woman he never met before. She simply appeared in front of him once, praising him for how quickly he managed to learn about his identity, even though he never received any strong tips. 

“The fate people encounter is written, they always follow it even though they have no idea about it… But it has changed. It’s weird how many anomalies has spawned in the last decades. You, who were blessed by them, shall never be bound to the fate again - but they decided the rules are needed, so you shall always remember you have a debt for receiving a freedom. Follow them, and you will be able to write your fate with your own hands.”

The Puppeteer, the one who can reach the world of the souls, the fragments, and the very cores of the people. He is not interested in the conflicts between the living people, preferring to avoid it. He is a loner unable to stay too long his living people, as his connections to the other world can bring misfortune towards them, And he is a lord of the dead, and his hand shall never reach for the living creatures. He must not try to manipulate a soul of a living. A punishment shall be received if this rule is broken.

 

Soon enough, a strange type of curse has been casted, making people go crazy. The others quickly called them “the Fallen Ones” - those who lost their minds, and attempted to avoid them. Ironically though, Shu was on the other side, interested in this sudden change. Not only that, after killing those cursed people, he learned that their bodies could be turned into a different type of marionettes - not as intelligent as the ones made from souls, but still useful. The Lirium, mixed with a bit of his own life energy, was enough to create a completely loyal dolls who could move without feeling anything at all.

After that, Itsuki’s life turned slightly more stable. He limited his journeys to the Kingdom and the Empire, not willing to leave the continent. To make it even funnier, the Demon Lord became even friendlier than he used to be, inviting him from time to time for a cup of tea, suggesting to stay in the dungeons. Hell, he even tried to get the Puppeteer join him in his little war against the Kingdom, but Itsuki ignored that. He wasn't really interested in wars. 

Shu got more involved with his meetings with the young doctor from the Harbor after he learned about his arrival. This man was particularly fascinated by his knowledge and wanted to learn as much as he could from the Puppeteer, saying that the world of spirits became more open to him as well - and he wanted to get as much as he could if Shu was willing to give him some advice. Truth to be told, at first he wasn't. But this doctor was adorable, so he stopped complaining pretty quickly. Unlike Shu, he could work with the living people, so it was also a good possibility for him to see how much it differed. 

One thing that hasn’t changed was the fact how much he still despised Yumenosaki. Unlike the Empire full of magical equipment from the North and other things he was enjoying, Yumenosaki was like as if time stopped many years ago. He couldn’t sell his outfits here as those were apparently “looking like something Northerns could wear”, and he couldn’t buy Lirium at all. Not only that, whenever he was in the town, he was greeted by the Mage Hunters, asking him for a licence. Any mage living in this country had to go to the organisation and acquire it if they wanted to live a peaceful life. 

Thankfully outside of towns, his only worries were the Fallen Ones and a few bandits - nobody was crying if he simply took their lives, so it was nothing. Even the demons avoided him, knowing he is a friend of their lord.

One day however, something caught his attention. Itsuki sensed a magic energy somewhere between the woods, followed by a spiritual one, interacting with each other. When he got closer, he saw an unknown person with a hood on their head carrying a small rabbit mascot, standing in front of soul while moving their hands, trying to contact with each other. The soul was reacting, trying to give them a warning. 

They were using the Northern language. 

Soon enough they were found by a group of men - one of them was wearing a sign of the Mage Hunters. They were talking about their “sweet opportunity”, because the wild mage from the North could be worth extra money. 

Itsuki wasn’t sure why he reacted on that day. Maybe it was because it's been years since he met another person capable of talking with the souls - especially from his own country. He got his interest. That’s why he took care of the aggressors, ordering the dolls to kill them instantly. When the job was done, the Puppeteer came closer to them, and forced a hooded person to show him their face. 

It was a young man with unkempt black hair and beautiful blue eyes. He fell on the ground and covered his head with hands, terrified of Shu. The soul jumped between them, praying for mercy. 

“I am not interested in hurting any of you,” Shu said, sending a gaze at the mage. “Your name, boy.”

The boy shook his head and stayed quiet - but his core, filled with strong emotions, became visible to Itsuki, giving him an opportunity to listen to the soul instead. 

‘I was sure nobody followed me! Nnah, ‘m not goin’ back no matter what-”

“I am simply asking for your name. Do I look like someone willing to drag you back to the North?” Itsuki forced himself not to show his irritation too quickly. “It’s been years since I met a living human protected by a soul. It means you have some sort of connection - which is a rare and incredible ability - and you want to understand them. Honestly, at least you’re not an idiot who could only run and scream at them.”

The boy sent him a gaze full of concern, not really sure about Shu’s words. Mademoiselle, who was watching them, gave back a warm smile. She already knew what’s going to happen. 

‘Kagehira… Mika.’

While his lips didn’t move, his soul gave him the answer. 

“Kagehira, then. There’s no reason for you to go back to the North - and those people will try to hunt you down anyway. However, I do know a person who can take care of you and teach you how to help the lost souls.”

He had no time for that, but Shinkai would be interested, they shared a lot of interests. It’s going to be a long journey, but at least Shu will get enough time to see what Kagehira is really capable of. 

 

But, to be honest… Time was flowing by, and Shu had a hard time deciding what to do with Kagehira.

Mademoiselle took a liking to Kagehira so much that she didn't want him to leave, and it was enough for Shu to lose his sanity. They weren't even speaking to each other! Their conversations were a mix of magic, runes and other strange gestures that made him go crazy whenever he tried to understand it! Why Kagehira avoided talking was a big mystery for Shu - and for once, he didn’t try to see it through the fragments. One thing he knew for sure was the fact that whenever they were entering any town, Kagehira was hiding behind him, wearing a hood. Time was flowing by and after a second visit in the Harbor, Shu still didn’t leave Kagehira there. Their journeys turned into a sweet routine.

Until the day they met another young man who stopped them. What caught Shu by surprise was his emblem of the Kingdom, yet he wasn’t attacking them or even looking aggressive at all - most knights and mage hunters were bothering him to the point where murder was the only option, next to escape.

“My king sends their regards as well as the invitation for you, lord Itsuki. It would be a pleasure if you accepted it.”

Itsuki raised his brow. Since when the king, so aggressive towards the mages, was sending invitations? After all, he also was a mage, even if his magic wasn’t something one could see on a daily basis. Rei told him before he started some sort of cleaning in his own country, even the demons had to hide for a bit. Was he another target on a list?

The silver-haired knight told him his king wasn’t interested in fighting and, in fact, he had an offer Itsuki might find pleasing. Kagehira was full of suspicions while he gazed at the knight, but said nothing, as always. 

“No mage hunters and a place for us to sleep peacefully. Not for long, of course.” 

“With all my respect, my lord, but everything has been already prepared for your arrival - your companions are welcomed as well. Just tell them not to use any magic so we’ll have no annoyance in the town.”

 

For sure, the knight wasn’t lying. His presence was enough to stop people from looking at Shu and calling the guards. They knew the knight that was guiding him through the town, and greeted him with respect. Shu used this opportunity to finally walk with his head high and look around, as opposed to Kagehira, who grabbed his hand firmly and refused to let go, even though the pressure was enough to cause the pain. He finally listened to Shu when they entered the room that was prepared for them. Apparently Itsuki was the only one the king wanted to meet, so both Mademoiselle and Kagehira had to stay. Quickly enough, the girl asked for someone to let them walk around the town for a bit more, as they finally could see the capital without any problems. 

They found another warrior willing to stay with them, so the Puppeteer could see the man that invited him to this place. 

The king turned out to be someone different than Shu expected - a young man with sharp eyes named Tsukinaga Leo, who definitely wasn’t the ruler for too long. The Puppeteer expected someone much older, so it took him by surprise. Maybe it was better on a long run - his words weren’t filled with false respect or anything one could expect from more experienced rulers. Luckily both of them wanted to get straight to the point fairly quickly. 

“Ah yes, there is no time for imagination, no time for a fierce speech or anything like that!” Tsukinaga laughed with a sincere smile on his face. “Ahaha, you’re definitely wondering why did I even bother to talk with you rather than send troops, huh? Yumenosaki is so keen about taking down wild mages, after all.”

“You have no idea how many scenarios in my head were somehow suggesting you still might try to kill me.”

“Ah, no, please, that would be quite rude! Sena, do we really look that bad in Northern’s eyes? Do we?”

“My lord, focus on the proper topic, the one you’re starting is far more complex than that.”

The fact that this man tried to pack him to the same box with the rest of the Northerns annoyed Shu, but for now though he stayed silent for once, waiting for a king to continue. 

“I hope you still can forgive my people. There are good men, I can tell - just terribly stressed about saving people. But well, that’s another thing we should avoid - after all you can’t stay for too long, we don’t want to bring a misfortune on all of us, do we, lord Itsuki?”

“How.”

Something in that sentence caught Shu’s attention immediately. 

“Why do you think I can bring misfortune if I’ll stay for too long?” 

Tsukinaga’s smile widened. 

“I wonder! All of those who were blessed by the gods received rules they have to follow up from nowhere - and my sweet guardian once told me there is a ruler of the dead, who must avoid towns full of living people. Quite saddening, really! Such pitiful, lonely life!”

It was enough to bring up suspicions towards Leo, right next to annoyance. While the part of “blessed by the gods” almost made him laugh, it wasn’t changing the fact this man knew something about them - particularly about Shu. Did he know about the others and their rules as well? Shu didn’t notice when his fingers were tapping the surface of the table, while he was waiting for something more. 

“Ah, you don’t have to worry about my knowledge - it’s safe here,” The king noticed the change and while he was still using less formal speech, his voice softened a bit. “To be fairly honest, I do want to offer something you might find pleasing. Doctor Shinkai told me you want to find peace, so…”

Shinkai? That’s a different story if that man was already involved. It caught his attention that the doctor suddenly came to Yumenosaki and called this place his new home… Maybe it was the king who brought him here. 

“Speak while I still have the patience to listen to you, king.”

“Smile, my lord. I promise you, I have no ill intentions - see, due to that curse my people act like crazy, and the mages said it has to be something on a different level than normal, most of them have no idea what to do. Who can be more helpful than someone like you or doctor Shinkai, who can see way more than us?” 

“If that’s the case, Shinkai is more than enough for you. Is that all? I really don’t have the time to play games with you.”

“Hm, and there I thought you and your companions would use the opportunity and get out from the hunter’s lists,” Leo sighed, a hint of disappointment in his voice. “Ahaha, I even got Suo to help with that~ He’ll get mad at me.”

Shu raised his brow, wishing that he could just stand up and get away at this point. At the same time, the knight standing next to the king cleared his throat and send a gaze at him. Tsukinaga nodded his head. 

“Forgive me for that, my lord. But I really hope you could at least hear me out before you leave,” Leo stood up and pulled out his hand. “I want nothing more but peace and safety! This country suffered enough, I dare to say! I don’t ask too much from you, and I believe both you and those kids will enjoy the peaceful life as well!” 

“I am waiting. We’re wasting time because you’re not giving me what I want.”

Rather than getting proper informations, he only got some blabbering from a fool that couldn't stop talking about peace, and Shu really wanted to know how much truth was in that entire talk about a curse. The fact is, he didn’t understand how it was working as well, why is this a thing, and why soon after it appeared, with hands were tied with a dozen of rules he had to follow. And, to be honest… Shu really was tired with all those journeys. A place to stay, even if for a few years only, was tempting.

“Yes, of course,” The king laughed again. “It’s easy! We’ll make sure the hunters and guards won’t bother you and other people close to you, and of course, if you’ll need help with something, I’ll listen to your demands.”

“And that’s in exchange for joining the research group focused on the curse?”

“Yes, in order to find why is this a thing and is there a possibility for a cure,” The knight standing nearby finished Leo’s speech. “And we ask for a possibility to check out how’s your work going from time to time, my lord.”

 

Shu had no reasons to say no.

Tsukinaga made sure he won’t be able to escape from the answer, up to a point he couldn’t even leave the castle. To be fairly honest, it wasn’t a bad deal - for Itsuki, it was a great option, since he could go anywhere without worrying about the guards. And they were kind enough to agree when he asked them if he could go somewhere closer to the boundary with the Empire, no matter how much they disliked that idea. There was apparently someone who knew how to create portals, so distance wasn’t a problem. 

And sure enough, the Puppeteer could take advantage of closeness to the king, and see something even that man couldn't. He might learn how he found out his rules - as well why his soul seemed so strangely blocked.

The fact that Leo wanted him and Shinkai to stay silent about their little pact surprised him a bit, but he didn’t really care too much about other people, so it wasn’t a problem. Rei was just a good friend, and Wataru… Well, he was somewhere, hell knows were. 

When Itsuki was finally sure that nobody will betray him, he officially agreed to the king’s proposition, and together with Mademoiselle and Kagehira left the castle in order to find a place for all of them. Quickly enough, they found an old residence they could use, it just needed a proper renovation. The knight that was selected as his advisor was kind enough to get trusted people for it. Too bad someone that beautiful had to waste himself on a war.

His name was Sena Izumi.

 

With that, they got some peace - Shu was surprised how much, to be honest. Tsukinaga wasn’t bothering him too much, the only person that was reminding Shu of their pact was Izumi, who was coming to their mansion from time to time, seeing how the things were going. He could even stay for a bit longer, talking about the current situation in the Kingdom, so Itsuki knew when it was a good time to act, and when to stay low. 

The only problem was Kagehira, who had a hard time giving Sena any trust. Whenever he was coming, that boy was running away to his room, seemingly afraid of knight. It was only worse and worse, up to a point Shu was forgetting that there was another living person in his house, turning more and more annoyed with time. Kagehira was also avoiding any lessons he was willing to give him. 

One day, Itsuki lost his patience and stopped hiding his irritation, and gave Mika a loud and honest monologue why he was so annoyed with a person who was only hiding and not talking to him at all. It was a bad day, and Mademoiselle had to stay between them to make sure nobody will get hurt.

The next day, Kagehira was gone, and Shu wasn’t sure if that was something he wanted. At first he took a deep breath, pleased with the fact he could forget about Kagehira and focus on something different. Ironically though, it was harder than he believed, since the picture of Kagehira getting brutally attacked was coming to his mind from time to time. Mademoiselle, on the other hand, was worried from the very beginning, wondering if this situation wouldn’t appear at all if she did better. She wanted to leave and begged Shu for a permission if he didn’t want to do it by himself.

“Do you really want to allow an innocent boy to get hurt?” She was asking, trying to find any trace of sympathy in Itsuki’s eyes.

“Kagehira might not look like that, but he is an adult who made his decision. He’s not a doll that needs my permission to act - he has a free will.”

And while saddened Mademoiselle’s face wasn’t a pleasing view, he believed in his own words. Days were passing by, and both of them had a hard time forgetting, so finally, Shu lost against Mademoiselle, fearing that she might leave at her own. He gave them a week - if they won’t find him, they’ll officially call Kagehira dead. 

What took him by a complete surprise, they didn’t need that much time - only few hours of searching was enough for Itsuki to sense an energy so well known to him.  Without thinking, he sent few dolls ahead, so they could reach to the boy as fast as they could. The smile that appeared on his face quickly disappeared when he sensed another type of energy, one of them so familiar to the curse that he immediately started running, hoping that nothing bad happened yet. His hands moved, sending even more energy to the dolls, making them even faster.

Under one of the trees, Kagehira was sitting, hiding his face behind his hands screaming, begging the man standing in front of him to leave him alone. Itsuki’s heart skipped a beat when he noticed that man had an axe covered in flesh blood. 

He tried to say something, but a third person, without warning, plunged their sword right into his throat. He took his last breath, coughing. The force that was used to cut through flesh was so strong that blood gushed out under a high pressure, and his head almost separated from the rest of the body. The killer now was in front of Mika, breathing heavily. 

“A-Are you okay…?” She asked and dropped her sword. Soon enough she lost his balance and fell down right at Mika who grabbed her, even though she himself looked like she could stop breathing at any time. Shu ordered the dolls to separate them immediately, and approached Mika. 

The boy averted his eyes. 

“Look at me, Kagehira.”

Mika send him a quick gaze, his body shaking. 

“Your stubbornness won’t help you right now. Don’t you see what’s happening here?” 

Mika finally looked at him properly when he heard Mademoiselle’s voice getting closer as she approached them, calling Mika’s name.

“A stubborn idiot. What in the hell were you thinking, running away like that?” Itsuki’s voice was cold and full of irritation, but when he saw Kagehira trying to move away from him, he sighed and took the boy’s face in his hands. “You look better than I thought, there’s no visible wounds. Perfect, we don’t need doctors for now.”

Mika blinked few times, visibly surprised. 

“Mm…?”

“It’s like I’m talking to a crow. Do I look like someone like that? I can’t figure you at all - no words, just running away for no reason… And no, don’t ask me to see it by myself. I decided that I shall respect your privacy, you are a human after all - the one I spent the most of the time with.”

Mika averted his gaze again, mumbling something under his nose with a sad tone. He seemed lost, unsure what to do right now. After a few seconds, he looked back at Shu, and noticed a warm smile on his face. His cheeks turned slightly red. 

“It would be an honour if you could finally speak to me about yourself,” Shu slowly stood up and gave Mika a hand. “Let’s go back, Kagehira.”

His hand was trembling like a leaf on wind, but Itsuki ignored that. Somewhere deep in his mind, he was really glad he was safe. He was ready to go, but he noticed that Mika couldn’t hold back any tears and bursted out crying, throwing himself right into Shu’s arms. At first he almost started shouting at him, but he managed to stop. 

“Stop crying, it’s a terrible view. Can you walk on your own?”

Mika let go of him reluctantly and wiped eyes with his hand, nodding his head - but Shu had to catch him after only few steps. Without thinking too much, the Puppeteer grabbed him, what caused the boy to scream. 

“W-wait?!”

“Don’t move. For the heavens, I feel like I have slightly heavier doll in my hands. Were you even eating properly?” Shu shook his head dissatisfied. “I shall personally make sure to get you back in a proper shape later.”

If there was a soft hint of red on Mika’s cheeks, then now his entire face turned red, making Mademoiselle giggle. 

“I think it’s not that bad~ Welcome back, dear.”

“..nks.”

“I’m sorry?” 

“Thanks, both of ya…”

Shu and Mademoiselle looked at each other, smiling. Soon enough, the other dolls sent him a warning that they still don’t know what to do with the other person, her body almost hanging in their arms. 

The stench of a curse was strong. 

“Make sure to get her back to the mansion… I do have a debt I would like to pay back while she’s still aware. If I won’t be able to help, I shall give her a quick, painless death.”

 

The warrior’s condition turned out to be more critical than Shu expected. When Mademoiselle took Mika under her care to make sure he’ll be okay, Itsuki focused on that woman, finally having a chance to see how the curse interacted with the body and soul. 

It was a terrifying view. Her soul looked like someone took a hammer and smashed the glass - fragments were very lightly connected to the core, slowly mixing up and vanishing, the core itself had strange holes, and her eyes, when Shu forced her to open them, had a very strong orange-gold colour. And from her memories he knew her original eyes were purple. No mere human had such destroyed core, it was affecting the entire persona up to a point when someone could lose their own personality! Memories were falling down, mixing with each other! What kind of hell was that, it was a miracle she could walk and speak at this point without being too aggressive! Itsuki had no idea what could he do other than send an energy to calm her down a bit - after all, he couldn’t use his power on a living person, unlike Shinkai. 

He almost jumped when the doors to the room opened and Sena appeared right next to him. 

“Naru!”

Shu already could tell they knew each other, and Izumi confirmed that immediately. What Shu didn’t expect, though, was his decision to take her to the capital. He tried to stop the knight, but Sena said that the doctor had an idea how to work with the cursed. Before Itsuki could react, they were already gone, leaving him speechless. 

They asked him to help them, and today, when he finally got a chance to make a small research, his opportunity disappeared. What the hell…

But well, ‘Naru’ was just an interesting anomaly, and without her, he couldn’t do much. Besides, when he saw Mademoiselle going with a meal to Kagehira’s room, Itsuki easily changed his mind and focused on his student.

Kagehira said his first words and it seemed like he might finally learn something about him. It took him few days to get better, but when he was really, he asked Shu if he had time to talk.

“‘m sorry.”

“For what, I wonder?”

“I ran away,” Mika took the small bunny mascot and hugged it, trying to gather his thoughts. “I was sure ya hate me so much an’ preferred If I jus’ disappear from yer sight, but…”

“But?”

“But I was afraid t’ run as well. I had no idea where t’ go, how t’ get food, if people will try t’ kill me… And I wondered if Mado-nee wasn’t worried ‘bout me.”

“Well, you definitely made her worry a lot, just looking at her sad face would make a lot of people break and try to cheer her up,” Shu sighed. “Let’s not talk about it, it’s all in the past. You are safe now.”

Mika managed to smile after hearing those words, though he still looked slightly scared.

“An’ what ‘bout that-”

“Sena took her to the capital. Don’t ask me why, I also have no idea.”

“Nn…”

Any of them had no idea how to start that one topic properly, so the room turned silent fairly quickly. 

“Are ya sure that my presence doesn’t bother ya?” The grip on a rabbit tightened when Mika finally looked at Shu’s face. The other man sighed again and took off his hat. 

“I wouldn’t bother myself and look for you if that was the case,” He answered shortly with a hint of annoyance in his voice. “Don’t think too much about it. I was incredibly irritated about you and how much you avoided any contact. I still believe you have a great talent, and it would be a terrible waste if you died.”

“Why should I talk if my words are used against me! ‘m jus’ a no-good kid that brings misfortune at others…!”

He stopped from finishing his thought, but for Shu, it was enough. His soul was burning, fuelled by a lot of negative emotions, becoming so easy to see through he had to avert his gaze for a second. 

“Tell me why you came to Yumenosaki. Let your mind see through your own soul, and the memories will become easy for yourself to see.”

 

Kagehira’s story was shorter than Itsuki expected.

Just as he noticed before, he was from the North, just like him. He couldn’t see the very beginning of his life or his family. All he remembered was the part of town filled with poverty, with him and few other kids living together, fighting for the next day, jealous of those who could afford the better life. The North looked way different than Shu remembered - they were literally from the same town, but there was no nightmares hunting innocent people, and the town was turned into the capital, managing to strengthen up the defence with the mages. Just like Wataru wanted.

The aristocracy was still fighting, but it wasn’t as bad as before, and magicians were kept in high regards - to the point where someone poor could become famous and respected if they turn out to be gifted with outstanding magic skills. 

Shu had a hard time stopping his laugh when Mika told him about that. Compared to the past, as well to Yumenosaki, wizards were like gods in that country. He just couldn’t understand why Kagehira had to live his life if he was such a gifted kid. Mika quickly explained nobody ever bothered to check his skills, and he was avoiding people, fearing that they would take him from his ‘family’. But, of course, he was using his advantage to get away from his little crimes unnoticed. 

“I had no time t’ think ‘bout that, yanno?” Mika scratched his head. “I was the second oldest, so me an’ Nazu-nii had the biggest roles t’ play.”

“Is that why you left? Was the responsibility too hard?”

“No, never! It was hard, but I loved our small family! And Nazu-nii was workin’ even harder than me!”

“Nazu-nii…?”

“The oldest boy in our group, the other kids were jokin’ because he looked younger than he was~” Mika said that with a sweet smile on his face and looked at the bunny. “Ah, I got that from him, that’s my last souvenir...”

“Great to know. But I guess something doomed all of you.”

The smile went away as Kagehira took a deep breath, bringing the bad memories back.

“They caught me,” He lowered his voice. “They put on the magic barriers after my last work, they knew their opponent was a mage… That guy I was stealin’ from wasn’t the worst, he jus’ had so much wasted food I could give t’ the kids! After they got me, they checked my magic abilities. Judgin’ from their reaction, they didn’t expect anyone skilled at all.”

He took a short pause to calm down before he continued.

“It was ‘sposed t’ be a good deal. He proposed that he’ll take me and raise like his own kid, we were kind of lookin’ similar… And in exchange, he’ll give all the waste to the rest and give ‘em a place t’ live safely.”

“You had no blood connection. The others wouldn’t acknowledge you, would they?” Itsuki asked, curious. 

“Well, if yer a great mage, nobody will ask too many questions. Guess I had somethin’, huh.”

“Seems too nice to be true, though.”

“I… I dunno, Oshi-san.”

Itsuki leaned on the back of the chair comfortably, completely ignoring the new title he received.

“Sometimes I think he really tried t’ keep his promise, but I noticed that some kids started disappearin’... Two of ‘em were found dead, but Nazu-nii told me not t’ worry. How the hell was I ‘sposed to do that? Especially after the day the guards took Nazu-nii away, and that guy was jus’ watchin’ and tellin’ me that I can finally forget ‘bout my past!”

“Have you done something in that regard?”

“Not really,” Mika hid his face behind the rabbit. “But after few days, I started lookin’ for clues. And I still dunno what happened. I heard once that this man was talkin’ ‘bout the kids with the guards, he thanked him that they tried to help ‘em… Few days after that, all kids were gone.”

Itsuki didn’t even had to see his face - his core was in fire, fuelled by the hatred mixed with grief.

“We had a fight. I accused him for that, I believed he was the bad guy. It was the only time he hit me and said that ‘Even if that was a tragedy, I was finally free from my past, so I should focus on becoming a proper part of society' or somethin’ like that. The thing is, I lost my patience… When I got back t’ my senses, his face was burnt and I was runnin’ away, terrified.”

Kagehira leaned out, showing his face again. Itsuki noticed that tears appeared at the corners of his eyes, but still decided to stay quiet. He just send an order to one of the dolls to bring some tissues. 

“I really dunno… I avoided every person I met. I don’ really remember how I got on that ship, but that one soul was tellin’ me they wanted t’ hunt me like an animal. All I know is that I got here, and had t’ run again, because people were afraid of me…”

“They are afraid of magic, nothing surprising,” The Puppeteer finally decided to step in after the doll brought what he asked for, and approached Mika, trying his best to keep his expression as neutral as he could. “But that doesn't really explain why were you afraid of me or why you decided not to speak at all.”

“At first I feared ya were workin’ for ‘em…” Mika started with a low voice, but stopped when he saw as the hint of smile on Shu’s face was quickly replaced by a grimace. “I-I mean! Ya really give a bad vibe, the souls are bowin’ their heads in front of ya, even yer looks are almost the same as the description ‘bout the demon that used t’ live in the North! And whenever I did somethin’ wron’ ya looked as if ya wanted t’ kill me..!”

“Excuse me, do I look like a demon?”

Honestly, was he looking that bad in Kagehira’s eyes? Well, of course he tried to stay away from people, so the worse appearance, the better, but… It shouldn't be that bad. 

Kagehira, unable to answer his question, stayed quiet. 

“Forget about that for now,” Itsuki shook his head. “I still don’t understand why you avoided talking.”

“Uh, when I got too loud, they were calmin’ me down and usin’ the spell t’ shut me up, I kinda got used t’ that feelin’... And after I learned that guy died from my attack, I started wonderin’. He had no reason to hurt me, he gave me a place to live… And I took his life. What if my actions brought the misfortune to the kids…?”

“Stop throwing all the guilt at yourself, fool,” Shu, without thinking, forced himself between Kagehira’s words, irritated. “The fate can be cruel without your help, you can’t do anything with that. You survived, avoided the guards, and met me, use the opportunity.”

Mika raised his eyebrows, not entirely sure what Shu had in his mind. 

“Tell me, Kagehira,” A sly smile appeared on Shu’s face. “Do you want to see the North again?”

 

If the soul's past doesn’t let them sleep, help them solve their problems. Why don’t do the same with the living ones? 

That was his first thought when Itsuki invited the mage to the small journey to the North, two weeks after their talk. He noticed fairly quickly how mixed Kagehira was - while the opportunity to see something more was giving him some hope, he also wasn’t sure what he should expect. He tried to convince Shu that mingling too deep into the past won’t do any good, but Itsuki ignored that, seeing how messy his mind was because of that. 

The fragment containing the memory of that “Nazu-nii” Mika was talking a lot was especially active, he was still wondering what happened to him. Living people, after all, can suffer as much as the souls, tied by their past. If Shu wants to teach anything, Mika’s mind has to be free from worries.

Besides, he also wanted to see what changed in that country. He was sure he left only few years ago, yet it felt like centuries passed since his last visit. Why they suddenly improved in a way Wataru wanted? And why his appearance was so close to the demon Kagehira mentioned earlier, what was he talking about?

When they arrived, Mika had a hard time to make a first move - at least until Shu threw him an old mantle he was using back in Yumenosaki, and suggested not to worry about eventual guards. With that, his student slowly guided him through the town. He still remembered old roads and hideouts, and even guessed one of patrol’s ways. The town changed to the point Shu had no idea where he was.

The first place they visited was the grave of the man who took care of Mika, but sadly, his soul wasn’t on this world anymore, so they couldn't learn about anything from him. Kagehira lost his motivation, but after they left flowers, the Puppeteer focused on the other souls wandering around. That thing hasn’t changed at all, there was still a lot of them. 

The young girl gave them a small dose of hope - she said that there was, in fact, a boy some of them were calling Nazu, though she also warned him that they believed he didn’t remember his past life, only his name. Shu already had a bad feeling about that. Mika, on the other hand, ran as quick as he could to the place they believed Nazu could be found. 

“Nazu-nii!”

The soul jumped, not expecting a living person to call him like that. While Mika was apologising to him, the young boy examined him with a concern look. 

“I’m sorry… Do I know you? Have we met while I was alive…?”

Itsuki took a deep breath and laid his hand on Mika’s shoulder when the boy took a step back, completely shocked by those words. Seeing that, the soul jumped again. 

“A-Awe you okay? I’m sowwy, I didn’t wanna to-!”  

“He’s an Observer, Kagehira.”

Mika sent him a confused gaze.

“Until you’ll find a body containing his past memories, no matter how many years passed, he will never remember his past... But there is a high chance he doesn't want to.”

“Isn’t that cruel, Oshi-san? Lettin’ someone t’ wander with no memories…”

“It isn’t. Observers’ nature is simple - they forgot because they’ve been praying for it.”

 

Nito Nazuna committed suicide. 

They found his massacred body not that far away from the town. They managed to get so far thanks to the girl which survived due to her magic abilities. While she didn’t want to recall past events, Mika’s presence was enough for them to see her memory without her help. 

‘I’m just a betrayer, I did that to all of you…! Even Mika-chin can’t stop worrying, now when he’s finally free from the suffering…’

This fragment caused Nito to remember something, as he rushed towards the mountains. Both Mika and Nazuna were terrified by the view, unable to say a word, while Mademoiselle was doing her best to calm them down. Shu was standing right in front of the body with a sad face.

Another Observer, another tragedy. 

Their existence was a terrible joke from the heavens - even if the chance to become that type of a soul was low. Those people suffered so much in their life that they either ended it by their own hands or had someone else to help. Lastly even victims of the curse were turning into Observers as well - mostly due to their mixed memories or scattered souls. Nito Nazuna was a mix of a cursed with a lot of regrets, and the curse destroyed his mind to a point where he believed he was the reason for the whole misfortune. 

“It’d be cruel if I’ll let you take back those memories, Nito,” Shu tried to speak with a calm voice. “The cores of a soul keeps the entire character, and bringing the fragments back will make you live them as if you never lost them in the first place. The curse ate Nito’s pleasant memories, there’s no way to bring them back.”

Nazuna looked at Mika, giving himself a moment before speaking.

“Yes, but…” He hesitated. “He remembers, he has to live with that, wondering why I died. Isn’t that cruel as well, sir? Why do you let me live in a sweet lie while forcing Mika to…?”

“It’s okay, Nazu-nii. I can live with that,” Kagehira forced a smile. “Oshi-san can see the truth, so I believe his decision will be the best for both of us.”

“I can show it to you, Kagehira, so you will know what you need - be prepared though, it’s nothing nice to look at. I just… It’s not the first time when I meet an Observer - and I do know how they react when I give them their old memories back. Not all of them can withstand all the pain and despair, there is no hope for them to live their life after they got a chance.”

“What will happen to me anyway…?” Nito clenched his fists, looking at his own body. “It’s not like I’m forced to wander on this world clueless? Or am I?”

“No, dear Nito, of course not. In most cases, this is the moment when I bid farewell to the soul and destroy their core, letting them leave the world for an eternity. However…”

It would be a waste if such an adorable young man had to leave when he could receive a new chance to stay with his good old friend. Giving him back the old memories only to kill him - the thought itself was disturbing for the Puppeteer. Before any of them could say anything, he reached with his hand to Nito. 

“This scenario of your life has been torn away by the fate, leaving you no choice but to suffer. Do not fear though, as you also received a possibility in a very moment you met me. I can write a new scenario, where the fate will never be able to destroy your mind. It will be a masterpiece, and you shall become a beautiful work of art, capable of living with your beloved friend. The only thing I need is your consent.”

A warm smile appeared at Itsuki’s face.

“If you are willing to give yourself to me, I shall make you beautiful… Dear Nito.”

 

Both Mika and Shu were pleased when Nito agreed, and became a new resident in their mansion. The body he received was soon turned into one of the biggest masterpieces Itsuki made in his entire life - a body so agile and fast, capable of dancing in the shadows like a professional. Just as Itsuki promised, his core was left untouched, even though he could change almost everything, now that Nito’s soul was in his hands. He left him in the same condition, promising that if he’ll ask him to give his memory back, Shu will grant his wish.

Thanks to that, he also had a great chance to show Kagehira how a soul of a human looks like, and how can you affect it, answering his most important questions. That’s when he noticed how hard it was for a normal person, while he always believed it was just as easy as breathing. Needless to say, he was learning just as his student.

A blessed, huh… What an irony, maybe it wasn’t that strange when the king called him like that. But Shu was still sure that after few years of practice, Kagehira will become better. Maybe not as good as him, but at least better than most people. On the other hand, Nazuna quickly asked if he could learn how to fight, willing to protect them whenever he could. This view wasn’t the most pleasing for Shu, but ironically, soon enough a possibility came to his own house.

 

When not a one, but two people came to his room, Itsuki almost dropped a cup full of boiling tea. Izumi was always welcomed, but the second person was a real shock for him.

Narukami Arashi, the victim of a curse that was almost dying in front of him, was standing like nothing happened before, bowing her head. Shu quickly said that rather than him, she should thank Mika that they met, so she asked where the boy was. Mademoiselle and Nito went with her, not entirely sure if they could trust her.

Shu, on the other hand, bombarded Sena with a lot of questions, wondering how in the hell this was possible, but the knight wasn’t able to give him proper answers. He simply said that his king also avoided giving him too many informations, saying that the doctor helped a lot. 

This young shaman was already ahead of him, what an irony. 

“You do know each other, don’t you?” 

“Yes, sadly. That idiot was a mercenary, their group was quite helpful before the adventures from the Trickstar came,” Izumi sighed and took a sip from his cup. “But I can ensure you she’s a great warrior you can trust, even if she can get pretty annoying.” 

“I’m not that much interested, you should be aware of that.”

“I believe you should for once, she’s going to be the one that will replace me.”

Shu raised his eyebrow.

“Excuse me?” 

“I have to stay in the capital, something bad is coming,” Izumi gave him a serious look. “Besides, it’ll be better for both sides. Narukami isn’t connected to the king officially, and it will stay like this. She can come here whenever you need our help, without worrying about other people connecting the dots.”

“I’m not sure if I can trust someone that almost lost their mind.”

“She's fine, I promise. She doesn’t remember too much due to what you said before about those… I don’t know, holes in the mind? Whatever. Besides, I could tell the same about that blonde boy, I’ve never seen him before.”

“Ah, so you noticed. Isn’t Nito adorable? He’s an old friend, now a living masterpiece,” Shu leaned on his chair, smiling proudly. “Hm, that reminds me he was asking for a guidance - he wants to learn the art of war, how to protect people.”

“Narukami will help him, if you don’t mind. You might find her fighting technique enjoyable to watch.”

 

They quickly came to an agreement, and both warriors left the mansion. Kagehira was still confused after a sudden meeting with Arashi, but there was a hint of a smile on his face. 

“Naru seems like a nice person… I dunno, Oshi-san. For sure ‘m not as terrified as when that Sena guy was close t’ me…”

“Good to know you like her - from this day, she will be our guest.”

It wasn’t that big of a change as he thought, at least for Shu. Kagehira, on the other hand, quickly took a liking for Narukami, her presence wasn’t stressing him out that much. Arashi managed to take him for a little walk around the capital once, and Mika enjoyed this so much that they quickly turned that into a routine, he didn’t need his mentor right next to him. Shu was surprised by that, but he didn’t complain - Mika was really safe in Arashi’s hands, and besides, he had to learn how to handle anything when Shu wasn't standing next to him. 

Ironically, when he went to the Harbor with Nito, Shinkai also quickly got an eye on his creation. Shu wanted to get some answers about how he managed to turn Narukami into a normal person, but the doctor didn’t give him a proper answer, visibly mixed about the healing process. He just said that the king had an idea, and he just gave him a hand. Something was off, but Kanata didn’t want to share his thoughts. Rather than that, he preferred to learn more about Nazuna and the Observers in general - he even asked if the boy could be the one coming here to share their informations.

“Since when Nito looks like an errand boy, doctor?” The Puppeteer asked, visibly annoyed.

“He can be my ‘guest’ from time to time, and it looks like he is ‘interested’ in this town as well~ The more we ‘know’ about ‘souls’, the better~”

Said the man that couldn’t even describe how he healed an ill warrior, great. But Nito really wanted to come back to the Harbor, so Itsuki agreed. 

Because of that, their mansion turned silent - Mademoiselle was going to the Empire to get the stuff they needed, Kagehira was spending a lot of time with Narukami, and Nazuna was travelling to the Harbor. From time to time, all of them were gone, and Shu was the only one staying in the mansion, completely unused to this silence. He used to love it, but now… It was so empty. 

On that one day, when Mademoiselle, Nito and Kagehira left, Shu wasn’t sure what to do, until he heard a familiar voice.

“What a surprise to see you so lonely, dear Puppeteer.”

He didn't notice the exact moment when Rei entered the mansion - he was already sitting in front of him with a sly smile on his face.

“And the same to see you here, Rei.”

“Ah, don’t worry, I’m not here to cause any trouble. I was just wondering if you can feel the tension in the air.”

Shu raised his eyebrow.

„I’ll take that as a ‘no’,” Sakuma answered his own question. “I’m asking because I’ve heard quite an interesting rumor, I hoped I’m not the only one. Wataru is causing the chaos again, and this time his target is the very Emperor.”

He stopped in the middle, taking the cup on the dolls offered him. Shu forced himself not to comment on his words, waiting for a proper explanation about the so-called chaos – and why Rei asked if he knew something. 

“Let me ask you a different question then, my friend. If any of your dolls decided to rebel against you, how would you react?”

“There is no chance for that to happen,” Itsuki answered, full of confidence. “However, if that’ll satisfy you – I would either force it to calm down or destroy if there was no hope for repair.”

“Hm, hm. That’s surprisingly cruel for someone who creates them,” Rei nodded. “I am thankful for your sincerity, though. I believe you don’t want to stay with me and check out what’s going on, do you?”

“I shall stay away from that. Just make sure your demons won’t destroy the entire country – the Empire itself is quite useful for me, to say the least.”

 

Few weeks passed by, and Rei never explained to him his sudden appearance and strange questions. Shu managed to forget about it quickly, focusing entirely on his research. The Fallen Ones weren’t that hard to find, but he couldn’t get too much information from those who already crossed the line. 

After disposing of the next random Fallen One, Shu went back to the salon, where he noticed his student sitting on a couch with a book in his hands. 

“Kagehira.”

There was no response. His mind was absorbed by some thought. 

Kagehira.” Shu raised his tone. 

Mika almost jumped when Shu’s voice finally reached to him and hid his face behind the book he was holding. 

“Nnah, ‘m sorry! Is there somethin’ ya need?” He asked with a low voice and immediately leaned back when Shu took back the book he was holding and gave him a suspicious look. 

“You seem pretty distant today after you came back from the town.”

“Ah, that… Are ya worried ‘bout me? Glad t’ hear that, Oshi-san~”

“Not really, I just can feel that, it annoys me,” He sighed, sitting right next to Mika. “Besides, you’re not focusing on your studies.”

“It’s not really that deep, ‘m jus’…”

“You just what.”

“Um, ‘m jus’ goin’ back to the North in my head, thinkin’ ‘bout what we saw back in there… Especially when I look at Nazu-nii. It’s a strange feelin’ when you know somethin’ ‘bout him he doesn’t even remember.”

“You’ll get used to that soon. When the fragments are at your fingertips, you feel like you’re in the library full of autobiographies of the people you met only once in your life, and you know way more about them than anyone… Is Nito trying to get his memory back?”

“No! Even if he wanted to, I’d do anythin’ to stop him from that!” Mika rose up so quickly Shu had to lean back so they didn’t hit their heads. “Ah, sorry!” 

“Calm down then. And stop worrying too much, I shall teach you everything you need to know. Soon enough you’ll be able to mute not only others minds, but also your own.”

“Sometimes I wish I could jus’ destroy some of the fragments,” He sighed heavily and rested his head on Shu’s shoulder. “Eh, Oshi-san is really strong... I wanna stay next to ya ‘till the end of the world~” 

“Since when you’re that sentimental?” Shu raised his eyebrow. “Nobody is chasing you away.”

“Yeah, but… Unlike ya, Nazu-nii or Mado-nee, ‘m still jus’ a human, my time is limited. I dunno why I started thinkin’ ‘bout it.”

“Then stop, you idiot, you’re still young. If you’re stubborn, there is a lot of ways for a human to become immortal. Besides, since when you believe I shall life forever? I am a human as well.”

Mika sent him a puzzled look. 

“Mm… How many years were ya travelin’?”

A question for a question, how irritating. 

“Not as much as you might think,” Itsuki answered with a calm voice, covering his mouth with a hand. “A few years if I’m correct. Why are you looking at me like that?” 

“What, it’s hard t’ believe considerin’ what people tend to say ‘bout ya, yanno? I learned how t’ deal with souls thanks to a book ‘bout ya and that Hero of the North… It’s several years old at least.”

“…I beg your pardon?”

Now Itsuki was the one looking at Kagehira as if he saw a ghost, trying his best to get what in the hell was he talking about. Well, Wataru made a real show out of his execution that was supposed to make people believe he’s dead while he was wandering around the town, later even calming down the spirits… But since when there are books about him? He didn’t spend that much time traveling, did he?

God, how many years have passed already?

“I jus’ remembered that, and wondered… I love ya,” Mika blinked, his cheeks turning red. “All of ya. That’s why ‘m terrified when I think that one day I might jus’ disappear, and-“

“You won’t. Not on my watch.”

Itsuki said that with such a firm tone he himself couldn’t believe at first, while his hand rested on Mika’s head, patting gently.

“So you can stop worrying and rest assured nobody will hurt you. You are under my care, after all – and may the gods have mercy on anybody who will try to lay their hands on something that’s mine. No matter if you’re a doll or a human.”

“Eh, ‘m not tired at all?” Mika said that while trying to hug his master without any shame. “Hehe, yer really kind, Oshi-san. ‘m happy to hear that from ya.”

“This is the first time someone called me like that. What the hell are you doing?” 

“Nothin’ bad~ But, yanno-“

 

Shu didn’t hear the rest as he felt an enormous headache, causing him to close his eyes. When he could finally tell it was gone, Kagehira was standing in front of him with a worried look, helping him to stay straight.

“Are ya okay?” 

“…I’m fine now. What did you want to say?”

It was like Itsuki lost his consciousness for a second, it’s been years since he had such strong headaches. He forced himself to focus on his student, wondering what he tried to tell. When he had the time to stand up? 

“Naru seems like a nice person… I dunno, Oshi-san. For sure ‘m not as terrified as when that Sena guy was close t’ me…”

Shu blinked, confused. 

“You’ve been spending more time than I with her. Did something happen between two of you?” 

Mika scratched his head and helped Shu to sit dawn before he answered. 

“I have no idea what yer talkin’ ‘bout? I’ve never seen her before, she literally jus’ left with that knight … They managed to heal her from that curse. I was jus’ as confused as ya, but not t’ that degree?”

Chapter Text

...Huh?

His expression was so unusual that both Mika and Mademoiselle run to him waving their hands, visibly shocked. He was just looking at them, not really sure what he should say. Shu knew those words, Kagehira said that in the day when Narukami and Sena came to their mansion for the first time together, but… He couldn’t tell how long was it. 

What in the literal… 

When he managed to calm down a bit, he asked them for a date. 

And for some strange reason, it was the 5th month of the year. And last time he checked, it was already the 9th. The year hasn’t changed at all, so…

What happened? Why? 

Shu lost his will to explain anything to Kagehira as he walked towards the exit furious, wondering how could he find out what’s going on. Luckily, few hours after, a pair of twins appeared in front of his doors, giving him an envelope from their Lord. Rei wanted to see him, Kanata and Wataru as quick as possible in the Harbor. 

When they arrived, Shu found out all of them remembered the same, and had no idea what caused them to go back in time. That’s what they believed, until Rei send a glare at Wataru. While none of them said anything, both Shu and Kanata could feel the tension in the air - they already had a feeling, but decided to stay quiet for now, and wait.

Few days after that, Shu tried to go back and live like nothing happened, but this strange feeling couldn’t go away - it just wasn’t right. Seeing Kagehira doing almost the exact same movements was just so strange. 

Before he got used to it...

“I dunno, Oshi-san.”

He heard the exact same words again, and almost hit Kagehira, incapable of controlling himself. Then, another meeting in the Harbor - but this time, it was only three of them. Wataru didn’t come - and Kanata wondered why, considering how strange it was. Rei, however, quickly told them one thing that froze them in mere seconds:

“That’s something I cannot understand, but… It seems like when that one man dies, the time goes back to this one day like nothing.”

“Did you just… Kill Wataru?” Shu shook his head. “Why? Was there something bad that-”

“Ah, no, it wasn’t him - but indeed, he’s connected to this case. The man I’m talking about is none other than the Emperor himself - his name is Tenshouin Eichi.”

A moment of silence - Kanata and Shu weren’t sure how should they react for those words. The man Rei mentioned never bothered them too much. Unlike the rest of the blessed, he was… Well, just a man. 

“I thought we were the ‘only’ blessed here,” Shinkai raised his eyebrow. “Has something ‘changed’?”

“Not really, I believe he’s not one of us. To be fairly honest, I have no idea why is he the part of anything, but… I tested it. And saw what happened with my own eyes.”

Ridiculous, truly. They shouldn’t be even here talking about that. 

They only had one hint - the relation between the Joker and the Emperor. It was the only thing that forced them into this, and Rei was ready to be the first to test it out, asking the rest to support him from time to time. 

„I have a feeling we will hear a lot about them in the nearest future, to be honest,” Rei took a deep breath. “I’m still at lost what exactly caused this, but I do have a hint from someone. And if that’s true, then – it will be a great warning for all of us.”

Kanata and Shu looked at each other again, unsure of Rei’s words, what caused the demon to smile.

“Do you remember what I asked you before, Itsuki?” 

Shu took a moment and tried his best to remember – and when an idea came to his mind, he sent Rei a surprised gaze. The lord’s answer was blunt, leaving both Shu and Kanata speechless.

If any of your dolls decided to rebel against you, how would you react?

At that time, he didn’t think too much about it, but now, it filled his head as Shu wondered how could he connect it to their case. Have they did something wrong? Or maybe was it Wataru? The Emperor? When the doctor clasped another idea and started throwing dozens of questions at the demon, Shu was still in shock. The commotion managed to bring unwanted attention from the warrior that came back to the house, so they had to calm down in order to continue.

But there wasn’t too much they could talk about. Even Rei couldn’t answer all of their questions, saying that his only clue was connected to Wataru and that Tenshouin – that’s why he went and took his life again. 

“I found Wataru again in the Empire, he didn’t expect me to come back,” He said, incapable of hiding his smile. “I can’t tell all the details, but… Something tells me this is the moment when we got into this mess.”

The Puppeteer narrowed his eyes as he looked at the fragments from the demon’s core. Reading from living people, especially other blessed, was harder, and Rei noticed what Shu tried to do.

But he could already tell. Sakuma was still one step ahead of him and Shinkai. 

That’s why he asked for a few days to think about their situation after Rei invited them to help in the investigation, just like the doctor. 

 

Soon after Rei left the Harbor, Shinkai asked Shu to stay for a bit longer. Sitting in the room filled with a sweet aroma of tea, they looked at each other, worry painted over their faces. 

“I do not 'like' this,” Kanata tapped the cup with his finger. “We haven’t done 'nothing' wrong. It was between Rei and Wataru from the 'beginning'.”

“I agree. That’s why I find his invitation dangerous. Besides, his explanation about the current situation was lacking in details.”

After all, if he wasn’t guilty of something, he could just tell them what he had on mind, yet he clearly tried to avoid something. Both were too suspicious – after all, they never saw what happened, or if the Emperor’s death truly was the trigger. 

“Should I test it out myself?” Itsuki asked, taking a sip from the cup. “While I’m not interested in their conflict, it is worrying if that’s real, and we might get caught in that.”

“Wouldn’t that 'anger' them? It is risky, we do not even 'know' if he remembers the past~ I 'wonde'r if we can just ask Wataru for his 'version'…”

“He might just try to fool us, if he’s plotting anything with the Emperor.”

“Just like Sakuma, if he 'lied'.”

Shu couldn't really argue with that, but he was still unsure if they’ll be able to get the Joker that fast, so at first, they decided to catch a breath and check what will happen in the near future. Yes, the thought itself about going back in time was frightening, but for now, it only happened twice, so they couldn’t tell anything about it. Will it happen again? 

For now, both the doctor and the Puppeteer were on the same boat, so they decided to work together, repeating few steps of the past as if nothing happened, waiting. Nito again was asked to travel between their mansion and the Harbor, while Mademoiselle and Mika were taking their time watching the capitals of both the Empire and Yumenosaki. Shu didn't tell them what happened, and thankfully, nobody asked about anything, willing to fulfil his wishes. 

For now, everything was quiet. Nobody was paying attention on them.

 

But after two weeks, the time has moved back again. 

Rei was still stubborn, telling them that it was both Wataru’s and Tenshouin’s fault, and unless they’ll force them to forfeit their plans, the time shall move whenever the Emperor dies. 

“Then tell us what do they plan.” Shu was asking every time. 

Why this goddamn devil was avoiding the answer? He could get two allies easily, but his actions were making both Shu and Kanata mad instead. They tried to find Wataru and force him to give his own version, sending official letters and waiting, but he never answered - and even when Shu went to the Empire, he didn’t manage to find him. The only one who met him was an official, who forced Shu to leave.

To make things even stranger, Leo wasn’t aware of anything that happened. After showing Shu how much he knew about them already, they were assuming he might be a blessed himself, but their theory was crushed. 

Nothing. Zero. The third loop turned into fourth. And fifth. 

With every loop, Shu was watching his beloved doing the exact same things every day, up to a point he learned their routines perfectly. He tried not to waste time and at least work on the curse when they had no idea what to do, but that was hard for him a well. The situation was stressful, people around him - repetitive. 

It’s like Nito, Kagehira, and even Mademoiselle turned into something so predictable he couldn’t even look at them. Even if he tried to teach his student, he would forget anything in the next few days like nothing, and then proceed to show him the same tricks. Mademoiselle was buying the exact same books two days after the reset, showing it to the rest with a lovely smile and wondering if she could learn a new spell. Nito, soon after coming back from his first journey, was giving a long speech about everything he saw, wondering how much Yumenosaki differed from the North.

Hearing the exact same stories was annoying to the point where Shu was leaving in the first few minutes, shutting himself in his own room, fearing that he’ll turn resentful towards the only people that were close to him.

 

This cycle stopped when Shu lost his patience and sent a doll right to the Empire, telling that he won’t step back no matter how many officials would try to attack him. This time, they finally received an answer - even though it was disappointing, to say the least. It could be simply summarized to “Why don’t you ask Rei? After all, he was the one who started the war; he was the one to point a sword at me. My will isn’t as ill as he tries to tell you.”

He also noted he’s not interested in leaving the Empire, since it was Sakuma that kept using any dirty tactic to take Tenshouin’s life whenever he wanted to. 

So they forced Sakuma to come back to the surface and tell them exactly why he was so eager to mess with Wataru. This time, his answers changed a bit - but the problem was he didn’t know now exactly could he explain it. 

“You have to be kidding me, are you aware you two aren't the only one in this never-ending loop?” Shu asked, raising his voice. “We deserve to know, and I don’t care about your ‘I don’t know how to explain this’ talk, demon!”

“I prefer to know what do I try to explain, dear Puppeteer. The problem is, I’ll never know until I’ll learn more about the Joker.” 

He insisted it started because of the other two. The Joker and the Emperor made a dangerous deal that could possibly put all of them in danger - and it was worth breaking the very rules they were forced to follow. 

“It does not 'tell' us too much, I am 'afraid'…” 

Kanata listened to Shu’s and Rei’s argue in silence, but at some point even he got annoyed. 

“How did you even 'learn' about their deal? Maybe we will be able to 'start' from it.”

“You might not believe me, but I had a strange guest one day,” Rei sighed and sit back, closing his eyes for a second. “I’m sure you had a pleasure of meeting a young lady at some point, she was the one that told me about the rules.”

“Of course. What, has she brought a prophecy of some sorts? Is the world ending in the next year?” Shu couldn’t hide his amusement, but after seeing Rei’s offended face, he stopped.

“No, but it was a warning. She mentioned that ‘some of us are close to breaking the rules, and in that one case, all of us shall feel the punishment.’ That’s why I paid you two a visit, then I went to the Joker.” 

And then he noticed how suspicious Wataru was, even if he tried to hide it. Then, he asked what can be done to avoid the trouble - the only answer he received was to tear them apart, so she could do the rest of the cleaning. 

So he did. He killed the Emperor, since it was easier than taking down the Joker - he had to make sure Wataru won’t get too close to Eichi, who was supposed to forget about everything and get a second chance in his life. 

“That’s when we went back in time for the first time,” Rei continued. “I quickly noticed Wataru was there again, even more wary of me - and for some reason, that Tenshouin still remembered something.”

“It is 'foolish'. Why would we get 'caught' into this… Even if the Joker broke his 'rules', whatever it was, it was none of our 'concern',” Shinkai shook his head, unable to listen for too long without speaking his mind. “And why have you 'listened' to that lady?” 

“Considering how much she knows about us, I could tell she was serious - well, you can see the aftermath right now.”

 

So the only way to stop this was to force Wataru to retreat, and Shu already could tell it wasn’t the easiest task. But now, he was more convinced to give Rei any help. 

The problem was, he was afraid the rest may feel it. The kids didn’t know a thing, and no matter what, Shu wanted them to stay safe. Itsuki spent the entire day wandering around the mansion, thinking about the best way to get out without risking too much. Shinkai was still reluctant, he didn’t want to join any type of war. A quick glare at the Kingdom was enough to tell that for now nobody was willing to fight against the Empire either, even though Leo was already wary of them… 

Ah, how stupid. He shouldn’t be even a part of this mess.

“Oshi-san.”

Non, non, this is stupid. What was the deal Wataru made? What rules have been broken to the point of…

“Oshi-san!”

Shu turned around annoyed. He noticed Kagehira behind, clenching his fist on his chest with a worried expression on his face. They were already outside the mansion, and he just noticed how cold and dark already was. How much time he spent thinking? 

“I am busy. Go back and study harder,” Itsuki cleared his throat and turned once more, not willing to talk for now. “You haven’t done any progress.”

“Eh, I’ve done more that ya think, ‘m trying my best! Besides, that’s not why ‘m here. Yer actin’ strange.”

“It’s only your imagination. Go back.”

“Nope, I won’t. Don’t ya see how chaotic yer core is now, Oshi-san? It’s screamin’ ‘I have no idea what should I do now’ - and yer avoidin’ me and the rest as well!” 

Shu raised his eyebrow and slowly approached his student. Did he just say “his core”? From what he knew, Kagehira at this point in time couldn’t see through many cores, it was a piece of cake to fool him. Yet now something has changed. 

“Since when.” 

“Huh?” Kagehira blinked twice. 

“Since when you can tell?” Shu asked and took a deep breath. “What day is it?”

“Eh, the last week of the 5th month… Why?” 

So he didn’t lost the track of time, he was right. 

“Oshi-san, what’s wrong with ya?” Mika made a step closer, still unsure how should he start. “Yer so nervous, ya keep askin’ ‘bout the date, and I’ve never seen ya so lost in thoughts. We’re all worried ‘bout ya.”

“It is nothing you should be worried about, just a small thing that doesn’t let me sleep peacefully,” Itsuki averted his gaze. “I said, go back.”

“I won’t until yer tell me why.”

Shu clicked his tongue. What a stubborn kid. 

“Even Mado-nee doesn’t know what’s wron', she’s afraid ya don’t wanna talk to her as well…” Kagehira hung his head, while his hand clenched on Shu’s wrist. “It’s like ya don’t believe in us anymore. Yer so cold and distant - nothin’ like the Oshi-san I know.” 

Shu could feel how Mika’s hands were trembling, so he hesitated, sending his student a quick gaze. 

It wouldn’t be a lie if he said he forgot about them for a second. They’ve been moving like dolls, doing the exact same things over and over, and while he still loved them and wanted the best, he couldn’t look at them without some nasty thoughts about their humanity. But they still were close to him, and they noticed his behaviour. Just listening about worried Mademoiselle made his heart skip a beat. 

Ah, you’re so lucky. You didn’t know a thing about anything. That’s how it should be. 

“It’s…” The Puppeteer started, willing to keep a strong attitude, but when Mika looked at him with those eyes, he stopped. “Don’t look at me like that, for God’s sake!” 

Without thinking too much, Kagehira let go of his hand and threw himself right into his master’s arms, much to Shu’s surprise. 

“Let go of me!”

“I won’t! Oshi-san, yer stupid! Stupid, stupid! Ya make us worry thinkin’ yer ‘sposed to do everything alone, I can tell!” 

“It’s necessary, you have no idea what’s going on!”

“Then tell me so I can help ya - and if not me, then at least Mado-nee or Nazu-nii!” 

Shu wished he could scream at him, if not those eyes. Mika was looking right at his face, confident like never before - even ready to force him to speak if necessary. Seeing that, Shu couldn’t stop thinking why was that kid so eager to know - living in dark was better, and even if he’ll tell him the details, he’ll forget them in no time. Before this that, he believed it’d be just a waste of time. 

How ironic. Time was flowing by, and this kid was giving him a headache no matter what circumstances… He had to say, it was amusing in its own way. Yes, he was still a human, capable of evoking the entire spectrum of emotions in his heart. 

Before Shu noticed his own actions, his hands were already clutching Kagehira’s face, rubbing gently his cheeks with thumbs. The student blinked, unable to speak. 

“I see.”

A gentle smile appeared on his face.

“I shall think about it, then. Leave me for a bit, please.”

“Uh…” 

Mika averted his gaze, his cheeks turned red in no time. 

“Yer not tryin’ to soften me or anythin’, right?”

“Oh, you were so confident before what is going on in my core. Why won’t you look back and see for yourself?” 

Ironically, now Shu found a second to mock him for such quick mood changes. Mika looked back at him, furrowing his brows. 

“Yer not takin' my worries seriously!”

“...Yes, you’re right. Forgive me, I couldn’t stop myself. This entire circus is making me laugh.”

Oh, it had to be pretty funny for someone who wasn’t part of it, and Shu was sure that Mika’s reactions at first will be either pretty amused, or simply confused. 

To be frankly honest, he still was unsure about telling him about this, but ignoring his words - that also seemed quite cruel. Maybe that’s how Rei felt before he told them what he knew. Some ideas, no strong evidence. 

“Mm, could ya please let go of me…?” Mika’s voice was so quiet Shu almost didn’t hear that at first. “If ya need some time, I’ll wait in the mansion, okay?” 

Shu nodded his head and slowly let go of his student, watching as he send him a big smile, and then left, going right back to the mansion. When Mika disappeared from Shu’s sight, he took a deep breath and looked at the moon, wondering. Just starting this entire discussion seemed like something way harder, and he wanted them to understand the basics without hearing too many questions…

…?

In this moment, Shu noticed a movement in the bushes, slightly further away. Focusing on that, he felt a strong magical aura. Without too much thinking, he immediately sent a doll in that direction, hoping that the intruder will be quickly caught. 

Just before he ran away, he heard their surprised tone. 

The alchemist…? 

The doll followed them, but they didn’t manage to catch anyone. Going to the place they found the intruder, Shu noticed few types of herbs laying on the ground, which were growing around this location. It was surprising for anyone to find this place, even alchemists. And he never noticed any type of movement around before in any loop - something, again, has changed. 

Too many anomalies at once, he’ll have to check it out as quick as he could.

 

Click. 

A mechanical sound. 

After that, his own voice - no, his own scream. Then, sharp pain. 

 

The shock was so strong he lost composure, the pain so enormous it forced him to take a step back, leaning his back against the tree. His stomach was burning with pain, his hands quickly turned red after he tried to find the reason why. 

“Ah, so it’s working.” 

An unknown voice. When Shu recovered from panic, he looked at the silhouette in front of him - a blue-eyed tall man, wielding a weapon in his left land. He didn’t seem shocked at the view, taking his time to examine what happened, playing with the weapon in his hands. 

“Your country is really intriguing, don’t you think?” He asked with such nonchalantly as if he was showing something to Shu on a normal basis. “Guns fuelled by magic can be pretty deadly. I do wish it was more successful… Look how much blood was spilled. It must be painful.”

Shu clicked his tongue.

“Who the hell…” 

He tried to move his fingers and call other marionettes, but his own body wasn’t moving as it should. It was sudden, way to sudden. 

Ah, this warm feeling was fading away. How cold was in here, again…?

“Hm, I wonder? Is there a reason to know? I’m just doing a favor to you, my dear Puppeteer.” 

Itsuki left out a sharp laugh, quickly followed by a cough. 

“Ah, it’s nothing, trust me. Some of you were even more sadistic. But from what I know, not all of you, right?” He continued, taking a step closer. “Poor you. But don’t worry - this should work. And if, all of you shall sleep, free from this madness for the eternity.”

Even when his mind was drifting away, Shu tried to reach with his hand.

Just a bit of life energy and this man will be dead.

“But, to be honest, I am honoured to meet you while you’re still alive,” His voice turned into soft, but distant monologue. “Ah, you have created such a masterpiece - a masterpiece that will soon destroy everything people used to know.”

He was close. Just a bit.

“The chaos shall bring even the gods to their knees.”

Clench your fingers. May this fool start praying.

“Too bad I cannot show it to you, so…”

He aimed the gun right to the Shu’s face.

“Good night.”




“...!”

This sharp pain was still here. In the stomach, and now in the head. 

It was like someone teared down his entire face. 

He fell to his knees, pressing his both hands to the right part of his head, unable to look around. After a bit, someone put a hand of his shoulder and started shaking him, trying to get back his attention. 

Mademoiselle and Kagehira were in front of him, seemingly terrified by the sudden scream. 

“Huh?” 

There was no blood on Shu’s hands. 

He wasn’t in the forest anymore. 

“What day…” Shu’s voice was shaking as he asked, once more, for a current date. Mademoiselle glanced at Mika, her face being a mix of shock and confusion, but she managed to answer his question.

It was the fifth month. 

 

Whenever an anomaly was taking them by surprise, all three of the Blessed required a new meeting in the Harbor. And this time, even Rei was speechless about the whole situation - because all three of them died during the last loop. 

Yet they came back to life, and another loop has started. 

However, not all details were working perfectly - both Rei and Kanata noticed different changes through the loop, noticiting that people around them behaved like they were close to the truth about the time loops. So Kagehira wasn’t the only one who surprised him. 

What was even more surprising was the type of death all of them encountered. Shu and Rei had a chance to look at their killers, having a hard time to save their lives - Kanata, on the other hand couldn’t, it had to be a poison that took his life. All of them, though, heard the exact same words at some point:

“We’re doing this for you, so you can escape this madness and sleep.”

None of them had any idea how should they were supposed to understand that, but they knew one thing - Eichi and Wataru were no longer hiding their true colours. 

Because it was none other than the Emperor who took Itsuki’s life back there, and Wataru gave Rei a disturbing show before the finale. 

It was a day when Kanata and Shu agreed to give Rei a bit of help dealing with the Empire, annoyed by the fact they were treated like this. But with one question answered, another one has appeared. 

They had a plan and believed it might work. They took away their lives. Why they were back in the time again? 

Oh, looking for answers this time definitely won’t be the easiest, but Shu already was ready to pay back the humiliation Tenshouin has offered to him. 

It was bold of him to assume he’ll be so easy to kill. 

 

That’s how the loops became fast-paced as the Blessed put all their hatred into one goal - forcing the Emperor to speak. While Kanata was only giving small suggestions and keeping sharp ears, Rei and Shu were taking their time planning how to take Eichi’s life in order to fill his heart with despair. 

At first, Itsuki believed Rei was taking too much pleasure in scheming such brutal executions, seeing how someone could try to strike back, just like the Emperor did. But fairly quickly he noticed that Eichi and Wataru were playing dirty as well - and so, those loops became a battlefield of two chess players, using every single piece on the board to defeat the other in the most violent way possible. 

For now, surprisingly, Itsuki was out of their interest. For now.

He even suggested Rei to use the young alchemist that was strolling around the mansion on that day - a boy named Sakasaki Natsume, as he learned from Mademoiselle. Shu couldn’t tell how much a coincidence was the fact he went there, but well. It was just an alchemist. Rei used his hunger for knowledge to get another assassin who lived in the very Empire itself. Their mages were a nuisance, so Sakasaki was working on taking them down.  

Soon after that decision, the kingdom sent Aoba to help finding the murderer, so Shu could catch a breath, since knight’s visits became less often. So they killed two birds with one stone.

The more time was passing by, the more Itsuki’s heart was closing inside, cutting away any contact with people around him. This revenge turned into a loop itself. They were forgetting how much time has passed, became so used to the view of violence they didn’t care about the truth anymore. 

Even the Puppeteer couldn’t look at his beloved without this strange feeling of emptiness somewhere in his mind. They looked like dolls. Always moving the same, easy to manipulate, easy to kill, easy to replace. He stopped counting how many times Mademoiselle was wondering where could they get more lirium, how many times Nito wanted to leave the mansion, how many times Mika asked him to explain their situation. Even Arashi, who was capable of disturbing Shu with sudden mood changes, turned into nothing more but a nuisance he wanted to get rid off. 

The Puppeteer closed them in a house and forced to stay still, while he took his remaining time to do a proper research about the curse in hopes to use it against Tenshouin. At first, he was wondering how was that even working, so he was observing as many victims as he could. How their minds changed after crossing the border, how they reacted, how dangerous they were. 

The informations he got from this weren't satisfying him at all. All of them looked almost the same - forced to think about one scene in their life. The first one used to be a guardian. A second one - a simple hunter. They continued their jobs, mumbling under their noses about the same tasks, same situations, over and over, without feeling how much time passed. Not all of them were as aggressive as the King told him, but when he found one, he could tell why the knights preferred to hunt all of them down.

Those beasts felt no pain. No matter how much they suffered from the wounds - they could continue on attacking like animals. So this curse was literally turning people into monsters lost in time. 

But he had no idea how one could even become a victim. 

So Shu tried to force someone into the contact with the Fallen Ones. Nothing happened.  

He brought innocent people into traps, wondering if tortures could do anything. But no. 

He tried to ask Shinkai about his ideas, but the doctor quickly forced him to leave. 

At some point even Tsukinaga learned about his ways and forced him to tone it down.

Itsuki was back in the same place as the war continued, feeling like something died inside him. He felt nothing. Just boredom. People around him were doing what he wanted, danced like beautiful dolls. They were so easy to move as he asked them to. Even if they wanted to fight back, there was no use. Marionettes had to listen to their master.

And Kagehira?

He was his student. Of course he also listened to him. Seeing that Shu wasn’t satisfied with his work, Mika even started avoiding him unless he had to speak.



“Oshi-san, I really want ya to-!” 

“Shut up, Kagehira. I’m busy.” 

For the tenth time in row, Mika lost his patience and bursted right into Itsuki’s room, as his master was noting any anomalies that appeared during this loop. Shu didn’t even move an inch, perfectly aware of his annoyance, and continued his work. Kagehira hesitated and stopped in the middle of the room, wondering what he should do now, but decided not to give up and came right to the desk.

“I’m not leavin’ today until ya tell me what’s wrong with ya,” Mika furrowed his eyebrows as he forced Shu to look at him. “Yer avoidin’ us like nothin’, there’s-”

“No life in my eyes?” Shu cut him of shortly and rolled his eyes. “Was there any, I wonder? I’m a goddamn master of the dead. Wouldn’t be surprised if I was dead as well.”

“Uh… No, yer definitely alive, ya still have a life energy around.”

Shu didn’t even try to force a hint of smile. 

“Good, your eyes are still sharp. Is there something new? If not, leave at once and stop disturbing my work.”

“Yer cold! Cold like a murderer!”

“I kill on a daily basis. What did you think I was doing to all these Cursed before turning them into masterpieces?”

“Yer not even workin’ on the curse.” 

That was true. After he got stucked, he was always playing dumb, even if Narukami was coming here for the exact same reason. Well, at least pushing Kagehira right into her hands was enough for both of them to shut up. 

“Doctor Shinkai is currently working in this regard.”

“Have ya turned into a empyrial golem?!” Mika shook his head annoyed. “It’s like ‘m talkin’ to one! Shut up this, stop botherin’ me that - this is not the Oshi-san I know, there’s no warm in ya anymore!” 

“There is more than you believe, you idiot,” Itsuki couldn’t stand that talk and finally stood up, making Kagehira step back. “Because of my work, all of you are safe from the outside world! Have you got any idea what would happen to you if I let them get close to you?”

“I dunno who are those people?!”

“Oh yes, me as well! I wonder, who could be even more dangerous rather than a Puppeteer with a half-broken mind?”

Itsuki reached out for a knife and threw it right into the direction the voice came from. 

“Oh, sharp. Better luck next time.”

“Get out, Joker,” Itsuki stepped closer and forced Kagehira to stay close to him. “I do not recall sending an invitation for you.”

Wataru showed up after a while, sitting comfortably on a bed, leaning his chin on his hand. He watched the Puppeteer with a small hint of a smile on his face.

“I’ve been wondering how is my friend doing - how much time passed since we met, I wonder?”

“A lot. Since like you’ve been busy leading this hideous, macabre dance of yours.”

Hibiki’s smile widened. 

“Such a pleasing view, don’t you agree?” He laughed, but even with that, Shu could notice a hint of venom in Wataru’s voice. “It's still nothing compared to you though, my lord. Have you finally lost your humanity? Was playing with the fate of us, that little alchemist, and even your own beloved student that enjoyable?”

Wataru gazed upon Kagehira, but Shu quickly moved, cutting his way through between them. 

“Leave now, Kagehira. This doll loves pouring poison to the eyes and ears of any person that cannot distinguish truth from a lie. He will lure you into a trap before you’ll notice.”

“Oh no, he has to stay! After all, Kagehira deserves to know what type of scum his Master really is.”

A moment later, Hibiki was already standing in front of the doors. His smile disappeared without a trace, giving his face a cold, emotionless look. Shu bit his lip, seeing how rage slowly turned into confusion on Mika’s face.

“After all, you see, calling this man a human is like cursing the entire human race,” Joker continued, slowly approaching them. “Have you seen that? The way he toyed with lives of innocent people, how he tortured them to research the curse, no! Have you noticed that your dear Master, that you could give away your life for his happiness, doesn’t even care about your life at all, how he sees you as the useless pile of trash that should be finally disposed of?”

Shu couldn’t listen to more of his words. His hands moved drastically, calling the golden strings, telling them to shut this disobedient doll up, and force to surrender once more. But when the strings should’ve reached the core, the Puppeteer was standing in a different spot, right in front of Wataru and Mika. The Joker pat his shoulder, pointing his finger at Shu.

“What a passion,” He said, rolling his eyes. “He didn’t even try to deny my words, maybe because he knows how true are those? If he wasn’t guilty, he just had to give us his words. Forcing someone to shut up isn’t the best evidence, right? Just as we talked about earlier.” 

“Oshi-san’s stressed out by yer presence. ‘m not that surprised…”

Even if he tried to protect his Master, Kagehira’s voice was shaking. 

“I am fairly sure I’ve ordered you to stay away from this man, Kagehira.” 

“I just came to warn him about you, and it seems he already noticed, so of course he listened to me. After all… You’re the biggest monster in this room. Not me, not the Emperor, but you. You’re the one who brought the biggest massacre upon those you loved so much.” 

Wataru slowly took his hand from Mika’s shoulder and moved towards Shu, letting a crooked smile to widen with every word he said, seeing the fear in the Puppeteer’s soul, as he was waving his hands, still trying to force Wataru into surrender.

“Who are those people you care so much?” 

Another strings came. But Wataru didn’t flinch at all. 

“Because I can see everything.”

The Joker stopped right in front of him. His smile turned into a wild, unnatural grin. 

“It’s just a show for you, isn’t it?” He reached with his hands to Shu’s face, slowly leaning over his ear. “It’s okay to be honest with yourself. If you hate your student so much…”

His voice turned into a whisper.

“Why don’t you kill him right now?”

Shu was standing speechless. He couldn’t feel his hands, even though the Joker was so close to him. 

Just right now, he noticed something that made his heart skip few times. 

It was the view of Kagehira who was shaking with his hand pressed on his chest, with eyes full of tears, as he was looking at him. 

Tell me it’s a bunch of lies… Ya won’t, right?

No words have been spoken - this wish came right from the core of his soul.

No, no, no. It’s not real, I would not…!

“Are you sure, Shu? Come on, toss that broken toy out, nobody will call you out for that!”

Shut up. 

Shutupshutupshutup, you disgusting Marionette!

Feeling the rage so strong he was burning, Shu finally snatched out of his shock and pushed the Joker, and reached for the knife he threw earlier. Very good, if the core isn’t responding, there is a lot more ways to stop that goddamn doll!

Shu already understood how fool of him was to give Wataru a body. He should stay away from anyone to the rest of his life, forgotten. Now he was paying the price of that, seeing how much he messed up both his and Mika’s mind. 

“I’ve made a mistake when I helped you there - and now I shall repair it right here, Joker!”

“Do you have the courage to kill with your own hands though? You’re just a coward who used dolls to take lives!”

Wataru was taking too much pleasure in mocking him, running away from the Puppeteer. 

Ah, think about it! This madness, loopholes, everything! If Shu would get his hands on this stupid doll, he’ll be able to close this crazy history like nothing! All that misery, wasting time and pain - all of that would be gone!

Once and for all. He’ll be praying for mercy. 

 

And finally. 

The knife has reached the body of this Marionette, piercing through the material, stopping right in front of core. Shu could reach it easily. He smiled and looked at Wataru’s face, pleased to see how Wataru finally showed his confusion.

But that confusion quickly changed into a smile.

Shu heard a sinister laugh, and a black fog appeared, as he felt his own heart beating like crazy. What was happening? Why now? He surely managed to win this fight…

But.

There wasn’t Wataru anymore in front of him.

It was

Kagehira.

This knife was plunged perfectly right into his heart. 

When Shu finally came back to mind, Kagehira was raising his arms in terror, as if he wanted to reach to his Master’s face.

Or to his neck to strangle him.

Still shocked, Itsuki started moving back, pulling back the weapon. Shortly his hand turned red, and Kagehira’s body followed him, softly whispering his last question:

“Ya… Really hate me…?”

He felt right into Itsuki’s arms, as the Puppeteer lost his balance and fell down on his knees, feeling the warm liquid running down through his fingers.

 

“Do you feel better now?”

Wataru was leaning in front of him again, looking directly at Shu’s face.

“There is one thing I hate more than this farce, Puppeteer,” The Joker said with a cold tone. “It is your behaviour. Thinking of us as we are nothing more than dolls that can be easily resurrected and forced to obey… I want to vomit when I think about that - maybe those rules at some point were a good idea. But, well… Let me grant your wish.”

Itsuki shook his head, not willing to listen.

“I shall kill you as many times as needed, help you losing the last part of your humanity. You shall never forget this feeling.”

YOUR HEART WILL BE TORN TO PIECES.

 

His answer was a scream. Loud, wild scream, as he showed the entire world his true feelings.

There was no grace and style he was known for years. 

Shu was reduced to a simple life being.

Then he came back to his senses, Wataru wasn’t in the room anymore. Mika’s body was laying in front of him, staring at him with a dead gaze, reminding him of the sin he committed. 

Itsuki couldn’t even move - it was like his entire body froze. He felt like the time stopped, piercing his entire body with the truth. The hands of the clock moved, when Nito came back to the mansion and entered the room. Upon seeing the scene, he wasn’t sure how to react, until he connected all the dots.

The knife. 

The blood on Shu’s hands. 

Mika. 

His instincts forced Nazuna to run towards Shu with a weapon, pinning him to the ground and trying to avenge his dear friend. Shu couldn’t even hear his screams, unsure if he should let him do the job. At last, though, he cut the connection between Nazuna’s core and the lirium, causing the doll to fall down, lifeless. 

 

Cruel silence has reigned in the residence, interrupted only by the quiet sobbing of the Puppeteer.

Chapter Text

When Itsuki managed to come back to his senses, he was already in a different place. He had no idea how much time he spent in the mansion after what he’s done there - until Narukami found him and brought to the Harbor, so Shinkai could help him understand what happened. 

But Shu already knew. He was an idiot, he let Wataru toy with him however he wanted to. Of course he wasn't stupid enough to come there, knowing that Shu can easily take control over his body… Both of them knew how that could end. Yet he let the Joker play his role perfectly. Because of him, the sight of Kagehira's dead body will haunt Shu in his dreams. He couldn't stop thinking about it. The only thing that was making him feel better was the fact he could be reborn as a soul, or even the Observer... If so, then no matter if the time will go back again. Shu will take care of him and explain everything so Mika won't have to suffer for too long. 

Even if he was terrified to see this student again.

But... Much to his fear, none of the Knights informed him about any souls wandering around the mansion. Even the demons sent by Rei haven't sensed anyone. 

Knowing that, Shu gave up on hope, believing he will never be able to atone for what he's done. Up to a point where Shinkai didn't allow him to leave his house, trying his best to save his sanity,  but nothing was strong enough to cure his pain caused by the macabre he committed, all prepared by the Joker. 

And as he expected, the time has moved again, and he came back to the same day. He heard Mika's voice again. 

Itsuki had no time to get used to the silence that prevailed in the mansion after everyone, including even him died, somewhere deep in his mind. But something was wrong. His heart was beating loudly as if it was a bell capable of breaking his bones inside, alarming the entire body about the danger.

"Oshi-san?" 

Shu's gaze slowly focused on a silhouette of his student, who was looking at him with a soft smile on his face.

"...Everything is okay," Shu answered with a weak voice, rubbing his eyes with hands. "Have you said something?"

"Mm. I have a request, If I can."

"Y-yes?"

Mika hid his arms behind his back.

"Next time try not t' kill me, okay?"

 

Ever since that day, something snatched.

In every single loop, Kagehira was dying at some point. 

Without any warning. Without a chance to save his life. Coming closer to him, with Shu’s state of mind, was a terrible torture - with all those words and thoughts pushing through, burning every last bit of hope in his mind. He wasn’t the one taking Mika’s life, yet he believed it was his fault. He did it before. He turned into a mindless idiot that wished people around him would dance for him or disappear. And the gods, who wielded the fate, granted the wish of the Blessed.

Or was it the Joker? He, too, was capable of fate-changing acts. Just like he saved Shu’s life in the past, he destroyed Kagehira’s. 

This boy just wanted to get close to him, slowly. Destroy all the barriers and fear, to stay right next to him, even when Shu was descending into madness forced by the loop.

Yet he ignored his wish and pushed him away, taking everything Mika had. His abilities, his happiness, his fate-

And his very own life.

And now, when Shu tried to save him for once from his own wrongdoing, Kagehira was gone. Dying again, and again - so many times Shu lost the count, as well as any hope. 

And whenever he had the energy to stand in front of him, he could see those eyes - so innocent, yet so cold at the same time. And hear his voice, asking questions that froze the blood in his veins, as they seemed too abstract to even hear it from the boy that has never seen the loops. 

“Am I useless?” 

No, you are not. Do not listen to them.

“Am I really that talentless?”

You are not. You are the only mage I have ever encountered with those abilities of yours. Now I see how amazing you are.

“Why do you hate me?”

Who said I do, stop it. I have never-

“Why did you kill me?” 

“Do you want me to disappear?”

 

W H E N  W I L L Y O U  F I N A L L Y D I E?

...I  hate you.

It’s your fault.

Give it back. 

Give my fate back.

Give it back. 

Let me live, you murderer!

 “Forgive me!” Shu would scream to himself, even if nobody heard those words. “Ah, what have I done, my sin shall never be forgotten… I’m so sorry…”

 

Soon, he lost all the energy to even leave his room. To live, to do anything. All those words…It was too much. He completely forgot when Kagehira cursed him as well. How much he hated him? What was happening outside? When will he be forgotten? None of this questions had any answer - time around Shu froze as he closed himself and his own heart in a vicious cycle of regrets and sadness, silently wishing for a miracle that could save Mika.

Not even him, he didn't deserve it.

People around him tried to reach to him, but he didn’t let them.

He had no will to fight any longer.

He let the fate rip them to shreds.

 

 

“Itsuki, for fuck’s sake, listen to me at least or open those cursed doors!”

The voice from the other side caught his attention. For the first time in ages, it was Izumi’s voice. 

“Look, we had a deal. We’ve never expected you to work for only a good place to live, we also proposed to protect you if that was needed - why the hell you’ve never told Naru the Empire was after you!” 

What do you mean…?

“We've got your student,” After a short break, the knight continued. “He was running errands on the entire goddamn continent for your sake and they tried to assassinate him - what the hell is wrong with you two?”

Huh?

Kagehira… Survived an attack?

“Before you’ll ask - yeah, he’s here, all shaken, but safe. Look, I’m not going to dwell into your private matters, but you could at least give him a minute, for crying out loud. Why again, kid...? For a cure, got it. So get out and talk, I’m leaving you two alone!”

Itsuki felt like his heart could rip through his chest as he tried to catch his breath. Nothing made sense. He did nothing.

Yet, the slowly rose up and came to the doors, reaching to the knob with a shaking hand. 

“...It’s okay if ya don’ wanna leave yet.” 

Kagehira’s voice was quiet, hesitant - there was a small force that hit the door, followed by a hiss. 

“‘m fine. Jus’ tell me one thing. What are ya afraid of?”

Another skip.

“Ya hafta t’ understand… I’ve never said I hate ya. Even if I feared ya before, you’ve never abandoned me, even when annoyed by my actions - goin’ as far t’ save my life. Don’cha think this time it’s the reverse? Why are ya runnin’ away from me and not believin’?”

“Please… Tell me everything when you’ll feel better, I’m always ready t’ listen. I’ll wait until ya open the door by yourself and see ya again. Tell me If I was right, who broke ya this much. Even if it’s the King, the Emperor, the goddamn Joker, even the gods themselves - I’ll go to the hell and back for ‘em-”

“Don’t! Don’t you even let anyone to get you into that mess, I am begging you!”

Soon enough, the door has been opened, as true Itsuki’s feelings managed to take control over his worries.

In front of Shu, Kagehira was standing, wearing a warm smile on his face. Yet Itsuki could feel the terrifying, suffocating feeling, as if he knew what question would be asked soon. 

“...Yer finally lookin’ at me.”

This feeling disappeared soon after Shu heard his soft voice as he moved towards him, taking Shu’s hands in his own. The Puppeteer could see the amount of bandages all around his head and hands, as well as those hiding behind his clothes. 

“...Do not,” Shu slowly took a breath. “Do not meet that man by yourself. I am begging you, never, whatever would force you. This devil knows no mercy.”

And do not force yourself for my sake. 

“Well... Someone had t’ go,” Mika averted his eyes for a second. “Nobody had any idea what happened t’ ya, why did ya fear us… Especially me. I thought I’ve done somethin’ bad, but… I’ve never seen ya so terrified.”

“I’ve hurt you. I deserve it well, don’t I?”

“No, that doesn’t make any sense -  you’ve never done any harm to us, yet ya believe so! What is goin’ on, ya know well ‘m an idiot that needs an explanation...”

But Shu had no idea what to say.

“Stop ignorin’ me. There is no way in hell to know what t’ do,” Kagehira started forcing him to move backwards, eyes focused on him. “So talk t’ me and stop believin’ I hate ya! Who the hell told ya that bullshit? Why is yer core filled with all that self-hatred? Self-guilt? Who broke the mighty Puppeteer, who dared to!” 

Tell me, you goddamn-!

Shu moved out of the way just before he would’ve fall down due to all the force Mika used - and stopped, when the young mage hissed in pain, clutching his stomach. Seeing that, Itsuki quickly closed the doors and forced Kagehira to sit on the bed, just so he could catch a breath and calm down. The student breathed sharply three times, and opened his eyes slowly. 

“Stop pushing yourself. You are in no condition to-”

“Look who’s talkin’, ya weren’t able t’ leave the bed few minutes ago.”

Having no strength to indulge into a word’s fight, the Puppeteer slowly sat next to Mika, hiding his face in his hands. It’s not like he was wrong, but...

It’s your fault. 

A real idiot, I dare to say. 

Look, he’s weakened. Why not try to kill him again? 

Try, try. 

You hate each other after all.

Shut up. 

Are ya listenin’ to me? 

Nobody will notice-

I told you all to shut up!

“...There.” 

His attention jumped immediately as the strange light bursted. Few seconds later, he noticed Kagehira right in front of him, both hands put on Shu’s temples. 

“What in the-”

“Gotcha,” A hint of smile appeared on the student’s face. “Oshi-san, I think I got that.”

Nothing was making any sense. But seeing his face, slightly lightening up, while he was looking straight into his Master’s eyes… 

For the first time in ages, his vision didn’t turn dark. It was just his student, smiling. 

“Ya look so terrible… Ya spent so much time without us, but I can’t really tell if ya slept at all, yanno?” Mika was mumbling, doing his best to stop the tears rounding in the corners of his eyes. “I heard that. Why would ya even think I want ya dead? Why didja run away and didn’t even tell us about yer feelings? If not me, then Mado-nee and Nazu-nii are still here.”

“...It is not something you could just believe, even if I said all the truth to you,” Shu started, hesitant. “And-”

“That’s why yer a goddamn idiot! Stupid, stupid, stubborn idiot! Memories exists so they can be shared, ya can move them freely, yet ya didn’t!”

“I cannot.”

“Huh?”

“I cannot show you the exact fragments in the same way as I do to the dolls. There is a big difference - you will not feel as if you lived through them. Telling does not work as showing.” 

Kagehira blinked few times, slowly taking his hands away. Shu took a deep breath and closed his eyes. 

“Whatever. I feel like I have been forced to wake up from a nightmare,” He said with a weak, distant voice. “What day is it…?”

He stood in the dark for so long he got lost in the time, and now, someone forced him to open his eyes. And it was the very same boy that was doing it before, calling him a stubborn idiot. 

The Puppeteer shivered, feeling a sudden touch out of nowhere. When he opened his eyes, Kagehira, still smiling, slowly pulled him closer to himself, pressing their foreheads together.

“Yeah,” He said, gently patting his head. “Ya had a terrible nightmare, it’s time t’ wake up. Welcome back.”

Itsuki took a deep breath. 

“...Forgive me.” 

“I have no idea why are ya askin’ for it, but… I won’t, until yer goin’ t’ tell me what’s botherin’ ya, Oshi-san.”

“I should have done it earlier,” Shu couldn’t help but smile. “I almost did. But then a lot of happened.”

“Can tell. Do ya wanna sleep a bit, though?”

“And fall into a nightmare again? No, this time I am going to respect your own will,” Shu slowly escaped Kagehira’s embrace, so he could look into his eyes again. “But I want you to listen, because just as I said earlier - you have to believe me. Unlike dolls, I cannot simply put them into your head and make them real.”

After taking another deep breath, Itsuki focused on his own core, waking up all the moving fragments that were flowing around. All of them seemed pretty messy. Chaotic, not properly connected to each other - for once, seeing his own head was even worse than other people. Thankfully, it didn’t take much time to remember every single memory he needed, so he slowly started telling Mika everything he could.

The student was listening in a complete silence, while the entire spectrum of emotions ran on his face. Small embarrassment, happiness, fear, sadness, annoyance - those were changing so fast Itsuki quickly stopped counting all of them. When he was done, Kagehira shook his head few times, looking at the floor. 

“How long was it? It seems too unreal…”

“I believe it is better that I do not remember. Long enough to lose count.”

“I wish I could see that Emperor and the Joker burnin’ in hell,” Mika’s fists clenched as he looked at Itsuki again. “Ya didn’t deserve any of that.”

“No, at some point, I believe I deserved a lesson,” Shu sighed. “At least, he was right that I lost my way somewhere in that war - I stopped acting like a human should.”

“That’s not the reason t’ bring the nightmares jus’ like they did, it’s unfair an’ brutal!”

“At least it worked.”

 Before he could add anything, an open hand slapped his cheek with a force enough to twist his face. Shu hissed and put his hand on a fresh trace, sending Kagehira a truly surprised gaze.

“No, it didn't,” Mika’s voice was shaking as much as his hand. “He brought ya so deep down yer not even thinkin’ ‘bout yerself. Who the hell are ya? Oshi-san’d never let a stupid doll that betrayed him to step on him jus’ like that!”

It was hard to fight against that. He was right.

Itsuki Shu wasn't someone who let others control himself so easily. He was supposed to die for his own beliefs, looking down at the fools to dared to try to fill his head with their poison. Why was he letting a doll - created by him, to make it even more ironic - to control him?

Shu was slowly gathering his thoughts, while his student's gaze was travelling all across his face, waiting for him to say something. Though, at some point, Mika couldn't withstand the pressure and started talking first.

"Promise ya won't hide yer worries anymore." 

"Stop looking at my face like that when you are asking for it."

A short "eh?" escaped from Kagehira's lips when he noticed the distance between them was so small they almost were hitting their noses. His cheeks turned red in no time, as he tried to move back in order to give Shu is personal space back. 

He stopped, when Itsuki’s hand rested on his cheek, completely surprised by this. 

“However - I shall not ignore your wish. May that be the symbol of my promise to you.”

It was a small, soft kiss - nothing that lasted for more than few seconds. Yet it was enough for the young mage to lose himself in a train of thoughts, while his face turned so red, Shu couldn’t help but smile while watching. Mika tried to say anything, but he was losing his voice whenever he was opening his mouth. He managed only to press his hand on Shu’s, while the Puppeteer slowly let go of his cheek, and closed his eyes. 

„...Y-Yer tired.”

„Who wouldn’t be? But, to be frankly honest, I am a bit terrified to fall asleep," He sighed, laying his head on the pillow. “It is hard to say when I am awake and when I am forced to watch this goddamn nightmare. Maybe it is still a dream, Kagehira? Maybe there is not any loop at all?” 

“That’s a pretty big nightmare then, an’ I have no idea how I can wake ya up. However…” Mika couldn’t help but giggle a bit. “‘ll stay next to ya the entire night, so ya can sleep peacefully. Bad thoughts are out~”

“It is embarrassing, so stop.”

“Eh, but ya did the exact same for me before?” 

“...Did I?” Shu blinked. “I do not remember.”

“Really? Soon after ya brought me back to the mansion, I had a lot of nightmares, yanno?” Mika took one of the pillows and hugged it, laying right next to Shu. “Madonee’s magic wasn’t workin’ at all, so at some point, ya came to my room annoyed, then laid tight next t’ me, sayin’ yer not leavin’ until I’ll stop cryin’.”

“Really, for some reason I cannot even imagine that,” Itsuki chucked softly. “It sounds too childish for me.”

“Eheheh, but that worked, so let me remind ya by doin’ the same~ No matter what bad dreams are eatin’ yer mind, I’ll be right next to ya – so sleep peacefully, yer safe with me. And promise me one thing, Shu.”

Itsuki tilted his head, surprised by the fact Kagehira just used his name instead of the title.

“Don’t think ‘bout hidin’ yer pain like that, ever,” His hands tightened on Shu’s arm. “Tell me in every single loop. And if not me, at least Nazu-nii and Madonee…”

“As I said, I shall respect your wish. Just be aware, it is not going to be an easy task to bring all those memories to you.”

“Mm, I still wanna try, though. But first, rest well. G'night, Oshi-san~”

 

Itsuki finally managed to sleep through the entire night without waking up in cold sweat, free from the nightmares. And the view of Mika peacefully sleeping right next to him felt as if he, for once, won with the fate, even though it was the knight’s merit.

On the next day, both of them asked Nito and Mademoiselle for a small talk, showing them the memories, just as Shu promised. Seeing it as if they experienced them in the past, they stayed speechless for quite a time – especially Nito, when he saw the very scene when he tried to kill Shu. It wasn’t the easiest talk, but it made the Puppeteer feel somehow easier, as if he lost a great weight in his heart.

Soon after this, he followed Kagehira’s idea to meet with the doctor first, as he believed the cause of his mind state was hiding somewhere deeper. 

To be honest, though, coming back to the Harbor after such a long time was slightly distressing for him – but if someone could help him notice that thing he couldn’t, that was Shinkai.

“Shu!”

The doctor jumped at him with such a speed Shu almost had to catch him mid-air. Then, he proceeded to gaze at his face without saying a word that made him step back.

“What 'happened'?” Shinkai asked with a soft voice. “You disappeared with no 'trace' for so long even Tsukinaga lost his 'patience'… And then 'someone' attacked you? I know 'nothing', I heard only a 'suggestion' from that knight…”

“With all due respect, I would like to skip this topic,” Shu did his best to avoid Kanata’s gaze. “It is better, though. Thank you, Shinkai.”

“Mm, I wonder. You do look 'better' than the last 'time' when Narukami brought you to me, so I am 'happy'~ But you still seem pretty 'worried' over 'something'? All of the Blessed are like that, something 'bad' happens in their 'life' and a~all of you stay 'silent' for some reason, just like 'stubborn' kids.”

Itsuki couldn’t help but chuckle at this doctor’s words. 

“Suddenly you are so full of yourself, young boy, aren’t you?” He asked while smirking, but Shinkai’s grumpy face made him completely lost his cool and laugh, taking a bit for him to collect himself. “Give me a minute to explain this, maybe you can see something more.”

Shinkai raised his eyebrows as Shu went deeper into his house, looking for a calm place they could talk. After finding it, before Kanata could ask what he was talking about, Itsuki asked him to investigate the fragments in his soul. Judging by his face, Shinkai really had no idea where to start, until he frowned his eyebrows and put a hand to his mouth. 

“Uh… What is that?” With a finger of the second hand, Kanata tried to point out a single, strange fragment, moving between the memories. “I am not an 'arcane' mage and I see this 'thing' for the first 'time' in my 'life', to be honest… At first glance, there is nothing out of 'ordinary' in your core, but I can see some 'distortions' connected to the negative 'emotions' - those can be caused by the 'nightmares'. Those distortions seem to be the 'strongest' around the 'memories' with your 'student'. Though from what I 'see', the 'relation' between you two is far 'better' than before~?”

„That is also a long story, allow me to skip it,” Shu averted his eyes so he could avoid Shinkai’s curious gaze, what caused him to giggle. “So he was right. Can you see when this thing is reacting?”

“Not really, it is 'calm' for now… But it looked like it tried to 'work' when I mentioned your 'student', the 'distortions' thankfully were easily 'blocked'. I can assure you it is not 'spiritual' type of magic; I would 'recognize' it.”

“I see. That will be useful as well. Thank you very much, doctor.”

“Ehehe, you are 'welcome'~ I hope Kagehira’s ideas will be 'helpful' to you.”

Itsuki’s brow furrowed as he wondered what Shinkai had on his mind. Shinkai giggled again and came closer to him, taking Shu’s hat off, then patting his head. The Puppeteer tried to escape his gesture, but Kanata didn’t give up that easily.

“What the hell are you-“

“After all these 'years' spent in this loop, we have 'forgotten' we are not 'alone' in this world,” Kanata said with a soft voice, as if he was talking to a child. “I think you should 'keep' that boy 'close' to yourself, Shu… Puka, puka~”

 

His words, even if short, forced Itsuki to think about it for a bit – before he was reminded they didn't have time to waste if they wanted to follow Kagehira’s trail of thoughts. Ironically though, the place Mika brought him after Shinkai’s house almost made him laugh. Out of all places, their next target was the very alchemist Shu already knew, young boy named Sakasaki Natsume, who after many loops of playing against the Empire was working as the empyreal alchemist again, as if nothing happened – unaware of the terror he has brought to the town not that long ago. To be honest, Itsuki had no idea what has changed – the only idea he had was that Wataru somehow calmed him down and cut his contact with the demons. 

Well, the truth is, he didn’t have the chance to check out what was happening for quite a long time. 

Immediately after they entered the shop, alchemist’s sharp eyes focused on Kagehira, as if he expected his arrival. Kagehira nodded his head and told him that their last discussion gave him a lot of ideas, hence he wanted to expand their theory a bit and wondered if he had something more to guide him. So they already knew each other better than Shu expected – before then, this shop was simply a good place to get more lirium and other magical items. Since when did they become friends? 

Itsuki was listening to their talk in a complete silence – they were mostly talking about the illusions and how it could affect someone’s mind or emotions in detail, while Kagehira tried to use his knowledge about the souls to merge it into even more crazy ideas. For some reason, the more Shu was listening about it, the more he was clenching his fist, feeling an uneasy wave coming back to him. Natsume at some point even asked him to show the magical weave, which was the thing Kanata discovered earlier. It wasn’t the easiest task, considering he couldn’t see the souls and fragments just like Shu or Mika, so that required some visual references. And even more arcane magic. Shu gave up on trying and let his student take the stage.

When Mika managed to show Natsume something close to the real picture, he watched it carefully, scratching his chin with a strange smile on his face – which disappeared soon after he snapped his fingers.

“This thing looks like a finely prepared illusion speLL,” He said with a low voice. “I’ve never seen it before, and honestly, selling that patent to Northern mages would turn you into riches in no tiME. I don’t get all that kind-of-necromancy and shamanism thing when it comes your fragmenTS. But the spell itseLF? Definitely an illusiON. High-leveled one, eVEN.”

“Nah, it’s okay. Don’ think t’ much ‘bout that, explainin’ could take weeks,” Mika waved his hand, still trying to keep the visual reference he created. “Can you point the exact type? That could help in learning how t’ neutralize it… Mm, it’s advanced type, but it doesn’t look like it’s workin’ on itself?”

“Stop a bit, Romeo, you’re going too faST.”

However, no matter how embarrassing that was, Shu quickly fully lost interest in their conversation, unable to keep up with more and more advanced terms connected to their professions. Even if he looked like a mage himself, Itsuki never was an arcane adept, nor he tried to learn it or had any talents, unlike Kagehira. Both his and Shinkai’s abilities were closely tied to an entirely different branch of magic. Shamanism, even necromancy. Not arcanes or illusion. Those weaves, spells, all of it - it was more of a madman’s gibberish than anything logical for him. Maybe if Mademoiselle was with him, or Kagehira had any time to explain, he would understand more. Sadly, he was too invested into the conversation, while both Mademoiselle and Nito wanted to stay in the mansion, not only to protect it, but also to take time to get accustomed to their new memories. 

“Mhmm, I guess I get it, that’s how it looked like… Emotions, yeah. Think ‘bout it, Nakkun-“

That someone tries to kill you from the inside

Shu shook his head. 

No, that wasn’t it. Strange. He could tell Kagehira’s theory was a bit different. What did he say?

The more Shu was thinking about it, the weaker he was feeling. The illusion was so harmless on the first sight… And here they are, talking about the emotions. That was the only part he understood. One connected to the other, something like this. Kagehira had no reason to hide anything from him, right?

He wouldn’t… Right?

“Hey, Nakkun,” Mika’s voice managed to snap him out of his thoughts, as he was standing right next to Shu, helping him to stay straight. “What do ya think – is it possible t’ use the basic code of that spell in order to create a different type of illusion? One that could, combined with memories, make someone believe what they see is the only truth?” 

Natsume stared at him with both eyes and mouth opened, gathering his thoughts in order to answer clearly. 

“WeLL… This might be possible, though one has to change the base of the spell drastically, in the current form it’s way too aggressiVE,” He started without that much confidence in his voice. “Besides, I don’t think introducing fake memories right into someone’s head can be that much safe, if you’re asking ME…”

Even before Natsume finished, Mika’s eyes focused on Itsuki. 

“I’ve got a plan,” He said with a firm voice, smirking. “I’ll prove I deserve t’ be called yer student that way.”

 

Soon after they returned to the mansion, before they could discuss their workplan, they found the view of the knights surprising and unexpected. And that wasn’t only Arashi or Izumi – their own King was with them, wielding a sword in his hand and a light armor, as if he, himself, was ready for war. When their eyes met, Leo rushed towards Shu with such a speed he instinctively moved backwards, feeling as his heart started racing for no good reason. 

“You’re still alive!” Leo said, but there was no sign of the usual happiness in his voice. “With all due respect, lord Itsuki, but we feared of the worst as we couldn’t hear anything from you.”

“I am fine, but you, on the other hand, seem on rush, armed as if a war was coming. Has some moron declared one?”

“No, let’s start from the other side. Why, for God’s sake, I’ve learned that you have so damn bad reputation within the Empire, up to the point of assassination attempts, just now?” 

Itsuki raised his eyebrow, unsatisfied by the fact Leo avoided his question, and sent Kagehira a glare. The student laughed nervously and scratched his head.

“Yeah, my fault,” He admitted. “I mean, when they attacked me, Naru protected me an stuff’, managed to bring of the them for examination. And believed it was an Empyreal attacker from the begginin’. I just mentioned ya don’ like Joker.”

Itsuki sighed and looked back at Leo.

“It is not that much of a big deal, my King,” He tried to keep with tone cool and collected, surprised how much his hand was trembling as he spoke. “And the Empire… I believe it is a big generalization, as there are things and people I keep high in my regard.”

“Well, those who attacked your student definitely had Empyreal signets hidden,” Leo shrugged. “And hell, my blood is boiling whenever I hear that cursed title! Damn it, we both have the same enemy, and there you are, hiding like a mouse under a broom! Even Shinkai isn’t fond of him, why hell have I learned about it now!”

“Maybe because you asked not to be bothered when I tried to suggest it?” Sena sighed heavily. 

“Shut up, that’s one of the rare cases when you can ignore my complains and bother me anyway! I’m really going to tell it to all of you, remind me later, grr. Anyways!” 

He cleared his throat while Shu was trying not to chuckle, listening to their little fight. 

“All of that, and the demons are as well awake again, to hell with those blood pacts, once you’re dead they stop listening, hah! But, well, I still wonder if I’m supposed to curse Tenshouin, or feel bad about his “great ally”. 

Shu laughed at his words.

“He’s the last goddamn person to feel bad about. How can you even think about that?” 

“Well, considering how much Hibiki can manipulate people… I think I don’t need to explain that to you. That might be a case I’ll even shed a tear over the Emperor’s doomed fate.”

 

After that, Tsukinaga didn’t have that much to say, other than he’ll be glad to talk more about the Joker when he’ll be back. Still surprised by the sudden turn of the events, Itsuki fell down on a couch, closed his eyes and took a deep breath. One thing was bothering him more than it should – that is, why he suddenly got stressed just because of Leo and his appearance. It was like his entire body was screaming to run away without looking back. 

Kagehira sat right next to him and patted his shoulder. 

“We don’t have that much time,” Itsuki opened his right eye. “I am more than sure he will take the Emperor’s head sooner than I anticipated, and here I am, not even sure how can I take your memories back to the past – and from what I can see, some sort of disturbing plan is hiding in that head of yours.”

“Eh, disturbin’? I’d say it’s more complicated and requiring quite a lot of trust and help from ya, Oshi-san.” Mika tilted his head. “But first, well… I need t’ confirm our theory ‘bout the base, then change it so it won’t be hurtful and too aggressive – keepin’ my memories aren’t that easy. Damn ya, King!”

“…I could try to extract a part of your memories directly from the fragments without watching them, I believe. But it still will require your past self to believe in them.”

“The ‘tell’ an’ ‘show’ difference, right?” Mika blinked. “What I need t’ force the second rule?” 

“It has to be either your real memory, the one that you only forgot, as the core has limited space for most recent or most memorable fragments.” Itsuki specified, counting possibilities on his fingers. “Or something you can make you believe it is real, though it is almost impossible without fooling your mind. There are also Observers, but I would suggest dropping out that idea. I will not start killing you in every single loop, and it is simply way too risky.”

“Ehehe… Thanks for carin’~ In cases like this, Observers are damn useful, aren’t they?”

“Hmph, it’s like calling us Blessed just because we can read from peasant’s minds and move in time without our will!” He hissed. “Observers remember everything and can pretty much learn every single ability they want to, unlike the rest of living creatures, as they have no limits in their cores… But they also must deal with a question – is it better to remember the tragedy that broke them during their life, or start as a different life from the zero? The price for their talents, for me personally, is too much. And, of course, that is if they are lucky to even find someone who can help them. Without it, there is mostly suffering waiting for them.”

There were Observers like Nito, there were also Observers like Hibiki. The prior is living in a world without worrying about his past, even if curiosity is tempting him to, while the other one completely lost his sanity many years ago. There is no way Shu would force his student into this torture - especially since he’s never awoken as an Observer in past. 

Both of them were sitting in a silence, fully aware of the time pressure. 

“Ya can jus’ look inside my head,” Mika straightened up. “Though, t’ be honest… If my theory is right, any bad information might bring ya t’ that state you’ve been before. I can’t let you lose yer mind again - not after being so damn lucky t’ wake ya up.”

“Just what, in the hell, is that theory of yours, what is wrong with my head?”

“I-I dunno! I don’ have enough… I didn’t test it out, and If I screw up, yer dead for sure, yer mind will kill ya!”

Shu hid his face with hands, unawarely letting out a growl from his throat. He knew the reset could come at any second, and he had no ideas what to do now.

What if he’s trying to lie?

A student wants to control his master. Laughable! 

“Oh, shut up!” Not able to stay calm, Itsuki stood up. “Very well then, there might be a way to take the fragments without looking at them. But considering I am a living person, my capability to keep your memories might not be able to keep them for long. So we have one chance - you have to focus and create a fragment filled with memories that will be useful for you, and only you. If possible, I shall fill between the gaps.”

A strange light has appeared in Kagehira’s eyes as he raised from his seat as well, taking Itsuki’s hands in his own with a smile. 

“Got it. Please, ya hafta to believe in me - I told ya I can prove I can be considered yer proud student.”

The Puppeteer was watching him in a silence with a grim expression, feeling the trembling hands. After a bit he realized it wasn’t Kagehira’s, but his own entire body that was shaking. To be honest… He knew that somewhere deep inside his mind, he was afraid to put his trust on someone else. Even after so many years they’ve spent together, even though he himself promised Mika he won’t leave him or lie again about his state. 

Itsuki remembered Shinkai’s words and took a deep breath. 

“Be aware we both might hang should this plan fail,” The way that his voice sounded as if it was washed up from any emotions surprised him, considering all emotions inside his mind. “However… If you really want to help me, I shall do my utmost best to fight against that fate and write a splendid scenario. For us, for Nito and Mademoiselle. I shall give you my entire life and knowledge to achieve this, to move the hands of the clock again.”

Finally, he managed to smile. 

“I expect you to become a real artist of this realm, Kagehira. Do not let me down.”

 

Thankfully, it took quite a while before the time has moved back again. During this time, they managed to estimate how long and how many fragments Itsuki can hold, before them being destroyed by his soul. It’s long enough to move them between time skips, but it requires good precision. And yes, just as Kagehira asked, Shu stopped himself from checking out what was hidden in his memories.

However, there was a lot of new questions, and nobody knew the answers. 

Leo has never fought against the Empire in such a fashion – he’s never been so openly hostile, preferring to watch them closely and kind of work together if needed. Yet in this loop, Itsuki received a warning from Narukami, learning that Yumenosaki doesn’t want anything in common with them, alarming that if Itsuki try to help them in any way, Leo will take it as an act of betrayal. More than that, after Nito came back from the Harbor, he revealed that not only Eichi died in the previous loop – Rei as well was murdered. 

A conflict was slowly arising between the countries… And it could be useful for the Puppeter. That’ll mean both Leo, as well as the Emperor and Wataru will be focused on each other, while he could take a breath and focus on his work instead. Tsukinaga shouldn’t be that desperate to ask him for help. 

And so, in every single loop after that, Itsuki was starting immediately by giving Kagehira back his memories with a soft kiss on the mage’s forehead, letting all the fragments fill his mind in an instant - and trying his best to keep a serious face, as seeing the confusion all over his face, decorated by how Mika’s face was turning red every single time. 

However, the longer they were working, the more holes were appearing in his memories, and Shu couldn’t really tell why – was it because he still wasn’t the best at creating the fragments, or because of the big amount of them, his mind was too full to add more. In order to fight at least one of the possibilities, Kagehira started writing a diary, mixing both what he’s received, and then what he had learned in current loop. 

It still was hard to keep track of everything – Tsukinaga was so damn good at taking Tenshouin’s life that the loops were resetting fast… And much to Shu’s embarrassment, most of the job was on his student, not Itsuki, as he was trying to get that spell working, so he could force a “show” rule instead of simple “tell”, without breaking his Master’s rules. Mademoiselle was giving her best to help him, visiting all the Empire’s libraries in hopes of getting clues about the illusions in general. Ironically, even Natsume was a great source of ideas – Mika was using the fact he didn’t remember a thing about the past, getting as much as he could from him. Itsuki did warm him about that though, still remembering how big of a price he was forced to pay after feeling too confident. 

With Nito’s help, he tried to keep an eye on what was happening outside of their mansion. A lot has changed since Leo joined – both Rei and Kanata were staying low, letting the King to focus on the Empire. Thanks to that, Wataru was in the constant movement between the countries – Nito even noticed that at some point, the Joker was lurking in a small village those to the dungeons, close to one of the villagers. Shu had no idea what he was thinking, but at least his mind was focused on something.

There was one thing, however, that started worrying him.

It was the fear, coming up whenever he was thinking or talking with Leo. He’s never been like that before, and nothing changed even after he became more active. Was his efficiency in killing that terrifying? 

 

But at least, there was an eureka in their work that calmed him down – Kagehira has finished the spell allowing him to move the memories in a safer manner, forcing the “show” rule. He was ready to use it immediately, but Itsuki stopped him – after all, they had no idea how it would affect Mika, so he preferred to test it out before. 

So Mika suggested to use it on Natsume first – as a reward for helping him this much in preparing it. Ironically, the alchemist himself at some point guessed what they were doing, and asked for it in advance. 

The premise of the spell was easy – it was just an accelerator, mixed between the memories. Itsuki had to move the fragments as he did, with a small fragment of a spell hidden there. When it was used on the mage knowing how to use illusions, they could activate it. The spell was introducing a strong suggestion, forcing the core to believe in the fragments, thus making them work in the rule both wanted. Kagehira seemed incredibly proud while teaching Sakasaki how to use it. 

“The fact that I’m a experimental rat doesn’t please me too much, even if I was the one who suggested IT,” Natsume scratched his head, not in the mood to smirk at them. “If that’ll bring the Curse on me, I’ll make sure to force my memories to acknowledge it was your faULT. What should I expeCT?”

“Mm, few memories from the last loop I’ve got in the last minute,” Mika waved his hand. “Won’t be a problem, right, Oshi-san?”

“I do not think so. He will forget in the next loop – besides, I believe he should learn at least once what he has done to this city.”

Natsume raised his brow but said nothing. Yes, the fragment was filled with that memory.

After Kagehira made sure everything was ready, he used the spell and waited until Sakasaki activated the second part. Shu was watching both him and the state of his core in suspense, while the alchemist grabbed his head with an unpleasant grimace. The fragments slowly filled his head. 

And finally, after a bit of time, they were connecting right to the core, thus giving him a good reason to consider the experiment successful. 

When Natsume managed to calm down and catch a breath, his gaze focused on Itsuki. 

“How could I forgET,” He said, smilling ominously. “How much I wanted to punch you after what you’ve done to ME. You and that goddamn deMON.”

“Welcome back, boy. Keep that malice of yours to yourself and consider your memory a gift. How does it fill?

“Yes, you really expect me to be nice after remembering how I’ve managed to slaughter most of the magicians and the Emperor himseLF. Well, to be honest, even I’m surprised by my imaginatiON… And it’s just a part of the mess I’ve maDE.”

 

Itsuki and Kagehira left the shop with their heads high, proud of the effects of the mage’s work.

They’ve been watching both Natsume and his state of mind, as well as Shu, to clarify the rest of their worries about either rules or the danger of Curse – but luckily, nothing bad happened. They could sleep peacefully. 

Thanks to that, moving the fragments of Kagehira’s memories should be easier than before – especially due to him being even better at preparing sets of fragments. With that method, he won’t waste any time trying to understand his own train of thoughts – as of before, that was his biggest trouble. 

After the time moved back again, when Mademoiselle and Nito were exposed to their memories again, Itsuki used the magic on his student. They stayed in the salon after preparing tea if their throats had ever decided to die due to the amount of talking they expected. 

“How do you feel right now, Kagehira?”

“Strange. But it’s workin’ as I wanted that t’, Oshi-san. Damn, it’s really workin’, finally… I don’t have t’ waste time tryin’ to get my own thoughts, I understand ‘em immediately. It’s amazin’.”

He jumped from this seat like a proud child, but Itsuki, on the other hand, stopped smiling. 

“And since I’ve learned more ‘bout that spell, it’s easier to start workin’ on the counterspell for ya, so…”

“I believe I deserve some explanation from you, Kagehira.”

Mika sat back on his seat with a worried smile and caught one of the cups.

“You know more than me,” Itsuki started slowly. “What in the hell is that entire spell, and why you were so stubborn about me not looking at your memories at all? I might not be a mage, but I would help you anyway.”

At first, there was no response from the student. He was looking at him with a grim face, while Shu could hear a subtle “how should I even start”, coming right from his soul, hitting the cup with his finger.

“It’s really hard for me t’ explain this,” He admitted and hung his head. “I get nervous whenever I think ‘bout that magic.”

“Do not tell me it is that powerful.”

“That’s the problem, it’s not.”

Shu raised his eyebrow.

“It took a lot t’ control it and change the basic code, but the entire premise ‘bout the spell isn’t. But Blessed are still real people, no matter how amazin’ – yer own memories and feelings can still destroy ya. No, I believe yer even more sensitive because of what ya had to endure for all those years in the loop.”

“So you should be also aware how annoyed I am, staying in the dark.”

“I-I know, I really do, but!” Mika’s hands landed on Shu’s shoulders. “I dunno what can I tell ya without riskin’. That illusion… Nakkun gave me an idea that’s workin’ just like a Curse, and-“

“What?”

Itsuki immediately escaped Kagehira’s grip, slowly getting what he just said. His hand laid on the cup, even though he couldn’t afford to drink from it.

“The Curse? No, that is impossible. I saw the thing that was forcing this disgusting curse turning people into mindless idiots, it’s not even close to that! And we were promised we will never fall a victim to that,” His grip on the cup was getting stronger. “Are you trying to fool me? After all my teachings, now’s the time you want to take me down, Kagehira? Of course, you couldn’t forget what I have done to you- Or is it the Joker? He’s here? Maybe in front of me- Non, impossible, what is real-!”

The grip turned strong enough to break the cup, bringing all the focus on it. Shu looked at his hands and shook his head, feeling that fast his breath turned during his speech. Mika tried to calm him down and called Mademoiselle and Nazuna so they could help Shu. 

“I,” Itsuki slowly tried to clench his fingers, watching the scarlet slowly dripping. “I almost started it all again, didn’t I…”

“Ah, stop movin’, yer wounds are goin’ to deepen! And calm down. Breathe in, and out.”

“I cannot even trust myself, why am I so nervous again. Have I broken…? I do not even know if I feel a real pain.”

“Yeah, it’s real. Ya hafta calm down and listen t’ me, okay?”

They stayed silent until the dolls helped in taking the broken cup and treated the wounds.

“That’s why I’m terrified whenever I wanna tell ya what I know,” Mika started with a soft voice, gently taking Itsuki’s hands in his own. “If my theory is right, ya might get even paranoid… But that scumbag will pay for doin’ this to ya. Whoever had the guts t’ hurt ya will pay with their damn blood.”

With every word, his tone was turning deeper and lower, and Itsuki noticed how much he had to stop himself from clenching his fingers. Mika raised from his seat. 

“It’s my job t’ let ya get back t’ yer best state as quick as I can – not t’ surpass ya when weakened.”

“Are your ambitions that low?”

In a span of seconds, the confidence painted across Kagehira’s face vanished as he sent a surprised gaze at Shu, blinking. 

“If that is all I can expect, I shall stop teaching you immediately.”

A shocked “eh?” escaped his mouth as he watched Shu – who, in other hand, could easily tell how much that’s annoying him. So what, now he’s suddenly so proud of himself and believes his work consists of babysitting him and moving the memories now? None of them were children, for God’s sake. 

“Do not mock me, you third-rate mage,” The Puppeteer’s voice turned so low in an instant, he sounded like an aggressive beast, prepared for attack. “If I wanted an obedient, stupid mage, I would long time ago turn you into a doll. Yet I have not. Do you know why?”

No response, again. But Itsuki could sense how dense Mika was.

“Because I expect the best,” Shu didn’t let him to wait for too long. “And you have the possibilities – you showed it by creating the way to move fragments really quickly. You said you are going to prove that you are my student – so stop working for me, but with me.”

As he was speaking, Shu noticed his student’s eyes were starting to light up again, so he managed to smile, as a way to give him a hint he’s not going to lecture him without mercy, even though he really managed to piss him off. 

“To break this curse, to bathe our enemies in their own blood, to demolish that theatre of madness with your own hands – showing what humanity, something so damn loved by Hibiki and god damn it, used against me, is really capable of!”

After all, humanity loves breaking the rules, useless destruction and revenge. Isn’t that right, my dear Joker? 

“That…” Even with all the signs, there was a hint of hesitation in Mika’s voice. “I still wanna bring ya to yer finest again, Oshi-san. Without that, I can’t learn much, and-“

“And?”

Mika giggled nervously, scrubbing his cheek with a finger. 

“Well… I jus’ don’t wanna stay in the darkness, yanno? And seein’ ya sufferin’ like that…”

“I will at some point lost my mind if I have to stay in there alone for too long, I am begging you to understand that. I shall try to look at this by myself, but if my mind can start going… somewhere,” He pointed at his hands. “Then it means I cannot even trust what I can see. Seeing you doing almost everything by yourself pleases me, a lot. But that also make me feel useless.”

He sighed.

“I want to see the moment when you shall become a real artist – but I cannot when I am in this state.”

Mika once more looked at Shu in a silence. 

“I used the auto-suggestion part of it.”

“What?”

“The spell made by the Joker,” He explained. "It's the part of it that makes ya believe what ya see is real, no matter how false it is in reality."

Itsuki furrowed his eyebrows.

"I do not like the sound of that. Especially when you said I might get paranoid because of that."

"That's why I hesitated... It can, and will, turn yer own memories and, at some point, yer mind against you. Illusionists are terrifying..."

"And they should have rotten years ago in the hell, especially if they can affect this part of your soul. God, taking care of mind is way more important than I thought, isn't it?"

"...Maybe that's why yer forbidden from messin' with cores of livin' people."

...He didn’t think about that before. Shu waved his hand, giving Mika a sign so he could continue.

"I mean, core is directly connected with memories and ya can consider it a part of yer mind, at least in our profession, right? Core of the dolls and other ghost differ from livin'. Ya yourself are a victim of that."

"It's... Possible. Also it means the gods are surprisingly nicer than I expected. But that would also mean... Wataru always knew how to deceive people, but I've never heard about him straight up breaking them. That was not as much as direct attack on mind..."

"The Demon Lord said he broke the rules. What if did that before, and that caused him to break the rules? Think about it! Ya can make people go crazy, become a victim to the curse - and after crossing the border..."

"He will not hesitate to use it again. It is the worst possibility."

"Thank lord someone is finally hunting him."

"...Tsukinaga, yes. Now I start to wonder why he believes he hates him just as much as me."

That could be everything, but what if the Joker somehow did the same before, and Leo has seen it? Asking him might not be the wisest decision, he's even more silent than all Blessed gathered together, and there is still one thing that bothered Shu. 

"I shall try giving him a warning, and see how it will affect the loops," He decided. "He's focused on both Wataru and that little Emperor as well, which gives us time to work on that cursed illusion. And I shall be more than pleased if he will manage to take down the Joker's head - he seems pretty damn good in executions."

"That's the Master I know."

"Annoyance and revenge is such a great motivator, is it not?" He smirked. "Let's do this, Kagehira. Once we'll get to the top state, our enemies shall learn the fear from the world of Undead. This Kingdom seems to be even more useful than I anticipated."

"I won't disappoint ya. I'm fairly close, I can do it. And after all that war, let's get somewhere calm~ Even after breaking the spell, ya need rest to help yer mind."

"Very well. Work so you can deserve a rest, Kagehira."



Having an easy, but also important goal, both of them started working. Not being able to help with a spell, Itsuki kept his eyes open and watched what was happening outside. He was also looking at Natsume from time to time, both because of worries and curiosity if the spell has changed his behavior somehow. Thanks to such small gesture, not only he had more precise informations about the Empire, Sakasaki was also helping with getting the best books from the North, as well as the lirium. Big amount of the energy allowed the Puppeteer to cover a larger area.

Surprisingly, the war has stopped in the dead point… Quicker than he anticipated.

But of course, something had to change soon. At one day, when Itsuki was spending his time reading one of the books from Sakasaki, the portal suddenly opened, letting a way into the mansion for both Kagehira, as well as the King’s counselor, Suou Tsukasa. Both of them were catching their breaths harshly – Suou also seemed so pale as if he saw a ghost, muttering under his nose. 

“What in the-“

“Oshi-san, somethin’ wrong is goin’ on in the Kingdom,” Mika helped Suou to sit down. “Naru asked me t’ check somethin’ as that man sensed some magic around the castle… Well, I’ll let him talk, he saw more.”

Nazuna brought water to the guest as they waited for him to calm down a bit. Tsukasa thanked him for the gesture, forcing a smile on his face.

“Of course, but – I am not sure where should I start,” Tsukasa said with a weak voice. “Our King… How they managed to do this? I do not know when, but…”

“If you cannot speak, then don’t,” Shu focused on him. “Just think about it. I shall see it by myself.”

Needless to say, it was a terrible chaos. 

Tsukinaga Leo has been murdered.

But, much to his shock, that wasn’t the most surprising element hiding in the memories. Suou was the second person to discover his King’s body. He heard a soft cry and followed it. Sena was kneeling in front of Leo – but at some point, it stopped, and Izumi’s hand clenched on handle of the characteristic long sword Leo had. When he got up and looked at the him, counselor moved back and took a sharp breath. Izumi’s eyes were glowing in a pretty gold shade, while his face stayed emotionless. 

“That Emperor will die even if I have to slaughter his entire goddamn country.”

There were no commands. Or warnings. He just left room without looking back, leaving Suou speechless from the shock. Mika was the one who found him and brought him right to the mansion, thanks to Aoba. 

“That was unnervin’, to say the least,” Kagehira shook his head. “Sena, Naru, other guards, even some normal people livin’ in the city – none of them were reactin’ to my words, they jus’ kept mumbling that the Emperor will pay with his head an stuff… And all of them had the same eyes.”

“It is even more concerning that I do not have any type of evidence against the Empire,” Suou continued. “If I ever wanted to play as a substitute of our deceased King, I could not just start a war without one. Do you have any idea what is happening right now?”

Itsuki was speechless. Seeing Kagehira’s eyes, he could tell his mind wasn’t playing on him. 

“Tsukinaga… What in the living hell are you-“

 

And then another reset has come. 

And soon after that, Arashi brought a short news, catching both Shu and Mika by a complete surprise.

“Yumenosaki will declare a war against the Empire,” Arashi said with a blunt face, showing them an official document signed by Leo. “Starting from now, every single contact with this country, especially with the Emperor or Joker, will be treated as the act of treason. Of course, don’t worry about Shinkai – he’ll be informed about this as well.”

None of them had the courage to ask why Tsukinaga changed his mind so suddenly.

“You have to be aware what can a war against the Joker can bring, Narukami.”

Arashi raised the eyebrow when Itsuki spoke.

“That madman can easily force all of you to fight against your own King, if you will not be on your guard. Or even destroy minds in the span of seconds.”

“Oh.”

For some reason, mercenary didn’t look that surprised at first – at least until Shu noticed a small hint of smile on her face.

“I’m sorry, that came out of nowhere! But thanks, every warnings are appreciated, we don’t want to make any mistakes, am I right?” Arashi laughed nervously. “From what I know, our King wants to avoid any meetings with that thing… And oh, I just remembered, darling – he also asked if you can support us if that’ll be needed.”

“H-huh?”

Arashi was talking to Mika, who pointed his finger at himself, blinking.

What in the hell – Kagehira on war? Both him and Shu looked at each other, feeling as their hard effort up until today were cracked as they heard that.

“Sweet lord, nobody is going to bring you to the middle of the battlefield, I promise!” Seeing their reactions, Arashi waved hands rapidly. “And even if they try to, you’ll getting me as your guardian, if I don’t rip off their hands first. So don’t worry about that, you’ll be safe!”

“That is still bothering me,” Itsuki crossed his hands. “Since when Tsukinaga is that desperate to ask mages for a help?”

“Since that Joker is on the other side, I guess. Sorry for not being able to give you more information, but that’s all I know…”

 

“I don’ like where it’s goin’, Oshi-san.”

Soon after Narukami left the mansion, Mika didn’t let Shu go anywhere, forcing him to sit on the sofa while hugging – and Shu had no energy to stop him, still seemingly surprised by both the sudden appearance, and the entire situation that happened in the previous loop. He simply laid his hand on Mika's head while thinking.

“Neither do I,” Shu admitted, sighing. „That was too fast, and we know nothing about what happened in the end. And honestly, you on a war? Have they lost their minds?”

“Maybe they didn’t ask ‘bout ya knowin’ that the Empire can recognize ya with no effort? They don’t know me that well, but,” His grip tightened, as the mage laid his head on Shu’s chest. „Don’t wanna join the war. Thinkin’ ‘bout it scares me. And I have work t’ finish, I have no time for that.”

“Honestly, that annoys me more than it should. I believe we have to play it nicely so we shall not lose the ground under our feet… But, when I think about it, it seems odd, to say the least.”

Mika raised his head a bit to see Shu’s face clearly.

“It is an irony that both me and Kanata does not know much about the King we were supposed to support throughout these years, don’t you think? I start to believe I know way more about the Empire rather than Yumenosaki at this point.”

“It’s strange for sure. It’s like he knew how many questions ya wanna ask, and simply avoids doin’ that. And doctor Shinkai doesn’t seem to be that talkative either.”

“He is still better than Sakuma, though.”

“Than maybe the knights themselves are stoppin’ him from talkin’ too much? I saw once in Naru’s soul that they visit Shinkai more often than ya.”

Shu scratched his chin.

“I see. Maybe it will be a perfect opportunity to spy the Kingdom a bit, no matter how dangerous this might be… I shall think about that.”

 

The first loop conquered by the war was full of days when Mika had to stay away from the mansion in favor of the knights, while Shu was staying in there alone. All he could do was to sent hidden dolls, just to make sure his life wasn’t in danger. Needless to say, the silence that prevailed has once again filled the Puppeteer’s head with worries, as he was wandering around.

Will Kagehira survive the war?

Or maybe the knights will betray them? Something was definitely off. Why they want their help so suddenly, why they started the war anyway? Tsukinaga never asked him for anything other than researching the Curse.

“He knows more than we anticipated, he lied to us for years, now he’s trying to silence us! Where the hell is Shinkai, I feel like I’ve lost the contact with him, even Nito is not coming back!”

Yes, even Nito disappeared. 

Mademoiselle did her best and kept Itsuki company, calm him down whenever he needed it, but even she couldn’t stop all these emotions that attacked Shu’s mind again. He was brought to peace when he finally saw Kagehira in the mansion again.

But Nito never came back.

Not only Kagehira’s research has suffered, as the mage had no time to reforge his memories into fragments, Nito’s were lost as well – and who knows what he saw, maybe there was something really important. For example, why Shinkai was so silent.

Time moved back again, and so did the war. In the previous loop, Tsukinaga declared a war two weeks after the reset. This time, he did that after ten days.

He knew something. Why was he so focused on those two idiots from the Empire? Was he another Blessed with some disturbing rules to follow?

Shu and Mika had to change their tactics drastically. The mage was still letting the Kingdom use him on the war – though he noticed that most of the time, he was spending time with Arashi in the safety, helping with strategies or sensing how many mages were around, rather than really fighting. That’s why he tried to ask the mercenary as many questions as he could – innocent, but tricky ones. Nazuna, on the other hand, was informed about the danger, so he could watch out for red flags and inform Itsuki immediately if anything strange has happened.

Kagehira noticed a big correlation between the annoyance that was raising proportionally to the amount of his questions, especially Tsukinaga.

“It’s like some switch is movin’ in his head,” Mika described it with a serious face. “At some point, he starts smiling. And his hand clenches on the blade as if he wanted t’ tell that if ya ask one more question, he’ll take yer head immediately.”

Arashi was the only person Mika wanted to talk more, trusting the mercenary enough to voice his worries over the war. And that was the only person brave enough to tell him about Leo’s strange behavior – that he could turn so annoyed for no good reason, or even hollow. Sadly, Arashi had no idea why he was acting like that, believing that was because of amount of journeys around the country. He spent less time with others, making it harder to bond and stuff.

Mika kept watching Leo on his own accord. At some point, he even asked the knights to teach him how to fight – technically for self-defense, but in truth, he wanted to see how they react during fights.

Nazuna managed to get back before time moved back again, but he seemed pretty disturbed.

“I saw the Joker in Harbor, walking like nothing,” Nito said with a weak voice. “Shinkai didn’t kick him off. And the people around… Their behavior was strange. They seemed nervous and wary of each other. And of me as well.”

 

The third war brought a fresh air to the loops.

This time, much to Shu’s surprise, it was Tenshouin who declared a war against the Kingdom, three days after the reset. His men brought the official declaration whenever they could, saying that “Yumenosaki was enslaved by the demons, and their own King not only was allowing that – but he, himself, together with his knights, turned into monsters ready to murder his people if they knew too much.”

Soon after that, Sakasaki Natsume and Aoba Tsumugi disappeared without the trace. Leo managed to find another archivist, the young man from the adventurer’s group wanted to help, but still – both him and Shu lost valuable helpers. Without Natsume, his lirium amounts were depleting much quicker than before.

On the other side, knights had to walk on their feet again without relying on Aoba’s magic, giving him and Mika more time to work.

The war was moving aggressively as the Empire was conquering more, spreading their version everywhere. Itsuki even heard about villages which supported them - those were slaughtered by either the gold-eyed warriors, or the Fallen Ones, who came back again.

On one day, he even discovered an intruder who managed to get really close to the mansion – Nito went to take them down, but stopped, when he recognized the person. It was a young ninja named Sengoli Shinobu, who brought the news from Shinkai.

„Shinkai-dono seemed pretty disturbed when I was leaving, my lord – and warned me about the possibility of attackers…” Shinobu admitted, scratching his head. “And to be honest, I have seen shadows behind my back that did not belong to me! So please, stay safe.”

“And you as well, young boy. As a token of gratitude, dolls shall escort you back to the Harbor.”

The letter he brought managed to solve at least one mystery.

 

Shu,

If you are reading this letter, know that Shinobu did a splendid job, and my fears turned out to be real. You might think I ignored you and cut all our connections – which is not true, as I tried to give you a lot of information before. Something has changed since Tsukinaga joined the War – even though I cannot tell why. Rei died in one of the loops, for no reason. Both him and Eichi were killed by the Knights. And then Tsukinaga declared a war, to make it even more strange. I have heard that someone killed him before that. That makes me believe there is no chance of calming this war down – and I really do not want to take part in this.

Shu… I am scared. I hate wars so much, I have seen enough on the East. Not only that, suddenly any contact with you was being destroyed, as if someone wanted me not to talk with you… Chiaki once found corpse of Nito, he was killed when I gave him the envelope. So I will write this once again:

Please, stay away from Tsukinaga, no matter how much he will try to get you into this war. It is too risky. I heard a discussion between Narukami and Sena – they said something about separating Mika from you, because Leo does not trust you at all. If you did something bad, be aware of that.

There is also the case of the Fallen Ones… The more I have managed to learn, the more Leo tried to force me to stay silent. He is strangely close to that topic. I have managed to heal two out of five stages of the Curse, before the eyes of the patients turn gold. If someone can learn more about it, it has to be you.

I also want you to know that the Harbor will stay fully neutral, every single one of you can come here if you need. I just want a sign that you will not try to fight or kill each other in this place – even if I have to force you all to sign the envelope with your blood. For your knowledge, Rei and Wataru already gave their permissions. Please sign the envelope if you agree as well.

Something is not right about this loop. They say a solution is hiding somewhere.

Please, stay safe,

Shinkai Kanata

 

 

The longer Shu was looking at it, the harder was for him to breathe. He didn’t even notice when he signed the envelope and gave it back to Shinobu, just so he could left earlier, while he focused on content of the letter.

The trial to break their connection. The war. Leo trying to silence them. No trust. A solution? Which one? Last one?

“Who… No, what are you, King?” Shu asked himself, clenching his fingers on the paper. “You. You wicked demon – you are one of us, aren’t you? You have been watching this spectacle since the beginning, fueling the conflict until you joined it yourself. There is no reason for you not to trust me after all – unless you know all about the past.”

Shu started walking in circles.

“What that war means to you, what goddamn forces are behind your work! I cannot understand it, Kagehira. Who the hell is he? What madman is hiding deeply inside of that little man’s soul, is this even the same person we are talking right now?”

Mika had no answers. He just shook his head with a sad face, without saying a word. Shu almost lost any hope and prepared to leave the room, until Nito blocked his way.

“We have to do anything we can to stay neutral,” He said with a firm voice. “Shinkai is right in that regard. Oshi-san, Mika-chin, continue your work on that strange fragment. Me and Mademoiselle will do anything to slow them down – without Aoba, that should be easier. We’ll buy you time.”

“Mhm. Worst case scenario, I’ll try to go on that war in place of Mika.”

Shu was ready to jump and force that idea out of Mademoiselle’s head, but she simply waved her hand with an usual smile, asking him to sit back.

“Yes, I know. Please listen, though – your mind is breaking whenever Mika leaves, hence you two should stay here. Without Natsume, our stocks of lirium are quickly depleting, and I know you’d be desperate to watch out for his safety.”

True. Itsuki was fully aware of that, but Mademoiselle’s life was just as important for him. This situation was really this bad to use every single ace he had in his sleeve.

If that’s so… Maybe the knowledge about Wataru’s illusion might be useful in the future. 

 

However, avoiding Leo turned out to be harder than he anticipated.

When Arashi came to the mansion, Shu already knew what they needed – and the stubbornness surprised him to the point where even Mika had no choice but to agree and leave.

Shu had to think about everything again. Lirium, rumors about the war, the Harbor’s status… It was taking all his energy too fast. Mika came back way faster than before, but soon after returning, the mage ran to his room without saying a word. Itsuki let him spent a night peacefully, just so he could tell him about what he saw. But to be honest, he never seen him so mixed before.

“Knights are real war beasts. No, I’m beggin’ ya… I don’t wanna go back there,” Mika hid his face behind his hands. “Stop with those voices, damn it. I’m a mage who knows his fuckin’ craft! Naru, I’ll curse ya for those words, stay away from me!”

It was the only thing he said about the war, giving the Puppeteer one more reason to stay away from Leo and his guards, even if they held a sword next to his throat.

 

Time was passing by, the war was getting longer. More and more people were believing in the Empire’s words about the King, while Mika started running away to his room more often, mumbling some disturbing words under his nose.

Whenever Shu tried to ask what’s going on, he was running away from him.

Itsuki had no idea what happened to him, but he was getting worried. He didn’t force him to do anything bad, letting him work on whatever he wanted to. Narukami, when asked about Kagehira’s strange behavior also wasn’t sure what could disturb him that much, saying that the knights did their utmost best to keep him out of the biggest battlefield.

His words were getting mixed, his sentences weren’t logical at all. He could start talking about something, then jump to something connected to the illusion, complaining about the headaches. At some point he also completely refused going out of his room, screaming in terror as if Itsuki wanted to get rid of him again for not working on the spell as he promised.

“What are you even talking about?” Itsuki asked Kagehira again, forcing him to look straight in the eyes. “This topic has been closed years ago! Your life matters to me just as much as mine. What did they do to you, what did they say?”

“I… I dunno. I really dunno, Oshi-san. When all of that started…? Uh, don’t look at me like that, I hate that… My head hurts. And I gotta get back t’ work…”

Contact with Mika was vanishing away, and soon enough, the entire mansion was focused on the young mage’s health. Nobody had any idea how to calm him down. This incident was so hard for Shu to bare, up to the point when Narukami came back, he didn’t think twice about forcing to leave immediately. And decided that he’ll start closing the door right in front of every single knight that was brave enough to come back again.

 

With no clue how to help Mika, things got even worse in no time. He didn’t want to leave his room, sleeping through almost entire days, making Shu worried up to a point he would stay in front of the doors, trying his best to hear his soul from the distance.

He had that strange feeling he did the same before.

That’s why, on one day, Itsuki lost his patience and forced himself to enter the room, just to see his mental state properly through the core – but Mika was running away, hiding his face behind his hands all the time.

“Please, stop it!” Mika shouted. “I haven’t done anything wron’, I swear! I didn’t betray you, so let me stay here, I’ll finish my work…!”

“I don’t care about that work of yours, but your health, so look at me properly now!”

Shu had a hard time forcing Mika to pull his hands off, but he finally managed to do that. Just a gaze was enough to freeze him, feeling his heart skipped more than a beat.

Kagehira’s eyes were golden.

Their screaming stopped. Both were looking at each other in silence.

“…When?”

Shu’s voice changed drastically into a soft, weak voice, as his hands slowly let go of Mika’s wrists, reaching to his face. His student didn’t know. He couldn’t believe it as well, and had no idea what he should say. He cried miserably, looking at his hands. Itsuki slowly pulled him closer and embraced him, as his tears ran down through his own eyes, praying he could still be saved.

But it was too late.

The curse had already hit the third stage, meaning Shinkai couldn't help him.

The only person who could try was Tsukinaga. He somehow managed to rescue Narukami from the curse, but nobody had any idea how he did the impossible. Because of it, Itsuki was too scared to trust his methods.

 

In no time, the war has lost any meaning to him. Whenever Knights came to his mansion, he was kicking them out, seeing them only as some sort of energy-sucking leeches unworthy of his attention. Every single being living in the mansion gathered, wishing for a cure that could save Kagehira.  

The only thing Itsuki could think of was to reverse time one more time, just to get to the point where Kagehira wasn’t affected by the Curse – to make sure he’d be able to catch the very moment it came. He even send a letter to Rei, asking about the current situation and when he could expect a reset. His answer came faster than he expected.

‘Itsuki… While Wataru’s decisions and doings are still a mystery for me, Tsukinaga has become a far greater threat to all of us. There won’t be any time reverse at all – either we, or the King, shall die in this loop, ending our misery for all.’

Seeing that, Itsuki fell on the chair, speechless. Since when Wataru and Rei were working together? Since when they are so sure there will be no reset?

Should he kill that cursed Emperor by himself?

Everyone is fighting against Leo. Except for him and Shinkai.

Suddenly, he’s far worse than the rule-breaker, the Joker himself.

What has he done.

Who is he.

What can he do?

Who. Who are you, you Cursed King of the Yumenosaki Kingdom!

Why… Why now? Everything was going so well, and now? Everything has been ruined.

Itsuki Shu, a Blessed Puppeteer. A man every single resident of the Realm of the Dead feared to the point of bowing in front of him, couldn’t rescue one boy.

 

“I have t’ finish my work…”

“Shh. You need rest, not stress. I am right in front of you, Kagehira.“

Since the day Itsuki learned about the disease, he stayed with Mika, accompanying him while he still had his consciousness – seeing as all of the fragments were breaking right in front of his eyes. His head was laying on Itsuki’s chest, but he was already weakened – all he could do was to look ahead. Shu gently ran his fingers through Mika’s hair.

“That fragment-”

“I will be fine. It has been quite a while… I know how to live with it. Besides, it is nothing compared to your state.”

Only the fact that Mika was in his hands managed to stop Shu from destroying this entire room. He never felt so hopeless in his entire life. His student was still there, so close to him – yet Itsuki couldn’t do anything to help. Just because he feared those stupid rules he was forced to follow. The Curse has reached the stage where it affected Kagehira’s core. All Itsuki could do was to stay with him until the end, watching as his life was slowly fading away.

All those years, fighting against the fate. And everything was lost.

“I don’ wanna…” Mika muttered with a weak voice. “I’m scared, Oshi-san. I don’ wanna forget and die… Ya need my help. I need t’ think ‘bout somethin”... or become an Observer?”

This was their last chance, but Shu already saw that Kagehira has never turned into one of them, not to mention how painful that would be for him, even with Shu’s help. 

“It hurts. It's terrifyin’. Can I die? Can I… But I don't wanna. But can I just fall asleep?”

Just listening to this was forcing tears in Itsuki’s eyes. Yes, killing him would be a mercy, but… he couldn't. Somewhere in his mind, Shu believed he could save him. And the thought of losing Kagehira forever was even worse. 

But you are letting him die slowly and in pain. Is this your love, Puppeteer? You should let him close his eyes peacefully. Unless you really are trying to turn him into the Observer. 

All he needed to do was to manipulate his memories and connections. But that would require breaking the rules. 

So he hesitated. 

 

The war was going on, and the Empire was getting an upper hand. He, on the other side, was left all alone, attempting every single idea to save Mika. But nothing was working, and soon, his state has reached a critical point. He couldn't even move and speak, his eyes started turning into an orange-gold mix. 

“Why did they did left me when I needed their blessings?” Shu asked himself, sitting on the floor in the salon. “I have never did anything against the gods. I have followed your rules while Wataru broke them. Are you even watching this theatre? Is our despair that pleasing for you?”

All those years for nothing. All those loops where they tried to… What did they try to? Wataru did something? Why everyone had to pay for his sins? That was another punishment, wasn't it? He decided to fight for his future, rather than destroy Hibiki’s, even after what he did to him. 

Everything went down with Tsukinaga. 

Whenever Shu was thinking about him, rage was burning inside him so deeply he wanted to destroy something. Or better, the king himself. It was his fault. He destroyed his work by taking Kagehira to war. 

He… he started nagging him after Mika managed to move his memories. Why was he so interested? Why was he so annoying?

What in the hell he wants to do with them?

And Kagehira… Kagehira didn't deserve any of that. He was a pure, hardworking student. He worked so hard to save him, even going as far as risking his life countless times. The more Shu was thinking about it, the more he wanted to do the same. 

Right? He was the Blessed. The artist capable of turning souls into masterpieces. Why was he listening to one woman who made him believe some gods were so full of themselves to force him to listen? Why was he letting them control him?

He wasn't a puppet. He was the one pulling the strings.

He loved Mika. 

And for that love, he was ready to go the Hell itself and back if that could bring him back. 

 

When Mademoiselle and Nazuna came back, Itsuki was blankly staring at his own hands with a smile on his face. 

“That’s right,” He muttered to himself. “I have no reasons to listen. Mademoiselle, Nito, I know what to do. Kagehira will be saved.”

Both of them send him asking gazes.

“If I can take control over his core and cut down the curse slowly… Yes, that will work,” Shu nodded his head. “The curse eats memories, using fake ones to feed it also should work. Then, I shall recreate a real one-”

“This is getting out of your hands, so stop.”

Itsuki straightened up his posture, not even looking at Nazuna.

“...I think I heard something unpleasant. Have you said anything, Nito?”

Nito shook his head. 

“I object. You’re trying to play with a goddamn life itself.”

“And?”

“Don’t ‘and’ me! This is dangerous and we both know it – and what are you going to do if that’ll work? The hell are you trying to become, a god?”

“If my talents allow me to reach their place… Why not, I wonder? Those idiotic, sadistic beings have enjoyed their safety far too long.”

Nazuna took a step back, seemingly disturbed by Itsuki’s calmness.

„You’re insane. Narukami was right, you’re going to become a threat to the entire humanity.”

“Narukami? So you two are getting along as well… All that curiosity of yours, and I had no idea where did that come from.”

The Puppeteer rose slowly and walked towards the Marionette, who ran into a table while moving back. Seeing no way to run, Nito’s hand rested on the short sword’s handle, as his Master was approaching him. He looked right into his eyes.

There was no remorse. Only hollowness.

“I have spent years,” Itsuki started with a blank voice. “Years, following the script that almost destroyed my will, just so I could bring all of us to the paradise. Kagehira as well sacrificed his life and knowledge to help me achieve that goal. And here you are now, little Nito, openly disobeying my will, saying that you talked with the enemy that tried to tear us apart before. Our lifetime chance to prove everyone that we shall not succumb to the vicious fate written by the gods might be taken away by your words alone.”

In no time, Shu was already standing in front of Nazuna.

“Did you really think I would just nod my head and listen?”

“This is what I’m talking about!”  Nito tried to fight back. “You two started playing with memories and cores, and now you came to the conclusion you can toy with the life. Your rules should be sacred!”

“To hell with them. Why do you care that much about them?” Shu couldn't help but chuckle. “Did the King told you?”

...the King. That fool who knew his rules. That’s right. Dots were slowly connecting to each other.

“How can you allow this, Mademoiselle?” Nito's eyes focused on a young lady, who was standing with an usual smile. “You should know him the best of us and see that he's losing his mind!”

“No. I believe you are the one who betrayed our trust. We both saw what Shu did, but also what happened to him the entire time. And Mika told us what knights really are.”

Nito couldn't believe her words. He was looking at both of them, looking for any trait of agreement with his version. For any last trace of sanity. 

Nobody answered. 

But truth to be told, Shu also loved him, even when his heart has been ripped of by a sudden turn. That adorable, helpful young boy… Killing him seemed to be too much, and Mika would get mad for doing that. And if he wanted to punish him for such open rebuttal, death was also too generous.

In the span of second, the golden strings reached right into Nazuna’s core, forcing the Marionette to fall to his knees, unable to fight against the inflicted pain. 

“You shall not die this easy, but you will be forgotten. And if I’ll see you once again, I shall not have any mercy for you.” 

With a smooth cut, all Nazuna’s memories have been destroyed, leaving only the untouched core. His body lost the balance and fell right into Shu’s arms, as he took a deep breath and asked one of the dolls to come. 

“Take him to the Harbor.” 

 

Seeing the body being dragged out of mansion haven't made any impression on Shu, as he slowly moved towards the room Kagehira was resting. 

When he entered the room, Mika was standing in front of the desk like nothing, having his diary in hands. Shu approached him and gently laid his hands on Mika’s, closing the diary he was holding. Mika’s head slowly moved towards him, and their gazes met.

His eyes were slowly turning into a golden-orange shade, but there was no sign of pain on his face. Truly a sudden change.

“I’m gettin’ back to work,” Mika said, smiling softly. “I can’t feel any pain, I feel great. So I can get back t’ work.”

“No, you do not have to. And I have found a way to cure you from this disease.” 

Shu answered with the same smile.

“I don’ have any idea what yer talkin’ ‘bout, but… Ya seem happy.” 

“Do I? Well, I have never felt that light in my entire life. It is like my mind just let go of all my worries.”

Mika slowly turned his body to stand properly in front of Shu and tilted his head, interested in such a change in his Master’s behavior.

“Glad t’ hear that. Ya said-”

“That I can cure the curse, indeed. It has a price, though.” 

“Hm… Are ya sure ya wanna do that?” 

“Of course. I am willing to make a gamble with my life.”

Mika furrowed his eyebrows, feeling as Shu’s hand pulled him closer, while the energy started gathering around.

“Still dunno what are ya tryin’ to cure me from, but… Well, it’s ya, so I know yer not gonna harm me.” 

“Do not fear.”

The energy changed its form into strings which surrounded them, slowly approaching the core of Kagehira’s soul.

“I am an artist, after all. And all my crafts are superior - all they had to do is to let me take their will in my hands.”

Mika’s hands were shaking as he clenched them on Shu’s outfit.

“You have already gave everything that belonged to you, Kagehira. Your heart, your will, your future… Even your love. And because of that, I shall make you beautiful again.”

His hand clenched. 

A sharp scream escaped Kagehira’s throat, as he hanged in his Master’s arms, unconscious.

“No, even better. You shall become a masterpiece.”

 

Working on the human soul required exactly the same procedures as if he was working on the dead. However, this time, every single move of the Puppeteer’s hands was perfectly timed – just to make sure he won’t damage Mika’s core. The Curse was incredibly aggressive and required a lot of precision, as it changed almost the entire memory map, twisting fragments into mess unable to read. Only few of them were intact – mostly those connected to Kagehira’s promise of destroying the Joker’s illusion. That’s why he was so focused on it, this single fragment being the only one Mika could recognize.

The Curse of the Fallen Ones… The more he was thinking about it, the less he could understand why it was even a thing, and why it was only attacking the fragments, not the core itself. The stages were also a mystery… Out of five, only two were focused on mental symptoms. Fear, feeling of being watched, despair, madness… In a country like Yumenosaki, people will simply believe you’ve lost your mind, and proceed to avoid the victim at any cost, allowing curse to work towards destroying their mind. This was also the only time Shinkai could rescue a victim from losing.

Next two were affecting the victims physically – though it was still hard to note all symptoms. Most of people Itsuki saw, Kagehira included, were slowly losing their consciousness, complaining about the sudden headaches, then panicking about nothing real. Their eyes turned gold. At the end of the fourth stage, they couldn’t even stand.

But suddenly, Kagehira stopped talking about the pain, and stood up like nothing, saying he can’t feel anything. His eyes turned into a deeper, orange-gold shade, and he seemed… Lost. Or hollow. There was only one, small fragment in his head. That was probably the last stage of the Curse. Kagehira almost became a Fallen One.

For some reason, he remembered Narukami. And then, started thinking about the Knights. After clashing with them a few times, Kagehira wanted to avoid them. If only Shu had more notes about their behavior, he could’ve create at least few theories. Only thing he knew was the fact that almost the entire town went mad after Leo’s death. If only Kagehira told him why the Knights made him so afraid, it would be easier to say what was wrong… But still, Itsuki couldn’t get away from the bad feeling.

Is there any chance that Tsukinaga could…

No, that’s pure madness. If that’s true, it means Tsukinaga being a Blessed was the worst thing that happened to him. And Itsuki himself will definitely fail soon.

Ah, those cursed fragments. Why the Curse was so focused on them, why not destroy the core itself? The process of breaking the memory piece by piece was way more cruel and painful than simply cracking the core down, and the gods themselves created it shortly after letting the Blessed live however they wanted. What was their goal?

“Curse all of you, false gods,” Itsuki hit the table with his fist. “It is like you are really enjoying the suffering of cursed people who are slowly Falling down. Why do you need it anyway? Is it supposed to punish people, or to control them? And what you have to do to be cursed?”

Up to this day, nobody had an answer for that one question. When Itsuki tried to force people into this madness, Leo quickly cut him down. Wataru also seemed furious. By simply watching, he didn’t manage to recognise any pattern. The simple fact that they were able to save people only before the third stage seemed stupid for him – as if someone wanted them to be killed, not saved. After all, before hitting the third stage, it was easy to mistake a curse with a mental illness, something people were afraid of so much.

A real question was Tsukinaga, again. After all, he managed to bring Narukami to a stable state, and Shu was almost sure Kanata himself wasn’t helping him too much in that. That knight should never be able to stand straight again… If Itsuki only got a chance to see Arashi’s core, he would be able to see how it changed.

A wide smile appeared od Shu’s face.

“You have asked me to help you in researching this Curse. Am I wrong, my King ?” Itsuki looked outside the window. “Very well then, let me serve you. But I shall go even further – I am a perfectionist, after all. I shall take control the entire Curse and learn how to bring someone back to healthty even after reaching the fifth stage, so people can be saved anytime by me and Shinkai alone. I wonder, how will you react… Tsukinaga?”

 

With that goal in his mind, Itsuki started working on bringing Kagehira’s mind back, free from the Curse. There was a problem, though – he didn’t have any memories from him, and most of them were already destroyed. There was his diary of course, but before learning how it’ll affect the Curse, he had no other choice but to create false memories. No matter how stupid they were. He noticed that whenever he tried to connect them to the core – so they could be recognized as real ones – fragments of the Curse were trapping them, devouring before those could reach the core. Itsuki had to work fast in order to connect them.

The more he got, the more Kagehira was trying to wake up from the coma. Of course, Itsuki tried to keep him sleeping, so he couldn’t feel all the pain from experimenting – but Mika at some point just opened his eyes like nothing, saying that he cannot feel anything anyway. Because of that, Shu used the opportunity to see how a human was behaving after being exposed not only to the fifth stage, but also to his control. His body didn’t die, but the mix of energies changed it visibly. At first, his movement were unsure, but somehow light.

“I said I can’t feel pain?” Mika gazed at his legs, catching Shu’s arm while trying to walk. “I can’t feel my body, it’s strange. Eh, sorry for bein’ so clumsy…”

Mika was acting just like a new doll – when a new soul has been awakened in body, they couldn’t feel anything, while he was channeling a mix of his life energy and lirium as a way to replace nerves and other elements of the human’s body. Mika still had his own life energy, so that meant he needed just a little amount of lirium.

Thankfully, he really felt no pain. Whenever he wounded himself by the amounts of falls, he never bothered too much. The only change was the way those wounds were healing. It was a slow process, and his skin looked like a cracked porcelain.

And his his eyes were still reminding Shu of his sin.

Kagehira’s left eye turned back into a lovely blue shade, so well known to him, but his right one was still gold. And his mind was just a mass of quickly written, idiotic memories that worked as a placeholder for the real ones. This view alone was enough for Shu to feel ashamed of himself, but he had no choice.

He spent a lot of time to understand how he could force Mika’s life energy to work as before, with a small dose of lirium that allowed him to think, speak, walk – and live. As a strange hybrid.

A Human Marionette.

At some point, Shu really felt confident enough to give back his memories, but couldn’t get himself to see the diary, as Mika asked him not to look, believing it would affect his mind badly. So h̷̢̜̳̯̮͍̙̻͍̯̑́̆̓̆̄̊̕͝͝ĕ̶̢̱̝̦̤͓̪͍̖̋̊̌͗̂͊ͅ ̸͉͇̲̝͎̖̜̳̙͉̌͗̈́̅͗̋͐̆͝n̸̻̺̪̹̳̽͂̊̐Ë̶͔̻̲͓͖̯̲́̔͂͜V̶̢̡͙͎̳̓̐̃̏̕͝͝E̸̺͕͎̗̦̅͒̅R̴̗̦̜̍̾̄̀̑̓̿̕ ̸̧̫͔̮̤̤̲̲̬̲̄̾̈́̍̈́͘Ḑ̷̮̫̳̎̂͗̓̾͠ͅI̴̲̩͚̣͈͊̏̒͗͜D̷̝̬̠̫̈́̇͗-̵̼̠͍̒

 

The Knights and the Empire were clashing with each other non-stop, focused on each other.

That’s what he thought at least, until the day he received a report from a doll he send to the Harbor. And the news managed to send a chill down on his spine.

The Empire defeated them and took Yumenosaki’s capital city, forcing the Knights to retreat. People said they didn’t capture any of them… Even though there was a rumor one of them sold himself, just to give the rest time to run.

As he expected, they came to his mansion few days later, demanding his help in those cruel times. Itsuki told the King himself to leave, as he was no longer interested in their “partnership”, still blaming him for Mika’s illness. Of course, he did everything to make sure any of them never saw his student.

But then Mademoiselle said him that one doll saw Mika talking with Narukami.

And because Mika’s memories weren’t real, he didn’t know the knight yet. That’s why he ran to him in terror, asking if he really met any of the knights.

“Mm, I guess so,” Mika nodded his head with an innocent smile. “I think that was Narukami…? Really nice person, if ya ask me.”

 

Time was flowing by, and Itsuki couldn’t focus on his work, panicking. He had a very bad feeling about this.

Not only that, his mind was getting mixed as well. Has he finally saw that diary or not? He couldn’t remember a thing. He had it in his hands for sure. Then, he threw it into a wall. But what happened in between?

“Am I… Am I losing it again? Or did I destroy the memory by myself- Did I? There was something. Something I did not want to remember. There was one line. A warning. Tsukinaga-“

Tell your Master that if he’ll break his rules, I’ll personally slaughter him, no questions asked.

Leo knew. He knew?

He knew.

Arashi will tell.

He’ll start hunting him.

Why he was so fixated about those stupid rules anyway!

“We have to leave. As far as we can. As far from Leo. As far from Tenshouin. And Kagehira needs to get back. I have his memories, even though I cannot remember them. What the hell is that feeling? Preposterous. Preposterous, Mademoiselle, how can I not remember something I saw?” Shu walked in circles, biting his finger. “Whatever, we are leaving. Please, be ready for that. But Kagehira has to come back. I promised-“

“Shu, please. Breath in, and out… Repeat after me.”

“He looks dead again. His vital signs are vanishing, lirium is mixing with the blood. The Curse brought him to state between life and dead, and I cannot tell if he’s dying or not. Just… Just like knights. Narukami looked the same. They might be cursed as well, that would explain why they are so effective while fighting. Why do I know that? I do not know. Mademoiselle, my dear… When have I started destroying my memories…”

“Are you sure you’ve done that?” Mademoiselle gently caught him, forcing him to stop moving around and look at her. “Catch your breath and think, please. You’re panicking. It won’t-“

“I-I promised. I promised? Yes, I did. He asked me not to look at his notes before healing me. What rules are behind Leo’s actions? Kill us? Kill Wataru?”

None of Mademoiselle’s requests reached his ears. He was only thinking about what could happen in the nearest future. When he tried to finally catch a breath, he felt an energy from three dolls coming back to him, what forced him to escape Mademoiselle’s grasp.

That meant they lost their lives.

Soon after that, someone destroyed the doors. Mademoiselle jumped out and caught Shu’s hand, then ran deeper into the mansion.

“It’s wrong, wrong!” She screamed, looking around with a worried face. “We need to get back to Mika now-“

“Lord Puppeteer, this way! The portal will close soon!”

A young boy appeared out from nowhere in front of him, flying on a broom. Shu gazed at him speechless, completely shocked by such amount of stimulation at once. Why he was here and how-

“We have no time to waste, their attack has beGUN!”

A well-known to him young man caught his free hand.

“No, wait, Kagehira-!”

“Now!”

 

When Shu managed to get back to his senses, the portal behind his back closed, as he appeared in a library unknown to him.

Him and Mademoiselle.

In front of him, three mages were standing. Natsume was still having a hard time catching his breath. Aoba tried to give him some water to drink, but the alchemist waved his hand, telling to leave him alone. 

"Where..."

"Sensing those warriors is by far your greatest accomplishmeNT," Natsume gazed at Aoba again, took another breath, and turned into Shu's direction. "Too laTE. Welcome in the land of Still Alive People, it was cloSE. There's no reason to go back there, the Knights are destroying your home as we speak, looking for yOU."

"...Kagehira. He's still there."

"My condolencES. But both of us should understand how dangerous fighting against them is in your current staTE. It a pure suici-"

"Portal. To the mansion. Now."

His demands caused the mages to look at each other again and sigh. Tsumugi shook his head, giving him a worried look.

"I'm sorry, but I really can't risk them jumping to the library and destroying our hard work..." He said with a weak voice, forcing a smile. "Not to say all of us might also die. But we managed to save your life at least- Ouch!"

Shu was looking at them with empty eyes, slowly getting a grip on a whole situation. It was as if he could lose the ground under his legs at any moment. 

No going back- But if, the Knights will...

Non. Non, non, non!

"You..."

The mages that started a fierce discussion stopped in the middle of it, sending Itsuki confused gazes. 

"You utter fools!" Itsuki threw his hat on the ground. "Who in the hell even asked you to interfere, I was so damn close reaching my goal! Aah, everything is going to be futile! All I did, all the rules I have broken for it, and now what? To hell with your help, I am not terrified of Tsukinaga and his band of half-dead warriors - he is just another fool stupid enough to disturb my work!"

Both Aoba and Sakasaki took a step back, incapable of saying any word, while Itsuki clenched fingers on his own head. He really was close, he only needed a small piece of this puzzle... Cure for the Curse was in reach for his hands. Kagehira almost came back to life. But now? There's no way the Knights will let him live. So that's how it's going to end? He's going to die soon anyway, without a chance to repair Kagehira's life...?

The youngest mage, who up to now was watching them in a distance slowly approached him - until Mademoiselle blocked his way. 

But Shu didn't hear any word she said.

 

The mages didn't waste time and brought both of them to the other place. That turned out to be Natsume's older hideout hidden deep in the Forest between the Yumenosaki and Empire. Mademoiselle stayed with him all the time, doing her best to soothe his pain.

Shu still couldn't believe everything that happened. When he managed to calm down a bit, Natsume once more tried to explain the entire situation. As it turned out, he was working with Rei. The demon noticed his disappearance, alarmed by the fact that for some reason, the Knights' interest drastically shifted from Eichi to Shu. Tsumugi, alongside that young boy named Harukawa Sora, took their time to find out they were planning an attack on the mansion, and proceeded to save Itsuki before it was too late. What was interesting, though... They still didn't inform Rei about it. 

But Itsuki couldn't care less about Natsume's plans. He lost interest in anything that wasn't connected to Mika's safety. He lost control over everything, and his student probably died on that day. In his state, it was impossible for him to become an Observer.

Itsuki lost him again. 

Natsume at least promised him to search the mansion after they'll be sure it's safe, just so he can give him a proof of either his survival or death. 

Shu lost all hope - there's no way they let him live after becoming a mix of a dead doll and living human, even Narukami wasn't that desperate to bring a friend back from dead as Itsuki. 

"It is useless," He whispered under his nose and leaned his head against the wall, looking at the ceiling. “I have failed you, Kagehira. I really wanted to see you again, and yet..."

"Mhm. Don't worry 'bout that!"

Itsuki tilted his head to the left.

"I told ya can trust me, yanno? I'll kill you whenever ya need it, so no worries. We'll see each other soon~"

"...Right," Shu closed his eyes. "Do it. As gruesomely as you can. I shall follow you to the Hell itself if needed. After all, what's a point of living without you next to me...? Tsukinaga will haunt me down anyway."

"Mm... Lord Itsuki?" 

Shu opened his eyes. Sora was standing in front of him with a small tray in his hands. 

"Hello~ Resting is all good, but not when lord is almost sleeping on a floor, is Sora right?" The boy send him a warm smile. "And lord wasn't eating properly for days, miss Mademoiselle said that. It's bad, very bad."

Itsuki ignored his words.

"Sir Kagehira will be sad if you won't have enough energy to greet him after he's back," Sora didn't let him win and put a tray on the table, then crouched in front of him. "Besides, Sora wonders... Who you were talking to?"

"Huh? Ah... I wonder as well. Do not bother, young boy-"

He was ready to ask him to leave, before Sora's hand started gently patting his head. 

"Lord Itsuki's sad, and Sora knows it... But you cannot despair, Sora's Teachers will definitely bring the best ending to you. Sora believes them, because they are working hard - and if you pray enough, miracles can happen even when you feel dead. So please, don't lose hope and wait, okay?"

 

Even after that, Itsuki's state was slowly worsening - until the day Natsume finally brought news.

"Kagehira is alive and moviNG."

Hearing that, Itsuki rushed to him, questioning him. How is he? Where is he moving? Why they haven't met yet?

"Eh, slow down a bIT," Sakasaki made a step back. "He's quite fine - way more than I anticipated, considering even you believed he was deAD. He knows what's going on and reacts, just like a normal humAN. Sora and Aoba saved him in the capital as people there accused him of a murDER. Wouldn't be surprised if that was the Knights vicTIM... The problem is, I don't want you two to meet YET."

"Are you mocking me, Sakasaki?"

"No, I really have a good reason for tHAT. Someone is following hIM... And besides, Sora saw two colours inside his boDY."

Itsuki furrowed his eyebrows, waiting for him to expand this subject. Natsume sighed and sit down, laying his chin on his hands. 

"Sora, as he himself claims, can see the coloRS," He started. "At first we believed he can sense emotions, just like Lord Rei. But when he saw Kagehira, he said it seemed like there wasn't just one set of soul and emotions connected to it, but TWO. He still needs time to develop a proper theory, but - we all believe his woRDS. He claimed both 'seemed just as lost, and only one of them had a feeling that they weren't in their own body'." 

"I have never heard about anything like that. It's impossible."

"Well, you'll see it soon, so stay tuned for the reveAL. Anyway, that doesn't change the fact I want to be sure nobody is following your dear student, so I asked... An old friend, if you will, to guide them to the HarbOR. Doctor Shinkai should be able to help, am I rigHT?"

His words seemed like a total madness, but Shu couldn't do anything right now. The only fact that mattered was Kagehira's life, so there was still hope. If that little mage's words are real, he'll work on it in the future - and yes, Shinkai might be a help in this regard. Good thing he signed that paper before. 

Ah, come back as fast as you can, Mika...

 

The longer he waited, the more he got nervous.

Itsuki wanted to see Kagehira again, and all he got was Sakasaki, babbling about his sneaky plans. Feeling better, the Puppeteer, together with Mademoiselle, found new bodies for dolls, allowing him to spy all around Yumenosaki, getting a chance for her to speak to Mika directly with a bit of Natsume's help. She also said Mika was fine, just a bit lost. 

But Shinkai was working on the second soul hiding in Mika's core. There was something after all, and that managed to piss Itsuki off so much he started throwing objects all across a room. Something was wrong with Kagehira, and he couldn't see that for himself, letting Shinkai do whatever he wanted to! He had to sit until Kanata finally kicked Mika out of the Harbor after that murder, so Sakasaki started planting his traps again. 

The most annoying was the fact that Itsuki couldn't even contact his student, and had no idea why. Was the second soul destroying his connection, requiring him to be closer, or what? He was waiting, until the day he noticed a small change in the energy connecting them. 

Don't you find it strange? You've never heard about...

That voice. Unknown to him, speaking to Kagehira. 

"Can ya jus' shut up for a-"

"...Assuming control. Come, my dear Marionette."

"Guah?!"

 

When he sensed Kagehira's soul, he immediately took control over it. 

"Focus, Kagehira. Can you hear me right now? Ignore that second voice in your head, I shall take care of it after you will be back."

"O-Oshi-san... Is that really ya?"

Shu sighed with relief. Mika's voice was enough to calm his nerves down a lot. 

"Finally. It is working, you are alive... You have to listen to me closely," Itsuki clenched his fist. "I know you are lost. But fear not, that alchemist is really helping us, though I still do not know why. We shall find out soon. And besides, tell me... I heard Narukami is close to you right now."

A moment of silence. 

"Ah, that mercenary. Yep, we're watchin' her right now."

Itsuki smiled. 

"Perfect. I want her head."

"Eh?" Mika hesitated. "It's jus' a mercenary though? Are ya sure ya want them dead?"

"That mercenary is a reason all of our troubles appeared in a first place - and besides, she's a knight. If you let any of them get to us, they will murder us, no question asked. You have been already betrayed."

Just thinking about everything that happened... Thinking about every single time when Arashi asked Mika to join the war was enough for Shu to hit the table again.

"They are still useful, though. I need to know how the knight's soul are looking inside, how broken they are. And with that, I shall finally cure you, and learn about that second voice in your head."

‘Appreciated. That voice’s annoyin’ as hell. Can’t focus on anythin’ at all. So… We’ll see each other soon, right? Ya won’t disappear, right…?’

“Of course not. Soon enough, our enemies shall finally learn the true fear.”

 

So he was waiting. 

Waiting for that fateful day when Mika finally appeared in front of him, having a unconscious body of Narukami in his hands. Seeing him, Itsuki wished he could just jump at him and thank every single being on this world he was safe - but he had no idea what was that... thing, inside his head. He sensed that immediately. And he never seen something like this. 

Wataru, Kanata, Rei, those goddamn gods, whoever did that - Itsuki didn't want to give them the sign of how happy he was right now, so he kept his head high with class. 

This soul inside Mika's head completely fell for that, fearing him from the very moment they looked at him. Its fear was a feast for the Puppeteer hungry for power. 

He slowly allowed Mika to fall asleep, as the strings surrounded the soul, forcing them to obey his will, listening to their screaming with a smile. 

 

Only after that, Itsuki could start his work. 

And what he saw twisted his stomach in so many ways he felt nauseous from just looking. He saw every single memory of what happened after Mika has awaken in the mansion and relived his false memories, as if someone turned them on to watch. He left the mansion to look for Shu and suddenly lost his consciousness nearby the Inn. What an irony the owner was Shinkai's student. 

Why someone managed to watch his old memories? Why, soon after Sora saved him, their consciousness jumped out of nowhere to Sakuma's residence? This second soul awoken after that, slowly building up, trying to help Kagehira - but it still wasn't sure about their existence. If they were a part of Kagehira's mind, or a different being. Shinkai at first didn't tell him what was the truth, but was surprisingly stubborn for them to stay in the Harbor. He forced Mika to sleep and looked for stupid excuses as his memories were slowly vanishing. 

Lords only know what would happen to Mika if Mademoiselle didn't appear in front of him. Shinkai's goal wasn't making any sense. 

He changed his mind after Shinobu's death, gave him a notebook and forced to leave. Of course, Itsuki found it and hid it between the books in the hideout. 

But needless to say, seeing all of that was painful. Their minds were mixed with each other, and to make it worse, the second soul had to be the Observer - an unaware one. Before meeting Kanata, it believed it could've been a part of Mika's memories that became a being for some reason, but Kanata's work changed its mind. Now it believed it was a different person. 

He believed that "he knew nothing, but had to check out everything." Good thing he didn't start writing a book. 

Itsuki had to stop as the Observer started fighting back. He was lucky enough Shu had the energy to answer his questions, while he had to think about the strategy. He didn't explain every single detail, though... As this could be a perfect chance. 

Shu noticed that the Observer's presence was stopping the evolution of the Curse itself. No, even better - it was slowly merging them into one being. 

He could use that. By destroying the Observer's will and forcing him to believe he was, in fact, a part of Mika's soul, he could use it as a safe spot for Kagehira's true memories, as it couldn't attack the Observer's core. That will give him time to work around and cut the Curse entirely from them... and maybe after that, he'll think of a way to cut them down again and give the Observer’s his existence again. Maybe it was a blessing, after all? 

With that in mind, he told Mademoiselle to take care of the Observer by not giving him too much information, while he took his time preparing Mika's mind to receive his older memories...

...But of course, another intruder appeared.

And that was his lovely alchemist, Sakasaki himself. He got strangely interested in Observer's true nature and tried to force him to think again. That's why Shu had to work even faster and risk giving Kagehira his memories back. 

Before that, Itsuki wanted to finally take a look at Narukami's mind, hoping for some ideas as to how stop the Curse. Seeing her, laying on the ground, was a strange pleasure, as if Shu gave Leo a good reason to think twice about fighting against him. If he wants a war, he has to be ready for sacrifices. 

Shu managed to see the fragments where Leo told Arashi to play an ally, while watching both Mika and Shu, and to start splitting them during the War - but at some point, Arashi felt bad about that, noticing how adorable Mika was, and how good would it be to get him into safety, without hurting him too much. That's when Mika learned about it. Before they got into a conflict, Narukami promised him that if he'll leave Shu, they will be more than glad to take care of him in the capital. 

Now, this proud knight was here, on the dirty floor, while her entire life was in Itsuki's hands. 

"Fate is so ironic, don't you think?" Shu couldn't stop smiling. "Too bad. How come you are the perfect embodiment of all knights? You are so alluring and gorgeous outside, yet so rotten inside. You say a lot, just to betray people in the end. How much would it take for you to kill my student anyway?"

He had a good reason to say that - the soul of a Knight was a terrible joke.

Narukami was a Fallen One. The Curse stopped right between the fourth and fifth stage, meaning all of them managed to stop it by unknown reason. Sadly, the moment when Narukami was rescued has been lost - the only clue was Leo and Kanata. But now Shu understood why Mika called them war beasts. They couldn't feel pain, fatigue or remorse when they got into killing. All of them were also trained by their King. And Leo, himself, was like an actor on his stage during every single fight Arashi remembered. 

A gorgeous, deadly dancer. And those knights were securing his back. 

They really, really had to run away as fast as possible. It's your time to come back, Kagehira. 

 

„Hear my voice, as the time has come to look at the script. Surrender to my will, and I shall prepare a suitable manuscript. A masterpiece of your future.”

 

It worked.

Mika was back, all his memories were intact. The view of his student safe and alive was bringing tears to Itsuki's eyes, but he knew he had no time to waste. He was fighting against the knights, against Natsume - against every single person who dared to disagree with him. The next meeting with the alchemist revealed even the Harbor wasn't safe anymore - after Shinobu's death, people got so paranoid they were attacking each other. And Shinkai wasn't even able to calm them down. 

Or he stopped trying.

To make things even more annoying, not only Sakasaki mentioned "a doll", which was most likely Nazuna, being attacked, he really tried to force the Observer to think by himself, trying to wake him up from the poison Itsuki slowly started pouring into his heart. That's why Shu gave him a subtle sign that he knew. And he has the last chance to back off, before he'll take his head off. 

Only because Natsume saved him before. If not, he'd be already dead. 

 

The Observer found Arashi and became persistent. 

Thankfully, he was also stupid enough burst his own cover due to his stress. Shu had no idea how he managed to run away from his grasp, so before he forced him into obedience once and for all, he looked into his memories. 

Why he-

...

Non. Wait. That person in the forest. That voice. 

That. That was him.

The Joker.

Hibiki Wataru was there, fully aware of the situation. They've met. He showed him the part of his memories. It's as if he wanted to warn him...

'If you even touch that boy, I shall come back again for you.' 

Itsuki couldn't understand. Why? Why now, how did he learn about them? Why he was so interested in that boy anyway? Was it a trap? Why, the hell, he found him!

Sakasaki hasn't said anything about it. He turned silent soon after leaving. 

Whatever. They had to run. Now. His work got disturbed, but deeply inside his heart, he already felt bad for that kid. Nobody can live a peaceful life if Wataru gets interested in them. By destroying his feeling of existence, he would forget about himself and save Mika. 

Ah, Observers... Such pitiful ghosts. Wataru might force him to remember his past life at some point, or he'll start creating him from scratch. 

What a hypocrite. 

He had no choice but to cut down his core from Mika, tossing it to any doll he found in the hideout before leaving. With that, he can at least interact with the world and decide for himself.

Farewell, Observer. 

 

They've been running. 

But suddenly, Mika jumped between him and Mademoiselle with a weapon in his hand. 

An arrow came out from nowhere, piercing through Mademoiselle face. The magic energy came out of it and destroyed her core. The sound of it cracking reached to his ear.  He panicked, but Mika managed to stay calm, grabbed his hand and run. He didn't say anything, but Shu already knew. 

Someone was hunting them. 

He stopped at some point, released Shu's hand and jumped towards. He blocked an attack. In front of him was a warrior, wielding a sword Shu saw in Suou's memories. His face was hiding behind the mask. 

But Itsuki knew him.

It was Tsukinaga Leo himself.

More magical energy passed through. Shu forced the dolls around to stand up and shield him and Kagehira from both arrows and spells. Leo allowed Mika to get back to his Master. Their gazes met for the first time in months. Itsuki did his best to keep a neutral expression on his face.

"I thought the Empire was a bigger trouble for you, my King," He waved his hand. "Please, you were supposed to be the holy knights. Let them come out of hiding... Or you have accepted your status as criminals?"

Besides them, Itsuki sensed four souls, one of them being Narukami, the second one - a demon. Similar to Rei, but not entirely.  

"Too bad, Itsuki," Tsukinaga started talking with a blank tone when all his warriors came out. "You should've know rules must be followed."

"Rules? What rules, those created by your false gods? Or maybe you are the one that created them, as you are the only one so deeply interested in them. Who gave you the right to play a judge?"

Leo sighed heavily. 

"I really hoped you haven't lost it completely. Really, too bad. With those words, your time is up. I'll take your head by myself - and for torturing Naru you should be damn prepared for that!"

Oh, so you still have some emotions? Good, because you weren't the only one, Leo. Itsuki was more than happy to finally tear him down to shreds. Tear down, pull out the limbs, cut his damn soul to pieces - and see the demon hiding in this little, foolish man.

"I see. However, that script of your, Tsukinaga..."

The Puppeteer allowed himself to smile as he pulled his hand towards the King. 

"...shall not be used, as it is not magnificent enough for me to follow it. In order to make it a masterpiece, allow me to change it."

With a snap of his fingers, a fierce energy has been awakened, spreading around and forcing all the undead to stand up again, hungry for blood. Even the King himself moved back.

The dolls slowly arose.

"For example - your life, my King, should end today. And your head shall be a gorgeous present for the Empire."

Itsuki raised his hand, allowing all the dolls to rush towards the knights, while Kagehira used the time to attack Leo from the shadows. Leo blocked him. Mika continued his attacks from the shadows, while the rest of the knights focused on the dolls. 

The exchange between Mika and Leo seemed like a perfect dance of death, both being their best partners. Cue to the Curse and his energy, Kagehira still couldn't use his magic as before - so Itsuki learned him everything Nazuna once knew about the Art of War. 

A beautiful dance in the shadows, with addition of Narukami's memories about Leo's precision and movements. Thanks to his half-dead body, he also felt no fatigue nor pain. Mika could fight against Leo for hours, waiting for an opportunity to kill him.

However, Itsuki was slowly reaching his limit. Due to the amount of life energy needed to fuel the doll's bodies, combined with some shots that reached him, he was getting weaker.

We need to end this fast, Kagehira.

After making sure nobody's paying attention on him, Shu focused all energy inside himself, creating strings in his fingers. He released them at once, focusing on every single knight other than Narukami.

Just one touch on core and their minds will obey his will.

"Watch out for that!"

Tsukinaga noticed first, easily avoiding them, even with Kagehira still close to him. The demon also seemed fine. Shu immediately gave up on them, focusing more on the archer. Suou wasn't the best at it. 

Shu easily caught him. With a strong hand, he pulled the strings to himself, forcing Suou to attack his own King. His eyes turned gold as he tried to fight back. 

Ah, living people were too stubborn. 

Leo didn't say a word. He just turned at Shu, furious. Mika was still easily keeping him at a safe distance. 

That's when the demon rushed towards Suou. Itsuki forced him to attack, but that cursed demon was good enough to avoid both arrows and magic. He grabbed Suou's collar and pulled closer for a kiss. Itsuki raised his eyebrows, not entirely sure what that was supposed to do, and one more time forced Suou to attack.

"Suu-chan, don't listen to him. Stick to the plan and protect Nacchan."

"Kill that goddamn demon right now!"

The pressure of two commands was too much for young archer as he moved back, screaming. Just after a while, he managed to get a grip on his bow again and shoot the arrow.

Right into Itsuki's eyes. He managed to avoid direct hit, but it instead reached his right shoulder. Pain was strong enough to destroy all the the strings, while Itsuki couldn't believe what happened. How in hell he escaped his will?

"Oshi-san, stop tryin', they're too stubborn. Focus on Tsukinaga!"

One strong hit. It was all they needed. Itsuki forced the dolls to rise again, while Mika hid in the shadows. 

Tsukinaga finally took off the mask and tossed it, closing his eyes for a second. They turned into the same golden shade as other knights. His smirk was more than worrying for Itsuki, as he was watching him cutting through all the dolls like a madman, while dual-wielding his swords. Even in Narukami’s memories, he was only using one sword. 

A war genius. Amazing, effective madman.

Too effective.

Kagehira moved towards Leo, until he noticed an arrow released onto him. He easily avoided it, but the magic missile hit his knee, forcing him to get out of shadows. 

The demon appeared behind him and blocked him with his scythe, pulling him as close as he could. 

Leo killed the last doll and rushed towards Shu. 

Itsuki wanted to get out of his way, but was too tired - both his powers and wounds were slowing him down. Without thinking, he reached for his old dagger. His palm was pierced by an arrow before he caught it. Itsuki screamed, losing his balance. 

Last thing he saw was Leo, right in front of him. 

Next was a pain. Sharp, incredible pain, impossible to endure. He was screaming, trying to get out of Leo's reach. Blood came to his mouth as he started coughing, not being able to breathe, painting Leo's face in red. The King pulled him closer.

"Soon you'll meet your student again. Fear not."

For the first time, Tsukinaga's voice was unearthly soft, released of all negative emotions. 

But behind that voice, Itsuki could hear Kagehira screaming.

"I do not think so, my King..." Itsuki, with his last strength, looked down on Leo, sending him a smile full of contempt. "Kagehira... He will not let you survive. We shall see each other soon."

Before he succumbed to the cold darkness, he looked at Mika.

 

...Forgive me, Kagehira.

In the end, I failed at saving you. 

Chapter Text

"Natsume? Natsume, please wake up!"

The voice was coming out from a distance, followed by a cough. 

"Don't touch me if you don't want your hands ripped oFF."

"HaHa, it means Master is okay. But something happened, right? Your colours..."

"Yes, I'm fine, for nOW."

Three people. Judging by the voices, it was Natsume, Sora and Tsumugi.  I couldn't see them though, even when I managed to open my eyes and look around the place I was now. For some reason, all of us were in the hideout. I couldn't tell why. 

My head was spinning as I forced my body to listen to me and stand up. It wasn't the easiest task, considering all the shock - my mind was wandering somewhere else in the past. Arranging all the memories was futile. I didn’t have enough informations. 

What was my name again...?

"...Someone is here."

"Eh? No way Kagehira is hiding somewhere here, right?" Aoba's voice trembled. "I don't really think I want to see him now, no offence... Wait, I feel some Lirium nearby- Natsume, stop moving so much, I have to treat you!" 

"Oh, shut UP."

The voices were getting closer as I tried to hide for now, until my mind could calm down a bit, but that also didn't work. Sora appeared in front of me, seemingly surprised. 

"Hello there, ObserVER." 

I turned my head and saw Natsume next to me. There wasn't a hint of his characteristic smile on his face - his eyes were dull, as if he just woken up from a nightmare.

'I still have no idea what's going on right now, but at least this plan worked somehOW.'

His core was giving up enough to learn his entire state. One could think he was tired judging from his looks alone, but his mind couldn't lie that well. ‘Tired’ was an understatement. 

'I have no idea what happened, I don't know if there was any attack, or if they managed to escaPE... How in the hell I ended up here anywaY?'

"Itsuki is dead."

All three of them send me a surprised glare when I spoke.

"Wait, how?" Tsumugi blinked. "I mean..."

"I'm not sure how to explain this, but you have to believe me," I said and scratched my head. "I'm sure that happened, but that was also as if... No, please, forget that. I need a few minutes, my head is still spinning." 

To be honest, they weren't the only one surprised how sure I was, considering nobody didn't even ask about it out loud. All memories were still mixed in my head and without their help in determining what time and day it was, I had no good point to even start. And there was still question why we were here in the first place. Natsume should leave the forest long before the attack occurred, I was sure of that one thing at least.

This, and the attack itself. And then, that masked man - Hibiki Wataru. Thanks to Shu, this mask has finally received a name, making the person behind it more human.

Natsume cleared his throat, what got me out of my thoughts immediately, and send a glare at Tsumugi.

"We’ve probably seen his body," He hid his face behind his book. "But I'm more concerned about you than a dead man, for a second I thought we lost you!" 

"I'm not that easy to kill, I assure yOU. I wouldn't be here if that was the caSE."

"Yep, but you still should be careful, Master!" Sora jumped between them before they would start fighting, then looked at me. "By the way, isn't that boy familiar? He seems like the one twins were looking for - did you find him by yourself?" 

"That’s a long story and this is not the best place to explaIN. If my theory is right, thouGH... Hey - what's your naME?'

I hesitated. Two answers came to my mind. 

"I am..."

I took a deep breath.

"Tomoya. Mashiro Tomoya... At least that's how he called me."

"He?"

"The Joker."

Sakasaki raised his eyebrow and smiled, then looked at his fellow mages. Aoba avoided his gaze, while Sora completely ignored that, his eyes still focused on me. He nodded his head few times and smiled. 

"HiHi~ Twins will be glad to hear that, Sora assures. But before that, he suggests it'd be the best to go back, so Master can finally take a deep breath and rest."

"Are you sure though?" Tsumugi fixed his glasses. "I wish I could be just as sure as you are, but doesn't it look more like Itsuki's doll rather than the person they've been talking about?” 

"Well, that's another story, but I get your point," I couldn't help but smile. "Let's say I've been forced into it, and my appearance is out of my control."

"...Oh, wait. The Lirium, right. I can sense a small illusion hiding deeper, charged by the energy… Interesting."

Wait, an illusion... I don't like it. I looked around hoping there would be some sort of mirror, but stopped just as fast. After all, there is no point in me describing my current appearance, they could see as much as they needed to identify me, while I had no idea how Mashiro Tomoya looked. The fragment I've received from the Joker didn't show me that either. 

All I could tell the body I've received was in far better shape than the previous one. Of course, just as they said, it was still a doll's body, but now I didn't have to worry about it breaking after one move. 

"Well, whatever happened in the end, you've managed to escape Itsuki's firm grasp, good for yOU," Seeing that our discussion was going nowhere, Natsume cleared his throat again. "Your name is the one Aoi twins gave to us, so my theory is rigHT. You're not our enEMY."

"Isn't that sweet how sure you are. Why so confident?"

"Because I can tell you're as lost as I am, especially right nOW. And it's better for you to work with me, you can get your memories back this wAY."

I had to stop myself from asking why he was so sure I wanted to get my memories back in the first place, but stopped when I noticed how strange it was. After all, why wouldn't I? 

"You got me, then. But I'm not sure if I have strength and will to trust another person claiming they might 'help' me. Didn't work well before, as far as I can tell." 

"Let's start from the fact I'm not a Blessed, so I don't have any super abilities, I can't control you or anythiNG. All I have is my personal charM," Natsume shrugged and slowly moved towards the exit. "But first, I need to check something with my own eyES. No offence, you tWO."

'And I really, really want to leave this place, it reeks death and it pisses me oFF. Tell them what they want to hear and let's get out of heRE.'

So he knows I can hear him, good. 

"What about your sudden disappearance, though?" Tsumugi sent him a worried look. "We still don't know if there's any danger in this forest..."

"Have you or Sora sensed anythiNG?"

Both shook their heads. 

"And you, ObservER?"

"Can't tell for sure, there's no way I can judge the time from any memories."

It could be minutes, hours, days... Their cores weren't telling more than their words, they didn't try to hide anything. 

Thankfully for both of us, Tsumugi and Sora stopped asking and moved as well towards the exit. Then I remembered something and asked for a minute, looking for a small book. 

Yes, the notebook from Shinkai. He made it for me, and since I could tell where it is, I decided to grab it, hoping it might be useful in the future. I still know nothing of those countries. 

With that, I followed the magicians. 

 

The forest turned even more dark now as the dead rested here, free from their worries and fate. The spirits were whispering with each other, telling the story that happened just not that long before, as the Master of Death has joined them in their eternal sleep. 

Whenever we looked, marionette's bodies were laying. Those who where built by the Puppeteer seemed just like broken dolls, while the real bodies gave a much more grim look to it, as if someone massacred humans. Natsume was coming closer to the dolls, reaching to their destroyed chests and grabbing the remaining Lirium crystals. 

"They don't need it, unlike uS," He said with a neutral voice when Tsumugi sent him a glare. "Our resources are quickly depleting, so don't think too much about iT." 

And sure, we ignored him and moved. 

The whisperings stopped soon after, making every sound stronger. Just one voice has warned us where we were going. 

Mademoiselle was still looking at the sky with a soft smile on her face. And soon enough, I met my gazes with him. 

The Puppeteer. The man that was forced into battle with the fate itself, leading him into brutal tragedy that nobody managed to stop. 

This proud man who I met just not that long ago was laying in the pool of blood, which was sinking in both the ground beneath him, as well as this clothes. Nobody allowed him to sleep in peace - his twisted face was showing all the pain, his eyes looking right at me. I slowly moved towards him, feeling all conflicting emotions coming back to me.

Just few minutes before I had no idea who he was. I simply wanted to strangle him for everything he tried to do with me - and then, I felt like as if I've spent all my life with him, sensing all the pain he was forced to endure. The wave of memories, right from the fragments - memories I've relived, as if those were mine from the beginning. But it wasn't right. Our names, our bodies were different. 

Mashiro Tomoya - this, as well as the fragment received from the Joker before, were the barrier defending me from the belief I was looking at my own corpse. 

But, to be honest, I couldn't feel the same hatred as before. 

"Huh... So only him and Mademoiselle died?" Tsumugi's voice brought me back to the reality. "I can't see Kagehira anywhere."

"Don't tell me you haven't seen him at all."

"Well, I hoped you can convince me what happened to him, Observer..."

"They won't let him live for too long and vice versa, thouGH," Natsume came to us. "Let's get back faST. Sora doesn't look too goOD."

The young mage hasn't said anything since we left, sitting stiff on his broom with a dense face. I closed Itsuki's eyes and laid his hands on his chest and quickly followed them.

 

Thankfully it didn't take that much time to the place where Aoba could open a portal without worrying about any danger, and we finally entered the library. Tsumugi and Natsume took a deep breath almost at the same time, while Sora, without saying anything, flew between the bookshelves somewhere. I blinked surprised, but mages brushed it off saying it's better this way, so they won't worry about watching out on their words. So that young boy doesn't know everything. Their cores simply gave me a feeling they believed it's really better for him not to know every single detail. 

Soon enough, all three of us were sitting in a small room at the small table, having some tea and snacks like nothing. Their hospitality was a bit too much for me, considering not only I couldn't use it too much thanks to new body, but also because I was a bit cold to them before. 

"Right," Tsumugi started. "Natsume, we really worried about you when we lost contact, it was so out of nowhere..."

Sakasaki furrowed his eyebrows.

"I'm not exactly sure what happened as weLL," He said with a low voice. "I left the hideout pretty annoyed after my talk with Shu, as if he didn't want to work with me at aLL."

"You were literally on the border of life and death, so trust me, you did the right thing," I said, trying to smile. "He clearly was suspicious of you."

"Great, one more weirdo trying to give me a sign just because I know a bit too much, things aren't working as they shouLD."

I decided to stay quiet.

"Well, truth to be told, I didn't get too far anywaY," Soon, Natsume continued. "I thought I've sensed a strange energy in the air, hoping it was YOU. What a surprise it was that suddenly a demon came out of nowheRE - just because that damned idiot forced me to believe this energy was youRS."

"Wait, was it my fault?" Tsumugi pointed at himself, worried. "Was it the same energy as we came to this forest with Narukami? I was almost sure it had to be the Observer..."

"Yeah, it was the saME. But as far I call tell it wasn't him, so I was on the demon’s merCY. I don't really want to think about IT.”

"What did he do to you?" I asked.

"Oh, nothiNG. Just pinned me to tree with one hand and fucking kissed ME."

Ironically, while he tried to brush it of like nothing, we noticed a small hint of red on his cheeks, so we stayed in a complete silence for a minute. Tsumugi opened his mouth and seemed as if he wanted to say something, but forgot how to talk, while I blinked, surprised by his words. At least until I remembered Itsuki saw something like this as well... It should be the same demon then. 

"Say something, this silence is annoyiNG," Natsume rose up from his chair. "I wouldn't care that much about that if he didn't force me to give him the Lirium and tell how my own goddamn hideout worKS... And then used my poison to knock me oUT."

"Yeah, I do understand that would be annoying, but you know, you're still blushing," Tsumugi couldn't hide his smile. "Don't tell me, was it your first time? That's adorable, I didn't know- Ouch!"

"You're deAD."

The force Natsume used to hit Tsumugi’s head was enough to startle me as well, while Aoba fell down from his chair on the ground. 

"It really hurts!"

"Good, as it’s supposed tO. Should I get the poisons I wanted to test out and use them on yoU?" His smirk was enough to give a shiver. "I might actually feel better after thAT~"

"Wow, calm down!" 

"Yes, it seems like thanks to Ritsu, all three of you are actually livelier than I thought, considering the situation."

"Shut UP!"

"Wait, who-"

It took us a while to notice none of us said the name "Ritsu", so we started looking around confused to find the source. Natsume immediately lost all his will to fight with Aoba when he saw the Demon Lord himself, Sakuma Rei, sitting at the table with a grin, resting his chin on hand. 

"Welcome, gentlemen. Please forgive my brother for his attitude - I guess he didn't learn any etiquette during his time on surface," Rei was still smiling, even when his voice was serious. "And I'm glad to see the Observer is in a good shape. Congratulations."

I averted my gaze. 

"Nobody is using my name."

"You don't seem to well adjusted to it, so I thought you might not like it. It's understandable, trust me - especially considering the conditions Itsuki forced onto you."

This happy atmosphere from few minutes ago disappeared as if it never happened, as all of us sit down back with serious faces. Our eyes focused on the demon.

"So you knew your brother is working with the King, my Lord?" I've gathered my courage to ask a question. "You don't seem surprised at all."

"I've expected as much, young boy. My demons have very sharp eyes and ears... Add the past and his little plan with Isara and every single dot has been connected. Though, to be honest... I didn't expect him being that close."

"Isara?"

"I can't tell for sure, but I think someone asked him to take care of him so he won't die too soon. Quite a change, as he was dying in prior loops. Don't ask me about the details, I don't know much about it."

Well, truth to be told, I didn't expect to hear that name today as well. I saw a small change in Rei's core, so I tried to take a look at it, but guess what - a Blessed easily noticed what I was doing and focused on Natsume. 

"From what I've learned, Itsuki is already dead," He started, and his smile disappeared from his face. "This shows how serious Tsukinaga is... And with one Blessed gone, he's going to focus on us again. Why didn't you tell me you know what happened to him and where is he?" 

"The same way you didn't tell me about your brother, I decided to change my goal a bIT. I don't recall signing anything about us sharing all the informatioNS."

"The Puppeteer could be alive right now."

"That wouldn't change a damn thiNG. He was running away not only from Tsukinaga, but the entire wAR."

Both were staring daggers at each other while smiling, making not only me, but also Aoba, incredibly unsure what to do. The atmosphere between them was heavy, their cores showing the annoyance they felt right now due to the misinformations. With me and Tsumugi in the room, this talk weren't going as smoothly. 

"I have to agree. Please, don't feel offended by that," Rei suddenly looked at me. "You did your best, but this talk is for me and Sakasaki. I believe you should be happy now, as you fulfilled your role - now you can decide what do you want to do. Isn't that the greatest prize?"

"He can help uS."

Even now, they were giving completely complementary statements, especially now, where they were speaking right next to each other. I send Natsume an asking gaze, hoping he would extend it a bit more.

"There's still a lot of work and not enough hanDS," He sighed. "And besides, you're really naive if you think the Joker won't bother you, there has to be reason why he helped you to get out from Itsuki's graSP. You're an anomaly - lord Rei, with all due respect, you can't expect to have a peaceful life simply with thAT. And your help would be appreciatED-"

"Thanks, I'll pass."

Rei did his best not to laugh at my bold statement, while the confident smile disappeared from Sakasaki's face immediately - and honestly, that felt good to see him like this. Don't get me wrong, I had nothing against him, he did help me back in the hideout, thanks to him I understood I'm dancing the way Shu wanted me to. But that didn't mean I'm going to listen to his every word and get into this conflict just because he asked for it. It wasn't my fight at all, and I wasn't some natural born hero that has to save the world or whatever they're doing. I don't even know their goals. 

If you want help, give enough informations. In this case, all I knew was that something happened with the Joker, something pissed of the King, and these two maybe were working together, but what they wanted to do? Hell if I know. 

So yeah, no. Thank you very much. 

And about Wataru - I can find out what he wants when he'll come to me. But damn it, Itsuki... Due to that shock, I could read from Natsume as from an open book. All thanks to your knowledge, damn it.

"If you want me to pay you back for your help earlier, give me a price," I said with a firm voice. "But I don't know you, and your drama or whatever is going on - I don't feel it. It's not my story, we're not connected at all. Don't expect me to jump as if we're friends. I've listened to two Blessed and you know what? You guys are problematic, to say the least. What else you want to take from me?"

My will, my body, my existence? No, I'm not risking again. 

"I thought you're interested in conflict after seeing Itsuki's memoriES," Natsume tried to calm down. "Already giving UP? Besides, stop calling me a Blessed, I'm not-"

"You're not a saint either, dear Natsume," Rei interjected, seeing where the conversation was going. "I'll skip the part where you're just as stubborn as we in bringing more people into our fight, but... You seem to enjoy walking on a thin line between all the Blessed without saying what is your true goal. You didn't even tell how do you know about the loops."

"I'll take that as compliment, since it came from you out of all BlessED. You love secreTS. Let me have my oWN."

This really was going nowhere. I tried to look for Aoba, but he already left the room, and I really wanted to do the same. 

"Before you leave, I'd be glad if you could hear a small hint that should be helpful."

I focused on the Lord, who send me a friendly smile. 

"Not all Observers are as tragic as Itsuki believed. Everything depends on your willpower and the scale of the tragedy that took your memories away, as well as if there was someone who could help them to fight against your trauma. Aoi twins were really close to you, so they could help you learn about your past. You can trust them. They were ready to spill blood of innocents for your sake."

"You mean those two we've met all way back with Kagehira?"

"Yes, exactly. And one more thing."

He came closer to me. 

"Be aware that if you cannot find your old memories, you can decide to take your name and build your own personality based on what you've seen up to this point. And Observers have a tendency to take what they've seen too much personally, if you ask me."

Natsume almost managed to interject, but Rei turned towards him and looked straight into his eyes, stopping the alchemist. 

"Thank you, lord Sakuma, I appreciate it. Have a nice day, you two." 

Chapter Text

When I finally escaped both Sakasaki’s and Sakuma’s heavy gazes and left the room, I took a deep breath. They were building up tension so fast I wouldn’t be surprised if they manage to put something on fire… What a pain, honestly. I still had no idea why so many people were interested in me, but I had enough of it, and wanted to finally go my way and never look back. Sadly, that had to wait for a bit longer, as I heard Sora’s voice in the distance. 

“Sora can see him, he’s between the bookshelves! HiHi, hiding is pointless, Sora knows every single place in the library~”

“Aniki, I’m counting on you. Don’t hurt him, though!” 

“Got that~”

While the voices were getting closer to the place I was currently standing, it was easy to guess they were focused on entirely different thing – or actually even a person. There was a shadow running between the bookshelves, right to my direction.

A young boy appeared in front of me, but his good reflexes rescued us from bumping on each other with quite a big force. Being that close, we both could examine each other.

And immediately I felt an unpleasant pain deep inside. This boy had the hollow, orange-golden eyes.

He already lost against the Curse.

But for some reason, rather than attacking me or anything, he examined my face carefully, then threw himself at me while laughing.

“Tomo-chan!” He shouted with a sweet smile. “Gotcha, Tomo-chan! Now we can go back to the village~”

We wasn’t at all surprised by my appearance, as if I’ve never changed or anything… While I was there, completely stunned. I didn’t even notice when those who were chasing him found us. Sora moved first and helped me escape the firm grasp of a Fallen One. The twins were looking at me with their mouths open. One of them pointed his finger at me.

They had to be Aoi twins.

“Is this another stupid trap prepared by your Master?” One of the brothers, wearing a purple necklace, furrowed his eyebrows. “Not funny, I believed you guys don’t use illusions… Not to mention it’s not even tasteful.”

“Aniki… I don’t really think it’s an illusion,” The second one, with a blue necklace, moved closer. “It’s too real, but also too different from reality.”

Sora blinked when hearing their words.

“HaHa… Sora didn’t tell you, huh? That’s the friend you’ve been looking for, sir Tomoya.”

A synchronized “huh?” escaped from the twins mouths as they jumped at me, touching my hands and examining literally every single detail on my face.

“No no, it’s just a doll that looks familiar, we’ve seen his body up close!” Hinata tried to pinch my cheek, but since it I had none skin to pull, he just managed to scratch it with his finger. “What in the…”

“I’m begging both of you, stop touching me and get off or we won’t get anywhere!”

Hearing my request, they moved back and looked at each other, putting their hands on mouths. They were still watching me, but at least they kept their distance for now.

“I think he doesn’t remember us, Yuta.”

“He doesn’t know us, even when his voice and looks are exactly the same.”

“Something is wrong with his body, it’s somehow even more dead than his corpse.”

“It’s like a doll.”

“Hey, that’s rude, I’m pretty much alive as far as I can tell!” I gritted my teeth, hearing their train of thoughts. “Look, I am a doll. Not because I wanted to, but… Eh, whatever, saying the same thing over and over is tiring. I was forced to, thanks to that you two can see me and talk. And before you ask – I’m sorry, but my memories are gone, so I don’t know who you are…”

The twins looked at each other again. I could notice how their faces turned gloomy. On the other hand, the Fallen boy escaped Sora’s grasp and approached me again.

“I don’t know what are you talking about, yanno?” He asked, tilting his head. “It’s definitely Tomo-chan, I can assure you! We can go back for dinner, dinner~”

“I’m not that sure, Mitsuru… Can’t you see what’s different?” Hinata laughed nervously.

“Nope. Nothing wrong here!”

Hinata sent me a confused gaze, not entirely sure what he should do right now  - his core was screaming for explanations. I scratched my head and laughed, then moved towards the boy named Mitsuru.

“Hey. So you were looking for me?” I asked with a smile.

“Yup, as always. I don’t recall when we decided to play hide and seek, but I guess you really wanted to surprise me – too bad, I’m still faster than you. But it’s time to go back, yanno? Adonis might get worried, he’s getting all the dinner done and-“

He clearly wasn’t aware of what was going on while his mind wandered either in past or a completely different dimension. If he was sane, he’d be aware that I, well… Died at least some time ago.

“Will you let us talk a bit with him before you’ll leave?” Yuta laid his hand on Mitsuru’s shoulder. “You know, we were first and stuff.”

“Eh, that’s not fair?”

“Too bad. You’ll see it won’t take long, promise.”

Mitsuru didn’t want to cooperate and listen to the twins, though, so we had to calm with down and escape while he’s not looking at me. Hinata asked Sora if he could help, so the young mage challenged Mitsuru for a small race – and gladly, not that long after me and the Aoi twins could escape to another room, while they were making a fuss in a library. Right before I followed the twins, I noticed Tsumugi as he screamed at them not to destroy the library in panic. Hinata and Yuta laughed at this scene before they forced me to get to the room.

And that ended up as if they brought me to an interrogation room, as they forced me to sit on a chair, while they stood right in front of me, crossing their hands.

“Can you tell us what’s going on?” Yuta started the interrogation with an unsure tone. “Yeah, you do look and sound like Tomoya, but…”

“But that’s impossible because I died. I get your point, but there’s an easy explanation. You know about the Puppeteer, right?”

“Yup, our lord was looking for him-“

He didn’t even finish his sentence, as he got an idea in his head. Slowly, the dots were getting connected. He snapped his fingers and whispered something to Hinata, so they could get on the same page.

Their faces lightened up immediately when they got a point and jumped at me again, almost throwing off the chair.

“So you really don’t remember us?” Yuta’s voice softened as he crouched. “We’ve spent so much time together…”

I shook my head.

“I’m sorry. Nothing.”

Hinata sighed heavily, avoiding eye contact.

“It’s not the first time when I see an Observer, but it truly hurts right now,” He said. “I really hoped I’ll never have to deal with it on such a personal level.”

“Yeah, it’s not the easiest for us as well, I assure,” I tried to keep my voice low. “The only thing I know is that I lost my memories due to a tragedy or trauma – but someone was ‘kind’ enough to give me a small fragment of my memory. It’d be nice if you could confirm that for me…”

I showed them the fragment I received from Hibiki and watched their faces. They immediately averted their gazes, while their cores started burning with annoyance and hatred. But they didn’t say a thing about it out loud.

“Maybe it’s better for you that way,” Yuta sighed. “It didn’t end well, really. But I’ll definitely miss our old conversations…”

Hinata patted his shoulder and helped him to get up. Then, a complete silence has reigned in the room, as all of us had no idea what to say… Or where should we start. This feeling was suffocating – we technically knew each other for years, but now, with my memories gone, we had a big obstacle on our road to defeat.

But just because I didn’t remember wasn’t meaning our relations were completely gone. I slowly arose from my seat and send them a smile.

“Well, I do know your names. Hinata and Yuta, right?”

They nodded their heads.

“Hey, that’s the first obstacle down!” I clenched my hand. “I know it’s hard to do anything, this feeling is unbearable. You two give me a nice vibe… Some sort of warm I can’t really explain. Plus, you still know me. That means we can recall all the best memories and learn about each other again.”

They both stared at me in disbelief for a moment, and a small tear could be seen in Hinata's eye that he stubbornly refused to let go – but something has finally snapped and he lunged at me, hugging with such a strength as if I could disappear at any moment. Yuta started laughing and joined us soon after.

“Yeah… Welcome back, Tomoya.”

 

I've waited until they managed to calm down a bit so we could leave the magician's library - they wanted to show me around more familiar places, the village where I used to live included. What a surprise it was to learn that the ruins me and Kagehira have seen quite a long time ago turned to be my old home - now completely forgotten by everyone. Otogari Adonis and Tenma Mitsuru were the last known survivors... Well, Mitsuru couldn't be completely considered a living person due to his current state. He lost his sanity shortly after I disappeared, so he had to be close to me. Sora was the one that begged Natsume to take him in, as he was a strange case of non-aggressive Fallen One, so they could check him and see the true nature of someone who already lost their mind. 

Adonis was... Somewhere, not really sure where. Rei and someone named Koga were taking care of him, so at least he should be safe. But I could tell they were avoiding quite a lot of details - for example the reason why this village has been slaughtered. They only said people deserved it well.

Their stories had to be real, I had no reason to doubt it, but... I guess Itsuki's way of thinking somehow affected me - yeah, I'm talking about the 'show vs tell' rule. While the Observers were taking every single fragment of memories as show, twins were only telling me about the past. With that, I couldn't create any connections and make it feel real, thus making those memories weak. And, to be honest... That cold attitude of mine was scaring me. 

This is why I asked them if they buried my body anywhere. Maybe I needed time to start feeling more alive and interested... Or maybe I should think about getting my old memories back.

Of course, I knew how dangerous it was. Deep inside my head I could hear the stories of the Observers Itsuki encountered during his entire life, even if most of them were blurry - the details have vanished in the vicious circle of his own tragedy. But he still remembered how many Observers has lost their minds due to despair hiding in their old memories... Even the Joker himself lost it. 

 

Without hurry, Aoi twins led me to a small glade near the village - Hinata was right in front of me with his trusty halberd in hands, while Yuta stayed close to me.

"Aniki... There's no way we're in any danger, really," He sighed. "You don't have to stay alert."

"It's always the best to stay alert, dear Yuta - no way I'm letting any knights, dolls, or whatever could be in the bushes, hurt any of you. Hehe, trust your older brother~"

Yuta rolled his eyes unimpressed. 

"I don't really think we're in danger," I giggled. "I'm more concerned about the place we're currently going, to be honest..."

Well, anybody could feel weirded out if they knew they're going to see their own grave, come on. The thought itself sounded like incredibly bad joke, but here we are. I still wasn't sure what should I do if my old memories still existed. 

We were almost there when Hinata suddenly stopped in a defensive posture, cutting my way to the grave. In front of it, an unknown man was kneeling with a bouquet of flowers in his hands. Though I was almost sure I’ve never seen him before, his back looked surprisingly familiar, as if I’ve looked at him from that perspective.

“Stand up with your hands on your head,” Hinata demanded with a firm voice, preparing his weapon. “And slowly turn around.”

The stranger put the flowers on the ground first, then proceeded to do what Hinata told him without any haste, while Yuta came closer to his brother, also ready for eventual fight. When he slowly turned around, I've already had and idea who’s that person.

I’ve seen this mask and grim face all the way back in the Harbor’s storehouse, in the forest nearby the Fallen One’s corpse Shinkai found… It had to be the same person. And for some reason he was now here, in front of my grave. I clenched my fist and moved towards, asking the twins to let me closer. When he noticed me, he opened his mouth.

“But…” He hesitated, then looked at the grave. “You’re supposed to be dead. What’s going on?”

“Nothing but questions! I told you, always be prepared for knights, these guys are well-known to appear out of nowhere,” Hinata pointed his finger at him. “Though I’m surprised you’re not even trying to hide.”

“It wasn’t my goal, I’m not here for a fight… Besides, it feels weird to be called a knight. Maybe I really should get rid of that mask, huh.”

“So take it of, warrior,” I said with a calm voice. “I don’t want any fights in front of that grave, so if you can respect that, you’ll be fine.”

I almost asked him why is he here and what does he need from me, but I stopped. Maybe he knew me and learned that I died, so he simply wanted to be sure. Or maybe he killed me, hell if I know.

“I simply came to pay my respect to that poor kid since I’ve heard he has a grave, but… I don’t understand what’s going on. How can be you still alive?”

Bingo, one question less. What a relief, he’s not my killer.

“Your name, please.”

Rather than give me an answer, he reached with his hand to a mask he was wearing and slowly took it off, showing his saddened face. At once, Aoi brothers looked at each other and jumped at him.

“You! You, you… Since when old adventurers are helping the King!” Yuta asked him while still shaking his head in disbelief. “What is this, the carnival of lost people suddenly coming out after months? First Tomoya, now you…”

He was lost as well?

I blinked few times, not entirely sure what should I expect now and how should I react, the more I was learning about the man in front of me, the more I was clueless. I had a theory, but…

“Mashiro?”

“Y-yes!”

“You don’t recognize me?”

I laughed nervously, finally getting where it was going. He knew me personally and believed his face was enough to give me some sort of reaction based of it… I could feel small pain deep inside in my soul.

“How should I say it… The person you once knew as Mashiro Tomoya is no longer here,” I forced a smile. “I’m sorry.”

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

“I see. So my name won’t be helpful.”

“I’d like to hear it, please.”

The stranger looked at the twins, while I could see the confusion slowly building up in his core. They just nodded their heads and moved back a bit.

“Very well then. I am– I used to be the leader of Trickstar, we were quite a well-known group in the Kingdom. My name is Hidaka Hokuto.”

 

Soon after he said his name, an unpleasant silence reigned between us, and I felt even stronger pain somewhere deep down in my soul. Another person who looked at me with such sad eyes, waiting for the moment when I suddenly remember the old, good times, as if nothing happened - another who had to be met with great disappointment. I knew his name from his fellow friends, as well from the letter Shinobu was supposed to send someone, but nothing more.

I hung my head. More and more people I’ve used to know were appearing, forced to feel the disappointment due to my lack of memories, and this was painful for all of us, but… From the other hand, I could learn so much from them if they would let me reach those old fragments. I wasn’t alone… And I didn’t have to risk my sanity if my old fragments are still in that grave.

“Sorry,” I finally spoke to him. “Without any knowledge about the past, all I know about you are your doings in the Harbor.”

“Not the best examples, then,” He avoided my gaze. “But the fact that you’re alive gives me some hope. Though I wish I could learn what happened to you.”

Here he decided to look at the grave again. Aoi brothers finally decided to put down their weapons, but they still kept safe distance.

“Tomoya never deserved what happened to him.”

Something in Yuta’s heart broke as he started talking with his head hung down. Hinata, without saying a word, put his hand on his brother’s shoulder.

“Unlike those stupid villagers, he, Mitsuru and Adonis had the guts to talk with us like normal, rather than hate for nothing just because of who are we. Honestly, if all of them were like it, lord Rei would probably make this village one of the safest places in the Kingdom, ironically.”

“That’s… Quite a bold statement,” I clenched my hand on my sleeve. “What in the hell they did, sacrificed me?”

“Oh, I wish it was just a sacrifice, damn it! They’ve literally sent you to dungeons to die without nothing to eat or drink, hoping other demons will just tear you apart like nothing! Hah, those damned fools, you should see their faces when we-“

“Okaay, stop, stop!” Hinata’s voice managed to stop Yuta’s burning monologue. “I know it looked weird we’ve avoided talking about it, but really, it’s unpleasant even for us. What an irony, huh? Two little demons are more humane than humans. This tragedy is slowly turning into comedy.”

Yeah, he was right. Even the nicest people could turn into something way worse than demons due to their traumas and suffering... Everything depended on their will to fight and any signs of support. I massaged my neck while thinking about it, more because of impulse rather than real need. 

"My experience taught me well sometimes it's better not to ask too much," Hokuto broke the silence. "I'll be honest, but Akehoshi from the beginning believed people are watching your back more than they should, considering you were just a plain boy."

"Oh? So if you can talk about me, feel free to start." 

Hinata almost choked hearing my words, while Hokuto just blinked and moved back, what forced me to lose my composure as well. 

"Wait, have I said something wrong?" I looked around. "I-I'm sorry!"

Hokuto was the first to break into laugh. 

"Yes, that sounds more like Mashiro I knew," He admitted with a silly smile on his face. "That first sentence was... Incredibly harsh, even for you." 

"Uh, stop it! I really can't control my reactions for now..."

"It's okay, I'm sorry for suddenly bursting in laugh. Huh, about us... As I said, Trickstar came to this village due to your demands, asking to check out the demons going a bit too far than they should. I had the chance to teach you how to fight with a sword."

"Adorable. This is definitely useful-"

"Ah, I remember that!" Hinata jumped out of nowhere and hung on me. "You've been crying that your hero has finally noticed you and stuff~"

"...What."

"You've been crazy about him, man," Thankfully, he whispered that right to my ear. "You know, he once saved you from a weirdo and you lost it completely, calling him the most amazing hero you've ever seen... I'll spare you the details now."

My jaw almost dropped, as I turned my back so Hokuto wouldn't see my face, while Hinata bursted into serious laugh. God, that sounds embarrassing, so much I could start blushing if I could! I looked at Hidaka, hoping he didn't know about anything. 

That... That would be the end if he knew, haha...

"Yeah, but other than that, you were surprisingly good!" Seeing us, Yuta also joined the conversation, his smile slightly less malicious than his brother's. "You did ask us for more trainings, so I can tell you'd be a good fighter if you had enough time!"

"I'm begging you, stop! I can't-"

I hoped this good atmosphere could last for longer, but when I finally had the courage to look back at them, I've noticed a difference around the grave. There was a weak sound similar to glass floating around and hitting, and before I noticed, I was already kneeling right in front of it, reaching my hand towards the ground. Slowly, the energy around my hand formed into small fragments. Their colour was the same as my core. 

"Is something wrong?" 

All three of them kneeled on my right and left side, but Hidaka was the one to gather his courage and ask. 

"...He's still alive."

"Huh?"

"Mashiro Tomoya you once knew is still there," I moved my hand a bit, gathering more fragments. "His memory is still there... And I can get it back. Every single detail of the previous life is hidden within it."

Nobody answered my words, while I stared at those memories, sensing few of them. I was still hesitant, unsure if that was the best decision... Those fragments contained pleasant, but also painful past. 

I quivered when one of the brothers put his hand on my shoulder.

"We won't tell you what to do," Yuta sent me a soft smile, even though I could tell it didn't reach his eyes. "We've seen a few Observers in our life, so it's impossible to help in your decision, but... I'll help you. No matter if it comes to reminiscing or fighting against old traumas. Right, Aniki?"

Hinata nodded his head without saying a word. I looked at Hidaka.

"I plan on staying low for now, so if I can help a bit, I wouldn't mind... I don't have the courage to show my face to either knights or my old acquaintances."

"We don't want other knights here, though!"

"Don't worry... Yuta, yes? You don't have to worry about it, my deal with the King, well, differed a lot. He won't come here because of it, I assure." 

I nodded my head and closed eyes for a second, then again tilted my head, looking at the fragments. 

 

I can fuse them and connect right to my core, bringing the old Tomoya back - risking my sanity due to the trauma. 

I can also use Itsuki's knowledge to destroy the fragments permanently, using the change to force my core into taking my current personality as the real one - so I won't have to worry about getting mixed with different fragments. 

So I decided to...

1. Accept the fragments and past self,

2. Destroy the fragments and start with current memories.

Chapter Text

Every sane person, upon hearing about the village close to the demon’s dungeons stayed away from it, talking about the tragedies that would soon come to the poor residents. Nobody was surprised about it – after all, we also believed our peace has been destroyed for real when general Mikejima announced so-called “Blood Pact” with the Demon Lord. Its purpose was to bring peace, but after so many years of suffering, people had no faith in their demonic neighbors.

They were scared for a good reason. The Kingdom was supposed to take care of demons, not to play with some out of place pacts that ‘should’ take care of bandits and such. The village had to select a sacrifice – a person keeping contact and company with Lord Sakuma, while the rest stayed in their homes.

Both mine and Mitsuru’s life has been disturbed when we saw who volunteered to be the sacrifice, but my family was truly glad that I was saved from it. Due to that, I’ve been almost living with my friend, who was left alone again. After his entire family died, Adonis was with him – but after him becoming a sacrifice, Mitsuru’s house turned silent again. I couldn’t leave him alone.

And me? Well, to be honest, I was slightly annoyed by the Pact, just like the rest of the village. I wanted to help Adonis, even though I had no idea how. If I had power to fight against demons, it’d work, but… I was just a mere boy. Maybe that’s why I started daydreaming about becoming an adventurer – and Mitsuru quickly got into it, all about getting out of village and helping people. They surely had an interesting life, so I wished for it. Training days and nights, just to fulfill my wish.

But, well… Fate must be a vicious thing, throwing an anomaly right into my face. An unknown man, whose babbling about destiny was enough to make me go insane just by listening – even though his words, after thinking, were enough to make me shiver. Because of him, changes made their ways into my life…

Changes that soon brought a tragedy, which managed to shake even the demon’s servants.

 

“Gah, slow down a bit, Mitsuru!”

The speed at which he ran could impress many – and it was only because the of the elders noticed Adonis had a guest today. When he noticed a familiar figure, Mitsuru laughed loudly and threw himself at them, cuddling up. Tomoya clenched his teeth, praying for them not getting knocked out, but Narukami’s strength and senses were good enough not only to catch Mitsuru, but also to spin around with no problem.

“Please, we’re end up on a ground if you’ll continue to assault me like this!” Arashi laughed as well, patting Mitsuru’s head. “As lively as usual, it this a good day, my dear?”

“Yup, because Nee-chan is back! It’s always good to see you, hehe~”

Tomoya had no idea when Otogari and Narukami met, but for both him and Mitsuru, there was no need to ask. They both quickly took a liking of those meetings, Arashi’s friendly nature was making them feel better just upon seeing her face. Not only that, Tomoya could take a breath, because whenever the mercenary was coming, she’d stay for few days with Mitsuru, so he wasn’t alone during nights.

After a short talk, Mitsuru dashed to his house, shouting something about the dinner and a need to prepare more for Narukami, while Tomoya finally managed to reach him, hardly catching breath. Arashi giggled.

“Good work, sweetie. Need some water?”

"N-no, thank you! Aah, I'll never understand how much stamina one can have..."

"Train for years or be lucky enough to be born with it. And I don't see Adonis anywhere, is he..."

"Yeah. I'm sorry, but he left yesterday."

Arashi's smile took on a somewhat sadder tone, but said nothing, instead turning her head toward the house after hearing Mitsuru’s voice.

"Poor kid. I wish I could stay longer this time, but I have to get back soon, so I won't be to keep him company for too long," Naru sighed. "But let's think about something nicer. How's your training?"

"Eh? Ah, that!" Tomoya let a nervous laugh and scratched his head. "Not bad, I think... Didn't have time to do something proper, so I had a small break."

"Rest is good for your body, but remember that consistency is a key! Well, in that case... When we'll get some time, I mi~ight give you a hand."

"Really?" 

"Sure, why not?"

Things couldn’t get any better now. Arashi’s stories were filled with so many action and deeply detailed fights, Tomoya always felt like he was a part of it. Because of it he was sure Arashi had enough experience to be an amazing teacher – he just never had courage to ask for. What a sweet surprise.

They decided to talk about it later, after diner, and walked towards Mitsuru’s house.

 

While evenings weren’t the best time to leave the village for most people, knowledge about the Pact’s records, as well as Narukami’s presence, were enough to convince Tomoya. Mitsuru joined them as well, willing to learn a bit, as well as cheer them up.

Practice session went out smoothly, accompanied by a lot of laughing and battered hands. Tomoya knew Arashi was a totally different league, but his overall nervousness and lack of basic training turned out against him even more. Even when Arashi tried to give him an easier time.

The sun was gone by the time they decided to go back to the village, absorbing the forest in the dark, not counting the small lamps here and there, powered by magic. Mitsuru completely devoted himself to a discussion with Arashi, while Tomoya allowed himself a moment of silence.

Then, soft humming reached to his ears. He stopped and looked back, but nothing caught his eyes. When he turned around, his heart skipped a bit.

Arashi and Mitsuru were gone.

They were in front of him just a second ago, so why he ended up alone here?

Tomoya moved faster, trying to get back on the road to the village. Time was passing out and he still was lost, running through the forest.

And the melody he heard was getting stronger as he moved, now sounding like a glass or crystals hitting each other, creating a rhythm.

He stopped and leaned his back on a tree’s bark, catching his breath. At this point, he clearly lost his way.

“Is somebody here…?” He asked, looking around. “Narukami? Mitsuru? Where are you?”

Tomoya was ready to give up before his eyes focused on a silhouette, not that far from him. Someone was slowly walking on a small glade between the trees, turned back to him. The humming was coming from them.

He stayed behind the tree to watch them, not brave enough to get closer.

This person… He’s never seen them before, but they had such an aura around them, as if he saw something magical.

“Hm?”

He was spotted. The stranger made few steps closer, letting Tomoya notice light-blue long hair and dark outfit, while their face was hiding behind golden mask.

Tomoya stopped breathing for a second. Such an ominous, beautiful lady – why was she here? Was she a demon, a lost soul? Could a mere human posses such outstanding beauty? He shook his head, trying to keep calm.

Then, she smiled at him, and moved her hand, tempting to come to her.

He couldn’t resist it and approached the stranger, clenching his hand on chest, feeling how fast was his heart beating. Tomoya could notice violet eyes behind the mask, as if they were shining.

“That’s an interesting outcome.”

She, well… She had a really low voice.

“Oh no, dear Mashiro! I do understand that beauty exceeds gender boundaries, but your thoughts amuse me completely - though, if you wish, I could change my face for you!"

The atmosphere completely vanished with the second he heard a laugh.

This ‘beauty’ was a man. Tomoya was fooled like the last looser.

But his heart skipped a bit again, when he realized one thing.

“Wait. How do you know my-“

“Hm, hm,” The stranger nodded his head few times, crossing his arms. “I didn’t plan that at all, but that’s why I’m interested – what have you brought to me this time, Destiny?”

The man rushed towards Tomoya, forcing him to move backwards so fast he fall down, unable to keep his pace. It wasn’t a problem for a stranger, though – he kneeled in front of him, looking right into his eyes for at least a minute without saying a word.

“I can’t believe it.”

Tomoya swallowed.

“This is the worst I could find. Or maybe the best? I don’t know, but I need to find out,” He sighed hard, blinking. “That’s the biggest calque of a typical from-zero-to-hero story, packed with clichés from the beginning without thinking… Ah, how sad your life is, Mashiro Tomoya, how truly sad! Your story is so boring I want to cry in your place!”

Tomoya blinked, incapable of saying anything. He couldn't understand him at all - his words were such a babbling without sense, drilling a hole in his head. He clenched his teeth and counted to ten. 

"It's really bad if you ask me," The man didn't give him enough time to finish. "Really, really bad. With this approach you will die sooner than you think, without a chance to start your little adventure... Maybe it's a good time to think about your future?"

"Are you kidding me?" Tomoya rose up and reached for his weapon. "One more time. How do you know my name?"

The masked man ignored his question and hid his hands behind his back.

"Is it a good decision to attack someone unarmed, my hero?" His lips twisted into smile.  "Is this how heroes are living these days?"

"Hard to believe you can't protect yourself."

At this point he was the suspicious one, honestly.

"Very well then, let me rephrase my question - if you feel in danger, is it always the best choice to take out your weapon? Maybe I'm the type who prefer talking instead of fighting, and your life would be incredibly easy to take."

Mashiro hesitated. Even if he didn't want to agree him, he had a point. His hands were trembling all the time. 

“It’s too boring as well when unknown, powerful beings are going around simple people threatening them for nothing, so don’t worry! I don’t feel like spilling blood without reason, my boy. That’s why I dropped the ‘mysterious, ominous’ persona as fast as possible, so smile a little bit. And listen.”

Ironically, only now he seemed dangerous... Now, the only thing Tomoya wanted to was to shut him up and get away before getting caught by this man again. But still, now he had that small voice in his head, saying he should refrain from irritating him. What if he was the reason Tomoya came here? At this point his life really could be in the stranger's hand. 

So he hid his weapon and allowed the man to continue. 

"Did you know?" The masked man approached him again. "Every single creature on this world has their role to fulfill during their life - their own story written by the Destiny itself. This thing you love to call 'fate' is very real... And brutal as well."

"Where's that coming from?" Tomoya furrowed his eyebrows. "Besides, I believed people just say that ‘something was written by fate’ when they fail to do something."

"Oh, no! It's just as real as you and me! And if they decided to cast a tragedy on your script, nothing will save you from it, and fighting will only cause more pain - trust me, there's a lot of systems which will make sure of that."

The stranger leaned close to Tomoya again, and he couldn’t even move a finger. It was surreal to him, why this man just, well, appeared in his life talking complete nonsense, but… Something in his words was intriguing.

“There’s something interesting in you, my boy, so why shouldn’t I lend you some strength, hm?” The masked man took a step back and bowed. “A hero, huh? First lesson, coming right up.”

Before Tomoya even had a second to say anything, the man grabbed him by a hand and pulled into the forest. His hand was chillingly cold, but it helped Tomoya to wake up. He tried to escape his grip, but without any success. 

Shortly after he was released, and when Tomoya looked back, he was nowhere to be seen. 

“Plain heroes who fight demons are nothing new, and we have such a great opportunity to use that specific background of yours. Work hard and we'll see each other again!"”

For a brief moment Tomoya was ready to move back and continue looking for a road back to his village, when he heard other voices. 

He should go back… But of course he was interested, especially because of that stranger pulling him all the way here. A small peak shouldn’t hurt anyone, huh?

Not that far from his current place, he noticed two looking alike people of a similar age at the first glance. One of them was pressing hard on his hand, blood slowly dripping from his fingers. The other one was trying to stop the bleeding.

“Aniki… I told you not to attack first, they looked dangerous on a first glance,” He said with a worried look on his face. “I don’t have anything left, we should get back as soon as we’ll be sure it’s safe.” 

“At least you’re okay! Haha, that’s good- Shit, it hurts a lot. How did she got me in a first place?”

“Eh, don’t worry about it now!” 

Tomoya has never seen them before, he knew every single person living in a village, but he had an idea - Adonis once told him about the twins around similar age to his, so they could be demons… It wasn’t the best idea to be noticed by them. Did that man approached them as well? Or maybe they’ve got into a fight with Arashi and Mitsuru? 

Whatever. He should get away before they’ll notice him. 

Tomoya slowly retreated, but of course something had to happen. His foot stepped on a branch that broke with a loud sound, attracting their attention. The uninjured boy rose up and picked up a halbert laying next to him.

“Get out!” 

...Well, shit.

Hell with all those masked people’s plans that could kill him any moment from now on. 

Tomoya has considered running for his life, but he knew it’d be futile, getting even more lost while hoping they won’t catch him wasn’t the best plan he could come with - so he slowly showed his head and hands all the way up. The armed boy stepped forward.

“I said get out,” He demanded. “Or you want me to help you, huh?”

“I won’t do you any harm!” Tomoya jumped out of his hiding. “I’m sorry, I don’t get at all where am I and why…”

 “Huh?”

The boy raised his eyebrow.

“Eh, I think it’s one of these villagers,” The second ginger said. “Isn't it too late for trips outside of your hometown, kid?”

“Hold up, I wish I could ask the same- Wait, are you okay?” 

Now he could notice how bad the wound was. Tomoya tried to get closer to him, but the second boy immediately blocked his way, raising his weapon.

“Wait, I really don’t want to hurt any of you, just… Let me help you a bit so we can go our own ways, okay?” Tomoya shook his head. “You seem just as confused as me.”

“Maybe, maybe not. And what can you do anyway?” 

“I can offer something better for a temporary bandage, I should have it-”

“Tomoya!”

Before he finished his sentence, he heard Arashi’s voice from afar. That alarmed the ginger, who jumped at him and pulled to himself with a strong grip, putting the blade close to his face. Arashi managed to stop only few meters ahead. 

“Don’t you get closer or he’ll lose his head!”

Everything got even more chaotic than before, and Tomoya had to think fast, even now, when he almost forgot how to breathe. His hand clenched on the boy’s arm, feeling how much was it trembling right now. Mitsuru stayed in a safe distance, while Arashi tried to negotiate with the ginger, but instead, Tomoya felt his grip getting stronger. 

He needed a second to get an idea why was he so nervous. 

“Wait, don’t fight, you two!” He shouted. “It’s a mistake, I promise! N-Narukami, do you have something to treat a wound?”

Arashi blinked surprised, but nodded her head. 

“Okay, how about a simple trade? You’ll help that boy, so they’ll release me… Will that work?” 

His voice turned firmer than he thought, almost fooling himself that he’s far more collected than in reality - but worst case scenario, he had to fight for his life. 

The twin hesitated for a longer second, but finally he nodded his head and slowly stepped back to his companion, allowing Narukami to walk towards them only when he was close enough. The mercenary pulled her sword back and got a bottle out of a small bag.

“That should be more than enough,” Arashi said with a firm voice. “Let him go.” 

“First give me a good reason to believe you. Treat the wound - you attacked first!”

Thankfully, Arashi managed to stay cool and did what she was asked for, so Tomoya was released shortly after. They both stepped back and watched the twins, while Mitsuru joined them. 

“What happened, Tomo-chan?” Mitsuru threw himself at his friend. “We thought they've harmed you!”

“No, that’s the first time we’ve met - and hell, I wish I knew what happened as well! You disappeared right in front of my eyes, then that crazy masked man came to me… Have you seen him?”

Mitsuru and Arashi looked at themselves.

“I have no idea what are you talking about, darling… Are you sure you’re okay? Get a good rest after this, I’m getting worried.”

“I’m not losing my mind, okay? And whatever, good, just ignore it.”

“Oh, I think I know who are you referring to!” 

Much to Tomoya’s surprise, the healed twin approached him with a crooked smile. “It’s very likely it was the Joker.” 

 

According to the demons, all the confusion could have been caused by a Joker named Hibiki Wataru. With their knowledge, Tomoya finally could catch a breath and get a better understanding of the situation, as well as learn their names. 

There two were Hinata and Yuuta Aoi, the half-demon twins working directly under their Lord. Both Tomoya and Mitsuru shivered, just thinking that they almost got into a fight with these two, but thankfully apologies were more than enough. Hinata even joked about sudden Mashiro’s courage, saying that he didn’t expect the villager to actually solve the problem without spilling any more blood. Aoi promised that they’ll do their best to pay Tomoya back for this, though for now they had no idea how. They suggested to meet in the next few days nearby the village, so nobody had to worry about safety or getting lost.

One meeting quickly turned into two, five, ten... Aoi twins gladly turned their debt into trainings and teachings about the outside world, making Tomoya and Mitsuru even more glad to run from village just to meet them. Time spent with them was far from wasted, their teachings turned out to be so incredible. Of course, due to their personality, Tomoya found himself getting fooled way too many times - these two loved their pranks so much, too much to Tomoya's likings - but nobody was getting hurt, so it wasn't bad. Few weeks later, they’ve become real friends, and even Hinata got interested in joining their little future adventurer group. 

At some point though, the villagers got curious why these two were leaving for such a long time. Tomoya's family forbidden him from going out, while Adonis simply asked them to keep their heads low, so the elders could leave them be. Aoi brothers quickly caught the topic and started bothering the village, pranking them. 

Soon enough, the elders got fed up and sent a messenger to the capital, believing that they've been breaking the Pact's rules.

 

The sight of four armed men picked everyone's interest without a doubt, especially Tomoya's. Only few selected knew about real reason of Trickstar's arrival in the village - he could only guess what was it. Fast enough he got an idea, which worried him - two of them, Akehoshi Subaru and Hidaka Hokuto came to his own house and asked few questions about his and Mitsuru's small journeys, as if they've been already suspicious. Mitsuru prepared a note and asked Adonis to give it to Aoi brothers when he'll go to the dungeons, but that turned out to be risky, since Trickstar went with him. 

They've been worrying so much until they decided to leave the village again, hoping they'll find the brothers somewhere around. 

Soon enough, Mitsuru and Tomoya split up, what surprised the later. Even the brothers asked them to stay together... The scenery around him started getting weird again, just like the last time.

Tomoya took a deep breath, praying for the best. This biggest Prankster that was making even Hinata look like a beginner... He's not here, is he?

"Oho? Look what we have here, our small hero is walking alone in the dark again..."

Tomoya shuddered and slowly turned around. 

His worst nightmare was here again. So many weeks, he had a feeling someone was looking at him from time to time, but he's never appeared in front of him. 

"What are you looking for now, Joker?"

Just his name alone was enough to make Tomoya regret half of his life decisions, hoping he'll never see him again. 

"Oh no, I really feel sad when you're looking at me like that, my little hero," Wataru posed dramatically, even though there was a stupid smile on his face. "Here I am, checking on my favourite pupil if he's still going in circles, rather than assembling a party, slaying dungeons and researching dragons... Or the other way around, whatever you prefer. Just wanna help, you know.'

"Yeah, but your definition of helping means you're going to make things twice as bad as they were before," Tomoya took a step back. "Look, my life is more than good now, so I don't need-"

"You shouldn't be so sure, my dear Tomoya - after all, dark clouds are rounding above your head."

The way Wataru said it while approaching him made Tomoya feel a chill going down his spine. 

"What do you mean?" He asked. "I don't get your way of thinking. On one side, you're calling me boring and cliche, whatever is that supposed to mean, but on the other, you're stalking me without any break. Your words are contradicting each other."

"Ah yes, your story is, indeed, incredibly boring - but you see, you do have something most people don't that's temping me to cheer on you. Tell me, my dear Tomoya, do you remember my last words?"

Only when the Joker stopped in front of him, Tomoya let himself to think a bit, knowing he won't stop bothering him if he won't play this little game.

"Something about the destiny and systems?" He scratched his chin. "With all due respect, whenever you're talking to me, I feel like my last brain cells are dying a painful death."

"I'll take this as a praise," Wataru giggled. "And bingo~ People's scripts are not bound to change just because. And what do we have here?"

Tomoya hold his breath.

"A little, cute boy, whose path is dividing in two," Wataru's smile widened. "Happens even without our influence, but hardly. Maybe we're finally going to hear something better than a mere tragedy? I assure you can work to achieve your good ending, and I'm more than willing to help you out."

While his words were way easier to understand, Tomoya got a bad feeling. Why should he believe someone like Hibiki? He wasn't the type that made him feel secure from the very beginning, he was saying and doing whatever he felt like. 

Tomoya was sure the only thing he was capable of was to make his life harder.  Why should he listen to him?

"Because you're an interesting case - after all, not many people has a chance to choose their own path without paying a big price for it. This is more than enough to make me want to watch you in behalf of gods themselves, no matter how will you end."

Wataru again walked towards him with disquieting smile. 

Tomoya immediately tried to run from him, but the tempo was too fast for him, he quickly lost his balance. Before he hit the ground, Wataru caught him in a firm grip, bringing his face close to his. 

"Who knows, which path is full of freedom, and which will try to control you?" Wataru caught Tomoya's chin, gently pressing thumb on his lower lip. "Do not fear me, I won't hurt you. I'm only curious of your path, as every anomaly in this world is something I love to watch. Even I can't predict what type of hero you'll become - and honestly, we really need some happiness and simple, pure good."

Tomoya hold his breath again, staring at Wataru's face in a silence. 

He couldn't tell what the Joker wanted to do with him from his words alone. The worst part was how hot was his face feeling right now, Wataru's gaze piercing so strongly Tomoya couldn't stop thinking that it looked like he could try to kiss him if he wanted.

Wataru's lips slightly twitched, making Tomoya's embarrassment even stronger. What, he couldn't hear that, right?

Thankfully, he released Tomoya soon before he really forgot how to breath. 

"I'll think about that, fufu~ But let's get down to business... What would work the best? Sudden attack on a village? The broken Pact? Family's betrayal?" Hibiki counted with an innocent smile. "Hehehe, there's no story without a conflict... A tragedy will always find its place to let the hero grow up and give a reason to fight!"

"What? That's creepy! Are you going for a comedy or tragedy again?"

Just few seconds ago he was talking about "something better than a mere tragedy!"

"Call me crazy as much as you want, but it's the reality of theatre, nobody is interested in pure happiness! Conflict is a must to make the show great, it's just a matter of finding a proper one! And i still stand by my word, a good finale suits you better, and there's too much dark endings anyway, so-"

"Stop right there with that crap of yours."

Before Wataru finished his sentence, someone's hand clenched on Tomoya's shoulder and pulled him back. He shouted, then gathered his courage to look at the person who just grabbed him. 

"Ooh! Here he is, our precious hero!" Wataru blinked before he broke into a loud laugh. "Right on time, we were getting late - and you know what? You two look so adorable next to each other! I knew I can count on you, prince Hokke-kyun~"

"...What."

"How did you call him?"

Wataru couldn't stop his laughter upon seeing both Hokuto and Tomoya's faces when they looked at each other. Only then Tomoya noticed how close they were, and averted his gaze, blushing. 

"Perfect, just perfect!" Hibiki wiped away a tear. "You won this time, I'll give you that. I'm going to remember this day to the end, I love it so much, this is pure beauty of the comedy. Keep it cool and make sure the fate won't catch you in the worst time, deal?"

And just like that, he disappeared, making Tomoya's head hurt. 

"...What in the hell was that supposed to mean?" He shook his head. "Talking about first, then jumping into the second topic, swiftly turning serious during his dumb monologues - ah, I don't want to see him anymore!"

"I sympathise, I do know how problematic this guy can be. Are you okay?"

Staying just a breath away from a kiss, Tomoya couldn't think straight at all, his face getting so hot again he did his best not to look at Hokuto. Wow, calm down, what are you thinking about, he just saved you from a weirdo, that's all!

But, well, he was pretty handsome, wasn't he...

"U-um! Who are-"

"Hidaka Hokuto. We've met before, I asked you about the demons."

"Ah... Yes, you're right, I'm sorry...

Both of them stayed quiet for a good amount of time, just wishing to get out of this place. Only then, when Tomoya managed to calm down, he wondered what he could ask. 

"So... How did you end up with him, Mashiro?"

Okay, he was faster. 

"I wish I knew," Tomoya sighed. "He just appeared in front of me one day, talking about the fate and something else, believing he wants to help me achieve a good ending, whatever is that supposed to mean. How dangerous is he?"

"I can't give you a good answer," Hokuto scratched his head. "His words can make one go insane, but I always get that feeling as if there was some truth hiding between it the more I think about it... And that's worrying."

It's almost as if Hidaka could read Tomoya's mind - he had the exact same thoughts about the Joker. 

"Yeah, I get it. I hate him, but it's only thanks to him that I've met both Aoi brothers and you, sir-"

"You can call me by my name, I'm not that old."

"Ah, of course!" Tomoya sent him a smile. "Going back - thanks to him I've met both you and the demons, avoided being spotted by the villagers... But I can't take him serious all the time. All I can tell, I don't know. It's like his smile is not reaching his eyes."

Something was wrong with Hibiki, but Tomoya couldn't tell exactly what was making him feel like it. He didn't know him for long enough to deduce anything, and to be fairly honest - something was telling him it was better this way, even though he was a bit curious. Who was the real Hibiki Wataru? Just a stupid jester, or maybe something more? 

"Think about it. But there is something I'd like to ask you for," Hokuto suddenly stopped and turned, his voice turning serious. "Keep your head low for the next few days, don't go outside the village. We'll observe the situation."

"Right, you've been called for a reason, am I right?"

"Yes. The King himself asked us to check out this place, as the messenger from this village believed the demons has broken some rules written in the Pact."

"It's way more safe than it was before if you ask me... But I don't see everything. Well, Aoi brothers did prank them for a bit, so maybe that's the thing which is bugging the elders, but-"

"It might be it. That's why I'm asking," Hokuto smiled. "I do understand these two are harmless, but the villagers don't see it this way. They're too scared, they want the sacrifice to be the only one having any contact with the demons. Few days shouldn't be a problem for you two, right?"

Tomoya scratched his head.

"Not for me, but Mitsuru might be sad," He laughed. "I'll do my best to keep him away from troubles. Thank you so much for helping and asking, I'm grateful." 

"No problem. Stay safe."

 

Tomoya did exactly what Hokuto asked without problem, though soon enough he noticed how sad it was without Aoi brothers nearby. Hinata and Yuuta were in a similar position as Tomoya and Mitsuru - wishing for company in the same age just to fool around and be taken seriously. Thanks to the fact Adonis was in the village, it was a bit easier to keep Mitsuru calm, but even then, they’ve been thinking about getting out for a bit, just to make sure Aoi brothers are okay. Their pranks and theft weren’t too harmful, but it was still enough to get the entire village incredibly annoyed - especially after finding few notes left by them, from which Tomoya and Mitsuru could recognise Aoi brother’s cipher. They also wanted to meet so badly.

Trickstar did their best to calm down both sides with a good effect. Hokuto was the one who took care of Tomoya and Mitsuru, giving them incredible trainings and an occasion to meet twins, so they’ve decided together what to do. The brothers stopped bothering the village, Trickstar reconciled both sides, everyone were happy. 

Well, maybe not Tomoya, who really loved Hidaka’s teachings, but he knew he wouldn’t be able to keep him for too long in the village. He promised himself to catch up on him in the future.

Future was looking even better than before.

 

One week after Trickstar’s departure, two massacred bodies were found.

Panic quickly arose in the village, people wanted the answers, especially from the demons. They’ve send Adonis to the dungeons immediately, sure that humans couldn’t be the villains.

Tomoya believed something was wrong. Yuuta told him so many times how strict their Lord could be, not willing to waste his time on resolving problems - after all, it’s better to avoid suspicions and live in a peace, rather than spending days and hours talking with humans. Mitsuru wanted to give Adonis a note for Aoi brothers, but quickly changed his mind and asked Tomoya to go with him outside, just to make a small patrol hoping they’ll meet with the brothers. 

They knew it was risky, but they wished they could help the village.

On that day, Tomoya pretended to go to sleep earlier, then slipped outside when nobody was looking and met with Mitsuru. 

Not that long enough, they discovered Yuuta and Hinata hiding behind the bushes, their eyes focused on the same spot.

“What are you doing-” Tomoya started, but Hinata caught his hand and pulled him down, sending a menacing look. Yuuta, squatting next to him, put a finger on his lips. Soon enough they heared a growl.

Later they’ve learned about the demon found some bandits around the town and attacked them like usual, as these weren’t protected by any laws… But the family from the village saw it. Twins had no idea what happened later, but the family was found dead, so they suspected it was their executioner. So they had to hunt it down and bring back to their Lord. 

Tomoya and Mitsuru gave them a hand, luring it so the twins could handle it - and thanks to that, both sides could go back to their homes, glad the problem has been solved. Aoi promised to report as fast as they could, so Lord Sakuma can handle the rest without humans talking here and there, and bringing someone like Trickstar again.

 

Their return seemed perfect. No witnesses around, in the middle of night, without making any sound - Tomoya got to his house easily. He was in front of his bedroom when his sister leaned behind the door, asking what happened. Tomoya brushed it off saying he went for some water, so she didn’t had to worry.

Soon enough, everything should get in the place. Yuuta and Hinata will report the demon who went rampage, their Lord will execute it and bring its head to the village to give a proof he did what he had to, all while Tomoya and Mitsuru could feel proud they’ve helped.

But Mashiro had a bad feeling, even when there was no reason to worry. Feeling as if someone was watching his back, as if nobody trusted him… Was it because of his sister? She wasn’t the type to say anything if he played it cool, his family didn’t ask about anything, but there was something building up inside his head. He could wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, looking around his house.

Someone will betray him? 

Someone was laughing? 

Who’s not letting him sleep? Was the Joker somewhere around again? 

Two days later, when he was spending his time with Mitsuru in his house, the elders came to them and asked for their time. They brought them to the other villagers. 

“We’re aware,” The elder’s voice was chillingly low. “Aware of your wrongdoings, boys. What else have you done? Running out from the village… Are you befriending the demons?”

He talked as if Trickstar managed to take control over the situation just when these two stopped going outside, as if the attacks were their fault. They’ve been accused of helping the demons murder their own neighbors, even when they had no proof or logical conclusions. 

When the elders began questioning Tomoya’s family, his heart almost stopped. Even his sister was forced to do it, so he listened to her ‘testimony’ in a silence, praying.

“He’s spending his time only with Mitsuru… They tend to train in the evening, but we all know where they are. I even sneaked around once, you should see his face!”

She lied. She’s never seen it. 

“He was awake once in the night, but I’ve heard he got nightmares and simply wanted to get some water…”

“Has he left the house?”

“No, he was inside."

“But it was suspicious, right?”

Tomoya forgot how to breathe. They began asking so many questions about this night she lost herself in her testimony. She tried her best to stay cool and brush it of saying she’s doing this a lot as well, but soon enough, she lost this war. 

“In that case, Mashiro sibling are guilty of working with the demons.”

“No, she’s innocent!”

 

Tomoya couldn’t wait any longer now, seeing they were ready to accuse her as well. She didn’t deserve it. 

Both she and Mitsuru has been cleared of all suspicions, the villager’s eyes focused on Tomoya’s alone. He’s done something unforgivable in their eyes. Even if had no blood on his head, they treated him as if he was the one who caused that family’s death. As if he was the murderer.

Tomoya tried to defend himself. His family did the same, begging the elders to let him live here, not to banish him, he could still work their trust back. He could still be helpful.

They forced him to get out of his safe home and work days and nights with the other adults on their usual work until they’ll forgive him. 

Needless to say, they had no mercy. Treated like a cursed slave, forced to work without many breaks without a chance to meet with his family or Mitsuru, on a minimal food portions, he had to endure his new life. Both his friend and sister tried to comfort him, bringing him more food in the night and treating his wounds, whenever needed. 

Even when the demon’s words has reached the village, men were still ruthless, women and children avoiding at best. Some villagers, who understood how bad he was treated, tried to be nicer, seeing how hard Tomoya was working. He got more food and free time, but he already understood one.

His peaceful times were over. 

“Why are you doing it?” He cried. “Everything has been solved, I’ve done nothing wrong, I helped you! Demons weren’t that bad, they followed the Pact, so why won’t you…”

Some nights were unbearable for him. When his mind was drawing black scenarios, he was going out to train, though he had no desire or strength to do it. He only wanted to get those nasty thoughts out of his head.

Mitsuru was allowed to accompany him at some point without being chased back. Tomoya couldn’t tell how much time has passed since that day, feeling it’s better this way. He forgot about his trainings, his dreams of becoming an adventurer. Even Wataru was nothing more than a mere reminiscence, whose crazy speech turned so blurred he couldn’t remember anything. Only thing Tomoya wished for was a peaceful life without any pain, living here with Mitsuru. 

But these memories have been coming back once in a while, out of nowhere. Whenever Tomoya almost forgot, he could remember Hokuto or the twins. Two different futures were fighting each other, trying to win over Tomoya. What was the better option? What could give him the real happiness? 

 

This night Tomoya woke up due to a terrific headache. He laid on a mattress with his hands behind his head, staring at the ceiling. Soon enough, fatigue should win over the pain, but before it, he had a lot of time to think. 

He hadn’t seen Aoi brothers for a while. Do they know what’s going on? Knowing Hinata, he would try to sneak in here just to check out the situation… Maybe Mitsuru convinced them to stay away, or maybe they’ve abandoned him as well?

“You’re not looking well.”

Wataru’s soothing voice pierced through the pain, gathering Tomoya’s attention immediately, but the boy didn’t jump out. He slowly turned his head to left, gazing at the Joker sitting on a chair in front of him. There was a hint of a smile on Wataru’s face, even though he himself seemed unusually distant. 

“You too,” Tomoya said with a low voice. “Are you even here? Can’t tell if I’m simply hallucinating at this point… It’s been a while.”

“Haha… I do feel the same. It’s like decades have passed since our last meeting. A lot has happened - and it seems like I’m not the only one walking on a thin line.”

Tomoya slowly rose up, leaning his back on a wall.

“I warned you. You didn’t listen to me. But I guess I’m guilty as well… Believing in anomalies bringing something good was incredibly naive of me, and now you’re the one paying the biggest price again.” 

Even now, he wasn’t making too much sense, and Tomoya had no will to decipher his words. Only thing he could tell was that strange feeling there was more sadness in Hibiki’s than usual. He wasn’t laughing at him. 

“You said there is no story without a tragedy.”

“I did, but I’m not the one who prepared your script. You're following the original.”

Tomoya didn’t say a word and closed his eyes, feeling the pain coming back.

“It is bothering you, isn’t it, my dear Tomoya?”

“...Hm?”

“Such a coincidence and two opposing paths. You’re being dragged onto one of them, even when deep inside, you want to break free and follow the other, isn’t it right?”

Tomoya opened his eyes. 

“Please, stop fighting against your fate.”

“...What?”

“Stop fighting and work for your village’s trust,” Wataru repeated himself. “It’s still possible to turn it back. You can go back to your normal life.”

Tomoya looked at him with his mouth half-opened, not entirely sure if he understood Hibiki’s words.

“No, wait, something is wrong,” He shook his head. “What the hell, why did I suddenly lost all my will to work, train and look for a better solution?”

These accusations and being casted away from his own house affected him badly, taking away all his will, throwing him into some sort of trance, making him go almost insane. Now he managed to notice it. 

“Wataru, I-”

When Tomoya looked up, Hibiki was sitting next to him, putting a finger to his lips. 

“Shh. Just follow your path.”

“...You’ve changed.”

Joker blinked.

“You were the one who watched me while laughing, calling my life boring and pathetic,” Tomoya clenched his fingers on Wataru’s hand, not allowing him to run away. “Yet now you sound like a loser who gave up. What’s going on?” 

Hibiki averted his gaze.

“...What the irony.”

“Hm?”

“The irony how much is this bothering me, my dear Tomoya - I just understood this is my curse for disobedience! Isn’t that funny? That’s why I’m asking you to stop. Please, live a long live, and forget about me. The more you’re going to struggle now, the more you will regret it.”

 

Before Tomoya came out with better questions that could bend Wataru’s iron will, a knocking sound caught his attention, and the Joker himself disappeared. His heart was beating fast as Tomoya slowly approached the door. 

Much to his surprise, it was Mitsuru, who just smiled at him and grabbed his wrist.

“We’re going to dash for a bit, but stay quiet,” He whispered. “Hinata has an idea.”

“Idea for what- Wait, don’t pull me like this, it hurts!”

Mitsuru led him to the back of the village they used to wander around before, whenever they wanted to meet with the twins. Just before Tomoya could ask what’s going on, mentioned brothers came out of their hidings, jumping at him.

“You’re alive and safe!”

“I knew something was wrong, you wouldn’t leave the village for studies or anything, nor wish to cut all ties with us!” 

“Wow, wait, you two, I don’t get a thing you’re saying?” Tomoya shook his head. “What do you mean?”

“We had a hard time to meet with Mitsuru, so all we could learn about you was from Adonis,” Yuuta explained. “He tried to sell some lies villagers told about you, but our Lord has seen though it without a problem.”

“Then Adonis told us that they punished you without any proof and kept you almost like an animal, forcing to work days and nights…”

Tomoya forced a smile.

“Ah, yeah… I shouldn’t be surprised, they want to make sure I won’t talk with any demon anymore.”

He had no idea why, but that fateful day when he was accused seemed somehow blurry… Just as if the details just popped out of his head.

“You had no idea how annoyed we were!” Hinata crossed his arms. “We tried to get closer to you, but those damned humans were lurking close both around you and Mitsuru - and even our Lord told us to stay low.”

“You don’t deserve anything they’ve done to you,” Yuuta shook his head. “You saved them, hell knows what would’ve happened if we were the one hunting that demon down. You deserve praise, not punishment."

“Yup, yup! All three of us were thinking what could we do to save you, Tomo-chan!” Mitsuru raised his head up. “Yuuta even got his hands on original’s Pact rules, so they can get you out.”

Tomoya looked at them, not entirely sure what to say. Something in his head was blurring all their words, making it feel like their doings had no sense. Had all the time he had spent in the new conditions left such a mark on his psyche it seemed almost normal at this point? 

No, start thinking, you idiot. 

Of course it was bad. You were supposed to train, to get out of this village, learn about the world with a proud smile on your face, just to show Hibiki what a fool he was. 

His headache got so bad in a moment Hinata had to catch him.

“I don’t understand what’s going on…” Tomoya wiped a tear that formed in the corner of his eye. “Why is my head spinning like crazy? Why I feel something is wrong with me? I-I wanted to be with all of you, become something more than a normal villager, but why am I constantly forgetting about you, all our plans?” 

Nobody answered at first, not until someone laid their hand on Tomoya’s head, patting it gently. He opened his eyes. 

“Are you scared, Tomo-chan?” Mitsuru said with a gentle tone. “I had a feeling, yanno… Ever since they’ve accused you, you’ve changed drastically.”

“This is why we need to get you out,” Yuuta clenched his fist. “And we have an idea how to do it. We can take you to live with us.”

“What do you mean?”

“Nobody ever said demons can only have one sacrifice - worst case scenario you can switch with Adonis. We can easily explain this, saying that you’ve already helped us once, while he stayed outside of the problem. And then they’ve punished you, so you’re more useful than Otogari, yadda yadda yadda. Leave talking to Lord Sakuma, he’s a master.”

"But that would mean we…” 

Tomoya’s eyes focused on Mitsuru, but his friend just laughed.

“Hehe, that just means you’ll have to wait for me to join you! You know I have no family to get this worries, and Ado-chan will understand it.”

“And what about your Lord? I can’t just imagine him being okay with the fact humans are just wandering around his place.”

“We got a condition to keep you as far as we can from the rest, because he can’t promise they won’t try anything stupid, the Pact won’t have any power unless you’ll become a sacrifice,” Hinata patted Tomoya’s shoulder with a big smile. “Don’t you worry, we’ve got everything covered!”

Tomoya hung his head.

It was a risky game, he’d has to say goodbye to his hometown… And Wataru’s words were still fresh in his head.

“The more you’re going to struggle now, the more you will regret it.”

A chill went down on his spine. Wataru’s words could be strange, but there was always something that would make you think about it… He seemed like he knew more than Tomoya. 

Something was forcing him to say ‘no’ to his friends. As if strings, attached to his body, tried to pull him back to his home and behave - like a doll with no will, living only to fulfill someone else’s wishes. 

But deep inside, he knew that was wrong. They did this for him, looking for loops in the Pact, ready to save him. 

Besides, he’s more than dead if anyone will learn about this night.

“...So what do I have to do in order to fulfill your plan?”

His heart was racing, ready to jump out from his chest at any moment, while the rest jumped out. 

“Give us time to report this to our Lord and take this!” Hinata gave him a small necklace with a blood-red stone. “We’ll give Adonis a note so he can get ready for a switch, while you’ll have an immunity.”

“You can’t leave the village, but worry not, I’ll stay close to both of you,” Yuuta send him a sinister smile. “This necklace is a sign. Oh, how bad would it be if anyone even try to touch you~”

 

Short after, they went their own ways. Hinata rushed to the dungeons, while Yuuta and Mitsuru brough Tomoya back to his house. While his headache didn’t stop, he managed to fall asleep. 

First half of the day turned out to be calm, Tomoya even got a pass for rest on the second, so he went to Mitsuru. 

They didn’t notice when a group of adults approached them. Sure that they might changed their mind, Tomoya asked what type of help they needed.

The blow knocked him down.

Tomoya slowly raised his hand to the fresh trace on his face, shocked. Mitsuru tried to jump between him and the man, but the other one caught him, forcing him to stay still.

“W-What’s going on?” 

“A lot. Are you really still playing an innocent, kid?”

“I don’t know what’s wrong, sir…”

“Oh, nothing. Just when we were thinking about forgiving you, seeing how hard you’ve been working, somehow you went out again to your demonic friends.”

Tomoya blinked.

“How-”

“I told the elders not to trust anybody who met a demon just once, they can wrap us around their fingers - and guess what, I was right again.”

They knew. That’s all Tomoya understood from his words. How in the hell?

“Good job, kid,” The man gazed at Mitsuru. “All we needed was to follow you and we’re finally learning your friend’s real face.”

Tomoya’s heart skipped a beat as he looked at his friend. Mitsuru just looked down on the ground, unable to get any word out from his mouth.

“Time for you, Mashiro. What they promised to you? Freedom? That you’ll become someone better? Are you even aware of who are your so-called ‘friends’, who’s real wish is to spill our blood?”

His words sounded like an entirely different language to him. What he was trying to say… Tomoya couldn’t hear his voice, focuses on his heart that would jump out from his chest at any time. 

‘Mitsuru, you couldn’t… We were supposed to get out together, right?’

“You’ll be lucky if we’ll allow you to leave alive,” The man spat on the ground. “The betrayers like you should burn.”

“...You’re disgusting.”

Blood in his veins boiled, he couldn’t stop his own words. The man turned his head, raising his eyebrow.

“One more time.”

“You’re disgusting,” Tomoya clenched his teeth. “This is the only thing you can talk about. Demons this, demons that, all bad that’s happening to us is only demon’s fault, we’re innocent bunch of idiots! You know what? Those demons you’re so fixated on them, are way more intelligent than all of you!”

The man came to him and pulled by the collar. 

“One. More time.”

“The biggest irony is that these two treated me way better than this all damned village!”

He should calm down, explain everything and say they shouldn’t fight for their own good, but the emotions were stronger. Deep inside, he hated this village. Hated how they’ve treated him. He was tired of keeping all his feelings inside, only allowed to cry when nobody saw him.

“If you even read the Pact at least once, you’d know they are just as limited as you are, otherwise the Kingdom wouldn’t give them a break! When you found the victims, they did everything they’ve should.”

“And that’s the reason to suddenly forgive them for all those years and drink tea together like good neighbours?”

“No, but that’s enough to shut the fuck up and work on all these rules. We’ve done way more to that family than all of you - because when me, Mitsuru or them risked our lives to execute the killer, you’ve been crying like babies how bad your life is, how poor and sad! You have no idea how much they’ve been protecting you from all those damned bandits who tried to attack the village, sure you’re unarmed and easy to kill-”

Another blow brought him back to earth.

Mitsuru again tried to escape the adult’s grip, but they were too strong for him. They continued talking about the demons and mistakes he’s made, which even work for the rest of his life wouldn’t pay back - claiming not they are the only ones who can save the village and get rid of the traitor. Only then Tomoya noticed how much he was shaking.

“No, please,” He tried to get up, “You can’t do it, they- They won’t let you live if you’ll do it. I’m begging you, calm down and wait a second, they’ll-!”

“No way in hell I’m gonna listen to a fucking traitor!”

A wild screamed escaped from his throat when he grabbed his collar again, pulling him on the ground. Tomoya couldn’t breathe, trying to escape this hell, screaming. Soon, he lost sight of Mitsuru.

“I’m begging you, they’re not as bad as you believe, they have their rules and prefer to stay away from you… But these two won’t let you live!”

“If you love them so much, you should go there already.”

His grasp was so hard that when he threw Tomoya on the ground, the necklace he received from brothers broke up, landing next to him. Mashiro tried to grab it, but his hand was brutally stepped on, while the man caught it. Before he said anything, he other man screamed in panic, and said something to him. His tormentor looked at Tomoya and started shaking his head in disbelief.

“You can’t be serious. No, no, of course not, he probably took it from Adonis to lie about it, why wouldn’t he?” 

“But what if not? We’re dead, all of us here. The kid wasn’t joking.”

Tomoya wished he could use the time when they’ve been quarrelling to escape, but his body couldn’t move an inch. 

Last thing he remembered was throwing all kind of accusations between themselves, and last words:

“Don’t you ever show yourself in front of our eyes.”

Followed by the last blow.

 

“Tomoya? Tomoya, wake up!”

Voice was blurred, his head heavy. Tomoya opened his eyes and blinked, trying to remember what happened. 

When he did, he rose up fast and looked at the person kneeling in front of him. Tomoya screamed and escaped their grip. 

“T-Tomoya?!”

“Stay away from me!”

“Wait, what’s going on?” The boy reached his hand to him, but stopped. “It’s me, Yuuta! I followed these bastards and kicked them out when they knocked you out, then escaped to the dungeons so nobody could hurt you!”

Tomoya still had a hard time catching breath. It was so dark around he couldn’t see Yuuta’s face properly. When he slowly came to him again, and Tomoya saw him, he grabbed his head.

"Yuuta... Wait, why did I-? I should recognise your voice, so why..."

'Why I thought I've never seen you before?'

Yuuta also couldn’t say any word. He managed to grab Tomoya’s hand without making any rapid movements. Only when he was sure Tomoya calmed down, he got so close they could see their faces.

“Tomoya, you…” Yuuta’s voice shuddered. “Oh no, don’t. Please, it cannot be what I think it is!”

“Yuuta…?”

Tomoya had no idea what got into his friend, who threw himself at him, catching his face in his hands. 

“...Here you are.”

Yuuta slowly turned his head, while Tomoya already knew who it was. At first, he couldn’t believe he’s already found him.

Wataru slowly approached them. There was no sign of his smile, his face so cold Tomoya almost didn’t recognize him as well.

“I hoped for the best,” He sighed. “But you’ve never been a type who could give up easily, am I right?”

Yuuta’s embrace on Tomoya tightened.

“Don’t worry about him, he’s just-”

“No. Stay close to me, Tomoya. He won’t let you survive this day.”

...What?”

Tomoya send Yuuta a confused look, then looked at Wataru. He only managed to smile and kneeled in from of them.

“He’s afraid of the truth we’re both aware of,” He said. “Would you let us talk, Yuuta?”

“No! Get away, Tomoya can still survive!”

“He can’t.”

Their conversation had no sense for Tomoya, only filling his heart with doubt. Wataru was serious, Yuuta’s embrace - strong enough to suffocate. What they’ve been talking about? 

"It's too late in your state. I should've expected that in this world, there is no happiness for those who want to fight for their freedom - even if their fate wasn't decided yet."

"I- I really don't-"

"You're dying, Mashiro Tomoya."

Huh...?

Any word he wanted to let out from his throat stopped. Tomoya just stared blankly at Wataru with his mouth half-opened. What… They’ve just found him, right? They could simply heal him, his wounds weren’t that bad…

But why… Why Yuuta couldn’t stop crying, while Wataru only could say “I’m sorry”? 

“Haha…”

Tomoya bursted out laughing.

“I don’t get you at all! I’m not dying, they just beat me a little bit, few days and I’m all good!”

Nobody answered. 

“Just look at me!”

Tears slowly formed in the corners of his eyes.

“I’m fine… Why are you saying that…”

Yuuta averted his eyes. 

"...There is still another boy in that village that needs your help, Yuuta," With a gentle touch, Wataru freed Tomoya from Yuuta’s iron grip. "Go. He still has a chance. The Curse will hit him hard after this."

Yuuta clenched his teeth, but slowly rose up. 

“Besides, have you forgotten?” Wataru smiled ominously. “Such an attack is forbidden by the Pact. I wonder, with the King gone, what can Rei do? The Pact will never have more power than a real Rule Breaker… I assure you.”

The twin quickly wiped his tears and looked at them, mumbling a soft “They’ll pay” before running out. Tomoya just stared at his silhouette slowly disappearing from his sight.

"Don't worry, I'll make sure you won't suffer." 

"You're not making any sense!" 

Tomoya tried his best to get out from the Joker’s grasp, but failed.

"Explain yourself!" Tomoya screaming, hitting him with his fists. "What, have I bored you so much you're getting rid of me? I'm, I'm... I'm far from... I can still... Why Yuuta panicked so much after seeing my face?"

"I'm sorry."

"I don't want any of your goddamn apologies!" 

"You've been Cursed. And it already hit the third stage, meaning only the King would help you - and in no way I'd give you to that monster."

How convenient, using lies at this point just to feel better after killing him! No, nothing he said could be true, who could’ve cursed him? He hasn’t done anything wrong in his life, it was Wataru playing with his life, whispering all those sweet lies to his ear. 

"Is this funny to you?” Tomoya covered his face with hands. “What is that Curse, can’t I just…?”

‘No, I really don’t want to die.’

‘I’m scared.’

‘Please, help me.’

‘Don’t leave me here, Wataru…’

“I won’t. Your fear is understandable.” 

Only now he had the courage to look right into Tomoya’s eyes. 

"Should I sing a lullaby for you, my dear Tomoya?" He asked. "So you can forget about all the pain and sleep well."

Tomoya's hand clenched on the fabric of his outfit. Something clenched on his throat, he couldn’t catch a breath.

"Sleep tight, forgotten hero, as I shall share your story to them. You, who had fought against the fate - may they notice your brave Heart and allow you to break free from the script."

 

I just wanted to do something right. To become someone better than a mere village boy…

To show that twisted Joker that I can become a hero if I’ll persevere long enough. 

Chapter Text

It was sudden.

The vision broke. Again, I was standing in front of the grave, keeping a trembling hand right above it. Though I knew I was here, I couldn’t fight the feeling as if was back in the same place I’ve seen in my memories – in the dungeons where Joker was singing his song. After I looked around and blinked, my mind finally came back.

Still in a shock, I slowly rose up. Hinata gently clenched his fingers on my wrist, looking at me with a worried look.

…The village.

“Did you really…”

Slowly, everything started merging together. Small fragments turned into bigger pieces, connecting to each other into one, full story.

“Tomoya?” Hinata forced a smile. “Hey, are you sure everything’s okay?”

“Did you really kill all of them…?”

His smile disappeared in a second as he furrowed his eyebrows, avoiding any eye contact.

That was enough to send an impulse, making me stand up and run towards the village with all of my strength. Now these forests were like and on old friend, leading straight to my old home. 

When I reached to the village, I looked at every single wall, every single window, every single trace on the ground, slowly approaching my old house. Somewhere deep in my soul I wanted to be greeted just as if I came back from the long journey. 

I wanted to hear Mitsuru’s adorable laugh, while he jumped at me out of nowhere, asking when we will go practice. 

I wanted to see Adonis’s soft smile, as he offered us a good meal, just to make sure we had enough strength, asking us to be careful.

I wanted to see the elder’s mixed faces, whenever we were doing too much for their likings-

‘Don’t you ever show yourself in front of our eyes.’

I couldn’t bare the silence reigning all over the village. It was so illogical; this place was always so lively…

The last place I’ve visited was my own house. There was a small plate with a name of my sister on. Ignoring that, I entered the house and sit on a chair in front of a table and leaned my head on the chair’s backrest. I couldn’t even describe what was happening inside my head, what I was feeling right now – I was here, in my house. But everything was wrong. I wanted to cry, laugh and scream at the same time, but not even a single tear was coming out of my eyes.

You’re already dead, Mashiro Tomoya. This body won’t recognize a single tear.

In the end… My wish to become a hero sentenced an entire village to death.

This thought came just as fast as a loud scream that escaped my throat.

 

I didn’t know how much time has passed until someone gently patted my shoulder. When I moved my hand, I saw Yuuta and Hinata, leaning close to me. 

They still had that strange expression on their faces, while their cores revealed how unsure they were, how much they wanted to say at once. They wanted to apologize, then explain why nothing that happened was my fault, and then – that they were here to help.

I didn’t want to listen to them. 

Now I realized I didn’t know them as good as I thought before. I protected them for so long from the elder’s wrath, saying they weren’t as bad as the village believed – but how am I supposed to trust them after seeing the village’s current state? Yes, I hated the elder’s stubbornness and the lack of mercy. But not to the point of wishing them death, they could live however they wanted!

“Get the hell out of here.”

I didn’t want to see them until I’ll give myself enough time to think, until I’ll accept the fact I have so much blood on my own hands.

Time was slowly passing by. Aoi brothers, Sora, and even Hokuto, were checking out on me from time to time. None of them had any idea what to say to get my attention. I wondered if my rage against the brothers was justified, but I had no courage to approach them and talk.

I was losing all my strength, unable to leave a house and talk with anyone. The guilt was growing with every day, turning into a merciless voice in the back of my head. At some point, just thinking about going to anyone and talk was enough to make me feel suffocating. 

Hah… Sorry, that’s a bad way to describe it.

Stop fooling yourself, Tomoya. You’re already dead. This body doesn’t need sleep. You can’t breathe, eat, taste, and even feel more than a touch.

After laying on the table for so long only thinking, I disconnected from the real world so much I haven’t noticed when someone brought a small letter for me. I gazed at the window, noticing three heads leaning outside, two redheads and one blonde. 

I watched them in silence until they left. Then, I grabbed the letter without a haste, and opened it.

 

“For Tomo-chan.

Hinata and Yuuta don’t wanna tell me what’s going on, so I forced them to write a letter for you to give it later, because they know where you are. You were good at reading, way better than me, so it’s not a problem!

…Eh, I’m bad with words, I dunno how I start. My headache annoys me, but hey, that’s not the worst I’ve had to endure in my entire life. I just want you to know one thing.

Tomo-chan… I’m sorry for what happened that day.

I’m still in a big shock, yanno? When those adults came to us, when they said it was thanks to me they found about our plans… I was just as shocked as you were. It’s a fact one of them approached me one time, asking to bust you out so I can have peace, but I told them to get out!

That sure was painful for you… Not only they were bold enough to tail me down, they also said it that way for you to believe I was helping them.

Tomo-chan, you’re not mad at me? You didn’t believe in that, right?

Hinata and Yuuta said they will take me outside the village soon enough, as the black clouds are slowly coming… I’ll force them to take me to you.

Wait for me, okay?

No matter if I have to wait for hours, days, even months… We’re always going to be together. Now, when the village is no longer interested in us, we can reach our goals. So don’t cry and wait for me!”

 

“…”

The page was breaking under force until it teared apart in half.

“Mitsuru, you damned idiot…”

Of course I couldn’t suspect you for more than 5 minutes… You always were with me, even when the village cursed me and didn’t want you to get closer to me, and your smile was enough to bring my will to fight back.

And now… Even though you were here, still on this world…

We’re both here, but are we really alive at this point?

“I hate it!”

The chair fall down with a loud thumb as I stood up, screaming like crazy, pulling hair of the head, throwing everything that was on the table down. Shinkai’s notebook. Some old dishes. The remains of the letter. Finally, the table fell down as well. I walked towards the wall, hitting it with my fists without mercy. I couldn’t feel the pain of punching it so many times, even when one of my fingers broke. 

“I can’t stand it! What have we done to deserve it, Mitsuru?” I asked myself, slowly falling down, pressing my knees to chest. “Why am I forced to ‘live’ in a body that can’t feel warmth, can’t feel pain anymore? I can’t shed a single tear for my friend who doesn’t properly recognise me!” 

It’s creepy. It’s cold. It’s disgusting.

I’ve already died. Why am I back, why someone decided I have to come back here and see everything with my own eyes…

Why the hell I allowed myself to remember? I knew damn sure how it’ll end, Itsuki was right in this one regard and I still didn’t listen to him!

He should’ve killed me when he could. At least my damn life could save his student.

Now, all I was good in was bringing tragedy into people around me, even after my death. The Puppeteer, Kagehira, Shinobu, this stupid village, Mitsuru!

If I just kept my head low and listened to that one Wataru’s suggestion, they’d be still alive!

The door creaked.

“Please, wake me up from this nightmare…”

“Mashiro.”

“What’s the point of me being in a world that already rejected me, when all I bring is more death…”

“Mashiro, please, look at me.”

I slowly raised my head. Hokuto was kneeling in front of me, but I had no courage to look at this face. He reached to me with his hand, hesitating at first. Few moments later, he laid it on my head, as if he wanted to pull me closer. 

Then I noticed he was trying to smile, but it wasn’t reaching his eyes.

He was looking at me in a silence, with a second hand reaching to me.

“It’s not your fault for what happened. It’s not your fault you have this body, no matter how scary it is when you can’t feel anything.”

I wanted to cry all the time. But I couldn’t.

I gave up and clenched my fingers on his hand. Hokuto slowly pulled me closer in a embrace, patting my head. Soon enough he used the near wall and laid his back on it. 

None of us said anything. He stayed with me for long enough to fall asleep.

 

It took me some time to escape his embrace, but I wasn’t sure what should I do. I wanted to move him at one of the beds so he doesn’t have to sleep on the ground, but I feared I’ll wake him up trying to do so. After few minutes of doubt, I decided to take the risk and slowly picked Hokuto up. To my surprise, he wasn’t as heavy as I thought, so it wasn’t a problem to move. 

After that, I left the house. I still needed time for myself, especially after calming down a bit. For a moment I wondered about looking for Yuuta and Hinata, but the thought itself still was scary to me.

And Mitsuru… I had no idea what I would try to do upon seeing him again. 

I had no strength for anything other than a small walk. 

It was a late evening, raining gently. The water dropping on me without giving that feeling of cold or making my clothes stick to the body was harshly reminding of the doll’s body. I tried my best to ignore my thoughts, but it wasn’t the easiest task.

“I wish I did my best to discourage him from remembering.”

Hinata’s voice immediately caused me to hide behind one of the trees. Both him and his brother were sitting on the grass nearby the place we’ve met for the first time. 

“Damn it, what is making him feel that bad for those people?” Hinata laid his chin on his hand with a grimace all over his face. “After what they’ve done to him, he should hate them with a burning passion!”

“I remind you humans always react like this upon seeing a massacre of people they’ve known…” Yuuta sighed. “He won’t just wave his hand just like you. Besides, his family also died.”

“I know, but they weren’t any better! Well, unless we’re talking about his sister. But after seeing what happened when read Mitsuru’s letter, I don’t want to say anything about her or he’ll break down even more… I told Sora not to deliver it. What if our tries of explaining will hurt him even more?”

Yuuta didn’t answer at first, shaking his head.

“You don’t even have the courage to talk with him.”

“…At this point I fear he really doesn’t want to see me anymore.”

“Shouldn’t we try at least?”

…What an irony they’ve been in the same spot as me. 

Deep in my heart, my thoughts about them were mixed. By hearing their words and their souls, they really wanted no harm, hoping they could just explain everything. I didn’t fear them as much as myself, unsure if I won’t be the one hurting them.

If I never came back to life, they would never think about it. I would sleep forever, and they would forget about us and move with their life, finding new friends or simply serving their lord without thinking too much about humans. 

All of us would be free of guilt. 

Yet here I am. All I brought is confusion, forcing them to dig deeper into their decisions. 

Not only that, death seemed to adore me so much I couldn’t stop worrying they would be caught in the loop of tragedy. Or even worse, the Curse. 

If I never came back…

If I could… Just leave. 

Leave them with Hokuto and Sora. 

Leave forever and let them live their life. 

That would be the most heroic thing I’ve done in my life. 

 

I went back to the house, making sure they didn’t notice me. 

Time was flowing by and nothing has changed. Yuuta and Hinata tried to sneak into the house few times, but whenever our eyes met, all we managed to ask was how are we. 

My guilt skyrocketed with such a force I could barely even move. 

I hated myself for being such an obstacle on their way. With every day passing by, that annoying voice in my head was growing bigger, tempting to leave this place and never come back. 

At first, I was doing my best to fight against that idea. There was that small ray of hope we can still talk, try to make things work, but… Whenever I saw their faces, all I could feel is more fear. 

On that day, when the rain came back, I’ve made up my mind. 

It’s time to leave. 

I couldn’t tell why, but after a bit, I felt like someone took all the weight from my heart. I was so light, I could even see my reflection and smile, saying that yes, I’m finally fine. 

They won’t be happy at first, but that’s for their best. 

I know for sure they can be happier without me around. 

Without making too much noise, I left the house, slowly walking ahead, not even looking exactly where… Just as far as I could go. 

At first, something still was trying to get me back and fight, but it was easy to ignore.

“Hello~ When you see people, you ask them how they are~?”

Sora’s voice completely took me off guard, but I managed not to jump out, turning my head to see him. He was sitting on his broom as always, gazing directly on my face with a neutral look.

“Hello, I’m fine,” I forced a smile. “Why are you here?”

“HuHu… Sora wanted to go for a stroll after a small incident. Do you mind joining?”

“Ah, no… Have your time.”

I didn’t expect him to jump out of nowhere, especially right now… I couldn’t just get out when he was close, but if I told him to leave, someone could get suspicious. 

Sora jumped from his broom and walked right next to me, clenching his hands on the handle. We didn’t say a word for quite a long. Gazing through his fragments, I noticed the incident he mentioned was connected to Aoi, but I decided not to dig too much. 

“Is everything okay, Sora?” 

But I still asked. 

Sora tilted his head and sighed. 

“You know… Sora does feel bad a little bit,” He said after a while. “I’m sorry, Tomo-chan.”

“For…?”

“You know, Sora lied. He came to check on you, but then noticed the colors around Tomo-chan were very dark and hesitated.”

His words made me stop. 

Ah, right. He could somehow read the atmosphere from the colors alone. Being able to do that was quite uncomfortable… But that was coming from a person who can simply get into someone’s head. 

“Even though you said you’re fine - It’s not the first time Sora hears those words connected to such a sad color,” He continued, standing now right in front of me, hiding his hands behind his back. “That’s why Sora was almost sure whatever you’re thinking about is painful.”

After his words, I found myself gazing at the ground, not being able to smile anymore. 

“HuHu, it’s okay,” Sora moved closer and gently patted my head. “Sora believes keeping bad thoughts in your head isn’t the best idea, seeing how many conflicts Teacher and Master had because of it. Conflicts that would be easy to avoid if they talked.”

“I know it, but…” I sighed heavily. “It’s hard. I feel like my head is going to explode, but on the other – I’m terrified, mixed… It’s like one move is enough to doom someone else’s entire life.”

Sora laid his hands on his broom, which was already in the air. 

“Aren’t you taking too much at yourself, Tomo-chan?”

I raised my head.

“A lot of things are happening just because they have to, right? Sometimes it’s not just someone’s fault, and if you’ll try to prevent it, you might get yourself burned fast! Fighting against the fate requires a lo~ot of strength and sacrifices~ That’s what Master says all the time.”

Things are just happening, huh… Here it is, the talk about fate again. As if Wataru wasn’t enough in this regard.

The fate, which will make sure you’ll never escape it’s grasp, unless you’re ready to sacrifice everything. 

Your life included. 

“Ah, sorry, Sora again forgot what he really wanted to say,” Sora’s cheeks turned slightly red. “Sorry, Tomo-chan.”

“Again, for what?”

“That letter, Sora was the one who left it. Yuuta and Hinata wanted to make sure you won’t think bad of Mitsuru, but they feared it might hurt you even more and we should wait until you’ll feel better… But Sora decided to go against that.”

Ah, so that’s what he wanted to apologize for… 

“It still hurts,” I admitted. “But now, when I think about it - I knew Mitsuru would never do anything bad, just… Just knowing that he’s still here, but not entirely aware, is strange. Why did you save him?”

“Master said it won’t be a bad idea, he’s trying to find a cure for Fallen Ones! But whenever Sora was seeing good, not aggressive victims, knights were killing them…”

“Natsume is looking for a cure?”

That’s a first, up to this point Natsume was a master at hiding his own goals, going on par with the Blessed. It seemed like other than Rei, the rest had no idea why Natsume came so fast, dwelling in their conflict.

“Your Master surely is getting into a big mess. Isn’t he afraid it might come back to bite him?”

Sora giggled.

“Master asked Sora not to talk about his decisions with others, but Sora worries about him. Whenever his colors are getting darker, he says he doesn’t have that much time to worry about consequences of his doings, and the more tragedies are around him, the more he wants to help others.”

Time, huh… Natsume surely was young, so he had a lot of it in that regard, Shu haven’t noticed any signs of the Curse or other illness either at first… Not that he cared to dwell in his problems, but still. Maybe he had a hard time with his own country?

“But that’s his business, Sora will support him as long as he can! Oh, and there’s one more thing Sora believes can do to help you.”

Oh lord, this kid could jump between topics with such a speed I couldn’t keep up sometimes. 

“I don’t think there’s more, though,” I scratched my head. “Thanks for caring, but-“

“Nope, because nobody knows what will the next day bring to us!” Sora smiled. “And Tomo-chan escapes the confrontation just as much as Hinata and Yuuta while suffering, because he can’t understand their decisions, just as Hinata doesn’t get Tomo-chan’s reasons for being mad. That’s a no. Can Sora tell what he’s thinking about it?”

All this time, I found myself feeling uncomfortable when I looked at him. Sora was smiling all the time, even when his words were getting not as bright as one could think of. 

“Sora understands murder is bad, taking people’s life is terrible. And he understands that Tomo-chan feels like he’s carrying a rock built by his guilt and loathing - but you’re the one who made it,” He started patting my head again. “Aoi brothers loved you to the point of being ready to kill someone else, and that’s scary, but also amazing a bit, if you ask Sora. Not everyone is capable of it.”

“That’s not enough to-”

“Mhm, Sora agrees. But they also now want to understand that they’ve done the bad thing. Your feelings made them realize that. But they also know you’re in pain, and are ready not to be forgiven, they want a chance to build your trust again.”

His smile, at first blank, now became naturally warm. 

“They want to learn the beautiful magic of bringing happiness and become a family to you once again, so… Can you let them try?”

 

I managed to answer him after few moments, asking to take me to Aoi twins. 

Sora clapped his hands and jumped on his broom, giving me his hand to help me get in. When he was sure I was secured, he soared into the air. 

The view was breathtaking. 

The sun was slowly escaping the clouds, allowing us to watch the sunrise. Thanks to that feeling, I had a chance to think again about everything. Sora wasn’t rushing, instead making circles and enjoying the ride. 

After a while, we moved down and landed on a small hill, where you could watch the sunrise as well. Hinata and Yuuta were here as well, not paying attention on us. I noticed Hinata also had a big package in his hands. Only when Sora shouted at them, they turned around. 

I clenched my hand on chest, doing my best not to avoid their gazes and not to run at any given moment, remembering Sora’s words. He was right, I was so damn scared of talking with these two, even though I wished we could go back to old times… But on the other, I wasn’t sure if being with these two was a great idea. And no, it wasn’t because they weren’t scared of getting their hands dirty.

“Hey,” I started with a weak voice. “Do you have time?”

“Sure.”

Sora soared into the air again, but he was circling around us from a good distance. Silence has reigned around us soon as I tried to gather my thoughts. I wasn’t ready for this at all…

“Forgive me for kicking you out back then.”

That was the first idea that popped in my head. 

“I couldn’t think straight at all… Well, to be honest, I still have a trouble with it,” I laughed nervously. “But what I know I did was that I judged you without listening first. You suggested to avoid my past, but I didn’t listen.” 

Hinata furrowed his eyebrows but said nothing as they slowly approached me. I noticed the storm of thoughts gathering in their cores, so strong I couldn’t read anything. 

“It’s okay,” Yuuta tried to smile. “You had the right for it. But I feared you’ve resented us for it.”

“No, I didn’t think about it that way!” I waved my hands. “I was mixed, because I couldn’t believe it was so easy for you two to just… Well, massacre an entire village just because of me, then other things got into my head, and I, I…”

Somewhere in my soul, a voice was screaming it was futile to clarify everything at all, and I should give up, but I did my best to ignore it. 

Sora sent me a glare. 

When I looked back at twins, Hinata made another step. 

“You know, before I’ve seen your reaction, I was sure I did the right thing,” Hinata tilted his head, gazing at the sun with crooked smile. “I couldn’t forgive them for taking my friend’s life – no, not only for that, but also for how much they’ve been mistreating you.” 

“Same. I only felt bad about your little sister, but that guilt left fast enough,” Yuuta avoided eye contact for a second. “But seeing you, slowly falling into that hole of self-loathing, taking all the guilt for yourself… That made us realize how hard it was for you. You lived there. We wanted you to see we’re not the bad guys, yet we did something terrible in your eyes.” 

“It was terrifying, man… And I had no idea what to say. How to make you feel better, how to explain nothing was your fault, how you should stop feeling bad. And I want you to know, I don’t want to be forgiven by what we’ve done.” 

At that point I was just blinking at them, unable to say a word. 

With a fast move, Hinata took the package behind his back and finally stopped right in front of me with his brother.

“If you can give us another chance, call us friends… That’s going to be enough.”

“And if you don’t want to see us, just say it. We’ll stop bothering you – but at least, let us give our present.”

They grabbed my hands and laid a package on them, then slowly pulled the material. 

The sun sharply reflected off the steel. 

“Hehe, we did our best to get that legally!” Hinata smiled widely. “I mean, you can’t just go for your adventures without a weapon… Leader~”

Their smiles were just as bright as the sun reflecting. I slowly grabbed the sword by the handle and moved it, seeing my own reflection as well. 

I wanted to cry as hell. Damn it, I seriously wished I could cry right now.

“You two are idiots…” I gazed at Yuuta and Hinata again. “I-I’m not sure if I’m suited to be called a leader after treating you like that, after ignoring you without any chance to explain anything…”

“It’s okay, just don’t overdo yourself,” Yuuta giggled and put his arm around me. “Just remember we’re here for you, no matter how time you need.”

Ah… These two were still close to my heart. I just tried to run away, fooling myself that’s the best… 

Just as if they could read my mind, Hinata took the sword from my hands, laid it on the material and hugged me with all strength he had. Yuuta joined us soon.

“I’ll never forgive myself if I’ll ever bring any misfortune on you…”

My biggest fear found a moment to escape my mind, what made me shiver a bit – but Yuuta and Hinata simply shrugged. 

“Then we’ll just beat the shit out of it, easy! Am I right, Yuuta?” 

“Yup. Bad luck out, bad luck out~”

I buried my face in Hinata’s shoulder, smiling. 

I want to give not only them, but also myself, a chance.

Now, when I can work behind the scenes, when the fate is no longer watching me, I’m able to live my life the way I want – and I’ll do my utmost best to work for happiness, not a tragedy. There is still a lot of things on this world I know nothing about, but we can work on it.

I still don’t feel I could become a hero just as I dreamed before… But at least I can help those who stayed with me.

Chapter Text

Everything was slowly getting better.

When me, Yuta and Hinata managed to get along, we finally could take our time and understand how we’ve been feeling about the whole situation. We agreed to abandon the village once and for all and never go back there – sealing all the pain in this place. 

Now with no home to go back to, I could only wander around, but Sora asked his masters if they had nothing against me staying in the library. They agreed, asking for helping in maintaining, cleaning and basically not destroying any book. That wasn’t a problem, so the library became my new cozy home. 

When Aoi twins, Sora or Hokuto were resting after long days filled with trainings or usual work, I’ve been using the opportunity to study every single book I was interested in, starting from legends about our dear Blessed, theories about the world, and most importantly, the languages – with the Northern being my first goal. 

The Observer’s memory made it incredibly easy, having no limits with how much I could remember without any problems. Whenever I saw something, my memory was creating small fragments everywhere, making it impossible to forget so easily. No, even better – saying ‘I don’t remember’ was futile. After learning even a small detail, all I had to do was to rebuild my own map of fragments, and information was coming like nothing. Thinking of it as a big library was making it even easier. 

I was slowly coming to terms with my new self. Being both a doll and an Observer at once, with no living body, uncapable of breathing, resting, keeping a wide smile even while suffering… That was still surreal. But with every day passing by, I was finding more benefits to my new state. 

There was, however, one thing that made me realize how lucky I was – Mitsuru. 

I’ve gathered my courage only once to meet him and see his face. He jumped at me again, being so sweet and happy that he found me after quite a long time and tried to drag to the village… And then he was forgetting it and jumping at me again. Watching his mind during this process was a torture. The Curse was hiding in one, small fragment filled with golden energy nearby the core, bursting energy through his entire fragment system, devouring other memories whenever his mind tried to create one. There was only one fragment left – the one where Mitsuru promised himself to find me and leave the village once and for all. He was like a doll with only one role to fulfil, only to forget he finished it so many times, living in a never-ending loop.

This Curse was really terrifying. Knowing that there is something on this world capable of devouring your entire mind… No surprise it could break even the Blessed upon seeing it. 

 

“So? Do you feel any better now?”

Hinata’s voice snatched me out from my thoughts. Me, him and Yuta were spending our time outside, reminiscing of our crazy idea to travel the continent for some adventures. How ironic our party of two humans and demons turned into quite an eccentric gathering.

“It’s not that bad, I’m doing my best!” I admitted. “I mean, I totally forgot I broke my finger few days ago and to be fair, I’m lost what I should do with it… Uh, it sounds bad.”

Very bad! Come on, nobody sane would ‘wonder’ what to do with their damned hands! I broke it and up to this day it was hiding in the glove…

“Do you know how to patch it up?” Just as I was thinking about it, Yuta sneaked up to me and took my glove to take the finger. “Maybe just leave it be? We’ll get a small hook on it, you’ll become a pirate~”

“Not funny! And that sounds gross!” 

Both of them bursted out laughing, leaving me just shaking my head. 

“Really, I have an idea how to fix it, but I’ll need material for that, and I’m not really eager to ask Natsume for more… He’s already giving me Lirium to live.”

“Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it. And you two, don’t bully him.”

Hokuto’s voice came from behind me, so I twisted my head as much as my joints allowed. He sent me a smile and sit down next to me. 

“Yup, just because something is considered ‘normal’ it doesn’t mean being different is worse!” Hinata grinned, crossing his arms. “See the bright side, for example pain will never slow you down, physical tortures are no use when it comes to you!”

“Oh, right… People can do everything to ease the pain, so I have to agree. But this aside, I’ve been wondering about that flower on your chest. Are you sure you want it there?”

I raised my eyebrow and reached to the flower – a marigold. It was placed right on a crystal heart – just as valuable as the real one. I forgot about completely. 

“Ah, sorry for asking for it out of nowhere, but I just remembered what the rest told me,” Hokuto scratched his head. “That it’s best to follow those flowers when hunting the Puppeteer’s dolls. Even though I’m sure it wasn’t always on the same spot as yours.”

“Well, right. But he quickly learned how to use that knowledge against you and prepared fake hearts to lure you into safety… That’s why Narukami got fooled.”

Uh… Just remembering what happened to that poor mercenary gave me a real shiver, her state being only a bit better than Mitsuru’s. Or at least I want to believe so, she sounded like she lost all hope on tha day... I hope the rest helped her recover properly. I didn’t care much that Arashi was a knight like Hokuto, both of them were a source of pleasant memories for me. 

“Heard about that. Knights are both hard to break and kill by themselves, but Narukami is even a stronger league, so you don’t have to worry about her too much. It’s that kind who’s made of iron-”

Just before he finished speaking, Hinata and Yuta were already crouching in front of him, grinning. Hokuto blinked few times and moved back when he got an idea what was going in their heads.

“Don’t even think about it, you two!” I shouted at them just after hearing their thoughts exactly. “Don’t you two dare testing anybody!”

“Eh, it’s so unfair when you can hear it!” Hinata giggled and moved back. “Just kidding, don’t worry~ But I can’t help but wonder about knights, you know? Something must be different in them since they’re so ‘strong and unbreakable’.”

Ah… He was right, I had the exact same thoughts. All I knew now was they were, in fact, almost Fallen Ones with their Curse somehow stopped by Tsukinaga, but that was it… The thing is, I didn’t want to jump at Hokuto and ask so many questions. 

The warrior was gazing at Hinata with an empty look, not answering any question. He snapped out of his trance when Yuta waved his hands right in front of him.

“Hello, earth to sir Hidaka? Are you okay?”

“Ah- Right, yes, sorry… Can you repeat what have you said?”

“We’ve been wondering about are you feeling as a knight and how much that differs from a single human.”

Hokuto scratched his chin, while the brothers moved back from him and kept a safe distance – Yuta even grabbed my hand and dragged me to them. 

“Come on, what you’re doing?” I hissed at him. “It’s not like he’ll lose control over himself?”

“Safety precautions. And besides what, are you really that offended that I’m taking you from your prince?”

“Oh, shut up!”

Thankfully, we kept our voices low enough Hokuto didn’t hear any of that.

“A knight, huh… It’s not that different from being alive, to be honest,” He said and laid his hands on a ground, tilting his head back to gaze at the sky. “It’s a bit… Cold at first. You don’t need to sleep or eat as much as before. It’s like you’re not entirely alive at some point… Until you get on a battlefield.”

His voice was so calm I couldn’t help laying my head over Hinata’s shoulder, as if he was going to narrate a story. 

“War seems like a playground for you. A trance you cannot just simply escape. You dance. You cut. You dodge. Blood is spilled, and by every single minute passing by, it’s like your happiest moment. You feel alive, you enjoy it. There’s no pain, no remorse – you’re taking a disgusting pleasure in it.”

As he continued, my hand rested on a hilt of the sword. His mind was getting filled by the memories straight from a battlefield, as if Hokuto was there right now, and his eyes were slowly turning gold. 

Yuta also moved a bit, getting ready to jump if needed.

„It’s… Relaxing, even,” Hokuto smiled. „And then, everything stops. Silence and the smell of blood embraces you… You might feel bad, but this just disappears. You can’t feel anything. Especially when you’re following the King’s orders. And the cycle repeats, until you have the courage to escape it.” 

…I saw it. 

His consciousness, built by the fragments and the core were giving up to the energy coming from the Curse’s fragment, in the same way as it worked in Mitsuru’s case. But none fragments were devoured, Hokuto was still sane and aware of the world outside his mind. It simply filled his head, giving him the benefits of a mind focused on one goal. 

A moment later, the Curse canceled itself and returned to the fragment, and Hokuto’s eyes turned into lovely dark blue shade. Seeing us in a defensive positions, he raised his eyebrow.

“Ah, no, don’t worry, everything is fine!” He tried to laugh it off. “No, I’m sorry. It’s incredibly easy to get lost in your thoughts, you’re forgetting about the details. Unless you’re fighting, you’re the same as always. It’s the scent of blood that’s making you lost. That’s why I ran away, I wasn’t okay with everything, and I wasn’t as connected to the King as the rest… He allowed me to do whatever I wanted unless I’ll start openly resisting him.”

But am I agreeing with his methods? He had a point, but…’

…No matter what words are coming from your mouth, your mind will betray you. 

I didn’t ask about it, though. 

“Ahaha…”

Yuta clenched his fingers on his brother’s sleeve. 

“You know what… You’re right,” Hinata shook his head, giggling nervously. “Let’s keep the rule ‘No knights, no problems’, it’s not worth the haste…”

“Yep yep, it’s not like our Lord doesn’t like getting into fights with them as well. But are all of you really that eager to fight, especially that King? That’s a point for the Empire for telling people you’re the war beasts, but…”

Hokuto sighed. 

“I can’t say for sure when it comes to the rest, but Tsukinaga, huh. I prefer not thinking about him, my head is getting dizzy whenever I start. He’s the worst out of all of them, though.”

Unwillingly, I gazed at my own hand. Seeing what happened in Hokuto’s mind, being a doll right now seemed more humane than a knight.

But I couldn’t help but worry about him. His curse was still there, enabling itself when needed, pushing his mind into limits – and most probably, his body. Who could give us an assurance it’ll never bite him back? 

We still knew nothing about the Curse of the Fallen. 

“Can I ask you for something, Hokuto?”

“Of course, I’m listening.”

I took a breath. 

“My request is simple – please, if you’ll ever feel worse, like if your mind started playing tricks on you, tell me about it immediately.”

Hokuto opened his mouth, but only a strange sound escaped his throat. 

“Ah, you don’t have to worry about me,” He tried to brush it off and smile. “I’m glad you care, but you already have a lot on your mind.”

“Hokuto, please.”

“Yup, we’re asking for it as well!”

Yuta and Hinata jumped at us and sit down so I ended up being between them, putting their hands on their knees. 

“Come on. It’s not in my style to be awkwardly nice and stuff, but you’re a cool dude, you’re treating all three of us properly,” Hinata cleared his throat. “So of course, I’d like to give you a first-class ticket for my mercy, yup. Besides, if you’re planning on going bonkers, we’d like to report to our Lord before the worst will happen.” 

“Yup, yup… And he might have an idea what to do in that case,” Yuta nodded his head few times. “So no hiding, only honestly. Please trust us a bit, sir.”

Hokuto couldn’t stop from chuckling. 

“I can’t really say no when you’re asking like this. Understood, I’ll do my best… Ah, speaking of, I just remembered. I wanted to ask you about it, but I forgot.” 

I pointed my finger at myself and blinked, as Hokuto was speaking to me. 

“How can I help you?”

“Do you remember anything from our past training sessions?”

A short “ah” escaped my mouth as I tried to remember – it took a while, but yeah, there was something in the back of my head.

“Can’t tell how well I can repeat it with this body,” I said, smiling. “But sure, I do. Why?” 

Wait, don’t tell me he…

“When I became a knight, the first thing I've received was a proper training,” Hokuto laid his hand on the sword’s handle. “Ironic, considering I’ve been turned into one in the biggest chaos you could think of, but Tsukinaga said the best way to get used to new body is to adapt to it by forcing it to work in danger. I think it’ll work for you… Of course, if you do want me to teach you.”

O-oh. 

Oh my. 

I tried to say anything, but the shock was just too much. Oh my lord, Hokuto wants me to train. One on one most probably, so close to each other, what if I- 

Just thinking about it was enough to hide my face behind my hands as I heard Hinata bursting out laughing and patting my shoulder. 

“That’s the Tomoya I know! No way you’re going to pass on this occasion, huh?”

“Stop it!” 

 

Soon enough, Lord Sakuma contacted Yuta, asking them to go back, so I really was left out with Hokuto. 

At least I’ve managed to calm down before he noticed I almost lost my mind back there. He took a look on my new weapon and said we’ll start tomorrow, so he’ll have time to come up with some sort of plan. 

Not that later we went back to the library, as he seemed pretty tired. When I was left alone, I walked towards the bookshelves as always and took few books I’ve started, focusing entirely on the Northern language – many other books were written in it, so without it, I couldn’t really continue my research on the Joker.

Going towards the center of the library, I’ve heard whisperings. It was pretty late, so I didn’t expect others to be awake, but to my surprise, when I got closer, I recognized Tsumugi’s and Natsume’s voices. Lightened up by the light pillar, they gathered a lot of books around themselves, sitting in front of the table. Their focus was strong enough to not notice me coming closer, so I took a look on the books they brought. Tsumugi was writing something on the piece of paper, with his left finger pointing on one line from the old, big tome, surrounded by dictionaries of both ancient and simple Northern, and something what looked like the languages both Yumenosaki and Empire has been using in the past. 

When I stopped next to Natsume, he tilted his head and smirked. 

“You couldn’t get a better timinG. I’ve been wondering if you could tell me one thiNG.”

“Hm? What’s wrong?” 

“Have you read the notebook Shinkai gave yOU?” 

I scratched my chin. 

“Not really,” I said, avoiding his gaze. “I do remember there was a map in it – big respect for Shinkai for being able to put it in such small notebook – but other than that, I’ve never read more.”

There was a day I wanted to try, but I had no energy to do anything.

“Do you mind if we’ll take a look at it?” Aoba put a pen on the table and rubbed his eyes with a hand. “It’s nothing bad, really. Just a hunch.” 

Now I noticed someone braided small part of his hair. Cute.

“Yeah, sure. But allow me to stay here then, I’m curious what caught your interest.”

“Be my gueST.”

Not willing to waste any time, I rushed towards the room where I was keeping all my belongings, looking for the notebook, and brought it back to the mages. Tsumugi took it, as me and Natsume sit next to him.

On first glance, there wasn’t too much new or important information. The basics about the Kingdom and the Empire, their currency, how they accepted the magicians, current state, etc… Even notes about the lirium and the current price from different sellers, much to Natsume’s surprise. And a small propaganda of the Harbor, as he called it. Nothing more to get your attention, one could wonder how in the hell Shinkai had so much free time to write it. 

That it, until we got to the last pages, written in the Northern. 

“Ah, there it is,” Tsumugi grabbed his pen and tucked his hair behind his ear. “You were right, so Shinkai knows it as well. Is he really old enough to know three languages this well?”

“If my memory is good enough then NO. But considering how much time he had in the loops and the fact he and Itsuki were close to each other, it’s not impossible,” Natsume sighed. “What is hiding here, I wondER?”

Supported by the dictionaries, Aoba slowly followed the words from the last page, immediately translating them and writing on the paper, rubbing his eyes with the back of his hand from time to time. Seeing how focused he was, I stopped from asking how long they’ve been here. 

Soon enough, he put the pen on the table and stretched, giving the translated letter to Natsume. 

“Ehehe, seems like he prepared that map quite a long time ago,” He smiled. “And updated at least three times.”

“Focus on useful detaiLS,” Natsume pouted. “Bullshit out, keep it for yourseLF.”

“Eh, but you asked me to get any single thing I think is suspicious? Even the script we have has some real tips hiding between the stupid stories…”

“Unless Shinkai wrote the script, I don’t think he had the time to play the idiot while writing a letter to Shu, he’s not the JokER.”

“But, Natsume… Don’t you find it surprising there’s even Aderia pointed on the map?”

“We’ll look at it latER.”

It ended on Natsume reading the letter again, letting me to do the same, while Tsumugi used the free time to close his eyes and rest. 

“Son of a bitCH,” Natsume hissed. “Throwing such important clues without assurance who will read IT. Unless he believed in you and Kagehira this muCH.”

“Damn it, let me read it as well, I can’t see too much!”

I tilted my entire body so I could see what bothered him so much. 

‘…And one request from me. Stay away from my home. The more guests, the more troubles, and I am already tired of you destroying this place. This is not what you have promised. Especially considering what happened to Kagehira – Wataru is enough as a rule-breaker and troublemaker.

I will only allow you to come if you want to travel either to the North or the East.’

How fierce of him. At this point, whenever a Blessed was getting annoyed or desperate, you knew things were getting bad, but still… How desperate Shinkai was? 

He was pretty disturbed after finding Sengoku’s body. Someone was bold enough to kill this poor kid in his goddamn house. 

‘But. For your information, the soul living in your student’s body has to be the Observer… The type that is slowly mixing up with his mind. It’s forcing the Curse to stay away from him. I have never seen something like this, but I did hear about the legends there was, or even still is, the Penalty of Erasure. Or the trial. You have to ask Rei about it, he told me about this legend once. All I know it’s just as brutal as Tsukinaga hunting down the Blessed. Your existence is being devoured.’

The penalty… I gulped. At first it sounded like a bad joke, but what if this really was a thing? Are we stepping on a fate worse than death stage? 

It’s… More than worrying. There’s no reason to erasure someone unless they did something unforgiving. 

“Should I ask Rei to confirm about this?” Tsumugi scratched his chin. “Considering what we’ve learned so far, I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s real… These Rules sure keep some pretty messed up lines.”

“Try it if he don’t try to play with yOU. Maybe he’ll see your face and decide to have some mercy for onCE.”

Ah, Natsume, sweet as always. Tsumugi definitely was having a ride with this guy on a daily basis. Living with him surely is packed up with full spectrum from the start to finish, huh.

“Well, on the other side – if we’ll learn about your real start, you’ll have a whole new debt to mE,” Natsume sent me a sly grin. “Am I rigHT?” 

Shit, that was right. I said I’ll pay him back from getting me out of Shu, but with another debt on my head, he’ll surely try to drag me into some real bullshit. Just listening about this one letter was enough to make my head hurt.

Let’s focus on finding a safe way to pay him back…

Just to bring my mind on something else than his smirk, I looked at the letter again.

‘One thing. I have a feeling there is yet another Blessed with us… Or at least someone who has been marked by the Joker. And no, I am not talking about Tsukinaga…’

Unable to control myself, I grabbed the letter.

‘I’m talking about either Sakasaki Natsume or Harukawa Sora. The first one is the victim of yours and Rei’s schemes, so I wouldn’t be surprised if something happened in between. Harukawa Sora, on the other hand, came to me once and asked for a cure for the Curse. He’s not cursed by any means. And he had a strange ability…’

“Natsume or Sora…”

This wasn’t supposed to escape my mind, but it happened anyway.

Natsume bursted out laughing.

“Me or Sora, becoming a Blessed?” He replied contemptuously and took the letter, throwing it on a table. “Thank you very much, that’s the worst you can become in this worLD. Last thing I want is to be manipulated by the gods to be their doLL. Their “Blessings” is nothing more than being stupid enough to be played by the Joker and sold to the gods, and now they’re all suffering because he broke his RulES.”

Joker did what?

Wait… He was the Blessed himself, right? I can’t think of Hibiki selling himself to the gods.

But his words alone made me shiver, as I slowly fall to the chair. Something was right. Last thing Shu saw was Wataru who saved him, and…

I grabbed my head. The more I was thinking about it, the more logical it was. And I didn’t like where it was going. 

“Explain this to me,” I rose up from the chair. “Is Joker the reason why Blessed are even a thing?”

“Yep, the Joker is a being that’s purely for recommending outstanding people to the Overseer," Tsumugi answered, taking his glasses off. “Every single of them met him, so he gave them trials that they had to endure in order to become a Blessed. The Overseer was Anzu, am I right?”

„Yep, you passED. CongratulatioNS.”

My jaw dropped. 

My bad feelings have been confirmed, and now I could wonder what could happen to me back when I was alive. Wataru came to me saying I had more than one fate. Then, the tragedy came out of nowhere… 

“That’s… But then, how he became a Blessed himself?” I asked myself with a low voice, still in shock. “He couldn’t recomment himself…”

“I don’t know. Translating the script is incredibly hard, it’s more than one language, most of them are already dead…” Tsumugi sighed heavily. “Ah, it’s starting again. My head…”

Natsume frowned and glanced at him, but after hearing his words, his face immediately softened up, as he leaned on the table, taking the mage’s face in his hands.

“N-Natsume…?”

Tsumugi’s cheeks turned slightly red as he tried to avoid the alchemist’s gaze. 

“Hey, I’m okay. You really don’t have to worry about me,” He said, gulping. “Come on, I’ll finish the next chapter soon, so…”

“You can do it tomorrow after restiNG. I’ll find the medicine soon, so don’t worry about thAT.”

They’ve been gazing at each other, their faces so close I averted my eyes for a good moment. Tsumugi was the one to break the silence, as he giggled. 

“Hehe, thank you,” The mage put on his glasses and took Natsume’s hand to get up. “I told you, you can be pretty charming when you want-“

“Get your ass moving or I’ll kick you so strong you’ll see stars before hitting the ground with your faCE.”

“Eh? Come on, it was so sweet, and I’m not a fan of violence anyway..!”

I did my best not to laugh.

Finally they agreed on one thing – both of them were at their limits, so they left in order to get some sleep. I wished them good night and waited until they were gone, so I could glance at the big tome. 

This language sure was a mess, even knowing some of the Northern wasn’t enough to get even one line. 

Silence reigned in the library, interrupted only by the soft sound coming from the stream of light. I sat on the couch slightly away from the table and looked up at the ceiling, where the paintings along with a stream of light, gave the illusion of looking at the sky full of stars, shimmering in all colors.

I closed my eyes, focusing entirely on the Joker. This man was the answer for all questions… A troublemaker who was a master at avoiding people. 

I wished I could grab him by the collar and get everything out of him.

 

‘Hm… Someone’s surely having a lot of free time. Shall I take that peace from you, my dear Tomoya?’

Chapter Text

My body trembled as I opened my eyes wide and jumped from the sofa.

His voice.

It was him. 

But nobody was in the library. 

The only sound that came to my ears was the one coming from the pillar of light. No footsteps, no laughing. 

Was it only my imagination?

Feeling I was already going crazy just because of that session with the mages, I fell on the sofa again, laying my head on the back, gazing at the ceiling. Even now I was still on high alert, unable to just brush it off and relax. 

To be fairly honest… I feared this man. 

I wanted to force answers out of him, but on the other side, I had no idea what to do with him, and what he could try to do. He was capable of both mercy and violence, helping in escaping fate or pushing you right into madness.

If my hunch was right, even getting into a debt for Natsume was nothing compared to going on a ride with Wataru.

I’ve waited for something to happen, but nothing did. 

I was still alone in the library. I closed my eyes again, listening the sound coming from the pillar. Since it was middle of the night, it was seemingly weaker, giving the library an eerie atmosphere. 

“It’s not nice ignoring others, you know?”

When I opened my eyes, Hibiki was leaning on the sofa, looking right into my eyes with a wide grin.

I reached for the book laying next to my hand and threw it towards him without thinking. The book flew through his body and hit the bookshelf.

“No violence in the library, please,” He sighed. “You’re better than that, have some respect for the past!”

“You’re the last one to talk. Get out!”

“As much as I’d love to see your lovely face in reality, I have no time for traveling, my dear~”

Then how, in the hell-

Ah. Of course, the illusion. It’s not the first time he’s doing it. 

Just before I moved from my seat, Wataru bended his back, leaning over and embracing me. 

“How are you enjoying your new life in this body?” He asked with a surprisingly soft voice. “Hard to get used to it, but seeing how much advantages it has, together with the Observer’s mind-“

“Oh, so now you’re suddenly worried about me?” I pouted. “Stop playing and get to the topic. Why are you here?”

Uh, my mind was turning into a dumpster of questions I wished I could just throw at him. I couldn't even think without feeling as if I could get a headache. I didn’t expect him to come this fast.

The Joker chuckled.

“My, it’s not like every single time I come, something bad has to happen. I worry over people, especially after hitting them with such bad memories of a madman, you know?”

“A madman you’ve made with your own hands, excuse me.”

“Right, my bad. Didn’t expect that. Happens!” 

Huh? 

That’s surely ironic, considering he did that because Itsuki got heartless. Irony is hitting the charts as we speak. 

Wataru finally moved back and slowly walked towards the pillar of light without saying a word.

“But to answer your question – yes, I worried a bit,” He tilted his head. “I made quite a gamble back there… Well, I’m glad to see it worked and you’re still yourself, packed with a nice knowledge from Shu himself.”

“Oh, thank you very much for your worry, my lord,” I rolled my eyes. “I was fine until you came here… Wait, why would I not be myself.”

“Why, I wonder?” 

I wish he was here so I could hit that little smirking doll with a book. I had a feeling why Wataru would worry about it, but with all respect, I didn’t want to please him by answering. And I didn’t care about his 'worries' that much.

Not today, Joker. I’m playing your game now, I ain’t explaining shit. 

“Seems like old Tomoya is finally coming back,” He turned around and send me a soft smile. “Feels like good old times. Sadly, I can’t let you stay in the safety for too long, my dear.”

I clicked my tongue and straightened up, my feat stepping on the floor. I didn’t like where it was going.

“Thanks, I’m enjoying it in my fullest. Why are you so eager in getting me into your mess?” I asked. “You’re the one who called me a boring, out of ordinary boy, and now you're trying to push me into your life.”

Wataru blinked at me, just to burst into laughing.

“Ah right, I did it! And I stay by my opinion, but there is a big difference between the past and present – you’re the Observer now, so nobody will force you to die for doing too much. Some of us have a job to do, and you’re not the type to just sit around, right?” 

“Or maybe I am?” I grinned, again laying my back on the sofa. “Since when you know me that well?” 

“I know more than you think.”

My smile disappeared even faster as I raised my eyebrow. 

“Welcome in the world of death and twisted rules – and we, the Observers, can break every single one of them,” Now he was the one smiling, in a very chilling fashion. “And besides, we’re almost like narrators. We have to proceed, don’t we?”

I should leave at once, before I’ll start listening to his insane theories.

But I couldn’t. My legs didn’t move.

Wataru slowly approached me with a wide grin. 

“I’m reminding you that you’re the one that broke the goddamn timeline itself,” I hissed. “Maybe it’s time to confess how much you’ve done to make the world like this, huh?”

“Please, tell your inner Shu to shut up.”

I couldn’t help but giggle, only to stop. His tone when he said that went down a hill. 

“Let’s play a little game, my dear Tomoya.”

He reached with his hand to me. 

“The knowledge you’re after is a forgotten past and no book will offer it… Hardworking for the sake of hard work is futile, so I offer you the deal. The villain of this story, my dear Tomoya… Who’s the villain and what are their goals?”

One answer was already on the back of my head, but I stayed silent.

“Fufu. Don’t let anyone erase you again and offer me your answer, and I shall give you the knowledge you desire.”

 

Before I said anything, the library turned silent, with me being the only person in here. 

And, to be honest, I wasn’t able to move, still in deep shock after meeting him. It was just like I remembered; somehow I could still feel the fatigue my brain had to endure every single time after speaking with the Joker. 

So I’ve spent the first half of night thinking about him. 

And why he wanted me so bad to join this party.

But I had no idea. 

 

Trying to focus my brain on something else than useless thinking, I’ve spent few hours reading legends, hoping Wataru wasn’t right. I stopped looking for Shu fast enough, seeing how much idiocy was hiding in there, wondering who was this crazy to come up with so many ideas. People of the North turned him into monster with cults devoted to start other massacres, praying for his comeback as the Lord of the Death, saving the humanity from the cycle of the reincarnation. Smaller groups tried to point how misunderstood he was, but they were the minority. 

In the end, it was laughable how much they’ve manipulated the past just to tell others their own version of the story. And I should have stopped on Itsuki, but my curiosity quickly moved me towards Hibiki. 

After all, one small truth can be found in the sea of lies if you try long enough.

But Wataru was right, the knowledge I was looking for wasn’t here – there was even less. All I’ve learned was that Wataru used to be a real troublemaker for the local magician’s academy. 

I shouldn’t be that surprised. Shu noticed long time ago how much the North wanted to punish Wataru for disobedience. This guy really had a lot of problems with rules.

 

When Hokuto came in the morning with the twins, they almost died from laughing upon seeing me buried in the books with Sora and Tsumugi helping me to get out and Natsume just watching with a bowl in his hand. And by buried, I really mean buried, because I somehow managed to hit the bookshelf with such a force all books fell down at me. Needless to say, the alchemist wasn’t pleased.

“So? Why are you already destroying my libraRY?”

“Don’t ask. Just remind me to slap Wataru in his pretty face whenever we’ll see him in reality.” 

Not willing to talk more, I apologized for making a ruckus and helped in cleaning, then left the library. 

 

The next few days were suspiciously quiet. I used all my time on trainings with Hokuto, with Hinata and Yuta watching and cheering me on.

I didn’t forget about the Joker, I knew I had to spend at least a bit of my freedom before deciding if I’ll accept his invitation. Thankfully, when I talked to Hokuto about it, he gave me a bit of his support and suggested to think about it together in the near future. 

So I tried focusing on fighting, asking him not to hold back. As I was getting used to the new body and the lack of pain or fatigue, I wanted to give my best.

Today, as well, we’ve been sparing for almost an entire day – it was slowly getting darker. Yuta and Hinata left earlier, asked by their Lord for something. Hokuto’s moves were perfect, as always, making me wish I could watch him without worrying over my head.

Though I had a feeling that today, he was in bigger rush than usual. I couldn’t keep my pace as good as yesterday, parring attack after attack, dodging whenever I was losing a good grip on my sword. His attacks not only were fast, but also strong. 

That’s why when I saw an opening in his defense, I fixed my grip on the handle and attacked him. The force I used was enough to break his focus, only to scratch his hand and push him back. 

The scratch was enough to start bleeding, and his eyes immediately turned gold. 

Seeing that, I moved back so fast I almost knocked myself down. Hokuto landed on his left foot and charged at me with such a force I found myself on the ground soon after, keeping his sword from my neck. 

“H-Hokuto?” 

It took him a second to calm down. When he realized what happened, he blinked twice and immediately threw his weapon.

“I’m sorry!” He shook his head, getting off me. “Ah, I’m so sorry… I can’t control it that well yet. I-I mean, good job on landing your hit on me.” 

One gaze was enough to see how conflicted he was inside, focusing on one fragment from his memory. He started massaging his temples as I continued staring at him. 

“Forgive me,” He send me a worried look. “It’s happening again, give me a few minutes. My head is spinning…”

“Tell me.”

I already asked him to talk with me and I hoped he remembered that. I couldn’t just brush it off and ignore it, he was in pain. 

“Headaches, again. It should stop by itself.”

“You’re worried about something, though. Please tell me, I don’t want to dwell into your head without your consent.”

Hokuto blinked twice, then sighed.

“Oh, right, you can do it. No, it’s just… I feel like I’m getting worse with each day, my heart can start just racing without any reason, as if I was in danger. As if the King could come at any moment and force me into work.”

I tilted my head, trying to see into his fragments again, just to look at the Curse. Just like the other day, when his eyes turned gold, its presence got bigger, now it was slowly calming down.

“Sorry, my knowledge about the Curse isn’t as good as I wish it was,” I scratched my head. “Sadly I didn’t get a chance to see the proper research on a knight.” 

Ironically, in that case that’d be useful. 

“It's okay. Besides… I’ve heard a story when knights were hunting their old members, so maybe that’s why I’m worrying… Even though I was promised they won’t hold a grudge until I’ll start working with the enemy.”

“What, they can hunt even each other?” I raised my eyebrow. “Tsukinaga sure is a busy man then, who can feel safe next to him?”

Fallen Ones, Blessed, now other knights… Isn’t he getting bored of that? 

“I don’t know. I didn’t learn much, maybe that’s why they don’t worry over me that much… But I agree, he has a lot of blood on his hands. When you think about it, it’s not entirely wrong that the Empire is fearing their own neighbors.”

The Empire… Another puzzle in this game of wonder. Of course, now I was reminded of Wataru. 

“If our sources are true, once in a while a sovereign like that comes to live – and ironically about 65% of them are from this contineNT.”

Both of us shuddered when a third voice appeared out of nowhere, but we quickly recognized Natsume’s voice. He approached us with a small bag in his hand and sat next to Hokuto. 

“What do you mean by that, Sakasaki?” Hokuto sent him a suspicious glare. “And don’t play with us, we have enough people speaking riddles.” 

“I’ll take another comparison to the Blessed as a praiSE. But I’m not here for a history lesson, I’ve got presenTS.”

Before any of us had a moment to undermine his good will, the alchemist pulled out two things from the bag. He gave Hokuto a small bottle full of dark blue liquid and a piece of lirium to me. 

“Where’s the catch?” I asked, looking at the crystal. “I’m good for now.”

“Better have more on yourseLF. Sora seems happy with you and these two, so know my good heart.”

Hokuto giggled softly.

“The world is definitely collapsing if you’re giving your supplies for free without charging double the price-“

“Collapsing is a weak word to describe what’s going ON. Not funNY.”

In a second, a smile disappeared from Hidaka’s face.

“Sorry. So, what’s going on?”

“I overheard what you saID. This might help you for a bIT.”

“Ah, thank you, but most medicines are not working on me, so-“

“It’s a cure I made by copying Shinkai’s medicine for the CursED.”

It was enough to put us both on the edge. Now I remembered I didn’t ask him why Sora went to Shinkai for his cure.

“Wait, why would you have it-“

Before Hokuto finished his sentence, Natsume just brutally forced him to take a big sip from the bottle.

“Don’t ask, drink it and enjoy your life while you still cAN,” Sakasaki hissed. “I meet the Cursed on a daily basis and this damned doctor literally cut off the Harbor for the people who wants to see hIM.”

This is… Not good. 

“So that murder really pissed him off…” I mumbled under my nose. “Or it’s something worse.”

“Or he’s simply getting desperaTE. And we both know that desperate Blessed is a big troubLE,” Natsume shook his head. “Lord Rei is working on it and asked me to stay away from nOW.”

Hokuto hung his head. 

To be honest, I had a problem with believing why Natsume was so desperate himself to copy Shinkai’s medicine, he wasn’t the saint. I tried to look at his core, but as soon as he noticed, he threw the crystal at me. 

“Don’t you even try, ObservER.”

“And you were surprised why I don’t want to work with you,” I said, catching the crystal before it hit my face. “You’re not willing to say anything about your real goals, just like the Blessed. And in no hell I’m joining this ride before I know the real stakes.”

If there was something pissing me off the most, that was it. None of them were willing to talk, as if someone had to know everything by the time you’re approaching them. Natsume was the easiest to crack down, I could see his fragments, unlike the rest he couldn’t just block me. 

But if he’s not willing to trust me and tell the truth, I’m not going to help him as much as he wants. 

“And likewise, I have no time to waste on someone who’s not even sure if he’ll be able to survive in this worLD,” Natsume crossed his arms. “It’s complicatED. It’s brutAL. If I’m supposed to tell you something, I want to be sure you won’t tell me ‘it’s hard, it’s impossible, I can’t do it’. You’re better now, but I still worry your psyche isn’t healed enough after first strike of truTH. Not when I can’t waste any time, and these people are not helping me in any waAY…”

Ouch. That hurt. I couldn’t deny it, nor could I agree. 

“That’s why when I can, I’m trying to serve as a guide for idiots who are wasting their time as weLL,” Not willing to dwell into our talk, Natsume gazed at Hokuto. “You, for exampLE. You should finally hide your pride and see hIM.”

Hokuto was spacing again after drinking the medicine until Natsume waved his hand in front of his face. 

“I…”

I couldn’t help but stare at Hokuto as well, feeling as if someone kicked me out in the middle of winter to freeze. 

“Both me and your dear Trickstar deserve some explanatiON,” Seeing Natsume’s characteristic smirk for once was a treat. “Don’t you think it’s time to face your paST?”

Hokuto clenched his hands, avoiding Sakasaki’s gaze. 

“I know. I know it damn well, but…”

It took him a while to start speaking.

“I’m aware I should, but from the other hand,” He hesitated. “I fear this meeting. I have no idea what Isara or Akehoshi will say...”

Ah.

I knew this suffocating feeling. 

“If you don’t talk with them, you might regret it even more in the future, letting your mind write scenarios that will never happen.”

Both of them looked at me.

“I don’t know what’s bugging you and I won’t look,” I smiled, putting my hand on Hokuto’s shoulder. “But I know that feeling. And I know these two worried about you a lot, they’ve been looking everywhere where they could. So they want to see you.”

“And I have questions to both you and Akehoshi, better ask at once than meet him by myseLF,” Natsume nodded his head. “You promised you’ll answER.”

Hokuto took a deep breath and closed his eyes. 

“You two are right.”

After a bit, he managed to open his eyes and smile.

“If there are people who deserve to know, it’s Trickstar. No matter what will happen or how much time I really have. Do you mind coming as well, Mashiro?”

“Sure, if you want me to!”

 

Natsume took Hokuto to the library soon after that, as they had something to talk about as well before going to Akehoshi, so I’ve spent this time training by myself. Ironically, I needed the lirium tonight, so Natsume’s gift was more than welcome. 

In the morning, we asked Aoba to transport us to the Inn, where Subaru worked. Sadly, he didn’t teleport us right in front of it, but it took maybe 10 minutes to reach the building.

The Inn was calm today with few clients, Subaru was running between them alone. 

To be frankly honest, it was such a long time since I’ve been here for the first time… I almost said “I’m back” at first. 

Hokuto was clenching his fist when we slowly approached Subaru. When he noticed us, he almost dropped his tray. 

“Sari, look!”

Mao, who was sitting nearby, closed his book with a bored look, only to jump from his seat and throw the book on the ground. 

“Hokke!”

“You’re alive!”

They both jumped at him with such a speed Hokuto immediately moved backwards, just so they didn’t hit him. 

“I’m here as weLL,” Natsume cleared his throat and glanced at Subaru. “Already forgot me, Baru-kUN?”

“Oh!” 

Now that he noticed both of them, Subaru actually shook his head few times with such a face Natsume started laughing. 

“I knew something fishy was going on!” Subaru caught his head. “I haven’t seen you in ages and now when you show up, you brought Hokke home! That’s a real magic!” 

“Well, it’s not like I was the reason why he-”

“What took you so long, you idiot!”

Right before Natsume finished, Subaru hit Hokuto’s stomach with his fist. Hidaka moved backwards again with annoyed look but seemed fine. On the other side, me and Natsume made a tactical retreat. 

“You’ll have to use bigger force unlike the last time-”

“Oh, you’re asking me to try?” Subaru smirked at him. “You’ve got it!”

“Wait, you two, calm down!” Mao jumped between then just before Subaru really tried. “We’re in public, behave at least!”

“Exactly, I’m still waiting for my order!” 

Natsume forced himself not to laugh as the customer raised his voice, so Subaru cleared his throat. 

“Yes, coming~ Take a seat and give me a minute, I’ll join you,” Subaru winked at us. “I’m not going to have mercy on you, so get ready, Hokke.”

 

As Subaru took the care of the customer’s order, the rest of us took a sitting at one of the tables. Subaru came back soon after that, bringing a cup of tea for every single one of us.

“Eh, the atmosphere is pretty gloomy even though we should celebrate?” Subaru relaxed on the chair. “Come on, Hokke, we’re waiting for juicy stories! Where the hell you were all this time?”

Hokuto massaged his head, trying to get any logical sentence.

“Another headache?” I asked him.

“It’s standard when this idiot is nearby, so don’t worry this time,” He shook his head. “I don’t know where I should start… All I can say it’s good to see you two.”

His eyes focused on Mao.

“Especially you. It means that demon really kept his word.”

Mao choked on his tea.

“Wait, so he wasn’t lying?” He blinked at Hokuto. “If that’s true, you’re really working with the…”

“I did. Not anymore.”

Subaru hummed and took a sip. 

“You two have strange friends, just saying.”

“Shut up, Akehoshi, you’re the one to talk. But screw it. Are you okay, Isara? He didn’t hurt you, right?” Hokuto leaned on the table and glanced at Mao. “If he did, then-”

Mao laughed nervously.

“No, somehow I’m fine,” He scratched his head and lowered his voice. “Though his humor wasn’t the nicest. And then the Lord himself got interested in me and now it’s… Damn complicated.”

Oh. 

Oh right, he was moving between Sakuma brothers. Poor Isara. But that means Ritsu wasn't even hiding his connections... Either Rei didn't notice - which is hard to believe - or he played a fool for quite long.

“I see, so at least half of Trickstar had a contact with the knighTS,” Natsume crossed his hand with an unpleasant look. “Now I understand why they found my hideoUT.”

This sentence was enough to bring the focus of all of us on him. Hokuto and Subaru especially, as they both seemed shocked.

“Wait, you’re talking about that one in the Forest?” Subaru put his cup on the table. “I haven’t said anything, I haven’t seen any knight in months!”

“So that leaves Hokuto as the bad gUY. Now we know why you’ve been avoiding my questions – you didn’t betray Trickstar, you also betrayed ME.”

“I should be the one asking why the hell you were helping that bastard!”

Hokuto hit the table with such a force even Natsume leaned back. 

“You know even Tsukinaga did whatever he could to stop us from taking the job of scouting the Puppeteer’s residence, and yet you were crazy enough to help him?” Hokuto gritted his teeth. “Are you aware of what he was doing, Sakasaki?”

“I’m surely AM. Plot twist, he wasn’t that bad, that’s firST. Second, give praise to your King because he really saved your lives back theRE. Third, that doesn’t change the fact you betrayed ME.” 

“I didn’t tell them nothing more than it was close to the border. Sakuma was the one who discovered it.”

“Thanks for reminding, he was bold enough to say HI. You two know him, pass him my message and smack that little bitch in my naME.”

The conversation between Natsume, Hokuto and Subaru turned into a heated one, so much both me and Mao moved back a bit, unable to join it. Mao just chuckled, saying it’s like old good times. Out of shock I grabbed my cup of tea and tried to drink it, only to remember I basically couldn’t, so I just sat on my chair, watching their cores. Hokuto’s was getting fired up a bit too much to my liking, and at some point, he started spacing out and losing threads, which forced him to say he was turned into a knight. They moved to different topic soon enough, much to his relief.

To be honest, I got interested why Trickstar wanted to scout Itsuki’s mansion, but I could agree it was better they didn’t. They wouldn’t be here if that was the case.

But there was one thing that bothered me.

“Sorry for breaking in, but…” I raised my hand. “Where is Hajime? I didn’t see him anywhere.”

Upon hearing that question, Subaru clenched his fingers on the cup, while Hokuto looked away.

“Shinonon…” Akehoshi laid his chin on his hand. “He should be back five days ago, but I didn’t hear from him and I’m getting worried.”

“He’s probably still in the Harbor, something odd is happening theRE,” Even Natsume lost his passion to quarrel. “We tried to go there, but my co-worker’s magic has been distractED. And not many people can get IN.”

His eyes locked on Hokuto, but the warrior wasn’t listening to him, staring at the ground with an empty look.

“The Harbor…” He mumbled. “Ah, my head hurts whenever I think about that place. Isara, I’m so sorry…”

Mao raised his eyebrows upon hearing his and put his cup. 

“What’s wrong, leader?”

“Sengoku… It’s my fault he’s not here anymore.”

Huh?

Mao stared at him with an open mouth. Not only him, though, I did the exact same.

Did he…? No, while he was the attacker in the warehouse, the short memory I’ve seen from Shinobu pointed at someone wearing a guard’s uniform…

“I told them so many times to leave him alone,” Hokuto said with a weak tone, breathing faster. “He found me and prepared a report on me and the other person, we’d be lost if he delivered that to Hasumi or Hibiki… I tried so many times to tell him to run away or just drop this job and stay in the Harbor before it’s too late, but…”

Mao didn’t say anything. He started shaking his head, mumbling under his nose. Subaru put his hand on his shoulder.

“…Who.”

Mao clenched his hands.

“I’m begging you, tell me – who did it?”

Hokuto froze in his position for a bit and caught his head, twisting his face in a grimace of pain.

“I-I’m not sure…”

“You got nothing?”

Hokuto clenched his fingers on his head and bent over, unable to answer his question. Natsume jumped from his seat and rushed to him, grabbing his hands and forcing him to show his face.

All of us hold our breath when Hokuto gazed at him with deep golden eyes. 

He looked as if he was suffocating. His hands were trembling, but strong enough to almost escape the alchemist’s grab. Subaru rushed from his seat and helped Natsume when Hokuto almost grabbed his sword. 

Still frozen in my own seat, I took a look on his core.

But-

“What the hell?” I rose up. “Why is this progressing now?”

It was the Curse.

It started devouring his memories without mercy in an insane speed. Mao also jumped from his seat, alarmed not only by our fear, but also because people around got interested in the situation.

“Get him somewhere safe, I’ll play it cool!” 

Moving with the knight trying to escape our grasp wasn’t easy, but Subaru turned out to be stronger than I thought. He still kept him in charge even when we closed the doors and ended up in a smaller room just for the workers.

“Hokke, breath in and out…” Subaru looked around in panic. “Shit, if Shinonon was here, he could try calming him down, I can’t look for medicine when he’s trying to get out!” 

Even Natsume wasn’t thinking fast enough to do anything. 

‘Damn, it’s too faST… I’ve read there the knights can lose it again, but I still don’t get what’s causing the second Fall Down!’ 

I tried to look around in their place, but nothing was looking good enough. When Mao managed to calm people and join us, we were still in lost. He asked both of them for medicine, while I got into my thoughts.

I tried my best to get through Itsuki’s memories, praying there was something that could help. For god’s sake, he was researching this stupid Curse! And that fragment was getting even faster at devouring-

No. It was destroying and mixing them.

The Curse won’t stop unless there will be the last fragment left.

But false memories can stop it in place by forcing it to focus on them…

I grabbed my head, now trying to see how to create them. He did it so many times. I could see it. Every single goddamn time, with every step needed. 

So I tried following this and create a false memory fragment.

But when I did it, the fragment appeared for a brief second and broke. 

And again.

And again. 

I remembered it. I knew what to do! 

But it wasn’t working.

It was breaking all the time.

“Fuck!”

I hit the wall so hard even Natsume jumped and turned at me with big eyes, leaving Hokuto to Subaru and Mao, who gave up on searching the Inn. 

“I know what I can do, but I can’t copy that, what the hell!” I hit the wall again. “False memories, Sakasaki! This could stop it for a bit, but what’s wrong? Of course I can’t copy him and I don’t get why!”

Itsuki differed. His abilities were almost like breathing for him. He couldn’t be much of a help right now. 

And there wasn’t anyone who could decipher his magic-

“…Kagehira.”

Natsume raised his eyebrow.

“If there’s someone who knows how to do it, it’s Kagehira.”

In one second, I calmed down. As if all emotions just escaped my head.

“He studied it for such a long time, managed to learn how to move his memories, studied the Joker’s fragment spell - what if he could use it as a base for the memories and…”

It was pure madness. Nobody knew what happened to him, is he still alive, or maybe he’s losing that precious memory due to the Curse. And meeting him wouldn’t end up nicely to me.

But Shu got his memories from somewhere. Otherwise he wouldn't be back.

“His notebook. His notebook? In the mansion?”

Shu didn’t remember what was in it. 

And I had no idea if it was there. 

“That’s risky. We don’t know what’s going on with hIM.”

“Do you have a better idea?”

“No.” 

I felt like my emotions were going back and forth right now. My hands trembled just to stop, as I was fighting myself what to do. 

Hokuto was losing his war with every second passing by.

I couldn’t just watch it. 

“…You two have an idea, don’t you?”

Isara’s voice got me out of thinking. He approached us while Subaru hit his ex-leader, what brought him to the floor, breathing heavily. 

“There is something, but we can’t trust it too much,” I answered. “So I don’t know if-”

“Tell me what to do, I’ll check it.”

I wanted to say it was futile until I looked into his eyes. There was no hesitation. 

“Either we look for a King an entire Empire has a trouble finding, or we’re going to the Puppeteer’s mansion praying his student did his homework and translated his methods into non-Blessed languaGE,” Natsume scratched his neck. “And we have no idea if it’s abandoned as it shouLD.”

“Give me the lead, I’ll go there,” Mao furrowed his eyebrows and reached to us with his hand. “I’m not going to watch my leader suffer. If there’s even a small ray of hope, I’ll try. I still have a debt to him for getting a goddamn demon to save my ass.”

He wasn’t afraid to go there. 

And here I was, thinking about too much things at once. 

Watching someone dear to me losing to the curse. Unable to say if my help will do anything.

But I have a debt to him as well. He stayed with me when I needed.

I should at least take the risk.

I forced myself one more time to create a fragment, but this broke as well, and clenched my hand on the broken fragment.

“I’m going with you.”

There was no time to waste. Hokuto’s state was worsening by every minute passing by. Mao needed help – the mansion was big as hell and for someone getting there for the first time, it was easy to get lost. Not to mention I know where to look. 

Natsume promised to take care of Hokuto and called Tsumugi to get in here with something, to give us a fast way to the mansion. When he arrived, he gave a pouch to Natsume, who gave it to me. 

“New type of a poison, this might get in hanDY,” He smirked. “Will work on knights, marionettes, and every single being you can think off as long as it has a body without killiNG. Aoba will stand by and listen to you, so report to him if something will be wroNG.”

Mao took the poison and hid it. We looked at each other again and nodded our heads.

There was no going back. 

Tsumugi created a portal which got us to the residence. 

Chapter Text

The portal behind us closed up. When we turned around, I saw the very familiar view of a mansion. Tsumugi didn’t open the pass in the building, insisting that in case of danger, we’ll be able to react faster. 

‘You never know who or what can lurk in an abandoned mansion… Better stay safe.’

He wasn’t wrong, but I had my doubts about this place being dangerous, all marionettes died together with their Master. 

Unless, I don’t know, Kagehira was still here. I hoped not. 

Just in case, I focused my mind on reading the mansion’s aura, looking for abnormalities or cores, but I haven’t noticed anything. Everything seemed fine. 

But hell, we didn’t even had time to wonder even about safety! With every minute passing by, Hokuto had less chances to survive this day. I nodded my head and moved first towards the mansion. Isara was right behind me.

“You sure you want to go there?” I asked. “It seems fine and I’m going to rush for that book. I know where to look.”

He frowned at me.

"I admit that my curiosity is consuming me a bit, we were supposed to come here in past," He admitted. “Nothing was okay with this place for years.” 

'And besides, there’s no way I could just stay back and watch my leader slowly losing it…’

I scratched my head.

“You’re not going to have much time. Grab something you’re interested in and we’re going out. What do you need?” 

“You tell me, you know this place, don’t you? I’m mostly interested in things about the North,” He said with a serious face, putting his hand to his mouth. “Yeah, sorry for being like that… I guess I got hooked into my job as an archivist more than I anticipated.”

“You don’t look like one- Ah, screw it, we’re going, tell me your story later!”

As much as I wanted to listen, we really had no time. Once again, I turned around and stared at the entrance, bathed in darkness. The sun was slowly setting, only few rays of light were able to pass through the destroyed doors or shades windows, making the place a bit easier to navigate. 

Images describing the entire residence slowly came to my mind. Despite the short time since Shu was here, few things has changed. The mansion seemed like it didn’t survive a long time without any residents… 

“Go left from here, go through the entire living room, there are small doors which lead to the library,” I pointed at the direction. “Think loud, scream, contact Aoba or whatever if something’s wrong, okay?”

“I have a gun with myself, I’ll shoot at least once to warn you.”

Where the hell did he get that… I almost asked. 

But whatever, good for him. Time to go!

Welcome back, old home. 

We split up immediately, with Mao going to the library, while I rushed towards the stairs, since Kagehira's room was located on the first floor. A walk around this mansion evoked a whole lot of strange emotions, as if I really came back to my own house after many years ... Although I had a strange feeling that suddenly my body was reacting to everything around it, as if something stimulated it, forcing the reactions. Not wanting to risk, I listened every now and then to everything around, checking the energy flows. As if there was some sort of energy as the lirium, the only thing I could think of.

When I was in front of the stairs, something caught my eye. My leg moved in a strange way when I stepped on the first platform, paralyzing my body for a good second. I crouched, looking for a reason why it happened. There was a fresh trace of a strange liquid in a dark blue color. At first, I poked it with the edge of my sword, but nothing happened. Then I took my broken finger and ran it on the liquid. My core reacted to it, making the lirium inside my body flow faster.

This thing. 

It was lirium mixed with something. Something dark… And red. 

Like blood. 

I didn’t like it. It was still wet, and the trace was going all way to the next floor. My hand reached for a sword again. 

“Aoba… We’re not alone here.” 

The mansion was quiet, so Mao was still safe – so I thought it’d be a good idea to inform Aoba at least, so he could warn him. But I couldn’t hear his voice.

“Aoba?” 

‘W…t- s wr…, as-o?’

His voice was distracted, making it impossible to understand a word. 

There shouldn’t be any problem. We just wanted to take one book and leave, and now everything was going in a wrong direction. 

Someone was here. 

And it wouldn’t be wrong to say they were making the connection distorted on purpose, as this mansion never that type of troubles. But who… 

I could only hope I wasn’t right. There was only one person I could think of and I knew our meeting could end up deadly. 

I looked back, wondering if it was a good idea to go back and take Isara with myself, but on the other hand, moving by myself was faster, without worrying.

My fingers clenched on the sword’s handle as I stared back. No, I’m going alone. I don’t want to risk his health over it. 

Slowly, I went up, trying my best to keep both my mind and body silent, looking around and listening. At first, there was only darkness and silence embracing me. 

‘It’s wron’.’

This voice was familiar. Too familiar. And distorted. 

My body was light. Too light to my likings. Normally my heart should go all way beating with an enormous speed. I tried to ignore this and move on. 

‘My fault. But also their fault?’ 

The voice was getting louder. 

There was a sign of a core when I got closer to Kagehira’s room, door wide open. Leaning my back against the wall, I moved to it and peaked inside, listening to the voice. 

‘’m sorry.’

Seeing him, hearing his voice… I couldn’t tell what was happening inside my head. 

That was Kagehira. Sitting on the desk where the notebook was laying, hugging an old rabbit mascot, with his head hung down. He was staring at the floor without blinking, mumbling under his nose.

“Oshi-san… Mado-nee…”

The notebook was right next to him. 

I clicked my tongue. The worst scenario was right in front of me. 

‘What should I do?’ 

Just looking at him was giving that strange feeling, as if I was both mad and relieved at the same time. He raised his head, only to show how much he has changed since the last meeting. 

I wanted to cry upon seeing him. 

His face lost all colors. It was covered in cracks as if it was made with a porcelain, filled with dark blue liquid, slowly dripping from the wounds… Or as if his veins were filled with it instead of blood. Judging how dirty his clothes were, his entire body was in this state. To make it worse, his leg which was shoot back during their meeting with the knights was twisted in a strange way. When he jumped from the desk, I could hear a crack from it. But he was still standing on it without a grimace of pain. 

‘If I only killed them back there.’ 

The rabbit mascot fell down on the ground as Mika caught his head, clenching his teeth. I averted my eyes for a good second, unable to watch this. 

It was wrong. Wrong on so many levels. Just looking at it was painful. 

I wanted to cry so much. Nobody deserved this. 

Itsuki turned him into this

‘If I only killed that Observer.’

My grip on the handle tightened.

But Mika was still in the exact same pose. 

Then I noticed what was happening around him. He focused on his own mind, allowing me to see the fragments with ease. The Curse was rampaging, devouring his memories like a predator taking pleasure with killing all those beautiful memories he shared with the person he loved. 

Kagehira was planting fake memories in the place of them without a problem. 

My answer was right in front of me. 

‘Yeah, I can do as much… Break ‘em. Make ‘em pay for the betrayal.’ 

Not every single fragment was the same. Filled with grief, he made so many memories focused on knights. Especially on Narukami and Tsukinaga. 

He was taking disturbing pleasure in thinking of so many sadistic executions he wished he could carry out, and planting these ideas right into his head. 

And I felt even worse not only by allowing him to do this, but because I was watching every single on them. But I had to endure it. I needed to know how he was doing it. 

But then, Kagehira stopped. In the middle of his work, he just stopped, relaxed his body and gazed at the ceiling. 

“I’ll bring ya back.”

His voice was calm. 

I moved back, keeping the sword close to myself. 

I was just next to the stairs when a great force pulled me back, throwing at the wall. I couldn’t escape it. He grabbed my collar and brought all the way back to the ground, knocking out weapon. My hands clenched on his dagger, pointed exactly at the marigold flower. 

Kagehira was staring right into my eyes with a hollow look, as if he was in trance. I struggled with his right hand, trying to knock his weapon as well. 

“You.” 

Part of his cheek cracked, with a part of skin falling right on my own, leaving a trace of blood mixed with lirium. I wished I didn’t have to look at him right now. 

Kagehira looked as if his entire body could break into pieces in any second. 

But he still had enough strength in his body to move fast and strike hard. 

He was staring at me in silence, then blinked once. The strength in his hand weakened.  

I used all my power to push his hand back, kicking him from myself, then got up and grabbed the sword from the ground. Kagehira’s body was on the ground, slowly getting up, just staring at the floor only to gaze at me once again. 

I couldn’t tell what this gaze was meaning for me. His face was just as blank as his eyes – only his mind raging, whispering so many words at once. 

“Ya have it,” He mumbled. “Of course ya have it… Observers are too curious.” 

He grinned and disappeared in the shadows. 

Unable to tell where he was lurking, I focused on the energy and his core rather than other sounds. 

Behind. 

I managed to block his assault, now struggling again with the force he put into it. 

‘The Observer has his memories.’ 

I…

Stay back. Stay away from me. 

‘If I can take this core and purify it… You'll be back.’  

He wasn’t looking at me. 

He was staring deeper into the core, seeing another person. 

My body moved without me even thinking about it. I kicked him with such a force he slammed into the wall. 

I can’t take him alone. 

I have no time for that. 

I need help. 

I… I can’t look into this boy’s eyes. As if my body could stop in every second, allowing him to do what he wanted. 

I don't want to die.

“C-Calm down…” I said to myself. “You’re losing control. Calm down-”

...No way in hell I can stay calm!

Time to get out. As far as possible. I ran towards the stairs. 

The sound of two gunshots echoed through the mansion. I turned around.

Kagehira was gone. 

“Ha… Hahaha…”

I was laughing. Why was I laughing? He was there... Or I’ve never seen him and it was just my mind playing tricks on me. I ran my finger on my cheek. It was stained with a dark blue liquid. 

No, it wasn’t it. But now, he was gone, lurking around. 

Watching. 

I don’t get it. Why did I even cared at first? It’s wrong. There’s nothing good in him. It’s not the first time he tried to kill me. So why did I...?

But now-

Oh God. Isara!

I ran downstairs with a sword in my hand, trying to catch Isara’s thoughts, hoping it wasn’t too late. Kagehira just disappeared, but for now he wasn’t attacking. I could feel the shadows moving, giving a hint of his position, so he was staying close. Too close to my liking. 

I went down as fast as I could, but immediately I had to hide. It wasn’t Isara’s voice which reached my ears first. It was Northern language.

‘Jun-kun, you missed. How in hell he knocked out your gun?’

Isara was on the ground, pointing the gun at a man crouching right in front of him with a strange blade in his hands. Around them was a soul flying. 

The gun was close enough for me to reach it. 

“Too bad,” Mao hissed. “Seems like you’re not as professional as the rumors say.”

“And Yumenosaki’s old adventurers still have some edge, huh?” His opponent smirked at him. “Kinda a pain in the ass... I wished it was an easier job, but I don’t mind a worthy opponent.” 

It’s bad. I focused on them and now I couldn’t tell where Kagehira was. 

Without thinking, I ran towards the gun and picked it up, pointing it at the man who was still on Isara.

“Get away from him.”

All three of them gazed in my direction. ‘Jun-kun’ furrowed his eyebrows and raised his free hand. 

‘You were supposed to scout this place.’

‘Eh, we were fine- Wait, he’s not a human.” 

“I can see you, Observer,” I made a step towards them. “Don’t play on me. Get out.”

We had no time for that. Kagehira was here. 

Jun clicked his tongue, but slowly, he raised his second arm and moved from Isara, while I went in his direction. Only when I was next to Mao, I lowered the gun a bit. 

“We don’t have time,” I whispered. “It’s bad.”

“I see as much, these two are Northern agents. And I couldn’t hear Aoba.” 

“I’m not talking about them!” 

Isara’s eyes widened. 

“Jun-kun, he’s named Mashiro,” The green-haired Observer spoke to him in their language. “A Marionette, it seems.” 

“No way. Or not, I hope so. My raise is coming back then.” 

Their dialogue was longer, but I couldn’t understand everything.  These two were too calm. I hoped they weren't working with him.

A familiar voice echoed through the room again. 

“Good to see you in health,” I saw a hint of smirk on Isara’s face. “And don’t worry. I used that.”

I didn’t get at first what he meant, focused on Kagehira’s voice going all way around.

The shadows moved again. The next thing I saw were magic missiles going at Jun. The agent moved fast and summoned a circle that protected him. Isara grabbed my arm, using the chance to reposition us behind furnitures. Too far away from the exit to run. These were blocking our only way to freedom. 

Jun charged in the direction where the missiles came from with his blade, but missed. Kagehira attacked him from behind, but the man managed to block it in last second. 

‘Hell, another one? Aagh, this lack of body is annoying! I’d be able to help, but as you can tell, I can’t do shit. So do your best!’ 

‘You better focus on the other one and check if he’s really a Marionette, goddamn-’

I glanced at the soul in front of us. Kagehira charged at them even faster than at me, giving me time to at least calm a bit down from our last meeting. 

But that meant they weren't together, thankfully.

Even with the fight going outside, the Observer gazed back at me, trying to get a glimpse of my memories. I did the same, but I didn’t get much, as I couldn’t understand everything. Their names were Sazanami Jun and Tomoe Hiyori, working for someone named Ibara.

‘Wait, there’s no way in hell you’re >that< Mashiro.’ 

Now he was speaking in Yumenosaki language.

“You really think you have time to look at me?” I grinned at him, hoping he could get away and give me even more time to ask Isara about the situation. “Kagehira won’t let your partner get alive for-”

“Kagehira?” Now he blinked at me, then clapped your hands. “Oh lord. I knew it was a good idea. What a fine weather!” 

There was too much happening to focus on his thoughts, but I could tell it wasn’t good. He said something in Northern, only to move so he could both gaze at both us and Kagehira, who was giving a hard time the second man. 

Ah. I had an idea. 

Just think about bullshit while talking, that might cover at least some of it. Even when I was still in shock after that meeting with Mika, I tried my best. 

“You know who they are?” I whispered to Mao. “Things got crazy.”

“Northern agents, no clue,” He said, but judging from the light in his eyes, he already had an idea. “That’ll be fast.” 

I raised my eyebrow. He pointed at the short sword laying on the ground and poked one of his pockets, where he put a present from our sneaky friend.

I nodded my head. Now I get it. That alarmed the Observer, who stared at us, then rushed to his partner.  Kagehira almost landed a hit on the man – he protected himself with another spell and jumped back, close to us. 

‘Jun-kun, if we can take him back-‘

‘Come on, can he even survive this? I feel like even one blow will make him break like a mirror…’ 

“Get out.”

Kagehira pointed his weapon at him. 

“Get the hell out and tell yer sovereign to never bother us as we live, Northern scums.” 

Sazanami fixed his grip on his blade.

“Job’s a job,” He shrugged. “Nothin’ personal, really. We jus’ need help. Nobody said we won’t pay ya back, huh?” 

He said something to Tomoe as well, but I couldn’t understand it. 

Mao patted my shoulder. 

“Did you get the book?” 

“No, Kagehira forced me to run away.” 

Isara glanced at the scene happening right in front of us. 

“We might have our last chance to go for it,” He put his hand to his mouth. “But it’s damn risky, we have no contact with Aoba. I can make that show even more chaotic with two guns, you’ll get a chance to go there and grab the book.” 

“Are you out of your goddamn mind?” I shook my head. “You’re asking them to kill you.” 

“Do you have any better idea then? No way I’m going back with empty hands.”

I tried to think about something, as the show outside has started, with Jun and Kagehira going all out, destroying everything with their deadly mix of magic and steel, while Tomoe watched it, warming his partner whenever Kagehira was escaping and attacking him from the shadows… And watching us. We had to stay almost frozen.

…There was a thing. 

“You know what they want?” I asked. 

“They’ve been asking for the Puppeteer and Kagehira. More likely they want some knowledge… And they were willing to kill me just so I couldn’t tell anyone I saw them.”

“So we can strike a deal. We’ll help them, but I need time to get close to Kagehira.”

I didn’t want, whenever I was looking at him I could see those eyes, but…  If I couldn’t get the notebook, I might as well try to get the knowledge I needed right from his mind by reading his fragments. 

“Shit!”

Sazanami’s voice caught our attention as Kagehira landed a hit on him, but he didn’t pierce through his body. Rather than that, something broke. And his moves got slower… Natsume’s poison was slowly kicking in.

‘M-Mashi-o! I-ara!’

We looked at each other shocked. Aoba’s voice was now audible, right after Kagehira’s successful attack. 

‘Ah, I don’t know what’s happening, but hear me out, something inside the mansion is distorting the connection? So I’ll go there as soon as you’ll answer me back! So, uh… Say blue bird if you can hear me!’

With another mage joining this madness, things might get even crazier.

Looking around, I noticed an old doll laying on the ground, its core still capable of allowing a soul to get into it.  Then I gazed at Tomoe.  

I didn’t know who he was, but if we wanted to get a good grip on Kagehira, he could do the work. The thing was - is it safe to tell him how to use it?

Definitely not if Isara himself has to join the show by himself, they’ll outnumber him as soon as Kagehira will be down.

“Answer him,” I said to Mao, keeping both my voice and mind as low as I could. “Whatever we’re going to do, we need time. Tell him to sneak around the entrance and get us out as soon as we’ll get what we need – or as soon as you’ll need help, if you really want to let me go upstairs.”

 So we had two options.

Option 1: Isara joins the battle, takes all the attention at himself, trying to buy me time to get the notebook, then we escape with Aoba. I won’t be able to tell what will happen to Mao, he’ll have to deal with two crazy northern warriors… And an Observer who can read his mind. 

Option 2: We both get into the battle, our goal to get me close to Kagehira and read his mind, all to get clues about making false memories. That means we’ll be both in the very middle of conflict, and we can’t be sure what both Kagehira or that Jun will try to do. 

We’ll have to give our lives to Aoba. The sooner he’ll get here, the better.

Or, worst case scenario, to these agents. Sazanami didn’t have too much time left.

Isara nodded his head and closed his eyes. 

‘Blue bird.’

Now we had to decide. 

I said I’d prefer to…

1. Go for the notebook,

2. Attack Kagehira to get into his head.

Chapter Text

The situation was getting out of hands with every second passing by. 

Jun and Mika had no mercy for each other, throwing magic all around the entire mansion without thinking. Mao grabbed my head and brought me to the floor as the missile pierced through the sofa we were hiding behind. 

“Damn it, no way in hell I’m leaving you with them!” I clenched by teeth, gazing at the hell happening right next to us. “Look, I just need to get close only once. The more he’ll be confused, the better.” 

Mao nodded his head and fixed his grip on the guns he had in his hands while I moved up just to get a better glimpse of the battle. Sazanami threw his blade at Kagehira and snapped his fingers. The Marionette tried to reflect it, but when the blades met, it caused an explosion right in front of him. Sazanami’s face twisted in a smirk, but it disappeared just as fast when his foot slipped, causing him to fall on his right knee. 

A sharp scream escaped his mouth as something small and sharp hit his face. He covered his right eye with his hand, blood slowly dripping between his fingers. Hiyori jumped to his side, looking all around.

‘How the hell is that guy still walking, that shot should’ve hit him hard!'  He cursed under his nose. ‘Jun-kun, please tell me you can still see-’ 

‘Damn it Tomoe, stop wasting time - just jump into that doll’s core and use the remaining Lirium to move it, cast a spell, whatever the hell you can!’

As much as his concern was real, I really wanted him to start acting rather than just cursing. Hiyori raised his eyebrow and gazed at us, so I pointed at the doll close to his right, slowly remembering how a soul could get into it. 

‘Just go and use it, we’ll cover your partner!’

He looked at Jun once more, then jumped towards the doll, still sending me gazes how he had to do it. I brought one of the fragments out of my mind and allowed him to see it, so rather than explaining, I could actually do what I had to. 

“Cover me,” I asked Isara. “I’ll get Kagehira out.”

Mao pressed his back to the sofa and nodded his head.

Kagehira learned from his past mistakes, he started hiding not only his physical, but also mental presence. But his fragments were somewhere in there… I just had to provoke him. 

There’s one thing that could break his mind. It was risky, but should do the trick. I closed my eyes for a second, focusing on my own core.

‘…Come and get it, Kagehira.’ 

The shadows trembled as I smirked. 

‘I know exactly what you want. He’s right in front of you, and you’re wasting time on those Northern agents. Really?’

I could tell I was staring into Death’s eyes as everything around me was losing its importance. But in this madness... Sometimes you just know it's a good time to die.

Or that it’s the best time to just stop worrying and embrace this realm, embrace the madness and spill some blood.

You two had no mercy. He tried to stop me.

So I'll use him against you. 

Manipulate the core. Take that useless fear. Fill it with hate. But this time, you’re not the one pulling the strings. 

‘...This core, Kagehira. This damned Observer’s core hides this man so dear to you. Come and get it, I dare you – but you’re not the only one who's heart is filled with hatred.’ 

I hate both of you. 

So die.

A pair of mismatched eyes stared right into the core, filled with flaming will of revenge. His presence was opened – this little Observer was using his dear Master’s memories to twist his remains into obedience. 

Come, Kagehira. I dare you.

After everything, I wouldn’t mind seeing you dead.

 

I jumped out from the hiding and charged towards them. Sazanami tried to point at me with his hand, but he stopped when I grabbed the sword with my two hands and swung it. My blade met with Kagehira’s as we tried to outpower each other.

"Time for ya."

"Try me."

He had to avoid the direct hit from the explosion as he was just dirty and cracked like before, dark blue liquid dripping out of his left arm. I almost managed to win this when he moved in such a way I lost a good grip on my sword and had to move back.

“Time to get out of the way~”

I moved to the left, so Kagehira was again in front of Jun. Right next to him was a magic circle which summoned a goddamn laser. The energy pierced through Kagehira's abdomen. A big pool of blood mixed with lirium spilled from the fresh wound as the Marionette moved back, dropping the weapon. Mao shot two times and ran towards us, helping Jun to stand up. 

And he got all two shots, right into his legs. Serves you right. 

Kagehira took a sharp breath only to start coughing, grabbing his stomach with both hands, falling down on his knees. Fixing my grab on the sword, I moved towards him. 

My lips twitched as I kicked his weapon out of the way before he could get it. Seeing it’s futile, he pressed his right hand on the deep wound, causing the lirium to turn into a healing energy. You could see the insides easily through the hole, even when the magic was slowly connecting all of it and getting into proper state. 

I stopped right in front of him.

“Finished yet?” 

His mind was racing, so vulnerable and easy to read everything you wanted. Kagehira slowly tried to get up, only to be brutally pressed into the floor as I grabbed him by the collar, causing him to look at me again. He clenched his fingers on my own arm. 

Without saying a word, I stared right into his core, looking for the fragments about false memories. He was doing his best to cover them, hide them as deep as he could, throwing all his wishes to get up and take off that smirk from my face, cut down and get the very core he needed. 

G̶̛̯̼̹̲ę̸̣͚̅t̸̤̞̙̒͝ ̷̨̜͕̈́͗̃ő̸͎̻͙u̴̹̝̝͒t̶̻͍̿͂.̵̦͍͝

I didn’t let him have the pleasure of breaking my focus. 

Avoiding all useless fragments, I was slowly approaching his past that wasn’t yet eaten by the Curse. 

You shall pay for this.

I ‘remembered’ most of them, unless we were talking about those things Mika hid from Shu. 

C̸͕̋̈́u̴̥͓̯͕͑̕r̶͍͗s̶̯̙̮̑́͗e̶̹̐́͜ ̴̣͉̔b̶͈̪̏ő̷͕͠t̵̨͚̐̕͘h̶̛̜̑̕ ̴̖̿y̷̙̰̑ȏ̶ͅṵ̴̂̂̒͛ ̴̻̟̱̄͜a̸͍͔͑n̶̥̳̓d̴͍̋ ̴̜̋t̶̻̜̠̂̀̇ͅh̵̙̩̜̎́̔̅ẽ̸͚̑͘͝ ̸̢̮͌͂͐͠J̵̼̖̔̕ö̴̜̥́̄k̶̬̳͚̇͆e̴̼͚̰͖̍ȑ̴̞̬͐ͅ-̵̨͉̻̲̄

 

...

Ah, going around those rules of ‘show’ and ‘tell’ really wasn’t that easy, was it? If I could jus’ do it like Oshi-san on the dolls, I’d be able not t’ waste time after the resets and h e l p  h i m.   I tried t’ use magic as I watched him movin’ the fragments an’ connectin’ them to the cores, but there was a medium that allowed him to do it. What was it? 

Dolls were movin’ tha nks t’ li ri um, so I tried it. 

Didn’t work. The fragment broke in my hand…

 

This D A M N E D Joker.  I have no idea what he did to Oshi-san, but he’ll pay. This strange spell was workin’ just like a fragment. Like a fragment?

Like a false memory? 

Not exactly. It was causin’ all strange reactions within the core, as if Oshi-san’s nightmares were turnin’ into reality, messin’ up his mind. Maybe if I learned it, I’d be able to move memories not only mine, but his own… And others. And change them. Maybe it’d be possible t’ get Naru-chan on our side? She’d be a great weapon against the KinǦ̶̮͊̚ ̶̧͂e̴̛̼̝̬̠͐ ̷̰̂t̵̠͖̀̐͊̆ ̴̹̐̒̌ ̶̹͙̍Ọ̴̖̐͘̕ͅ ̴̞͚͙̾̏ú̸̟̜ͅ ̷̠̘̪́̍͛͝t̶͍̼̬́.̸͇̣̊̓͝ͅ MASHIRO.

 

The spell is done. But I don’ like Oshi-san’s idea that it works jus’ like the Curse. But know I get why I couldn’t create a false fragmeĘ̷̛̟̩͔̇̉̊͛̎͂̀̃͊̅̈́͜E̶̤̖̣̣̥͖̼̥͊̏̀̄͒̓̈́͝É̷̦͇̔Ȩ̸̧͖͎̠͔̠̭̝͔̞͓̿͒̈̆̋͑̕͘ę̵̡̧̨̥̮̩̬͚͙͑͛̑̒͊́̎̄͘̚͝I̶̧͓̪͗̑͛̉͋͛͛̉͘̚͝͝͝͝͝ ̸̡͚̫͈̩͕̯̜͐̓͊̃́͜T̷̢̟̳̥̺̦̰̤̝̞̲̗̐͗͜Ǫ̵͚̼̳̲̈ͅL̴̨̢̧̙͔̼̗̩̜̱̳̘̊̈̍͆̍̀Ḑ̸̛̖̱̘͚̾̃̀̏̈́́̿̈̑̆Y̵̲̋̐͐̒͌̕͝Ó̸̡̧̗̹͔̹̣͔̳̘̣̳̩̜̒͑̓̈́͑̿̄̔̇͜͠U̶̧̝̣̦̖͚͇͍̱̎̓̓̀̆̀̀̏̅́͗͑͌̕T̷̛̋́̋͑͋̓̍̈́̈͛͐͜͝͝͠Ǫ̴̦̝̹̰̘̋̇̈̿ ̴̫̥̦̣̓̀̊̍́̀̔̐͐̿̕͠͠͠G̷̢̜͈͇͍͖͈̗̮̤̙͈̺͎̣͑̎̊̅̆̓̑́̍͌͝ ̶͆̄͋̈́̾̓͜Ě̶̡̛͚͈̜̫̱̪͈͊̇͗̚͘͜Ť̸̡̡͖̤͓̬̳͚̣̱̘̻̜͎̣̑͑͒́̿͝ ̵̦̺̗͔̪̆̓̎̃͂̊̚̚N̷̝̞̰͉͋̈́̃͌̎̚͜Ť̴̹͍͆̈́̓̂͌̅̕͝͝͠͝ͅS̶̪̬̞͉̭̟͔̏̎̊.̵̛̥͉̥̽͐̄̔̅̋̿̄̈́̊̈͒̈̈́

 

...Oshi-san’s usin’ his own life energy as the medium Not lirium

Joker in order to use this spell uses lir iu m It’s even better than jus’ movin’ memories

pflkyzebznzccefKKIPkfBZCCPFLfsjvimVI

T h i n k  ‘b o u t  i t . He can bring Curse upon someone and before it’ll kill them, he can jus’ use the spell and manipulate their core. Turn them into any lie he wants t’. 

Or wait for someone t’ become an Observer with an empty core. 

 

 

The spell. Lirium.

Yes, now I get how to use it. It’ll work. I get it I get it I get it-

“Leave now!” 

A strong hand pulled me back to Jun as some different energy came from behind him. Isara was right next to me. When all of us were close to each other, someone created a barrier around us. I tilted my head and noticed Aoba standing with his hand reaching out, with one of the smaller books floating above. 

Kagehira got up, finishing the spell which healed his wound from Hiyori’s attack. His mind was spacing somewhere else as he stared at the floor. Tsumugi made one step towards him, but he wasn’t attacking. Mika moved towards his weapon which was still on the floor. He wasn’t paying attention, as if nobody was even here. He gazed at Aoba only once after grabbing his weapon, then disappeared.

“Can you tell where he is?” Isara asked.

... 

“Hey, Mashiro!”

“What?" I blinked, but rather than look at him, I stared at the sword which was still in my hand.  "Ah, you mean Kagehira…?” 

“Yeah, he’s lurking somewhere again.”

Oh, right… The mansion, yes. I focused on fragments around looking for Mika, but he was somewhat distant. 

“I think he’s left,” I said, putting two fingers on my temple. “Yes, he’s left. Why are you staring at me like that?”

Not only him, but also Sazanami and Aoba were just looking at me with their eyes wide open. Isara even started waving his hand in front of my face.

“You sure?” He asked with a muffled voice. “Are you okay?” 

I tilted my head. It was heavy for some reason. 

“Yes, I’m fine.”

Good joke, me. 

I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do here. Just give me a second...

“I have so many questions, but first things first, now I see why the connection got so distorted…” Aoba took a deep breath. “Northern agents are known to have those strange crystals. Too bad it broke, I wished I could check it.” 

Sazanami chuckled, only to hiss in pain and fall on the floor. Tsumugi grabbed him at the last second, talking to him in the Northern language. 

“Ah, right, I used Sakasaki’s poison on him,” Mao clicked his tongue. “Hell if I knew so many people would be here and besides, he attacked first!”

“I’d say the same,” Jun hissed again, looking at me. “But other than that, I guess I was lucky… That dude could’ve killed me for good.” 

“Wait, don’t talk for a second, I have the antidote,” Tsumugi quickly grabbed a small bottle from his pocket. “Just… Let’s just say there’s no reason for us to fight, both sides will leave in peace, okay?” 

Jun nodded his head. 

But something was odd… Hiyori wasn’t here. 

No, wait, I was forgetting about something way more important. Work, fragments. Aoba came out of nowhere and-

The knight. 

The knight?

…Hokuto!

Something clicked in my head as if I woke up from a bad dream, jumping with such a speed even Mao lost his balance. 

“Aoba, what’s the situation?” I asked. “Please, tell me it’s not too late!” 

“N-No, not yet! But Natsume got injured while trying to calm that warrior, they had to pull him by force out of Inn and, and-!”

Shit! 

As much as I wanted to know what the hell happened and why those Northern agents were here, we had no time! I knew what to do. I just needed enough lirium so I could try - and pray it’ll work.

“Look, before you’ll leave, let me say one thing, ‘kay?” 

Sazanami’s voice got stronger soon after getting the antidote from Aoba. 

“First, give it back,” He gazed at Isara with his hand reaching out to him, waiting. “I’d get in trouble if I lost it, and no, I won’t try to attack you. No way in hell considerin’ I’m outnumbered and stupid Ohii-san went somewhere. Not like he’d be that much helpful anyway.”

Mao hid his own gun and stared at Jun, not entirely sure what to do, but after a bit, he gave it back. 

“Appreciated. And you. Name’s Mashiro, right?” 

“Y-Yeah.”

“If I were you, I’d stay fa~ar away from the Northern scholars, take it as a good warning~” His lips twisted into a crooked smile. “Since you’re a Marionette, that is. And not only because of that, but anyways.” 

Thanks, sir. That’s pretty reassuring. 

“And I’ll pay my debt back, that’s for sure. Just take it and have good day or whatever you’re tryin’ to do~” 

As he was saying this, his hand reached out to his pocket, from which he pulled out a small emblem with a green crescent moon on black background. 

I stared at it for a good second, but then I just nodded my head. 

“Okay, yes, thank you very much, I’ll remember that – come on, can we go back?” I stared at Tsumugi, jumping from one foot to the other. “Let’s go back, please, I know what to do, I just need some lirium!” 

“All right, but why-”

“I’ll tell you later!” 

Seeing all of this, Sazanami slowly moved back towards the exit with his hands in the air. Aoba gave him one last stare and created a portal, allowing us to get back. He was the last one to go through it. 

Before the portal closed up, however, I noticed Hiyori approaching Jun with a very familiar notebook in his hands. 

 

As soon as Aoba gave me two bigger pieces of lirium, I rushed towards the Inn, hoping at least someone could tell me where Akehoshi and Hidaka were. 

Inside the building, Natsume was sitting next to one of the tables, accompanied by Sora, Hinata, and – much to my surprise – Lord Rei, who had an entirely standard look. At first glance, you wouldn’t say he’s an actual Demon Lord, but ‘just’ a human. 

Mao, who was just behind, bumped at me when their gazes met. 

“Ah, there you are!” 

Right before I could ask what happened, Hinata jumped at me and grabbed my hand. 

“You really should do something with your luck, but hell, great to see you!” He started pulling me out of the building. “Sakasaki told us everything, you have some idea what to do, right? Right?” 

“Yeah, I do!”

“Great, let’s go while sir Hidaka is still with us!” 

I appreciated his haste and the fact nobody was willing to ask about anything. Only Rei and Mao had a strange aura around them, but the mages were there if needed, so we could leave. 

Hinata ran towards the glade nearby the Inn, a place so well-known to me I almost laughed out of sheer nervousness. Not that long ago I saw Kagehira and now we were going to the same place where he woke up? Oh the irony, coming out again.

Hokuto and Subaru were fighting. Subaru was avoiding strong, heavy strikes of his old leader with a grace and parring some of the weaker ones. Yuuta was standing close to them in a battle stance, ready to support Subaru at any given moment. 

“Sir Akehoshi, they’re back!” 

Hokuto noticed us first and stopped for a brief second. Subaru used the chance and followed up with a stronger attack, causing Hokuto not only to lose his balance, but also his weapon. Then he grabbed his hand and brought his leader to the ground, pressing him with his knee as a support so he couldn’t escape. 

Hokuto was trying to get out of his grasp, at least until we stopped right in front of him. Our eyes met. He stopped fighting. I could hear a weak chuckle coming from his mouth. 

‘Good to see you.’

My fingers clenched on crystals. 

Just a quick gaze on his core was enough to see how serious it was. I was staring at the man in his last moments as the Curse of the Fallen Ones almost entirely devoured the person Hidaka Hokuto once was, leaving only a few shards floating around. 

I stared at it with my mouth wide open, focusing on him. 

Soon, the glade was nowhere to be seen. 

Hokuto was nowhere to be seen. 

I’ve been standing in an unknown town in between the alleys.

Three kids ran through my body, laughing and talking to each other. Two of them looked almost like Subaru and Natsume. They stopped right in front of the shop. The third one was standing in front of me.   

‘I’m so sorry it took so long!’ I said, recognising him.  I know what to do now. You won’t end like this, I promise!’ 

He averted his gaze. 

‘…’

Please, Hokuto. Your story won’t end like this. You helped when I needed it, now I want to pay you back. There’s still more-

‘I think this is it.’ 

He said after a pause and tilted his head, now looking at Subaru and Natsume as they got into a fight. 

‘I don’t know if I really deserve it after everything. Ironic, don’t you think?’ 

After one blink, the alley was gone, the town was gone. We were in a castle I’ve already seen in someone else’s memories. Hokuto, now older, was standing right next to Tsukinaga Leo. He bowed his head. The King was standing still as if he was a statue, his face bland.

‘I don’t understand what’s so ironic.’ 

‘I betrayed them,’ Hokuto closed his eyes for a second. ‘I betrayed Trickstar.'

The floor cracked.

'Then I betrayed Sakasaki.'

The walls cracked.

And when I got the chance to make things right, I also betrayed Tsukinaga. He gave me a chance, even though he could just leave me dying.’ 

When he opened his eyes, the entire castle started cracking like a mirror, soon breaking down completely and dissolving into shards of glass, floating. 

We were standing in a darkness, fragments of his memories around us. When my hand reached one of them, it broke into smaller pieces, then dissolved into indigo energy. The same fragments were cutting through Hokuto. Yet there was no blood coming out of the wounds. It was… Nothing. Just pure black. Pure nothingness. 

I couldn’t get a word out of my throat. I wanted to thank him. Reassure him everything was fine. But at this point, I wasn’t sure who was in front of me. He looked like Hokuto. His voice was the same.

His golden eyes were also his, just as he succumbed to the Curse. 

‘Our time was short, but I really enjoyed it,’ Hokuto lips formed a smile as the fragment went through his face dozens of times, erasing it. ‘I should’ve listened to my heart and haunt the Empire for destroying Trickstar’s future. If I only had one last chance…’ 

His right hand rested on his chest.

‘If I can ask you for something-’

… 

‘Please, kill me while I’m still myself.’

 

It was impossible to say if it was real Hokuto’s wish. If that was his last will, or his mind being so deep in curse he couldn’t see anything else but death embracing him.

‘…Your atonement is still on earth, if you’d ever wished to go for it.’

Even when the fragments were taking him away, his eyes stayed unaffected.

‘Trickstar is still here. They pray for your safety. If you wish for a last chance, I will gladly guide you.’

 

He closed his eyes. 

 

 

  1.   Kill Hokuto.
  2.   Save Hokuto from death by using false memories. 

Chapter Text

His fragments were slowly taking him away. Things like ‘time’ were losing its meaning in this dimension where past and present danced together. 

Hokuto wasn’t listening. His posture didn’t flinch an inch even when spoken to – he was awaiting his final moments. One of the fragments arrived in front of me, showing our first time all the way back in the village, when it was just me, him and Wataru. I could hear his laugh as if he was standing right next to us.

“You two look so adorable next to each other! I knew I can count on you, prince Hokke-kyun~" 

…There’s no way in hell I’d let him die this way. Hokuto’s place was on earth, right with all of us. There was still so much I could learn from him. Trickstar deserved to know everything, as much as Hokuto deserved to be forgiven. 

‘This is not the end, Hidaka Hokuto.’

With a clear mind, I raised my hand with lirium crystals, allowing the energy to get out, remembering the spell that would create a first fragment. 

In this very moment when it formed in front of me, fragments started going on a rampage. Hokuto was gone; there was only the core, shining in deep blue hue, beating, surrounded by golden energy, going all around and destroying every single memory upon touching. It was coming from the other fragment, sticking right to the core. So that was the Curse in its full glory. 

The false memory appeared in my hand. Fused with the lirium, it wasn’t breaking immediately, so I did the very same thing as Kagehira in order to copy the spell that would work as a medium and connect it to the core. 

It worked. Not only that, when I implanted it to the core, the Curse immediately moved towards it, giving me time to inspect the remaining memories. Much to my fear, it wasn’t enough to just get Hokuto’s past into one place. I needed much more to build a strong construction.  I focused on the real world. Subaru was still in there, pressing his knee to Hokuto’s back, keeping him in the same position. He kept a cool face as he watched his friend, but deep down, he was just as terrified as the rest. 

“I’ll need your help, Akehoshi,” I called out to him. “Think about every single day you’ve spent with him!”

His eyes widened as he stared back at me, but he tried to do this. You could hear him wondering how in the hell he’ll be able to remember everything, but his memories were slowly coming back.

Good. Good good good. We didn’t have that much time left.

Jumping between two sets of memories quickly showed its downside – as an Observer, my mind tried to jump into both of them at the same time and taste the memories, but I knew I couldn’t allow myself to do this. Seeing them in such style was taking all the remaining focus I had, making it hard to escape. I clenched my teeth as I worked on the memories, trying to form a fragment after a fragment. 

‘Hokke, you dumbass, you can’t just tell him to get the hell out and then ask for help just because you forgot about it!’

‘Sure, I’ll stay in that Inn if you’ll need help~ So you’re staying with Sari, huh?’

It was working. It really was working. His mind was starting to form out memories and fragments, connecting them to the core. But now my mind was trying to jump on these as well. 

Focus, Tomoya. 

‘Wahaha, people sure do love you, Trickstar! Very well then, may the gods bless you on your holy mission, I shall await until your arrival!’

Focus… 

‘I forbid you from taking that mission. Stay away from the mansion; there are more important things in my Kingdom than this wannabe legend about Puppeteers.’

This one particular man was breaking all my focus, as Hokuto’s mind was forced into thinking about him. Then, one of his real fragments started mixing the reality. 

Focus, Tomoya-!

“Very well, I have listen ed to yo u r  wi l l. And I accept i. ... St-d up and foll ow- – til dEAth -”

A sound of a single crack echoed in my head. Next thing I noticed was me, keeping a lirium crystal right next to my mouth as I bit it, feeling the energy going all around until the spell drained the remaining of it.  It was a stupid idea, but it worked -  I’ve managed to escape Hokuto’s fragments and finish the job. But there was still one problem, the Curse was going too fast. The formula was done, I’ve connected everything I’ve found in both Hokuto’s and Subaru’s heads, but the Curse was still eating all of it. I had to redo half of what I finished. I cursed under my nose, trying to find a good way to fool it. There had to be a way. I couldn’t just waste the energy on remaking the previous memories. 

But before I noticed, both crystals have been sucked dry. 

Shit. Shit shit shit. Not now, I was almost there! 

Without thinking, I used the sharp point of the crystal I’ve bit not so long ago and ran my finger on it, getting into my own lirium inside the doll’s body. It was my last resort. But now my own time was shortening with every second passing by. 

Stop wasting time and throw dump memories in between the real ones. Human’s mind does not need so many details. 

Right, that should do the trick. So I tried to think about anything.

Soon enough, my body got heavy. My hands were heavy. But I was almost there. We were back in reality as I clicked the last dump fragment. Only my eyes were willing to move at this point, while the rest just froze in one position, kneeling in front of Hidaka.  

“...You can get out of me, Akehoshi,” Hokuto opened his eyes and stopped fighting with Subaru. “You really didn’t lose your strength after so much time working in the Inn, huh…”

Subaru furrowed and took a good look on him. Both Hinata and Yuuta came closer to us and poked both Hokuto’s arms. 

“I said I’m fine now!” 

Subaru slowly let go of Hokuto and got up, still with his sword ready to block any incoming attack. Hokuto blinked once and followed him, his moves still clumsy, as if he woke up from a deep sleep. Soon enough, his companion helped him, while the twins simply watched.

“How is it?” Yuuta asked with a low voice. “Still feeling like butchering all of us?” 

“My head’s spinning, but…” Hokuto closed his eyes for a second, then opened them and looked at me. “Hey, Mashiro?” 

“…”

I tried to say everything’s fine, but my lips stayed closed. Unable to see any sign of life from me, Hinata jumped towards me and started waving his hands in front of my face. My body didn’t flinch.

„Hello, Earth to Tomoya, what’s going on?” He bit his lip. „You’re not dying, right? Tomoya!”

Only my lips managed to move upwards, but that was it. I’ve used too much lirium… Even though I still had some, as it wasn’t as suffocating as back there in the hideout. With the remaining strength, I focused the energy in my left hand and pointed at the crystals, now laying on the ground. Hinata’s gaze quickly followed it.

“Do you need it? Blink twice if you do!”

Thankfully I did it. It was enough for him to get up and look back at the others. 

„Very well gentlemen, we have everything under control!” He grinned. „Sir, please take care of your friend while we’ll get what we need, we’ll meet in the Inn later.”

Maybe it is time to get used to this. Human’s minds are incredibly delicate, one might think they are too easy to break… But those memories also get into Observer’s minds way too fast.

 

 

“One, two… Hello~ Wake up, Princess Tomoya!”

A familiar feeling of warm entered my body as something touched my both hands, letting the energy get sucked into the veins that controlled it. Slowly, I could open my eyes again. First thing I noticed was Hinata’s face being suspiciously close to my own while my head was laying on something softer than the ground.

„You sure gave us a scare right there,” Hinata grinned. “Welcome back, Sleeping Beauty!” 

As my consciousness was coming back, I could tell my head was laying on his lap while he was doing his very best not to burst into laughing as he saw my face. 

“Wait, what…?”

Finally, he lost it and laughed so hard I had to roll to the left, hit the ground with my head and then get up. I looked around. It was the same glade where Hokuto almost lost his life. 

“Wait, is Hokuto safe?” I jumped upon remembering what happened and grabbed Hinata by his shoulders. “Please tell me everything is good!”

“Yup, sir Hidaka is all good and as new, thanks to your hard work~”

I stared at him with my mouth open wide as he stopped laughing and nodded his head with a confident smile… Just to start cracking again. 

“W-What’s going on?” I asked, raising my eyebrow. “I didn’t say something stupid, did I?”

“No no, don’t worry about that!” Hinata waved his hand. “Now it feels funny since it already happened, but Hidaka’s face was priceless when you suddenly lost your balance… For someone who almost lost it, he was very worried.” 

Uh… It was almost perfect. Of course, I didn’t mind falling in his arms and all, but maybe without losing consciousness, right after saving his life, when the situation was deadly serious… No, I shouldn’t worry about such silly things. All that matters was the fact I did it. 

I... really did it. Hokuto was still alive.

“Mashiro…?” 

Right before I had enough time to calm myself, I heard his voice coming from behind me, so I turned to see him. His eyes turned back to the lovely shade of deep blue… 

Ah, now I could tell how much weight has dropped from my chest when I saw him right there, in reality, while his soul was working as it should. The dump fragments were luring the Curse into eating them first, giving us time to keep his mind at ease before having a need to create new ones.

I rubbed my eyes with the back of my hand.

“Are you okay?” Hokuto asked, making another step towards me, reaching with his hand. “You really scared me back there…”

“I- Ah, no, don’t worry about this!” I laughed it off, scratching my head. “And I should be the one talking, I feared we’ve lost you…”

Just reminding myself how he looked when we got here was enough for me to catch his hand, as if it could disappear at any given moment. Hokuto averted his gaze at first. 

“I’d lie if I said I wasn’t thinking the same,” He narrowed his eyes. “It’s not something you can forget – this feeling of being erased by your own mind. When I first saw you, I was sure it was just some sort of dream…” 

The corners of his lips lifted, forming a warm smile on his face. 

“I won’t forget that even if that Curse shall try to erase it.”

Right before I could say anything – or really jump at him, thanking the gods that everything worked – he kneeled in front of me, taking my hand in his own, bowing his head. 

“As a way to pay back for what you’ve done, please let me follow you as long as I can.” 

I could hear Hinata’s “ohh~” right next to my ear, but at this point, my entire focus was on Hokuto. I stared at him speechless, unable to say a word, almost panicking. Thankfully I’ve managed to stay calm, remembering the words I used before.

“I told you what you need to know,” I said with a firm tone. “If you wish for a last chance, I will guide you. No need to say any vows, so please, stand up and tell me – what do you want to do, now that you’ve received your chance?”

Hokuto lifted his head. 

“I want to learn if Tsukinaga’s words were true,” He answered, his hand still keeping mine in a firm grasp. “To find the real reason why Trickstar met this end so easily. And to find my place without fearing I’ll betray people dear to my heart again. I’m not even asking for forgiveness – just a chance to protect them during those hard times.”

I smiled back at him.

“Very well then. But you have to be aware of one thing - you’ll stay alive as long as we’ll be able to make those memories over and over again.”

Hokuto raised his eyebrow as he stood up. And yes, he still didn’t let go of my hand. 

“The Curse won’t stop just because we did it today. We’ll have to do this again soon, so you won’t end dying due to the second Fall Down.”

“The Executioner.”

“Hm?” 

“Tsukinaga calls fallen Knights Executioners,” Hokuto’s grip tightened. “So there’s no way I want our paths to cross ever again… Even if I didn’t turn into one, I can’t tell what he would do. Sometimes he just… Shuts down and carries executions as if even he wasn’t sure what he’s doing.”

Tsukinaga, huh… A mystery just as enormous as the Joker. Sooner or later, he might finally show up - or maybe I wanted him to show up, just so I could see him in real life and learn who he was.  Even if only thinking about it was enough to fill my heart with fear. 

“Understood. We’ll stay away as long as we can,” I nodded my head. “Now, maybe you should rest a bit? I’m sure you’re still pretty mixed up.” 

 

 

As I expected, Hokuto really was tired, so we took him to one of the rooms in the library, allowing him to rest. Hinata left soon enough, saying that Rei was apparently scheming something and needed their help. 

“Just wait a bit, I’m almost sure he’ll want Sakasaki to join,” He winked at me, grinning. “It’s pretty messed up, that Harbor… Just give me some time and I’ll fill you in if you want!”

I knew I could count on him if he said he’ll fill me up soon, so I went to look for Natsume in order to give the crystals back. At first, I thought he was already sleeping, but his room was opened and empty at the same time, so he had to be wandering somewhere around. After a bit of time I almost gave up and wanted to leave the crystals on the desk in his room, but then I noticed a familiar face leaving Tsumugi’s room. 

“Ah, there you are.” 

He didn’t react at first until I showed up right in front of him. He blinked twice and stopped in place before putting a bleak smile on his face.

“Yes, welcome baCK,” He said, still deep in thought. “Good job, heRO. What do you need from ME?” 

“Don’t worry, nothing that would require you much,” I raised my hands with crystals. “Thanks for giving me those, I surely used a lot… But those empty ones can be still used, right? Turn them into dust, so-”

“…WhAT.” 

“What?” 

“I mean, you’re right, those are still useful, but I don’t recall telling you thAT,” He raised his eyebrow as he took the crystals from my hands. “Was it in one of the booKS?” 

Uh… Wait, he was right. None of the mages said anything about it, but here I was, saying this with such confidence like nothing. I closed my eyes and put my two fingers on a temple, trying to get anything from my fragments. After dealing with so many memories of different people, moving around was almost like getting lost in this library.

“In one of the Northern books, I think. Do you need something to clarify?”

“No, I was just curioUS. Ignore thAT.”

I raised my eyebrow.

“Hm? Is something wrong?”

To be honest, I was a bit surprised. For sure he knew Hokuto was fine, yet he seemed quite… Indifferent? And I haven’t seen Aoba ever since I came back. 

Natsume at first tried to ignore me, slowly going to the center of the library without hurry, keeping his hands behind his back. I followed him in silence, allowing him to do whatever he wanted. When we arrived right in front of the pillar of light, he gazed at it, while the very familiar sound of fragments clashing into each other reached my ears. I did my best to ignore it and focus on him instead, so he could start talking from his own, free will. 

“Aoba might be out for a few daYS,” Natsume shook his head, finally turning back and looking at me with a serious face. “His state worsenED. I can’t risk his health for the sake of this missiON.”

“Has he overworked himself?” 

“That as weLL. The main trouble is that my medicine isn’t as strong as the original Shinkai can make – so at this point keeping him asleep is the best idea to stop the CurSE.” 

I gasped, staring at him, eyes wide open. 

“Wait, you’re not telling me…”

“That only Hidaka is CursED?” He allowed himself to smirk. “This thing is almost everywhere as we speAK – yes, you’ve managed to save one life from the critical state, but many people are still suffering while we’re talkiNG.”

‘And at this point I can’t tell why this is going that faST. Too faST. Watching all of thIS… Even with Sora, I’m at my limiTS.’ 

Natsume… Something in his heart has changed. We were standing in silence once again, as I couldn’t get a word outside of my mind.

“Sorry not for being so willing to enjoy this little victory, bUT… Seeing you now reminds me of myself, back in the day when I saved someoNE,” His voice was relaxed, but also distant. “So let me warn yOU. You only won a single battle in a war that’s going for many years, if not even decadES. The Fate has acknowledged its failure as well as your challenge, now for sure willing to throw everything it can to destroy your will to oppose IT. After all, life truly is unfaIR.”

He was just there, staring at me. There wasn’t a sign of a sarcastic, confident alchemist who I knew. His soul was filled with many contrasting emotions and I couldn’t even name most of them. 

“Is it really that bad, huh...” 

He averted his gaze.

“Huh… I must really sound like one of the Blessed, they sure love reminding people how bad this world IS. Look, I’m not trying to mock you, I’m glad to know Hidaka was lucky to escape death, it’s juST-”

“Ignore that, just be honest with me,” I demanded. “I understand that when something really bad happens, you just don’t have the energy to even pretend you’re happy. But I believe this day should be at least a small evidence that not everything is disastrous - that we should count it as the step in the good direction.”

I wasn’t stupid to believe in a pretty and colourful world that is ready to use your hope against you, one Blessed and my own past were more than enough to prove it. So Natsume had to know even more.

“It can’t be just tragedy following the tragedy, otherwise they would give up many years ago… Don’t you think? Or this system is really that eager to kill people just for the sake of killing them?” 

“I want to believe it wasn’t this bad befoRE,” He chuckled. “Something tells me only one anomaly was needed to turn righteous Fate into a ruthless JudGE. But up until now, I cannot say what caused IT… And I fear only Hibiki knows the answER. But what I can say is that people were never supposed to learn the truth about many things we know todAY. After all, the more you know, the stronger is your desire to cut all the strings attached to your boDY.”

Sora once said a lot of things are happening just because they have to… And if you’ll try to prevent them, you might get burned fast. I couldn’t help but think this is what he was referring to. You want to open your eyes, only to pay the price for having the knowledge you’ve never supposed to taste.

“I think it should be obvious, but both of us have crossed this boundaRY,” Natsume’s voice cracked. “So even if we’ll start crying for help, maybe only the Blessed will hear us - and we know their situation isn’t any bettER. You can’t go back to your peaceful life and hope for the beST. Nor can I. This is why I want to tear through this story and at least help those who still have a chance to be rescued - until my time is UP.”

Even now, when tears started forming in his eyes, he stood in his full glory, unwilling to give up. His mask has finally broken down into pieces and scattered on the floor, showing who really Sakasaki Natsume was. He was a man willing to sacrifice his remains for people, just so they won’t suffer the same fate as his own. But what was even more painful - he seemed like someone who already gave up on himself. I still wanted to believe there was still some way to make things right.

“…I don’t want to see you falling into this distress, Natsume.” 

Before I knew, I was standing right in front of him, my hand laying on his shoulder. 

“I won’t lie that I know everything about this world, that I have the exact same will as yours,” I started. “Nor I’ll try to force you into thinking that some good is still hiding and waiting for you to be found, but... Hokuto wants to learn the truth about Trickstar. I want to know the Joker is hiding in front of me. So I can at least help you… So you can survive. So you can see that this world still can be beautiful.”

I gulped. 

“Or at least make sure you won’t leave this world alone in the dark.” 

I didn’t want to acknowledge it, but t