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――After passing through the Barrier and coming out of the forest, they didn’t encounter any problems on the rest of the road.
If nothing got in the way, it should be about eight hours journey from the Sanctuary to the Mansion. They stopped twice to rest, but since the villagers were eager to return to their homes, they kept their breaks short and forced themselves to continue.
So, all in all, it was only eight hours later when the refugees returned to Arlam Village. Having departed early in the afternoon, when they arrived, it was already several hours after the shroud of night covered over the world.
[Subaru: My butt hurts from all that sitting……but that wasn’t too bad]
Getting off from the dragon carriage, and giving his waist a twist, Subaru breathed a sigh of relief.
All around the village in the night, voices of rejoicing and reunion sprung up, and there were even a few shedding tears of joy in their midst. Considering the calamities that had assailed this village, Subaru decided that it was not an overreaction after all, and that no one could really ridicule them for that.
For the first time in several days, with the return of the rest of the villagers, Arlam village came to life in spite of the night. The villagers who had mostly wallowed in gloom inside the Sanctuary now all showed the same smiles on their faces.
And the other half who had waited for them in the village, were finally relieved to see their family safely returned to them.
[Otto: Natsuki-san, are we heading back right away?]
While Subaru watched over the bustling crowd from a distance, Otto scampered over after looking around for him.
Allowing Otto to catch his breath, Subaru shook his head with a [Nah],
[Subaru: There’s no rush, we can take a little break before heading back. Besides, I should stop by the Mansion to explain everything to Frederica and Petra]
[Otto: Aah, that’s right. I mean, I also have some things I need to discuss with my fellow merchants]
[Subaru: Discuss what with your fellow merchants?]
Otto pointed to the owners of the six dragon carriages standing at the side.
They had been hired to evacuate the villagers, but wound up with the misfortune of getting imprisoned in the Sanctuary along with them. Now that they were freed, they were, above all, relieved, but their gazes toward Subaru were,
[Subaru: I must be imagining this, but, isn’t this supposed to be a Parallel World? Why do I get the feeling their eyes all have Dollar signs in them?]
[Otto: Back when we were hired, the condition was the purchase of our goods as well as additional compensation to be negotiated later. So I’d like to come to a consensus on how much compensation we’ll actually demand. I won’t be proposing anything outrageous, of course, but seeing that they’ve been burdened with the hostage situation……it might get a little pricey, so be prepared]
[Subaru: Well, it’s not like it’ll be my wallet getting plundered. As long as you use appropriate discretion, it wouldn’t be too bad to see Ros-chi’s face go pale every once in a while?]
[Otto: That’s my Natsuki-san! You understand!]
Clapping his hands, Otto happily strutted over to his fellow merchants.
Hearing the good news brought by Otto’s triumphant return, the merchants’ cheers resounded through the village in the night. Somehow, Subaru got the feeling their celebrations sounded even happier than the villagers having their reunions, but he decided to consciously put it out of his mind, and straightened himself up.
In any case, there shouldn’t be any problems in the village for now. Otto will take care of the merchants’ demands, and Roswaal will end up dealing with it. Somewhat looking forward to see what expression will come on Roswaal’s face when he gets hit with the bill, Subaru headed towards the Mansion.
After walking fifteen minutes from Arlam village―― at the end of his path stood the lonely Roswaal Mansion.
In the dark of night, only the Mansion’s lights asserted their existence within its shadowy contours, lending the place an eerie aura from the distance, in the hours after sunset.
Subaru remarked on this as he stood before the front gates, absentmindedly staring at the Mansion. Naturally, the majority of the Mansion’s lights were out, and there were only light flowing out of the entry hall and the servant’s rooms. As well as a room on the highest floor―― which, surely, must be Roswaal’s office.
[Subaru: Otto sorted all the paperworks, but over the week it must have piled up again]
Frederica, being the all-powerful-maid that she is, wouldn’t have lost to Otto when it came to managing paperworks, but that wasn’t the only task she had to take care of. Even with Petra’s assistance, maintaining the entire Mansion required a considerable amount of effort.
From the fact that she was still working away in the office in the middle of the night, one could imagine the immensity of her duties.
[Subaru: One way or another, I’ll pull that Otto even deeper into this and work him like a mule as the Emilia-faction-paperwork-machine. I’ll make him the official office robot]
While thinking of plots to trap that young man in the village with loose cheeks and dreams of big money, Subaru pushed open the gates and entered the Mansion grounds.
Heading to the entryway, he struck the door with the falcon-shaped knocker,
[Subaru: Apologies for the late night visit. I’m here from the Fire Departme~nt]
Sending sharp knocks ringing throughout the night, Subaru shouted out an appropriate call as usual.
Speaking of which, how do the people in this world handle fires and disasters, anyway? Subaru tilted his head, wondering about this pointless question. But,
[Subaru: There’s no reply]
And here he thought Frederica would swoop in to respond, swift like the wind, but seeing that was not the case, Subaru dropped down his shoulders.
After a little while longer, Subaru decided that no one was coming and abandoned waiting. Then, grandly pushing open the door,
[Subaru: Oooo~oy, I’m ho~~me. Food! Bath! Bed!]
And, shouting these three orders like he owned the place, Subaru struck out a pose. But there was still no reply.
Tasting the nostalgic sensation of sliding along the floor in awkward silence all by himself, Subaru headed up the stairs――to the servant quarters to look for Petra.
[Subaru: Frederica’s probably in the office. I’ll go find Petra first……then, I’ll have to look for Beako too]
One by one, the three people who remained behind in the Mansion surfaced in Subaru’s mind.
Regardless of the precocious Petra or the politely insolent Frederica, the reunion Subaru had to prepare for was the one with that Drill-Haired Loli.
Last time, the way they parted was indeed a way to part.
Without giving him a single answer to his vital questions, she had chased him out, sobbing, with an expression full of sadness.
[Subaru: I’ll have to apologize…… but it’ll be kind of weird. I feel like I didn’t really do anything wrong……]
Even so, Subaru got the feeling that something would be different if he met her again and talked.
Besides, he’d like to think that he must have advanced a little by saying farewell to his past. With his current state of mind, perhaps he would be able to face her a little differently than last time.
[Subaru: The first time was only a skirmish……well that’s one way of thinking about it]
Subaru gave the door a knock, and immediately swung it open as if to surprise the person inside, but he dropped his shoulders once again.
Walking in on a delightfully-embarrassing-clothe-changing-time――was not something he was hoping for considering the target was a little girl, but no such thing happened, since there was no one in the room.
It was a room decorated to Petra’s tastes, adorned with cute little items, and kept tidy and organized―― but its owner was nowhere to be found.
Inside the room lighted by the crystal lamps, Subaru tilted his head,
[Subaru: Going out without turning off the lights doesn’t seem like something a dependable girl like Petra would do……if she isn’t here, maybe she’s in the office studying?]
It was possible, if the spartan Frederica was involved.
In addition to the chores, she might be teaching Petra office work as well to turn her into another all-powerful maid. It would be a great help, but since Petra was already overtaking Subaru in the domestic duties, if she overtook him in office work as well, Subaru will have no hole to crawl into.
[Subaru: Nonono, she can’t even do all her arithmetics yet, I still have the advantage! Don’t you underestimate the modern Japanese compulsory education!]
Muttering this while flying up the stairs, heading to the highest floor――he arrived at a double door in the dead center of the hallway, and, clearing his throat again, he knocked.
The heavy sound echoed outward, and surely it was sent into the room. But there was no reply.
It was all too strange. Subaru’s accumulated wariness so far was now raised to a whole different level. Trying to cover up that feeling with some lighthearted humor, Subaru swept his gaze down the hallway from end to end, and then, at the office door itself. He leaned his ear against the door to listen to what was inside, but no sound came through the thick, heavy door. There was nothing else he could gather if he continued to stay outside.
――Petra’s room showed no sign of being disturbed. It was neatly arranged, and her bed had been made as if she was just getting ready to sleep.
It was the same for the Mansion, at least on the surface, and there seemed to be nothing out of place. Cleaned and organized with a thoroughness that could only belong to Frederica, there was not a speck of dust left on the window sills.
So Subaru’s wariness was only elevated because he hadn’t seen either of the girls.
He lightly pushed on the doors, and they opened without a sound.
The next moment, light flooded out from the room into the hallway, and relying on that light, Subaru scanned the room’s interiors. There was an ebony desk, and a leather chair. From the direction of the bookshelves on the wall, a wind came blowing through―― The windows were closed. But he could feel a cold wind was blowing. Intuitively, he knew that something was strange.
Sliding over the floor as he sneaked into the room, Subaru followed the direction of the wind――and saw it.
The bookshelf in the back of the room had been shifted sideways, revealing a usually-hidden door installed into the wall. Beyond it, was a spiral staircase that extended downwards, far, far beyond sight――
[Subaru: Right. There was a hidden passage here. I remember, I remember]
It was in the previous loop.
Despairing after the villagers of Arlam had been slaughtered at the Witch Cult’s hands, and after finding Rem and Ram’s corpses in the Estate, when his mind was an inch away from shattering, Subaru arrived here.
Then, passing through this hidden passage into the undergrounds, there――
[Subaru: I was frozen by Puck, I think]
There was no way to be sure. But he clearly remembered the frozen bodies of the Witch Cultists who must have pursued Emilia into the same passage, as well as his own similar end, and the Return by Death that followed.
After that, without placing much importance on this detail, he had forgotten to even verify the existence of this underground passage,
[Subaru: But why is it now……]
If it was being used, at least it meant there was a need to evacuate.
As for who might have used it, it could only someone within the Mansion who knew of this passage’s existence――probably Frederica. If she and Petra escaped through this passage, that would be the simplest explanation. But the question is,
[Subaru: What, were they running from?]
As intelligent as Frederica is, she must have had considerable reasons to make this decision.
Since there was no sign of an attack inside the Mansion, she must have detected the imminent danger beforehand. Thinking to this point, the words “Witch Cult” flashed across Subaru’s mind, but he immediately shook his head and drove off that thought,
[Subaru: If that were the case, it’d be too unnatural for Frederica to not leave a single note. Besides, the villagers in Arlam didn’t notice anything either……if it was something as dangerous as the Witch Cult, she would have done something to prevent the villagers from getting caught up in it]
At least, Frederica’s support for the Roswaal-backed Emilia was not in question. If so, then she would have done her best to take the optimum measures to handle this situation. If the villagers didn’t know about this, then it couldn’t have been the Witch Cult.
In any case,
[Subaru: Frederica and Petra probably already left the Mansion……then, I’ll]
For a moment, Subaru was about to enter the passage to meet up with Frederica and Petra, but what stopped in his tracks was the girl whose name hadn’t occurred to him of up to now.
If Frederica had judged beforehand that they must leave the Mansion, surely, they would have taken Rem along as well.
On the other hand, there was also,
[Subaru: As far as I know, Beatrice isn’t the kind of kid who can read the mood]
There was also that impudent Drill-Haired Loli, who certainly would have refused Frederica’s proposal.
She would have shut herself off inside the Forbidden Library, and made a fuss insisting that she will be fine no matter what, and kicked aside all their worries and concerns, and, at last, without a doubt, she would have sat there alone with a lonely expression on her face. Because he knew this without a doubt,
[Subaru: I’ll pull her out……!]
If nobody else could bring her out, then Subaru will do it himself.
It doesn’t matter how firmly she believes in the safety of her own fortress.
Knowing that danger was closing in on this place, there was no way he could leave a little girl behind.
[Subaru: And since I’ve made up my mind about that――!]
Turning his back to the hidden passage, Subaru took a sharp breath, and dashed out of the office.
The most sure-fire way to find Beatrice would have been to open every single door in the Mansion from end to end, but, for Subaru, somewhere along the way, he’d just somehow get the feeling that this door would be the one. And sure enough, he would see her on the other side.
So, starting from the doors on the uppermost floor――
The foot he just swung out in his stride tangled onto something, and Subaru rolled onto the floor.
A rather embarrassing start, was the first thing that came to mind. Stumbling over right after acting cool was not quite what he was aiming for.
Pushing his hands onto the hallway carpet, Subaru turned around to see what he tripped on. And he saw, a little in front of the door to the office, something had dropped on the floor.
It was pink, and very long, and stretched on for several steps all the way to Subaru’s feet. Following on from there, if you asked just where it would end, it wouldn’t be very difficult to guess.
――It was something that had spilled out the side of Subaru’s opened belly.
The left side of his jacket had been cleanly sliced through, and his pink entrails were spilling out from the gap.
They trailed all the way from the door to Subaru’s feet, tangling them up. In other words, somewhere along the way, his stomach had been cut open without him realizing it, or something along those lines.
The moment he took this in, chunks of clotting blood rose up choking in his throat, as his vision became painted with red.
He tried using his fingers to push the organs that spilled out due to his abdominal pressure back into the gap that was pushing it out, but, running out of strength, his knees collapsed from under him. Unable to hold up his body, he sprawled onto the floor.
He couldn’t understand what had happened to him. Surely, he had just started running…
[???: ――Didn’t I tell you? Didn’t we promise?]
Suddenly, he heard a voice.
In front, above the fallen Subaru’s head, someone was speaking.
He lacked the strength to raise his head. His consciousness was desperately trying to pull back the overflowing intestines, the gushing blood, and the world that was drawing away.
His body heat was rapidly dropping. With every cough, the blood clots jamming in his throat splashed onto his face, and, with eyes that were starting to blur, Subaru desperately tried to hold onto this world.
“This is the end”, his intuition told him.
Somewhere in his heart, he understood this, but “Subaru cannot end like this”, he scolded back.
If he didn’t learn anything, he cannot let it end. Just one thing, anything, don’t let it end until you’ve learned something. Something, something something something something something.
The footsteps sent out ripples. A black shadow was standing in the center of the corridor stained red by chunks of his blood.
Black clothes. Slender. Black hair. Looking down on him lovingly, with those lustful eyes.
Running these through his mind, and remembering the tactile sensation of “Belly Sliced Open”, Subaru understood.
It wasn’t the Witch Cult, but a genuine threat, nonetheless. It was――
[Elsa: That until the next time we meet, you should take good care of your bowels?]
A deviant declaration of love.
Subaru certainly caught it――as his consciousness began to fade.
Fading, fading, fading, darkening, darkening, until,
Everything vanished in the end――and started over again.
――The curtain has risen on the Fourth Death-Loop.
-=Chapter 23 End=-
Sorry I had a busy week this week! Thank you thank you everyone for being so patient!
Next week is Ludum Dare weekend, so there will be 3 days when I need to spend working on a new game. I also have work Tuesday onwards, so I will try to get the next chapter finished before then!
Zantification has sent me a draft to most of Chapter 24! I’ll get started on it tomorrow!
Chapter 24 Live Draft: