Somewhere, on a distant stage, a king and a chancellor approached a sprawling forest. A fierce wind was blowing, enough that Akira was bracing herself on her lance, enough that Michiru felt like she would fall over if her focus wavered.
“The wind…” Akira’s voice seemed distant somehow. “It’s so strong. As if the Marquis is trying to keep me from getting close to his jade. But I cannot give up now.”
As she spoke, the wind softened a little, just enough for Michiru to regain her bearings. She held tight onto her sword. “We should be almost there, Your Highness.”
The lines had been said. The wind died down further.
It was like this the other time too, back when they crossed the volcano. Back then, the heat had relentlessly crashed down on them, only cooling when the required lines were spoken.
And then after that —
“Be prepared, Your Highness. The enemy awaits us.”
They had already done this once, so Michiru knew to be on her guard.
— The Korosu would be waiting for them, deeper in the forest, the same way they had infested the depths of the volcano.
They had to defeat the Korosu and perform the play. Akira had to be the king, and Michiru had to protect her, protect the king, and guide her to the very end.
They had to remember something precious to them.
Something…someone — must’ve been waiting for them here.
They entered the forest.
When Shiori opened her eyes, she found herself staring at a canopy of leaves.
But the sky was fake and so were the leaves, and so were the trees. Still, for a few seconds, they looked so awfully real — but such things were probably nothing new in the world of the underground theater. She’d been here enough times that this wasn’t a huge shock anymore. But there was something different now. The times before, there were always other people with her. The others…the others…
— Who were they again? Something was there at the edge of her memories, just a bit out of reach.
Shiori sat up, pain creaking all through her body, saw that she was wearing her Revue outfit. Her sword was also there, lying just a little distance from her hand.
She took her sword, frowned. The sword felt almost heavy. Her wrist hurt, and her grip was weak, to the point that she wasn’t sure how well she could swing the sword. The white coat cape was still there, but the cord that usually fastened it to her shoulders was already frayed, held together by barely a thread.
Why was she here?
The last few times, Elle had always showed up to explain things. Did she have to fight someone? The auditions usually worked like that, if she was remembering things correctly. But Elle wasn’t here and any potential opponent wasn’t here either — just Shiori and the trees.
She looked around for a bit longer before realizing that no, she wasn’t alone. Far beyond the stage, in the audience’s seats, was the giraffe, watching coldly.
On cue, the wind began to blow. Shadows pooled on the stage grounds, then solidified, forming the bodies and blades of countless Korosu. Violet flames danced around them.
As one, they all turned their glares onto Shiori. She held onto her sword tight as she could, her hand trembling. Was she to fight? Against the endless army of Korosu? She looked back at the giraffe, hoping for something resembling guidance.
Perform, its cold gaze seemed to demand. Dance, until your life gives away.
The giraffe disappeared. A fog enveloped the stage, leaving only the forest and the Korosu.
The Korosu charged at her, mindless remnants of regret and bitterness that they were, and she cut them down.
It hurt. Her knees and wrists were stiff, and it felt like the bones were starting to fuse together. Her lungs felt like they were getting stabbed as she breathed. Her throat had closed up at some point, and her voice wasn’t working right. But that was fine. The script didn’t call for singing this time.
— There was no medication here. There was nothing to do but to keep fighting.
She felt like she was being set aflame. Dancing on broken bones. She was losing feeling in her wrists, in her ankles, but that was okay. She spun and slashed and one by one by one the Korosu dissipated into the purple fire and smoke from which they came.
And then the forest was quiet again. Shiori could almost pretend that it was peaceful, but she knew. This was only a mild reprieve; there was still more to come.
Would she last another wave? She felt like she might faint. Was that what this stage desired?
It didn’t matter. The stage had not left her yet. If her job was to perform to the very end, then she had to work harder and harder to meet those expectations.
The smoke and fire from the Korosu’s dead bodies remained. Shiori blinked, and the flames didn’t go away. Odd. Every other time she fought the Korosu, their bodies had burned up without a trace within seconds. Almost on instinct, she reached her left hand towards the coat hanging off her shoulders —
— and grasped at thin air.
A cold settled into her.
It was just a part of the Revue outfit. It shouldn’t have meant anything to her. But — somehow, it felt like it was something important.
When had she lost it? Had she been slashed without realizing it?
She looked down, and froze. Small wisps of purple fire floated from her body, seemed to fall out her mouth as she caught her breath. She would’ve screamed, had her throat not already been sealed through.
At her elbows, her wrists, where the pain was the greatest, black scales were emerging from her skin, ripping through her sleeves. The left arm was still mostly flesh, but on her right, the black scales and shimmering skin had begun to creep over her hand, moving up towards her shoulder. Her legs too, were changing, starting at the knees, black chitin swallowing her whole.
It was the same as the Korosu. The black scales and shiny plates that made up the bodies she had been cutting down up to this point. The flames, too, were the same, welling up in her, tasting like resentment, like bitterness.
— one of the crowd. If she couldn’t keep up, she would be fated to be one of them, fated to be cut down by the brilliance of the stage. She looked up, and saw the giraffe staring down at her through the fog. It looked almost like it would begin laughing.
The fire welled up in her. She swallowed it down the best she could.
— She remembered seeing this fire before. Somewhere…somewhere…where was it, again? Her memories were scattered all over the place. It must’ve been here, on this stage. Right. The first time she fought in this stage, so many months ago. Was it that long ago? Someone had managed to claw her way back to the stage after having been rejected by it once. She must’ve dealt with this same fire —
— Fresh pain disrupted Shiori from her thoughts. She looked back at herself. The scales were still spreading. Her shoulders too, were starting to warp, black armor bursting from her collarbones.
At this rate, this body wouldn’t last to the end of the show. What could she do?
She tried to calm herself down. Something about this was familiar, even if she couldn’t remember it clearly right now. There had to be something she could do to stop this, to keep performing like she already had. Something to convince the stage that she still belonged here.
A cure, a way to break a curse, a single soul who still wished to see her on stage —
What was she trying to remember? What had she forgotten?
The air shifted. As if responding to her fractured thoughts.
The fog lifted a little, exposing more of the forest. In the distance, there was the sound of running water. A stream? Better than nothing. Maybe it could soothe the burning.
Shiori pushed herself forward, letting her sword drag behind her. It hurt to walk, but it wasn’t unbearable. There weren’t any Korosu right now, and it didn’t seem like it was time yet to fight again. But that didn’t mean she could sit here doing nothing, either. Inevitably, the Korosu would appear again.
She reached the spring, lowered herself to it, and tested the water with her left hand. The water felt pleasant against her skin, and the cool feeling spread through her body, quieting the flames.
Something moved in the shadows next to the water. Shiori turned to look at it, and saw a ghost of a knight in faded armor, shimmering against the fog.
The knight’s face was covered by his helmet, not that it made a difference. Shiori didn’t recognize that knight at all. Shiori knew that knight well. He was the old Marquis who lost the jade long ago, and had died for it.
Somehow, that didn’t surprise her. Legend was that the forest of the Wind Goddess was haunted, after all. The ghost didn’t have that familiar hostility that the Korosu had, and did not seem to be an enemy.
“Here we are, kid,” The ghost spoke with a strangely soft voice, talking to no one in particular. “This is probably my favorite spot of the whole forest. I used to come here by myself just to relax in between jobs. It’s a peaceful place.”
The knight turned his head towards Shiori.
“If you ever get hurt in the Wind Goddess’s forest…stay close to this stream. It was blessed by the goddess, or so the stories go, anyway. The water can heal fatigue, and it will guide you to safety.”
The ghost stood up, and disappeared.
Here. I made you some tea. No, we didn’t have this blend before…Mom got this last time she went shopping, and said that it should help soothe your throat. …it tastes weird, doesn’t it? Heh. I could tell from that face you made. It’s okay. Don’t apologize. But yeah, that’s a good idea. I’ll add some more sugar next time, okay?
Memories that were hers, memories that weren’t hers…it was impossible to piece them together at the moment.
Shiori bent down, scooped some water into her palm, and drank it.
The fire burning through her died down a little, and the pain subsided a little. It still hurt, but it was no longer stabbing into her thoughts. Shiori stood up, took her sword once more.
Follow the water, the ghost had said. Somehow, she didn’t think that he was lying. Shiori steeled herself, and began to walk alongside the stream.
It took her on a winding path deeper into the forest. The fog was letting up, but the trees were becoming thicker, the darkness was deepening. The stream, too, was getting thinner and thinner, until it was a small ribbon of water. Shiori kept going. If this was what the stage desired, then all she could do was keep moving.
A ghost appeared before her.
— But it wasn’t the knight this time. Or anyone else from the old kingdom. Instead, it was the translucent image of a girl, pacing back and forth, scribbling furiously into a notebook every now and then.
Something about this was familiar. Shiori stopped in order to watch the ghost.
“To Siegfeld Institute of Music’s Board of Directors — I write this report to evaluate the Edels’ progress on the preparations for the Performance Festival…”
The ghost said, then sighed.
“What am I even supposed to write? It’d be a lie to say that everything is proceeding smoothly. Our leadership has remained steady and practice has been as productive as ever, but…no, let’s leave it at that. Personal conjecture shouldn’t go in the reports.”
The ghost kept walking, looking lost in thought, writing as she spoke aloud.
“Rest assured, the Performance Festival will proceed as planned. I’ve been spending my evenings practicing the part of the Wind Goddess, just in case. That way, even if it turns out she can’t make it to the stage, it won’t risk the performance. I’m sure — she wouldn’t want that guilt on her shoulders.”
The writing picked up pace.
“Though — if I may ask a question of the esteemed Board, why? Why did you make the decision you did? We have not yet reached a conclusion. A stage without our Frau Jade isn’t a proper stage at all.”
The ghost stopped her pacing.
“No, that can’t go in there…”
She then haphazardly scratched out the whole page, before tearing it out. She stared at it for a moment, before letting the page fall into nothingness.
“What do I do?”
The ghost turned and looked at Shiori, her expression completely blank. Despite that, Shiori thought that she looked deeply sad.
Then the ghost turned, walked away, and vanished into thin air.
Wait — ! Shiori wanted to call after that ghost, but her voice wasn’t working. She ran to where it stood, ignoring the shooting pain in her legs. She stopped. She was alone once more, with the trees.
The wind picked up. A hostility in the air. Shiori held tightly onto her sword once more, braced herself.
More Korosu emerged from the shadows of the trees. They stared at her with lifeless eyes, their swords and limbs mirroring her own.
The fire returned to eat away at her again. No time to get more water now. Everything burned.
It hurt to fight. Her joints were locking up. Spikes continued to erupt from the bones, tearing through her skin. She could ignore them.
She’d already lost the right to be on stage. She knew that, so long as she remained on it, her body would continue to burn. No amount of water could stop that. But something in the back of her mind told her — that she could not stop yet. Once, long ago, she’d made a promise to someone, didn’t she?
Someone was — no, quite a few people were — counting on her, weren’t they?
The fighting stopped. The last Korosu fell, and Shiori finally found the time to lower her sword. She stopped to catch her breath, took a look around.
In the chaos of fighting, she’d lost track of the stream.
This was the forest of the Wind Goddess. Or — it had once been the forest of the Wind Goddess, which should’ve been inviting and full of life. But in the eons since the age of the goddesses, the forest had changed. The trees cast ominous shadows that blocked out the light, and the wind whispered with the regretful voices of the forest’s many ghosts.
The jade must’ve been hidden away deeper in that darkness.
— But Akira wasn’t going this way, to where the jade was pointing them towards. Instead, she wandered towards an outskirts of the forest, as if drawn by something anew.
Was this in the script? Michiru ran after her.
“Your Highness? Is something the matter?”
Akira stopped, causing Michiru to nearly crash into her. She followed Akira’s gaze to the ground — or rather, to something resting on the ground.
A white coat trimmed with gold and green, easily too big for either of them, left discarded in the middle of the forest. The back had been ripped and stained with something that looked like black ink, and the tassels had long since frayed.
“Grand Chancellor,” Akira’s voice was unusually soft. “Do you recognize this?”
— was this in the script?
“No, Your Highness. It may have belonged to another soul who was lost to the forest,” Michiru said. The words flowed out naturally.
What was she trying to remember? What had she forgotten?
“Let’s keep going. We can’t afford to lose any more time.”
Akira nodded. Then she rested her lance on the ground, bent down, and reached for the fallen coat.
Purple flames shot up from the coat, dissipating into black smoke. Akira flinched, shot her arm back.
— It was the same fire that erupted from the Korosu when they died. Was this a trap? Michiru rushed forward to support Akira.
“Are you alright, Your Highness?!”
“Yes…I am fine, Grand Chancellor. Was just a bit of a surprise, is all.”
Akira poked at the white coat with her lance. No flames this time. Akira reached for the coat once more.
Michiru held onto her shoulder. “We should leave that alone. It may belong to the enemy.”
“No,” Akira’s voice was firmer now. More her own than the dying king’s. “…I don’t recognize this, I don’t remember this, but something tells me that I — must hold onto it. That it will be important to us.”
— was this in the script?
Michiru let go of Akira’s shoulder. “If that is what you wish, Your Highness.”
They went deeper into that forest, weapons in hand.
Shiori was lost.
The forest seemed to have twisted, changed its shape many times, and had become darker, darker. The grass was also longer, the underbrush thicker, filled with bushes and brambles. It was getting difficult to move.
She had to find someone. Who? She had to remember, she couldn’t remember, the fire had returned and was burning away her thoughts. All that remained was the stage, this performance. No use thinking about anything else. She simply had to see this through to the end.
Shiori cut the brush away with her sword. It caused a jolt of pain through her arm, but it was fine. She couldn’t stay here. If the Korosu reappeared while she was fighting with the brambles, there was no hope that she could win.
She inched forward, little by little. Was this the right direction? Shiori had no idea. It was getting too dark to see, and it was hard to tell whether she was moving towards safer ground or not. Save for her own footsteps and haggard breathing, though, the forest was mercifully silent.
Then, a tiny light flickered into existence. Shiori kept moving. Then another appeared, and another, until there was a small cloud of them, dancing in the air. Shiori took a closer look, and saw that they were fireflies.
The fireflies beckoned her onwards. Something about them seemed — oddly familiar. They moved as a single body, dancing a dance that seemed just out of reach in her memories. They glowed with an inviting light, keeping the shadows at bay. Somehow, Shiori knew that as long as she stayed within their light, the Korosu wouldn’t appear.
She took slow, hesitating steps. The fireflies slowed down for her, dancing as they waited. Watching them, she could almost ignore the fire ripping through her body. Someone must’ve been here, quietly guiding her —
The shadow of a ghost stood further ahead. The old Marquis again, his armor gleaming in the darkness. His back was turned to Shiori, and he seemed to be tinkering with something in his hands. The fireflies swarmed around him, and the ground around him shimmered with an otherworldly light.
He turned as Shiori approached, his expression once again hidden by the knight’s helmet. In his right hand, he carried a torch with a small flame. Not the bitter, violent flames of the Korosu, but a gentler fire, one that was almost warm and friendly.
“See, brother?” The ghost turned his head towards the light at the end of his torch. “Even in the depths of the forest, the warm winds blow in the direction of the kingdom. If you light a torch and watch the flame, it’ll always be able to take you home. Neat, isn’t it? They say that it’s proof that the Wind Goddess here has given our land her favor.”
The ghost held out his torch to Shiori, and disappeared. The flame remained, hovering in midair.
Oh? Sorry. I didn’t realize you were there. …you wanted to listen to me play piano? Yes, it’s the song that Mom taught us. I thought — I should practice a bit more before we tried playing it together again. But I suppose, if you insist, we could play it together now…
The fire began moving forward. The fireflies continued to gather around it. It was a little lighter than before, and Shiori saw that the ground was a lot more even around here. She lowered her sword, and followed the fire.
Someone was there, helping her, guiding her…
What was she trying to remember? What had she forgotten?
The air shifted once more. The darkness began to lift, and sunlight filtered through the forest’s leaves once more.
The flame shook, then faded to nothingness. A second later, another ghost of a girl appeared in the flame’s place, having a conversation with someone unseen.
“You don’t have to go with me to get them, but it’s still important that you pick out some flowers of your own! I don’t know how much she knows about flowers, but I’m sure she’ll notice if I make the arrangement all by myself. We couldn’t visit earlier, so it’s the least we could do.”
The ghost’s voice was enthusiastic, but there was something else behind it. An anger, barely restrained.
— Right now, that anger seemed almost comforting.
“That’s the point. It has to be from all of us. Because — I want her to know that we’ve all been thinking about her, even as we continue working towards the Performance Festival. So —”
The ghost reached out into the air, and a small bouquet of flowers materialized into her hand. Then, she turned, walked over to Shiori, and held them out with a smile.
Then, the ghost disappeared, and so did the flowers, leaving only the trail of fireflies.
Someone was — still thinking about her, weren’t they?
What was she trying to remember? What had she forgotten?
— It didn’t matter. She was still here. Hopeless it may be, she was still a Stage Girl.
The stage was all she had. It could not be destroyed here. She would not let it // let herself be destroyed.
Shiori pressed onward.
As expected, the forest was teeming with Korosu. They emerged from the trees and dropped from the branches, haunting the stage, hunting the king.
Akira was still deep in thought. Still clutching onto that old tattered coat with the green edges. Trying to remember something? It didn’t matter. Michiru made sure that the Korosu wouldn’t touch her.
The jade had to be further ahead. Past the depths of the forest.
The darkness invited them forward.
At the end of the trail, Shiori found herself in a hollow in the forest, where light was filtering in from above. In this light — it looked almost like a small stage of its own.
Her body was beginning to fail her. The black had expanded further. Her right hand was almost fully transformed, the black bleeding onto her sword as well. The scales were traveling up her spine, replacing her body bit by bit. Her lips had been sealed shut, as the crystals continued their march up her face. It was terrifying, but she was on stage. That fear could not show.
There was nothing to complain about. She was still standing. She would perform to the end. Despite everything. There had to be something pushing her onwards, something that bound her to the stage —
What was she trying to remember? What had she forgotten?
The light moved, and another ghost appeared in the center of the hollow. The ghost of a young girl, dancing the dance of the Wind Goddess by herself.
— This was a dream from many years ago.
The ghost of a girl danced, letting the wind flow past her. The steps were crooked and wrong, telltale signs that she didn’t know the dance all that well — but it didn’t matter. She danced with the certain confidence of someone who knew that she could, in time, master it.
Then she stopped, and looked past Shiori.
“Shiori? You were awake? Are you feeling alright?”
Shiori turned around to follow the ghost’s gaze, and saw — herself, as a child. Standing there at the edge of the hollow, unmistakably, was a translucent vision of a younger Yumeoji Shiori.
The ghost of Shiori approached the hollow, and the girl who was there before — why couldn’t Shiori remember who she was? — took her hand.
“What’s wrong, Shiori?” The girl spoke with a nostalgic tenderness.
“Um…it’s nothing. I thought I heard you talking to someone, but then I saw that you were dancing,” Shiori’s ghost replied. “But that dance…was that from Elysion, ▓▓▓▓? Were you trying to perform it all by yourself?”
The nameless girl nodded, looked off into the distance, deeper into the forest. “It was — beautiful. I can’t get it out of my head. Not since the day we saw it together.” She turned back towards Shiori’s ghost. “I thought — maybe if I acted it out, I could finally clear my head. Sorry if I distracted you.”
“Not at all! Your dancing is so pretty. Is it okay if I watch?”
“You…should probably go back to sleep. Are you sure nothing hurts?”
Shiori’s ghost frowned. “I don’t want to go back to sleep. I’m fine. I feel good, even! I just — wanted to see you perform.”
Shiori watched the ghosts, her eyes darting between her younger self, and that ghost of a girl who should’ve been someone so terribly familiar to her. She stood like a statue, watching carefully.
— If the ghosts knew that Shiori was there, then they were ignoring her. The nameless girl spoke to the young Shiori’s ghost only. “Then sure. But it probably won’t be that interesting. I’m still trying to remember the play, and I’m messing up a lot.” Then, the girl suddenly perked up. “Actually, if you’re feeling well enough…did you want to join me? We could go through Elysion together.”
The younger Shiori smiled a beaming smile, her eyes shining with such a pure light. But just as quickly, she shrunk back and her face morphed with worry. “Ah…but how? We need five Goddesses…”
“We could get Mom and Dad to join us…no, let’s not. They’ve been really busy lately. Then…” The nameless girl scrunched up her brows, deep in thought. “How about this, then? You can be the Celestial Goddess. I’ll be the rest of them.”
“Is that okay? I don’t remember the lines…”
“It’s fine! We can make them up. We know the story now, and if we really get stuck, we can just skip ahead.” The girl smiled, took the young Shiori’s hand once more, and led her to the center of the hollow // to the stage.
— Shiori watched a dream // a memory from long ago.
The ghosts performed Elysion together. It really was a clumsy performance. Neither of them remembered enough about the lines to tell the story to the end, and were saying whatever came to mind. Shiori watched as her younger self pouted on stage as the world’s grumpiest Celestial Goddess, and as the nameless girl flowed between all the other goddesses while barely holding back her laughter.
How silly it all was. They didn’t even make it to Act II before the whole performance collapsed on them. Shiori couldn’t tell which of the ghosts began laughing first, but at some point, one of them did, and it didn’t take long for them to both break down with laughter. They laughed, and laughed, trying to stay quiet and failing, until Shiori’s ghost began coughing violently, and the other girl began fretting about her. It took a little bit after that for everything to quiet down, for the two ghosts to lie down on the ground and gaze up at the sky and the trees.
— How nostalgic this all was. How fragile it all was. Something told Shiori that this moment wasn’t supposed to exist on this stage. She couldn’t interfere, no matter what. She didn’t want to break it.
“You feeling better, Shiori?” The nameless ghost asked. The young Shiori nodded from beside her. “Well, that didn’t go so well, did it?” She got a quiet giggle as a response.
The ghost sat up, her eyes shining with a fierce light. “Someday…I want to do that for real. Become a goddess, and stand on stage.”
“You do that already, ▓▓▓▓. You were an amazing goddess,” Shiori’s ghost said. “I wish — I could be cool like you were.”
The nameless ghost turned away. “Mom said that all those actresses were high school students. They go to a school called the Siegfeld Institute of Music. It’s one of the top theater schools in Japan, so I’d always been thinking about going there, but I’ve decided. I’m going to get in, and become an Edel…so that I can stand on stage for Elysion. And…” the ghost’s voice became very quiet. “…if you work hard and train your body, I’m sure you can do it too.”
Shiori’s ghost smiled brightly once more, and disappeared. The nameless ghost remained, and stood up.
— This was a dream from several years ago.
A disembodied voice was speaking in the distance.
“…the tests came out inconclusive. There’s good news, at least…they’ve determined that it’s not cancer. But she’ll need to stay in bed for a few more days so she can recover. Your father and I will both be busy…it’s a troubling time for the company. So…please watch over her for us.”
“I will,” the ghost said. Then she, too, disappeared.
Another ghost appeared. A familiar one. The old Marquis materialized where the nameless girl stood, his armor battered and bruised. In his right hand, he held a lance tipped with jade. He stood facing away from Shiori, staring deep into the woods.
— This was a dream that Shiori had heard once.
The knight knelt down in the hollow, and began to pray.
“O, Wind Goddess…can you hear me? If you’re there, please — listen to my prayer,” he said, his voice heavy with emotion. “I wish —”
Shiori knew his wish. That someday, he would rise up in rank, and become king. After all, that was what the knight told his brother, on the quiet days when they were alone. But —
“I wish — that my brother, my dear brother, grows into a fine young man. That he be healthy and happy, and live a life that needs not see the deaths of knights.”
The knight’s voice shook, almost as if he was afraid to speak the words aloud.
“I hope — that the curse that ails him — may one day be dispelled.”
The knight stood up, and danced the dance of the Wind Goddess. Shiori blinked, and realized that her eyes were wet.
What was she trying to remember? What had she forgotten?
She had forgotten something. No, this wasn’t forgotten. She had never forgotten this. She couldn’t forget.
— But these feelings didn’t belong on this stage. That wish could not exist here in the underground theater. No matter what it took, she had to see the performance properly through to the end.
“— So why would you let yourself be consumed like this?”
The dance of the Wind Goddess ended. The knight’s ghost was still there, standing alone in the hollow. The gentleness of his voice had gone, and was replaced by something that almost resembled hatred. He turned, and his eyes were pale green lights, shining through the helmet, glaring at Shiori.
WHY DID YOU HAVE TO BECOME A KNIGHT?!
The ghost warped, and his form broke apart. Left in his place was a Korosu soldier, holding that jade lance. It pointed its lance at Shiori, and glared at her with hollow // hateful eyes. And not a second after, an army of Korosu materialized behind it.
The show had to go on.
Shiori wiped her tears. Toss those memories away for now. Focus on the performance. If the stage demanded that she fight — so be it.
The Korosu with the lance charged at her.
A cue for the battle to begin anew.
— How long had Shiori been fighting? It felt like no time had passed at all. It felt like an eternity had gone by.
Her entire right arm was already no longer hers. That was fine. The hand, now a solid black crystal mass, kept a death-grip on her sword. All she had to do was to swing it from the shoulder. She could still fight.
Her legs were rapidly being consumed. That was fine. The pain was there, like her skin was constantly on fire, but if she grit her teeth she could walk. She could still dance.
The crystalline mass moved up and down her neck, replacing her torso, creeping up past her jaw, stabbing into her throat. That was fine, fine, her voice already wasn’t working, and she could still see, she could still act.
She fought. She was going to be overwhelmed. As she cut down each Korosu, another would instantly replace it. The flames were welling up again. She swallowed them so they wouldn’t overflow, let them sear her throat, burn through her body. She could perform to the very end.
Why? It didn’t matter why, she couldn’t remember why. The stage had not left her yet, the stage was all there was, and there was something important to her that she couldn’t give up yet —
Suddenly, all the Korosu stopped moving, turned to something in the distance, and were blown away.
A flash of white pierced the forest, graceful as the rising sun.
The wind slowed.
Two figures arrived, standing radiant. They looked like knights, one with a sword, one with a lance, white capes fluttering in the calm breeze. But they didn’t have the armor or the helmets of the kingdom — and they were too solid, too real to be ghosts.
— Who were they?
They moved. All too quickly, the rest of the Korosu were destroyed, their bodies turning quickly to dust.
— Did she know them from somewhere?
The figures moved once more before she could think any further. Running towards her. One of them, the one with the lance, slowed down at the very end. One of them, the one with the sword, leapt forward —
— and swung that massive sword down on her head.
They must’ve been getting close. The path through the forest had brought them past a small stream, through a grove of fireflies — and finally, to an opening in the trees. The Korosu assailed them every step of the way.
Michiru danced, her greatsword easily cleaving the Korosu in front of her in two. They always fell so easily. They brandished their swords like they were toys, and their motions were so stilted and robotic. The Korosu were automatons, able to do nothing but respond to a stage that they could not claim.
One by one, the horde thinned, until a single enemy remained. Holding onto a blackened sword, like all the others, glaring at Akira (the king) with those mournful eyes —
The Korosu didn’t belong on the king’s stage. They held none of the brilliance that the stage demanded. They screamed with garbled voices that could reach no one.
Was it screaming?
Michiru swung her sword. Only those who could stand by Akira’s side should be here. The jade, the jade — where was it? They had to find it, the Korosu were in the way, the Korosu couldn’t be allowed to attack Akira —
Her sword stopped.
The enemy (enemy?) before her had elegantly deflected her blow with its sabre, causing Michiru’s blade to sink into the ground beside it. Michiru braced herself for its counterattack — which never came. Instead, the Korosu lowered its arm, let its own sword dig into the earth.
Michiru hesitated. The Korosu had never been like this before. It felt almost like she was staring into a mirror, and the reflection was wrong. Something seemed to be flitting about at the edges of her memory.
What was she trying to remember? What had she forgotten?
Was there someone like this on the stage before?
If so —
Then this was a chance to create a better performance. To create a perfect stage for Akira, without any of their past mistakes to bind them. To get rid of all of the things that were holding them back.
For the sake of the king.
The thought quashed all doubt. With all her strength, she yanked her sword out from the ground, and swung it once more —
“Marquis!” Was that Akira’s voice?
— and was stopped once more, blocked by the flash of a lance.
“Aki — Your Highness?” Michiru would not let her surprise threaten the performance.
Somehow, Akira had gotten between Michiru and the Korosu, her lance locked with Michiru’s sword. No one moved for a second. Akira’s face was stern and morose, as expected of the dying king.
“Grand Chancellor. Please lower your sword.”
Michiru pulled back her sword. Who was she to disobey the king? The stage cared not for her personal feelings. Still, she kept her eye on the Korosu. But even now, its sword was lowered.
“I finally remembered,” Akira said. “I remembered, I remembered, I remember…our Marquis. Our precious jade.” Akira turned as she spoke, until she was no longer addressing Michiru, rather talking to that shadow that should’ve been an enemy —
Michiru blinked. The memories came flooding back at once.
The creature // person // friend standing before them was, indeed, Yumeoji Shiori, in a truly pathetic state.
In this light, she really did look like their enemies: her entire body had been covered in what looked like black crystal, her jaw and most of her face had morphed into a sleek mask like the lifeless faces of the Korosu. The black armor jut out of her shoulders and knees like extra bones, erupting through what little remained of human flesh.
But Shiori’s eyes were still her own, still shining, wet with tears and brimming with hope. All the other places of her body that were too weak to stand on stage had been ripped apart and rejected and replaced, yet Shiori was still here.
Was that what she had wanted?
Akira’s voice broke Michiru’s thoughts. “You’ve had a painful time, haven’t you, Shiori?” She was speaking as herself, not as the king. “Be proud. You’ve done a splendid job thus far.”
With those words, Akira approached Shiori’s body —
— and gently laid the fallen coat onto the smaller girl’s shoulders.
As if a spell was broken, Shiori’s memories returned to her.
The people dear to her, who had been reduced to mere ghosts — regained their names.
Yachiyo. Mei Fan.
Her dear friends, who had kept her in their thoughts, even in her times of weakness.
Her ideal, who had taken care of her from the very beginning.
And the people who had shattered the illusions, the people standing right in front of her —
How could she have forgotten? The people who shined so brilliantly, the people who had taken a chance on her and given her their wisdom, their guidance.
They were here. They had not abandoned her, even as the stage was rejecting her.
— She would hurt them, she knew.
They were brilliant actors. But Shiori’s body was still transformed, and fire was still spitting from the cracks in her skin. Akira had stepped right into the fire to give her back her fallen coat. Her face betrayed no pain, but the flames seared at her skin, and the edges of her uniform were beginning to singe and stain.
Shiori took a step back. Akira made a move to close the distance, but Shiori shook her head, kept retreating. She turned, and saw that the giraffe was still watching. Was that what it wanted? To see how they would sacrifice themselves?
She’d seen this before. Her sister had been sacrificed. Akira and Michiru would willingly walk into the flames. Shiori was being consumed. How could she still be useful to the people who believed in her? How could she still help them?
— So please, accept this resolve.
Such pretty words she’d said, just yesterday. Was that yesterday? When all she could think about was herself. But what good was resolve on its own? If staying onstage meant subjecting her closest friends to this pain, then —
— then the stage itself could not be forgiven.
The flames surged, engulfing her. She burned, she burned, and through the light and smoke all she could see was the giraffe’s unamused expression. That giraffe // the audience // the stage — why had it decided to demand such cruelties? What had they done to deserve this pain?
Shiori raised her sword, pointed it at the giraffe. Everything kept burning. She tensed her body, prepared to leap forward —
Michiru rested her own sword atop Shiori’s, and gently lowered it back down.
“I know it hurts, Shiori, but don’t let your emotions get the better of you.” Michiru’s voice was as bright as always. How did she do that? “This may not be our stage, but it is still something we strove for. Please, don’t destroy the stage that you had worked so hard for.”
This Elysion. The stage that Fumi had once dreamed of, the stage that she had once dreamed of.
And suddenly, Shiori was being embraced. Michiru closed the distance that Shiori had deliberately created, and wrapped her free arm around Shiori’s back. Across the spikes that now made up her shoulders, atop the flames that were leaking everywhere.
“!” Shiori wanted to tell her to stand back once more. Her voice still wasn’t coming out right. She needed to apologize. She tried to apologize, over and over again, as the stage’s lights dimmed.
“You have nothing to apologize for, Shiori. You wished to stay on the stage, no matter how selfish that wish may be.” Akira’s voice, in the distance, in the darkness. “Now that you have made that decision, it is your responsibility to see it through.”
The show went on.
It burned, but it was nothing. Michiru could endure pain for the stage. They had all burned with that same bitterness, that same frustration. Shiori must’ve burned, with passion and pain, to a degree that Michiru couldn’t even understand. Then she let go, turned back to Akira.
This was not the time to be sentimental. There was a play to perform.
“We found it, Your Highness.” Michiru said. “The jade that we were looking for.”
“Yes…I remember it all. The compassion I had forgotten.”
The crown gleamed with a gem of green.
They still relied on her, their Frau Jade. This was the king’s stage that Akira had chosen.
Michiru’s heart was at ease, for the first time in a long time.
“The next gem awaits us — the Knight’s pearl. Onward south, Your Highness —”
In many ways, this stage was nothing short of a miracle. The fact that all of the Edels were here, performing Part II of Elysion together — was an impossibility. The magic of the stage here in the underground theater was the only reason why they could remember their lines. Have their costumes. Fight for their lives.
Michiru had never actually performed as Johann Saphir. Yet here she was still, standing by the king’s side, the words flowing smoothly through her mind as if they were always there. No, it was more like — she had been replaced by the High Chancellor. She’d lost her memories, after all. Ootori Michiru had, for a brief time, ceased to exist on this stage. Akira had been the same, fighting with and against the role of Franz Platin, so that they may remember their friends and companions.
They flowed through the plains, then to the ice floes, recovering their selves bit by bit. Her memories had been buried there, under the ice. Beneath the stage, Michiru had possessed a wish of her own.
— To become a producer, to make the perfect theater troupe.
At one time, she believed that just gathering the best people would accomplish that. Fumi taught her that that was wrong.
At one point, she believed that as long as the best people were also best friends, they could accomplish that. Siegfeld taught her that that could be cruel.
She’d made those realizations over many weeks, many months of mistakes. Siegfeld wasn’t ever capable of creating the perfect troupe; that was why the king had to die each year, why there always had to be a new king.
She wasn’t capable of creating the perfect troupe. There was never going to be a way to predict the future. There was always the chance that she would burn someone’s dream along the way.
Every single Korosu was born from someone who dreamed of being a Stage Girl.
None of them were that different from the Korosu.
Michiru would still cut them all down. She would’ve cut Shiori down, had Akira not stopped her. It was how things were. Working towards creating a better troupe meant having to chase down, and destroy, impossible dreams.
Surely, they’ve made mistakes. Surely, they would continue to make mistakes. Maybe this was another mistake. Maybe they would pay for it dearly.
But still, Michiru was convinced. The stage of the king needed the five of them. That was why the Edels were here. To create this Elysion. To make sure Elysion would not die!
“The passion of the general, the compassion of the marquis, the potential of the young knight — and the knowledge of your old friend…” Michiru said. The lines always came out so naturally. “Your Highness…we have arrived.”
— And so, finally, the king and the chancellor reached Valhalla.
“Thank you, my old friend,” Akira said. She took the crown off her head, and the dying king was no more. Yukishiro Akira remained.
“It’s time to correct the story and put an end to this, Michiru.”
“Yes. It is.”
Akira raised her lance to the sky, and drew forth the power of the Celestial Goddess. “Gather, Siegfeld Institute of Music’s Edels!”
At long last, the dying king was able to retrieve all the jewels of the crown, and the Edels were able to perform Elysion all the way through.
Akira and Michiru had been alone on stage for the most part, fighting off the Korosu, but the others joined them at the end. After a long battle, the five of them had gathered once more, their memories intact.
Michiru was impressed. Neither Mei Fan nor Yachiyo had outwardly expressed their surprise at Shiori’s appearance when they all reunited. They played their parts as the general and the knight to the end.
As did Shiori perform as the marquis, though her body continued to warp and transform.
After it was all over, Elle was there. “You erased the Korosu and protected “Elysion” from disappearing. Thank you —”
Elle stopped, her eyes widening once she looked upon Shiori’s transformed body. In fear? In disgust?
“…who are you?” The…mascot thing? from the shop stepped out from behind Elle, and spoke with a strangely high-pitched voice. “How did one of the Korosu wind up on this stage?”
“Shiori’s an important Edel,” Michiru said quickly, before any of the others could react upon those words. “And she’s cute, unlike you.”
“Wha? …you don’t even recognize something cute when you see it…” the mole grumbled, before muttering something else that Michiru didn’t quite catch.
It didn’t matter. Michiru looked at Shiori. Shiori’s sword hand was twitching, but her body remained calm, excepting the bewilderment in her eyes. She looked like she was ready to collapse, yet she was still standing.
Michiru hoped that Shiori would be okay.
The transformation had stopped before consuming her entirely, but it hadn’t reversed at all. It probably wouldn’t last outside of the underground theater, but Michiru had no idea what would happen. As bizarre a place as it was, she’d never seen anyone’s body change like that. Would there be consequences, even after they left? She’d have to check on Shiori later.
Regardless — they’d done it. It was over, this strange performance.
As she was preparing to leave the underground theater, Shiori was stopped by a voice behind her. She turned, and saw Elle standing there by herself.
“You’re…Yumeoji Shiori, right?”
— The theater was already beginning to collapse, the magic wearing away. Her body too, was beginning to return to normal, the black spikes blowing away like smoke to reveal her red, inflamed skin. The transformation was slowly fading, but the pain was still real, as was the fact that her throat was still swollen through. Her voice still wasn’t working right. Shiori could only nod in response.
Elle, fortunately, seemed to understand. “I’ve never seen a Stage Girl like you…someone who had already become a Korosu, but still managed to stand on stage. I didn’t know it was possible.”
Elle turned away. Shiori couldn’t blame her. Even with the transformation undoing itself, she knew that she was probably hard to look at.
"I always thought that there were people who shine, and could be Stage Girls. And there were people who were doomed to fail…and the Korosu born from their failures would try to drag everyone else down with them out of spite.
“But here you are, feeling that same spite and bitterness…yet you protected the stage anyway. So…thank you.”
Elle turned back to face Shiori, her face neutral, and bowed. Though — Shiori could tell that she was very deliberately trying to stay neutral. Shiori stood there, unable to respond.
“Maybe…if you could stand on that stage, then even the Korosu could let go of their resentment, and become Stage Girls again…”
“Elle!” A voice in the distance. Shiori turned, and saw Andrew, waving at them. “The show is over! We have to pack up our stuff and get going!”
“Ah, I’m coming!”
Elle gave Shiori a slight wave, then turned and walked over to where Andrew was waiting.
Akira stopped right at the exit to the theater, and Michiru stopped with her.
“What do you think, Michiru?” Akira asked.
“The Board meeting later today. We have yet to answer their request for a new Frau Jade.”
“Hmm…I guess there’s still a lot for me to think about. What about you?”
Akira stared at the empty stage. “They were saying — that she was no longer qualified to be one of us. Not just the Board. This place, too, said that she would join the Korosu as a pile of regrets. But she didn’t. Even if she hurt us, even if she was hurt, we needed her. So, at least, for the Performance Festival —”
“That’s our answer, then!” Michiru smiled. It was her job to smile, just as it was Akira’s job to be severe. “Besides, this was really the only possible outcome. None of the other students have approached the Edels looking to challenge Shiori for her position.” Michiru couldn’t be surprised at that. It was a tremendous amount of work and pressure, so late into the school year. “And it’s clear that Shiori will refuse to give it up…so the Board, I’m sure, will accept that result. You don’t have to worry about anything, though. I’ll handle things at the meeting.”
“Right. I’ll be counting on you, Michiru.”
They left the underground theater.
One week remained until the Performance Festival. Not a lot of time. No time at all. But if they all were able to dedicate even just a sliver more of their souls to this performance — they could yet do it.