As the inhabitants of the Golden Land clambered up and on to the ship, the many guns of it fired down into the Goat masses, each shot consisting of a humongous jawbreaker, which would impact and roll before exploding into innumerable diamond-hard konpeitou. Thankfully this cover, along with what those on the ground could give as they retreated, proved enough to keep the Goats at bay.
However, it was not only the Goats themselves that the inhabitants had to worry about. On the other ships, one by one, massive anchors hanging by chains were thrown down into the earth below. Those anchors smashed through not only the ground, but the bottom of the Golden Land itself, digging in with their wedge-shaped tips. The ground creaked as fissures ran through it, through the very base of the Golden Land. All of the ships started pulling up their anchors at once. Crowds of strong Goats used all of their monstrous strength to lift them.
The anchors that dug into the Golden Land's base began to lift and spread cracks throughout the entire Golden Land. Not just the ground, but the air itself was filled with cracks, and shards of gold fell down everywhere. The Golden Land's end was adorned with the flames of hell and streaking gold fragments, with fiery red and ephemeral gold.
However, the defense by the retreating inhabitants coupled with the fury of the ship's cannons proved to be just enough to cover the escape. As the last person leapt onto the licorice net, the earth split beneath them. The Golden Land was torn up. The cat box known as the Golden Land was ripped apart, and the nothingness below peeked out through the cracks. The scrambling crowd of Goats fell through the gaps and were swallowed by the sea of nothingness.
When the Goats aboard the other ships realized that their prey were not falling along with their brethren, they let out an unearthly howl and turned their ships as one towards the overmatched sloop.
"Lambda! Get us out of here!" screamed Battler to the diminutive witch who was now laughing madly at the helm, while the Goats on the other ships loaded their cannons.
"Don't worry Battler!" she shouted back. "After all, being a Witch usually requires experiencing one particular thing." With that, she slammed the helm forward like a joystick, and the prow of the sloop dipped precariously. "Diving into the depths of Hell!"
The ship they were all on dove down through the cracks in the Golden Land, avoiding the cannonballs of the other Goat ships that had been floating above them. Left, right, left. Pulling up. Diving down. Lambdadelta piloted the ship in ways no normal seafaring ship ever could have. She even made it do a barrel roll to avoid a particularly large chunk of rock.
Then, one short eternity later, they were through and on the other side, into a realm that none there but Lambda had ever seen, and few had ever heard of. The Sea of Fragments stretched out before them in all directions, a void of shifting midnight purples decorated by innumerable sparkling things that looked like gemstones. Jessica reached out in wonder towards one, only to find that it was mere illusion that they were so close, and they ended up always seeming just out of reach despite likely being an immeasurable distance away.
She also realized something else. "We're not moving..."
"Yes, yes," said Lambda, coming down from the quarterdeck. "That's because the rules change here. Right now the only person who should theoretically be here is me, because I have the right to be here. The fact that I'm dragging you all along on this ship makes moving it considerably tougher." She kept walking past everyone, down the stairs into the lower deck, and then down even further. On a normal ship, this would have been the cargo hold, but this was not a normal ship. Here there was to be found a large table made of thick glass, and in the aft of the ship a large chair made of some kind of ceramic.
Lambda walked over to the chair and sat down, placing her arms on the armrests. Suddenly everyone could feel the ship begin to move again. The table began to glow, and in the air above it a three dimensional map of the surrounding Sea appeared, with strange designations placed on the fragments, and areas shaded in different colors for reasons that the observers could only guess at.
"Very well." said Lambda. "Where shall we go first?"
END OF PROLOGUE
The once-beautiful rose garden was filled with explosion craters, and its rose petals were scattered about without pity. Flying bits of flesh, blood, fangs, jaws. Shrieks and half-crazed screams. And even amidst this hellish swirl, the goats and the dead continued to fight.
Yet down into this mess the small Goat sloop dove suddenly. Like an angel swooping down from the heavens to bring salvation, the ship dove through the smoke towards the inhabitants of the Golden Land.
...a little too steeply. Although the prow pulled up at the last moment, the hull still slammed down against the ground, crushing dozens of Goats as it skidded and bounced along for a couple hundred feet before pulling up again and coming to a dead stop
about 20 feet up near the flaming arbor where the humans and witches were making their stand. Blood, dirt, and golden flowers fell from its hull, and a cargo net made of super-strong licorice was tossed over the side to make an improvised ladder.
"Come on!" shouted Lambdadelta, hopping up onto the railing and holding on to the rigging. "It's time to go and hunt for a happy ending!"
Genji grabbed on to the base of the net on one side while Kanon and Shannon held on to the other, keeping it taut for others to climb up.
Kinzo reappeared near the others, his clothes torn and with multiple scratches and bruises visible. "Come! Remember, the Ushiromiya family never turns back!" Still, he seemed to be moving slower than he was before as he charged back into the fray with abandon.
Ronove dashed this way and that, but the Goats were simply proving too much for him to stop. Both Nanjo and Virgilia faced doom this time, and he hadn't been able to hold off their attackers. He frowned slightly, and a single drop of sweat trickled down his brow. For Ronove, that was akin to screaming in desperation.
Although all the fighters down below were too busy to notice it, a single, tiny, sparkling object shot up from the ground and rocketed to the small Goat ship that their hopes were pinned on. A couple moments later, it began swerving and dipping even more than it had been, though it was still too far away to have a hope of reaching.
On the ground, Erika coughed up blood, her energy scythe fading away in her limp hand nearby. "Yes...our fight is...finished...my friend..." She coughed again and drew a shuddering breath. "...but the war...has only just started..." She managed one last wicked grin before the light left her eyes.
As if that were a signal, the cannons on almost all of the Goat ships began to fire explosive rounds down onto the ground below. The battlefield full of writhing goats became a fiery hell.
A cannonball smashed the arbor. The once-beautiful garden maze was burned down bit by bit and the fleeing gold butterflies were wrapped in flames, burning into nothingness like little scraps of paper. This was no longer a battlefield where two sides fought for victory. It was just a confused, hellish pot.
The culprit is Solene. The accomplice is Noah.
First murder: Done by Noah, using two guns. That is the cause of the strangely "echoing" and very loud shot. One bullet in the victim, one for the window.
Second murder: Done by poison gas. This gas is either poisonous when combined with something in the alcohol, or something in the juice acts as an antidote. That explains how Kenny died and Nora didn't. The 'ghost' that Nora saw was actually Solene or Noah in a gas mask.
Third murder: Noah succumbs to his wounds. These were either caused in a struggle with Isumi, or from jumping out a shattered window and slicing himself up.
Fourth murder: No real mystery. Solene or Noah does it at some point prior to Kenny's death in order to get the gas mask and the medallion.
Remaining murders: People die when they are killed.
Tossing the rifle he had to Hideyoshi after noticing that he was in trouble, Kinzo instead grabbed up a knife that had fallen from the place settings in the garden's gazebo. Moving with astonishing skill for his age, he waded into the crowd of Goats. Moving so stealthily that it seemed like he was almost vanishing from one spot and reappearing in another, he struck out with the knife and started taking down Goats. "Wahahahahaha! Festivals are meant to be enjoyed!"
Ronove, having watched the glorious Spear of the Gods lance up and through one Goat ship, setting it ablaze and having it crash into another before plummeting to the ground, spied a Goat sneaking up on Virgilia. "Pardon me," he said, imposing himself between the two and erecting his shield. "It is unacceptable to drool over a lady." A couple Goats tried to flank him and take swipes at him, but he just barely managed to dodge out of the way.
The might of the magic, bullets, and fists of those fighting for the sake of the Golden Land continued to fell dozens upon dozens of Goats, and the hundreds of ballista bolts fired from the towers continued to cut the oncoming horde down before they could even see those that they wished to prey upon.
"But is it enough?!" asked Zepar.
"The enemies keep on coming! It looks like we'll be the ones swallowed up after all!" replied Furfur, spying something on top of one of the towers.
Yes, the crowd of goats truly was like a wave pressing in from the sea. You might be able to split a ripple on the beach with your feet, but you can't split the sea. Witches could. However, that meant the other side also had one who could split seas. Suddenly, smoke poured from one of the two towers, and the ground shook as it crumbled.
"...Wh, what the hell happened?!" asked Jessica as she pounded another Goat into oblivion.
"Over there! On top of the other tower!" cried Gaap as she opened a portal, causing a few Goats to reappear far overhead, only to plummet onto the heads of their fellows.
"Erika... But of course, it is your turn now, is it not...?" muttered Beatrice.
At the top of the other battle tower, Erika stood wielding her scythe. She had recovered her composure, though the anger in her frown showed that she was done playing games. "No more! All magic is fake, a fantasy sand castle that will always vanish when mystery swallows it up! Let's bring this to an end. Now it's time to hear your screams." With the moon behind it, Erika's form... her afterimage... vanished from the tower's peak.
"Where is she?!" demanded 00.
"We have her on radar! On the side of the tower!" cried out 45.
Shaking with a wild, joyous laughter, Erika dashed straight down along the side of the tower. She swung her scythe like a baton, and as she passed along the wall, the gun ports, walls, pillars, and everything else was crushed, leaving a trail of smoke. So, from the sidelines, it looked as though a line of smoke suddenly split the tower from top to bottom. The golden arrows of the Chiester Sisters chased after Erika like golden threads in a sewing machine.
"You monster...!! Get yourself sewed and embroidered nyeh!"
Erika only laughed in a crazed fashion. "<Good>! <Good, good, good>!" Even the golden arrows couldn't catch up with Erika. Finally, Erika reached the bottom of the battle tower, and empty cartridges were ejected from the golden bows. "Explode, useless tower! Did I get that right?!" Erika, who had now landed on the ground, slowly stood up and tapped the tower behind her with the handle of the scythe. That tiny tap cut the final string that held the tower together, and the whole thing fell in on itself with an earth-shattering crash... Without the ballistae thinning their ranks, the dark tsunami rumbled forward through the rubble and smoke, pressing through the giants even faster.
"I am Erika Furudo, Witch of Truth! This moment marks the dismantling of the Golden Land by the truth! Dust to dust, illusions to illusions! I'll end your daydream for you! Come, try and remember, ghosts! Remember how you died so long ago!" The goat tsunami swallowed everything up. When she saw them sink under the black sea of goats, Erika guffawed from atop the debris of the tower. "Come on now, kill them! Massacre them all! Cut off all their heads and stick them on spears! Ghosts of 1986, the time has come for the whirlpool of truth to swallow you whole and erase you! So long!"
With a joyous cackle and swinging her scythe, Erika leapt back into the fray.
Lambdadelta was nowhere to be seen. However, off in the distance at least, a small Goat ship could be seen weaving its way down closer to the Golden Land.
With a giant roar like thunder, the Goat tsunami rushed forward at Erika's command, smashing hard into the 50-meter tall shields held by the giants that Virgilia had summoned. They acted like a massive breakwater to the Goat wave, slowing them and compressing them together in the small spaces Virgilia had left.
This, of course, made them easy targets for those with ranged attacks.
The golden flashes firing from the bows of the Chiester Corps and the solid masses of the bullets fired from the ultimate anti-magic weapons held by the humans converged on the Goats who had previously been more focused on pushing through their fellows than in their own survival. Where they struck, there was sparks and smoke, flying splinters and screams. For just an instant, this attack seemed to halt the Goat tsunami in its tracks.
However, their numbers were so great that they didn't even flinch. The goat wave continued to walk over the corpses that had been blasted away, or which had fallen to their knees in weariness. The mound of corpses piled up, and still more goats were shot down as they tried to cross it, so that, in a few seconds, it really was tall enough to be a tsunami.
"Pitiful!" shouted Erika, who was now standing on the prow of the flagship of the fleet, flying high above the Golden Land. "This Golden Land you've built is nothing more than a sand castle some kid left on a beach! Be swallowed up and disappear!"
Beatrice grinned wickedly up at her. "Perhaps you would do better to think of ripples beating meaninglessly against a wharf. A sandcastle getting swallowed by a wave? Just you try swallowing my castle!" Beato lifted her hands, telling the pair of battle towers that had been hidden deep in the ground that the day of glory had come again. The goat tsunami looked up at it in shock. After all, this time the tsunami that towered over everything wasn't them. on either side of her shoulders, two massive War Towers sprouted and stabbed into the heavens. They stretched up to 100 meters tall, and each had over 360 ports. They looked out even above the massive line of giants, into the roiling mass of goats being held back.
A thunderstorm of rapid-fire ballista rounds leapt from the battle tower gun ports. The goats let out a confused scream at the furious tempest that rained down on them over the wall they were struggling to pass. However, there were those who had made it past the wall and the corpses of their fellows, and they came charging at the occupants of the Golden Land, intent on devouring every last scrap of them.
Ronove quickly stepped forward and using his speed and his shield stopped any of the remaining shrapnel from hitting the main group.
Erika took the moment of explosion to recover her composure slightly, though the keen-eyed among them could see a slight tremor in her body. There was also now something in her hand that wasn't there before: a purple scythe composed of truth energy.
"She's fast! Kill her!" shouted Lucifer, and the seven stakes of the Seven Sisters flew at her again, but Erika batted them away with her newly revealed weapon.
"That was one hell of a farce," she said, carefully keeping her face neutral. "But thank you for the puzzle. I'll think on it more once your board is destroyed. Now then, it seems that you've all been in agreement since the start. Allow me to ask for your answer once again." Erika lifted her left hand, the one that wasn't holding the scythe.
"Very well, allow us to answer," said Battler.
"The Golden Land belongs to me, to all of us!" declared Beatrice. "If you think you can take it away and stomp all over it with your dirty feet, then let us give you a piece of advice. These Goats, this fleet, all your efforts..."
"All cannons, prepare to fire. Target: the Golden Land," said Erika, contacting her Goats, her fleet.
Battler and Beatrice pointed at the Witch of Truth. "Useless! They're all USELEESSSSSSSS!"
Erika dropped her hand. "Shoot 'em deeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaad!"
With a sound ten times as loud as thunder, the Golden Land shook and crack lines appeared across the sky. With a second blast, the barrier of the Golden Land was breached by the fleet's assault. It was a bizarre scene. More ridiculous than anything anyone had imagined. The sky of the Golden Land shattered like glass, raining down on all present, and a fleet of sailboats flew in one after another. They were crowded with Goats that were pushing each other and spilling off the sides.
Erika stepped back as the first Goats landed between her and the occupants of the Golden Land. "Come, let us begin! The final banquet in the Golden Land!" Banquet. That wasn't some fancy metaphor, but a simple statement of fact. The overwhelming surge of goat troops came in like a tsunami. The residents of the Golden Land who stood defiantly were like a forgotten sand castle on a beach. A fight between a wave and a sand castle is not a fight. This was a banquet for the oncoming Vikings at a smorgasbord: the voracious, merciless Goats. "<Good>! More Goats! Bring destruction to all that has form, stillness to all that moves! Despair to all who live!" cackled Erika.
"There's no way around it now!" shouted Beatrice to everyone. "FIRE!"
As they sat around the table, looking at the puzzle Maria had presented them with, Erika noticed that Dlanor had a very serious expression. However, instead of looking at the puzzle the Grand Inquisitor was looking at her.
"What's with the scary face?" Erika asked, chuckling. "Can't you try and act a bit, I don't know, cuter?"
"...Do you find your mission here ENJOYABLE?" responded Dlanor. "The thought of destroying people's dreams and ILLUSIONS?"
Erika smiled wide. "Of course it's enjoyable! What do you expect an intellectual rapist to do?!"
Dlanor looked down at the table. "You are an EVILDOER. And yet, I used to believe you were the sort of evil that could be sympathized WITH."
A complex expression flashed over Erika's face. "I never asked for you sympaty," she said, bitterly.
"...Not cutting you down immediately upon our MEETING... That sin of mine is what helped bring this day to PASS."
Erika snorted derisively and returned her attention to the puzzle.
"My FRIEND," began Dlanor, quietly. "...Allow me to free you before you can SUFFER. I will not allow you to bear any further SINS!!!"
Without any noticeable signal, showing the true teamwork of the Eiserne Jungfrau, Gertrude and Cornelia erected a barrier of red on either side of Erika. At the same time, in a sudden flash of red and blue, Dlanor's dual blades flashed up through the table and the chair Erika was sitting in. What was more, the golden flash of the Chiesters' high-velocity rounds and the stakes of the Seven Sisters of Purgatory came flying in and slammed into the chair,
For just an instant, it looked like they were going to be able to take down Erika. Yet even fully distracted, Erika's perception was a force to be reckoned with. Acting purely on animal instinct, she had bent down then backflipped her way behind the chair at the very last millisecond. She landed behind it, gasping in shock and staring with wide eyes, but unharmed. Her hat, however, split in two right down the middle, and the halves slid off her scalp. Another moment later, all that energy that had been poured in during the attack caused the seating area to explode in splinters and debris right in the face of Maria and Dlanor, while even sending speeding projectiles as far as those who had been standing further away.
"You do not have permission," spoke Beatrice. "Do you think an envoy would leave their boat without setting a time limit? The fleet probably has orders to attack if it isn't contacted within a certain period of time. Let that goat go."
The goat passed through the door. Then, after receiving a silent bow from Shannon and Kanon, it got on the dinghy and returned to the fleet. The fleet would probably follow Erika's orders and stand by until an attack order was given.
At this point, the warships surrounding the Golden Land were well over a hundred strong. The total number of goats would surely number in the tens of thousands. Each one of them carried enough anti-magic toxin in their fangs to completely deny one of the game board pieces. This time, they would chew apart and eat away everything. The crowd of goats unleashed their rotten breath and dangling drool. At a word from Erika, they would attack.
Erika, however, was becoming more engrossed in the game than she thought. "Hmm...if I want to survive, it makes sense that I have to give treasure...but how much..."
After a couple minutes, although it was certain her detective ears were still listening to the fake discussion of the others, the majority of her mind was on the game before her, and how to 'beat' it using logic. That gave the residents of the Golden Land a chance to assassinate Erika, but of course it was likely not going to be as easy as all that, even if they caught her by surprise. She was Bernkastel's greatest underling, and a witch who controlled truth. Getting in the first shot was all they could hope for. Anything else would be overconfident.