Sorry about the wait. Wow, this is a long one! Let's get these review responses out of the way:
Saturn56: Maybe... Maybe NOT! MUWAHAHAHAHAHAHA! And have you played the remake already? Dang, alrighty.
Eisenfaust: Yes there is. It's kind of boring, actually, so I wish for the same thing.
Guest: ... Okay, this is where I put my foot down. This is perhaps the THIRD review I've seen like this for my story and that is four too many. I have actually read some of xnobody13's works and he is not that bad. You don't understand; I have been here long enough to remember the Neptunia fanfics that were posted in the Misc. Games section because this one didn't exist yet (and yes, this precedes Hyperdimension Infinite Neptunia). When this section flickered to life, guess who was watching every non-crossover like a hawk? Me. You have NO idea what kind of abysmal subterranean ash I've seen posted for this series and xnobody13's works are nowhere near that level. Despite this, for whatever reason, these offensive pieces of garbage go about untouched while xnobody13 gets all the hate piled onto him while not even being technically bad by the general standards of writing across all things. What exactly did he do to deserve this? Why do the awful fanfics — and I mean awful as in ACTUALLY awful — remain untouched?
Also, from this point onwards, all other reviews that have "still better than xnobody" or similar will be deleted post haste no matter what else they have in them. You have been warned.
SVK9: Well, I have a lot of thoughts, mate. Just not THAT one in particular. I don't think I'll implement it, either. Thanks for the suggestion, though.
SS7x3: You're right! Something WILL happen! Whether or not it'll be worth the wait is another matter entirely, though. And no, I wrote that fic on a whim. I dunno if I'll continue with the tradition.
Now, let's see if something actually will happen in...
Chapter 34: On the Rails
A day passed. Neptune, Nisa, Compa and Gust were in the common room of the Aristocrat's mansion once again, huddled in front of a large flat-screen TV with their fifteen dogs. Each of the girls held a white steering wheel with a Wii Remote in them and they didn't blink once as they focused on the screen, twisting their wheels one way and then the other and pressing buttons like they held a game of Whac-A-Mole in their hands.
"Eat my doggy doo-doo strewn dust, doggy doo-doo strewn dust eaters!" shouted Neptune as her driver, a massive green tortoise with red hair and a spiked shell, was currently leagues in front of the others.
"Nep-Nep, that's a bit icky..." said Compa, trailing along at fourth place as a blonde princess in pink.
"Gust knows Neptune will boast if victorious," the alchemist stated tiredly, playing a man clad in a green cap and blue overalls.
Nisa's green dinosaur driver rode over a floating rainbow-coloured box and, by random chance, acquired a mushroom. The heroine eagerly pressed a button and cheered as her avatar sped past Gust with its temporary nitro boost. "Now I am in second! Prepare yourself, sister! First place will yet be mine!"
"In your dreamland, sis!" Neptune shouted back. "I'm almost at the finish line! You have no chance!"
Compa drove over an item box, making the item roulette appear and cycle though the available weapons rapidly. The nurse gasped when she came into possession of a spiny blue shell with wings.
"What? Oh crackers!" exclaimed Neptune as she saw Compa's new weapon.
"Stop screen watching!" Gust snapped.
"You're not in first place! What are you worried about?"
"Sorry, Nep-Nep, but all's fair in love and war!" Sporting the grin of a player at the lead, Compa released her shell. It soared along high above the track and zoomed towards Neptune like vengeful karma in a hurry.
"No no no no nooo...!" Neptune pulled into a drift, her rear tires kicking up yellow sparks. After a second or two, the sparks changed red right before the blue shell dove right onto her with an explosion, sending her flying into the sky before she landed back on her tires on the ground again with zero acceleration. Nisa was the first to pass her in her sluggish state and win in first place. As she was picking back up her speed, Gust zoomed by to come out of the race in second place. Compa was catching up but Neptune just managed to tap the finish line before Compa did, setting the CPU and the nurse at third and fourth respectively. "Yahay yeah! I still beat you, Compa!"
"Aw, I still didn't get third." It was a complaint but Compa smiled as she said it.
Gust set her wheel down on the ground. "Spiny shell overpowered."
"Indeed but it is immensely useful." The cross-legged heroine rested her elbows on her knees to support her head like a tripod. "If only we had such an item in reality," she sighed dreamily.
"Huh? Whatchu talkin' about?" asked Neptune.
"Picture it. We arrive at the start of the dungeon and the boss lies at the end of a cruel and long path. But we don't need to traverse it. All we need to do is unleash our flying shell and KA-BLAM!" Nisa suddenly jumped up and stood above her team mates. "The boss is gone and we're right at the entrance, ready to leave just as quickly as we entered!"
"Ooh, that sounds fantastic," commented Compa, her eyes sparkling.
"Yes..." muttered Gust. "Many dungeons have strong enemies but weak bosses... vast market... plenty of credits..." The alchemist hammered her fist into her open palm. "Gust must make recipe post-haste!"
A knocking came from the hallway door. "Excuse me, may I come in?" asked Jade.
"Of course!" replied Compa.
The Aristocrat entered the room. "Thank you. It sounds like you are having plenty of fun in here," he commented.
Compa smiled. "Thank you for letting us play on your Lowee console, Jade."
"It is not a problem. Lowee's console has much more entertainment value than that of Lastation or Leanbox. In my opinion, of course."
Neptune noticed a very straight slip of paper in Jade's hand. "Hey, whatcha got there?"
"Oh, this?" Jade walked over to Neptune and handed it to her. It was an already opened envelope with a signature written in calligraphy. "It is a letter to you from the Basilicom. Apparently, the goddess wishes to directly apologise for the poison incident."
"Hey!" Neptune snatched the envelope out of the Aristocrat's hand and, hunching over it so he couldn't see, took out the folded paper within. "You shouldn't read other people's mail! That's a crime! They take all your weapons and some money away for that!"
"The Basilicom has gone as far as poisoning you with an inn meal and they are opposing us. We have to be prepared for whatever underhanded assault they may initiate," explained Jade.
Compa read the unfolded letter from behind Neptune. "An apology? So Vert's going to say sorry for the poisoning? Then we should go."
"... Like I said, they have tried to kill you. Are you seriously willing to just stroll into their stronghold at their request?"
"Basilicom won't attack in front of goddess," Gust responded. "We okay if we don't eat anything."
Very quietly, Jade let out a breath through his nose. "Is there truly no way that I can convince you this is such a horribly bad idea?"
"Nope." Neptune pocketed her invitation into her hammerspace and stood up. "When the plot comes calling, you just gotta answer."
"Plus, Vert was here before," added Nisa. "I can tell she means well, despite her Basilicom's actions."
"Can you be certain of that?" Jade pressed. "Can you tell with absolute certainty that Vert and the Basilicom both will refrain from attacking you again?"
None of the four girls responded. They shared glances with one another, all without even a grin.
With a sigh, Gust pulled out her staff and tapped the end of it against the floor. "Must go. Problem will not solve itself," she stated.
Neptune sighed. "Yeah, them's the stakes. No matter what we think, we gotta meet the goddess and get to the bottom of all this."
"If that is what you must do, I will not try to stop you." The exasperated Aristocrat walked to the door and opened it. He didn't leave just yet, however. "Just be careful. Please."
Compa nodded. "We will. Don't worry."
"Whoa!" Neptune's exclamation almost left her out of breath. The Red Ring Table was set up in the Basilicom once again, covered in all sorts of food and drinks although they were fewer in number than before. "This is the second party they've invited us to. How loaded is Leanbox?"
"Very. For now." Gust grinned but not in a way that was very warm or pleasant at all.
"There's no one here, though," Nisa pointed out. As it turned out, they were the only ones actually present in the room.
"Why are they holding a party, anyway?" asked Neptune. "Is it such a big deal to say sorry for nearly kickin' someone else's bucket?"
"That's a good question," commented Compa. "We should find Vert, though. She said she'd meet us here..."
"Oh, look! Is that her? She looks like a goddess! She's not a silhouette!" Neptune cried out, pointing at a figure in the doorway at the opposite end of the room.
Vert walked into the room with her usual divine grace, holding her hands in front of her like normal. Her solemn face beheld the party as she approached them. "Nice to meet you. I'm the CPU of Leanbox, Green Heart. Thank you for taking the time to visit us today."
"Hey! Nice to meet ya, too!" Neptune returned.
Vert smiled at the other CPU. "Hello, Nep-Nep. It's good to see you well. You were so pale and quiet when I came to visit."
"Wait, you visited us? Since when?"
"Jake brought her around while you were ill," answered Compa. "She also liked how I called you Nep-Nep so she's using it too."
"If you don't like it, I can just call you Neptune," offered Vert.
"No no no, it's coolio!" Neptune declined.
Vert looked over Neptune's party. "Speaking of Jake, I assume he's still with IF?"
"Yes," Gust answered, knowing that the issue was still rather sensitive for Compa, Nisa and Neptune. "Still recovering."
The CPU sighed. "That is a shame. I apologise for all that you have suffered through due to my Basilicom. I can't believe they would do that. Someone had indeed told the Archbishop about the Console War. Rest assured, I will get to the bottom of this."
"Um, Lady Vert?" Nisa spoke up. "I know my student, Jacob, has conversed with you about it but have you ever heard of a Key Fragment? Supposedly, it's in a dungeon and it's protected by a fearsome monster."
"I'm afraid I still don't know," Vert replied. "I really do wish I got out more. If I knew more than I did, I may be able to help you."
The purple-haired CPU slumped. "Aw, that's a bummer..."
"However," Vert continued, "the Evangelist may know something." She then turned towards where she had come in from. "Will you come in here and speak with them?"
As Conversation entered the room, the party almost pulled out their weapons but they restrained themselves. The silhouette strolled up to the girls and nodded curtly. "I am the Evangelist, Conversation. We met once before."
"Yeah, I know," answered Neptune. "Back in Lowee before you left."
"Glad to see you remember." Conversation's head shifted slightly as if she was looking over the party like Vert did. "I thought there were more of you?"
"Some of us are ill," Nisa answered roughly.
The Evangelist's eyebrow might have risen. "I see. I apologise if I offended you."
"Excuse me, Conves... Convy, we're looking for something called a Key Fragment. Do you know of any strange dungeons?" Compa asked.
The silhouette put her hand on her chin. "Hm... As a matter of fact, I did happen across a strange dungeon recently. I can't think of a word to describe it but it was just a little... 'off'. I'll show you the way, if you'd like."
Nisa glanced at Vert. The CPU kept her gaze set on Conversation intently, almost like a surveillance camera. "Lady Vert, would you like to come with us?" asked the heroine.
The CPU shook her head. "I'd love to but I'm afraid I have a lot of work to do."
Neptune shrugged. "Well, whatevz with a z. So where's this dungeon?"
It took around half an hour for the party and Conversation to arrive at the dungeon. It was nothing out of the ordinary; just another cave filled with glowing green crystals. "This is the area I mentioned. Please be careful, since the monsters do seem rather vicious," the Evangelist warned.
"No need to worry about us." Nisa pulled her gloves on tighter and twirled her wrist. "I swear that there isn't a single monster in this dungeon that can threaten us."
"Unless it's a Guard Vermin," Compa added. "We might be in trouble, then."
"Well, since I'm not a fighter, I'll excuse myself here so that I will not have to face any Guard Vermins." The silhouette turned towards the entrance of the cave.
Neptune crossed her arms. "Sucks you ain't coming. I figured an Evangelist would be a wizard that could clear the enemy field in one go with awesome summons."
Conversation chuckled. "What an active imagination you have there. Maybe... just maybe, I'll be able to show off the next time we meet."
"So you can fight?" Gust asked less than kindly.
"I may be a fighter. I may not be a fighter. However, I am definitely an Evangelist and duty calls. I hope you find your Key Fragment here." With her farewells said, the Evangelist left the dungeon.
Grinning, Neptune pulled out Armas and pointed down the dungeon. "Okey dokey! Let's go, my companions! We have a—"
A sudden rumbling from overhead interrupted Neptune.
"What was that?" asked Compa, looking up with the others only for a small wisp of dirt to fall in her eye. "Ow!"
Gust's eyes widened as she saw a stone loosen from the rocky ceiling, letting some more dust fall to the ground. "Run!" she cried as she dashed away as fast as her brown boots would allow.
"What?" asked Neptune before a stone fell behind her with a thud and a crack. "Ah!" she yelped as she raced away.
"Ahhhh!" cried Nisa and Compa, running right behind the CPU just as more and more rocks fell to the ground like massive dark-green hail. The stones piled higher and higher until they reached the very top of the dungeon, burying the entrance completely underneath.
"What the heck was that...?" panted the heroine, sitting against the wall opposite the rubble along with the rest of the party.
"A cave-in...?" Gust took off her hat and laid it beside her. "How...?"
Compa slowly stood back up and walked over to the rubble, rubbing her eye with her sleeve. "H-Hey... the entrance is sealed! We can't get out!"
"What?!" Nisa shot up and ran over to where Compa stood. She ran to one side of the rock pile, looking at every single crack that crossed her vision. When the wall blocked her off, she ran to the other side and observed all over again. "She's right! The entrance is completely sealed!"
"Ah..." The nurse whimpered, her other hand rising up to her face. "What do you we do, what do you we do, what do you we do...?!"
"Hey, Compa, chillax!" Ever the guardian angel for the nurse, Neptune ran up to her and calmed her down. "It's no big deal! There's gotta be another way out!" The CPU twisted her head towards Gust. "Right, Gusty?"
The alchemist sighed and put on her hat. "Maybe. Perhaps we lucky and dungeon has two exits." With a grunt, the smallest party member stood up and dusted herself off. "Let's go. Sooner better than later."
Once more, the party picked themselves up and began another stroll through another dungeon.
Progressing through the dungeon was as dull and unsurprising an affair as ever so the inevitable random encounter was very welcome, especially when it was so threateningly large. The gargantuan brown beast's legs, even though they were individually as large as Neptune's torso, looked like wires compared to its massive feet. The waist of the monster was covered by some sort of stone skirt and its upper body resembled a large sphere. It looked like it was wearing some sort of brown-orange vest with a large metal ring the size of a door knocker on either side and a larger ring on its back. Its head was covered by a plain white mask with three pairs of eye holes. The monster's most impressive aspect, however, was its massive arms. The biceps connected to the side of what were essentially miniature brick towers that had hands so large that one of them could completely conceal Gust in its grasp.
"A Golem," Gust noted, sporting a somewhat energised grin. "Still cool to look at."
"Well, the bigger they are, the harder they fall!" Nisa shouted, pulling out her blade. "Sister!"
"Follow me!" Neptune yelled in return as she extended Armas' blade and dashed towards the Golem. She made her way to the Golem's right arm but quickly swerved to the left one as she got near and sliced along the limb with a running slash. The monster flinched and held its arm in just as Nisa followed up with a mighty flying kick to the chest that pushed it back towards Neptune, who recovered from her sprinting attack and swiped horizontally across the Golem's back, making it howl in pain.
"Musical Words!" called Gust as her floating magic circle shot out its beam of light and created the usual explosions that knocked the giant monster around but never over. Compa provided support by firing bullets from her syringe at the monster as fast as she could manage. As Nisa ran past the Golem and cut its leg, Neptune flipped onto its back and drove Armas into its shoulder. The Golem shot up and roared but Neptune wasn't shaken as she took her mech sword out and jumped off to the side. The Golem twisted around and backhanded her as she landed but she used the momentum to flip along the ground and stand once more so she suffered minimal damage.
Gust held up her staff. "Musi—"
The Golem slammed its fist into the ground, making the floor around Gust glow white and shake, throwing off her casting and tripping her over as she yelped an "ah!".
"Gust! Are you okay?" Compa bent down at the alchemist's side.
"Fine! Go help!" Gust took out a bottle of Reflex and drank it. The nurse nodded and pulled out her syringe once more before releasing another succession of bullets into the Golem just as it delivered a cross at Nisa. The heroine jumped over the fist, spinning in the air as she did so, and cut across the monster's arm for good measure. The monster jumped back a fair distance away from the party and raised its fist again.
"It's gonna pound the ground!" Neptune cried out as she and Nisa charged once more. They were too far away, however, and they wouldn't reach the monster in time. Neptune pulled out her gun and quickly aimed it at—
The monster stopped all of a sudden. Neptune and Nisa stopped as well out of surprise, the former never firing her weapon. A moment passed. The monster fell over, collapsing on its side as its fist came undone. Neptune and Nisa looked to their right and saw a red-haired girl clad in red and black holding a red-edged frisbee behind her like she had just swiped with it like a sword. Her eyes were closed and she was leaning forward on one leg. Once the Golem burst into green data and faded away, the red-haired girl stood up and slid her frisbee into her detached floral red sleeve as if she was sheathing a katana.
"It's a sword now?" asked a familiar disbelieving male voice as its owner, a familiar brunette and an unfamiliar blunette appeared from around the corner. "Giant exploding yo-yos, bullet marbles, a giant hammer kendama and now a sword frisbee. I swear—"
"Jake?" Compa blurted out, making the four newcomers turn towards the all-female party.
"Iffy?" Neptune blurted out next, making the four newcomers' eyes widen.
"Oh, hey guys," greeted Jacob.
"You know them?" asked Red, turning her attention back to the male.
"Yeah, they're the party IF and I travelled with before," he said to her.
"Wow!" Red stared at the party like they were a shining treasure. Or perhaps a very aromatic cake. "Iffy, you never told me you partied with a bunch of cuties!"
"Aw, thanks!" Neptune blushed as she held her hands behind her head. "You're not bad lookin' yourself— ooh, is that a real dragon?"
"Sure is!" Red approached Neptune and shrugged the shoulder that her dragon was resting on. "Go on. Say hi to a new friend."
The dragon blinked several times as it focused on Neptune. The CPU smiled at the dragon. In response, the lazy golden reptile smiled back. It then loosened itself from Red's body and, after flying over to her, draped itself over Neptune's shoulder like a loose scarf. It then closed its eyes again, ditching the smile it had before.
"Aw, it likes you," said Red.
"What the hell?!" exclaimed Jacob, his eyes even wider than before.
5pb was also looking at Neptune but she didn't pay attention to the dragon. "A-Are you Neptune...? Iffy's friend?"
Neptune's grin disappeared. She noticed again the brunette who looked less than pleased to see Neptune. "... Yeah."
In that small cave corridor, IF and Neptune stood opposite each other. The dragon, looking worried for once in its life, left Neptune and went back to Red. Jacob, 5pb, Red, Compa, Nisa and Gust felt the urge to step away from the two and merely spectate. On one side, Neptune's hands gravitated towards each other in front of her chest. IF's hands remained at her sides, held into fists but the brunette didn't exert the effort to clench them entirely.
"... What are you doing here?" interrogated the Moderatist.
"Well, heh heh heh..." Neptune chuckled weakly. "Wouldn't you know it, we were— OH!" In a flash, all of Neptune's strength came back to her. "Iffy, did you know there was a Key Fragment here?"
Jacob and IF, the latter temporarily devoid of her irritation, shared a curious glance. "No, sorry," Jacob answered instead of IF. "We just came here to level grind these two. We haven't seen a Key Fragment in here and we've cleared this dungeon out. Why?"
"Damn it, we've been tricked!" cursed Nisa. "The Evangelist said there was a Key Fragment here and took us here. Then she caused a cave-in and sealed the entrance!"
"So I wasn't huffin' puffins when I thought she was acting weird..." Neptune thought out loud.
"Wait, the Evangelist?" repeated Jacob.
"Suspicions correct. Evangelist bad guy," said Gust.
Jacob's hands raked through his hair. "Damn it. I was so focused on Yvoire..."
"There's something else," Nisa began. "Jacob, Jade's been getting weapons from Avenir."
"What?!" shouted IF and Jacob.
"Who?" asked Red, looking confused, much like 5pb.
"I know, right?" continued Neptune. "We just cleared out a dungeon for them to move weapons through and it turns out the bad guys are in cahoots with them."
"It's hard to believe the Aristocrats are working with Avenir..." commented IF.
"A-Actually..." Compa found herself being looked at by seven pairs of eyes. "I-I was talking with Jade once. I told him about the Key Fragments and he even said he'd help us look for them. I asked him how and he said..." At this point, Compa cleared her throat and did the best impression of Jade she could manage, "Don't tell anyone about this, as not even Sir Turquoise knows, but I happen to have quite a few friends with their ears to the ground."
IF and Jacob looked at each other. "The Guild," stated the brunette. "It has to be."
"Jade's a member of the Guild?" asked Neptune.
"And his dad doesn't know?" asked Nisa.
"Which means that Avenir has an employee from the Guild, which isn't surprising." IF crossed her arms. "So the Aristocrats are planning an armed revolt?"
"Yes," Gust answered.
"And they're even violating inter-landmass laws... This is serious."
"I say the first order of business is finding the Evangelist," proposed Jacob. "Not only did she tell Yvoire about Neptune but now she's tried to trap you in here."
"Makes sense. I wanna beat the crap out of her as well." The Moderatist flexed her wrists and her hidden blades shot out.
"But how do we get out?" inquired the nurse.
"Fortunately, there's another exit at the end of the dungeon," Jacob explained. "We'll take you there."
Neptune blinked. "If there's another exit all the way over there, why'd you come this way?"
"We wanted to get more experience points in. By the way, that's Red," Jacob pointed at the red-haired girl, "and that's 5pb," he finished while pointing at the blue-haired girl.
"Ah...!" 5pb's wavelength eyes appeared again as she took a step back.
"Wait, 5pb? The 5pb?" Nisa was essentially gaping at the shrinking idol. "She... looks so different from her concerts."
"She's a bit shy. Be gentle with her," advised IF. "Now let's get on with it. The sooner we're out of here, the better."
There was a lot less conversation amongst the party of eight than you'd expect. They encountered another group of monsters shortly after they joined up but, even then, they only said what they had to say.
Neptune, at the front with IF and Red, took it upon herself to break the ice with the brunette. "So, Iffy—"
"Don't call me Iffy," interrupted IF, keeping her eyes forward. "Just don't."
"Aw, Iffy!" Neptune whined. "You're cold as ice today!"
"What did I just say, Neptune?"
"Why can't she call you Iffy?" asked Red. "Aren't you two friends?"
"It's because..." IF stopped herself from saying more to the red-haired girl. The Moderatist suddenly looked enervated. "... It's not right."
Jacob, walking beside Gust and 5pb, could hear everything Red, IF and Neptune were saying right in front of him. He rolled his eyes.
Neptune tapped IF on the shoulder three times quickly. "Are you upset? Because I'm not, really. As far as I care, nothing's changed between us, Iffy."
IF gritted her teeth. "Neptune—"
"Neptune, cut it out," Jacob called, making the three girls look behind them. "IF's in a bad mood. Say what you want but just don't call her Iffy. IF, at the same time, you can lighten up a bit. Neptune's just trying to be friendly and she's done nothing wrong."
IF glared at him. Jacob glared back. He didn't want an argument right now but he wasn't going to get pushed around because of her attitude. Finally, after what felt like minutes, the brunette backed down. Not out of fear, he noticed, but out of melancholy. "Sorry. I just don't want to be talked to right now."
"You're such a bummer right now..." sighed Neptune.
Red, noticing Neptune's dejection, tugged on her sleeve. "Hey, cheer up! Wanna hold my dragon?"
That filled the CPU's eyes with stars. "Do I!"
Smiling again, Red petted her dragon which then moved to Neptune and coiled around her. "Be nice to Nep!"
"Yahoo!" cheered Neptune, petting the dragon's head and getting a delighted grin from it. "I wish I had a pet dragon of my own. I'm living the JRPG hero dream, here!"
"And then there were two," muttered Jacob.
"One bad enough," added Gust.
5pb, however, kept her eyes on IF. "Um, G-Gust? They were friends, right?"
The alchemist looked up at the idol. "Were. Why?"
Unsurprisingly, 5pb was nervous, as shown by how her fingers kept fiddling with each other. "I know she wants to forgive them... We even talked about that... So why's she acting this way?"
Gust and Jacob looked back at IF. Still, the brunette kept her eyes forward, focused on the path and away from Neptune. "Hm..." they both went.
"Are we there yet?" asked Nisa, standing at the back of the group with Compa.
"Nearly," called back IF. "The exit's right around the next turn. We get to the door, head for it then we can get to the Basilicom and thrash the Evangelist. Sound good to everyone?"
"I hope you're also including me in that question, Iffy," responded the voice of a mature woman from right around the next turn.
The golden dragon returned to Red as everyone got out their weapons immediately (except for Jacob, who was already wearing his gauntlets) and rushed to the front. The voice's owner walked around the next turn and came face to face with the party. "Hello, everyone," greeted Green Heart. "I hope I didn't startle you too much, as this is the first time you've seen me in this form. Well, except for Jake."
"Hi," returned Jacob.
"Wha?!" While the others simply gave Jacob an inquisitive glance, Neptune took it one step further by shouting and and turning around so quickly it was a wonder her shoe didn't get shredded to pieces. "You know this underboob lady, Sparky?"
IF glanced back at Neptune. "You don't know her? She looks a bit like you after your HDD, though."
Those two sentences were like lit matches being thrown right under a mental fire alarm that told Jacob very sharply that something was wrong. "Wait, hold on, back up..." He got IF and Neptune's attention again but he was focused entirely on the Moderatist. "Did you just say you don't know who she is?"
The brunette blinked. "Yeah. I've never seen her before."
"Yeah, but..." Jacob looked at Green Heart. She crossed her right arm underneath her breasts and held onto her left bicep as she looked on at the party. "You don't know who that is?"
The Moderatist looked at the green-haired CPU as well. "No, I don't. Should I?"
"Iffy, can you really not discern my identity? I'm a bit disappointed..." remarked Green Heart, looking a bit morose.
"Give her a bit, she's smarter than this. It's just a temporary lapse." As Jacob took a deep breath, he felt his lungs expand tightly and then satisfyingly deflate when he exhaled. "Okay, IF. She called you 'Iffy'. Who do you know that calls you Iffy?"
"Neptune, Red, 5pb and Vert," listed the brunette as she counted them off her fingers.
"That reminds me, why do they get to call you Iffy and I don't?" asked Neptune.
"Not now, Neptune," Jacob quickly responded. "Okay, IF, who of those four people are not here?"
"Vert," IF answered promptly. "She's at the Basilicom."
"No I'm not," Green Heart interjected.
Jacob thrust his arms out towards Green Heart as if demonstrating to IF an amazing feat she did. "Did you hear that?!"
"Hear what?" asked the brunette in return.
"Gnnngh..." Jacob stomped over to the nearest wall and braced himself against it. As he took heavy breaths, he exerted less force against the wall. When he was finally calm again, he pushed himself off the wall, dusted his hands together and walked back to IF. "Okay, okay, okay. Here's something else. You said she looks like Neptune when she transforms. Now, what can you surmise from that?"
"If you know who she is, just tell us!" IF snapped.
"You should be able to figure out who she is!" Jacob shouted. "She has given you every possible hint!"
"But we haven't seen her before," Nisa brought up.
"So?!" By now, Jacob's arm movements were getting very exaggerated. "IF, you said that she looks like Neptune when she transforms! Do you know what this means? It means someone's transformed into her! Now the question is WHO?!"
"Hm..." Neptune crossed her arms. "So she called Iffy Iffy and she calls Sparky Jake and she's transformed from someone... and the only person who calls Iffy Iffy and Sparky Jake is Vert... and she also calls me Nep-Nep..."
Jacob held his breath, waiting for Neptune to conclude her reasoning...
Then Neptune threw her hands up in the air. "Well, since Vert's at the Basilicom, I am completely stumped like an indestructible tree."
A painfully loud SLAP! bounced around the cave as Jacob's palm hit his forehead so hard that they both turned red. As his forehead-slapping hand slid down to cover one side of his face, he brought up his other hand to cover the other side. His fingertips pressed deeply into his forehead skin and massaged it in circular motions. "I'm surrounded by idiots. I'm not smart. I'm just surrounded by idiots." His warm, muggy breath bounced off his red hands back onto his face. He was beyond caring at the moment.
Green Heart cleared her throat. The party stopped staring and glaring at each other and looked back at the somewhat lonely CPU. "Jake, I appreciate your efforts but I am here on business and I would like to get it out of the way."
Jacob lightly blew onto his bright, burning hand. "Sure thing. What's up? I assumed we were on good terms since we last met."
"I have been informed by Conversation that it was by your hands that the poisoning incident took place."
Burning sensation be damned, Jacob clenched his fist. "... What?"
"What?!" shouted IF. "That's bullcrap! Neptune almost died! Why would we even think of doing such a thing?!"
"She's right!" Nisa spoke up. "We haven't anything to gain from faking a scandal!"
"Conversation thinks otherwise," Green Heart replied. "According to her, this was a scheme to discredit the Basilicom by spreading a false story and have the Aristocrats win favour. Ultimately, the Aristocrats would rule the landmass once again."
"I feel very out of the loop right now," Red said to 5pb.
"Y-Yeah..." agreed the meek idol. "Joining a party late isn't very fun..."
"Would that really matter since you run the landmass no ifs, ands or buts, though?" Jacob asked Green Heart.
"It would," answered the green-haired CPU. "I'm not too proud to admit that I need help from time to time but I know the Aristocrats would be less than willing to provide it."
"T-That's not true at all!" Compa stammered. "W-Well, I mean the fake poisoning thing, not the Aristocrats not helping thing. P-Point is, they lent us a hand when we were in trouble!"
"Also happened before meeting Aristocrats," noted Gust.
The CPU let out a small sigh. "The Evangelist told me this would happen. She also told me a bit more about you, Jake."
The male, feeling slightly nervous, rose his hands slightly. "What about me?"
From her hammerspace, Green Heart pulled out her weapon. Unlike the swords of Purple Heart and Black Heart and the axe of White Heart, Green Heart's weapon was a lot less orthodox. Not only was it a massive grey drill the length of the goddess' body, she held it in line with her forearm. The grip and Green Heart's hand were underneath a thick green and white cylinder that would serve well to protect her hand from attacks that actually got close to it. Connecting the grip to the base of the drill was a narrow segment with twelve small back tubes bent inwards, making it look like a black-petalled flower. The grin and the connecting segment together were the length of Green Heart's forearm, which had its back protected by a long spiked guard protruding from the weapon's grip. As the CPU pointed the drill at Jacob, the spiral cone reflected the green glow of the dungeon's crystals, giving it a toxic aura. "According to Conversation, this was all orchestrated by you. In an effort to usurp the B—"
"No." Jacob's rejection of the Evangelist's claims was so stark that all the party members, in the silence, stepped back away from him. Green Heart's arm even lowered, resulting in her large drill weapon pointing to the ground. "I have not, nor will I ever poison Neptune or organise for her to get poisoned for any reason whatsoever. I do not believe in killing people much less my own friends who are very dear to me." Jacob twirled his neck and put up his gauntlet-clad fists. "I'd prefer not to fight but, if you push me, I will push back."
"That's right!" Neptune span around Armas in a showy manner and stood offensively towards Green Heart. "I dunno what happened exactly but I trust Jacob like you would not believe. He'd never poison me. And unlike him, it's been ages since I've had a good fight so I'm raring for a decent punch-up! Bring your best!"
The violet eyes of the opposing CPU narrowed. "I would, Nep-Nep. However..." Her drill disappeared in a flash of green light as she shook her hand, "... I am not looking for a fight."
"... Huh?" sounded the entire party.
"While I do not know Jake well, what Conversation said of your so-called... Allow me to recount. Apparently, you had been seeking to kill Nep-Nep for quite some time, having learned of her divinity around the time the goddesses returned from Celestia. However, you also planned to eliminate the other goddesses systematically right from under everyone's noses. Acting as Nep-Nep's supporter, you recruited a small band of loyal followers. Upon arriving in Leanbox, you conspired with Yvoire to eliminate Nep-Nep in a way that would leave you completely unsuspected. In the event it failed, though, you could use the chaos to destabilise Leanbox with the help of the Aristocrats and eliminate me. At least, that's how Conversation told it."
"... Huh?" sounded the slightly more incredulous party.
The green-haired CPU let out a breath and placed her hand to her forehead. "I'll admit she had me to a degree when she mentioned you were collaborating with the Aristocrats to bring down the Basilicom but everything after that was just ridiculous. I just can't see you as the type of person to go through such lengths for such a scheme. I don't even know what you'd gain from it."
"I'm not even patient enough to make toast in the morning," Jacob responded.
"So if you're not here to fight, why are you here?" asked Nisa.
Green Heart briefly glanced at the cave walls. "I wished to discuss this in private with you. With Nep-Nep's half of the party in the cave, Conversation proposed I meet you here and finish you off and there was no way I could refuse without coming across as suspicious. Therefore, I went along with her plan and came here. I had no intention of killing you to begin with. I also happen to be particularly blessed that you are here, Jake and Iffy."
"That... seems awfully roundabout," commented Jacob. "Not to mention it left them at Conversation's mercy if she actually could kill them off then and there. I mean, she even made a cave-in so they'd die in here."
Green Heart's violet eyes narrowed. "Did she now?"
"Yeah. Couldn't you have just given us a call or something? Or met us at our homes?"
The goddess winced. "In hindsight, it was a poor decision. Some things are just meant to happen, I suppose."
Red looked up at the male. "Somehow, I think this is your fault."
"You can shut up," Jacob flared.
"Hey, calm down," IF scolded.
"Right. Sorry." Jacob then blew out of his nose and focused on the green-haired goddess again. "Anyway, did the Evangelist tell you how she knew about the Console War?"
"I intended to talk to her about it," she answered.
"Well, okay then." Jacob ground his gauntlet-clad fist into his palm. "Not only has Conversation tried to trap us in here, she's tried to frame us for an overly complicated scheme. I say we go show her a thing or two right now."
"Wait," said Green Heart, lifting her hand and signalling for Jacob to stop.
"I will take care of her." Although she was set in her decision, her eyes looked down slightly as she reflected on herself. "I am not too proud to say I have done a poor job handling things to this point. My Archbishop acted in affairs he had no right to. The visiting Evangelist, our once esteemed guest, has acted behind my back in ways I would have been able to prevent had I been paying attention... and, by going along with her scheme, I put you all in danger. Again."
"Oi, now," started Neptune, wearing a disarming smile. "We're super tough, y'know, so it's not like Convy's gonna off us that easily. It's not your fault."
"It is my fault," Green Heart answered sternly. Even without her lance, the transformed CPU had never looked so resolute. "Nep-Nep, Iffy, you both have suffered greatly due to my mistakes. I will rectify this myself. I am the CPU of Leanbox and it is my job to administer justice to those that threaten it."
A tired breath escaped the male. "Well, fine. Have fun. We'll just be hanging out where we live so you can just tell us when you're done."
"I intend to. Take care." Green Heart deftly turned to walk back around the corner but she stopped before she was out of sight of the party. "Oh, Jake? I have one more question."
"What is it?"
The CPU measured Jacob in her stare for a moment. "How long have you known about us in Celestia?"
Jacob blinked, not expecting the question. "Um, since Noire told us about you. Why?"
"... No reason," she answered with narrowed eyes. "Farewell."
"Wait! Hold on!" Neptune shouted. "Aren't you going to fight us?"
"I said I wasn't," the other CPU answered.
"But we came all the way out here for a Key Fragment! And we didn't find one! And I haven't had a good fight in yonks! And you were supposed to come out here to fight us anyway!"
"That was a ruse, though."
"Aw, come on!" By now, Neptune's arms were flailing. Thankfully, Armas' sword had been retracted. "I haven't had a single blood-boiling battle since I got here! I got poisoned! I want a good fight, dang it!"
"Nep-Nep, we have no reason to fight," Green Heart asserted. "Besides, there are eight of you and only one of me. You would trounce me for sure."
Neptune turned to her party. "You heard her! This'll be one on one! Stay out of this!"
"No," answered Jacob, Nisa and IF succinctly.
Neptune pouted. "You're all party poopers, the lot of you."
Then Green Heart's eyes lit up with a spark of inspiration. "Actually, there might be one way I can take you all on... Nep-Nep, can you use Neptune Break?"
"Yeah, why?" answered the shorter CPU.
"Oh, never mind then." And the spark was gone.
"Crackers!" Neptune cursed vigorously before she slumped in depressed defeat. "Fine. We won't fight."
"Thank goodness. I'm not sure I would have survived. Farewell." Finally, Green Heart turned around the corner and was out of sight. The party of eight was once again left in the middle of the green dungeon.
Neptune placed her hands on her hips. "Well, there is one thing that I am absolutely certain of."
"What's that?" asked Jacob.
"I have no idea who she was."
"DAMN IT ALL!" Jacob's arms shot up seemingly to choke whatever malevolent god was toying with him as his legs gave way underneath him, making him fall to his knees.
"So who was that?" Red asked the male.
"It was... No. You know what? If you people couldn't figure it out immediately, it's your own damn fault. Except for you, 5pb."
The idol, not knowing how exactly to respond, simply nodded uncertainly.
IF shrugged. "Well, it doesn't matter. The Evangelist's going to get taken care of. There's nothing left for us to do. Red, Jacob, 5pb, let's go." The brunette began walking down the cave again to the exit.
"Hey, wait a minute!" Neptune called, running up to her. "Aren't ya gonna join our party again?"
"... No," the Moderatist answered bluntly albeit not right away.
"Why?" asked the CPU. "It's been ages since I've seen you! It was so lonely knowing that you and Sparky weren't there when I woke up from the poisoning! We can be a whole party again and go adventuring like we used to! You're still precious friends to me, you know!"
It was subtle but IF was trembling slightly at Neptune's statements. "I can't go back yet," IF answered plainly but with a wavering voice.
Neptune, always one to try to reach out to people, began walking towards IF. "But Iffy—"
"STOP CALLING ME IFFY!"
Everyone stepped back. IF's sheer burst of rage as she snapped around to the now-terrified CPU froze everyone where they stood. Even Jacob thought his heart stopped for a moment. After a few moments, the mania subsided from IF's face and she regained awareness of her surroundings. Immediately, her anger became shame and she too slunk back. "I'm... Neptune, I just can't... I can't journey with you."
"Iffy, I don't care about the whole poisoning thing," said Neptune, shaking the fear off. "I know you didn't mean to do it and I'm not angry. I'm putting it all aside, okay? I just want you back... I just want to go back to the way things were." The brunette didn't respond so Neptune, after a moment's hesitation, moved a bit closer. "Don't you miss us? This? Being a party, solving mysteries, having fun, the whole do?"
IF looked at Neptune. She could see the CPU's sorrow as the CPU could see hers. She looked at Compa, Nisa and Gust. The alchemist looked concerned but not too personally, just like a person of business. Compa and Nisa, however, regarded IF with caution, betrayal and sorrow of their own. They remembered the IF that was a member of their party but they also remembered the IF that almost got Neptune killed. It only made her feel worse. "Yes, I miss it. Of course I do," the Moderatist finally replied. "But that's not it..."
Again, Neptune adopted a moment of silence. Her eyes flickered away from IF for the briefest passage of time before they found IF again. "Do you hate me?"
"No," IF answered naturally.
"Because I..." IF paused. She shut her eyes, casting Neptune out of her sight, and looked down. She opened her eyes once more and found only the earth beneath her feet. "... I hate me."
No one responded to that. All eyes were on IF. IF didn't look at anyone, couldn't look at anyone, and faced the floor.
"IF." Jacob walked up to the side of the brunette. "Wanna go back?" he asked of her softly and without judgement.
He heard the brunette take in the smallest of breaths. To his relief, she turned around towards the exit and walked towards it. "Sure," she answered.
"Hey, hold up! Sorry, Nep, I hope I see ya soon!" Red called to the CPU as she took off after her wifey, 5pb following closely behind her.
Jacob looked back at Neptune, Nisa, Gust and Compa. "I'm so sorry."
"It's okay, Jake," answered Compa, wearing a smile in spite of the current events. "It's not your fault."
"It's not hers either..." Jacob sighed. "Anyway, we'll get going. Hopefully, everything'll be sorted out tomorrow. We'll figure out what to do from there, okay?"
Nisa nodded. "Sounds like a plan."
"Okay. I'll see you all maybe tomorrow." With that, Jacob walked towards the cave's exit, leaving the four girls behind again.
Gust looked up at the others, being less dejected than they. "Gust can make something for cheering up if want," she offered.
Neptune shook her head tiredly. "Nah. Winners don't use drugs."
"Depression serious issue," Gust added. "No shame."
"She's right..." the nurse-in-training agreed.
"Let's just go," Nisa cut in. "We'll go back, see that woman tomorrow and see how things go from there, okay?"
"That sounds good," answered Neptune. "I could do with a good nap."
Jacob came to a stop in the middle of one of Leanbox's streets. It only took a few seconds for Red, IF and 5pb to notice and stop as well. "So. You hate you, huh?"
IF groaned. "Can we discuss this later?"
"Well, you just blew up at someone you admitted you missed and now you have self-esteem issues up the wazoo." The male crossed his arms as he appraised the brunette critically. "I think we should talk about this now."
"What's there to talk about? I'm partly responsible for Neptune ending up like she did and it makes me sick."
"How about why you'd even entertain the notion to begin with?" Jacob rolled his eyes as IF sharply turned around at the question. "Why didn't you just say no to Yvoire? Why didn't you kick him in the nads? Or throw the poison right in his face? Why did you pocket it of all things and say you'll think about it?"
IF marched closer to a nearby wall and banged her fist against it. "... I don't want to talk about this right now."
"Iffy, he's right."
IF, Jacob, 5pb and even the lethargic dragon looked at Red with eyes wide with shock. For the first time since meeting him, the red-headed girl was agreeing with and supporting the male's opinion. "... Um..." IF said if only because she couldn't currently say anything else.
"Iffy, I'm really worried," Red continued. "I can tell you and Nep used to be best buds but now you're trying to run away from her even though you don't wanna. That's not right, y'know? Now, even I can tell that there's more here than meets the eye. I'm worried about my wifey, okay? All of us are. We just want you to be happy."
The brunette's eyes softened. "Red..."
The energetic girl ran up to IF and captured her in a tight hug. "Come on! Ya know you can trust us, right?" asked Red as she smiled at her wifey. "You can tell us anything."
Caught off guard, IF was momentarily silent. The red-headed girl never stopped smiling at her, though. IF was compelled to smile back. "Sorry, it's just... I'm just a bit tired." The brunette placed a hand on Red's shoulder. "Can we just head back for a rest? I promise I'll tell you later."
"Sure!" Red answered cheerfully. "I ain't gonna force ya to do anything and I ain't gonna hold it against ya."
"And neither will I," added Jacob, smiling a little bit himself.
"Thanks," IF sighed out of relief as Red released her from her embrace. "I know I can trust you. It's just a personal issue of mine that... Well, I'm not comfortable sharing it."
"I know how that feels," Jacob responded. "Just tell us in your own time, okay?"
The Moderatist nodded, wearing a grateful smile. "I will, don't worry. Now let's go."
That discussion put to the side, IF led the party advancing down the street aiming towards the party's lodgings. With IF's back turned to them, Jacob leaned to Red. "Thank you, Red."
"I'm doing it for my wifey," Red reminded him sternly. "Even if you are an evil alien feeding off the good emotions of girls, she doesn't deserve to suffer."
Jacob sniggered a bit. "Still, thanks. She is a dear friend of mine as well, you know. We've known each other as long as she and Neptune have known each other. Well, with this little party split, I've actually known her a bit longer now."
Red looked up at him, curious now. "Really?"
"Yeah. I don't know anything about her that Neptune wouldn't know, though, so you can ask her when we merge again. Saves you from talking to me, eh?"
The red-headed girl grinned. "Well, looks like you're at least a somewhat nice evil alien. I'll put up with you for now."
As the party walked on, Jacob looked back at 5pb. She did not look like she felt the current ease of the party. She looked at IF with eyes of anxiety and apprehension and her hands were fiddling with each other. "Hey, 5pb, you okay?" he asked.
Caught off guard, the idol's eyes briefly widened and her soundwave line irises appeared and spiked at the same time before she got over the surprise. "Ah, y-yes..." she stammered, still stealing glances at the back of the brunette's head.
Jacob decided not to push it and kept walking.
Conversation entered Vert's meeting chambers. The CPU had her back to the door but Conversation wasn't intimidated; just curious. "Did you call for me, Lady Green Heart?"
Vert turned around to look at the Evangelist. She didn't think the blonde goddess could look more stern or agitated if she tried. "Indeed I have. I'm rather certain you know the purpose of this meeting."
"So... did you carry it out?" the silhouette asked. "Has the deed been done?"
"No it has not," Vert answered. "I had a suspicion you were lying to me when you told me of Jacob's plans. I ventured to the dungeon and, as it turns out, you caved in the entrance. I'm rather certain that was not part of the plan."
The Evangelist flinched. "My lady, I—"
"Enough." Conversation flinched. It was rare and somewhat unnerving for Vert to bare her teeth at anyone even when angry. "Now, I missed the opportunity last time to ask you questions of my own." Vert took a step closer to the silhouette. "How did you come to learn of the Console War? Why have you not confided in me with this knowledge? You have proven yourself to be untrustworthy with the way you act on your own so you better tell me everything before I take further action."
The Evangelist was faced with the coldest glare she had ever seen. Despite this, the most she'd give the CPU was a slightly peeved sigh. "Well, it appears this is going awry so I best take further action of my own."
"What are you—"
Vert's inquiry was interrupted by a pulse of magic emitted from Conversation's outstretched hand that, with a sound that combined a 'BOOM' and a 'VOOM', launched her at the glass walls faster than a cannonball. The dome shook but the glass didn't break as Vert crashed against it and fell to the floor. Bracing herself against the floor, Vert panted and looked up at the slowly advancing silhouette.
A dark, malicious chuckle escaped Conversation, her hand resting on her hip. "Now, my dear Vert, I'm afraid I'll have to do this sooner than intended..."
By the way, this website counts conjunctions as two separate words. This is why this website's wordcount and Microsoft Word's wordcount are very different.
Now, I still can't believe IF couldn't figure out who the "Unknown Assailant" was. I mean, she called her Iffy, she pretty much said she was transformed, Conversation wouldn't say such a thing to anyone else and Conversation and Yvoire don't really work for anyone else (apart from Blanc in the former's case but she's not important right now). Isn't IF supposed to be the smart one? Or is she just smart in a relative sense? And yes, I know that they would have figured it out by this story's order of events but it was such a ripe opportunity that I couldn't pass it up.
Also, the "What do you we do" bit is actually dubbed into the game. Fortunately, it's only in the subtitles and the 'you' is not spoken but am I the kind of guy to let this sort of opportunity slide? No!
Ugh... man, I'm still so exhausted trying to write this. Is this what it feels like for a shounen protagonist to use their super modes for too long? It might just be. Then again, I haven't seen a super mode last for longer than two and a quarter years (apart from an episode of Dragon Ball Z but I digress). I'm sorry these chapters are taking so long, my dear readers, but it is rather taxing... But rest assured, I am not giving up. I have been writing this for two years and a quarter. I am not giving up now. Not a chance in hell.
Come hell or high water, Chapter 35: A Violent Darkness will be posted.