Chapter 39: The Light Beyond the Locked Door

Assembled in front of the CPU of Leanbox in the glass dome room were seven females and one male. For an audience to be personally granted with a CPU was a tremendous privilege that few people in the history of Gamindustri could boast to have enjoyed. Vert recalled they always overdressed and took too much time looking after their hair and face so as to be presentable to her. Not that she could actually tell, given that everyone else was a silhouette; they ended up telling her, sometimes three times. To meet with a CPU was an honoured occasion that, from the perspective of manners, demanded that you present yourself at your very best.

Neptune's party, by comparison, were dressed in their usual clothes and looked about as enthusiastic as a wrapper at the bottom of a bin.

"Are you... okay?" asked Vert. "Did you get enough sleep?"

"No," they all answered in unison. "And no."

"Hm... I suppose it can't be helped. Yesterday was rather stressful and eventful." The CPU knotted her hands together. "That said, I thank you for making the time to visit me despite your fatigue."

"You said it was important," IF responded. "We couldn't miss it because of a bit of lacking sleep. What's going on?"

"Your personal health is not more important than meeting me. But yes, I should proceed. After your departure, I took the liberty of looking into this Key Fragment that you seek."

Jacob groaned. "Let me guess: you've found that Arfoire's still alive and she's got another cell of Basilicom workers or Aristocrats to incite a civil war?"

"No but it's funny you mention her. I was spurred into action as I remembered a dungeon she frequented as an Evangelist. I visited it myself."

IF was a lot more alert and curious. "Wait, what? Did you find something?"

Vert shook her head. "I did not. I couldn't even penetrate the depths of the dungeon. An enemy, a Valkyrie, proved to me much tougher than I expected." Her hands tightened into fists. "To be honest, I'm rather annoyed that a non-boss monster managed to deter me. A CPU should be much stronger than that."

Nisa whistled. "Sounds like a rather strong dungeon." The heroine of justice punched her fist into her palm with a grin on her face. "I could use a challenge! I'm out of practice."

"Yeah!" said Neptune. "I mean, we dunno if there's even a Key Fragment there but, if Arfoire likes it so much, there's got to be something there. The fruit of the sundae is that we get to grind."

"Fruit of the... what?" Jacob asked.

"She means the worst that could happen, like there's nothing else there," answered Compa.

"..." Jacob turned to Vert. "We didn't cover this yesterday but did Arfoire tell you anything about Momus? Or anything of use at all?"

"I'm afraid not. She goaded us but she gave us no useful information whatsoever." The CPU sighed. "I'll remember next time not to fall so easily to my emotions."

"Eh, lesson well learned. Guess we're stuck scavenging around for Key Fragments."

"I wish you the best of luck. The dungeon in question is the Sealed Ruin of the Closed Holy Ground. Iffy, your phone could probably point the way."

"Nah, I've been to the Sealed Ruin before." Even so, IF still pulled out her phone and flipped it open. "Not the Closed Holy Ground, though, so this will be a new experience."

"Oh!" Jacob snapped his fingers. "Speaking of phones, Vert, do you think you and IF should trade phone numbers? We can keep you updated on what we find."

Vert gasped in delight. "A great idea!"

IF's head snapped up. "Wait, what?"

While IF was starting to understand Jacob's suggestion, the CPU of Leanbox reached into her hammerspace and pulled out her own flip phone. It was green with a gold trim and a golden flower decal was printed on the front. "Iffy, do call me often. I'd love to hear all about your adventures!"

"U-U-U-Uh, are you sure? Y-You really think I should have your phone number?"

"But of course! Do you disagree?"

"No, b-but...!"

Jacob looked down to his right and saw 5pb and Red looking at him. In 5pb's eyes, he could see a trace of disappointment. In Red's eyes, he saw a glaring vow of indignant retribution accompanying her puffed cheeks and pout.

Jacob stuck his tongue out at Red. Not 5pb, though. 5pb was nice to him.

"There!" Vert closed her phone with a smile. "Now, Iffy, if you can't reach me, leave a message. I will get back to you as soon as I can."

IF didn't even look at Vert, much less answer back. Her face was as red as Red's hair as she looked at her now closed phone, which she clasped gently yet closely with both hands. She brought it to her chest and took a deep breath.

"So, uh," began Neptune, "you could always come with us if you want adventure. The Super Dimension Game Party always has room."

Vert smiled sadly. "Thank you for the offer Neptune. I would gladly accept but I must focus on my landmass for now. I think the eight of you will be sufficient, however. Good luck!"

The Sealed Ruins, a stone dungeon coloured like an autumn forest, fit the cliché of run-down ruins to the line. The walls were made from green, brown, and grey square bricks of many sizes big and small. In front of these walls stood pairs of thick brown stone pillars that supported the roof. Yellow tiles, some bearing a green 1 or 0, were on the floor next to the walls. Running through the middle of the dungeon floor like a carpet were tiles arranged in patterns using orange, grey, gold, and a dark and light green. The party entered this dungeon through a vertical narrow column slightly smaller than a bathroom with two stone benches arranged like a square. Torches mounted on wide poles and against the wall illuminated the dungeon for them.

"Was that an elevator or something?" asked Jacob as he looked at the stone benches. No one seemed to hear him, though.

"So what are the chances that this dungeon has a Key Fragment?" asked Nisa.

"Probably one hundred percent," answered Gust. "Landmass arc resolved, story rewards with plot trinket. Obvious progression."

"That's probably the same for the other landmasses," said Jacob. "So where should we go after this?"

"I vote Lastation!" shouted Neptune. "It's been so long since we've seen Noirey and Chian, and we need to talk about Armas!" As she mentioned its name, Neptune brandished the mech sword.

"True," said IF. "Also, we're further along with things there while we have no idea what's going on in Lowee. We'll be closer to the Key Fragment in Lastation."

"I'd like to go to Lastation," said 5pb. "It's not as advanced as Planeptune but it still has good technology."

Red pumped her fist in the air. "Then we're going to Lastation! Let's hope they have some good wifeys as—"

"Hang on," said Jacob all of a sudden. "I just realised something."

"Is it about stairs?" IF asked, her tone adding that the answer had better be 'no'.

"No." Jacob stroked his chin as he looked at IF. "Vert has yellow hair, 5pb has blue hair, and Red have red hair. You has incredibly boring brown hair like a regular anime protagonist.

IF's eye twitched. "What's your point?"

"My point is, your harem has hair in primary colours."

"My WHAT?!" IF bellowed with a furious blush, with 5pb adopting the same shade and Red nodding with a satisfied smile.

"Your primary hair-em." Jacob grinned. "I'm surprised you're not the main character in this rigmarole."

"Wait, that's right! Even though it's not right!" Neptune exclaimed. "Why don't I have a harem? I'm cute! I'm lovable! I'm an eligible bachelor!"

"Maybe you're too old for anyone, goddess."

"I'm timeless, kiddo." Neptune pouted. "Learn the diff—"

Regular like clockwork, three monsters spawned in front of the party. All three were armoured and humanoid, the two on the sides less so than the one in the middle. With how the two side monsters were the same, they conveyed the image of personal guards for the one in the middle.

The middle monster's face was covered by a mask by a blue metal. The forehead was covered by a thicker brown metal from which protruded two blue metal lengths that resembled the ears of a rabbit. Behind the creature's head, down past the tanned orange neck, was silver hair divided into two thin braids. From its waist hung an orange dress covered in blue armour, much like its blue vest and puffy sleeves. Standing tall with heeled boots of brown metal, it carried in its right hand a spear that bore a diamond snowflake-shaped blade the width of a broadaxe. It extended its left hand out towards the party, laying out and then bringing back in its fingers in beckoning.


"That's a Valkyrie, I take it?" Jacob asked.

"Yes. Monsters next to it are Arch Demons," answered Gust.

The Arch Demons certainly had demonic outlines—with serpentine tails, leathery and spiked wings that they flapped as they floated off the ground, taloned feet, and a pair of curved horns on their heads—although their teal-coloured bodies and their horns and talons being pink detracted from the fear factor. Not too much, though, as they both carried in their right hands a sword weapon with two thirds of its length a wrapped handle and the remaining third a double-edged dark blue blade. What was really unnerving came from how the middle third of their weapons was protected by a fleshy circular handguard, complete with an eye that remained completely still yet lively moist. Their own eyes were covered with a thick helmet that was part of a thick neck guard that seemed utterly inflexible. Their legs and arms were less armoured.

"Alright, dear sister, you know what to do..." said Nisa with a bored drawl.

"Oh do I ever!" The CPU of Planeptune held Armas before her. She closed her eyes, becoming as blind as the sword she held... until she lifted it skyward like a sacred torch. Much in the same manner did a fiery purple aura flare around its blade with the same intensity of ignition as that with which Neptune opened her eyes.

"Here we go!"

The rest of the party observed the usual slicing and dicing with disinterest. So many flashing lights, so many sword slashes, so much damage, so routine. The only ones who were impressed were 5pb and Red, innocent to the repetition of what should be an ace in the hole.

After a length of time that no one was keeping track of, either because of how boring or impressive the spectacle was, Neptune struck for the final time and landed on the ground.

5pb applauded. "That was an incredibly powerful attack!"

"Yeah!" cheered Red. "Well, I mean, it didn't kill the monsters but it was still cool."

The phrase 'didn't kill the monsters' popped the victorious air like a balloon. Neptune looked back behind her and found, to her confusion, the monsters still standing. That alone was unusual but they weren't even lumbering from heavy damage.

"Huh," said Neptune. "That usually works."

The Valkyrie lowered its arm as it turned its head to Neptune. Behind its azure mask, one got the impression it was smirking.

"Uh, guys?" Neptune turned to her party. "My super attack isn't something I can spam so—"

"Leave it to us!" As the monsters stood unslain by Neptune's most powerful attack, so too did Nisa feel energized and ready to fight. "Let's go, everyone!"

"Right!" cheered the rest of the party as they pulled out their weapons. A syringe, a pair of hidden blades, a staff, a guitar, and a pair of yo-yos emerged to be used on the monsters alongside Neptune's sword. Nisa just clenched her fists and put 'em up.

IF ran towards one of the Arch Demons with her trademark amazing speed. An instant passed before she got close enough to charge in and swing her arm to slice. The Arch Demon, with a flap of its wings, pushed itself out of the way of the attack. IF followed through with a lunge but the demon floated back away again, much further this time to put itself out of IF's reach. It then batted its wings mightily and charged at IF with an overhead slash. IF spun out of the way of the attack's fall and, using the momentum of her movement, punched forward with—

"Take this!" cried Red as a giant yo-yo smashed into the Arch Demon's torso and sent it flying away.

As her target vanished, IF almost fell forward from the momentum of her own lunge. "Be careful about that!" she called to Red.

"Sorry! I still wuv you!"

IF rolled her eyes. She dashed at the Arch Demon again, who swung with a left hook as she got close but she ducked under the strike and thrust out her left blade in turn. The monster twisted its body back away from the sharp point, while also bringing its sword arm back before thrusting it forward. The Moderatist grunted as she caught the weapon with her crossed blades. "Nngh...!" However hard she pushed against, the Arch Demon was stronger and its demonic edge crept closer to her face.

"Iffy!" cried Red as she ran forward and leapt at the monster's head. IF felt the monster's push weaken as its attention was caught by the little girl, who drew from her sleeve a frisbee in a red flash against the Arch Demon's helmet. The monster cried as its attention transferred to its pain, allowing IF to break out of the guard with a spin and reverse-kick the monster's sword hand with her heel. Although the attack didn't disarm the monster, Red landed next to her and threw out two yo-yos against the monster's chest, pushing it away. Red then spun them behind her and threw them overhead like hammers, bashing against the Arch Demon's temple and knocking it down.

IF couldn't help but smile at her companion. "That's more like it."

"That's what I'm here for," Red replied with a wink.

With the help of his jetpack, Jacob took to the air above the other Arch Demon, which batted its wings and charged towards his altitude. Jacob brought his palms together and aimed at the monster. "Red Geyser!" A red beam, no larger than Jacob's regular laser, shot at the monster's chest continuously from his palms. Rather than splash against it like the one-handed laser would have, the punching power of Jacob's orbs combined into the attack to increase its impact and pushing force. The monster roared in pain as the beam punched into it and pushed it towards the ground. Right before the monster made contact, Jacob's attack subsided, allowing the monster to stand on solid ground rather than smash onto it.

"My song will end you!" shouted Gust before she bombarded the beast with the bursts of her Musical Words spell, eliciting louder and longer cries of pain as well as kick up a lot of dust that obscured the Arch Demon. Taking caution, Gust guarded with her staff and readied herself to dodge should she suddenly be attacked. Sure enough, the monster zoomed out of the dust cloud towards the alchemist.

Jacob shot onto its back with both feet before it even made the halfway mark, pushing it into the stone floor. While it groaned from its hole, he quickly shot up away from any possible counterattack. He pressed his wrists together and spread his curved fingers like an open maw. Red energy coalesced into a spiral that formed into a spinning sphere. "Gust, pepper it!"

"Got it!" Gust pointed her staff and fired orbs of light repeatedly at the downed monster as Jacob fired laser balls at the same time.

As Red, IF, Jacob, and Gust focused on the Arch Demons, Neptune spun her sword in her hand as she stared down the Valkyrie. "Alright girls, on me!"

"You got it!" Nisa answered as she ran to her sister's side with Compa and 5pb in tow.

The CPU leapt with an overhead swing, which was effortlessly blocked by the blade of the Valkyrie's spear. Nisa jumped up and delivered a spinning kick but it only bounced off the spear's shaft. Compa and 5pb, safe at the back, shot at the Valkyrie with a syringe and electric balls; the attacks weren't that potent but the monster grimaced from the stings.

Upon landing on the floor, Nisa kicked off with both fists out and rocketed at the monster's midsection. The Valkyrie doubled over and finally was forced back a couple of steps. Nisa stepped forward to follow through but the Valkyrie stabbed into the ground with her oversized blade as a makeshift shield, cutting off Nisa before she even started.

"Flank it!" yelled the heroine as she and the CPU broke away from the front of the Valkyrie and stood at its left and right sides, from where both girls jumped towards the monster. The Valkyrie plucked its spear from the stone ground and ducked before spinning its weapon in a circle on its back. Neptune blocked the spear's blade with Armas while Nisa used her Prinny blade to block the spear's end but both were struck on their sides and batted away.

5pb bit her lip but strummed her guitar gently with her pick. "Kono sekai ni umareta sono imi wa..."

An electric blue light engulfed every member of the party. Blinking with energy, the heroine and CPU pushed themselves off the ground like they had an energising nap. "Whoa..." Neptune gasped in awe. "I feel defeated, yet inexplicably rejuvenated...!"

"Warding dark magic, healing injuries..." Nisa looked towards the idol with eyes burning in admiration. "Is there nothing an idol's song can't do?"

5pb winked at the girls. "An idol's song is all about giving people the power to stand up no matter how many times they fall!"

Compa shook her head and focused on the Valkyrie. Its inner thighs weren't covered by its boots and armour, so the nurse charged with her syringe like a lance. The monster quickly poked forward with its spear, which Compa blocked with her weapon backed by her above average strength. With a grunt, she pushed the blade away and stepped in to impale the exposed flesh with her syringe.

"Gyaaaaah!" The monster howled in pain. With vigour, it whacked the nurse-in-training with its spear and sent her flying into a wall with a CRASH!

"COMPA!" Neptune cried out. Her fierce glare focused on the monster that dared to harm her friend. "Okay, fun time's OVER!"

As she closed her eyes, a column of light engulfed her. The light disappeared as quickly as it came and, in the place of a little girl, there stood a determined woman with translucent wings. Purple Heart focused her blue eyes on the Valkyrie and gripped her sword with both hands. "You may say your prayers, monster, but no goddess will hear you!"

Planeptune's CPU rose straight into the air and then shot towards the Valkyrie's head with a spinning slash. The monster blocked Purple Heart's blade with its own, and just as quickly did Purple Heart spin to strike the other way. The Valkyrie leaned its head back to avoid and then punched its spear towards the CPU's position. Thanks to her flight, it was a simple matter for Purple Heart to dive down to the monster's legs to avoid the strike. The monster followed through with a sweeping slash that Purple Heart floated over, and then an upwards diagonal slash that Purple Heart drifted to the right of. The Valkyrie stepped forward with every strike, forcing back Purple Heart at the same rate.

"How is this monster so powerful and skilled...?" Purple Heart grunted. "Its swordsmanship exceeds my own..."

5pb continued to sing. "Kono sekai ni..."

"Gngh..." Compa grunted from the wall, glowing with the light of 5pb's song.

As Purple Heart rose into the air, the Valkyrie swiped with its left hand, which the CPU flipped over. The monster lunged with its spear and Purple Heart rolled to the side to avoid it as she readied her blade. She failed to notice the monster's left hand swipe forward and swat her.

Purple Heart corrected her tumbling and landed on the wall with her feet. She zoomed straight at the monster with her sword raised above her head, against which the monster prepared with its blade in a horizontal guard, but Purple Heart vaulted right over the monster and slashed across the back of its neck. The monster stumbled forward from the attack.

Nisa leapt towards the monster's head and struck it with an axe kick. The incredible blow forced the monster to bend forward but it did not lose its balance. As Nisa landed on the ground, she rocketed up to deliver an uppercut to the beast's chin. The Valkyrie this time dropped its spear as it took several shaky steps backwards, holding its head as it began to sway.

Nisa pumped her fist. "Alright, we're wearing it down!"

Jacob flew down to the Arch Demon above Gust but it turned around with a swing of its blade. Jacob raised his arms and projected his Wide Guard to block himself from the edge's cut but the force of the strike still deflected him from his course. Rather than spin out of control and crash, however, Jacob landed on his feet facing the monster and wasted no time in flying towards it again with his fists drawn back. The monster swung its sword again but Jacob flew beneath the path of the edge. He thrust his fists out at the monster's torso and kept flying, pushing the Arch Demon into the wall.

Jacob promptly flew back and away from the beast, which was disoriented in its vertical crater. "Gus—"

Before he finished, the monster was thrashed by a succession of magic bursts kicking up green dust. Once the explosions subsided, the green dust dissipating into the air, the monster fell forward down to the floor. It pixelated and burst before it could break the ground.

Gust smiled coyly at Jacob as she held her staff behind her back. "No instruction needed. Gust knows best."

"Not in the moral sense, I'd say," Jacob answered as he rolled his arm, "but that'll do for now."

IF flipped and cartwheeled around her own Arch Demon, extending her legs and cutting when the opportunity arose. Her progress in whittling it down was slow, however, and the monster only frenzied faster and harder in its pain. The Arch Demon cut in a circle across the floor, which IF jumped over, but that left her prone to the monster's backhand which knocked her away.

"Stop bullying my wifey!" Red brought out her kendama and swung towards the Arch Demon that struck IF. The monster attempted to parry with its sword but its strength was nowhere near enough to stop the heavy wooden mallet from bashing it across the hall. It burst into pixels before it hit the ground or the wall.

"Woohoo! Hairemer Red is victorious! One down, two to go!" Red cheered.

"Hang on, we just beat ours!" called Jacob as he and Gust approached.

"Oh, so that leaves Nep and the Valkyrie?"

"Seems like it. Let's go." Jacob took flight towards the Valkyrie as Red, Gust, and IF followed on their feet. Jacob flew above the monster and fired his smaller lasers across exposed flesh while IF cut along the legs as she ran past.

Purple Heart floated closer to the ground towards IF. "So you're all done with the fodder?"

"You try calling them 'fodder' when you're getting beaten around like a baseball," IF grumbled as she rubbed her shoulder.

The CPU looked back at the monster. It was being swarmed on one side by the projectiles of Jacob, Gust, and Red while Nisa delivered jumping punches and kicks to the other. "I may know that feeling a bit more than you might think. You're all okay?"

IF rolled her shoulders. "We're not in tip-top condition but we're good to go."

"Fine by me. Let's attack!"

Purple Heart and IF advanced towards the Valkyrie—

"GRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!" The monster roared right before it picked up its spear and swung it wide all around it in one mighty motion. Jacob and Red yelped as they moved backwards, Gust fell backwards, and Nisa jumped away. Purple Heart and IF braked before they got in the way of the weapon's path.

"This is ridiculous!" Purple Heart complained. "It's way too fast, strong, and good at fighting for its size!"

"Kono sek—" 5pb coughed. "Sorry...! Kono sekai ni umareta sono imi wa..."

"5pb, don't push yourself!" said Nisa.

"Red!" Jacob called. "Try wrapping it in your yo-yo!"

Red blinked. "Why?"

"To stop it from moving, damn it!"



"Oh, right! Like a whip! Or a lasso! Gotcha!"

"Just let me make it focus on me first!" Jacob flew up and fired sphere after sphere at the Valkyrie's head. With a grunt, the monster quickly thrust its spear at Jacob, who projected his Wide Guard but it still pushed him far above.

"I'm still here!" Purple Heart was next to attack the Valkyrie from the top. She flew by quickly with a slash, then flew back and slashed again. She continued to attack the monster in that hit-and-run fashion, which Jacob complimented with his projectiles, and the Valkyrie proceeded to cut and jab at the air in frustration as it tried to keep track of both targets.

Safe from catching the Valkyrie's attention, Red ran forward. Once she was close, she jumped up and threw a yo-yo down at the monster's legs and at its torso with an "Alley-oop!" She landed on the ground and pulled with both arms, fastening the yo-yos around the monster's limbs.

Red kept pulling to hold the monster in place. The monster growled and pulled back, pushing out its arms and legs. Red was nowhere near as strong as the monster; she tumbled forward with ease.

"Let me have one!" Nisa called as she took a yo-yo from Red and pulled with all her might.

"I'll help you!" said Compa as she rushed to Red's side and seized the yo-yo Red was holding and pulled with her.

With all three girls holding strong and steady, the monster couldn't break free of its restraints so easily. But it pushed and pushed and, bit by bit, the yo-yos gave. The girls grunted as their strength wore down.

"Now!" shouted Gust as she prepared another magic circle. "Musical Words!"

Magic burst after magic burst pummeled the Valkyrie, each one robbing its strength a little more. It wasn't down and out but it was not going to get out of the yo-yos anytime soon. Its balance was unsteady and it had difficulty keeping its head up.

"It's nearly done for! Now's our chance!" said Purple Heart, flying forward and slashing the monster on her way past. She rushed to a wall, landed with her feet, and sprung off it towards the monster again. "IF!"

"Got it!" said IF, extending her blades and sprinting forward.

The CPU and the Moderatist met the monster in the middle. After the slashing of all three blades, the two girls landed on either side of it. At first, the monster was still. A second passed, and then it fell to its knees, its shape distorting. Its torso began to fall forward and, just before it thudded against the ground, it burst into data. Red's yo-yos, no longer wrapped around anything, dropped to the ground.

Purple Heart plunged her sword into the ground and used it to support herself as she panted.

IF fell to one knee, bracing herself on the other as she got her breath back.

Red, Nisa, and Compa collapsed to the floor with thorough exhaustion.

Jacob lumbered to a wall and sat down next to it. "Geez... Vert managed to survive that thing alone...?"

"Gh..." Purple Heart pushed herself up and approached Compa. "Compa, are you okay?"

The nurse looked up at the CPU. She smiled and nodded. "I just need... to catch... my breath..."

Purple Heart looked to 5pb. "5pb, can—"

The idol cut her off prematurely with a harsh cough. She had one hand pressed against the wall and the other against her chest. "I'm—" A cough interrupted her. "I'm sorry..." She coughed again. "I've never sung that much before to heal..."

Gust, who was the only one rather fresh from the battle, pulled out a bottle with a sky blue liquid and approached the idol. "For you, free. Not best for sore throats but better than nothing."

"Thanks—" Another couple of coughs cut her off. She reached for the bottle but stopped short of touching it as she looked at the alchemist's face. The alchemist urged it towards her. The idol, biting her lip, took the bottle and opened it. She took a breath and then drank the whole bottle at once.

"Well?" asked Gust. "How are you?"

The idol wiped her mouth with her arm. She breathed in... then out... and then she smiled. "I feel—" She coughed again, but it was much less intense this time, like she was just clearing her throat of a minor annoyance. "I feel much better, thank you."

"You're welcome," said Gust. "May have to make more. We fight often."

"We're really blessed to have three healers on this team..." said Jacob. "Feels like nothing can kill us."

Purple Heart closed her eyes and, in a flash, turned back to Neptune. "Jeez, I'm pooped. Let's set up camp for now before we go back."

"Fantastic idea. I, for one, could use something to eat. Who's hungry?"

Seven counts of 'me' bounced through the dungeon, one much louder than the others.

"Alright..." Jacob reached into his disk. "Let's see what I have in here..."

The heroine of justice rolled her shoulders before she looked towards the idol. "Your music is astounding, 5pb. If you used your healing music at a concert, it'd be little wonder your fans were so energised and alive!"

"NO! No no no, I would—" The idol coughed again. "I would never do that! That would be dishonest! All of my concerts are purely my voice and song! No powers!"

"Okay, okay! I'm sorry!"

Red, in exhaustion, thrust a thumbs-up into the air. "This party... rocks..."

It was a good thing random encounters didn't happen while everyone was still; they had all the time in the world to rest and eat before getting up and going again. Granted, they only rested for half an hour, but the battle before went for much less than that and so the rest felt like forever. They couldn't stay forever, though, so the party got up and proceeded to... well, proceed through the dungeon.

Upon getting near the end, the party came to a stop. Up ahead was a monster. As per usual for dungeon bosses, it stood in the middle of the path without being triggered with a random encounter. But this one was different from the norm.

"Holy smokes..." Jacob muttered.

A ten-legged spider. Actually, a spider-centaur with a human body coming up from its abdomen. It had a key-shaped sword. It was brown. It was really big.

Compa gasped. "A Guard Vermin?"

IF was speechless.

"I've never seen a monster like that before...!" Nisa exclaimed.

"Not a girl, not interested," said Red.

"So we were right all along!" cheered Neptune. "Guard Vermins still exist! The Key Fragment could really be here and we just need to beat up the boss!"

Said boss stayed right where it was, bobbing its sword against its shoulder.

Jacob rubbed his chin. "Any ideas on how to deal with it?"

"I think Neptune should transform preemptively," said IF.

"Ooh, good idea!" said Neptune. "Ahem..."

Flash of light numero trio swapped out Neptune for Purple Heart. "Perhaps I should lead the battle with Neptune Break again?" the CPU asked. "It probably won't end it in an instant but I can at least do some damage."

"I think that's a good idea," said Compa. "5pb, Gust and I will stand back and provide support."

"Good us long range types," said Gust.

Purple Heart looked at 5pb. "Don't sing unless you need to. I don't want you to hurt yourself."

"What?" said 5pb, taken aback. "But what if you get hurt?"

"We have potions. I'm not telling you not to sing; I just don't want you to do it unless no one else can heal us when we need it."

With that, the CPU turned and faced the Guard Vermin, which was still no more interested in attacking than it was before. Again she drew her purple and black katana and held it high as it flared with purple energy. "Neptune BREAK!"

At her call, she moved so fast that all the party could see was a purple blur. The monster's whole body shuddered in the direction of Purple Heart's travel with each pass and it cried out with each hit. After so many of them, she landed on the ground with her back to the Guard Vermin. "Red! Nisa!"

"You got it!" Red sprung through the air while Nisa charged along the ground. The red-headed girl spun through the air before she pulled out her kendama and hammered down on the Guard Vermin's head.

The Guard Vermin had far too many legs to lose its balance from one strike. However, its humanoid, carapace-covered body lurched forward and down from the force, right to where Nisa sprang up with an uppercut to its chin. While the monster was far too heavy to be lifted into the air, its human body lurched back tremendously.

"Here I go!" IF charged forward at the abdomen's legs with both blades extended. As she dashed from leg to leg, she left one cut after the other repeatedly with as much force as she could muster. Each slashed weakened them bit by bit until they began to tremble. With a grin, IF sprinted away from the monster. "Go, Jacob!"

Jacob had positioned himself above the Guard Vermin, with a colossal ball of yellow right in front of his outspread palms. "Wrecking Ball!" Like a meteor, the attack slammed into the Guard Vermin with titanic force. Its injured legs gave way under the pressure and the entire abdomen collapsed against the ground.

Red put away her kendama and threw two yo-yos at the human body, which wrapped around it just as she had done with the Valkyrie, and pulled with all her might. "Nice one, Jacob...!"

But Jacob did not answer.

"Jacob?" called Red.

After a moment, the male flew down from the sky. "Sorry about that! The Wrecking Ball has way too much recoil. The roof's also really high. Can anyone see the roof?"

"Don't care! Musical Words!" The alchemist thrust her staff forward and pummeled the Guard Vermin with a succession of bursts.

The idol, at the same time, strummed her guitar and fired a triad of electric orbs. They didn't impact the Guard Vermin but they shocked it by hovering nearby.

Once the orbs and Gust's spell concluded, Red withdrew her yo-yos. "Okay, go get it!"

Purple Heart zoomed forward with her sword drawn back. "You're mine—"

The Guard Vermin's left hand rocketed forward and caught her in its crushing grip. With the same speed and force, it smashed her into the wall. Once it took its hand away, it thrust its sword at the three healers.

"LOOK OUT!" called Compa as she, Gust, and 5pb jumped out of the way of the sword's lunge. Compa looked up and saw Purple Heart falling out of the hole the Guard Vermin made in the wall with her and ran to her side on the floor. "NEP-NEP!"

"Compa, run..." Purple Heart grunted.

"No, I'll heal you now!" Compa pulled out a bottle of reflex. "Open up!"

Above them both, the Guard Vermin raised its blade. Without a word, its edge fell like a guillotine.

"NEPTUNE!" cried IF as she ran towards them.

With his cross-armed barrier, Jacob flew into the blade and pushed it away from the nurse and the CPU. Although he flew in a downwards trajectory and was rapidly getting close to the ground, he flipped forward in the air and landed on his feet, skidding along the stone floor. "Compa, get Neptune back in the fight! We'll cover you!"

"I-I'm on it!" The nurse placed a hand on her chest to steady her breathing. She grabbed the green bottle once more and held it to Purple Heart.

The Guard Vermin kept its gaze on Purple Heart and Compa as it lifted its sword once more. IF jumped from the ground to one of its longer legs and then leapt over its sword arm, whereupon she sliced twice with her hidden blades against the back of its hand. The boss grunted but it kept its grip on the sword.

Jacob used both hands to grab Nisa by her arm and flew at the Guard Vermin. He span around once before throwing the heroine at the sword. Nisa hit the sword arm with a spinning kick so powerful that the monster cried in pain as its humanoid torso twisted, forcing it to take steps back and to the side to counter the sensation. Nisa fell to the ground and punched one of the legs while Jacob hovered in front of the monster's face and punched it again and again.

Purple Heart gasped as she finished the reflex bottle. "Thank you, Compa. I don't know what we'd do without you."

Compa blushed but grimaced as she looked to the ground. "W-Well, 5pb and Gust could've healed you..."

"But they didn't, did they?" The CPU rolled her shoulders. "Let's get back to it. I don't want the others to hog all the fun."

Compa nodded. "Right!"

The nurse drew her syringe and fired shot after shot at the Guard Vermin's torso. Purple Heart, meanwhile, lined up her sword and flew at the Guard Vermin's shoulder. With a yell, she thrust her blade into the shoulder with the edge facing up. She then flew up and around the shoulder in a half-circle, pulling her sword along like a lever across the flesh, and sprung away.

"Hyah!" Red spun around with her yo-yos and slammed them into the side of the Guard Vermin's face. The monster's torso twisted to the side from the force.

Jacob flew towards the head. But the monster placed its sword in its left hand and lashed out, tearing Jacob across his stomach.

"GYAH!" he howled as he crashed to the ground, holding his bleeding wound.

"JACOB!" Purple Heart and Compa were immediately at Jacob's side.

IF winced a bit. "That's twice now. How many magnets do you eat?"

"Oh shut up...!" grunted Jacob.

Purple Heart grit her teeth as she faced the boss. "Compa, will Jacob be okay?"

Compa lifted Jacob's shirt and peered at the wound. "Actually, yes. It was a light cut. Arfoire did much worse when she speared him. He'll be up again in a flash."

"Good. I'll leave you to him." Purple rose into the air and kept her guard up as she hovered between the Guard Vermin and Jacob and Compa.

Nisa and Red both leapt, the heroine spinning to deliver a kick and Red pulling out her kendama, and slammed their heavy attacks onto the Guard Vermin's back right knees. The monster let out a shriek as it buckled. Gust and 5pb fired magical attacks of light and lightning at the wounded knees as Nisa jumped onto the Guard Vermin's abdomen and fired punch after punch on its humanoid back. While the Guard Vermin couldn't reach back far enough to toss her off, it violently thrashed about all the while that Nisa couldn't keep her footing. She jumped forward and flipped through the air, delivering one spinning kick to the monster's face before she landed.

The Guard Vermin growled as its torso began to sway. However hard it tried to raise its head, it was proving to be difficult to balance.

"Okay, let me help you up." Compa slid an arm underneath Jacob's shoulder to keep him steady as he stood once more. "You okay?"

"Yeah..." Jacob groaned, still covering his stomach with his arm. "I'll be okay. Bloody annoying, though."

The Guard Vermin, in its fatigue, fell to the ground. With its cumbersomely large lower body and how all of its ten legs were slumping, there wasn't a chance it could get up, let alone walk. It was left to brace itself up using its left arm while its right held up the key sword that leaned over its prone form.

With a snarl, the Guard Vermin lifted up its key sword and impaled it into the ground. Everyone braced themselves for a magic earthquake or rising bubbles... but nothing happened. The monster simply removed its hands from its weapon.

Then a green symbol of nested circles appeared in the ground from where the key stabbed into it, whereupon it turned completely on its own. As if the magic symbol's powers were unlocked, eight beams shot into the sky and converged at a single point far away, beyond any of the party members' ability to see it.

A light shone in the sky like a star. Although it was quite brilliant in the dull dungeon's fathomless height, it stopped being pretty as it fell towards the party, tinting the area green in its descent. It was huge. It was loud. It was bright like the sun, and everyone felt its warmth crawl across their bodies like they were just stepping out of the shade into a volcano.

"EVERYONE TO ME!" screamed Jacob as he crossed his arms and projected a large barrier.

Purple Heart, Compa, IF, Gust, Nisa, 5pb, and Red rushed to his position and huddled together while they couldn't see anything from the light filling the dungeon. All anyone could hear was the whistling and burning of the falling magic attack, which got louder and hotter as it approached...

Until it impacted the barrier with a deafening and blinding burst. The ground cracked and crumbled beneath the party's feet, leaving their footing soft and unreliable, but still they held onto each other for the brief couple of seconds it took for the attack's aftermath to subside.

Jacob clutched his stomach as he collapsed to the ground. "God, that hurt...!"

"Thanks anyway," said IF.

"It's attacking!" called Red.

The Guard Vermin beheld the party gathered together and raised its sword before bringing it down on the cluster. The weapon was already big enough to make for a short wall; it was going to cleave something in two aside from the floor.

But it never reached even a single person. Nisa pressed both her hands against the flat sides of the blades and pushed as hard up as she could, stopping the strike from reaching her team. Yet the Guard Vermin continued to push, and its strength gradually forced Nisa closer to the ground. Her legs sagged even as she tried to hold on.

She stared at her party over her shoulder with shaking eyes, gritting her teeth. "We did not come this far to stop now...! We're so close...! Finish it, team!"

5pb blinked as if she was waking up from a sudden realisation. She bit her lip as she tore her heart pick from her choker and strummed her guitar. "Kono sekai ni uma—" She couldn't stop herself from coughing but she pushed on. "Umareta sono... imi wa..."

A light, as blue as 5pb's shimmering hair, cloaked Nisa as an aura. She felt her strength return to her as she pushed the boss' sword back up.

"Get it!" yelled Gust, aiming her staff while Compa aimed her syringe before they both opened fire on the boss' chest.

The Guard Vermin cried out in pain and quickly raised its sword into the air, with Nisa still clinging onto it and crying out "WHOA!"

The boss' arm nearly circled behind its head before coming to a sudden stop, bound by a yo-yo that seized its wrist. "I've got it! Let's bring it down!" yelled Red.

Purple Heart brought her sword up. "IF, again!"

IF extended her katars. "Ready when you are!"

The two girls shot forward with their blades. All that could be seen in Purple Heart's wake was a path of purple light that shot beyond the Guard Vermin and left a deep cut in its side, eliciting a roar from it. IF raced across the ground in turn and leapt, spinning like a top in flight with her blades out. She tore across the side of the boss, amplifying its pained cry, before landing on her feet next to Purple Heart.

One of the Guard Vermin's spider legs slipped on the ground but it righted itself. Two other legs buckled and fell after, leaving the first leg to follow suit. The entire body of the Guard Vermin came crashing down against the ground, the smashing stone echoing across the walls of the dungeon. Finally, the beast burst into cerulean data, leaving no trace of its existence but the damage it wrought.

Compa supported Jacob up on his feet as he held his stomach. 5pb and Gust rested against the wall. Nisa and Red collapsed on the ground, panting for breath.

Releasing her HDD, Neptune let go of Armas and fell to the ground, bracing herself with her hands and panting heavily.

With a gasp, IF sat down beside her with a thump. With her chest rising with heavy breaths of exhaustion, the Moderatist looked at the CPU. "You did well... Neptune..."

Although she was catching her breath, Neptune smiled brightly. "We were always gonna win... I had you on my team, Iffy..."

With a groan, the brunette turned away from the CPU.

Neptune's smile faltered but she let it drop; no use holding onto it. She looked forward and her eyes widened. "Hey, isn't that...?"

An object took the place of the past Guard Vermin. It was green and... honestly, that was all anyone could make of it, like it was an object nobody rendered. But Neptune recognised it and, in doing so, she beamed in pure joy.

"GUYS! GUYS GUYS GUYS GUYS GUYS!" The discovery alone energised Neptune to dash towards it and grab it. She quickly spun around and presented it to the party. "IT'S THE KEY FRAGMENT! WE FINALLY FOUND THE SECOND KEY FRAGMENT!"

Compa gasped. "It is! That's it! That's the Key Fragment!"

IF tilted her head. "Wait, that's it...? Is that even a key?"

"I dunno!" Neptune pocketed the Key Fragment in her disc. "But it's the same as the one I got from Planeptune so it must be a Key Fragment!"

Nisa pumped one fist into the air. "Woohoo..."

"So that's one of the things we need to save the world...?" asked Red.

"Yeah! We just need two more, one from Lastation and one from Lowee. After that, I dunno." Neptune shrugged.

Gust gave 5pb another potion, the same as the last one. "Gust will work on recipe for better taste..."

5pb popped open the bottle and guzzled its contents. With a satisfied sigh, she wiped her mouth with her wrist. "That would be nice... but I do feel better already..."

The idol breathed in through her nose. "Kono sekai ni umareta sono imi wa..."

Each party member was clad in an aura of blue light.

"sadame ni ayatsurareru tame janai..."

The blemishes and scars obvious on their exposed skin healed.

"dakeshimete mamoritakute..."

They stood up easily, unhindered by the pain that was inflicted on them since they walked into the dungeon.

"kakegae no nai kokoro wo..."

Everyone breathed out a clear, relaxed sigh. Except for 5pb; she coughed slightly.

"Jacob, how's your belly?" IF asked.

Jacob shrugged. "Still hurts but I'll manage."

"Yep, same boat," chirped Neptune. "I could really go for a good sleep."

"Well, we got what we came for," said Compa, smiling at the CPU. "It's time for us to get going."

The party of eight smiled at each other before they began walking. Although the battles were gruelling, they were leaving in much higher spirits than when they entered.

"So Vert said Arfoire was coming down here from time to time, right?" asked Jacob.

"Yeah?" said IF.

"Why would she do that?"

Nisa cupped her chin and hummed thoughtfully. "Arfoire must be the most brilliant villain ever with schemes so multi-faceted only someone of her brilliance could fathom their full extent. That or she hasn't a clue what she's doing and none of this makes sense."

"I hope it's the first one," said Neptune. "You can't have a super duper adventure without a super duper bad guy. But it's probably the second."

Hey guys. Sorry for the wait! It's... well, that's the thing. Got something important to tell you all. No easy way of saying this so I'll get right to it:

I'm abandoning Hyperdimension Neptunia is Real! after Chapter 40.

I wish I wouldn't. I wish I couldn't. I had so much fun writing this fic for a game I hate and a series I hate even more. But it was actually amazing. I never thought, in all my dreams, that a self-insert fanfic that mirrors the story of a game about an all female cast of yuri-bait cute girls would ever be so well-received, so well-lived, so popular, and so legendary. Especially not one written by me! It's amazing, really! I honestly didn't think anyone would care or that I'd get anywhere.

But... it's getting hard to care. I'm losing interest in this story. Started a long time ago, actually. I feel confined by this story, unable to demonstrate my full writing ability. That, and I want to move on to original projects. I'm working on a novel right now, actually. I've finished the background planning but I've got a few things I need to get done first, like Chapter 40.

Chapter 40 will mark the end of the Leanbox arc because, damn it, I can't give you guys a full ending but I can give you guys a satisfying one. I'm not going to ditch you that much.

If you want to catch up with me elsewhere, I'm on tumblr with the blog 'my-words-are-light' (yes, I'm an IF level nerd. So sue me). I'm also on Twitter as 'Porecomesis', where I just talk about random stuff.

So we have one more chapter, friends. After that, I shall cast aside and shed forever this story. It was fun, and I do regret having to end it all here. But I have other places I want to go. Do what's good for you or you're no good to anybody, as the saying goes. And I have heroes I want to make.

Thank you all for everything. Just one more chapter to go.