The car was like a toy compartment divided into three rows, and the interior was rather spacious. The passenger seat to the right, which Ai was sitting on, was extremely comfortable, with excessive space even as she stood up. There was space between the driver and passenger seat, and she could walk to the back seat.
And thus, Julie and Ai were peeking through this space, staring into the back.
The scene at the back was extremely complicated.
One would have to look in from the surroundings. First, there were lights and star stickers made of fluorescent materials. The seats were brown, and were glossy like very aged leather. The interior was damaged all over, with signs of bumps and scattered fluids.
Most of the belongings on the car were of unknown purposes, it did. This one probably was a tent. That large one was probably a sleeping bag. A pot, bottle, frying pan, fishing rod, boots, dolls, all the belongings in the car were arranged in a completely illogical manner, but there was some joy looking at this scene.
So Scar beamed as she remained surrounded by the many belongings, seated in the middle of the backseat as she lowered her eyes at this object with affectionate eyes.
If not for Scar mentioning the word ‘boy’, Julie and Ai would not have realized there was a person there.
It was a trash bag lying next to Scar, made from torn canvas, stone grey in color. If anyone was really inside it, it would be cramped and unbearable.
She pulled the shovel from the passenger seat, and gently prodded at the trash bag. She looked extremely serious, her action akin to a prankster of a brat however.
“Unnnn…” The trash bag groaned, and rolled about.
Ai and Julie exchanged looks.
“Mr-Mr Julie, there’s someone in the car! Wh-what do we do? He might be the owner!?”
“I was too careless…Ai, get ready to disembark any time.”
Julie said as he frisked for the revolver.
“Why are you pulling out a gun?”
“We never met. Who knows what kind of person he is?”
Realizing what was going on, Ai agreed.
“I guess…now that you mention it, it’s dangerous to meet a stranger for the first time.”
“You get it?”
“Yes. I’ve been meeting many people for the first time recently, and everyone pointed a gun at me, or used me as a hostage.”
“…No, it’s different from what I’m expecting here…”
The person woke up.
The trash bag slowly got up, the hole slipping down, revealing what was inside.
The boy is so pretty, so Ai thought.
And then, she was reminded that the boy was the first person she met in the outside world. She panicked, unable to prepare herself mentally.
Julie, and even Scar looked rather dire.
The boy did not care about the tense atmosphere around him however, and with a dazed look, appeared as though he had just woken up. The black eyes were drifting afar, the light blue hair messy like whipped cream. His lower body remained in the bag, and one could only see the green sweater on him
He scratched his head, and in order, looked at the revolver, the smile, and the shovel.
Nobody said anything.
Ai looked towards her companions, giving a ‘what do we do now’ look, but it seemed neither of them had decided on what to do next.
The boy suddenly lowered his head to greet, leaving Ai flabbergasted, but she felt she had to respond..
“”Good morning (to you).””
The other two seemed to feel the same, and everyone greeted in their own way.
The boy then said,
He laid down like a worm, brought the bag to his head, and said,
He went to sleep.
“Hold on a minute. Don’t sleep again~~~~~~~~~!”
Ai yelled, hopping over from the passenger seat with cat-like nimbleness.
“How are you able to do this!? How can you be sleeping again right now!?”
She had no concerns of courtesy or consequences, and smacked hard at the boy in the trash bag.
“No…well…I-I’m rather, sleepy…”
“Don’t sleep even if you feel like it! Hey! Look how dirty this bag is! Get up!”
Ai tugged at the trash bag like it was a kid cooped in his bed. The boy never resisted as he rolled to the bottom of the chair, his shirt ruffled as he bared his belly.
Finally, there were the hands that were hidden behind.
There were handcuffs.
The steel shackles were upon the boy’s twig-like hands.
And despite that situation, the boy remained groggy.
Calm had returned within the car, and Ai, with her hands raising the trash bag, immediately realized something was amiss.
“Wh-what’s with you!? What happened!?”
“That’s not important…so sleepy…”
“How’s that not important! It is very important!”
“Ai, wait. Something’s not right.”
Julie reeled in his massive body, and went to the front row of the back seats. The space exceedingly sufficient for three was cramped immediately.
“Looks like…someone drugged him.”
He held the body’s neck and head like a baby, and had him lie down. He then checked the eyes, hands, and smelled the mouth.
“Probably had some False Spring sprouts…”
“? Is it the delicious one? With red fruits…?”
“The fruit’s like that, but dried sprouts can be made as psychedelics.”
Julie held up the boy’s head, and fed him lots of water. Scar had swapped positions, and became his assistant.
The rage Julie was exuding left Ai shivering.
“They drugged a brat so heavily. Who knows if there will be aftereffects…”
Julie had much rage for what this boy went through, and Ai was immediately influenced by that sense of justice, snorting.
“Feels like there’s something bad going on.”
Of course, so Julie retorted offhandedly as he continued to care for the body. He undid the buttons of the boy’s shirt, loosened the belt, and made sure the boy was not nauseous as he laid the boy down. Scar continued to provide assistance.
Ai too wanted to help.
“…Is there anything I can help with?”
Julie’s response was really aloof.
Ai felt ostracized, and went to a corner dejectedly.
“Okay！ I’ll do anything！”
“No, this isn’t what I’m talking about.”
I got a good idea, so Julie clapped.
“Now that we have a chance, let’s ask him what he knows. Hey kid! Where are you from? What’s your name? Why are you here? Who did this to you?”
“You big meanie——!!”
Ai yelled while they were in the wilderness.
“There’s a bad man here! A naturally bad man here！”
So the lizards turned around, giving a look that practically exclaimed, “Oh, is that so?”
“Hey！ Don’t make it sound that bad！”
“But you’re a bad person！”
Ai shooed Julie aside, protecting the boy.
“…Hmmm…I’m a resident of Ortus, my name is…”
The boy was seemingly sleeptalking as he answered,
“You don’t have to answer.”
But the boy ignored Ai, saying,
“My name is…Kiriko…Pox…Wreck…Diva…Aureus…Velera…Ul…Helios…Melzar…Gog…Digg…”
The boy was not done finishing his name.
This long spiel of spell-like words did not feel like a person’s name.
Ai was flabbergasted to hear that, not knowing the meaning of these words.
“…Did you mention your country?”
But Julie seemed to have an idea.
“Mr Julie, you know something?”
“…No, not really.”
His expression clearly was stating that he said the wrong words, yet he was brazenly attempting to misdirect her.
Ai wanted to continue asking, but the boy’s words this time became a struggle,
“…I…was captured…by them…”
“You don’t have to force yourself to answer, and we don’t understand what you’re saying at all.”
“Heh…you haven’t changed at all…still the same old…”
“How rude. He said I haven’t changed at all！”
“Probably recognized the wrong person. Don’t mind him.”
The boy finally started laughing, giving a ‘really happy’ look. His smile was as earnest as a child.
“Princess…you seem rather energetic today.”
“Eh? Me? No, it’s impossible to be called Princess.”
“Relax. He’s not talking about you.”
“And…Princess, you seem…a little smaller?”
“Hmph. How rude.”
The boy’s probably about 14, 15, but he was smiling innocently as though he was younger than Ai.
“Doesn’t seem right even if he reverts back to being a baby.”
“Yes, he’s very immature, but it’s weird how polite his tone is.”
“…You’re saying that?”
“? Is there a problem?”
Julie courteously kept mum.
The boy continued to address Ai in a familial manner, so Ai could only answer reluctantly,
“Right right right, I’m the princess. What is it?”
“No, it’s nothing.”
“Then why are you calling for me?”
“Just wanted to do it..”
“Hmph. Princess is getting angry.”
“Woah, how scary…”
The boy exclaimed that he was terrified, but his face looked otherwise.
“It’s going to be troublesome if you’re angry now, Princess…everyone’s going to be really troubled, really sad…this is going to be troublesome.”
The boy continued with a gentle smile,
“So Princess, please don’t be angry.”
“…………Really, I’m not.”
Ai sighed as she said these words,
The boy showed a childish smile, saying,
“Thank you, Princess……………………Princess?”
His smile suddenly got gloomy.
The dazed expression was masked with an element of intellect, like a white canvas marked with red.
“…………Who are you lot?”
The black eyes instantly reverted to the sharpness a boy of his age should have, and he cautiously glared at them.
He was no longer showing the bliss of a fed kitten, and instead was filled with the strong distrust of a stray cat.
The boy tried to get up, but the handcuffs on his wrists stabbed into his flesh, causing him to fall over in pain.
“Ah, don’t move——”
“Don’t touch me！”
His hands were cuffed, and he was intoxicated, but he remained defiant as he yelled.
“Who are you!? Where did those guys go !?”
“Who are the two you speak of?”
“?…The ones who saved me, the owners of this car…”
“Well…I guess they’re dead…”
“I know that! I’m asking what happened after they died！?”
Ai widened her eyes, but she answered his question,
“They’re…probably buried there…”
With a sliding sound, the door opened, and she pointed at the two graves slightly afar.
“…Fools…they got buried by gravekeepers…”
The boy lowered his head dejectedly, sounding condescending.
Ai looked up at Julie, who was next to him.
“I have no idea what is going on.”
“Sorry, you mind explaining what’s going on clearly?”
“Ah, sorry that I didn’t say this earlier. I’m Ai——Ai Astin.”
The boy widened his eyes immediately, and with that old innocent expression, he said,
The name he gave was different from before.
“A resident of the city of millions, Ortus.”
On Monday, God created the World.
On Tuesday, God defined Order and Chaos
On Wednesday, God fine tuned the numerals of the World.
On Thursday, God permitted time to flow.
On Friday, God looked into every corner of the Earth.
On Saturday, God rested.
And on Sunday, God abandoned the World.
15 years ago, God suddenly appeared Mankind, and said,
“The netherworld is completely filled. This world will soon be finished. Ahh, I have failed.”
So God said this, before vanishing without a trace. Back then, Mankind had been waxing lyricals of the Spring of this world, and were naturally shocked. They as a species had yet to live for a hundred million years, and witnessed God for the first time, but the first words God said to them were words of farewell.
Ever since that day, Mankind could not die.
Even when their hearts stopped, their flesh rotted, the Dead continued to wriggle, unable to stop.
Ever since that day, Mankind stopped giving birth.
It was as though a factory had fallen to fire, and no new humans were produced.
After God left the world behind, Mankind screamed. Millions of them yelled, even to the brink of death, sputtering blood. The Living soon dwindled in numbers. The Dead roamed the world.
Later, the gravekeepers appeared.
These gravekeepers were the last miracle God gave to Mankind.
They built graves, burying the wandering Dead, protecting the peace of the Living.Finally, people could sleep in peace.
Children were no longer born, the Dead wandered, the gravekeepers ran about.
This truly was the image of the Apocalypse.
Ai was a gravekeeper, and she had a dream.
She dreamed that she would save the world.
Her mother built Heaven, her father purged Hell. She inherited their dreams, and prayed to save the world.
She had yet to know any method that could fulfill this dream, but she did not want to give up.
For the journey had just begun.
The car raced on. This simple fact alone had Ai overwhelmed with a myriad of emotions. The rattling of the car had her terrified, the passing scenery as they proceeded far beyond sprinting speed had her jolted, and the endless wilderness before them even as they continued to move so quickly had her a little worried,
Ai had the window of the co-passenger seat completely opened, ignoring Scar’s muted protests as she merely cared about yelling into the wilderness. No matter how long she waited, she got no echoes, and it was truly an intriguing experience to her.
She savored everything as much as she could, the car, the scenery, the breeze of the wilderness all being her first experiences.
She poked her head out from the car she sat for the first time in her life, and earned herself a punch to the head from Julie for the first time, “Don’t you put your head out of the window.”
So Ai massaged the blunt trauma as she continued to look into the horizon.
The wilderness was so wide, it could only be felt as endless.
“If you had enough, close the window.”
She really wanted to refuse.
“…It’s not good for him.”
Ai reeled back after hearing that, and hurriedly closed the window. The rubber was a little sticky, so she had much difficulty closing the window, but she finally managed to shut it with a thud.
Without the gales blowing, the noisy car became abnormally quiet. Ai’s ears, already used to the noise of the car quickly, naturally filtered it out.
“…Mr Kiriko, you awake?”
“Nope. He’s still sleeping.”
Ai glanced behind at the middle seat, and found Kiriko filling the space entirely, sleeping soundly.
After he gave his name, Kiriko collapsed weakly, and lost consciousness. It appeared his sudden soberness and agitation truly was bad for his body.
Ai sighed in relief, and stared at the sleeping boy.
Kiriko’s face was pale, his breathing was light, and clearly he was grimacing from a nightmare. He was frowning, and there was none of the frivolous kindness he showed before. Ai started to wonder, which was the real Kiriko? The soft fluffy Kiriko? Or the porcupine-like Kiriko?
“…Ms Scar, if anything happens to Mr Kiriko, please tell us.”
So Scar, seated at the back seat, answered. Once she was done caring for Kiriko, she went to the back seat, clearing up the items on the car. At this point, she was having a staring contest with a ceramic piggy bank. Ai quietly swore never to disturb her.
Julie continued to drive silently, as though he had become part of the car.
And Ai obediently sat on the passenger seat, watching him.
There was silence.
Julie sensed a pothole far away, and was wondering if he should dodge right or left.
Ai looked around at the facilities in the car, and had no idea what the two sticks before the windshield were for.
There was silence.
Finally, Julie decided to evade right.
Ai had nothing to do, and could only look forward.
There was silence.
It appeared the wilderness would last forever.
“Eh!? Are we going to continue on like this?”
“…What are you saying out of a sudden?”
Eh…but, with her index finger, Ai pointed at the wilderness, and then at herself.
“But I’m feeling really bored.”
Julie’s face was clearly plastered with the words “Who cares?”
“…What’s the point of grumbling at me?”
“But! But! It feels like something’s going to happen! Like, it’s going to keep going, that kind of feeling, righ!?”
So Julie stepped on the brakes.
Ai’s forehead slammed into the windshield.
“Sorry. There was a pothole hidden there.”
They stopped slowing down, and began accelerating again. The scenery passed by again in a blur.
“Well, travelling by itself is full of nothing.”
Julie answered honestly. However, Ai had other ideas
“Ehhh. Don’t think so.”
“…Since you’re so bored, I hope you can start driving.”
“Eh? Can I!?”
Ai was full of vigor. However, Julie immediately doused her enthusiasm.
“…Can you reach the pedal?”
A cruel silence beckoned.
The car was domineered by silence, and Ai did not muster the word ‘bored’.
“It appears Mr Kiriko is about to waken.”
A few moments passed since then before Scar said these words.
Ai took out the pocket watch, and though it felt an eternity, it was merely noon.
Ai yawned a little, and looked back, finding Kiriko to be still asleep, though looking a little better.
“He’s still sleeping though.”
“Yes, so I said he is about to wake…his breathing rhythm has changed. I believe he will regain consciousness soon.”
And within a few seconds, Scar’s words came true.
Kiriko, wrapped in a blanket, widened his eyes slightly, and looked around blankly.
“Ah, you awake?”
So he said while concealing his troubled look, instead giving a wary expression.
“…Have I passed out until now?”
“Yeah, right after you gave your name.”
It seemed Kiriko’s body refused to obey him, his eyes were restlessly swimming around, inspecting every nook and cranny of the car.
“You don’t have to be so careful now…”
“I’ll decide for myself whether I need to be careful.”
Ai made a little sigh. It seemed this very wary Kiriko was his usual self. So Ai stared at him, recalling a hurt red wolf she picked up in the mountain.
“…Where are you driving to?”
Kiriko noticed the outside scenery, and asked.
“What are you planning…”
Halfway through, Kiriko tried to sit up, only to realize something.
He tried to get up, and naturally stretched his arms to support his weight.
“Ah, we couldn’t remove your handcuffs, so we broke the chain first.”
Kiriko raised his hands, as though he was about to receive, and found the chain snapped, the cuffs devoid of the ability to restrain.
“…What are you planning?”
Kiriko asked the same question again.
“We’re not planning anything .”
“…I’m being honest.”
Julie said while holding the wheel.
“I know you’re being honest, but telling that to a stranger will only leave him confused. Don’t give him too much headache.”
Kiriko held up his heavy head with his arms, and sat up.
“…What are you doing?”
“Better not ask that question.”
Julie firmly deflected this question.
“…Ah, you’re right. How rude of me.”
Though he was rejected, Kiriko apologized in a relieved manner.
“…Looks like you’re a sensible one.”
But naturally, Ai was fuming
“………You’re saying I’m unreasonable?”
“Ai, when outdoors, honesty isn’t a virtue–forget it. Just sit back and watch.”
Julie said, and began talking to Kiriko without looking at the latter in the eyes.
“First, a self-introduction. Julie Sakuma Dmitriyevich, nice to meet you. This one here is Scar. Hands are full, and you better lie down. We’ll leave the handshakes for later.”
“Kiriko Zubreska. Thank you for your concern…and for saving me.”
“Don’t forget to thank them. They’re worried about you the entire time.”
“I see——thank you. I was saved because of you two.”
Ai looked shocked, and accepted his thanks. Their conversation went so smoothly, it seemed rehearsed, and was completely unlike her attempts to talk.
“So why are you like this?”
“Sorry, this involves the state of the city. Please restrain from asking that…and I shall not ask about your past.”
Kiriko’s eyes were as sharp as an eagle.
“…You have quite the cast here…all appearing over there…a lady, and a lazy generation girl…and since you don’t look like family…now then……”
He politely dispensed with such threatening words, but Julie ignored him.
“How’s your homeland?”
“…………What did you just say?”
Kiriko showed a troubled look.
“You don’t have to answer, since it’s not something I need to know, and I don’t want to.”
There was silence.
“But I determine that it’s best to tell us why you’re captured. This information might bring us immediate danger.”
“Or are you not planning to reveal that much?”
I might need to have a different decision, so Julie hinted.
“…No, you’re right. I shall inform you.”
Kiriko apologized, and started off explaining how everything started.
Everything went smoothly, but Ai was a little irritated by their interaction.
Kiriko lived in a city called Ortus, working as an apprentice. Their main job was being a runner boy, delivering items or messages all over Ortus. There were times his job scope would take him out of the city, and he would have to ride a bike to the neighboring towns. This time, he was bringing letters, running all day in the wilderness.
He said he was abducted by bandits while delivering letters.
“…I don’t think I have the right to say this, but they were truly amateurish in equipment and thoughts…”
His memory hazy from sniffing the drug, Kiriko was certain on this part, that there were ten of them, brazenly set traps on the road, and toppled his bike over.
Their actions thereafter seemed strange however. It seemed there was infighting between them, and before he knew it, Kiriko was thrown into this car.
The two car owners were once Living.
Using the past tense here was correct, for they died saving Kiriko.
“They had fun causing such a ruckus, and died happy…they didn’t really want to save me. They did it all for themselves.”
That was why they were quickly buried by the gravekeepers.
“…They’re really troublesome.”
Kiriko finished his narration thusly.
“…I don’t think you should describe your saviors like that…”
Ai said unhappily.
“You’re right…I went overboard.”
He simply retracted his words, leaving Ai all the more flabbergasted.
“…You really think so?”
“Since I say so, it is what it is.”
Sparks flew between them.
“Hm, then there should be danger near Ortus…”
Julie ignored the kids as he delved into his own thoughts.
“Fine, we’re not going to Ortus.”
The glaring pair hurriedly looked over at Julie.
“It-it’s different from what we agreed on!”
“Hold on hold on. Just calm down for now.”
Julie said as he parked the car.
And then, he pulled out a map from his clutches, explaining to them,
“Didn’t you want to go to this town in the first place?”
“RIght, so I’ll send you here.”
“…I see. That’ll be better for me…what about you?”
“We’ll head back and go our separate ways.”
“Eh? Eh? Eh? Why?”
Ai was the only one who could not accept this.
“So, Ai, you tell me. Why do you want to go to Ortus?”
Julie asked with incredulity.
“Of course it’s because I want to.”
“So I ask, why do you want to go?”
“What why…I just want to go.”
“…Ahh, I see. So you just want to go? In that case…”
Julie appeared to be suffering through a headache.
“Whatever. We’ll get another chance to go back anyway.”
Julie said, and stepped on the pedal. Ai was very peeved at his attitude, but was unable to say anything.
She got carsick.
What went wrong…so Ai wondered. Should she be worrying about the future, or should she assist Scar at the back seat, wiping that strange fox-shaped stone statue? Or should she count the teeth of the gear-shaped windows to 800…?
Ai did not know the truth, but it appeared she had caused trouble for everyone. She swapped places with Kiriko, and laid down on the middle row.
Half her face was covered with a towel, her eyes still staring blankly forward.
She could see Kiriko and Julie at the front seat looking at the map, exchanging murmurs. She felt repulsed just focusing at a point on the map, and averted her eyes.
“Ahh, you woke up?”
Kiriko noticed her stare.
“…I’ve been awake the entire time.”
Ai answered, but her reply was less than convincing. For some reason, the tremors she felt had greatly eased, and her nausea was a lot milder. She slowly sat up, looked out towards the road, and found the road to be a lot more even. it appeared she fell asleep without knowing, and looked at her watch, the hour hand had advanced by two hours. The weather was not as bright as the clear noon, now cloudy. The grey clouds appeared solid like rock, and nowhere did it look soft.
Far away, she could see lightning flashing, and thunder could not be heard.
And near the lightning, there was a rumbling white dragon.
“…Is that a tornado?”
Kiriko asked with a grim look, looked far at where Ai pointed, and finally heaved a sigh of relief, saying,
“So it’s that far…it’s amazing that you spotted it.”
Both of them peered outside through the window, and little raindrops appeared on the glass, having a cute dance as the car jolted. Rain fell from the hard looking clouds, lightning, and the tornados. Everywhere else was sunny, a rainbow could be seen linking the sky and the earth.
A clear day, rain, tornado, thunderstorm, such distinct things blended in the same scenery, forming an inexplicable painting.
“…It’s the first time I’m seeing a tornado.”
A scenery completely different from the mountaintop was up close .
“…I want to see it from a closer place…”
“I’ll advise you not to.”
Kiriko answered with a serious expression.
“It looks small and thin, but it’s able to lift cars and even houses. Humans aren’t different from leaves when it comes to that.”
“Really. That’s why they have underground shelters in every house on this plain.”
“Heh? Do you have one too, Mr Kiriko?”
“No. I should say Ortus itself doesn’t experience any, The hills redirect the winds south.”
Kiriko said as he tapped at the panel, switching the radio on. There was a channel featuring a weather report with lots of noise, warning travellers of a tornado.
“Wha-what is this!”
“What do you mean? It’s a radio…you don’t know this?”
“It’s my first time seeing this, or rather, hearing it.”
Then, there was a deliberate cough interrupting their conversation.
“I see it.”
Julie pointed with his chin. Kiriko checked the map, and Ai chewed on the back of the driver seat, glaring at the windshield.
They could see structures lying on the horizon.
“What kind of place is that?”
“…Just a classic town. Has hotel, gas and repair services to earn tourist money. Those selling lunch boxes will rush onto the road without care. Better be careful.”
“I welcome the lunch boxes and the Dead.”
“? Ahh? No, I don’t think there are any Dead here. This is a town for the Living.”
This time, Julie coughed brazenly, trying to stop Ai from saying something she should not have.
But this wasn’t effective against Ai.
“Mr Julie, you caught a cough? Please be careful.”
The car stopped, and the door to the driver seat opened. Julie got off the car, grabbed Ai by the collar, and pulled her out from the middle seats, walking 17 steps north.
“Wh-what are you doing? You’ll tear my collar…”
“Please conceal your identity as a gravekeeper as much as possible.”
Ai raised a finger, neither flinching nor caring that she was dragged around like a kitten,
“To be precise, a mixed blood between Man and gravekeeper.”
“…Keep that a secret. It’ll be a huge help to us if you can agree.”
Julie appeared to have given up as he raised the item in his right hand a little further.
“Ai, don’t be hurt about what you hear from me now.”
“You’re telling me not to be hurt when you’re the one saying that? That’s not kind of you, but that’s to be expected, Mr Julie.”
“Are you a genius at riling others?”
“But I’m hurt now.”
“Really? Then buck up…Ai, listen to me.”
He said, glancing aside at Kiriko. The boy remained in the car politely, not looking at them.
Julie suddenly let go, and had Ai stand on the ground.
“Right now, Mankind and gravekeepers are enemies.”
“Think about it, the Living and the gravekeepers don’t care about each other, so that’s fine…but the Dead…the Dead still wandering are mostly those ‘who don’t want it to end’. If you tell them that you’re a Gravekeepers, they’ll slaughter you.”
Ai was wide mouthed once she heard that, and lifted her head towards Julie.
“…Look over there.”
Julie pointed at a land, and there was a handle stick shoved there.
“…What is that?”
“A gravekeeper’s grave.”
On a closer look, the stick was a shovel stabbed into the ground.
“A gravekeeper’s grave…”
“Most likely murdered by the Dead, and buried.”
Ai fell weakly to the ground.
“That’s the opposite of what should happen.”
Julied nodded in confirmation.
“But that’s how things turned out to be. Mankind has evolved into such a species…little by little since that day 15 years ago, until now.”
Ai did not answer.
“You get it?”
Julie insisted that she answer. With a gloomy expression, she grabbed the sand, got up, and threw it aside.
“…I do, but I can’t accept this…”
“I’m not asking you to do this much…just that you need to know.”
Ai continued, her resisting eyes were glaring up at Julie’s blue eyes.
“But Mr Julie, I feel that when I need to, I’ll have to do so.”
She was practically looking upwards, her eyes widened, ignoring the fact that there was a cliff-like height difference between them,
“I definitely can’t stop myself from saying that.”
“…Do as you please until then, when you feel the need to.”
Both of them returned to the car. On the way back, Julie took 2 steps, and Ai took 3…
Both of them took 15 and 30 steps respectively. “Welcome back.” So Kiriko said, and did not question anything.
Julie pulled the side lever, and stepped on the pedal.
The town approached.
“Right, this is where we should say goodbye…lots of things happened, but I have to thank you.”
There was a white building before them, seemingly rising from the horizon.
“…Well, that seemed quick…”
Julie narrowed his eyes skeptically.
“It’s not like anything unpleasant happened.”
“Hmph. However you please.”
“Check out that town for me. Ahh whatever, I can see it. Damn it! What the hell is that thing!?”
The town was shaped like a sandwich. THe ‘buildings’ were the bread, the ‘road’ was the filling. The buildings were lined on both sides, the main road before them leading to the horizon. The colors of the bread were a lot more vibrant than the filing, every building had different colors, looking really radical.
And the bread was in tatters.
“What’s going on…”
Every single one of them gasped. None of the houses crumbled before them had been repaired, the entire town was trampled upon, the walls and pillars reduced to wood.
Kiriko muttered in a daze.
“It got swept completely…”
The car slowed down as it entered the town. The remaining debris was far too little considering the many houses that were destroyed. There were shattered planks and furniture everywhere, magazines scattered like petals, giving a strange festive-like atmosphere.
Ai tugged at Julie’s sleeve,
“Mr Julie, please stop…”
“No, it’s too dangerous.”
“There might still be some living…”
“And it’s dangerous because they’re living.”
“…It’s strange. There’s little debris on the road, it’s like they’re inviting people through…”
Ai crept away from the front seats, and slithered to the back seats where a leisurely looking Scar was,
“…Ms Scar, is there any Dead here?”
“No, or I would not have waited obediently here.”
“…I guess…then the Living?”
“I do not know about this. After all, we can only detect the wandering and buried Dead, along with other nearby gravekeepers.”
There were no signs at all.
Ai wondered if she was overthinking it, or that they had fallen into a trap, but the car just drove off.
They just drove off while avoiding the scattered planks, stoves, trampled carpets and crushed mugs. Various things that should not exist on a road passed by in hundreds, brewing a nightmarish tension.
They evaded a lion statue held in a bathtub of mudwater, evaded lots of basins, and Julie discovered a scene he had always been worried about.
There was a barricade formed out of debris.
Upon seeing that, Julie stepped on the gas..
The explosive acceleration had everyone sticking into the backrest, the car charging forth at mesmerizing speed. Julie controlled the wheel delicately as he made slight adjustments to the twitching car, having it move through the path where the barricades were weakest.
Closing in before them were severed plant pots, wreckage of baking ovens, and a signboard of ‘car repairs’ before them.
The car drove by.
The impacts shook the car, but it managed to pass through the town. planks of red, white and yellow flew in the air, lots of latrine bowls slowly rising in the air, before crashing hard onto the ground.
At that moment, Ai saw silhouettes among the crowd. There were men armed with guns running out, yelling, some who were more rash shooting away, though the bullets missed greatly. They shook off the gunmen with speed, the town soon vanishing before their eyes as they returned to the wasteland once again.
The blue car continued down the horizon at top speed.
The car kept going West until the sky was dyed red, and ultimately, they had to spend the night outdoors. While there was some sunlight left, everyone hastily set up a tent. Ai and Scar laid out the beds, while it appeared Kiriko and Scar intended to sleep in the back seat and the driver seat.
They set a fire when the sun set, the fuel obtained from the planks of the barricade they had barged through, caught between the bonnet and the engine. The car shielded the fire from the East, preventing anyone there from seeing the flames.
“How is it?”
“Not good, The suspension’s gone.”
Kiriko, having snuck beneath the car, climbed out and responded.
The car had been having problems ever since they broke through the barricade, the car clearly wobbly. The impacts from driving over the potholes were not cushioned, hitting the passengers.
But they could not stop. The blue car kept driving on, until the engine finally burst into flames.
“Managed to get it stabilized, for now.”
Julie went to the back to check on the engine, getting his hands black in the process. The sharpnel flew into the pipes, affecting the cooling. The shaking caused the engine oil to leak, resulting in it burning.
“We better get it fixed fully, otherwise it’s going to get troublesome.”
Ai took some bread, jerky and tea to the two men who finished working, and all of them were gathered to eat, munching away.
“Let’s go to Ortus.”
Julie took a sip of tea as he said.
“…There’s no other choice.”
Kiriko swallowed the bread in his mouth, agreeing.
“I can make some agreements. Repairs and lodging should be free.”
“That’ll help us out, but is that really fine?”
“The city has a policy of assisting those in need of emergency aid. I think we can supply some necessities, but I can’t guarantee that…”
“That’s more than enough. Thanks.”
Ai was exceptionally quiet.
“What’s wrong, Ai? You’ve been quiet the entire time.”
Her usually talkative mouth remained pursed, except when delivering food into her mouth. Naturally, she finished dinner earlier than the others, the tea in her mug downed.
Ai’s face was illuminated by the flickering flames as she said,
“Could we have saved them…?”
Julie gave a troubled look as he scratched his head,
“Can’t do it.”
There was no room of discussion. Not ‘no’, but ‘can’t do it’, which showed how adamant he was.
“You want to know why? There are many reasons? Most importantly, the basic reason is that we don’t have the means to save them.”
Hundreds of them had no place to live, and it’s not a problem a mere few could resolve.
“Second, they’re already bandits. Third, they’re trying to save themselves in their own way. The second reason I speak of is that way, and even if we can’t ferry them all, it’s not like an entire town doesn’t have a car or vehicle. Am I right, Kiriko?”
Kiriko, who had not been talking, nodded upon being prompted,
“…They probably have cars in the underground garage…and probably contacted the other villages or towns…just not Ortus however. I guess they just don’t want to rely on Ortus no matter what…”
“Was it them who captured you?”
Kiriko cupped his knees together and bit on his fingernails, sinking into thought as he answered,
“…Thinking about it now, I guess that’s the only answer.”
The blue flames engulfed the wood, and Kiriko’s gloomy expression gave a silent vibe.
“They probably want to use me as a hostage, a bargaining chip…the Living really have inscrutable plans. We assisted them lots in the past, but to think they were ungrateful, even vengeful.”
“…A dispute between city and town?”
“Not really, Just the town causing a ruckus.”
“Guess it’s better to coexist peacefully.”
“…We feel the same.”
Both sighed in unison.
“Whatever. At least we’ll get intel from Ortus, we’ll figure out something. We don’t have to worry about that.”
“Something you’re still unhappy about? And why do you want to save them even though you aren’t related?”
“Of course it’s because…”
Julie immediately froze, and tried to shuush Ai’s mouth.
“Of course it’s because I’m an envoy of justice.”
“…………What was that?”
Kiriko looked troubled, wondering what she meant, so he shot Julie a look, who muttered with a grimace, “She said that…”
“Well, if there’s people in the West in trouble, we should help. If there’s people in the East looking for trouble, we’ll fix them! That’s my journey to save the world.”
“Yes—and actually, it started three days ago.”
“Too recent! That just started!”
“So I want to save them…”
Ai cupped her legs together, putting her chin on her knees, looking really gloomy.
Kiriko had his hand under his chin as he looked at her, the meaningless metal rings on his wrists clicking away.
“一That’s quite a stupid dream.”
“Am I wrong? I’m not going to ask why you have such a big, crazy dream…but a dream that can’t be fulfilled is just stupid.”
“No matter how big your dream is, no matter how many good deeds you want to do, you’re just powerless right now.”
“I know this…”
“They’re not hoping for you to save them. They’ll figure out a way themselves.”
“I said I know this…”
And because she knew that, Ai was being so depressed, so gloomy.
“…I’m going to sleep.”
Saying that, Ai stood up.
She turned around, and found darkness and a starry sky there.
“…As for me…”
The darkness was cold and big, almost swallowing the little fire.
“I’m really small…”
There was silence.
“…You’re a pipsqueak after all.”
“Truly a pipsqueak.”
Ai stomped at the calves of the two men, and went towards the tent.
Nobody woke them up, but once dawn broke, everyone woke up.
A thin layer of ice gathered above the wilderness was swept aside by the sunlight, the bonnet of the blue car giving off clear steam, absorbed into the lower clouds.
They kept the tents, dealt with the fire, started the engine to warm the car.
They boiled water over the steam, and had tea and bread for breakfast.
They packed their belongings, and boarded the car. Ai popped some sweets into her mouth to counteract the carsick.
She had the lemon flavored sweet roll right to left in her mouth, before it stopped on her tongue. They were ready to leave, and once the car was done heating, its pulse started to accelerate, slowly ripping through the morning air.
Ai remained seated in the rear, looking towards the town far behind as she sank into thought.
She probably was thinking that it would be great if everyone could be happy.
After noon or so, Kiriko was the on driving instead. “You can drive?” So Ai asked in shock. And the response was, “Anyone can as long as they can step on the pedal.” Kiriko did not really mean anything, but Ai was incensed by these words, and laid at the middle row, sleeping in a grimace.
The car stopped at lunch, and they rested another three times to cool the overheated engine. It was long past noon.
The first to realize something was amiss was Scar.
“There are still unburied Dead.”
“…………Eh? That was kind of…………”
“Ai, please wake up.”
Scar leaned over from the back seat, whispering,
“……Eh? Ah, no, I wasn’t sleeping…not at all…yes, I wasn’t sleeping yesterday either…fuahh…”
“I sense the unburied Dead in the direction we are headed.”
The gravekeepers possessed various superpowers to bury the Dead, and one of them was to detect their existence. Through many various senses, they could find the Dead they should bury, but the conditions of what they should bury were complex. Most of it was to approach the closest Dead, there were a few exceptions, and some gravekeepers had problems with this function. Ai herself had no such function, and it was said that even of the pure-blooded gravekeepers, some would wander around the Dead, unable to find them. It was because of this nature however that people called the gravekeepers“kings of the corpses”.
Back on point.
Ai looked forward.
Logically, that was the direction Ortus was at.
“…Things really happen one after another, don’t they? Miss Scar, how many are there? 1? 2? 10? 100?”?”
“At least…a million, I suppose.”
“Oh, a million…wait, a million?”
Once again, Ai looked forward, and exclaimed. The cloudless distant horizon seemed so ominous, and she found it really stupid that they were driving there.
“I suppose there should be a lot more of them…but that because they are too clustered, I cannot sense the numbers.”
“Clear enough！Mr Kiriko! Stooppp！”
“Eh? What? Why?”
“Why, you ask? There’s a million Dead before us…”
Kiriko remained unperturbed, as though it was to be expected.
“The city I live in is the ‘Country of Death’, Ortus, the world’s largest population of the Dead.”
Ortus was a city built over a massive plateau.
It was located at 48° 5’ 2” N 109° 2’ 58 (Elzalgo Standard Latitude and Longitude经纬度), right in the middle of the continent, cold and dry, a population of 1.2 million, all Dead.
The origin of this country was a Nomadic tribe that had a monarchy, lasting 1000 years. 14 years ago, when the world changed, there was an organization of Dead gathering. Some of them, the Dead used force against persecution, defeating countless gravekeepers, and grew in masses.
Finally, 9 years ago, they built the city they dreamt of on this land.
A city popular of merely 20,000 instantly exploded, and every successive king harbored ambitions far and wide, gathering every single person into the city. Once they knew their role was over, they simply handed authority over to the city, abdicating.
All except for a certain ‘Princess’.
When it came to Ortus, Kiriko started rattling off a spiel of history like a machine gun, excitedly even. He just had to comment on every segue, like,“All the enemies at the battle of Nusword became one of us, and that really changed things.”,“The people of Ortus were just nomads, and it’s a miracle that they had such ambitions.””It is amazing how the ruler abdicated. He used a delegated dictatorship to declare rules for Human Rights (Calnadeh Code) nobody agreed to. It was truly riveting”.
Ai did not listen to the vast majority, and merely stared at the looming massive wall.
Ortus was a walled city, the wall separating the worlds of the Living and the Dead. The tall walls made of sturdy red bricks rejected gravekeepers from invading, nor anyone from escaping.
Looking to the right, there was an endless horizon of red bricks. to the left, there was still an endless horizon of red bricks.
Ai started to be a little afraid.
But the car simply drove to the gates, without care for her fear.
It appeared the gates had to be pulled by massive winch. They were covered in masses of anti-hex spells, hundreds of demons lined in rows, glaring at the wilderness.
“…The gates look really scary.”
“Yeah…can’t deny that…even I find it a little terrifying.”
There were various curses from the ancient ages written on the gates, and looked no different from the gates to Hell.
“…There’s too many meanings added…when it’s supposed to be just a gate. Curses, intimidation against external forces. And a monument of solace…”
“A monument of solace?”
“…Yeah. For the gravekeepers.”
“It is also a large cemetery. There are a million Dead in Ortus, and various gravekeepers would arrive…these gravekeepers were murdered by soldiers, and no matter how skilled they are, they can’t surmount the wall, yet there are always gravekeepers running over…”
There was an awkward mood lingering in the car.
Kiriko seemed to have realized it, for he pointed to a corner of the gates, saying,
“Over over there.”
At the highest point of the gates was an elegant looking statue akin to a ship’s figurehead, its hands outstretched as it sang to the world, giving a kind smile.
“That’s the Princess?”
The Idol of Murder.
Such were the words inscribed beneath the statue.
“That’s quite a terrifying name…”
“…It’s the guardian god of Ortus, who possesses the power to kill all Life.”
“Now that’s beyond my expectations…”
Well, that’s to be expected. Kiriko muttered.
“…Ortus’ history is one full of persecution…and everyone wanted such a God”
There were also such words beneath the statue.
‘ Those eyes were the eyes of death. Those words were the words of death. That body was brimming with death. No living thing could escape. None shall escape the Idol of Murder. ’
‘I, King of Man, shall crush all outsiders who come with violence. I am the guardian of all Dead.’
“God of the Dead…never heard of that.”
“Well of course. The old God’s there for the Living, but don’t you think that’s too selfish? So the Idol of Murder chose to be the guardian of the Dead…she’s really a kind God…”
“…Well, that makes sense.”
“She kills them, and is willing to protect them. It’s perfect..”
“Isn’t that matchfixing now!? How mean!”
So they continued to talk, and the car arrived before the gates. Kiriko parked the car by the road shoulder, and before them, there was an outpost made of bricks, like the wall. On the signboard of the entrance were the words ‘Ortus’ East Gate inspection’.
“Right. Wait here.”
Kiriko said as he got off the car, the sentry soldier immediately running over, asking him to fill some documents.
Ai viewed this scene from the passenger seat. The sentry was wearing a deep blue uniform, wielding a rifle, wearing a steel mask without expression.
“Miss Scar, erm…are they…well…”
“They’re the Dead.”
The sentry seemed to have recognized Kiriko, for they patted him on the shoulder, joking around.
The Dead was clearly commonplace.
“Ai, I want to bury them.”
“Please resist for now.”
“Understood. Then do tell me, how long is this now?”
How long will that be? So Ai wondered.
Until when should they bury him for being glad his compatriot had returned safely?
Until when should they bury the million of Dead beyond this massive wall before them?
“…Until I say it’s fine.”
Scar answered tersely. Kiriko returned.
“We got permission. Follow me first.”
They got off the car, and followed Kiriko, who led them into the outpost.
The outpost did not seem like a place for defenses, but more for an administrative office. In the middle of the room was a counter, the window used for questioning.
Kiriko glanced at the counter, spotted a face, “Geh.” and blurted out.
And once Kiriko was spotted, the chair was kicked aside, followed by hollers,
“Kiri! Good thing you made it back safely!”
So the attendant leapt over the counter, lurching toward Kiriko, who tried to avoid the embrace with a disgusted look, only to be caught and until to break free.
“Wh-why are you at this place?”
“What’s with that tone, Kiriko? We were worried about you.”
The woman to the left of them said.
“Of course, Kiri! Are you hurt? Did you protect your chastity? I had much trouble keeping the Princess out from the loop.”
The man to the right side, and they finally let go.
Ai was dumbstruck by this scene.
The lady to the left seemed to have noticed Ai’s stare, and turned around, giving a half smile,
“Kiriko, are they the ones who saved you? If you don’t mind, do introduce them to us, no?”
The duo then took a step forever, and Kiriko muttered,“Will this be okay…” he glanced aside at Ai worriedly.
Ai remained dumbfounded, rooted.
“Everyone, this is the vice-commander of the Ortus Imperial Guard, Pox.”
The woman to the left winked. She was between 25 to 35, had a pale face and a slender body, but the trained body was not weak in any case.
“And this is the special special foreign affairs ambassador, Wreck.”
“Nice to meet you.” So the man to the right said, grinning. He was smaller, about the height of a girl, similarly lank and dry, but a strong frame with bulging muscles.
They were of similar heights, dressed in similar shirts, pants and cyan jackets. Nothing seemed amiss thus far.
Really, nothing seemed really amiss.
Other than the fact that the man and the woman were too close.
“Errm…mind if we say something?”
So the left said,
“Ahhh Pox, everyone’s shocked by your appearance.”
So the right said.
“You’re really rude, Wreck. They’re just speechless seeing your terrifying appearance.”
Both of them bickered at zero distance.
The duo were a person.
The middle of the body was a divide, the right half was female, the left half was male.
Ai summoned her courage, and asked,
“Ho-how…did you end up like this?”
“Of course, it’s because when two people crash together at an unbelievable speed…’
“Wreck, stop teasing, but Missy, I have to apologize. This isn’t something convenient to talk about.”
The right half spoke tentatively, ambiguously.
“Ah, no…I was being rude…I’m Ai Astin.”
So Ai reached her right hand out without thinking, and Pox looked a little terrified as she grabbed her hand. After withdrawing her hand, “Ah, I see.” Ai thought of something, and reached her left hand forward instead.
“Nice to meet you, Mr Wreck.”
“Forgive me for using my left.”
So the trio shook hands. Julie and Scar too followed up with their introductions.
So this pair of people folded their arms nimbly.
“Quite the cordial bunch.”
And patted Kiriko on the back.
“Normally, even the Dead find us disgusting, calling us ‘monsters’.”
“There are no monsters in this world.”
Ai said with conviction.
“No matter what shape their hearts take, humans are humans.”
Pox suddenly let out a squeal, on the verge of fainting, and it was Wreck on the left half holding her up.
“H-hey, partner, what’s wrong?”
“Oh dear…she’s really cute.”
Pox’s eyes were dazzling, and she was shrieking, while Wreck looked completely devastated, having had enough. The same body was giving such a stark contrast in emotions, so much so that one could have mistakenly found themselves in such a dissonance.
“I really love obedient and wise kids! Ahhh…how good…so cute…how do I deal with these feelings…”
Dig a hole and bury yourself in, so Wreck retorted, but Pox did not seem to listen. The right half dragged the resisting left, patting Ai’s head and hugging her firmly.
“Just say whatever you need. Well, you’re Kiriko’s savior, so it’s fine no matter how difficult the reject may be. I don’t think you’re wandering travelers, so do you need gas? Or food? We can handle everything from repairs, parts changes, or medical checkups.”
The right half pointed at the left half, saying,
“Might have half a face, but this scary face’s pretty capable around here. He’ll do whatever he’s asked.”
“…Bud, you sure are being kind here for a freeloader…”
Hearing that, Ai said,
“I want to go in then.”
The duo and Kiriko were stunned to hear these words.
But the one with the most obvious reaction was Julie.
“Excuse us a moment.”
He tugged at Ai’s collar with his right hand, waving for Scar with his left, and the trio gathered to talk,
“Why do you want to go into the country?”
“? I want to ask you that, Mr Julie. You don’t want to?”
“Of course not.”
Julie hushed his voice further,
“You saw those gates, didn’t you? If they know you’re gravekeepers, who knows…”
“If, that is.”
She was not exactly wrong. At the very least, gravekeepers had no obvious difference in physical appearance from humans.
“…But we should try to avoid danger as much as possible.”
“Even if there’s danger…”
Ai added emphasis to her words.
“Even if there’s danger, I want to see this country. Now that I know there’s a city of Dead other than my own village, I want to see it no matter what.”
Her green eyes were staring at Julie with fiery passion.
“If you don’t want to go in, that’s fine, Mr Julie. I want to go in, even if I’m on my own.”
“…I didn’t want to come here because I knew this would happen.”
“…You made up your mind?”
“I see…well, it’s your journey. We’ll do as you say.”
Julie then asked Scar of her plans.
“There’ll be more danger if you come along. If possible, I want you to wait at another town.”
“No, I have to enter this time.”
It was rare to see Scar show such enthusiasm. Ai and Julie were taken aback.
“……Miss Scar, you can’t bury the Dead even if you go in, you know that?”
“Yes, I understand.”
“? Then why…”
“A voice is calling for me.”
“Someone is calling for me.”
Scar said as she looked over at Ortus.
Ai and Julie exchanged looks, and murmured softer than before,
“…Is she tired?”
“…I don’t know. I can’t tell.”
“…Not sure if we should worry…”
They turned towards Scar, who continued to stare far away in a daze.
“…Ah whatever. Damn it, everyone’s reason to act is getting ridiculous.”
Julie cupped his head in frustration. He had been mastering this gesture ever since they grouped together, his form looking good.
“Is this really fine?”
“What’s wrong about that?”
The trio strode forth, and Julie, leading the way, returned to the counter.
“…You done with your meeting?”
“Can you hurry? We’re bored to tears.”
The duo teased.
“Now, as for why you want to visit, mind telling us the reason?”
“We want to sightsee.”
Julie answered exasperatedly.
“Oh. I see. Understood. You are permitted.”
So they simply answered.
“What? That simple?”
“Oh, simple, you say?”
“Isn’t that a waste of your scary face now? Don’t you agree, Kiriko?”
The duo giggled, and Kiriko, who was asked, answered unhappily,
“…Well, you see it. Ortus is a city for the Dead, and there’s limited access for the Living…only ambassadors or merchants are usually allowed…there’s no Living who’s actually allowed in just for sightseeing.”
“Eh? Then why…”
“As thanks, of course. Didn’t we say so?”
Pox and Wreck hunched forward,
“Thank you once again…for saving Kiriko.”
“As representative of the guardian, you have our sincere thanks.”
Both of them bowed deeply.
“Well, we did say we can agree to anything, no matter how difficult it is, but we never thought you would request to enter. Please fill in some documents.”
“Eh, where are the papers? Heyy, Kiriko. Mind telling us?”
So the duo muttered as they went to the counter, drew out dozens of documents from the drawer, and handed it to the trio. They then opened the ink bottle, prepared the quilt pens, and with their separate brains controlling them, their two hands got to work in a manner no musician could aspire to imitate.
Ai then exchanged three signatures for a card, and brought it to her eyes. It contained her name, age (15, but that was a lie), and her hair and eye colors.
For some reason, she was really elated.
Right in the middle of the card was the date, along with the day they were supposed to leave.
“7 days, probably.”
Ai did not know if it was too long or too short a time to stay in a city.
“Right, now that we’re done with the procedures——everyone——”
Wreck clicked his fingers, putting the hand on the counter, scanning the gang. Pox raised her right hand, putting it on her chest.
Both bowed in unison,
“”Welcome to Ortus.””