Hellping

Part I

 

They passed the gates.

The scenery shielded by the red walls was liberated, their line of sights expanded.

Before them were the sun, a castle, a hill, and vibrant greenery leading in.

There was some green wheat growing on the few flatlands till the hills. They were growing faster than the wheat Ai knew of, and the colors showed that they were about to grow ears.

A few farmers were seated on the ridges, looking at the fields.

Ai knew very well what adults would say at such moments. They would surely repeat the same useless topics, “It’s growing really well this year.” and “Yeah, that’s right”.

Her eyes, already used to the grey of the wilderness, were struck by the sudden greenery, making them really striking.

A farmer suddenly noticed their presence and waved at them. The others too followed suit. Ai rubbered her eyes and made a little wave back.

The car moved really slowly but continued forward as it left the farmers behind.

After a while, the sun turned red behind the hill, and the gang soon arrived at the foot of the hill.

A little further, and they would arrive at the street. The buildings before her were all apartments, and there were shops facing each other on the ground floor, populated by many.

The streets of Ortus were completely covered in stone, combining pieces of marble, tiles, and red bricks to form long, thin apartments, which were packed tightly into the narrow lots.

The roads were well maintained, and there were open spaces everywhere. Every house was decorated with flowers and plants in the entrance and windows, and surely there were potted seasonal plants elsewhere in season. There was an old woman changing pots on the roadside. Children ran past like a gust of wind, laughing, and there were many old men blowing colorful smoke from dyed cigarettes on the roadside, enjoying a little gambling.

Naturally, everyone was dead.

They were dead to the point where their muscles were dry and thin as if they had taken off their old western clothes. The younger the Dead, the more peculiar they were.

There were skeletons dressed in suits, and beings strapped with locks to make up for the lack of weight. Women blended with a mass of lace dresses, teenagers removed their limbs and replaced them with prosthetics, resembling dolls. There was also a literary boy holding a library book under his left arm, and his head under his right arm.

Most of the Living treated these Dead as monsters, and their initial reaction to the streets of Ortus was that it was a hellhole where demons and monsters went wild. They would say in fear, “I’m in the wrong place.” adjust their schedule and return home early. This happened so many times that Kiriko could not be bothered to be angry with them anymore.

But Ai’s reaction was different.

Ai looked lost in thought while she pressed her face against the backseat window, watching the expressions of the people on the street. She did not react to the apparently horrific appearance of the citizens, but just looked into their eyes.

Both the alien-looking Dead and the human-looking Dead had smiles on their faces, being joyous with friends and family, with ordinary smiles on their faces.

Ai saw a smiling mother carry a baby, and gave a plain smile without any surprise, pity or anger.

Then a tear suddenly fell from her eyes.

Kiriko hurriedly turned his face forward, reacting as though he had seen something he should never have seen. He turned his head forward, and saw the tear-colored stars shining upon the city.

“Woah…” At that moment, without turning around, he knew Ai was looking at the same view.

It was dark when they arrived at the dormitory, and the car started to have gear issues. They finally made it up the hill, and made it into the parking lot with only the right headlight flashing.

The dormitory looked different from the apartments on the street. It was a taller stone building. There was not a single house around, and it seemed as if it was isolated from the noise.

The parking lot was unusually large, and the ground was not paved, made of compacted dirt. The group took out their luggage and walked towards the building. It was very bright for a night, despite there being a half moon.

“A year ago, this was a school.”

Kiriko explained as he walked. They were at the parking lot, and the boys’ dormitory was across the street, the girls’ dormitory was at the other end, and the school building was closed.

“Hmmm…”

Ai answered listlessly.

“…I’ll say this first.”

Seeing her reaction, Kiriko said something he hesitated to say before.

“Thanks for saving me, and I’m grateful for it…but I don’t think you should stay here. Ortus is the city of the Dead, and the Living shouldn’t be coming here…if I had the right to decide, I wouldn’t have let you in here.”

“I see…so why…did you let us in…?”

“I didn’t let you in! I couldn’t disobey my superiors!!”

“Ahh…I…see…”

Ai answered absent-mindedly, making Kiriko even more upset.

“I hope you’ll leave as soon as you’re done.”

“…Haa, Mr Kiriko, you’re saying weird things …”

Ai’s petite body wobbled as she carried her luggage.

“…What did you say?”

“Aren’t you yourself Living?”

Kiriko kept quiet at once.

“………You’re weird…Mr Kiriko… …”

“…Ai?”

Ai was not acting normal.

She swayed from side to side like a rowing boat, and finally stumbled and fell to the right.

“Ai!”

Kiriko grabbed her left hand in the nick of time and saved her from falling.

“After all that’s happened today, she’s probably tired in the head.”

Julie gently reached out and picked up Ai’s backpack. Ai immediately squatted down and began to doze off, looking very childish.

“…Excuse me, Kiriko, can you please carry her?”

“Huh? Ah, sure.”

As soon as Kiriko turned around, Ai’s arms immediately wrapped around his neck, and she relaxed. Kiriko tucked her legs under his pits let out a sigh, and then wondered “Huh, why am I carrying her?” It was strange to pass her back to Julie at this point though..

Ai immediately started to snore, and was so tired that her face was pale; the corners of her eyes were the only parts that were red.

“…Say, Mr Julie.”

“What is it?”

“How old is she …?”

At this point, Kiriko did not realize he had broken the rules.

“Who knows, ask her yourself.”

At this point Ai spoke up.

“…I said I’m not sleeping…………mnya mnya…”

“Does anyone talk in their sleep like that?”

Kiriko carried Ai on his back once again and walked towards the dormitory.

 

Part II

 

When she woke up, it was not morning anymore.

Ai sat up in the bed in a daze. She had no memory of the room and had no idea what was going on, but she did not care about it and yawned hard.

She exposed every tooth, every cell under her tongue, and even her vocal cords to the air for a moment before she closed her mouth.

…Where is this place?

The room was a little dark, but there was a warm light shining in, dispersing the dust in the air.

She looked to her right, and saw another bed, a dresser, and a closet lined up against the wall beyond.

The room was silent, and no sound could be heard.

Ai slowly turned her half-opened eyes to the left and scanned the entire room. She found a door, a bookcase, a desk and a chair.

Then on the left wall…

Was a window with curtains drawn.

“……alrighty…”

Ai swam out of bed on the sheets and walked barefoot on the carpet.

The windows were covered by thick curtains that kept the room dim, but the light shone through so strongly that the edges were bright white. The light spilled onto the toes, causing the dancing dust to glisten and scatter into the room.

The curtains were drawn.

Even with her eyes closed, the light shining in was so strong that it stung her eyes. The warmth spread through every corner of her body, and the grogginess she had felt when she first woke up was seemingly burned away.

Ai looked at Ortus.

“Wow…”

She immediately reached out to unlock the window and opened it. The strong gust blowing in caused the curtains and bows to flutter lightly, Ai squealed and jumped, put her chest against the window frame, and leaned her upper body out of the window.

The ramp from right to left was filled with white tiles that shone under the sunlight. She looked down, and could see the greenery of the wheat fields, and further beyond, the red bricks of the city walls.

On the right side of the hill, she could see a dark-colored castle.

Ai couldn’t hold back her excitement and immediately pulled her upper body back, stumbled two steps backwards after landing. She turned around, rushed to the closet, opened it with the gusto she had when she opened the window, and saw her jacket, pants and skirt hanging neatly inside.

She then realized that she had no idea what she was wearing, looked down and saw that it was her usual shirt and underwear.

Ai’s mind was filled thus with the logical question—who changed my clothes?

It couldn’t have been Kiriko. As for Julie…it might be possible, since he was a hulking man who had no sense of delicacy, practically a father taking care of his daughter.

If it was Scar. Why yes, it would be better.

“…Ai?”

The moment Ai thought of her, she heard the voice from behind. She turned around and saw Scar lying on the other bed.

“Good morning, Miss Scar! It’s morning already!”

“…No, it’s noon.”

“Eh?”

The exuberant greeting was met with a listless reply as Ai fished her pocket watch out of her jacket, the hands pointing to noon.

Only then did she realize that the angle of the sunlight shining in was quite high.

“Eh…then why didn’t you wake me up …?”

“…I did…”

The reproachful question was met with an even more reproachful answer.

Upon further questioning, Ai then realized that both Scar and Julie tried to wake her up, but she was sleeping so soundly.

“…I did not expect you to sleep until noon. I am really impressed …”

Ai tickled her cheek with some embarrassment and asked the one question she was curious about. “Miss Scar. Did you undress me?” Scar nodded and replied, “Yes.” Thank goodness.

“…Ai, you’re as lively as always …”

Ai looked closely and saw that Scar wasn’t. The latter seemed reluctant to get out of bed, was wearing only a shirt, and was huddled under the blanket.

“What’s wrong, Miss Scar? Did you eat too much?”

“… I do not know how to describe this? Unpleasant emotions, I suppose…Ai, please do not confuse me with you, in all respects.”

Ai scurried to Scar’s pillow, and touched Scar’s forehead to see if the latter had a fever. She did not, and certainly did not look so bad.

“Are you not feeling well?”

“…My chest, is aching. So is my head. I feel a little nauseous …”

“Hmm. Can you still hear the ‘voice’ you mentioned?”

“Yes…”

Scar turned her gaze forward.

“I was going to find out where that sound was coming from …”

“No, please lie still and rest.”

Yes… Scar answered obediently.

“…What shall I do? Should I call a doctor?”

“Who knows. … Is there a doctor who can meet gravekeepers?”

“Is there none?”

“Well, who knows…?”

“………And more importantly, do gravekeepers get sick?”

“I have not heard of such instances…”

Ai herself would get a cold about once a year, but it seems that her case was not an appropriate reference.

“Julie said he would go out and buy medicine on the way back, so for now… I shall see what happens…”

“Ah, is that so? Mr Julie went out?”

“Yes, he said he was going to repair the car, replenish the stocks. He seems to be really busy…”

Oh yes, he left a note. Scar said, and passed over a twice folded piece of paper.

So it was written,

“Don’t got out, no matter what.”

In a certain sense, the words were a hundred times worth their weight. It would be understandable if it was written ‘there are dangerous people amongst the Dead’, or ‘don’t go out because you’ll get into trouble”, but excuses like ‘this season is bad for your throat‘ were merely nonsensical, and advice like ‘watch out for cars’ were mostly useful only when going out.

Ai gently folded the paper into a paper airplane and threw it out of the window. The paper, which should have been heavy with naggy words of ink, was liberated and flew high into the blue sky of Ortus.

“Miss Scar.”

“…Yes?”

Ai asked furtively.

“Please answer honestly. Do you need me to take care of you?”

“No, you do not have to.”

Scar also gestured to emphasize “not at all”.

“It will be a hassle if you stay here, Ai…shall we have our meal?”

“Y-you’re pushing yourself too hard…”

Ai felt a little hurt by the comments, but she got changed anyway. She put on her pants and socks, tied the laces of her boots, changed her top, tied her hair, and finally put on her straw hat and coat.

She went to the window and asked,

“Shall I close it?”

“…Yes, close the curtains too.”

Ai closed the window and drew the curtains.

“I’ll have my meal then.”

She said as she stood by the door.

There should be no need for a hat and coat to go to dinner, but Scar didn’t point out the contradiction.

Instead, the moment Ai was about to hurry, Scar called out to her, “Do you have your entry card?”

Ai felt quite embarrassed.

Ai finally ran out of the room, but naturally, she did not have any destination in mind.

She went to the hallway and looked around, and then found the stairs to the first floor. She had a feeling that she should not be spotted such a time, so she crept quietly. She spotted the floor guide sign in front of the stairs on the first floor, found a place with water and washed her face, and took large gulps of water.

There were many signs of students who had lived in the dormitory. The names of the students who were made to do class duty as punishment remained on the blackboard, and the umbrella stand contained a bat. There were many awards and trophies lined up in the display box at the front door, and the lost and found box itself had been long forgotten, for there was was a blue notebook that was still waiting for its owner to retrieve it. Ai flipped through the book and had a look.

“But I’m hungry.”

She announced this towards the plaster statue of an unknown great man located between the second and third floors, and began to explore the dormitory in a more daring way. She planned to find Kiriko or Julie and ask for something to eat. She focused on pacing around the first first floor, sometimes peeking at the entrance, sometimes running into the guard room. While she did spot some interesting items, her priority at this point was to eat.

Ai ran to the dining room to have a look, and then looked up at the dish collection area with a puzzled look.

Her actions were witnessed by Keyla Vina, who was in the kitchen.

“What are you doing over there?”

Ai, who was getting more and more careless as she strolled around, jolted in shock. She looked around to see who was talking.

“Over here.”

Kyra peeked out from the counter that connected the dining room to the kitchen and looked at Ai.

“N-Nice to meet you! My name is Ai Astin!”

“How do you do? Nice to meet you, I’m Kalya Vina, the janitor and chef here.”

Ai stood at attention and spoke loud from her gut.

“E-erm! The globe on the second floor fell off!”

“…You’re a funny kid. No one asked about this, but you’re the first to confess.”

Keyla said, and retreated to the kitchen. Ai was at a loss for words and stood there for a while.

“Come here.”

Keyla called back, and served a tray at the counter.

“? What’s this?”

“A meal. Don’t you want to eat?”

Ai peeked up at the tray on her tiptoes and saw the hot bread and the stew filled with ingredients.

“I’m tucking in!”

Ai shouted as she hurriedly brought the tray to the table.

 

“I’m full!”

Ai quickly finished the bread and soup cleanly in a few mouthfuls, pick up the dishes, and was about to return them back to the kitchen.

“Erm, it’s delicious …”

“Is it? Thank you.”

Keyla replied, still sitting in the kitchen chair, not taking her eyes off the newspaper. She was a middle-aged woman with a slight sarcastic smile on her face.

Ai put her hands on the counter, poked her head out and said.

“You’re a Dead, but you’re a good cook.”

Thunk! At that moment, the tray was swung down onto her head in the blink of an eye. Ai was shocked not by the pain, but that she was unaware of what happened, and blinked away blinked continuously.

“Say, you could have said ‘you’re really good at cooking’ at a time like this instead of adding the ‘you’re a Dead’ part? Are you saying that I can’t make good food just because I’m dead? Well, shall I let you hear Aunt Keyla’s scientific cooking lecture, so you can learn how to cook without relying on your tastebuds?”

“Ah, no, erm, I’m very sorry!”

Ai tumbled beneath the counter and poked her head out again to apologize.

Keyla put a cup in front of Ai, and then came the aroma of tea with a slight bitter taste.

“Have some tea.”

There were two cups, one big, and one small. Ai hesitated for a moment, feeling that she should be more polite, so she picked up the small toy-like cup.

“It’s bitter!”

The tea was so thick and viscous, and it was hot and bitter.

“Silly, that cup is mine.”

Keyla gently took the cup from Ai’s hand and took a small sip of the dark liquid.

“You’ve never had Deva tea?”

Ai nodded her head repeatedly and stuck her tongue out from time to time. The tea was so bitter that she could not speak until this point.

It was a tea unique to Ortus, and the Dead would have it thick and bitter for the first drink. Ai picked up the large cup of tea that Keyla had pushed in front of her and raised it to her mouth discreetly. This cup was the second brew that was diluted, meant ‘for the living’.

Keyla greeted Ai casually, returning to the kitchen from time to time to check what was cooking in the pots. Ai said to the large back,

“E-erm!”

“What is it?”

“Do you know where Mr Julie and Mr Kiriko went?”

“The big man went out early in the morning.”

According to Keyla, he said he was going to take the car to the mechanic for a checkup, and asked how to get to the telecom and pharmacy offices, so it seems he should be there too.

“I think young lord Kiriko is off to work and will probably be back by evening.”

“Does Mr Kiriko live here?”

“Yes…ahhh, , he’s off to the Palace, so he should be there until night.”

“The Palace?”

“To see the Princess.”

When she said that, Ai remembered that the first time she met Kiriko, he mistook himself for a Princess.

“Mr Kiriko knows the Princess?”

“Yes, of course. I heard Princess treats him like a friend—What? He didn’t say anything to you?”

“He only said that he works as an errand boy in many places…”

“He’s not wrong about being an errand boy. He was my errand boy here, and then he became Princess’ errand boy in the Palace.”

Ai listened with great interest and slurped the whole cup of tea loudly.

Thank you for your hospitality, she put the cup back on the counter.

She looked at the clock, and it was just after noon; there was still a lot of time left in the day.

But she had nothing to do.

Ai rested her chin on the counter, looking at Keyla’s busy work from time to time, and sometimes listening to the pendulum of the clock that was marking time.

It was the first time since she had left the village that she had been given nothing to do.

“Erm…”

Soon, Ai couldn’t stay any longer.

“Excuse me, can I go out too?”

Keyla gave a bitter expression.

“What did the big guy say?”

“He didn’t say anything.”

He really didn’t.

“…Then I have no reason to stop you—But be careful, Ortus has been locked up for nine years and everyone has forgotten how to deal with Living.”

“Is that so?”

“Yes.”

“But, Aunt Keyla…you feel normal.”

“After all, I’m a chef, there’s always a chance to hang out with Living—so, where are you going?”

“I saw ‘Mask Street’ on my way here yesterday, so I want to go there for a walk …”

“Ahhh, it doesn’t matter ther.—do you have your entry card?”

Ai took out her brand new entry card and brandished it.

“If you get lost or get into any trouble, show this card to someone nearby, preferably someone who has a storefront in the building. And then there’s … Here, you put this on.”

Keyla took something a little inappropriate out of the kitchen cupboard and handed it to her.

“A mask?”

“How can you go to Mask Street without wearing a mask…And you stand out too much. You wear it to ward off disaster.”

It was an exotic little fox mask, very close to the strange scent emanating from the group of dead people they saw yesterday.

The smell of thick cardboard and glue rushed to the nostrils.

“Does it look good on me?”

“It should be good, I suppose? Put your hair down…and put on this ‘coat’ instead of your jacket.”

Ai’s blonde hair fell from her shoulders to her back, and the yellow blanket wrapped around her body.

She looked like a little golden fox wearing a straw hat.

“Not bad, now go debut yourself.”

Ai was so happy that she barked like a fox “Kon!”

She then ran off to the marketplace in the middle of noon.

 

Part III

 

Cats, horses, ghosts, monkeys, buzzards, dragons, weasels, cows, tigers, elephants, owls, human faces, dead faces, living faces.

The streets were full of various masks. Every building wall had masks for sale. The shopkeepers, and even the passers-by walking on the street practically had a second face. It was not not a costume party, and the fact that everyone was wearing normal clothes and masks made the scene seem surreal a daydream.

It seemed masks were in high demand in Ortus.

Most of the Dead would have had their faces tampered with. There are many different ways to do this, from makeup to plastic surgery, and masks in particular were one of the least complicated and most popular.

In order to meet the needs of these citizens, the mask streets had stores offering a wide range of them, from vendors selling cheap ones to specialty stores taking orders.

The wide street had a gentle slope. There were many cafes waiting to serve the people who were just visiting, and customers who were shopping.

At a corner of the street.

In an alley off the street was a little fox hiding behind a mask stand of a vendor who was not doing much business.

The little fox peeked out from behind the sign as if it were the first time in its life that it had ever run out of its den. Beneath the two holes of the mask was a pair of green glows that were increasingly filled with tension and excitement, watching the almost violent bustle of the street that she had never seen before, and the fact that everyone was a Dead.

“Hey, the pipsqueak there.”

One had to wonder if the male lion who was watching the store next door finally had enough when he spoke up.

“You’re covering the shelves, so if you don’t want to buy, please get out of the way.”

The little fox turned around. The lion store was filled with popular goods that could be found everywhere on the street, and the shelves that were basically widened with steel ladders could not be any more packed. The shopkeeper in turn stood at the front, hawking. Most stores like these were not exactly popular, with poor craftsmanship to boot, so how well they sold depended on the salesperson’s skill. In this sense, the lion failed, for he just sat before the stall on an empty blanket and did not move, ignoring customers, concentrating on completing the unpainted masks. He told the little fox to get out of the way, but only as a matter of fact.

The little fox remained in the same position, watching the lion for a while, and then suddenly left the shelves. He assumed she would just walk away, but unexpectedly, she ran to the lion and sat down.

“…Oi.”

“Ah, no, erm. I’ll leave soon…I’m just a little tired …”

The lion then lifted his eyes from his hands and looked squarely at the little fox mask.

Beneath the two holes on the lion’s mask were surprised eyes.

“Oi fox, where did you get this mask?”

“This? I borrowed it, Aunt Keyla lent it to me.”

“…Ahhh, so that’s how it is. I see.”

The lion’s doubts were resolved, he nodded to himself, went back to the task at hand, and did not ask her to leave.

The fox was relieved to be allowed to stay here, and wiped the sweat from under her mask.

She was a little tired.

Ai had seen a lot of new things, and let her tired eyes close for a while, and sat still with her knees cupped, merely listening to the noise of the street with only her ears. Among the irregular noises, the one constant was the swish of a lion sharpening a wooden mask sounded with a fixed frequency. In the darkness, she found this sound soothing, and her whole body was filled with a wonderful sense of fatigue akin to sleepiness.

Ai opened her eyes slightly to see a dream-like light before her, and the sense of reality had departed far.

“Hmm.”

Her elbow suddenly touched something, causing her to look up and see the lion reaching out and handing her a small bag.

“…What’s this?”

“An incense stick, it takes away fatigue.”

The items inside the bag were made of boiled spices. Ai took out one of them and gently put it into her mouth from under her mask.

“Wow! The mint flavor is so strong!”

“That’s why it can get rid of fatigue.”

The lion chuckled under the mask. Ai was startled by how cold the stick resembling a solid block was, but after she chewed on it a few more times, she found the taste peculiar, and her sleepiness was suddenly gone.

“Now I feel like drinking water. Water will go well with this. “

“There’s no drinking water here—and what if you want to go to the bathroom after drinking? There are so few toilets in Ortus that you can count them.”

“Eh? Really?”

“Of course. The Living don’t have to eat, and don’t have to excrete. Unlike the Living.”

A strange customer then arrived. The shopkeeper remained as eccentric as before, and so was the customer. They didn’t say a word, and talked business with their fingers.

Ai dutifully waited for the customer in the cat-eared cat mask to leave.

“How did you find out I’m a Living?”

The straw hat, the mask, and the short coat all showed no skin anywhere on her body, and she should not be recognized as Living immediately.

“That mask.”

The lion took out the chewed incense stick from under the mask, threw it in the trash and said.

“I made that for the lady when I graduated from school.”

“? That’s how you found out?”

“—And even without the mask, just saying that you want to drink water and are tired is enough to make people suspicious, there is no way to hide it.”

“I don’t want to hide it that much.”

“Idiot, this must be hidden, okay? Otherwise you’ll get into trouble.”

“Eh, why?”

“Let’s say for example.”

The lion tucked his chin, the mask tilted, and the shadows fell on the convex outline of the mask to form an expression.

The lion mask showed weariness and anger.

“If you were Dead and you saw Living in front of you, what would you think?”

“…I don’t know.”

“Then, the other way around, what do you think I would think if I looked at you?”

“… I don’t know.”

It would be a lie to say that I’m not envious, so the lion said.

“Don’t make a show of being alive in front of someone who’s dead.”

“…” Ai nodded gently.

“…I’m sorry.”

“There’s nothing to apologize for…after all, this is an issue on our side. You’re living, we’re dead. That’s all, there’s nothing for you to be sorry about.”

Even though he opened his mouth to comfort, Ai remained shrivelled and still.

Once he saw the little fox looking all rattled with her feet fidgeting, he handed over the bag of incense sticks to her.

“Don’t look so miserable, eat it.”

“Huh? But my mouth is not yet…”

“Ahhh, forget it, then you take the whole bag~”

He shoved the bag into her hands.

The lion grunted, slapped his knee unhappily, and started shouting what he should have shouted long ago: “Cheap, cheap!” Ai smiled under the fox mask as she listened to his hawking.

It was almost evening, and the street was getting crowded. Even the lion’s stall started to get busy with customers.

But once he saw this overwhelming situation, the lion began to close his stall.

“It’s rare that business starts to improve, but you’re not selling?”

“It’s because business has started to improve that I’m closing.”

The lion added as a matter-of-fact: “Because now I can’t make masks.” Ai did not know whether to feel dumbfounded or impressed.

“Then I’ll be off.”

The lion put away his mask and tools and got up, leaving the space free for other mask vendors to come and set up their booths.

Ai felt a little reluctant, and followed behind the clattering toolbox. The lion walked downhill along the street, ignoring her until he entered the alley, and then finally said.

“…You should go back too.”

“I want to talk to Mr. Lion a little longer.”

The lion turned around, and the dimness of the alley fell on the lion’s mask, depicting a flat out refusal.

“Go, back, no. The sun sets very quickly in this area. It was setting when we left, and now it’s almost completely down. Ortus at night isn’t as easygoing as me.”

“…Mr. Lion, you aren’t much better at talking, right?”

“What!?”

“Forget what I said if you insist so much! Goodbye!”

The little fox shouted, and ran away with light footsteps.

“…Idiot, I don’t care about you.”

The lion left these words and carried his luggage again.

“Say, it’s about time to go back.”

At a tea store on the outskirts of Mask Street.

The lion occupied a table on the second floor with a view of the whole street, and expressed his impatience with his whole body.

“Just a little more! Just one more! That’s what I want to see!”

The little fox poked her upper body out from the railing and watched with glee the great procession of demons and monsters marching down the street.

It was night.

“I’m serious, let’s go home. You’re hungry too, right? I’ll be scolded by Aunt.”

“Don’t worry!”

There was no basis for this statement. The lion was exhausted and sullen.

—-The group of demons and monsters was a group of theater troupe members. They were basically buskers such as street musicians and jugglers, sometimes spitting fire, juggling, and handing out flyers, whispering sweet nothings or cursing at others, while also helping to advertise “Bolivie’s Western Products”. Perhaps advertising was their main job, and performing was a side gig, but Ai would never be able to confirm this.

It seemed they too liked to hear loud cheering. Some members threw flowers and pigeons at her from time to time, probably because she stood out while cheering loudly on the second floor, and finally four of them suddenly came to her in a gymnastic formation and said,

“If you can afford it, you have to buy it! Please visit the Norei mask store!”

“Yes-yes! Please take care of me!”

The little fox gently took the flyer, and the stack of people immediately dispersed, leaving only the noise of the street in mid-air.

But Ai still looked into the air, as if she thought there was something left there. After a while, she took the flyers she received to the table and folded them carefully on the table.

“You don’t need to treasure such things.”

“I just want it!”

“Okay, okay, it’s my fault, I’m nosy.”

The little fox did not seem to have any more room for her flyers, so she pulled everything out and sorted them out. In addition to the stick of incense given by the lion, there was also a bitter candy she had not seen before, and small decorative hair clips, all of which she received for free.

The lion looked at these things out of the corner of his eye and said with an urge to sigh.

“…I already knew. I knew since I was a kid. I should have known that a gangster as bad as me must be the most unlucky…”

“What did you say?”

Nothing, so the lion replied, and he recalled back to why he was in this situation.

 

The lion went straight back to his place and suddenly remembered that he was going to buy a pen on his way home. He had really just forgotten about it, and usually, he would have just gotten up and left, but it seemed that on this day, he was looking for an excuse. He convinced himself that it was okay to buy it the next day, and forced himself to sit down and continue working.

But he was just restless.

Making the mask required a lot of limb movement, but his mind was easily distracted by the sight of the little fox lost in the street of masks. And the imagination grew richer and richer, and he began to put the old woman who abducted children and a long-armed man who sold corpses beside the little fox.

When he failed for the second time to draw lines on the cheeks of the mask, the lion finally made up his mind and ran out of the house with a ferocious red color on the lion mask, looking exactly like a lion. His eyes cut through the darkness of the alley and traced a golden trail.

The street was getting more crowded towards nightfall. The place where the lion had set up his stall in the daytime was replaced by another vendor who said he hadn’t seen any little fox. The lion’s tireless body immediately ran uphill along the street, asking anyone he recognized if they had seen the fox. He had only prepared himself to find her even if he had to search the whole night of Ortus, and the next thing he knew, there she was.

The little fox was sitting on the knee of “Goliath with a Thousand Faces”, the owner of “Goliath’s Mask Shop”, a big store on the mask street, and the famous old man was touching her head.

The lion hurriedly wiped off the ugly makeup on the mask, repeatedly apologized, and finally reunited with the little fox.

But his mistake was that he was too greedy.

The lion, thinking that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, apologized and thanked Goliath, and then, “if you don’t mind”, he tried to make the other party remember his name.

And Goliath’s answer was indeed a good one.

“How can a lion pretend to be a fox?”

The lion felt himself whipped by these words and ran away. The battle-hardened old man tried to keep the guest, but the little fox declined the offer and without hesitation, followed the lion who ran away with his tail hanging out.

The lion could not remember what happened afterwards, only that he kept asking the little fox to hurry home.

One had to wonder if the little fox saw the lion’s disappointment, for she kept making noises next to him.

The lion leaned on the railing, looking at the commotion he was used to seeing.

And he found something strange.

“Oh, it’s Princess.”

“Eh?”

“Look over there, ‘Silver Circle Theater’s New Comedy Diatribe—the Dead God Incarnate and the Dead Princess’. That’s way too excessive of a title. The City doesn’t approve it, surely.

Where the lion pointed, there was a young girl sitting on a sedan chair. The girl’s cheeks were rosy, and her skin is powdered white and smooth. The stage makeup is obviously intended to be Living, but Princess’ makeup should not be so exaggerated.

And the Princess should not be so smiley.

“New episode! Brand new episode! A new addition to the Ortus God story! A brand new episode of the new comedy diatribe at the Silver Circle Theater! Ladies and gentlemen, I’m Ami Ada! This is my first time as the female lead! Please support me!”

The young lady handed out flyers from the palanquin.

“It doesn’t work at all…Hey! You’re a third-rate actress!”

The lion suddenly shouted, startlingly making the little fox sit in the chair.

“You call yourself the Princess? You’re just a normal country bumpkin!”

The young girl realized that it was the lion who had shouted this phrase, so she stared at him and said.

“What do you want, you third-rate mask maker! You have a problem with our group’s interpretation? I’m sorry, our group just won’t get you such a sultry pervert’s favorite upper-class Princess!

The lion immediately threw up his hands in surrender and said, “You’re a noisy bitch!” Then he went to hide behind the terrace.

“I am cheeky! Everyone, do you prefer tight or loose?”

The girl said as she lifted her skirt in an indecent manner, revealing her white calves. The men laughed and applauded, making her the star of the street, and the flyers disappeared at a rapid pace.

“That girl’s name is Belibella, she’s a classmate of ours.”

The lion leaned over the table and spoke, playing the role of a third-rate man.

“Her dream is to be the lead actress in the Inferno Theater Company.”

He looked at the Princess dancing in the street with distant eyes.

“And she said she would wear the mask I made on stage.”

“Isn’t that great!?”

“Yeah, but she said, ‘You have to be the number one mask maker in Ortus first.’ I can’t stand it, who does she think she is?”

“You’re having a hard time too.”

“I’m fine, but—”

The lion’s mask showed a swarthy expression under the slanting light.

“After all, that was my dream.”

It’s not a big dream, he added in a whisper,

But then there was a small round of applause.

“That’s great.”

Turning his head, he found the little fox clapping gently.

“You’re so cool, Mr. Lion.”

“I’m telling you, don’t clap your hands.”

The little fox, of course, ignored, and her eyes glowing at the lion.

“Goodness…do you have any dream?”

“My dream?”

“Yes.”

“No, erm, it’s a little…”

The little fox suddenly stammered.

“Erm… won’t you laugh when you hear it?”

“I won’t.”

“And it won’t scare you?”

“…Your dream will scare people?”

The little fox stammered for a while before finally saying with trepidation.

“I want to save the world.”

“Heh?”

The lion did not laugh, nor was he frightened, and accepted the answer with respect. However, he was incapable of expressing his emotions on the mask, and the lion mask was stoic. The little fox hastily asked.

“Are you, are you frightened?”

“No. Why? Did you mention this dream elsewhere before and got laughed at?”

“Well, I told Mr. Kiriko, and he said ‘that’s a stupid dream’ …”

“Him, huh…”

The aura emanating from the lion suddenly changed.

“Don’t take that idiot’s words to heart …”

There was a hidden anger in his words, so the young fox stopped talking.

The lion then realized that he had made the atmosphere awkward, and wanted to say something nice,  but he did not know what. Ai turned her eyes to the street, and pretended to look interested..

The lion, on the other hand, had given up and was going to leave it to Kiriko.

After all, it was all Kiriko’s fault.

 

Interlude: Kiriko and Ulla

 

On Monday, God created the world.

 

On Tuesday, God took a fatal blow and died.

 

On Wednesday, the Devil was victorious, and cursed the world.

 

On Thursday, the curse spread throughout the world.

 

On Friday, God perished together with the Devil.

 

And on Saturday

 

“On Saturday, the dying God gave a certain human the power to correct the world.”

Kiriko said this in a gentle tone, coaxingly.

“And that person is you, Ulla.”

He looked over at her and found that the usual response had indeed made Ulla pout again. She tightened her tiny chin and her white cheeks puffed out. Despite the awkwardness of the situation, Kiriko felt a little calmer at the sight of her cute face.

“If you stay here, you can save the world.”

The Princess said she did not do anything herself.

“You don’t have to do anything, God didn’t give you the power to test you …Ulla, you just need to study, eat, and live your day to day life, and the world will slowly be saved.”

Even if I’m just playing? Just eating a snack? Just sleeping?

“Of course. But Ulla, you have to be careful, you can save the world if you live, but not if you die…Think back to the end of that paragraph—on Sunday, the world was saved. You have to hide in the safety of the Palace and just wait for the coming Sundays. Everyone will protect you, and of course I will. So…”

Kiriko let out a long sigh.

“I absolutely forbid you to go out.”

This made Ulla rebellious, and she did not say anything all day.

It was evening by the time Kiriko returned to the streets after his work in the City. The already somewhat feeble early spring sun intended to set early, and turned red beyond the outer walls.

“Woah, it’s cold.”

Once he stood beyond the City walls, Kiriko buttoned up the top button of his shirt. It was so cold that he regretted not putting on a scarf to go out, wearing only a plain white shirt, a dark blue blazer and pants of the same color, and clearly he was not warm enough.

Kiriko rubbed his hands against his exposed cheeks and neck to keep warm, and from time to time, he tidied his light blue hair that had shrunk due to the strong wind.

Then he looked up at the castle he had just walked out of.

Kiriko looked at the spire, smiled slightly, and said.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, Princess.”

The bus arrived.

The dilapidated bus went through all the ramps of Ortus, and when it braked, it made a puffing sound, as if it was gasping for breath.

Kiriko showed his pass to the driver, and boarded the bus. The steel armrests were so cold that they seemed to suck away body heat.

Kiriko felt the vibration of the engine under the wooden floor and kept his eyes on the spire outside the window. As he began to sleep, the bus finally left.

The bus ferried Kiriko out of the Palace, severing some of the loneliness he felt.

The bus continued to ferry and release people as it drove downhill, and it did not take long to reach the bus stop at Main Street. Usually, Kiriko would have sat all the way to the dormitory near the end of the line, but Keyla had asked him to assist with the shopping on this day, so he disembarked.

The street lights were already on. The long, cold soles of boots could be seen dancing on the stone pavement, along with the alien shadows of the Dead.

Most of the dead had a declining appetite for sleep, and some did not sleep for a whole year. The nights in Ortus were very long, and the people love the moonlight, as befitting of the inhabitants of the land.

Kiriko walked along the road, greeting people he was acquainted with from time to time. When someone asks, “How is Princess doing?” He would reply, “She’s doing well, and seems to be getting prettier.” When a friend asked, “Do you want to come and play?” He replied, “Maybe next time.”

“Brother, you’re sleazy to be able to go into the Palace any tme.”

“Sleazy ~~!”

“I-I have work to do …”

The Ugul siblings grabbed Kiriko’s legs and dragged them to the front of the grocery store, and they only let go once they were hit on the head by their mother.

The lady apologized profusely, and Kiriko added a few ingredients to her order and put them in a bag. He declined the lady’s offer to help with the delivery and made his way to the end of the street.

Then he turned around and looked at Ortus.

The hazy lights of the Palace were visible beneath the night sky. The Main Street extending from there had its lights lit too, one by one, giving color.

Everyone was smiling in this scene.

Kiriko felt happy too, and then he spotted something amiss, so he had a closer look.

(The mask on the street…is that Belibella? Heh…she’s playing the Princess?)

Once he saw his classmate sit on the palanquin happily, Kiriko also inadvertently leaned over.

Instead, an unexpected voice was heard.

“Ah! It’s Mr. Kiriko.”

The little golden fox ran across the street and stopped in front of him.

“…Hold on, Ai?”

“What hold on? It’s me.”

Ai said and quickly quickly lifted the mask, revealing the watery Living face, Kiriko hurried to help her put the mask back on.

“Why are you staying out here so late at night!? You should have someone with you, right!?”

“Don’t worry! I’m with Mr. Lion! Look!”

Kiriko was wondering who the lion was, and looked in the direction Ai was pointing, but only saw the alleyway was dark.

The darkness opened its mouth.

(Hey, fox, you go back with this kid, I don’t care.)

Kiriko heard this voice.

“…Shad?”

(No, I’m Mr. Lion—I’m leaving then.)

“Ah, Mr. Lion, please wait! We’ll see you tomorrow!”

Ai energetically said goodbye to him.

The darkness listened, and came to a sudden stop.

(…Like I’ll be seeing you tomorrow. Don’t come back.)

“I won’t listen, I’ll come back.”

(… Don’t joke about it.)

“I’m not joking.”

(…)

The darkness seems to have made up its mind.

(…Looks like you’re not going to listen to me …)

—A hand came out of the darkness and slapped Ai.

The fox mask rolled a few times in the alley, revealing a bright face that the dead would never have.

“Hey, Shad! What are you doing!”

(Shut up, you conman.)

Ai slowly teared up and reached out to rub her cheeks.

“…It hurts.”

(Get out of this city while you’re still in pain … and go back to Living where you belong with happy memories.)

The mask that rolled to the boundary between light and darkness showed a sharp outline and then faded into the darkness.

(You don’t know the dark side of Ortus.)

The night said this, and nothing more.

Beneath the sporadic electric lights, the two of them chatted while going back to the dormitory. But this so-called conversation was mostly Ai talking. No one asked her anything as she happily told Kiriko about the day’s events. How she met the lion, how she was separated and reunited with him, and also there was the troupe of demons and monsters.

“And then Mr. Lion was so scared that he kept apologizing to Mr. Goliath. It was really unbearable! He definitely doesn’t know that the old grandfather hates that kind of attitude.”

The two of them trekked down the stone path with the sound of clicking footsteps. This area used to be a school district, but since it closed a year ago, it has been in the middle of the urban renewal area, and the whole street was full of empty houses.

They did not encounter anyone on the way, and they kept passing their shadows under the passing street lamps. Ai’s shadow, unlike Kiriko’s, was jumping around from time to time, looking very happy.

“I think Mr. Lion should be a little more thorough in being strict. He’ll be cooler.”

“… Oh, heh, I see …”

She had been talking about Mr. Lion, or Shad, since the beginning.

Kiriko did not know how to answer, and mumbled vaguely. Incidentally, Ai’s maskless face had the little mark of a slap imprinted on it. Ai did not say anything about it, but she did not seem to be pretending that it was not there.

“…Ai, you think Shad is nice?”

“I don’t know Shad, but I really like Mr. Lion.”

“Uh, but, he hit you …”

“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t care, but I really don’t… I think he definitely felt he had to do it.”

“…………Well, you’re really calm…”

Is that so? Ai said, looking a little embarrassed,

” I’ve spent some time with someone who uses violence as a bargaining tool. A slap or two isn’t a big deal.”

“I-is that so…”

“By the way, that guy is my dad.”

What would be the best response?

“Mr. Lion was a little like Dad!”

Kiriko did not know how to answer, but Ai seemed very happy, so he just said, “T-that’s nice.”

“Yes, I’m glad.”

“You’re glad!? …You’re really weird …”

“W-why do you say that all of a sudden? How rude.”

“How so? You’re really a very strange Living. you came to the city of the Dead by yourself and made friends.  A normal Living would have a dislike for the Dead.”

Kiriko has seen Living in the past, and whether they were businessmen or officials, many of them were particularly insistent. Some would not enter the houses, and insist on doing business outside; some people would not eat Keyla’s food even though they were in the dormitory; some would lecture him haughtily just because they were still alive, thinking that they were the only ones who were right; some people were so bad-mouthed that they would say with a dated ethic that had been expired for more than fifteen years: “When people are dead, they should not wander around, they should go into the grave and not cause trouble for the rest of the people.. You should ask gravekeepers to bury your brains before they rot and start ‘acting out’.” Kiriko was so used to such habits that he did not bother to get angry.

Ai instantly put away her naive look, looked ahead and said,

“After all, I was raised by the Dead.”

The realization and shock came to Kiriko’s mind at the same time, and his throat was stuck, rendering him speechless.

“So, that’s how it is? Where did you live before?”

“It’s destroyed.”

Ugh.

“That’s…………sorry, I don’t know what to say…”

“By the way, my dad destroyed it.”

“I’ve been trying my best not to retort, but I can’t take it anymore! What the hell is your dad up to?”

Ai looked at the third streetlight in front of her and said.

“That can’t be helped. Everyone was very nice to me, but there was a side to the village that I didn’t know of, that hides the ‘evil’ that would kill people…it was a matter of time until everything got revealed…”

“…”

“And then my dad died too.”

A bug circled around the lamp alone at this time of year, then fell to the ground and died, almost as if it could not bear the loneliness and committed suicide.

Not wanting to step on the bug’s carcass, the duo naturally pulled apart. They then continued to maintain this distance.

“Say, Mr. Kiriko.”

“What is it?”

“What is this ‘dark side of Ortus’ Mr. Lion speaks of?”

Kiriko cursed out at Shad on the stone path before saying,

“… Who knows? Ortus isn’t a perfect city, so of course there are all kinds of problems. If he’s just talking about the dark side, who knows? Like our diplomacy never goes smoothly, and the world situation is changing every minute. If you take a closer look, you will see that there are always Dead who ‘act up’, and on the other hand ‘spirited’, and on the contrary, the ‘Dead who are lifeless’ is also a problem. There are a lot of problems when you think about it.”

“That’s true. I can think of a lot of problems quite easily.”

“…”

Kiriko fell silent.

“You’re not telling me …?”

Ai lowered her head sadly and pushed back the hair that had fallen on her cheek.

They came to an old street lamp. Only here was the light was extraordinarily weak, and the color of dusk was rich.

“I …”

Ai opened her mouth naturally.

“I’m a gravekeeper.”

“………Huh?”

The light bulb flickered.

“Technically, I’m a hybrid born between a gravekeeper and human, and I’m lying about my age, but I’m actually twelve. Mom’s name is Alfa, Dad’s name is Kizuna, Julie is Dad’s friend, and Miss Scar is the gravekeeper I met.”

“Wa-wait! Wait a sec!”

Kiriko stopped in his tracks and looked at every corner of the street. No one else was there.

“…Is it true?”

“It’s true.”

Ai’s eyes remained natural, and there was nary a tinge of deceit.

“… Why are you telling me this…”

“Nothing in particular.”

“… You’re lying. You’re definitely up to something.”

You’re always like this, Mr. Kiriko. Ai was a bit dumbfounded and said.

“I’m not planning anything, I just thought I’d better tell you first.”

“…I can’t believe that.”

“That’s not my responsibility.”

Please do something about it, so Ai said and started walking towards the bright place.

Kiriko was almost left behind, so she jogged to follow.

“Ortus doesn’t allow gravekeepers to exist! If someone tips off the police, you’ll be killed and stuck upside down in the grave!”

“You’re not going to tell on me?”

Kiriko’s footsteps suddenly stopped, and Ai followed suit.

Kiriko scratched the back of his head hard.

Ai looked at it and smiled. Her smile infuriated Kiriko so thoroughly that he just wanted to pull her cheeks.

“Ouch! Bud lar uu dwing!?”

“Shut up, or I’ll hit you harder—ouch!”

Ai aimed a kick at Kiriko’s shin. The cheek was pinched on the top, but a sharp kick was thrown from the bottom.

“What are you doing…”

Kiriko cursed, flicked her on the forehead, and took a step forward. Ai followed suit, rubbing her cheeks.

Ai said she just wanted to tell Kiriko, and she did not say anything more, but just walked forward in silence.

Kiriko was the one who could not stand the silence at first.

“…Now I know why you say you want to save the world…although I don’t agree with that.”

What Ai handed to him was too heavy, and his words contained what seems like a reactionary anger.

“Let me ask you a question…what do you mean by saving the world, specifically?”

Ai stopped rubbing her cheeks.

“Tell me, is there a Dead in the world you want, and is there a place for the Dead?”

“No…”

Ai answered him honestly, without any deception.

“I think the simplest way to save the world is to return the world to 15 years ago, when someone was born and the Dead would die. Although I don’t know how to achieve it yet, but I think I just need to move towards this goal.”

“Is there a Dead in the world you’re talking about? Is there a city that exist for the Dead? Is there a parade of demons and monsters at night, and everyone laughing and having fun?”

“… No.”

Ai looked down at the stone road.

“I just hope the Dead can all meet the ‘happy ending’ …”

“What and what?”

Kiriko did not hide his contemptuous tone.

“Who decides what is a ‘happy ending’? The person himself, right? You say you’re going to help everyone get a happy ending? Hmph? I’m sorry. If someone’s wish is to ‘die after destroying the world to be happy’, will you also help them?”

“…I won’t.”

“That’s a strange answer. You’re contradicting yourself. You clearly distinguish between those who you want to help and those who you don’t. What do you mean by ‘happy ending’, when in the end it’s just a happy ending ‘in your opinion’?”

Ai could not answer.

“Ortus has simply stopped praying for endings.”

“…I see.”

“You’ve seen how people live in the city, right? We’re already happy.”

“…I understand…”

“Hmph, I think you haven’t thought about it. You never even thought there would be such a group of people who died, continued to live and adapted to this world.”

“………Yes…”

“It’s great to want to save the world, but have you asked the world first? Did the world ever ask you to save it?”

“………No.”

Ai was completely overwhelmed. With her head down and tears in her eyes, she just walked on, not even looking at Kiriko.

Kiriko knew that he went overboard, but the words of reproach kept coming out of his heart.

“…I understand your situation. Your life was so miserable before, and it’s no wonder that you have such an exaggerated dream. But, frankly, you can’t carry it.”

“…………………”

“Why don’t you just give up on saving the world?”

Ai sniffled and stopped talking, and Kiriko too fell silent. He said what he wanted to, and there was nary a tinge of spite left.

The dejected girl walked next to Kiriko, her head down to a point where her expression was not visible, and her blonde hair looked lifeless in the weak light of the street lamp.Kiriko scratched the back of his head, wondering why he bothered to rile her like this. He did not understand why he had said those overly harsh words. Usually, even when he met Living who were sarcastic or pretentious, he was able to handle it very well, no matter what they said.

But for some reason, after hearing Ai’s words, he could not hold back any longer.

Kiriko sighed deeply and was about to say, “I’m sorry, I went too far.”

But Ai was one step ahead.

“… But, Mr. Kiriko, I won’t give up.”

She lifted her gaze.

“… Why?”

Kiriko asked.

“Because I’ve decided that I can’t give up until I do.”

“…I see. Well, whatever makes you happy.”

Yes! As I like! Ai said, and then she looked up at at Kiriko with a prying eye, looking coy for some reason.

“Then I’ll do as I please then …I have a little something to ask you, Mr. Kiriko …”

Kiriko had a hunch that it was best to run away on the spot.

“Please don’t run.”

He had only taken one step forward when his sleeve was grabbed by Ai.

He did not have to turn around to realize that her green eyes were glowing with curiosity.

“Mr. Kiriko, why are you alive?”

Ai wrapped her left and right hands around his arm as though she was climbing a rock, and appeared right in front of him.

Kiriko himself ate, drank, went to the toilet, and slept.

These are the reactions of Living, and this is the city of the dead.

“Say, why?”

Kiriko averted his eyes from the green ones, as if she was too dazzling.

“…What? Are you denying my existence …?”

“Please don’t move the goalposts. Why are you the only one who can live in the city of the dead?”

“…”

Kiriko should have hated this. He hated it when someone grabbed his hand like that, came up to him, stared into his eyes, pretended to be familiar with him, imposed her past onto him, and barged into his heart without permission.

However…

At this point, he did not feel the need to nitpick about that.

“I’m a Dead.”

“…Hohooo …”

Ai did not refute and accepted the answer.

“…I’ve never explained it to anyone, so I’m just going to say what they told me, is that okay?”

“? Yes, of course …”

So he said.

—There used to be five people of different genders, ages and upbringing, but they just got along and lived happily together. They also had a very happy vision of the future, imagining that some of them would get married and have children join the circle.

But then the world ended. The five remained as five, and the circle was closed.

The five of them did not like this, so they went to the witch.

They wanted a descendant who would inherit them.

So the witch said.

“If you really wanted children, your wish would have come true already.”

They, of course, retorted, saying that they really wanted to have children.

“Is that so? But, unfortunately, since the wish didn’t come true, that’s all there is to it. So all I can do is to twist your wishes to make them come true.”

The five of them said that even so.

The witch immediately took the right eye of Vuella, the left eye of Orius, the heart of Diva, the phallus of Wreck, and the sheath of Pox, and then took a sufficient amount of bones, flesh, and brains from all of them.

The five of them died immediately.

And the parts that were taken out were put together to make the sixth person.

 

“That’s me.”

Kiriko took a step forward, as if to emphasize the end of the story.

“And of these five people, you met Wreck and Pox and, right? Together with Diva, Orius and Vuella, the six of us are called the ‘Defective Pentagram’.”

Ai was so shocked that she closed her mouth that could not stop talking, and followed behind Kiriko, stepping on the new shadow from the new streetlight.

“No one knew what the result of such an attempt would be, but I heard that it was successful. Perhaps the ingredients used were alive, I act like a Living even though I’m a Dead. I have to eat, use the bathroom, and most intriguingly, even the gravekeepers don’t seem to recognize me as Dead, so I’m not buried and I can walk outside freely.”

“… But doesn’t that mean you’re a reborn Living?”

“No, it doesn’t. I was made thirteen years ago. My appearance back then was already fourteen…but my body has only grown a year or so every ten years since then.”

“? Then how old are you Kiriko?”

“…Seventeen or eighteen, I think—it’s just that five of them thought I was younger.”

It seemed they really thought of Kiriko as their own child, and that child would never grow up in the eyes of his parents.

“…By the way, why did the remaining five, that is, Pox and the others, turn out to be half and half like that?”

“I heard it’s to complement the missing parts.”

“? Since they’re Dead, it doesn’t matter if some parts are missing, right?”

“Well, everyone thinks so too…so they say it’s only the witch who wants to do that.”

Ai stammered, unable to speak.

“She’s going too far …”

“I heard it was too much, and it seemed no one wants to think about the witch, so I don’t know the details…hmm?”

“What’s wrong?”

Kiriko suddenly frowned and stopped in his tracks.

“Well…you already know, so I won’t act anymore. Wreck is contacting me.”

“Eh?”

“After all, our brains are blended together. Their brains can connect to me individually.”

Ai was dumbfounded.

“He said the Living sent a representative to negotiate.”

“…What’s going to happen to them?”

“He said they’re going to discuss this next. Well~~ and also conditions like aid and such. Sounds tiring.”

Ackk~ Ai gave a rude reaction.

“Don’t you feel disgusted by this?…I feel like throwing up just imagining it.”

“I got used to it…for thirteen years.”

He said and stepped forward again.

There were not many steps left in the road, and the lights of the dormitory could be seen ahead.

“Well, hurry back. Aunty is waiting.”

“Ooh, there’s something I want to ask …”

“Ueeh? What?”

“Yes, I want to ask you which tea stores you recommend, because I also plan to go shopping tomorrow!”

“…What’s that about?”

“What do you—what are you talking about?”

“That’s what you ask after I just asked?”

“???? Is it weird?”

Kiriko hung her head and glanced at the green eyes that were lower than him.

“You’re a weird kid.”

Ai kicked him in the shin.

 

Eagerly waiting for her later in the dormitory were Keyla, who had become a hell jailer, and Julie, who had turned into a beast.

Ai thought she nearly died.

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