On Monday, God created the world.
On Tuesday, God distinguished the order and chaos.
On Wednesday, God honed the numerical values.
On Thursday, God allowed the Time to flow.
On Friday, God overlooked every corner of the world.
On Saturday, God rested.
And so, on Sunday, God abandoned the world
15 years ago, God suddenly appeared before humanity, and told them.
“That world is overflowing with people. This world will come to an end. Ahh, I have failed.”
Leaving only these words behind, God vanished, and back then, while humans were lavishing hymns on this world of Spring, they were left quaking. Their species existed for less than a hundred million years before they finally met God. However, those first words from Him, were words of farewell.
From that day on, Man could no longer die.
Their hearts ceased to beat, their flesh rotting. The Dead could continue to act.
From that day on, Man could no longer be born.
The flames of the factories had extinguished, and new humans were no longer built.
After God no longer inhabited this world, humans screamed in agony. Millions shrieked to the point of vomiting blood. The Living quickly whittled down in numbers, and then the entire world was filled with the Dead.
And so, the gravekeepers appeared.
These gravekeepers were the final miracles that God had granted for the sake of Man.
Gravekeepers would never age, and never know fatigue. God gave them the most ideal of bodies humans could ever think of, had them build graves, and bury the wandering Dead, their work being ensuring the peace of the Living. At this point, Man could finally rest.
The children could no longer be born, the Dead wandered, and the Gravekeepers roamed everywhere.
Such was the depiction of the end times.
In this Godless age, people continued to live and die.
They lost their lives, their inheritors, their faith, their souls, but they did not want things to end..
They responded to the salvation of the Gravekeepers with bullets, and teetered towards the sudden gift of eternity from heaven.
It was like the suffering of the people of hell. It was also like a pioneer’s journey to the west.
Ai was a Gravekeeper, twelve years old.
She too started to walk.
She too trembled and suffered for the sake of saving the new world.
The large Ortus shrank instantaneously, and finally could no longer be seen.
Ai thought to herself this was the reason why she hated cars. She felt it was not a good thing to be able to see each other while they were drifting away from each other.
It would be nice if she had walked instead. Those who walked knew very well what they should do at such moments, and could not look behind. No matter how anguished or lonely they felt, they would trip over if they did not look at their feet.
They could only look ahead while walking.
But at this moment, she was reluctantly occupying the back seat while looking back, and started to hate cars a little bit.
… No, she should not blame the car.
It took five or six attempts of resolve before Ai finally got up, grabbed the seat in the shaky car, and returned to the passenger seat. Julie immediately showed a worried look through the rear-view mirror, and Ai turned her face outwards, for she did not want him to see the red corners of her eyes.
“You’ll meet again.”
That’s true. Ai replied as nonchalantly as her attitude. Julie understood her intent, nodded, and started being wary of their surroundings.
” Scar, is there any presence of the Dead nearby?”
She did not answer.
Julie glanced in the rear-view mirror, Ai too thought it was strange, so she looked at the back of the chair at the middle row of seats. Scar was sleeping soundly on the seat, not acting like a Gravekeeper at all, but a girl who had forgotten her tension due to fatigue
“Miss Scar has fallen asleep? Mr. Julie, stop the car … Mr. Julie.”
Julie then regained his senses and released his foot off the gas pedal. The car slowed down and stopped in the wilderness, and the only sound left in the car was the engine cooling down, before the silence returned.
Ai dug through the gap between the driver’s seat and the passenger’s seat and wriggled her way to the middle row of seats.
Julie hated to move through the narrow road, so he got out of the car and went around. Ai said to him, putting her index finger to her mouth,
“Shh… she’s sound asleep.”
And then she picked up Celica, who was about to fall under the chair. It was the first time Ai carried her
The baby was so soft.
“Wo-woah, she’s so cute!”
“Oy , her neck is still soft. Hold her head up.”
“H-how do I do that?”
Goodness me, so Julie mumbled and slowly squeezed in. The entire space was made narrow in an instant.
“Hold her head properly in one hand and her body in the other. Like this—”
Ai tried to do what he said.
“Woah…she’s so cute…”
“Let’s set up the bed while we’re at it—shall we put it in the middle row?”
“She’s super cute!”
Julie started to install the bedhe had bought in Ortus. The bed was custom-made and had a very strong structure that not only protected the baby, but also kept the baby out of sight.
And while he was doing so, Ai was mesmerized by the tiny creature in her hands. The soft touch on her hands was indescribable, and she was so engrossed in it that she did nothing to help.
“Amazing~ she already has ears and a nose.”
“Of course, right? You’re really lacking in common sense.”
“Really? It’s my first time seeing a baby, so I don’t know.”
Haa, it was then that Julie realized something was amiss.
“…Of course, your generation has never seen a baby…”
He stopped his hand from bolting the screws as he looked into the distance.
“Sorry for going overboard, Ai. It’s not your fault…”
“Huh? She doesn’t have any teeth though? Hmmm~ Mr. Julie, did her teeth fall out from under the seat?”
“…I take that back. Yep, it’s your fault.”
Ai looked at the strong man with a puzzled look..
“She doesn’t have her teeth yet because they’ll get in the way of suckling. They’ll grow out soon.”
“Ohh? That’s convenient.”
At that moment, the baby suddenly opened its eyes.
Ai met her in the eyes and whispered,
“—Good morning …”
Daw? Celica responded vaguely,
“Don’t make too much noise, your mom is sleeping.”
She did not know if Celica understood her, but the latter merely moved her arms slowly, ugu ugu, moved her mouth, and swayed her body from side to side.
“You definitely don’t understand me, right?”
“But you’re so cute, I forgive you! There must have been a lot of babies like that in the past.”
“You’re making it sound like she’s an endangered animal.”
But she was not wrong.
“… Okay, the bed is set up, let me do it.”
Ai handed Celica over to Julie. The baby appeared calm and comfortable, and allowing Julie to carry her to the bed and lie down.
“How is it? Sleep well?”
Ai asked, and the baby answered with a serious expression,
“She said, “I am fine. Do be at ease”.”
“What’s that tone about? Is she the King?”
“It’s Her Highness.”
“I’d have forgotten if you hadn’t told me.”
Ai poked Celica with her finger, and Julie continued to fool around with her as he cleared his tools, while Celica resisted and slapped Ai’s face.
Then Scar woke up.
The mother opened her eyes in a moment of confusion and jumped up from her seat when she realized that the baby was not in her arms.
“Where is Celica!? Where is the baby?”
“Ca-calm down, Miss Scar. She’s right here.”
Ai said and pointed towards the bed. Scar calmed down, sat down in her seat and picked up the baby lying on the bed. Ai and Julie exchanged looks.
“We have a bed ready, Mr. Julie set it up.”
She said categorically.
“I shall always hold this baby.”
Scar hugged Celica and shivered, but it was Scar who looked more like a child, a child who had just returned to her parents and refused to be separated. Ai folded her arms and pondered for a while.
“But you can’t hold her all the time, can you? If you hold her all day long, your hand will break.”
“They may be the case if I were human.”
Scar showed a faint smile.
“But I am a Gravekeeper.”
“You’re kidding. And Gravekeeper aside, the more important thing is that you’re her mother, right?”
Scar gasped at that and tried to argue.
Celica was throwing a tantrum in her tight clutches, and she immediately bared her chest to feed the baby. Ai looked a little embarrassed.
Scar was clearly not in a stable state of mind.
“What am…I doing…? …What have I become? Am I…malfunctioning?”
Her head was foggy, her throat was parched, her breasts were spurting milk, her mindset and body changed, and she began to cherish the weight in her arms. These signs of change were too much for Scar to handle.
“M-Miss Scar, please calm down.”
“Ai…how did you resolve this issue?”
Scar asked the question as if she were asking for help.
“You are a hybrid of a Gravekeeper and a human, so how did you resolve this? How did you find a balance between your Gravekeeper self and your human self, when both are completely different?”
Ai’s eyes widened.
“I didn’t find any balance though?”
“I’m as confused as I can be now.”
“I-is that so?”
Ai replied with a deep nod,
“Yes. And actually, I hit a snag on the purpose of this trip—’I dream of saving the world’ …hehehe, I really don’t know what to do next.”
“…Is that so?”
“Well, hold your horses.”
Julie saw that the two of them were increasingly depressed, and spoke up to stop them.
“You two are still young and immature.”
These words pierced Ai’s heart.
“What are you pouting about? You should be happy. What happened to that usual inexplicable positive attitude of yours? Immaturity means there’s room for growth. Do I need to repeat myself?”
“Oh, I see.”
“Now you got something to worry about, and that’s the happiest thing…especially Scar.”
Scar straightened her back and waited for Julie to continue, looking very serious.
“Didn’t you say so on the top of that hill?”
On that hill, Ai vowed to save the world.
And Julie vowed to help her,
Scar said that she wanted to try and surpass as a Gravekeeper.
“The moment has come.”
Scar heard these words…
After a long silence, Scar gazed at her hands and the object she was holding.
“…Is this what I want to surpass?”
“More or less.”
“Is that so…?”
Scar looked at Celica, who was gulping, and showed a feeble smile.
“Isn’t that what you were hoping for?”
Julie smiled boldly. It was a triumphant smile.
“Now you know it’s not easy being human, don’t you?”
“Yes, you are correct…”
Scar’s smile remained feeble.
“I never imagined so.”
She smiled while showing a soft expression and an ethereal voice.
At that moment, Celica started to cry, her face wrinkled like a monkey, muttering with an expression as though she was protesting something.
“Wh-What’s going on here? She was in such a good mood just now.”
“I-I do not know.”
“What’s wrong? …She was just breastfed.”
“Erm, I do remember the maids in the castle…”
“I think they changed her diapers, right?”
The panicking duo then realized so, “I see” and started to act. However, the two Gravekeepers were simply yapping about where the cloth was, and no progress was made. Julie had already prepared the diapers for the change beforehand.
“Scar, do you know how to change a diaper?”
“E-erm, actually, I…the maids in the castle took care of everything …”
“What? You don’t know. Then Ai…goes without saying, huh?”
“Ugh, what’s with your attitude? It’s rude not to ask.”
“My bad. Can you do it?”
“No, I can’t.”
Julie’s rough hands continued to move deftly while they talked, and he swapped out Celica’s diapers. The other two watched his movements with seriousness, desperately trying to learn.
“You two have a lot of growing up to do, so please follow this kid’s lead.”
What’s that about? The two Gravekeepers showed doubtful looks, for they did not understand what he meant.
“You should be like her and bawl away, “I want to grow up, I want to grow up,” as loudly as you can.”
Ai looked away awkwardly, but Julie did not let her off.
“So I have a suggestion. Ai…”
A beat later—
“Do you want to go to school?”
Five days passed since they left Ortus.
The car sometimes chased the sunset, and was sometimes chased by the sun as it drove westward through the wilderness. Each time the elements deviated slightly, the wilderness would take on a different appearance. If there was less water, it became a desert, and if there was more water, it would become grassland, and any place that lasted more than a thousand years was a forest.
The group in the blue car drew water from the oasis lake, woke up to the frosty smell of the mountains, and watched the red sunset continue to move forward. The road was filled with nature and various man-made things, but they were all remnants. Some were the foundations of buildings, an empty town, an entire burned truck, a refrigerator seasoned with gasoline, and a bone-dry cabinet.
They passed several trucks that were still moving. These trucks had six tires each that were almost as tall as Ai, owned by three brothers. Initially, they looked down on the small, saggy-eyed blue car, and yapped away like a bunch of bullies.
But when Julie got out of the car and spoke to the owner of the truck, they immediately changed their attitude and even gave Julie and his group some gasoline.
What did you do? Ai asked him what he did, and he said he showed them an autograph album. Ai took the album he spoke of, and found that there were only the signatures of the Hampnie Hambert and the Idol of Murder. Ai too had Ulla’s signature, and she asked what they were for, but Julie replied, “Connections are important.” Is that so?
So the car drove for five days.
During these five days, Ai and Julie spent almost all of their time arguing.
The argument was about whether Ai should go to school or not.
Julie said he wanted Ai to go to school, Ai naturally objected. She had to emphasize that she had no time to go to such a place, that the world was waiting for her, and that she had to grow up fast.
“But if you don’t go now, you won’t be able to go later.”
Julie simply played his trump card.
These words alone touched Ai.
“Elementary schools have been abolished, and middle schools will only remain until this year. There won’t be any high school in another three years. You’ll never have a chance to try school again.”
It was to be expected, since no one was under the age of 15 anymore.
The fact that she might not be able to go to school for the rest of her life shook her resolve more than she could have imagined. Her father—Kizuna Astin dragged himself to school, yet she could not, and this fact shook her greatly.
—But she had to grow up fast to save the world.
“You can grow up in school.”
Julie’s statement was a brag. No, perhaps it was not entirely so. After all, school was ‘a place she did not know’ “. From this perspective, school was just like traveling, and it would be inappropriate to conclude that school is meaningless. That was the lesson she learned at Ortus.
“I see! You’ll go?”
Hold on a minute. Even if it’s not meaningless to go to school, I didn’t say I wanted to go, so don’t expand on what I said.
“I miss school. I used to do bad things with your father Kizuna, at school.”
“He’s never wall, so he had to stay home for school, but he used to come to our dormitory to play. I don’t know how many things we did together that were futile.”
“We got a bunch of friends too. I’m not going to lie, I met my wife at school too…”
And before she knew it–
Ai had agreed to go to school so enthusiastically that she had no idea of what was going on.
She felt she was fooled.
This town, called Gora, was a town of the Living, with the Lagoon Mountains in the backdrop. It was a big town compared to the village where Ai was born, but it was a mere peppercorn compared to Ortus.
The climate was very different when we arrived here, the humid wind was sweet, and the land was lush.
The car drove slowly to the town, as if to insist, “There is nothing suspicious about any of us.”
Let us discuss a race between water droplets.
The rules were simple. Before the rain arrived at a glass window, they would have to find a droplet that was higher up. Assuming that one of them was A, they had to cheer on for A and pray that A would reaches the window frame below (the final point) first. End of explanation. The water drop race did not require any other elements, just cheering souls.
A started. It started to move slowly, swallowing the other drops one by one, but its position was not ideal, for the surface tension caused the forward track to be skewed, and it was about to veer off course. However, A turned at the ideal spot, and would at this point fall using its own weight. But the other droplets had grown bigger. Which would reach first!? C and E were moving quickly! Do your best A! If A wins, one would feel it was possible to really save the world.
“I was actually for B from the beginning,” and finally, the all ended by substituting history.
The rain kept falling, and showed no signs of stopping. Ai sat sitting on a plain chair inside the house, leaning on the table and looking at the window. Let us hope nobody assumed she did not abide by the rules. This water droplet race should be participated in a sloppy manner after all.
She turned her face around as if it weighed a thousand pounds, and looked around the room. It was dark and cramped, and the floor was covered with peeling paint, devoid of repair. Inside, there was heaps of goods, bags of wheat and farm equipment lying around.
Julie was still talking to an old man.
Ai did not know how long it would take to talk about moving into town, let alone why it was necessary for him to drink. He did not know why they were chatting so happily, but the old man was drunk and flushed red, patting Julie’s back repeatedly.
Suddenly, someone spoke to her, and she looked back to find an old woman before her. The old woman had wrinkles on her face that appeared to be fixed in the form of a smith, and her back was permanently hunched. She beamed as she put down two cups of tea, and slowly crawled onto a seat.
“Would you like a snack?”
“…I’ll be tucking in.”
“Yes, good girl.”
Even though she was not happy to be treated like a child, Ai accepted the sentiment obediently.
The old woman appeared to be living in a different river of time from the rest of the world, unaware of the great changes that were taking place in the world.
“So, young lady, are you enrolling in our school?”
Once she heard what the old woman said, Ai realized there was a so-called school in this place. She glared at Julie’s back. He never mentioned this when they entered the town.
“…Looks that way.”
“Why, that is a big deal.”
The old lady relaxed the corners of her mouth that were missing teeth.
“When will you start?”
“I’m not sure yet…”
“Oh, how can that be?”
The old lady patted the table.
“The earlier, the better.”
With that, she got up and walked to the next room in a hurried but slow motion.
Ai had been able to chat with her to pass the time, but all she could do at this point was to sigh and look up at the night that was creeping towards the window.
It seemed that those drunks planned to continue to get drunk.
Although she had no idea what was going on, they decided to stay at the old couple’s house this day.
It seemed this decision was most probably out of consideration for the perils of taking Celica to town, and Scar’s mental instability, and Ai’s own—ignorance, and such. To be honest however, Ai was not interested in such matters, and left them all for Julie to handle.
The three of them decided to pretend to be a family. Scar hid her face under the cloak and boldly pretended to be a Dead, and the Celica she was holding in her arms was also Dead, giving the impression that Scar was traumatized. The old man frowned momentarily, but misunderstood their reasons for not wanting to come to town in a direction that was favorable to them, and simply said, “If the Gravekeeper comes, please leave” and let them stay in the warehouse.
The warehouse, naturally, was not intended for any residents, and it was far dirtier than the main house. There was straw scattered all over the floor, and as there was livestock inside beforehand, there was a beastly stench. Ai spent the afternoon cleaning, opening the windows, sweeping the floors, taking out the trash, and finally clearing out the most basic space.
It appeared those drunkards would not be returning for the time being.
“I have something to ask Mr. Julie. …”
Ai mumbled as she spread out a rag to dry next to her freshly laundered clothes. She rolled up her sleeves and replaced her straw hat with a hand towel instead, and tied her hair.
She had barely spoken to Julie in the last few days. No, technically she has, but it’s been Julie talking unilaterally about school and Ai pretending not to be interested. It was to be expected; for she had to express that she had no intentions of going to school, and did not want to hear about it at all.
Julie had been appealing to her, trying to talk about how ‘fun’ school was, how good the experience of having frosty desserts after school with her classmates was, and how much fun it is to sneak out of school as if to please her.
Ai however wanted to ask “What kind of place is school? ” or “When do I start school?”, yet she could not ask such questions. The middle-aged man, however, did not understand the subtlety of the question, and only talked about how to effectively get past roll call or how to slip out of the teacher’s sight. Ai had no interest in such matters, but for some reason, it seemed that when Julie talked about his experiences, 90% of it was about slipping out of class. Did he think that Ai would think, “Wow! I must experience it” just because he said so? Certainly, the mind of a middle-aged mind was really intriguing to the extreme.
Ai exhaled a long breath, decided to turn a deaf ear, and finally carried the bucket of dirty water outside to empty it.
The sun was burning red in the west.
The time had for the domain of night, the first stars and the moon rose side by side in the sky.
Ai got up after pouring water, and the town immediately came into view. The homes of this unfamiliar town exhaled smoke in the orange sunset, and beyond that was a high wall. The wall was made of limestone quarried from the Lagoon Mountains and wrapped in a semicircle around a high mountain cliff.
The old woman mentioned that the school was there.
Ai sighed again. She did not expect to go to school so soon. Julie, of course, did not mention it either.
Beyond the wall were some very tall buildings, one of which was a clock tower, ringing the bell at 6pm.. Ai naturally stood still and counted every bell chime that echoed in the evening.
She felt as if the moment the last bell ended, night would beckon.
This feeling of time felt so intriguing to her. She knew she had a big day of school ahead of her, but she just could not feel nervous, and sometimes, she even felt that she was cleaning the warehouse because she was so free.
She got up with the bucket and suddenly found something in the corner of her field of vision. She looked up towards the main house and saw someone approach.
“Look at what I have here.”
It was the old woman, walking smoothly in a manner unbefitting of someone with a hunched back. She walked up to Ai, and held a flattened cardboard box on her chest.
“Pardon my intrusion.”
Before Ai could stop her, the old woman entered the house. Fortunately, Scar was already hidden further inside, and the old woman did not seem to be interested in her.
The old woman said, putting the cardboard on the wooden box and opening it for Ai to see.
Softly, the smell of the change of seasons spread.
Inside the box was a set of girl’s uniform.
The smell of camphor, used as an insect repellant, lingered in her nose. Ai however paid no heed at all and looked into the box.
The green and white uniform jacket was folded neatly in the box, as though a model student folded it.
Ai did not touch the clothes, let alone take them out. She just marvelled as she kept looking at them.
The old lady looked at her with a smile on her face.
“Eh? Can I?”
“Of course, I brought it for you to wear after all.”
Ai said, “…Now then on.” She unrolled her uniform and put it on. She put on the jacket and skirt without removing her blouse, shoes and socks.
There was a distinct tautness befitting these new clothes.
“Why, it fits…try lifting your arms now. Yes yes, now there’s no need to tailor it.”
The old lady guffawed with her missing teeth, “fufufu” while Ai turned around on the spot. She just kept spinning around and around.
“Do cherish it.”
“Yes……wait, eh? C-can I keep this!?”
The old woman said, squinting her blue eyes that most probably had deteriorated somewhat,
“Clothes should be worn by those who can use them.”
So said the old lady.
“All right, young lady, get your things and come with me.”
The old woman walked out of the hut and went to the main house. Ai stood wide-eyed for a moment with Gravekeeper’s clothes in her hand, and then regained her senses, ‘I’ll take my belongings’, and followed her. She crumpled the Gravekeeper’s clothes into a ball and stuffed them into her bag.
The sun was still barely above the horizon, so the light was still bright. Ai followed the old woman beneath this atmosphere.
There was a black car parked next to the main house, and the old woman walked towards it.
It seemed the people in the car noticed them, and a woman got out of the back seat.
She closed the car door and said,
“Are you Ai Astin?”
The woman appeared to be somewhere between middle age and old. She was slim, and her back was straight like a wire. Her eyes were piercing, and her blue and silver pupils behind her triangular glasses gave a frosty impression. She was dressed very neatly, with her steel-plated boots clenching the earth, her cotton skirt without a single crease, and her shirt ironed all the way down to the collar, like a well-sharpened knife.
She also has two pistols hanging around her waist.
And Ai, who was very popular with the elderly, found her ‘a tough opponent to handle’.
The woman’s eyes sized up Ai’s face.
“I-is there something?”
“How old are you?”
Her question was straight to the point.
“… I’m fifteen.”
She lied that she was at least two years older. In a world where no one was younger than fifteen, it would not be a good idea to give her actual age.
“Umu, do you have any chronic illnesses? Any tooth decay?”
“Ever been involved in a political party or ideological group?”
“Huh? N-not really…”
The woman then looked closely at Ai’s eyes, observed her mouth, asked what vaccinations she had received in the past, checked for signs of smallpox, and asked if there were any birthmarks on the back of her neck. Finally, she said,
“Your bangs are messy.”
Ai listened to this and quickly straightened her hair. The woman did not give her catch her breath, and continued to point out “Buttons, shoelaces.” Ai blushed with embarrassment and rushed to fix her grooming. Following that, “The school logo is crooked.” or “The blouse is loose.”
And finally, she said,
“So, what exactly are you doing with this shovel …?”
“This is my beloved shovel.”
“Yes, it’s my shovel.”
The woman nudged her glasses and rubbed her brow. This was the one point she did not comment about.
The woman’s nitpicking was finally over, or so Ai felt. However, she felt that the woman might nitpick again at any given moment, so she automatically went into a ‘conscientious mode’.
The woman murmured.
“I understand completely.”
Ai did not understand what she meant by those words, but she dared not to ask.
“Ai Astin, I hear you want to attend this school?”
“I’m Mageta Hausend, the lecturer and disciplinarian of the Gora School—I heard all about it, so I came to see you.”
So it seemed.
In other words, she was the kind of person Julie would describe as a ‘teacher’, no?
Ai replied in a low voice while suppressing back her rebelliousness,
“…Well, most or less.”
“Well, you have a lot of ambition. I’m sure you’ll be a charming lady once you finish your education at this school…no matter how much you’re not now.”
Eh? I’m not? Ai was hurt by this irrelevant part.
“Let’s go then.”
Mageta walked to the car. The driver was waiting by the car with the back door open respectfully.
Go? Where to?
“Haven’t you heard?”
The woman sighed with an expression of disbelief.
“To school, of course.”