Hellping

Part I

 

Ai was most surprised by the incredible attitude of Mageta, no, I should say the teacher, after meeting her.

How could she be so pompous?

No, Ai would not have been so bothered if she had simply been acting pompous. She knew and met people who were great and people who acted great, and she knew very well how to deal with them..

But Mageta’s approach was different. She did not give orders, and instead, made others assume it was natural to take such actions.

For example, if she ordered, “Go unpack your luggage.” Ai would dare to reply, “Please wait.” However, if she were to ask, “Of course you shall bring whatever you have. Do you need a helper?” Ai naturally could not help but answer, “No need.” In a sense, she had unwittingly agreed to unpack. Given how honest Ai was by nature, it was after the events that transpired that she would realize she was led on.

Ai tried to ask her questions several times, but Mageta pointed out her poor manners every time, such as “Don’t listen to people with your mouth open” and “don’t raise the dust with your footsteps”. Ai could not say anything whenever she had these irrefutable issues pointed out. Courtesy was the antithesis of Ai. She was reprimanded twice in the exact same intonation, and In the end, she felt as if everything Mageta said was correct.

After a few moments of confusion, Ai unpacked her bags and got into a black car to leave the warehouse.

The car made its way through the walls of Gora Academy without any obstruction.

The large academy had the Lagoon mountain range behind it, and the grounds were large, certainly larger than the town before it.

Once the car went past the walls, they alighted at the rotary. Mageta gave quick instructions, telling Ai to take her luggage and the driver to leave for the day.

At this point, the sun had set and it was dark all around.

Ai watched the black car slowly drive away, and then looked around.

To her right was a schoolhouse swallowed up in darkness, and to her left was a well-kept forest.

“That is the school building. You can’t see it now, but if you go a little further down, the auditorium is beyond here. Down the road, the building near the cliff is the boys’ dormitory, and next to it is the girls’ dormitory where you will live—”

“E-erm!”

At this point, Ai finally spoke up, but Mageta kept her pace.

“Ai Astin, you can’t interrupt a conversation, especially when it’s a teacher. If you want to talk, you have to wait for the other person to finish.”

“Uuu~~”

She really could not handle such people!

“You aren’t being lady-like at all. Why are you growling like a dog…?”

“A-a dog?”

“Well, a Pomeranian at that.”

“Why the breed too…no!”

Ai forcibly interrupted the conversation and asked the question she had all this while, the premonition that it was going to become reality.

“Excuse me! Am I going to be attending this school?

“… I thought I’d said enough about it by now …”

Mageta’s arrogant face showed a confused look for the first time.

“You’re not?”

“Ah, no, I’m attending… But, is school starting today?”

“There’s nothing to do today, school doesn’t start until tomorrow.”

“Erm, can I go home?”

“Home?”

Ai murmured again, ‘like a Pomeranian dog’. Mageta gave her a look that clearly said, “What the hell is this kid talking about?” and Ai felt that her words were really lacking in common sense/

“We have a full dormitory system, and your room is already prepared.”

“E-erm, that means …”

“What exactly do you think is the problem?”

Mageta looked so impatient that Ai did not know what was wrong and what was not.

“E-erm, may I ask, will I never see Mr. Julie and Ms. Scar again?

Basically, that was the one question she had in mind. She assumed that she had agreed to something so major that she would never see them again.

Mageta retorted simply,

“What are you worried about? Of course you can.”

“I-I guess so. I’m sorry, I’m not used to this kind of thing…”

“But they need to ask for a meeting..”

Mageta added, and then her expression softened to a ‘relaxed’ posture.

“Ai Astin, listen to me.”

“Y- yes!”

“Calm down. Is this your first time in school?”

“…Yes.”

The adults in the village taught her, but it was not school per se..

“Is that? Then I guess there are a lot of things that you are very confused about, and the rules for living in a group must feel confining to you.”

“Yes…”

“There are all kinds of school activities, all kinds of school rules, and it can be said that school is established on these rules that bind people. You will most likely reject and hate these rules, but you will certainly learn a lot from them. Do you understand?”

“… I think I do.”

Ai assumed she understood.

And thus, she agreed to go to school, and came all the way here.

“That’s enough.”

Mageta said and reverted to her arrogant expression.

“Let’s go.”

Ai perked up and followed behind Mageta.

 

 

It was a spectacular scene.

Blonde hair, silver hair, red hair, black hair, self skin, yellow skin, black skin, blue eyes, green eyes, brown eyes, black eyes, gray eyes.

There were fifty combinations of such characteristics before her. Inside the cafeteria were young girls from the mountains, young men from the seaside, youths from the grasslands, maidens from the desert, all dressed in the same clothes and sitting around the table.

Half of them were boys, the other half were girls, and none of them were adults.

Ai stood with Mageta in front of them, looking at this scene while being astounded.

She had seen the village of the Dead.

She had a city with millions of Dead.

She had encountered an immortal human.

She had also witnessed the Idol of Murder.

However…

It was the first time in her life that she met as many as 50 living children.

Fifty pairs of eyes of different colors looked at each other. Their eyes have a transparency that could not be found in the Dead, as if life itself is glowing.

There was only the scent of life.

Ai suddenly began to feel uneasy, and felt so uncertain about standing before them. Everyone before her was used to this place, and the uniform she found amiss strange felt so relaxed and fitting on them. Some were whispering as they looked at her.

Ai knew it was pointless, but she could not help but use her excellent hearing and eyesight to read their lips.

—What’s with that shovel?

This student probably did not mean any harm, but the moment Ai heard so, she was so embarrassed that she wanted to die right then and there. She was unsure as to why, but even when they were all dressed the same, she felt that they were the real deal, and she was an imposter, just an imposter dragged before the real deal for comparison sake..

She hurriedly put the shovel on the ground, but she was so anxious, and she attracted the attention of the onlookers. She panicked, noticed how frantic she was, and was increasingly flustered. Why did she feel so awkward? Why could she not lift her head up high?

Teehee.

Ai heard someone laugh.

She wanted to cry right then and there.

 “Attention!”

At that moment, Mageta shouted,

“You bastards! How many times have I told you that you are not allowed to even put a when someone speaks! Now which one of you just did that! I’ll personally ●● you! Get ●● to the table now ●● and wait for me to kill you!”

Eh?

“Which one? Which ●● just laughed at the transfer student? Hey! Answer me! Didn’t you hear? What a shock! One of my beloved stinky students is ●●●●? Or did you not use your ●● yesterday and used your ears to ●●●●?”

“I was the one who laughed!”

At that moment, a boy sitting in the middle of the cafeteria stood up.

Mageta flashed her right hand and pulled out the revolver on her hip, firing with one hand without taking good aim.

The bullet that flew out of the muzzle of the gun made a soft ‘swoosh’ sound and hit the forehead of the student. The bullet kept spinning, cut an arc, and bounced back to the ground before the boy fell. Upon closer inspection, the bullet was made of chalk.

“You’ve got a lot of guts, you ●●. Next time I go fishing for ●●, I’ll find you a ●● for you to .”

Mageta had somehow put away her gun and declared to everyone:

“My cute little students! Listen up! I won’t allow any discrimination! That’s my privilege! If you guys have the time to watch the hole next to you! You better grow your own ●●! Grow up! Grow up! Grow up!”

“Grow up! Grow up! Grow up!”

That was all.

After saying this, Mageta stepped back.

“Ai Astin.”

“Yes, yes! What can I do for you, please?”

Ai reflexively stood at attention and saluted as she imitated what she saw.

“Hm? What are you doing? Are you kidding?”

Mageta covered her smiling lips with her hand,

“Ai Astin, be a lady and behave properly.”

…I was going to ask if you were joking.

“Get along well, you bastards! Dismissed!”

As soon as she finished speaking, the cafeteria erupted into a ruckus again. The students quickly put away their dishes and lined up to leave.

“E-erm, Miss Mageta…”

“Ai Astin, from now on, you will call me dorm supervisor.”

“Oh, erm, dorm supervisor. My dinner …”

Mageta put her hands on her hips and declared,

“No dinner for you!”

“Ehhhh!”

“No matter what the reason is, those who are late for dinner don’t get to eat!”

Ai’s world collapsed.

“Pl-please wait! I have a special body type, I’ll die if I don’t eat dinner…”

“That’s not important! Come with me!”

Mageta marched through the cafeteria and approached a line of people.

“Class president.”

“Yes.”

This female student, simply put, was a pretty girl. Her red hair was tied in a twist in front of her body, and her eyelids were so droopy that one almost wondered if she could see.

“A new person is coming in. She’s joining class Q.”

“Understood.”

Mageta said these few words and left.

And Ai just stood there.

“Ai Astin. Can I call you Ai?”

“Eh? Ah, yes.”

“Ai, let’s go.”

The girl with her eyes closed said something to the person at the front of the line, and then followed behind the group. The group was divided into two lines according to gender. Standing before Ai was the girl with her eyes closed, and before that girl was a girl with goggly glasses, and then a blue-haired girl with a rather mild personality, and leading the pack was a pair of blonde twins.

Ai was alone as she held the luggage and followed them, and spoke to the girl with closed eyes,

“Erm—”

What’s your name?

“Shh!”

The girl did not look at Ai when she spoke.

“Quiet, or the dorm supervisor will yell at you.”

“…Yes.”

There was no chance to speak.

The group went straight out of the cafeteria and outside. There was a roofed walkway outside, and one could hear the spring insects chirping in the grass on both sides. One by one, the group walked into the girls’ dormitory, and everyone except Ai entered their rooms.

“This is your room.”

She was pointed to a room with a gold door sign that said Room 125.

“Go and put your luggage away, and take out the dirty laundry .”

Ai rushed into the room. It was so dark that she could not see anything, so she groped her way inside, and put her shovel and straw hat down. This ‘dirty laundry’ probably referred to her clothes, but she decided not to bring Gravekeeper’s clothes with her.

As soon as she stepped out of the room, she saw that the others had changed out of their uniforms into plain casual clothes, and were queuing up. Ai had no idea what to do, and looked for the closed-eyed girl in a panic. The girl neither told Ai of her name nor looked at her when they spoke, but even so, Ai needed her badly at this moment. .

“Go to the back.”

After stumbling around for a moment, the closed-eyed girl found Ai. Ai really hoped that the girl would hold her hand, but she ultimately resisted the urge, and walked to the end of the line.

After the roll call, the group moved forward in silence, then walked outside and entered another building.

This building was made of brick, and there was a chimney in the back that exhaled smoke.

“Do as everyone does.”

The closed-eyed girl said. So Ai nodded.

First, they took off her shoes at the building entrance, and put them in the shoe closet. They removed their socks, walked barefoot inside, and emptied the bags they carried into a huge cage. When Ai’s turn came, she took a closer look inside and smelled a strong odor of living people. As expected, the girls had put their loungewear in the basket.

“What are you doing? Over here.”

Ai was dragged away by her collar.

She was led to a magical room. The floor was not made of wood, nor was it carpeted; it was made of the same stone as the outer walls of the building’s exterior. There were thick towels everywhere, and the walls were packed with countless square cabinets about the size of a hug, with two rows of the same cabinets lined up back to back in the center.

The floor was steamy, and the floor was soaked with water. There was a wooden door on the opposite side that was emitting steam.

What is this place?

“The bathroom is over there—but you’d better clear out before then.”

Oh really?

“These cabinets are for clothes.”

“Yes.”

“You have to wash your own underwear.”

“Yes.”

“Then, take off your clothes.”

“Eh?”

Ai wanted to ask why, but was frozen on the spot.

The closed-eyed girl had reached for the hem of her own dress. No, she was not the only one, for everyone else who entered the room took off their clothes and put them in the cupboard in a matter of seconds.

In front of her eyes were different colors of skin.

“Whoa, whoa!”

“What’s the matter?”

Woah.

The closed-eyed girl stood before her, naked and pale skinned.

Ai stared blankly at the surreal sight before her.

The naked body of a living person was right in front of her.

She felt very embarrassed.

In fact, over the past few years, Ai had never seen a naked living person.

That was doubly so for a fellow young naked female. The only one she saw was her mother—the malfunctioning Gravekeeper alfa, and Scar’s exposed breasts while feeding Celica. The ‘human body’ Ai knew of referred to the parched, distorted skin of the Dead. She was completely oblivious to the skin of the Living.

Shame.

That emotion attacked Ai. She saw how the closed-eyed girl and other people were naked, and it was no wonder that she was so embarrassed by them. she just felt so shy. She could not stand to look at the feel of their plump, soft skin, the roundness of their fluffy, swollen bodies, the sweaty, moist, dense smell of their flesh. The girls were alive. Faced with such evidence, Ai was left flabbergasted. No one but Ai could understand this emotion called shame.

Her blood rushed to her face, and she took her eyes off the ample breasts of the closed-eyed girl, only to see a small patch of pubic hair between her legs, which made her head drop even lower. Ai was really embarrassed by such sights.

She had the urge to cry again. She did not know why she was doing this.

And then…

“Hurry up and strip.”

Ai grabbed the collar hard.

She was ashamed to take off her clothes.

She hated the idea of stripping before them, who were naturally alive.

She really hated it.

“E-erm, I …”

“Come on.”

Her eyes were getting moist, and she was in disbelief. Naturally, she knew she was quite a crybaby, but this was too—

She was really too much of a crybaby…

“Hurry up, you can’t bathe if time’s up.”

Ai did not move.

The girl with closed eyes had no choice but to put her hand on Ai’s collar.

 

It was nothing but steam.

The air was warm and humid, but the white stones underneath were cold in comparison. There were only a few electric lights in the room, the light was very dim, and the visibility in the air and water was very low.

Kabam, tThe sound of a bucket hitting the stone echoed through the room.

It was a large bathhouse.

Ai stood alone in the corner of the bath with a pathetic look. She had wrapped herself in a towel like a wrapping paper from a high-end boutique and built a wall of defense around her body.

The various skin tones in the crowded bathroom looked lucid due to the steam and hot water, and the water, and the moisture that enveloped them depicted a rainbow. Every one of them was three years older than Ai, tall, full-breasted, and very beautiful.

Ai tries her best not to stand out as she inched towards the corner as quietly as possible. But no matter how low-profile she was, everyone would occasionally glance at the mysterious freshman. The person involved did not notice however, for these classmates did not initiate contact with her, so she came to the conclusion that they were not interested in her.

 

—In fact, she did not know that the people who did not say anything were curious to the point that their eyes were glowing.

 

While everyone was watching her discreetly, Ai inched towards the wall, took a shower tap, and heaved a sigh of relief. Then, like a nervous herbivore, she kept glancing around. Ai thought to herself that no one was interested in her and let go of the towel she had wrapped around her body.

The water vapor ran on the skin that was covered by the towel before, and the small back was very dazzling.

 

“Hoaahh…”

“?”

Ai turned to look behind her, and the students immediately looked away.

Was she being overly concerned?

Ai shrank uncomfortably, using her knees to shield her body, and reached her hands to the back of her head to remove the rubber bands and hairpins.

The blonde hair that had been tied was freed and draped over her back.

“Ohhh…!”

“?”

Still no one was looking at her.

While Ai was confused, she continued on. She picked up a bucket of hot water, pinched her nose and doused it over her head.

Splash.

The blonde hair absorbed the water, intensifying the glow.

“Wow, amazing…” “So pretty…” “How does she take care of it …?”

This time, the admiration echoed audibly in the damp air of the bathroom. It so happened that the hot water blocked Ai’s ears, and she could not hear anything.

She closed her eyes and shook her head after rinsing, reached up and rubbed the corners of her eyes to wipe away the moisture, blinked, and took a long breath.

There were countless soaps and jars of unknown liquids in front of her eyes.

Every pair of eyes in the room watched Ai’s hands to see which bottle she would take and how she would bathe.

Ai did not notice anything, and merely looked at these things, and finally moved her fingers.

She picked up the towel.

And then she got up to leave.

 

“!?”

 

“… wait a minute.”

“Er-erm? What’s the matter…?”

Ai’s shoulder was suddenly grabbed, and found it was the closed-eyed girl who was representiating the crowd.

“Where are you going?”

“Eh, erm, I’m done bathing, so I’ll be going out to wait…”

“…Without soaking in the bath, washing your hair, or scrubbing your body? Is it because you don’t like the soap in here, or is it…?”

“Ah, no, I don’t use soap…”

For a moment, every pair of eyes immediately showed hostility.

“…Sit down.”

“Eh? What did you say?”

“Sit down.”

“Huh? B-but, erm, that …”

“Sit down,”

“Yes.”

Ai sat down grimly on a wet wooden chair that was before the closed-eyed girl. She had a feeling she was about to be tortured, so she turned her head and begged for mercy with a smile.

“I’ll make you nice and shiny.”

The closed-eyed girl decided to splash a bucket of water onto that smile,

“Bgayyrrh!”

 

 

“Uuuuu…I don’t want to be all shiny…no more shiny, please.”

Ai opened the door of room 125 and fumbled her way through the dark room without even turning on the lights. Fortunately, the moon showed itself, and the little light was enough for her to see where the furniture was. There was a bunk bed and two desks in the room, making it a double room.

Ai dragged the hem of her brand-new pajamas as she trudged towards the bed with heavy steps, her whole body as shiny as she said it was, like a very clean corpse.

She plopped onto the bed without laying out the blanket on the bed, and her left foot made a circle on the other side of the bed, and turned over, looking up towards the base of the upper bed that was very close. In fact, she still had to hang up her uniform and stuff her luggage into the locker, but she was devoid of strength.

The entire room was shrouded in darkness. The addition of a new student did nothing to shake up the school, and it was lights out in Gora Academy, as usual.

Ai however could not sleep, and laid on the bed as she looked at the bed above her..

Earlier in the bathroom, she was cleaned so thoroughly, even her fingernails were scrubbed..

And she did not get to eat on this day.

“This is bullying…they bullied a transfer student …”

She slumped into the bed, her stomach growling, and a sense of loneliness welled inside her heart, bringing her tears to her eyes.

She remembered the unsightliness of her own self-presentation and the bathroom.

She wiped her eyes. This was already the situation on the first day. What would her future be like? Ai did feel she was a bit of a crybaby, but this was too ridiculous. She actually cried on the first day of enrolment. She did not expect herself to be this much of a weakling.

And so Ai fell asleep while wrapped in the blanket, her stomach rumbling.

She cupped her belly, and thus her hands were unavailable to wipe her tears, resulting in them piling up in large droplets. Ai gently buried her face into the blanket, and let the cotton absorb the dew-like tears.

—Dad, school isn’t fun at all.

She visualized an image of her father and complained to him. A mere imagination it might be, but Hampnie mischievously teased her irresponsibility “What does that have to do with me?”Ai felt that it was too much of him.He was the reason why she finally agreed to go to school.

Ai recalled one of the few conversations she had with her father.

One of them was about school.

Hampnie was an albino child with weak skin and kidneys, which made it difficult for him to attend school. Nevertheless, he was able to push through and attend school with the help of his parents and friends.

—Why did you do that? Ai asked. She felt apologetic to be seemingly badmouthing him, but she just could not imagine the devil before her actually being fond of attending school.

And in response, “Well, that’s because everyone’s attending school too, you know?” Hampnie laughed and continued on, “That’s why I had to attend school too. That’s all.”

His beaming face looked so proud and overjoyed. In hindsight, he had always been a person who hated loneliness.

And that was how Hampnie met Julie and made a lot of friends.

But…

…Could she be like him too?.

Ai sniffled. She thought of the roommates and classmates whose names she did not know of, the fifty pair of eyes that were clear and sparkling, the dorm supervisor who wouldn’t allow any disagreement, the soft skin of the Living that made her awkward, and their overwhelming scents.

Yes, that was the problem.

“Apparently, I’m…”

Ai said as she exhaled.

“…I’m bad at dealing with living people…”

It was a really shocking fact to her.

She felt she was off her pace ever since she entered this town, and the incident in the bath got her to understand the cause. It seemed she did not know how to deal with groups of Living.

She had assumed it would be fine if she dealt with one or two…but on second thought, she realized immediately that she was very nervous whenever she met a Living person for the first time.

“The Living are pretty, but weird.” That was what a girl in Ortus said to her, but she could not laugh at all, for she too was uneased to them. It might be too laughable for her to say that she wanted to save the world—

Her stomach rumbled again, the exhaled breath was exceptionally hot, and a tear rolled down.

…Dad, school is boring…

Ai wiped her face hard with the pillow.

She thought she should just cry. She was already crying, but her heart would allow her to continue to do so..

And the moment she thought so, the tears welled up.

The tears came from deeper within the eyes—somewhere that was definitely connected to her heart. The eyelids were soon at full tide, and the tears were waiting to overflow.

In fact, she was a little fond of crying..

If she actually said so, others would easily assume that she was ‘an annoying child’, or ‘a crybaby who liked to cry over anything’. Thus, she never told anyone about this, but she liked to cry.

After all, ‘crying’ and ‘finished crying’ were definitely two parts of the same set.

So Ai thought.

She felt that people would cry to finish crying. No matter how tragic it was, or no matter how the tears just would not end, it would be a matter of time until they did.

Her mother died, her father died, her dreams were crushed, and she cried. But one day, the tears would stop for no reason.

Surely it was because crying itself was meant to stop the tears, to turn sadness into salt water, to purge them from her body.

That was why she liked to cry.

…That was a way to deal with sadness that Ai figured out in her short life. It was a reason crafted to accept the tears she shed in the past.

However…

However, nobody knew whether it was a good thing. Nobody knew if Ai crying alone at such a place, alone, was a ‘good thing’, let alone ‘good’. Take Julie for example; even if he could understand Ai’s feelings completely, he might say it was a bad thing. If it was Ulla, she might feel sad realizing such was the life that resulted in such thoughts. Hampnie might even praise her, and Scar might feel hesitant. If it was Celica, she would most probably be bawling to a point where Ai had no time to cry.

However, none of them were around. The only one present was the lonely twelve year old Gravekeeper.

The illusion of Hampnie wouldn’t say anything.

The tears were about to be shed in loneliness.

At that moment…

“Are you alright?”

That instance,

It was hard to describe the significance of those words that were said in that instance, at that place.

Such words were not supposed to be here. Ai was supposed to cry alone in this place, finish crying in the theory of solitude, and get stronger as a result. She had to proceed alone by herself , and also to finish so alone..

But that was not the case.

“Hey, stop crying.”

Ai jolted in shock and looked over to the owner of the voice. Her voice immediately receded with surprise and turned into mere salt water.

The owner of the voice was a head dropping upside down. No, it only seemed so. In fact, it was actually a female student peeking her face out from the top bunk of the bunk bed.

The student’s eyes were like obsidian, glowing darkly in the darkness. Her shoulder-length black hair was reeling and swaying between the top and bottom floors of the double decker bed.

“Have you calmed down?”

Ai nodded.

“That’s good.”

The female student smiled. It was the first time a Living person smiled so gently at Ai ever since the latter entered this school.

And yet, having locked her heart away, Ai remained wary.

“E-erm!”

“Hmm?”

“…Are you going to make me sparkly too?”

What are you talking about? The schoolgirl turned her head upside down, not knowing what Ai was talking about.

“I don’t know, but aren’t you all sparkly and such?”

Ai felt embarrassed again to be praised again, but she did not really hate it.

“Dee.”

“Eh?”

“Dee Engy. That’s my name.”

“Ah…I’m Ai! Ai Astin!”

“I know.”

Dee smiled. It was the first time a school student here actually smiled at Ai.

“I’ve been wanting to meet you, Ai. Alice and I have been waiting for you.”

At this moment, Ai’s brain finally inhaled some oxygen, and rather than be in the mood to sweat the details, she wanted to get up and talk.

“Ah, just lie there.”

Dee stopped her.

“There’s a lot of things I want to tell you, but that’s it for today. Just sleep.”

“Haa….”

“Well, I’ve been waiting for you, but I’m tired too.”

Dee smiled and smacked herself on the forehead.

Ai dug her pillow out from beneath her blanket, and carefully placed her head onto it. She glanced aside, and found Dee smiling at her, which left her strangely relaxed.

“…Miss Dee, are you my roommate?”

“Hmm, well, sorta.”

I see, Ai nodded and accepted this.

“I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow. But for now, let’s go to bed. Okay?”

“Haa….”

“Can you sleep? Are you okay?”

Ai asked herself, staring up into the eyes that were staring at her with concern.

The tears had receded to a faraway place, and a tidal wave of fatigue slowly filled her body instead.

“I’m fine.”

Ai said.

“I see.”

Dee laughed.

“Well, good night, see you tomorrow.”

Dee waved her hand and pulled her head back, Good night, Ai replied so, closed her eyes, and stared at the darkness behind her eyelids.

Drowsiness came from beyond the darkness and gently devoured her consciousness.

 

Part II

 

Morning came early at Gora. People were out of bed before dawn, feeling happiness while washing their faces with the much warmer water. The baker picked up fermented dough from the chamber, and the farmer nodded hard at the first ears of wheat that were about to be harvested. The shepherd ran through the field with a dog, and those who had toiled throughout the night finally got to bed while yawning. The entire town had woken up, engulfed in the first wave of ruckus.

Gora Academy, located at the center of the town, was also awake.

“Wake up~~~~~~!!!”

The bell rang loudly in the main auditorium, and Mageta fired a salute to the East in gratitude for the rising sun. She then fired a volley to the West to mourn the setting moon, before she stormed down the dormitory, bellowing.

“Alrighty rise and shine, ladies! Don’t ●●! Pull your panties up! Time to comb and apply lipstick! Wash your faces! You look like freshly picked vegetables! Theme of the day is ‘neat and tidy! The theme is “neat and tidy”! Scrub yourself well until those ●●●● on the ●● path will fall for you!”

The students rubbed their sleepy eyes, got up and began to use the short morning time for personal grooming. They absentmindedly take off their pajamas and put on their underwear, which, like their uniforms, were the cute, nondescript underwear. They then put on the crisply ironed shirts and checkered skirts, slipped their feet into the boots, and went to wash their faces. Every single one of them did so in their own order. Some cautious combed their hair, others struggled to look as cute as possible in their tailored outfits.

In the midst of all this, Ai,

“Hey, Ai, wake up!”

“……………Nnuuu…balsa…nova…”

She was asleep.

“Well, this is troublesome. She just wouldn’t wake up! Ai, wake up! You’ll anger the dorm supervisor!”

Dee called out with a troubled look. Fortunately, there was an immediate response.

“…I’m already awake….”

“Ah, that’s good. Get changed quickly.”

“…Goodness, I’m already awake so don’t wake me up…mnya …”

“Eh? Are you sleeptalking? What’s with this girl? She’s good.”

Dee put her hands to her mouth, yelling at Ai by the latter’s bedside, but Ai was in an amazing stupor, and just would not wake up.

“Ai!!!!! Wake up wake up  wake up wake up——!!”

Dee yelled to a point where her face was flushed red.

And finally, Ai got up, and whimpered.

“Oh, you’re awake this time.”

Ai bent her stomach as she sat up. She looked around the room in a daze, to her right, then to her left, then to Dee.

“…Toilet….”

“Eh? Ah, yeah. Here…there’s one in the room, over there…”

Bam.

Ai walked out, clearly not hearing anything.

 

    

 

In the morning, the washroom was the most crowded place in the dormitory. The basins of the cubicles hardly spat out water at this time of the day, so most of the students who cared about their appearances would head to the bathhouse on the first floor, where they could use the well water. They washed their faces there, rinsed their hair, dabbed powder and applied oil. ‘Makeup is an etiquette ladies should have’, such was the adage of the dorm supervisor they used as their talisman, applying colors to ensure that they were passable and did not need to be scolded. Everyone was already dressed in their uniforms, aiming for a new level.

A sleepy-eyed Ai passed by. Her figure was sluggish, her collar sagging and unbuttoned, and her jacket rolled up such that her navel was exposed.

And for some reason, she was dragging a pillow along with her.

Ai trudged her way weakly past the big sisters and entered the bathroom. “What the?” The students who had been staring into the mirror turned to look at her. They felt that they had seen something incredible there.

“You saw it, right?” “I did.” The students engaged in a wordless conversation, and stared at the toilet where the mysterious creature seemed to be headed.

A beat later.

There was a splashing sound of the toilet being flushed, and a half-asleep Ai exited.

“!”

Everyone present had an exclamation mark pop up above their heads. Even without knowledge of the school rules, one would easily understand that Ai’s appearance was a huge exception. Nobody would remain alive if the dorm supervisor spotted her. It was not a joke.

Their next move was swift.

One of the students who had been equipped before boldy checked the hallway beforehand, “coast is clear!” and made such a gesture. A student who was nibbling on her toothbrush reported to the senior, and the other members checked for weapons and abandoned their fuel.

The students looked at each other.

“Shall we?”

“Let’s do it.”.

The decision was quick and uncompromising.

 

    

 

“Hah!”

Ai felt that there was something delicious in her mouth, and suddenly woke up.

She usually would not wake up under such extraordinary circumstances, but her consciousness was still calm. She did not choke on her food, nor did she panic, and instead, she munched away calmly.

—Is this a trout? Yes, and then there was this crunchy feeling, so it was deep fried. For every gulp she made, the basil aroma escaped her nostrils. So it seemed the smell and taste of basil was mixed into the flour, adding to the fragrance of the bread…

No, that was not the issue.

“Huh?”

She looked around and found herself in the same cafeteria as she saw the previous day. The seats were the same, the people were the same. Everyone was eating their rainbow trout and steamed sweet potatoes with proper manners.

As for herself, she was holding a knife in her right hand and a fork in her left, and was just about to say “I’m digging in”. She had no idea as to how she ended up in this state.

In addition, her clothes were changed.

The pajamas she wore the previous night had been replaced by a uniform. Her hair was also braided in a way she never did, dangling behind her.

Who, and when…?

She analyzed the situation. Why did this happen? Who changed my clothes? She had a feeling something like this happened to her recently. She had been stripped a little way too way, and was dressed up too often. What was going on here? Who was the mastermind?

And then,

Ai, who turned her head around, casually stabbed her fork at a piece of trout, and slowly brought it to her mouth to chew.

Nom.

The first meal she had after an entire night was really delicious.

That was why she decided not to sweat the details.

 

After mealtime was over, the students in the cafeteria gradually dwindled in numbers. They all seemed to know what they had to do, just like the day before, and no one paid attention to Ai.

No, to be precise, the girl without closed eyes was still eating next to Ai, but Ai did not know if she should wait, and could only sit on the seat. She did not know if she should move or not, and had a feeling that any choice she made would anger anyone.

So she was very happy when Dee spotted her.

“There you are, Ai. Come here, come here.”

Dee waved over from outside the cafeteria entrance. From the corner of her eyes, Ai noticed that the girl with closed eyes did not react, so she took the tray, stood up, placed it at the return slot, and went straight to Dee without returning to her seat.

“Wow.”

Dee put her hand on her chin and sized up Ai.

“W-What’s wrong?”

“Your uniform’s cute!”

“I-Is it?”

“Yeah, it’s well made.”

How is that praise? So Ai wondered as she twirled her upper body about to check herself again. The checkered skirt was green and white and elegant. The similarly green blazer also fitted her well, and she could move her arms freely.

“Miss Dee, did you change my clothes?”

“No, a group of grim looking seniors suddenly barged into the room, stripped you clean, and rummaged your clothes through your clothes…”

“T-That’s terrible…it’s bullying after all, isn’t it…?”

“… Bullying, huh?”

“It is bullying.”

Dee appeared to have something to say, but chose not to say so.

“These clothes are from…”

“Hmm?”

She twirled her upper body, and the skirt arched and fell softly to her thighs. She kept shaking her hips to enjoy the feeling of the skirt ‘clinging’ to her.

“I’ve always worn culottes, so this is a refreshing feeling.”

“Is that so?”

Yes. She answered, and then—

Ai felt a sudden sense of confusion. Back when she was in the village, she had the opportunity to wear skirts. Every time there was an event, Anna, Yoki, and the old folks would create some cute clothes and give them to Ai.

However, Ai completely ignored them and only wore the Gravekeeper’s clothes, because she insisted at every moment back then that she was a Gravekeeper.

In hindsight, such days were devoid of freedom. She used to restrain herself with clothes and words, only carrying a shovel around to dig holes all the time. As she thought about it, she found herself a little pitiful.

She was stupid.

“!”

Ai pinched the edge of her skirt. If she had known the villagers would be happy seeing her in this, she would have worn it as many times as they would have liked. At this point, this was what she would think.

“What’s wrong?”

“…, nothing.”

Ai quickly dusted off her skirt and held it by the hem in a ladylike bow.

“I’m very flattered.”

“No, no, no, it’s the truth.”

“I’m sure you look good in uniform too, Miss Dee…huh? But.”

Ai pointed to Dee’s upper and lower body.

“Why do you have a different uniform?”

“Hmm?”

Dee’s body was hidden by the bed the previous day, and at this moment, one could see that the uniform she was wearing did not belong to this school.

She was wearing a blazer with a dark blue base.

“Oh, this? Erm, well…I’m a transfer student.”

Ah, is that so? Ai decided to leave it be for now. She had a feeling being a transfer student was not a proper reason, but since Dee said so, it was probably the case.

“Well, well, don’t worry about that. Just follow me.”

“Where are we going?”

“The school building.”

Dee quickly walked away. Ai hurriedly followed her.

They left the cafeteria and joined the crowd of students heading outside.

Dee walked briskly, bathed in the morning light with a pleasant ‘mmm’.

“Today’s morning is elective. That’s why everyone has a different morning class.”

“Elective?”

“Elective classes. You can take two free classes per week. I don’t think you’ll understand though, Ai. Maybe you should watch and learn first.”

I see.

So Dee would be acting as guide?

Ai started to feel a little bolder upon knowing so. She felt that it would be great if Mageta and the closed eyed girl could explain to her.”

“That’s the boys’ dormitory. This is the sports field. There’s a cliff, and it’s off limits.”

Dee explained every single thing they saw, and it was basically carpet bombing, not the best explanation, but very helpful to Ai.

They arrived at the school building.

“… It’s big…”

There was a gray building in front of her, the same color as the cliffs of Lagoon. The school resembled a swan with its wings spread out, and there was a large clock tower in the middle and a number of smaller towers on either side. Arches connected each of them, and contained within them were small classrooms to a large auditorium.

“The school is rather small for a college. It’s said that the students at Queens’ Academy have five thousand students at any one time, I don’t know how it’s like now though. There used to be about 500 students here, but now it’s less than a tenth of that.”

Ai was not listening. “haeee~?” and made such a weird sound as she entered the school building with her head lifted. In contrast to the massive stone exterior, the interior of the building was made of a hundred year old oak wood that shone brightly, and there were stone statues here and there that would give anyone the urge to bow and give respect while entering.

“This way.”

Dee walked slowly to allow Ai to look around. The U-shaped school building had a stage and a flower garden in the center that was blooming radiantly, to a point where someone had tended to it. It was really a tempting place to bask in the sun.

Then, the bell chimed.

It came from the clock tower at the highest point of the school building in front of the cliff. One had to wonder if it was the start of class, for students in the corridors were rushing into the classrooms. Ai was worried, and wondered if she should join them. Dee remained unperturbed however, and was confident enough to walk up the now-empty stairs to the top floor.

It seemed none of the classrooms on the third floor were in use. Every classroom was empty, and the corridor resembled a storeroom, filled with paintings or sculptures made by students. Dee ignored them as she strode forth.

“We’re here—Ai, please open the door .”

Dee took her to a room at the far end of the school building,  right beneath the clock tower. There was a rugged wooden door there.

What kind of class is in here? So Ai wondered as she grabbed the worn brass knob and twisted it.

It was a place where gears and wires roamed.

The room was filled with the rough and rugged atmosphere of an attic. Stone and wood were bare, the walls and ceiling still bore the rough markings of the craftsmen who had built it. Every single inch was dusty, the floors, beams, drawers, dust cloths, clay statues made by some students, cobwebs, gecko shells, and mummified carcesses. Everything was covered in dust, showing the years they had been here.

The heart of the clock was the only thing that refused to be dusted. The jagged gears moved as if they were biting the stagnant air, and the wires transmitted their power crisply, keeping the dust at bay.

Tick, tick, tick, tick.

That room was the organ of a clock.

“Hmmm~, where did he go~~?”

Bouncing up and down, Dee stepped over the junk and headed for the back.

“Ah, he’s here. Ai, come here.”

Ai sniveled hard and went over as she was called.

 

There was a male student.

 

Surrounded by all this junk, this boy was dozing off while looking up. He was not simply napping away as students would do in class while the teacher was not paying attention, but actually took a book as a pillar, and a bag of emergency supplies as bedding.

“Wh-What’s wrong with him?”

“That’s Alice, he’s just an idiot. That’s all.”

Perhaps Dee really assumed that explanation would suffice. Her eyes were serious.

“A—li—ce! Wake up!”

Dee shouted at the boy’s ear, but this boy seemed to brush her off completely as he continued with his happy sleeptalk.

“……Butter fried hare sounds delicious, but speaking of which, it does seem very pitiful to call it Mr butter fried hare…”

“Don’t get into the details. Hurry up and wake up.”

“? I think they’re both delicious.”

“That irregularity over there can shut up too. Come on Alice, wake up.”

“……………Hmmahh?”

The boy slowly opened his eyes, as if he had given up on something. He however did not seem to be completely awake, and looked at Dee while in his sleeping bag like a cloak.

“…Good morning.”

“Good morning. No it’s not! The sun’s already up a long time ago!”

“Shut up…I couldn’t help it. I didn’t sleep at all last night…”

Dee put her hands on her hips while she lashed out at him in a familial manner, and the boy seemed to be used to this as he butted back. Ai watched them with a little bit of admiration, sensing that they were ‘friends’.

“What the hell do you want?”

When the boy opened his mouth like a trash can and yawned away, and Ai had an urge to throw something into it.

“I thought I’d introduce you to Ai.”

“Oh?”

Dee gave up her place.

The boy met Ai in the eyes, and they froze for quite a while.

“N-nice to meet you. I’m Ai Astin.”

“…I see.”

The boy looked at Ai, wriggled like a caterpillar shedding its skin, and crawled out of his sleeping bag. His hair bounced on his scalp as though it was his usual hairstyle to begin with, and the sleeping bag had covered his pitch black school uniform completely. Like Dee’s, his uniform was from another school, and was well worn and used. To put it, he looked like a delinquent.

“Alice Color.”

“Huh?”

“That’s my name.”

Alice mumbled, “time to clear up~♪” and quickly cleaned up the area he was sleeping in.

“So, what do you want? Do you have a request to make?”

A request?

“I’m working on that kind of project right now, so I can include you in this. There’s no limit to the number of people after all on—”

“What are you talking about?”

“Ah?”

Alice, who had been stretching, stopped abruptly. He looked back at Ai and said,

“…Something weird…”

He bounced up and down, and sat down on the belongings next to him.

 

“You’re here to ask me to help you, aren’t you?”

 

Huh?

“You say you’re here to help me? I’m the one who helps people.”

“???…Say Dee, what’s up with her?”

Alice looked annoyed and confused as he asked the person behind him.

“Well, it is what it is. Surprisingly, Ai seems to have entered this school without knowing much about it.”

“Huh?”

Alice’s jaw dropped.

“Are you…an idiot?”

“What do you mean idiot?”

“Shut up, you idiot. Why did you do something so stupid? Like, even if you didn’t know what you were getting into, you’d know after an hour in this place that something’s wrong with this school, right?”

“?”

Alice looked puzzled and mumbled, “What should I do?”

“Look, you know, this school—”

At that moment.

Creak, the door to the hallway opened.

“I’ve been looking for you.”

There stood Mageta, the demoness of the dorm supervisor. The triangular glasses shone brightly, and the lace-up boots creaked  as she loomed over. All the people in the room tensed up.

“Why are you all here, Alice Color?”

“Just here to observe this class.”

Alice held out a handout.

“’’General Mechanical Maintenance by Master Triel’? … This course is no longer offered.”

“So it seems. I should have checked before I came.”

“What about her? …Mind explaining?”

Mageta glanced at Ai, and Alice answered,

“Alright, I brought her here since we’re both transfer students—did I overdo it?”

“No, the spirit of mutual assistance is important. But do report it beforehand. Next time, you’ll be punished. “

“I’m sorry.” Ai was surprised at Alice’s attitude as the latter bowed, thinking he could be polite if he wanted to.

“Ah, you’re a new student too?”

“Ai Astin, do not start with ‘ah’’.”

It was weird that she was the one who was warned.

“Alice Color moved in a week ago. You two new students should get along. Now, this is an elective class, and today you will both observe, but by the end of next week you will decide which class you want to take.”

Follow me. Then Mageta walked out the door.

“…I’ve got a lot to say to you.”

So Alice said. That’s my line.

“Oh well, we’ll have ‘regular class’ first thing in the afternoon. You’ll know everything when you get there.”

Alice smirks sadistically.

“Don’t cry if you can’t keep up with the ‘class’.”

Ai stuck her tongue out at him.

“Hurry up, both of you!—ugh!! What is your attitude, Ai Astin?”

That’s unreasonable!

 

    

 

In the morning, Mageta gave her a tour of each class. They ranged from general etiquette, sewing, music, beauty, art, advanced mathematics, advanced science, sword fighting, accounting, general men’s studies, general women’s studies, and since it was impossible to visit them all, Ai chose art, advanced mathematics, and general etiquette. Every time she visited a class the students and even the teachers sat upright. The art teacher suddenly stopped teaching abstract painting and switched to practical painting, but Ai could not determine which was the more superficial.

After lunch, the ‘class’ finally awaited her.

 

They were at a square facing the cliffs of the Lagoon Mountains.

Ai was lined up there with the other students. She was dressed in a cotton shirt and long pants, apparently called a ‘sports uniform’.

One, two, three, four—

Everyone did their warmups. She looked around, and found students that appeared to be from class Q. It took her a while to understand that she seemed to belong to this class. There were not many of them, fewer than ten boys and girls in total. Class P too was at the plaza, and it seemed these twenty people were to have an ‘ordinary class’ here.

Ai cautiously movedher joints, but she had no idea as to what would happen next.

She did not understand what the teacher meant by saying ‘stretch up and down, jump to move about’, so she observed the students around her. Apparently, ‘stretch up and down, jump to move about’ was just to jump a little. Ai thought that the teacher could have said so, so she jumped up and down. She was good at jumping up and down.

—Is this ‘attending class’? Is it really alright?

While it was time to do the ‘wrist exercise’, her heart was still full of anxiety. During the first classes she had ever attended in her life in the morning, she had seen the teachers ask questions to the students several times. If I were in such a situation, would I really be able to answer? Probably not.

—What will happen if I can’t answer?

She had a tendency to pay attention to such little details. In the class just now, everyone answered clearly, whether it was correct or incorrect. But what would happen to the students who could not answer the questions? Would there be some kind of punishment?

“I’ll make a stew of them and cook them overnight.”

In her mind, the imaginary Mageta said so with a smile on her face Ai had never shown before, one so surreal that Ai assumed it might happen. She looked behind with a pale face, and found the demoness dorm supervisor supervising the students, her triangular glasses shining.

Their eyes met.

Ai pretended to do a ‘neck exercise’ and dragged her head forward. The moment she did so, she noticed Alice smiling at her. He did not say anything, but he was an eyesore.

With a big deep breath, Ai inhaled and exhaled hard. She could not imagine any other exercise that was more appropriate for her at this moment.

“Phew————……huh?”

Ai exhaled, and the person in front of her started to walk away. She had hoped that others would tell her beforehand at such moments…

They moved in three separate files.

The class was about to begin. Ai’s heart was pounding, her head felt faint, and the anxiety and nervousness coagulated together, rendering her unsure as to what she was feeling exactly.

It was coming.

It seemed the front row had arrived at their destination. Everyone received something from there. Received? Tools? If it was some kind of competition, she would have to learn the rules first, lest she had no idea what was going on. No, but at the very least, they should tell her what she should do…

After an agonizing wait, it was finally Ai’s turn, and she received it.

It was an oak handle with a steel blade.

In other words, it was a shovel.

“Eh?”

She was then given a helmet and a water bottle. Everyone wore them, looking as though it was expected.

“Huh?”

They walked to the side cave in the cliff of the Lagoon, entered inside, and were taken to their “stations”.

The male instructor said, “Begin.”

Everyone began to dig.

Ai was alone, holding a shovel, watching. In the dark depths of the earth, everyone dug deeper and deeper into the wall, using headlights to guide their hands. There were no rules or regulations, just shovels.

Ai had no idea what was going on, but…

Digging was her specialty.

 

Part III

    

 

Dee was alone in her room, waiting for Ai. The sun had set, and the room was dark. She was sitting on the bunk bed, her legs dangling in the air.

” I wonder if Ai is okay…”

If she had been that worried, she could have gone out to look for Ai, but she did not really want to. She did not want to see such a little girl like her get hurt by hard labor and be emotionally traumatized. Open-pit mining used to be the work of slaves, and it was tiring. Surely Ai must be battered all over by now.

“If only Alice is helping her in class…”

She could not hope for that, for Alice too was digging, and was unavailable. And given his personality, he wouldn’t help out with something as unimportant as this.

Phew…Dee let out a gloomy sigh. The sense of guilt gripped her chest. She thought she should not return to this room after all, so that she would not be able to see Ai anyway.

But then, Ai would be crying alone in this room again.

“I got no choice then,” Dee despondently resolved herself to continue waiting. She felt she was not one who could console others, but she had no choice. She gave up. She would stay with her.

So she made up her mind and started to think of words to comfort Ai, when—

“I’m back!”

Boom! Ai came back with a voice so loud, one assumed that she opened the door with just her voice. She then walked in..

“We-welcome back Ai. Are you okay? Are you tired?”

“Very tired!”

“R-Really?”

Dee replied, her eyes widened at the very vigorous response. On a closer look, Ai had some black rings on her face, and her voice was hoarse, but her face showed no despair that Dee fearedThere was just a healthy attitude of exhaustion.

Dee cautiously approached the matter by asking,

“H-How was it? Ai, your first class…?”

“We were digging!”

“Yes, of course. You’ve been digging—I’m not talking about this. Erm, like, isn’t it tough…”

“Very tough!”

That’s right. It had to be.

“Yeah, yeah. It was tough, wasn’t it? I guess you cried after all…s-so Ai, do you want to leave this school?”

“Nope.”

“Yep, I know. It’s been tough. But don’t worry, Alice is actually…”

Hm?

“—Eh? Ai, what did you say?”

“Nope. I don’t think it’s tough at all.”

“What? Did you just?” Dee tilted her head with her mouth agape.

“Well, you’ve been scaring me about how class is scary at all, but it’s nothing much. Mr Alice really underestimated me. I’m a little tired, but I’m still fine with this little bit~”

I’m very good at digging holes!” Ai said, exhausted as she beamed like a lightbulb.

“E-erm, but…”

“…Are you worried about me, Miss Dee?”

“No, I mean, I’m worried, but…”

“But don’t worry.”

Ai thumped her chest and took on an air of early maturity that those her age would sometimes show.

“I’m not going to lose.”

Woah.

“I’ve promised myself three things. I promised myself that ‘I would save the world’ and that ‘I won’t be fooled again’, and also…”

A natural smile appeared on her tired, relaxed cheeks.

“’I’m not going to give up until I do’. These are what I promised myself.”

Dee really hoped that she would give up at this moment.

“Erm, but, but…”

“Fuuuaa—fuuu~~”

Ai let out a big yawn and sat on the bed.

“… Sorry, that’s it for now. I have to work hard tomorrow, so we’ll talk in the morning.”

“But Ai, you’ll oversleep again, it’s impossible…”

Ai hopped onto the bed and snuggled beneath her blanket.

“…Good night.”

“…Ahh I give up—Good night. Good work.”

Ah whatever, so Dee thought, and left the room.

She would leave the rest to Alice.

 

    

 

Dig, dig.

It was at night, somewhere underground.

“Hey.”

Dee called out.

“Yeah?”

Alice answered.

“What are you going to do about Ai?”

Alice silently dug into the wall. Dee got impatient and called out again,

“Hey.”

“Wait.”

Alice put the dirt in a basket and shouted towards the end of the corridor.

Oiii Gigi, pull the string~.

Got it!

Hardy, how’s your stomach? Able to fill some more?

Still good~

I’m counting on you.

Dee got even more impatient.

“Hey!”

“It’s nothing to worry about.”

Dig, dig, dig.

“That pipsqueak’s going to understand tomorrow that it’s not normal here, and she’ll beg me to save her or something. I’m not lending a hand until then.”

“Uh, well, about that…”

Dee slipped into the small cave and put her index fingers together.

“She hadn’t found out yet.”

“Huh?”

“Well, somehow, it seems she thinks this is a normal school.”

“eh?”

Alice stabbed the shovel down and leaned against it.

“Seriously?”

“Seriously.”

“…Eh? How? What caused her to have such a misunderstanding? The digging? When the school said that it’s supposed to be a ‘lesson’? She should have found it weird when the dorm supervisor was shooting her gun for no good reason!”

“Don’t be mad at me!”

Dee covered her ears and ran away.

“I mean, wasn’t she pretty sharp in Ortus?”

“Well, Ai’s very unbalanced in her development. She’s not bad in terms of ability, but I guess it’s because of her upbringing that she lost all the common sense that we take for granted.”

Seriously? Alice asked again.

“Seriously,” Dee answered in a different intonation.

“…Are you going to tell Ai about this place tomorrow??”

The shovel chewed the soil again.

“…Yes.”

Dee let out a melancholic sigh.

“…I just find this uncomfortable.”

“How so?

“We’re showing such a little kid ‘reality’, and driving her to despair.”

“Huh? Coming from you?”

Dee fell silent as she cupped her knees. Alice glanced over at her.

“Don’t worry about it.”

He patted the tip of his nose with his muddy hand.

“Despair is like bait to people like her. They’ll cry and yell and get hurt and fall over and be full of despair after that…but for them, that’s not the end of it all. When people feel that they won’t be able to continue any more, this is when it starts for them.”

“…That’s very detailed.”

“Nope. It’s just that if she doesn’t have this level of sturdiness, she won’t be able to have the same kind of dream as us.”

“…You may be like that, Alice, but that doesn’t mean Ai is.”

“Who knows? I’m not in the least bit worried about it.”

The shovel chewed the soil again.

“Well, we’ll see about that tomorrow.”

Dig.

 

    

 

The next morning was spent finishing up the previous day’s work. The ores that were dug out of the deposit were dropped into the crusher, and the roughly crushed gravel was spread out on sheets. Some of the gravel was transparent, and some was not. They had to pick out the transparent rocks, and the rest was dumped into the gravel pile. The girls sorted the gravel while the boys carried it.

The transparent ones were gems.

Most would have assumed these gemstones were just broken glass if nobody had said so. Once they handed these stones over to the teacher, the morning ‘class’ was over. There were not more than a handful of gems from ten wheelbarrows of earth and sand.

At noon, it was time for lunch. A sandwich with bacon, sliced onions and lettuce. Ai ordered three sandwiches, which she got at the cafeteria in the morning.

“Ai, come here, come here.”

Just when Ai wondered where she should eat, she heard Dee call for her. What? She wondered why Dee would appear here. After all, Ai did not see her the entire day, so she assumed Dee was in a different class…

“What is it?”

“Alice wants to talk to you.”

Ai realized.

She nodded firmly and followed behind Dee. She felt her hands would feel lonely if she went empty-handed, so she carried the shovel that was lent to her, and entered the quarry filled with gravel. The soil in this area was barren with sand for a long time, was devoid of grass and had the appearance of a dry stream.

Alice was sitting on one of the gravel piles, about to have his lunch.

“Yo.”

He opened his mouth right when he was about to munch onto the sandwich as he greeted Ai. Ai assumed he would continue talking, but he did not. Instead, Alice prioritized his meal and munched at it.

This incensed Ai, who found a slope that was suitable to sit on, unwrapped her package, grabbed the sandwich that was about to spill out, and munched at it. The taste of smoked meat, fresh vegetables, and spices burst into her mouth.

She continued to devour it, being in no mood to savor.

She easily finished the first serving, exhaled and gulped down the water from her bottle, glancing sideways at Alice.

“What? Are we doing it?”

Seeing this, Alice accepted the challenge. He opened his mouth and flashed his canine teeth, biting the second one like a shredder. Om nom nom nom! Ai too would not lose as she started munching as well.

There was a stark contrast in their styles. Alice moved quickly to pick out the parts he wanted to eat first, while Ai chowed down, as though emphasizing “It’s the stomach’s job to chew.” There was no difference in speed between them, and they both finished the second piece in the blink of an eye and took the third piece at the same time.

Om nom nom!

They ate at the same time, chewed at the same time, swallowed at the same time.

They gulped down the last bite.

At that moment, ha! They looked back at Dee.

“”Who won!?””

“Ehh? When did I become the judge? Ehhh, erm, I didn’t really pay attention…can’t we just call it a draw?”

Both of them accepted the result and bumped their fists in praise of each other’s good fight.

“Woah, we have idiots, two of them!”

Dee insulted them with a hearty smile. Ai was indeed a little embarrassed, coughed and deliberately went back to the issue at hand.

“So, Mr. Alice, what do you want?”

“Oh, that’s….”

Alice’s face turned gloomy as he said,

“Actually, I owe you an apology…”

Here it comes.

Ai smiled.

“That’s right. I know.”

“Yeah, I’m so sorry. I underestimated you.”

“Hmph . That’s right. What do you mean, “I’m going to cry”? I was able to follow the ‘class’ just fine!”

She boasted as she carried the shovel over my shoulder. While it was a pity that she was not carrying her favorite tool, she felt she looked cool.”

“I’m confident in my shovel skills. I was even praised by the supervisor yesterday! Hmph! It’s nothing! You underestimate me too much, Mr Alice!”

“Yeah, I really did…I didn’t think you’d be so oblivious after that…”

“Eh?”

“E-erm, what are you talking about? “

“I’m talking about you.”

Alice and Dee made bitter faces and crossed their arms, groaning.

“Well, whatever. Go ahead.”

“What’s with this out of a sudden…?”

“Well~, I’m sorry, Miss Ai. I really can’t bring myself to do this when you’re enjoying your school life so much, but,”

“What’s going on?”

Alice looked really apologetic as he said so, which left Ai terrified as she put down the shovel.

“Well, to put it bluntly, this is not a proper school.”

“Huh?”

“This place is, well, it’s like a prison camp for freaks like us. Once you’re in here, you can’t get out again, you can’t meet anyone again. It’s the Goran Youth Correctional Institute.”

“Eh?”

There were a lot of questions appearing on Ai’s mind.

“What are you talking about?”

“It is what it is~ It’s like, everyone in the country knows about this other than you…”

“No, wait, but there’s no way Mr Julie would let me in such a place, right?”

“Hey, Dee, can you explain that to her?”

“Yes yes.”

Alice calls out his partner’s name, who understood the situation, and nudged her nonexisting glasses while acting like a ‘capable secretary’.

“Eh, this Mr Julie you speak of has already visited here twice, obviously to ask whether Ai Astin is here. The academy insisted it didn’t, and when he visited the second time, it seemed the town police took action. After that, he and his companion went into hiding. He is quite a cautious person.”

Ai was curious as to how Dee knew that, but she ignored that for now.

“Eh?”

“Did that old man Julie put you in here?”

Ai wanted to say yes, but she stopped herself.

“…Now that you mention it, Mr Julie wasn’t here at the time, and I thought I wouldn’t be enrolled until much later, and it’s too fast…”

“See?”

“B-but I can’t believe I can’t see anyone. The dorm supervisor promised that I’ll see Mr Julie next week…”

“I’d bet that when the time comes, she’ll just tell you ‘he couldn’t be contacted’.”

“…Sh-she even said I could go out as long as I submit an application beforehand.”

“You can ask around if anyone actually managed to apply for one.”

“Y-you said this is a Corrective Institute, but I never really did anything…”

“You did corrective labor yesterday and today! How much energy do you have!?”

“Eh? Eh? Eh?”

“Argh, this is infuriating…why do you have that ‘shocked’ look on your face…?”

“In other words—”

She gulped.

“In other words, I’ve been had?”

Alice affirmed as a matter of fact.

“That’s right.”

Ai chewed on those words slowly, swallowed them, and screamed.

 

“I’ve been had!”

 

Part IV

 

Ai did not remember much of what happened after that.

She was deceived.

The fact was the only thing that shook her hard.

—No, no, no, no, like you were deceived, but I don’t think the dorm supervisor has such intentions. It seems that old lady has her own ideals, so—

Alice’s words of consolation were more like a blade that pierced her heart deeply. From her perspective, the ‘misinterpretation’ of a mere fact was much more problematic than being deceived by a deliberate deception.

No, please wait a minute. It was a little difficult for her to realize that she was fooled under such circumstances. She was alone in a strange place, surrounded by strange people, surrounded by strange things, and she was trying hard to get used to them. She could only tough it out and try to familiarize herself. If she questioned every new thing that came her way, she would not be able to take a single step forward. Since everyone said “it is what it is”, she had no choice but to believe “it is what it is.”

What else could she do?

“…Is there another…way…”

Ai sighed and dropped her head, failing to justify herself for the eighty-seventh time.

—I won’t be fooled again!

Upon recalling the words she said to Dee the previous day, she wanted to die. She said she did not want to be fooled again, and never thought that she was being fooled.

She thought she was a bit smarter than that, that her instincts were sharper, like when she realized the truth in Ortus that nobody else realized. However, it was not the case. It was a mere coincidence, and ultimately, things did not turn out so well…

“Raise your right arm.”

“…Yes.”

The closed eyed girl washed Ai’s right arm with a sponge.

Thud, someone caused a bucket to echo.

It was the bathhouse.

The afternoon’s work began immediately after that conversation, and Ai wandered aimlessly through it. Midway through, Alice, Dee, and even the girl were worried if Ai was alright, but Ai remained listless the entire time. She remained in this state even until the work ended, and she listlessly did as she was told.

By the way, the girls in Q class had gotten used to this little creature who would wander around unconsciously in the morning and at night, and there was a duty roster centered around the closed eyed girl who would take care of her. This was the treatment Ai had when she was first taken here, so she had misunderstood that it was supposed to be the case, acting like an industrial product on a conveyor belt. Also, she started to think that it was a little bit ‘nice and easy’.

“Raise your left hand.”

“…Yes.”

“Close your eyes.”

“…Yes.”

Ai closed her eyes and let the hot water drip from the top of her head.

Their conversation had become completely formulaic, and Ai’s only response was almost always “yes”. She was so overwhelmed with self-loathing, she simply replied, “… yes”, and “… yes”. “I’ll wash your hair”, “yes”. “Close your eyes”, “yes.” “Here’s some hot water”, “yes”.

Once again, she felt the hot water flow down on my back. She would usually feel a sense of emptiness in this dull exchange, but this was what she really wished for at this moment.

 

“Where did you come from, Ai?”

 

And then, for the first time, the girl with closed eyes asked a question that Ai could neither answer as yes or no to. But Ai’s mind was so relaxed that she did not notice.

—Yes. She nearly answered instinctively, but stopped herself.

Erm,

“Ortus…I guess. Probably?”

The response was dramatic.

 

“Ortus?”

 

Those washing their skins immediately stopped washing, those soaking in the tub stopped soaking, and those talking stopped talking as everyone surrounded Ai.

 

“Ortus, as in that Ortus!? Are you a Dead!?” “No, silly sister, that’s not possible. What do you mean by that?” “What’s with this stupid question!? Ai, how do you take care of your hair!? Tell us” “…Ai, so small, so cute…”

 

She thought the world was about to explode. Just moments ago, the girls had been acting like robots, but suddenly came alive as they were shouting and screaming. The colors of their skin became deeper, as if they had been painted on a monochrome picture, and the four colors of black, white, gray, and yellow danced in her field of vision.

“Hey!”

The closed eyed girl shouted at those colors.

“I’ll take care of her! That’s what we decided in the first place!”

All of them reacted by shivering, and the two timid ones pulled back. But just as quickly, two strong-willed girls stepped forward.

The two blond-haired, blue-eyed girls resembled twins, and they complained.

“We know, we know. That’s why we’ve been giving you leeway, prez. But can’t we at least talk about her?” “Yeah, Tanya, it’s not fair when you have her to yourself.”

A girl with a scholarly air and a pretty forehead who never took of off her glasses even in the bath seemed to be encouraged, and said,

“Of course. In addition, the last few days, we have been silent because we’ve been giving you face as the prez, but Miss Tanya, don’t you think you failed to communicate? I think Miss Ai looks a little disappointed.”

The closed eyed girl flinched when this was pointed out

“Th-this isn’t the case, nope!!”

“’Don’t say ‘nope’, Tanya Swedgewood’.”

The twins imitated the dorm supervisor’s voice like a stereo, and got the girls giggling. The closed eyed girl was flushed with anger, and splashed water at them. “Now you did it!” and with that voice came the water cannons of retaliation, yells and laughter.

Ai watched on with a blank stare.

It was as if the world had truly changed.

The girls were laughing, angry, chatting , and having fun.

It was here that Ai realized that she had been wrong again.

She realized that she had unwittingly deemed the girls as a background or a backdrop.

She found it was because they were a little aloof to her.

Tanya started to falter increasingly, and the poise she used to have was long gone. The The twins took advantage of the opportunity to ask Ai,

“Hey, hey, little Ai, come here. Let’s talk. Leave the heartless prez alone.”

“Yes, yes. We have so many questions we want to ask you.”

“N-no!”

The twins grabbed Ai’s hands and tried to drag her to the bathtub, but Tanya stopped them.

“Why not prez!” “Yeah! Power abuse! Let little Ai go!”

“No! I’m going to take care of her!”

In the center of the chaos in the bathroom, Tanya shook her head repeatedly and clung onto Ai like a stuffed animal.

“E-erm, Miss Tanya.”

In her arms, Ai raised her voice.

“………What?”

“I’-I’m suffering a little…”

Tanya came to her senses. Ai’s face was completely blocked by two soft objects, just inches away from the peachy flesh.

“Phwoah!”

Ai finally regained her breath.

“E-erm, I’m sorry.”

“Ah, no! It’s fine—just, please move away from me… “

Tanya’s face turned pale as she quickly misinterpreted Ai’s words.

“Eh, that’s not it! —Well, I’m just, not, used to dealing with naked women…”

The girl with the glasses asked as she was wiping the lenses that were fogged up by the steam.

“? I can understand if it’s a man, but why the naked bodies of fellow girls?”

“Ah, yes, men are just muscles, so they feel similar to the Dead.”

“???”

Nobody understood Ai’s reasoning.

“In comparison, women are round, smooth, and frog-like…”

“F-frog…I don’t know how the comparison works, but you shouldn’t compare women to frogs…”

“…I like frogs.…”

“Shut up Rune.”

Thus the crowd got increasingly rowdy, and there were signs of another big commotion.

“Er-erm…”

But before then, Ai said.

The five girls stopped talking.

“Um, are you all, erm, well, captured and put in this school?h

“…Yes. That’s right.”

Tanya nodded her head and turned to her friends.

“It really shocked me in the beginning.” “Yeah, and they said corrective work, like, what.” “You have it easy, they shot me with a tranquilizer gun.” “…They threw a net on me…”

Each of them earnestly recounted their memories.

“…This is cruel.”

Ai muttered.

“Why does this school do…such things?”

“Why else…”

Tanya answered the question flatly, as if the question itself was weird.

 

“It’s because we’re different…”

 

Different?

Ai had no idea what the answer meant.

“…I suggest….”

The girl who had been observing in the bathtub, the one they called Rune, raised her hand and blurted out.

“…Let’s introduce ourselves…”

“Oh, this is good.” “Agreed~.” “I’m fine with this, but…prez?” ” Yes, I’m fine.

The five girls surrounded Ai.

…I’ll start…The girl with the blue hair who suggested so sank weakly into the bathtub with a plop.

A girl with glasses then took a step forward.

“I’m next then—nice to meet you, Miss Ai.”

“Eh? E-erm, that classmate, who just went underwater…”

“It’s okay, don’t worry about her. “

The glasses girl had a thin unhealthy-looking body, and only her eyes and forehead glittered behind her glasses, giving her a mysterious liveliness.

“My name is Volrath Fahren, and I’m an apprentice Plastinator.”

“Apprentice Plastinator?”

“That’s someone who makes post-mortem adjustments to the Dead. A doctor of the dead, so to speak.”

Ai thought of Diva, whom she had met in Ortus. Diva was a doctor with two different body halves.

“I used to live with the Corpse King and his family, but I got captured by the Dead Hunters. And then they were like ‘You’re a Living and you hang out with the Dead!?’ So I was thrown into the Academy.”

“That’s tough…”

“Well, it’s fine though. I got to meet my beloved Hardy.”

Volrath’s cheeks reddened.

 

“And my superpower is my grip.”

 

Superpower?

The word was unfamiliar to Ai. She did not know if it was a metaphor or anything.

Volrath ignored Ai’s confusion as she did a live exhibition.

Thack.

There was

There was an abnormal sound, and the girl’s thin fingers snapped the mane of a lion spitting hot water as if it were a flower.

“I developed this when I was trapped in a tunnel accident back then. Unfortunately, my arm isn’t very strong, so it can’t help didn’t get any stronger, so it didn’t help me escape at all…”

Tahaha, Volrath laughed as she crushed the rubble in her hand like a biscuit. It eventually turned into sand and flowed down the drain.

“Us next~” “Next~”

Then the twins stepped forward. They had a dazzling appearance, with golden hair and blue eyes, and they had sophisticated manners in spite of their boisterous personalities. They were the daughters of noblemen.

“I’m the eldest daughter Mimieta Gedenburg, and you can call me Mimi.” “I’m Memepo Gedenburg, the second daughter, and you can call me Meme.” “Actually, we’re not twins,” “Yes yes, we’re actually triplets.”

The twins hugged each other firmly like lovers as they introduced themselves.

“And then I’m Momorency Gedenberg, the third daughter.” “and you can call me Momo.”

Huh? Ai let out a confused sigh.

The twins introduced themselves as the third person as a matter of fact.

“Well, you know. Momo was the only one of us who died a long time ago and was buried by the Gravekeeper.” “So we asked God to let the three of us stay together forever,” “And then this happened, right?” “Right?” “Right~”.

“One and a half personalities,” Volrath added, her glasses shining.

The twins were a dichotomy, with three people sharing two bodies. It was very difficult to distinguish them because they all had similar personalities. Perhaps they could become so because of their similar personalities however.

“By the way, I just said Momo died, but is that right? You sure it’s not me?” “It’s not Mimi, erm…me? Maybe?” “Well, it doesn’t matter, right? We’re all doing fine.”

“Right~” Ai cupped her head as she saw the two of them lovingly touch their cheeks together. What was going on!? What happened?

“…My real debut…”

At that moment, the water surface split, and a blue haired girl appeared. Wait, Ai had been paying attention to the other three (four?) people. Did she remain underwater the entire time?

“…Rune Sagittarius…”

In spite of her flashy appearance, the blue-haired, blue-eyed  girl introduced herself with a whisper..

“…Ability is to breathe underwater…fine with fresh water and salt water…just not cold water …”

…And people call me mermaid…Ai wondered why she had to talk if she was so embarrassed. Rune exhaled and floated on the bathtub again, probably worn out from having to talk.

“…And, I’m Tanya Swedgewood.”

Finally, the girl with closed eyes said her name.

“My ability is clairvoyance—actually, I’m blind.”

Tanya opened her closed eyes just a little. The eyes were small and distorted, and it was obvious that they could not accept light. The eyes that appeared to be shut were really shut.

“As a substitute, I have developed this power…I can hear the scenery.”

“??? What do you mean?”

“Well, this may be hard for others to understand, but…you see, I can hear colors and shapes as sounds. For example, I can hear the sound of green, squares, smoke. Do you understand?”

She did not.

It was an everyday tune that no one but Tanya could understand.

“…I have been hearing your sound…”

Tanya stared at Ai and said,

“…You have a nice sound, very honest, but it’s very twisted. It feels like a ‘rainbow reaching to the moonlight’…do you understand what I mean?”

She did not understand.

At the very least though, she knew Tanya cared about her. No, it was not just her. Everyone in class was the same, but she never noticed such a thing.

Ai let out a big sigh, as if she were letting out her soul. She arched her back and looked at the wet floor.

“E-erm…”

Tanya, who had been watching her, seemed to muster her courage as she slowly spoke,

“Did you feel it, disgusting…?”

Ai lifted her head in shock once she heard the feeble voice and words.

She saw that the five pairs of eyes were lacking in the mischief they had before, and instead, they were replaced with the color of fear, fear of rejection.

As soon as Ai saw this, a switch was flipped inside her.

She naturally straightened her back, her timid heart vanished without a trace. At this moment, she became someone who could say what she had to..

It was not easy for the girls to expose their differences, and beneath their ruckus were bare, innocent hearts.

“It’s not creepy at all.”

Ai made eye contact with the girl who could not see, and said so loudly, hoping for them to hear.

“Everyone’s beautiful.”

The tension in the group eased. The glasses girl (Volrath) and mermaid (Rune) looked happy, the twins teased each other to hide their embarrassment, and Tanya just let out a breath.

“Um?”

Ai asked.

“Do all the people in the school have such powers?”

The five of them exchanged looks, but did not answer Ai until the ‘chairperson’ Tanya did.

“…Hm, there were normal people attending this school years ago, but now the only ones left here have some ability…”

“…Why did they do this? Why did they capture us?”

“Hmm.~ Well, I heard it started out as a quarantine and protection facility, a place where strange children were collected from their home countries and educated, but it has changed completely recently…”

—After this year, there would not be anyone below the age of fifteen, and after next year, there would not be anyone below the age of sixteen. The change had caused a bottleneck in the school, and the originally violent management had become more so.

“This really is a horrendous place. They wanted to let the school exist as much as possible, even if it meant blackmail or anything underhanded…rumors had it that this place can continue to exist even when no children can be born…that’s why they had been abducting people to prevent the school from.”

“Ueeh, that’s weird…Hmm?”

Then Ai suddenly realized,

“But how did they find out about me?

Ai tilted her head, and so did everyone. “I didn’t do anything to expose myself, right…?” it was hard for everyone else to speak up except for one however, “Isn’t it obvious?”

“…Ai, you’re young…speaking of which, why are you young …?

Rune asked, and the others basically begged her “Read the mood!” It seemed that since she could live underwater, this watergirl had a tendency to disregard the atmosphere.

” I’m half Gravekeeper, half human, and I’m twelve years old. …”

“Twelve years old?”

“Oh, that’s not important. It’s the half that’s…”

“I thought you were about nine…”

Ai puffed up. The five of them hurried to continue the conversation.

“But half is amazing! It’s one of the best abilities in our school!”

Volrath probably assumed it was a compliment, “Wow!”, for she repeated away.

“It’s not that great. I’ve seen an immortal, and someone who can kill with just her sense.”

“Hampnie Hambert!”

“Idol of Murder!

A shudder spread throughout.

“What’s going on!? You’ve met all those people before, Ai!?” “Amazing!” “Yes! I have a question! If you meet an Idol of Murder, will you really die die?” “…Ai, are you dead…?”

Ai was getting used to the explosion of questions for the umpteenth time. It was pointless to try and hear every word.

“What about everyone?”

Ai took the initiative.

“Have you been here for long?”

Tanya answered as a representative,

“Well, me and the twins have been here for four years, Volrath and Rune for two—as for the boys who aren’t here, Hardy and Gigi have been here a year—Alice just got here last week.”

“It’s been that long…”

“…Yes.”

The eyes that could not see looked into the distance.

“Of course, we’ve been here for so long…I used to want to get out of here so many times, to go home…over and over again…”

They all nodded in agreement once she seemingly muttered to herself..

“I see. …”

When Ai heard this, she felt a surge of excitement within her.

It was a warm, sure, confident fever.

“… I can’t stay like this!”

She stood up immediately and slapped her cheeks.

“I’m motivated!”

Her eyes were glittering, her nose snorting, her hands on her hips.The dejected mood she had beforehand was long gone, and she lifted her head up high.

And Ai declared—

 

“I’m here to help you!”

 

And Alice smashed through the floor.

 

Part V

 

There was no one who knew what had happened at that moment.

It was so sudden.

An explosion echoed in the bathhouse, smoke and dust rose, obscuring their vision. The children that were trained in the crazy curriculum of the crazy school, immediately jumped into the bathtub to protect themselves from blast damage.

Time slowly passed in the silence.

The fumes became entangled in the humidity, and their visions gradually cleared.

The smoke dissipated—and in the middle of it all, there was a hole where a single person could pass through.

Everyone was dumbfounded.

Then, a human head wearing dust proof goggles and a mask popped out like a mole. He was holding a torchlight in his right hand and a knife in his life, cautiously looking around. He was acting very cautious, and was reminiscent of a wild beast.

The head blinked repeatedly in the brightness of the room, looked left and right, and spotted Ai and the others.

Their eyes meet.

“What in the world….”

A mysterious figure muttered.

“What’s going on, Delta 1? Were you able to dig your way out!?”

“Are you okay~?”

The muffled voices of the boys echoed from the depths of the hole.

“Delta 1 to Delta 2. It seems we’ve been had by intel…”

“What’s going on? Where are you? What do you see? “

“Boobs.”

“Huh?”

The mysterious person—Alice discarded his knife and torchlight far away to indicate he had no intention to resist, and faked an air cigarette puff like a condemned man taking his last drag, and inhaled deeply.

Twelve fists were clenched tightly.

“No, wait wait. I’m sure enjoying—no wait, I’m surrendering. Prisoners of war should be protected by the Treaty of the Queen. Fufufu, are you sure about this? If you leave a scar on me, you won’t be able to get a ransom…ah, no, sorry, I got too carried away. Stop, it’s an unfortunate accident. Seriously, Dee is the one at fault. Wait, no, hey, don’t, nope, stop, you can’t stuff that…”

The first thing the girls did was to stuff a cloth into Alice’s mouth to stop him from screaming.

 

After trying a series of simple tortures that could be done with hot water and towels, the girls finally got over their exasperation.

“I’m really…really sorry…”

Alice was in such a pitiful state that he could have been a benefactor of a welfare state. His hands were tied behind him by a towel, and he looked like a caterpillar.

Behind him were a group of girls, with towels wrapped firmly around their chests, discussing how they should deal with this pest.

“Let’s bury him.”

Tanya said.

“Let’s bury him and sow flower seeds everywhere. We’ll get a beautiful flower garden in spring, and he won’t feel lonely…”

“Why, Miss Tanya….”

Ai clutched her chest, “Ha!”

“Hey wait! What are you making it sound so nice, prez!? It’s just murder!”

“Let’s just finish him off”

“Wooaahh! Don’t admit it flat out like that! At least make it sound nice!”

“How noisy…”

Tanya covered her ears.

“Since ancient times, the price of seeing a maiden’s soft skin is the same as the toll of sailing down the river of Hell.”

“I said I’m sorry…”

“Did you really want to take a peek?”

Ai had a towel wrapped tightly around her chest, as she looked down at him.

“…Have you been seduced by my scent…?”

No wonder, She shook his head.

“Hey, brat, enough with the foul rumors. Who’s getting all horny from a loli body like yours? No, I can’t even use the word ‘body here’. Maybe ‘shape’ is more appropriate. Yep, shape. Hahaha, it’s more appropriate. ‘The shape helps to reduce drag resistance’, hahaha, now that sounds like a car advertisement. Ah right, I just shouted the word ‘boobs’, but of course that doesn’t apply to you, so don’t worry…woargh!! “

Ai shoved a wooden tub into Alice’s mouth.

“What are you doing?”

“Listen to your own chest!”

“I don’t have boobs on my chest!”

“I-I don’t understand! Are you saying that flat is justice?”

“Yeah! You’re no help!  Prez! Let’s talk! Try and catch on to whatever I say! Catch!”

“Catch…?”

The moment Tanya heard this, she dragged Alice to sit by the wall.

“All right, Alice. Let’s play catch. Volrath.”

“Yes.”

The girl with fancy glasses stepped in front of Alice and clasped her hands together.

“Transfer student. I have a few questions for you. Just answer them honestly …but if you don’t answer.”

“W-What?”

“Mog.”

Kya, Volrath’s cheeks flushed as she crushed the stone in her hand.

“!”

Alice was speechless.

“By the way, if I do this twice, you can  enter a girls’ bathroom openly, Alice.”

“Wow. And then we’ll call you little Alice.” “I’ll do little Alice’s hair. “

“…I’ll help with your clothes…”

“Good luck with that! “

Ai cheered, not knowing what was going on.

“So, first question…”

Alice broke down within two seconds.

 

 

 

“Escape?”

Everyone said in unison.

“That’s right.”

Alice replied.

“We’re planning to escape—Hey, Gigi, Hardy, come on out!”

Alice shouted “Ehh!?” and there was an echo.

“B-But it’s the girls’ bathroom, right!? We can’t go in there!!” “I don’t dare too~!!”

“Gigi, Hardy.”

Tanya called out to the owners of these voices.

“Just come here.”

With that, Gigi the ‘Winter Frog’ and Hardy the ‘Mud Eater’  emerged.

Gigi was a pretty boy who was of a similar body type as Ai, while Hardy was a fat boy with a soft smile.

The moment Volrath saw Hardy, she was filled with tears, and leaped over.

“Uuuu~~Hardy, you can’t go about peeking when you have me…”

“Ahh~no~Volrath, this is~…”

“No need for an explanation!”

Kiiii~!! The long fingertips tugged at Hardy’s cheek, and they looked like a young couple flirting with each other. Given her ability though, this probably was not a joking matter. Hardy, who was in this predicament, could only give a troubled smile.

The ‘Mud Eater’ Hardy.

Due to his excessive hunger, this boy obtained the ability to convert inorganic materials into nutrients. Alice would dig, and Hardy would eat. That was how the three of them managed to dig their way out of the ground.

“Uuu~. Hardy, were you going to leave us here?”

“I wasn’t~ Volrath, I was only going to help. It’s Gigi who wanted to run away.”

The twins showed a cat-like reaction to these words.

“Hey, Gi. Why do you want to peep?” “Yes, I did. You’re not ready to be horny, Gi. Shouldn’t you wait until you’re out of elementary school at least?”

“I wasn’t here to peep!”

The boy’s face turned red and he became angry at the twins who were teasing him.

“And I’m not in elementary school, after all! I’m already twenty-two!”

He looked and sounded like a toddler throwing a tantrum, twelve years old at most.

The “Winter Frog,” Gigi Totoki was a recently discovered boy. He was the son of a trader who had strayed over the snowy mountains ten years ago, and had been ‘hibernating’ alone in a cave.

“I am a child of Elha! The snow and wind are my home! I’ll return to my parents!”

“But Gi, you don’t know where your mother and father are, do you? “Yeah. I mean, they might be dead, right?”

The twins nonchalantly stated the tough question plainly.

“I heard the news!”

Gigi smiled in an age-appropriate (?) way.

“They changed routes! They should have headed counterclockwise towards Elha! I can still catch up with them. I have to, no matter what!”

“So that’s why you want to escape…”

Tanya muttered with a gloomy expression, “Now this is troublesome…”

“Alice, are you the same? It’s only been a week since you entered…”

“No, because that’s what I’m here for.”

“Huh?”

Everyone echoed in unison.

“What are you talking about? Are you trying to tell me that you entered this school to escape?”

“No no no , I’m not that crazy.”

“Alice is here to help me!”

Gigi said.

Tanya tilted her head and said,

“So you’re saying you got caught to get Gigi to escape?”

“Something like that.”

Alice replied.

“…Did you two know each other, or?”

“No, I didn’t know until that idiot Dee whispered to me.”

“We’d never met before!”

“???”

Everyone tilted their heads in unison again, but only Ai took it in stride and said, “Helping people, huh? I understand.”

Tanya rubbed her brows and put the matter on hold for now.

“…Even if that’s the plan…Isn’t it inefficient to escape by digging a hole?”

“Not really, with Hardy around, prez.”

“But you don’t know the direction, do you? You can’t just show up here and…”

“That’s because our periscope played a prank on us…ahh dammit—oy Dee, come out here! You’re definitely around, right!? Enough with the jokes!”

Alice shouted at the empty space, and then,

Absolutely without warning.

“Ahahahahahahahahah! That’s funny! Your stupid face is so funny Alice!. And you went all “Wait, no, hey, don’t, nope, stop”. Why is it that you could only say two words! Ahahahahah, my stomach hurts from laughing! Ahahahahahahaha!”

Dee Ensy Stratmitos appeared.

She slipped through the floor.”Damn you! What’s with the ‘I’ll check out the path’? That’s what you’ve been trying to do all along!”

“Nfufufu! It’ll be bad if you ran off without Ai, Alice!”

“You could have said so! What do you think we’ve been doing for the past few days?”

“Ahh, I heard that’s called ‘toil’. And also, ‘wasted labor’, ‘free labor’, ‘idle labor’, or ‘broken bones’…”

“Enough! Don’t say such words anymore! You make me sad!”

Dee was floating in the air, basically sitting upside down as she bantered away happily with Alice.

Everyone else was taken aback, as though reality had turned into a fairy tale. The girl could pass through objects, and floated in the air, but there was nothing amiss about her. Inexplicably, she even had a shadow.

The first one to recover was Ai.

“Well, yes, Miss Dee, if you’re a student here, it’s not surprising that you have some sort of…”

“Who are you?”

They all asked,

“Who, Miss Dee? She’s my roommate, ….”

“You don’t have a roommate.”

Tanya said with a pale face.

“Who are you…you’re not a student here…you can penetrate through matter? Float in the air? Cognitive manipulation? There’s not a single person in the school with such extraordinary abilities.…”

“Oh, pardon me.”

Dee realized something was amiss, and descended to the floor.

“Hi everyone in Gora Academy.”

She smiled good-naturedly, and picked up the hem of her skirt to bow with courtesy. There was something fishy about how she was wearing clothes in the bathroom, and a different uniform from everyone else.

“I’m Dee Ensy Stratmitos. You can call me whatever you want.”

“The ‘Witch’!”

Tanya shouted. Dee immediately showed a bitter face..

“‘…I did say you can call me whatever you want, but I hoped it wasn’t that. At least add the words ‘of the West’. It’s bad to be called the same thing as her too.”

“Oh, s-sorry!”

The Witch of the West, Dee Ensy Stratmitos, was a mysterious figure known to everyone. She could appear at any time, any location, in ethereal form to offer advice to those she meets. Her advice ranges from the small to the grandiose, and she would tell children where their missing items were or lead a small country to victory by telling her how to set up an enemy formation.

Her actions were soon likened to the original “Great Witch”—Vlado El Saikavaati, who would kill the Dead, tease the Living and play games with the Gravekeepers, ‘fulfilling the wishes of humans’. Thus, Dee was dubbed the ‘Witch of the West’.

“I don’t like that name because it’s so exaggerated. I think I prefer the nickname I was given at first—’The Ghost’.”

With that, Dee softly rose up to hug Alice.

“The ghost is haunting Alice right now, whispering to him to get him to help others.”

“And now I’m the one in the noose…”

What is wrong with these people?

Tanya and the rest of Q class stared at these new people in amazement—Ai Astin was a child of a Gravekeeper and a human, with the ‘sound of the rainbow under the moon’. Dee Ensy Stratmitos—a ghost, Witch of the West, had the ‘sound of a Dead’.

They had such stark differences, and yet were strangely powerful.

And at the center of it all, smiling, was the most ordinary-looking boy of them all: Alice Color.

Alice Color, the boy with the ‘the sound of a silver gunshot’.

“H-hey, Gigi.”

“What is it?”

Tanya bent down, holding her towel around her breasts, and asked Gigi,

“What is…he?”

“He’s on the side of justice.”

“Huh?”

“Alice is my hero.”

“???”

Gigi ‘sounded’ vaguely proud as he said so, but Tanya could not understand the subtleties of a schoolboy’s thoughts.

Before her, Ai, Alice and Dee were talking about something.

But Tanya was already tired. It was supposed to be a normal day, a normal bath, but before she knew it, she found herself in this abnormal situation. Talking about escaping from school? She just wished for them to take this discussion elsewhere.

“—rez, Prez!”

She regained her senses, and found Alice shouting loudly at her.

“W-What, Alice?”

“What else? Time’s almost up. That demonic supervisor will be patrolling around. We need to deal with this large hole.”

The clock on the wall showed that a long time had passed. Usually, they would be draining the water and cleaning up.

“Y-yes.”

Tanya suddenly felt as if she had woken up from a dream, and remembered Mageta’s cold, angry face with a strange nostalgia. At the same time, she felt a sense of discomfort towards the boys in the women’s bath and the big hole in front of her.

“Are you okay, prez? I’m sorry, but please take care of the rest. Please move the rocks. We’ll help out below too..”

With that, Alice shooed away Dee from the air and pushed Hardy and Gigi back.

Gigi protested as he was pushed into the hole.

“But Mr. Alice, are you sure you’re okay?”

“What?”

Alice asked as he massaged his arms that were freed after a long time.

“You told everyone about it! If someone tells on us… “

“You idiot.”

A chop landed on Gigi’s forehead.

“O-ouch!”

Chop, chop, chop.

“Don’t doubt our buddies, you idiot.”

Alice chopped Gigi until the latter squirmed and muttered “I’m not going to grow any taller!”. The tone of his voice was not the inscrutable one Tanya had heard before, but a firm one that was convinced.

Tanya did not know what Alice was like as a person. She had heard of various sounds made by many different people with her extraordinary hearing, but she had never heard anyone with a sound like his before.

“Alright, see you tomorrow! I know you have something to ask me. I’ll ask you then!”

He pushed them away, hopped into the hole, and waved back at them.

“Hold on, Mr. Alice.”

Ai called out to him.

 

“We’ll be joining your escape plan.”

 

We?

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