Hellping

Part I

 

There was Ai, showing a really stupid face.

The hem of her pajamas was rolled up to her navel. The blanket that was supposed to conceal her had been kicked aside, and was by her legs. Her mouth was agape to the point where one could see her throat, her nasty drool was dripping from the edge of her mouth. Aside from that, leaking from her mouth was transparent sleep talk that was as valuable as her drool.

“…………So sleepy.”

Saying such a simple yet perplexing sleep talk, Ai rolled onto the floor..

Thud, and,

She had landed completely face down, and after remaining so for a full second, she fell to the floor..

She did not move. One would think she was dead.

Ai laid in the same position for a while, fidgeting away. She seemingly got cold, for she shivered ‘brr’, and got up.

She opened her eyes slightly.

It was morning, the sun had just risen, the air was cool, and the dust that usually fluttered away remained on the floor. The sunlight shone through the sloppy shutters that formed a prism, splitting into the colors of a rainbow. It was May, but the cold morning was frosty.

She was in the house of Tanya Swedgewood’s parents.

One had to wonder if her eyes were actually looking, as Ai stared at this scene, and finally, at the place where she fell. It was a simple bed formed out of a wooden frame resembling a bathtub, covered with straw. A maiden was sleeping within, becoming one with the pillow, blanket and straw scraps.

She was Ai’s former classmate and current friend.

“…Un…nnn…”Tanya groaned and shivered before reaching out. “Chirp…chirp”, she started looking for her warming bag (Ai) through echo-location (bird chirping). The manner in which that sound blended with the birds was truly adorable.

Ai hopped onto the bed, and Tanya hugged her without hesitation, beaming away. This blind friend of Ai had issues befriending others, and looked so innocent only while subconscious, which made her adorable.

She went back to sleep again, and her consciousness sank into dreamland…

Ai quickly began to snore. Of the whole warehouse, only a little bird, strayed from its echelons, chirped away.

— And then, thud, thud.

The door knock shook the air, breaking the silence.

“Oiii, Ai, are you awake~?”

It was Alice.

“…Looks like she’s still sleeping. Dee, check her out for me.”

“Sure~~…hmm…”

Just as these words were said, a head popped out near the door handle. She had black hair that reached her shoulders, and black eyes that showed her curiosity.

The ghost (Dee) looked around for a while, and then towards the bed.

“Yep, she’s still sleeping.”

“Goodness gracious.”

Ggggiiii. The door was opened with a shrieking creak, bringing in fresh air and sunlight. The two girls on the bed were like woodlice that were flipped over, snuggling further under the blankets while groaning without much enthusiasm.

“Stop sleeping and wake up already! ”

Alice stormed into the room, and pulled aside the windows and curtains. The two girls shared a blanket that was not big enough, and ended up having to endure this cruel act by clinging together.

“Oi! How long are you two going to sleep!? Time to wake up!!!!”

Alice grabbed the middle of the blanket, and the duo instinctively shriveled while tugging at that blanket.

“Oi Ai! Wake up! It’s morning!”

“…Nu?”

Ai was rolled over, and finally opened her sleepy eyes, blinking a few times.

“Nu your head. Are you awake now?”

“Unyu…”

Ai lazily reached her hands to the sky.

“??? Whatcha doing?”

“She wants you to pull her up?”

“…She can’t get up on her own?”

Good grief, Alice muttered and pulled her hands. Ai’s head tilted back like a very soft body, but she barely managed to sit by the side of the bed, somehow.

She then raised her hands up to the sky.

“??? Dee, what is this?”

“She wants you to get her changed?”

“…She can’t change her own clothes?”

Alice said as he—

“Are you kidding me, you idiot!?”

Dee started hitting at Alice’s black pupils.

“Ugyaakk!? Wh-what’s wrong with you!? Alright alright!!”

“I’m the one who should say that! You idiot! You actually wanted to change her clothes!? You pervert!!”

“Yo-You’re the one who said that! And nobody’s interested in seeing this brat naked…”

“This is for Ai!”

“Gyaaaa!!!”

Alice spotted a very creepy sight of someone else’s thumb growing out of his own eyes.

“And this one for Ai! And this! And this! And this too!”

“Woaarggh!? Gross, gross, gross, gross!”

Perhaps this ruckus finally reached the dream world.

“…Nyu…?”

For Ai finally woke up.

“…Ahhh…good morning, Mr. Alice ….”

“Get out of here, you pervert! From my body!!!”

“…What are you being so noisy about early in the morning?”

“Ah, good morning, Ai—”

“?”

Ai could only see Alice flailing about. And yet, she could hear Dee’s voice. Where was Dee hiding?

“Over here.”

“?……Hiii!”

That immediately shook her awake. The voice came from Alice’s mouth, and one could see Dee’s glittering eyes peeking out from there.

“Get out of here, you idiot!”

“Ah, Alice, you didn’t brush your back right tooth enough. There’s still plaque.”

“D-Don’t look! Don’t you look at such places~~!”

Guaahhh~~!! Alice cupped his head in his hands, and Dee finally crawled out of his belly.

“…Woah.”

It was a terrible scene, resembling that of a rotting marsupial.

“Anyway, good morning Ai. Do get dressed quickly.”

“Yes~”

“And next, prez…goodness me, she’s fallen so far… ”

“Mr. Alice, you can’t call her that. She’ll get angry.”

“Oops, that’s right.”

Ai reminded Alice, and then gazed at Tanya’s sleeping face. The latter’s expression was serene and gerene, and the ‘class rep’ look she used to have back in school was gone. Ai looked at her with endearment, and combed her bangs away from her.

Tanya said that after that day that she was willing to be a ‘good-for-nothing’. Not only did she end up oversleeping, she would argue with others, and learned to rely on others. At this point, she was snoring away, reaching her right hand out, “Chirp…chirp” seeking the hot bag that was missing.

Ai catches his hand and calls out to him.

“Miss Tanya.”

“…Nn?”

Wiping the corners of her eyes, Tanya woke up.

“Ah, good morning, Ai…”

“Yes, good morning.”

Pfft. The two of them exchanged morning greetings as they lay there laughing. Somehow, they were embarrassed and yet overjoyed. Recently, they were either waking each other up, or being woken up by the other.

Yes, this had been the case recently—

But that would end on this day.

“Ah…”

Ai remembered this fact, and glanced aside to look at the table. There was a neatly ironed white shirt there, along with the similarly well-kept Gravkeeper garb.

These were the travelling clothes she did not wear recently.

“…Ai, are you really going?…To search for Miss Scar?”

Tanya’s expression looked grim, and she gently hugged Ai gently from behind.

“You do not really need to, right? You don’t have to go look for her…”

“……”

“This place is fine, you know. We can live and spend time together. It’ll be fun.”

“Sounds like the devil’s tempting me…”

“Sure, why not?”

“Yes, it is. I’m sure it’ll be fun and happy for us, forever. ”

Despite her words, Ai unhooked her arm from Tanya, and retreated away. She landed with both arms outstretched, and turned her face behind.

“But I’m going to keep trying, just a little more.”

“Until you give up?”

“Until I give up.”

Yes, Tanya nodded her head slightly, took out a brush and patted the space next to her. Seeing this, Ai hopped over with all the energy of a puppy invited to stroll.

“Stretch your back.”

“Yes.”

“Turn over there.”

“Yes.”

Tanya slowly began to comb Ai’s hair.

The brush gently stroked her head. Each strand of hair was tugged at.

It was Ai’s favorite feeling.

“…You can come back anytime, you know.”

Tanya braided Ai’s hair into a finer bun. She turned Ai’s hair into a canvas, creating a hairstyle the latter could not do on her journey. Ai lowered her hair, remembering the feel of the brush pulling her hair back and the warmth of the hands swimming through, yes, and nodded.

The journey was about to begin again.

 

+

 

The gasoline filled the blue car, the bread and soup filled the human bellies, and the milk filled the baby, before the group boarded the car.

It was late in the morning, and the dew had already evaporated. The maintained engine let out the noises of an exhaust pipe. Julie was in the driver seat, in the middle were Celica and Alice, and Dee was camped on the roof, looking at the others who had remained behind.

Ai popped her head out from the passenger seat, and greeted the trio of the Swedgewood family.

“Goodbye everyone.”

“Yes…”

Tanya wiped her eyes with the apron, tugging at her parents by the side.

“Young Ai, our daughter has said that we are willing to let you stay forever…”

Tanya’s parents held up their daughter, as though wanting to make up for all the time they were separated from each other, showing concern for the group that was about to depart. The mature looking Zerady Swedgewood had a fine mustache, while Polka Swedgewood was a little overweight. Tanya’s parents were so kind and gentle, and it was because of those parents that Tanya herself was kind and gentle.

Ai beamed as she gently refused Zerady’s goodwill.

“Thank you uncle, but I have to go. I want to.”

“…Is that so?”

Zerady did not force the issue any further, and turned to Julie, who was at the driver’s seat.

“Young Julie.”

“Yes.”

“We’ll leave them to you.”

“…Yes.”

That reply caused Zerady to ask worriedly,

“Do take care of yourself too, you know?”

“…Yes”

Julie shriveled. While Ai felt that Julie looked adult-like, it seemed Zerady deemed him as still a child.

“Now then…”

Julie lifted the side brake, as though to escape from this predicament, and stepped on the pedal.

 

The car drove away.

“Ai!”

The cat moved away, and so did the sight of her friend. Tanya was crying ten meters away, and it was truly a heartbreaking sight. The friend that was by her side moments ago was twenty meters away. The next moment, they were thirty meters away. A warm landscape drifted away without question, giving rise to a sense of frustration that had her wondering if she committed something that was irreversible.

Her precious friend was crying in the distance. And yet, for some reason, she was not there. She knew that she should be there to comfort Tanya as her friend, she knew she should have wiped her tears away and told Tanya not to cry, she knew that she should not be the reason for Tanya’s tears

And yet,

Ai grabbed the window frame of the passenger seat.

And yet, Ai was going. She made her friend cry, she declined the offer from a kind person, and she was headed back to the wilderness.

The scent that had been missing over the past few days caused her nostrils to be parched, one of dry sunlight and sand.. The cold wind caresses the nape of her neck, overwhelming the warmth of the city and the house in an instant, causing Ai to no longer remember the smell of Tanya. The cold caused her to put on the cloak she had removed due to the heat, and her yearning sharpened her heart that had relaxed due to the gentleness afforded.

The feeling she first had awoke in her once again, the feeling she had when she swore an oath at the peak of that hill.

She was going to save the world.

“…Oooonne day!”

Ai cried out, her guts burned by her ‘helplessness’. Despite it being tragic, despite her causing sadness in her friend, her soul just could not stop, and she eked out the words of farewell from her soul.

“One day! I promise!”

I’ll see you again! She could not utter those words.

Ai did not have enough confidence in herself to make such a promise.

And yet, Tanya did not care about any of that.

“Yes! I’ll see you again!”

Tanya shouted.

So Ai had no choice but to shout back with a big smile on her face, but with tears streaming down her face.

“Yes!”

Even though they might never meet again, even though it might be a lie.

“Absolutely! I promise! We will meet again!”

Someday, they will be reunited.

Ai waved my hand strongly, completely emotional.

She could see Tanya respond similarly in the distance.

Ai kept watching, until Tanya blended into the landscape.

“Let’s go…”

She sat properly in the passenger seat and looked ahead.

“Let’s find Miss Scar first.”

And continue onward.

 

On Monday, God created the world.

On Tuesday, God distinguished the order and chaos.

On Wednesday, God honed the numerical values.

On Thursday, God allowed the Time to flow.

On Friday, God overlooked every corner of the world.

On Saturday, God rested.

And so, on Sunday, God abandoned the world.

 

15 years ago, God suddenly appeared before humanity, and told them.

“That world is overflowing with people. This world will come to an end. Ahh, I have failed.”

Leaving only these words behind, God vanished, and back then, while humans were lavishing hymns on this world of Spring, they were left quaking. Their species existed for less than a hundred million years before they finally met God. However, those first words from Him, were words of farewell.

 

From that day on, Man could no longer die.

 

Their hearts ceased to beat, their flesh rotting. The Dead could continue to act.

 

From that day on, Man could no longer be born.

 

The flames of the factories had extinguished, and new humans were no longer built.

After God no longer inhabited this world, humans screamed in agony. Millions shrieked to the point of vomiting blood. The Living quickly whittled down in numbers, and then the entire world was filled with the Dead.

And so, the gravekeepers appeared.

These gravekeepers were the final miracles that God had granted for the sake of Man.

Gravekeepers would never age, and never know fatigue. God gave them the most ideal of bodies humans could ever think of, had them build graves, and bury the wandering Dead, their work being ensuring the peace of the Living. At this point, Man could finally rest.

Children were no longer born, the Dead roamed, and the Gravekeepers ran.

Such were the End Times.

 

Part II

 

A week passed since they departed from Tanya’s house and went on their journey.

“……Should be soon, I guess?”

Julie, who was driving, looked back at the middle row and whispered.

“I guess.”

Ai replied from the middle row.

“Miss Celica is almost at her limit.”

“Understood.”

Julie slowed down once Ai said so.

At this moment, Ai was sitting in the middle row, watching Celica.

As stated, Celica was literally at her limit. Her cheeks were flushed and puffy, and her hands were flailing irritably as she patted the objects near her. She was a baby, but she was showing a childish gleam in her eyes.

Finally, her lips opened and “Waaaahhh!” she cried out,

“Mr Julie, stop!”

The blue car stopped in the wilderness.

And at the same time, Celica’s crying stopped immediately.

“0.3….”

Alice, who was in the passenger seat, looked at the sky with binoculars. Dee was the size of a bird, floating at where he was looking, arching forward as though measuring her height.

“How’s it going?”

“Calculating.”

Alice removed the binoculars off his eyelids and began to calculate the numbers that were read in his notebook.

At this moment, they were attempting to determine Scar’s current location.

 

It all started three weeks ago.

Immediately after escaping Gora Academy, the day Scar disappeared, Ai had planned to go look for Scar as soon as possible, but that was impossible.

First of all, they had no idea as to where Scar had gone, and furthermore, there were nine of them. It was difficult to move with so many people, so the group first decided to visit the city where Tanya’s parents lived.

Mr. and Mrs. Swedgewood lived in a large city at the intersection of the continental highways, and it seemed they had been looking for their daughter ever since they moved there.

One day, their wish was suddenly fulfilled in a completely unexpected way, for their daughter returned with eight other companions.

Ai and the others suddenly appeared, but the Swedgewoods gladly welcomed them, and even had them stay in the warehouse. The group spent their days cramped in there, kicking their feet away from each other. Tanya had her own room, but she spent most of her time in the warehouse “It is so cramped” complaining so.

Such days lasted for about a week, and ended.

First, Rune the mermaid and Gigi the winter frog found jobs in the city and moved out. They had to make special preparations to reach the ‘Underwater City’ and the ‘Mountains of Elha’: Gigi had to store fat to enter the frigid Elha, and Rune had to raise money and contacts to enter the closed city. Gigi had to save her fat to enter the frigid Elha, and Rune had to find the money and contacts to enter the closed city.

The couple of Hardy and Volrath also left soon afterwards. It was said that Volrath’s hometown, ‘The Corpse King and His People’, was a group with a special migration route, and they had to leave soon to catch up with them.

After her companions had all decided on where to go, Ai was the only one left. With Scar’s whereabouts unknown, time seemed to pass in vain.

Information was found from an unexpected source however.

Dee was the first one to notice.

“Huh? Does Celica like the northwest?”

Those words were the key.

 

“Are we there yet?”

“A little more.”

Scribble scribble scribble, Alice did his math in the passenger seat. Ai peeked over his back “Not yet?” “Not yet?” and continued to ask away. “Just sit down.” Alice retorted, and Ai finally sat down next to Celica.

“Does Celica like the northwest?”

Dee explained the meaning behind her words, that the baby would be happy whenever they moved northwest, and grumpy in any other direction.

Ai patted Celica’s forehead as the latter laid in the crib, teary.

“Sorry…it’s for the sake of finding your mother though.”

I don’t care, so Celica seemingly implied as she started hitting Ai

This Scar radar (Celica) would indicate the location of the target (Scar) through it’s ‘mood’. It would start from ‘delighted’ and end at ‘unhappy’. The further they got from Scar, the worse her mood was, and finally, she would bawl. The group used this to triangulate the direction and distance of Scar twice a day.

“…Not yet?”

“I told you we’re almost there.”

And then, after a little while more.

“Done.”

Ai and Julie brought their faces over the paper in Alice’s hand.

There were formulas and tables scribbled in messy handwriting, along with the answers.

“…Looks like there’s no doubt.”

Ai looked up from the paper and tilted her head.

“…Miss Scar hasn’t moved at all…”

It had been eight days since they started calculating Scar’s position, and she had been moving in a constant velocity, until the previous day, when she suddenly stopped.

This had never happened before.

“Well, it’s not like she’s not moving at all. Look at this number here.”

His fingertips that were stained in pencil lead tapped at the equally dirty paper.

“What’s this?”

“Vertical axis shift of the object with surface correction… Scar is probably moving up.”

“… Up?”

Julie took out a white map and unfolded it with a ruffling sound. Scar’s movement records were marked with red circles.

“…You mean this?”

He pointed at a certain spot on the map. There was a spot indicating a little settlement, and a name.

“World Tower.”

“What’s going on? Is there a tower?”

“No, it’s just a small village indicated on the map, and probably has such a name. Maybe it’s because there’s an abandoned tower as a landmark?”

“…That’s quite vague…”

Question marks appeared above the trio’s heads, and they racked their brains, but they just could not get an answer.

“…Well, we’ll find out when we get there. Looking at this distance, we’ll catch up to her tomorrow..”

“Tomorrow…”

It had been less than a month since they last met Scar, and while it seemed long, it also seemed short..

Ai herself had changed a little during that time.

One had to wonder if Scar had changed during that time. Or did she remain the same?

“Let’s go.”

Julie pulled the side brake, and stepped on the gas pedal and accelerated . The blue car hopped through the wilderness and returned to the road.

At the same time, Alice poked his head out of the passenger seat and shouted into the sky.

“Oiii~ Dee, that’s enough. Come back here.”

Dee, who had been asked to be the reference point, was standing straight above them, as though she was having her height measured.

“——”

It seemed she did not hear Alice, who then waved his hand in the air. She finally noticed, and floated down towards the car with her feet towards the ground.

“—!—!”

“Eh~? What~?”

Dee cupped her hands over her ears and said.

“Eh~? What~?”

“I can’t hear you! ”

The distance closed in an instant

“I can see your panties!”

“No looking!!”

Dee hurriedly clutched the hem of her skirt, flipped over, and stomped at him with her heels.

“You’re disgusting! You’re the worst!”

She continued with her signature rapid attacks on the eyeballs.

“Hahaha, those attacks don’t work anymore! Hahahahaha!”

It won’t look creepy if you don’t look, right? After Ai taught Alice, Alice was completely invincible.

“Hahahahaha! It’s not creepy, it’s not creepy!”

After looking down at Alice, Dee snapped her fingers.

“Ai.”

“Yes.”

Ai then smacked Alice on the back of the head.

“Ouch! What the hell are you doing? It’s none of your business anyway!”

“It does. We’re friends.”

Right? The two girls nodded to each other.

Alice rubbed his head and complained.

“Dammit, you two are in cahoots. Aren’t you two being too close?”

“Of course we are. We’re friends.”

Right?

“I can’t stand you two,” Alice said, looking forward. The wise Julie never joined the conversation from the beginning.

“So, Miss Dee, did you see anything?”

Ai tried to ask for a report, but Dee then frowned.

“Ai, I won’t answer your ‘question’, because you are an ‘enemy’.”

“Uuu…”

The mood between them became heavy.

“………You two are on poor terms, oi..”

Alice retorted.

Dee Ensy Stratmitos, Witch of the West. A ghost.

She yearned to end the world, and was at odds with Ai’s dreams. Just days ago, she had declared that “You and I are enemies.”

There was an awkward atmosphere in the car.

“If you’re enemies, why are you tagging along…”

Julie muttered to himself. Obviously, it was no wonder that Julie was not too fond of this suspicious pair. Usually, he would have wished to dump them aside, and he did say so outright, but this ghost was truly an enigma, and it was impossible to shoo her.

“Nobody asked you to stay. Why don’t you go somewhere else?”

Don’t wanna, Dee replied frivolously, and flew off to join Celica.  The ghost had been fond of the baby recently.

Seeing that, Julie rubbed his eyebrows hard. Alice patted him on the shoulder with a sympathetic motion.

“Look, old man…you should give up on trying to talk that idiot through. I’ve given up at least. Your chiseled face is going to wrinkle even harder…”

“……Why are you acting like it got nothing to do with you? You’re reason number two.”

“Eh? Me too?”

“What the hell are you planning, tagging along with us? What do you want?”

“No, there’s nothing really. If I have to say, tagging along is my objective…eh? Wait a minute, old man. You’re trying to group me with that idiot ghost in the same category?”

“Still trying to play dumb…!”

“No! I’m not compromising on this! ”

“Both of you, please stop.”

Ai let out a sigh and declared firmly.

“Mr Julie, I was the one who allowed Mr Alice and Miss Dee to come along.”

“…Tch…You’re going to suffer one day…goodness me, you’re letting such shady people tag along…”

Hmph, Julie snorted in annoyance, but said nothing more and went back to driving.

“…So? Dee. Did you see anything?”

Alice asked on Ai’s behalf, while Dee did a real ‘peek-a-boo’.

“Nothing.”

“Are you sure? I’m not letting you bullshit me like the last time. You sure you didn’t see any quicksand or willful people?”

“No, no—ah, but, now that you mention this.”

She turned around with an annoyed look.

“There’s some weird terrain up ahead.”

“Weird?”

“I’m not answering Ai’s question?”

Ai fell silent, dejected. Dee’s face became a little pained as well once she saw this. Alice in turn gave a frustrated look as he asked in Ai’s stead,

“What do you mean, weird?”

“Well, you know, the ground’s full of potholes…”

Potholes? A question mark appeared above everyone’s head. She said it was full of potholes, but there was no place in the wilderness where that was not the case.

“I don’t mean that…ah, we can see it now, more or less.”

Everyone looked forward.

There was a strange landscape there.

There was dry land, rocks eroded under winds and temperature differences  that almost returned to being sand. There were shrubs with hard trunks and leaves growing atop them. Everything was normal till this point.

But the ground was abnormal. The land formed by rocks and sand…

Had many perfectly hemispheric potholes all over oit.

“…The Gravekeepers’ birthplace…”

Alice muttered in an absent-minded voice.

“It’s my first time seeing it…”

The hemispheres made of either rock or sand were gouged out cleanly, leaving gaping holes. It seemed like they were dug specifically to avoid living creatures, and did not harm the little bit of greenery at all.

 

That was when Ai saw the moment a Gravekeeper was born.

 

It was silent. The air seemingly stood still, and the sounds had disappeared to a point where it seemed the heartbeat stopped too. All tremors vanished from this space, and the world became silent as if it was filled with vacuum.

The scent of the air changed, and the scent of water, which should not exist, instantly engulfed the wilderness as though a mirage arose. The dry wind became humid and sticky, clinging to their foreheads.

And then, the sky grew bluer. The blue sky intensified in color, as if the bottom had fallen out, becoming blue like the deep sea, and a phantom ocean appeared there.

Suddenly, lightning struck.

The lightning seemingly scaled up the deep blue bottom, and descended with a deceptive sense of distance, striking the sand at the speed of light.

It was unusually silent.

The white thunderbolt did not burn or destroy anything, but struck the earth just large enough for a single person, and let out a rumbling sound. The lightning hovered like mercury and eventually began to blend with the sand beneath. The glowing mercury diminished in intensity with each passing moment, changing color and energy  into something more humble in place of it.

That object initially resembled a wax doll.

The wax doll looked solid, and no matter how much it resembled a person, Ai could not imagine that it would be able to move.

It did not seem like a living thing.

However, the doll stood up, not caring that it had not been in this world until a moment ago. Steam rose from its hair and clothes, it moved its limbs as if to check its bodily functions, and finally opened its eyes.

Their eyes met.

It was only then that Ai realized that Gravekeeper was in the form of a boy.

The Gravekeeper smiled at her for the first time in his life,

 

Hello there.

 

 

No one responded.

The boy did not seem particularly offended. He picked up the shovel that lay at his feet, bowed, and walked away.

The boy was born with clothes, a shovel, and the Dead that were waiting for him to be buried. To Ai, he appeared exceptionally complete.

The Gravekeeper left. Slowly but surely.

Then, with a flop, the first raindrop landed on the hood. They looked up, and before they knew it, the rain clouds were rolling in.

And after that, it was a downpour.

The parked car remained still, as though it had sunk to the bottom of the sea.

It was said that when it rains whenever a Gravekeeper is born…Julie muttered while the rain could be heard. It was most likely Julie, or if not, Alice. Delving over such unimportant matters, Ai looked at the rain. She stared at the downpour that acted as though it was trying to be coherent with the lightning that had landed.

The rain poured down on everything, swallowing up the figure of the Gravekeeper and the sandy ground where he was born, leaving nothing behind.

 

Then, suddenly, the rain stopped.

 

“Oi, you’re kidding…”

Someone muttered.

The sky was blue, pale blue, azure, and blue again, and the air was as clear as a vacuum.

Then it turned pure white.

A roar struck the earth in the form of lightning, and their hearing complemented the loud noise that should have been present, delivering a cranial-splitting bombardment to their cochleas.

But the reality was a thin, chilling silence.

The white skies devolved into ten thousand thunderbolts that scattered across in the wilderness, becoming mercury. There the mercury mingled with the ground beneath their feet,

Ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru, ruru ruru.

There were rumbles.

And they stood up.

None of the wax dolls were defective, they all wore the same clothes, wielded the same shovel, had the same face, and gave the same smiling expression.

 

“Hello there.”

 

Julie stepped on the gas pedal without saying a word.

“W-What the hell is this?”

Alice shouted. No one answered his question, for everyone was stiffened by near panic. Ai remained rooted as she saw the Gravekeepers pass behind her.

A hundred faces tilted their heads quizzically at the escaping Living, and took their first step.

Towards them.

Heading in the direction where Scar was supposed to be.

 

Part III

 

“Ah.”

Ai let out a little cry.

“Another one.”

There was a silhouette to the right side of the road, in front of them. This silhouette was of medium height and size, a black-haired boy carrying a shovel over his left shoulder.

It was a Gravekeeper.

The car slowed down just a bit and drove next to the Gravekeeper. For a moment, Ai faced the Gravekeeper at a distance of three meters, and they went their separate ways the next moment.

The Gravekeeper that was increasingly distanced looked at her and waved his right hand in a friendly manner.

Ai was in no mood to wave back, and merely looked at him for just a while. She then closed the window of the passenger seat and sat back without further ado.

The Gravekeeper had blue eyes.

And he had his usual smile.

And—

“The same face…”

Ai hugged one knee in an uncouth manner and thought.

Earlier, the group fled as fast as they could, but on second thought, there was no way the Gravekeepers would ever harm the Living. It was a waste of gasoline when Julie reacted by slamming the pedal, but Ai was in no mood to blame him for that…after all, it would be a natural reaction for a human. The sight was as revolting as seeing a swarm of overwintering ladybugs, how hundreds of crabs swarming around dead river fish…

Such objects looked very normal in isolated cases, pretty even, but in crowds, there was a fundamental fear.

“What’s there beyond this…?”

Ai asked a rhetorical question. The answer was obvious. There was only one thing the Gravekeepers would be headed for.

The Dead.

Ai stared ahead. What lay ahead was an ordinary wilderness that showed no change, and there was no sign of anything.

However, surely there was something mysterious ahead.

“Found it.”

Alice said. Ai did not know what the former was talking about, and turned around to see him flip the pages of a thick book. The book was so close, one could practically smell the ink, and there were countless mug shots on the pages.

“It’s probably this one—‘The Bazel Family’, circulation, directive, low chances of berserking…they aren’t a major family, huh?”

“W-What are you talking about?”

Alice did not explain as he tossed the book at Ai, who flipped it over and looked at the cover. Written on it was, ‘Gravekeeper Compendium – 48th Edition’.

She then flipped back to the original page, and saw a beaming boy in the photo.

It was the same face of the hundred Gravekeepers they had seen in the wilderness.

She was stunned.

She continued reading, and found a checklist of height, age, skin, hair color and other characteristics. Their movements were ‘circular’, and their burial directive was to ‘prioritize those in close proximity’.

Ai kept flipping through the pages.

“…What is this?”

“As you can see, it’s a Gravekeeper catalog.”

“So there’s such a thing?”

Ai was surprised and glared at Julie for hiding such a thing. The middle-aged man turned his head in the opposite direction, “Ah, it’s the 48th edition already?” playing dumb. Ai swore to herself that vengeance would be hers in a boring manner, and then looked back at the book.

“There are so many Gravekeepers here….”

“But most of them are basically the last generation of families that have only been confirmed once.”

“? What do you mean?”

“You’re asking me that…eh? You’re a Gravekeeper and you don’t know that?”

“…Not really, actually.”

“Hmm. I guess so.”

Alice found it incredulous, but he reached out for the book in Ai’s hand, deftly skipped past the first half of the book that was filled with the preface and explanations, the aged pages giving off a scent of cheap ink. He then opened the chapter with the data.

“Ever since the mysterious beings known as Gravekeepers suddenly appeared, humanity naturally wanted to research them. And then, well, there have been a number of discoveries.”

He tapped on a row of Gravekeeper photos.

“One of them is the Gravekeeper taxonomy. For some reason, they are mainly classified as ‘same face’ and ‘different face’.”

Ai thought back to the Gravekeepers she had met so far. She, Scar, and the boy they met were ‘different faces’, while the hundreds of teenagers were ‘same faces’.

“The researchers lumped all of them together and gave them names. In other words, ‘family names’.”

Alice’s hand reached up and flipped through the catalog, before reaching the page of the boy they had seen earlier in the wilderness. Written on the page was ‘Bazel Family’.

“Of course, the Gravekeepers didn’t call themselves that. The researchers just  named them so out of convenience. My guess is that they’re either discovered at Bazel, or there was a person called Bazel who found them, so that’s how they’re named.”

Ai was barely listening. While the conversation continued, she noticed two things and began to furiously flip through the catalog.

One was easy to find.

Silver hair, white skin, and a beautiful right eyebrow without a scar.

“The Heartstone family.”

The mug shot showed her, but it was not her. The familiar, unblemished face seemed amiss, and Ai did not feel any familiarity at all.

She flipped the page, and the next page introduced a different Gravekeeper, so she returned to the previous one. The section involving this girl took up half a page—and only half of that.

At that moment, Ai felt a little weird.

“Circulation: random direction, chances of berserking= low, confirmed population= tens. ” Ai read the checklist that she did not really understand, and did not really pay heed to. No matter how many times she read it, it kept slipping away and just would not stay in her memory.

“The 48th edition has Scar? Now this is troublesome…”

“Oh, so this is Scar? —well, it’s the latest edition, and she’s from a minor family, so I don’t think many people know about her.”

While the two men discussed, their conversation did not enter Ai’s mind either.

She stared at the cover intently.

Then Ai suddenly realized that there was no smile on the Gravekeeper’s.

There was no such no such thing as a Gravekeeper who did not smile.

In other words.

This photo was taken after she died—or perhaps after she was killed.

She continued to flip through the pages, and found that most of them did not have smiling faces.

A chill ran down her spine.

A chill ran from beneath her feet, up to her thighs, and then to her heart. She did not think that Julie, Alice, or anyone else would feel this kind of fear. It was a fear only she knew of.

No one else would feel terrified seeing an illustrated book of insect specimens. No one else would feel fear, much less empathy.

But Ai felt it. She could not help but project herself onto these Gravekeepers after she saw they were killed and annotated like insects.

For some reason, Ai pretended to be absorbed in the catalog, trying not to let anyone know about it. She was afraid that Alice and Julie would find out about the fear she felt.

She continued her search for something else she noticed.

She flipped through the catalog of dead Gravekeepers, sought the search items, and defined the characteristics. Her own characteristics. Hair color, skin color, and gender—she started looking through them. Not this, not this, not this either..

“If it’s your family, they’re not here.”

Alice said.

“…I told you there are lots of families that are only seen once, right? Most of such Gravekepers are born, and just disappear without anyone knowing…”

This was what Alice meant by family. Ai heard him loud and clear, but she could not resist the urge to check it out for herself.

She flipped through the pages.

Eventually, she arrived at the last page, and the search was over. As Alice had said, Ai and her mother’s family were not there.

Not at all.

Ai slumped back down into the seat with a thud. Her body just could not move as her heart willed it to be. The strange feeling of finding Scar’s family and not finding her own slowly shook her body.

Why? She wondered to herself as she stared at the opened pages laid on her stomach. Why did she feel this way? Why did she have to feel this way?

Silence reigned in the car.

Julie, Alice, Dee, and Celica too were all silent, not disturbing Ai’s silence.

Outside the car, the weather was as dry as ever; the unusual rain caused by the Gravekeeper had vanished like an illusion.

“…It’s not a good photo.”

Dee said, as thought she had enough of the heavy atmosphere. The weight of the air was something this ghost was extremely sensitive to, for it was her field. She looked towards the monochrome pages, and saw the photo of Scar that was not Scar.

Ai automatically nodded away. This reaction left Dee’s expression increasingly bitter.

“Anyway…!”

She glared at Julie in the driver’s seat.

“Why did Scar just disappear?”

“…I don’t know…”

Julie said with a grim look.

“Ehhh~~that’s irresponsible of you, Uncle. You were with her the whole time.”

“Yeah…so all the blame falls on me…”

“Ahh seriously! I’m not talking about that. I want you to explain clearly!”

Julie had accepted all blame for Scar’s abandonment of the baby, and was willing to be reproached. However, he was using it to conceal the details of what had happened, and was unwilling to reveal more. Dee wanted to expose this, Mfufu, so she teased him.

“What what, uncle? Seriously, what did you do? Did you knock her over?”

“Maybe I should have done that…”

“!?”

Dee, who said it, and Alice, who was listening in the background, both looked towards Julie once again in shock.

“T-that’s lewd of you! You’re lewd, Uncle! You already have me! You idiot! Idiot!”

“O-old man. I-I don’t know if I’m ready for the subtleties of adult men and women yet…well, you know…”

“What do you mean, knock her over?”

“Ahh goodness! Don’t revive only at such moments!”

Alice and Dee were screeching in the background, while Julie remained oblivious to them, lost in his own world.

“…Uncle, isn’t there a sign or something?”

“A sign…?”

Julie basically hugged the steering wheel as he gripped it.

“There’s a lot of such signs. After being away from Ai, Scar became more and more unsteady. Back then, she used hug Celica tightly, but she then ignored Celica, and she also lost a bit of weight…it felt like she’s a girI who had a teenage pregnancy, and didn’t know what to do…”

“If you knew that much…you should have followed up with her, old man. Aren’t you a grown man?”

“Yeah, you’re right. I should have helped her out. And I probably could have…but I failed to do so…”

I’m not so sure about that, Ai thought absentmindedly.

Julie said that he could have done something to get Scar to relax, and should have, but he carelessly neglected to do so. That was what he claimed.

That’s a lie, Ai thought. It was not that he did not do it, but that he could not.

Scar, carrying Celica about, was increasingly mentally stable with each passing day..

But what about Julie? So Ai wondered. Was Julie mentally stable to begin with?

How could he remain calm when surrounded by a young girl who just had a baby?

Julie had lost his wife seven years ago. Back then, the societal norm was that ‘the Dead should just die’, but Julie refused to accept this, and wandered in the wilderness with his dead wife and remaining daughter. In the end, he lived in seclusion, hiding in the mountains. There was no way his wife could have received any postorterm treatment, and became increasingly ‘selfish’. Initial, her wish was basically ‘I’m fine with being buried, you two should return to the city’, and her soul slowly rotted, until she could only make noises like ‘kyarararara’ or ‘urererere’.””

Was Julie truly stable? Could he really remain mentally stable by living in the mountains, hiding with a woman whose spirit was gradually weakening?

On top of that, the woman had a baby. A newborn baby.

At this point, Julie was thirty two years old, the same age as Hampnie. His daughter, who died last year, was fifteen. In other words, he became a parent when he was also sixteen or seven years old. It was said his wife was also a classmate of his, and their marriage was not completely out of their own volition. Ai knew about it. She heard about this from Hampnie Hambart, who told her this amongst many others on that last night, on the hill under the full moon.

So Ai never imagined that someone like Julie could have been stable, living hidden in the mountains with a young girl who had just had a cute baby.

I should be able to do it, Julie’s insistence looked so gaudy to Ai. He claimed he could do it even though he could not. He was just like a child.

“…Well, don’t be so hard on yourself. Old man.”

“Yeah….”

Alice consoled Julie, who went silent. Ai could not say anything as she herself was too depressed to chime in.

The mood in the car hung so heavy that it felt like a solid matter, and no one could move.

“…Uuu, it shouldn’t have ended up like this.”

The ghost seemingly drowned in the air. She fell onto the chair and slumped down. Celica looked at it curiously and cackled in amusement.

The only thing that remained healthy was this baby.

 

Part IV

 

The sun was setting, and the group began to pitch their night camp.

“Ai, it’s getting dark! Come back!”

A huge, strange rock suddenly appeared in the wilderness, like a landmark.

Ai climbed to the top of it and watched the sun set. To the west was a sea of wilderness, and behind her was a shadow that was elongated, causing the night to make an early appearance on the red earth.

“Ai? Uncle’s calling.”

Dee, the only one who accompanied her to such a high place, called out with concern.

“Ai?”

“……”

“Ah! Wait!”

With a huff, Ai suddenly jumped off the ledge as if to throw herself down. She landed one level below, ran down the slope of another two levels, plop! And landed onto the ground again.

“…………What’s up?”

Julie asked, letting out a sigh instead of grumbling.

“Nothing.”

Ai muttered to herself.

“Really, it’s nothing.”

“……”

The big man looked at Dee, what’s going on? The ghost shook her head, who knows?

Ai sat down in front of the fire and raised her hands towards it. It was the midst of spring, but dusk remained a little chilly at dusk. The flames burning in the red light seemed strangely surreal, and did not seem very hot, to the point where she felt she should be fine if she grabbed it.

“Don’t.”

Alice was seated opposite Ai as he said. One had to wonder what insight he had to realize something was amiss. Ai looked at him for a moment and then replied honestly, Yes.

Julie stoked the firewood in silence, and the three of them fell silent, as though blending in with the wilderness around them.

Soon, the cans were spouting steam. Julie brewed some tea, and filled everyone’s cup.

Julie had been working on the car, Alice had been making the fire, and Ai had been slacking off. This was the break everyone had after they were done.

Nobody said anything. Only the tea dwindled.

“The air is…heavy.”

Dee drifted around looking like a deep-sea fish that had been washed ashore. Unlike her usually flighty movements, she was moving as heavily as a cumulonimbus cloud.

However, no one retorted. Dee had no choice but to start cleaning up her own mess.

“…Hey, Ai, are you that concerned about Gravekeepers?”

The topic that the two men had cautiously avoided, the ghost simply said.

Ai, immersed in a sea of thoughts, just looked up and answered flatly, “Not really.”

Dee was not pleased with that answer. If it was not that dire, why did Dee have to mention that the mood was heavy? Dee was not going to let this slide, depending on the answer.

“I’m thinking about Miss Scar.”

Ai said.

“I was thinking about Miss Scar, and why she left Miss Celica behind.”

“…There’s no way you’d know why. Who knows what a Gravekeeper is thinking.”

“Not really.”

“Eh?”

The three of them looked up in confusion.

“I’m sure Miss Scar wants to become a Gravekeeper… just like I used to be. …”

Scar disappeared because she wanted to return to being a Gravekeeper again. This reasoning was almost absolute in Ai’s mind.

Scar had been uncomfortable with herself ever since she obtained Celica. She was worried about her changed mind and body.

Ai remembered her old self. When she was in the village, she had to insist every second “I’m a Gravekeeper”, lest she be suffocated. Her old self was such that she wanted to be a Gravekeeper so badly.

Scar was just the opposite; she loved Celica and was soothed by the weight in her arms, but there were times when she would look at the baby with fear in her eyes, with bewilderment, towards the being that had inexplicably changed her.

Perhaps it was a matter of time. So Ai thought to herself. Just like how her village was destroyed. It was a matter of time until Scar’s emotions would be split into two. No matter how well Julie did, no matter how much she loved her baby, Scar would have exploded like this someday.

Just like Ai did at that moment.

Ai gazed out into the wilderness, and imagined the sight of Scar who was ahead of them. She thought of the group of Gravekeepers with identical faces carrying shovels. Among them, Scar was alone, with a worried look on her face. She was concerned about the wound she had on her right eyebrow, which nobody else had, and doubted if she was a fake.

Just like Ai did at that moment.

“…………………”

Ai eventually fell silent again, and reverted back to staring at the flickering fire.

“…I don’t understand you at all…”

Since Ai was unwilling to talk, Dee said with a pouting look on her face.

“This is stupid….”

She gestured a kick at a stone in the air.

“Say, Ai.”

“Yes? …Is there anything else…?”

“Let’s have a chat.”

“We have something to discuss?”

“Not discuss. Chat. Chat.”

“? What’s the difference?”

It’s completely different! Dee raised her index finger like a teacher and clicked her tongue profusely.

“Why why, isn’t this Miss Ai? Can I sit next to you?”

“H-huh. Thank you Miss Dee… What’s with the little skit?”

Dee, in a gentlemanly motion, swooped down, sat on the stone,

“It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?”

“It’s almost night…”

“Non, non, non.”

Dee waved her finger in front of her and clicked her tongue repeatedly.

“Ai, this is a ‘chat’. No serious retorts allowed. Don’t worry about whether this conversation makes sense, or whether it’s right or wrong. Even if it’s raining, you have to say ‘I guess so’, or elseIf you can’t say ‘yes’ even when it’s raining, you won’t survive, will you?”

“I-Isn’t that strict?”

“It’s fun once you get used to it—It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?”

“You’re asking again!?”

“It’s a, beautiful day, isn’t it?”

“So-so demanding…yeah, it is. Nice weather…to the point where Gravekeepers are raining.”

“No no no. No need for sarcasm or anything.”

“Th-This is tough…”

The futile conversation continued for a while. It seemed Dee was completely enthused about chatting, her questions and answers were all inappropriate. Ai, who was serious by nature, answered earnestly at every single turn, but every single line was nitpicked. It was thanks to the conversation that the mood eased slightly. Dee got increasingly enthused, and began to drag Alice and Julie in. It was then that Ai first learned that Alice and Julie had the same favorite food. Hamburger.

It was during this time.

“When’s your birthday, Ai?”

Dee asked.

“Birthday?”

“Yes.”

“Not yet. It’s in the summer.”

“Oh, really…………………………………”

Dee became very quiet.

“Ah—erm, when’s your birthday, Miss Dee?”

“Me? It’s New Year’s for me. Exactly that day.”

“Woah! That’s nice.”

“It’s not nice at all. Everyone celebrates everything at once. I’ve never had a proper birthday party.”

“I see. Well, that’s definitely annoying…”

“Isn’t it? That’s what I envy Alice for. It’s nice how he doesn’t have anything near his birthday. But because of this, I always…almost…forget…”

Midway through, Dee’s face gradually turned pale, and then eerily white. “?” Ai wondered what was going on, but followed Dee’s lead and directed the topic to Alice..

“When is your birthday, Mr. Alice?”

“Me?”

“Yes.”

“Yesterday.”

“Yes?”

Ai’s mouth dropped open, I must have misheard something, so she thought.

“Eh?”

“I said, yesterday.”

Snap, the sound of the firewood snapping could be heard.

“Huh?”

The sun had set.

Night had come.

“Huuuhhh~~~~~~~~~~~~!?”

And Ai exploded.

“Eh? Wait, eh? What’s that about!? I never heard about that. I! Never! Heard! Anything! About! That!!!!”

That~~~That~~~That~~~…the word echoed through the wilderness.

“W-why!? Why didn’t you say anything?”

“Well, nobody asked.”

“Ababababababa.”

“Miss Dee!”

Abababababa. Ai glared at Dee who was on a random spiel. It seemed the latter had forgotten about it.

“But still! You should at least hint a little!”

“Who cares about that anyway?”

Alice gulped down the rest of his tea in disgust and stood up.

“Old man. Is there some work to be done? I’ll help out.”

“Please wait! I’m not done with you yet!”

“We’re already done.”

Alice waved off Ai’s hand that was tugging at his hem.

“I said it’s fine. What’s the problem?”

“B-but it’s your birthday, right?”

“So?”

“Shouldn’t you be like, Happy Birthday? It’s an important annual festival, you know?”

“Maybe, but who got the time for that?”

Alice said it rather brazenly, with no offense intended to anyone in particular.

“I don’t really care about my birthday. I mean, I’d have forgotten about it if I hadn’t been asked.”

“What did you say?”

The shock erupted through her head. Back when she was in the village, Ai would casually mention this a month before her birthday, to the point where others would even say, That’s annoying!

“Ahhh~! Dammit~! Just shut up!”

Alice finally snapped back, as though in defiance.

“You know, it’s not that I don’t want others to celebrate it for me, too! I want presents! I want cake! But now’s not the time for that!”

Alice waved his arm and pointed at the wilderness. Celica was there, looking for her mother, and Scar was beyond there. The car was always running low on food, and they had nothing to waste on.

“I’m going to save the world!”

Alice declared, his eyes reflecting the flames of the bonfire.

“I’ll do whatever it takes to do that.

……What’s my birthday got to do with it?”

Muttering, Alice checked the gun on his hip and ventured into the wilderness. It seemed he assumed that if he had nothing to do, he should at least go hunting.

Ai grabbed the hem of the departing school uniform.

“Let go.”

” …No.”

“Let me go.”

“Don’t wanna….”

Alice crudely shook off Ai’s hand, who stumbled for a moment, took a step back, and then,

“……… Oi.”

She clung to Alice’s back.

“You can’t…Mr Alice…, you can’t do that.”

“Ah?”

“You can’t cut that kind of thing off. …

Ai knew. She knew of someone who became a shockingly sharp blade by disposing of all these vague things one after another. Cursed with an immortal body, the only dream he pursued was death. She knew that Hampnie Hambart admired the will of monsters…and tried to become one.

Alice’s current attitude was exactly like him. It was the attitude of a monster who would discard everything for his own ends. It was the attitude of a monster.

“You can’t do that. You can’t just discard them…let’s celebrate your birthday together.”

Ai hugged the black school uniform tightly, and the already tattered clothes were like the skin or an unknown beast. Her tears wetted it, and she hoped those words would turn the monster back into a person, just like in the fairy tales.

“How old are you, Mr. Alice?”

“…Six…teen.”

“I see. Mr Alice, it’s your sixteenth birthday. Congratulations.”

“………”

Ai whispered her congratulations word to Alice’s back and moved away.

Alice did not run away anymore.

“Please let us celebrate with you. We shall bake a cake, arrange candles, and celebrate your sixteenth birthday.”

Ai went before Alice, whose face was obscured by his bangs, unable to be seen. Ai did not mind however, and beamed at him,

“Okay?”

“……”

He did not reply, but he did not refuse either. Ai’s face lit up.

“Mr. Julie!”

“Hmm?”

“Can you make a cake?”

“Of course..”

Julie gave a wry smile as he took out flour from the food bag,

“The eggs and vegetables are about to expire. Let’s have a feast today.”

“I-I’ll help too!!”

Dee was teary-eyed for some strange reason as she flailed about, as if to say, I can’t remain like this.

“… Even so, you can’t touch any object, right?”

“But I want to help! Let me help!”

“Okay okay okay…babysit Celica for me, then.”

“Yes!”

Everyone was suddenly busy. Julie checked their groceries load, apupu, and Dee caused Celica to laugh with a serious face.

Ai tried to hurry over, and on her way, she took Alice’s hand, who was still in the darkness of the wilderness,

“Mr. Alice, come here.”

She sat him down on the birthday seat, the warmest part of the fire.

“Please wait a moment. We’ll be right back!”

“……”

“Hmm? What is it?”

Ai put her ear to Alice’s mouth. It seemed like his voice was quaking, and he was misty-eyed. But Ai pretended not to notice.

“Thanks…” Alice muttered quietly.

“Yes!” Ai replied.

 

+

 

The cake did not expand at all, and there was not much cream or decoration, which made it seem like a failure. In addition, the candles used were thick ones for emergency use, thirteen of them, burning on the cake. It did not look like food in any case.

There was meat, vegetables, and fish on the menu, but they were all on the verge of spoiling or dried out, and thus not particularly tasty.

Still, the evening was wonderful.

It was as good as any birthday party Ai had ever seen.

Alice was initially reluctant, but after seeing the dishes being served one after another, as well as Ai and Dee causing a ruckus while celebrating, his expression gradually softened.

Julie played the harmonica, which he rarely did, Dee showed off her crystal-clear voice, which she also rarely let people hear, Ai was frustrated that she was the only one who did not have such skill, so she sang loudly anyway. Celica appeared to enjoy such a joyous atmosphere as she fooled around while holding up the milk-filled bottle. Alice toasted his cup with Celica’s bottle, and finally sat down in front of the cake.

His face was smiling In the candlelight.

Then the candle went out.

Ai had a vision there. She saw her father, her mother, the villagers, and all the people she had met on her journey. Living, Dead.

Julie lit a lantern, and the vision disappeared, leaving only four people.

But that did not diminish anything.

Ai clapped her hands and congratulated Alice for the umpteenth time.

 

+

 

The party ended quickly.

The flames were extinguished, the dishes were wiped down with bread, the last bit of tea was downed, and the group went to bed at an almost normal time. It was Alice’s condition for holding the party.

Ai was wrapped up in a blanket next to Celica. She looks at the passenger seat, where Alice was, reclined to the max, looking east. He looked as though he was waiting for the sun.

(…It’s the same as yesterday…)

Ai thought.

(…I wonder if he was waiting for the sun last night as well? He’s anxious about the stillness of the night, waiting for the sun to show…just waiting along on his birthday …)

Ai looked at his sidelong face, and firmly believed her intuition was correct.

He was really just like her.

He truly was someone who wanted to save the world.

“…Mr Alice…”

“…Hm?”

She whispered to him.

“…Why do you want to end the world?”

“……”

Alice did not answer, and Ai stared at the passenger seat for some time, remaining in an uncomfortable position.

“…I can’t say right now …”

“…I understand…”

“…Sorry…”

“…it’s fine…”

Just hearing the words ‘for now’ was enough for her.

“… Good night….”

“………Goodnight.”

Ai buried her face into the blanket and did not wake up until morning.

They would finally catch up with Scar the next day.