Hellping

Part I

It was a town of mist.

“This is….”

They were on a hill just before entering the town, the group stopped the car and looked down. The mist surrounding the city was thick like rain clouds on the ground, and the car had its headlights switched on even though it was daytime.

That was the place where Scar was supposed to be.

“……Alice, look at the map. There’s a town here, right?”

“No, it’s not there.”Old man—is there a missing page, or did something happen after the map was made…”

“When was this map dated?”

“…Last year.”

“……”

Ai did not join the conversation, as she stared at the thick mist that was akin to a waterfall, where the stone buildings could be seen occasionally. The town was dark, even though it was just past noon, and the mist was as cold as the wind in a cemetery.

Pa pa! Julie honked the car horn briefly at the entrance to the town.

“……”

No one came out.

“…Hey Dee, why don’t you go and do some recon?”

Alice said as he checked the weapon at his waist. However, Dee grinned,

“Don’t wanna!”

“Huh? Why not?”

“It’s scary, it’s haunted!”

“…………Hey, listen here youyou rotten ghost …”

Alice shouted at Dee, but the ghost pretended to be deaf and refused to listen. Juliue never trusted them with this to begin with, and stepped on the pedal without question.

The car slowly entered the town at walking speed. The headlights drew a double circle in front of them, and the windows were slowly covered with frost. Ai stuck her forehead to the passenger window, and looked out at the streets.

“…Is there no one around.?”

“No…doesn’t look like it…”

Julie said as he pointed aside. On the other side of the street was a table with a chess board, which showed that a game was played.

Ai felt very relieved to find a sign of human presence.

“I think they just left for a little while..”

“Yeah.”

Once they noticed this, they then realized there were signs of many people everywhere. There was a truck with its doors open parked in front of a liquor store, road construction materials that looked like they had been ‘left there for a little while’, a peddler’s store with small items on display, a yellow wall that was ‘in the midst of being painted’, rather than being freshly painted.

But it so happened that there were no people.

There are so many traces of people in this place, but there were no people.

Ai’s precious peace of mind was quickly devoured and erased by the mist.

The car slowly inched forward.

“Is anyone there~~~~!!!”

“Ah! Hey!”

She shouted into the mist from the passenger window.

“Is anyone there~~~~~!!!???”

There was nary an echo.

“……”

Thud. The window was shut. Julie remained silent, to the point of forgetting to be angry.

“… Old man, move a little more to the right, please.”

“Did you find anything? ”

“Maybe.”

Following Alice’s instructions, the car pulled to the right of the road. There was a nice café terrace with a number of tables and chairs on the side of the road.

The car approached. One by one, the tables were exposed from the mist, and they could see what was on the tables.

There was a half-eaten sandwich and a cup full of tea.

“What is this …?”

A dry voice came out of Ai’s throat, as though it was not her own.

“…Where did the people here go…where did they disappear to, when they couldn’t spare the time to finish their meal…”

Nobody could answer the question.

 

+

 

“I know a story very similar to this…”

Ai began to talk as she looked out at the mist-filled streets.

“There was an empty ship that happened to arrive at a sea port. It felt as empty as this town, the tea’s freshly brewed, the shower is running, and yet there wasn’t anyone on board. It’s that kind of a a ship…the ship was attacked by a mysterious creature of the sea, and everyone got eaten by the monster before they knew it. That monster really gobbled them up quickly…”

Ai said, and started to be a little scared. Her whole body shuddered, and she firmly clutched the shovel with both hands.

But there was someone more scared than her.

“Stop talking about ghosts, Ai, it’s scary!”

No one bothered to retort at her.

Ai gazed at the streets that occasionally emerged from the flowing mist from time to time. The buildings continued to appear and disappear in a constant state of disarray, like a ruined city that has collapsed.

“Are there any ghosts…?”

“Why would there be?”

Julie said.

“Mmm, you don’t know that, do you?”

“Yeah, Uncle! What are you going to do if it’s the work of a ghost!? Woaahh, so scary…”

“How can there be any ghosts in this world…and aren’t you a phantom yourself? Like, you’re scared of ghosts, what!?”

“You don’t understand.”

Dee wagged her index finger and declared proudly.

“I’m not like the average person who doesn’t even know if there are ghosts! I know that they exist, so of course I should be more scared of them, okay?”

Ai could not help but be somewhat enlightened.

Julie, on the other hand, looked completely unconcerned.

“Yes yes my bad my bad, maybe there really are ghosts in this world…but at least the people in this town aren’t eaten by ghosts. They walked out on their own feet.”

His words were extraordinarily convincing, “?” for everyone else had puzzled looks.

“Don’t just look at the side, look at your feet more.”

Ai looked down and found her usual boots, a shovel with a hole, and a rubber step mat beneath them that was covered in mud. Ah, a stick of incense had fallen through the door. Lucky.

“I don’t mean that, I mean the ground.”

Julie grabbed the back of Ai’s head like a camera and shoved it out the window. While she was displeased with this, she decided to protest later on.

She observed the road, and there were plenty of footprints on the ground.

“They’re all panicking. They’re all at the same pace. They’re all headed in the same direction. I guess that’s where everyone disappeared to.”

Ai broke away from Julie’s right hand, “Hehhh” and after adjusting her straw hat, someone else blurted out the same remark in unison. She turned around to see Alice and Dee poking their heads out of the car window (and body) to take a closer look at the ground.

“You’re amazing, old man! It all looks the same to me.”

“That’s amazing! Uncle!”

The crowd showed their respect to Julie, but he stopped them with a look of annoyance,

“You’re right to think they’re all the same. After all, almost all the footprints on this road are left by them.”

“…Them?”

“Yeah. The people with the prettiest walking posture in the world……they’re just ahead …”

Julie slowed the car down even more, so slow that one could hear the tires pressing over the sand. The car traveled through the mist at a speed no different from that of a hike.

Nothing could be seen ahead, and the light from the headlights was absorbed by the mist without catching anything, forming two circular halos.

The halo on the right suddenly broke. Illuminated in the reflected light flashed was another halo.

The thing causing this reflection was a silver shovel that was carried on the shoulder.

“Yo, Gravekeepers.”

Julie rolled down the window and called out. The car went alongside Gravekeepers that was moving at walking speed.

“Hello there, Dear Living.”

That Gravekeeper was a middle-aged man, about Julie’s age. They exchanged greetings comfortably as if they were long-time friends.

“Excuse us for walking while chatting.”

“No, it’s fine. I don’t want to delay you any further.”

The car went along with the Gravekeepers in the mist.

“… Are you all, erm, well? Are you going to bury the dead?”

Julie asked in the midst of the mist. There were three other men with the same face as that Gravkeeper. It seemed there were a lot more men in the mist.

“Of course. Dear living.”

“…Are they nearby?”

“Yes. Almost there. Here. ”

“What?”

The Gravekeepers pointed forward in unison. The direction they pointed at…

“Mr Julie, stop!”

He pulled the emergency brake.

The car leaned forward and everyone was toppled forward. Ai barely managed to avoid hitting her forehead, Alice hastily covered the crib with his body to protect Celica, and Dee, who was following the car at an equal speed, had a dumbfounded look as she wove her way out.

The car made a chilling screech, and barely managed to stop.

A few inches beyond the windshield was a wall of stone.

“Sorry! Is everyone okay?”

“Y-yeah.”

“I-I’m fine, thanks!”

“Shit, I let my guard down. There wasn’t any wall on the other side, so I thought—hey! Ai!”

Ai opened the door of the passenger seat and hopped out. Julie was about to say something, but she slammed the door shut.

The smell of mist.

White vision.

And a stone wall before them.

She looked in three directions in order, right, left, and up. The white stones spread out like milk in these directions, and eventually blended into the mist and assimilated into the scenery.

Like the town, the full extent remained unknown.

“…What is this?”

The walls were made of stacked white stones. She touched it, and found that it was wet with mist and cool to the touch.

“The World Tower.”

Ai stared at the bearded face of the Gravekeeper next to her, and asked,

“—You know this place?”

“No, it’s written on it.”

She had a look, and over there,

“Welcome to the World Tower!”

These were the words written in white chalk.

And next to it was the entrance to the tower with a black opening.

“The World Tower…”

Ai looked away from the entrance and looked up, left, and right in the opposite direction.

“Is this the… tower?”

The wall was not round enough to be a tower, but was flat and endless like the surface of a planet.

+

 

The Gravekeepers simply disappeared into the hole, so long, leaving behind a greeting. There was no hesitation, no anxiety, just the will to move forward.

“…What do we do now?”

Julie asked. Ai stared at the dark hole in front of her. The hole was in the shape of an ascending staircase, and there was nothing to be seen beyond a few steps.

“It clearly looks suspicious…”

Dee floated lightly in the mist and looked up at the tower with a doubtful look.

“These Gravekeepers guys definitely got issues with their heads, going into such a strange place without thinking. What’s wrong with them? I guess these creatures definitely have problems with their heads, to split into this kind of inexplicable place, what in the end is going on? I think they probably don’t have the so-called imagination, right?”

“…I’m a Gravekeeper.”

Ah. Dee showed a startled face.

“Bu-but you’re different, Ai! You’re a little boarish sometimes, but aren’t you stopping now?”

“That’s the problem though…”

“Heh?”

Ai hesitated to enter the tower. The sudden appearance of something unfamiliar made her hesitate and stop in her tracks. It was a normal reaction for a normal human.

But a Gravekeeper would have kept going.

“……”

Ai gazed at the darkness of the entrance for a moment.

“Mr Julie.”

Then she turned around.

“How’s Miss Celica doing?”

“…As you can see.”

The big man got down, and Ai saw that the Scar sensor (Celica) was flailing her fists upwards.

“Then there’s noting to hesitate for.”

Ai decided.

“Let’s head up too.”

The two men had already made their preparations, and were waiting for her words. “Got it.” They answered.

“Here’s your stuff.”

Alice put Ai’s backpack at her feet, and she then checked her gear.

“Let’s go.”

Julie, who was also carrying luggage on his back, lit the candle stand. A cord hung from his chest. Within it was Celica, who was staring at the tower.

“Ehh~ Don’t do this. It’s creepy.”

Dee was the only one whining.

“Let’s go.”

Ai retied her shoes, put on her backpack, and spun the shovel around to carry it over her shoulder.

She then took the first step forward.

 

Part II

 

The carpeted staircase was as dark as night, and the light from the candle stand only repelled the darkness slightly. Ai stood at the edge of the light and carefully ascended the stairs, one by one. It was strangely warm. The mist disappeared, the excessive dampness disappeared, and the stone walls became a dull white. The occasional breeze blew in from outside occasionally, tingling the nape of her , causing a creeping sensation on the nape of her neck.

She soon saw a light ahead. Not that of the sun, but the orange glow of an indoor light.

She exited the stairs, and saw a street spread out before her.

“Wow…”

Ai could help but blurt out and put her hands over her eyelids. The exit of the stairs was a small hill and she could see the town below her.

The inside of the tower was like a cave, surrounded by walls on all sides. The constructs resembling buildings lined the walls and bordered the next. Thus, the main street and small streets all gave the atmosphere of back alleys. There were no windows. Instead, there were street lights everywhere, jijiji, chirping, and soft, circular lights that were cast in the darkness.

The place where Ai and the others exited was also surrounded by one of these lights.

“…Is there no one around after all?”

The town was quiet and silent, and no one answered the question.

“Let’s go.—first of all, let’s explore.”

“Ehh~ don’t do that~…”

With a complaining Dee in tow like a balloon, the group entered the town.

There were inns, stores, banks, and houses. They were like the ones in the town outside, and at first glance, the two places seemed interlinked.

And yet, Ai felt something strange. The inside and outside were made of the same materials and similar manner of construction, but the atmosphere was slightly different.

Julie explained the reason,

“The place doesn’t look alive.”

Ah. Ai blurted. Julie was right in that there was no scent of life around here. It was unlike the town outside the tower, there was no scent of life. There was no trash on the streets, and all the tools were neatly put away.

A brand-new town.

A clean town that had the impression of a sample.

The towns outside and inside were both empty, but they gave different impressions.

“If the outside is a Ghost Town, this would be a Necropolis.”

It seemed Alice felt that way.

Ai stopped and looked around. It was in the middle of a shopping street, with cafés and stalls on either side. Each shop was clean and new, giving a sense of contradiction, as though they were life-sized miniatures.

And still, there was no one around.

At this point, Ai gradually began to regain her composure. She had never been good at maintaining fear or caution for long. Her natural curiosity kicked in, and her nose started twitching.

The group remained wary while their eyes glittered, and amongst them was a child with a sparkling curiosity. While the group is checking out a flower bed and raising their eyebrows, saying, “These are artificial flowers…”, “What are these people thinking…?” and Ai thought to herself that the fruit was delicious, that they were hopeless to call them artificial. While checking out a store, she went to the cash register, found the owner’s mistake (he forgot to put change in the register!). ), and paused to make a little guts pose. There was even a mailbox along the way, “why not” and Ai thought to drop off the letter she had written to Ulla. Dee was the only one who saw her act with an annoying look, but she did not know how to retort in an entertaining manner “Ah, whatever” so she ignored them.

The group arrived at a fresh fruit and vegetable shop. It was supposed to have fresh fruit and vegetables, but instead, it was full of dried goods. The butcher’s shop too, only had smoked, dried meat, hard as a rock, and nothing that would have moulded over time. Ai felt the ‘human touch’ in the food and was very happy. She could feel the hard work faced by the makers, trying to conceal them but exposing everything else instead.

“It’s beally fun.”

“Ai, don’t talk with food in your mouth……wait, what are you eating? ”

Busted.

Despite two feints and a dash, Julie easily catches her and dangled her like a kitten.

“Ai, where did you get those cookies?”

“Eh? Erm, I-I forgot.”

“The bakery over there.”

“Miss Dee, you traitor!”

“Traitro?….No, I’m your enemy.”

Hohohhhh…Julie’s eyes glowed, and he slammed a fist onto Ai’s head.

“What are you doing!?”

“Y-You don’t have to worry about money. It says over there ‘please take whatever you want’.”

“That’s not the point! What if it’s poisoned?”

“Ehh~, that’s not possible.”

“…Like you know that’s true. The guys who created such a weird place…”

Julie remained as wary as ever while he lectured her, and Ai, swinging like a pendulum, found it odd.

“Not that I’m defending her, but—”

Alice walked over with a bag of cookies, just like Ai.

“Ah!”

“Hey, Alice!

“Yeah, they’re good—I don’t think this tower has any intention of harming anyone.”

“…How do you know that?”

“Because this tower is ‘peaceful’.”

Ai nodded away while being grabbed by Julie, “That’s right.”and nodded her head. It might be strange to call this empty town ‘peaceful’, but it was the closest description. The buildings were pretty, there were flowers in the flowerbeds, and sweets were sold. At the very least, this town was modeled after a peaceful one.

Ai did not think the people who created all this stuff would mix in something as ‘unnecessary’ as poison.

“…I’m asking why you assume this is the case.”

“Do you want some?” Ai handed over her bag of sweets. “Nope” and Julie refused her as he put her onto the ground again. It seemed he was furious as he led the way.

Celica, dangling from her chest, was completely disinterested in the town, and merely looked at the upper levels of the tower.

“…Let’s look for the stairs”

Julie said.

“We’re here to find Scar…this tower isn’t important to us..”

Ai did not think so, but did not voice her opinion, and silently began to walk forward.

Not long after that.

“This way to the second level!”

They found these words.

“……”

They found the guide they had hoped for, but everyone looked on grimly. The words indicating the second floor were written in white chalk, like a child’s prank. It was probably the same as the one at the entrance.

“…Well, let’s just go up there and have a look…it’s fine, right?”

Ai glanced behind. Julie was annoyed but did not object.

“Ehh~, let’s not. It might be haunted.”

Dee was the only one who still complained.

They advanced in the direction that said ‘this way!’, went through the alley, and found a shoe store. At the wall were words in chalk ‘that way!’, a right turn, and they kept walking. ‘this way!’ another five minutes. ‘That way!’ that way this way that way where is the second floor?

Ai started to have a bad feeling.

“… Say, Ai, is this …?”

“……I’m starting to get that feeling too…”

Then, after turning a number of corners, ‘Look up!’ they looked up, ‘Look to the right!’ they looked right, ‘Look to the left!’ they looked left.

‘Where are you looking at?’ These were the words written.

And there was also a doddle of the prankster cackling away.

Bam! Ai punched the wall…a few cracks appeared in the doodle.

“…You’ve got some nerve…”

A bit below that,

“Sorry, sorry. The real stairs are behind here.”

Ai ignored it. She raised her shovel again, and turned back.

“Ahh! Wait a minute, Ai, I’m serious!”

Alice, who had been checking just in case, called out. Still skeptical, Ai peeked up and saw that there was indeed a staircase leading up.

And the words ‘See, I wasn’t lying, right?’.

“……”

Ai was already beginning to feel annoyed with the one who drew the graffiti, and by extension, with the builders of this tower. However, she felt it would be what the prankster ‘wanted’, so she continued on her way without stopping.

The group I began to ascend the spiral staircase leading to the second floor.

As soon as they began to climb, they noticed it was not the only way to the second floor. The darkness of the first floor appeared between them, and there were countless staircases leading up. They varied in height and thickness and quality. Ai looked at the stairs they were taking. It was a simple staircase made of the same stone as the tower walls. They were quite steep, but they felt safe.

“Thanks for that.”

Except for the occasional graffiti.

She looked up at the second floor. The ceiling was kind of uneven, and each staircase entered into the second floor at a different height. It seemed there was no distinct clear hierarchical structure in this tower, and was grouped together by independent floors such as floor 2-A and floor 2-B..

Ai looks at the destination of their stairs.

Awaiting them at the end of the stairs was another doorless entrance.

 

+

 

They went through the entrance and into the land of snow.

“Eh? Sn-snow?”

There was a snowy village along with a forest.

“…Strange? It’s not cold. …”

Ai knelt down and grabbed the snow at her feet. The snow immediately peeled away, glittering in her hands like candy floss.

Nom.

“—Hm. Anyway, it feels like this snow is made of cotton. It’s not nice.”

“……Oi, why did you eat it?”

“It could have been candyfloss though?”

“No, it’s not, you idiot.”

It felt like New Year’s Eve in the village. All of the doors were decorated with cedar logs and congratulatory words. The windows and walls were no exception, and every place that could be decorated was decorated, making the houses look bigger than they were.

‘Third floor is through this house!(↓)’

One of the eaves of the houses had these words written in white chalk.

“……”.

Ai frowned at these words..

She looked at the white chalk, then at the arrow pointing to the house, and back at the chalk again.

“What do we do? To go or not to go? ”

“Don’t do it, Ai~! It takes courage to pull back~.”

“…Let’s go.”

Ai opened the door.

Inside the house was a party mood to celebrate the New Year. A whole roasted turkey, baked dried sweets, a very sweet cake covered with cream. Everything looked delicious, but alas, they were clay models. Too bad.

“…Seriously…don’t stuff anything into your mouth…”

They went upwards. This house was large, and had a second and third floor. Ai walked up the stairs, feeling uncomfortable as though she was intruding upon someone else’s home. Each step creaked away, and there was someone’s photo hanging on the wall. It was an imagery of summer when it was always winter in this village.

On the second floor was the children’s room, the third floor was the storage room and the workroom. And on the fourth floor—

There was a wooden staircase that should have led to the attic. Halfway up though, they were replaced by stone steps.

‘After this is the third floor!’

 

+

 

Night had arrived when they arrived at the third floor.

It must have been past 8pm, but the tower was dark inside, and there was nary any difference. The builders of the tower seemed to have noted this, for when the time came, all the lights on the ceiling went out and were replaced by street lamps to represent the night.

The third floor was a port town in August, with many bars and shops. The sea was actually filled with salt water, and there was actually fish raised in some places.

After watching the crisp ripples leave on the dark water, Ai stood up and looked behind.

There was the guide.

‘This way (↓), please!’

“What do we do? Do we keep going?”

Alice asked.

“No, let’s rest on this floor for today. I think we should look for a hotel after our trip up. Is that fine?”

“Yes.”

“Ehhh~! I don’t want to stay in a hotel here! What if it’s haunted?”

“Well, I’m sure there’s at least a ghost.”

“Hiii! D-don’t say such scary things, alice!!”

“….Remember what you call yourself….”

Ai ignored the foolish duo..

“Is this fine, Mr Julie?”

“……”

Julie showed a wry face, but he did not say anything. Seeing him in this state, Ai turned towards the town behind her.

“Is there a good hotel around here?”

She thought of returning to the main street, and turned around the corner of the harbor. And over there,

“”Here’s a hotel!”

While chatting as they turned the corner, they saw this graffiti.

“…. …. …. ….”

Everything stared at these words.

“What do you think?”

“You gotta be kidding…”.

“…It’s too suspicious.”

See? Dee proudly boasted. On the other hand, the remaining trio crouched down to look at the graffiti from different angles. There were some parts that were wiped by the finger, and after rubbing some words, the chalk on the fingers was scattered. These words were written in common white chalk.

“I guess a kid wrote them.”

Julie concluded.

“The pressure isn’t consistent, and the height of the letters is always low.”

“The handwriting is very round. It looks like a girl’s handwriting.”

Ai listened to their words and imagined the implication of those words. A girl had arrived earlier than them, heard their whisper, and was giggling away, having expected how troubled they were.

“……?”

Somehow, it felt like…?

“Ueehh~ what is this? No way, it’s disgusting~.”

“…Ah!”

“? What’s wrong, Ai?”

Ai pointed at Dee.

“This graffiti really resembles Miss Dee.”

One was a shape-shifting ghost, and the other is an unidentified graffiti. They were two very different phenomena, but they were remarkably similar in the way they appeared. They would appear out of nowhere, act as mysterious benefactors, and were equally trollish.

“Don’t be silly!”

Dee snapped.

“What’s that about? What part of me resembles this messy handwriting?”

“I didn’t say both are the same though? Anyway, the first person pronouns are different.”

“That’s the only difference!? No way! There’s more!”

Hiii~. Alice~ Uncle~ Dee faked her tears as she pleaded with the duo.

“We’re definitely different, right? I’m nowhere similar to this messy white handwriting that has little information, right?”

“Eh, now that she mentions it, I guess you two have a similar style. ”

“That’s true.”

“Don’t say it’s a style~~~~~~~!!”

Woarrrghh!!? Dee went crazy and kicked at the white chalk, but of course it had no effect.

After a brief bout of outrage, she wheezed for a while, and then finally turned around,

“Get this clear~! Even if I compare myself with this one! There’s no way we’re similar! That’s a second-rate ghost!”

“? What do you mean?”

“This guy! I mean, he’s leading us here for a reason, isn’t he? It’s such a poor method!!”

Ai did not understand why Dee was so upset, but Dee was further incensed by Ai’s attitude. Grr! She grabbed her head.

“I’m talking about the style of a ghost!”

Ai had no idea what was going on, and merely gave a vague smile. Seeing Ai like this, Dee, slumped her shoulders and said,

“…You know. I’ve done a lot of things in my life. I’ve whispered to a lot of people just to end the world…”

Ai reeled over and listened to Dee intently. It was Dee’s ‘ghost’ story, something that would be impossible to ask, usually.

“But you know what? Even if you tell the truth, it doesn’t work the way you want it to. People will only believe what they want to believe. They don’t believe what the truth really is.”

“…I get that.”

Ai nodded. People would blindly believe in a lie and doubt the truth. She knew exactly what what Dee meant.

“Isn’t it!”

But Ai had no idea where this conversation was going.

“That’s why I really put in lots of effort to think! Before I tell other people the news, I’ll simulate it over and over again! I’ll find a way to figure out the most appropriate words! If I want a certain person to ‘come here!’, I can’t just tell him to ‘come here!’. I should be saying ‘don’t come here!’!”

That’s the aesthetic of being a ghost. Dee thrusted her right hand up to the sky and swung it down, pointing at the white ink.

“So you don’t have to worry about it! In society, direct words like ‘come here’ and ‘go there’ won’t work!”

Then, for some reason, she looked a little worried.

“…There aren’t many straightforward deviants like you. You need to think how to choose your words, okay? At least I’ll tolerate the fact that you and I have the same characters…”

“Let’s go.”

“Yeah!”

“Ah, wait, hey! Stop!”

The group followed the lead of the graffiti and walked through the streets.

They could smell the tide. As the sun went down, they were once again reminded of the reality created in this tower.

‘Yes! This is the hotel!’

With these words, the hotel appeared, and it was the most luxurious one in town. Apparently, the one who wrote the graffiti really welcomed them.

They checked in at an empty counter, and wrote their names. They looked around, wondering how to pay as they looked around, only to see a signboard saying ‘hotel is free’. Ai seized the opportunity and chose the largest room..

“Hoho~!”

“Ohhh!”

“Whoa!”

Amazing! The beds were big, and not made of straw! They were like Ulla’s bed! And there were three rooms! And a fridge!

Ai dived into the bed anyway.

“Amazing! It’s so soft! The sheets are too new! Hahaha, it’s so creepy!”

“Have a look! They’ve got Celton’s tea leaves. This is free too!? Alright, I’m talking them!”

“Hey, hey, you two, the bath’s great! There’s a sauna!”

The trio searched every nook and cranny of the hotel suite like it was a treasure hunt.

“……”

Julie sat down at a corner of the bed and let out a long  sigh. He noticed he should not be acting like this, and bucked up again. It was too early for him to be relaxed, and he should check the room first. The trio appeared to be having fun, but they were thorough while checking the room. Julie got up too, and scanned the floor and walls for anything suspicious.

‘Good work! Good night!’

“……”

The only thing suspicious were the words written under the bed. Julie finally let do his guard, and slumped onto the bed.

“Mr Julie, are you tired?”

Ai munched onto something again, and handled over some brewed tea. Julie gave up on reprimanding her, and received it.

“No, I’m—”

He tried to deny it on instinct, only to stop himself. Who was the one who stopped scolding because it was a hassle?

“…I guess I’m tired for some reason. Probably age …”

Ai looked up at Julie.

“Ah, well, I’ll go find something to relieve the fatigue! I’m sure there’s something, yeah, I’ll be right…”

“Wait a minute, that reason—”

Julie said, grabbing Ai with his right hand and rubbing his furrowed brow with his left.

“…What is it?”

Ai swayed aside as she asked. Julie’s face instantly changed to his usual angry expression,

“it’s nothing …”

But then, he removed his right hand from her.

“…Don’t be too late…Alice, please go with her …”

Alright. Alice answered in a relaxed manner, and Ai led him out of the room.

 

+

 

“Looks like Mr. Julie’s pretty upset.”

Ai said as she walked into the nearby shop, following the directions of ‘this way for souvenirs!’

“… I think the situation might be quite serious.”

“It’s that bad?”

Alice, holding the shopping basket, was slightly shocked to hear it.

“Normally, if Mr Julie had been in that situation, he would have cursed a bit and then followed reluctantly.”

“I didn’t think you would be so mean at such little things, Ai.”

Dee giggled.

“Mean?”

“Hmm~ hmm~ I didn’t say anything, did I? Ah, dried strawberries… I think these would be good, right?”

Dee found a shelf with dried fruit, and Ai took some from there and put them in a paper bag, lining them up neatly in Alice’s basket. The price said ‘free’, but she was not going to pile lots of them out of greed. She would take as much as needed.

“Mr Julie said ‘tired’, but I don’t think he means physically. I guess he’s mentally tired.”

“Hmm~ well, he’s at that age now, so the common sense he has is probably solidified. Of course he’d find it unacceptable after being thrown into such a ridiculous place.

“You’re really saying it like you empathize with him …”

Ai said, picking up two slices of dried figs.

“But you only get about thirty points for that answer.”

If that was the only reason, that tough man would not admit defeat this easily. “”

It was Scar and Celica, and Ai herself, who had pushed Julie to this point.

It was because of Ai’s presence that he had to follow her, that he was this cornered. He was like a bear with a cub, on guard everywhere, twenty-four hours a day, resulting in his nerves being worn out. Ai caused Julie to be on the verge of danger.

Just because Ai was his best friend’s child.

“Oi.”

“Ow!”

Ai got flicked in the forehead.

“You’ve been thinking about something weird, right?”

“…I wasn’t.”

“Really?”

“Really…”

“That’s good…to me …”

Ai said, holding up the shopping basket.

“You’ve had a hard enough time too.”

“…”

Ai did not answer, and rummaged through the dried fruit.

“Ah.”

“Oh, they’re dried grapes. Do you like them?”

“N-not me—Miss Scar…likes them …”

She bought some for Scar back in Ortus…and while the latter did not say so outright, she looked so blissful when she chewed on the dried grapes.

“Then bring some for her.”

Alice took some more from the flat-topped jar and put them in a paper bag.

“So that you can give them to her when we meet her again.”

Ai took it and clutched it to her chest, yes, and replied.

At their foot was a line that read: ‘do your best tomorrow too!’

 

+

 

It was the next morning, but since they were in the dimly lit tower, Ai and the others actually woke up, ate and left according to the hands on their watches. It was so dark, yet they had to wake up, and Ai felt it was so unreasonable, for she resisted in bed for a while.

The group moved on without incident. They did not search around on this day, and focused on moving towards the stairs by following the white chalk directions.

The fourth floor was a lakeside style with rows of wooden cottages, and Celica said to go up.

The fifth floor was a downtown area with rows of pubs and shops, and Celica indicated said to go up.

Luckily, they found some brand new powdered milk in the downtown area. Celica would usually be resistant against milk powder that had been left for long. ‘Well, that’s decent’, this was the face she showed however, and she was more willing to drink it.

The group could not find any clues to Scar, and the graffiti was the only thing waiting for them without fail. Most of the graffiti was just directions, but occasionally it was interspersed with inscrutable paragraphs.

It all started on the stairs leading to the sixth floor.

 

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