Hellping

The Interlude of a Certain Brother and Sister A.

 

There was an older brother, and a younger sister.

They were twelve and five years old .

They were walking in the wilderness, their faces stained with soot and mud, and the buttons on their pajamas were all off, except for one. Their hair was covered with ash and dust like lice, and their soft bare feet were cut by stones and stained reddish black.

The others were all the same. Everyone, from adults to children, walked through the dark wilderness in burnt-out clothes. The older brother did not know how it happened. He was certain that the adults around him did not know either.

The little sister cried the entire time, “Where’s Daddy? Where’s Mommy?” She kept on crying.

To which the older brother replied, “They’re in heaven.”

“Heaven?”

—That’s right.

“I see. Heaven, huh?”

The little sister immediately believed. It seemed she was so young that she did not know the significance of death. The older brother saw her innocent smile, and wanted to say something, but failed to,

For suddenly, he collapsed.

He was dying.

“Hey, big brother, are you okay? Do you want me to get you some water?”

His sister was fine. The sight of her brother’s collapsed body seemed to inspire her to do something about it, and so she bucked up.

“I’m all better now, you know! I’m not hungry, I’m not thirsty, my hands and feet don’t hurt anymore! I’m not going to say that I’m tired anymore. Really.”

The little sister was already dead.

She had already gone to a distant world where there was no hunger or thirst.

The older brother stood up—exerting the last of his strength. The little sister was happy to see this, and grabbed his little fingers, her eyes suddenly looking uneasy as she recalled what she had just forgotten.

“…But where is everyone going?”

The procession before them was half-dead, half-alive. Like the siblings, half were Living, and half were Dead.

I don’t know. He did not want to answer, so he asked.

—Where do you want to go?

“Can I decide?” The sister asked. The brother nodded.

Let’s do as she says. So he thought.

He would do whatever she wanted. Perhaps they should go wherever they wanted to, rather than get involved with the adults, without knowing where they were going. If it was the ocean, they would go to the ocean; if it were the mountains, they would go to the mountains; if it was a memorable place, they would go to that place; even if they could not get there, they wanted to start walking toward that place.

So he thought.

“Anywhere is fine?” The sister asked.

—Anywhere is fine. The brother replied.

 

“Then I want to go to heaven!”

 

Said the younger sister.

—Heaven?

“Yes! The land beyond the sky! I want to meet daddy and mommy! I want to go there!”

The brother,

Felt completely helpless after hearing it this time.

For humans could no longer go to heaven.

It was a place where people could not go after death.

Just like his sister.

The brother knew that he had made a great lie. Their parents were no longer in such a place. Like the siblings, they were wandering around in the wilderness somewhere.

Or perhaps they were already—

 

The Gravekeepers!

 

People screamed and ran. The brother grabbed his sister’s wrist and ran. “What? What?”, The cold body at the end of his right hand asked timidly.

They did not escape for long.

The malnourished legs soon lost their precision, for they were tripped by pebbles, and he slipped.

Run! The brother shouted, gnawing the gravel.

“No! No! No! Why? Why?”

The sister did not run away. She did not understand anything.

“Nice to meet you, Master XX YYYY. And the Living One.”

Then the voice caught the siblings.

A young man with a fresh smile stood before them with his hand on his chest.

Hold on, said the brother.

“Yes, I shall.”

Surprisingly, the Gravekeeper did as he was told. The smile remained plastered on his face as he put the shovel down and assumed a ‘resting’ position.

—You’ll…wait?

“Yes. It is a very important time to bid farewell to the Living…how long shall it be?”

The brother nodded, and gulped down the little bit of spit he had left.

—If possible, forever—

“I can’t do that.”

The shovel was quickly drawn out. The Gravekeeper took a step forward. There were no questions asked.

—Run! Get away from here!

The brother pushed the sister away. But the sister did not try to escape. On the contrary, she tried to return to her brother, seemingly clinging to him.

“No! Big brother. You’re coming with me! Together—”

Those were her last words. Everything passed slowly. The younger sister reached her hands towards the brother, her eyes teary, the last vestiges of moisture eked from her dead body.

Then, a handful of dirt flew. The dirt slowly scattered in the air, onto the chest of the sister that was almost exposed beneath the pajamas, onto her white skin that still showed some sign of life.

The sister’s lips seemed to be fixed on the ‘ther’ part of the word ‘together’, and her expression melted apart like blood in water. Her limbs went limp, she lost strength, and finally, the emotions were erased from her eyes, cloudy like very stale milk.

Thud,

With a light, really light, sound, the sister fell onto the ground, the sound only a five years old would make.

A cloud of earth flew.

Dig dig. The Gravekeeper shook his shovel silently, and the ground of the wilderness continued to fall relentlessly, concealing his sister’s body deep within the earth.

The brother was frozen in place, listening to the regular, clockwork sound of the shovel.

Soon after, the shoveling stopped. The Gravekeeper finally found a handful of round stones, and placed them above the mound as a tomb, craving her name with a knife. This grave was thus finished. Satisfied with his work, the Gravekeeper swung the shovel over his shoulder.

“Wait.”

The brother stopped the Gravekeeper as the latter tried to walk away.

“What is it?”

The Gravekeeper replied.

What is it indeed? The brother thought.

What did I want to do by stopping this Gravekeeper?

The brother remained silent. The Gravekeeper waited exactly fifteen seconds.

“Is it revenge?”

“Revenge?”

“Yes, I’ve heard that some Living people seek it.”

The Gravekeeper waved his hand. At the same time, a light thud rang by the side of the brother’s right hand. The brother turned behind, and found a knife stabbed there.

The brother pulled out the knife that was planted into the ground.

It was a sharp, blue blade that seemed to cut through even the moonlight.

“If it makes you feel better, Living—go ahead.”

The Gravekeeper knelt down, and showed his heart. The blade pressed on the heart could feel the pulse of life throbbing.

The Gravekeeper waited exactly three minutes.

“Now, if you’ll excuse me.”

He took a step back, put his heels together, and turned back to face the wilderness.

“Wait!”

“I shall not. I have given all my time a Gravekeeper can spare to the Living. I shall give the rest of my time to the Dead..”

The Gravekeeper stared beyond the dark night, and strode toward it.

“Wait!”

The brother threw a knife. The blade spun around and struck the Gravekeeper, ripping his earlobe which fell to the ground.

“Wait!”

The Gravekeeper did not wait.

“……Wait…wait….”

The brother crawled across the ground and clutched the knife. The Gravekeeper continued to walk farther and farther away.

“……Wait…wait….”

The palm that grasped the blade was cut, and the proof of life slowly flowed to the ground.

“……Wait…”

The bloodied palm and knife were pressed into the earth like a blood seal. The brother turned his hazy gaze to the Gravekeeper as he crawled with all his might.

(…Wai…t…)

The brother lost consciousness, and collapsed.

 

The Interlude of a Certain Brother and Sister A.

 

The story began abruptly in the middle of the stairs leading from the fifth to the sixth floor, and ended abruptly.

“…What is…this?”

The story was called ‘The Interlude of a Certain Brother and Sister A’. Ai poked at the handwriting of white chalk that was written onto the stone wall with her finger.

“Somehow, it doesn’t seem ‘fitting’…yet it does seem ‘fitting…”

The story had her feeling that it was not the character of the white chalk author, and yet a little fitting.

“I don’t understand at all.”

“…I guess.”

This was the only conclusion.

“…Shall we keep going?”

Ai gave up on deducing and climbed the stairs.

And it was then,

“Oh. My my.”

A perfect voice resounded.

Everyone turned around. Three Gravekeepers stood there.

They did not recognize these faces, but the trio were all from the same family.

“Mighty Joe….” Alice muttered. Ai was reminded that they were part of the ‘common’ family listed in the Gravekeeper catalog.

“Hello, Dear Living. What a coincidence.”

“Hello!”

Ai was the only one who answered. The others remained silent, their attitudes lukewarm.

“Do you have business to attend to, Gravekeepers?”

“Yes, the Dead are waiting for us.”

One of the Gravekeepers smiled back, and it was a smile that showed a certain love and passion for his work.

“Do you mind if you can let us pass?”

“Yes. But why don’t we walk together? We’re on the same path too.”

“I have no objection to that. But are the others all right?”

“Of course!”

Ai deliberately raised her voice loudly. She had consciously tried to link these Gravekeepers with her companions.

At that time, she did not know why she had such a tone.

“Ai!”

The large man called out. There was a tinge of reproach in his voice.

“Ah, Mr. Julie, it’s fine, isn’t it? I’ve made up my mind.”

“No, but…”

“It’s fine, isn’t it?”

The big man’s blue eyes wavered, “It’s decided!” Ai took advantage of this and shouted so.

Ai loudly asked the Gravekeepers about Scar’s whereabouts and the tower, trying to emphasize that there was an advantage to them walking together. Unfortunately, the Gravekeepers knew nothing at all, so Ai barely managed with her enthusiasm.

The group arrived at the sixth floor.

The place was a wilderness.

For a moment, Ai wondered if they were outside. There was sand everywhere, and there were a lot of light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. It was a man-made wilderness  filled with dazzling lights and a dry, sandy landscape.

Unusually, there was not a single building in the tower.

“…I feel like their sanities were already at their limits …”

“Yeah. There’s lots of such things outside. What’s the point of making one inside the tower?”

The wilderness was really well done. There was cacti on the ground, and leather lizards. There was also a picture drawn on the wall far away, showing a horizon.

“Miss Scar is further up there…”

Celica remained interested in the top.

“Is the Dead you are looking for still up there too?”

“Yes.” “Yes.” “No.”

“Eh?”

One of the trio replied differently and stared into the distance.

“The Dead I shall bury is over there.”

The next moment, his jaw was shattered. Pew, a bullet pierced through the Gravekeeper’s jaw and neck, vanishing into the wilderness.

He collapsed.

“Eh?”

The Gravekeeper fell as though it tried to spin but fell instead.

The red stain slowly spread across the yellow wilderness.

“Oh, is he broken?” “It matters not, let us find our Dead.”

The remaining Gravekeepers recognized the situation much quicker than Ai did, but they remained unperturbed, and strode off to leave.

Please wait! Ai instinctively tried to call out to them, but she knew that such words would not stop them. Words alone would not stop them. The only thing that would stop them was destruction.

And it came quickly.

The Gravekeeper on the right twisted to dodge the first bullet, but the next bullet was placed right where he was moving to. The Gravekeeper basically jumped into the air and slammed his forehead into the bullet.

The last Gravekeeper lasted a little longer. Learning from the experiences of the prior two, he used the shovel to parry away the second bullet that tracked his motion. He ducked, parried, ducked, parried. The enemy’s bullets were finished, and at the same time, the Gravekeeper ran to the stairs leading to the seventh floor. 30 meters or so, another bully flew. The Gravekeeper deftly avoided it, and was about to parry the next shot…

The shovel was shot through. The bullet was fired at the same time and at the same speed, but it weighed twice as much. The bullet was shot through the shovel, hitting the center of the Gravekeeper’s brow like it was a mushroom.

Ai was stunned, and instinctively looked at where the bullet was fired from.

There, someone laid prone in the shade of a rock, watching Ai with a glittering scope, looking at her,

He’s looking at her shovel!

And then a single bullet struck Ai.

Bam! Sparks burst into the air. Bam! There was another shot as Alice shot down the bullet with the gun in his right hand, while using the gun in his left to aim behind the rock forty meters away.

It would be impossible for a handgun to precisely hit at such a far distance, but the lead bullet cleanly shattered the scope. Seeing this godlike fear, the assassin did not falter and simply discarded his sniper rifle, charging forth as though he had turned himself into a bullet, and swirling sand behind him!

It was obvious at first glance this was a skilled Dead. Most of his muscles were slender and thin, the easily decayed internal organs were already scraped out, and his torso looked flat. He wore a leather suit that seemed to be a part of his body, chaining his disintegrating body together tightly. The leather fabric extended to his face, maintaining a perfect poker face as he looked at the trio.

Alice fired two shots to suppress, while the Dead parried them with both hands. Clearly this Dead had something on his hands. From five meters away, he spread his arms wide as though he was flapping his wings. Whoosh, and with that, two blades flew out, forming two claws.

Alice took a few steps back and simultaneously squeezed the left trigger. The Dead did not dodge. He believed in Alice’s abnormal accuracy and took all the bullets in his chest. It seemed he had something to protect himself there, for none of the bullets went in as they bounced into the wilderness.

Not good!. Alice’s expression changed for the first time.

Two claws aimed at her neck.

In the nick of time, the silver shovel reached out to parry the claws. Ai swung her shovel, and the Dead flipped backwards to avoid this cleave that could hack apart a steel pipe. Julie threw a smokescreen at that moment, and the Dead continued to evade. Dee seized the chance to cover the Dead with mist, obscuring the latter’s vision.

“W-Why?”

Dee exclaimed. The Dead should have been blinded, but he took advantage to kick up more sand and weave about like a snake. You’re in the way! Alice shouted. Causing a mist like this would only be beneficial to the enemy..

The Dead loomed in.

“P-Please wait!”

Ai shouted, still holding her shovel with her numb hands, but the Dead ignored her words. Like a shark in the desert, it created a sandstorm, waiting for the right moment to strike.

“S-Stop! Please stop!”

The Dead did not stop. He continued to race through the sandstorm and finally closed in on the trio. He parried all of Alice’s bullets, sealed off Julie’s gunfire, and finally stabbed his claws at Ai’s neck—

“I surrender!”

Ai raised both hands.

The shovel flew in a whirl.

The wind blew evenly through the four of them.

The two claws stopped just short of the skin of her neck.

A long time passed, and the shovel finally fell into the sand pile far away.

“…Surrender?”

The Dead spoke up for the first time. Ai nodded while her hands were still raised, and if possible, she wanted to wave the white flag.

“I’ve killed a lot of Gravekeepers, but…”

The claws were withdrawn.

“It’s my first time hearing someone surrender.”

Ai fell to her knees with a thud, and finally began to tremble, her lips smiling on her own accord.

“Do you have a name?”

” Ai Astin. …”

Her teeth clattered as she said her name.

“I see. I’m Raki Shielo.”

That was the first human Ai had met in the tower.

“As you can see, I’m a Dead.”

 

+

 

The Gravekeeper was crudely buried.

They were somehow buried by a Dead.

Ai sat with her knees tucked together. Holding her knees and shovel together, she saw the Gravekeepers graves be formed.

The Dead silently dug a hole, filled it with the corpses, and flattened them.

The Gravekeeper was crudely buried.

“…Have you ever heard of a Gravekeeper called Scar—one with a scar on her right brow? From the Heartstone family?”

Julie asked, and the Dead paused his work to stare into space for a moment.

“…No, don’t know about that…probably took some other route up there.”

“I see.”

Julie sighed in seemingly relief. Celica continued to flail her fists upwards, as though saying, ‘She’s still up there!’ Ai glanced over there.

Alice was lying at her feet, sprawled wide, and it seemed he was rattled to have lost to Raki. Dee continued to tease him happily. She did not appear to be concerned about winning or losing at all.

One Gravekeeper was crudely buried, buried, buried….

Finally, the work was done. The Dead thrust the shovel into the grave of its owner.

It served as a tombstone.

Three shovels were stuck in the ground in front of Ai.

Beyond them, there were twenty more.

It really was a Gravekeepers’ graveyard.

Raki Shielo offered a silent prayer. Those watching—Julie, Alice, and Dee, were also influenced by the atmosphere, for they offered their prayers to mourn their deaths.

Then, the atmosphere of ‘it is done’ somehow lingered and spread amongst them.

“…Why?”

But Ai had no intention of letting the matter rest.

“Why are you killing Gravekeepers?”

She stared into the Dead’s sunken eyes.

“Because I don’t want it to be over yet. …”

Raki answered honestly. It was the honesty only the strong would have.

“…So you killed them?”

“Yeah..what else can I do? Is there any other way to stop a Gravekeeper without hurting?”

“Yes, there is. Gravekeepers will stop if I speak…at the very least, Miss Scar does.”

Julie was flustered. Ai paid no heed.

Heh, the Dead simply answered and believed so, or so he appeared.

“…But I don’t think you should do that. Those poor Gravekeepers…”

Poor Gravekeepers?

“I know a little bit about them because I hunt Gravekeepers for a living. They take real pride in burying the Dead—leaving aside the matter of whether it’s a good or bad thing—I don’t think it’s good for me to take their work away from them.”

“……”

Ai thought of Scar, the Gravekeeper who held a baby instead of the shovel.

“And what you’re doing is a waste of time. They’ll be born faster than you going around, telling them ‘don’t bury the Dead’.”

“…Then.”

Ai looked up and the hordes of shovels, her eyes wide opened like a lid removed from a boiling pot.

“…So, you can’t help it?”

He could not do anything when the Gravekeeper buried the sister, and the brother killed the Gravekeepers?”

“Is it really…something that can’t be helped …?”

“I think so.”

The Dead said.

“But if you don’t think so, do your best.”

“……”

“Go get some answers.”

“…Yes.”

“Go on then.”

The Dead pointed to the stairs in the distance. There, in the usual white chalk, was a sign that read, ‘7th floor this way!’.

“……”

Ai took one last look at the graves that were lined up.

Those shovels were like hers, but each was a little different.

What had she decided now? Did she just allow Gravekeepers to be killed?

Did she think such cruelty ‘couldn’t be helped’?

The answer field remained blank, and time was running out. Still, Ai could not answer the question.

No matter what answer she wrote now, and even if she wrote the right answer, she felt that it would be wrong.

She looked back.

“Goodbye.”

“Yes, goodbye.”

It seemed the Dead really had no interest in them. He went back to watching the wilderness.

“………Please tell me one last thing…”

“Hmm?”

“When I asked you why you were killing Gravekeepers, you said ‘I don’t want it to be over yet’, right…?”

“I did.”

Raki confessed.

“You don’t want it to end yet. That’s why you’re going to kill Gravekeepers… what do you mean, yet…”not yet”? … Why is that?”

“That’s because they’re not that Gravekeeper.”

The Dead answered. He said with binoculars in hand as he stared into the wilderness.

“I shot at them because they’re not him. I can’t let myself be buried until I meet him.”

“?Mr…Raki…?”

Ai peered suspiciously into the Dead’s face. His face was taut due to the leather, and his sunken eyes merely looked into the horizon. Ai felt as if she had heard the voice of this Dead for the first time. The voice of this Dead, made of leather and guns, resembled a boy’s.

“………Someone’s coming.”

Alice said, and Ai hurriedly looked over..

A silhouette appeared from the stairs. The brightness of the room caused this person to narrow his eyes, look around, notice them, and bow deeply.

On his back, a shovel glinted.

The Dead pulled out a gun, and aimed with his scope while standing. Ai’s face twisted in anticipation of the roar that would follow a moment later.

“…Ahh, you’re…”

But the Dead did not shoot. On the contrary, he lowered his gun to the ground.

“M-Mr Raki!”

“It’s fine.”

Though she was told it was fine, Ai did not understand. She did not understand her feelings, and did not understand what she wanted him to do.

And then,

The gravekeeper approached.

 

“It has been a while, Raki Shielo—and nice to meet you, Dear Living.”

 

“It’s been a while, Gravekeeper.”

The Dead said.

“Goodbye.”

“Yes, goodbye.”

It seemed the Dead really had no interest in them. He went back to watching the wilderness.

“………Please tell me one last thing…”

“Hmm?”

“When I asked you why you were killing Gravekeepers, you said ‘I don’t want it to be over yet’, right…?”

“I did.”

Raki confessed.

“You don’t want it to end yet. That’s why you’re going to kill Gravekeepers… what do you mean, yet…”not yet”? … Why is that?”

“That’s because they’re not that Gravekeeper.”

The Dead answered. He said with binoculars in hand as he stared into the wilderness.

“I shot at them because they’re not him. I can’t let myself be buried until I meet him.”

“? Mr…Raki…?”

Ai peered suspiciously into the Dead’s face. His face was taut due to the leather, and his sunken eyes merely looked into the horizon. Ai felt as if she had heard the voice of this Dead for the first time. The voice of this Dead, made of leather and guns, resembled a boy’s.

“………Someone’s coming.”

Alice said, and Ai hurriedly looked over..

A silhouette appeared from the stairs. The brightness of the room caused this person to narrow his eyes. He looked around, noticed them, and bowed deeply.

On his back, a shovel glinted.

The Dead pulled out a gun, and aimed with his scope while standing. Ai’s face twisted in anticipation of the roar that would follow a moment later.

“…Ahh, you’re…”

But the Dead did not shoot. On the contrary, he lowered his gun to the ground.

“M-Mr Raki!”

“It’s fine.”

Though she was told it was fine, Ai did not understand. She did not understand her feelings, and did not understand what she wanted him to do.

And then,

The gravekeeper approached.

 

“It has been a while, Raki Shielo—and nice to meet you, Dear Living.”

 

“It’s been a while, Gravekeeper.”

The Dead said.

“Do you remember me?”

“Yes, of course I do.”

“…Do you remember her?”

Of course, the Gravekeeper replied. Hearing this, Raki heaved a sigh of relief and said,

“So, you came to bury me?”

“Yes.”

“—Wait a bit.”

“How long shall it be?”

“If possible, forever—but that’s impossible, right?”

“Yes.”

“Well, as long as it takes then.”

“Three minutes it shall be.”

“Three minutes again?”

Is that a rule? The Dead gave a wry smile.

Ai stared at the Dead, dumbfounded.

“That’s how it is.”

The Dead smirked, smiling only at the atmosphere.

“Bye then. Everyone.”

“A-Are you going to die? “

I’m already dead. The Dead laughed.

“W-Why? Why are you suddenly—?”

“Because of this guy.”

“What?”

The Dead sounded like he was a hundred years younger than he actually was.

“I regretted it right after.”

The Dead said calmly, as though leaving a will behind.

“…I didn’t regret keeping the knife. I regretted why I couldn’t have been buried there too. The only little reason why I survived was because I was alive. That’s all I regret.”

The Dead narrated the past as though he was talking to Ai, and also talking to the Gravekeeper, and also talking to no one at all.

“And yet I lived, I survived…and then I died, and I remained dead.”

The Dead looked at the Gravekeeper, the smile of the Gravekeeper through his leather skin..

“It’s you. I want you here—I don’t want anyone else. I just don’t want any other Gravekeeper to bury me than you.”

With that, the Dead sat down, and tore a hole in the chest of his suit with his fingers, pulled out a steel plate, and threw it into the wilderness. Through the gap in the suit, there was a dried corpse held in place by wires. The dry body crumbled and fell to the wind with just that much stimulation.

“…Are you fine with that?”

“Yes.”

The Dead proudly lifted his chest undaunting.

“I’m fine with this.”

“Is that so…”

Ai stared at the leather skin unflinchingly, exhaled, and raised her head to look up at the sky.

“Actually, I have a lot of regrets.”

The sky was a fake, neither that of her hometown, nor that of the wilderness.

“One of them is a group of people who kill for fun, led by a man called Mr Hiko..

Ai remembered the killers who had targeted her father, Kizuna Astin.

“I saved my father’s life by beating them up. And they were buried by Miss Scar…another Gravekeeper.”

She still remembered all too well. She remembered that her father, who should have revived immediately, remained pale until the very end, paler than any Albino. She still remembered how shaken she was to see the white skin of such Dead.

Back then, she was so caught up in her despair that she completely ignored the fact that Scar buried those thugs. No, even if she was not in despair, she would have ignored it as a matter of course.

“But surely, I shouldn’t have left them behind…”

Everyone listened to Ai’s words in silence, each with their own expression.

“If I’m really going to save everyone, I shouldn’t have abandoned anyone.”

Ai hugged her knees tightly and felt the hard bones of her feet against her cheeks.

“I shouldn’t make the decision. I can only suggest. I can only help them think, and reach out to them.”

Ai looked down at an old corpse that had refused her aid.

“So I can’t stop you from dying.…I can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be saved.”

“I see,” replied the Dead.

“But then, please.”

Ai crouched down and took the Dead’s hand, which slumped back.

“Please, don’t disappear.”

“……”

“I don’t want you to disappear.”

She did not cry, for that would be cowardly.

Ai merely held the Dead’s hand, and felt her body warm the other, wishing that she could convey her feelings in that way, even if only a little.

“…I’m sure I’m going to catch hell if I don’t die now. “

“I shall accompany you.”

I see. The Dead was silent. On the surface, nothing had changed, but underneath the armored leather, the Dead was indeed shaking.

And yet,

“I’m sorry.”

He never gave up on his dream.

“…Is that so?”

Ai stood up, and slapped her knees to dust off the dirt.

“It is time.”

The Gravekeeper began to move. The blade crudely dug into the earth, and the silver shovel lifted a handful of dry dirt.

“Bye.”

That was the last thing he said.

The shovel was swung, and a handful of dirt slowly flew through the air, onto the chest of the Dead

The brother fell to the ground, unable to bear the really, really heavy weight—of ten years worth.

The dirt flew again.

The Gravekeeper worked in silence, the soil of the wilderness literally pouring like a downpour, burying the Dead’s body deep into the earth.

Neither Ai nor anyone else was able to move.

And after a while—

The Dead was buried. The Gravekeeper simply heaped a mound of dirt onto the Dead, forming a grave.

“Where and who are you going to bury next?”

Alice asked.

The Gravekeeper stared blankly at the heavens at the question,, as if hearing something from there.

About three seconds or so passed.

“Master Barjot Wands, I suppose.”

The Gravekeeper said, and almost immediately, pointed almost straight down.

“In this direction.”

“Woah, on the other side of the planet?”

Dee asked. Yes, the Gravekeeper affirmed without any hesitation.

“Are you sure about going to such a far place?”

Yes, The Gravekeeper answered without hesitation, and simply smiled.

“Because the Dead is waiting for me.”

“Maybe so.”

Alice affirmed.

“Maybe you might be right.”

With that, the Gravekeeper bowed politely, carried the shovel, and descended the tower.

Ai picked up the sniper rifle that had lost its owner, and stabbed it into the grave.

Before her were lots of shovels and only one gun lined up.

The clods of earth that lined the graves would soon dry up and become a thing of the past.

Ai hugged her arms tightly, as if to withstand the cold. She felt her heart cool down.

“Is this, well, the end of that story?”

She looked at the stairs leading upward, saw the words ‘7th floor this way!’, and remained silent.

 

The Interlude of a Certain Brother and Sister B.

 

 

And so the brother was left alone.

Before him was a small grave where his little sister was buried. He collapsed onto it, grabbing it, unwilling to let go, waiting for his moment of death to come. He wanted to be buried next to the grave.

But it was not to be.

By chance, the brother was picked up by passing travelers. They were an elderly couple who saw their own deceased child in the brother, and gave him bread and water.

In a daze, the brother received that aid. His mind was hurting, but his young body healed quickly and regained its color as soon as it received nourishment.

When he was completely healthy again, he finally realized that he had survived. The death that had been so close to him was now far away.

The brother survived. But by that time, there was nothing left to keep him alive. The dreams and joys of the future that had driven him when he was living in the city were of no use at this point. His body was getting healthier with each passing day, but his spirit was stagnating and rotting away.

The brother wanted to die.

But he did not die.

He found it weird, and wondered why he could not kill himself. He wondered, is there anything I have left to do?

He thought about it. Usually, what came to mind was the last night he spent with his sister. She said she wanted to eat her mother’s stew, and then she said she did want to eat anymore. She said she wanted to see her father, she said she wanted to see her friends.

He remembered that her sister said she wanted to go to heaven.

Remembering this, the brother got up and went to the couple.

Thank you for caring for me. He said.

Aren’t you coming with us? the couple asked.

The brother shook his head. He had a place he had to go.

Where is it? the couple asked.

Heaven. The brother answered. He decided to go to the place where his sister wanted to go.

That’s great. The couple replied, Then you shall not follow us, but we shall follow you instead.

And so they set out for heaven.

 

The Interlude of a Certain Brother and Sister B.

 

“There’s a sequel?”

They were on their way from the sixth floor to the seventh floor when they found the continuation of the story, and Ai muttered so,

“Eh? Wait, wasn’t this story describing Mr Raki…”

Ai hopped three steps down, and went up and down the stairs, reading the story again.

“…What’s going on?”

“Who knows…?”

The white chalk that had always tried to remain before they did not answer anything.

Ai had assumed the entire time that the white chalk was written by the story, that the brought in the story was raki, and the sister wrote the continuation, but there was more.

“……… Who are you?”

Ai asked, placing her hand on the cool, damp wall. The white chalk between the palm and the cold wall did not answer, naturally, and merely stuck to her fingers. Ai dusted it off.

“Well, whatever. Since the ‘story’ isn’t over yet, I guess there will be other people after this…”

Alice’s words got Ai to recover, and she noticed the entrance that was a few steps away.

“…, I’ll lead, Ai’s backup, Old Man Julie at the back. Let’s go.”

“…Yes.”

“Alright…”

“Don’t be intimidated by anyone or anything. Be prepared for anything. …”

The group ascended to the seventh floor with a lot of tension.

 

+

 

There were a hundred of them.

Ai’s mouth dropped open, and her anticipation fell in an instant. Julie, who covered the back, dragged her back into the shadows.

Dee, Julie, Alice, and Ai, in that order, peeked out from around the corner and looked out at the city from the seventh floor.

The seventh floor was a beautiful blend of city and nature, with more than a hundred people passing through as a matter of course. Their minds, already accustomed to uninhabited cities, deemed such scenery as strange.

There were Living, and there were Dead.

Ai stared at them, trying to grasp the atmosphere.

“… Who are they …?”

“Well, let’s just find out.”

“…… Okay. I’ll go.”

Julie was about to put down Celica. Ai saw the opportunity and gave Alice a glance, and they nodded at each other.

“Mr Julie, please wait here.”

She dropped her shovel and luggage and ran out into the street.

“Hey, Ai!”

“We’ll go check it out, Dee! Anything happens, please tell us! “

Alice unbuckled his weapons from his waistband, and followed after Ai

“Leave it to me.”

“Hey! Wait, you guys!”

The shout that could not be heard by any passer-by soon fell on deaf ears.

As expected, the people of the city paid no attention to them as they mingled with the crowd.

“…They completely ignore strangers here. Feels like a city alright.”

“Yes, and there’s also Dead.

“…There aren’t any prejudices against the Dead here?”

Ai recalled the downtown area of the town they visited with Tanya and the others. Everyone there did not recognize each other, and did not pay heed.

Whether they were alive, or dead,

Or even Gravekeeper.

“Hmm?”

Something seemed amiss…

Ai turned around to check the crowd.

She spotted a Gravekeepers hanging out with shovels.

“Th-thi-thi-this! “

“Shh! C-Calm down. Please, don’t stand out!”

“But, but, but that!”

The Dead naturally passed by the Gravekeepers, and when the Gravekeepers looked at the Dead, they did not do anything. There was a rare look of confusion and fatigue on their faces.

“…We’ll get to that later.”

“B-But.”

“It’s fine. I’ll take care of it.”

Alice looked around the street and set his sights on one of the stores.

“Yo bro~~!”

He brazenly walked to the pastry shop, and picked up a bag of cookies from the store. Then a mild-mannered young man wearing an apron came out from the back of the store and said, “Yessir~”

“I’d like one of these.”

“Can I have one?”

“Yes. How much?

“…That’s a funny thing to say.”

The young man looked puzzled.

“Of course it’s free, right?”

“I see.”

Okay. Alice opened the bag and tossed one cookie into his mouth, another into Ai’s

“…By any chance, did you just meet up here?”

“Sorta.”

“Ahh, I see….”

The young man seemed emphatic, and his nose sniveled once he heard these words.

“So young…you must have suffered lots of hardship…”

He even wiped his eyes profusely.

“Take this with you then! No need to pay for it!”

“No, it’s free, right?”

“Don’t sweat the details!”

The young man laughed and slapped Alice on the back.

“Ow—sa-say, bro. Why is it that this floor alone has so many people?”

“Kid. Look over there.”

The hand holding the pastry pointed to the far wall. There was a staircase that led to the eighth floor, where many craftsmen were currently working.

“The stairs have collapsed. We’re all stranded here.”

“Stranded…?”

Ai quickly assembled the information she had gathered.

“So you don’t live here, do you?”

“That’s right, Missy. We heard the tower was finished, so we’re going up.”

“Going up…with everyone?”

“Yeah. Of course, that doesn’t just include the people here, since this tower has many routes. In fact, there should be lots of people climbing this tower.”

“W-Why?”

“Hmm?”

“Why are you all going up this tower?”

“Hmm? You don’t know that much, do you?”

The young man gave an incredulous look.”

“It’s because this tower leads to heaven.”

So he said.

“…She’s waiting for me there, so I want to look for her.”

 

+

 

The young man gave them a bag full of sweets and said, “Take them and go find grandpa!”

“Grandpa?”

“He’s the old man who knows more about this tower than I do! You should go ask him!”

Ai bowed deeply, Alice gave a brief thank, and they ate the snack as they went on.

“That person…”

She could not say anything. He, and them, Raki Shielo, the young man in the pastry shop, the brother in the story. White chalk.

“Those people are….”

“Ai…let’s think about it later…””

“Ah, are we there yet?”

“Yeah…look…”

Alice quickly pointed to a wall.

It was a house on the outskirts of town, just outside the city center.

On the wall, ‘The Interlude of a Certain Brother and Sister C’ was written.

 

The Interlude of a Certain Brother and Sister C.

 

The brother decided to go to heaven.

 

He did not know to go there, and no matter who he asked, it was the same.

When he heard that it was at the top of the sky, he climbed all the sacred peaks of the world.

When he heard that it was at the bottom of the earth, he dove into all the depths of the world.

However, there was no heaven in such a place.

He wandered the world, and wandered, and wandered, and after circling the world for the umpteenth time, he came to his sister’s grave again.

And so he came to the first conclusion again.

He could no longer go to heaven.

It was a place that nobody could reach, even in death.

Realizing this, the boy crouched in the wilderness, clinging to his sister’s grave.

The round stones of the grave were completely dirty and worn out.

The brother spent his days in disappointment.

One day, the brother suddenly picked up the first stone and piled it onto the grave.

He piled the second.

Three or four more stones began to be piled up.

Seeing the boy silently piling up the stones, the people around him began to help. Hands were used, shovels were used, trucks were used, and the number of people stacking the stones increased.

Eventually, the pile of stones rose to the sky.

 

The brother decided to create heaven.

 

The Interlude of a Certain Brother and Sister C.

 

“……”

Ai and Alice passed the story by, no longer commenting on it.

There was a house where the story was written.

That was the house of the person called grandpa.

“—Can’t you leave it to that kid Jarg? What, he’s not around? Look in the tavern, if you don’t find him there, go to the dry cleaner’s daughter. If she’s not there, it’s the baker’s daughter…if not there, I don’t know anymore.”

An old man is sitting in a comfortable rocking chair in front of the house. There were many people around him, asking him lots of things.

“Come on! Go, go, go! Use your legs!”

Ai waited until all those instructed people were gone before she said,

“Are you the grandpa?”

There was an imposing old man with a bald head and white beard, holding an oak pipe in his mouth. He spotted.

“Hmm? What do ya want?”

“Uh, the big brother at the sweets store told us to ask here…”

“Ah, …, another newcomer. Goodness me, everyone shoves the trouble onto me.”

“Are we bothering you?”

“No, no, not at all. Sit down now, both of you.”

You sure are an elderly killer… Alice chuckled. Ai kicked him in the shin and sat down in the chair.

“Now then, what do you want to know?”

Ai and Alice looked at each other, and turned to look forward.

“Well, first of all. What’s going on?”

That, Ai pointed to a corner of the city.

There was another group of gravekeepers gathered there.

There were no smiles on their faces, and they all stood there with anxious looks.

“Why don’t they just bury you guys?”

She pointed at those Gravekeepers, and then at the old man before her.

The old man before them looked feeble, his body parched, his bones protruding.

He, too, was a Dead man.

The old man laughed and replied simply,

“They have malfunctioned.”

“Malfunctioned?”

“Yes, those Gravekeepers have come up to this tower in search of the Dead, and have found them, but there is no soil here.”

“Isn’t there soil everywhere?”

Ai looked around. This city had so much greenery, and there were trees were planted everywhere.N Naturally, there should be shiny black soil underneath—

“Huh?”

There was none.

On a closer look, there were waterways at the roots of the plants.

“Hohoho. All the plants on this floor were planted hydroponically—Look at that.”

The old man pointed to a window—one that was unusually there. There were layers of cloth stretching across the outer wall of the tower.

“The water above the fifth floor absorbs the mist from outside through this method, and that’s how the water flows in this tower.”

The old man proudly explained the mechanism.

“The Gravekeepers need a handful of earth at least to bury the Dead. But there’s no soil here, and that’s why they’re malfunctioning. Of course, some smart ‘families’ try to smuggle them in from other floors, but they can’t get to this route in the first place. That’s how it’s designed.”

“How do you do that?”

“Oops, I’ll get to that later. Look at this….”

The pipe was pointed at a group of Gravekeepers.

“You’re in for a treat…”

At this moment, a Dead girl scampered over. She was earnest, and if she was still alive, surely she would be blushing. She ran to one of the Gravekeepers and offered him a basket.

“Mike! I made you some sweets! Eat it!”

A Gravekeeper looked like a puppy that had been given an order it could not do.

“… Lady Milanshah. I should not be accepting these things—I should be burying you.”

“Goodness! You’re still saying such things again!”

“But burial is very important. It is unfortunate. You may not agree, but I have been forced to do so.”

The girl put her hands on her hips, looking displeased,

“Is work more important than me…?”

“Lady Milanshah …”

“Yes, yes, I understand…Do what you want—so? What am I supposed to do?”

“You simply need to maintain a healthy mindset. I shall handle the rest.”

With that, the young man sat her down, lowered the shovel and pointed it at the ground.

Then, the young man froze there. There is no earth for the silver blade. He looked to the right, to the left, up and down. There was no soil there either.

“…Ahaha. I’m sorry for being mean. Come on, let’s go over there. There’s a nice cafe.”

“Ah! Lady Milanshah!”

The young girl ran off, leading the Gravekeeper by hand.

“…It seems she’s in love with that Gravekeeper.”

Hohoho, The old man chortled.

“Huh?”

Ai heard his words and looked at them again. The young man had a troubled expression, while the girl smiled happily. As a bystander, they certainly looked like lovers.

“Love, a Gravekeeper?”

“Yes.”

“That’s—”

“Well, it’s not permissible.”

Hohoho.

“It’s utterly foolish to fall in love with a Gravekeeper. Surely those around her will be opposed to this, especially since the young man was here to bury her. If they were on the ground, it is a certainty that either she will be buried, or that he will be shot.”

“……”

“But such a scenario is permissible here.”

The old man let out an exhale of contentment and put his weight deeply on the rocking chair. It was the breath of satisfaction of one who had accomplished a great task.

At the place he was looking at were a couple who had taken their first steps to love. The old man looked at them with satisfaction.

“…It was worth building this tower.”

“You built this place?”

Ai asked, startled.

“Yes. We built this tower.”

Combing his white beard, the old man narrowed his eyes with pride.

“…Can I ask you a few questions?”

“Certainly.”

“… Someone once said this place was heaven. …”

“Hohoho, now that’s interesting.”

“Did you guys want to create a heaven when you built this tower?”

“Who knows?”

He puffed at his pipe.

“Maybe we did, maybe we didn’t.”

“Please don’t be vague.”

“I’m not being vague. We were united in building this mountain of stone, but we didn’t share the same purpose. We built the pile of stones for different reasons…You called it a tower, but it just happened to form one. Initially, we didn’t realize we were building a tower.”

“What, then, were you building at…?”

The old man was silent. The silence lasted for seven puffs.

Then he opened his mouth.

“Look at him.”

He pointed to a young man carrying a stone with a pipe. The young man looked as dark and thin as a Dead.

“It’s said he’s building Hell.”

“Hell?”

Ai squirms and sits up.

That’s right, the old man nodded deeply.

“I don’t know much about him, but I’ve heard he committed a crime in the past. It is a solitary sin, for which there is no one to judge but him. To atone for it, he wishes to labor forever. …”

The pipe moved.

“Look at her.”

The pipe was now pointed  to a woman cheerfully sewing clothes.

“They say she’s making heaven. She yearns to create a place where everyone won’t have to be buried by Gravekeepers after death, and where everyone can live happily ever after…”

“Look at them”—at the end of the pipe are a stonemason, a painter, and a metal carver. “These artists wish to create their masterpieces. They decorate and adorn the towers in the hope of creating their masterpieces. “

“Look at them.”—at the end of the pipe were those who go about their daily lives. “They wish to find peace after death. That’s why they’re building a city in the tower.”

“Look at them.”—at the end of the pipe were those fighting to climb the stairs. “They see hope. They are praying and running, believing that their destination lies beyond the tower.”

Look at him—look at her—

The old man then pointed to all the people in the place.

“You’ve seen the towns below, haven’t you?… They are all utopias that they have created, … homelands, altars, promised lands, places where their wishes come true.”

“…Is that why they are uninhabited?”

“Uninhabited? Hmm. Is that what it looks like to you? Oh, yeah, uninhabited? Hohoho.”

The old man laughed for a moment, then suddenly returned to a straight face.

“…The people here all gathered with different wishes and took action to make those wishes come true. Each one of these wishes happened to intertwine to form the tower…This tower is a place where wishes come true.”

The old man smiled with satisfaction, and looked towards the young girl who was in love with the Gravekeeper.

“And now the tower has begun to grant everyone’s wishes. “

“……”

“I see—you too have such a wish to fulfill, no?”

“Yes…”

“Then you’ll get your wish.”

“I’m not so sure about that.”

Ai laughed sarcastically.

“Even if we do find Miss Scar, my own dreams most likely won’t come true.”

“Oh?”

The old man lifted his wrinkled eyes. It was the first time he had shown interest in Ai.

“Hohoh. By the way, what do you wish for?”

“I want to save the world.”

“What, that’s it?”

The old man simply answered.

“That’s what everyone here is thinking. ‘I want to save my world,’ and that’s why they piled up the stones.”

“…How can that save the world?”

“Hohoh ?I shall ask you the opposite then.  What else can you do, what other feats, what other foolishness, can you do to save the world?”

“……”

“Will you save the world if you run around the world with that shovel?”

Ai was silent.

“It’s the same thing. What you’re doing, what we’re doing. We do what we do because we believe it will make our wishes come true. They are identical in that one respect.”

The old man let out a long puff of smoke, and chuckled.

“The only way to make unfulfilled dreams come true is to pile up stones, and nothing else…”

Within the words were years of loneliness that Ai could not fathom.

“We believed! We believed that if we piled up stones, our wishes would come true! We believed in that folly! You remained silent just now, didn’t you? When I asked you if you could save the world with that shovel, you didn’t say anything, right? What? Are you doubting your own dreams?”

“Yes.”

“Do not doubt…don’t doubt. Believe, and the tower will grant your wish ….”

That’s how we built this tower…

Then the old man fell silent.

The old man, the Dead, seemed to have aged a bit again, as if he had revealed all of his inner thoughts, and was closer to death than ever.

“I…”

Ai said to the old man.

“I do believe in my wish…but at the same time, I have my doubts.”

She looked up at the old man.

“I believe in myself. That’s why I doubt myself.”

The old man closed his eyes and asked,

“…Isn’t that a contradiction?”

“No.”

Ai shook her head firmly.

“I think that’s what it means to truly believe. If I really believe in myself, there will be things I have to doubt…otherwise, it’s blind faith.”

The old man laughed and opened his eyes, sneering at Ai.

“Would you call our wishes blind faith?”

“…Are you angry?”

“No, not at all.”

The old man did not seem angry at all. He just smiled and smoked happily.

We already knew this more than anyone. Anyone who is offended by being called a blind believer isn’t a blind believer. Those who have such an objective point of view are still naive.”

The old man smoked his pipe with relish and puffed smoke as he spoke,

“A real blind believer, even when told this, will just answer ‘so what?’

A puff of smoke.

The old man closed his eyes again and relaxed. He muttered with hollow eyes, as though exhaling his soul out. I’m not sure what to make of it, but I think it’s a good idea.

“…How else would we have built such a thing…it was for the sake of fulfilling a dream that wasn’t supposed to come true.

Mere lind faith.

Mere fanaticism.

…If we ordinary people aren’t able to go this far, what else is enough… “

The old man put his pipe down on the side table.

It signaled the end of the conversation.

“It’s a pity. I thought you were qualified to be a blind follower. Shall we go our separate ways?”

“Yes.”

“Well, I hope your wish will come true as you wish it to be.”

Waoaahhh~!

At that moment, there was a cheer. The stairs were repaired. People swirled over like a tsunami, and the people on the streets were immediately attracted to the stairs, leaving aside whether they were eating or washing clothes. The repair of the stairs was finished. People were pouring in like a tsunami. This was how the town outside became so empty.

Ai and the old man stared at the scene. The people lined up at the stairs all had the smiles of children visiting a festival.

“You’re not going up?”

“No. I’m fine with this level. My wish has already been granted.”

Ai slowly stood up, carried her shovel and dusted her hem.

“…Thank you very much for the talk.”

She bowed deeply to the old man.

“See you then….”

“Hmm. I don’t think we will meet again, but these words are most appropriate for a goodbye. See you then.”

“Oi, old man.”

It was Alice.

He had been silent for so long that Ai assumed he was not going to talk until they left. Unexpectedly though, he unleashed her blade-like tongue at the very end.

“I got two questions for you to answer.”

“Hmm. What is it?”

“Well, the part about your wish coming true only matters in the tower?”

“Hoho? You’re a quick learner, aren’t you?”

“Enough for the courtesy. So, what is it?”

“You are right.”

Tch, Alice clicked his tongue loudly,

“Hohohoh, but that reality doesn’t make any difference to you, does it?”

“Like hell it is. It’s a big difference.”

“Hohohoh! You’re young, but you’ve managed to escape the allure of blind faith!”

The old man laughed heartily.

“…One last question.”

“What is it?”

“…What have you been wishing for yourself?”

“Hmm?”

“What’s this tower to you?”

“A tomb.”

The old man answered immediately.

“…I piled the stones to wrap my sister in warmth. I wanted her to be at peace. If possible, I hope she’d be able to say ‘thanks’. I piled these stones, built this city, brought everyone here…”

“…Did you get your wish?

“Hm.”

The brother nodded confidently.

“I’m ashamed to admit this, and she did scold me ‘you’re doing something stupid’, but she’s satisfied at the end. “

He then sent a friendly glance into the air next to the rocking chair.

“Really? I don’t see anything…”

Ai too could not feel anything either.

But the old blind believer did not care about the opinions of such a young man, and merely puffed out smoke.

“…Bye then.”

Alice did not say ‘see you then’, and instead bade farewell and walked off. Ai bowed and followed. Dee, who had sensed something was wrong, met them from the other side, “Oiii~” waving her hand and calling for them.

Hm, the old man nodded his head and began to pedal his rocking chair again.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *