The court, which had been solemn despite its odd shape, revealed its true self with every passing second.. The walls and floor cracked open to reveal a cut-out human form, and the dragons on the candlestick flapped the earth with flame in their mouths. Chairs rose up, no longer allowing humans to sit on them, and tables ran for their supper. The nightmarish, deformed army seemed to be a rebellion of oppressed furniture.
Ai and Alice ran through the gap like a whirlwind.
The adults were fighting the monsters in the middle of the hall, piling up the broken furniture that had stopped forming as they formed a circle. Ai and Alice backed each other up as they slipped past Madame and ran up the steps of the hall.
Dee was shriveled in the middle of the adults as though she was participating in a disaster drill.
With a shudder, Dee popped out from under the desk and hugged Ai tightly.
“Thank goodness! Thank goodness! And Alice too! Thank goodness both of you are alright!”
“M-Miss Dee, it hurts.”
“Oops, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. But I’m so glad…”
“Leave the talk for later!”
Julie, wrestling with a long bench , shouted.
“…I have some questions right now…but I’ll be patient for now…”
His eyes shone darkly for some reason as he stared coldly at Alice.
“Hahahahaha! Come, you monsters! I’ll make you into some fine sized firewood!”
Around them, Bendo and the other old politicians were grabbing weapons from wherever they could find “Hah!” “Take this!” they yelled away, showing that experience still counts.
The battle was a stalemate.
“…How dare you do this…?”
But only for now.
“How dare you ruin…everything…you ruined… my precious trial court…”
Madame Express Legion’s Hive.
The monster-killing monster was livid.
In the center of the hall, a girl in a maid’s uniform was trembling with rage. Her young face was tinged with dark colors, and her hair fluttered in the air like a white snake. Her lips were lifted in the shape of a smile, which eventually tore the edges of her lips into a huge one.
“Come on, iron bugs! Suppress them now!”
As soon as the order was given, more of these deformed shapes appeared from the ceiling. These things called the iron bugs were unlike the other furniture, and were soldiers specialized for combat.
A thousand-bladed mantis crawled about, and beetles with cannon as their horn pointed their dark muzzle at us. The court’s ban on weapons was broken at this moment.
But the same could be said for the opponent.
“You’ve got some good stuff here.”
Alice spread his arms wide and grabbed two iron bugs, the purpose of his gesture unknown to both his allies and his enemies.
Madame commanded, ignoring the fates of the two iron bugs. The rest of the bugs fired their heavy weapons all over their bodies without any concern for their allies. Hundreds of rounds, small and large, and ten kilograms of killing intent threatened Alice.
“I’ll be borrowing these.”
At the center of it all, Alice merely laughed it off as though he was caught in a drizzle, knocked over the two iron bugs next to him, and ripped off the right and left arms.
The torn right arm was an automatic shotgun.
The torn left arm was a seven-millimeter chain gun.
Brrrrrrrrrrrrr!!! The sounds that echoed did not resemble gunshots, but instead sounded like water splashed onto oil as the bullets were released into the air.
The space was filled with ripples. Each ripple created by the collision of the bullets was overwhelmed by a new ripple before it could spread. The killing intent of the iron bugs was like a raging torrential downpour, disrupting the narrow space into shreds.
But just as no storm could ever reach the bottom of a lake,
Not a single bullet touched a human life.
Alice said, dumping the empty gun into a pile of bullets.
“I’m not gonna let those guns do their job.”
“Ai, do it now!”
Ai did not need to be told.
In an instant, Ai was behind Madame, and twisted the latter’s arms.
“What? When did you?”
“Please surrender and have these monsters back down!”
Ai exerted more strength in her arm locks.
“Ow, ow, ow! It hurts, Master Ai, it hurts! How cruel!”
Madame pleaded with the expression of a young child, and Ai was practically defenseless against that..
“Th-then please stop them soon! If not—”
“What will you do then!? Will you break my arms? Are you saying that you will do such a cruel thing, Master Ai? You are not human!”
It was then that Ai realized she was going to break someone else’s arms, and she was taken aback. She had a further look at Madame’s delicate arms, and was rattled further. It was as easy to break her arms as it would be to break a baby’s, but it was very difficult for Ai to break a baby’s arms.
“It hurts! It hurts! My arms are breaking! Maybe they are! Please, Master Ai! Please be a little gentle …”
Right when Ai became tentative and accidentally eased up,
“Enough with the lousy act.”
Dee ran out of the safe zone (under the table).
“Ai, don’t be fooled by the stupid words.”
Dee stood in front of Madame and looked down at the latter arrogantly.
Madame frowned in disgust, and Dee simply ignored her and continued with a proposal.
“Now, Madame, let’s negotiate.”
Madame, and everyone else, was surprised by these words.
“…Did I mishear you, Master Dee? I thought negotiations have already broken down…”
“Tch tch tch, you don’t understand, Madame. Look, negotiations don’t end just because they break down. How about we negotiate on the basis of the breakdown?”
“What do you mean…?”
“Let’s sort things out.”
She raised her index finger.
“Madame, your goal was to ‘seal the black surface and Alice’, and this was confirmed through prior negotiations with Alice. However, Alice had a change of heart and there was strong opposition from the public, so the deal was reversed.”
Madame groaned, gritting her teeth. This showed Madame too was a victim. She was merely acting according to the deal she had made with Alice.
“But this is not a good situation for either of us. We don’t want to go to war, and neither do you, Madame. So, Madame, you have to stop.”
“What…does that mean?”
“In more ways than one.”
“Hey Madame, what can I do to get you to stop? If you say that breaking your arms won’t get you to stop, and that you won’t stop until your heart gets ripped out, we’ll be more than glad to oblige.”
Dee’s smile had a tinge of mercy.
Yes, if you need to be forced to stop, we’ll be glad to use that force.”
“…You are really a terrifying person …?”
It was then that for the first time, Madame seemed to realize how horrifying the person before her was.
“Are you saying you shall kill me?”
“……But that will be impossible.”
Madame hesitated for a moment.
“You know what I mean, Dee Engsy. We are no longer at a point where we can be stopped by ‘so what’.”
“…So what about the limbs? And what about the heart?What’s wrong with your limbs? What’s wrong with your heart?
There was a very unpleasant sound in Ai’s arms.
That was not all.
Crack crack crack crack crack crack crack.
“What about the body? What about the mind ahhhhhh?
“Madame, wait, don’t run away!”
Madame’s body disintegrated in Ai’s arms. Her arms broke, her intestines spilled out to reveal the contents of a doll’s stomach, and finally, even the head fell.
With a pop, Madame’s head bounced down the stairs like a ball falling from a child’s hand.
She ended up in the middle of the hall, atop the pile of iron bugs that Alice had smashed.
Like a broken doll being abandoned, Madame too landed atop the pile.
And then the head started to laugh.
Madame laughed. She gnawed at the broken furniture and opened her mouth to laugh out loud. The broken junk was further disintegrated, and then devoured. Nobody knew whether it was some ability or a divine curse, but once the junk passed through her throat, it instantly became her flesh and blood. The lid of the piggy bank became her esophagus, and the broken candlestick became her spine. Internal organs, muscles, torso, limbs, Madame’s body was rebuilt in no time.
It was a giant made of junk.
“—If you wish to stop me by ripping my heart out, by all means.”
It was more than five times taller than Ai. This giant that was formed through the heap of junk probably weighed at least 50 times that of Ai.
“Commmeeeee, ddddooo yoooouurrr bbeeeessst ttoooo riiipppp myyyy hhheeaaarrrtttt oooouuuuttttt! That is, if I still have one!!!!!”
The junk giant laughed as it shook its entire body. There were fangs all over its body, and mouths.
Madame simply shook her fist, which she had made by blending together the judge’s seat, the defense attorney’s seat, and the defendant’s seat.
Even in her sleep, Ai could dodge this blow from Madame, who was at this point huge and slow.
But it was a different matter for the people around her.
No! A moment later, Alice’s eyes were screaming.
Ai spread her hands in front of the fist. She did not think she could withstand the attack.
However, she might be able to deflect it.
She had no idea what would happen to her after that.
Still, Ai stood before the destruction.
Fist, light, and flame.
The tri colored lights raged through the hall. The destruction was overwhelmed by more destruction.
“You can’t do this, Madame. You can’t just go around killing everyone out of a sudden.”
The man said, holding up a white-hot fist.
“Yes. The Fist over there is correct.”
The boy who floated in the air amidst the light shrugged.
Last of all, the noblewoman in a dress of flames glared silently.
Three mere blows. Three personal attacks caused Madame to be completely battered.
Destructive Fist: Maccia Electus.
Dust. Dust Believer.
Third Angel. Noellfaen.
These people who were no less gifted than others, invited to be the jury here, saved, saved Ai and the others in the nick of time.
Piiuuu. Dee, the first to run off, immediately ran back and started hammering at Maccia’s chest.
“You guys are late! You should have saved us earlier!”
“Don’t get us wrong.”
Maccia replied, blocking a spinning punch with a right hand.
“We’re not on your side at all—it’s just that we’re stepping in as this is overdoing it.”
A voice echoed from the burned flesh.
‘Why? Ladies and gentlemen? Why…are you doing this to this …?”
Madame had already begun to regenerate. Just as it was impossible to fold sand, and impossible to cut water, no matter how strong their abilities were, it was not easy to destroy Madame’s body that was made of scrap metal, even for the three of them.
“I’m saying that you broke the law, Madame.”
“Broke the law…?”
Madame’s mailbox face showed a puzzled look.
“That’s right. You people make up your own laws and pervert them. You don’t obey the laws you made, and that’s too much.”
“I broke the…law…”
“You dare say you didn’t? How do you explain this situation then? You passed the verdict on Alice, but you never went through the proper judiciary process when the entire town was opposed. Are you intending to destroy a whole town without going through the due process? ”
“I…I…broke the law.”
One had to wonder if Madame heard those words as she began to mumble only those words with her crushed lips.
Ai had a bad feeling about this.
“Of course. Shouldn’t you stop right now? Since the townspeople are going to obstruct the punishment that is Alice’s sealing, they too should be judged on their interference before you process.”
“I broke the law…”
Ai exchanged glances with Dee, who too showed a similarly perturbed look in her face. What Maccia said was mostly what Dee had been trying to say earlier. This persuasion of reason however was beginning to rot, emitting an extraordinary stench.
“And the people backing you don’t want you to do this…”
“How can I possibly…break the law……?”
Finally, Maccia seemed to notice the disturbing signs.
“I am…the keeper of the law…the foundation of justice…and I…I…”
The broken scrap metal face formed an expression of anger. The excessive rage caused the giant’s body to appear too small, and as the lips pursed, it caused the body to rip apart, the trembling caused the body to disintegrate further.
“How can I…how can I…how can I…how cangagagagagaga—”
And the giant abruptly collapsed.
Ash to ash, trash to trash, and the ramshackle body crumbled back into junk.
One of the twisted plates rolled away, rolling all the way to Ai before stopping.
The sound died away, and silence fell upon the area.
“…What is this?”
Ai murmured in the painful silence. No one was truly happy about this collapse, and even those of terrible intuition knew firsthand that the current silence was going to be broken badly.
“Kan ka kan!”
The silence was broken by the sound of a hammer.
Gan gan gan!
The sound of the gavel came out of nowhere.
“To the town of Ostia and the three members of the jury….”
A voice from an unknown source declared.
“You are in contempt of court …for obstructing justice… breach of trust…and everything else…”
Gan gan gan gan gan gan!
The sound of the gavel no longer produced any dignity as it hammered at everyone’s eardrums like an annoying cicada rain.
Gan gan gan gan gan gan gan gan!
“Capital punishment shall be meted out.”
Madame became a huge smile.
“Are you serious…”
“… No way. At this time…?”
Alice, Dee, and the jury all turned pale. Ai had no idea what was going on.
“Madame has ‘fallen’…”
The words formed hordes of uneasiness and despair that spread through the evening darkness.
“I can’t believe Coven is going to be ‘selfish’…negotiations won’t work…the town will be destroyed…”
Dee fell to her knees weakly.
The lights on the walls went out one by one, and the area was engulfed in darkness. Madame’s gnawing sounds intensified in turn, surrounding the crowd from everywhere.
Julie shouted, telling off the disheartened people. Everyone straightened their backs and obeyed without complaint.
The walls, ceilings, and earth trembled, and the odd but elegant trial hall collapsed, engulfed in a wave of laughter.
The circle was barely afloat in the sea of destruction, like a small boat bobbing on the waves.
“Ai, find Madame! Where is she?”
“I’m on it!”
Ai used her keen hearing to search for the source of the sound. She listened carefully to the sounds coming from all directions, searching for the source of the real voice. However,
“Ai! Hurry up! Where’s Madame? What the hell is this thing!?”
“Speak up already! Which one’s the real one?”
“They’re all real!”
“We’re inside Miss Madame!”
And Madame smirked.
In the midst of her laughter, the humans turned pale.
Scar wished she had not listened to Julie to begin with.
The battle had begun once again in front of the main gate.
“Hold the line! Don’t let a single one of them get into the town! Fire, fire, fire! ”
The citizen soldiers led by the bearded guard captain shouted and shot at the iron bugs that kept assaulting the main gate. The armament ranged from recoilless guns to flintlock rifles of varying standards and ages, as if the exhibits of an entire historical museum was in full display. Some of them brought out full plate iron armors, and for some reason, some of them were even wearing them.
“Erm, I do not have to participate?”
Scar was left behind at the ruin of a café about fifty meters downhill from the main gate, sitting down on the only surviving chair.
The young soldier, and therefore the one assigned to this location, answered.
“Miss Scar, your work is already done! Please sit there!”
Her job was to basically use her outstanding senses to observe the situation inside the court, and determine the best time for the trial to be overturned. It was a very important job, and only Scar could do it. Please stay outside with Celica—that was what Julie said, but in hindsight, that explanation was basically to keep her away from danger.
“You two, please stay put! I’ll protect you!”
Yah! Ta! The boy swung his spear wildly, and was dressed in full plate armor for some reason. It seemed that in this boy’s mind, Scar was a ‘weak woman who should be protected’.
In fact, it was the other way around.
“You’ve been sighing a lot since a while ago.”
“…I guess. I never used to sigh.”
“Are you worried about something?”
“…There is plenty for me to worry about.”
Scar whined away at the same angle as she sighed.
“‘First of all, I am worried about you, who is before me. I am also worried about the battlefield out there, Julie who is in there, and obviously, the situation of the town too. I have yet to take in the dry laundry, and what about dinner tonight?”
“E-erm, Miss Scar?”
“And—I am also concerned…about the voice.”
The boy asked, but Scar was too pensive to respond.
Yes, ‘that voice’.
The voice that made Scar decide to fight.
It was a voice that sent chills down the spine just by the mere thought. It was the first time Scar had ever heard Ai’s voice like that. It was a scream that embodied despair and sorrow.
How much misfortune had befallen her? How much despair had tormented her heart?
What was Ai doing at this moment?
Scar was troubled.
(Is she crying? Or is she unable to cry? Is there nobody with her? Why am I not with her)
Scar regretted deeply, thinking that she should not have listened to Julie at all.
A hand kept tapping her cheek.
One had to wonder when she woke up. The Great Goddess of Hunger and Fullness. The unrivaled baby Celica Hecmatika reached out and patted Scar’s cheek.
“…Are you hungry?”
No! The baby made such a noise. Scar ignored the baby’s insistence, “Yes yes” and checked the diaper and skin.
But it seemed neither was the right answer, for Celica’s squeamishness did not abate.
She’s a child who rarely squirms, and yet…Scar tried all means, but Celica kept pouting, and Scar was at her wit’s end,
“I guess she’s saying ‘don’t worry’ or something?.”
The boy echoed Celica’s sentiments.
The boy gently stroked the baby’s head, his full plate armor clanking. Instantly, Celica seemed content and stroked Scar in the same way.
This time, the feelings were conveyed to Scar.
“…Yes, I am sure of it.”
As if to express her gratitude, Scar hugged Celica gently.
“I am certain, certain that Ai will be fine. I am sure everyone will be safe.”
It was then that Scar decided to wait, believing that,
A tremendous scream erupted from the entrance to the courthouse.
It was a scene where one had to doubt the eyes. The courthouse, which had been a perfectly decent, if oddly shaped building, was slithering like a snake.
“Back off, both of you!”
The snake writhe about, closing the entrance as if it were trying to hold back vomit. One could see tremendous light and destruction rampaging there.
The court exploded as though it took a bite of gunpowder.
There were people spilling out of the battered and open entrance. The court vomited like a frog that had swallowed a bee. This time, humans were ejected.
The entrance then rose up high like a sickle head, and threw the two of them into the air as if to fling out its broken teeth.
Scar immediately began to run.
Thinking that she had managed to escape, Ai jumped out and found herself in the sky. From about 15 meters in the air, she looked at the ground to see the familiar main gate, the unfamiliar iron bugs, people wielding guns and the security captain frantically shouting “Stop shooting!” Dee and Julie were further downhill, looking at her worriedly. Ai just felt everyone was so small, like miniatures.
Before her was the town of Ostia that was dyed red.
She could see the ripples of the glistening lake. She saw a flock of crows returning to their nests, their shadows casted over a hundred meters on the ground. At a camp downtown, there was someone looking at her in shock.
That was what Ai felt like saying to that person for some reason.
The fall was about to end.
She braced herself for the full impact of eight meters, while her body was trapped by gravity.
For some reason, Scar was there at the landing point of the fall.
“M-Miss Scar? Why?”
As a Gravekeeper herself, Scar would have known that Ai was in no danger at this height. And yet, Scar held Celica in her left hand and stretched her right hand fully up into the sky.
“Alright! Ai~! Alice~! Come here! A little to the right, Maccia!”
“Don’t order me around!”
And then, there were others who joined in.
“E-Everyone, move back! Please move back!”
“Come now, girl! Come to papa!”
“Please listen to me!”
“It’s all right!”
The large man who had a communication issue spread his arms wide.
“I’ll definitely catch you!”
You can’t say no to me! Julie laughed out loud.
Ai had nothing more to say, nor did she have the time to as she landed into the crowd. The impact that she was supposed to feel reached many hands, leaving her completely unscathed.
As she sank into the soft hands, Ai felt something escape her mind and something enter her heart.
Scar hugged Ai together with Celica.
“Ai, are you fine? Are you hurt? Are you in pain? Do you feel unbearable?”
Scar was surprisingly worried.
“I’m fine, Miss Scar.”
Ai hugged Scar and Celica back with as much strength as Scar did.
“I’m sorry for worrying you.”
“…Well, that is weird. You certainly look fine. ”
Daw! “I told you so!” Celica seemingly boasted.
“I’ll tell you about what happened later. But for now…Mr. Alice!”
“Okay—so, old man. How about you drop me off?”
“How about you get off me, you bastard!!”
For some reason, Alice landed on Julie, and then he unwillingly hopped off, looking at everyone.
“Everyone, get out of here right now.”
He pointed behind.
“Get as far away from the town as you can.”
Over there, Madame was devouring herself.
The courthouse was completely disfigured and no longer a building at all. A fungus-like fluid made of junk was swallowing the walls and pillars from the inside, and the iron worms that had been guarding the building squealed away as they were swallowed one after another.
Madame was about to be reborn as something else. The pie of flesh that filled the fence of the school looked like an overgrown egg or a cocoon—or a rotting pus, or a tumor.
At the moment, Madame was still too busy remaking herself to approach them. Needless for Alice to say, it was obvious to everyone.
There’s no way they could fight this thing.
But there was a spirit that put such fear to rest.
Dee walked in, carrying an old assault rifle. Everyone was shocked. It was no longer a matter of whether it suited her at all. The sight of a girl and a gun combination just felt so painful.
But Dee herself did not seem to have any feelings about it; she just propped her gun and sai,
“If we run away here, we’ll be running away forever. I don’t want that.”
“Are you stupid!? You’ll die!”
The ‘Dandy Mayor’ Bendo Gram, the leader of Ostia Town, shouted to the point where his face was flushed right..
“It’s just dying.”
Dee, who had loaded the first round of ammunition through unaccustomed hands, lifted the gun with some difficulty.
“People will die someday. I don’t care if I die today.”
“Don’t be stupid!”
“Those who don’t want to die can run. I’ll protect you.”
She gave a taunting smile.
“—By the way, does this gun fire when I pull the trigger? I don’t get this.”
“…The safety is still on, Dee Ensy.”
The bearded security captain immediately stepped forward and inspected Dee’s gun.
“…We’ll stay. With you.”
The captain’s men followed one after the other. They accepted Dee’s words as though they were disciples who were struck by an oracle.
But Dee remained aloof the entire time, “I see” and merely nodded curtly.
“Wait! Wait a minute! Is that the only way?”
“There’s no other way. There’s no way for Ostia to recover again if we don’t do this.”
The simple declaration of their future sent chills down everyone’s spine. However, they had no better option aside from what Dee had told them.
“Then I’ll do it.”
“I’ll stop Madame.”
Dee asked, giving the look of someone who had just chewed a thousand bitter bugs.
“With my ability, of course…it’s hard to explain, but anyway, everyone, please believe me and run to the town.”
“! You’re doing that again…wait, hold up, let go of me, Bendo!”
Wah wah! Bendo held down a yapping Dee.
“Brat, I’ll listen to whatever you say…if you say there’s a way, I’ll believe there is. But I want you to answer one question.”
The man who had known Alice since his birth grabbed the latter’s shoulders firmly.
“—You’re coming back alive, aren’t you?”
“You’re not going to give up your own life to get everyone else to escape, are you?”
“I’m not planning to do that. Also, I want these guys to stay.”
Saying that, Alice patted Ai’s head. Ai was a little surprised, for she thought she was going to be told to run away.
Alice looked a little angry and said, “What is it? Ai laughed and said, “It’s nothing.”
Julie and Scar nodded in agreement, while Dee hurriedly added, “I’m staying too!”
“Is that so…”
Bendo laughed and seemed to accept this.
“We’ve decided! Alice and a few others will stall Madame here! The rest of you, retreat to the town as fast as you can! Help with the evacuation!”
“Captain! I’m the mayor, and I have the authority to make decisions here! You will obey me!”
“~! No choice now! Hurry up!”
The group then moved quickly. People rushed out like spiders and jumped into the nearby parked cars. Weapons, armor, people, and everything else was stuffed in at random, and the engines were revved.
While the people evacuated, the surface of Madame began to bubble. The pie made of junk was bursting as though it was fermentation, and children no one wanted to see were being born from the bubbles. There were rhinoceros made of empty candy boxes, dogs made of boats and cars, wedding dresses made out of newspapers. Madame’s creations were akin to toys made by children, and most of them rolled away, being completely useless.
But some of them did work.
Infantrymen made of pistols, mantises made of saws, wasps made of choppers. They ranged from being as small as bugs to large as ancient dragons, none of which were the same, and they spilled out of the bubbles, running out.
“Move move move!”
The cars that had finished stuffing the bare minimum items raced down the hill, one after another, away from the main gate.
“What are you doing? Move out right now!”
Among them, there was one car that was having trouble starting its engine.
“Wait! Don’t rush me! Okay, here we go!”
Five winged creatures charged forth and descended upon the plaza at bullet-like speed. Ai parried off one, Alice deflected another, and the remaining three were taken care of by Deformed.
That was when the sixth wasp attacked the car.
Alice had a great reaction. He fended off one of them before him, and with an assault rifle he somehow procured, he shot out the eyes and wings of the iron bug that attacked the car.
The driver and Alice showed shocked faces. The iron worm was no longer a soft existence that could ‘be destroyed if needed’.
The shattered eyeballs functioned even after being shattered, and the broken wings regenerated as they were broken.
All the iron bugs had become part of Madame herself.
Just as one could not cut water, or break sand.
Nobody could break something that was already broken.
The regenerating iron bug climbed onto the car. Alice fired more shots, and the iron bug was destroyed again.
But there was no way to kill something that was dead.
The only ones that could do so—
“Do not say it is hopeless.”
There was a flash.
A silver blade flashed in the corner of the battlefield, and dirt clods were flung. The clods slowly unraveled and flew ten meters away, bursting when it hit the back of the iron bug.
That mere touch alone,
Caused the immortal monster to return to the earth.
“Please get a grip. Are humans not greedier for life than that?”
The silver blade was a dull shovel, and there was a shining baby on its owner’s chest.
It was a Gravekeeper with a scar on her right eyebrow.
“Celica, it is dangerous. Do stay put.”
Daw! Celica gave a very energetic reply, and curled up in the safest place in the world.
Scar tied the hugging cloth tightly onto herself, and took the shovel in her other hand as well.
She swung her left hand, and Ai instinctively reached out to grab the object before her.
It was Ai’s shovel.
“It does appear our technique works here!”
Scar kept moving while she spoke. She kept swinging her shovel so quickly that the eyes could not catch up, eradicating the iron bugs one by one.
Ai heard the voice urging her, but allowed herself three seconds of hesitation.
The shovel had been by Ai’s side since her mother’s death. The shovel that always supported Ai’s pretensions, was a symbol of dreams and hopes, and had helped her so many times.
But it never saved her.
Ai brought her forehead to the cold blade, and broke away from it.
The shovel, as usual, made no reply.
Swoosh. The silver blade thrust into the earth, and Ai grabbed the shovel like a drowning person clinging onto a floating log, her head lowered as she watched for the irong bugs to swarm over. The wingless ones were already crawling towards her. A sludge elephant raised its leg, and a jeweled scarecrow raised its emerald hand.
A silver light flashed.
Splash. The sound of splashing water echoed everywhere. This movement alone immobilized the iron bugs, and they could no longer move. It was a simple burial of tossing the soil, a method that the Ai of old would never have chosen.
Ai declared, raising her a shovel.
“Leave this place to us, everyone, please run!”
“! Got it!”
The last of the cars disappeared down the hill.
For a brief moment, Ai’s consciousness faded as she threw herself into the battle.
And when she came to, she found himself standing in the wreckage.
“My bad my bad, you saved us here. I didn’t think the iron bugs could be immortal.”
After scavenging the weapons that were left behind, Alice came over like a platoon of one.
“Mr. Alice, are you sure your ‘plan’ will work?”
Ai’s face winced with anxiety, Alice said that they could stop the iron bugs before knowing of the enemy’s immortality. It might not work anymore.
“No problem.” But Alice just nodded,
“That aside, did the townspeople evacuate? What about Dee?”
“Mr. Maccia took her away.”
“Took her away?”
“Yes, Miss Dee was shouting, ‘I’m staying here—————~!’ but Mr. Maccia didn’t care and carried her off like a sack of wheat.”
“Nice going Maccia…so it’s the three of us left?”
The voice echoed.
“You think! I’ll leave! My daughter and everyone! Behind in a dangerous place! And run?”
From afar, a familiar blue car arrived.
“Oohh, old man, over here, over here…wait, too close! Old man! Brake! Brake!”
The car came to a stop right before it was about to run over Alice.
“… Ahh, yeah. Of course. I can’t leave my daughter near this dangerous thing…it should be removed ASAP…”
“Old man! Old man! Why are you looking at me!? The dangerous thing is over there, alright!? Ai! Say something already!?”
“It’s the car!”
Ai said, and patted the blue car that arrived before her.
It was that blue car that assisted Ai in her journey. The color of the car was much hazier and deeper than what she remembered.
“Enough fooling, the three of you. The third and fourth waves are coming at once.”
At that moment, the three of them, who had been cooing, choking, and being choked, came to their senses. iron bugs had somehow stopped simply charging and had begun to surround them. Also, everything beyond the fourth wave began to dodge the clods that Scar released.
The iron bugs had evolved.
“Everybody get in! Old man, move out!”
Julie stomped on the pedal.
The blue car consumed the gasoline energetically, and accelerated out of the siege amazingly.
The three legged bugs that were faster were already before them. Alice shot through the wings of these iron bugs, while Ai leaned out the window and let her shovel graze the ground, tossing clods of dirt flying.
“Yeah, we’re out! Take it!”
The swollen tires kicked up all the junk and sped down the slope of Ostia.
And five five meters before arrival.
The blue car made a sound resembling a defeatning fart, and stopped accelerating.
“Eh? Wh-What’s going on?”
“Probably a lack of maintenance. It’s been sitting there for half a year, after all.”
Julie said, giving an ‘understandable’ reaction. The voice was uncomfortable to the others.
“Wh-wh-wh-wh-what do we do now?”
“Get out there and push! Anyway, just doin the slope! —No, forget it! Everyone, don’t move!”
“Don’t move! Everyone brace for impact!”
Ai twisted around and stared at the rear glass.
Waves of iron bugs were swarming from behind.
“Keep your mouth shut!”
Ai did as told.
Two seconds later, the car was in the blender.
Ai thought that she was going to turn into strawberry gelato when she died.
She did not know what that meant though.
Just as droplets come together to form water, water comes together to form rivers, and rivers come together to form oceans.
The junk gathered and became waves.
“Ai, wake up!”
“Uuuuunnnn…no, I’m Strawberry…”
“Wake up, Strawberry!”
She woke up to find herself in a nostalgic blue car.
But something was wrong. Was this blue car ever this high? It was so high that it was above the roofs of the houses…
“Wh-wh-wh-wh-what’s going on?”
Ai’s eyes widened, and she leaped on the window.
The blue car was riding the waves of iron bugs like a leaf floating in the rapids.
“Shhh! Be quiet! They haven’t noticed us yet!”
It was hard to believe, but that appeared to be the case. The third generation of iron bugs have learned from Ai’s attacks and started a horde strategy, but it appeared they had forgotten the reason why they were learning, “Say, what are we doing?” and they rolled down the hill.
“Mr. Julie, come on! Start the engine!”
“I’m on it!”
Brrr. The sound of a whirring cell motor echoed around them, but that piqued the interest of the iron bugs.
The iron bugs surrounding the blue car were showing interest, and appeared to be chatting, “Isn’t this thing a little different?” “Let’s see?” The praying mantises formed by circuit breakers banged on the hood, and the spiders’ eyes made of traffic lights turned from blue to red.
“Mr Julie… hurry up, they’re going to notice soon…”
“I know ….”
One more turn of the cell, and the iron bugs would probably notice. Julie took a deep breath, one, two, three…
Vroom vroom vroom!
The iron bugs realized, “This is different!”
“Please! Come on!”
The waves broke and the iron bugs swung their weapons. But the attacks, which were uncoordinated with each other, became jumbled and tangled like a hundred pairs of legs kicking over each other.
The blue car slid down the wave of iron bugs and was just about to hit the ground,
“Alright! It worked!”
The car, oblivious how it malfunctioned previously, surfed past the pelting iron bugs. From the tailslide, it rose up the wave and did a cutback drop turn.
Boom. The suspension screamed, and the blue car returned to the earth.
“Mr. Julie, you’re amazing!”
“Whahahahahaha! How about that!?”
Julie was laughing hysterically, taking credit for this incident that was 50% luck and 40% chance. Only Scar, who was in the passenger seat, was cringing at the realization that he had merely stomped on the gas pedal. Celica was sleeping soundly.
“Right, time to take action.”
Alice opened the back door.
“Everyone, listen up.”
The strong gales caused the hems of his jumper to flutter.
“I need to concentrate for one minute now.”
“…That’s fine though.”
Ai was still worried about Bendo’s words.
Was Alice going to sacrifice himself after all?
Alice patted Ai on the head.
“I’m not going to die anymore.”
“…Got it. You have one minute.”
She raised the shovel and stepped outside.
“Leave it to me.”
Ai was shouting with joy, even though the situation was dire. She wanted to imitate what Julie did earlier.
Julie was fuming in anger, and yelled out loud. Ai pretended not to hear and stepped on her shovel to accelerate.
Ai pretended not to hear and stepped on the shovel to increase the speed, calling it iron bugs riding.
Ai was riding on her shovel like a surfboard, and the iron bugs as the wave tubes. She had the whole beach staring at her .
“It’s dangerous! Hey! Ai! Stop it!
“No, wait, old man, that’s surprisingly sensible. She’s able to lure the attention of the iron bugs, and also maneuver her way through. She’s not just playing around—”
“That’s right! I’m not playing! Yahoooiii!!”
“…Well, she’s playing alright.”
Ai strafed back from the roller coaster, and scraped the ground. She slid through an avalanche of tubes for 30 meters, gathered energy from a bottom turn, and did an over the moon sault .
Ai is a ground-scraping slashback from a roller coaster. I’m not sure if you’ve ever heard of it, but I’ve seen it.
After calming the waves down to some extent, Ai looked at the ceiling of the blue car as she hovered about.
There, Alice was showing tremendous concentration, staring into the air and seemingly forgetting the existence of the iron bugs.
(It’s about time.)
Ai had a vague idea of what Alice was going to do.
Madame was a ‘Dead who could recognize and manipulate any artificial hands and eyes as part of herself’. These iron bugs before them were Madame’s artificial hands and legs, so to speak. No matter how much she enlarged herself, this relationship of ‘main body and artificial’ remained the same..
In other words, Madame’s own corpse exists separately.
So where was the body? Were they all gathered somewhere? Or in pieces, mixed up with all the junk?
Probably the latter, Ai predicted.
(Noooooowwwww thhhhhheennnn, pull out the heart, iiifffff yyyyooouuu ccccaaannn! That is if, IIIIIIIII hhhhaaaaavvvvveeeee aaaannnnnnyyyyy lllllleeeeeeffffftttt!)
That was what Madame shouted, but there was something strange about the phrase ‘if I have any left’. Given this line, it might be possible that Madame herself might not know where her heart was.
Further supporting Ai’s theory was the internal structure of the courthouse when Ai snuck inside. The fact that the building was constructed to resemble a human body was probably the result of the diffusion of different parts of the body.
Alice was most probably going to use his Buzzer Beater ability to shoot through and disperse the main body. Ai glanced at the blue car, which should have been setting up the heavy weaponry he had collected by now.
But Ai’s prediction was proven wrong.
Alice stood amidst the gales, holding a single Molotov cocktail.
“Pistol Devourer (Buzzer Beater)”.
It was ‘ability to hit anything he wanted to throw at’
That was how Alice Color always described his ability.
However, this was a simplified explanation, and Alice perceived his own ability in a slightly different way.
(The true power of Buzzer Beater is that it ‘raises the probability of hitting a target’.)
The wind was blowing on the hood, but Alice ignored it and remained concentrated. He was firmly aware of his ability, and concentrated his entire will upon it..
(1% first. 0.1% first. I know I can do that.)
Alice was aware of his ability to ‘manipulate probabilities’
For example, this was the situation as to how the name of his ability came about, the ability to shoot anything down with pistols. Alice could not see the bullet, but his ability could work as usual. The phenomenon indicated that the target the Buzzer Beater was aiming at was a ‘concept’, and its essence was manipulation of probability’.
This is due to the origin of his ability.
Alice became aware of his ability because he wanted to shoot and score from a distance of 25 meters. He knew how impossible it was. 25 meters was a distance where visual aiming was meaningless, and Alice himself was naturally bad at aiming. It was one of the reasons why he could not become a starting member no matter how hard he tried.
But at that moment, Alice was not ‘aiming’. He was just betting on the possibility that if he threw the ball, it might go in.
Therefore, the Buzzer Beater was not about ‘aiming’, but about rigging the possibilities.
Putting the 1% chance at the forefront, the 0.1% before then, and to pull off the 0.01% chance.
The probability here, however, depended on Alice’s perception: He could puff off the 0.1% chance, but sometimes miss the 99% chance..
For example, suppose Alice shot a baby at a distance of one meter. His bullet was certain to miss at that distance however.
Why would this happen? It was because the probability that Buzzer Beater raised was not objective, but dependent on Alice’s perception.
Alice Color, as a person, could easily imagine the immense possibility of hitting a 0.01% possibility, but could not imagine himself killing a baby.
That’s because you’re kind, Ai would say.
But at this moment—
(That’s not good enough!)
Alice smiled fiercely and stared at the waves of insects.
The Buzzer Beater would abide by Alice’s nature and abstain from violence.
But still, there were times when he had to shoot. There were times when he had to defy his own nature and enact violence? What should he do then in such situations?
Alice knew the answer. He had learned from his past.
He yelled like a beast, like a demon, and set the Molotov cocktail on fire.
If he still yearned for destruction.
All he had to do was to change who he was.
He solidified his thoughts. He imagined himself killing the enemy, himself being unkind, being a bloodthirsty person, wanting to tear apart the limbs of a baby, killing his friends, killing the world. He pictured himself so strongly!
Clank! The bottle shattered in Alice’s hand. The oil chilled his right hand and then began to heat it hellishly.
Ai’s voice was no longer audible.
Feeling no heat or pain, Alice grabbed the flame.
“Let it burn.”
“Ending Whistle (Buzzer Beater).”
The magic flame was thus unleashed.
The flame flew slowly.
The flame fell from Alice’s hand, like a human soul that was more feeble than a candle. The soul sank weakly like a lantern dropped into the sea.
The waves easily swallowed the light.
Kicking off the top of the wave, Ai hopped onto the hood instantly.
“What’s with you!?”
It was strangely bright on top of the car, like an optical illusion, and flames were burning in Alice’s right hand. Ai resisted the urge to cry as she tugged at the sleeve of her jumper.
“What are you doing?”
“Stop yapping…my head hurts…”
“Wh-what do you mean by stop yapping!? What are you planning to—”
Alice pointed. Ai had no intention to obey, but the vigor in his burning right hand manipulated her gaze.
The fire sparks caught on one of the iron bugs and were barely burned.
The iron bugs noticed the flames and raised their mantis-shaped right hand in annoyance, smacking at it.
However, instead of being doused, the flame had attached itself to the arm and had grown in size.
The iron bugs panicked a little and flail their arms about, trying to extinguish the flames by pressing their surroundings.
However, due to some coincidence, the flames were on the verge of extinguishing, only to come back to life and slowly burn wilder.
The iron bugs started to get impatient and slapped the flames, but each time the flames got bigger and bigger, and eventually, each of them turned into a fireball.
At that stage, the immune system of the iron bugs finally kicked in. The fireballs were immediately recognized as lesions and were torn to shreds. The flames were finally extinguished, leaving only some fire sparks that scattered around.
But there were about a hundred of them.
—And then the flames rained down on the iron bugs.
The same thing began to happen.
The wave burned.
The fire sparks were burning the iron bugs with such force that one could hear cracks. A pungent stench engulfed the darkness of the night. The sun, sinking into the lake in the west, begins to burn the mountains in the east.
The iron bugs tried their best to put out the flames. A bear made of fire extinguishers blasted its contents and a plane of grasshoppers flew up to escape the flames.
However, the flames were cursed by luck to escape extinguishing, flying through the air and burning iron bugs.
Ai stared at the scene before her, terrified.
The immortal iron bugs continued to burn as though they were tormented hell. The uncommon flames clung to the iron bugs by some chance, refusing to extend its tongue to the town. She knew this was caused by Alice, and understood that the fire was their ally.
But what was this horror, this nauseating horror? Which hell did this forest fire escape from?
Ai squeezed the sleeve.
She looked into his eyes and saw the flames of hell reflected in them, as if it were the place where she had started.
For a moment, she thought it was someone she did not know.
“…Sorry, but ask me questions later…”
But Alice immediately gave his usual smile.
“I can’t take this anymore—”
“Eh? Eh? Ehhh~?”
He lost consciousness and fell on Ai’s body.
“W-wait! Ehh!? Wha-what should I do now!?”
While Ai was screaming, the blue car ran away and iron bugs were left behind in the flames.
Thus, the night ended with Ostia’s victory.
The biggest horror was that Celica never woke up until the very end.
Ai had no idea at all, but it was said that there was lots of ruckus amongst the 30,000 citizens for the past few days. It was not about fighting Madame, but about the survival of the community.
The current citizens of Ostia—with the exception of a few locals—were mostly a group that had been ‘saved by Alice’. Thousands of people saw no value in remaining in this town, and amongst those who wanted to stay, some were naturally unwilling to antagonize Madame and insisted on accepting Alice’s proposal to sacrifice himself.
It was impossible to bring them all together.
Therefore, Bendo and other members of the city council decided to divide Ostia in two.
Those who would not and could not fight had evacuated to the towns beyond the lake, and only those who wanted to fight remained on the hillside, building a number of camps.
This camp was one of them.
Next to a drum that was cackling and burning away, Ai was tending to Alice.
The area was lined with tents of similar specs, littered with burning red drums. They were at the parking lot of the Skagen, a long-established hotel that was always mentioned in the Ostia guidebook.
Ai glanced away and looked up at the building behind her. The century-old building stood tall, unscathed by the wind damage of the past decade or so, and was now supporting the citizens as a frontline base. The shouting that could be heard from time to time came from the meeting that was being held inside. There was an important meeting going on there to decide the fate of the town, and the two of them had to go there after the wounds were treated.
And the treatment was done.
“—Yes, it’s done. Please make your little adjustments yourself.”
Ai folded the end of the bandage and patted Alice on the shoulder.
Alice briefly thanked her, and then quickly practiced a quickdraw to check if the bandage would hinder him.
Seeing her, “Haa…” Ai sighed and packed the first aid items.
“How does it feel?”
“Not bad. But my grip is a little loose.”
“I’m not asking about that…”
“?” Alice had a puzzled look. It seemed he really had no idea as to what she was asking about.
Haaa…Sighing again, Ai closed the first aid kit.
“…I’m asking you about your burns.”
Alice nonchalantly waved his right hand in the air.
“It’s no big deal—”
Ai interrupted before Alice could finish, and Alice gave the look of one who had bitten his tongue,
“W-What do you mean, I’m lying?”
“Exactly what I’m saying. The person who burned his hand and did that is saying this now? If that’s ‘no big deal’, then everything in this world is ‘no big deal’.”
“…Please don’t hide this from me.”
Ai cupped her knees and looked at the hills in the distance. She was so disappointed. Alice’s attitude gave her the urge to cry.
“…What were those flames?”
Far away, the unquenchable fire did not extinguish, and kept burning the iron bugs.
“Is your ability able to do that?—Please don’t lie to me. Tell me.”
“Ugh, it’s not like I want to lie about it.”
“I guess so. You just won’t tell the truth, right?”
“All right, all right, I’ll talk…so don’t give me that look.”
He put his hands up in surrender.
“It’s just using my ability in another way…”
Alice spoke of the other nature of his Buzzer Beater, to manipulate probabilities. In other words, that was hold he managed to control the flames.
“…I see. So that’s what it is.”
She was convinced at the very least.
“But. Isn’t it…dangerous?”
“Actually, it is. It’s always sort of a semi-automatic ability, so when I do something with a wide range like this, I can’t predict the outcome. I don’t even know when that fire will be extinguished. This ‘metamorphosis’ is really that dangerous, since it’s an ability even the person can’t control. It’s like a natural disaster, anything can happen…”
“Ah, no, that’s what what I’m talking about..”
“Ah, no, that’s not what I asked.”
Ai interrupted Alice.
“Huh? Then what else is it?”
Again, Alice misunderstood Ai’s words. Ai did not refer to his ability when she asked if it was ‘dangerous’.
“That’s not it…I’m asking if your body’s okay?”
That was what she wanted to ask.
She understood the theory. However, she could not have but imagine there would be so risk in creating such terrifying flames, such a terrifying hell. That was why Ai wanted to ask, hoping that Alice would tell her that it was fine.
“Ahh, that’s what you’re talking about? ”
Alice shook his head, as though implying that it was nothing.
As soon as she saw it, Ai knew what he was going to say next.
“The burns on my right hand are just normal. Don’t worry.”
It was exactly what Ai wanted to hear,
“And you took care of that too, so it’s all good.”
But Ai was no longer listening to Alice’s words. She just turned her head and buried her head between her kneecaps.
“Don’t worry, I’m not hurt anywhere else…wait, what’s with you? You got a stomach ache? Did you pick up something to eat?”
Alice tried to change the topic by making a poor joke. Ai slowly brought her face into his sight, and left him completely speechless.
The first tear fell from her chin.
“…Mr Alice, you liar…”
“Ho-how is that a lie!?”
Alice was still oblivious as to what he did.
“It’s obviously a lie when you say there’s no danger…”
Alice’s face changed for the first time.
“…Mr Alice, you have no idea why I was so angry and sad just now…”
“I wasn’t angry because you did something dangerous, or sad because you got hurt.”
“I was just sad that you tried to hide this from me…”
“N-no! That’s not true….”
At this point, Alice finally seemed to realize what he had done.
Once he admitted his mistake, he quickly made up his mind. He straightened up and bowed deeply.
“You said there’s no danger, but you’re lying to me after all…”
“No, well, maybe a little…”
“You’re always like that.”
Ai did not mince her words towards the back of the head before her. She was so unwilling to forgive him.
“I think it’s a very noble, very kind thing to decide alone, take action alone, and not let those around you know that there’s danger…but, Mr Alice, how do you think I’m going to feel when everyone around you, or I, finds out about it?”
“Don’t you know? It’s times like this that I get sad.…”
Another tear spilled with the words.
“I’m not happy at all…when you’re in more danger by putting me in less danger…”
Alice still did not raise his head.
“It’s my bad.”
His face reeked of bitterness.
“I didn’t do it on purpose! It was only after you told me that I realized. Even I’m a little scared of it—”
Uncharacteristically, Alice was in total surrender, and sounded very devastated.
Ai blew her nose and forgave her for the time being.
“Please tell me the truth.”
Shocked at himself for some reason, Alice did not try to deceive Ai.
“The Deformed have downsides too…Dead becomes ‘selfish’, Gravekeepers do ‘malfunction’, and Living becomes ‘crazy’. …”
In a flash, Alice picked up the trash beneath his feet and threw it into the drum. The trash did not miss its mark and entered the drum, burning brightly.
“—It’s said that the Deformed will experience a ‘metamorphosis’.”
“Yeah, we Deformed get our abilities based on our wishes…but those abilities often don’t grant wishes properly.”
Once more, twice more, Alice continued to throw garbage. All the garbage went into the drum.
“Humans end up led along by their ability. It’s like a lie that becomes true if you chant it a hundred times, twisting the ability to make your original wish come true…when that happens, the otherworldly ability changes more and more, and the person becomes something other than a human being…”
“Then please don’t do that anymore.”
“If you do it again, I’m going to be very, very sad, you know?”
“If you do it again, be honest about it. If you try to hide it from me, I’ll cry again, okay?”
“When you do, make sure you console me. You can buy me tea or sweets later, like today.”
“…No, I can’t promise something I can’t do. And I need you to treat me later, you know…”
“Do you understand?”
“Are you sure?”
Yes. Alice replied without any rebuttal.
“No, but well, I’m really bummed about this one too. I didn’t know I was hiding this from you…”
Then Alice stared into the distance, seemingly at a loss, and let out a sigh,
“I’m sorry, Ai.”
“What are you apologizing for out of a sudden?”
“I’ll say this first. I’m sure I’ll make you sad and cry again…”
“Wait, please don’t do that.”
“Of course, I’ll try to avoid it as much as possible…but if push comes to shove, I’ll definitely belittle my life again.”
Alice looked at his bandaged right hand.
“For fifteen years, I’ve been wishing for my own annihilation…I’ve been dreaming that the fake me would disappear.”
“The old me probably wasn’t like this…but I can’t remember how I used to be…”
It was a void that only he, who had been brought back from the depths of the underworld after disappearing fifteen years ago, knew. It was a despair that only he, who had died, no longer existed and yearned for his own ‘continued death’, knew.
This was Alice’s metamorphosis, so to speak.
“Why did I end up like this…”
Of course, it was for the sake of his dream. It was the dream that Alice had to take on with such determination.
However, the dream that he concocted had come true and disappeared, and all that remained was the framework.
That framework could no longer find value in itself, no matter how it try.
“Well, I’ll be glad to remind you of that.”
But here was a person who found value in that framework.
Here was a person who grabbed the wreckage that had served its purpose and brought it home.
Alice’s cheeks were pinched by two small, hot hands, and the burning eyes looked into his own.
“You may try to take risks discreetly, but it’s uselss. I’ll definitely find out, for sure.”
“It’s useless to try and hurt yourself so that no one else gets hurt. I will always hurt you.”
“You will always remember. The value of life, and your past.”
Then Ai embraced Alice’s icy head in her arms and patted it.
“Yes, you will.”
“Let’s just hope so…”
The usual Alice would have hated this, but he let Ai hug him without resisting at all.
Her embrace was like a mother, and yet it was like a child, it was like the warmth of a beast that knew nothing but harshness but occasionally drew its fur closer.
So, naturally, it did not last long.
“Ai~, Alice~? Where are you~? ”
The two of them split as quickly as light and shadow.
“Ah, there you are.”
Scar walked out of the hotel, and Celica was bouncing on the swaddle
“So you were outside? I have been looking for you for a while…is something the matter??”
“I-it-it-it-it’s nothing at ball! ”
Scar tilted her head, but Ai could not continue to explain herself as she had bitten her tongue, and was in pain.
Please continue, Alice! She appealed to the latter with her eyes, but in such situations, Alice was so useless. He usually would get carried away and say unnecessary things. At this moment, he had his face turned behind, hiding his embarrassment.
“Well, that is fine.”
But fortunately or unfortunately, Scar was the person present, and there was no need for an excuse to begin with.
“More importantly, Julie told me ‘to call for those two’.”
“…Is there something on going on during the meeting?”
“No, he said, ‘I’m getting a very bad vibe from them’.”
“What’s that about…?
Those words caused Ai to sweat. The instincts of this old man had been uselessly precise recently.
“Well, that being said, I think you should be invited to the meeting…”
Since Scar decided so, it was most likely correct. Ai quickly got up and picked up the shovel.
“Shall we go, Mr. Alice?”
They started walking. There was a hotel in front of them, rocked by the conference. There was a new battlefield where allies, not enemies, were fighting each other.
The heat was steamy.
The three of them made their way through the waves of people saying, ‘Excuse me’ and ‘Please let us through’ to the center of the hall. There was a huge table where all the major parties of the town were gathered.
“—I’ll let you two talk from here on out.”
So you’re here, Julie hinted with his eyes, and invited them to join him at the table.
“Hmm, well, I don’t see anything wrong with that.”
Bendo, who was sitting in the middle of the table, quickly acknowledged the arrival, and resumed the meeting.
“Then…I’ll ask Alice…was it you who caused the phenomenon of those flames?”
The eyes of the whole hall stared at them.
“Yeah. That’s right.”
Alice said, standing at the edge of this huge table that was made of a fossilized giant tree.
“Can you do that another two, three times or so?”
“Ah, that’s impossible.”
Alice was about to say something, but he was interrupted,
“That attack did damage Miss Madame, but it did no real damage to her actual body. The iron bugs are going to keep coming unless we find a way to deal with Miss Madame’s body.”
“Hmm, but those bugs can be destroyed, can’t it?”
“It’s impossible. Even if they turns to ash, Madame should be able to make new bugs, and it’s just buying time…and that attack isn’t good for Mr. Alice either.”
“Is that so? I get it.”
Well then, Bendo declared, interrupting those who were still trying to ask further.
“…So, young Ai, let me ask you. What about your Gravekeeper technique. Is it possible to bury what you call the actual body?”
Ai did a quick calculation.
“It’s possible, if it takes one by one, over ten years…but that’s only if Miss Madame does not resist and there won’t be any new ones.”
“That’s if you’re the only one, right? If other Gravekeepers come along…”
“I’m guessing that no other Gravekeepers will come here because I’m here. Even if they did, it would only be one, because no matter how powerful Miss Madame is as a Dead, she is only one in number.”
Hmm…Bendo finished asking everything he wanted to ask and turned his gaze away to his surroundings.
“So, unfortunately, it’s impossible to physically get rid of the bandits…”
Bendo waved off the gloom that filled the hall.
“In the end, we’ll have to negotiate.”
“Hmm? Fortunately, we’ve beaten the enemy once. We should be able to compromise on reasonable terms—please issue the info to everyone.”
Bendo’s secretary began to pass printouts to everyone. It contained detailed information and analysis of Coven.
—”Coven is actually an organization composed of one person, Madame Express Legion’s Hive (real name unknown). It began more than ten years ago, when a ‘Witch’ modified Madame, who had already become ‘selfish’.”
—”Madame, whose sanity was restored to some extent by the Witch, called herself “Coven” and begins to work to destroy large-scale miracles. The method was the witch trials, in which she would apply the laws she created, based on the laws of Silenos, designed to favor the accusers. The win rate was over 99%, with the only confirmed loss being in the case of Alice Color, who was aided by Dee Ensy. There was also another trick to this extraordinary win rate, for they would deem any opponent they could not win against as a ‘super irregular’, and not proceed with the trial. Given these instances Coven is not a fair-minded organization, but a profit-making organization that pursues its own goals. With the knowledge of this fact, it’s not difficult to—”
This is ….”
It was an overly detailed document and report about Coven. There were even some ridiculous ‘specifications’ among the documents. Who on earth would have found such a thing?…Ai looked at the girl who was still silent at the end of the table.
“As you can see in this document, Coven is neither an uncommunicative monster nor a law-abiding phenomenon, and is fully capable of negotiation.”
Ohhh, a relaxed atmosphere spread through the hall. It would be a tough case, and there would be fighting, but for now, the end was in sight.
“It’s impossible to negotiate.”
Dee Ensy spoke up for the first time.
“…What do you mean, Lady?”
Crossing her arms and legs in a triangle at one end of the table, forming a triangle with Ai and Bendo, Dee said without opening her eyelids,
“All the material there is useless now, because Madame has fallen and become ‘selfish’.”
“…What, Lady, do you mean by ‘fallen’ and ‘selfish’? Can you elaborate on it?”
Bendo voiced his irritation, and the others agreed. Many of the people of Ostia had been shut inside this world for at least a decade, and were unfamiliar with the common sense of the outside world. Some of them have never seen a moving Dead before.
This naturally led to the fact that they did not know about the one dubbed ‘Ghost’, and the people present look at her as nothing more than a cocky little girl.
But Dee did not care about those stares.
“—In Living terms, I’d say it’s similar to going crazy…”
She opened her eyes for the first time, and stared at the Living in the crowd.
“You see, all Dead people live with the risk of becoming selfish. The mind rots, their sanity melt away, and they become a monster who can only think about one thing…have you forgotten? The years leading up to the Gravekeepers’ birth, the decade leading up to Ortus’ invention of post-mortem treatment, how it was hellish out there? Have you all been living in peace in the Sealed City and forgotten all about it?”
The sound of gasps could be heard everywhere.
“…Dead people like Madame, who can ‘dilute’ themselves, are especially dangerous. It’s an ability that comes with ego collapse. I’ve always been told that it’s a matter of time until she ‘malfunctions’ again. No matter how much the Witch rebuilds her, there’s no way for her to prevent this phenomenon. It so happened to occur at this moment, of all times.”
Therefore, negotiation is impossible. Dee concluded.
No one spoke up. They were clearly confused, as though they had taken a sucker punch.
Only Bendo was insistent,
“…I-In that case, why don’t we negotiate not with Madame herself, but with the people backing her? Shouldn’t we ask the Witch you speak of ….”
“That statement is proof of your ignorance.”
“Look behind you.”
The old politician looked back and saw that the disconnect between common sense was plainly marked, as if it were color-coded. The people who stayed in Ostia for a longer period looked puzzled and bewildered, while the newcomers looked pale, giving Bendo the ‘are you crazy?’ look
“Well, I guess their reactions should explain everything. Get involved with Her? Enough with the joke.”
“Looks that way…”
Even Bendo had to concede this point, but he did not want to give up.
“What about Ortus and Fellmigora? She’s been using those two countries to back her, hasn’t she?”
“I’ve already made that move.”
Dee replied simply and looked behind her.
For the past few days, three Deformed had been standing there, never leaving. At this moment, there was only one shadow left, the warrior Maccia Electus, standing with his arms crossed.
There was no sign of the Red Lady (Dust)or the floating boy (Noellfaen).
“I’ve already sent them back home.”
Oh, everyone else marveled, and Dee lifted up her nose.
“Hmph, so, everyone, you should know how great my influence is now, right? They are my loyal companions.”
Maccia, who had been abstaining from the conversation, suddenly spoke up.
“You were just jumping up and down and getting angry when they took off on their own, weren’t you?”
“Now, now, what are you talking about?”
Dee looked away in a completely different direction, with sweat trickling down.
“…You really got some good company, Dee…”
Bendo looked at Dee with a rare look of concern,
“By the way, Maccia, are you willing to side with us?”
It was an instant answer. Bendo furrowed his brows and looked even more worried.
“…Are they really your companions, Dee…?”
“Y-You’re mistaken! They’re all just embarrassed! We’re really very close! When the time comes, they’ll really help out! They’re amazing! They’ll help out everyone!”
“I see,” They all smiled gently and nodded their heads.
They smiled gently and nodded. Stop it! Don’t be nice!
“By the way, there’s no point in trying to negotiate with Ortus or Fellmigora. They don’t have a way to negotiate with the ‘selfish’. The little girl who only has her mouth to rely on is powerless here..”
“You should be a little nicer to me!”
Dee half-screamed and hammered at the big man, while Maccia pushed her forehead away in annoyance, ensuring that she did not hit him.
“…But it seems I’ve a part in driving Madame into madness. I’ll at least escort you to the other side of town.”
“But I’m not going to ‘battle’ with you. If you’re going to fight, you’re warriors. I have no reason to help.”
“Of course not. It is enough that you protect the citizens.”
Bendo gave an authoritative smile and raised his fist in the air to stir the crowd.
“Everyone! We have no need to fear for the future! From now on, we can fight to the fullest! Don’t be afraid of death! We will win in the end!”
Yes! Half the room agreed, but the other half seemed to disagree.
“…But let’s face it, we don’t stand a chance.”
The bearded security captain standing beside Dee said.
“Oi oi, why is our town hero so humble? I heard about the battle at the main gate. Didn’t you have an overwhelming victory?”
“That’s because those iron bugs weren’t serious. They only tried to kill us at the very end.”
“Hmmm…what would happen if your troops fought those serious iron bugs?”
“There wouldn’t be a ‘battle’ to speak. It’d just be a one-sided slaughter.”
The people in the city who did not participate in the fight were rattled, but those who were there were silent.
It was understandable though, Ai thought. The captain said so not because he was a coward or anything, but that it was just a fact. The Living were no match for Madame, or the iron bugs.
Only the Gravekeepers (Ai), Deformed (Alice), and one other kind of human could do that.
“We’ll all die before we even finish off one of them.”
The captain was none of them.
“So the real fight will be starting.”
However, it was easy to be the last kind of human.
“…Wait, Captain, are you—”
Bendo was about to say something when the captain interrupted him.
“We are the fifty-four members of the Third Security Group. Let us give our lives for the future of the town.”
He bowed his head reverently.
The only ones who could fight the iron bugs were Gravekeeper, Deformed—and the Dead.
“Therefore, let us become the Immortal Army and defeat the Immortal Monster.”
If Madame was ‘indestructible’, their side simply need to become ‘indestructible’ and fight.
That was what the captain was imply,
The meeting was rattled. Bendo shouted,
“No, no, no! Don’t do this, Captain! No can do!”
“Why not? You just told us not to be afraid of death. Why do you object?”
“I…I don’t mean that! It’s a horrible thing to assume you can do this after death!”
“You’re old-fashioned too….”
Just as the two men bickered, so did the crowd.
“If we don’t do this, we’ll all die anyway.”
“I’m talking about dignity! Logically, it’s basically saying we’re in the wrong for saving Alice!!”
“That’s a leap of logic!”
It was chaos.
Because Bendo, who was in charge of organizing the meeting, went out of control, the meeting devolved into an argument between individuals. Ranting and raving, printouts flying around, the situation quickly developed into a tussling match.
“Ahh goodness! Everyone, let’s talk it out!”
Ai tried to calm the emotional crowd, but no one would listen to her, Bendo was losing his temper, and Dee, the one person she could rely on, was stoking the flames instead of calming it down.
Just when Ai was about to give up on the idea that they might have to beat each other up for as long as they wanted.
A laugh resounded.
“Kukuku, hahaha, ahh—hahahahahaha!”
There was a voice that sounded it was already going crazy.
The confusion subsided immediately.
This tussle was a clash of beliefs, not something that could be calmed by something like that.
However, the emptiness in that laughing voice stopped everything.
“Are you all idiots!?”
As if it were an outsider, the voice ridiculed the entire meeting.
Ai looked for the owner of the voice. There was a man sitting in the corner of the hall by the wall.
“Ahhh, my stomach hurts. Ahh—that’s funny, kukuku. ”
“…Who are you?”
Bendo asked bewilderedly.
The man sitting in the corner of the wall was wearing old jeans and a saggy shirt, fumbling with a bottle of alcohol and laughing hysterically. He was surprisingly young, maybe in his mid-twenties. Huh? Ai tilted her head. She had a feeling she had met him somewhere. However, she had no recollection of a man who looked that unhealthy.
“Ahhhh? What the hell. Know who you’re greeting, old man.”
The man vomited with a bright red face.
She remember the smell of alcohol on her back, and the nursery I stepped into while wearing her shoes.
“For I’m the presiding judge of the Coven where even a kid dare not cry upon hearing my name!”
The man’s name was Shaun Sullivan.
He was part of Coven.
“…Yes, I’m really sorry. I really am. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have laughed when everyone was taking it so seriously. That would make you angry. I’m sorry…”
Shaun was beaten up in five seconds, and rolled around in a mat within thirty seconds.
“I’m reflecting on my acitons I’m not going to run away or anything…so Ai, I beg you…Please give me back my drink…”
Ai was dumbfounded.
“I thought you were going to tell me to untie the rope, but now you’re giving me alcohol?
Ai, who had no intention of giving him alcohol even if he untied the rope, held the bottle high.
“”Ahh, little Ai, you’re a meanie! Argh fine! I’ll drink the beer that’s spilled on the floor! Lick lick lick lick!”
“H-hey! Stop it! You’re disgusting!”
Just then, Bendo, who had finally finished pacifying the people, came over while brushing his messy hair.
“… Let’s cut the tomfoolery, both of you.”
Ai hoped that she was not included in this..
“Ahh, well, well, Mr. Mayor… hehe, I’m sorry for th… hehe.”
“Let’s get straight to the point. Why are you here?”
In response to the high-handed question, Shaun gave a smile that tilted 90 degrees.
“Well, nothing much, you see, the old hag has become ‘selfish’. I knew it was going to be bad, so I ran away with you guys.”
“……So you were with us?”
“I didn’t notice at all.”
It was true that there were a lot of people back then, and Shaun was wearing a normal outfit instead of the flashy one he wore at the trial. With a little luck, nobody would have recognized him.
“”But why are you running away too? Aren’t you one of Madame’s people?”
“What are you talking about? Why would she have any people when she became ‘selfish’ and all. Ah, yes, I remember you aren’t familiar with this world? I see, that’s why you’re like that just now, kukukukuku…”
“What’s so funny?”
“No, I’m sorry. I won’t laugh anymore…kishishishishishi.”
“…Don’t worry, just say what you want.”
I see? Shaun curled the edges of his lips as if to taunt.
“Because you’re so naïve, it’s almost funny!
Gyahahaha. He laughed.
“No, think about it…hihihi, look at what era you’re in, you’re squabble away because of a mere matter of life and death! What is this! Isn’t this reason to be funny!?”
From a lower position than anyone else, Shaun was laughing at everyone.
“What era of common sense are you using now? In this day and age, if you’re going to fight a ‘war’, you have to die first! Isn’t Life just a small price to pay for participation! And that old guy with the beard…bfff, he’s talking like he’s a hero! That’s right! You’re the one who said, “I’m going to give my precious, precious life to the country! How much do you think your ‘life’ is worth!?”
Shaun laughed. He laughed at the security captain’s determination and everyone’s indignation.
“Nowadays, even the gentle armies of Fellmigora die before attacking!! Ahh, it hurts! ”
The faces of the citizens, which had initially turned red with rage, gradually turned pale.
“Why, it’s amazing. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard such a funny joke. I just have to laugh after hearing this, but I’ll burp if I laugh, and everyone will know I’ve been drinking right!? I thought of holding back until everyone started laughing! And yet…and yet…and yet…”
Bendo and the rest of the people of Ostia finally began to understand, how they had been hiding in a safe place, and how the outside world has changed.
“But why!! You actually heard him make such a ridiculous joke!! What are you, cavemen? Kukuku, kakaka, ahahahahaha!!!”
Kishishishishi, ahahahahaha, kukakakakaka.
“…How is this possible.”
The old politician’s fists trembled.
“The world has changed that much already…”
“No, well, I’m not going to blame the commoners. It’s fine that they aren’t prepared for it.But what, of all people, the head of the city and the soldiers shouldn’t be so naïve, right?—Say, right!?”
Suddenly, Shaun, which had been crawling on the floor like a snake, lifted his face, glared at everyone, and said,
In the corner of the room, there was a girl with her arms crossed, her eyes closed and her back against the wall.
“Say…that’s what you think too, right, ‘Ghost’?”
Shaun cackled like a witch offering a poisoned apple.
Dee opened her eyelids, looking troubled.
“Well, you’re right, but,”
She simply bit into the poisoned apple.
That nonchalant answer too caused people to be rattled.
“Shaun, given our context of common sense today, what you say is much more correct than the.”
All the older citizens immediately exchanged chatter.
Dee looked at them sadly and kindly. It was the expression of a transcendent being looking at a stupid but lovely beast.
“…But could you be a little more considerate? I wanted to tell everyone in a more gentle manner.”
“Your ‘gentleness’ is to dare them to play hero, isn’t it?”
“What!? What’s he saying, lady?”
“Kukuku, be careful, Mr. Mayor. This gotten was a Witch, and can revive as a Ghost. If you’re not careful, she can control you along with your hearts.”
Shaun smirked. It was the smile of a trickster mocking a sucker.
“So basically, she intended to get those who are saying ‘I don’t want to continue fighting while dead!’ to say ‘we’re willing to be dead soldiers!’”
“How is that possible!?”
“She’s capable of that. I just saw the Ghost’s skills for the first time, and it’s really amazing. Taught me a lesson. I dare say, Mayor, you’ll be willing to continue living while as a Dead, and willingly so. You almost did so, I might say. Everyone is already neck deep into the trap of the Ghost. ”
“Is that so? The captain’s already down.”
The drunken eyes caught sight of the guard Captain.
“Well, Dee Ensy was so beautiful when she was the first to say ‘I’m staying’ on the hill. She held a a weapon that didn’t suit her at all, and she certainly looked painfully ready to die. It’s no wonder the captain was moved by her. But alas, there’s more to it than that. The ghost was waiting for you to say so, licking her lips. After that, it’s pretty simple. Let them reenact the self-sacrificing heroics that were popular a decade ago. Little by little… rewrite your common sense. With a single ‘whisper’… you see…you used to think of the afterlife as something that should be taboo, and now you’re discussing about it…”
Bendo let out a scream-like voice.
“Is what he said true!?”
“Uh, yeah, pretty much.”
Bendo shouted angrily.
“You’re noisy” But Dee merely made such a look.
“Well, whatever, it’s a good opportunity to tell you what I think. First of all, I don’t see your situation as a crisis or anything like that.”
“This is ridiculous! What do you call this if not a crisis? Ostia, the town we worked so hard to rebuild, has been destroyed! A monster from who knows where is occupying the area directly above it! Even Reconstruction will be delayed for a long time, and we might have Dead this Winter!”
“Isn’t it just dying?”
Bendo cracked open his mouth like a fish lacking oxygen.
“Can’t everyone just die right now. If we all die now, reconstruction will be easy.”
“That makes no sense!”
“Why?—wait, I shouldn’t be mean and all here…I mean, yeah, I get it. I know what you’re thinking. In the past, this would have been unacceptable…That’s why I wanted to break it to you a little more gently…”
It was then that Ai realized that Dee had been taking action for her goal a since a long time ago. She was the first one to ready herself for death on that hill, declaring that they would defeat Madame, and then what she said, everything was for,
“My goal is to take the black surface.”
Dee simply said what everyone in the room had been paying attention to.
The black surface, the miraculous remnant of the sealed city, now swallowed by Madame. A portal to another world, said to have been created by Isola, the only girl out of 30,000 citizens who never returned.
That was why Dee whispered. She broke the common sense of those who reviled death, and the afterlife.
No. She did not destroy it. They were the ones who broke it. She merely spoke and had them decide, so that they would personally destroy it..
“L-lady. You are ….”
Bendo, or rather everyone in the room, looked at Dee.
They finally realized that the girl before them was not just a little girl, but a witch with the name of the ‘West’.
“—Hmph, that’s crude.”
Shaun said, describing Dee Ensy bluntly.
“Aha, you’re right. I admit, I’m crude.
Without seeming particularly offended, the Ghost admitted.
“But let me correct you on one thing, Shaun.”
“Huh? What is it?”
“They’re not ‘playing hero’.”
Dee looked at Shaun squarely.
“No matter how crude I am, no matter how old-fashioned their ideas are, the story here isn’t about ‘playing hero’.”
Her words were too strong to be a ‘whisper’, her eyes too lively to be a ‘Ghost’.
“I recognize their actions. I, Dee Ensy, have seen all the tragedies and comedies of this world, and I vouch for them. It’s a cliché of a common tragedy, but, ”
Dee was speaking in the words she believed in.
“Their stories are real…and I, for one, have to admit so…”
Suddenly, Dee shed tears.
The meeting was filled with unprecedented shock. Men of great literary and military prowess were upset by a mere drop of water, and they could not help but wonder why. Why was she crying? What did she see?
“You’re willing to cry for us, Dee?”
The captain smiled, looking troubled..
“Haha…I didn’t think you’d be the first one to cry for us. I thought you would rather laugh like the man there…”
“Of course I’ll cry. That’s…”
The tears continued to spill like fresh water from a spring.
“Because something tragic did happen after all…”
The captain tickled his head in embarrassment and bowed to Dee with his men beside him.
His expression was,
How did she not notice? Ai turned and looked at Scar, who silently shook her head.
Everyone else started to notice. The Captain’s face was too cold..
“… I see, that’s how it is?”
It was Shaun who crossed the line after all..
“That’s one way to put the cart before the horse. You’re already dead, aren’t you?”
Ai jumped off the chair and ceiling, instantly stood in front of the captain and took his hand without question.
There was no pulse.
The Captain felt as cold as the outside air blowing in from the window. The other people stood far away from the Captain and the others, as though shunning death, and some even screamed.
Ai did not let go of the hand and mumbled in a daze.
“I thought, I saved everyone …”
“Please don’t worry about it, Miss Ai…I was already dead when you escaped…”
The captain looked at Ai, somewhat in a daze.
” I’m embarrassed to say, but there’s another two who didn’t die in combat. In a fire explosion and a car accident…”
“… Miss Ai, this is War, and there are 30,000 citizens, that’s the kind of number…people will die whether you help them or not.”
The words that were meant to comfort Ai were more like a blow to her heart.
Without noticing the wound, the captain suddenly whispered as if he were leaving a will he had forgotten to say.
“…Miss Ai. When this battle is over, I have a favor to ask of you.”
Ai knew his face, but not his name. This Captain whom she only knew of in this manner bowed to a child like her in a ridiculously polite manner.
“When this battle is over, please bury us.”
Ai had no answer.
“That will be my honor.”
The world never stopped revolving for a moment, just as a millstone grinded at people’s lives.
At that moment, the iron bugs in flames shrieked as they barged in.