As dawn began to break, the town of Ostia was covered in fog. The excessive white color obstructed the view as well as the darkness of the night, and the area did not seem ‘bright’ at all.
So it was only when Ai heard a cawing voice that she realized it was dawn.
Reacting to the sound, Ai woke up in a state of oblivion.
There was wind.
A morning breeze blew in from the lake, stirring the thick fog like milk in the bottom of a cup of tea, causing it to fade.
Ai was on top of the only surviving sign at the third street intersection. There, she hugged one of her legs and let the fog dilute.
The surrounding area was littered with piles of junk, and on closer look, one could see a handful of dirt in the center.
It was all the iron bugs remains Ai had buried.
The fog returned and buried the junk, and Ai buried her face in her arms.
More than thirty people.
That was the number of Dead Ai knew at this point.
Last evening, Ai and the others had stifled most of the iron bugs, but that was ‘most’, not ‘all’. At the same moment the iron bugs that flew into the meeting room, there were apparently a few iron bugs that rampaged down the hill before burning up.
After burying the intruding iron bugs, Ai heard the news from the Captain and immediately ran out of the hotel to continue burying the burning iron bugs in the dark night. This was to reduce the number of Dead as much as possible.
But that’s all over now.
Ai slouched up to look at the sound of gunfire in the distance.
Three blocks down the street, flaming iron bugs were fighting citizen soldiers.
“Push! Go around them! That’s right, I’ll hold them off! Break them up!”
They outnumbered the bugs three to one, and had an advantage in numbers, but it was not enough to fight. In fact, even now, the flaming right arm of the iron bugs pierced one person’s heart.
“Alright! Don’t worry about me!”
The man held the iron bugs in his arms and blocked their movement. The remaining two men opened fire, using their assault rifles like electric saws to quickly tear the iron bug apart and burn it to the ground. The three of them cheered for a moment, then quickly tightened their expressions and buried themselves in the fog again.
Ai watched as they were buried in the mist and buried her face again.
Once the Dead exceeded thirty, the citizens who were under attack began to fight back. They, who had forgotten to stop due to death, turned into warriors who ‘died in battle’ and valiantly took down the iron bugs.
The iron bugs spilling down from the mountain were completely stopped by the dead soldiers. There was no reason for Ai to go out to the front lines, as there was a chance she might die. That was why she sat on the signpost.
Another gust of wind.
—She thought to herself, remembering that there was such a game. The iron bugs would kill the humans, and the humans resisted. The killed humans would return to the frontlines in numbers, but the winning condition for the humans was to not die, so they could not overwhelm the enemy.
She could not remember such a game. Perhaps there was none, and rather than it being a game, it was a well-made ironic story.
Right when Ai was having such useless thoughts,
She was found.
“Haa, haa, haa…I-I finally found you, you brat…”
Alice was beneath the signboard, standing and huffing.
Ai closed her eyes, and shriveled up like an armadillo.
At the bottom of the sign, Alice stood gasping for air.
Ai closed her eyes and curled up like an armadillo.
“Hey! Do you know how worried everyone was about you!? Get down here right now!”
Alice was furious, stomping on the ground. But Ai did not reply, for she was an armadillo.
“Ahh, is that, so? I’ve been looking for you all night and you’re acting like that now?”
In the same way that Ai was a little more stubborn than usual, Alice was also a little more vexed than usual.
A roundhouse kick.
The sign that had been tilted at an angle could not withstand it. Wawawa, and Ai flailed about, barely landing her feet on the ground.
“Wh-wh-wh-wh-what are you doing!?”
“Woooaaahhh amazing. Looks like a beetle~”
Satisfied with the blow, Alice seemed to be in a good mood again.
“What are you getting all pouty for?”
“I’m not pouting! I’m in distress!”
“Distress!? You’re in distress? I’ve been thinking for a while now, but where did you learn such difficult words? Some manga?”
Ai knew all of Alice’s tricks. Alice’s words were meant to taunt her, to get her angry, and to buck her up, even if it meant having to force a smile. Ai also knew very well how to deal with it. All she had to say was, “Thank you, Mr. Alice. I don’t need the concern, but I appreciate it.”
But at that moment, Ai fell for it, hook, link, sinker.
“S-Someone is struggling with the idea of life and death, what are you talking about now? Please go back alone if you want to!”
“Idea of life and death? How do you write that In detail?”
“———~! Mr. Alice, you idiot idiot idiot!”
“Yeah, yeah, it helps if you speak in simple terms like that.”
“You’re so stupid that you failed all your subjects in your first year!”
“…Oi, don’t be so specific. And also, who told you that!?”
“I’m not talking to stupid people!”
“Shut up, you idiot. You’re noisy! The only calling others stupid is the stupid one!”
Then the two of them continued their crude insults.
Of course, anyone who called someone else a fool would immediately become one. But Mr. Alice here did not understand it and did not deny the idea as to whether he was a fool, so he was truly a fool. There were various extents to being a fool though; some were closer to having common sense, and some were fools amongst fools. I’m a good idiot, you’re a bad idiot, people in the past would say that there was no distinction of ranks between fools. In that case, he was probably the biggest idiot of all and just wanted to drag everyone down to his level. Would that not make him a fool?
At this moment, suddenly,
They stopped insulting each other as though they just had a warm-up exercise.
They hurried off..
“What are you going to do about the Captain’s request?”
Alice said, his shoulders heaving like a fuming mountain gorilla.
“I’m going to say no!”
Ai replied, snorting loudly.
“I don’t know. I just wanted to refuse!”
“Fine, I get it!”
I’ll beat you up! Both of them continued their conversation with such a tone. Alice started limbering his body, swinging jabs at the air before him. You! You don’t want us all to die!”
“You don’t want everyone to die, right!?”
He then swung his fists at the Dead who were rumbling in the distance.
“I hate it!”
Ai too swung the shovel around and snapped the signs around them.
“Why not!? It’s war, you know! People will die! Don’t you approve of Ortus?”
“I don’t know!”
She really did not. Why did she not want that to happen? Ai was already convinced that death was the norm.
“Fine, I get it! I’m the same!”
Alice ripped out the problem that had been lodged inside Ai, labeled it as ‘unsolved’, and threw it behind them. Ai too swung the shovel wildly before her as though the problem itself was right in front of her.
“You know, Mr. Alice!”
“I’m so angry! I’m really pissed off and I want to beat something up!”
“Yeah! Say it!”
Ai swung the shovel with blinding speed. She feinted eight times before striking the front.
However, she could not hit that thing.
“But I just don’t know what that thing is! ”
And before that, Ai had no idea why he wanted to punch that thing. She did not know where the heat came from.
She had no more dreams.
She had no reason.
So why was her heart still burning?
Ai shouted. The Dead, Living, and even iron bugs, “What was that about?” all looked at her twice in succession.
Alice too shouted and pointed his pistol at the sun.
However, the magic bullet that was certain to hit something could not find its target and vanished immediately. Ai and Alice stared at where the bullet disappeared to, as though they were spitting into the sky.
The two of them affirmed something and started walking again as if nothing had happened.
“What are you yelling for!? Don’t you feel embarrassed or something?”
“What about you, Mr. Alice, don’t you think shooting guns is a bit excessive? Please behave yourself.”
The two of them walked through the fog, chiding each other.
“… By the way, where are we going?”
Ai asked once she had calmed down. They were on the road to the hills.
“After you ran off yesterday, the town council proposed a plan. If this succeeds, Madame can be defeated without any more Dead appearing—That’s what they said.”
“Is that true!?”
“I haven’t heard the details either, but Dee said to call you anyway.”
Her, Alice pointed with his chin when he mentioned her. A simple base had been built on the side of a hill, beyond the fog, and Dee was waving at them.
“Ah! You’re both late! Hurry up!”
Beside her were Bendo, the guard Captain, and Shaun, who was chained in handcuffs.
“Shaun is the one who suggested this operation.”
Alice whispered, his eyes darting around as he made sure not to let his guard down.
“He wants to bury Madame.”
“I’ll explain the situation then.”
One had to wonder where Dee obtained a teaching whip, but she swung it around as she looked around at everyone.
“According to the report of the investigation team, Madame’s main body has been hunkered down on a hilltop, producing only iron bugs and not moving on its own.”
Ai, Alice, and the other soldiers on the frontlines were gathered in a field tent set up beside the hill.
“As for the iron bugs that they produce, ninety-nine percent of them were quickly burned by Alice’s flames, and the remaining super-sized iron bugs were completely subdued by the thirty-odd ‘Dead Soldiers’.”
Dee clapped her hands, but no one followed suit. Bendo in particular looked on grimly as he asked,
“Then there is no reason to fight anymore, is there?”
“Since we got her contained, that should be fine, right? There’s no need to poke the bear.”
“My my, what happened to yesterday’s enthusiasm, Bendo? Scared out of your wits?”
Sparks flew between the two of them. Apparently, the two of them had been arguing since last night until now.
“I’m saying that we can’t tolerate any more Dead.”
“That again? Old minded Bendo.”
Dee cut him off and smiled at the soldiers standing beside him. They, the young soldiers, showed wry smiles as if they were caught between a rock and a hard place.
“The Dead should die, huh? I can understand why you feel that way, but can’t you hold back a little? Mayor, you’ll cause morale to drop if you do that. Do you know, Bendo? You’re basically telling brave men and women who gave their lives, ‘Thank you, but you must die’. ”
“…You all don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The Dandy Mayor, who always wore a tight suit and prided himself on his ageless body, suddenly had wrinkles on his cheeks as if remembering his age.
“You think we’re hard-headed old men and you think you’re open-minded young people…that’s true to some extent…but our hard-headedness is a scaffolding, so to speak. It’s the kind of solidity that people need as they live and age…it’s not that being open-minded is always good…”
“But won’t it be for nothing if you get destroyed because of your hardiness?”
“…So, I ask you, Lady. How long are you going to live like that?
Bendo said, not to Dee, but to the Dead who stood behind her. They were rooted, probably taken by surprise.
“You noticed, didn’t you? You noticed that you’ve become immortal, right?…you realized that you have decided when your demise will be…”
“Once this battle ends, we’ll ask the Gravekeepers …”
“That’s hard to tell, I think…there is an old saying that you hate, ‘if there is a bad apple, then every single one is a bad apple’…I don’t think people who sell the most important concept of ‘death’ would not end up fallen…like me. Until yesterday, I never thought I would continue continue living after our comrades died yesterday…but you already used the ‘for the sake of preserving the lives of many’ as an excuse to validate your existences…”
A look of almost hatred caught sight of Dee.
“…All because of the whispers of that little girl over there.”
“I have to give my heartfelt congratulations to you, Bendo.”
Dee Ensy took him head on.
“Then you’ll live. You’ll survive tomorrow, and the next day, and forever.”
“Hmph, that’s a horrible thought..I’ll never accept that—my position remains that the Dead are only going to exist until this battle is over.”
“So, does that mean that we agree to finish this fast?”
“If you’re going to continue this battle of attrition against Madame while she’s in a lull, that’ll cause the fallen state you speak of to worse. I’m glad we agree to be aggressive”
“! I don’t mean that.”
The conversation that was supposed to be derailed had somehow been rerouted back on track.
“Don’t try to take your way out of this! You’re just trying to get that ‘black surface’ back after all!”
“Ahhh! I have enough of this brat! She’s only honest in such moments!”
“Of course I’ll be honest here. It’s the key to saving the world.”
“I don’t understand…”
It seemed everyone aside from Bendo felt the same. They could not imagine why Dee’s perspective was so lofty.
They don’t understand the high perspective of Dee. But for now, let’s talk about Madame.
“Well, that’s fine, I’ll get you to understand slowly…but let’s talk about Madame.”
Smiling, Dee looked at Ai, who was pouting, Alice, who looked sleepy, and Shaun, who was asleep.
“I’m counting on you three☆.”
Ai would have preferred an explanation rather than a wink here.
Last night, Shaun appeared shown up at the meeting for the dumb reason that he could not hold back his laughter. That was not the only reason however. His actual motive was to ‘help bury Madame’.
Ai was curious about that.
“Why would you want to bury Miss Madame?”
Three hours after Dee’s briefing, the three of them were gathered in an abandoned building close to the area of iron bugs. It was already late afternoon.
Ai asked Shaun, who was sitting next to her, as they waited for the moment to spring into action. His appearance was as grubby as the previous day, but he looked a little refreshed, perhaps because he was sober.
“I guess even I have an enlightened side to me. I can’t take it seeing that law-loving old hag end up ‘selfish’ and causing trouble for everyone, so I thought I should send her off permanently.
“Do you understand?”
“Yeah…I feel that you have the same smell as Mr. Alice.”
“Hmm? Hmm? Hmm? What’s that about? What do you mean?”
“What you said isn’t a lie, but it’s not true either.”
“Oopsie, young Alice is so adorable yet despicable. But you know what, little Ai? It doesn’t matter if what I’m saying is true or not, right? That retired Ghost next to you feels this is fine too.”
“That’s true, but…”
Since Dee gave the go ahead, it did seem Shaun was not lying. Or perhaps he was lying, and Dee felt his lie was beneficial.
“Since you two are going to be pawns, just play along—oh, it’s starting. Right on time.”
Suddenly, Shaun’s eyes peered out from the rubble, his gaze grim.
At the two o’clocks and ten o’clocks directions, the smoking iron bugs reacted immediately and swarmed over by flanking.
“Good good, keep them close. Look over there, both of you. Those are the old hag’s hands.”
“That’s right, she’s still based on human anatomy even though she’s that big. That’s why, Ai, we can only scratch two itchy spots of hers.”
He said and stood up proudly.
“She’s not going to notice right now, so let’s climb up her ‘back’.”
The sober Shaun hopped up with startlingly quick pace, and Ai looked over at Alice.
“Do you know what that means?”
“What are you two doing? Hurry up!”
Shaun, who was already standing at the border, called out towards them. Alice shrugged and started running.
However, Ai only stood up and did not try to move.
“Hurry up, little Ai!”
“Mr. Shaun. You seem to have misunderstood something. I’ll say this first.”
“W-What? Hurry up.”
“We’re not pawns.”
“Just for that reason!?—Fine, I get that!”
“So, as your equal, I’m going to ask you for two conditions.”
“Fi-fine. I’ll tell you where all the treasure we’ve confiscated so far is, and I’ll tell you anything you want to know about the bad guys…”
“First of all, please stop drinking.”
“Huh? I’m not doing that no—”
“Secondly, please stop calling Miss Madame ‘old hag’.”
Shaun fell silent.
“I don’t know what your relationship is with Miss Madame, and I won’t force you to say. Just please stop calling people names in front of me.”
Shaun replied quite obediently.
“Got it, I’ll stop drinking…and I won’t call her old hag…”
Shaun sounded as though he was defeated and finished off, and revealed the desperation he had been hiding.
“So, please…put the old hag—my stepmother to rest…”
Ai nodded her head and gently rubbed the shovel back.
It was her turn to be tested.
“…It will burn up soon. It’ll be weird otherwise…”
The border between the town and iron bugs divided the area tightly. Alice stood there, waiting for the flames to pass by as he said so. According to his prediction, the flames should have died down by now and Madame should have begun to recover. But the flames had not lost their initial momentum and were still burning the iron bugs, expanding and contracting like an amoeba.
The townspeople seemed to think this was a fortuitous event, but Alice had a different opinion.
As if they had been waiting for the train to pass the crossing, the three of them stepped past the flames and into the realm of iron bugs.
They were speechless.
The town had been reduced to ashes. The streets that had once existed, albeit in ruins, were gone, and the places they remembered only remained in their memories.
Alice was devastated. Surely the shock he felt was many times more than Ai. It was out of necessity, but he had burned down his birthplace.
“This is awesome…young Alice, you’re not half bad.”
Ai glared at Shaun to shut him up, and silently reached her hand to pat Alice’s back. The latter recovered and took a step forward, “I’m fine.” as if to say so.
“Let’s go up a little further.”
Alice said, already sweating.
“Are you okay? If we get surrounded by the flames…”
“No need to worry. That fire’s not going to burn anything but the iron bugs. That’s how I threw it.”
“…I remember that’s the case.”
“But I should say this first, that’s if the flames aren’t altered…”
“What~ever~, let’s hurry now. I’m dying from heatstroke.”
The trio walked in silence. The heat was overbearing, and the soles of their shoes were already warm. The only thing moving were the flames flickering in the distance. The streets had all burned away, leaving behind the stone, and it appeared to be a completely unfamiliar town.
That was why they did not do it right away.
It did not ‘appear’ to be an unfamiliar town.
“…Don’t you feel something’s amiss?”
Alice noticed too.
The streets around here were not devastated by the flames, and had not suffered a decade of wind erosion., their appearances remaining the same. The stores eaves and the grocery store boxes were covered with ashes, but they still retain their shape.
No, that was not it.
They were not covered with ashes.
They were made of ashes.
“What is this …?”
Everyone noticed the anomaly.
This was not Ostia.
“What’s going on…?”
The ashes, the remnants of iron bugs, were moving like amoebas, moving so slowly that it was noticeable, awkwardly mimicking the buildings and cobblestones, badly.
On a closer look, they found themselves in the middle of a beautiful downtown area with a historical vibe.
“… Where are we?”
Alice called out confusion. The cobblestones in Ostia were not laid out in straight lines like this, and the roofs and bay windows were elegantly decorated in a different style.
“Where is that?”
The sober young man murmured with a look of impaired judgment.
“It’s the city of my stepmother, our city…”
The silhouette of the city of ashes intensified as they climbed the hill.
There’s a place I want to go to first, the other two obliged, and they moved through the city of ash. Shaun took the shortest route to his destination without once getting lost. The ash density increased with each step, and eventually even the people began to reappear.
They arrived at what appeared to be an eccentric hut.
“…What do you want to do here?”
It was no pleasant place by any stretch of the imagination. The men of ash were all armed with weapons, and the women were leaning against the walls of the alley dressed like poisonous flowers. The bulges lying in the darkness were clearly corpses.
They were all made of ashes and the past, and they were powerless to do anything about it, but Ai still felt forlorn
“Come with me….”
Without answering directly, Shaun entered one of the huts. He plowed through the disguised hut out front and kicked in the tightly sealed door. The gray man who seemed to be guarding the place did not interfere at all. They felt as though they were invisible.
On the other side of the door, there were several children squashed in like objects.
Shaun collapsed to his knees in front of one of them, a girl who had a blind right eye and a missing left leg.
There was no explanation.
Time merely flowed.
“What’s going on…?”
Ai asked. Shaun paused for a moment, then blurted out.
“…Do you understand that this is a recreation of the past?”
“This is the first place my stepmother recorded…as per the investigation.”
“Investigated…so you don’t know about this place yourself?”
“Of course not. It was at least seventy years before I was born…”
“Then what are you…?”
Shaun held up his index finger.
“I’m sure…that’s going to be shown soon.”
At that moment, a chubby man entered the room from behind the trio.
“Who bought these useless things?”
The ashes finally began to reproduce even the sound.
“The right eye and leg are crushed. I can’t help it.”
The man appraised the girl with the eyes of a professional inspecting a product and paid no attention to the rest.
The girl, whose mortality had been decided, was, however, not not in despair, for she did not know what hope was.
“Hey, dump this one.”
Ai wanted to kick aside the man before her, but she could not save the girl before her, for this incident happened a long time ago.
But then, a miracle happened.
“Police! Don’t resist!”
Men with guns rushed into the small tattered house. They pinned the man to the ground and rescued the trapped children one by one.
“Eh? Eh? Eh?”
“Time to go…”
Shaun urged Ai, who could not keep up with the change of situation, and followed the children who were led out. The time and space in the city changed accordingly, and the scene shifted to that of a hospital.
The girl sneezed a little as she was doused with many inoculations, disinfectants and lice repellents.
“I feel like a princess.”
The girl said, and the staff gave a wry smile.
“Yes, are you prince charming?”
“I’m not suited to be prince charming.”
“…Then who saved me?”
The girl asked.
The staff member hesitated.
“I don’t know. I’m not pious enough to say that god saved you, but to say that it’s the mayor who wanted to rezone the city so that money goes to his family business is…”
“…You cannot answer?”
“Ah, no, let’s see …”
The staff pondered, and finally answered,
It was the law that helped you.”
“Yes, the Special Child Protection Law. And you see, the law gave you this too.”
With that, the officer gave her a prosthetic eye and leg.
The girl put on the prosthesis with trepidation.
Ever since that day, the word was her god.
The memory of the city was rather flimsy, the time and places were not exactly recreated with accuracy.
The three of them continued to walk alongside the girl’s life. The girl went from the orphanage to school. She apparently got good grades and later became a qualified lawyer specializing in child welfare.
She got married late in life. Her partner was that staff member. Perhaps because of the scars from her childhood, she was not blessed with children, but the days that followed passed peacefully.
The girl had reached an age where she could be called old. At that moment, she had retired as a lawyer and settled into the position of director of the orphanage where she had been taken in.
There were children playing in the courtyard of the stone building, and an old woman rocked in a rocking chair, watching with sleepy eyes. The orphanage, made of ashes, looked like a scene from a black and white photograph.
Ai glanced at Shaun, who had not responded halfway through the recreation of the story.
“…What do we do, Mr Alice…Mr Alice?”
She looked at the similarly hapless Alice, and saw him looking around, acting strange and alert.
Finally, he noticed that Ai was calling him.
“Ah, no, it’s nothing…”
“Wh-What’s that about?”
“I told you, didn’t I? I’m not going to let such things slide. When you say ‘there’s nothing’, that means there’s something. Now, tell me everything.”
“Ugh, you’ve become quite the troublesome one…I’ll correct what I said about the nothing part, but I still don’t know what’s going on either. I just have this really bad feeling…”
Alice was looking around with the eyes of a herbivore who had scented upon a beast.
“What’s with this strange feeling…?”
At that moment, it began to snow.
It was ashy snow that was about to turn into root snow.
“…What do we do now? Miss Madame is like this and Mr Shaun is like that.”
“Winter’s here before we know it.”
“Hachoo! Uu, it certainly does feel colder.”
The area was quickly covered with snow, and the city was personally decorated by the people.
It was formed from ash.
The city was abuzz. The streets were decorated with ribbons, and wreaths celebrating the birth of the saints were hammered on the windows and doors.
It was then, for the first time in a long time, that Shaun reacted.
“…No way ….”
He looked at the snowflakes and murmured in a daze.
He did not have a drop of alcohol till this point, but his body was shaking.
“Is this …that day?”
“Mr. Shaun! Please calm down! What’s wrong?”
The unhealthily thin body trembled, and he stood up and grabbed his face.
“No way…stop it…STOP!”
Amidst the streets brimming with happiness, Shaun was the only one who seemed to be scorned as he was stained with despair. He grabbed his face with both hands and stared at the ashes of his past, unable to even look away.
The city was engulfed in flames.
With a swoosh, the flames that had been burning elsewhere came to burn the city. Ash buildings were burning down. The people of ash were being struck down in a flurry.
The old girl threw herself down to protect her children from the flames.
The city was on fire. The people were on fire. The orphanage was on fire.
The children were on fire.
Everything that the girl had built was on fire.
“Aaah, aaah, aaah!”
The girl was crying out as she held the corpses of the orphans.
“Why! What have we done? What law did we break!?”
The girl did not doubt the law even as her body burned.
What she should have doubted was the reality.
“Why…does nobody follow the law? Why does this world not obey the beautiful law? The law has always protected the world and people, but why does the world and people not protect the law… Why … why …?”
The girl kept asking until the very end, turning to charcoal.
“Mom! Mom! Stop! Stop it!”
“Please calm down! It’s in the past! We can’t save her now!”
Shaun knew this very well, but the moment he saw those flames before him, he lost his mind.
“Mr. Alice! Please help me!”
“This is bad…”
Alice, however, was frozen in shock.
Strangely, the flames destroying the city did not approach them. The Buzzer Beater was indeed still at work.
But the change had definitely begun.
Soon after, the flames burned out and Shaun collapsed on the spot.
Ai stood there with no words to say. The only thing she could do was pat him on the back.
“I couldn’t…save her .”
“It’s not your fault. That was a long time ago, and the flames belonged to Mr. Alice…”
“No! That’s not true!”
But to Shaun, it sounded completely different.
“Everything! It’s all my fault! I was the one who burned it all down!”
“What do you mean…?”
Ai was about to ask.
But at that moment, the city began to revive again.
The buildings, streets, and people began to regenerate in much the same way as before.
But in the same manner…
“I think I know why the flames aren’t burning out…”
Alice stifled a shuddering voice.
“This place was built to be burned. The flames aren’t an enemy to the ashes anymore, they’re just part of the predetermined scenes.”
Alice’s power was transforming Madame’s iron bugs, and Madame’s iron bugs were transforming Alice’s flames.
“My flames were consumed by her….”
At this moment, the city of ashes was still shaking in the slumber of the past.
But no one knew what would happen when she woke up.
“Ah, Mr Shaun!”
In a split second, Shaun ran out of the orphanage and towards the top of the hill.
The ashes around Shaun warped strangely, forming a screen around him, trapping him in the middle of it.
It was another scene.
Room 203, it said.
Shaun noticed the scene immediately and basically leaped over to attack. The scene was centered around him however, and he was basically chasing a dangling carrot before him. The further the horse moved, the further the carrot.
The boy was left alone in the apartment, staring at his parents outside.
Ai had the urge to look away. This was definitely Shaun’s memory.
The ashes that recreated the past had changed further, dragged along by Shaun’s memory. A closer look would show a mountain scenery beneath Ai’s feet, and the little streets of Ostia started reappearing around Alice on a smaller scale.
“We promise we’ll be back in a month.”
With that, the boy’s parents left, closing the door behind them.
“Stop! Please don’t!”
The boy waited. He marked the date on his calendar and waited. It was also the birthday of an old saint, and there was a big mark on the calendar to congratulate him.
He marked each date on the calendar with an X and waited. There was nothing much left in the house to eat, and he spent days drinking water. His hunger was satiated by sleeping. He spent most of the month in bed.
And so a month passed.
The city beyond the window was covered in white snow and in a festive mood, as if the whole world was celebrating him.
The boy stared at it with his dying, dry eyes.
The boy waited. He waited for that one day, just as he had waited for a month.
And the day simply ended without a hitch.
At midnight, staring out the window at the never-ending festivities, the boy was finally convinced.
He was abandoned.
The glass in front of him reflected the events of a different world. The world was full of light, and it was a place separated from the boy.
… I wish they’d all burn.
No words could be spoken. No tears came out. He did have the energy to do that anymore. The boy was only looking forward to the end of the world.
On that day, Almheim disappeared.
And the past and the present began to blend together.
Shaun shouted as he climbed the hill.
“Mom! You’re there, right!? Come out!”
His voice sounded like the cries of a young child.
“P-please calm down, Mr. Shaun! We’re stopping this mission! Wait!”
The wall of illusion finally disappeared, and Ai pulled Shaun along, but the unyielding ground of ash caused their feet to slip, and the light bodies fell forward.
Shaun and Dee’s plan was for a small, elite force to enter the heart of Madame, for Shaun to summon the main body of Madame, and Ai to bury it.
“How are you going to call her?” Ai asked, but Shaun was unwilling to say anything more, “What, I’m her son. She’ll definitely show up.”.
Perhaps he was serious about it.
At the very least, that was what he really thought.
Atop of the hill, there was not even a shred of school left, and Madame’s huge body was gone. The only thing that remained was the burned out image of an unfamiliar city and the black surface that continued to float as if nothing had happened.
Shaun shouted to the point his voice was hoarse.
“Don’t do this, Ai….”
Alice tapped Ai on the shoulder to stop him. He had no intention to stop Shaun in the first place.
He appeared to be somewhat empathizing with Shaun’s mental state.
“Mom…please…come back…just like that time…look for me… ”
Finally, Shaun ran out of steam and clutched the ashes, which were still hot from the waist down.
Neither Ai nor Alice could say anything. They had no idea of the fate and past between him and Madame. They kept quiet at least so as not to interfere.
The same tears that fell fourteen years ago fell on the ashes.
The voice echoed.
The girl who had turned into charcoal woke up the next morning.
She widened her eyes, trying to stand up, but collapsed as she did so. She was burned all over, and everything was useless aside from her right glass eye and prosthetic left leg. The girl had no choice but to supplant herself with items that had fallen next to her, using them as limbs. Her condition instantly improved.
The girl began to walk. She wandered in search of something. She felt that she had forgotten many things, she knew that she was looking for something.
However, she did not know what she was looking for.
Still, the girl kept walking.
“Is there nobody…?“
The boy mumbled in tears. He never thought this would have happened. He never thought that he would end up ostracized by everyone.
“Is there nobody…?”
She mumbled. Her heart was filled with frustration, and she could not find a child no matter where she looked.
And then they met.
It was a morning, everything was shining, engulfed in light, whether it was the fresh white snow or the black of the purple charcoal.
In the midst of it all, the old woman made of junk met the lonely boy.
“Oh, I found you…”
The old woman showed a smile that was formed out of piggy banks, and reached out the hand that was made of railway moulds.
“It is all right now. Mother is here…”
The boy was not afraid of this monstrous old woman.
It was what he had always wanted.
He grabbed the old woman’s hand and stood up.
“Let us go…Shaun.”
From that day on, the boy became Shaun Sullivan.
It was not until much later that he learned that the name was for an imaginary child, named by an old woman who was unable to conceive.
A miracle had occurred.
A monster that had gone insane was brought back to its senses by the call of a child.
Such a miracle,
“Is there… anyone …?”
At first, Madame appeared in the form of a child. But as time passed, she gradually became an old woman that was a collection of junk.
The old woman became a demon over three meters tall, with blades and weapons all over her.
As he had done fourteen years ago, Shaun approached her without fear.
“…Who are you?”
Even if the monster had not changed, Shaun had.
“Y-You’re asking!? It’s me! Shaun!”
“No…you are not Shaun…”
The gears on her face twisted in displeasure.
“Shaun is a small child.”
At that moment, the young man’s large back froze.
“You are an adult now, no…?”
The old woman did not bother with the young man and swayed.
“Shaun…yes, he is gone…no, he is around, right? Hu-huh ….”
Madame continued to sway in a daze.
“This is bad, Ai….”
Alice said, maintaining a posture to draw his gun at any moment.
“I’d say half of Madame’s body is gathered here right now.”
The mission was about to succeed.
“Half? You can tell?”
“I don’t know. But according to Madame’s ‘specifications’, the previous Madame that was about ten years old is basically 10% of the actual Madame. So that fifty year old lady over there is probably a higher percentage than that.”
“Can you bury it?”
Ai faltered. That might be sufficient to end this issue. For safety consideration, she should destroy the core of the central command.
“… Sorry Mr. Alice, I don’t want to bury that Miss Madame.”
Madame was swaying about, searching for Shaun, not knowing he was before her.
“—It’s weird, isn’t it? I shouldn’t have any dreams anymore, and I know I should bury Miss Madame for the sake of this town.”
Before she knew it, warm water was flowing into a place she thought was empty and parched.
Alice did not press her any further.
“I understand. But what should we do then?”
“Let’s snatch Mr Shaun and run.”
Did she react to the words?
Madame reacted to the words by looming at extraordinary speed.
“Shaun…oh my, do you two know Shaun?”
“N-Not at all…”
“Oh my, then you…”
Madame pointed at Ai with her chopper finger.
“Are you not Shaun?”
“You look tiny…and soft…yes, very Shaun-like.”
“I-I am not that small…I’m 13 years old.”
“Oh dear, then you are probably not Shaun…where is Shaun then?”
Where? Where? Madame swayed her head about, murmuring to herself.
…This could be a serious problem. Ai looked up at Alice while cold sweat trickled down her, and found that he had the same look.
“…Let’s get out of here ASAP. Ai, lend me that shovel.”
“? What are you doing?”
“Don’t worry—I’m not going to do anything dangerous, so don’t worry. Grab Shaun and come back. I’ll take care of the rest.”
They whispered to each other and began to act.
“Where is…Shaun. Shaun, Shaun, Shaun……”
Madame shook her head as though she was trying to stay awake. Ai tiptoed past her at a brisk pace, and Alice was furiously digging in the ground.
“Shaun, Shaun, Shaun…”
Madame shook her head wildly, looked around, towards the hilltop to the east, the wilderness to the south, the cloudy sky to the north, the lake in the south.
And finally, she looked down at the town below.
“…Where is my baby?”
Madame merely murmured.
Ultimately, she was sidelined again.
Scar sighed as she held Celica in her arms.
Scar and Celica were locked inside a tent close to the lakeside, far away from the hills lakeside, giving off an unhappy vibe. The other squad members were terrified of Scar and served her tea and sweets to coax them, but they turned away without even looking at them.
“Don’t use the radio, the iron bugs may have intercepted us. Just watch them with your eyes—no, no, good work, both of you.”
Please do something about your wife! The young soldier jostled Juliie, wanting him to coddle Scar. ‘I’m busy and I have to show up now?’ such was the demeanor Julie showed as he came over, but it was unable to please Scar at all, and she felt it was unfair, for she was bored to tears.
Scar puffed her cheeks, mimicking the way Ai used to do it, and it certainly fit the mood she was in.
Julie immediately started to fidget and tickle Celica’s face to get Scar’s attention.
“Alrighty~. Miss Dee is about to take a break~”
Just then, Dee lifted the tent flap and entered. She looked very tired, probably because she had been up all night.
And once she looked over at them, her face was filled with delight.
“Oro? Everyone’s here? Nice timing. I’ll have some sweets~.”
Dee grinned away, and was revitalized for some reason as she seemingly discarded her fatigue, showing a demonic smile as she snatched Celica from Scar’s hands.
“Don’t mind me~!”
With the icebreaker snatched away, Julie had no choice but to attack from up front.
“…Am I inconveniencing you in any way?”
Scar looked up at the big man.
“Hmm? What do you—?
“I am saying this whole situation is quite an inconvenience.”
Scar tried to express her anger as accurately as possible, through her body, with Ai as reference. She raised her eyebrows and lowered her voice as much as possible to convey this ‘I am angry’ sentiment.
“I cannot do the laundry, I cannot cook, I cannot bring Celica out to see the grandmothers and the mothers, and I have no idea what Ai and Alice are doing now. You said you would be there for me, but you have been gone for a long time.”
“No, that’s…sorry—But it’s for Celica.”
Hmph. Scar puffed her cheeks, looking even more frustrated. She did not think this was a fair take. Celica appeared to have the same sentiment as she flailed in the arms of the leering Dee, ‘enough fooling’, Mother and child were thus united in sentiment.
Scar picked up Celica from Dee’s hands and thrust her out to Julie.
“I am, fine.”
She dubbed over for Celica.
“I want, to, go out.”
Julie was initially slack jawe, but he then lowered his head, his shoulders shivering, as though moved by the heartfelt voice of his daughter..
“Pfft… ahem…why are you only saying a few words?”
“…It is, difficult, to talk.”
“I see. Well, come to think of it, it’s your first time talking. That’s great, my daughter!”
Celica was always happy to receive praise, and so she snorted proudly. Julie continued to lavish praise on Celica “You’re a genius!” “A prodigy!” Celica looked gleeful, daww, and she cooed away as though she was proud to be the one talking.
It was Scar who was troubled. The two of them were chatting happily, leaving her out of the conversation. “Daw daw,” “I see,” “Aw aw” “I didn’t notice that”.
“Yes, Scar, I’m having a secret conversation with Celica.”
“Wh-what is that!? That is not fair!”
Dee was lying on the desk, shaking. She probably choked on a candy bar. A warm fuzzy feeling spread through the tent as one of the soldiers tried to use the radio without permission to call the others.
That was when it happened—
“? What’s wrong, Celica?”
Celica, who was in Julie’s arms, suddenly froze, and her smile instantly faded.
“What is it? Need a diaper?”
Luckily, Julie tried to shift the conversation, but he soon changed his attitude.
Celica reeled in her limbs , as if her life was about to be compromised.
A baby’s cry echoed through the tent.
It was not a normal cry. It was not a cry for food or diapers, but a desperate cry for life.
There was silence.
Immediately, Scar moved. She consoled Celica with deft movements that were as natural as breathing, and looked beyond the tent.
“…Dee, please have all people south of block three flee east immediately. Put out a warning to those on Continental Road and downtown.”
Dee obeyed without asking.
“Julie, please get the blue car ready.”
Julie too nodded without asking why.
“The enemy is most probably after us.”
The ashworm that had been clinging to the top of the hill mowed down the hill like caramel sauce on pudding.
It sloshed along, eating up everything in its path like a tsunami or magma.
At the tip of the spear, a group of shadows were running at the same speed.
“Miss Madame, please listen!! Please stop!”
A 500 HP off-road motorbike specialized for rough terrain strode through the abandoned town at falling speed. The bike was an amazing three-seater, with Alice in the driver’s seat, Shaun in the tandem seat, and Ai standing on the cowl behind them, relying only on her sense of balance.
Ai called out frantically, her hair blowing in the wind. Madame completely ignored her. Her main body just rolled along, eating up the ruins like a snowball.
Meanwhile, the wreckage of an overturned bus appeared before the bike.
“! Ai, we’re jumping!”
Alice raised his hips, lifted the front wheel, and
The bike used the slight incline to leap through the air, through a window frame with less than five centimeters to spare, and landed forward.
It was too much of a force to be called a throw. One could see veins showing on his forehead, as though he was enduring the tremendous migraine.
“Mr. Alice, don’t be reckless!”
“I don’t have a choice!—Here we go again!”
“Ah! Come on!”
The next moment, the bike barged into a worn down house. This building that appeared no different from any other abandoned building had a secret role that only Alice knows about.
The bike flew into the children’s room from the living room and kicked over a pile of dolls. Somehow, a large number of grenades tumbled out of the dolls that tumbled over .
The grenades miraculously exploded at the perfect distance.
Alice had stocked his supplies all over the place for the reconstruction of the town, and remembered where they all were. This bike and the prior grenades were some of them. He then kicked a log that he had stacked for building materials and hit it directly, spraying it with gasoline that he had hidden in the liquor store.
He then sprayed bullets over them and ignited the gasoline.
“Hey! I told you to stop!”
“I’m sorry! I’ll buy you sweets later!”
“That’s not the point!”
Ai had never seen such uses of the ability before. Alice had a grim look on her face as though he was “enduring torture.
All right! She’s off course!”
Everything was done to draw the ashworm away from the town.
They had no idea what caused it, but the three of them were trying their best to redirect Madame who had gotten serious, and worked hard till this point.
Their hard work was not for naught, for Madame, who was on her way to the lake, tilted her body to the side and went towards the hills.
“Thank Goodness…we’re safe for now.”
“Is that so? Glad to hear that. … Now, Mr. Alice, I’d like to have a talk with you…”
“I-I’ll listen when we get back! We’ll talk, so spare me now!”
Right when the atmosphere on the bike seemingly relaxed.
“…Say, isn’t it weird?”
Shaun, who had been sitting in his seat and watching on, , said in an emotionless voice,
“…She’s changing course again. It’s like she’s led to a place without people.”
Ai immediately stopped her lecture and stared at where Madame was headed.
“SHHHAAUUNNN!! MY!! BBBBAAABBBBYYYYY!!!”
The angle Madame took was increasingly acute, towards the hill where nobody was at.
Ahead of her was a blue car conjuring a sandstorm.
“I see yoooooooouuuuuuu!!”
Scar jumped into the blue car with Celica in her arms, and Julie answered as he stepped on the gas. Bendo barely missed the car, and his grumbles were far behind them.
Celica was still crying.
“It is fine.”
Scar smiled, suppressing her own anxiety.
“You have your mother, father, brother and sister with you.”
She looked out of the window. There was an avalanche of ash on the hillside and a group of children fighting desperately at the head of it.
“What are our kids doing—!?”
Julie screamed half-crazedly and slammed the steering wheel.
“Watch out! Run, you idiots! Why are you headed towards us?”
“Uncle! Uncle! I’m sure they’re screaming the same thing, right?”
Dee popped her head forward and retorted. Julie was so startled that one had to worry if his blood vessels would burst.
“Dee!? Why are you in this car too!?”
“Because I don’t want to be left out.”
“Now is not the time for that!! Arrrgh! Goodness! Our family’s like that!”
Geh! Julie shouted like an animal. Celica was momentarily startled and stopped crying.
Madame was looming closer every second.
“…I do not think we can escape.”
Scar calculated calmly, Ai and the others had bought lots of time, but the opponent was too strong.
“We shall be caught in fifty seconds…”
“Is that so…”
Still, Julie did not give up. He kept spinning the steering wheel, minimized his braking, and tried to extend the time from 50 to 51.
A Gravekeeper would have thought it was a foolish thing to do, and even be troubled, wondering the significance of this act.
But Scar could only smile at Julie’s clumsy effort.
“Your parents are kind of nice these days, isn’t it?”
Dee smiled and poked Celica.
“See, you’re a girl, aren’t you? Don’t cry for nothing.”
Scar held the baby, tying her tightly with a cloth and gripping the silver blade with her other hand.
She intended to fight until the end.
She was still half and half, either as a living creature or a phenomenon, but she did not mind and intended to fight for herself and for family, swinging her blade until her last moment.
But then, with a poof.
Scar’s calculations and Julie’s efforts were overturned. A dull sound echoed in the car.
“What in the world!?”
Both of them were desperately trying to change Madame’s path, but were flabbergasted by the blue car’s behavior.
“It must have stalled…”
Shaun blurted out calmly.
The blue car was once again immobile, probably due to daily overuse.
“No! Mr. Julie, you idiot! It’s your fault for not maintaining the car properly! ”
“That stupid junk! I’ll scrap it when we get back!”
“Now’s not the time to be talking about this, both of you…young Alice, go around. ”
“I don’t need you to tell me!”
The bike accelerated further to a speed that could cause necks to snap arriving before the blue car. Three people along with four others hopped off. Alice, Julie, Scar, Dee…
“Old man! Use this to get us all out of here! Ai and I will figure out a way to stop it!”
“Are you kidding me, you idiot!? I’ll stay, you guys run!”
“Ai, please take Celica and run. I shall take her on.”
“I’ll try to talk to her, you guys—”
It was impossible to keep the conversation coherent. Everyone was thinking for the others’ sake, and could not move. “I’ll take care of this, everyone, please run away,” Ai swallowed back the words she was going to say
“Ah! Hey, Ai!”
Holding the shovel like a sword, Ai stood at the front to face off against Madame.
“! She’s here!”
It was impossible to decide who would run away and who would stay behind with this group.
A wave of ashes loomed at once, devouring the group.
Ai felt like she was in a dream, falling, climbing up the stairs, and then realizing there was no final step.
But the shock she had expected did not come.
There was a lot of wailing and crying.
Tired of waiting for the shock that never came, Ai gently opened her closed eyelids.
The sudden change in air pressure had created a fog in the area. In the pure white darkness, Celica’s cries were the only sounds that echoed.
The fog was lifted.
Madame stopped dead in front of Scar, who was holding Celica.
No one was able to move. Even Scar was looking a little terrified, and froze as if he had been struck by lightning.
Ai gripped the hilt of the shovel firmly.
Amidst the tense atmosphere, time remained still and did not move at all..
Madame merely staggered before a crying Celica.
Ai was mystified and relaxed her stance slightly.
“Ahh…do not cry…aahhh…”
The monster’s face was flushed with bewilderment.
“Do not cry…ahh, do not cry…”
At that moment, Ai suddenly realized.
Could it be that Madame was simply—
“…Everyone, please don’t do anything.”
Scar too appeared to have noticed something, and whispered with a determined expression.
“Leave this to me…”
Her eyes had the glint of someone who was ready to move time. Ai had no idea as to what Scar was going to do, but she was willing to defer.
Reality however would not let her.
With a thud.
A spear was stabbed into Madame’s face.
Ai slowly turned around. There, despair had taken shape and swept over her.
There was a rumbling that shook the earth, and a beastly cry.
Just as the ashes of death seemingly rolled down from the top of the hill, a crowd of citizens were attacking from the bottom of it. The Dead vanguard led by Guard Captain were followed by the main force of the Living.”
There were three thousand of them.
“Hey Alice~! We’re here to help~!”
The guard Captain shouted.
“Miss Scar, We’re here to save you!”
The boy soldier, dressed in full plate, held up a new spear.
Ai felt her soles chill.
The blood was drained from her. The squeal beneath her feet reached out to her hands, to the point where her shovel almost fell off.
People ran up, hand in hand, legs together. The weapons were in short supply. Only a hundred or so people were armed with guns. Some of them were even bare-handed. It was as if they were going to die.
But they still attacked.
Ai stared at the reality before her in confusion. Why did they launch a suicidal attack? Why were they risking their lives?
It was obvious.
It was to save them.
Bendo, leaning his upper body out from his Cadillac, laughed sarcastically when he spotted Dee, and shouted,
Ai screamed, but the citizens did not stop as they attacked the wave of ash. Grenades exploded, machine guns spewed bullets, machetes sliced through bookshelves, and rusty choppers hacked at cutting boards.
The ashworms were initially slow to react as they let themselves be attacked. Eventually, however, they waved their arms in annoyance. Their movements were weak and appropriate, far from the desire to ‘attack’.
But even such a move would easily rob their lives.
The scene from afar resembled a puppet show..
The first one died.
The young soldier died.
Ai covered her face like she was going crazy.
“Run! Everyone, please run———!”
And that was where it all began.
The man who had been stabbed through the heart grinned and snapped the spear that had stabbed through him. The woman whose left arm was severed was attacked with that severed left arm. The old soldiers whose heads were decapitated grabbed his head with his left hand and sprayed the machine gun with his right hand.
The battle against the iron bugs that had spilled down the hill was fought by thirty Dead.
Then, how many Dead would be able to fight against these ash bugs that spread out like the earth? Fifty? A hundred? Or one thousand? Ten thousand?
“Run! I beg of you! Run!”
Alice let out a blood spitting scream, his eyes stained with blood and tears. For the first time in his life, he knew what he had been doing. He had risked his life for the sake of others. It was only when he became that other person that he understood the pain of that position.
“…Everyone, please run before Madame’s body reacts.”
Only one person, Dee, was disgustingly calm. Shaking off her tears, Ai shouted,
“Miss Dee! You!”
“Stop taking it out on me, I told you from the beginning that I wanted this.”
Only Dee, this ‘Witch’, kept staring at reality so calmly.
Madame’s body, which had been looking curiously at the metal spear stabbed at her face, finally began to move. She looked around in bewilderment “??”, not understanding why she was at such a place.
Her gaze froze when she saw the top of the hill. The ashworms that were spreading out beneath her feet buzzed in fear, causing goosebumps on the ground as if they were frightened.
The tide of the battle quickly favored the Living…or rather, the Dead. The iron bugs which had little motivation to attack stopped chasing mosquitoes and began to escape sluggishly.
Seeing this, Ai realized that there was something missing. There was something here. Something that had been with the ash bugs since yesterday, something that was now a pair, a flame that would burn the ash back to ash!
Someone shouted happily.
“It’s Alice’s flames!”
A second wave was dredging its way down the hillside that was purified completely by the ash.
“They’re here to burn iron bugs!”
But Alice paled and shouted.
“Run! That thing is no longer under my control! I don’t know what’s going to happen!”
The fiery tsunami reached the end of the line, slowly burning down the hill like flowing lava.
The flames swarmed the ashes, causing noises akin to water poured into boiling oil.
It was no longer Alice’s Buzzer Beater or Madame’s bugs.
The flames devoured away. The ashes devoured away.
It was akin to a snake biting its own tail.