Part I

 

She had no idea as to where she ran from, or how she did.

She just kept running and running until it was night, and found herself at a motel in the hills.

On a shabby deck with only moonlight, Ai was leaning against the sash, staring blankly at the town. Next to her was a hotel pamphlet she had just picked up. It contained the scenery she was looking at, a beautiful scenery with a sparkling lake surface. ‘This motel offers the best view of Ostia.’ The photo was dried out due to rain and evaporation, but the beauty of the photo remained.

But in reality, the scenery had already changed a lot.

The scenery in the photo is gone.

Before Ai’s eyes, half of the town was burning.

“……”

Stretching out her right hand, Ai pointed to the area where Alice’s house used to be. She started moving her finger from the school, went down the hill, a few winding narrow old streets,

There was nothing but fire at the tip of my index finger.

The café she would visit on her way home, her favorite cobblestone pavement.

Everything was gone.

“…………”

Ai gently closed her eyelids and buried her face in her hands that were on the railing.

“It’s fine.”

Alice, who was staring into the darkness just like her, said so,

“We’ll revive the town again.”

Her voice sounded soothing. Feeling a little embarrassed that she had worried him, Ai forced herself to reply cheerfully,

“Did you contact the others?”

Alice shook his head silently.

“…I see.”

They managed to arrive here with the same members, but on the way here, they got lost with the town citizens and Shaun, and could not find them.

They tried to get Scar to seek out the Dead, but she said the entire town was enveloped in Madame’s presence, making it impossible to search for just the citizens. They should be able to find safely if they could reach the other end of the town, but with flames in their way, it was impossible to reroute over.

Dee and Julie agreed that it was reckless to act in this darkness and fire.

Ai wanted to join the citizens as soon as possible, but she could not argue against such stiff opposition.

“According to what Dee said, there’s no way we can take further action today. Let’s sleep soon so that we can get moving tomorrow.”

“…At a time like this?”

“Especially in times like this, you know. Taking a break is part of having a good fight.”

Alice said, pulling a piece of chocolate out of his pocket and tossing it into Ai’s mouth.

It was milk chocolate.

“Hmm…mmm…is that so?.”

Ai felt a little apologetic, but she could not refuse at this point, and licked the chocolate in her mouth.

“But I don’t feel like I can rest much…”

“You’re so uptight. Why don’t you learn from Dee a little more?”

“Miss Dee?”

“Yeah, her. She’s going to go all out resting.”

“Haaa…speaking of which, where did everyone go?”

“The old man’s fixing the cables.”

“Huh?”

“Scar got captured.”

“…What do you mean…?”

Immediately after she said that.

“Ah! Ai’s here~!”

Behind her, a runner’s high-strung Dee was pointing at Ai.

“Found you~. Let’s go now~”

“Huh? Huh, no. Where to?”

Ai asked as she was nudged along.

“Some~where~good~”

Ai had a bad feeling.

“E-erm. If it’s a good place, Mr. Alice can join us ….”

“What are you saying now, you little girl? How can you let Alice come alone too!? You perv!”

Dee tapped her face a few times, and gave a monkey face towards Alice who involuntarily caught a stray.

“Come on, let’s go. I’m not going to hurt you.”

“W-Wait, Mr. Alice, help me!”

Behind her, Alice waved politely in the background.

 

Part II

 

There were three main selling points of the motel described in the pamphlet. One was the scenic location, second was the delicious meals made from local ingredients. Unfortunately, those two were no longer available.

But the last one was still alive.

“Oh…”

Steam, steam, steam and more steam.

On the side of the motel was an open-air bath using natural hot spring water.

“Yahoo~!”

Surprisingly, Dee was the first one to yell and jump in. While nobody else was around, she splashed the water everywhere hard.

“Well~This hot spring is great~! Awesome!”

“…That’s good to hear.”

Ai showed a serious look the entire time, one that basically screamed ‘I was dragged over here, and if I get scrubbed all over, I’m getting out’.

“Here here, Ai, jump in too. It’s your job to act like your character, right? Here! Come on!”

“…That’s enough, Miss Dee!”

Dee sidestepped the water droplets that Dee sprayed her, looking really angry.

“What kind of situation do you think you’re in? It’s no time to play!”

But Dee was having none of it.

“Ahhh, ahhh. It’s hopeless. Your head is completely stuck. There’s no way to solve anything that can be solved now.”

“Wh-what did you say?”

“—Watch me!”

“Ah!”

Dee pulled Ai’s towel with all her might. Ai was defenseless the moment this happened, unable to resist, and fell into the pool, causing a large pillar of water.

“Wait! Miss Dee! Wargh!”

“Ahaha. Watch me now”

“Y-you did it!”

Ladylike time was over. Ai was really incensed off at Dee’s antics in this situation and tried to take her to task,

“Hey!”

It was then that Scar lashed out at them.

“Stop it, both of you, Celica will try to imitate! “

Let me do that too! Celica raged away in Scar’s arms, and Scar was livid.

“Quite right, you should set an example as big sisters! Come over here and wash yourselves first!”

“Y yes…”

“Why me too…”

The mood did not allow any room for complaints. The two of them obediently crawled out of the pool to wash their bodies. While they wanted to stay far away from the terrifying Scar, the bath buckets were either cracked or moldy. There was only one that could be used, and they started washing each other’s backs as though they were train carriages latched together.

“What, Ai? Is that how you wash your hair?”

“Eh? But I always wash it like this…”

“So you ‘always’ wash it wrong? Come here for a moment.”

“Ahaha~Ai got scolded.”

“You too Dee. You still have foam on your hair. You have yet to wash it off. Come here.”

“Eh? N-no need, I’m not a kid…”

She was caught again.

Ai was dazed by the feeling of the back of her head being squeezed. It felt really good to her, and her tension seemed to melt away.

Her body was all cold by the time Scar released her. Shivering, Ai hurried back to the bathtub.

Splash, the hot water escaped from the pool, and . Her body, which was covered with small scratches and bruises, released a soothing pain, and her stiff muscles were relaxed, to the point where even her heart felt relieved.

“Hmm…”

Ai was shivering in the warm water up to her nose, sending her soul into space. She wondered if she should be taking a bath at a time like this, but her body could not resist the delight that came with the warm water.

“Hmm~ hmm~ hmmm~♪”

However, she felt that Dee, who was right before her, should put up more resistance against pleasure than that.

“…Miss Dee is so relaxed in this troublesome moment.”

Ai herself was enjoying this, but she was still reproaching Dee.

“Things aren’t going to get much better even if I act serious♪ I should relax like this and think with my softened mind what we should do next~♪ The thing we should do right now is to focus on relaxing♪”

Dee was as sluggish as her words were, and placed a folded towel on her head, his body fluttering like seaweed, and sang so poorly, it was off tune.

“It feels like Bendo is being suspicious♪. I wonder if someone whispered to him without me seeing♪. Ah anyway, let’s call Ai and Scar to the wilderness♪. Should I have the Gravekeepers back down and have them fight♪? Or shall I use Celica as a hostage♪?”

The humming was ridiculously off key.

“You always do such a thing, it’s only a matter of time until you get backstabbed.”

“I’ll take it in stride then.”

Dee continued to float on the hot water, showing no concern.

Thunk. The tub that Scar had placed there made an unexpectedly loud noise.

Celica was laughing and giggling in her special hot tub.

Dee was floating with her eyelids closed, as though she was back to being the Ghost again.

“This is for the black surface, too.”

The retired ghost with her eyes closed.

“…I don’t understand. Why are you so obsessed with that black surface, Miss Dee?.”

Ai said, letting drops of water fall from her bangs. She thought she knew Dee’s extremism very well, but even she felt this was too much.

“We don’t know if there really is another world, right?”

“Yes, there is another world. Because Isola created it.”

Floating between the water and the air, Dee nodded vigorously.

“You think that’s not the case because you don’t know her, Ai.”

“Is she that amazing?”

How can she not be amazing? Fifteen years old Isola Edwards was a girl who sought the mystery of the world, but refused to destroy it. She was born with a deadly disease, and was constantly told that she had ‘three more years to live’.

She was the girl who created the black surface, kicking open a world that could exist even after death.

However, Ai only knew about such superficial information.

“She’s amazing. She really resembles you.”

“…I’m really bothered by the fact that you’re looking as if this can explain everything…”

“You know, she’s amazingly positive. She knew she might not live until the next day, but she would call us ‘big sis Dee’, ‘big brother Alice’…that’s what she kept calling us even when we were almost the same age…”

Suddenly, an image appeared in Ai’s mind. Alice and Dee stood next to Isola’s life, just as Ai had watched Madame’s life. As Isola grew with every passing moment, there were two ghosts who could never follow the passage of time.

“After I became the Ghost, I was so scared of resetting that I never dared to approach the sealed city. She’s still a good friend of mine, or so I thought…I think you two would have been best friends.”

“… Yes.”

Surely this would be the case. Ai found herself liking Isola a lot more than she thought she would.

“…I wish I could be friends with Miss Isola too…”

She mumbled softly, as if sighing.

“……”

The Ghost did not let this slip by her. She floated on the water, flipped over, and sank into the pool, smiling while looking a little sad.

“Miss Dee?”

Ai tilted her head due to the change of mood. The moment Dee spoke, it seemed like she was saying something she wanted to say for a long time, but was unable to.

“…But well, it’s great.”

“Eh? What’s great…?”

“That you survived, Ai. I thought there’s no hope. I thought people like you wouldn’t give up on their dreams even if they died, but would try to die once they gave up on their dreams.”

Dee laughs like snow melting in the pool.

“That’s what I thought, too.”

“Heh? Really?”

Nodding her head, Ai raised her hands and looked through them in the moonlight. It was strange that the blood was still flowing beneath the skin.

‘So, ever since yesterday, I felt it was strange. I couldn’t understand why I’m still alive, why I’m still moving…I don’t have a dream anymore…”

“Dream? Why are you talking about dreams?”

Dee straightened her knees in surprise, and Ai continued, worried that she was speaking out of turn.

“But aren’t dreams the basis for people?”

“Basis?”

“Aren’t actions and decisions taken when you have a dream ‘for things to be like this’? Don’t we work hard because we have dreams, that we move forward? Ultimately, don’t we eat bread for the sake of our dreams?”

“That’s extreme!”

Dee stood up and shouted through the window.

“Scary! This girl’s scary! Is this what she thinks every time she eats?”

“That’s what I’m thinking though.”

Ai did not take Dee’s joking words as one.

“I’ve been thinking, I can eat bread because of my dream, I can breathe because of my dream, and that’s why I want to live. “

“…I see.”

“And now that dream is gone, I’m alive, happy that I’m taking a bath, angry, and laughing.”

Ai wanted to end the battle, to revive the town. She hated the idea of dying, and she wanted to stay alive.

These feelings were real.

But Ai did not know why she felt that way.

There was no reason anymore.

“Why am I still able to live on…?”

Ai raised her hands out of the pool and stared at them. The blood was burning red under the warm skin.

Dee leaned closely to Ai, watching over her gently,

“What?”

Who knows? She said,

“You’ve been living for 13 years without knowing that? You’re really an airhead.”

“Heh?”

Good grief, Dee shrugged her shoulders exaggeratedly.

“Miss Dee, do you know the reason?”

“Of course. I mean, everyone knows except you.”

“R-really?”

Finally, Dee started teasing Ai, shrugging her shoulders and poking Ai’s nose.

‘Please tell me, Miss Dee!”

“Yep, sure.”

Dee did not tease her any more.

“In your own words, Ai, it’s because you still have other dreams.”

“Heh?”

“Those dreams are what’s keeping you alive.”

Ai kept blinking away.

“…Eh? But I don’t have dreams anymore—”

“You just haven’t noticed it.”

… Is that so?”

“It is.”

Dee pulled her right arm out of the bathtub and reached for the world of stars.

“You see, that dream is the first dream that all of us have. It’s one we have since we’re a baby…no, something that we always had long ago, an ancient wish.”

Dee’s words sounded like a bedtime story, one that parents would narrate to their children.

“It’s the first fragment to create a dream, the reason why living things live.”

It was the reason why a child would become an adult.

Saying that, Dee showed a tender smile.

A feeling arose within Ai when she saw that smile. No, she had that a long time ago, one that caused her heart to beat.

Instead of telling her the name of the dream, Dee asked Ai one question.

“Ai.”

Yes, Ai answered.

 

“What do you want to be now?”

 

The question slowly melted into the bloodstream.

“…I….”

Putting her hand on her chest, Ai asked herself deep inside.

“…I…”

What do I want to be?

“I…”

What did Ai Astin want to be?

Both Dee and Scar waited patiently for the answer.

 

“I want to be me.”

 

It was the first time she had ever said those words.

But the moment she said that wish, it became the most valuable matter to her.

 

It was the dream of the dragon that flew in the sky for the first time, the dream of the fish that stepped on shore for the first time.

It was the dream of matter within the primordial cove.

It was the reason for human life.

 

“I want to become, Ai Astin…”

 

She found herself shedding tears.

How much had she neglected ‘myself’ till this point? How much had she mistreated this precious dream she had from the beginning.

It was an important dream that her parents had moored together in their lives.

“…Ku…kuuuuuu!”

Ai cried. She could not raise her voice and cry like a child. She merely regretted her actions and cried through her teeth.

It was the tears of an adult who knew her shame, who knew herself.

“I…I…”

So dazzled by her newly acquired dream that was so beautiful, she discarded her old dream.

“Ku, uuu~”

She trampled her own ego when she dreamed of saving the world.

And yet, the dream that she had discarded was still there, rooting for Ai.

“It’s okay.”

Her friend picked her up and carried her along.

“I was fine too. I’m sure you’ll be fine as well, Ai.”

Dee gently hugged Ai’s shoulders, as though she was returning the dream she had safeguarded for Ai.

Henceforth, Ai could no longer be an adult.

The cries of the children were absorbed into the star-filled sky.

 

+

 

 “Alice used to tell me that it’s better to have dreams that don’t come true.”

When Ai had calmed down, Dee said,

“But recently, I think that’s wrong.”

“Sniff…how so?”

Ai asked, thinking that half the water in the pool was probably her tears.

“You know what? A dream you work hard to fulfill! Isn’t a dream at all!”

“Huh?”

“It’s just a goal!”

“Y-yeah, that’s true.”

It was worthless.

“Right? When you say you want to become a dressmaker or a beautiful bride, you’re really saying you want to ‘open a clothes shop’. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“Yes…I understand…”

“But before people knew it, they lost their ‘self’. They might not be able to open their clothes shop, a grocery store, or a tailor, but that’s not a bad thing. People do forget though…and that’s a little unfortunate.”

Ai knew very well the fate of a dream devoid of a ‘self’.

“A dream without a ‘self’ might come true, but it’ll only be empty…”

“Yes…”

“And when they don’t come true, people get sharper and sharper. Some even start assuming it’s their own fault.”

“You’re hitting my sore spots…”

“That’s the point! Remember this well!”

Dee barked, and then nibbled on Ai’s ear.

“Saving the world here is the same thing. No matter how difficult that is, it’s just another goal.”

“Yes, that’s right…”

It was not because Ai would be Ai if she saved the world.

It was because Ai was Ai that she wanted to save the world.

She would be a weirdo if she really could not say such words.

“…I must have really worried a lot of people.”

She really missed the people she had met so far. She wondered what Ulla and Tanya would think if they were to see her at this point. What would they think? Surely they would not reproach Ai.

Ai used to think that she was worth less than a piece of trash after her dreams had failed.

But they would not think so at all..

She really felt completely indebted to Julie.

“…But thank goodness.”

Dee let out a sigh of relief.

“I’m so glad you’re back, Ai—I saw so many people who couldn’t come back when I was the Ghost. I almost went over there myself. You’re the most extreme of them all, Ai, and I even thought you probably could end up saving the world. To be honest, I didn’t think you’d actually come back, and I thought it might be better for you not to come back.”

Really, Dee smiled a lot on this day, as though she was attending her own birthday party or a festival.

“But Ai, you’re back.”

Dee smiled, but her heart was increasingly heavy

“So, please, Ai, save Alice…”

Eh? Ai sat up. Dee found herself sinking into the pool, cupping her knees, her smile gradually losing vigor as though she was in an ice bath.

“Alice definitely hasn’t come back yet…he lost his goal, but he can’t find himself, and he’s just wandering between dreams and reality…it’s no wonder, since he’s been working hard, for his ‘dream has forsaken him’.

Alice’s dream too was supposed to come from Alice himself. He wanted ‘to free his friends even if it met his destruction’, and the origin of it was ultimately a dream only Alice Color could have.

But he harbored this dream for far too long.

He wished too much for his own disappearance.

“If Alice disappeared like that, his dream would have been dreamed so beautifully…like Hampnie Hambart.”

Dee’s white pearly smile quivered as she seemingly chanted.

“But fortunately or unfortunately, Alice survived…so Ai, please bring Alice back so that things won’t become unfortunate.”

“Yes.”

Ai nodded firmly.

“Of course.”

“That’s good…”

Dee exhaled as if a weight had been lifted from her shoulders, and floated back to the surface as if the water was finally warm again.

“I guess I’m done with everything left to do…”

“Please don’t talk as if you’re done briefing. Mr Alice is very stubborn, and I‘ll need your help, Miss Dee. It’s just starting.”

“No, I’m done with one of my tasks.”

Her face was a mixture of sadness and satisfaction.

“Because it’s you, Ai—no, you’re the only one who can do it. My role is over.”

“…Why?”

“Because, you and Alice are connected by a thread of fate, right, Ai?”

There it was.

“…Again with that?”

Ai dipped her disgusted face into the hot water up to the top of her nose. Ahem ahem ahem.

“If we’re talking about a thread of fate, aren’t you more connected, Miss Dee?”

“There’s none for me. I cut it myself.”

She lifted her right hand out of the water and waved it in the air.

“Miss Dee, do you hate Mr. Alice now?”

“No…I don’t think so, not really.”

“I guess. You like him to the point where you’d destroy the world after all.”

“D-Don’t say that out loud! It’s embarrassing…but if I have to say it, don’t you like him enough to ‘revive him’?”

“…Erm, I’m not sure about that. I don’t think it’s love though.”

Probably, Ai tilted her little head.

“And, what kind of feeling is love?”

“Heh?”

“I am interested in that too.”

 

At that moment,

Scar, who had been listening to their conversation quietly, interrupted the moment she had an opportunity to.

Celica, by the way, was already out of the hot water and was snoozing in a basket on the side.

“Dee, what is the feeling of love exactly?”

“Well, it’s hard for me to explain…”

“For example, what kind of feelings do you have for Alice?”

“Eh? Me? My feelings for Alice…”

Dee stared into the void as if she was remembering something, and her expression suddenly appeared tender.

“…Well, yeah, you feel gentle in the heart, and even warm here.”

She put her hands together, onto her chest.

“And then you’ll really want to see him…you want to be with him…s—no!.”

“I see. “

“That certainly is meaningful.”

“Kya——————!”

Suddenly, Dee stood up with a red face and slapped the surface of the water.

“What are you asking me now!? Why am I answering!?”

“Dee, what is the feeling like when you say you really miss him. How about the frequency and intensity?”

“Uh, well, it’s not measured by distance or anything. If I’m far away, I’ll think that he’s nearby. If I’m near him, I want to touch him. It’s a feeling that the closer I am, the more intense it is…”

“I see.”

“—————————!”

Dee banged her head against a rock.

“Dee, when you say your chest gets warm, do you mean your heart?”

“No, I don’t think so, Miss Scar. I think you mean the soul or something.”

“Pl-please stop! What are you doing to my precious love? Don’t analyze it! Don’t be interested and all! Don’t come——!”

Dee tried to resist and retreat from the two Gravekeepers looming in, but Ai aside, there was no stopping Scar the moment she got serious.

“Specifically, what is that heart of love you speak of?”

“…I can only describe it as a throbbing heart…”

“When do you feel a throbbing heart? When will you meet someone?”

“…I feel that even if we don’t meet, like when I’m alone and I think of him…”

“What do you think about him?”

Ai realized it was bad, but it was too late, for Dee had fallen limp by the edge of the pool, becoming a doll that could only answer. She was completely naked, looking into the sky with a vacant look, and the situation seemed perilous.

“Pull yourself together, Miss Dee, the wound isn’t so bad.”

“…Ai, seriously…please take care of…Alice…and the black surface…”

“Pull yourself together, Miss Dee, you’re turning into salted kelp.”

Scar kept asking until the very end, “Hmm” and finally answered with satisfaction as she nodded hard, saying,

“Well, that was not very helpful for reference.”

“You’re saying that after all this!?”

Dee, revived by the energy of anger, slaps the hot water. The now awake Celica was really happy.

“And what do you mean, ‘reference’? What are you referencing~…”

“Miss Dee, calm down.”

Ai stroked Dee’s limp head.

Scar was moving leisurely at her own pace.

“That is, of course, a reference to my mind.”

“Eh? W-What do you mean?”

With a swoon, Dee instantly came back to life and slipped into Scar’s arms, as if she had gained more efficient energy than anger.

“Are you referring to uncle? Am I right? There’s no one else but him, right?”

“Yes.”

“Ohh! And then? Well? What do you think, Scar? Do you feel this way too?”

“In conclusion, no.”

“…I see.”

It seemed Dee had nothing more to say, and she murmured to herself with a bitter expression.

“…Mr Julie is really pitiful.”

Ai felt deep sympathy for Julie, who was probably doing his best to maintain the car.

“It is strange, no? I assumed I like Julie, but given what you said, Dee, it does not seem to be the case.

“Eh!?”

Dee was so surprised that she slipped and sank on her bottom.

“Do-do you like uncle after all, Scar?”

“No, I said this might not be the case.”

“Miss Scar, please save Miss Dee before answering. She can’t hear you.”

“Wait! Wait, wait, wait! What’s going on?”

She heard.

“What else could it be?”

It seemed Scar’s head was flushed, for she tilted her head, showing a reddish look.

“Hearing your conversation had me wondering. A Gravekeeper is a being without a ‘self’. And so I wondered, what caused me to become who I am now?”

With a human expression, Scar smiled.

“And then I thought of you. It appears that I have a tendency to overthink what makes me. I was wondering if this is what you call love.”

“Hmmm~.”

Dee crossed her arms, greatly troubled.

“Maybe it’s love.”

“What is the difference between crush and love?”

“…… Sorry, I don’t understand it either. They’re similar, but maybe a little different.”

“Is that so? I shall observe this feeling for a while then.”

Scar gave a somewhat happy smile.

“…Why do I feel like I’ve lost?”

“Miss Dee, it’s not about winning or losing, is it?”

“Yes yes, you’re a good girl, little Ai—no, wait, what about you, Ai?”

“What about me?”

“Alice.”

Ai let out a huge sigh. She did not want to remain in the bath any further.

“You hate him?”

“…I don’t hate him.”

“Then do you like him?”

“I don’t!”

“But you do think about him a little, right?”

Pew, Ai heard something snap in her heart.

“It’s true that I’d be lying if I say I won’t think about him. I was the one who revived Mr Alice after all.”

A battle trumpet was being blown in Ai’s mind. Reason and intellect came together to wave the assault flag.

Unbeknownst to her, Dee was smirking,

“See, I knew it.”

“Maybe I do like Mr. Alice.”

“Y-you see? “

Ai really felt Dee was an idiot. Since she knew this topic would hurt her, she should not have touched upon it.

“I say maybe, but I think it’s rather unlikely—then again, even if I do like him, so what? “

“E-erm—”

Dee seemed to have finally realized.

Ai was angry.

“It doesn’t matter who I like, is it?”

“Erm, Ai?”

“It doesn’t matter what I do with my feelings.”

Ai’s budding sense of self started to be earnestly angry.

“Why does everyone make it sound like an exaggeration? Miss Dee, Mr. Julie, the people in town, they all try to make fun of us and look at us ‘that way’.”

They never realized that every time they did so, something between them would break.

“Please don’t name whatever feelings I have. What you’re being is a busybody, Miss Dee…shall I tell you here and now why you’re one?”

“Sorry….”

Dee was quick to apologize.

“I’m sorry, Ai….”

Good grief, Ai sighed and regained her composure.

“I said too much too. I’m sorry…but you should have confessed earlier, Miss Dee.”

“No, well, when you say that, it just felt like…it’s impossible for me…I believe Alice will have it tougher than you, Ai, because he’s still in the phase where he just lost his dream.”

Ai remembered Alice’s burnt right arm, and the manner in which he cried tears of blood.

“He’s just a kid, you know. He’s not even in love yet, or doesn’t even know how to live. That’s why he’s so reckless.”

“—Then why don’t you hold him together, Miss Dee?”

“Yeah, but…Ai…”

Please don’t use me as an excuse.

“Hm-hmph. Since you say so, don’t cry when Alice falls in love with me then.”

“Fine by me.”

At that moment, something that had been smoldering in Dee’s mind for a long time seemed to disappear.

Surely the feeling that arose within Ai had entrenched itself within Dee as well. Ai was glad that she had been able to return the favor to her dear friend.

“Alright! I’ll do my best!”

With that, Dee stood up.

“Oh, you’re finally going to confess?”

“No, I’m not going to do that now, because there’s a high probability of failure. I’ll start by wearing down his defenses first.”

“…That’s really typical of you, Miss Dee. It’s fine.”

“Okay! Then I’m going!”

Huh? Before Ai could show any surprise, Dee had jumped out of the bathtub and lumbered towards the changing room.

“Erm, what are you intending to do, Miss Dee?”

“I’ll go conquer Alice!”

“Calm down. Please stop first.”

It was a dire situation.

Dee’s face was flushed, and it was obvious she did not think this through. Apparently, she had taken too long a bath with the two Gravekeepers.

“You can’t, Miss Dee. You’ll only regret it tomorrow. You should stop if you don’t want to feel awkward, you should stop. Or rather, I’ll make you stop!”

“Ai~let~go~ Don’t worry, I’ve seen what to do in such situations so often when I was the Ghost.”

“What do you mean ‘so often’? What’ve you been doing with your invincible body? You’re a peeping tom!”

Ai tried to stop Dee by clinging to the latter’s flabby stomach, but the floor was too slippery for her to hold on.

“Fufufu, coming from you, Ai? Well, of course, in terms of sex appeal, there’s no way you can compare to me. Fufu. Obviously I’ll be the one to snatch Alice~”

” Please don’t say that! I don’t think I’ll be able to extend any more kindness by stopping you though!”

On a side note, Scar was in the hot water, being a complete bystander, looking on with a face of morose enjoyment.

“Let-go~!”

“Please come to your senses!”

Finally, Dee reached the changing room and opened the door.

“Ah.”

She felt it was not Alice’s fault.

Naturally, he was not here to peek, and he did knock.

Furthermore, Dee was trying to tempt him with sex appeal. No one could blame him if he saw her naked body.

But such reasons had nothing to do with the euphemism of a girl’s heart.

“Kya——————————!”

That day, the last remaining bath tub in the motel shattered.

 

Part III

 

“Why can’t you just say you got something…”

Steam rose from Dee as she stomped off, her footsteps loud and clear.

“My bad….”

Alice continued, stroking his cheek that had a clear palm imprint.

“Alice, I’ll talk to you later…you weren’t trying to peep, were you?”

Julie, who was on the verge of one step ahead of the demon, chases after him.

“Celica, please do not fool around. It is easy to catch a cold after a hot bath.

Scar was exceptionally concerned about Celica catching a cold from the cooled water, and put thick clothes on the latter.

Ai herself was wearing thick clothes, steaming as she passed through the night mist.

“So, what do you want?”

“Nothing much, I was outside fixing the car, and this guy came in.”

The gang left the motel. The stretch of dense forest was darker than the starry sky. The cobblestones at the roundabout were peeled off, and the trees in the garden had grown wild and were sprouting in all directions. A blue car, dirtier than ever, blended into the landscape as if mimicking a ruin.

Next to it was a young man who resembled a bullied dog.

“Mr. Shaun!”

Ai skipped over the bumps and ran to the car.

“You’re all right?”

“…You say I’m alright when I look like this?”

Shaun was covered in scars, especially on his arms. The shirt sleeves were torn off and used as bandages, and for some reason, he was wearing his shoes wrongly.

“This is worse than being dead.”

The exhausted young man sneered, showing a look that was a mix between self-mockery and sarcasm.

“That’s not true.”

“Ah?”

Shaun lifted his face in surprise.

“It’s too early for you to die, you know.”

At this moment, Ai could say those words proudly.

“So, what do you want?”

“Ah, yeah, actually, I was with some guys from the town just moments ago…”

Shaun pointed to the bottom of the hill.

“They’re going to launch another attack tonight.”

There were artificial lights there, different from flames.

“They’re going to attack my stepmother’s main body.”

“Eh? But it’s impossible to defeat her even if that’s the case….”

“Yeah, that’s why they’re looking for you Gravekeepers too.”

Ai glanced at the two shovels propped up against the car.

Only the Gravekeepers would stop the Dead.

She was about to have to make another decision.

“I volunteered to do the job. I got a different goal though, so please, I beg of you, hide and make sure they don’t find you! They want you Gravekeepers to bury my stepmother—”

“Wait.”

Scar immediately stopped him.

“Those hiding in there, do come out. If you do not, I shall deem you hostile and personally bury you.”

She picked up one of the shovels and pointed the blade at a nearby bush.

Ai noticed it once she said so. She could not hear breathing or heartbeat, but there were people hiding there.

“Why, excuse me, young Scar.  Ah, we forgot you have the ability to detect the Dead’s whereabouts. Sorry to startle you. It’s me.”

And with that, the men trickled out.

Bendo Gram and the citizens.

“You’ve been…spying on me?

“Of course. You were cooperative with us, but you’re an enemy until yesterday. It’s a courtesy to supervise you…and sure enough, you seem hostile to us. How foolish. Why would they accept such a request from you.”

“Ugh!”

“Seize him!”

The hands reached out from the darkness and pinned Shaun to the ground.

“Mr Bendo…”

“Ohh, young Ai. Glad you’re okay. It’s good to see you.”

Bendo, the mayor who had taken such good care of Ai since the days of the Sealed City, always wore a crisp, unwrinkled suit,

“We’ve been looking for you.”

He was already dead.

 

+

 

“Come with us. Good news. We’ve captured Madame’s body.”

The blue car drove down the mountain, flanked by militia jeeps in front and behind.

“It was a lot of damage, but I guess that’s the end of this matter.”

Bendo said, appearing to be in a good mood.

“I was initially fearful of how serious it could be! Well, good work!”

Alice poked his head out of the passenger seat.

“More importantly, Bendo, get your postmortem done…otherwise you’ll end up ‘selfish’. The sooner you do this, the better…or I can do it for you.”

“I don’t need you to take care of my mess, Alice. Don’t worry. I’ll be gone as soon as this is over.”

“That’s!”

Ai blurted out without thinking. Bendo smiled gently and narrowed his dilated pupils.

“Thanks for trying to get me to stay, little Ai…but to be honest, I’m taking it very hard.”

He looked at Dee spitefully.

“I’ve been fooled by that little girl, and now I’m in such a foolish state. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be twisted like that.”

At where the Dead looked, Dee continued to nonchalantly chew on a piece of gum.

“… This is the best I can do, according to my common sense. There’s no way I can accept any post-mortems. I’d be closer to being ‘selfish’ if that happens.”

“But that’s…”

“So, this is the last time…I want to leave this world with the memory of protecting this town.”

Bendo hesitated to pat the head of Ai, who was about to start crying. His proud soul had deemed himself evil, and was unwilling to touch the radiant life.

And seeing that, Ai leaned her head forward, basically headbutting as she rested her head on his palm.

“Thank you…”

The Dead’s hand gently touched her, just a little, and then quickly withdrew.

“So, which one of you is going to bury Madame?”

There was no doubt on his face as he asked this question.

He never expected that Ai would be so hesitant, given how honorable he was.

 

The hill of flames was already before them.

 

+

 

The hill appeared to be the embodiment of hell.

“We’ll have to walk on foot from here.”

Bendo said, getting out of the car.

“Eh, but what are we going to do with all these flames?”

Ai got out of the car and looked up at the hill. There was some gap between the burning flames, but it was not that easy to move through.

“Hm, about this…see?”

“W-what are you doing?”

Bendo suddenly put his hand into the flame.

“No need to panic.”

Then, for some strange reason, the flame moved away as much as it was pushed, and Bendo’s hand was not burned.

“…What’s going on?”

“It’s probably the metamorphosis Alice spoke of.”

Ai touched the flame with trepidation, but the flames shunned her as well.

“This flame is not going to set anything ablaze indiscriminately. It’s just…”

Bendo pulled a knife from his pocket and threw it at the flames.

The previously unresponsive flames immediately intercepted the knife and melted the iron core at a tremendous high temperature.

“Basically, these flames follow a certain concept—it only reacts to ‘violence’ and counterattacks accordingly.”

“That’s ….”

Alice’s ability to shoot down bullets.

Madame’s ability to uphold the law.

Both powers caused a metamorphosis, but they ended up reverting back to their original wish.

“…If I had known sooner, we would have saved a lot of meaningless sacrifices…but thanks to these, It made finding Madame relatively easy.”

Just then, there was a commotion in the jeep behind them.

“Please! I beg of you!”

A man who had his hands cuffed together pleased loudly,

“Please take me with you! At least let me see her final moments!”

“Shaun?”

Bendo narrowed his eyes.

“Hey, Mr. Mayor! Please!”

Ai tried to keep her voice as firm as possible, so as not to show her bias towards him

“…I too ask for this.”

“Hmm, well, sure…hey! Bring that guy along too! Over here! “

With a tired sigh, Bendo looked at the top of the hill.

“Let’s go, I want to finish this before dawn.”

 

+

 

While the flames did not burn the body, the sight of it seemed to chip away at Ai’s spirit instead.

The Purgatory-like hills seemed completely devoid of reality, for the half-heartedly regenerated town of ash looked eerie instead, as though it had blended with the flames. Ai felt this might be the Afterlife people referred to. The flames did not hinder the steps of those scaling it, and flickered like ghost flames, leading them to the hill.

And once they reached the peak.

It was a place of fairy tales.

“Ooohhh … ooohhh …”

As the ghost flames swayed at the peak, a huge old woman made of iron and ash was being held captive by pale, burning flames and a light spear that felt tangible.

The flames of purgatory surrounded them, and an unknowing black surface floated above it all, transcending everything.

What’s with this reality? Ai’s mind went momentarily blank.

And then,

Unexpected people were waiting for her there.

“You’re here. I’ve waited long enough.”

A boy floating in a halo said.

“……”

A noblewoman in a flame dress opened her eyes.

Dee’s expression finally changed the moment she saw them.

The two Deformed appeared as jurors in the trial and disappeared before they knew it.

Fellmigora periphery nobleman, Noellfaen.

Dust Believer, ambassador-at-large to Ortus.

“Noellfaen and Dust Believer? What’s going on, Bendo!? Why are they here!?”

“Watch your mouth, young girl.”

The boy spoke elegantly, acting as though he never recognized Dee.

“We have signed a contract with your chief. We are allied.”

“I never heard of this!”

“Of course not, why should a young girl like you know of a conversation between countries?”

“—~!”

This was what Dee had meant when she said that Bendo seemed suspicious. Bendo had personally done a deal with them.

“Bendo, what have you promised these people?”

“Protection of the citizens and supplies. They’ve agreed to defeat Madame and take over the black surface.”

Of course, the Living powerhouse of Fellmigora and the Dead powerhouse of Ortus had no interest in such a battle of territory. They arrived to bury this ‘possible link to the new world’, one that would undermine their power base.

And yet, it was only two days.

The speed was beyond Dee’s expectations.

“Bendo!”

Dee, who was the only one who appreciated black surface from the same point of view as the others, called out the name as though she had the urge to beat him up. It was the only reason why she, who had said that the idea of life and death were worthless, kept fighting.

But the supreme authority here would not budge.

“I won’t apologize, Dee. There’s no comparison between a creepy hole and a citizen’s life. I think it’s the right thing to do…”

Dee’s point of view was too high for them to sympathize with her. Even the guard Captain, who was most devoted to her, looked aside.

If she had a few more days, she could have broken that common sense… Dee gritted her teeth and began to search for a way to reverse the situation.

But time was not stopping.

“And who, o Mayor, can bury the Dead? Please hurry. The tongues of flames have been trying to burn us for quite some time now.”

“We’ll get down to it right away.”

Bendo turned his gaze towards Shaun.

“Have you said your goodbyes?”

Shaun shook his head at the sight of Madame, probably betting everything on this last bit of hope.

She showed no signs of recovery.

“Go on.”

A forefinger reached out from behind Ai.

“Go on, young Ai. Finish the rest.”

Bendo pointed at Madame with a look of mercy.

“Go on.”

The Living pointed.

“Go on.”

The Dead pointed.

Go on, go on, they urged the little Gravekeeper.

Ai was about to remember something incredibly frightening.

“Wait, Bendo! That is indeed Miss Madame’s body, but burying it won’t make this situation any better! It might even make it worse…”

“We know, but if it’s a possibility, we’re willing to give it a try.”

“But,”

Ai was going to say that when Madame had confronted Celica, she had felt something about the change in the flames. She wanted to say that she did not want to bury people anymore.

” I don’t think it’s likely to get any worse. It seems that this body and the flame have become completely separate entities. The body seems annoyed with our attacks, but the flames reacted to her attacks. Don’t worry, you can bury her.”

“But,”

Ai wanted to refute.

“Go on.”

And yet,

“Go on.” “Go on.”

And,

The forefingers wavered in the flames.

They were stroking at Ai’s distant memory.

There were only two Deads that Ai had buried so far.

One of them was Kizuna Astin, Ai’s father.

The other was—Hana Astin, Ai’s mother.

Ai had no recollection of what happened.

She just followed the instructions of the villagers, as though feverish..

Go on, go on, they said, pointing to the darkness of the grave, and their hands,

They seemed hot to her, just like that time.

“Go on.”

Right when Ai was about to reach her limit,

 

“Leave this to one.”

 

Another Gravekeeper stood up, carrying a silver blade.

“I shall take care of it.”

Scar stepped forward, holding Celica in her left hand and the shovel in his right, to protect Ai.

“Ai!”

“Get a grip! Hey, Bendo, what did you do to her?”

And before she realized, she was surrounded by her companions. Someone propped up her back, and smacked her cheek.

“No, I didn’t do anything…are you okay, Lady?”

Bendo said with a completely normal expression.

The villagers probably had that look on their faces, too.

“Wait! Miss Scar! Miss Scar—”

Ai hastily stood up and grabbed Scar by the sleeve to stop her.

“No need to worry, Ai.”

But Scar gave an encompassing smile and gently removed Ai’s hand.

“I know how you feel. Did I not tell you to leave this to me?”

The expression on her face was as noble and upright as when she was the Gravekeeper.

Madame noticed them.

“SHHHHHHHAAAAAAAAUUUUUUUNNNNNNNNNN!!!”

The situation Madame was in would have caused anyone to forget her prior silence. Her flaming skeleton was swaying, and she tried to run off. At that moment, Celica started to cry again.

“Please let her go, everyone.”

Scar looked upwards and spoke to the two Deformed who were acting like bystanders.

“—What?”

“Who knows?”

“……Well, certainly.”

The two Deformed who lived in the world of the supernatural seemed to have sensed something from Scar, and unbound Madame obediently.

“SHHHHHHHAAAAAAAAUUUUUUUNNNNNNNNNN!!!”

Madame’s massive body immediately began to climb, and she scampered off towards Celica.I’m sure you’ll be happy to know that I’m not the only one who has a problem with this.

And as expected,

“Whoa!”

She froze.

The giant stopped immediately.

“Do not cry…ah, do not cry…ahh.”

In her agony, Madame scratched her cheeks with her hands of blades, seemingly trying to coax the baby to not cry..

“Wahhh~!”

“Ahh…ahh…Shaun…do not cry…”

Ai was convinced. Madame was not acting maliciously after all.

She simply wanted to go to the side of a crying child.

“…Shaun, please do not cry. …Oh.”

Madame’s face crumpled in an expression of compassion and madness.

“My, baby ….”

“No.”

For the first time, Scar, who had been ignored as though she was a mere platform for the baby, came into Madame’s sight.

“This child does not belong to you.”

A chill went down the monster’s spine.

“…! Ga, gagaga!”

The body of junk rattled.

The atmosphere was tense. Madame was akin to an amoeba of indeterminate shape, expressing her feelings with her flesh, and was on the verge of returning to her madness.

However, only Scar was able to speak boldly.

 

“This child belongs to herself.”

 

Then Scar gently smiled at the still crying Celica,

“Do not worry, Celica, she is not scary. She is just a normal, kind old lady.”

“—Ga, gaga!!”

“She came to see you because she was worried.”

“Ah ….ahh.”

The body composed of murder weapons shaking unsteadily. The joints of the junk had loosened. The blades made of rusted, severed blades lost composure, and suddenly made a funny face.

Seeing this, Celica suddenly stopped crying.

“Ah….”

The funny faces continued to play along, showing tearful smiles.

At this moment, the baby’s reactions appeared realistic, for Celica inadvertently forgot to cry as she stared at the toys efore her. The crow that was crying was smiling. It appeared Celica found Madame’s various funny faces to be very amusing, and she started clapping.

“Ah…ah…ahh…”

“…Would you like to hug her?”

Scar held out the baby, seemingly ensuring that Celica could touch Madame. Ai and Alice almost jumped out of their skin, but Julie of all people stopped them.

“Uu…ah!?”

Madame became a mosaic of delight and confusion, and suddenly reached her hands out.

“Ah…….”

But her hands were made of dull blades, and they could not hold a baby.

“Ah! Ahhhh! Aaahhhh!”

The madness was coming to life, and Madame cursed the world as she shoved the murder weapons into her own face.

She was on the verge of falling apart again. She absorbed too much matter that her mental state was too dispersed, and she was on the verge of losing her ego..

 

Psst.

 

But it did not happen this time.

With a crunch, the blades that had formed Madame’s hands fell to the ground.

“Hold still.”

Psst, psst.

The sounds of dusting snow off the back echoed again.

“It must have been hard for you to carry such a heavy weight on your back…”

It was the hand of a family member sweeping the back of a person who had returned from returning from a long journey. It was the hand of a friend upon the shoulder of a wounded person.

It was the hand of a mother patting the head of her child.

“Ah, ahhh…”

The junk that armored Madame completely fell away one by one. The eyes and hands of the Gravekeeper separated the junk from her actual body.

The hands that would bury the Dead and deal finality were certainly giving birth to something other than destruction.

“Ah…ahh……ahhh………”

Madame was akin to an infant being combed as she let the Gravekeeper clean her up. Her body became smaller and smaller, until she became a small, old woman.

“Ahhh…ahh ….”

“Come.”

Scar handed Celica to the old woman.

The color of intelligence had returned to the old woman’s face.

“…Thank you…thank you…oh, good child, good child…”

The old woman beamed and tickled Celica’s cheek. Her movements were adept.

“Thank you… for being so beautiful, just like your mother…”

After playing with Celica for a while, Madame returned the baby to her mother.

“Are you done…?”

“Yes.”

Madame stood there alone and closed her eyelids.

“…I remembered everything.”

Her voice and body were trembling.

“I remembered everything from the day the flames burned.”

The old woman covered her face with her wrinkled hands.

“What…have I done!”

“Stepmother…!”

“Ah, you!”

Shaun waved off the guards’ hands and stumbled over. The old woman had ashes pouring from her eyes,

“…I too am sorry…for the things I have done to you…calling you Shaun, as a child that does not exist to me…what a grave sin it is.”

“I’m the same!”

The fists of the man who was no longer a boy shook uncontrollably.

“I’ve done terrible things to you…but I kept hiding it, acting like I’m your son…if you say that’s a sin, then I too have sinned!”

Ai thought that everything was finally going to be okay, that Madame had restored her mind. She could make amends with everyone, and move on to the next day.

However,

Shink! An iron spear pinned Madame to the ground.

It was the Dead, led by Bendo.

“Mr. Bendo! What are you?”

“That’s my line, young Ai. What’s going on here?”

Bendo Gram and the Dead stood there with terrifying expressions on their faces.

“‘You guys don’t really want to bury her, do you?”

“Yes!”

This time, Ai declared.

“Miss Madame is now harmless!”

“So what about that!?”

“What? What are you talking about?”

For a moment, Ai did not understand.

“S-So what? She’s harmless! There’s no need to fight anymore!”

“…No wonder I felt that something’s amiss/ It seems you’ve got this fight all wrong.”

Bendo leaned his head back, looking really exhausted.

“This is a war, young Ai. It’s a war where she either kills us, or we kill her.”

“B-But Miss Madame is now powerless… “

“All the better for us. There’s no obstacle to our swinging fists.”

“But aren’t you just venting your frustrations? Please don’t do that! What’s wrong with forgiving her?”

Phew—Bendo let out a long, unnecessary sigh.

 

“We were murdered.”

 

The words contained a tinge of misery befitting the hills of hell.

“Ah….”

Ai knew that she should not have blurted out. She knew the futility of that.

But Ai was at a loss for words.

“B-But…”

“We’ve were murdered.”

“…!”

“We were killed by that monster.”

“……”

“Are you going to say, ‘even so’, young Ai? That we should forgive her?”

Ahem, Bendo coughed, the air exited his lungs, and he spit out black blood.

“…It is fine, Miss Ai. …”

Madame gently patted Ai’s back in a comforting manner.

“I have done such things…accepting such punishment is a relief to me instead…”

She had already accepted her fate.

“…If you guys aren’t going to bury her, that’s fine too. We’ll carry her into the wilderness and wait for another Gravekeeper…along with us…”

Thud, Bendo suddenly walked towards Ai. The other Dead around him did likewise. There was no violence there, only a flame burning peacefully.

What Bendo said should have been nothing more than a grudge, but Madame’s acceptance of her sin became a justification to him.

Ai had nothing left. Reason, justice, hope, nothing.

 

But even so,

 

“…Mr Bendo.”

Ai said.

“Do you still need something?”

“I…have a dream ….”

Ai looked at the night. She was looking at the starry sky, framed by flames.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a startled Alice and Julie.

 

“I want to be myself.”

“So what….—!”

Dan! Running with ashes rising beneath her feet, Ai snatched Madame in an instant.

“Young Ai! What do you think you’re doing?”

“But that’s not all to it.”

“What are you talking about? Are you going to oppose us!?”

“Yes!”

Then Ai pointed the shovel.

“Because I want everyone to be everyone!”

“What are you—”

“Mr Bendo, you aren’t being yourself!”

Ai shouted.

“Mr Bendo, Mr Captain, everyone! You’re all fakes! The real people I know wouldn’t have lost to their vengeance! The people of Ostia have dignity!”

The spirit of the words bound the people.

“You too, Miss Madame! If you want to atone for your sins, please don’t take the easy way out by disappearing! Take a lesson from Miss Dee here!”

Just as Scar had exorcized Madame with the Gravekeeper’s hands, Ai was trying to exorcize the Dead with human words.

Ai cried. She was crying as though something worthy of grieving happened.

“Please don’t give up on yourself! Just because you died! If you can’t do that!”

Ai stabbed her shovel into the earth and stood before them.

“I shall…stop you.”

She was sad, anguished, but she could not stop. She raised her shovel to ready herself. If this could not work, then until that moment…

“I’ll oblige.”

Alice stood at where Ai hoped he would be.

“Really, it’s never boring being with you, huh?”

The rest of the group gathered behind them one by one.

That was not all. About half the people who stood with Bendo’s group went over to her side.

Bendo was certainly troubled at that moment, and with his usual eyes, he was trying to reconsider and open his mouth like he should.

And yet,

 

“…Such a strange matter.”

 

Ai looked up at the sky with hostility.

“Mayor, this appears to be a rebellion.”

“No, this is—”

“Hmm, how troublesome. I don’t know if I can negotiate with you as the representative.”

“…Looks that way.”

The only two people present who were drifting in the air as bystanders wanted to ruin everything.”

“We have no choice but to occupy the town.”

“It appears so.”

In the depths of purgatory, the angel and the demon discussed something that was worthy of hell. “

“Dee Ensy, be thankful. This place will be under the protection of our Emperor.”

What is he talking about?

“Please hold on, Noellfaen. Why are the Living supposed to be in charge of this place? Us Dead are supposed to be in charge.”

“Enough with the foolish words, demon. Are you trying to turn this place into a second Ortus?”

“What is wrong with that? The best outcome is to have the Princess stationed here. No Living shall pass the black surface”

Ai felt that she had done well.

Even though she was attacked and ignored, she endured and did not retaliate. She had Dee persuade them, and said all she could. Considering their predicaments, she did not badmouth them either.

But everything was,

“…Please do not stop me.”

Ai took a step forward with a tense, ominous tone in her voice.”

“Stop?”

Alice said, dangling two guns.

“Who’s stopping?”

Dee was furious to the point where her veins were popping, and she stood forther.

They had enough.

Ai plunged her shovel deep into the ground.

“Miss Madame, stand back.”

She then pulled it out at once. The earth dug out by the silver blade was spewed out into the world.

The soil rained down like a squall upon the flames in the area.

With that, the immortal flames were extinguished.

 

“Everyone.”

 

Ai said, holding the shovel up to her eyes, without letting go of her emotions.

“I shall introduce myself again. I’m the Gravekeeper, Ai Astin.”

Her voice echoed coolly, overwhelming the constant buzzing of the flames.

“I have the power to bury all the Dead.”

“…!”

“Hoh, that’s interesting. Then use your power to bury this dead demon here, and you shall be rewarded.”

While the mouth yapped such words of dissonance, a silver bullet was fired at his mouth.

“Just to introduce myself again. I’m Alice Color.”

The bullet was vaporized into a pillar of light just before it hit the lips. However,

“Gah!”

He managed to parry this shot, and the other two bullets hit both shoulders.

“Any projectile I shoot is certain to hit the target. Everyone knows I’m a dangerous man.

“Wait, don’t do that if you know that.”

Ai turned pale because she feared that Alice harmed someone, but the latter merely winked as an excuse. Dee then said,

“I’m Dee Ensy, their boss.”

“Hey!”

“I’m Julie, Ai’s foster father.”

“No, I haven’t agreed to that—”

“I am also a Gravekeeper, Scar, and this is my daughter, Celica.”

Everyone started introducing themselves for some reason. Madame and Shaun were wondering if they should do the same.

“…Hoh?”

Faced with the two Gravekeepers, his trump card against the Dead, Noellfaen turned to Ai.

“What do you wish for?”

‘I’ve been telling you for a while now. Please leave.”

“I’ve also told you I can’t do that.”

Noellfaen, who must have recognized Ai as the one to negotiate, explained his reasons.

“Say, child. Do you think our deeds are evil?”

Fellmigora intended to maintain the status quo, the world of the afterlife. They thus wanted to manage this black surface that would be a hindrance to their plans.

“…We too have pressing reasons to be here, Gravekeeper child….”

Ortus in turn was thinking of creating a new nation, and sought eternity in this world. They were afraid that the potential Dead would be lost to the new world.

“…I don’t think it’s wrong.”

As the one being persuaded, Ai understood their feelings somewhat.

She understood why they would not back down.

“I understand that you are just trying to protect your world.”

“Then—”

“But…”

She lifted her head and looked at the world.

“In that case, you should understand, right? What you’re going to trample on is a world someone wants to protect…”

She looked up at the black surface.

“This black surface was made by a friend of mine that I have yet to meet.”

Isola Edwards.

The girl who was the only one who went to a different world of her own volition while all 30,000 citizens returned home.

A person who lived with a deadly disease, yet never hated anyone; a brilliant person who could have destroyed Alice, but steadied herself on the brink. A comrade of Ai’s who liked dream chrysanthemums.

Would she be offended if Ai treated her like a friend?

“—It’s not your hope, nor is it your despair. It’s her dream. This is the world she wanted to protect, just like you…”

If she got angry, Ai would apologize.

Ai held  up her shovel.

“…If you still want to come to me, then by all means ….”

That was the last straw for Ai.

 

“I too shall fight to protect the world.”

 

Her friends took their stances behind her. The flames of ash trembled as they noticed the signs of destruction. It was a sign that they were serious.

“…I never thought I would die here.”

The angel answered after a long silence.

“Well, it can’t be helped. I suppose it’s good bitter medicine to wake the fools back in my country.”

“An outstanding person like you is willing to die in battle? We shall welcome you in Ortus once you die.”

Dust Believer chuckled.

“Shut up Dust Believer, you’re the one in danger of extinction.”

“I think that is a rather trivial matter.”

“I suppose so?”

They glanced at Ai. There was determination in her eyes.

Suddenly, there was silence. Ai’s eyes were downcast as she held the shovel, the angel spread his wings, and the bones stood upright, retracting the flames.

The winds of war had calmed, and it was as if peace had arrived.

But it was only a facade, for the surrounding area was filled with stinging hostility and aggression.

Gobble, gobble, gobble.

The flames of ash reacted to the hostility and blazed at an unprecedented vigor. The flames were no longer effervescent, and were waiting for the moment to devour them all.

And time began to move slowly.

An angel grabs a pillar of light like a great tree.

The bones danced while dressed in a flaming dress.

Ai grasped her shovel and lowered her center of gravity.

The Living followed the angel and pushed the limits of the Deformed.

The Dead ran with torn limbs as weapons.

The friends offered encouragement from behind Ai.

The fire of retaliation surrounded everything.

The black surface ignored everything as it merely spreaded itself like an otherworld.

 

No one could stop this conflict, not Ai’s shovel, not the angel’s light, not the noblewoman’s bones, nor the fire of deterrence. All that was left was for the moment of conflict to explode.

Supposedly.

People and flames collided. Confusion should have led to more confusion.

But,

 

The black surface, which had been watching the people like an abyss of the universe, shook at that moment.

 

Right before the destruction, right when hundreds of deaths and annihilation would occur.

A wave that should not have shaken prevented a battle that could not possibly be prevented.

Ai gripped the shovel as her mouth slacked and opened wide, staring at the black surface. Everyone was ignoring the start signal and looking at completely unrelated places.

Ripples appeared on the black surface. The boundary that had rejected all interference was shaking.

It was a phenomenon that occurred only when the Living passed through from this world.

But at this moment, nobody was near the black surface. Ripples were appearing from within the black surface.

And then,

 

“Oopsie—”

 

There were no dazzling lights, no rumbling earth.

The girl appeared.

 

+

 

She has fluffy silver hair, droopy eyes that look like she was crying or smiling, a worn-out sweater and a thick checkered skirt that were most probably her favorite clothes. And on her head, a single dream chrysanthemum flower.

The person who emerged from the black surface had been silent for so long, and appeared at first glance to be just an ordinary girl.

“Thank goodness…I made it through…….”

…Who is she?

The question was prancing upon everyone’s face. Nobody recognized her.

But for some reason, Ai had a sense of déjà vu about the girl’s appearance. She had never seen or spoken to the girl before, but she felt a sense of familiarity, as if they had been friends for a decade.

“Miss…Isola…?”

“Ah, there’s someone who knows me. Woah, you’re really, cute…oh, and there’s big bro Alice and big sis Dee, too…ah, but….”

The girl blushed, perhaps embarrassed by the attention,

“Nice to meet you, I’m Isola Edwards.”

The stated name belonged to that of the person who created this black surface.

“I’ve returned to this world, albeit unexpectedly.”

Isola bowed her head.

Again, a puzzled silence descended upon them. This time however, Isola was included in the confusion.

“Um, I’m sorry for interrupting. It seems you’re busy…”

“…That does not matter.”

The angel asked,

“Did you exit from that black surface?”

“Ah, yes—woa, it’s an angel. You’re floating. It’s amazing~”

“…That does not matter…”

“I’m sorry.”

Another child…Noellfaen shook his head in disgust.

“Where do you come from?”

“Ah, erm, I don’t know if you understand if I say it’s an otherworld. Even though I created it…”

There was chatter.

“Hey! Isola, were you the only one in that world? I sent 1,202 people from here!”

Capitalizing upon this confusion, Dee raised her hand.

“Yes, they’re all there, big sis Dee. 1202 people, not a single one missing. Everyone is now living normal lives in that world right now.”

Again, there was chatter. All the people present faltered.

“I-is the world you speak of the one from fifteen years ago…”

“Yes, it’s a world without Gravekeepers or Walking Dead.”

“Then, are there children too…”

“Yes.”

Isola beamed.

“We have confirmed the development of fertilized ovaries in some mothers. I believe it is possible to conceive children there.”

People were speechless.

The highly disciplined soldiers questioned away without regard for their own roles, and even exposed themselves defenselessly in the battle.

“But I only heard from the doctor. I do not know the specifics, so you’ll have to ask the people who’ll come through in the future.”

“Future?”

Ai asked.

“By ‘future’ do you mean…people can come and go between here and there?”

“It is impossible to come and go.. One can either go, or come…this black surface is like the prior original. Every person can only traverse once in life.”

In other words, the only person who could come here from the other side at this moment was Isola, who was there from the beginning.

“I suppose it’ll probably be several decades before the next person comes over there, when the children born there realize that they are dying.”

Her words slowly sank into the hearts of the people.

The biggest despair of this world.

The fear that there would be no children, no one to inherit them.

It vanished at this moment.

“Ohh…”

Psst, the weapons fell.

“Ahh! Ahhhh!”

The Living cried with their bodies, and the Dead cried with their hearts.

“Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!”

The battle was supposedly unavoidable.

And yet.

“Yes! Did you hear that!?”

“Yeah! How’s that possible! I can’t believe this day has arrived!”

The world was not redeemed because of this. The fact remained that this world would eventually be left with nothing but Dead.

But surely a different wind was blowing.

Ai stood there in a daze.

 

The world had been saved.

 

The world was being saved before her eyes.

The shock just went through her body. She was neither happy nor sad, her heart was trembling, and she seemingly did not know what to feel.

There were cheers.

Whoa!! Both Living and Dead were united, raising their fists.

“Tell everyone what we saw here. The black surface shall save both Living and Dead!”

Dee immediately started to ‘whisper’ While the crowd cheered, Ai left the frenzy and walked over to Isola.

“You must be Miss Ai, no.”

Isola was thin and gingerly frail. She was really just an ordinary girl.

And yet, she saved the world.

“Miss Ai. You’re amazing.”

“Eh?”

Yet that person praised Ai.

“You’re the one who saved big bro Alice, right…from death too.”

“…You’re the amazing one, Miss Isola.”

“Really?”

“Yes. You saved the world.”

“Hmm~, but I couldn’t save big bro. I think you’re the more amazing one after all, Miss Ai.”

“Is that, so?”

“Yes yes. I respect you.”

“…It’s kind of a mess, isn’t it?”

“Fufufu, really…ah, big bro…”

Alice arrived behind Ai’s back.

“It’s been a while.”

“…Seems that way.”

Alice gave a somewhat gaudy smile. For Isola, he was an older brother figure, but for Alice who had been reset many times, it was almost like a first encounter.”

“It’s okay. Don’t worry about it, big bro. We can create memories together in the future…I finally made it to the starting point”

Isola stretched out, took a deep breath, loosened her flushed cheeks,

“After all…there’s plenty of time.”

She stared at the world with moist eyes.

“There really is…lots…”

“Miss Isola?”

She looked strange.

One would have assumed her flushed face was due to tension, but the redness faded, and the face slowly turned brown. The muscles did not move, and she was repeatedly heaving and breathing hard.

“Miss Isola!”

The girl fell over.

“…I’m glad I made it…really, thank goodness ….”

“W-What’s wrong with you!? What’s going on!?”

“I’m sorry to scare you… but don’t worry…it’s just that I’ve reached the end of my life ….”

“! You’re sick!”

Ai remembered Isola’s illness. It was a congenital disease that caused muscles to lose elasticity as they grew, and finally even caused the heart to stop beating.

“Anyway, just lie down for now”

“No…please…let me see the world just a little bit more…”

Isola, supported by Ai and Alice, still refused to fall down.

The night was about to dawn.

“Ahh, so beautiful…”

Isola was shedding her last tears.

“Every time… I see the sunrise, I’m terrified that I won’t see tomorrow…”

Her lips became dry, and her eyes slowly lost their luster.

“But I don’t have to be scared like that anymore…I can see tomorrow again…”

She smiled as though she was being held in her mother’s arms.

 

“This is heaven, isn’t it…?”

 

Heaven.

The words penetrated the people.

The madness was over; Living and Dead, soldiers and generals, everyone was listening to Isola’s words.

The world was turned upside down.

Life that was lost had been restored, but it would not revert to its original state. Both blend and remain together.

Reality had been transported beyond the black surface, and this place would become the land of the Dead.

The first person in that land was crying, hoping to ingrain herself in this new world.

But her face suddenly winced,

“Or perhaps this place might be hell…”

She whispered anxiously.

“No.”

Ai’s heart was speaking.

“You’re right, this is indeed heaven.”

Her lips were quivering, as if she was being asked to represent the world.

While carrying heaven on her back, Ai looked straight into Isola’s eyes.

Tears flowed freely.

“We won’t, let this place, become hell.”

“…………I see…thank you.”

Finally, Isola’s life was coming to an end. Her skin was losing tension, and her eyes would soon lose their luster.

“You’re like an angel…”

The morning sun shone into her pupils and diamonds danced in her eyes.

Her eyes reflected the whole world.

In the sky, a seven-winged angel and a demon of flaming bones danced.

The earth was infested with the Living and the Dead.

At the edge of the world, flames dance, enveloping everything.

Only the moon, the sun, and the black surface were still moving supernaturally.

And standing at the forefront was a girl with sparkling eyes, crying for Isola.

 

(So pretty…)

 

She could not convey her thoughts into words anymore.

 

(Ahh, yes, I wanted to say this…)

 

She mustered up the last of her strength. She conveyed her thoughts with just her eyes.

 

(Hey, Miss Ai…if you want to…————…with me)

 

And so Isola breathed her last.

 

 

It would be a little later before they become friends.

 

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