A month has passed since Coven’s rampage, and two miracles were left within the town.

One was the hill shrouded in red flames.

The flames were created by two Deformed—Madame of Coven and Alice. They continued to destroy and revive, burning continuously till this day.

The other was the black surface that stood at the peak of the hill.

It was a mysterious entrance leading to the normal world. The rumors spread like the wind, and all the people who wanted to enter the black surface swarmed Ostia, surrounding the hill of fire.

The number had already exceeded 100,000.

In order to accommodate them, the people worked themselves to the brink over the past month.

They paved roads, mended ruins, procured supplies, and fought…the town was wailing away like a newborn monster, pleading for the care of adults.

Perhaps it was out of love from a monster called fate. Every person in the town was involved, and anything of value, even the Dead, were used..

But that was as far as it went.

 

This was the day they would finally be freed.

 

+

 

The town was in a festive mood.

Ai arrived at the embankment of the hill to find the ashen streets completely decorated. The women were cooking, the men were setting up the venue, and they appeared to be eager to get on with the event, for their faces were cheerful and bright.

Ai led Dee and Alice up the hill. They obtained skewers and rice cakes from stalls, put flowers in their hair, and walked on.

And then the trio arrived at the peak.

The tented area was filled with people.

“Excuse us…ah!”

Ai peeked from beyond the tent, and her face lit up.

“Everyone! So you’re here!”

She quickly pried off the flap and went inside, and they quickly turned around to say,

“”Hmm? Oh, it’s you, young Ai. Welcome.”

There stood Bendo Gram, the famous mayor of this town, who had fought alongside them in the prior battle. He was wearing a chic but tasteful suit and bowler hat, chatting with his friends with brandy in his hand. Aside from him, one could also see the merchant  and workers guild charimans along with the guard Captain.

“Oh, what’s with you people? Did you come all this way to see us old men?”

“Wait! Chairman, please don’t call us old, you will? There’s us here.”

“What are you talking about? Aren’t you old”

Laughter erupted, and Ai naturally smiled too.

They were part of the main cast for the day.

“Today’s weather is nice…thank goodness.”

Ai said. She was a little tentative in her choice of words, but the old men did not mind at all

“Mmm! A nice sunny day to embark on a new journey in life is truly wonderful!”

“Warm weather is good.”

“It’s a little uncomfortable for us. Our brains are rotting.”

“Yours is already rotten, right?”

Bwahahaha.  Again, they laughed. They did not care a bit about Ai’s hesitation, and even joked around.

That made Ai feel even sadder.

“… Oi.”

Alice patted her on the back. With her help, Ai stepped forward and hugged Bendo’s belly tightly.

His body was cold, and it felt as if Ai was hugging ice.

 

They were already dead.

 

Most of the people gathered here lost their lives in the battle against Coven.

This day was their funeral.

“…Why does it feel like you’re always crying?”

Bendo showed a troubled smile and gently patted Ai’s head.

This man who was infamous for being a playboy had married thrice, but had no children. It appeared he had no idea of how to deal with the child before him.

Surrounded by the nostalgic scent of death, Ai said,

“We’re saying goodbye today…”

“…Yeah.”

On this day, they would be leaving for the wilderness today, to be buried by Gravekeeper….

 

“Hmmm, ahhh, that’s a waste.”

 

Yet someone mocked the Dead openly.

“Goodness, I don’t know what you’re thinking, giving up on eternity.”

In a corner of the tent, Dee Ensy said with a cup of brandy, looking completely befuddled by them.

“Miss Dee…”

“Hm, what, Ai? Don’t stop me now. I’m the one cleaning after their mess…seriously, a bunch of old gramps start talking about naïve stuff like ‘dignity’? Have you ever wondered who’s picking up the slack for you starting tomorrow?”

The words were unacceptable even though they were the ravings of a drunkard.

But nobody reproached her.

“…Don’t say that now, Lady. Our original plan was to leave earlier. We decided to add another month or so to our lives because we got convinced by your slick tongue.”

Bendo murmured and grumbled. He had originally planned to head into the wilderness the day after the battle was over, but Dee talked him out of it, and thus the delay till this day.

“Hmph, I’m not lying. The fact is that we need someone to lead this town, right?”

“…At this point, I doubt that now…so that’s what you mean by being a Fallen. I guess the title of ‘Witch of the West’ isn’t just for show.”

Bendo then suddenly bowed his head.

“Dee Ensy.”

“Wh-What are you doing? Out of a sudden…”

A dumbfounded Dee tried to stop him, but Bendo kept his head lowered.

“Take care of this town.”

It was his testament.

“It’s a shame to leave it all to a little girl like you, but I have no choice—”

“Don’t do that.”

Dee said, sounding really unhappy,

“…If you’re going to say something like that, why don’t you just remain…?”

“No, that’ll only make us a distraction.”

Dee looked at these Dead with a surprised face.

“Hmph, what’s with the face? I’m still the mayor, and I have a good eye for people and a good head for reading the situation. What this town needs aren’t old fogeys like us, but people with tender souls like you—for good or bad, that’s a different matter though.”

Bendo gave an awkward smile.

“Miss Dee…”

Ai stood next to her friend, gently supporting her. It was hard not to, the way Dee’s back looked so forlorn.

“We will disappear today.”

Dee was visibly upset, as if she had only just realized this moment.

“I’m not telling you not to be sad about it.”

“I-I’m not sad.”

“And I’m not telling you to don’t cry.”

“I won’t cry…”

“Also, I’m not telling you to buck up right up. I won’t tell you to forget though…be sad, be anguished all you want..”

Bendo embraced Dee much more naturally than he had done with Ai.

“May God bless those…of you who wish to proceed with eternity…”

Dee did not cry or whimper, and her shoulders merely shook.Both Ai and Alice supported their friend in silence.

A cold silence descended upon the tent, and both Living and Dead prayed silently.

Perhaps,

The funeral had already started.

“…………Idiots.”

The Ghost uttered so, and finally shed tears.

 

Eventually, the embrace broke as though eternity ended.

“Well, you’d better get going. We’re just supporting characters.”

Bendo gave a wry smile as he looked at Ai, who too was bawling and in shambles.

“The bride and groom are definitely tired of waiting.”

 

+

 

 

Beyond a number of tents was the bride’s waiting room.

“”Wow…””

Ai and Dee could help but gasp in admiration.

Before them was a beautiful bride wearing a pure white dress and holding a baby in her arms.

“So pretty!”

“Really! Kya~! Amazing!”

As soon as they saw her, they cheered and lavished praise.

“Miss Scar, you look wonderful!”

Ai scampered over to the bride who was seated on a chair, and Celica, who was held by the bosom, “Aw aw” grunted proudly. Ai felt it was no wonder Celica felt proudly

The pure white dress flowed as smoothly as milk, and the shell inlays on the drapes had an iridescent glow to them. Her cheeks were covered with red, a color she had never worn before, and the scar across her right eyebrow was unhindered, instead augmented with color.

“Wow…beautiful …”

“Goodness…I always thought you had potential, but I never expected you to be this pretty …”

“Thank you, both of you, ….”

As they lavished praise on her, Scar responded with a melancholic expression.

What’s the matter? The two of them exchanged looks, not knowing what happened to her. On a side note, the bride’s anteroom was forbidden to men, so Alice was not present. He was in the tent with those men, laughing at the big man in the white tuxedo.

And then,

“Hmm?””

They both noticed it.

“…Erm, Miss Scar. Can I ask you something?”

After a brief moment of eye contact, Dee asked as a representative.

“Yes, certainly…”

A distracted Scar replied with a sigh.

“What’s that?”

Dee said as she pointed at Scar’s leg.

On the chair she was sitting on, there was an unnatural lump wrapped beneath her dress. It seemed as though she was hiding something, something stick-like. …

“…….”

When Dee pointed out, Scar turned her head away and said.

“………Nothing, at all.”

“”No, no, no, no, no.””

The duo shook their heads vigorously.

“There’s no way there’s nothing there, right? What’s with this lump?”

“It is just your imagination.”

“……Erm, what kind of imagination?”

Ai thought that Scar’s behavior, which had recently become more and more human, was now easier to understand.

“An-anyway! Nothing is here. Please do not say anything!”

“…Hmmm, since you say so ….”

Suddenly, Dee showed a fiendish look,

“Ai.”

“What?”

Dee tries to snap her fingers, but failed,

“Do it.”

“Yes.”

An assault occurred.

“P-please wait a minute, Ai! No, no, no! Stop! You cannot find anything even if you snuggle underneath! Y-you cannot! Please stop~!”

After a meaningless high-level battle between the two Gravekeepers, Ai pulled the thing out from beneath the skirt with much difficulty.

“…What’s this?”

Dee showed a bewildered expression.

“……A shovel, right?”

Ai had a similar expression.

She was holding a shovel giving off a silver glint.

It was, without a doubt, a Gravekeeper’s shovel, or to be precise, Scar’s,

“What’s this?”

“That is, erm, well….”

Scar stammered to explain herself.

“Y-yes! A bridal dowry!”

“That’s quite a bridal dowry!”

Scar’s excuse was so human-like to the point where she tried to pull a fast one. Ai interrupted her immediately. The bride was dejected, “pfft”and Dee let out a giggle.

“Ahaha! Th-there’s a shovel popping out from a dress! A shovel!”

“Miss Dee, you’re laughing too much.”

“S-Sorry…but, a shovel out of a dress…a shovel dress…kuku….”

“Please don’t make up new words.”

“Sorry…kuku… shovel dress …”

Seriously, please stop. Ai hoped. She barely managed to stop herself, and if Dee continued, she might lose it as well.

“Seriously—so, Miss Scar, what’s with you?”

“Ai…”

Scar grabbed Ai’s arms, so tightly that the latter was aching. Scar was acting like a girl hugging a doll out of fear of thunder.

“Good, good. You’re not scared. You’re not scared anymore.”

Ai patted her head that was shriveling in dejection. However, Scar did not respond, and kept shaking.

Ai then reached her hand out to hold Scar’s pale hand, and knelt down to look up at the bride. Scar seemed to finally calm down a little.

“What’s wrong?”

Scar was silent.

“Do you hate weddings, by any chance?”

Again, silence.

“Then let’s not have a wedding.”

“Wait!”

The person who insisted on this wedding shrieked in agony, but Ai ignored her. She did not care about Dee’s ‘situation’.

Fortunately, Scar shook her head slowly.

“…it is not that I, dislike the idea of marriage.”

“Is that so?”

It was surprising. If Ai were to marry such a man, she would run away as fast as she could.

“…I am simply, very worried.”

“What are you worried about?”

Ai asked cautiously as though she was leading a child on. Scar carefully pondered the question, and slowly stated,

“…I am not human.”

“Yes.”

It was a fact that no one could change.

“My emotions are so shallow, and I even wonder if they are real.”

“Probably.”

“…I am unfamiliar with the common sense of humans, and I caused much trouble for many. I suppose this may be the case in the future…in other words, I… ”

Scar stammered, stumbling with her words, but she ultimately said what was on her mind,

 

“…I am, after all, a Gravekeeper…”

 

That was probably a frustration she had harbored in her heart the entire time.

“How can I be the mother of this child, and the wife of that man…?”

She received the baby in the country of the Dead, suffered a setback at the top of the World Tower, and fell in love at the peak of the flaming hill.

It could be said that nobody other than Scar would have such frustrations. Summarizing the past, present and future, there was nobody else who would share the same frustration. She was unique in this regard.

But,

“What? That’s it?”

Such frustrations were unimportant to Ai.

It was a problem everyone in the world had.

“What do you mean, ‘what’?”

Scar frowned in annoyance. Since she was dressed prettier than usual, the expression she made caused Ai’s heart to flutter.

“Ai, since you say it is that easy, do you know the answer?”

“No I don’t. But it doesn’t matter.”

What are you saying, such was the face Scar showed.

“So if I say no, you’re going to stop being Celica’s mother, Miss Scar?”

What!?! And Celica swung a punch, “Bebu!”but it ended up hitting Dee.

“Are you going to stop loving her?”

“…That is…”

“You already knew the answer a long time ago.”

Ai recalled. It happened on the tower leading to the sky.

At the boundary of the sky and the earth, the boundary of life and death, Scar was kidnapped by a man.

It was then that she made her decision.

“… No.”

Scar answered.

“I cannot do that. I still love people, even if no one else will let me.”

“Yes, me too.”

Ai answered.

There was a little giggle-like atmosphere surrounding both of them. ‘What are we doing?’ that was the gaudiness Ai and Scar felt.

“These Gravekeepers are a strange bunch. Humans can’t understand them.”

Dee joked, acting like she knew everything, Celica was delighted to have her belly tickled.

Scar laughed and agreed that Ai was right. At this moment, she was back to her normal self.

“Ai, do you remember?”

What? Ai did not ask, and instead answered.

“Yes, I do.”

Strangely enough, I remembered the same scene.

It was at a graveyard, when dawn occurred.

“Back then, we were on a hill just like this.”

They recalled that Ai, Scar and Julie were there, on the hill where the graves of Ai’s parents were.

“Back then, you said that you would save the world.”

This woman in pure whiterobe spoke solemnly like a goddess proclaiming an oracle,

“And I said, ‘I shall watch over you’.”

Ai nodded silently.

The memory of this scene remained as vivid as it was the previous day. Everything was vivid, from the winds stinging the graveyard, the sun rising before them, and their expressions.

Scar shook her head wistfully.

“Back then, I did not think things would turn out this way…”

“Yeah, I know…”

Ai too never expected that the two of them would commune together.

“I’m sure there will be many more unexpected moments like that in the future.”

“Yes.”

Ai suddenly felt it was incredible.

In hindsight, it was all a strange story.

A Gravekeeper was getting married at the top of this flaming hill, and Ai would be accompanying her.

Ai could explain everything from the beginning why it happened.

But at the same time, she felt that she just could not explain it. Even if she conveyed the past as words, she had a feeling that it would end up as something different.

If her past self had heard of these moments, surely that past self would not have listened.

“Thank you, Ai.”

Suddenly, Scar thanked her. However, Ai did not think it was strange.

“No, I should be the one saying thank you, Miss Scar.”

They raised their heads, and the same atmosphere occurred again. Pfft, Ai giggled again, and seemed to be unable to contain herself. She managed to convey her feelings properly to Scar, and Scar too was smiling to the point where wrinkles appeared on her eyes. Dee and Celica were also smiling.

The sound of laughter echoed endlessly in the tent like soap bubbles bursting away.

 

+

 

Klang—klang—

 

The bell of the town hall rang. It was a bell of celebration, but also a bell of mourning.

Atop the hill were more than three hundred Dead and more than ten thousand Living.

They were singing old songs, along with new songs from the days of mythology that had raced with the wind till the bottom of the hill.

A bride walked through the center of the song

Clad in a pure white bridal gown, she walked along the fiery path, looking like a mythical goddess.

There was no gorgeous temple or awe-inspiring church awaiting the bride, and instead, there was a godly miracle itself.

The black surface.

The door leading to the new world was visited. It floated there, as if to bless the young bride.

There was a man standing before the black surface.

He was large like a bear, wearing a pure white tuxedo, which one would have assumed was a joke.

“Kukukuku…”

Seeing this, Alice giggled again.

“…Mr Alice, be quiet.”

Ai had no idea how many times she had nagged at him as she did so again.

“M-My bad, but just look at that. Wearing those clothes should be illegal. It’s just funny no matter how many times I look at it…”

“…Stop it! I’m trying so hard to endure…”

“You too, Miss Dee, be quiet.”

Ai softly reproached them. She understood their feelings well, but it was all the more that she hoped they would not laugh. How would they compensate if Ai herself ended up laughing? “Daw daw” Celica, who was in Ai’s arms, voiced her agreement

The trio, along with the baby, stood at the front row of spectators. Just a few feet away, Scar and Julie were performing the ritual. The the famous ‘Monk of Destruction’ Maxi was giving a sermon about the ‘Three Bags’ and the ‘Practical Secrets of Married Life’.

“But speaking of which, I always thought it’s a matter of time until the day comes…”

Alice, who seemed to get bored quickly, quietly muttered.

“I thought it would take a little longer for those two to get married.”

“Yeah…”

Ai said so listlessly, and the mastermind of it all next to her began to excuse herself,

“No, no, that’s not true. It’s just a matter of course. I didn’t force them to do anything, you know?”

That might be hard to say. Ai thought.

Truth be told, this Witch girl was the reason why today’s funeral was turned into a festival, and also the reason why it was combined with the wedding ceremony.

“No, after all, it’s not a good thing to give people a negative impression of death here, right? For the people who are coming here later, Death is the second birth, so we should ensure that people have a more positive impression of Death itself.”

She had a point, I suppose. However, Ai did not fully understand the situation personally. This ex-Ghost who had manipulated and destroyed many countries could be said to be the only major politician left in this town, and her perspective was unbelievably high.

“This is why I invited the princess of Death and other bigshots….”

“Eh!?”

Ai could not help but raise her voice.

The Princess of the country of the Dead was none other than Ulla Euleus Hecmatika.

Ai never expected that Dee would do such a thing, but for Dee, it seemed to be ‘expected’. After all, her sister, Celica, was here, and the bride was her foster mother.

Once Dee said so, Ai felt that she was right.

Ai would write letters to Ulla occasionally, but she never thought about inviting Ulla over.

“That’s too bad.”

“So she won’t be coming today?”

“Hm, she said she’ll find time to drop by soon.”

“Really? Yay!”

“What yay…ahh—my head hurts.”

Ai was genuinely happy, but Dee’s face looked gaudy, and she even told off Ai, saying things like –there’s significance about the secretive Princess of the Dead arriving to the outside world, or, you guys just don’t think about how to deal with Celica.

“So yeah, we have to put a positive spin on Death to maintain a pipeline with Ortus, or things will end up bad.”

Death definitely was not something to be mourned.

Dee wanted to have funerals and weddings together to emphasize this concept

Ai understood that, but,

“But the new couple doesn’t have to be Mr. Julie and Miss Scar, right?”

Ai stole a glance at the venues next to them. There were also weddings going on in the north and south.

There was more than one wedding, and there were a few held together.

“No, no, I like the idea of pairing a Gravekeeper and a human. I want to make the town more accepting of people who would normally be shunned.”

She said as she looked afar, looking very radiant.

“You make it sound nice, but you did that as insurance, didn’t you? You see, the other couples are Dead. Can’t you just use them if you just want to break the taboo?”

“Well, you’re right.”

Once Ai pointed this out, Dee simply retracted her previous statement.

“Honestly, I just wanted to give them a a push, that’s all.”

“Why didn’t you just say that?”

Ai did feel that they probably would not have done anything if nobody was there to give them a nudge. In that sense, Dee’s actions may have been just right.

So Ai thought, the exchange of rings ended, and then,

 

“Now, as a vow, kiss…”

 

The old monk said.

“K-Kiss!?

Ai exclaimed without thinking. The old monk and the other guests stared at her.

“You idiot! I told you to be quiet!”

“B-but it’s a kiss! A kiss!”

“It’s a wedding, they’re supposed to do that!”

Now that it was mentioned, that certainly seemed the case, but Ai had never thought of this.

Another person too had the same thoughts.

 

“…Kiss? Julie and me?”

 

The bride said with a bewildered look on her face.

You too? Countless stares were upon the two. They were starting to feel confused, and chatter could be heard.

The old monk, the only one in a position to discipline them, cleared his throat and turned his kind eyes behind his deep wrinkles to the bride.

“Is there a problem?”

“I suppose there is one…”

“…Hmm, this is a strange situation.”

The old monk, who was probably the most confused, said,

“The bride has already exchanged her vows, but refuses to kiss? It’s truly a remarkable story…I’m reminded of the Emi family’s wedding twenty years ago.”

The old man spoke cheerfully as if he were continuing his sermon, and with a natural movement, he removed his robes.

“The bride refused to kiss. It was only later that I learned that the bride was tricked and coered to marry…”

The robes let out an abnormally heavy sound, and there were many sand bags hanging inside.

“Uh oh!”

Dee immediately stood up, “Emergency! Emergency!” she gestured with her hands.

“—So, do you know what I did back then? ”

The voice was still gentle, but the old monk had changed completely.

The biceps were bulging, and veins were popping atop his bald head. His physique had grown two times larger than before.

The Monk of Destruction, Maximilian.

In a world where the value of God had fallen off the cliff, the monk continued to exalt the name of God, and would grant his blessings even to the Dead and the Gravekeepers…but at the same time, he was merciless to anyone he passed judgment upon.

His two eyes glowed dully.

“Is this wedding a fake? Did you deceive me?”

“E-erm, no, it was …”

“Shut up, groom.”

His astonishing vigor stupefied the surroundings. The old monk smiled at the one exception in the room that was Scar.

“I shall ask the bride. Do you really agree with this marriage? If you aren’t, do say so, and I shall destroy everything.”

There was probably not a single lie in his words. It was not hard to imagine that if Scar nodded at this point, the old monk would destroy the entire town. Everyone, including Ai, tensed up immediately,

“Ah, no, I have no complaints about the marriage.”

But Scar simply denied it.

The old monk, disappointed, raised his eyebrows in confusion, “Mmm? The old monk, who had been struck dumb, raised his eyebrows in confusion.

“Then, why does the bride not want to kiss as a vow?”

“It is not that I do not wish to…I do not understand?”

“What do you not understand?”

“…I do not have any experience…”

“What?”

The old monk’s eyebrows shot up.

“My goodness, what a disappointing groom. Or perhaps I should say, I’m impressed. I didn’t think you would protect the sanctity of this beautiful bride.”

Scar’s brow furrowed in annoyance.

 

“Julie does at least hold my hand!”

 

She exclaimed.

At that moment, the the tense atmosphere had loosened, and many of the audience members were stifling their laughter and looking down.

“………Is that so.”

“Yes—though sometimes.”

“…Goodness, I look like a fool for being so uptight now, don’t I?”

The old monk deflated like a balloon, good grief, and shook his head in relief.

“E-erm…”

“What?”

“Is it fine to not do so on the lips??”

The tension must have drained out of the old man, “Do as you please” for he simply waved along “Ehh~?” the young women, especially Dee, booed wildly.

“What’s that about~? It’s the highlight of the wedding!”

“Well, well, that’s fine too, right?”.

For some reason, Ai was a little relieved. She had a feeling that she would not know what to do if she saw her family members do that.

“It’s time you guys shut up.”

Alice raised his finger at Celica, “shhh” to hush them. The final rituals were finally proceeded before them.

Julie reverently lifted the bride’s veil and gently kissed her cheek. It seemed he had yet to shave properly, for Scar was a little ticklish from his beard, showing a cat-like smile.

 

Then the bride lifted her heels.

 

The crowd burst into cheers.

“Hey, you two! You look great together!

“Congratulations!”

“You look beautiful!”

Ai joined them in shouting congratulations.

She was taken aback by how delighted she was in her heart, and yet a little forlorn.

 

+

 

The wedding went past noon, and the funeral rites were to be held next.

The dead performed the rituals according to their own gods and beliefs, and soon there were two processions down the hill.

One of the processions went into the wilderness with grief and sorrow. They would wait for the Gravekeeper there.

But the other march was different. They were a complete opposite from the former, and went down the hill, waving to the townspeople as though they were going on a trip.

Leading the way was Isola Edwards, the girl who had created black surface.

Standing guard was Dust Believer, the noblewoman of flames, emissary of Ortus, and an old woman who would be serving a thousand years of imprisonment for her sins.

They were the ones who have sworn to live even after death, and for that reason, they were headed to the land of the Dead to receive the latest post-mortem treatment.

Ai had been watching them. She waved at Bendo and Isola, and watched them leave until they had descended the hill, and were as small as ants in the distant wilderness. She kept watching them leave long after the sun went down.

But soon after, she could not see them again.

“……”

The plaza atop the hill had been empty for some time, and it seemed most had went to the town for festivities. From the stone wall where Ai sat, she could see them clearly.

She exposed her face to the cold air.

The festival music echoed in the wing, and one could hear singing out of tune.

“Are you tired?”

Ai heard a voice behind her. She did not answer, and instead put her face on her kneecaps and nuzzled against them. Alice tapped a cold bottle of lemonade against her neck

“Hyaa!”

She was startled to death.

“Goodness! What are you doing?”

“Just being nice, I guess. Your fault for not not responding. ”

Ai turned around to see Alice standing there with his hands full of food. There were lemonade bottles, grilled skewers, rice cakes, steamed buns, and Ai’s favorite, fried bread. These were food from the food stalls.

“You’re hungry, right? Let’s eat for now.”

Ai’s fist was raised, but did not know where to put it, and decided to lower her hand towards the fried bread.

“…Thank you very much.”

“No, no, you’re welcome.”

They then savored the food for quite a while, munching on the delicious, juicy chicken skewers and the hot fried bread. While eating, Ai realized that she was quite hungry.

“This one is good” “I want that one.” They said as they exchanged foods.

“What are you eating, Mr. Alice?”

“This? I don’t know.”

What’s that about? Ai chuckled.

“You bought it and you don’t know?”

“I got it from an old man who didn’t speak the same language.”

“The town really has so many nationalities here. So how does it taste?”

“I don’t know.”

“Goodness, you’re fooling around again.”

Ai laughed and patted Alice on the shoulder. “No no no, I’m serious,” and flicked the bun with his finger. The grass-colored bun went right into Ai’s mouth.

“Mgh…seriously, why would you use your ability for such things—”

“Enough with the complaints. How does it taste?”

“…I really can’t tell either…”

“Right?”

Ai put her hand to her mouth and chewed. The bun was sweet, a little bitter, and to top it all off, a little cold for some reason.

“Seriously, what is this?”

“Hmm. Hmmm… Isn’t this actually food?

“Hm—what if it’s not meant to be eaten?”

“Haha~~I see, maybe the old man thought he was selling exotic soap. If I say “I ate it,” he might actually panic. Hahahaha.”

“Yeah, it’s confusing. It feels like colored candles and dragonfly balls. ”

“……Hmm?”

Alice made the face of one who tried to make a joke but slipped up at the last moment.

“What is it?”

“No, it’s nothing…damn, you’re never boring, are you?”

“???”

Alice giggled.

“Are you making fun of me?”

“No, I’m not. No, Kukuku …”

“…You’re making fun of me after all…”

“No, seriously, I’m not. It’s just…kukuku…”

“Goodness!”

If you want to laugh so much, I’ll make you laugh. Ai wriggled her hands in the air and moved them close towards Alice. Woah, you idiot, stop! Alice panicked and tried to escape, but Ai expected that and caught him.

 

That was when the fireworks were off.

 

Boom, bang bang , bang. And with that, the six-colored flames scattered, and large flower blossomed in the night sky.

“Oh, it’s started.”

Alice said.

Boom, bang bang, crack! Boom, boom boom. Boom!

The soundwaves struck her body.

Ai stared blankly at the night sky.

Fireworks were bursting into bloom at both the sky and on the lake.

The town was dyed with the color of fire.

The view from the hill was like a kaleidoscope.

“Wow…”

For the first time, she saw.

Boom, boom! The sound was delayed like thunder, and her body shook like a drum.

“Do you like it?”

Alice asked.

“Yes! I really do!”

Boom, bang bang bang! The fireworks spread. Wa~! Kya~! Ai shouted.

“So pretty! So big! So noisy!”

“You’re the noisy one, you idiot.”

Ai had the urge to dance.

“Mr Alice! Did you see that!? There are so many small fireworks!”

“I saw them.”

“Wow! Now it’s like a waterfall! So many changes! Ah! This one’s amazing too, Mr Alice! Seriously! Not this one! That one! Are you looking?”

“I’m looking. Focus on the fireworks, fireworks.”

The two of them admired the flowers blooming in the night to their heart’s content.

Big balls. Little balls. Six flowers. Large flowers. Waterfalls and fountains.

 

Starmines.

 

And the fireworks ended as abruptly as they had begun.

A soft silence returned, and the two of them sat shoulder to shoulder before they knew it.

Ai was still looking at the sky.

“…Do you know, Mr Alice?”

Alice suddenly played dumb,

“I know.”

Normally, Ai would have been annoyed, but this time, she simply smiled.

“Is that so?”

“Yeah.”

“Then I’m fine.”

“……? Seriously?

“Yes.”

The music of the festival echoed in the night, and the beetles chirped away.

“……Oi.”

It was Alice who had enough.

“What is it?”

“What? Finish up what you just said.”

“Oh my. I thought you knew.”

“……”

“Ah, just joking. Say say, seriously, you’re so prone to anger, Mr Alice… ”

Alice remained silent and tried to walk away, but Ai grabbed his sleeve, repeating herself,

“Mr Alice, do you know?”

“Like hell I do.”

Alice took a deep breath after saying so. The night fog reeked of gunpowder.

That was also Alice’s scent.

 

“I’m pretty happy right now.”

 

A bark beetle was chirping. Surely it was the last one for the year. I’m sure it’s the last one of the year.

“…Is that so?”

“Yes.”

“That’s good.”

“Yeah.”

Ai continued to lean beside Alice as she looked down at the lights of the town. Time flowed slowly like a lull. The wind was cold and the person was warm.

What about you, Mr. Alice?

Ai tried to ask, but could not as she noticed Alice’s heart was clamming up.

Thus, Ai knew the answer to that question even though she was not Alice. Surely, he would answer “I’m happy too.”

That would not be a lie.

Surely he was as happy as Ai was at this moment. She knew that, for they had mutual trust in each other.

But still, deep inside his heart, there was a deep despair.

Why?

Ai could not understand.

Perhaps Alice did not understand either.

That was why it was so painful, so unbearable to im.

“Hey, Mr. Alice.”

So Ai did not ask, and instead started to talk about something else.

“I’m thinking of going on a trip again in spring.”

The older boy was taken aback.

“…Travel, why?”

“What do you mean, why?”

“Because your dream is already…”

“It got nothing to do with my dream. I just want to travel.”

She glanced up at the person next to her. Alice was looking very upset.

“I’ve been thinking for the last month, ‘’What am I going to do now?’. I’ve been thinking about what I want to do tomorrow, and where will I be a year from now…”

What kind of adult would she be in ten years?

That was what Ai had always been thinking about.

“So I thought, I want to travel again…there’s definitely a lot of sights in this world that can only be seen now.”

 

For example, the town that was before her.

 

A town on the border that became the entrance to heaven.

For example, the land of the Dead.

The land that defied against the common sense of the world, the country that fought against the entire world.

For example, the Tower of Wishes. For example, the village of Gravekeepers. For example…

Many such places were born in this world, and many had disappeared.

“I want to see them—just as a Gravekeeper watches over the end, Ai Astin wants to be the one watching over the beginning…I believe that’s ‘me’.”

Ai smiled.

“’I’m’ strange, isn’t it? I’m so broken up, and my views have turned completely, but it feels like the things I do are no different from usual. Fufufu, I don’t know about everyone though, how does everyone interact with ‘me’.”

“You….”

Alice opened his mouth wide and said.

“You’re amazing….”

“Wh-What’s with all the teasing?

“I’m not teasing you. I really think you’re amazing. You’re spirited, courageous.”

“I’m not…”

Ai immediately pouted and poked at the cold fried rice cake.

“I’m really nothing amazing…I’m not courageous at all…”

“Is that so?”

“Yeah……If I had a little spoonful of courage, I would have invited by now……”

“? I’m sorry. What?”

“I-I didn’t say anything.”

Ai said, and then,

“Alright! It’s about time for us to head home now!”

She changed the topic “Aw…!” and let out a groan in ‘her’ heart. The irresponsible ‘her’ chided herself for being ‘hopeless’.

I, I, I, I, I, I really am a bother.

“I guess.”

Alice stood up at once and and dusted his backside.

“We got to work as normal tomorrow after all. Here.”

Ai grabbed his hand and held it tightly.

—Well, that’s okay. She thought.

“Alrighty.”

She might not understand Alice’s despair, might not heal his wounds, and dared not to invite him out, but these did not matter. Just as there was no rain that would never end, there was no night that would never dawn. No matter how terrible things were, they would come to an end someday.

There was so much time. A day, a year, or even a decade.

So, Ai decided that it was fine..

“Let’s go, Mr. Alice.”

–And everything was true, except for one thing.

There was no rain that would never stop, and no night that would not dawn.

But the precise was if this frozen, lost person could survive till morning.

“… Hmm?”

Suddenly, Alice stopped.

“What’s wrong?”

“No, it feels weird. Did I see something wrong…”

Rubbing his eyes, Alice stared at the center of the square.

There was the same black surface as usual.

Perhaps because of the festival, there was no one trying to cross the border. It was completely quiet near the black surface, a rare sight these days.

“Something wrong with the black surface?”

“No, I don’t know, maybe it’s just me. I thought I saw the surface move…”

It moved?

Ai turned her head too once he said so. Then,

“Eh?”

The black surface was truly swaying.

The black surface ignored her disbelief and shook more and more.

“……No way…”

Ai had seen this phenomenon only once before.

A month ago, in this place, at the end of a three-way battle.

“What, is this?…”

“Stay away from it! ”

Ai was mesmerized and tried to hurry over in a daze, but Alice grabbed her shoulder.

“Someone’s coming from over there!”

The phenomenon was similar to the appearance of Isola Edwards a month ago.

“Th-that’s impossible! Nobody else should be appearing from the other side now, right…!”

“I don’t know! Get ready!”

Two guns were glaring into the void.

A person would only pass through the black surface once in life. It would be impossible to come over unless the person was born on the other side…but such a person was probably not born yet.

However, the black surface ignored such assumptions, for the wavering boundary continued to froth and bubble.

“It’s coming!”

And there was no sound, no light.

The rain that never stopped, the night that never ended.

 

She arrived in this town.

 

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