Now we're getting into, as far as I know, content that has never been translated into English. Hold on and enjoy the ride. And excuse Elmer's on-and-off British; I've never done a proper British accent before
Preface & Prologue
The road leading into the forest
"What do you think, Maiza?" Czes asked nervously.
"Don't worry, Czes," Sylvie said before Maiza could open his mouth. "I'm sure Maiza doesn't mind that you ran and hid in the car at the first sign of trouble."
"N-not that! I just wanted to hear his opinion on those three girls!"
"Aha, I see now. Well in that case, I have to say that I think the one in the middle would look pretty good with you."
"Oh quit it! Stop making fun of me like that, Sylvie!"
"Aww, you really are too cute." Sylvie scooted up behind Czes and again draped her arms over his neck, paying no mind to the flaring of his cheeks.
Maiza chuckled and took pity on the boy.
"We'll be fine. Going over the information we've gleaned so far, I think it's safe to say that Elmer's waiting for us up ahead."
After the hubbub subsided and the villagers went back to their homes, Maiza and the others had decided to follow the girls in red. Judging from the reactions of the townspeople, they'd judged that the demon they spoke of was probably Elmer. They didn't know exactly why he'd come to be feared as a monster, but that was something they could ask him and find out.
For his part, Nile had clambered back into the trunk, covered himself with a thick fur blanket, and promptly fell back asleep.
"But... aren't they a little weird? They're really quiet, and compared to the village people, they're... I don't know. They've got similar features but it feels like they're from a different country..."
"In terms of oddity, I think the village itself is quite suspicious in itself," Maiza said. He began to sum up the situation.
"When I first claimed that we were just travelers, it seemed clear to me those people are unaware they're living on private property."
"Yeah, you have a point."
"If they had known, they could have just told us this place was private property and ordered us to leave. We don't have any sort of permit, so we'd have had no excuse to stay in that case. And not only that, the way that they speak the common language of this country is slightly different from the rest of this land's denizens. If I had to describe it, I would say it feels... archaic."
"You think they're some kind of cult, considering they're not on any of the maps we saw?"
Maiza gave Czes's suggestion a moment of thought, then shook his head.
"I don't think so. Think of what they called the monster - most probably Elmer, by the way. First they called it a demon, then later a monster. If they were religious, they would most likely have decided on a single name for such an aberration in accordance to their religious beliefs."
"So you're saying... it's just a normal village?"
"That too, is improbable, since that mayor was even more odder than anything else. The other people were simply afraid, but... he was a little different. From the moment he saw us, he classified us simply as outsiders. I believe that he was the most knowledgeable of the villagers."
Maiza cocked his head to one side, remembering the mayor's hateful eyes. Czes, on the other hand, merely sighed scornfully.
"Well, yes. He was the mayor, you know."
"No, I meant that on a more base level... Ah, it seems we've arrived," Maiza said, his slightly worried expression changing into mild surprise as he spied their destination through the trees.
Czes turned and looked as well, and Sylvie, too, moved up and looked alongside them.
It was an old castle.
To be more specific, it was a fortress surrounded by stone walls, of the sort that wouldn't have looked out of place in a fairy tale, or a fantasy novel, or a video game.
That wasn't to say that it was grand or impressive. It looked more like the sort of place that bandits or pirates would use as their stronghold than a king's castle. The walls had but meager decorations, and the overall feeling of the place was rather crude, but from the random and relatively sparsely positioned windows it seemed that the interior would be rather more complicated than the exterior suggested.
It looked fairly old, but none of the parts they could see were heavily damaged.
"It's like a castle you'd find in Luxembourg, or perhaps Belgium. In particular, it's very similar to the Vianden Castle in Luxembourg, though this is much smaller," Maiza said calmly.
Czes's expression hardened. "The style's not north European. And... somehow, it doesn't really look that old. I don't think it's even been a hundred years since this was built."
The entire wall except for the gate was surrounded completely by a thick barrier of trees, making it unfeasible to walk around outside it.
A lone gate allowed entrance into the castle, and the three horses that had been going ahead ran straight through the opened doors and vanished somewhere inside.
"...Do you suppose we can drive in?" Maiza mused thoughtfully, then shook his head and drove the car inside past the gate, parking it in the center of the courtyard.
He stepped out and looked closely at the castle once more.
"...Elmer's definitely living here," Sylvie finished faintly, looking about as dumbfounded as Maiza felt.
There were Christmas decorations everywhere - the sheer number made Maiza heave a sigh unconsciously. Not only on the castle's gates, but hanging from every window were ornaments and trinkets. Not store-bought, but obviously made using resources that came from the village, each and every one unique and crafted with care.
"Only Elmer would go to such lengths for something so worthless."
Czes looked away after a cursory glance, but Sylvie eagerly stared at each one, entranced. It almost seemed like their souls had been transferred into each other's bodies.
"You're right," Sylvie said. "Elmer's the only one who'd go this far with decoration... at least, among the immortals who were on the boat."
"...Well, let's go in, shall we? I don't think those girls are going to come back to escort us. Sylvie, please go and wake up Nile."
As Sylvie opened the trunk, Maiza and Czes stepped toward the castle.
The huge castle door was made to open on a hinge, again contrasting with the overall look of the stone fort. It seemed more and more likely that the building hadn't been made that long ago.
Maiza knocked several times, but there was no response. Deciding that they were already illegal trespassers anyway, they decided to just go in.
The door wasn't locked. The ornament of Santa Claus and his reindeer hanging on the door shook as it swung open, creaking loudly. The two hesitated, then stepped forward and into the great hall within.
The hall had little decoration and wasn't much different from the outside of the castle, with the same stone walls and the same stone floor. However, the stairs they could see in the corner of the hall were not made of stone, but instead brought to mind the kind of staircase one might see in a 19th century mansion. The door in the corner, too, didn't look old at all.
"This place doesn't match up with itself. It's like they only took care to make the outside look like an old castle."
"Indeed. It feels like we've stepped into an art museu-"
An eerie creak cut off Maiza's words as the door behind them suddenly slammed shut. Before they could do more than whirl about, the windows closed themselves as well in quick succession, leaving the hall dusky and shadowed.
There was nobody behind them. Czes scrabbled at the door, but it was shut tight and refused to open.
Then, as though to fit the horror movie-like situation perfectly, a low chuckle drifted down from above their heads.
The sound echoed around the wide hall, making it hard to tell where it was coming from.
"Pitiful creatures... Welcome to this cursed castle, this cursed forest... Perhaps the decorations outside lulled you into a false sense of security, but that was exactly as I intended, fools. Now, you shall be sacrificed before the altar that is my power...."
The voice threatened them with theatrical lines, but Czes and Maiza merely exchanged a quick glance and spoke as one.
"Oh, so you know my name, do you? You must have heard it from the villagers. Your courage is admirable - few dare to utter a demon's name so lightly. But that is all, for even though you may resist..."
"Ahem. You're Elmer, right?"
"Come on! It's me!"
"I told you that it's useless to resis... eh...? Wait... what? Something's not quite right."
Perhaps due to the surprise, the hoarse voice in the darkness suddenly changed to that of a young man.
"It is you, Elmer... How long has it been since we last met? 290 years?" Maiza said, his voice more robust than normal from joy.
Czes didn't show his delight as obviously as Maiza, but nevertheless he smirked wryly and said, "You haven't changed a bit. I don't even need to lay eyes on you to know that."
Silence reigned in the dark. Just as the last echoes of Czes's voice faded, a huge surprised shout came from the shadows.
"Hold on a second! Is that... Czes... and Maiza?!"
The cry came from directly above their heads and fell rapidly toward them.
A dull thud came from right in front of them, then a hasty scrabbling noise as a dim silhouette sprang up in the dusky hall.
"Hey! Be a dear and open up the shutters on the windows, will you?" the shadow shouted, and in response to his call the shutters flew open one by one. It was as if the wind had blown them open, for Czes and Maiza could see nobody near the windows in the sudden sunlight.
"Nifty, isn't it? I made it so that you can open and close them just by pulling a rope from afar!" the silhouette boasted, its identity finally revealed by the illumination from outside.
"Ah, what a long time it's been! Let me see your fa..."
Both Maiza's joyous advance and his words trailed off abruptly as he caught sight of the man's face.
The man was wearing clothes as quaint as Nile's.
He was clothed entirely in black, and wearing a sack dyed black over his head, with only two holes cut out for his eyes. It was as though he was trying to recreate the style of a Japanese kuroko. 1)
"...What in the world are you wearing?"
"Hmm? Oh, this! Sorry, sorry! I thought that dressing up like this would make it easier to scare people, you see. A huge writhing shadow in the darkness, eh? Hahaha."
The man chuckled and pulled the sack off his head. Even the gloves he wore had been carefully dyed black.
"Aaah, now I can breathe. Honestly, now. And I was so looking forward to putting on a show, too. It's been a while since I've had guests."
The man under the sack was grinning, with blue eyes underneath a crop of slightly sweaty gold hair. He wasn't particularly handsome, but on the other hand not ugly either, an entirely ordinary person who looked best when he was smiling.
The tension finally drained from Maiza's shoulders at the sight of Elmer's face, and he stepped forward and clapped his hands on Elmer's shoulders. His eyes were alight with simple delight, like a young child's, and it seemed as though he might burst into tears at any moment.
"Aaah... You really haven't changed at all!"
"Haha! It's Maiza! It's really you, Maiza! And Czes! My, my! You... Ack! It's really you, Czes! My god! It's really Czes, what do I do, Maiza?! I don't think there's any way to express this joy welling up inside me except for exploding except that unfortunately I have neither a fuse nor a trigger and it would probably hurt like the dickens anyway so I think I'll refuse! No no that's not it what do I do I'm really stumped what ever shall I do?"
"I think that you should calm down first of all."
The emotional high receded and Maiza snickered quietly, remembering what had just happened.
"And really... 'Mwahahaha'? You're not a child anymore, Elmer. I was embarrassed just listening to you."
"Eh? Did I sound odd?"
"You didn't know?"
Czes had been standing slightly away from Elmer and Maiza, and he finally piped up.
"If you were trying to scare us, you failed spectacularly. It was actually pretty funny."
But Elmer only snickered despite Czes's biting words.
"Funny, eh. A smashing success, then! It's not every day that you can make someone laugh while trying to scare them! I'd say it's about eighty percent better!"
"Do you know about the expression 'wry grin'?"
"Ahahaha! So what if it's wry as long as it's a smile? No no no no, I was surprised, really! How did you get here? Did you know I was here?"
Elmer grabbed Maiza in a fierce hug and pounded him on the back.
Maiza and Czes, however, were too confused to reply. Hadn't Elmer know they were down in the village? Wasn't that why he'd sent his messenger to bring them to the castle?
"Elmer, you didn't know that we were here?"
"Ah... No no no no. All I heard was that outsiders had come to the village. The townspeople are pretty unfriendly, and I've riled them up a lot, so I decided to hide you all before something nasty happened!"
It was a fair distance from the castle to the village. Who had he heard it from? And furthermore, just why was he hiding away in a castle like this, feared as a demon by the villagers?
Maiza had countless amount of questions on the tip of his tongue, but he decided to shelve them for the moment and bask in the joy of reunion.
Just then, a booming knock came from the closed door. It seemed that Sylvie and Nile were standing outside.
"Hmm? What's this? You two didn't come alone?"
"Of course not. We've two more with us - old friends," Maiza said warmly.
Czes grinned. "So, can you guess who they are?"
"Eh? I wonder who. Let's see, if they're friends of yours, maybe Veg, or... ah, I don't know! Yes, yes, coming!"
Elmer lost the brief battle with his curiosity and threw the door open expectantly. It seemed that he had some sort of device rigged to the door, the same as the windows, and just by pulling a rope he could make it swing open or closed.
"Elmer? Elmer, is that really you?!"
On the other side stood an almost supernaturally beautiful woman, and a man with a mask over his bandage-swathed head.
Elmer let the door close slowly and turned to face Maiza.
"I wonder?" Maiza replied, a rare impish smile on his features. Beside him, Czes struggled desperately to hold in his laughter.
The door opened from the outside with a tortured shriek as Nile forced it open, and the two - to Elmer - strangers jumped inside.
"Aaaah! Unknown visitors! Strangers have invaded my castle!"
"Elmer, you jerk! You slammed the door in our faces without even saying hello!"
Sylvie's voice was angry, but the corners of her mouth kept twitching suspiciously, as though she, too, was trying hard not to laugh.
"You scoundrel. Perhaps I was too optimistic, expecting you to be serious at least on the momentous occasion of our reunion."
Nile, on the other hand, sounded genuinely put out.
"Who, who, who are you people?! You're trespassing not only inside my castle but inside my heart as well! Reveal yourselves!"
Sensing Elmer's genuine confusion, Nile remembered the state of his head.
"Mmm, I see... I didn't wear a mask like this back then, did I. Perhaps your confusion is understandable. But I say this: you should have recognized my voice."
"...Nile? Nile, is that you?!"
"Took you long enough."
Nile nodded, satisfied. Elmer stared hard at him for a moment, then switched his gaze to Sylvie.
"Then you would be... right!"
"Surprised, aren't you? I guess you would be, since I've changed so much."
"You're Huey! Huey Laforet, aren't you! Why're you dressed like a woman?"
"I'm not!" Sylvie screeched, taken aback at the utterly unexpected reply as the others chuckled good-naturedly.
"Eh, you're not? I'm wrong? I could've sworn that Huey was the only one on that boat who was this pretty..."
"It's Sylvie. Sylvie Lumiere," Maiza said, laughing.
Sylvie groaned and said, "Honestly, Elmer. I was the only woman on the boat, remember?"
Elmer fixed the woman standing before him with a long stare, then whipped around to look at Maiza.
"You're joshing me! Sylvie wasn't a stunning lady like this! She was a homely country girl!"
"Should I be flattered? Or angry?" Sylvie mumbled, a complicated expression on her face.
Elmer turned to her again and said, "No, well, but... Even if you changed your glasses to lenses, you weren't that tall, and you were, err, a bit flatter, if you know what I mean. Hold on, you were just seventeen back then! You look like you're in your mid-twenties now! There's no way you could have grown like that, since Czes is still the same..."
"Sylvie didn't drink the Grand Panacea immediately."
Maiza cut in, forestalling the flood of questions that Elmer had yet to voice. Sylvie smiled and explained eagerly.
"I became an alchemist because I wanted to be beautiful forever. When I did find the elixir of eternal life, though, I was only seventeen. I still had a lot of growing to do. So I put the panacea in a small vial and drank it after years of taking care of myself."
Elmer looked over her with a skeptical eye.
"...So what you mean is, you're a twentysomething version of Sylvie?"
"what do you mean, version? Well, I suppose you could put it that way."
Elmer gave it a moment of thought and placed a hand on her shoulder, gazing at her with pitying eyes.
"Sylvie, before we all enjoy this reunion, I want you to answer me just one thing honestly."
"What is it?" Sylvie asked, her pulse quickening just slightly at Elmer's suddenly serious expression.
"It's okay. I won't condemn you no matter what you say. We've got all the time in the world, so you can atone for your sins over time."
"What in the world are you talking about?"
"Tell me truthfully now... just how many baths did you take in the blood of children to gain that beauty?!"
"Elmer, do you realize just how rude you're being right now?"
Sylvie drew her hand back to slap him, but he evaded it by a hairsbreadth and turned once more to Maiza.
"Right then, that's enough joking around."
"Tell me, how much was a joke and how much was serious?"
"To be completely honest, I knew from the beginning that you were Sylvie. Ahahahahaha!"
Sylvie just sighed and raised her right hand high again.
"Hey, now... Eh?"
Elmer threw himself back to avoid the slap, but suddenly found himself held in place. Maiza stood at his right and Nile at his left, firmly grasping his arms.
"Elmer, that was a bit out of bounds."
"I say this: you deserve more than a slap for what you just said."
Their grip on Elmer's arms was so tight that his feet actually lifted off the ground a little.
"Huh? Wait. Eh? Hey!"
Sylvie's palm swooped majestically through the air at Elmer's face and...
Czes stood a short distance away from the rest and looked up aimlessly at the ceiling as a resounding smack rang in the air.
"Ah, Elmer and Sylvie both haven't changed a bit. Not inside," he muttered quietly to himself, low enough to be inaudible to the others. He seemed somehow old.
"...Maybe I'm the only one who's changed."
They are smiling. Master Elmer is smiling, and so are the outsiders who came to the castle.
They are laughing happily, very happily.
Master Elmer has not changed at all. The same smile, the same laughter he always shows me.
But I... cannot laugh.
If I could but
like the people Master Elmer has invited
if I could but laugh like that, how...
But I cannot laugh. I cannot smile sincerely.
Though Master Elmer smiles genuinely for me.
Though he strives to teach me how to do so myself.
But all I can remember is sorrow.
Most probably, I cannot laugh because of that sorrow...
But right now, I am sad because I cannot laugh.
"Anyway, this place is pretty dirty, but if you want you can stay here for a while!"
"You'd think this was actually your house."
"Don't say that, Czes. You're hitting me where it hurts... Aah."
Elmer flopped down onto the sofa next to the fireplace, the imprint of a hand still glowing bright red on one cheek.
The group had decided to take the conversation somewhere more comfortable, and moved from the hall to an adjacent room that looked like a parlor.
"This is all the people who've come today, eh... What about the others? Are there any others still safe?" Elmer asked, getting up to start a fire in the fireplace. It was a crucial question, and Maiza and the others exchanged uneasy looks upon hearing it.
After a moment of shaky silence, Maiza spoke for them.
"...Including the five of us here, only nine of the original thirty from the boat have survived."
Elmer was quiet for a while. Silence fell over the five immortals, as the firelight tainted Elmer's bowed head a fierce red.
A few seconds later Elmer turned his face toward Maiza and the others... and smiled.
"I see. That's sad, but also good news."
Elmer collapsed into a wooden chair, his expression brighter for some reason.
"Tell you the truth, there was the distinct possibility that I'd live forever without ever meeting any of you. But today, you all came. So the worst case scenario changed from only me left, to only us five left. But then you tell me that there's others as well. Right, this is occasion for a smile. I think this is a fine situation to smile in."
"You're a positive thinker."
"Not quite. Smiling is the only way I can mourn for the others' deaths. To be honest, I'm not that good at being sad. It's hard. And I don't like it either. Ah, I'll make this much clear - I'm never going to forget the dead. So tell me who's left, so I can know who to remember."
Explanation regarding his lack of sorrow complete, Elmer proceeded to prod Maiza for more information. Maiza looked dumbfounded for a moment, then smiled as though relieved.
"You truly haven't changed one bit. Yes, then. The ones left besides us are Veg, Huey, Victor..."
"Ah, Huey's still around, is he? I read in a paper a long time ago that Victor found a job in the FBI, and he caught Huey."
Elmer smiled lightly, as though remembering a fond memory.
"What's Huey doing these days? I heard rumors that he'd been sent to prison, but I'm guessing he's probably already served his sentence, right?
"We don't know, either. We've heard nothing about him being eaten, so perhaps he's still out there somewhere, continuing his experiments."
"Huey did so love to test things, didn't he. I suppose you could say that he was the most alchemist-ish of us... Ah, sorry, sorry. I interrupted you," Elmer said, cutting himself off as Maiza frowned.
"No, it's fine. And as for the last person, we still haven't managed to find where he is. Denkuro. Tougo Denkuro. You remember him, don't you? He was the only Asian on the boat."
"Aah, you mean Ninja."
"It's the nickname I gave him... Eh? You haven't met him yet?"
The others all stared at him with wide eyes.
"You met him?!"
Elmer shrugged uncomfortably at Maiza's startled cry.
"Well, I just sort of stumbled across him about a decade ago. He was dressed as a ninja in a place called Edo Village or something in Japan. I haven't seen him since, so I can't tell you for certain whether he's still alive..." 2)
"I can't believe it... the first place we looked was Japan. He always said he wanted to go back to Japan even back then on the boat, so we searched around his old home..."
"About twenty years ago."
Elmer waved his hand and laughed.
"Aah, that wouldn't work. Of course not. He only went back to Japan around a decade ago. He said he tried to walk from America to Japan, but he ran into some trouble at the North Pole and got buried in ice for around 250 years."
"He got caught by a Soviet nuclear submarine, chased by the KGB, ran away to Germany and got shot as he tried to go over the Berlin Wall. So he hid in an East German's house until the wall fell and finally managed to get back to Japan. He said it was a huge shock, how much his country'd changed. As for his house, it was destroyed a long time before even the war... around when Japan opened its doors in the 19th century. So he ended up just wandering around the country."
"A grand adventure."
Tougo's story ended with Nile's succinct summary. Elmer mulled over things for a moment and then got to the heart of the matter.
"I noticed that Szilard wasn't mentioned."
The others save Maiza looked away from him, each of them holding different thoughts.
Szilard Quates had been the oldest man on the Advena Avis to gain immortality, and the one who had wished to gain absolute knowledge through eating other immortals.
Maiza chose to answered Elmer's unspoken question simply.
"Szilard is dead."
A complicated expression spread over Elmer's face. On the one hand it seemed he looked deeply relieved, and on the other he looked somewhat desolate.
"...I see. So including Denkuro, that's nine."
Maiza nodded after a moment's hesitation.
"That would be the case, yes."
"Were you looking for me just to tell me that?"
Maiza gave him a wan smile and nodded again.
"I see... Well, sorry that I had to make you go to such trouble. I can smile now, knowing what you did for me. Not just a smile I think I'm going to laugh so hard I burst hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaharharharhargharghack! Ack! Ack! Ack! Ack! Erk! Gah!"
Elmer suddenly fell over onto the floor and began coughing violently, flailing his arms and legs like a cicada that had been flipped over.
"Are you all right?"
"Fo, forced myself to laugh! Stomach acid! Ca, came up! Into my e-e-esophagus! I'm dying! I'm dying!"
Every time he tried to draw a breath, he coughed more, unable to even breathe properly. Elmer started to drown in the open air, three grand centuries of memories flashing before his eyes.
"And that's why you shouldn't have done it."
"I say this: you are a fool. Furthermore, didn't you think it would be rude to Maiza to laugh in a situation like this?"
Knowing Elmer's immortality, Sylvie and Nile didn't budge an inch from their seats. Maiza got up and rubbed his back, while Czes crouched to look at Elmer's face with a worried expression.
"Are you okay?"
Czes moved his right hand forward, onto Elmer's cheek. And slowly, his palm moved upwards to Elmer's forehead... but Elmer didn't react at all.
"Ah, I'm fine now. Thanks, Czes."
Wordlessly, Czes withdrew his hand and returned to his seat. His childish face was clouded with a sort of dissatisfaction.
Elmer noticed Czes's dark expression and opened his mouth to ask what was wrong.
"Now then, Elmer. It's your turn to answer our questions," Maiza said, drawing Elmer's attention. Czes's troubled face quickly receded into the back of his mind and was forgotten.
"What do you want to know? I do know a few national security level secrets, but I don't think I could tell them to you..."
"We don't really care about that."
"Are you sure? I really do know secrets about the Republic of Nauru."
"I'm serious," Maiza said, the light in his eyes unwavering despite Elmer's attempts to laugh it off.
"What is this village? Why do they fear you and call you a demon? Are you actually tormenting them? And those girls, who are-"
"Don't ask me all at once! I'm getting confused! Confusedfusedfusedfusedfused."
Elmer grabbed his head in both hands and began to shake, slowly at first but then faster and faster. His head became a blur-
-and suddenly fell off.
Everyone froze, their breath catching in their throats. The head rolled about halfway down his body and disappeared into the swath of black cloth, and at the same time thick smoke billowed out from where his neck had been.
The smoke filled the room in an instant, temporarily hiding everything from view. It burdened the lungs slightly when breathed in, but it didn't seem to be poisonous, and so Maiza and the others ignored it, crouching and trying to see where Elmer was.
Shortly, the smoke thinned out and they could see... the black clothes that Elmer had been wearing, and a canister rolling on the ground that had probably been the source of all the smoke.
"Tricky as ever, I see..." Maiza said, glancing around through what remained of the gas. He could see nothing moving - Elmer had most likely cut and run the moment the smoke began to spread.
"Like you always see the magicians do it," Czes said flatly, looking over the black cloth. "He disappeared and left his clothes behind."
At that moment...
"A game! How about a game?"
Elmer's voice rang inside the room. It echoed strangely off the stone walls, reverberating around them happily.
"I would appreciate it if you stopped playing around."
"I'm going to hide from you lot for a month starting from now, continuing my work! If you can catch me I'll tell you everything you want to know as a reward!"
"Give it up, Maiza," Czes said. "You know as well as I do that once Elmer's set his mind on something like this you can't make him change it."
Maiza gave up, accepting Czes's words.
"Okay! Smashing! I knew you'd understand, Maiza! Now then, I'll welcome you once more! Allow me to introduce you to this village, frozen in time, no, wait, actually, to this village, which exists by itself in an isolated alternate dimension! In other words, it's four dimensional! Fantasy! I'll eagerly awaiting your serious roleplaying!"
With that last, Elmer's voice burst into laughter which slowly faded away, the last echoes dying down quickly. Maiza slumped down onto a chair and heaved a great sigh.
"I suppose I should be used to this, considering what happened all the time in New York."
"Right, though Isaac and Miria are naturals at this sort of thing, unlike Elmer."
"Who're those?" Nile asked, unfamiliar with the names, but before Czes and Maiza could reply, a knock came at the door.
The door was made out of wood and contrasted curiously with the stone walls, and from the other side came the soft voice of a girl.
"Aah... I have prepared some tea."
"Ah, my apologies. Come in," Maiza said, temporarily taking the place of the master of the house.
The girl who walked in was clothed in red just like the others, but she was different from the three who had been riding on horses. Very similar, but the style of her hair and the lines of her face were again subtly different.
She noticed that Elmer was not in the room and stopped, nervously glancing about.
"Elmer said for us to find him, but perhaps we could just ask this girl where he is," Nile suggested.
Czes stepped forward, his body language changing to that of a young boy.
"Hey, what's your relation to Elmer?" he asked, abusing the right that was only given to children, to ask blunt questions without concern for social niceties. The girl, in turn, replied equally frankly.
"I... am a living sacrifice."
The people had no way of knowing how long the village had existed. The old ones sometimes hinted that they knew more than they let on, but time passed and they passed on one by one, taking their knowledge with them to the grave.
The villagers who formed the majority of the town now were those who had grown up knowing nothing but the town, and to them the tightly grouped trees that grew around them was the same as waterfalls leading off the edge of the world.
Curious ones tried to get through the forest, and their hopes and thirst for knowledge were always left unfulfilled, unquenched.
They didn't even know that the trees grew unnaturally close to one another, for they had never learned what was natural in the first place.
The forest was much too large to traverse on foot. Many turned back, defeated, and some among them never returned. The villagers whispered to one another that the forest destroyed one's sense of direction, that it led would-be travelers astray and forced them to walk the same paths over and over. The only road that existed had had a tunnel in the middle, blocked off by a locked door, but recently the tunnel had collapsed, making that road completely impossible to take.
And there was another road, leading deep into the forest, where from time to time came the peddler.
But that road had a gate, and was designed so that nothing but the peddler's steel carriage, which moved by itself, could pass. In years gone by a few had smuggled themselves onto the back of the carriage and ridden away... but they, too, had never returned.
The villagers realized the danger of "outside" and taught their children accordingly.
The outside is dangerous. There is nothing there. The village is everything.
The children knew that these were lies. But the atmosphere of the village made such opinions impossible to voice... and besides, the children were gripped with great fear regarding what lay beyond the village's bounds.
The shining silver birds that sometimes flew high in the sky above them. Huge beyond imagining and giving voice to strange and fearsome cries, the birds seemed like a devil's messengers, spreading terror amongst the townspeople.
But the devilish birds aside, the village was not such a bad place to live. It was mostly self-sufficient, and the peddler brought them oil to light their fires. The peddler himself was the decisive proof that something existed "outside," but the villagers pretended not to notice. The peddler never talked about the outside world, and in fact never left his carriage, or even lowered the window.
There was an unspoken rule that discouraged talk of the peddler, and the previous mayor had set rules in place forbidding anyone to go outside the village. The rules were accepted by everyone as completely natural, and life went on without much disturbance.
There were problems, of course. No matter how much the villagers were unable to leave even if they had wished to do so, from time to time people came to the town, saying that they had come from outside. All of them seemed to have stumbled across the village by chance, and some of them could not even speak the language. But... most of the villagers could not understand the concept of "outsider," for there was no such thing as outside in the first place. To them, such people were nothing more than dangerous demons.
For example, a handful of the village youths had chosen to follow the first outsider who ever visited, charmed by his descriptions of the world beyond. They left with the outsider, ignoring the worries of their elders, their heads filled with stories of outside.
And none of them ever came back.
They had been seduced by a demon, everyone agreed.
After that, the appearance of outsiders was ignored."
When they did come, perhaps once a decade if that, they were chased off immediately... or they were, literally, erased from the face of the earth.
Fearing the outside, fearing the possibility that their lives as they knew them could be denied outright, they stayed inside the forest.
There were some worries about depopulation, but still everyone lived relatively happily, spending their days in quiet peace.
At least, until that fateful day five years ago, when the demon known as Elmer came...
...And the present day.
The night after Maiza and his friends left the village, the important figures of the village were all gathered around a small table. As one, their expressions were grim, and some among them even showed fear.
It was not a frivolous matter. The air itself was still and heavy, crushing down on the people in the wooden room oppressively as though any moment a firestorm might explode upon them.
"What are we going to do, mayor?"
"I didn't see it myself. Are the rumors making the rounds true?"
"There are more demons now? Explain what's going on!"
"What's going to happen to this village?! Has that thing said anything?"
The mayor, Dez Nibil, sat quietly and ignored the townspeople's nervous cry, a sour expression on his face as though he'd bitten a lemon.
"Do something! There are four more of them?! Are all of them demons?!"
Instead of the mayor, one of the youths chose to reply. He was the man who had shot Maiza in the leg earlier in the day.
"Yes, I saw it with my own eyes. Just like that thing. I don't know about the other three, but the one with glasses on is an ally of the demon for certain!"
"And the one wearing the frightful mask was talking in a strange language. It's got to be a code that only they can understand. A tongue of curses!"
"Bu, but do you think that woman was a demon too?"
"Well, err, I... I guess. Wait, no, no, maybe she's not."
Those who had been entranced by Sylvie's beauty found it hard to make a judgment regarding her.
"And he hid quickly, but I saw a child too."
"Right, that's four including the child. Whatever the circumstances, they left for the castle once Elmer called them. But... that thing they were riding... do you think they have anything to do with the peddler?"
"The peddler's not our concern right now. The important matter is what we're going to do from now on. Don't you think, mayor?"
All the villagers fell silent and turned to Dez.
He heaved a great sigh and muttered in a low voice, like he was talking to himself.
"I was hoping to grab them before they could contact that thing, but... from the way he sent messengers, I think he knew that they had arrived. The problem is, what will they do to us, considering we threatened them with weapons?"
"We know that much! What we're asking is, what are we going to do about it?!"
"We don't have a choice! We just have to wait and see what he'll say! We can't make any sort of plan without knowing anything!" the mayor shouted angrily, but the villagers refused to back down.
"If they come in the night looking for revenge, we're done for!"
"And if they decide to ask for more... we'll have to start drawing from our stored crops."
"They'd starve us to death!"
"You're the mayor, aren't you?! Do something!"
Dez slammed his fist down on the table and shouted, a vein pulsing on his forehead.
"What do you want me to do! Use your heads a little before yipping like frightened dogs! Do you have any good ideas? Do you have anything, any plans that can kill them or force them to leave? The only difference between you and I is that I'm the mayor and you're not! If you want, I'll pass on the position to any one of you! Let us see just how great a plan you can come up with! Let us see just how well you can lead the village!"
None of the villagers could say anything in reply. None among them could think of a plan except to wait and see.
Then, a strong voice cut through the silence from behind Dez.
"That was a bit harsh, father."
"Felt. This doesn't concern you."
A boy who looked to be in his mid-teens stood in the door. There were still traces of baby fat on his face, but the light in his eyes was already strong and clear.
"The villagers are just nervous. So am I. That's why we're all looking to you for support, father."
Dez kept his silence.
"This isn't the time to argue like this. We have to band together in times of hardship to protect the village."
His words were so frank they almost sounded childish, but nevertheless they served to soothe the villagers, who had been on the verge of losing their calm.
"For now, we have to do as father says and watch to see what happens. The child and the woman might just be hostages or prisoners... and we might be able to discover a weakness. We should pretend to obey and bide our time, waiting for a chance to present itself."
The villagers looked at each other, considering the boy's proposal. There was a brief flurry of discussion, after which most of them voiced their approval, and it was decided that for the time being they would keep things as they were.
"This is fine, right, father?"
"Do as you will," Dez said sourly, getting up to leave the room, perhaps put out that his son had taken his position.
Then, one of the villagers voiced a question to his retreating back, uneasiness clear on his face.
"But mayor, if they ask for more living sacrifices..."
"I know. We only have one left. If we run out, then we'll really have to start offering up the village maidens..."
An angry voice comes from the town hall as I make my way to my shack to sleep. It is Master Dez's voice.
Perhaps I have made another mistake, though I do not remember doing so.
I do not wish to do so, but I must make certain.
The town hall is raised slightly from the ground. As I walk up the stairs I realize that there are many people inside. They are probably discussing Master Elmer. Perhaps the shout just now has nothing to do with me.
As I reach the door, it opens suddenly.
The door knocks me down and I fall down on the floor.
My nose hurts. I touch it and realize that it is bleeding.
"Blast, this door just refuses to open, doesn't it!"
Master Dez's voice comes from above my head. The next moment, stabbing pain assails my body over and over in quick succession.
"Damn it! Damn it! Damn it!"
Master Dez glares down at me as he opens and closes the door again and again, slamming it into my body.
I twist my body away and just barely manage to keep the door from impacting against me again.
But I lose my balance as I try to stand and fall over, this time sprawling in the doorway. Crushing pain suddenly makes itself known against my legs.
"Ah, now it just won't close!"
Again and again, agony assaults my senses. Painpainpainpainpainpainpainpainpainpainpainpainpainpainpainpainpainithurtsithurtsithurtsithurtsithurtsithurtsithurts...
I lose the ability to express what I feel in words, and my body curls up of its own accord and grows still.
The shocks stop, and from above my head I can hear Master Dez's agitated voice.
"Aah, you useless wench, you've gotten blood all over the doorway! Clean it up before dawn!"
After Master Dez leaves, in a foul mood, the rest of the villagers leave as well, stepping over my body.
"Was she eavesdropping...?"
The villagers avoid my body like they would avoid the corpse of a dog. Frowning at me and talking about me as though I am something dirty.
This happens all the time. This is nothing new. But why does it concern me so now? Perhaps it is because of Master Elmer's guests.
By the time I manage to drag myself to my feet, only Master Felt is standing in front of me.
"It doesn't look like you're that hurt. Are you alright?"
Master Felt gives me a pitying look and then takes his leave, tossing a comment over his shoulder.
"...If they ask for another living sacrifice, it'll probably be your turn. Do it for the good of the village. I'm sorry."
Master Felt does not hit me or despise me.
But he does not help me, either.
I know that. Nothing will change.
This is merely my lot. I do not have to think of anything.
Nothing will change. Nothing is wrong. Every day will continue after the one before it, constant and steady.
But even then, aah, but even then.
Why do those who come from outside treat me kindly?
They do not hit me, they do not kick me, they do not become angry if I dare to sleep in a bed.
Perhaps Master Elmer is the only exception.
That thought had been the only thing that kept me going.
I already knew.
The possibility of a different world that exists beyond this village, beyond this forest.
Then why must I live here, treated like this.
Master Elmer told me that there might be places better than this, but on the other hand there were much worse places as well. But I wish to believe in the miniscule chance of a better tomorrow as long as that possibility exists.
I want to leave. Anywhere but this village. If I can live without being hit without being hurt without being lonely then anywhere, anywhere...
But that is a dream I cannot have.
A hope that will never come to be.
Because leaving this place would mean my death.
It would have been better if I had remained ignorant, if I had not had cause to have such impossible dreams, such futile hopes...
I am sad. I almost found myself hating the one who gave me smiles, the one who taught me happiness, Master Elmer.
I remember. I remember clearly.
This feeling is... hate.
I hated Master Elmer before I even hated the villagers.
That makes me sadder than anything.
I feel like I am something that should not exist in this world...
December 23rd, Night
The old castle
The darkness, so clear as to seem almost frozen, made the already frigid forest air itself shiver with cold.
The roof of the old castle in the forest was constructed as a flat plane, so that one could walk around on it like an apartment rooftop. Only the roof of the watchtower jutting from the south had been made a cone, making it hard to climb.
A man lay on the slope of the cone, looking up at the stars.
The man quietly looked down at the sound of this name.
At the edge of his vision, he saw the upper body of a young boy. The lower half of his body was hidden by the roof's edge, as he struggled to climb up onto the roof. At length Czes made his way completely onto the rooftop.
Elmer congratulated him as he caught his breath, clearly exhausted.
"So you found the handholds next to the window. I'm impressed," Elmer said frankly. "Did you come alone?"
Czes didn't reply, instead choosing to look around.
"This castle is really weird. The overall design is like a fortress in Luxembourg, but this cone type of roof is more often found in Denmark... it seems like it's been made from a hodgepodge of a bunch of different castles."
"You're a smart one. I'm surprised... I didn't know any of that."
"Half of it comes from Maiza's observations."
"Haha, so what do you say we add some roof tiles and a gargoyle or two while we're at it?"
Czes gave Elmer a bright smile and carefully began to walk across the slanted cone roof.
Elmer saw him approaching and suddenly jumped to his feet. Just a slight misstep and he would have gone plummeting down to the ground below, but not a hint of worry could be seen on his face.
"Heheheh, you might think you've got me cornered, but you'll see that you're wrong! You think you'll be able to chase me, Elmer "God Foot" Albatross, down?"
"Where're you going to run?" Czes pointed out calmly.
Elmer looked around and gave it a moment of thought.
There were no parts of the roof that he could move to, and even from the lowest point he could reach, jumping down to the ground would surely end with far worse than a broken bone or two. He might be immortal, but things that hurt still hurt. Sweat beaded finely on his forehead as he stood in place.
"Well, uhh, if you come here, then I'll run to the other side of this cone."
"And we'll run around and around forever?"
"What do you think about participating in a test that could shake the foundations of modern science, to see how many times we have to run around this to turn into butter?" 3)
"I'll refuse," Czes replied flatly, and Elmer cocked his head to one side.
"I think the person who first thought of making tigers into butter had to be a genius, don't you think?"
"You don't have to try and distract me. I'm not here to catch you. I just want to talk."
Czes sat down where he was and leaned his small body against the slanted roof.
"Talk? I tooold you, if you can't catch me I won't-"
"Not about that. It's personal."
Elmer stepped a little closer, intrigued at Czes's sudden seriousness.
"Anyway, you still like to go up to high places at night, don't you. I remember that you used to go up into the crow's nest every night to look at the stars back then."
"Ah... Aaah... Aaah, so that's it. That's how you knew I'd be up here? I didn't expect to be found on the very first day, you know. I was quite surprised."
"What, were you planning on really hiding for a month straight?"
Instead of replying, Elmer put one hand on the incline and raised his body into a nearly upright position, turning to face Czes fully.
"So, what do you want to talk about?"
He knows that I'd have a hard time starting the conversation.
Czes let out an uneasy sigh as he realized Elmer's intentions.
Then, making up his mind, he gave Elmer a false smile and opened his mouth to speak.
But before he could say anything, Elmer cut him off.
"Don't force your smiles. It doesn't suit you," he said calmly.
Czes took a sharp breath, his face going utterly blank.
A moment later, a strangely mature expression found its way onto his features. He glared at Elmer, the air about him completely different from before.
"And I see that you're as ill-natured as always."
"Eh? Why're you suddenly acting like an adult now?"
Confusion shook Czes. He'd thought that Elmer had seen through his true nature and given him a warning not to hide himself.
"You didn't catch onto my act?"
"No, well, all I was talking about was that fake smile of yours, not your... eh? What? You were acting?"
"I see that I was the fool here..." Czes muttered, bowing his head tiredly, and Elmer finally realized what was going on.
"Ah! Ah, that's right, I've got it now. Right, I understand. Okay. Leave it to me. That's it, yes, I don't know why I didn't see it before. I should have realized it was strange that you were still acting like a kid after three hundred years. Right, sorry, sorry for not noticing."
Czes merely looked up at the sky and sighed at Elmer's sly reply. And as the white steam of his breath curled up into the darkness, the immortal who looked like a boy quietly began to speak.
"The strange thing is, Maiza hasn't mentioned that once in the seventy years since I met him again. I don't think that Sylvie or Nile have noticed, either."
His still childlike eyes were shining with anxiety.
"I have one question. What do you think of us?"
Not a hint of hesitation. Elmer's answer came short and simple, the moment the question came from Czes's mouth.
Czes's eyes widened in surprise, and Elmer, flustered, began to search for another reply.
"No no no no no no no wait wait wait wait wait wait. I guess that just saying companion like that sounds a bit false rather than childish coming from my mouth, doesn't it. I'd like to call you friend, but you're pretty mature and over three hundred at that, so... maybe a tea party friend, or wait, maybe associate, confidante... maybe a co-worker? Comrade... no, maybe give it a Latino twist and say amigo... combo... battery... teammate... et cetera."
He actually said et cetera aloud...
Of course, Elmer had no way to hear Czes's disbelieving thoughts and continued mumbling to himself, finally clapping his hands together.
"That's right, the expression that fits us best is 'in cahoots'..."
"Of course not. What a foolish conclusion," Czes said bitingly, cutting off Elmer before he could continue.
"But that's what Denkuro told me before. 'You and Huey are probably in cahoots'."
"It's not a positive expression... aah, no, it's all my fault for asking a serious question."
"Come now, don't be like Maiza. Act a bit more like a kid, will you?"
Czes suddenly snarled, angered by Elmer's heedless words.
"Stop that. I told you, I'm not a brat inside anymore."
"That so. I guess you're right. But to tell you the truth, it's a mite creepy hearing you say something like that. You're an eternal boy, in other words the only Neverlander in the world, so smile like a kid should. The sight of a kid's earnest smile makes other people happy. Though I can't say for certain that that applies to people who dislike children, hahahahaha."
"So you're saying my feelings regarding myself don't matter."
"I don't mean that! This is all for you! It's hard for an adult to laugh boldly like a kid, but you can do it, can't you? Not only that, but you can buy cheap movie tickets, go trick or treating, and get all sorts of other special treatment. And you can act like an adult only when it suits you, like you're doing right now. And like I said before, just by smiling you can make the people around you happy. Everyone will smile, and then you'll smile because of that too. Think about it, just by doing that you're filling your surroundings with happiness! Damn, I'm jealous!"
Czes frowned, unable to understand Elmer's point.
"...What in the world are you talking about? And this is something I've thought about for a long time - your obsession with smiles baffles me. Just smiling will bring people happiness? How simple can you get?"
"What's that?! A smile is one of the highest tier displays of emotion that human beings can show! Don't you know the Asian proverb, fortune comes to the merry?"
"A proverb is just a proverb. And besides, what's the basis you're using to give tiers to emotions, anyway?"
"My preference," Elmer replied promptly. Czes heaved a great, suffering sigh.
"How can someone so illogical be an alchemist?"
"Hahaha, there's no way someone who'd try to make gold out of base metals could possibly be anything close to logical."
"Aaaaah, you went and said it," Czes said, cradling his head in his hands. "You just denied your own existence."
Elmer burst out laughing and sat down next to him.
"Don't you think it's arrogant of us to call them base metals in the first place? What right do we have to forge them, smelt them, make all sorts of things out of them and then turn around and call them base?"
Elmer leaped to his feet and began to spin around Czes, as though taunting him. It was obvious that it was an utterly meaningless action, but Elmer himself seemed to be enjoying it immensely.
"Around the 15th century, alchemists found themselves divided into two factions. One side was made of people who researched everything they could, the ones who laid the foundations of modern science. The other side was made of mystics who tried to achieve the fundamental goals of alchemy. I think we're the latter. I guess if we weren't, there's no way we'd have agreed to let Maiza try and summon a demon. Though on the other hand maybe Huey and Szilard were both at the same time. What I'm trying to say is, we summoned a demon and were granted immortality. I think it's pretty silly to be logical considering what we've been through. Don't you think it's high time we lived true to our feelings? ...So let's smile, Czes."
"True to my feelings? Frankly, right now I'm so frustrated with you I'm about to burst," Czes said coldly, glaring up at Elmer with narrowed eyes.
Elmer himself noticed and stopped spinning. Unlike Czes, his own eyes were open wide.
"Eh, why?! Being frustrated on a lovely night like this isn't good for your health. It'll take years from your lifespan. Wait. Okay. I get you, roger. Stop. Don't look at me like I'm some stray dog who's decided to sniff at you. Okay, I'll listen to you seriously. I think I might have been a little excited because of all the stars in the sky."
"You never knew when to be serious... That's not what's frustrating me. What I wanted to ask you about, and what's frustrating me, is that damned calmness of yours."
"Heheh, I'll take that as a compliment."
"It's not! Not a bit of it was meant to be a compliment at all! You always mess up other people's solemnity like that. But just this once, give me a serious answer."
Elmer smiled uneasily in the face of Czes's earnest stare and sat down quietly.
"Tell me, why didn't you ask who ate Szilard?"
Before Elmer could open his reply, the childlike immortal continued.
"How could you welcome us so easily? We might have come to attack you! I even put my right hand on your face, no, your head! You didn't even try to shake it off! You didn't show a single sign of fear; your expression didn't even change! How?! How can you be so blind to danger? Did you believe that you wouldn't be eaten? Did you believe so firmly that none of us had changed at all through the centuries?!"
Czes's words became uglier, as Elmer merely kept his silence.
As Czes caught his breath, Elmer just smiled sheepishly and looked him straight in the eyes.
"No no no, well, I just now remembered there was that sort of rule. So that means that old man Szilard died like that. I forgot all about it."
"I said give me a serious answer!"
Czes's voice rose to a shout, but Elmer's smile didn't dimish at all.
"No, this isn't a joke. I'm not lying, I really forgot."
Czes finally gave up. Elmer had always been a liar, and a prankster at that, but when he said 'I'm not lying' he was always telling the truth.
In other words, if he hadn't changed, Elmer really had forgotten the conditions behind eating other immortals. Czes found it impossible to believe, and furthermore felt confused, as though his entire life up until then was being denied.
"I'm telling the truth."
"You're lying! You... you ran away because you were afraid of being eaten too, didn't you? That's why you've been hiding in a place like this!"
Czes's accusations sounded more like a desperate plea, but Elmer mercilessly shook his head.
"I didn't wander around the world to avoid Szilard or the others. And even if I hadn't forgotten the rules, I would still have welcomed you just as I did."
"I'm telling you I'm not. I know you're not like that, and even if one among you had eaten Szilard, I had no intention of turning you away."
"How do you expect me to believe tha-?!"
The moment Czes surged to his feet to glare down at Elmer, Elmer grabbed his right wrist and laid the palm flat against his own forehead. If Czes thought, even for a moment, that he wanted to eat, Elmer's body and memories would surely be sucked straight into Czes's right hand.
But the one who found a cold sweat running down his back was Czes, not Elmer. He wrested his hand away from Elmer's grasp and tore it away from his forehead, his palm clammy with his own sweat. His pulse thundered in his ears and his breathing quickened in an instant.
Elmer smiled comfortingly at Czes.
"Do you believe me now?"
Czes stared blankly at that utterly fearless, completely relaxed face for a moment before regaining his calm and tearing his gaze away, muttering darkly under his breath. However, his appearance was still that of a young boy whose voice had yet to break, and so his display of discontent didn't have even half the intended effect.
"...How... How can you do something like that?" Czes asked beseechingly, looking down at Elmer with eyes full of regret and sorrow.
"How can you do these things... Not only you, Elmer. Maiza, Veg, Sylvie, all of them welcomed me right from the beginning without a trace of doubt. There was some trouble with Nile at first, but even he's opened up to me now. No, not just to me. All of them are completely open to each other. All of them believe that nobody's going to try and eat anyone else!"
Czes's gaze shifted to the floor and he quietly shook his head. He continued in a feeble voice as though he'd given up.
"I know that people are bound to change. Not only that, but people are fundamentally evil! I know that! But from some time ago, I'm not sure when, I started to doubt it. Decades ago, I went to New York alone. I was planning to meet Maiza again, and eat him. But on the way there I met other immortals. And not only there; when I arrived at New York there were was a whole bunch of other immortals, not the people who drank with us on the boat! Can you believe it? But that doesn't matter. What scared me most was that... every single one of them was a good person!"
There were other immortals besides themselves.
This came as a surprise to Elmer, but he didn't pursue the matter. It seemed that Czes was shaken even more than he let on, for it seemed that he didn't realize he'd just revealed something important.
"Isn't that a good thing?"
"Of course it's not! I told you, I know better than anyone else that human beings are fundamentally evil."
Czes hesitated for a moment, made up his mind, opened his mouth and spoke.
"...I ate Fermet."
Fermet. Elmer fell silent. Though they had never really had the chance to exchange words, if his memory served him right, Fermet had been one of his fellow alchemists on the boat, and Czes's guardian.
"Fermet tortured me endlessly, saying that they were necessary tests. Still, I believed him. But he kept hurting me even more!"
The unexpected confession left Elmer at a loss for words. The Fermet in his memory was not a man who would have done such things to Czes, who had been like a little brother or a son to him.
"But you know what? I believed in him, I believed in him even after all he'd done to me, and then one day he tried to eat me! I struggled for my life and suddenly found myself with my right hand on his head... Can you imagine the hell that opened up for me then? What I felt then when I realized that the person I'd trusted so much was actually full of monstrous malice inside, and the agony that came from having to hold him inside myself! That's why I hated the world. I decided that the entire world, myself included, was just a thing of evil. But why, why are they all so good to me! I feel like I'm the only bad person on earth. You and Maiza and Isaac and Miria and Firo and Ennis and, how, why, you're all... you're all..."
Czes bowed his head, the words refusing to come forth any more.
Elmer was silent for a long moment, then suddenly looked up at the sky and said something quietly, as though talking to himself.
"I envy you."
Czes slowly raised his head.
"I really do. Look, Czes. Whether humans are good or evil, think of it like this. Say that out of the six billion human beings living in the world, 99.9 percent of them are evil. That means that ever since you got on that train, you've had the good luck to meet people from the remaining 0.1 percent, one after another! What are the chances of that? It's like the lottery number being the same twice in a row, and you have both of the winning tickets! An asteroid collided with the earth and a bunch of chimpanzees wrote the entire works of Shakespeare!"
The rapid stream of words coming from Elmer's mouth made Czes feel even more ridiculous. The fact that he knew that Elmer wasn't just comforting him with empty words but expressing his honest opinion made it all the more painful.
"...I envy that optimism of yours."
"Optimistic or not, I'm only telling the truth. And while we're at it, I want to make it clear that you're a right fine fellow yourself, so relax and live it up a little, Czes."
"I don't need to be consoled. I'm just angry. Nobody else has changed one bit, but I'm becoming worse and worse. I'm the only one who's changed. That makes me so mad I can't stand it."
Perhaps having nothing more to say, Czes turned and headed toward the handholds that led down from the roof. Just as he was preparing to head down, Elmer spoke to his back.
"You're a strange one. If you can worry so much about being a bad person... then you can just become a good one."
"It's not that simple."
"Czes, you just grew up, that's all. You didn't change. You just came to see both the good and bad parts of this world. That's a good thing. And if you still think that you've changed so much... then you can change again. Just like how water that freezes can melt again, people can as much as they want."
Elmer scratched his head sheepishly and laughed.
"If you want to melt again, you just need to feel the warmth around you. Even if you can't bring yourself to accept that kindness, the least you could do is acknowledge it, don't you think?"
"I don't know how you can say that with a straight face. What does it matter to you whether I change or not?"
"I told you already. You look better when you're smiling like a kid. Not just you. The vast majority of people on the planet are born to look better when smiling. So if you want to smile, I'll help you any way I can. Ah, though I'll ask you not to ask me to kill anyone, or die myself."
Czes stopped and looked back, his face carefully blank.
"Then if I told you to jump off the roof right now, would you? That wouldn't kill you."
Elmer didn't reply.
"You shouldn't make promises like that so light-"
Czes wasn't able to finish.
"All right, got it. Hup."
With a preposterously half-hearted cry, Elmer disappeared from Czes's sight.
By the time Czes realized what had happened, a dull crunch echoed from the ground below.
A moment later, a commotion as Maiza and the others came out to see what it was.
"Elmer? Elmer, wake up!"
"What? What are you doing dead here?"
"Hmm, most fortunate. We should tie him up before he comes back to life..."
Czes stared up at the starry sky, listening to the noises below. An unreadable expression passed over the boy's features as he muttered quietly to himself.
"I'm sorry, Elmer... I appreciate the effort, but the smile just won't come..."
Chapter 2 End
1): A stage hand dressed entirely in black who moves props and scenery in kabuki plays, meant to be treated as invisible by the people watching.
2): Nikko Edo Village, a theme park based on the style and appearance of old Edo. One of the attractions is the Ninja Theater, where actors dressed as ninja put on several performances per day.
3): From The Story of Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman, a story where an Indian boy named Sambo tricks four greedy tigers into chasing each other around a tree until they turn into butter.