Baccano! 1934 Alice in Jails - Streets Episode - Chapter 1, Part 2 of 3 (10/29)
Gonensei Chapter 1 (10/37)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Baccano! 2001 - The Children of Bottle: Chapter 4

I would like to say I'm back, but this is more finishing stuff I was working on before than anything. Anyway! This is the longest chapter of the bunch; all that's left is one more chapter and then an epilogue or two. Color pages are coming soon. I think. That may be a Soon™ ala Blizzard Entertainment. done. Kinda. I can't really figure out a way to make them look half-decent with horizontal English text, so I'm leaving them unedited, just merged so you can see what the picture looks like.

Hope you all enjoy.

Color Pages
Preface & Prologue
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Epilogue


---



---

And so, many truly uneventful days passed.

Nothing out of the ordinary happened.

The three visitors no longer prodded Master Elmer for answers, and instead spent their time researching the forest's wildlife, exploring the castle, and preparing for the upcoming celebrations.


Master Elmer taught me of many different celebrations upon arriving in the forest. He would explain the various events for each season, and reenact them inside the castle. From his explanations it seemed that the outside world was divided into many large communities known as "countries," and each country had its own unique celebrations.

The snow fell thick in the season of winter, but Master Elmer walked about the castle happily even then.

One winter he scared the villagers dressed up as a creature he called a krampus, and the next he did the same, only dressed as a monster he said was named namahage. In autumn, he dressed me in strange clothes, saying that it was time for Halloween. I would walk about in these clothes, and for some reason Master Elmer would give me treats upon seeing me. I thought it a quaint event. Master Elmer, too, donned an odd set of clothing and went down to the village, enjoying himself while surprising the villagers. And through these excursions to the town, I feel that the townspeople came to see Master Elmer more and more as something to be feared.

Also, as a time he called summer solstice approached, he would gather leafy branches together to make a large green object. He said that it was part of a ceremony observed by the people of the country right next to the forest, one meant to ensure that the sun would continue to shine forever. But... I wonder if Master Elmer knew that the villagers saw the object hung up on the day the sun rose highest and muttered darkly to themselves of demonic rituals.

Master Elmer also took eggs from the chickens inside the castle, carefully saving the shells after eating and then coloring them in vivid tones come spring. It was meant to celebrate the birth of someone, and Master Elmer said that normally we would have to abstain from meat for a week and color the eggs red. But then he laughed and said, "Well, it's not like I actually believe in it, so there's no need to follow things to the letter. I think we'll be like the Japanese and only follow the formalities enough to enjoy ourselves, what do you say?" So said, he decorated the castle with his colorful eggs... but the villagers watched from afar and once again seemed to think it a terrifying rite. I heard them whisper to themselves that he was sacrificing chicks to curse them. But I had not the courage to tell them otherwise, and instead bowed my head quietly.

A celebration he never forgot was called "Christmas." On this day, a man named "Santa Claus" would come and deliver happiness to everyone in the world. I told him, "Then everyone must be happy," but Master Elmer only laughed and said there was no way a person could give everyone in the world a present in a single night. I supposed he was right.

But after saying that, Master Elmer then said, "And that's why I'm taking his place for you," and every year gave me a present.

Sometimes they were ornaments made of paper, and sometimes dishes that Master Elmer cooked himself, and sometimes dolls carved from wood. Instead of being happy at receiving such presents, I felt a deep sense of guilt. Why did Master Elmer only do this for me and nobody else? I asked him, and he gave me a simple reply.

"That's easy. It's because you're the one who smiles least in the village."

I felt guiltier still upon hearing that. I could not give him a sincere smile, even though I know I should. When I tried to school my features into the approximation of one, Master Elmer shook his head and said, "Don't force it. If you force a smile, then your face will be twisted when you want to smile for real."

And so this year's Christmas came as well - and Master Elmer seemed busier than ever. He darted, laughing, all over the castle, hiding from his guests while decorating the inside of the building and setting off fireworks at suppertime.

He saw me paralyzed with worry and laughed as though he had just remembered something.

"Your present this year is those four."

I cocked my head to one side, unable to understand, and Master Elmer's laughter trailed off. And then, smiling gently, he said, "Try and get along with them. They might be able to help you smile for real."


And so, many truly uneventful days passed. I still cannot smile or laugh. But something is different now. I can feel it inside myself. Upon the arrival of Master Maiza and his companions, I once almost found myself grasped by hate, but that unwelcome emotion soon became hazy and faded away. I have discovered "hope."

This time is called "new years," and it is apparently a time for all to celebrate the coming of a new time. Last year, Master Elmer bought a great bundle of things he called "fireworks" from the peddler and set them off in the forest, saying that it was a method of celebration from the east. Needless to say, that too contributed toward the villagers' fear of him. Master Elmer seemed to know it as well, but his grin stayed the same as ever. He seemed to be enjoying it.

Today, too, is supposed to be another eastern day of celebration, this time observed by eating seven different kinds of boiled plants. Master Elmer and Mistress Sylvie are boiling water inside the castle in preparation. Master Nile wakes up from his day-long nap from time to time to play with the three horses in the stable, and Master Czes spends his time reading the books in the library. Master Maiza often looks for me and asks me questions, but sadly I know almost nothing about myself. All I can remember are small tidbits in the deep recesses of my memory, but Master Maiza listens seriously to every one of them. And always he thanks me after listening to my hesitant stories.

I want to help him more, but I can remember almost nothing of my past. All that stays in my mind is the memory of being abused by the villagers. And even those are slowly being erased, painted over.

After the arrival of Master Elmer, and Master Maiza and his companions after that, every day, new memories are covering up those old wounds.

Aah, yes. This must be the emotion known as joy.

I almost smile, but then I remember the atmosphere in the village.

Around this time of the year, the townspeople always sharply reduce their time outside their houses.

I do not know what the villagers are thinking after Master Felt's visit to the castle. They would never tell me outright, and even if they did have some sort of plan in mind, it would most certainly be impossible to carry out in this heavy snowfall.


...February.

When the time that Master Elmer calls "February" comes...

The peddler arrives from "outside."

After he leaves, a live sacrifice is given to Master Elmer.

This year, too, it will no doubt be me. This will mark the first time in five years that I have been gathered in one place.

Suddenly, a thought occurs to me.

Yes, then I shall smile. Brightly, like Master Elmer, like Mistress Sylvie. If I smile so suddenly, then Master Elmer will surely be surprised. And then he will laugh for me.

What shall I do. I must practice.

I must take care not to be noticed. Carefully, carefully...


And time marches on...

---

February
The old castle


One day, after January had passed and the sun shone brightly day after day... the peddler arrived.

His "carriage" served as a clear reminder that despite the quaintly antiquated ways of the village, the time was indeed the 21st century.

"My, my..."

About when the sun had risen to its highest point in the sky, the sudden rumbling that filled the air drew Maiza's party out of the castle's main gate.

It was a colossal snowmobile, roughly modeled after a truck.

"What's going on?"

Czes and Sylvie made their way around to the driver's seat, seeking to peer inside the great vehicle that had parked itself in front of the castle. But the windows had been specially treated, tinted black like those of a politician's car.

When they looped around to the front, they could see the faint outline of the driver through the windshield... but the moment they laid eyes on him, they were seized by a feeling of forboding.

The thing sitting in the driver's seat was no doubt a human being, but he was wearing a black facemask that covered his entire head, and a helmet that looked to be of military make. He wore goggles, making it impossible to see his eyes... but from the way his head was turned, it gave the impression that he in turn was staring out at Maiza's party as well.

"Surprised, eh? Or just feeling a bit homesick for the outside world?" a voice said from behind them, light as ever.

"That's the peddler... though he never actually steps outside of his car to peddle, what."

Elmer brushed past his still tongue-tied friends and turned to face the driver. Waving his hand vaguely at the people behind him, he said, "You understand, don't you? Be a good chap and give them a ride on your way back..."

"Wha-"

The engine's roar drowned out Czes's words, the tires spitting out a blizzard of snow as the truck turned and made its way back down the snowy mountain road. The path was only a tiny bit wider than the truck itself; if another car had come up the road, both would have had to stop. But the truck rumbled on, secure in the knowledge that such a thing would never happen.

"He'll be back in an hour," Elmer said, and promptly reentered the castle, leaving the remaining four staring wordlessly at where the truck had been.

The only things left were the questions inside their minds... and the colossal tire tracks in the snow, stark and real as though to prove that it was not a dream.

---

The peddler has come to the village.

The villagers rush to the carriage and exchange the crops and goods they have made during the winter for things like oil and cloth. But nobody comes down from the carriage's seat, and everyone simply follows the guidelines for trade written on the side.

Perhaps there are those among them who might think to take without giving in return, but still the peddler never leaves his iron chair.

According to Mistress Sylvie, it is not a carriage, but something called an "automobile." Similar to what Master Maiza and his companions arrived in, but this vehicle is much bulkier and more powerful.

I do not dislike watching the peddler's trade. If I observe from afar, nobody glares at me in disgust, and everyone's faces are lively and joyful.

Up until now, what I felt for this annual scene was truly neutral, a mere lack of dislike, but perhaps now, I can say truthfully that I enjoy watching.

Naturally, the villagers find the peddler unsettling in their own way. He is an outsider, after all, a symbol of the alien unknown they strive so hard to deny. But unlike other outsiders, the peddler does not attempt to interfere in the workings of the village - indeed, he has been coming and going since before the eldest of the surviving elders was born, more a part of the village than anyone else - and so the adults pretend not to notice him, and the children follow their example.

I was like that as well, a quietly ignored part of the village just like the peddler. But after Master Dez became mayor, that tradition died a quiet death. For some reason, Master Dez regarded me as something to be detested and abused, and forthwith, the villagers followed his example...

Enough. Those unhappy times went on for so long that my memories of them are buried deep in chaos. If I try to remember them too clearly, I fear that the light that has been flickering before me may be smothered, extinguished.

Ah. Now I realize that the light is becoming steadily brighter.

Perhaps it is thanks to Master Elmer and Mistress Sylvie and their friends, and Master Felt. Thanks to them, I can see this light even lying where I am, in the depths of deepest darkness...

I was wrong when I thought that Master Felt did not hate me, but did not help me either. He helped me. He did not despise me. He talked to me. Is that not a form of help? Perhaps not in the strictest sense of the word, but I decided to believe it was true.


Perhaps it is because of the hope floating right before my eyes.

That the sky seems so blue, so high, so much more than before.

Someone begins talking quietly behind me as I watch the townspeople. It is Master Elmer's voice.

I glanced at his face, away from the bustling trade. Master Elmer's face is set in a cheerful smile, as always.

"Say, Phil. Maiza and I are thinking of hitching a ride outside when the peddler comes back today. That is, we're going to visit the place you were born."

"Excuse me?"

"If you're all right with it... I want to show you the truth. It might be a shocking affair, but then again maybe you'll feel relieved when that riddle's done with, what? Either way, I'd like for you to make the decision."

I have no reason to refuse.

Truthfully, I am nervous as well. I am afraid that by learning everything about myself, I might witness my life crashing down before me. That this forest, my flask, will shatter.

But now, now... I feel that I can accept whatever I may find.

This is something I must go through to truly smile... a trial I must overcome. I felt it so strongly, it almost overwhelmed me.

"I'll go," I say, in a strong tone unlike any I have voiced before.

"I wish to know... who I really am."


As I said those words inside the castle, the me in the village was looking at Master Dez.

He stands beside the truck, ignoring the bustle and commotion and staring at me.

Did I unwittingly do something to rouse his ire?

A flash of memory, of the pain that comes with being struck, makes me curl up instinctively, but...

Master Dez turns and leaves without a word.

This fills my heart with a strange sense of forboding.

Master Dez's actions echo strongly in my mind, but I wished to focus on Master Elmer's words, and so I decide to bury them deep inside me.

If my memory serves me correctly, Master Dez smiled at me... for the first time since he was elected mayor.

But it was a smile completely different from Master Elmer's, one that revealed nothing...

A smile so frightfully cold that it felt as though I would freeze where I stood.

---

Afternoon. A path inside the forest.

"I must say, Elmer, it's been a while since I've felt being jostled around inside the luggage compartment."

"Like a cow on her way to the butcher, eh?"

Packed loosely inside the great snowmobile truck's storage container, Maiza, Elmer, and (one of) Phil were knocked right and left. The vehicle plowed so strongly through the snow that each vibration became a deep rumble that ran through their very bones.

Until just recently, Phil had been looking around wide-eyed, but now, perhaps exhausted from the sudden excitement, she was fast asleep, using a sack of flour one of the villagers had loaded on as a pillow.

"But say, Maiza."

"Yes?"

Elmer cleared his throat, and Maiza stretched, chasing away the sleep that had been about to overtake him.

"About Nile. Why's he got that mask on?"

"...Must you pick now of all times to ask?"

"No, but! When we first met again it was such a commotion that the window of opportunity sailed clear away! And asking later, well, let's say, you do know, don't you? And well, don't you suppose that he would have come out with it already if he'd meant for me to know? It'd be fine if he just snorted and said something like, 'You truly pick the worst topics for idle conversation,' but I wouldn't want him to really get mad."

"Yes, Nile does get out of hand when he gets angry," Maiza said, smiling lopsidedly as he remembered the masked man's rages.

"His mask is... a sort of insurance."

"Insurance?"

"He thinks that perhaps if one of our right hands were to find its way onto his forehead, that mask might protect him. In other words, that if there is something between the flesh of our hands and that of his forehead, he might be able to prevent his death."

"Ah... I see. Well then, that's awfully shy of him, wouldn't you say?"

...A bit different from Czes's situation, what. Elmer thought to himself, but as though sensing his thoughts, Maiza chuckled and added an explanation.

"It's not that he doesn't trust us. According to him..."


"Imagine for a moment that we were out camping somewhere. In your foolish dreams, you spy a delicious melon and grasp it in your right hand. And in that dream, you think to yourself, 'I want to eat it!' But the melon was my head. Asleep and unaware, I would be dead in the blink of an eye. I say this: if I were to end up eaten by one of you, I would accept it as my fate, but I cannot allow myself such an ignoble death. That is all."


"Hahaha, that silly git! He is shy!"

Maiza smiled as Elmer doubled up laughing, then quietly said, "But I do believe that that's not the real reason."

"Hmm?"

"Nile told me... he spent nearly three hundred years on the various war zones of the world. Right in the middle of the worst hotspots, the very front lines."

"..."

"I don't know what he was looking for there, or what he saw... but maybe what happened on those battlefields has something to do with the mask he wears. Granted, this is just a simple hypothesis..."

Maiza smiled again, as though understanding his old companion. Elmer stared at him for a while, and then smirked, relieved.

"I see you've been with good company, Maiza," he said suddenly.

"Dare I ask what sort of conclusion you've just made?"

"Well, I just thought that your smile's gotten brighter since we last parted ways three centuries ago."

Maiza's smile widened.

"Do you think so?"

"Of course. I think Czes could smile like you if he was just a bit more honest with himself," Elmer muttered, thinking of the conversation he'd had with Czes on the rooftop.

"Hmm? Czes?"

"No, no, it's nothing."

It seemed for a moment as though the conversation would die there, but Elmer chose just that moment to speak up again.

"Anyway, is that demon chap feeling well? I believe he's one of your fellow camorrista these days?"

"..."

Struck suddenly silent, Maiza could only stare at Elmer's mischievous smile.

"Surprised, eh?"

"How."

"Well, old boy, we had a little bit of a talk, him and I, all that time ago."

Elmer burst into laughter, in higher spirits than usual at getting Maiza's poker face to crack.

Maiza cocked his head curiously, but decided that Elmer wouldn't tell him even if pressured and decided to file it away for later.

"And that got me thinking, is there anyone among you lot who's still dabbling in alchemy?"

"...Czes was until just recently, but I washed my hands of it long ago. The same for Sylvie and Nile. Having achieved the goal of eternal life, I don't see anyone still trying their hand at it, unless they made a hobby of research... Right. Perhaps... Huey, maybe."

Hearing his old friend's name, Elmer stared out at the sky.

"Aah, yes. Right, right. It might not be alchemy, but you can bet that he's up to some sort of testing out there somewhere."

"He is the sort of person who ran tests on the possibility of conquering a country through immortality, after all."

"Ah... I do want to see him, after all this time. Him and Denkuro and Veg and Victor."

Perhaps moved by the forlorn expression on Elmer's face, Maiza, too, reminisced for a moment about their old companions.

"Then you can go and see them. After you leave this village."

"Right, right, of course. And to do that I'll need your help, Maiza."

"Hmm? What's that supposed to... ah."

Before Maiza could finish asking his question, the truck suddenly slowed down. A metallic sound came from the front. They couldn't see what was going on from their place in the storage area, but it was probably the sound of a door opening.

Seconds later, the truck accelerated once more and suddenly they were plunged into pitch darkness.

"...A tunnel."

"We're almost there."

The tunnel soon passed, and light flooded the compartment again. Maiza stared hard at the landscape that passed them by, but it was far more desolate than he had expected.

And before he could even start to observe things properly, the truck slowed down once more, finally coming to a stop.

"What, did you think there'd be a city hidden in the middle of nowhere or something? In that case, awfully sorry to disappoint."

---

They found themselves in some sort of laboratory.

Maiza stuck his head out of the back and looked around, ignoring Elmer's chuckles. They were in a great warehouse... it seemed as though it had been built solely to conceal the tunnel. It was like a huge dock built and then dragged up above the sea. There were a few people around, and from the looks of their uniforms and the guns hanging from their belts, it was obvious that they were very different indeed from the people of the village.

Gazing around, taking in the security guards and the concrete floor, Maiza felt as though he was phasing into another dimension. His brain, which until just ten minutes ago had been comfortably ensconced in a fantasy world, suddenly found itself facing the reality of 21st century Earth. He even felt a mild sense of culture shock at seeing the unfamiliar yet familiar signs of civilization, and upon realizing so he smirked sheepishly at his own naivety.

One of the guards noticed Maiza peeking out and walked toward the vehicle, one hand resting on the butt of his pistol. Seeing as how he didn't signal to his fellows before approaching, it appeared he didn't have any formal military training.

"May I ask what happens now?" Maiza asked calmly, as though this sort of thing happened every day.

"We'll be fine. They won't shoot. Not right away, at least," Elmer said, still sitting in the truck and stroking the sleeping Phil's face. "So keep that knife of yours tucked away."

"All right."

Maiza moved his own hand casually away from his hip and waited for the guard to make the first move. But before anything could happen, the sound of a door opening came from the front of the truck, and after giving whoever was there a brief glance... the guard turned away and walked back as though nothing had happened.

And as though to fill the space left behind by the departing guard, there came a gloomy and grave old man's voice, the very sound of it like someone had taken the concept of fatigue and distilled it into something that could be heard.

"So you... are Elmer's companion."

A large old man walked into view, holding a pair of goggles and a mask that looked like he'd just taken them off. It was obvious he was the driver.

The old man's gaze moved into the corner of the rear compartment, taking in the waving Elmer, and the girl sleeping beside him. The tension bled from his face only to be replaced by a complicated expression, and he sighed heavily.

And he told Maiza his name...

The moment the words reached his ears, Maiza's face grew cold and hard as stone.

"I am Bild Quates, the caretaker of this forest... Though that is not the name you would find in the official documents."

---

The me who is traveling with Master Elmer opens my eyes, sensing a commotion nearby.

I would not normally fall asleep, but perhaps because of an overload of excitement, or perhaps because of the rocking motion the compartment made as we rode through the forest, I nodded off completely.

I am still inside the storage compartment, a familiar sight stretching before my eyes.

I remember this place. This is where I come when I die.

Ah, I see Master Quates standing in front of Master Maiza. How many years has it been since I last saw him. He who kills me and gives me life again. He tells me nothing else about myself, and I in turn ask him nothing. But perhaps now, I feel that I can ask him many things.

I am feeling joyful today, and what is more, Master Elmer and Master Maiza are here together with me.

But...

Why, I wonder, is Master Maiza's expression so harsh.

It is the first time I have ever seen such a look on his face.

A small seed of anxiety begins to grow in my heart, as a multitude of catastrophic scenarios unfold in my mind.

Aah, I think now I understand... why Master Elmer values laughter and smiling so much.

When I see Master Maiza's expression, somehow I become struck with unease as well.

Please smile, Master Maiza. Please...

---

"I'll tell you the truth. That fellow is old man Szilard's descendant. I don't think they've ever met, though," Elmer explained calmly, pacing around the warehouse.

"They even look alike, don't they? Well, yes... I was quite surprised myself, the first time I smuggled myself in here and saw him. Not that I could see much, granted, what with the way the guards were beating me."

"..."

It seemed that even Elmer's foolish antics, which normally Maiza would have acknowledged with a calm smile, were lost on him right now. He only followed behind the old man, his face set in hard lines of animosity.

But for his part, Elmer wasn't put off in the slightest, and began running his mouth at an even greater pace than before.

"Come now, Maiza. Why the scary face? This old man here... well, I guess technically we're older than him, but... Anyway, this man's got nothing to do with Szilard anymore. He's a fine fellow who's devoted his life's work to something he didn't even really want to do."

"Life's work?" Maiza asked, though his voice was still uncharacteristically cold. "...By that, do you mean trapping those innocent people inside a forest, isolating them from the outside world?"

"Calm down, I'm telling you. You're scaring Phil."

Maiza flinched, his gaze flickering to the small girl, taking in the way she hid behind Elmer and stared back at him with wide, frightened eyes.

"...I'm sorry."

"Don't apologize. If you're feeling up to apologizing, then just smile for her like you always do. That'll calm her down."

Elmer snickered and patted Phil on the back. Maiza, perhaps finally regaining a hold of his senses, smiled awkwardly at her as well.

And as though he had sensed the conflict wrapping up behind him, the man who had introduced himself as Bild began to speak.

"...Where should I begin?"

---

Bild Quates. The descendant of Szilard Quates, the man who had gained immortality and consumed so many of Maiza's companions on that boat so long ago.

His own grandfather had also been one of Szilard's descendants, and at the same time one of his most promising assistants.

Unsatisfied with an immortal body, Szilard had set about creating homunculi in his endless hunger for knowledge.

It was said that the perfect homunculus was a dwarf inside a flask, and that in exchange for knowledge of everything in the entire universe, its existence was to be confined inside that flask, lest it perish.

Discovering that information on homunculi was among the things he had eaten, Szilard researched them with even greater fervor than before, in search of complete enlightenment.

But despite the fact that time no longer had any meaning for him, Szilard found that working alone was far too inefficient, and so he gave his descendants and other promising disciples each projects of their own to work on.

On the other hand, he never gave up control on his work toward immortality to another alchemist. Even in the making of his incomplete panacea, he would use chemists, untrained in the ways of alchemy, unwilling to trust even his own flesh and blood with his secrets.

Bild's grandfather, working beneath the watchful eye of this suspicious man, one day succeeded in creating a sort of homunculus, working off one of the theories that Szilard had taught him. It knew not the passage of time, for it had been created using Szilard's own immortal cells... but it was also bereft of the complete knowledge of all there was that Szilard had sought so eagerly.


"After that, old man Szilard made and did away with quite a few homunculi, and then taking his last one - a female homunculus named, eh, Ennis? Alice? Something like that - he went away. We know it was his last one because nobody ever heard from him again."

"My grandfather's research was originally based in America, but once Szilard disappeared, he moved back here, to the land of the Quates family. And here, using Szilard's connections and our clan's remaining assets - this land - he continued his own, independent experiments."

"He poured everything he had into developing this forest, all for one enterprise: to experiment with homunculi."


They continued their research toward creating both the perfect homunculus and the fabled grand panacea.

To further their goals to this end, they created two types of homunculi, both based on the incomplete panacea which granted only absolute regeneration, and not eternal life.

The properties of this elixir were reflected in the homunculi they created. The immortality granted by the panacea was created by combining the imbiber with something from a different plane of existence. In fantasy terms, it would be allowing something like an infinitely regenerating colony of organisms to possess the body. That was how Szilard understood his own immortality, and it was what he based all of his research on. This different plane... it might be a parallel universe, or something else entirely. Seeing as how the entity which had granted Szilard immortality had been called a demon, there were some who even theorized in their wildest flights of fancy that this other reality was Hell.

However... the research on homunculi progressed at a snail's pace, and after Szilard's disappearance it ground to a halt completely. But while they carried on their own research, they happened upon a surprising discovery. It was possible to transplant a creature of pure thought, a consciousness which came from the alternate plane, into multiple bodies.

Continuing their experiments, they finally succeeded in perfecting the two forms of incomplete homunculus.

One was male, a kind that grew and aged just like an actual human being.

The other was female, and though it did not age it died quickly. Through many tests and examinations, they discovered that they could stop the aging process, but that was only in terms of outward appearance. In exchange for this outward appearance of youth, the homunculus' lifespan was dramatically shortened - and to make up for this disadvantage, it was decided that there would always be five bodies in operation at once.

"In other words, that's you, Phil," Elmer said with a flourish, like he was revealing the answer on a quiz show.

Bild stopped in front of a door, punching a code into the electronic keypad beside it. While they waited, Elmer calmly added his own theories to the old man's explanation.

"They made it so that when one body aged - though of course you couldn't tell from the looks of you - and found itself on the verge of death, it would return to the facility by itself. I think they could sort of predict about when you'd show up each time."

Maiza glanced sidelong at Phil, attempting to gauge her emotions, but she only nodded, showing nothing on her face. Elmer gently stroked the top of her head and continued.

"Have you ever played a video game? To use one of those as an example, think of one person playing with two controllers. If one side dies, the other can survive long enough to press the continue button and keep going. Or think about it like this. You can see two entrances to the Underground that look separate, but underneath they're connected through tunnels, see? So the entrances above ground would be her bodies, and underground - in the other plane - her consciousness is still connected as one."

As Elmer finished up, the door before them opened up with a subdued grind of motors.

And they beheld...

"...I had thought that things like this were the stuff of science fiction," Maiza managed at last, nonplussed.

Many vast tanks were arrayed before them, large enough for a person to fit in comfortably. Most of them were empty... but inside a few of them which were filled with liquid, they could see something floating inside.

"This is..."

They looked like young human beings, crouched in fetal position inside their tanks. A fleshy line connected their navels to a dark mudlike substance that coated the bottom of the container.

Carefully studying the floating girls, a shadow passed over Maiza's face.

He had been expecting it to some degree, but he still observed with some degree of surprised that the girls in their tanks bore more than a passing resemblance to Phil.

"They're not clones, so they're not really identical. Still, their environment's the same, and the human cells used as the foundation are the same well, so I think they can pass for sisters, at least. Anyway, a body that's died once is processed through a special procedure inside those tanks... becoming that gunk you see down there. I don't like using this word to describe humans, but I guess you could say they're being recycled."

While Elmer explained, Bild removed a small glass bottle from his pocket.

"This water... this is the catalyst we use to hold their consciousness in place."

There was a clear liquid sloshing about inside the flask, indistinguishable at a glance from regular tap water.

"...It looks just like plain water," Maiza observed.

"And what made us into what we are right now just tasted like liquor, didn't it? That stuff's made from the same panacea, albeit incomplete, so it's not that strange that it looks like water."

"You do have a point."

Bild made sure the two had finished their conversation before continuing.

"By applying this water to an empty body, the possession is complete. Even one drop is enough. As you can see, their memories and experiences are all concentrated inside this liquid. In other words, it could be said that this water is actually the 'main' body."

"The main body? Do you mean that the water itself has a consciousness of its own?"

This time Elmer butted in. From the light dancing in his eyes it was obvious that he'd been aching to interrupt.

"The water's got no will of its own. It doesn't have a brain to think with, or organs and nerves to feel with. To use that game example from before, you could call it save data. You've got to put that data inside a character, a body, before it can do anything and feel anything. For example, if the water happened to find itself in a human body, it'd be born with human intelligence."

Maiza immediately realized what Elmer meant and closed his mouth, lost in thought.

"I suppose that to humans, that intelligence would seem unbelievably smart. Think about it. It can control five, no, maybe even more, human bodies at once. I wonder what it'd be like if it escaped the confines of our universe and we could see its true form. It might be a completely different sort of consciousness... or maybe, it might be a sort of mindless program, running on survival directives like some sort of insect. I can't say for certain that it isn't just learning and mimicking human behavior to survive, but..."

Phil had been listening quietly from her spot behind Elmer up till then, and now he reached back to pat her on the shoulder. Having been unable to understand the entirety of the conversation, she merely cocked her head to one side curiously. She had probably become lost at the comparison to video games, having never even encountered a television before.

Elmer gave her a sunny smile before turning back to Maiza.

"But I don't think... no, to be honest I don't care either way. It doesn't matter whether this girl's from some other universe, because she's still herself anyway. She might be a bit unused to living normally, but once you get down to the bottom of things, she's a fine young woman who always thinks of others. Right, Maiza?"

Maiza, too, looked Phil in the eyes and smiled gently.

"Of course."

He studied the inside of the tanks for a moment and turned to Bild, his expression once more set and serious.

"So... What do you expect me to do about this?"

Again, Elmer replied for the old man.

"It's simple. This fellow's not got long to live. Well, by our standards, that is. The truth of the matter is, when he dies, this experiment's going to close down. There's nobody to take up the reigns, and even if there were our friend here wants it all to end with him anyway. It'll create a lot of chaos but at least the villagers will be free... but before that happens, he wants Phil here to make her way out of the forest."

"I was always afraid," Bild said, a haunted look passing over his face. "That my father and his father before him could throw themselves so completely into such fearsome research... No, I am not saying you are fearsome, Phil. But the reason they created the two homunculi was because of the perfect knowledge they were said to possess. They theorized that perhaps by continually renewing their bodies and living forever, the homunculi would accumulate experience until eventually they came to grasp true absolute knowledge. That is why they created you. That is why my grandfather and father used their great wealth and our ancestor's political connections to undertake such terrible work."

Bild's body began to tremble, as though he was being consumed by the weight of his own sins.

"They bought people, many people, in exchange for clearing their colossal debts. There were many who even brought newborn babes! And then, isolating them them in this forlorn place, they were forced to become 'villagers'. I suspect sometimes that there were those who used other methods than mere bribery, but... I was not present then. When this village was created I was still but a child."

Maiza kept his silence throughout the old man's confession, but once he was done, Maiza spoke in a heavy, low voice.

"...Why would they buy and maintain such a village...?"

"It's a simulation," Elmer replied calmly, unheeding of the dark look on Maiza's face. "They couldn't expose their new homunculi to the outside world right at once. They wanted to give them at least some experience in this perfectly controlled little garden, and make notes on the way they developed from interacting with other people."

"Just for that? Surely they wouldn't need to create an entire village... A simulation like that is more than possible without going to such lengths as buying people."

"I'm guessing they were afraid about it getting out, and they wanted to hold complete control over every aspect of the experiment. Yes, now that I think of it, maybe if the grand panacea hadn't been involved in this somehow then things wouldn't have unfolded like this. I'm telling you, everyone interested in immortality is starkers, no offense. In short... this old man's father and grandfather didn't want information about the panacea getting out. They had no intention of letting anyone who knew anything about this research ever get back to the outside world."

Bild didn't seem to notice Elmer's self-deprecating smile and continued, his expression even heavier than before.

"I knew I should have put a stop to this madness earlier, but I could not bring myself to do it! My grandfather and father both passed on, and the thought of atoning for these sins alone... but how could I have known? It was five years ago, when Master Elmer smuggled himself in here... that was when I finally learned what Phil was going through! I had no inkling of what was going on when she returned here at the end of her lifespan... Perhaps if I had asked, she would have told me, but I never even once made the effort. I was avoiding her on purpose, all because of my own foolish sense of anxiety... Nothing I say now can make up for my neglect, but I want this child to find happiness... Just that much, at the very least."


The researchers had always done their work in the laboratory disguised to look like a castle, but when the time came to create a village and observe Phil's adaptation to society... they sealed off the entire area from the outside. They infused the trees with the incomplete panacea, creating a forest that would never die except from age.

Even after the village was completed, the alchemists checked in on the village periodically under the guise of peddling wares. They knew also that from time to time outsiders stumbled into the village through the forest, and that the villagers had their own ways of taking care of these trespassers.

There were sometimes young ones who hid themselves in the back of the truck... but as one, they found themselves entranced by the outside world and never looked back at the world they'd left behind. Their whole reason for smuggling themselves in had been longing for the outside, after all. To them, the allure of the outside world was far stronger than the ties of family or home.

Of course, there were those who tried to make their way back, but the researchers did not let them return.


Maiza kept his expression carefully blank while the old man said his piece, then opened his mouth when it was clear he was through.

"If you wish to atone for what you've done, you must extend the same apology to the villagers."

"I agree completely. But... though the freed villagers might have homes and families to go back to, but Phil... all she has is the village. Her lifespan is too short for anything else."

"But I promised Phil that I'd show her the whole wide world. I told her I'd free her from her chains," Elmer said, looking away. It was a roundabout way of saying things, but Maiza understood immediately.

"You want me to extend her lifespan?"

"Quick as ever, old friend!"

"...I must make this clear. I will not recreate the Grand Panacea."

"Of course, of course. But your knowledge would be loads of help. Think about it... we've got nearly half a dozen alchemists who've been around for over three hundred years gathered here, Maiza. Who knows what we might be able to come up with."

Maiza fell silent, deep in thought, as Phil sidled up to Bild and looked up at him beseechingly.

"Ah... I do not understand why you feel so guilty, Master Bild, but although I cannot speak for the villagers, I will be fine... Please, do not frown so. Please, smile..."

Maiza looked pensive, seeing the girl worry for even Bild... and then at length, he heaved a great sigh.

"Show me your notes."


A few hours had passed since Maiza began looking over the research notes, when Elmer suddenly decided to pipe up.

"I came here because I knew that there was something here that had to do with Szilard. I'd heard rumors that there was an alchemy lab somewhere in the forest that looked like an old castle, you see. I thought that maybe Szilard would return one day, and then maybe I'd be able to convince him to repent."

"Elmer... I can't believe you still think that was possible."

"Well, he's dead, so now we'll never know, will we?"

Elmer laughed merrily as though he'd made a joke, and while looking at him, Maiza was suddenly struck by a wayward thought.

"Elmer... you were the one who spread the rumors about yourself being here to the outside world, weren't you?"

"Oh, you noticed? Well, you see, I just thought that if I contacted Victor, the information would find its way to you somehow. Then he said something about 'talking to an information broker' and I went along with that. I thought you'd come alone, but then you showed up with those three in tow..."

"It was a surprise, yes."

"When Phil told me that four outsiders had showed up in the village, I never even for a moment imagined that it could be you. Ha! Quite the greeting I ended up giving you all, eh?"

Elmer chuckled to himself, remembering how events had unfolded upon Maiza's first visit to the castle.

For his part, Maiza went over what he'd gleaned from the conversation, finally giving voice to his hypothesis.

"...You wanted to finish this research using my knowledge?"

"Of course," Elmer replied shamelessly. "I thought that maybe we'd give summoning that demon chap another try if all else failed, actually."

"Only you, Elmer..." Maiza muttered, burying his face in his hands, then finally giving up and laughing as well.

"Have you given up your own dabbling in alchemy?" he asked offhandedly.

Elmer hesitated, looking away , a brief expression of sorrow passing over his face.

"The only reason I ever became an alchemist was because of money. It was all I wanted."

"Not what I was expecting from you, I must admit."

"I wanted to become an alchemist and create mountains of gold, enough to give to all the poor people in the world. And, of course, set aside a cut for myself. I thought that'd be enough to make everyone happy."

He laughed awkwardly.

"Silly, isn't it? I didn't know a thing about economics or sociology, so of course things like inflation or financial incentive never occurred to me... But now I've been around for a bit, I've learned my share of how the world works. I know now that human beings can't find happiness so easily, so I don't place much weight on alchemy any longer."

Spying Bild and Phil entering the room, Elmer quickly changed the subject.

"Aah, so, Bild. I've always wondered... what ever happened to the male homunculus? Phil says she's never met him, so...?"

The old man looked nonplussed for a moment before nodding in understanding.

"I see... He must have adjusted completely to life in the village. I wager that you've met, though you may not have realized it at the time."

The complicated look on Bild's features deepened as he thought about the man... no, the homunculus.

"He must have been tortured by the knowledge that he was an experiment. He gave up on these tests even earlier than I did. Perhaps fifteen years ago, he crept in here and destroyed the tank his body was held in, and stole the water that served as his catalyst. He never returned. Of course, we would not have been able to do anything even had he done so, lacking the water."

The old man pulled a picture out of his coat and stared down at it as though the homunculus was a long lost son.

"He would be on his second body, the one he had when he left, roughly fifty years of age... by now, he must be trying to live out his life as a member of the village."

Bild thrust the picture forward to Maiza, like he was hoping for the other man's blessing.

"This is him. If you see him, give him my regards."

The picture showed a young man, thin, with sharp eyes.

"Mmm... I can't help but feel I've seen him before..." Maiza muttered, staring hard.

"Oh? Say, look, if I do this..."

Elmer grabbed a handful of eraser shavings from the tabletop and sprinkled them onto the picture.

Phil, who had been watching the proceedings from behind them, gasped and uttered the name despite herself.

"...Master Dez!"

---

It cannot be.

It cannot. But it is.

The old picture that Master Bild has just shown us.

It is most certainly Master Dez.

If Master Dez is like me... an artificial human, could it be that he knows what I am as well? How could he hate me so much, knowing that we came from the same creator?

Or perhaps... it is because we share a maker that he despises me so.

Still standing motionless in front of the picture, I begin running toward the mayor's house.

Night has begun to fall, and the snow is piled high, so there are few people in the streets.

The people I pass by stop and look at me, surprise stamped on their faces. I may face a beating for this later, but it does not matter.

If he grew and matured unlike me... then it would not be so strange if he married, if he had a child, or even if he became mayor.


"Mmm... What is the matter? You look unwell," Master Nile says to me in the castle stables, a rare attempt from him at conversation.


"Are you all right? You don't look so well... Here, I'll do the rest, so you go and take it easy, okay?" Mistress Sylvie says in the castle kitchen, smiling warmly.


"Maiza and Elmer are late. Hey, how's everything going over there?" Master Czes asks, waiting with me outside the castle for them to return.


But I cannot answer any of them.

For now, for just this one moment, I wish to concentrate everything I have on the me who is running through town.

From time to time my feet plunge deep into the snow and I falter, yet I keep running toward the mayor's house.


As soon as I arrive, I bang my fists on the door. More fiercely than I have ever done anything in my life, so hard that sharp pain stabs deep into my hands. But it could not matter less to me at this moment.

An eternity passes until the door opens.

Finally, it swings inwards...

"Hmm? Phil... what's the hurry?"

The man facing me is not Master Dez, but Master Felt.

"P-please! Tell me, please, where is Master Dez?!"

"My father? He's gone to the well for some water..."

"Thank you!"

Master Felt stares at me curiously, but I have no time to explain.

The cold smile that Master Dez showed me in the afternoon... the tremors of anxiety that smile caused suddenly come back with a vengeance inside me, now a roaring pyre of fear.

I run, run, run... as though fleeing from the disquiet inside me, or perhaps to pursue the cause of it all...


"Hey, Phil... I don't want you to even consider grilling the mayor about this," says Master Elmer's voice, from far away. The me in front of him whispers yes, but... for the me in the village... it is already too late.

---

The well was a small thing that stood at the village outskirts. It was deep enough that it never froze over completely, so simply dropping in the bucket was always enough to break the film of ice even in winter. It was the center of village life, for the river was far away.

A man stood in front of that well. He had a mustache, and a strong, arrogant look about him as he stood quietly and looked down at the surface of the water.

He did not move at all, like he was waiting for someone.

And at length... the one he was waiting for arrived.

"Master Dez."

The mayor turned and looked at the girl as she gasped for breath.

"You're late."

The mayor stared silently at Phil's face with eyes that had long since grown tired of waiting... and then, quietly, began to speak.

"So you've finally realized the truth. No, should I say that you remembered?"

The mayor snickered nastily. His right hand clenched a small container of liquid.

"You followed the peddler outside, didn't you? Back to the place that is our cradle and our grave."

"...That bottle..."

"That's right. This is one of the bottles that served as our cradles. The only difference between us is which one gave us life," Dez said disdainfully, shoving it toward Phil for her to see.

"In other words, this is me. Didn't you hear the story from Bild? This is my true form, my catalyst to expand myself, my soul."

Phil couldn't even begin to imagine what Dez was thinking. And as though he had read her mind, Dez smiled his cold smile and slowly turned the cap on the bottle.

"For example," he said slowly, carefully, as though he was explaining the process of an experiment, "consider that I become complete when this water, my consciousness, is administered to an empty body... But what would happen if I added this water to the well and the already conscious villagers happened to imbibe it?"

"...!"

The only ones who had taken the water so far had been empty bodies created in their tanks. Just what would happen if a normal person drank it?

"I've tried it just once in the past, on an old man on death's door... the previous mayor. The answer turned out to be, they both try to kill each other. Each consciousness wars against the other in a battle for control of the body. Amusing, isn't it? What that means is that the brain, something that should be a solid and uncompromising existence, is forced to battle head on against an otherworldly consciousness. It's beyond the boundaries of alchemy. This is something spiritual, something magical. Don't you think? The side that wins takes on all the experiences and knowledge of the other. Isn't it very similar to the immortals living in that castle and the way they can eat one another?"

How much did Dez know? Phil was taken aback for a moment, but then remembered that Sylvie had told Felt everything, so it was only natural that the information had found its way to the ears of his father as well.

"And I'm sorry to say this, but I have no intention of losing against people content to let themselves be led like livestock, like these villagers. I suppose it is a sort of gamble, but none of that matters anymore."

Only then did Phil realize what he was intending.

"You can't be."

"I'm tired of ruling just one pathetic village. If I had lived knowing nothing else I might have been satisfied, but that devil from outside had to give me that damned hope. There is a world outside this forest!"

Madness shone in the mayor's - no, the man who had once been the mayor's - bloodshot eyes

"I thought to myself. If I am to venture out into the world, going with just one life is too much of a risk. But if every single one of the ninety-six souls in this village were to become me... don't you think that might be enough, even for the outside world?"

The girl stood momentarily stunned by Dez's true intentions, but she soon recovered her wits and glared back at him.

"...Not a chance."

"Hmm? The wench knows how to talk back, does she?" Dez asked, amused.

The girl found her voice once more.

"There's no way you'll take over their minds."

Phil's body trembled with fear, but her eyes were firm with resolve, and she took one step forward.

"I see. Very well," Dez said, and with that moved to open the bottle in one swift and casual motion.

"...No!"

She let out a yell that was almost a shriek and ran straight at Dez. Concentrating every ounce of strength she had into her legs, she leaped forward at his right hand, reaching to take away the bottle.

In one practiced motion, Dez's left hand flashed inside his coat... and, producing a blade that flashed silver in the moonlight, he left a long slash down Phil's arm.

For a moment, Phil's face twisted as though she'd been burned, and then it crumpled from the pain.

"Worthless little bitch."

A few drops of red decorated Dez's face as he stared hatefully at the girl.

"Aaaaah!"

But Phil was not to be stopped. She didn't slow for a second as she slammed her body squarely against Dez's.

"Aargh?!"

The tackle itself, delivered by a small girl, was not much of a threat in itself, but the slippery ice-encrusted ground around the well made Dez slip.

The two collapsed beside the well in a snarling pile of limbs and hard blows.

There was no room for rational thought in this battle, and the girl fought shrieking wildly like an animal...


...Minutes later.

The villagers, having heard the commotion, rushed to the scene and beheld...

The witch who they had always put down as beneath them, and disdained.

Her body was stained with red... and slumped lifeless at her feet... was the body of the mayor, Dez Nibil, a silver blade stuck deep in his throat.

---

I did not want to save the villagers.

In fact, I am closer to hating them than feeling any sort of affection.

But even more than that dislike... I fear losing this world.

That is why... that is why I killed the mayor. I killed Master... no, I killed Dez! I have no regrets. Of course not.

These sudden emotions inside me.

This is the emotion called rage. And this is fear.

I acted in accordance to what I felt.

I will not leave you to destroy this world, my world.

I have nothing left except this village and this forest.

I know. I understand. Everything I did, I did of my own will.

"Aah... Aaack!"

So I have no regrets.

"The, the mayor!"

"Dez!"

"How can this be?!"

Of course not.

"Phil... This wretched little thing killed the mayor!"

I know. I understand everything.

"Damn it all, they were the demon's servants after all!"

"They tried to fool us by acting submissive, did they?!"

I knew this would happen.

"Murderer."

That they would call me that...

"Demon."

And that...

"Witch..."

And that...

"How dare you do this to the village that took you in!"

And that...

"So you finally showed your true evil!"

I knew they would.

"No more!"

...I knew, I knew, I know, I know! So, please, please, no more, I know, so please, don't say anything more!

Nothing more nothing more nothing more nothing more nothing more nothing more nothing more nothing more nothing more nothing more nothing more nothing more nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing no no no no no no no no no not a word more...

Just as my emotions overwhelm my ability to think... someone pulls me into a tight embrace.

"It's okay. Everything's going to be all right."

It is Master Czes. Aah, this is not the me surrounded by the villagers. This is the me waiting for Master Maiza's return in front of the castle.

"Why...?"

Why is Master Czes tending to me? He should have no way of knowing what I am experiencing right now.

"Ah... sorry. You just looked really scared, and you didn't reply to anything I said... and you started crying all of a sudden."

"Ah..."

I finally realize that tears are flowing down my cheeks.

"Ah... These are..."

Just as I was gathering my thoughts, thinking of what to tell Master Czes...

A burly villager appeared behind him, and swung a heavy club straight down onto his skull.

"Guh..."

I have no time even to scream as Master Czes loses consciousness, and soon after a great shock impacts the back of my head as well, and everything goes dark.


At the same time, a familiar voice makes itself known to the me surrounded by the villagers.

"Father... Phil..."

Ah...

"He's... dead? ...Why..."

No, no, not this.

"Why did you... my father..."

At first Master Felt looks lost, but soon enough emotion begins to flood his face.

"Give him back."

Perhaps it is rage, perhaps sorrow.

"Give him back."

Master Felt takes a step toward me, his face twisted in a rictus that is like a terrible parody of a smile.

"Give my father back."

He takes another step, his voice rising to a shout.

"I trusted you! Why?!"

And as that voice reaches my ears... I feel something shatter inside my heart.

Aah... was I was wrong to dream? Should I have not dared to hope? If I had not held such feelings, I would not have to feel such sadness now.

I try to say something to Master Felt... but a rock thrown by one of the villagers strikes the back of my head, and my consciousness in the village abruptly blackens.


"I'm sorry."

At the same time, a voice speaks to me.

It is Master Elmer. I look around and see I am sitting in the steel carriage's box seat. Master Elmer is seated to my right, stroking my hair, and to my left sits Master Maiza, grasping something like a wheel in his hands.

Strong vibrations shake my body, and before us beyond the clear pane of glass stretches the vast snow-covered expanse of forest. The sun has set long ago, yet the path in front of the carriage is bright as day.

Something wet falls on my hand, which is sitting in my lap.

I realize that I am crying. I realized it with Master Czes just a moment ago; it seems that I cannot control my emotions between bodies very well.

"I'm sorry. I promised that the first tears you ever shed would be joyful ones, or tears of laughter..."

The moment my eyes focus on Master Elmer's face, the tears overwhelm my words and I can say nothing.

I want nothing more but to curl up and cry and cry, but I cannot. There is something I have to say, knowledge I must deliver.

"...Ah... Master... es... he is..."

"It's all right. Calm down," Master Elmer says, smiling gently at me. The smile cuts deeper than the most thunderous frown ever could.

I feel short of breath. Every time I try to breathe out, a sob wracks my body. But I must tell them. Even if it means I cannot breathe... even if my heart stops, I must tell them this much...

"Ah... Master Czes is... ah... Master Czes! The villagers have... they have..."

I can say nothing but the simplest words, yet Master Elmer and Master Maiza seem to understand even so.

Master Maiza's jaw sets in hard lines, and the carriage lurches forward with a burst of speed. I try my hardest to feel relief as my back presses against the seat, knowing that I have delivered what needed to be said. But I soon tell myself that it is much too early to allow myself such luxuries, and instead try my best to hold back the tears that threaten to burst forth.

Laugh or cry, I tell myself that first we must save Master Czes...

...And, wiping at my eyes, I decide to look forward.

---

The sharp sound of something crackling ushered Czes back to consciousness.

His arms were bound behind him, completely restricting their use. From the warmth at his back, he surmised he was lying on the floor.

He could hear people around him whispering to themselves. Czes decided it would be better not to open his eyes for the moment and squinted discretely, quietly surveying his surroundings.

They were in the hall of a house. Red light danced on the wooden walls. Not lamplight. The cracking sound that had woken him up must have been a knot exploding in one of the logs in the fireplace behind him.

Two people were lying bound beside Czes.

They were two of the five Phils. One was probably the one who had been with Czes, and the other the one who had been in the village.

...What had happened? He couldn't remember any tension between them and the villagers of late. And what was more, what had happened to Felt?

"Hey, it looks like he's awake."

One of the villagers noticed Czes looking around and slunk close, drawing one leg back for a vicious kick to the side. The sharp pain took Czes's breath away.

"Guh..."

"How's that, you little demonspawn?" the burly man spat, glaring down at Czes as he coughed and tried to catch his breath.

"We had our doubts when we grabbed the two of you, but now we're sure. You monsters tried to poison our well!"

...What were they talking about? Chaos reigned in Czes's mind, but he decided to shut up and listen for the moment. He wasn't eager to open his mouth without thinking and get another kick for his troubles.

"And then you killed our mayor when he tried to stop you... You evil bastards. Don't you think anything of what we've done for you all these years?"

This time he kicked Phil in the belly. She seemed completely unconscious, for her small body only rose slightly and then fell back to the ground with a dull thud.

"Stop!" Czes shouted despite himself, and immediately regretted it.

"Shut up!"

Kicks rained down on him again, but this time he was prepared, and he wasn't left gasping like before.

There were perhaps ten villagers waiting behind the man, and as one they merely stared at Czes as though he was something repulsive. Not a one of them moved to stop the man's violence.

The two Phils still lay limply on the floor, out cold. From the slight motion of their shoulders as they breathed, it was apparent that they were still alive. He didn't have to worry about that, at least.

But the situation couldn't go on like this forever. Czes decided to talk to the villagers and see what was going on.

"...Why did you people kidnap me? Didn't you just say you learned about that poison thing after you brought us here, mister?"

Some of the villagers glanced at each other uneasily, startled by the innocence in his voice... but the man who had kicked him only sneered.

"Stop pretending to be a boy. We know all about you being three hundred years old, and we know that you might be immortal but you're still only as strong as you look, too."

Czes sighed and thought of Felt.

...So he went and blabbed about that, too. What a naive little brat.

"I see. Then I suppose I'll talk normally from now on."

The villagers drew back and muttered amongst themselves, taken aback by Czes's suddenly mature tone and expression.

"Bah, so you finally show your true colors."

The large man put up a brave front, but it was clear that he, too, had been deeply shaken. Taking notice, Czes began asking about what he wanted to know.

"This is merely a question and not a demand, mind you, but... Who decided to kidnap us, and why?"

The villager who had kicked Czes turned and looked at the others, but it seemed there was nobody who was averse to telling him.

"It was because you looked the weakest... We decided to grab you while your guard was down, and then use you as a hostage to get rid of the rest of you monsters."

"...You know that I'm immortal, and you still think of using me as a hostage?"

It was an obvious question, and the man replied immediately.

"We've got our ways. We could drag you to the smithy, mix you into a vat of molten steel and then pour you into the well."

Czes shrank back a little, imagining such a fate. Just sinking him into the sea would be fine; sooner or later his companions would rescue him. But mixed into a block of solidified steel, would he be able to return to his original form? It worried him.

Taking no heed of Czes's pensive expression, the burly man stepped forward, attempting to threaten him. Even at a glance it was obvious that he was larger than the other villagers; he was probably the village "outlaw," the sort of ruffian that existed in every community.

"And what's more... you might not die, but you probably feel pain, right?" the man said, pulling a pair of pliers out of his pocket.

"Ugh..."

Torture... The moment the word rose in his mind, terror reared its head in Czes's heart.

The hell he'd experienced on a train seventy years ago suddenly came back to life.

The man saw Czes's face twist with fear and sniggered, opening and closing the pliers menacingly.

Czes found himself following the pliers with his eyes despite himself, and as the sweat began to soak his palms he floundered for something to say.

"Wait. I just want to know who came up with this plan. That's all."

Czes knew that the answer would be Dez, he just wanted to stall for time as he wrestled with his fear, but...

The answer that greeted him was like a bucket of ice cold water to the face.

"It was Felt."

Czes raised his head and looked around at the villagers around him.

But from the looks on their faces, it seemed they were telling the truth.

"He started setting up this plan a few days ago. That's Felt for you! He got you all to let down your guard. Dez might not have amounted to much, but once Felt's the mayor, we'll be set."

...It couldn't be.

Czes cursed silently at his own idiocy. Of course, it was well within the bounds of possibility. In fact, once he thought it over objectively, Felt being the ringleader was even likelier than Dez. And still, Czes had believed in him until just a second ago. All based on a single day's worth of conversation.

"Ah, what a fool I am."

Czes sighed, realizing how soft he'd grown.

"You know, I should have seen this coming... this doesn't even begin to compare to some of the betrayals I've been through."

He shook his head despairingly, but inside his mind was becoming colder and clearer than before. His tones automatically reverted to those of a child, and he could almost see the surroundings and hear the sounds of back then.

"It's been so long since someone betrayed me I almost forgot. Yeah, it hurt like this."

"Wh-what're you talking about?"

The man couldn't hide his uneasiness at Czes's sudden change in behavior, but extended the pliers to pull out one of his fingernails anyway.

Czes looked into his eyes. And into those of the villagers standing behind him. He'd seen eyes like those before. The expression on their faces was... terror. The eyes of men and women who wielded violence to hide the fear they felt.

...No. They were nothing like that monster.

Czes brought to mind the horror of seventy years past, compared him to the people before him, and found that he felt no fear toward these cowards. In fact, he realized that the look in their eyes was the same as the immortal who, consumed with fear, had tried to kill him so long ago.


"Ahahaha! Hahahahahahahahahaha!"

As realization crashed over him, Czes suddenly found himself laughing uncontrollably.

The villagers froze, startled by his laughter. The two Phils, too, began to squirm where they lay, groaning, awoken by the sudden sound.

"What... what's this? You're the same. Ah, you're all the same. Fermet, and all of you villagers. Exactly alike. Of course. That's how people naturally are. I see that now."

Czes kept laughing despite the situation, and forced himself to his feet nimbly using only his knees. It seemed almost like he was mocking himself. Not the him of the present, but of the past.

The villagers were unable to hide their anxiety at this sudden development, but they knew he could do nothing with his arms bound behind his back, and that coupled with the arrogance that came from numbers held them back.

But then... Czes did something that none of them could have imagined.

"Yes, Elmer was right. I've been living in a blessed world! And I never even realized how lucky I was! How stupid. I've been throwing away the opportunity for a happy life all this time!"

And, having said his realization aloud...

Czes threw himself back, straight into the roaring fireplace.

As one, the villagers drew back unconsciously, wincing. Just when it seemed the flames would envelope Czes's entire body... the rope binding his hands burned away, leaving both of his arms free.

Czes confirmed that his hands were unbound and stood up, fire still wreathing his form. Not all of his body was on fire, but half of his clothes had burned away to ash, and the rest was still roaring merrily on his limbs.

He turned his face deliberately to the villagers as half of it melted, showing the villagers how the flesh slid back into place.

Immortal or not, such incredible heat must have been unimaginably painful. But Czes merely smiled fiercely, paying the agony no heed.

"Move."

The one word was all he said as he passed by the burly villager. The man let out a pathetic shriek and threw himself back, disappearing into the throng of townspeople in the blink of an eye.

The bandages bound around Czes's right arm flaked away into ash, and the silver scalpel that had been tucked away there gleamed in the firelight. He grasped it in one hand and knelt to cut the ropes binding the girls in place.

His upper body was still burning in places, but Czes only sneered and turned to the villagers.

"I told you to move. I have to go see Elmer."

He grabbed his flaming clothes and tore them off his body, advancing forward step by step.

"I have to show Elmer this smile. I have to make up for all the happiness I've missed until now. Elmer has to see this, so... get out of my way."

Czes threw his still burning clothes at the far side of the room where the villagers were clustered. As though that had been a signal of some sort, their frantic screams finally began to fill the air.

Ignoring them, Czes kept himself from collapsing and turned to look at the girls.

"Come on, let's go."

"Ah... ah, yes!"

With the two Phils at his side, he made his way smoothly past the panicking villagers, passing by them and walking outside.


But when he found himself in standing before the door, he was forced to stop.

The villagers, having heard the commotion, had gathered in front of the house, and some of them were aiming rifles in his direction. There was more terror than hatred or lust for vengeance in their eyes, and Czes thought absently, That's right, the mayor wasn't that popular.

He wasn't even sure if Phil had really murdered the mayor. He wanted to confirm it, but at present it looked like he was going to have his hands full just getting away in one piece.

He was immortal, granted, but if Phil got hit by a stray bullet it would be all over for her. Though, technically speaking, she wouldn't die even if both the bodies with him stopped breathing. Only one body had to survive, after all.

"What do I do now," Czes mused to himself, standing in the door's shadow and idly twirling his scalpel.

All the villagers had already run outside. He considered perhaps a look at the back door, or maybe lying in wait and trying to grab a hostage when they barged in...


He was still standing there thinking when the wild whinny of a horse cut through the air.

"Ah..."

One of the Phils started, having remembered something. When she had told Maiza and Elmer about the danger Czes was in, her other two conscious bodies had said the same thing.

She couldn't remember much of what had happened after that, but it seemed that one of the two immortals at the castle had mounted up and rode to the village.

"Czeeeeeees!"

Thrown into stark relief by the villagers' torch and lamplight, barreling heedlessly through them even as the sounds of gunfire began to fill the air...

The masked man advanced, his roars splitting the sky.


"It's another one of them!"

"Damn it! It's too early! We're not ready!"

"Shoot! Shoot, damn it!"

"He, he's a monster! Run for it!"

"Stop! Don't! We've got nowhere to run anyway!"

Nile rode down the road, through the throng of villagers. He led the horse expertly through the snow, and sighting a house where an unusual amount of people were gathered, he made a beeline straight toward it.

Some of the villagers shot at him, but the bullets flew far wide of their target. It would have been better to aim at the horse, but none of them even considered it in the confusion. Even the hunters among them had never actually shot a human being, and they found that doing so was not as easy as they'd thought. It was questionable how many animals the hunters of such a small village had brought down, in the first place.

Nile's mask flared in the firelight, like it was sneering at the villagers as they ran away... and the moment he reached the doorway where Czes and the others were hiding, he leaped down and landed squarely on his feet.

"Nile!"

Czes cheered in relief despite himself, but Nile's voice was heavy and grim.

"I say this: Rage consumes my entire being."

"Huh?"

Czes frowned, wondering if he'd done something wrong...

"No matter what the reason, there can be no excuse for anyone who would dare set my companions alight. No mercy. No survivors."

It seemed he'd seen Czes's body in the shadows and jumped to the conclusion that the villagers had tried to burn him to death.

"No, I did thi-"

But by the time Czes got it in his head to explain, Nile had already hurled himself into the throng of villagers. They couldn't dare shoot at him for fear of hitting one of their own.

"Ah, aaack!"

"Kill him! He's unarmed anyway!"

Amidst the tempest of fear and aggression, one hardy looking villager found it in himself to leap forward and bury a hoe in Nile's body.

"Grrrgh..."

"Die!"

The adrenaline pumping through his veins, the man tried to strike once again, but suddenly discovered that the hoe wouldn't move.

"Eh?"

Nile had grasped the handle firmly in one hand, and heedless of the blade stuck deep in his belly, he wrenched his body to the side.

"Aaagh!"

The villager yelped in surprise and let go of the hoe, and Nile drew it smoothly from his stomach. The pain must have been unimaginable, but not a single sound emerged from behind the mask.

In Nile's hands, the farm tool transformed into a fearsome weapon of destruction, twirling around him like an Oriental dancer's sword. The huge blade hummed as it cut the air; it was obvious that anyone struck by the hoe would not survive. Nile stepped toward the hoe's original owner, lifting it high. His movements were clipped and precise. He was aiming to make a gruesome example of the hapless man and destroy their morale.

"I say this: I am not like Elmer. There exists no way to quench my rage. And you... no, this whole village, has roused my ire. So die. Die ashamed of your foolishness, regretting your actions, bemoaning your sins... Sink now into an endlessly spreading sea of blood."

Nile knew the villagers couldn't understand him, but he still gave voice to his anger. And the muscles in his arm tensed as he prepared to bring the hoe whistling down.

"Stop! Nile!"

Thinking that murder would be crossing the line, Czes stumbled forward in a vain attempt to stop him...

But even before Czes's voice reached his ears, Nile stopped the movement of his hoe.

He had heard the sound of a car horn honking in the distance.

"Mmm. So they've returned."

Nile's rage retreated just the tiniest bit as he turned his gaze to the village entrance.

The villagers, too, turned to look at the loud noise... and then ran away as fast as their legs could carry them.

A huge truck was racing toward the village at over fifty miles per hour.

The peddler's truck was familiar to them, but seeing it in the dead of night, headlights flashing, barreling toward them with fearsome speed, transformed it into a thing of terror.

The villagers scattered, crying out in fear. The truck advanced down the road menacingly, as though to trample them, and only Nile stood his ground and raised his hand to greet Maiza.

Thud.


And then he flew through the air, having been struck head on.

The truck had attempted to slow down, but it had been too close to stop completely. Unable to decelerate quickly enough, it slammed squarely into Nile.

"Nile! Are you all right?"

Maiza bolted out of the driver's seat and ran to Nile, who had come to land next to Czes.

The blood spilling from Nile's body abruptly reversed and ran back in, and suddenly he sprang to his feet and grabbed Maiza by the collar.

"I will deign to hear out any excuses you may have, Maiza..."

"I'm sorry! I thought you'd move out of the way! You didn't so I tried to stop but..."

"Insufficient."

Nile drew back his fist to deliver a teraton punch of revenge, but before he could deliver it, Elmer shouted at them from the front seat.

"Both of you, stop gabbing and get on already!"

From the expression on his face it was clear he dearly wanted to see the situation play out, but even Elmer could tell that tending to the crisis at hand was more important.

"Hmph, we'll finish this later. We should get moving first... massacring the villagers will have to wait."

Nile regained his calm in an instant and stepped up into the container compartment, muttering dark musings under his breath.

A few bullets shot from the darkness at the stationary truck, but the ancient projectiles had no effect on the modified military vehicle.

"Hold on tight!" Maiza yelled, as the engine roared back to life. The truck sped down the night road like a cannonball.

---

10 minutes later

Four immortals and four homunculi trudged slowly up the dark mountain pass.

Bereft of his clothing, Czes had lost consciousness from the cold almost immediately, and Nile wordlessly stooped and walked on, carrying him on his back.

In an attempt to chase away the burgeoning silence, Elmer tried, as always, to liven up the atmosphere with a few good-natured comments.

"So, we ran out of gas, eh. Comedy gold, I say. Come on, everyone, isn't this the part where we all start laughing?"

"I say this: Shut up before I beat you, Elmer."

Halfway to the castle, the engine had suddenly shuddered to a stop, and Elmer pointed out that the low fuel light was flashing. Maiza had noticed from the beginning but had chosen to ignore it, deciding that the safety of his companions came first.

Of course, Elmer would have done the same to rescue Czes even if he had noticed beforehand.

"We must get back to the castle as fast as possible and bring back Sylvie and Phil."

"Hmm, but can we all fit in the truck?"

"If need be we could twenty people inside. There have been stories about dozens of refugees cramming into one truck to escape from war zones, after all. And if all else fails, we can move fuel from our truck to the snowmobile."

Maiza kept the conversation going until they reached the castle... but as they caught sight of the gates, Phil suddenly stopped.

"What's wrong?"

The four Phils were silent for a moment and then spoke, voices filled with determination.

"...I am going to go back to the village."

"Hmm? What's that?" Elmer asked, confused. The quartet of girls looked down and explained.

"It is true that I killed the mayor... I must go back and pay the price."

"Nonsense," the masked man beside her said immediately. "None of them will listen to you even if you do go back. You will be tortured and killed, seen as a criminal who tried to poison the villagers."

"...I know that. It's fine. Even if they never understand, if the villagers... if the pain Master Felt feels over losing his father is lessened even the slightest bit..."

She couldn't even finish before Nile grabbed one of her roughly by the collar. She found herself face to face with his mask as they stood in the snowy, moonlit road.

"I say this: I am angry. I tremble with rage. You might even call it fury. You tell me 'it's fine' in the face of your own death. But I say this. No, I tell you this! It does not matter whether you understand them! They tormented you every day, and then moved on to attempted murder over a misunderstanding! I say this once more: I know that the charges pressed against you are false. But still you attempt to sacrifice yourself so that we may leave with our lives, and the villagers with their peace of mind? You may forgive such a thing, but I will not."

Phil's eyes filled with tears as she listened to Nile's angry words.

"I say this with certainty. If even one of the rats living in that village dares to spill a single drop of your blood."

He lowered the girl gently to the ground and finished quietly, "I say this: it will be an extermination. You will not be able to stop me with the 'power' you hold."

Having said his piece, Nile turned to head to the castle...

But from behind him came a calm voice, tranquil in its certainty.

"No. You can't."

Nile stopped again and looked back at the voice's owner.

Elmer, suddenly serious, looked calmly around at Phil and Nile.

"The villagers won't be happy then. You can't kill them. Ah, and of course nix on Phil going back, too. That's not even worth considering."

"What foolishness is this? I would drop napalm on this village if I had half a chance. What should I care about their happiness? You were like this with Szilard too..."

Nile drew himself up to start a long and solemn sermon, but Elmer cut him off.

"Not just the villagers, Nile. You, me, and these children too. We'll all be unhappy."

The masked man fell silent, the mask's stony expression revealing nothing. But it seemed like he was encouraging Elmer to continue, not ignoring him.

"Say for a second that Nile went back and killed all the villagers. Those chaps would think to themselves, 'Aah, we're being slaughtered by a demon. What did we do to deserve such a cruel fate? We've lived all our lives as kind and honest people... It's all because those girls sold their souls to the devil'. Can you let that pass? Can you forgive that? Of course not. What we want to do is make them realize what they've been doing. Dez aside, we want to make sure that the rest of them understand for sure just what kind of crimes they've been committing, abusing a bunch of defenseless girls like that all these years, don't you think?"

Nile kept his silence, considering Elmer's long speech. Abruptly he turned and began walking toward the castle again as he spoke.

"I would like them to feel the weight of their sins as well. But that is probably impossible."

"I understand what you mean, Elmer," Maiza said, the sad look on his face showing that he agreed with Nile. "But considering the way things have turned out, I'd say that talking things over with the villagers is going to be a bit of a stretch."

Nile only managed a few more paces before snarling violently.

"Damn it all, there's no villain in this story. The root of all the evil here went and died over seven decades ago! There's no way to squeeze a good ending out of this mess!"

It almost sounded like he'd given up, but Elmer didn't agree.

"That's where you're wrong. I agree that the world's not fair like it should be. Of course it's not. But as long as there's any hope left, I won't give up."

He paused, then added quietly as though talking to himself, "Laughter has never betrayed me. That's why... I can't betray laughter, either."

"Is that all you've managed to come up with after over three centuries of life! There's a limit to even your idiocy. It's enough to make me laugh."

"Not just the three centuries. I came to this conclusion before I became an immortal. I just never bothered to voice it properly."

Nile shook his head despairingly at Elmer's calm reply.

"I've lost count of the idealistic fools like you I've seen die dog's deaths on the battlefield."

"Well, naturally. There's no way a chap who'd worry about even his own enemy's feelings could survive on the battlefield, where it's kill or be killed. That's why it has to be me. I'm immortal, so I can afford to carry this thing out. No, I have to. I know it's arrogant and underhanded, but I have to."

"Fool."

"That's right, I'm a fool, so I'm not bright enough to change the way I live now. Yes... I'd sell the souls of all humanity to the devil if I thought it'd get us a happy ending."

"...That's a paradox," Maiza pointed out, but even as he said it he understood it was the reality of the man known as Elmer.

...Elmer C. Albatross would stop at nothing to achieve his happy ending.


"At times like this, I think to myself how good it would have been if you had been a decent comedian."

"Eh? What's that? I'm... not funny? How d'you think I stack up to Andy Kaufman, or maybe Jim Carrey?"

"It's not your actions. It's the fact that your jokes make people angry instead of making them laugh... Ah. Perhaps if we took Andy's talent away, we'd get you."

"I can't help but feel like I've been tremendously insulted just now, but I'll ignore that traitorous thought. You're a fine fellow, Maiza, and I trust you."

"If you trust me, then take what I say to heart."

"Hold on a second now, you're not Maiza! Who are you, you devilish rogue?!"

Elmer stopped on the verge of continuing his meaningless banter and suddenly looked back at Phil.

"Anyway, we should head inside. There'll be time for joking around later."

Elmer smiled brightly, but Phil didn't react at all, standing dead still.

"?"

Maiza and Elmer approached her, concerned... and as one, the Phils began shuddering violently.

She looked up at Elmer, terror bright in her eyes.

"A... a monster... a monster took Mistress Sylvie! There... there were stairs... hidden in the library... it took her underground!"

"!"

The moment she finished speaking, Nile almost threw Czes's comatose body to Maiza.

"I'll leave him to you, Maiza."

"I'm going too," Elmer said hurriedly, following Nile as they left Maiza behind and bolted inside the castle. Even as they rushed through the halls, Nile found the time to ask Elmer a question.

"I ask this: do you know anything about this monster?"

"Why do you think I'm running? Of course I don't, you silly git!"

---

Chapter 4 End


---

Chapter 5

13 comments:

  1. I LOVE YOU

    PLEASE CONTINUE TO BE AWESOME AND BRO

    THIS IS GLORIOUS

    ReplyDelete
  2. You are amazing and this is amazing too. Thank you so much for finishing this up! Mostly, I just want you to know that you really made my day-- no, my week, by doing this, and...well, thank you again!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Csez is BAD. ASS.
    But not as badass as YOU!!!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thank you. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU. You don't even know how UNBELIEVABLY HAPPY this has made me; brightened up my day, my week, everything!

    You do awesome work, and just know there are people out there who really appreciate everything you do!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thank you so much. You really have a great way of translating these novels.

    ReplyDelete
  6. This is awesome, cheers.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Dude, that's A-W-E-S-O-M-E, thanks for the translation. :)

    ReplyDelete
  8. Ah, this is beautiful :D What a wonderful surprise to find on a Sunday morning!

    ReplyDelete
  9. ...Wonderful!
    I'm still dumbstruck at the sheer badassnesss that is Czes and Nile!
    And... THIS NILE is BEATEN by SHIZUO?!
    That's... WOAH.
    Epic translation, the chapter length is epic too. So I guess complaining for the wait is crossed of today's activities. :P

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  10. \o/
    You are amazing for doing such a good job on this translation. Thanks for it, it was a great read

    ReplyDelete
  11. <3


    Whoooooooo new chapter. And man, who ISN'T a badass around here today?

    ReplyDelete
  12. LUUV~~!
    This is so amazing! Thank you so much for the translations!

    ReplyDelete