Hole 1: Grave Digger
“…Hand,” the girl commanded and in response the black dog placed its forearm, about the size of her own, onto her white palm.
Once again Muoru encountered Meria in the graveyard as the sun was setting…no, he didn’t encounter her, he met up with her. This meeting was different than the first time he was looking up at her from the bottom of the hole, or the second time when he had been running away from the dog. This time it was intentional.
Even if everything Crow had said was true, his task of digging graves stayed the same. For Muoru, there was no major difference between digging graves for humans or monsters. And it looked like his work wouldn’t change for the rest of his life. That…wasn’t a joke.
I must escape.
But in his current state, he thought that dog at her side having the back of its ears scratched was much more of a menace than the monsters buried in the graves.
Looking at Dephen made his leg throb. Although thanks to Meria his wound hadn’t festered, at the moment running was probably impossible. However, even if he was able to run again, last night’s events would only repeat themselves.
Plus there was only one way out of the graveyard, so if he kept an eye on the path it would eventually lead to his escape. Now if he could make a wish, he’d ask for a map.
But then there was the collar.
Not the black dog’s, but the one attached to his own neck. Even though recently he had gotten so used to it that he forgot all about it, somehow he would still need to get rid of it. Though only his prisoner number was inscribed, the collar seemed to scream, “I’m a prisoner!” as he walked. Of course the military police and local sheriffs would capture him out of a desire to accumulate good points with their superiors or peers. However, by the same token he couldn’t carelessly go out in front of people, out of fear that they would report him.
Although it would have been great to have that collar removed from his neck, naturally the people who attached it seemed to have been well aware of that fact. As a result, the core of the leather collar used a unique fiber called “Witch’s thread.” For hundreds of years assassins, swindlers , and the like had habitually used this material for various purposes. It was thin, but extremely tough to the point where even high quality pliers or shears can’t sever it.
And to make matters worse, as they were telling Muoru that his prison sentence would be longer than five years, the collar was surgically connected to his right carotid artery. If any prisoner tried to force the collar off, their carotid artery would be severed by the “witch’s thread” as easily as cutting a boiled egg, ending their life. Since assassins originally had used the string as a garrote, its reliability was guaranteed.
Fortunately, for the most part Muoru wasn’t bothered by it anymore. But there were some prisoners who couldn’t endure the serious thread of death constantly attached to their blood vessels…they went mad and ended up ripping off their collars. One of the bald physicians had tried to intimidate him during the surgery by telling him that this insanity claimed the lives of five or six people a year.
But even if the collar was successfully removed, he would still feel isolated and helpless.
His mother, his father, and his brothers should be alive, but by no means did that mean he could return home. However, even though he’d be lying if he said he didn’t want to see them, it had already been five years since he left home and he wasn’t suffering from homesickness or anything like that.
Fundamentally, since he had been neglected when he was being raised, he couldn’t really count on them to help him because they had never expressed any kind of loving sentiment. And more than that, not only would his returning home now after such a long time inconvenience his family, but they probably thought it would be better if they never saw him again for the rest of their lives.
It was strange but he wasn’t very sad about that. Probably, that was because there were a lot of more important things he should be thinking about. Or perhaps he might just be a cold person. However, the boy understood that there was a big difference between a third party getting involved in his situation or not.
And the first…no, the only handhold he seemed to have was Meria.
He was aware that she was mysterious. Even her personality was vague. But yesterday she had given him medicine, and even though he was a prisoner she wasn’t avoiding his area of work. There was absolutely no way she could be a bad person.
Plus, if he got information from the girl known as the grave keeper and if she was able to cooperate with him for even a little bit, then the chances of him successfully escaping would probably increase.
Of course, he and the girl were just strangers in this place who only knew the other’s face. So, if he suddenly tried to ask something like, “‘I want to escape, will you help me?” far from cooperation, she would most likely send him back to the internment camp. But the best method of approach was for him to somehow get her to drop her guard. If that happened, then in the end she would voluntarily help him.
This type of thing, ah, what was it called? It was a word he didn’t normally use, but once it came to him he made a tight fist. Right, ensnare.
And now that his objective was decided, he felt it was much better to take action than just crouching there thinking about it. So Muoru returned to the graveyard during the night and took a position where he could ambush Meria and startle her slightly, but…
Crouching on the ground, the light brow-haired girl called out the boy’s name while petting the dog at her side and staring uncertainly in his direction.
After hearing her call out his name, Muoru hesitated about what to say.
“Umm…that…ah, um, nothing,” the boy stammered and again a silence fell between the two.
It’s not nothing, Muoru!
Muoru beat himself up over not being able to think of any good words. His future freedom hung on whether he was able to skillfully grab her attention or if she denied him.
He thought about bringing up the pleasant conversations he had with his fellow soldiers surrounding the base campfire. But then he realized the gist of those jokes involved the veteran tank pilots boasting about how great their rifles were.
Crouched at a slight distance away from him, the girl mysteriously watched him struggle to speak, his face dumbfounded and his throat choking on his words.
Her eyes were as dark as the cold sea, and the blue was so deep a color that they seemed to suck him in.
Again there was silence. But there was nothing he could do; the girl in front of him simply left him at a loss for words.
Those eyes stared at him, waiting for him to speak, but his head was completely blank and no thoughts came to mind. She was totally different than both those military police officers who just did their service with sulking faces, and Crow who spoke far too casually, as if they were good friends.
Then suddenly he realized the one fundamental fault in his previous tactic.
How exactly was he supposed to go about ensnaring a girl?
Muoru Reed, private E-1, master of the battleground moles.
At any time, no matter the weather, the moles were ordered to dig holes nonstop. With just their durable clothes they were able to crawl along for more than five kilometers. And they were able to take apart and clean their military rifles in a blink of an eye.
But he had no idea how he was supposed to get his hooks into the girl in front of him…
That was the extent of his words. His tendency to keep quiet couldn’t handle anything more than that.
He gulped loudly. How long was he going to be nervous? He hadn’t even thought that just swallowing spit would cause such a loud noise.
Once his thoughts were decided, immediately he said, “Would you like to be friends?” words he felt he had heard somewhere else.
The girl blinked a few times then asked, “What?” in a small confused voice.
I shouldn’t have asked that.
He failed. He broached the topic completely wrong. In a rush his face and head turned red, just like the time he had chugged some strong alcohol in one gulp. The impulse to immediately grab a pistol, put it to his temple and blow out his foolish brains welled up inside him.
While the boy was thinking about fainting in agony for his ignorance, the nearby girl on the other hand looked like she hadn’t even understood his words, blinking again and again. But then with the slowness of sand falling in an hourglass, her cheeks flushed a deep vermilion.
And after a little while she looked away from him and said, “…I can’t.”
It was the first time she had spoken without meeting his gaze. He could see that the earlobes protruding from the edge of her hood had turned a deep red.
It was strange, but even though she had clearly refused him, Muoru felt relieved.
Laughing at himself he asked, “Why?”
Meria stood with her profile facing him as she answered. ”It’s because I don’t understand. When you say friend, what do you mean?”
“…Well that…um, even I can’t give you an exact definition.”
Muoru also looked away, thinking for a bit before explaining somewhat incoherently. “Friend, well, um…it’s one step past acquaintance…what is it…Mutual? No more than that… in order to know each other better two people think about getting closer…kind of like that.”
Basically everything he said to Meria was equivalent to the phrase, “Let me get closer to you.”
Overflowing with embarrassment, Muoru was unable to continue his explanation any more than that.
Then as if tossing around an idea in her head, she hung her head in silence. While he waited, Muoru watched as the flickering light from the lantern she had placed on the ground made the shadow of her jawline waver erratically.
Before long the girl lifted her face, but it was not to take back her previous refusal.
“Where did you come from, Muoru?” she asked him.
After a moment’s hesitation he answered, “Rakasand’s detention camp.”
“Ah, it’s in the East kingdom. You’ve never heard of it?”
Meria’s red face nodded deeply. “I have never left this place”.
Muoru was perplexed for a moment, so like peeking through a hole, he stared at her white neck. Of course, there was no evidence that she was a prisoner here so that made it a bit difficult to believe her. But at the same time it did make a lot of sense.
I get it. She truly has been separated from the world.
There was one thing he slightly believed from the story Crow had told him before. Before steam engines were invented, in other words until just 100 years ago, the best method of travel over land was horses. Other than that the only thing you could do was walk. In that time, common citizens were not able to think about traveling. That’s precisely why they not only didn’t go on military campaigns, but for the most part they seemed to never leave their hometowns.
Even now, if a person lived in some kind of country or farm village, it probably wouldn’t be that uncommon…
Looking up at the boy, the girl asked, “And so, tell me…what kind of place did you come from Muoru?”
After that for a while, the two of them talked with the lantern light flickering between them.
Meria listened to each of Muoru’s words seriously, but asked a question if there was something that interested her. .And as she asked him questions, Muoru, even by his usual standards, answered quite clumsily
Like the time he was around alcohol he was very talkative. He told her about the town where he was born, his family, what type of thing a tank was, the importance of strategically placed trenches, his favorite rations, how cabbages grow…
What am I talking about? I don’t talk about these things to friends, nor anyone for that matter.
He was able to handle her questions, but just feeling Meria’s focused gaze on him made him feel strangely embarrassed. However, at the same time it was a little creepy.
He used a branch to draw a map on the ground, and looking up to the sky he pretended to reminisce, but didn’t meet the girl’s eyes. That was when unexpectedly he understood how to squeeze out some words from her.
In addition to him already having a plan, Meria seemed to be a superb listener. Claiming to have never left this graveyard, she occasionally didn’t understand the premise of some of his stories. Yet, even though the boy’s explanation was difficult, Meria displayed a keen ability to surmise the heart of what he was trying to say.
…but it did take a little effort for her to understand the concept of “domesticated animals”.
He told her the story of how the campaign cooks had prepared a whole piglet roast as a treat for him and his fellow soldiers during a victory celebration. Muoru recalled the fragrant scent of the animal fat and herbs and started to realize his failure to notice the drool accumulating in his mouth. But Meria was not interested in the food’s flavor or how it was prepared; she instead expressed interest in what he talked about next.
“After that did that “pig” receive a proper burial?”
“No… I wonder if we used the bones to make dashi.”
“Put the bones into a huge pot and stew them for a long time. Eventually it’ll turn into something like a soup stock.”
“You even eat the corpse? That’s…cruel,” she muttered sadly, looking dejected by the conversation.
But for domesticated animals, they don’t think it’s cruel, they don’t think much of anything.
With great effort Muoru tried to explain. Somehow he tried to persuade Meria that the animals existed to be raised as pets in order to be eaten (or in order to be killed), but the right words wouldn’t come out. For him it was common knowledge that seemed extremely natural, but he couldn’t think of any other words that would make her understand.
The conversation went off on a tangent before he knew it. Some of the girl’s crazy questions would cause the topic to once again fly off in the wrong direction, then due to his misunderstanding, the conversation would plunge vertically to the earth and suddenly they had returned to the topic they were discussing before.
And if he figured out how to say something even slightly eloquently, unexpectedly it would teleport away…and so on, until again the conversation became as derailed as a car which had long since been unable to move. So, in the end he couldn’t clear up her confusion.
However, thanks to the tangents, their conversation kept going, not ending abruptly. Muoru felt that was quite miraculous…
“…I think I basically understand,” she said as she stood up. The moon within the distant clouds had moved to the middle of the sky.
The girl’s calm quiet profile strangely appeared to tense. It was completely as if she had just grasped some groundbreaking truth.
“The Dark, they don’t exist in the world you come from, huh?” Once again the word that the girl had said yesterday came out from her lips.
He was having trouble guessing the meaning of that word.
“That’s right,” he muttered.
The boy looked up at the girl.
Within the dim moonlight, the girl’s face, hidden within her hood and looking dejectedly down to the ground, was beautiful. It was something he didn’t think was from this world.
Staring at her at that moment, Muoru was unable to stand, though the reason was not related to the injury in his leg.
And even though she never showed those emotions on her face, within the inner part of her calm eyes, he could clearly sense that her inward feelings were being shaken up.
–Just like the shock he had felt when he learned of that monster’s existence.
–The idea that there was a world where that monster didn’t exist was just as shocking to that girl who had lived here for so long.
The two were very similar, and that was exactly why they were absolutely different. Just like how the moon and the sun never crash into one another, their separation couldn’t be helped.
The cold, summer, evening breeze blew above the countless gravestones lined up on the ground.
“It’s about time for me to leave”, Muoru said, jerkily standing up.
“Tomorrow I’ll also be digging holes from the morning onward.”
He could see Meria nod.
“….see you,” the boy said once again expecting her to nod.
But there was no response.
 In hurigana it readsいかさま師 which is swindler/cheat, but the kanji reads 魔法使い which is a witch