There stood a ways away from the castle a certain old graveyard... and there, bound to one of the nearby trees, was Sylvie. One could see that she was tied up not with rope but with a strange sort of substance that almost looked like solidified concrete... but the moonlight was too dim to accurately gauge its color.
"What are you planning to do with me?" Sylvie asked. There was uncertainty on her face, but she didn't sound particularly worried.
The figure she was staring at remained still, leaning against a tombstone, and gave a flippant reply.
"All I want is knowledge. The knowledge that you immortals have. I thought about torturing that brat Czes and swallowing him once he was weakened... but I never thought things would turn out like this. To tell you the truth, I don't really know what to do."
The silhouette in front of her cocked its head to one side, stymied.
"I don't want to 'take' you if I can help it. I owe you, and I don't really want to be stuck in a woman's body anyway."
"Haven't you considered that I might win?"
"No, I will. You've fulfilled your wish, haven't you? You have the eternal beauty you always wanted. But I still have a clear, unattained goal. That's why you'll never beat me."
"Care to give it a try?" Sylvie asked.
The shadow seemed to think about it, then looked away, muttering, "Nah."
It fell silent then, and Sylvie took the opportunity to speak her mind.
"Here's what I think."
She plowed on, regardless of whether the shadow wanted to listen.
"The witch did many bad things in order to become the most beautiful woman in the world... but once she attained her goal, she thought to herself, 'Ah, now that I've fulfilled my wish, I'll spend the rest of my life helping others fulfill theirs'. Now, I suppose things might be different depending on just how bad those things she did were, but don't you think that's a fine story? Wouldn't that count as a goal in itself?"
The silhouette gave it some thought... then shook its head in defeat.
"I... probably can't afford that kind of relaxation."
"I brought a lamp from the car."
"You're late. What took you so long? Agh, the stench of gasoline."
"Sorry, I had a bit of trouble finding it."
They stopped short as soon as they reached the library that led to the secret passageway, surprised at the state of chaos the room was in.
Almost all of the bookshelves had been scattered about like fallen leaves, like a tornado had blown through the chamber.
One of the Phils lay unmoving in the corner. Thankfully, it looked like she was only unconscious; her life didn't appear to be in danger. She opened her eyes soon enough once they shook her gently, and immediately began describing the events that had taken place.
"A monster suddenly appeared... it grabbed Mistress Sylvie... and threw me together with a bookcase against the wall..."
Elmer and Nile gulped in anticipation even as they took their first steps into the hidden stairway, holding the lamp high. They'd originally intended to leave Phil behind, but eventually relented, the girl's protests and their own consideration that leaving her alone could be dangerous serving to change their minds.
Nile suddenly spoke as they moved down the tunnel to the graveyard, curiosity coloring his voice.
"...Strange. I could have sworn that the stone gave way to earth somewhere along the way..."
The lamplight shone only on stone walls; the red earth that Maiza and Nile had seen before was nowhere to be seen.
When they reached the end and Nile shoved the stone blocking the exit to one side, they immediately caught sight of Sylvie, tied to a tree.
"You, huh. This is going to be more troublesome than I'd thought," a young man's voice said from behind them.
Nile tensed and whipped around... and found himself face to face with a person he'd never seen before.
Behind him, Elmer climbed up and glanced at the shadowy figure.
"Eh? Wait, you're..."
And bringing up the rear behind Elmer... Phil cried out involuntarily as she set eyes on the unknown man.
Her eyes flashed with confusion as she saw the boy's face revealed fully in the moonlight, the shock momentarily leaving her at a loss for words.
"Hello... Mr. Nile, was it? This is my first time meeting you as Felt Nibil."
He introduced himself politely... and then, though his voice kept the high tones of boyhood, the tone of it transformed completely into something ugly and arrogant as he continued.
"But it's long time no see as Dez Nibil, you masked devil!"
The trio facing him froze momentarily... and then, as though realizing a great truth, Elmer muttered, "Mayor... did you... you couldn't have fed your own son that water..."
It was a horrible thing to even imagine, but the boy in front of them only shook his head silently.
"Wrong, unfortunately. My son... my son died fifteen years ago. He went in his sleep, barely a newborn babe."
Felt slouched against a tombstone and began telling them his story, like it was a gift he expected them to take to their graves.
"I don't know what disease it was, but it truly looked like he was only asleep. And this was just when I thought I had a long and happy life ahead of me, having married the mayor's daughter."
At almost the very moment he finally achieved his goal, when he finally succeeded in clawing his way to the very top of his world, he lost his only son. He smuggled himself into the lab, determined to hide his son's death from his wife. He lied to her, saying that he was going to consult the peddler about their sick child, and then injected the tank that had given him life with his "water." The body, still with the outward appearance of a baby, grew up normally - and up to the day his wife died of sickness, and even beyond that point - he lived a double life, dividing his single consciousness between the two personalities "Dez" and "Felt."
To present the "Felt" personality to the village as quick-witted and efficient, he deliberately acted in his Dez persona as a haughty, cold and violent man. None of this changed when Elmer arrived in the village... but something in his mind began to falter.
Outside. With the existence of his wife no longer chaining him to the village, he felt like he could escape to the outside world using the laboratory. The thought was not fully formed in his head, but still it persisted and refused to disappear.
And then, when Sylvie described the world outside the forest to him, that errant passing thought became his entire goal in life.
"I thought to myself after hearing about the fantastic world outside..."
The boy stared sadly up at the night sky, and hate began to fill his voice.
"...If this village hadn't been isolated... if I had had access to a real doctor from the outside world, then my son! My wife! Neither of them would have had to die!"
Emotion seemed to overtake him, and he stood up and flung his arms wide into the air.
"I hated it all from the beginning. This village, created for the sole purpose of a simple experiment. That girl! Myself! So I made a decision. When it came time for me to leave this village..."
The boy's golden eyes flashed eerily in the faint moonlight, focusing on the girl standing next to Elmer.
"I'd leave it all in ruins."
Elmer listened to it all quietly, as though deep in thought, while Phil stood stock still next to him, frozen with shock. Sylvie, too, fell silent, her brow furrowed with concentration... Only Nile snorted and strode forward, majesty radiating from his body.
"Hmm. I have listened carefully to your story. Now, are you ready to die?"
"Well, well, you're a short-tempered one, aren't you?"
"I say this: shut up. There are billions of people more unfortunate than you in the outside world. There is no pity in me for someone who bemoans his own fate," Nile said curtly, taking another step forward and reaching out to snap the boy's neck.
"Ah, Nile! Hang on for a second!" Elmer called, trying to stop him...
But before Nile could react, something wrapped itself around his leg.
In an instant, Nile's was lifted into the air, his body hanging upside down. Then, just as quickly, something snapped him back down, sending him crashing into the hard earth.
Something huge covered Nile's body as he lay prone on the ground.
"Didn't you listen when I said that I added the water to my own tank? The mass of flesh that was supposed to be my next body ended up absorbing it! That's how I ended up like this! What do I care anymore about lifespans, or growth? I might... I might be immortal just like you!"
It was a huge, blackish red lump of flesh, looking like someone had taken a mass of rotting meat, hacked it haphazardly apart, and mashed it back together. It writhed like a slime monster from a video game, foul moisture roiling on its surface. It was hard to tell just how large it was, but it looked to be at least the size of two fully grown cows.
"Now, look. And pity me, laugh for me, fear me. This is the me that never finished becoming me... Hahahahahaha!"
Elmer muttered something to himself as the boy-shaped homunculus laughed madly, the words dissipating unheard into the frigid air.
"Don't... don't force that laughter..."
When Czes and Maiza, having heard what was happening from Phil, arrived at the graveyard, they found themselves confronted by a bizarre sight. A huge mass of crimson flesh had wrapped itself around both Elmer and Nile, and as they watched it smashed them against the ground in rapid succession.
"Oh no, the reinforcements have arrived," Felt said, and Maiza let out a small cry of dismay at the naked scorn in the boy's voice.
"Now, shall we start the negotiations...?" the boy began, his face sharp in the moonlight.
"I'm thinking of feeding this water to one of you and taking over the body... so, why don't you choose which one it will be?"
"How long," Nile said abruptly, as he recovered from his twentieth bone-shattering smash into the ground.
"You said earlier, 'hang on for a second'. So, how much longer must I wait?"
Elmer remembered the words he'd spoken in haste just a few moments ago.
"I say this: I will wait one more minute. If you have done nothing by then... I will retaliate. And this mass of flesh, the fool who is controlling it, and all of the village will be as tinder before the fire that is my wrath. If you do not wish that to become reality, then do something."
Elmer thought Nile's offer over for about three seconds before opening his mouth.
"I say, that just now sounded rather splendid. Are you trying to dump responsibility on this for me because you don't really know what do?"
"Your unbelievably stupid comment just now knocked thirty seconds off the clock."
"Wa, wait! Wait, wait! Fine."
Still hanging upside down, Elmer shrugged... and threw up the contents of his stomach. The liquid that spewed from his mouth thoroughly coated the mass of meat Felt was controlling.
And a sharp, stinging stench began to fill the air. The smell that had been around Elmer now radiated throughout the clearing.
...Oil?! No... What is this?!
Felt spun around, surprised at the unknown smell in the air.
"Phil! Run for it! Maiza! Don't let him get away!"
Maiza, who had realized what the smell was before anyone else, was already in motion before Elmer had even finished speaking.
Using the short instant when Felt's attention was focused behind him, Maiza grabbed hold of him in a viselike grip. The strength in Felt's young body wasn't enough to shake him off, and he was forced to look forward at the mass of flesh.
"You might have heard about the outside world from Sylvie... but I'm guessing you haven't learned about the wonders of gasoline yet, have you?"
So said, Elmer threw the light in his hand at a gravestone with all his might.
A spark flew from the shattered bulb...
And a flash of crimson light lit up part of the night.
"Well, I couldn't very well go to face a monster unprepared, could I?"
"...I never imagined that you'd drink gasoline," Nile muttered, but Elmer only snickered merrily.
"Surprised, weren't you? Then laugh... urgh, this stuff's really messed up my insides. I shouldn't have drunken gasoline, what. Why, if I wasn't immortal I might well have died."
The explosion itself hadn't been that big. There was a limit to how much liquid a human stomach could hold, after all. But Felt's red mass of flesh, caught up in the resulting firestorm, had immediately caught fire and burned away into ash, writhing frantically as the flames consumed it. Of course, Nile and Elmer were swept up as well, but their melted flesh soon grew back unnaturally.
The stench of gasoline and a smell vaguely remeniscent of barbecue filled the air, combining to form a foul odor that would have had anyone gagging for breath.
And as for Felt...
"Hmm. I expected nothing less."
The boy's eyes shone blankly, and his body trembled uncontrollably as he lay prone in the snow.
"He just experienced being burned alive, and with a body that had a much larger surface area of skin than a normal human being, at that."
"Well, I have to say that being burned to death is an unpleasant affair in any case," Maiza said, sharing a personal experience made possible only by virtue of his immortality. Even as he spoke, Elmer moved to Felt's side and wrapped his arms around the boy, attempting to make him sit up.
"Hey," Nile said, making only a token effort to stop Elmer, and in return the man laughed.
"I solved this within a minute, just like I promised, right? I'll take care of him now."
"Elmer, what do you mean by 'take care'-"
Just as Maiza began to voice his concerns...
Felt's stomach split open and a mass of flesh burst forth from within.
Before any of them could react, the lump of meat vanished into Elmer's mouth, carrying with it what appeared to be a small bottle of some sort.
The flesh and its bottle forced itself down Elmer's esophagus and into his stomach, heedless of his attempts to stop it. And the boy bleeding heavily from his stomach began to laugh triumphantly, as though he'd secured absolute victory.
"Haha... hahahahaha! You fell for it, you monster... Of course there's no way I'd gather all the flesh into one spot... You just swallowed a bottle containing my 'water'."
"You little bastard...!"
Nile hauled Felt up by his neck, and the boy choked and coughed up a torrent of blood.
"When I... shatter the bottle... you and I start the battle for control of your body... I... I've got my life riding on the line here... If I fail now... I'm done for. I'll disappear from this world... I can't die here. I'm going to see the outside world! In terms of willpower, it's an even battle... No, I've got the advantage!"
There was little logic behind his reasoning, but in Felt's dying eyes shone a feverish light brighter than anything that had been there before.
Maiza and Nile unconsciously stepped back, a chill running down their spines... but Elmer's smile never faltered even for a second.
Perhaps in reaction to Elmer's eternal smile, Felt glared at him with utter hatred.
"Why... why are you still smiling... Aren't you afraid... of dying..."
"Of course I am. But I'll win this contest, one hundred percent."
The light in Felt's eyes dimmed for a moment at the utter certainty in Elmer's voice.
"What... that's stupid..."
"I'll give you one warning before you shatter the bottle. You're only wasting your own time here."
And then, witnessing Elmer's next actions, Maiza's blood ran cold.
Everyone watching swallowed with suddenly dry mouths. If Czes had been there, perhaps he alone would have retained his calm.
Elmer grabbed Maiza's right hand and placed it squarely on his own forehead.
That was all.
"If I lose, Maiza will eat me immediately. Your chances of making it out of this alive... are zero."
Elmer grinned from ear to ear. A cold sweat broke out on Felt's brow.
"You... you're bluffing."
Despair flashed across his face for a moment, but then he regained his calm and the light in his eyes came back even fiercer than before.
"You, you fool. Even, even if you do..."
"You're going to say that you can use my memories and pretend to be me, right?"
"All right then, change of plans. Maiza, once the bottle shatters just eat me on the spot. Don't wait for anything else."
...What! No! He must be lying! There's no way he'd do it!
Confusion crept its way into Felt's mind as he glanced warily at Maiza.
But... Maiza's face, which in all his memories had ever only shown an expression of aloof good-naturedness, was now terrifyingly harsh. The man who stood there now could kill a newborn babe in cold blood, without flinching.
"This fellow's a mafioso, you know. He knows how to compartmentalize, what."
"Not a mafioso, Elmer... a cammorista."
But even as he calmly corrected Elmer, the hard, flat light in Maiza's light dimmed not the slightest.
...Which is it... is he bluffing... or is he...
Felt hesitated for just a few seconds...
Unaware that he was sealing his own fate by doing so.
The tension suddenly drained from Maiza's body... and Felt suddenly became aware of something wrong with the flesh in Elmer's belly.
He felt something like a vise grasping it... and even as the thought flashed by in his mind, Maiza thrust forth his left hand and showed its contents to Felt.
Only then did Felt realize the absolute reality of his defeat. And... now, finally, utter despair gripped his heart.
Maiza's left hand held the lump of flesh that should have been in Elmer's stomach, and Elmer held in his right hand the bottle filled with clear liquid.
"Surprised, were you?"
Elmer threw back his head and laughed. For his part, Maiza wiped away the sweat that had beaded on his forehead and sighed heavily.
...I never expected, even for a second, that as they talked, he'd flay him alive...
By grasping Maiza's right hand, Elmer had hid a crucial part of Maiza's body from Felt's view, and using that blind spot, Maiza had taken his knife and slit Elmer's belly. From Felt's position lying prone on the ground, there was no way he could have seen the blood flowing down, the sight hidden from him by Maiza's trenchcoat. The thought of them coming up with such a plan on the fly blew him away.
"We haven't been around this long for nothing, youngster. Cheer up!" Elmer said brightly, examining the wound on Felt's abdomen.
But the wound turned out to be much more serious than he'd thought.
"Ahh... what do we do, Maiza?"
Maiza leaned forward to stare intently at the damage. At length he sighed and shook his head.
"He's beyond help."
And then... for the first time, a sad expression crossed Elmer's face.
"I was hoping we could save him..."
"Hah... so... so things didn't turn out, like you wanted... Serves you right..."
But Elmer merely listened to Felt's words as they forced themselves from his dying mouth and cocked his head to one side curiously.
"But, when you die, I'm just going to smile."
"I can't say that I care about the dead. I might praise people who've died meaningful deaths, and smile in their memory... but all that's going to be left after your death is the fact of it. What I'm saying is, your death won't bother me one bit. We'll all cheer because it'll mean that evil's been defeated."
Elmer laughed out loud, cutting Felt off mid-sentence.
"Come to think of it, you said you it served me right just now, didn't you? You achieved your goal of making me sad, right?
That was when Felt came to the realization... one he couldn't deny.
"So, this is your happy ending, isn't it? Come on now... Smile."
If the world were to be divided into good and evil... the man Elmer would fall squarely into the latter category. So much so that the word "demon" might suit him perfectly.
It was hard to realize because what he wanted just happened to be a "happy ending," but it was true. For him, there was nothing else. There could be nothing else. He would stop at nothing if it meant the fulfillment of his wishes. His true self was a thing of absolute evil. And still, nobody around him became unhappy.
An essence of pure evil that even Elmer himself didn't realize existed... that was the core of his being.
Even as his consciousness began to fade away, Felt cursed his own foolishness for trying to stand against something like Elmer head on.
Perhaps he knew what the boy was thinking; perhaps he didn't. Elmer betrayed nothing as he opened his mouth once more.
"If that doesn't suit you, then don't die."
A sudden look of sadness crossed Elmer's face, and then Phil, who had been watching from afar, stepped close.
"No, it's not. I don't want it to be. Damn it, if only there was a doctor around here..."
But Phil was burning white-hot with anger.
I am angry. That is all there is to it.
Of course the revelation that he was fooling me was a shock.
But what does that matter.
The reason I'm angry right now... is because Felt thinks so little of his own life.
Perhaps I was the same just a few moments ago. I see. I understand why Master Nile was so angry. Everything, even the frustration I felt toward myself, comes together inside me and thickens, feeling like it could explode out from me at any moment.
Why, why must I be at the mercy of someone like this.
I suffered so much because of his selfish way of thought, and now he tries to run away without even giving me a chance to make him realize what I think.
I could come to forgive him for everything he has done to me. But... not this.
After all, this would mean he wouldn't be there anymore for me to forgive in the first place.
The object of my hate is going to vanish. Then what outlet will there be for my anger?
I can't let him die. I can't let him run away. No matter what.
A thought occurs to me, and my hand reaches out with nary a moment's hesitation.
Toward the bottle of water that Master Elmer holds...
"Master Elmer, everything is going to be all right... So please, smile like you always do."
But even as Elmer tried to make sense of what she said... Phil snatched the bottle from his hand, removed the cap and drank the contents in one swift motion. And at the same time... Felt's body went limp. Death had overtaken his flesh.
"What are you thinking?!"
Elmer stood silently in the moonlight, waiting for the girl's body to speak.
A moment that felt like eternity passed... and Phil's body opened its mouth.
"She... she didn't even try to resist... why," it said quietly.
It was Felt's consciousness that now controlled the body.
Nile stepped forward as soon as the words registered, ready to end Felt's life... but Maiza and Elmer found themselves distracted by a silhouette that darted toward them from behind.
The very second before Nile's wrath descended onto the still dazed Felt... Even faster than his fist, another Phil sprinted out of the woods and slapped Felt's cheek as hard as she could.
"Don't you dare run away... Did you think that just by suffering, by dying... did you think something like that would be enough to atone for what you did to me, to Master Czes, to Mistress Sylvie, to Master Elmer?! There's no way!"
The slap had held all of Phil's anger, but the people watching were more surprised than Felt. Not only was it the first time they'd seen Phil express herself so strongly, but the fact that Phil's consciousness was still alive in another body was what shocked them more than anything.
"I see... The water only affects the body. It makes sense when you consider it from a logical standpoint."
"I say this: it doesn't."
Felt stayed as he was for a moment, shock still written on his features. Finally, he looked at Phil and murmured, "Does... does this mean I can live a while longer?"
"Well... I don't suppose that attempted murder and assault constitutes the death penalty in this country," Maiza said lightly, looking towards Elmer.
But unexpectedly, instead of replying with a joke of his own, Elmer walked up to Felt and grinned widely.
"I'm glad you're alive."
He patted Felt's now female head lightly.
"Now you can atone."
The face that had once belonged to Phil twisted in self-loathing in the face of Elmer's sincere smile.
"Even... even if I keep living and try to make it up somehow... what about after that? Why should I atone? For what...?!"
"You already said why, didn't you? You said you wanted to see the outside."
Felt opened her mouth to protest, still unsatisfied, and Elmer knelt in front of her, raising one hand to stroke her cheek. For once, he managed to school his features into a semblance of seriousness.
"Let's go see the outside," he said quietly, almost bashfully, so nobody else could hear. "One day we can take the villagers and show them too."
Fixing Felt with a frank gaze, Elmer kept talking.
"Being unhappy isn't a sin. But choosing not to pursue happiness is."
Elmer smiled gently, but Felt stubbornly looked away.
"Do you really believe that things like Phil and I can find happiness?"
Now Elmer looked a bit sterner as he lifted his other hand to Felt's cheek, softly cradling her head in his hands.
"You know, there are countless people who live and die in this world without ever knowing the meaning of the word hope. Their parents might both already be dead the moment they're born, or they might come into the world only to die of starvation, or for lack of a single drink of water. There are people out there born for the sole purpose of dying. But you two, at least, know what hope is, right? Refusing that hope is an insult to life itself."
There was strength in Elmer's gaze. Maybe even anger. Felt glared right back, as if to stubbornly refuse his message.
"What, what would you know-"
"Of course I don't know how you feel. Even if I had gone through the same things you did, I wouldn't understand you, because I already know what the outside world is like. But what that also means is, if you come outside, you can learn to understand us, right?"
Felt's eyes widened with surprise and she could only stare silently at Elmer. He continued talking quietly, heedless of her shock.
"So Felt, don't say such sad things. Well, sad to me, that is. If you have the strength to say things like that, use it to grasp hope. Learn what happiness is... I'll teach you. I'll teach you if even it takes years..."
Elmer trailed off, pinched both her cheeks and tugged on them.
"So... Come. On. And. Smile. Got it?"
...This man was still indisputably evil.
She was sure of that...
But just for this moment, Felt decided to take the devil's honeyed offer.
She had realized that she had been in the palm of his hand since long ago... from the moment he stepped foot into the village. And she realized, too, that there would be no escaping him.
Elmer studied Felt's face for a moment...
And sighed, an awkward look crossing his face.
"...I said smile, not cry, silly."
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