And Then There Were None
The flute of Hamelin resounds, and the curtains are drawn. A holy stage that decides the life or death of humankind.
I was in a room without windows, or even a door. It was a huge room. There was no lamp to be found, but it was bright. The entire ceiling seemed to function as the light source. Around me were people around my age. At first sight their races seemed to be completely random. Me included there, were nine males, and the remaining four were females. Some were still unconscious, and others were already standing with their guard up. And for some reason, each of us had a book lying by their side. What happened? Why am I here? I felt dizzy, maybe due to being drugged to sleep. At times like this it is best to not stand up too quick. As I identified the situation around me, I reached for my gun. However, as I expected, it was gone.
Waking up in an unmistakably kidnapped state, I knew fire weapons and the like would be confiscated. It is only natural. However, even the wire that was sewed in the hem of my clothing and the explosives hidden in my shoe soles were gone. All of them, without exception. That is when I realized. I was captured by the very organization I worked for. I had a feeling this would happen. It came to me when I was told about this shady “top-secret mission”. Moreover, they told me it was not an order. I was free to accept the mission or not, they said.
Not only would I be presented with a huge compensation, but they even promised to let me retire from service after the mission. In other words, they told me I could say goodbye to this rotten life of mine. You would truly be an utter fool to refuse an offer like this. Or a homicidal maniac, I guess. Of course, when they were willing to go this far, it couldn’t be a decent mission. Perhaps ninety-nine out of a hundred – no – nine hundred ninety-nine out of a thousand would not return alive, or something. They were most likely able to give such offers because, from the beginning, they did not intend to pay anything. Of course I knew as much. Despite knowing all along, I’m still here in this mess. Failing to remember, I sneered at myself.
Then, someone called to me from the side. It was a young man presumably younger than me, but unfortunately he was not from the same country. I silently shook my head. He probably understood the situation too, as he didn’t talk to me since. People from all kinds of countries work for my organization. Most of us only understand our mother tongues. When our age finally hits the second digit, we are forced a life of military training from dusk to dawn. We don’t get proper education or anything. We can’t read or write our own language, let alone learn other languages. Of course there are also those that are born from parents from different countries, and being raised abroad from a young age have learned multiple languages, but they are but a minority. I also made an attempt of greeting the guy on the opposite side of me in my mother tongue, but he too silently shook his head.
At that time the girl right in front of me raised her head. It seemed she finally got to her senses. Resistance to drugs is different per person, but people like her are the ones that usually die first. Being slower than the others can kill you. As soon as our eyes met, her face filled with surprise. Does she know me? Who is she? Wait, I think I have seen her somewhere too. The lass stood up. As expected that must have made her dizzy, and with a grand sound she tumbled down.
At the sight of her clumsiness I remembered. “So you are still alive, huh...”
Raising her upper body, she nodded. The lass knew a small amount of languages, and I heard her mother came from my country. Children naturally learn the language that their mother speaks. “How good! You are alive too!”
“Of course I am! Don’t put me in the same category as you.”
I met her three years ago. We were both survivors of the thirteenth crusade, a large-scale Legion mop-up operation. Of course we were in different units, but once the operation starts what unit you are in doesn’t matter shit. All battlefields are like that, but this one was even worse than usual. At the time I was sixteen, and already a senior soldier, but even I knew my chances of survival were only about fifty-fifty despite that. In the midst of the melee I found an idiot that stood stock still in front of the Legions. In an instant I knocked her down before our surroundings were reduced to ashes. It wasn’t an act of mercy or anything that admirable. We soldiers are valuable goods. That’s why we save our comrades. Or rather, we don’t waste them. That’s the regulation.
To my surprise the idiot was my age. So she was suddenly thrown into the battlefield without even having received any proper training. It’s no surprise she lost her head seeing the Legions from up close. The Legions bear the resemblance of human beings. They were once human after all. Many infected with the White Chlorination Syndrome face death, but some survive. By turning into rabid monsters, that is. The urgency of exterminating the Legions is not simply because they attack humans. The Legions are a huge source of infection, creating new patients of the White Chlorination Syndrome. This mysterious disease emerged thirty years ago, and to this day no cure has been found. Maybe it was a disease spread by the white giant that came from another world. Although there is no specific remedy, preventive medicine exists.
The problem is that it is impossible to mass-produce this luciferase medicine. Besides, its effects have only been confirmed among the young. The younger, the higher the efficiency. Thus, children with high physical ability are selected, administered with the valuable luciferase, and assigned to the extermination of the Legions. The international organization that trains and dispatches these children is the Hamelin Organization. The name was taken from a fairytale about a piper that assembles children and leads them away, but in my opinion it is a name of extremely bad taste.
“So, why are you here anyway?”
“They told about a... top-secret mission”
“High compensation, release from service. You are free to accept or not. Right?”
Her eyes opened in surprise, but she understood immediately and nodded. Until that day three years ago the lass had quite naturally been going to school, so if anything, her learning and comprehensive abilities were higher than mine. “I wonder if everyone in here was offered the same deal.”
I took a good look around me again. Maybe we are from all different places because we are brought here with the expectations of our countries on our shoulders. At first sight it doesn’t appear that people besides the girl and I are planning to share their intentions with each other. “People that can refuse it are not here, I think.”
She was right. Everyone strongly wished to escape their current lives. What we were doing was murder, genocide, after all. We are told that our opponents are monsters without a shard of intelligence, but first-hand they look unmistakably human. And we incinerate them alive. It is said that the White Chlorination Syndrome is passed on by body fluids like blood and saliva, so by shooting them down we spread these fluids. Therefore we are ordered to restrain from firing our guns whenever possible. We don’t wish to inhale anything dangerous ourselves, so we don’t complain. However, seeing creatures that look just like humans die wrapped in fire is no pretty sight. I incinerated my first Legion when I only just turned ten. Nine years have passed since then, but I still can’t get used to it. No matter how many times I see it, it is never pleasant.
“This thing, what do you think it is? It looks like a book, but it cannot open.” With a curious face the lass tried to open the book. The books that were left near each of us were very thick, and the covers, that could either be black or a deep gray, had nothing written on them.
“Hey! Don’t touch that so carelessly!”
“Ah...” In her panic she let go of the book.
“Don’t you ‘Ah’ on me, geesh.” I let out a spontaneous sigh. This part of her has not changed one bit over the past three years. Even though it was just for a while, the lass and I worked together after I saved her. I could not afford to leave folks without any battle experience to chance. Luckily she was a quick learner. With only a few instructions halfway, she managed to keep up with me without delay. Her physical abilities were also formidable. They had to be, otherwise the lass would not have been selected at the age of sixteen, no matter how high her receptivity to luciferase was. However, when we could no longer avoid being split up, I thought she would die. After the operation ended we had no means of contacting each other.
“Good job surviving that. You sure have good luck.”
She violently shook her head in denial. “Because you... let me escape”
“That’s not true. It was an error of judgment on my side."
We split up because we were surrounded by Legions. If we would run in opposite directions at least one of us would be able to run away. That’s the kind of numbers and disposition the enemy had. I obviously have higher chances of survival and more value in combat. So if I have to make a choice between me and her, I should be the one going down the safer route. Yet I chose the impossible option. I must have been possessed. That’s why I was filled with a feeling of discomfort as I remembered. I felt irritated. Until this very day I have taken effort not to remember... When she opened her mouth, wanting to say something in return, we heard a quarrel from a corner of the room. It was a guy and a girl. I thought they must have happened to understand each other, like us, but that did not seem to be the case. I don’t know what the reason was, but it must have been a trivial matter. They were cursing at each other without understanding what the other said. Soon the girl slapped the guy. It sounded painful, yet no one tried to intervene. But I could not blame them. Each and every one of us has received enough training to fight off a Legion barehanded. If you were to step in, you would have to prepare for the possible consequences.
The young man’s face turned red, and he grabbed for the girl. At that moment we witnessed something unbelievable. Suddenly the book at the feet of the girl opened. Even though she didn’t touch it, or kick it with her foot by accident. From the opened book, suddenly a black hand emerged. The hand quickly enlarged to gigantic proportions and grabbed the young man, raising him in the air. With an astonished expression on his face, he was crushed to death. The girl was dumbfounded too. Apparently even she didn’t know what was happening. But it did not end there. The book that belonged to the young man started emitting a strong light. I thought another black hand would appear, but I was wrong. His body was sucked into the book, not to be seen again. Along with the young man’s body, the light from the book also disappeared. Then the cover’s blackish color turned into aquamarine, and a pattern formed on it. It was an eerie pattern that resembled a human face.
The silence did not last long. In an instant the entire room raised uproar.
“What... was that?”
“How should I know? Don’t ask me.”
I reached out my hand for the book that was lying next to me. Until now I thought it would be best not to touch it carelessly, but the situation had changed. I now had to obtain as much information about these books as I could. Not only were there no letters or illustrations on the cover, it didn’t even have a single scratch. I had a feeling the material was different from mere paper. And as the lass said, the pages were completely stuck together, as if they were glued shut.
“How did that girl open her book?”
At that moment, as if to answer, or rather, to ridicule my question, voices started flowing into the room. The many voices were all speaking simultaneously, so it was hard to make out what they said.
I listened with all my might, because I heard words that I thought to be my language. There were probably thirteen voices flowing in at once, so that everyone in the room could understand. The voices relayed information that was quite important, yet it was not helpful at all. The books each of us were given were “grimoires” – books of magic. We should use them to kill each other. Only two of us were to survive.
The explanation, short as it was, was repeated, without clarifying the exact reason or goal.
“Top-secret mission my ass, deceiving me like that,” I spat out, as I cautiously looked around. In this room without windows or doors there was no place to run. If I wanted to get out alive, I had no choice but to fight.
If everyone in this room were to go all out on killing each other, it would be hard to even leave two alive. Just having one person survive would be pushing it, and if we are not careful, everyone will die. However, I have to avoid being the first at the very least.
The girl that conjured the black hand reached for her book once more, but the guy next to her was faster. The guy raised her by her neck, and wrung it. With a dull sound her limbs lost their strength. One down. I guessed the next victim would be the guy that killed the girl. Anyone becomes defenseless at the very moment they take down their prey, so obviously his back was already targeted. Two people charged at him at once, but not because they conspired. They simply both judged in an instant that this was the most effective action to take. However, the two of them did not kill their target. The moment the girl’s body disappeared in her book, the guy that seemed to be the victor fell to the ground with anguish on his face. Lying motionless on the ground, he, too, was swallowed by his book, and the two books were all that remained. Their covers turned into a green color like jade, and the other amber, both of them forming a peculiar face pattern.
“Use the magic book...,” the lass muttered with a slight tremble in her voice.
The girl that conjured the black hand from her book to kill the guy was acknowledged as the victor because she used this “grimoire”, but the guy that killed her with bare hands was not regarded as such.
“So that’s how it works. Got it.” In this situation, avoiding to be the first to go down is the right answer. That’s why I did not move, and gestured the lass with my eyes to do the same. Now the rules of the game were clear, and I finally had a grasp on the situation.
“But now the problem is, we have no clue how to use this thing."
Don’t laugh. How the hell do you want me to use something as insane as magic? I felt a little grin form on my lips, even though it’s not even funny. I just realized I was heavily shaken. Even when I first faced the Legions I had not felt this disturbed. I just had to do as I was taught in training. Even in unexpected situations, there is always a way out. Because I knew that, I was able to keep my cool. But what do I do here? It’s nothing like in training, and I don’t know if there is any way out. On top of that, three people died right in front of my eyes. In rapid succession. It’s all because of those damn books! I tried to smash the book on the ground with all my might, when somebody grabbed my arm.
“I am happy that there will be two survivors, not one. We can get away with not killing each other. We both can survive. We are lucky.”
I wondered if luck was the right word in this situation. But she smiled at me. Not like the faint smile that I made from losing my mind, but one I could tell came from the bottom of her heart.
“Calm. Everyone else is alone, but there are two of us. When thinking with two heads, we can find the solution faster than all the others.” She was probably right. In here, having someone to communicate your intentions with can be a most powerful weapon.
“Just pointing out, I’m not the brightest out there.”
“I know,” she snickered. The lass hit the cover of her book with her hand, and then she examined the book with an earnest look on her face.
“That person, she was angry. And was almost killed. The black hand is connected to one of those...” Or maybe you have to meet both requirements to use this 'grimoire' thing. Nonetheless, if we had to be on the verge of death to activate this thing, it would not make things easy. Maybe they told us to kill each other in order to clear this very requirement.
“Oh, or maybe...” She raised her head as if realizing something, when suddenly the expression on her face froze. What’s wrong¸ I thought, but I failed to exclaim the question. I thought I saw her stretch out her arms at me. When I felt something hit my back, I realized she had knocked me down. In tilted perspective I saw a gigantic black lance had penetrated the lass’s body. All sound faded away. She must have seen the black hand from over my shoulder. That’s why she suddenly knocked me down. Maybe to return the favor from three years ago, or maybe she...
A book nearby started shining. I rushed to her side. At this rate she was going to be sucked up by the book. I held her in my arms and strongly grasped her hand. Don’t disappear! Please don’t disappear! Her lips moved. What is it? What do you want to say? But I could not understand her language. Come to think of it, I did not even know her name. Because we had never expected to live to see each other again, neither of us had given their name. Suddenly, the heft escaped from my arms, and the hand I held tight seemed to slip out of my grasp as it disappeared.
All that remained of her was a book with a red cover. It was a deep crimson, like the color of blood. The face that formed on it did not bear the slightest resemblance to hers.
Everything went white before my eyes. I cried it out. Merely cried it out. Countless letters I had never seen before appeared, blocking my vision. Yet I kept screaming. All of a sudden the faded sound came back. I heard screaming. And several groaning voices. Many pointed spears were protruding from the floor. With a blank look I gazed how everyone in the room was skewered in a single instant. Due to the strange letters in my sight I had long lost my sense of reality.
Before long, however, my vision returned to normal. A young man was standing on the other side of the room. A triumphant grin formed on his lips, with his book in his hand. This was the guy that summoned the spears from the ground. Apparently the letters had protected me from trouble. I survived. But the thought didn’t make me happy at all. I had no desire whatsoever to laugh in triumph like the guy in front of me, but on the other hand, I did not feel like mourning over the dead either. Frankly, I did not care one bit.
Then, I saw something shining in the corner of my eye. The book. My book started emitting light, even though I had won the fight! The other guy shouted something in a bewildered tone. I guessed he was complaining about how they deceived him by telling the final two to remain would be able to get out of here. Actually, the voices had said “Only two of you are to survive,” but they had not said anything about letting us out. I had a feeling this would happen. The higher-ups in our organization were not a pleasant bunch.
After all, luciferase being a preventive medicine was a downright lie. Even though it can delay the onset of the disease, it cannot prevent infection. I first got wind of the rumor a little while ago. We were deceived, and simply used to suit their convenience. We were given medicine without preventive effects, and thrown in the midst of a huge source of White Chlorination Syndrome infection. The children led away by the piper are all doomed to fall ill and die, sooner or later. Or they turn into monsters, to be killed by their comrades. The situation in this room is probably a human experiment too. From the moment we were collected here, our fates had been sealed.
The guy’s shouting had stopped, and I saw a face form on the now pitch-black book. Just like the lass, it did not bear the slightest resemblance to his original face. However, I’m not sure whether you could say I “saw” it, as my body was already sucked into the book. I cannot see the color of my own cover, though...
Ah, I see. White. The white book – Grimoire Weiss. What a ridiculous name. I can’t hold my laugh. So from now on a new farce begins. Now that we are given new faces, what roles are we to perform?
I just kept on laughing.