金金金The young girl didn’t know how long she had been there, but she had found herself living in an old church as though it was only natural. Outside, she practiced martial arts in its square which had a stately gate that connected to a solid wall. The public order was kept by a local garrison of armed troops.
金金金The current state of the world had been hammered into her via “education”; however, she had not learned anything practical. Perhaps there was some use to it all, but she could not remember any of the geography that she was taught.
金金金She could, however, gain a sense of faraway lands when she raised her eyes to the sky’s great flaming celestial body; only while gazing at the red, shining, sun could she feel creation’s immensity. In that way she grew a fondness for the sight of a cloudless sky. She understood the sun and the heights to which it rose, and it became her primary connection to the outside world. She always enjoyed the warmth of its rays and, above all else, her hair and the sun shared a colour.
金金金With her love for the sun, a distaste for grey skies was only natural. The sound of rain caused her to feel as though her very existence was being erased. The beloved rays that previously warmed her would be blocked by the darkness of rainclouds, and while it was a certainty that she would dislike any day of heavy rain, the worst part was the night that followed one.
“Number 8, number 13! Step forth!”
金金金At the teacher’s signal the two stood; wooden swords gripped in their hands.
金金金At the emotionless signal, the two simultaneously began to practice their combat forms. The children of the church were unnamed; they selected partners and the teachers assigned them numbers. The teachers, in His Majesty’s honour, were to name the children when they came of age. They had once asked about the possibility of naming themselves, but were met with a response of pure anger of such ferocity that the matter was never brought up again. Names were of great significance, and with the help of the church’s teachings, they quickly understood their importance.
金金金The outcome of the practice mirrored a dozen of her prior matches. Her light faint was followed up by swinging with all of her might. She struck repeatedly, making contact each time, and grazed the young number 8’s head. In that time, the young man kicked her with great force and knocked her down. His sword was then quickly thrust to her throat and was followed by the order to stop.
“Number 8, well done.”
“But as for number 13 here, you’re hopeless yet again. Your memory fails you, and your movements are dull. I’m telling you this for your own sake. What a failure.”
“Do you forget that the only reason you’re alive is because of my kindness? By all accounts it wouldn’t be strange to say that it’s too late for you to clean up your act.”
金金金The teachers wore white robes while they taught the children, who would in turn study and train in the church. Their lifestyle was harsh, and there had been an unfortunate number of children who suffered serious accidents. The girl hated her teachers. However many teachers there were, she had trouble differentiating between them. Among them appeared to be one of a particularly high status, but she didn’t really understand. They all had the same face so it couldn’t be helped; not that she had the will to learn. Because they taught with fists, kicks, and harsh words, she had no reason to even try to like them. The most boring part of each day was the teacher’s daily exaltations because of their endless repetition at the end of lessons or training.
“We offer our greatest honours, and most heartfelt gratitude to his majesty Befnam the great!”
“We swear unconditional loyalty to the motherland!”
“May the banner of the Sun, be never sullied!”
“Death to those who would oppose the Horshiedo Empire! For that purpose, we are its sword and shield!”
金金金What were they even supposed to be thankful for? Why did they have to swear their loyalty? The girl couldn’t remember a single thing that could obligate them to dedicate their lives to that kind of cause. Most people had neither the reason nor the will to become like swords, and being sacrificed as shields was even more unthinkable. Because the girl could not think of any sufficient explanations, she honestly asked her teacher.
“His Majesty Befnam, inheritor of our founding father Emperor Bergis’ blood, is the most revered man of our era. It is because of His Majesty that we can exist in peace and tranquility; therefore, we must swear our undying loyalty to His Majesty. We owe a great debt to His Majesty, which we must strive to pay back with all our power.”
金金金If she were to continue such a life, the girl was sure she could find no happiness. After all, she had absolutely no idea what he was talking about.
“Listen well, number 13. To question His Majesty, and thereby our great Empire, is always-unacceptable behavior. You, o insolent one, are to respect His Majesty Befnam as you would your own father, and Horshiedo, our homeland, as you would your mother. You must never forget this one thing; engrave it into that empty head of yours if you have to!”
金金金Still without knowing what it meant, she nodded readily in the face of his anger. Suddenly, she asked if it was okay to refer to His Majesty as ‘dad’. A father had to have a family, and if she truly was that family, then calling him ‘dad’ was the obvious thing to do. That being said, the teacher’s face burned bright red, and he flew into a rage, shouting as he struck her.
金金金With his voice raised, he repeatedly kicked the helpless girl as she curled up on the floor. From that day forward, she harboured a deep resentment for “His Majesty”. In her new eyes, all bad things came from “His Majesty”. She could not understand the need to respect him like a father.
金金金After much thought, she found she also could not understand those who would oppose the banner of the Sun. The banner didn’t even resemble the sun. Compared to the real thing, it was too small, and riddled with fripperous designs. It was a total forgery; not sunlike at all.
金金金Looking at it, she thought: Rather than me, your flag is the failure.
When she shared her opinions with the number 8 boy he advised, “You’ll just anger him again, so it’s best to keep quiet.”
金金金Even though number 8 was a fellow redhead, it seemed he thought quite differently from her. She had even asked him if he honestly saw the sun in that banner.
“Yea, and it’s actually quite good; see how those outlines show the rays. It really captures the sun’s essence doesn’t it,” is what he answered.
金金金To each his own, I guess. She thought.
金金金Her monotonous days in the church continued. For the children around her age, “education” and “training” continued day after day after day; on sunny days, on rainy days, on snowy days; in the morning, afternoon, and night; endlessly repeating again and again. As for reading and writing, it was a given that difficult words were pounded into their heads for memorization. They learned too, how to salute, how to behave around their superiors as well as how to use respectful language. The teachers became superior officers who offered corporal punishment as blessed guidance to those who erred in their ways.
金金金From start to finish, they were taught standardized battle tactics for the purpose of destroying the fools who would oppose His Majesty’s Empire.
金金金For what reason did they stand? The girl would ask, and be beaten for it.
“When you come of age, you will enter His Majesty’s service. In return for your upbringing, you will work hard… Well, not that I expect any of you to survive your test.”
金金金I didn’t really want to bring it up, but I’m leaving now, was what she wanted to say, although she ended up holding in. Once again she sat in her room, thinking about how her compliance felt disgusting. In a room with no signs of light she had repeated that line, “All for the sake of His Majesty.” She had repeated it to the point of madness day after day. Her voice was tired and her throat was dry; it was so bad she might have died. In that place of cyclical suffering, the girl came to hate “His Majesty” to death. She began to think that she’d rather kill than honour him any more.
金金金Through such troubling times, her only enjoyment was found during mealtime, for the gentle smiles of the other children had also faded away. The girl, without laughter, shared her enjoyment of the meals with the others. However, there was a day from which the meals too became dull.
金金金The children were to drink a black liquid. It was a medicine to strengthen the body, but its murky demeanor was more akin to muddy water. Although the other children obediently drank up, the girl couldn’t endure it. Not only was its appearance abhorrent, but its smell was worse than anything she’d ever smelled before. It tasted like rust.
金金金Refusing to go on, and shaking her head, the girl was smacked, and had the liquid forcefully rammed down her throat. Breathing became painful, and she was simultaneously attacked with violent nausea.
“It’s too soon for rejection. Was it diluted to the specified concentration?”
“It was, there’s no mistake. The other children are already okay.”
“… The amount varies from person to person, so even if we calculate it properly, there will always be some anomalies.”
“Why is she the special one? Not that it’d be shocking to lose her… There’s no reason to help now, so why don’t we just clean this up already?”
“Not yet. Let’s treat her for now. She probably won’t survive until the test, but this should serve as a good reference for our ‘Operation Daybreak’. Waste not, want not.”
“Understood. Isolate her, and continue observations.”
金金金The girl walked the line of life and death for three days, ever nearing the abyss. By some miracle, she survived, and from that day on, taking the black drug stopped causing her to vomit blood.
金金金Unfortunately, she hadn’t felt any of its benefits, having been impaired instead. She had been dubbed as the “number one failure,” and was no longer able to recognize people’s faces without great effort. At least the number 8 boy helped ease her burden in any way he could.
金金金She did not know how many years she spent in that uneventful church. Children disappeared, and in their places, new arrivals steadily increased in number. Initially over one hundred strong, they had decreased by half, only to be reinforced by fresh faces. Their numbers had even managed to increase to 200 without her noticing.
金金金The new arrivals already had names rather than numbers, but in the church they were forbidden from using them. Those who rebelled were placed in the room the girl hated most, and for a while, when the time came to sleep, ceaseless cries echoed through the halls. Such a sound caused the girl much grief; ultimately however, the new arrivals gradually acclimated. Nighttime crying gradually transformed into stifled laughter. The girl too found some happiness. The new children knew many things about the outside world. Their stories were always an interesting listen, and the girl worked with all her might to inscribe their every detail into her memories.
金金金The boy numbered 123 was the best of them all; with his extensive knowledge, his stories were always the most interesting ones. When the teachers weren’t looking he’d tell wonderful, enjoyable tales. Through his stories, she was able to gain a good sense of the outside world. She couldn’t quite recognise his face, but she could tell he was a healthy young man with a smile like the sun.
金金金Number 123, in only half of a year, withered away and died. Until his very end, all he could do was moan in pain. It was once again impossible to hear a good story. The girl felt drained.
金金金Number 150, who moved into number 123’s old room was the girl who became her best friend. She had a quivering voice and a face that always appeared about to cry, but it was during this time that she managed to brighten up. Before bed, number 150 would read the girl a picture book that she had smuggled in.
金金金The book she brought featured a cat with the unusual name: Noel. The story revolved around how it left its home, and traveled the world. Because the girl couldn’t recognise the writing in it, number 150 would sneak into her room in order to read to her every night. She crawled into her futon, and the two of them would read until they were too tired to go on, and fell asleep.
金金金The picture book was truly interesting, yet what intrigued the girl most was that even though there was only one book, the story changed each time it was read. One day, the people and animals that Noel met changed along with the locales; one time Noel even defeated a horrific demon. From what she was allowed to touch, the book didn’t feel thick enough for all that.
金金金Whatever the story was, they all had one thing in common. No matter what, there was always a happy ending. The girl could always listen with peace of mind, for after all, sad stories were tedious to hear.
金金金The most fascinating thing was Noel’s crow friend flying towards the sun in one story. Just when it was almost at the sun, it became wreathed in flames, and cooked to death. Shortly after dieing in the flames, the crow became a star in the sky. In her heart, the girl was a little jealous of the crow because of how, despite no longer having a body, it was able to remain nearby the warm rays of the sun. She was sure that the crow found happiness. Upon hearing those words, number 150 made a confused noise. That line of thinking wasn’t normal.
One evening, the girl was so curious she asked, “How can only one picture book, always have a different story in it?”
“… That’s because… it’s a mysterious book. Whenever I begin to read it, it generates a new story. It sure is an amazing book,” number 150 smiled as she replied.
金金金The girl was about to praise what an amazing treasure the book was, but stopped herself when she noticed that number 150’s face looked sad somehow. She wanted to know why that was, but couldn’t find out because she couldn’t see her face too well. Each time she was read the story, the girl began to embrace her one dream. Like Noel the cat, she wanted to find her own happiness. She asked number 150 how to find happiness.
“I don’t really know either. However, if we live long enough to get out of this place, let’s search for it together.”
金金金Their small forms hugged.
金金金The girl whispered, with a strong nod, “It’s a promise,” and number 150 weakly smiled. On the following day, number 150 died. When the girl tried to wake her up in the morning, she found number 150’s body had already gone cold. No matter how many times she shook her, number 150’s eyes wouldn’t open. When she rushed to the teachers, she heard that recently, number 150 hadn’t been eating any of her food.
“It’s your fault. You made her drink that strange black stuff.”
“… No experiment can escape failure. Sometimes, sacrifices must be made for the greater good.”
“… … … You should have died then…”
金金金The girl glared at him with the intent to kill. She expected to be beaten as usual, but her teacher left without a word.
金金金That night, while heading to the toilet, from a room leaking light under the door, she heard a voice.
“His Majesty wants a full report on the experiment and an official investigation. As auditor, I will issue the report.”
“I’ll re-submit mine, so you don’t have to worry about that.”
“I want to know why you keep interfering with my report. This is obviously an abuse of power.”
“Don’t say that; we are on schedule so I know the report will be favourable.”
“It’s going well? Don’t make me laugh. These past few months, the number of deaths increased dramatically. Oh, but on the other hand, you do have some pretty mortifying results!”
“I’m afraid we simply don’t agree, auditor. My Daybreak is very much on schedule. His Majesty’s expectations will not be betrayed. If we leverage what we have, we can easily meet our next target.”
“I’m sorry, but that’s probably impossible. I might not notice some falsifications in a brief examination, but one of your subordinates provided evidence.”
“… I’m sorry, but we don’t need to keep you any longer. This is the end of your wanton meddling.”
“You’re wasting the lives of these children, and besides, deception of His Majesty must end. You will accept full responsibility for this.”
“Don’t think you can get away from this, o hypocrite. You bastards are the same as we are. How many children have had their lives snatched away here? You would deal them the finishing blow by make their sacrifices meaningless, so I can’t understand your logic. No matter what you do, no matter who you ask, they will all tell you the experiment must be completed.”
“Either way, you are under arrest. Please don’t resist, or violent means will…”
“… My Daybreak, my wonderful plan won’t be interrupted at this late a stage!”
金金金Although his angry voice was audible from the teachers’ rooms, none of them responded. A storm of noises ensued, then came the sound of something shattering, all followed by several screams, until finally, the sounds ceased.
金金金In order to never forget number 150, the girl kept her picture book as a memento. It was an important treasure that she intended to never lose. As long as she had it, number 150 would live on in her mind. Nothing would be washed away in the rain.
金金金That said, for some time after, the girl didn’t have the spirit to get anything done. It was the most painful thing that had happened to her in her life. She no longer had a friend to read to her every night, and she could no longer share in her laughter. However, she had no intentions of abandoning her promise to number 150; the promise that number 150 couldn’t keep. If Noel the cat experienced troubles when unable to fulfill a promise, the girl resolved to protect her promise with number 150. But before she could search for happiness in the outside world, she first needed to leave her familiar surroundings.
金金金At every opportunity she asked the teachers, garrisoned soldiers, and even the other children, “How does one find happiness?”
金金金The other children didn’t really know, and were easily stumped. The teachers put on airs, and claimed that, “If you devote yourself to His Majesty, only blessings will befall you,” and, “When Operation Daybreak is completed, you will be able to walk about with great pride.”
金金金What a useless bunch, the girl thought, but still politely nodded to their answers. She had no time to ponder it all in her room for it happened to be a busy time.
金金金Regardless of how many interesting stories she heard, none of the other children knew the answer to her question. What she did find though, was that many of them were willing to share her aspiration.
“If I were to head out, I’d surely want to seek happiness together. If it’s okay with you, would it be alright if I accompanied you?”
金金金After the number 8 boy said that, many of the other children followed suit as they began to flock to the girl who accepted them all with a smile. No matter how many companions joined her, she never became annoyed. She handled the situation with positivity. Their numbers eventually faded to 50, but those children who stayed with her became true comrades. From her heart, the girl was truly grateful.
金金金The final day arrived. The day when the experiment came to an end, the surviving children were to receive names in His Majesty’s honour. The number 8 boy, with a desperation for survival, clasped her hand. Of course, she nodded affirmatively. Looking out, all of the other students were assuring those around them as well.
“Attention all! Until today you have endured well. The final stage of Operation Daybreak is finally to be executed. Those who survive this final test, will be the rare few who transcend their humanity. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call those who survive this: the embodiment of the sun,” with an exhausted face, the teacher began his speech.
金金金She didn’t know when the teacher had become so worn out. At first there had been many, but now there was only him. His face was ragged, and his hair was unkempt. His eyes were hollow, and his musculature had waned to the point of skin and bone. His robe that was once spotlessly white, now was stained here and there in a vivid vermilion.
“Operation Daybreak is not a failure. Don’t let the sacrifices of your brothers and sisters up until today be wasted; you must survive. My… my plan was not a failure, and you are the testament to this truth. My Daybreak has come!”
金金金The teacher, in his excitement, poured a glass of the black fluid. It was still an incomparable black; a darkness so intense that it was clearly visible, even to the girl whose eyesight had continued to dwindle.
“Finally, I shall accompany you all in a toast. With a common spirit I dedicate this to the ‘blood of the sun’, and it is my greatest honour to receive this taste firsthand.”
金金金The teacher, twisting his face into a grin, raised the stagnant glass. The children too raised their glasses.
“In celebration of the success of Operation Daybreak, and to pray for further honour to the Horsheido Empire… We Drink!”
金金金The teacher was the first to drink, his eyes were closed in preparation, and likewise, the children followed suit. The girl muttered a delayed ‘cheers’, and begrudgingly drank, telling herself that it would be the for the last time. On the verge of freedom, she endured.
金金金The reason why she didn’t want to drink it immediately became apparent. She felt a burning in her stomach, and shortly thereafter, not only her stomach, but her whole body began to burn. The teacher had fallen face down, and was screaming in agony. The children too, had all collapsed. The girl had also tried to scream, but the pain was so great, no noise came out. She coughed up something red, and mysterious fluids were running from her eyes and nose.
金金金She heard a loud noise, and before her eyes, a red flame flourished. It was different from the sun’s rays, and wasn’t pleasant at all.
金金金Nobody understood what was happening, but it was instantly apparent to the girl. It felt like the end. She sensed death looming over them as her consciousness faded. Before her darkness fell, a dark red something ―― had lightning like flashes, but the girls senses were already too dull to fully comprehend.
金金金With a hint of something cold pressing against her cheek, the girl’s eyes opened. The area was pitch black, and she didn’t know where she was. An earsplitting sound of buzzing, and dripping water could be heard. While trying to move, there was something soft, and something hard frustrating her attempts. Since there was no other way, she shoved them aside as far as she could, and crawled under them towards a dim light. Something stuck to her hand, and made a disconcerting noise. Like an ant crawling from its nest, she somehow slipped out of wherever she had been. While breathing heavily, she dropped down from exhaustion on the spot.
金金金In heavy rain, the ground had become muddy, and sharp rocks bit painfully into her flesh. Freezing pellets pounded down from on high, stealing her body’s heat. For the moment she stood up to evade the rain, and when surveying the surroundings, she found out exactly where she was. What she had crawled from wasn’t just a hole. It was a grave, and it wasn’t the only one as others dotted the nearby landscape.
金金金At first she didn’t realise it, but in the hole were several corpses. Looking closely, she saw multiple familiar faces.
金金金Were the children from the church buried here?
金金金Old corpses became skeletons, but the fresh ones hadn’t yet lost their original forms. The pile of bodies was riddled with maggots, and the buzzing sound she’d heard was from the adult flies.
金金金The girl was frightened, and stepping back, her foot got caught in another grave. At the feeling of something squishy, she involuntarily jumped. What she had stepped on was the body of a female child. The face was half collapsed, but she had seen it before; it was number 150.
金金金The only face she could clearly recognize was number 150’s because of how close they had been. It didn’t go well when she lifted her foot as some of the corpse’s flesh peeled off of its left arm. It was a gooey chunk of her hand and skin and it carried with it an eery feeling, but she couldn’t bring herself to brush it off.
“It looks like we aren’t leaving together,” the girl muttered as she finally brushed off the hand which crumbled away.
金金金Warm liquid overflowed from the girl’s eyes.
金金金I’m going to find the happiness you couldn’t.
金金金Having thought that, the girl prayed by the grave while weeping. She screamed, and cried, and cried some more. Her weeping voice was lost in the violent rain.
金金金Wailing until it hurt, the girl once again regained her senses. She looked again to her surroundings. Wiping the rain off her face, she stood.
“I survived. I’m the only one to survive.”
金金金The crying girl laughed. Her feelings had exceeded those of terror and grief, and a different mood rose in her. It was joy.
金金金I survived to search for the way to achieve happiness; to keep everyone’s promise. I am the only one who can now.
金金金From her breast, she lifted her most important picture book. The rain and soil had caused it to become tattered. She looked at number 150’s corpse. Rather than leaving the book there, she felt it would be better to bring it with her.
“…Name. What do I do about a name?”
金金金When she’d survived, her teacher was supposed to give her a name; however, the last teacher had probably died himself, not that it mattered. She wasn’t sad for him at all. She couldn’t forgive anyone who would abandon to the grave, a girl who wasn’t dead.
金金金People who can’t keep their word are trash, so their words don’t hold any sway over me. Who would work for His Majesty anyway?
金金金The girl shouted from the bottom of her stomach.
金金金After crying some more, the girl lay down by the graves, and while covered in mud, thought about what her name should be.
金金金The girl opened number 150’s picture book. Although blurred, the image of a hat wearing cat remained barely visible.
“Noel. … That’s it, I’ll go with Noel. My name is, from today onwards: Noel.”
金金金The girl named herself Noel. The hat wearing, strange named, cat had traveled to many places, and always found a happy ending. The girl strongly felt that: Like Noel, I want to find my own happiness.
金金金I’m not number 13 anymore. I’m Noel.
金金金With a nod, she scooped up mud in both hands, and reburied her friends. It would have been in poor taste to leave dead bodies exposed in a field, but more than that, she did it for those who had once been good companions. In the time it took her to finish the job, the rain had stopped, and in its place, Noel’s beloved round sun rose in the sky.
金金金The tired Noel, in the warmth of the sun, decided to sleep on the spot.
“Clear weather days really are my favourite. After all, it warms the body and soul, so I’m sure that everyone appreciates it.”
金金金While Noel was quietly smiling, she slowly closed her eyes.
金金金I’ll search for a way to become happy, and show them all my quiet heart. Then they can rest in peace. Please hang in there just a little while longer.
金金金However many times she repeated it, by the time she finally slept, Noel was at peace.
I’ve now formatted this chapter three times, that happens to conveniently be enough times to know I don’t ever want a job that has anything to do with blog formatting.
On another note, I made an audiobook-like reading of this. If you want to listen to somebody read this story to you, you can. Maybe it will become a thing on OCY, I don’t know.
The editor has yet to write a note here. He didn’t do the re-edit.