Chapter 1 - What Does One Do on New Year's Day? / "Of course, the first visit... and the first curse"
After getting ready to go out, Haruaki and company took a taxi. A bit of laziness during the New Year's first shrine visit hopefully did not warrant divine retribution. Sitting in the car, Fear displayed great enthusiasm on her face while she kept looking in all directions at the scenery of the streets at night outside the window.
"Wow, there's so many people! Even though is clearly the middle of the night, yet legitimately walking outside, this feels so exciting!"
"Yeah~ This scene only happens once a year on this day... Oh, excuse me, mister driver, please take a right at the next intersection."
The destination for their New Year's first visit was a shrine located outside of town. This was not the one near home where Haruaki had gone with Sovereignty once or the shrine where mysterious masked girls had appeared during the autumn festival. However, rather than stopping in front of the shrine, the taxi stopped at the parking lot of a convenience store a certain distance away. After paying the fare, the group got off the taxi.
"Ohoh, Kirika! I wish you a Happy New Year!"
"Haha... Happy New Year, Fear-kun. Likewise to everyone else."
Kirika was there, waiting to meet up with them. When sending a Happy New Year text message, Haruaki had invited her along as well, so that was why she also came.
"Class Rep, I'm sorry for inviting you so last-minute."
"Don't worry, I was just thinking what I should do for the New Year's first shrine visit, so it works out perfectly... Say, you didn't invite Kana and Taizou?"
"I asked them but they've already agreed to go with their families. As for Sovereignty and Shiraho, they didn't respond."
"I texted Sovey-chan too but didn't get an answer. Maybe they've already gone to bed?"
The group chatted while walking towards the shrine. As expected of late night, the wind was really chilly—but Haruaki was already fully prepared for winter. The warm scarf and warm sweater were the Christmas presents he had received from Fear and Konoha respectively. Also, Haruaki was not the only person with proper winter gear.
"Oh... Fear-kun, your gloves are so cute. They look very warm."
"Yeah, they're very warm! Let me share this warmth with you, Kirika. Here you go."
Fear took her gloves and clamped them around Kirika's cheeks, rubbing them to generate heat. Kirika half-closed her eyes as though she were ticklish. Haruaki was glad to see Fear make effective use of Santa's gift. Wonderful. As a side note, Haruaki's present for Konoha was an artist's artbook that she had once mentioned as too expensive; for Kuroe, he had given her an alarm clock to convey a message of "I hope you do your best and never be late for work." Conversely, she had given Haruaki a complete set of kitchen knives as though saying "Do your best with the cooking."
(Come to think of it, a lot also happened... during the Christmas party...)
Haruaki recalled the lively scene from back then. To Kirika, Sovereignty and Shiraho whom he had invited at short notice, Haruaki also gave token little gifts as a gesture of thanks for their everyday support. Haruaki's present for Sovereignty and Shiraho was a pair of matching plush dolls while Sovereignty reciprocated with a gift set of deluxe cream puffs. Haruaki accepted her pastry with endless gratitude. On the other hand, Shiraho smiled with unparalleled radiance, saying: "This is my present. Please don't be shy and eat without reserve." What she handed over was a handful of freshly picked weeds (originating from an empty field on the roadside). This present was discarded with endless gratitude.
At this moment, Kirika coordinated with Haruaki's pace and walked beside him.
"By the way, Yachi... Umm, thank you for a few days ago. Also, I'm sorry but because it was too sudden, all I could prepare was something like that."
"Oh, you mean the mugs? Don't worry, it's totally okay... Rather, it came in handy at the right time. There were some cups that broke earlier so we don't actually have enough. Sometimes when I want to drink coffee, I had to make do with a teacup instead."
Haruaki spoke while recalling Kirika's present, a mug set with various colorful designs. After all, he was the one who invited people to the party at the last minute so he actually felt quite apologetic about it. Furthermore, there was another matter that Haruaki felt apologetic about.
"Say, I'm sorry I gave you a mug as well. Although I've already said this during the party, who could have thought that we'd end up giving the same kind of gift?"
"N-No, it's fine. It happens that the mug I'm using is already quite old... There's no problem at all. In fact, I am using your gift."
"Really? That's great to know."
Kirika spoke rapidly in panic for some reason. Haruaki nodded. But then Kirika murmured in an even softer voice.
"However... Giving each other the same gift, that can be thought of as... connected hearts and minds...? No no, to think I'd get so happy over such a trivial thing... How absolutely ridiculous..."
"Hmm? Class Rep, did you say something?"
"N-Nothing at all!"
"Hey, Haruaki, it's been bothering me for a while. What is that bamboo spear lookalike I sometimes see on the entrance of people's homes? I was thinking it's some kind of trap but there's no point unless it's installed at the bottom of a pit, right? Anyway, it looks quite dangerous."
"That's the New Year's pine decoration! It's not a trap but an ornament that symbolizes good luck, okay!"
While chatting, the group continued walking on their way.
The closer they got to the shrine, the more obvious increasing density of surrounding crowds became. The destination shrine was located on the side of a small hill. The shrine's confines could only be reached by ascending a long set of stairs. Watching the crowd of pilgrims packed shoulder to shoulder, moving up and down the stone steps, Fear stared with her eyes wide.
"What... It's clearly so late, but why are there so many people?"
"This is the power of the New Year's first shrine visit. Only on this day do the number of nocturnal people rise."
"Granted that's true, there's really huge crowds out and about. Everyone, please be careful not to get separated."
"Yeah. In any case, let's go. Be careful not to lose your footing on the stone steps. But even if you take a misstep, it'll just end up as my chance to show off."
"Wait... Kuroe-san, stop saying that while circling to my back! You're planning to grab my bottom again, aren't you!? I absolutely won't take a wrong step, so please relax!"
Then the group ascended the stone steps and stepped into the shrine's vast territory. At this moment, Fear halted in astonishment again.
"Th-This smell, this hustle and bustle, plus the stall vendors... This is basically a festival! It's no different from the festivals I've gone to before! So what you call the New Year's first shrine visit is just a festival!?"
"It's not a wrong description~ Hold it right there, let's browse the vendors afterwards! Afterwards!"
Haruaki frantically grabbed Fear just as she was drawn by the roasted corn vendor, trying to walk there with a mesmerized expression on her face, despite the clear warning just now not to get separated.
"Listen carefully, the New Year's first shrine visit is indeed quite similar to a festival, but it's no ordinary festival. We still have many other things we need to do. That's the main purpose of the New Year's first shrine visit. Definitely not checking out the stall vendors."
"Muu~ Then what do we need to do?"
"Many things. Anyway, let's pay homage first. Then we can walk around."
"Paying homage means doing that thing we did at the festival last time? Ringing the bell and the like."
"Yes yes. And the meaning of paying homage today is a wish for everything to go smoothly in the coming year."
"Hmm. Okay, in that case, it can't be helped. Then let's hurry."
Despite pouting with dissatisfaction, Fear accepted Haruaki's proposal. Konoha and the rest had no objections. Hence, the group made their way towards the shrine's main building ahead along the visiting road. However, the density of people at the main building was even higher than anything they had encountered thus far.
"Gwah~ I'm about to be swept away!"
"Hey, Fear, pull yourself together and follow us closely! Here, toss the offering money!"
"...This is really... tough. Kuroe-san, are you okay? Be careful you don't get flattened."
"I'm fine. If there's any danger, I will use the cushion~"
"Cushion... What? Hey, Kuroe-san, you're targeting my body again, right!?"
"A-Anyway, I just need to toss this out, right... Here I go! B-But it's impossible to make a wish like this! This is completely different from the other festival!"
After braving great hardship to pay their homage, Haruaki's group managed to escape the crowd in front of the offering box. Although it was expected beforehand, they still found themselves squeezed senseless by the crowd.
"Phew... What the heck? The New Year's first shrine visit is like a war?"
"Indeed, this year seems to be even more packed than last year. It's really because the weather report said it'd rain today in the afternoon, I guess? Like us, many people probably plan on paying homage during this time to get it over with as early as possible."
"Probably. What's next?"
"Okay, just to make sure we don't forget, let's go buy talismans."
Hence the group made their way towards a small structure by the side of the main building. Although it was also quite crowded and bustling there, it was not as excessive as in front of the offering box. Welcomed by the smiles of part-time shrine maidens, Fear looked at the talismans laid out in a row.
"Hmm, even the cheapest ones are 500 yen...? That's quite expensive. Since there are different prices, does it mean that the more expensive a talisman the more effective it is?"
"Let's not dwell too deep on that point. After all, these are lucky charms. I think any is fine as long as you buy one. So, which one should I buy..."
"I want this one."
Fear swiftly pointed towards one of the talismans.
"Just in case, let me ask you a question. Do you actually know what's written there?"
"Of course. I'm not too sure about the last two words but I have a faint idea of the top two."
Then there was no problem. In a certain sense, it was only natural for Fear to buy that talisman. Smiling wryly, Haruaki paid for the talisman bearing the words "Great Wishes Comes True." As soon as Haruaki reminded her, "Don't lose it", Fear stuffed the talisman into her coat pocket. Next, Konoha, Kirika and Kuroe respectively bought talismans for "Safety for the Whole Family," "Academic Success" and "Wish for Safe Childbirth." Naturally, it was completely obvious who had bought the last one... But was it really okay to spend 500 yen for a joke?
"Oh my~ This is wonderful. I managed to buy a talisman that suits me very well. Next is... Hmm, the o-mikuji fortune telling. Let's hurry and draw our fortunes~"
"I'll just ignore that in various ways since I can't come up with a retort that's worth 500 yen. But you're right, let's go draw our fortunes."
"Okay, Ficchi, let's go. I'll pay for you."
"What are o-mikuji fortunes?"
"What a great question. O-mikuji is the first luck-testing contest of the incoming year. First you put in a 100 yen coin here, then you pour forth all the energy of your body and soul to draw a piece of paper—Based on the rank you receive, it decides on the winners and losers for an entire year's luck!"
"What apart from the battle at the offering box just now, there's another huh... I knew it, the New Year's first shrine visit is quite a battle-oriented activity! Okay, Kuroe, demonstrate to me first. Kirika, you can draw first too. I want to see what will come up."
Approaching the o-mikuji box on the stand, Kuroe inserted a 100 yen coin then reached into the box to mix up the contents for a while—
"Heya! Uh... Hmm, it's Middle Fortune."
"What rank does Middle Fortune count as?"
"Not bad at all, but it's not the best, so I might still lose! So, the inside reads.. «Running a Business: Working Seriously Means Fortune» huh? Muu... If it were «Boundless Wealth and Prosperity Arrives, No Working Required», that'd be better."
"A fortune can't possibly suggest people to become depraved, okay!"
"Haha, then let me draw first... Hmm, I got Middle Fortune as well. Pretty ordinary, I guess. A-Although it's absolutely ridiculous, I'll open it up for a look as well. Let me see... «Singleminded Effort Is Enough», what's that supposed to mean...? Does it imply hope? Or is it tactfully...!"
For some reason, Kirika stared intently at the inner text of the fortune paper and murmured emphatically. Haruaki secretly puzzled to himself: Was Class Rep really the type to take fortune telling seriously?
"So this means that Kirika and Kuroe have a tie. By the way, Kuroe, what's the lowest rank?"
"Probably Great Misfortune. But I don't know if they actually put it in, so Misfortune is generally the lowest rank available."
"Misfortune, simply the sound of that name sounds quite unlucky. The contents must be some kind of ominous prediction as well, such as «Running a Business: Shop Catches on Fire», or «Disease: Vomit Blood and Die Two Seconds Later», etc...! Things are over in all sorts of ways for someone who draws that kind of fortune. Even if there's a mistake somewhere and they survive somehow, confronted with people who drew good fortunes, these guys will surely live a whole year of inferiority, unable to hold their heads up high... Hehehe, how I look forward to it. Okay... Cow Tits, let's see who's the winner! You're on!"
"W-Why are you suddenly getting so excited!?"
Since Konoha had inserted a 100 yen coin and reached into the o-mikuji box already, the troublesome thing was that "not drawing" was no longer an option for her. After hesitating for a while, she finally gulped as though resolving herself. Then she carefully moved her hand through the o-mikuji paper. Of course, Fear was standing behind Konoha, arms raised and bent in hook shapes, trying to give off mental waves of evil: "Misfortune... Misfortune... Great.. Misfortune...!"
Several seconds later, Konoha suddenly widened her eyes.
"Here! This is the one!"
Then she drew her hand out. Using a motion akin to flicking her finger, she pointed thumb towards her abdomen and gently sliced open the o-mikuji paper's seal with the power of her knife hand. Then with incomparably serious eyes, she gazed upon what was written on the paper—
She smiled proudly.
"Fufu! Everyday good deeds don't go unrewarded after all... I got Great Fortune!"
"What did you say...!?"
Faced with Fear's astonishment, Konoha puffed out her chest proudly.
"Fear-san, you really dug your own grave. All because you keep trying to put down others, this happened. Oh dear, Great Fortune really is quite nice. There was also quite lucky things written inside... Well then, Fear-san, it's your turn next, right? What did you just say? I recall you saying something about losers in this o-mikuji contest being unable to hold their heads high in front of the winners? What a great idea, let's compete. Come, please draw your fortune... Ufufu."
Smiling calmly, Konoha nimbly switched positions with where Fear was standing.
"Ugh, you damn Cow Tits... Making me so mad this early in the new year...!"
"Ficchi, good luck~! With this, your only hope is a tie... Don't worry, you can do it since you're Ficchi! Probably!"
Kuroe tossed in the 100 yen coin for Fear. With that, everything was ready. Fear bit her lower lip and prayed hard as she drew the o-mikuji paper. Supposing Fear drew Misfortune this time, that would be the worst case scenario. Although Fear deserved it, Haruaki hoped at least that this would not end up starting a feud. If it came up as Middle Fortune, he could say "What a shame" and smooth things over with a smile. A tie would be even better.
(W-What's the result...?)
Rip, Fear nervously tore open the o-mikuji paper's seal, then slowly looked at what was written inside—
But at this moment, Fear went "Hmm?" and cocked her head in puzzlement.
"Kuroe, I've drawn a fortune that's a bit strange. However, I can recognize the word 'fortune' at least."
"Oh... Is it Future Fortune?"
"No, it isn't, there are three words. I know this word. If I read it literally—"
Fear proceeded to speak in a doubtful tone of voice:
"Devil's Great Fortune—Those are the three words."
"What is that!?"
"It's real." Fear showed them the o-mikuji paper. Haruaki took it while Konoha and the rest leaned forward to examine it.
"Uh, it's real. What is this?"
"I've never heard of it either..."
Indeed, the three words—"Devil's Great Fortune"—were written there. The contents were all good things such as "Wishes: Definitely Come True" or "Disease: None, Disaster Avoided."
"This is too good to be true, one can't help but feel skeptical..."
"After all, some shrines also have 'Great Great Fortune' too~ This could be an original type innovated by this shrine!"
"Even so, the word 'devil' shouldn't be used, right!? Simply because of the literal impression!"
"I don't quite get it, but this means I have the devil's own luck, right!? Hmph hmph... How unfortunate, Cow Tits, your despicable intentions have fallen apart utterly! This time, it's my victory without a doubt!"
"H-How could that be possible... No wait, it must be that, someone may have thrown it in as a prank!"
Just as Konoha frantically objected, a couple that had been standing in line after Fear took their turn to draw. This couple consisted of a man and a woman whose appearances were quite out of place in a shrine. The man was wearing a leather jacket with a skull emblem and the words "Go To Hell!!" on it while the woman had heavy makeup. Next, their dialogue could be heard—
"Wow, it's Devil's Great Fortune!" "What's that?" "You didn't know? There's a rumor on the internet that starting this year, Devil's Great Fortune will be added to this shrine's o-mikuji. Getting it is just awesome~"
Konoha slumped her shoulders with incomparable dejection.
"Hmph hmph, Cow Tits, I admit that your Great Fortune is quite a good result. Had your opponent not been me, you'd surely win—Don't be offended, blame my luck for being too good! Yes! No matter what, a win is a win. A full year would be excessive, but at least let me gloat for today! Wahaha!"
"O-Okay okay, why don't we just think of it as both of you drawing good fortunes? I almost forgot, let me draw one as well. Then our task is almost complete. Afterwards, we can take our time to watch performances and visit the vendors—"
After all, New Year's and the first shrine visit only came around once a year. Haruaki did not want anyone to be upset by a dispute and hoped they could all enjoy themselves. In order to make Fear and Konoha forget about the o-mikuji contest, Haruaki casually drew a fortune.
Who knew if it were a prank from the god of probability or perhaps good things went to those who were not greedy...
The three words—"Devil's Great Fortune"—were also written on the fortune that Haruaki had drawn.
From the girl's standpoint, this had nothing to do with her.
From her family's standpoint, however, today was the busiest day in the entire year. There was no doubt about this fact.
However, she was not working. Because she knew that her family's work did not actually need her help. In the living room of her home behind the shrine office, she was sitting on a seat cushion, staring down blankly at the piece of paper in her hand.
A few lines of organized handwriting recorded what she needed to do and pay attention to. However, the writings ended with—"Don't force yourself too much. Just do it whenever you have the time."
Still with a lost expression, she gently traced her fingertips without particular intent over those words. Both beautiful and carefully written, the handwriting had become all too familiar a long time ago, furthermore—
It was quite nostalgic too.
Narrowing her eyes, she shook her head lightly as though disapproving of this kind of mood for herself. Next, she hugged the piece of paper tightly to her chest before carefully folding it up and putting it in her pocket.
Sighing, she then turned on the television in a lethargic manner and randomly picked a channel, staring at the screen. Her blank gaze was identical to earlier but carried a slightly different significance. Currently, her eyes expressed purely the sentiment of being bored out of her mind.
At this moment, another person who had been standing ready on the side all this time spoke up:
"Please allow me to ask in fear and trepidation... Is it really okay for us to stay inside~?"
"Why must we go outside? That's the whole purpose of hiring part-timers, right? Those girls are more suited to the job than me... Hmph, having said 'suited,' who knows how many of them are actually virgins?"
She smiled in mockery. The other person inclined her head:
"A shrine maiden's virginity huh~ Regarding this aspect, I think a person's heart and soul can probably compensate for it~"
"Haha, my soul is absolutely the most filthy. In this regard, it's really best to leave things to them after all."
"Really~? By the way, let me ask just out of personal curiosity, what about your physical body...?"
The girl's gaze remained glued to the television as she extended her arm and pinched the face of the other person who was speaking slowly.
"Owww, please allow me to say in fear and trepidation... It really hurts..."
"Hurting you is exactly the point. You deserve it for saying something so rude. This topic ends here. Capish?"
Although the voice showed no signs of reflection or contrition, this was already a familiar sight. After one final twist, the girl finally released the other person's cheek. At this moment, a cellphone that was lying on the table began to vibrate. The LCD screen displayed an unfamiliar series of digits.
In that case, the caller's position was automatically identified.
"Even on this kind of day... My side business can't possibly lack in customers."
The girl smiled once again, but with even more derision than before.
Picking up the phone casually without any haste, she began an conversation with a complete stranger.
"Yes—I am the curse expert. Do you have a request for a job?"
Due to the shrine's location on the side of a small mountain, making judicious use of the geography naturally resulted in a rather vast expanse. Surrounding the visiting road was an area resembling a plaza where various activities were unexpectedly being carried out in addition to the vendor stalls. The local neighborhood association was apparently helping out as well. No matter which activity, all of them were crowded with enthusiastic participants. But sure enough, the real deal was probably going to start only after dawn. Hence, one could still participate after lining up briefly.
The first thing to catch Fear's attention was the New Year's calligraphy contest. Apart from penmanship, participants were also judged on the uniqueness of their subject matter as well as the vigor of their brush strokes and other criteria. The top few participants in each category would supposedly receive prizes another day. This was what Haruaki read from the display board explaining the prizes.
"The prizes include stuff like detergents. Despite being so ordinary, it's gratifying... But that's assuming we win a prize."
"No problem, leave it to us! Right? Kuroe!"
"Yeah, it looks quite interesting so let's try entering. Kono-san, you're joining too, of course?"
"O-Of course, I guess? Hmm, although I'm also quite familiar with brush calligraphy... It can't be helped, let's try participating. Haruaki-kun and Ueno-san, what about you two?"
"I don't have much confidence in brush calligraphy, so I'll leave it to you all."
"Same here, I really wouldn't dare call myself a calligraphy expert. I'll just observe from the side."
Hence, it was finally decided that the trio of Fear, Konoha and Kuroe would enter the contest. Sitting down at the tables prepared under the tent, they each gripped their brushes tightly while facing the rice paper before them. Naturally, the first to begin writing fluently in full composure was Konoha.
"Happy... New... Year's... Wishes... Basically something like this?"
Her calligraphy was quite beautiful. "Wow~ Miss, you write quite well!" The staff exclaimed, greatly impressed. Fear heard this just as she was dipping her brush into the inkstone and frowned with displeasure.
"Hmph... Writing those few words is so unoriginal. Granted, the writing is passable but really lacks in creativity. What you lack is called self-expression. In that case, you'll definitely not get number one... If you wanna write four words, I suggest you put down 'round, stout and rolling'! If you just wanna write one word, I simply suggest you write 'meat'!"
Just as Konoha's face twitched, Fear refused to admit defeat and wrote in one breath. Naturally, the four words that came out were—
"I. Love. Rice. Crackers... That's just awesome—!"
"What right have you to criticize me? What kind of self-expression is this!? All this expresses is your gluttony!"
Watching the girls while standing beside Haruaki, Kirika whispered as her shoulders shook lightly:
"Fufu... On the other hand, her brush strokes are truly full of vigor. They're filled with power."
"As for the neatness of the characters, it's so poor that even I can tell. Oh no! Fear's making a face as though something's missing while she's starting to examine the rice paper...! I know, she must be thinking that it'd look more tasty with the words 'sesame' or 'soy sauce' somewhere in there!"
Just as Haruaki watched with great worry as Fear acted as she pleased for her New Year's calligraphy, Kuroe, who had been writing her brush script leisurely all this time, finally held up her sheet of rice paper.
On it, a line was written: "So long as it's Onii-chan, I'm okay with it...!"
Very clearly, her main goal was aiming for uniqueness in subject matter. However, since that line was too unique, even Haruaki could easily predict that she was definitely not winning a prize.
From the way things looked, from the fortune drawing all the way to the New Year's calligraphy battle, Fear's contest of opposition was still persisting.
Haruaki pretended to be a stranger while watching the scene. Next came the mochi-making corner where participants could try their hand at the experience of making rice cakes.
"GO. AND. DIE—!"
"—Don't think... you'll win!"
Pounding, kneading, hammering, more kneading.
The wooden mallet rose up and down, pounding the mochi rice paste while another person was kneading barehanded. Both processes were being performed at high speed. Swinging the wooden mallet with full strength was Fear while the one stirring the mochi fast enough to produce afterimages was Konoha.
"E-Excuse me... I've already reminded both of you many times, this is very dangerous. Please slow down a bit... Umm, please make sure that the other person's hands are withdrawn before pounding..."
Completely ignoring the staff's awkward reminders, the two girls continued to work the mochi with great intensity. At this moment, Fear suddenly made a feint, pausing for a beat before swinging the mallet down. Instantly, a strange sounding crack was heard. The staff's face went deathly pale in a flash.
Fear and Konoha stopped their motions while staring at each other fearlessly.
"...Well, isn't that quite amazing of you?"
"That's because you dodged despite my feint just now. This counts as a win and a loss each."
"This mass of mochi, don't you think it needs a bit more working?"
"Okay, a decisive victory must be decided this time..."
"U-Umm, didn't the mallet strike someone's hand just now...?"
Fear and Konoha simultaneously turned towards the staff with a most terrifying smile. Maintaining that smile, they declared: "What are you talking about? No one was struck at all." Then they continued pounding the mochi at high speed—But Haruaki saw it with his own eyes. At the tip of the wooden mallet in Fear's hands, there was a faint crack resembling a laceration from a sword.
"Power and technique combined, this mochi will definitely become very tasty."
"...Yeah, can't wait to see how it turns out..."
Haruaki could only answer helplessly in response to Kuroe's leisurely comment.
Eating the rice cakes obtained from the mochi-making experience corner, the group took a stroll within the shrine's confines.
"Muunyuu. Umuu, so tasty. And I won again, this feels great."
"I should be the final victor. Do note that I dodged in the very last instant!"
"What are you talking about!? Don't spout random nonsense or I'll curse you!"
"Okay, both of you calm down. After all, tasty rice cakes were made, that's good enough already..."
"Th-That's right, you both worked the mochi so seriously that the rice cakes have great elasticity. It's really delicious."
"Yeah, and in terms of ingredients, rice cakes are virtually the same as rice crackers. Ficchi, you should get a good taste of this."
"That's true, now that you mention it. Fine, I'll concentrate on eating the rice cakes first."
"Seriously... Ah, but these really do taste good."
Kirika and Kuroe also tried to smooth things over. Fear and Konoha's verbal dispute finally reached a ceasefire. Haruaki's group leisurely experienced the atmosphere of the New Year's first shrine visit through tasting various simple flavors. Inside the area of nostalgic New Year games, they casually watched spinning tops and stilts-walking performances. Meanwhile, they also finished eating their rice cakes.
"I'm so full! Eating to my full is all good and well, but I'm feeling thirsty now. That's because during the homage paying battle and the mochi competition, I exerted and sweated more than expected."
"Yeah~ Let's see if there's any place selling drinks..."
"Hold on, Haru. Since it's the New Year's first shrine visit, the timing's perfect. We should check out that place now."
Where Kuroe pointed to was a tent where amazake, a sweet low-alcohol drink made from fermented rice, was being served to shrine visitors. It was apparently the most popular spot, with many people gathered there despite the late hours.
"Hey Haruaki, does amazake literally mean sweet-tasting sake as its name suggests?"
"It's not sake but just a drink with that name."
"Called sake but not actually sake, that's totally mind boggling. But since it's got the word 'sweet' in its name, it can't be bad tasting. I wanna try some!"
"Hmm... Although it suits the occasion, is it really okay?"
"The alcohol content should be quite low, probably something like whiskey-filled chocolate. Seeing as it can help warm the body and it's not something that minors are barred from drinking, I think it should be fine."
"Since Class Rep says so, I guess it's fine. Okay, let's go over... Hmm, Konoha, why do you look so unsettled?"
"Eh? I-I don't look unsettled at all. Ahaha~"
Konoha made a rather fake laugh. Despite feeling puzzled, Haruaki went along with the plan and lined up in front of the amazake tent. Not long after, they finished lining up and successfully obtained the amazake served in paper cups.
"There's a distinctive flavor... Will it taste good?"
"I don't expect it to be good enough to knock your socks off with the taste, but how should I put it...? It's a very flavorful taste, though that's a weird description too."
Fear stared intently at the paper cup before throwing her head back and downing the amazake in one gulp. Crap! Haruaki had forgotten to remind her that amazake should not be drunk in one breath.
"Fear, how do you find the taste?"
"Pwah~ M-Muu, this... is really... A flavorful taste... However, I don't dislike it. Let's try another. Burp!"
Haruaki suddenly felt a rather ominous premonition but Fear had already lined up at the amazake tent again. After all, a banner said "Refills welcomed" so there should not be a particular need to stop her. Nevertheless—
"What's going on? Somehow I get the feeling that someone is saying to me that it'd be wise to take this opportunity to stop her..."
"Yachi, what a coincidence. I feel the same too."
Kirika took small sips of amazake while murmuring to herself. Just at this moment—
"Uh~ Actually, I'm feeling the same ominous premonition too. However, the reason is probably slightly different from Haru and Kiririn's. No wait, rather than different, it's more like there's an additional reason for worry."
Kuroe walked over and tugged Haruaki's sleeve. Following her gaze—Haruaki was rendered speechless while agreeing with Kuroe from the bottom of his heart. Worrying. Truly worrying. Rather, he should have done everything he could to stop that person, but it was clearly too late now.
Haruaki had failed to notice all this time.
Next to the amazake booth was a tent carrying the sign "New Year's Spiced Sake." Over there—a glasses-wearing girl with twin braids had just successfully obtained the sake of the gods and was about to bring it to her lips.
The girl owned a set of workclothes. An outfit that was simultaneously both suited and unsuited to helping with her family's line of work. But for the sake of her side business, she had no choice but to wear this set of clothing.
Inside her messy room, she finished changing and preparing for her work. Glancing at the time displayed on her computer, she twisted her lips.
"The time is really just right, so let's head out..."
Just as she opened her room door and was about to start walking, she suddenly felt perplexed. Footsteps were supposed to follow her but she did not hear any. Turning her head back to look into the room, she heard at this moment—
A bell ringing, almost imperceptibly like a hallucination.
"...A divine oracle?"
Her brief question elicited a slow nod from the other girl who was still inside the room. The girl lightly put down the her hands that had been positioned by her ears as though to facilitate listening.
"Please allow me to say in fear and trepidation... However, it's very short."
"What did it say?"
"Some interlopers will be arriving."
The first girl took the words at face value and did not ponder them any deeper. This was because she knew that even if she demanded what these words meant, there was no way to obtain additional information. Furthermore, the person who provided this news did not know any further information apart from what she had just said.
The girl answered vaguely and spontaneously glanced again at the time displayed on the computer screen.
The witching hour.
This was only natural—The girl thought. It was also not surprising that someone would arrive to interfere with the act that was about to be performed at such hours, the act best suited to be performed at such hours. The other party was in the right. They were in the wrong.
Hence, she must do this.
In the end, there was no change to the act that followed next.
—Except, as preparation prior to starting the job, she added more to the tools she was taking from her room.
Naturally, Haruaki was not able to make it in time.
There was a resting zone near the tents where quite a number of chairs were set up. This place was currently occupied by drunks.
"Kukuku, ahahaha! Amazake... so sweet~ Isn't it? Burp!"
"Hey Fear, that's why I told you to stop drinking! Stop pouring amazake down your throat!"
"Phew... Why do I feel... So hot... Is it because of the heat from the lighting!?"
"Konoha, don't fan your skirt even if you're feeling hot! It's very dangerous in various ways!"
"How is it... dangerous... huh? Ah, it really feels so hot... My thighs must be all red... Wanna look?"
"Of course not!"
"Eh? D-Does that mean... you wanna lick...?"
"I-I don't want to lick it either! What are you talking about!?"
For some reason, Konoha found this conversation hilarious and started laughing with her shoulders shaking. What a disaster, the long-absent drunk Konoha had reappeared. Of course, Haruaki would never allow her to drink alcohol at home. Were they at the shrines near home, she would still suppress her urge to drink because of acquaintances at the neighborhood association, but unfortunately, this was a different and unfamiliar neighborhood association. Upon seeing her well-developed figure and mature comportment, it was quite improbable that they would deem her a minor and refuse to serve her the spiced sake. Perhaps due to high spirits from the New Year's first shrine visit or in an effort to relieve the frustrations from competing with Fear, Konoha probably thought that "drinking just a little should be okay" and could not suppress her desire for alcohol.
Considering Konoha's true age, drinking a bit on occasion should not really be a problem. On the other hand, why was her alcohol tolerance so poor? Furthermore, after getting drunk, she would act in ways that seemed to flaunt her voluptuous figure...!
In addition, there was another person that Haruaki needed to pay close attention to apart from Konoha.
"Huff... I also feel... quite hot too... But... I'm not gonna... act like Cow Tits. No, no matter what. So... I'm cold. Ohoh, so cold so cold... Hmm~"
Saying that, Fear began to cling tightly to Haruaki who was sitting in a chair next to her. Not only did she use her arms, but for some reason, she also wrapped her legs around Haruaki's waist.
"Huha, so warm~ Haruaki, your body is... so warm..."
"Aren't you cold? If you're cold... Say so. Yes, then I'll... help you... help you like this..."
Fear took off her gloves and stuck her hands under Haruaki's clothing. Aiming accurately above his belt, she broke through all the defenses of Haruaki's clothes and went straight for his stomach.
"H-Hold on, it's very ticklish...!"
"Mmfu? Mmfufu... You don't like... this? Hey Haruaki... You like this, right?"
Fear's hand continued to move. The sensation of her small hands caressed his skin, around the navel and the flank. Then the small hands gradually moved up and scratched his chest area with her fingernails.
(D-Damn it, this girl... To think she'd get drunk this easily...!)
Unlike Konoha, Fear had not drunk any spiced sake. All she imbibed were a few cups of amazake only. Who could have thought that she would end up in this state?
"That's~ so~ unfair~ —I want it too... Haruaki-kun's warmth..."
For some reason, Konoha never acted in opposition to Fear in these kinds of situations. While Fear was climbing the left side of Haruaki's body from the front, in contrast, Konoha was embracing him tightly behind from the right. Those excessively soft and massive objects, carrying a sensation that could not be ignored, were pressing against the top of Haruaki's neck. For some reason, Konoha was also panting, and just like Fear, she was trying to reach her hand into his collar—
"Ohoh~ Drats, I'm too late because I was too busy taking pictures... Maybe I should hurry and get drunk now to join in with you guys!"
"K-Kuroe-kun, what are you talking about!? Absolutely ridiculous, how absolutely ridiculous! Hey, you two, behave yourselves! U-Umm, as the class representative, I absolutely cannot stand aside and condone this! Get away from Yachi right now!"
Perhaps bringing assistance from heaven, Kirika, who had been watching the two girls' embarrassing behavior in wide-eyed shock all this time, suddenly regained her senses and walked over to them. Despite her blushing cheeks, she still intended to pull Konoha and Fear away by force—
"Oh dear, Ueno-san... Would you like to drink together? Rather, you must drink, right? After drinking, your mood will be much more uplifted..."
"Oh~ Kirika~ You look quite cold too. Let me warm you up, warm you up~"
"Kyah! Wait... Konoha-kun, Fear-kun, hurry and wake up now...!"
However, reality was harsh and Kirika's words failed to reach their ears. The two girls quickly switched targets from Haruaki to her, almost hanging themselves over her while they began to touch and explore her body. Haruaki took this opportunity to straighten his clothing. Feeling it would be inappropriate to watch, he also turned his gaze away from the scene.
"Mmm... H-Hey! Not... there..."
"Your body really is quite cold. That's no good, since you're a girl after all. So... Come, Ueno-san, have a drink as well... Here."
"That's right, have a cup of this. Here!"
"Nguh!? Mmm... Mmm..."
Just as Haruaki finally turned his gaze back towards them, he found Fear and Konoha forcing their paper cups to Kirika's lips. Staring wide-eyed, Kirika gulped as though she was unable to resist any longer. The spiced sake and amazake cocktail was slowly absorbed into her body.
Then with a thud, Kirika collapsed and sat on the floor with her head bowed down. Oh no! Just as Haruaki tried to get up from his chair, Kuroe ran over from somewhere.
"This is the friendly Kuroe-chan delivery express. Anyone need a refill~? Currently, the only options in stock are one cup of amazake and two cups of spiced sake~"
"Of course, please give me the spiced sake."
"Oh~ Gimme the amazake~"
"How odd... My throat feels like it's burning up... Ah, so thirsty. Anything will do, give it to me now."
"Come come come." Kuroe took the three paper cups in her bosom and handed them to the three girls. Yes, three girls.
After a while, having received the spiced sake from Kuroe, Kirika slowly looked up. Her cheeks were fiery red while she stared blankly with glazed eyes. Then—finally, even Kirika raised the paper cup and downed the liquid in one gulp. For Haruaki, this scene of reality was a total nightmare. Next, Kirika stood up unsteadily.
"How should I put this...? Indeed. I have many things to say to you. You're always so indecisive and excessively kind. You never voice your dislikes even when you're facing them. And whenever you encounter unlucky things—"
"Ohoh, so cold so cold. I'd better return to Haruaki's warm embrace~"
"Come come, let me warm you up. Ufufu, Haruaki-kun, ufufu...?"
The three girls approached Haruaki step by step. As though saying "another shutter moment has arrived!", Kuroe simply held up the camera in her hands. No one stepped up to assist him. No one at all...
"W-Wait a sec, could you all calm down!?"
"I am very calm, how absolutely ridiculous—hic! Listen carefully. The first thing I want to ask you is this. Although you keep enjoying distractions, ultimately, you prefer slender figures? Or more voluptuous ones? Or something in between would be best, exciting you with a feeling that things are just right? Something like that—Hey, roving eyes are not allowed!"
"That's right, no roving eyes~"
"Haruaki-kun, please watch very carefully... Starting now, I shall... warm you up... very well... Haruaki-kun..."
For some unknown reason, Kirika's face was filled with anger while Fear and Konoha were making seductive expressions. Although Haruaki tried to stand up and flee, the three girls surrounded completely him with ghost-like footsteps. Ah, these must be vengeful ghosts. No mistake about it, these girls were currently vengeful ghosts.
Amidst despair, Haruaki could not help but think. Could it be that his o-mikuji fortune earlier did not mean "having the devil's own luck"—Rather, it actually implied "despite your great fortune, you will encounter demons and disasters."
Roughly an hour later—
"Hmm~ What have I been doing up until now...? My brain feels like it's in a daze. I can't recall at all."
"Let me tell you, there are things in this world that are better left forgotten..."
Far away from the noise and bustle of the New Year's first shrine visit, Haruaki's group had gone to a field outside the shrine's confines. This was a spot in the forest that appeared to be a walking trail without anyone around. Haruaki had chosen it, thinking that a peaceful and quiet environment along with the chilly wind of the night would be just right for the girls to wake up from their drunken stupor.
Some more time passed after that. Perhaps unable to bear the sight of Fear and the others embarrassing themselves any further, Kuroe decided to stop providing them with alcohol. While Haruaki endured during this time, Fear and the girls gradually regained their sanity. Hence, they decided to take a stroll to walk off the drunkenness.
"Hmm... I was going to suggest treating it as celebrating the New Year, but perhaps I might have gotten a bit carried away? I'm currently reflecting~"
"That's right. Seriously."
Haruaki threw a glance from the side, causing one of the main culprits, Konoha, to shrink her shoulders in embarrassment:
"Umm... I'm currently reflecting too. Oooh, I clearly thought that if it were just a single cup, it would probably be okay... At any rate, it feels like something quite outrageous happened, so let's just forget it! Yes, forget it!"
"Seriously... Seriously... Such an embarrassment... Absolutely ridiculous..."
Kirika was covering her face in her hands and shaking her head left and right as though expressing regret from the bottom of her heart.
"However, those girls are the ones who forced you to drink after all... Say, Class Rep, you don't have drinking experience? Oh right, we're all underage, so having no drinking experience is the norm."
"Th-That goes without saying! This is society's rule so I've never drunk alcohol before! Furthermore, it's because «Gimestorante's Love» does not cure internal abnormalities very well... Arghh, that said..."
Kirika sighed in depression, at a loss for words. Yes, Kirika could very well be considered one of the victims.
In any case, Fear must be forbidden from drinking beverages such as amazake from now on. Haruaki committed this firmly to memory and continued strolling leisurely.
"But anyway, this place is so quiet. What a great place suited for a leisurely walk. There are no other people too."
"After all, it's still the early hours of New Year's Day. Putting the New Year's first shrine visit aside, nobody normally goes wandering in the backwoods of the shrine in the first place... Were it not for our entourage of drunken minors, making a completely embarrassing display of themselves, we wouldn't have to escape to a desolate area either."
"M-Muu... I only drank the amazake because you guys said it's okay. It's not like I drank it deliberate to get drunk! So ultimately, it's all Cow Tits's fault! I'm not to blame at all!"
"Why do I feel unable to raise objections against you at this time...? Hoo~"
Only scattered moonlight streamed through the forest as the lightly blowing wind caused leaves and branches to rustle. Fear was right, it was really quiet. Since they had been immersed in excessive noise until earlier, taking an occasional quiet walk like this was not bad at all. While Haruaki was enjoying this serenity as they advanced slowly, before he knew it, he was trailing furthest back in the group together with Fear.
Haruaki glanced at the quivering silver hair beside him.
"By the way... How do you feel about this?"
"Hmm? About what?"
"Uh, I mean stuff like New Year's and the first shrine visit. These are all new to you, right? Basically, all the required customs are finished, so I wanted to know your impressions."
"Umuu, it feels like a festival, so I'm very happy! By the way, the New Year's first shrine visit is basically a festival!"
Instantly, Fear spoke with rapture. "That's wonderful." Haruaki smiled wryly. Even though this was business as usual for the rest of them and nothing original, it was different for Fear. She was coming into contact with all this for the first time. Every time she recounted her impressions of first experiences with a smile, Haruaki felt an incredible sense of freshness. As much as he always took everything for granted, they were actually quite wonderful things—It felt like he was experiencing the value of these activities anew.
"But putting the New Year's first shrine visit aside, I don't feel like I've experienced New Year activities fully yet. The so-called New Year's first shrine visit is just a part of New Year activities, right?"
"Yeah, I guess."
"Apart from the first shrine visit, what else do people do for New Year's? Speaking of New Year, there should be other activities, right?"
"Hmm~ What else huh... But I think you've already experienced many activities... Such as New Year's calligraphy or making mochi rice cakes, you already played with those earlier. Karuta card games... That was sort of covered at home, plus the Lucky Laugh. You also saw the top spinning and stilts walking."
"Ohoh!" Fear's eyes glimmered as she recalled the various sights.
"So you mean those things that people were playing with back at the plaza! How should I put say this? They look like games that need quite a bit of skill... I've heard that children in the past used to play these games, are all Japanese like this? Everyone has to undergo circus training? Making tops spin so fast nonstop just by pulling a string and walking on those tall and unsteady stilts... It's truly unbelievable!"
Fear was happily gesturing with her arms and legs while she spoke, most likely recalling the sights she saw at the New Year games zone earlier. When talking about spinning, she also spun her body as well to imitate the top's speed. Instantly, her silver hair was spread out like an umbrella and kept spinning.
"Haha, I think that tops can be spun easily after a little getting used to. Uh, but for you, I guess walking on stilts would be a little problematic..."
"W-What are you talking about!? Who are you calling heavy? I'll curse you!"
"I didn't say anything yet! But true, I was going to point out this critical matter! No wait, let's get back to the topic, about other typical New Year activities huh... Right, there's the New Year's g—"
Haruaki frantically shut his mouth. In his attempt to change the subject from Fear's weight, he seemed to have inadvertently touched on an even more dangerous topic.
"New Year's g—What?"
"N-Nothing. Uh~ What else is there~? Other activities huh~ Hahahaha."
Haruaki laughed drily and averted his gaze but Fear glared intently at him sideways. What a crisis. Were it on the level of a Christmas present, it would not have mattered, but in consideration of living expenses, there was no way for Haruaki to shoulder the burden of New Year's gifts and he hoped that the girls could understand that. Furthermore, New Year's gifts were normally given to children by married adults. But were Fear to learn of the existence of New Year's gifts—"What!? The New Year's gift is like extra pocket money suddenly popping out of nowhere? Then to me, it's like rice crackers suddenly popping out of nowhere!" Surely she would approach with a greatly alarmed expression on her face. Haruaki decided he must gloss over the issue somehow, but—
"Muumuu... Shameless brat, you're hiding something from me! Spill the beans now! Hurry and tell me now!"
"Th-There's nothing at all. It's your imagination! Only your imagination!"
"What imagination? My eyes cannot be deceived by you! There must be some secret New Year's activity that's really awesome. What is it? Spit it out! Is it something like a ritual to pray for a year's of good health and wolf down a mountain of rice crackers!?"
Perhaps because Haruaki was too poor of a liar, Fear grabbed and pulled his scarf hard, strangling his neck. To think she would use the present she gave as a murder weapon.
"Woah! H-Hold it, let's talk this out!"
"You're one to speak! What's with hiding things from me on the very first day of the new year!? Unacceptable, no way! In that case, it means you'll surely spend the entire year doing things you dare not tell me! Like not telling me about how you flipped some girl's skirt on the way to school in the morning, not telling me about how you pretended to accidentally bump into someone in the hallway and groped her boobs during midday, not telling me you're peeping on us in the bath at night—T-Truly and utterly shameless secrets!"
"Why do all your examples of my secrets make me out to be some kind of sex offender!?"
This conversation ended the peace and quiet in the forest, bringing forth the usual noise and argument. Ultimately, one could say that Fear and noise were inseparable. The notion of having a leisurely stroll while enjoying peace and quiet was probably too naive from the very start.
However, Haruaki thought, there was nothing wrong with this. This was not bad either. This noise, taking place as usual matter-of-factly, was definitely not a bad thing—Except for the scarf strangling his neck, which was best omitted.
Walking in front, Kirika and Kuroe turned their heads back to reveal wry smiles as though saying "you guys are hopeless." Only Konoha was pouting with displeasure in response to the attempted homicide happening behind her. As expected, she was the most reliable. Okay, hurry and apprehend the culprit but please be gentle or else the two of you will start another argument—Just as Haruaki was thinking this...
Thud! A certain sound rang out in the forest.
Fear tilted her head as she looked towards the sound's direction. The sound was heard again. The source was quite near, off to the side of this walking trail. Apparently, Fear had turned her attention away from Haruaki and towards the mysterious noise in the desolate forest. Simply letting go of Haruaki's scarf, she straightened her back and stood on tiptoe, trying to see into the depths of the forest.
"What's that noise?"
"No idea... But doesn't sound natural at all! Oh, there it is again."
While Kuroe was whispering softly, the sound was repeated intermittently, resembling impacts between wood and some other object. The members of the group looked at one another in puzzlement.
"Will anyone else come to this kind of place?"
"Cough cough... Well~ Since we're here after all, you can't assert that it's absolutely impossible. So, should we go take a look? If some elderly mister got drunk on spiced sake and came here for the cool breeze like us but ended up collapsing on the ground and is now smacking wood to call for help—If that's the case, it'd be terrible."
Partially to change the subject, Haruaki massaged his severely injured throat while trying to make a suggestion. As much as he wanted to grumble at Fear, were she to retort: "it's all because you're hiding something from me!" and revisit the earlier topic, it would be a bit too much for him to swallow.
"Hmm, that does sound possible. Since this is a good chance for me to help someone for the first time in the new year, let's go over to have a look."
Fear had apparently forgotten the subject of the mysterious New Year's activity. Thank goodness.
Hence, with Fear in the lead, the group left the sloppily weeded walking trail and entered the forest. The noise continued and became clearer and clearer. Thud. Thud. Thud—Apart from that, human voices could also be heard. Sure enough, someone was there?
After a while, Haruaki's group discovered figures in the dark forest. The separation between the trees was roughly a couple meters. Standing in a row, in front of one of these trees—
Too many incomprehensible things. Who was over there? Why would the other party do this?
However, only one fact could be understood—the true identity of the noise they had been hearing all this time.
The answer was instantly clear the moment they witnessed the sight.
The sounds of a witching hour imprecation.
A typical yet traditional method of cursing someone.
Because it was too typical, and too out of fashion as well, Haruaki could not help but doubt his eyes. But there was no mistake.
"Die! Be cursed! Die! Die—!"
Over there were two humans, both girls. One girl was yelling horrific dialogue with a deep, hoarse voice while holding long nails and a hammer in her hand. Her other hand was holding an object against a tree trunk while nails were being hammered into it—naturally, a straw effigy.
The girl, who had been hammering nails all along, exhaled and straightened her back. Then she said to the other girl:
"Might as well curse the second person as well. Isuzu, stick your head forward."
"Awww, please allow me to say in fear and trepidation... Umm, it really hurts when you're pulling it out~..."
"If you refuse, I'll make you suffer even more pain. Or would you rather pull out your fingernail for me to use?"
"...I choose the head~"
The other person—a girl called Isuzu—leaned forward lightly while maintaining her smiling demeanor. The girl with the hammer reached towards her head and violently pulled off a strand of her long hair. "Oww." Still smiling, Isuzu held her head as though in great pain but without even throwing her a glance, the other girl stuffed the hair into a new straw effigy she had taken out from her shoulder bag. The straw effigy that was being nailed earlier was now akin to a bed of nails without any room for more. After securing the new straw effigy on the side, the girl took out a sheet of paper from her shoulder bag, looked at it for a few seconds and—
"The target's name... How do I read this? Yotsubaki...? Yotsubaki Takeharu! Die! Be cursed! Go rot! Die, die, die die die!"
The girl began to hammer nails repeatedly again. The other girl continued to smile while watching this scene unfold.
Haruaki shuddered. What was this about? What was going on?
"Die, die! Drown in a sea of your own yellow vomit! You'd best be raped by smelly homosexuals! Be cursed, be cursed, be cursed no matter what! Come, come, come... Hmm?"
At this moment, the girl who was cursing the straw effigy viciously while hammering nails, as well as the girl watching beside her, finally noticed Haruaki's group. The girl stopped hammering while the other girl continued to smile quietly as they both turned to look at the new arrivals. Rather than showing signs of fleeing or surprise, they simply stared.
Haruaki was doubting his eyes not only because of the act in progress but also due to his disbelief to see people like them engaging in such an act. A witching hour imprecation was a spell for cursing others. This type of cursing spell was absolutely irreconcilable with the girls' existences. Rather, it was diametrically opposed to their position. But why—
Why were these girls, dressed as shrine maidens, performing such an act?
"Hmph... So you guys must be the 'interlopers' huh?"
The girl with the hammer sneered and nodded in understanding for some reason.
Despite wearing a shrine maiden's outfit, she did not quite resemble a shrine maiden. Although there was a pair of thin-rimmed glasses on her domineering face, the girl did not give off any airs of a bookworm. Her shoulder-length hair was dyed an ostentatious color. With just a t-shirt on her upper body, the only part of her attire resembling a shrine maiden's was the red hakama. Perhaps due to the exertion of hammering the nails, her sleeves were rolled up to her shoulders in spite of the cold winter night, exposing a pair of arms with their pale complexion. A shoulder bag was hanging by a long strap that was buried in her cleavage, emphasizing the bulging of her well-proportioned bosom. Haruaki found himself a little unable to look straight at the girl.
Furthermore, apart from her upper torso, her lower body was equally inappropriate to stare at. The slits on the sides of her red hakama were even more wide open than those of a usual hakama. But because the girl was wearing a t-shirt instead of a white robe with a long hem as her top—Naturally, the high slits of her red hakama were offering tantalizing glimpses of her snow-white thighs all the way up to her hip area.
"Hah, the great pervert is staring at my thighs. How disgusting. Do you have a shrine maiden fetish? By the way, I'm not wearing panties. Does that make you even more aroused? Hmm, what a pervert. It's best that you get cursed. Best that you die. I'll need to jot this down: 'Today I encountered a pervert for the first time in a long while'..."
The girl returned her hammer to her bag and took out a cellphone instead, then she began to operate the buttons with one hand. Haruaki thought she was just mocking him, but was she actually recording the event for real?
"Please allow me to say in fear and trepidation, Chihaya-sama, wouldn't things be fine if you wore a normal outfit in the first place?"
"Then it makes things pointless. However, there may also exist perverts who are more aroused by the basic shrine maiden outfit. Then I'll leave those perverts to you. Puff out your chest and receive a visual rape in my place, Isuzu."
"Please allow me to remark in fear and trepidation, that's such an awful thing to say~"
Despite calling it awful, the girl named Isuzu continued to maintain her serene smile. She was a girl who gave off an impression like a senior, older sister, and she was wearing a standard shrine maiden outfit indeed. Her long, black hair curved mildly inwards at the tips and inexplicably gave off an air of purity that was very much consistent with a shrine maiden's essence. Compared to the deep, hoarse voice of the girl named Chihaya, Isuzu's manner of speaking was as clear and pleasant as the sound of silver bells.
"It's nothing unusual for the shameless brat to be violating girls with his eyes. I'll just have to teach him a lesson later. So, what are you two doing?"
Fear asked stiffly. As though looking down at them, Chihaya laughed while continuing to operate her cellphone.
"You still don't know after seeing it? Oh, so you don't get it because you're a foreigner? This is called a witching hour imprecation. I'm currently cursing someone."
"You said... curse...!"
Fear bit her lower lip hard. This was only natural, Haruaki thought. To these girls, who came into self-awareness as a result of curses—These words carried special significance.
"My advice is you'd better stop what you're doing."
"I agree with Ueno-san. Curses are ominous things that only serve to cause misfortune to befall others."
"Especially since you're using straw effigies... From my standpoint, I have no choice but to stop you~"
"Thank you for your advice but I won't stop. I already expected you people to say something like this, being interlopers after all, but I am not obliged to listen at all."
"Y-You idiot! You have absolutely no idea what will happen, Shameless Shrine Maiden! Hey Cow Tits, hurry up and give her a lecture! With boobs that has yet to match yours in ugliness, together with glasses like you... If this continues, you won't have any personal characteristics to distinguish yourself anymore! But actually, I don't really care!"
"Why are boobs and glasses my only personal characteristics!? Whatever, let's disregard this child's words for now, but cursing others really isn't a good thing. Although I've no idea what extenuating circumstances might cause you to do this, could you please stop in any case?"
"I refuse. This is my freedom. By the way, I don't actually have any extenuating circumstances... I'm just doing this because of work."
Konoha frowned. Chihaya nodded lightly.
"That's right, I'm a curse expert. I only accept requests from customers who harbor resentment in their heart, then I simply perform curses on their behalf. Even if I curse people to die, I don't know them at all apart from their names... So there's no guilty conscience at all. Besides, it earns money so there are no downsides to me at all."
"That sounds even more despicable...!"
Haruaki groaned. Although he did not believe that witching hour imprecations had any actual effect, they were definitely nothing good either. Even though she was performing them on behalf of others, human malice did exist in the process. When negative thoughts and feelings such as human malice are continually released intensely over a long duration—A "curse" could very well be planted for real: upon the straw effigies nailed to the trees as well as the nails and hammer in her hand.
Fear and the girls seemed to be thinking the same thing as their expressions became even more grim.
"A curse expert? All I can say is that it's truly an absolutely ridiculous line of work..."
"Indeed. Are you actually unaware that this has already strayed from humane behavior? And to wear a shrine maiden outfit intentionally as well... Although I have no idea what your relationship is, the lady over there, if you have her best interests in mind, you really should try to stop her."
"Please allow me to say in fear and trepidation, that's because this is something that Chihaya-sama already decided~"
The shrine maiden named Isuzu shook her head while answering calmly.
"Hmph, this girl isn't going to oppose me. She's my flunkie. My slave. Should she dare complain, I'll beat her up in the next instant... Say, how much longer are you going to continue this 'none of my business' attitude while keeping your distance from me? These guys are almost about to make a move so hurry up and get ready, you idiot!"
"Owww, it hurts, Chihaya-sama..."
"Hurting you is the point!"
Chihaya pinched Isuzu's cheek and pulled hard to make her move, shifting Isuzu's position to in front of her, using her as a shield against Haruaki's group.
Konoha frowned at this action but a few seconds later, signs of suspicion surfaced on her face. However, Fear did not notice and simply exploding with impatience.
"Hey, stop it right there! This is going too far!"
"I already said she's my flunkie, so it's got nothing to do with you people, right? If you have no other business, please take your leave. Our work is done already. If you guys are here for the New Year's first shrine visit, stop wasting your time in this kind of place. There's nothing interesting about this musty old shrine, but at least they serve spiced sake and amazake."
"We've already done the New Year's first visit and drank the amazake! What we need to do now is stop your stupid cursing behavior! Give the straw effigies and nails to me! In any case, I must make you stop doing this!"
Fear strode her way aggressively towards the delinquent shrine maidens. Chihaya cracked a grin and gave Isuzu's back a shove in Fear's direction. Fear continued to advance without taking out her Rubik's cube. This was only natural. Since Fear was no ordinary person, even a prim and proper shrine maiden in her way would pose no hindrance. Haruaki expected Fear to subdue Chihaya effortlessly and take the cursing tools away from her hands—
Just as he thought that—
Smiling, Isuzu tilted her head in puzzlement towards Fear.
"...Please allow me to say in fear and trepidation, I am truly sorry~ Because these are Chihaya-sama's orders~"
Maintaining her serene smile, she raised one arm, clad in the sleeve of her white robe. Instantly, Konoha's face was filled with alarm.
"! I knew it... Be careful, Fear-san! That person is the same as us—!"
Just as Fear frowned in puzzlement, Isuzu exclaimed in a singing voice:
"—Akin to strong winds from high mountains, capable of blowing away thick layers of clouds; akin to the winds of morning and evening, capable of blowing away the mist!"
Ring! Instantly, there was an almost imperceptible sound of bells ringing, at the same time—
Fear was instantly surrounded by a tempest. The violent wind's aftereffects caused Haruaki's scarf to flutter intensely as well. Reflexively, he closed his eyes. When he reopened them again, he saw—
"Oh dear... Color Isuzu truly surprised~ Isuzu expected to blow you flying, but who could have thought that you're heavier than you look~"
"W-Who are you calling heavy? I'll curse you! That aside, what did you... do just now!"
Fear had turned the Rubik's cube into a drill and stabbed it into the ground. She was probably not blown away thanks to grabbing onto the hastily transformed drill. However, even without the drill to secure herself, given Fear's weight, she probably would have been fine after spinning a few circles.
After listening to Fear, Konoha narrowed her eyes, entered a combat stance and answered:
"Although I don't know what she did, I can understand why she has the ability to do so. It started bothering me from a while ago, but after seeing her attack just now, the answer is obvious—This person is one of our kind."
"A cursed tool... with human form?"
Haruaki asked quietly and Konoha nodded. Fear withdrew her drill from the ground and continued to glare at Isuzu warily. Meanwhile, Isuzu remained relaxed and inclined her head again in puzzlement.
"Oh dear... Fellow comrades? This is Isuzu's first time to meet fellow comrades!"
"Hmph, based on the current situation, you're not a comrade, okay? Just one of our kind. What's your true form? What actually happened just now?"
"Please allow me to say in fear and trepidation, Isuzu is exactly what the name implies, a 'cursed bell' you see~ What you heard just now is called the Great Purification Norito Prayer—"
"Hold it right there, Isuzu. Now is not the time for talking about this. Say another unnecessary word and I'm gonna pinch you!"
"Oh, I am truly sorry~"
Isuzu retreated with nimble steps and returned to the angrily pouting Chihaya's side. Once Isuzu returned, Chihaya gave her head a knock before gazing at Fear's group once more.
"Oh... So there exist other things similar to Isuzu huh? The glasses girl and the shorty over there too? Or is it every single one of you?"
"Yes I am, but these two aren't!"
"However, we are interested parties."
Kirika's brief response drew a shrug from Chihaya.
"Interested parties huh! Whatever, it doesn't really matter. I don't have any business with you guys either... If you won't leave, then it can't be helped. We'll leave instead."
"W-Wait! We're not finished talking yet! With that girl before your eyes as an example, why won't you understand that curses are inauspicious! Don't curse people anymore!"
Chihaya coldly sneered and ignored Fear. Just as she turned to leave, she suddenly stopped.
Frowning, Chihaya looked at Isuzu whom she had expected to follow. However, Isuzu stood motionlessly in the same position—For some reason, she had her hands against her ears as though trying to listen to mountain echoes.
During this time, Haruaki's group heard an extremely quiet sound that seemed to be coming from far away—bell ringing.
"Oh dear. This... Oh no... Isuzu really must try harder now..."
"Hey, I don't know what you heard, but talk about it later! We must leave now because these guys look like they will do something troublesome! Hey Isuzu, are you listening?"
"...Yes~ That's right, Isuzu must try harder... So, in this regard, perhaps this situation could be considered perfect. Yes, this is the only way..."
Chihaya pulled the collar of Isuzu's white top but she remained immobile as a mountain. Smiling serenely, accompanied by a slightly hazy gaze, Isuzu slowly looked at Fear and her companions one after another.
"It looks like everyone's luck is quite good... How wonderful~ Two people with Middle Fortune, one with Great Fortune, and two with luck better than Great Fortune... Yes? I see now, well then—"
Hearing Isuzu's whispers, Haruaki was shocked. Although he had no idea why she was commenting on this... Everything she said was right on target. Those were the results of the o-mikuji fortunes they had drawn at the shrine. Did she possess the ability to sense o-mikuji results? But what use was there for such an ability? And what would be the point?
Hearing those low whispers, Fear also displayed puzzlement on her face but she seemed to immediately understand what she needed to do. Perhaps to intimidate the other side, she waved the drill in her hand dramatically.
"Although I don't get what you're talking about... Our conversation is not finished in any case! I won't let you go so easily!"
Then she approached them. Isuzu continued to murmur with her eyes glazed over.
"Wait... Fear, don't get too violent...!"
"If I let something as stupid as a curse expert continue to exist, that doesn't count as helping anybody! Don't worry, I'll be careful not to injure them—as much as possible!"
At this moment, Haruaki heard Chihaya clicking her tongue impatiently at the immobile Isuzu. Chihaya reached into her bag, took out something and swiftly tossed in forward. In the next instant—
A flash of light erupted.
"Woah, what's this!?"
A total surprise attack, probably something resembling a flash grenade. The large amount of light attacked their eyes that had already grown accustomed to the darkness, instantly robbing them of their sight. Despite closing his eyes, Haruaki still felt a stinging sensation beneath his eyelids and could not see anything.
"Arghhh, damn, it turns out bringing this along was the right decision... But since it's hand-made, the effects don't last too long! Isuzu, behave yourself and listen to me now! Hey, wait up!"
Chihaya's anxious voice was heard. What was happening?
Haruaki desperately blinked, trying to recover his vision as quickly as possible. during this time, outlines of objects finally became clear. Next to enter his view was the quiet forest and the cold moonlight, same as before, as well as—
Incomprehensible. Inexplicable. Haruaki could not help but exclaim stupidly.
Probably using the flash grenade as cover to get close, Isuzu had approached Fear, lifted her face with both hands...
...And stolen her lips.
Still with a serene expression, Isuzu was pressing her lips against Fear's mouth and exhaling lightly. Fear's face began to twitch slightly, shocked out of her senses while allowing Isuzu to do something between their lips. However—
"...! ...!! ...!!!"
Naturally, Fear could not continue to let Isuzu do as she pleased. Anger suddenly surged in her gaze as she vigorously pushed Isuzu aside. Without saying a word, Fear raised the drill in her hand, intending to attack but Isuzu leapt and distanced herself with her hakama fluttering, then—
"The Spirit, Ibukidonushi, who is the origin of the breath of life, will breathe and blow sins and impurities out to the ends of the underworld!"
Next, stronger wind began to blow, affecting an even greater area than earlier, throwing people off balance. Having just recovered her sense of balance from the earlier drunken haze, there was no way for Fear to resist this attack again. She plunged her drill into the ground to withstand the gust of wind but Haruaki and others could only roll helplessly along the ground. Only Konoha swiftly entered a defensive stance with both hands but this left her immobile as well.
"Ahh, jeez, what the heck are you doing!? Did you suddenly realize you're a lesbian? You idiot! Stop acting weird and you should've used this gust of wind from the beginning! Hurry and get going!"
"Please allow me to say in fear and trepidation, sorry for making you wait~ Let's go~"
Then the two girls disappeared among the trees. Konoha hesitated, wondering if she should chase after them, but finally decided to help Haruaki and the rest who were rolling on the ground. Pulling Haruaki up by the arm, she asked at the same time:
"Are you okay, Haruaki-kun?"
"Y-Yeah. Luckily, the ground underfoot isn't concrete. By the way, who are they actually?"
"Looks like they don't belong to any particular organization. Probably just a Wathe and the owner... Although that description doesn't quite capture everything they've done."
"A curse expert huh... I really wish they could change their mind."
Kirika and Kuroe also stood up. Then what should they do next? Should they chase after the two girls to convince them not to work as curse experts anymore? Or should they give up and return home—
Just as Haruaki pondered these matters, Fear waved her drill while approaching rapidly.
With her face filled with anger, she pointed in the direction where the two girls had vanished. Let's chase them! —Was probably what she intended to say.
"I don't really mind... But what do we do after we actually catch them? This is different from last time when we punished the boys who stole offering money from a shrine. Also, since the girl has a cursed tool assisting her, who knows if a threat of 'you'll get cursed!' would be effective or not..."
Fear frowned while opening and closing her mouth. At this moment, Haruaki suddenly realized that something was off.
"Hey Fear... You, umm..."
What? Haruaki could see her mouthing such a word, but no sound came out. At last, Fear also noticed her unusual condition and reached with her hand to touch her own throat, desperately trying to speak. In spite of that, no sound came out. Fear's face suddenly changed dramatically with an alarm realization, moving her lips nonstop as she approached Haruaki, furiously trying to express something.
Rendered speechless, Haruaki simultaneously understood the inexplicable behavior Isuzu had done to Fear as well as Fear's current symptoms. He believed these had to be linked.
Then combining the two events, there was only one natural conclusion. Although the underlying logic was unknown, neither did they know the other side's motives—There was probably no doubt about this.
Isuzu had stolen Fear's voice.
Translator's Notes and References
- Traditionally, mochi is made by two people working alternately, one pounding cooked rice with a wooden mallet while the other turns and wets the mochi. A steady rhythm is required lest injuries result from the heavy wooden mallet.
- Isuzu(伍鈴): the kanji i(伍) means "five" while suzu(鈴) means "bell."
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