Chapter 2 - When Will the Emptiness Be Filled? / "Before long, if they reach out to each other"
Now was not the time to be deliberating whether to chase down Chihaya and Isuzu or not. What was stolen must be recovered—Given it was something so precious, demanding its return was absolutely imperative.
Haruaki's group decided to split up in search of Chihaya and Isuzu. For them to be dressed as shrine maidens and appearing in this kind of place on New Year's Day, they were highly likely to be affiliated with the shrine. In any case, having decided on a time to meet up again and to call one another if any new developments arose, they headed off on their separate ways. Since Haruaki had no combat ability and could not handle things even if a situation arose, he acted with Fear as a pair.
Alone with Fear, who had lost her voice, they returned to the shrine's territory.
Fear pulled Haruaki's sleeve. Haruaki followed her gaze to see the place where shrine maidens were selling talismans.
"True, might as well check it out just in case."
Fear nodded. But once they approached the vendor area to have a look inside, there were no signs of the delinquent shrine maidens, obviously. Even when Haruaki asked some of the part-timer shrine maidens, they only looked at one another helplessly and answered: "Are there girls matching those descriptions...?"
After thanking them, Haruaki and Fear turned and left. Grand festivities were scheduled for dawn on New Year's Day. Although there was still some time before sunrise, the surroundings were quite noisy. Even so, Haruaki still found things too quiet and felt a little lonely.
(Clearly it's just because this girl isn't talking...)
Was he feeling this because up until earlier, she was more noisy than usual, such as during the New Year's calligraphy and mochi rice cake making activities?
Suddenly, Haruaki recalled the scene while they were strolling in the forest. The quiet forest. But Fear instantly made the scene liven up beyond compare. He had taken hustle and bustle for granted as part of Fear's natural presence.
Clearly it was so natural...
He had once thought that "there was nothing wrong" with such hustle and bustle...
He felt that such hustle and bustle was only natural...
Yet now it was missing.
Appearing behind him was a extremely desolate emptiness. He could not settle his thoughts. Something was missing. It filled him with unease.
Perhaps due to being immersed in his thoughts, when Haruaki suddenly turned his head to look back, he was surprised to find Fear missing without any signs of her. He frantically traced his steps to seek the silver hair amidst the crowd. Luckily, he quickly found Fear who was looking this way and that in worry.
"Ohoh, thank goodness. You're here."
The corners of Fear's lips moved down as she charged straight at him. Without slowing down, she attacked Haruaki's stomach with the crash of a headbutt.
"Woah! Hey, you almost knocked my stomach out! After using it on the superintendent last time, is this move growing on you now!?"
Fear opened her mouth wide and said something silently. Probably some kind of scolding, but Haruaki could not hear anything.
Soon after, Fear realized with surprise and hung her head with an incomparably helpless and dejected expression while she tightly gripped Haruaki's coat above where she had just attacked him with the headbutt.
One could hardly blame her. Haruaki had forgotten.
Unable to settle down, feeling unease, he was not the only one. The victim herself, who had lost something precious to her, would naturally experience these emotions as well, probably to a further extent than him. The pain of not being able to say what she wanted. The pain of losing something she had always taken for granted. She was currently suffering.
None of her words could be transmitted instantly.
Whether the joy, sadness, loneliness or pain she was suffering.
All these were very distant. Because they were distant, they were impossible to transmit. Because they were impossible to transmit, a sense of distance was produced. Feelings of emptiness, solitude and isolation were created. But if even these feelings could not be instantly transmitted to a certain someone she wanted to share them with—
(That's... right... I must help her.)
Since she felt distant... Since feeling distant was making Fear suffer—
Then he had to approach her on his own initiative.
"Hmm... Okay, Fear, lend me your hand."
Haruaki caught her little hand and led her towards his palm. Although it felt a bit embarrassing, there was no other way.
"So—Come, try writing with your finger. This will allow me to know what you want to say. But please spare me the complicated kanji."
Finally, Fear understood what he wanted her to do. Still bowing her head with a sense of loneliness, she used her index finger to slowly write on Haruaki's palm.
Character by character, she wrote using simple hiragana.
Haruaki deciphered the sentence as: 'Don't leave me behind'—
"...Yeah, I'm really sorry."
Haruaki apologized honestly. Perhaps relieved that she could transmit her words, Fear's tense face relaxed slightly. Haruaki looked back at her and said in jest:
"I'll be more careful from now on, so please forgive me... Would that be agreeable, my lady?"
Fear's finger moved slowly over his palm.
"Thank you for your boundless generosity."
After Haruaki said this with a wry smile, Fear's expression became a lot more gentle.
So—Haruaki pondered to himself. Although it was going to be embarrassing as well, now that things had developed to this point and he had promised not to leave Fear behind by herself—This was surely the most effective solution.
"Since it'll be troubling if I received another of your headbutts because I didn't keep my promise... This is for the sake of my abs' protection. Hence, it can't be helped either."
Fear's index finger was still on top of Haruaki's palm.
Hence, very easily, Haruaki held Fear's little hand. Then holding her hand, he began to walk.
Fear showed surprise on her face for only an instant before switching to a pout and using her free hand to hammer Haruaki's shoulder. She was probably protesting: "Don't treat me like a child, I'll curse you!" However, Fear did not persist in her attack. Neither did she shake off his hand. Sensing her body warmth transmit through her hand, Haruaki instantly felt as though the sense of emptiness had shrunk slightly.
However, this definitely could not be allowed to persist. Absolutely not—
Haruaki looked around in the shrine's confines and resumed his search for Chihaya and Isuzu. Originally stuck with only the option of tugging Haruaki's clothing timidly, Fear was now starting to write on his palm whenever she had any questions to express her thoughts.
'Is that her?'
"What, over there!? Oh, it's just someone with black hair as well. Not Isuzu."
'What a shame.'
"I know right... Okay, let's check out that place over there this time."
Making rounds everywhere, they still could not find any signs of Isuzu or Chihaya. To be honest, Haruaki was starting to feel exhausted.
At this moment, Fear suddenly gripped his hand tightly while pulling on his sleeve with her other hand.
Forced to confront this silence, Haruaki looked into Fear's eyes. She seemed to be communicating something with her eyes as though insisting there was no need to write on his palm. Even without words, her thoughts were coming through vaguely. This was perhaps quite invaluable.
"Yeah... Let's take a break."
Fear smiled faintly, proving Haruaki's hunch correct.
After buying nostalgic marble soda at a nearby stall, they headed to the resting zone which had been occupied by noisy drunks earlier, finally finding seats for two with some difficulty. Fear tilted her head back and gulped down the soda. Viewed from the side, she was displaying far less of her usual domineering airs.
Haruaki did not intend to let this situation continue for long. Although Isuzu's motives in stealing Fear's voice were unknown, this behavior was absolutely unacceptable and action must be taken. Whether convincing her verbally or otherwise, Fear's voice must be returned to settle the matter. That said—Something needed to be done to relieve the current boredom.
(Letting her write words with her finger is not a bad solution... But is there a better way to communicate to each other more easily...?)
Haruaki wondered in distraction as he finished drinking his soda. How much time had passed since they started searching? Only when he took out his cellphone to check the time did he suddenly realize. This method also existed.
"By the way, Fear, although we're in the middle of this situation, let's have our first lecture of the new year on basic everyday knowledge."
Fear tilted her head in puzzlement and reached out with her index finger, tickling Haruaki's palm as she wrote: 'Now is not the time for this kind of thing.' Haruaki smiled wryly. This could very well be the last time for him to experience this sensation from her finger... This thought prompted an unbelievable reluctance to part with the feeling. This was because he had come up with a better solution for communication.
Haruaki waved his cellphone lightly.
"This lecture will teach you how to type on a cellphone. Email and texting are basically the same... If you memorize it all, I don't mind lending my cellphone to you, at least for all of today."
Fear pondered for a moment then smiled radiantly. Then her finger moved to write:
'That's wonderful! Not a bad idea but it'll be really time consuming and bothersome╤§♨☂÷♪ζ√☠！'
"You're writing too fast towards the end so I can't figure it out at all! Calm down, I'll teach you slowly."
Fear shook her silver hair and looked at the cellphone as though saying: "Then hurry up and start!"
It was very quiet for quite a long while.
At a distance close enough to feel each other's breathing, above the cellphone, their faces were pressed tightly together.
Under this silence, Haruaki taught Fear how to type, character by character.
The emptiness created by panicking unease seemed to shrink substantially. Surely it would shrink even more once Fear memorized how to type. However—
It will definitely not vanish completely. So long as this continued, it absolutely will not.
(Isuzu and Chihaya, I will definitely find you...)
Haruaki steeled his determination once more and clenched his fist. During this time, he finished explaining how to enter text. He could feel Fear taking the cellphone in apprehension and beginning to tap the buttons using just her index finger.
Finally, Fear looked up with a grin and brought the cellphone close to Haruaki's face.
On it was written:
'By the way, delicious. If only eaten with crunchy food.'
"...No matter what, a shrine like this one isn't going to sell rice crackers. Is eating all your can think of on New Year's Day!?"
Haruaki knocked the silver-haired head lightly.
Fear pouted with displeasure and entered her usual catchphrase into the cellphone.
As the words implied, the back of the shrine's mountain was literally her own backyard.
After escaping from the interlopers in the forest, Chihaya pushed her glasses while exhaling deeply. Having sprinted all the way, her body was red from heating up but her exposed thighs still felt rather cold. Of course, even so, she still could not possibly approve of this outfit. As usual, she was simply agitated and impatient.
"...Why did you do that?"
"By that, you mean~?"
"Of course the kiss. If you don't get what I'm saying, let me put it another way. In other words, kissing, smooching, exchanging saliva through lip to lip contact and entangling each other's tongues. Pick any description you want."
"Oh, you mean exchanging saliva through lip to lip contact and entangling each other's tongues just now~"
"Are you toying with me?"
Isuzu smiled and tilted her head while Chihaya clicked her tongue. Whatever, who cares what she wants to call it. "Continue explaining!" Chihaya urged using her gaze.
"Because it is a necessary act~ If it made you unhappy, let me apologize here~"
"Why is it necessary? Will your body heat up from arousal without end or something like that? ...Whatever, I've absolutely no interest in your sexual orientation. Anyway, I've decided. From now on, you'll stand outside the room whenever I'm changing. So—an oracle appeared before that. What did it say?"
Pressing a finger to her lip, Isuzu pondered for a while. Then tilting her head again, she said:
"Please allow me to say in fear and trepidation, I hope you'll permit me to keep it a secret~"
"Are you kidding me?"
Chihaya pinched Isuzu's ear and twisted hard, completely mercilessly, because Isuzu was absolutely forbidden to hide anything from her. Isuzu was probably in enough pain to feel as though her ear were about to fall off, yet she maintained her smile. This further aggravated Chihaya who proceeded to grab her other ear.
"...You're still not telling?"
"Please allow me to say in fear and trepidation, ouch... But I still can't tell you~ This is for your sake, Chihaya-sama, do please understand~"
What do you mean, for my sake? This girl is my tool. Errand girl, flunkie and slave all in one. Insubordination cannot be tolerated at all. Did I fail in her training? Or ear twisting alone is not enough? Maybe I should simply pinch those tips of her excessively large breasts as well?
Chihaya entertained the thought half-seriously but did not put it to action in the end. With one forceful twist, she released Isuzu's ears.
"Seriously... Whatever, it doesn't matter now. After all, we did lose those people for sure. It's not like they can intentionally search the entire mountain for us."
"...True, so long as that is the case!"
Isuzu nodded calmly as usual. Somehow, Chihaya felt as though her reply held further meaning but could not read Isuzu's true thoughts. However, Chihaya did not let herself be bothered and simply dismissed it matter-of-factly with "so be it, in any case."
After all, ever since meeting this girl, Chihaya had never been able to guess her true thoughts at all.
After reaching the appointed meeting location, Haruaki and Fear converged with Konoha and the rest of their group inside the shrine's confines. Judging from the fact that nobody called the cellphone he had lent to Fear, Haruaki knew that no one's search succeeded.
'Did you search properly!?'
Typing these words on the screen with an impatient look, Fear thrust the phone in front of Konoha's face. Sighing as though saying "when did you learn how to enter text on a cellphone?", Konoha replied:
"I did search properly. I know that being unable to speak is very serious, but trying to vent your frustrations on me won't help... Ah, hey, hold on!"
As though saying "Did you search properly!? Did you!? You didn't!", Fear rubbed the cellphone hard in Konoha's face. Not satisfied with that, Fear even went as far as to shove the cellphone together with the "Did you search properly!?" message in between Konoha's cleavage.
"Kyah... Hey, stop it right now! U-Ueno-san and Kuroe-san, how did your searches go?"
"We came up emptyhanded as well. Unfortunately, the search area is too wide."
"Yeah, if only we had some sort of clue... Haru, did you try asking the shrine maidens who are selling the talismans?"
"I did, but none of them recognized the descriptions."
At this moment, Fear dropped her gaze and stared at the cellphone, typing something. The screen she then showed to everyone said:
'bcuz they r jst smallfry! shrine maidenz boss shld no!'
"What excessive typos, I've never seen anything like 'shld no' before. Say, do shrine maidens have a so-called boss...?"
While saying that, Haruaki suddenly realized. Although a so-called shrine maidens' boss probably did not exist, there was someone in charge of managing the shrine maidens. They probably should try asking that person.
"Yeah, anyway, let's first try to find that person. But who knows where?"
Even if they conducted an undirected search all over the place, Haruaki did not think that would bear fruit. Hence, he tried his luck by asking one of the shrine maidens at the talisman vending area: "We have important matters to discuss." As it so happened, it was the shrine maiden's turn to have a break and she was willing to pass the message along. After a short wait—
The person who appeared was—naturally—this shrine's chief Shinto priest.
"I am Hayakawa, this shrine's chief priest... Are you the people who wanted to discuss something with me?"
The man was over fifty with a fair amount of white hair. His slender physique was clad in a white outfit. Haruaki gulped and inquired as politely as he could because this man might be completely unrelated to the two girls.
"Yes, we're really sorry to make you come out specifically for us. Uh, what I'd like to ask about is... Umm, is there a shrine maiden here called Chihaya with dyed hair? Also, is there someone else named Isuzu?"
Hearing these words, the Shinto priest instantly frowned. Then after glancing at his surroundings, he lowered his voice and said something exceedingly relevant.
"My daughter... Chihaya, has she caused you any trouble?"
Leading Haruaki's group, the Shinto priest brought them to a Japanese residence somewhere behind the shrine office. Apparently, the priest's family lived there usually. After smelling the same tatami scent as in the Yachi residence, Haruaki could not help but feel more relaxed.
"Please have a bit of tea, I hope you don't mind its crudeness."
"Oh, we're the ones who are sorry for intruding... Thank you for your hospitality."
Haruaki drank the tea the priest brewed for them. As expected, this calmed his mood somewhat. At the same time, a sense of sleepiness suddenly arrived but now was not the time to sleep yet.
After drinking tea in silence for a while, sitting opposite to Haruaki's group, the priest spoke up:
"So... About Chihaya... did she really...?"
Haruaki gazed straight into the priest's eyes and answered. Before they were invited into this house, he had already explained.
"Chihaya has stolen something very precious from us... Yes, extremely precious."
The priest exhaled and slumped his shoulders with a pained expression. Seeing this, Haruaki was at a loss what to do. No, they were not trying to make this person bear responsibility. Neither did they have any desire to punish Chihaya for her mistakes.
"No, umm... Although it's stolen... We do want her to return it, but well... It definitely doesn't make your daughter a criminal. This incident is more like an unfortunate accident that resulted from many misunderstandings. I think once we get to discuss with her properly, she'll return it to us."
After hearing that, the priest looked up.
"May I ask what exactly she has stolen...?"
Haruaki instantly hesitated. It was not like he could push Fear forward and say "it's her voice," right? That said, he could not think of another excuse. Even if he made up something like saying Chihaya had stolen a wallet, it would only make this father even more depressed.
"Due to some extenuating circumstances, we're not in a position to disclose... But in any case, it is something extremely important."
"Umm, of course you may find this very suspicious! But—"
Just as Haruaki frantically tried to explain, the priest finally showed an exhausted smile.
"No, I'm not doubting you. I can tell that you've told me the truth... So, since you must be facing some kind of difficulty, I don't intent to force you to tell me."
"Y-Yes... Thank you."
"Then your daughter—her name is Chihaya, right? Do you know where she is right now? Just as mentioned earlier, we would like to meet her again and talk to her."
The priest shook his head at Konoha.
"I'm really sorry... When I was brewing the tea just now, I took the opportunity to check Chihaya's room but she's not here currently."
"Is that so? Then would you be so kind as to tell us her cellphone number?"
"I'm really ashamed to say, I don't actually know her cellphone number."
Hearing this, Haruaki's group looked at one another. A father not knowing his daughter's cellphone number, was this possible?
Perhaps noticing Haruaki's groups' doubts, the priest sipped hot tea with an even more exhausted expression.
"Sigh, I'm really ashamed. Since she already stole your belongings, trying to hide things wouldn't help. Chihaya is a daughter who causes me a headache in all sorts of ways... To be honest, our relationship can't be described as good. As much as I'd like to treat it as simply her rebellious phase—She's further distanced herself from me ever since my wife was hospitalized."
"Your wife is currently hospitalized? That really is... quite a predicament."
Kirika concurred with a calm expression. She probably thought that they should chat further even though Chihaya's current whereabouts were unknown. Haruaki agreed. This was a rare opportunity and he wanted to ask about certain things. Regarding Chihaya as well as Isuzu who accompanied her. Did the priest know about curses and that Isuzu was a cursed bell? Was he aware that his daughter was working as a curse expert?
"Sigh, I'm already quite used to it. She's been living in the hospital for many months now... Although there's no immediate threat to her life, it's a type of illness that's hard to cure. Oh dear, how sorry I am, I've gone on a tangent. We're currently talking about Chihaya."
"Just now, you mentioned that she's causing you headaches in all sorts of ways... Is there some sort of problem? To be honest, it's our first time meeting her today. We are simply curious so it's okay to ignore us."
"No no, I don't mind. However, perhaps there's nothing special about her problems. Since you've all seen her, I'm sure you can understand. Currently, she's always foul-mouthed, dyeing her hair, and I've heard from school that she's occasionally absent... Also, she wanders outside in the dead of the night like today."
After listing examples, the only conclusion one would inevitably make was "what an ordinary, rebellious teenage girl." Haruaki secretly wondered, since the priest did not seem like he was lying, most likely he did not know about his daughter's work—as a "curse expert."
Someone tugged at Haruaki's pants beneath the table. Taking a look, he found Fear by his side, typing orders on the cellphone: "Hurry up and ask about that girl!" Naturally, they also needed to ask about the other person. Rather, this was actually the main point.
"Oh... About the other person named Isuzu, the shrine maiden accompanying Chihaya who looks older, who is she?"
"Ah, Isuzu huh... Probably Chihaya's friend. Even after I asked Chihaya, she refused to tell me so I'm not too sure either. It started roughly a month ago, I'd see the two of them appear together occasionally at home or the shrine. She even greets me when we meet so I don't think she's a bad kid."
"Friend... huh? But she's dressed as a shrine maiden?"
Konoha tilted her head in puzzlement, to which the priest replied:
"Chihaya probably lent the outfit to her. The only thing we have in abundance at our home is a mountain of shrine maiden outfits. Because this shrine used to be quite prosperous in the past... But it has declined greatly now. Only through various means do we still manage to attract visitors and pilgrims."
"Such as innovating your own o-mikuji types?"
Konoha smiled and gave off an aura saying "just because of that, I experienced an unnecessary sense of defeat." Luckily, the priest did not notice the dangerous aura she exuded.
In any case, the priest seemed to be completely ignorant of Isuzu's true identity. All Isuzu needed to do was return to her original form as a tool and others would think that she did not hang around Chihaya all day. Hence, it could not be helped that the priest's understanding of her was limited to just "a friend who frequently came to play."
"That said, what a sudden appearance. Mr. Priest, although this is completely unrelated to the conversation, did you buy any antiques a month earlier?"
Pretending to be an ordinary child with a blank expression until now, Kuroe suddenly posed such a question. The priest tilted his head, facing the extremely child-like Kuroe, still replied in a polite tone of voice:
"...? You're interested in antiques? Well... Chihaya is always busy in front of the computer, so I wouldn't be surprised if she ordered stuff over the internet. But I myself haven't come into contact with any. Oh right, although I think it'd be weird to list them as antiques, we did hold a joint ritual last month with another shrine that we generally keep in touch with... And the other shrine gave us all sorts of tools. However, most of them were already put away in the storeroom."
"Oh... In that case, there could very well be bells among them. Understood, Mr. Priest, thank you~"
Kuroe bowed her head in thanks, causing the priest to bow his head in return according to etiquette. Next, he also bowed to Haruaki's group to express his apologies.
"Anyway... I don't know where Chihaya is right now. I'm truly sorry that I wasn't able to help everyone."
"No, please don't say that."
Haruaki bowed his head in return. At this moment, the priest spoke up as though remembering something:
"Umm... If you don't mind, would you like to have a look at Chihaya's room? After all, she's not here herself and it's possible that what she stole from you might be kept in the room."
Impossible. 100% impossible. But knowing more about Chihaya as a person might be helpful. For example, her relationship with Isuzu and why would Isuzu steal Fear's voice? Or how can they take it back? Although the situation was developing into deceiving the priest, giving Haruaki a guilty conscience, he still decided to accept the suggestion gratefully in any case.
"Then excuse our intrusion, we'll have a look... However, is it really okay? If she finds out that you casually allowed others to enter her room while she was absent, umm, wouldn't—"
"Don't worry." The priest said lightly and—
Smiled with incomparable loneliness. Then he continued:
"That child already seems to hate me with a passion. By this point, she can't possibly hate me any further."
While the priest was leading Haruaki's group to the room, his cellphone happened to ring. Apparently, one of the part-time shrine maidens was calling him to ask for assistance. "Excuse me, I need to give them directions while looking at some reference materials... Please don't hold back and feel free to look inside the room." Saying that, the priest returned to the living room without stepping into Chihaya's room.
Haruaki could not help but think: "Clearly it's his daughter's room. Is it really okay to leave a bunch of strangers like us unsupervised?" However, this meant that he really trusted them. Trying not to waste time, the group accepted the kind offer and decided to enter the room and investigate without the priest's company.
The interior space, six tatami in area, was extremely messy. Although it was probably a Japanese-style room originally, it was currently almost impossible to see its former appearance.
A futon was stuffed into a blob. Closet. Steel desk. A bookcase with many difficult looking books. A pile of devices of unknown purpose. A tangle of electrical cords ran all over the floor, easily tripping anyone if they were not careful. Instead of posters, the wall was occupied by stuff resembling hanging power bars(?). Many cords extended from over there. Of the many devices in the room, the only type with known purpose was the computer. However, there were four computers with flashing power supplies, with the side covers dismantled, exposing the internal components. On the other hand, there were three monitors. Why would anyone need to use more screens than they had eyeballs? It was inconceivable for Haruaki who never used computers outside of class.
"Woah! How should I put this? This really has a mad scientist kind of feel..."
"It really resembles those junk shops in science fiction films. Like 'we sell infra-red prosthetic eyes!' or something like that~"
"The computers... Locked with passwords. That's expected, of course."
Kirika, the member of the group who seemed to have the broadest knowledge, operated the mouse but immediately shrugged and gave up. Looking around, Fear picked up a certain black mass of plastic from a wooden shelf, tilting her head in puzzlement. Kuroe's blank eyes gazed at it and said:
"Oh Ficchi! That could be a little dangerous. It's probably a stun gun."
"That's not just 'a little.' It's very dangerous!"
Speaking of stun guns, Haruaki recalled their suffering at the hands of Bivorio in the past. Fear probably remembered too. Frowning with disgust, she returned it to the shelf.
"Hmm, this shelf seems to be a self-defense item corner... Hmm, what's this tray?"
"...Those are probably materials for a flash grenade. As much as I'd like to forget, I've seen them before during my time in the Lab Chief's Nation. Over there are the finished products."
"Oh, that thing just now. I remember her saying it was handmade."
Kuroe nodded, half surprised, half impressed. Self-defense items plus handmade flash grenades... Why did Chihaya collect these things? Simply as a hobby? Or perhaps—Working as a curse expert meant that she often ran into situations where she needed to protect herself?
In any case, Chihaya's room did not offer any clues to her whereabouts. All they found out was that she seemed to like computers and technology. Returning to the living room, they found the priest looking up just as he finished his phone call:
"How did it go?"
"Uh, umm... We didn't find it."
"Really?" The priest nodded with deep regret as he cleaned up the documents scattered over the table. Honestly speaking, Haruaki's group did not have any further reason to stay, but if they were to say "We'll be on our way!" and leave, it would make them feel like robbers who had just ransacked someone's home. In any case, at the priest's urging, the group sat down on the seat cushions again. Then the priest said: "Umm... Since you're similar to Chihaya's age, I'd like to ask what are your opinions after seeing her room?"
So, what should they say? After secretly exchanging glances with Konoha and the others, Haruaki felt another tugging feeling at his pants. Glancing at the cellphone screen that was thrust beneath the table, he read the words: 'Something wrong with her brain.' Excuse me, Fear, I'm looking for a more tactful opinion.
Konoha ended up taking the responsibility of answering. Since she looked mature, composed and the calmest, she was best suited to the role of the communicator. In any case, Haruaki decided to leave things to her for now.
"Frankly speaking, her room cannot be considered normal. Even if she has an interest in computers, perhaps one could call it a little excessive."
Konoha spoke with a courteous smile, causing the priest to relax his expression with a wry smile.
"Well said... Because I don't understand technology, I'm not too sure myself. But I was thinking, if it's something that could be understood, I should try to understand it."
"Including your daughter?"
After pausing for a few seconds, the priest spoke quietly as though to himself:
"I can't understand what that child is thinking, what she wants... But I don't think she is a bad child at heart. Uh, since she already stole something from you, perhaps this might not be appropriate to say to you..."
"I've already mentioned earlier, this incident is more like an unfortunate misunderstanding. We just want to have a good talk. She'll surely understand. Also, it's our first time meeting her today, so we don't know what her true character is like... We won't deny your assertion. Besides, there are also children who still help out at home despite straying on the wrong path."
"Haha, if everyone has already met her, you probably should understand, but as for the home... I guess the shrine's work probably counts, but she doesn't help out at all. I've never seen her dress up as a shrine maiden properly either. However—Ah, I remember now."
"You remember something?"
The priest looked up to glance at the clock in the living room. It was approaching 4am soon.
"Chihaya seems to be practicing dancing recently. At dawn, wearing a shrine maiden's outfit, together with her—the child called Isuzu. I've only ran into them by chance a few times and even when I asked her, she won't answer me, so I don't know the details. But from my perspective, I'm a little happy at the thought that Chihaya might be taking some interest in Shinto..."
Konoha turned to look at Haruaki. This information was quite unexpected. "Let's ask him more." Haruaki motioned with his eyes so Konoha spoke up next:
"She does it every day? Do you know where?"
"Probably every day. As for the location... When there's no one around, she'll be at the main shrine, but I've also seen her dancing in front of the shrine in the back of the mountain. Since there are many people at the main shrine today, I expect she'll be at the back of the mountain."
"Could you tell us the precise location? In other words, as long as we get there before sunrise, we should be able to see her?"
"I can't guarantee it, but the chances are quite high."
According to the priest, there was a large pond in the back of the mountain. The shrine was built in front of it. After memorizing the priest's directions, Haruaki exhaled. Finally, some progress was made in the matter.
"I understand now, thank you very much for the help. We have absolutely no intention of harming Chihaya-san. Neither do we plan on catching her to hand over to the police, so please don't worry."
"No, I'd like to thank you all instead... My unworthy daughter has caused you trouble. By the way, what are your plans during this time before dawn?"
"There are roughly three hours still. Haruaki-kun, what should we do?"
"Oh~ What should we do? This isn't enough time to make a trip home, but it's a bit too long to spend within the shrine's confines or at a convenience store... Hmm~"
Perhaps excited at the prospects of finally being able to catch Chihaya and Isuzu, Fear vigorously pressed the cellphone's buttons: 'Too laid back! Go there now! I'll wait!' However, Haruaki dismissed the suggestion. Staying outdoors for three hours straight, they could very well freeze.
Just as Haruaki was pondering—
"In that case, why don't you just stay here and have a nap? It's also fine if you want to do other things here. After all, I plan on taking a break from now until just before dawn."
A most welcome suggestion. However—
"I-Is this really okay...? Letting us, strangers who suddenly bothered you with a request, stay in your home..."
"You don't look like bad people. Besides, my daughter seems to have caused quite a lot of trouble for you all, so this serves as a kind of compensation. Although I don't have anything to serve you, please don't be formal and feel free to stay here and rest."
Although it felt like intruding too much on the priest's kind intentions, a fight could very well break out again once they encountered Chihaya and Isuzu. Furthermore, they had not slept all night since New Year's Eve. The temptation of a nap seemed both gratifying and attractive.
"Well then... I guess we'll respectfully take up your kind offer."
Haruaki nodded at Konoha and bowed towards the priest.
"S-Sorry to bother you, Chief Priest... Thank you for your hospitality."
"Pardon the intrusion~"
"Sorry for adding to your troubles."
Kuroe and Kirika proceeded to bow and express their thanks. Fear followed suit, her silver hair waving as she lowered her head. Haruaki secretly praised her: "This girl actually knows her manners." But upon further examination, he realized she was simply bowing her head to operate the cellphone. Appearing character by character on the screen was the message:
'By the way, does this house have snacks or rice crackers—'
Haruaki reached out from the side and silently held down the cellphone's delete key without letting go for a long time.
Haruaki opened his eyes and woke up to someone's cellphone alarm clock. Wrapped in the blankets provided by the benevolent priest, the group had squeezed together and slept in the living room. At this moment, everyone began to get up from the tatami floor with a rustling sound. Naturally, it was not exactly comfortable but no one had any complaints. Besides, having heating was much better than staying outdoors for three hours.
"Good morning, Haruaki-kun."
"Oh, good morning. Although it was just a brief nap, I feel like I'm well rested. I'm really thankful to the priest."
"Yes. He mentioned that he would get up at roughly the same time as us. We really must thank him again."
"Kiririn~? Ohoh, this is a getting up crisis. If you don't get up, I'm gonna take a photo of you still hugging the blanket with your butt in the air~! Then I'll add a caption along the lines of 'Title: Imitation of a Steamed Bun~'"
Perhaps prone to falling back to sleep in the mornings, Kirika continued to hug her blanket without moving. Kuroe raised her hand and patted Kirika on her bottom... Haruaki really wished she would pat Kirika's shoulder or back instead.
"By the way, the priest said we can also use the washroom. Then let's accept his kind offer and wash our faces. Besides, Ueno-san still hasn't gotten up yet."
"Sure." Just as Haruaki nodded in agreement, Fear, who had been lying on the tatami, suddenly got up with a grim expression.
"Good morning, Fear. I know you're all fired up to catch those girls, but go wash your face first—"
"Woah! Why are you using your fists to turn my face as soon as you got out of bed!? Is there some kind of misunderstanding!?"
...Right—Fear seemed to be saying. Suddenly, with a serious expression, she took out the cellphone from her pocket and tapped away to enter a brief message on the screen:
'You shameless brat!'
"I'm not asking you to attack me with the cellphone! What did I do to you?"
Haruaki grabbed Fear's arm to stop her from pressing the cellphone against his cheek, finally escaping her attacks. Completely inexplicable. Fear pouted and shook off Haruaki's hand, then typed on the cellphone again.
'I had a dream.'
"Aha... The first dream of the year. Then let me ask, what did you dream about?"
'Before going to sleep, you mentioned that dreaming of Mount Fuji, a hawk and an eggplant would be very lucky.'
"Now that you mention it, I think I did."
It's all your fault! Fear seemed to be complaining while baring her fangs, pressing the cellphone buttons with greater fervor. Perhaps getting used to the process, Fear's typing speed was much faster than when she first started, although there were a few missing characters occasionally from typing too impatiently.
'You all appeared. Kuroe used a remote control to transform Mount Fuji into a giant robot then Kirika shrieked with laughter as she cracked her whip and sat on top. Meanwhile, a completely nude Cow Tits shot down a hawk with an exorcism arrow then proceeded to take giant bites as she ate it raw.'
"What kind of chaotic dream is that..."
"Rather than chaotic, why is my image so weird!? I-I can't believe how this child would treat me in this manner right at the very start of the new year...!"
Peering from the side at the cellphone in Fear's hand, Konoha frowned and groaned. With trembling shoulders, Fear continued to type:
'Then there's the shameless brat! You were holding an eggplant while going "Don't worry, shove it in! Shove it in!' and approaching me with a lewd grin! Totally shameless!'
"Blaming this kind of dream on me really bothers me!"
While the group was in a clamor, the priest returned to the living room. "Looks like everyone slept well." He commented without any intention of irony, causing them to feel embarrassed. At this moment, Kirika also got up so the group went to the washroom together.
One after another, they used cold water to wash their faces. First was Kirika who looked the most sleepy, then came Fear followed by Haruaki. While casually watching Konoha wash her face, Kirika spoke up, apparently completely awake at last:
"It ended up developing into a completely unexpected start for the new year."
Haruaki nodded lightly and looked towards Fear. Fear originally wanted to type on the cellphone but immediately stopped. After pressing the delete key a good many times, she wrote something new. Finally, with a slightly lonely expression, she held out the cellphone before Haruaki and the rest.
'Sorry, it's my fault for being too careless.'
"No, that's not what I meant. I was just thinking how unexpected the situation is. This isn't your fault, Fear-kun, I'm not trying to blame this on anyone."
"Yeah, so you should relax. We'll immediately help demand the return of your voice... Oh, but just as always, I'm not sure if I'll be able to help, that's all."
Haruaki spoke with a wry smile. Fear bowed her head slightly, her fingers hovering over the cellphone's keys—Then she ended up not typing anything.
"What's the matter?"
Only after Haruaki asked did Fear begin to type. Very slowly, she smiled with a bit of loneliness.
'Even if I remember how to type, it's not enough. There's clearly so much I wanna say, but typing cannot keep up.'
Then she immediately pressed the delete key.
The words disappeared.
The words, which Fear had devoted her full effort to say, easily disappeared just like that.
But Haruaki was not going to forget. This was even less likely to forget compared to actually listening to her words by ear. The words just now were Fear's true thoughts. Her current expression was Fear's true feelings. Hence, he could not forget. Furthermore, he must brand them into his heart.
(Yes, that's right... We must demand the return of her voice.)
With that, an ordinary New Year would surely return instantly. Joyous and lively, irreplaceable everyday time together would start to flow again as usual.
Hence, Haruaki stroked Fear's silver hair vigorously as he said:
"Oh right, people do say that first dreams will come true. Although that chaotic dream of yours can't possibly come true literally—in a certain sense, it will be fulfilled, right?"
"Like right now, the feeling of everyone together, noisy and lively. In other words—This year will be no different from usual, so there's nothing to worry about."
Fear smiled lightly then shook her head as though embarrassed, shaking off Haruaki's hand that was on her head. Next, as though with renewed vigor—or rather, pouting with slight displeasure—she began to type on the cellphone at the same time:
'Shameless brat, in other words, what happened earlier basically means this. Because first dreams will come true, you very well might really try to shove eggplants into my body in the future. Then you'll force me to obediently accept—'
"Shove eggplants... into...?"
Looking at the cellphone screen from the side, Kirika instantly glared viciously at Haruaki. He frantically explained:
"Y-You were still sleeping just now, Class Rep, so you may not be aware, but we're talking about her first dream! This has absolutely nothing to do with me in reality. The content of her dream was completely inexplicable!"
'In the past, you have said inexplicable stuff like "It'll fit! Let's just put the front end in first!"'
"Oh... To think that such specific words have appeared, how concerning. Such specific dreams usually appear as the result of certain memories from reality. In other words... Yachi, perhaps you have spoken such words in the past indeed...!"
'That's right! Every time an incident ends, you say that kind of thing while shoving it in! Shoving into my most embarrassing spot!'
"That's something else, right!?"
"S-Something else? Th-That's even more... A-A-Absolutely ridiculous!"
"Class Rep, you should already know about the Indulgence Disks, right!? Could it be that you're still not awake?"
Amidst the usual voices, there was indeed one person's share missing.
But this noisy clamor did indeed allow one to predict that the usual times were about to return very soon.
After a while, they reached the forest's limits and arrived at a wide open space. Before them was a pond roughly the size of a school swimming pool, filled with clear and pristine pond water. In front of the pond was a small shrine with a miniature torii roughly the size of a fox god Inari statue. There should be no question that this is the place described by the priest.
There were currently no signs of Chihaya and Isuzu. Haruaki's group hid themselves among the trees growing behind the pond, holding their breath for the two girls to appear. Then—
A glasses-wearing delinquent shrine maiden with dyed hair, dressed in a t-shirt and a hakama whose side slits offered glimpses at her thighs. In contrast, there was also a black-haired shrine maiden dressed impeccably in her shrine outfit. Chihaya yawned from lack of sleep while Isuzu smiled serenely. Without noticing Haruaki's group in hiding, they slowly walked out of the forest.
Grabbing the collar of Fear who reflexively tried to rush out, Haruaki continued to bide their time. Pouncing on them right now could very well cause them to flee into the forest again. At the very least, they should wait until the two girls reached the front of the shrine.
Just as the two shrine maidens arrived before the shrine, the surroundings suddenly became incomparably bright. Haruaki narrowed his eyes and half-involuntarily looked up at the sky, filled with the warm rays of the sun.
The world was being shrouded by a gentle glow. Covering the sky was a kind of ambiguous color. As though seeping out from the edge of the heavens, the color of brightness was gradually filling up the originally dark sky. Under the cover of the forest, the view of the light source was obscured. Even so, this was undoubtedly the New Year's first rays of dawn. The start of a brand new year.
Splash! The sound of water prompted Haruaki to shift his gaze away from the dreamy beauty of the sky. He was instantly stunned.
Chihaya had picked up a bucket that was probably kept by the side of the shrine. Scooping up water from the pond, she poured it over her head. Exhaling "phew~", she used her fingers to wipe the water droplets from her glasses. The ice-cold pond water drenched her entire body. Her hair clung to her face. As always, her thighs were visible from the slits on the sides of her hakama, with beads of water sliding down her bare skin. The t-shirt with its rolled-up sleeves was also clinging tightly to her body, displaying the curves of attractive bulges. More than that, something beneath became overly visible—
"...Haruaki-kun, what are you staring at?"
"I-I'm not staring at anything!"
The voice from behind caused Haruaki to avert his gaze frantically. But if he did not watch, how would he know when to initiate the ambush? In any case, he tried his best to prevent his gaze from focusing on one point, then slowly he turned his head to observe Chihaya's situation—Another sound was heard. The sound of friction from the hakama.
Chihaya stood upright in one spot, gently reaching forward with both arms. Straight in front of her were the shrine, the pristine pond and the gradually rising sun. As though offering a dance to these three entities, Chihaya began to move her body. On her face was a lack of expression that transcended solemnity.
Tracing out circular steps, she turned her body towards the right and to the left. Crouching, getting up—Although this series of movements was performed without haste, a unique atmosphere of tension still exuded from the focus displayed by her limbs.
A shrine maiden's perfected dance that one could not help but watch with bated breath.
Was this sense of mystery due to the location? Or because it was during the dawn hours? Or perhaps some other reason? The dance's tempo gradually quickened. Despite not changing very much in actual speed, the differentiation between forceful and gentle movements served to emphasize the contrast between motion and stillness.
Chihaya danced, simply continuing to dance silently.
The pristine and cold water turned into droplets and scattered from her hair, arms, fingertips and body, glistening brightly under the special rays of the rising sun. Her red hakama fluttered slightly, making noises similar to leather-soled sandals as it brushed against the ground. She repeated these movements without pause—
Time passed without noticing.
Suddenly, everything stopped. Chihaya exhaled and stood up. Isuzu, who had been watching her dance with a smile all this time, took out and handed her a towel from the bag that Chihaya had entrusted to her before starting the dance. While using the towel to wipe away the sweat and the water droplets, Chihaya also took the cellphone that Isuzu handed over next and began to operate it in a bored manner. Only at this time did Haruaki's group finally realize she had stopped dancing. The period of fantasy and mystery had ended. Finally, they remembered what they needed to do.
"N-Now is not the time to be mesmerized... Everyone ready?"
"I don't mind starting the operation but what do we do exactly?"
"I really don't think we can make them do what we want through a a calm and peaceful discussion... Looks like a little force needs to be used, more or less. No matter what, it'd be a problem if we let them run away again.'
"Yeah! Anyway, in order to prevent them from running away, let's show them how terrifying we can be. Once they begin to think: 'We can't possibly win~ Please forgive us~', it'll be okay. I guess we could all rush out and surround them at once—Hmm, then Kiririn and I should circle over to the other side of the plaza, then make a entrance like that very active fishing girl in a certain action game, swinging out with a whoosh just like that."
"I don't really get what you're referring, but I can imagine it roughly. Let's do it."
"If they throw another flash grenade, things could get very tricky... Let's hope that we finish it quickly without wasting too much time. Anyway, don't be too violent since we're indebted to the priest's kindness."
I know that! Fear pouted as though saying that. Then everyone in Haruaki's group exchanged glances with one another, nodded and started the operation in one go.
Fear and Konoha jumped out from behind the trees where they were hiding and made a mad dash forward. A beat later, Haruaki rushed out after them as well. Kuroe and Kirika called out:
"Mode: «Chaotic Tadamori»!"
"«Tragic Black River»!"
Extending their hair and belt respectively, the two girls traversed the plaza in front of the shrine by entangling their respective weapons to the branches of trees on the opposite side. Jumping after a short running start, they simultaneously shortened their hair and belt respectively to pull themselves to the opposite forest, instantly traveling to behind Chihaya and Isuzu.
"What... Why are you guys here...!?"
Chihaya was greatly shocked while Isuzu surveyed their surroundings calmly. It was too late already. The two of them were completely surrounded by the five members of Haruaki's group.
Grim expressions on their faces, Fear and Konoha sprinted side by side, making a beeline for Isuzu. Give it back right now! Fear's eyes were filled with such rage as she transformed the Rubik's cube into a wheel of torture—namely, the «Breaking Wheel of Francia». Continuing to dash quickly, she threw the wheel using the immense momentum of her fearsome charge. However—
"There were many of these wild spirits who would not obey, sometimes they were persuaded, and even then if they still would not obey, they were removed by force. As a result, the stones, trees, all the grass and weeds, and even each and every leaf that spoke like humans speak, so that it was so noisy then, obeyed the order to be silent!"
Instead of dodging the torture wheel, Isuzu simply chanted a passage. After that—
Just in front of Isuzu's body, Fear's wheel was silently deflected.
Of course, Fear had not gone all out, but even so, the attack was blocked too effortlessly. Fear showed an expression of surprise while reaching out to catch the wheel that suddenly flew back from her pulling its chain. Immediately, she transformed it into a hatchet for close quarters combat. Meanwhile, Konoha had already circled over next to Isuzu and performed a palm strike towards her head with a mighty shout. But just as Konoha's palm was about to touch her, it was silently stopped.
"Hmm... The air became like a shield...?"
"It's named the wordless wall~ In order to drive away the rioting spirits, the plants went silent while the gods ruling Japan descended from heaven~"
"Really, thank you for the concise explanation...!"
Konoha withdrew her palm and distanced herself from Isuzu—Or rather, she pretended to do so but was actually performing a sweeping kick against Isuzu's legs, but this too was blocked by the silent wall. This defensive shield apparently surrounded Isuzu's entire body. Just as Konoha clicked her tongue—
"But sticking to defense alone will not bring any improvement to the situation~ Well then—And heavenly reeds were cut into bits, and splintering like needles, while instructions were given to read out the great purification ritual!"
Isuzu swung her arms forcefully. Greatly alarmed, Konoha swiftly leapt from her original location and swung her karate chop in midair. Although Haruaki could not see anything tangible, Konoha appeared to be facing some kind of attack. Warily, Konoha entered a defensive stance and said: "Fear-san, please exercise more caution... Just now, something resembling needles of air were flying towards me. Although warning signs can be seen through careful examination of distortions in the air, carelessness must still be avoided."
Fear was originally showing a surprised expression after seeing Konoha's movements. At this moment, she made a grim face and readied her hatchet. Isuzu looked like she had the ability to control natural phenomena such as wind or air. Despite looking totally harmless, she was actually an opponent that required great caution to face.
However—It was not completely hopeless. Fear's voice must be returned, by all means necessary. Even if it meant resorting to a little underhandedness.
"Sorry, but we have to catch you... «Tragic Black River»!"
"Fufufu, time for the mischievous plan of shrine maiden bondage~"
"Kyah... Hey, let me go now!"
While Fear and Konoha were facing off against Isuzu, Kirika and Kuroe had extended their hair and belt respectively, entangling Chihaya's arms. Chihaya thrashed her limbs about madly then reached her hand into the bag she had received from Isuzu, intending to take something out. Naturally, her attempt was thwarted. Haruaki tackled and pinned her to the ground, preventing her from moving. Using this opportunity, the hair and belt tied up Chihaya's body, wrapping many layers over her. Almost caught up in the process, Haruaki frantically jumped away. Had he ended up tightly bound to the shrine maiden in the wet t-shirt, his life would be in danger next.
Noticing the situation on that end, Isuzu frowned:
"Oh dear~ How troublesome, Chihaya-sama has been..."
"Hold on, why are you guys suddenly capturing me!? What did I do? Release me now! My being a curse expert has nothing to do with you guys!"
Chihaya was sitting on the ground like a prisoner, roaring angrily while the only intimidating things remaining about her were her voice and facial expression.
"I don't care about the curse expert issue right now...! That said, I still hope you'll stop doing that! Anyway, hurry up and return the voice that she stole from Fear! Then we'll talk!"
Nevertheless, Chihaya's reaction was different from imagined. Making an expression of utter bafflement, she asked in return:
"Hey... Do you actually not know? That girl—Isuzu—what she's done."
"Like I would know. What are you guys talking about? What voice? Why would I ask her to do that? How would I benefit from her doing that!?"
"But in actual fact, Fear can't talk anymore!"
What on earth? Chihaya was in the dark? Speaking of which, back when Isuzu kissed Fear, Chihaya was apparently roaring: "What the heck are you doing!?" In that case, was this really something that Isuzu had done on her own accord? But for what purpose?
"Hey Isuzu, you imbecile! Are you really responsible for one of them losing their voice? Answer me now!"
"Please allow me to say in fear and trepidation... That is the truth~"
Isuzu nodded and answered with calm composure.
"Y-You imbecile... How dare you do something so outrageous without my permission...!"
"Let me be clear, we have no intention of hurting you two. Also, we've promised the priest—your father—already. In any case, please order that girl to return the voice."
"Wha? Tsk... Oh I see, so that's what happened. That guy told you about this place. Damn it, totally useless, this pisses me off... Everything is pissing me off!"
"You can be pissed off for all I care, but please heed our request. I don't suppose you enjoy being tied up for something you had no part in, right?"
"Duh! Hey Isuzu, I don't care what it is, just hurry up and give it back!"
Chihaya roared loudly while shaking her bound, upper body. She seemed to be truly angry about Isuzu doing something incomprehensible. Nevertheless, Isuzu still said:
"Please allow me to say in fear and trepidation, Isuzu doesn't want to return it~ Because it's in Chihaya-sama's interest~"
"How... is it... in my interest!? It's all because of you that I'm in this current state!"
Chihaya's eyes, filled with anger, glared at Isuzu. Isuzu simply cocked her head in a dilemma. Hand poised for a karate chop, Konoha used this chance of silence to interject:
"If you are absolutely unwilling to return it... We will resort to seizing it back by force."
"Please excuse Isuzu, but Isuzu has no intention of losing~"
"Oh my, is that so? Cursed bell. Rather, please allow me to address you directly as 'a mere cursed bell.' Even if you perform more unbelievable spells, I have no intention of losing to a mere ornament like a bell. I am a weapon. The demon blade in opposition to the House of Tokugawa. Could you understand if I phrase it that way?"
"Oh dear... Muramasa? That would truly..."
"Furthermore, this child here is a cursed cube of torture and execution. Although no match for me, her familiarity with blood and battle is surely more than yours at least. If you still think you have a chance of victory after hearing these words, then your confidence is truly considerable."
Konoha's deliberately chosen words were simply a threat of course—In other words, a bluff. The two of them were essentially limited to direct attacks and would probably have trouble breaking past Isuzu's defensive wall. But if bluffing could eliminate the battle, it would make things much easier.
"Wha... For real...?"
"...It's the truth. Although I've no idea how powerful Isuzu actually is, these girls are really strong. And they have all sorts of secret moves."
Hearing Chihaya's groan, Haruaki added to the bluff on the scene. Chihaya bit her lower lip and looked towards Konoha and Fear in front as well as Kuroe and Kirika behind.
"And the other two are clearly no ordinary people either...! It's obvious that one cannot win against five! Hey Isuzu, that's enough from you, obey me now! An imbecile like you can't possibly defeat them. Or are you fine with being destroyed? Say, have you forgotten that I'm currently a hostage!?"
"No, that fact is not forgotten~"
"Then could you stop chatting leisurely!? Who knows when this weird hair and belt will start strangling my neck!? If I feel any pain, you should best prepare yourself, I'm gonna make you suffer a hundred fold!"
Then the conversation ended again. Chihaya's stare and Isuzu's conflicted smile faced each other silently.
Finally, Isuzu shrugged lightly.
"It really can't be helped... And Chihaya-sama can't be left in that state indefinitely. Very well, understood, you may have it back~"
Isuzu sighed but before Fear actually recovered her voice, they could not afford to relax. Watching Chihaya who was still bound, Isuzu approached Fear with lively footsteps. Fear scowled and typed with her free hand that was not holding the hatchet.
"Uh... 'Return it, yes, but you're not gonna use that method again, are you?' Yes~ For an ordinary person, all it takes is simply skin contact and Isuzu can return it immediately simply by thought alone. But for people like you girls, the voice can only be extracted directly from the throat~ So returning it requires following the same steps~ So here goes!"
Isuzu embraced Fear and forced a kiss on her lips. Fear stared with wide-eyed surprise as though she were saying "At least let me prepare myself first!", waving the cellphone in her hand helplessly. Despite surprised, Konoha remained standing right behind Isuzu with her karate chop ready, instantly able to attack if anything happened.
Fear's body shook violently. After a while, she finally pushed Isuzu away forcefully. Then—
"Mmm... Puhaah! Th-That's enough from you, Shameless Shrine Maiden Number Two! J-Jeez, is this really necessary? There must be other ways, right!? If that's the case, I'll curse you! I'll curse you for a lifetime!"
Perhaps due to lacking in oxygen or other reasons, Fear's face was all red as she swung the hatchet strenuously and threatened Isuzu. However, she suddenly halted in her movements and cocked her head in surprise.
"F-Fear! You're able to speak now!"
"Ohoh! Ah~ Ah~ Ooh~ For real! I'm cured!"
Hand to her throat while performing vocal exercises, Fear suddenly shook her silver hair and looked towards Haruaki. However, her happy gaze only lasted for an instant before she curled her lips malevolently:
"Fufufu... How brave of you, Shameless Shrine Maiden Number Two! How dare you do something like that to me? Truly unforgivable! Completely and utterly unforgivable!"
"Excuse me~ Please allow me to ask in fear and trepidation... What do you mean by 'number two'~?"
"Number One is that girl who's tied up over there, because she's the shrine maiden who's shameless in appearance! In contrast, you're the shrine maiden who's shameless in behavior, so obviously you're Number Two! Anyway, the name doesn't matter right now, what should I do? How should I deal with you...!?"
"Hey Fear, calm down. Anyway, you've got your voice back already. Isn't that wonderful?"
"Although not everything is said and done... This does count as a conclusion. How troubling, what an absolutely ridiculous commotion."
"Ugh! Crap, I forgot to take a photo just now. Clearly it was an excellent shutter chance..."
Exhaling in relief, Kirika and Kuroe also gathered around. Konoha shrugged:
"I do agree that we're not done with the talking... For example, why did you do that? Simply as a prank? If that's the case, forget it, but we still need to discuss the matter of the curse expert."
"Hey Cow Tits, I'm not gonna forget it just like that! How could this be settled just by dismissing it as a prank!?"
"Oh dear~ How troubling, it looks like they still won't let you and Isuzu off. Chihaya-sama, what should be done~?"
Isuzu turned her face. At the same time, Haruaki also looked at Chihaya, who was looking extremely displeased. Gruffly, she whispered:
"About that... I don't really care what you guys wanna do, but could you untie me first? Say, I just wanna hurry home and get changed right now. Achoo!"
"Oh, Isuzu remembers now. The key reason why Isuzu finally compromised was due to worrying about Chihaya-sama catching a cold if this continued~ Isuzu hereby begs everyone~"
Due to too many things happening, they had forgotten.
Chihaya was still dressed in the drenched shrine maiden outfit and the see-through t-shirt. On top of that, she was being tied up by the belt and hair—How should one put it? The sight was extremely questionable. It really felt like a scene that would surely be used in Kuroe's deck of dark karuta cards had there been a Japanese-style version.
Naturally, the instant Haruaki saw Konoha smile and extend her fingers, he immediately closed his eyes to avoid disaster.
But regrettably, or rather, completely predictably—
In spite of his efforts, Haruaki was still unable to escape the disaster known as the Immorality Blocker.
The group first returned to the priest's residence. Since the priest had not yet returned after going to work in the morning, Chihaya opened the door herself. Currently, the only place able to contain so many was the living room, so that was where everyone went.
"Ahhh, damn it, in any case, let me get changed first."
"By all means. But it'd be a problem if you escaped, so please allow me to accompany you."
"Fine, whatever suits your fancy. In return, I'll treat you as a lesbian who wants to watch me change. Record this, I need to record this..."
"Why do you deliberately record mocking insults in your cellphone...?"
"It's my freedom to do so. Something like a habit—Anyway, that's enough, I'm fucking pissed off! If that guy hadn't ratted out where I was, I won't be under your surveillance right now! That shitty father...!"
These profanities had been repeated many times by Chihaya along the way back already. It seemed like she was particularly upset about her father being responsible for her capture.
Recalling this again, Chihaya's anger erupted further, stomping her way out of the living room as though trying to break the floorboards. Konoha followed her, leaving Haruaki, Fear, Kuroe, Kirika and Isuzu behind. Fear and the rest continued to monitor Isuzu vigilantly. On the other hand, Isuzu simply sat smiling in formal seiza posture, staring at an old-style television. The television was running the first news programme of the new year, showing scenes of a New Year's first shrine visit at a large and magnificent shrine while the news anchor was narrating with a calm voice. Next came the weather report. Sure enough, heavy rain was likely for the evening. Haruaki wondered if they would be able to return home before then.
The living room's structure was virtually the same as in Haruaki's own home. Sliding open the paper door gave access to the veranda while the garden was outside. The only difference was that this place did not have the detachable style of rain shutters and glass windows. But with the sliding door closed and the heat on, these were minor, imperceptible differences. As though being at home, it felt very calming. At the same time, the news anchor's monotonous voice could be heard—
(Huah... Now that Fear's voice is retrieved, having relaxed, I feel sleepy again.)
Just as Haruaki yawned, Fear sat down beside him.
"Hey Haruaki, I've got something to ask you."
"Hmm, what is it?"
Resting her index finger against her chin, Fear went "hmm~" in thought and looked up at the ceiling.
"How should I say this? It's about Shameless Shrine Maiden Number One just now. She hates her father?"
"Oh... I don't really know either. It's true that judging from her attitude, they probably don't get along very well. Also, she keeps calling him 'that guy' or 'shitty father.'"
"Don't you call Honatsu something similar from time to time... Muumuu? In that case... that also means you hate Honatsu, right?"
Fear sat with her arms crossed, her body inclined to one side along with her head. Haruaki could not help but find the conversation developing towards a rather uncomfortable direction. Regarding the father who was never at home, always wandering in leisure all over the world, it was impossible for Haruaki to sum up his feelings in a single word such as like or hate. No, even if this were not the case, an ordinary high schooler would only be able to say that parents were parents without deliberately contemplating the problem of like or dislike.
Fear cocked her head, watching Haruaki intently. Haruaki could get a vague sense that this was because she was neither an ordinary high schooler or a normal human, which was why this kind of question occurred to her.
Nevertheless, Haruaki's heart did not have the correct answer to this problem either, so he could only admit honestly.
"Hmm... Actually, I don't know either. Whether how I regard Pops or how this girl sees her father. Because there are many complicated factors."
"It's like that...?"
Fear did not seem completely satisfied and turned her gaze away from Haruaki. Then staring at the tatami floor, she murmured to herself:
"Because... I don't have what one would call parents. How should I say this? I don't quite get what's a normal parent-child relationship. In other words... I'm sure I haven't correctly understood the concept of parents and children. Of course, this kind of knowledge exists in my mind through listening to others or watching television, but I can't say I've experienced any of it myself."
Fear smiled with a bit of loneliness. A smile carrying forlornness and self-mockery.
"I have seen parents and children in the past—Naturally, these were all parents and children standing before the violent tool that I was. There were those who hoped that their family could be spared, unconcerned about their own fates; others only begged for mercy for themselves and did not care if their family was killed; then there were those who all went mad equally and died... Reactions mostly did not deviate from these categories. But I know at least that parent-child relationships under those extreme condition cannot be taken as reference, but that's all I know."
Haruaki suddenly noticed that Kuroe and Kirika were looking towards him and Fear. However, they simply listened to Fear's words with narrowed eyes without saying anything. This probably meant they were leaving the issue for Haruaki to handle.
"...What's important is the future. From now on, just keep on learning all kinds of knowledge and understand them gradually. Don't worry about speed. Even I've never pondered anything philosophical like the true meaning of parent-child relationships."
"I guess so... Muu. Crap, why does the conversation feel so depressing now? I just wanted to kill some time by chattng while that girl's changing... This is all her fault, that Shameless Shrine Maiden Number One! The priest clearly gave us the information in good faith, but she keeps complaining nonstop!"
Perhaps noticing the atmosphere at hand, Fear deliberately acted talkative and loud. Suddenly, Isuzu, who had been watching television silently, interjected:
"A thousand apologies~ Back when Isuzu first encountered Chihaya-sama, her attitude towards Father has always been like this~ However, she does treat Mother with great gentleness~"
"Muu!" Fear glared at Isuzu sharply. Haruaki understood Fear's feelings of wariness but Isuzu had been very cooperative ever sine she returned Fear's voice. Talking to her should be fine, at least.
"Mother... You're talking about Chihaya's mother? We heard from the priest that she's currently hospitalized?"
"Something like that~ Back when Chihaya-sama gained ownership of Isuzu, Mother was not in this home already~"
"Then how do you know she treats her mother with great gentleness?"
"Because Chihaya-sama frequently takes clean clothes along to visit Mother~ The hospital is near the route to school, so even when she skips school, she still goes to visit her~ Isuzu basically waits outside the hospital every time, but one day, Isuzu sneaked a peek through the window of the sickroom and saw Chihaya-sama smiling very radiantly~"
"Hmm~ Incredible to believe. If that's really true, then her attitudes to each parent are opposites. Is there something different between fathers and mothers...?"
"My family background is quite complicated, so I'll just talk about family situations in general—Girls usually keep their distances from their fathers, Fear-kun."
"Something like 'Ewww! Don't mix my clothes together with Daddy's in the washing machine, that's gross~' Stuff like that~ Good luck to the Daddies over the world~"
"Is that situation very common? Nuunuu, it's really difficult to understand..."
Fear crossed her arms again and frowned, then looked up as though she had just been struck by a sudden revelation. She kept glancing towards Haruaki, wanting to speak yet hesitating indecisively. After repeating these motions many times, she finally—
"Umm... Haruaki, I've wanted to ask you a long time ago, but always missed the chance. Or rather, it actually isn't anything that needs to be asked specially, so it was glossed over—"
Haruaki could already guess what Fear wanted to ask. There was nothing to hide in fact, so he spoke readily with initiative.
"Yes, you mean my mother, right?"
"Th-That's right. No no, it's not like I'm really that curious to know, so you don't have to feel compelled to say it—"
Fear was stammering, probably in consideration of his feelings. But clearly she could not discard her curiosity and kept sneaking peeks at Haruaki's face. Originally silent, Kirika suddenly looked at him with unease.
It's actually no big secret—Haruaki spoke with a wry smile:
"No, I actually haven't been able to find an opportunity to bring it up all this time. Rather, it's rarely mentioned so I never thought it was necessary to bring up. Uh... Ever since I could remember, she was already gone from our home. Pops said it was just an ordinary divorce. After all, given what a slacker he is, it can't be helped~ So, I can totally sympathize. That's all there is to it."
"Then that means... You've never met her?"
"Nope~ But because I've never seen her all along, I don't have any sad feelings either. She's probably living her new life somewhere out there, so all I can think of is wishing her happiness, hoping she could forget that bastard Pops."
After a few seconds of silence, Kuroe's incomparably gentle voice was heard.
"Then—conversely, Haru must find happiness as well. To this end, I will spare no effort~"
Kuroe and Konoha, who had moved into the Yachi home before Fear, already knew about Haruaki's mother from a long time ago. Hence, Kuroe spoke quietly with a smile without any surprise or worry. Haruaki scratched his head and said:
"Happiness would be a bit exaggerated... Yes, after all, I don't have any dissatisfaction with my current life. So you girls shouldn't mind it too much."
"Very well, since I already said I'd spare no effort, let me act first as a role model! Haru, don't suppress yourself anymore... You can call me 'mommy' and ask me to spoil you. It's totally fine. Come, rush into my embrace!"
Kuroe spread her arms as though saying "Come on!" Originally, the mood was a little embarrassing and Haruaki was feeling apologetic for making Fear and the others worry. However, this instantly restored the atmosphere to its original state. Haruaki felt thankful to Kuroe from the bottom of his heart but—
"No way! That kind of parent-child relationship would look clearly unbalanced to the extreme!"
"Eh~ I see now, I get it. So just as thought, Haru prefers women like Kono-san to take on the maternal role, right? Symbols of motherhood, almost jumping out in your face, are required. Sure enough, I can only conclude that Haru is a boobs kinda guy..."
"No, even if it's Konoha, I refuse to call her that!"
"Putting Cow Tits aside... On further thought, I seem to know certain things about you but not others. Okay, this is a good chance. Treat it as killing time. Tell us more."
For some reason, Fear had sat up properly in seiza then leaned forward, bringing her face near Haruaki. Her expression was extremely serious but also carried dissatisfaction at the same time.
"Many things. Clearly, there's a lot that Kuroe and Cow Tits know but I don't. So how should I put this? It's totally unfair! So you have to tell me. Not just about your mother, but Honatsu as well, or the Yachi family, or what you were like as a child in the past!"
"Nice idea! I came to this home back when Haru was in middle school, so I'm curious about his elementary school life~ So many things to ask. Such as if you've ever done any embarrassing pranks? Was your first crush on a daycare nanny? Also, uh~ You took baths with your father until what age? —Say, Haru, have you ever bathed together with Kono-san before?"
"W-What, truly and absolutely ridiculous! This is something that I want cleared up without fail. Yachi, hurry up and answer us honestly! N-No, it's not like I'm curious about your childhood, simply that it's helpful for my responsibilities as the class representative to understand more of a classmates' background growing up..."
For some reason, even Kuroe and Kirika were joining in. Especially Kirika who looked greatly enthusiastic.
"Oh what a shame. If we were at home, we could have asked Haru questions while flipping through the photo albums for topics."
"Oh, photo albums... I see... Those do exist as well...! Possibly... Ahhh... There might be photos of Yachi in shorts, or riding a tricycle—A-Absolutely ridiculous! Next time we go to your house, don't forget to show them to me!"
"But anyway, let's start talking, Haruaki! Okay, get on with it now!"
Fear pounded the tatami to hurry Haruaki. To be honest, this was really too embarrassing. Talking about embarrassing childhood memories would be nothing more than a shaming game. Especially since they were currently in someone else's house. In front of the watchful eyes of the smiling Isuzu, whom they only met today, it was even more embarrassing.
So, what ways were there to escape? In the end, Haruaki could only come up with an exceedingly common method.
"Uh... Before that, I'd like to borrow the washroom."
"Muu! Shameless brat, are you trying to escape!"
"I'm not. Really, I'm just going to the washroom."
"Then it can't be helped... I almost forgot, Shameless Shrine Maiden Number One is currently changing. Peeking is not allowed."
"I'm not going to peek! Besides, Konoha is there, right? If I have to suffer another Immorality Blocker, my life could very well be in danger...! My eyes are still hurting. No matter who begs me, I'm not going anywhere near that girl's room!"
"Good for you. Anyway, our conversation isn't over. Come back quick!"
Hence, Haruaki finally escaped from the living room. While recalling the direction the priest had told him earlier when they were resting in the house, he made his way to the washroom along the dark corridor. While pondering unimportant questions like "why do I involuntarily tiptoe when walking in someone else's house?", Haruaki reached the washroom.
(Phew~ Although the final turn in the flow of conversation became unexpected... I guess I just need to gloss over things as necessary and last until Konoha and Chihaya return.)
Inside the cramped space, Haruaki could not help but feel a sense of relief while doing his business in the washroom without hurrying. Regarding Chihaya and Isuzu, there was still unfinished business. Once Konoha and Chihaya returned, there was probably no leisure to discuss his childhood. Haruaki only hoped for this topic to die down naturally.
(So, after they get back, what we need to do is... Listen to their reasons first before finding a way to convince them to give up the curse expert job. Although it looks like it won't be easy... Hmm, but anyway, it sure beats lying in wait and having a great battle for the sake of retrieving Fear's voice.)
Haruaki pondered what was to come while leaving the washroom. Then just as he started walking—
He heard a faint creaking from the corridor floorboards.
Haruaki looked up.
Someone was standing in the dark corridor, as though waiting for him.
Haruaki's heart almost jumped out of his chest. Impossible to understand. Why was this happening?
Why was Isuzu standing here alone when she should be in the living room, under Fear and everyone else's surveillance?
—And fully nude as well.
Haruaki took a step back. With a serene smile, making no effort to hide her body, Isuzu simply stepped towards him. One step. Another step. Haruaki's back bumped into the wall at the end of the corridor. He was cornered. Isuzu drew nearer to him again. Why? Don't look. I should close my eyes. But should I really close my eyes? I clearly don't know what her intentions are.
Haruaki reopened his eyes hesitantly. But in that very instant—a soft and gentle weight enveloped Haruaki's entire body. Isuzu had embraced him. Haruaki half-opened his eyes to see her long, black hair as well as the pale, white back where her sleek, soft hair flowed over. Haruaki did not allow his gaze to shift any further down.
Silently, Isuzu simply exhaled lightly towards his ear as though she were giggling.
Then she opened her mouth and took in Haruaki's earlobe, moving her tongue nimbly—
Haruaki felt his strength draining rapidly.
Then the world before his eyes was plunged into darkness.
"Haruaki... Hey, Haruaki!"
Fear's voice could be heard. Opening his eyes, Haruaki saw the floorboards of the corridor where he was located before losing consciousness. Following the silver hair that lay spread out over the floor, he found Fear's face.
"I came for a look because you were too slow. What happened? Why are you sleeping in this kind of place? Even if you're sleep-deprived, you'll catch a cold if you sleep here. Or did you actually go to Number One's room to peek and get beaten up viciously by Cow Tits?"
How could that possibly be true! Haruaki protested while standing up. Something was not right. Fear watched suspiciously.
Haruaki tried to speak again. How long was I out for?
Fear's gaze turned even sharper. Haruaki reached out to touch his throat then came to a stunned revelation.
This time, it was his turn to have his voice stolen.
Back to the living room, Fear was already holding a drill in her hand.
"Damn you! What are you thinking!?"
"F-Fear-kun, what's the matter?"
"Your face looks scary~ Did something happen?"
"Not just anything happened! This time—it's Haruaki's turn to be unable to speak!"
Kirika and Kuroe stared wide-eyed. Seeing their gazes, Haruaki nodded. But there was something completely baffling. Kirika and Kuroe seemed to be harboring the same doubts on this issue.
"But—This girl was here all along."
"Yeah, although not to the point of keeping eyes on her for every second... At the very least, she has never walked out of this living room."
Just like before Haruaki had gone to the washroom, Isuzu was still sitting formally in seiza with a serene expression, staring at the television intently. But right now, her gaze was naturally shifted towards Fear who was pointing the drill at her.
"What? Muu~ On further thought, Haruaki was attacked after he went to the toilet but this girl really was still here at the time... The same goes for when I went off to find Haruaki... What's going on?"
Indeed, what on earth was going on? Was that person really Isuzu? After all, the conditions were dark. Thinking back upon it, Haruaki began to have doubts and could not be certain. Furthermore, he had no idea why the other person was completely nude... Could it be that beginning at some point, his memories were actually part of a dream after he had fainted?
"Hey Haruaki, because the answer was too obvious, I didn't ask you just now... Who stole your voice? It must be this girl, right?"
"Oh yeah, you can't answer. So—Okay, let me return this to you. Now, our positions are reversed."
Saying that, Fear handed the cellphone over to Haruaki. Pressing keys on the cellphone made Haruaki impatient but he still opened up the texting screen and entered words.
'I think it should be that girl but I'm not confident. Since she was here all along, I could have been mistaken.'
"Uumu, it's uncertain..."
Just as Fear peered forward at the cellphone screen and frowned, footsteps were heard from the corridor's direction.
"Ah, so cold... Once the hot water is boiled, I'm taking a bath immediately. And this house is old and decrepit to being with, there are frequent drafts to begin with. Oh, there's even a hole on this sliding paper door. This is totally the worst."
"No matter what, we don't intend to provide you with time to take a bath. We want to settle this as soon as possible to hurry home... Eh, w-what is this!?"
The paper door connected to the veranda slid open with Konoha and Chihaya entering. Chihaya had apparently changed out of her wet clothes but she was still dressed in the same style of shrine maiden outfit. Who could have expected extras?
"No need to go 'what is this.' This time, it's Haruaki's voice that has been stolen."
"What did you say...!?"
Konoha suddenly narrowed her eyes and glared at Isuzu whom Fear was currently pointing at with the drill.
"She attacked Haruaki while he was making a visit to the washroom. But Kirika and Kuroe have been monitoring this girl all along and she hasn't taken a single step out of this living room. The situation is puzzling..."
"W-Wait a sec! If she didn't step out, then it can't possibly be Isuzu's doing! Then why are you still pointing that dangerous thing at her!?"
"Even if she didn't step out, that doesn't mean she couldn't steal Haruaki's voice. Maybe this girl here has other powers. She could have lied when claiming she needed to steal voice through contact when she actually has the ability to steal from a distance. So lemme ask you and you must answer clearly... Did you steal Haruaki's voice?"
All this time, Isuzu had been smiling as usual, gazing calmly at the tip of Fear's lethal weapon.
It was only natural that she answered while maintaining that smile.
"Yes, that is precisely the case~"
Because she replied too readily and confessed too concisely, Haruaki had to spend a second to understand her words. But Fear and the others did not even need a second to react.
The drill was thrust forward. Konoha took a leap over the table. Kuroe and Kirika extended their hair and belt respectively.
However—Clearly Fear and the girls were not the only ones who knew what they had to do instantly. Before their attacks could strike Isuzu—
Suddenly, a gust of wind blew in from the garden. The paper sliding door was blown into the air, the table flew up, the old CRT television slid off its stand, the cupboard in the living room also fell over with a crash. Naturally, Haruaki lost balance ended up colliding his back against the wall. At the same time, seeing Chihaya's body flying towards him, he hastily caught her in his arms.
"Th-That really hurts... Y-You great big pervert! Where do you think you're grabbing!?"
It's unavoidable! Haruaki screamed but of course, no words came out.
Fear and the others were not blown away but rendered immobile by the sudden gust of raging wind. Isuzu was the only one able to move. Amidst the turbulent flow entering the living room from the garden, there seemed to be one single reverse flow that only she could harness. Hence, with her shrine maiden outfit fluttering in the wind, Isuzu floated lightly out into the garden.
"Shameless Shrine Maiden Number Two... Are you trying the same trick again!?"
"Yes~ Because after repeated contemplation, Isuzu came to the conclusion that there are things that still needed to be done. Chihaya-sama has also changed apparently, so the current situation does not allow Isuzu to dally any further~"
"Incomprehensible... So you didn't steal her voice simply as a prank after all! What is your goal!?"
"Please allow me to say in fear and trepidation, this is all for Chihaya-sama's interests~"
"I've said it before—I really don't get how this is good for me in any way!? Every time you do your own crazy things due to incomprehensible situations, I'm the one who suffers, do you get it? You imbecile, you're my slave so obey my orders without questioning!"
Still in Haruaki's arms, Chihaya yelled at Isuzu in the garden. Fear looked lightly over there and said:
"That's right. Listen well, the one catching your master right now is a shameless brat who'll astound you. Although he's only embracing her shamelessly right now, who knows when his sanity could fly away at any time. When that happens, no one can stop him. Those hands could strip the Shameless Shrine Maiden's clothes any moment, touching her thighs, he'll pant while licking the lenses of her glasses...! You'll personally witness peculiar abuse you've never seen before! If you don't want that to happen, don't flee and just return Haruaki's voice obediently!"
"...(As if I'd do any of that)!"
"H-He's moving his lips with a most scary expression...! Hey, Isuzu, this guy's serious! I absolutely do not want to be violated by this great big pervert, so hurry and save me!"
Chihaya struggled madly in Haruaki's embrace. As much as he wanted to clear up the misunderstanding, there was currently no time to type and show her on the cellphone screen. Besides, as soon as he let go, she would most likely fly towards Isuzu's side. With Fear and the others currently looking for a chance to charge towards Isuzu, it would be too dangerous.
But just as Fear and the girls were slowly approaching her and about to exit the living room, they suddenly stopped. What happened? Just as Haruaki wondered, he also heard the voice.
"W-What is going on...?"
The priest was standing in shock amidst the tragic chaos of the living room. Who knew if he returned for a break or to retrieve something he had forgotten, but to return with this kind of timing... What terrible luck.
There was no way to cover things up with a plausible explanation. The mess of the living room, Isuzu standing alone in the garden, Haruaki with Chihaya in his arms, Fear and the rest with their extraordinary aspects in display. Konoha aside, Fear's drill, Kirika's belt and Kuroe's long hair were impossible to deny.
Exhaling as though making a decision, Fear gave the the priest a slanted look and said:
"This might be totally incomprehensible to you—But let me give a simple explanation. Simply stated, we are cursed tools, tools that have gained self-awareness and human forms due to suffering excessive curses. That girl called Isuzu is also another case like us. She's also stolen Haruaki's voice. So we're trying to punish her to demand the return of his voice. That's all."
"When accepting your hospitality earlier, what we claimed was stolen was a voice. This morning, she had stolen this child's voice, although it's already retrieved now... But she hasn't learnt her lesson and is doing it again."
"What... i-is this all about... Chihaya...?"
Greatly troubled, the priest looked over at Haruaki's group. Chihaya clicked her tongue with displeasure and turned her face away from the priest's gaze, then said in exasperation:
"You probably can't understand... But that seems to be the truth. Get it? If you get it, then hurry and leave. After all, it's got nothing to do with you and you're really an eyesore."
However, the priest did not move. Still with a troubled expression, he remained rooted to the spot as he moved his gaze across everyone. Then finally as though realizing something, he said:
"Oh... Stealing a voice... Could it be..."
"Chief Priest, what's the matter?"
"I just received notice that something fainted inside the shrine's confines. Although he woke up soon after, but, umm, who knows what shock he suffered, he became completely unable to make a sound."
"What did you say...!?"
Fear's expression turned grim as she gripped the drill even harder.
"Damn you, to think you'd also steal other people's voices!"
"Please allow me to say in fear and trepidation... Yes, that is precisely the case~"
Isuzu answered with a smile.
"But there is no danger to their lives~ Unlike your kind, when ordinary humans lose their voices, they seem to suffer some degree of shock and end up fainting~"
"S-Stop screwing around! Why are you doing this!?"
"Isuzu you imbecile! As much as I think it's impossible, could it actually be...? My voice alone is not enough?"
Chihaya whispered in surprise, using the low and hoarse voice she had been speaking with all this time, one that did not seem to belong to a teenaged girl.
"Uh~ Strictly speaking, it's not quite the same~ However, it does not miss the mark very far~"
"What the heck... are you doing... What the heck are you doing!? This isn't what we agreed, right? You're my slave! My flunkie! You should obey me! Stop doing these weird things and come back now!"
"Isuzu will not stop."
Isuzu declared firmly. "What...!" Chihaya stopped speaking, her mouth open.
"Yes, Isuzu exists for Chihaya-sama indeed. It's true that she is a tool akin to a slave or a subordinate. Precisely because of that~ ...Isuzu has no choice but to do this. In order to make Chihaya-sama's wish come true, in order to protect what's precious to Chihaya-sama, Isuzu must devote her body and soul to Chihaya-sama, as the tool called Isuzu~"
After hearing these words, Fear bit her lower lip. So did Konoha and Kuroe—In other words, everyone in the same position as Isuzu were showing the same expression.
Next, Isuzu stepped back and extended her arms forward at the same time, as though trying to restrain Fear and the rest.
"Th-That's right! Listen carefully, Shameless Shrine Maiden Number One is in our hands right now! We will begin the shameless humiliation that will even make her father faint!"
Don't say that in front of the priest! As much as Haruaki wanted to yell, he could not make a sound. Hence, he could only listen as Isuzu resumed speaking:
"Please allow me to say in fear and trepidation... Isuzu knows very well that you people won't do that. If you had the intention, you would have done it already. So, Isuzu is not worried at all~"
"How could you... not worry...!"
Chihaya groaned but Isuzu cocked her head while smiling, then she looked at Chihaya with eyes filled with tender love like an older sister:
"Then Chihaya-sama, please allow me to say goodbye to you temporarily~ As for the dance offerings, even without Isuzu around, please continue to work hard! This is for your own good, Chihaya-sama, if you ever shirk your responsibility, Isuzu will know immediately~"
Isuzu turned around and ran towards the forest on the other end of the garden. Fear and the others wanted to chase after her but another gust of raging wind started to blow suddenly. Even in the living room, the wind pressure could be felt. Haruaki had no choice but to close his eyes. When he opened them again—Isuzu had already disappeared without trace.
Fear clicked her tongue, Konoha clenched her fist tightly, Kirika glared sharply while murmuring her usual catchphrase, and Kuroe simply shrugged and sighed. The priest remained shocked and flabbergasted, while Chihaya—
"Saying it's for my sake... Then leaving me behind... What kind of... joke is this...!?"
Head bowed down, she was murmuring to herself. Thinking he could not keep holding her in his arms, Haruaki thought it was time to release her so he let go.
In the next instant, Haruaki was struck by a blow from Chihaya's elbow.
Perhaps she was fearful of the abusive threats Fear had uttered just now, or simply venting her displeasure like a willful child—In any case, it was really painful as hell.
Translator's Notes and References
- Marble soda(ラムネ): Ramune is a brand of carbonated soft drink known for its distinctive bottle design, made of glass and sealed with a marble.
- Hatsuyume(初夢): meaning "first dream," hatsuyume refers to the first dream of the new year, which is supposed to predict a person's luck over the incoming year. It is considered particularly auspicious to dream of Mount Fuji, a hawk and an eggplant. One theory is that the belief stems from the fact that Fuji is the tallest mountain in Japan, hawks are intelligent and strong, while the word for eggplant (nasu) sounds the same as achieving something (成す, also pronounced nasu).
- Fishing girl: a reference to Umihara Kawase(海腹川背), a series of platform games starring the titular nineteen-year-old Japanese school girl. The games are characterized by worlds filled with birds and fishes with gameplay defined by rope physics.
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