Chapter 3 - Whom Does the Shrine Maiden Dance for? / "Surely, for the man who lost(found) the words"
In any case, the whole group started a planning conference directly in the Hayakawa living room. Despite the tragic remains of the paper sliding door and other articles, they simply piled up the debris in a corner to make enough space for everyone to sit.
"It's really true. Hmm... Fact really can be stranger than fiction in this world..."
In order to hold a discussion, the first thing they needed to do was to explain to the priest again. Since he had seen everything already, this could not be helped. Although it was not instant, in the end, the priest still believed in the explanations from Haruaki's group. After all, having witnessed Fear turning her drill back into the Rubik's cube and Kuroe moving her hair around, he probably thought that there was no choice but to believe. The priest seemed like quite an upstanding man in personality, so there was probably no risk of him publicizing this to others.
"Thank goodness you're willing to believe us. If possible, these are matters that we don't actually want to mention to others, but there's no choice given the circumstances... Of course, the problem at hand is how to stop Isuzu from stealing more voices. From the way she spoke, she definitely intends to continue her crimes. When the time comes, please lend us your assistance, Chief Priest."
"Yes... Of course. As long as it's something I can help with."
"After all, victims have appeared among the shrine visitors. She must be stopped. That said..."
"No matter what, we have too little information on our hands. We'd like to ask the person who knows her best."
Kirika looked at Chihaya, who was currently sitting on the veranda with her back towards Haruaki's group, looking down as she played with her cellphone. She seemed like she was rejecting everything.
"Hey~ I hope you can assist us, is that okay!?"
"Muu~ Ignoring me is so mean. Looks like this calling for me to explode with my super secret move... I'll tickle you until your tears run nonstop."
Kuroe's hair rustled as they danced, brushing against Chihaya's shoulder. Instantly, her shoulder shook in surprise but she immediately pushed the hair away with her hand in annoyance. Then after playing with her cellphone for quite a while, she finally sighed in exhaustion, apparently noticing everyone's gazes stuck on her back.
"...What do you guys wanna ask about?"
"Everything. Please tell us everything you know."
"Everything huh.. That girl is a cursed bell. I discovered her roughly a month ago in my home's storeroom. Then she asked if I'm willing to become her owner, so I took her in as my flunkie~"
"Then what about her curse or abilities?"
"Who knows. She only said that she was originally a tool used at some shrine. I didn't dig into her detailed origins at all. I also heard that she can pray like a shrine maiden to gods and bring about raging winds. As for the curse... You must have heard our exchange just now. Namely, my current, hoarse voice. After all, it doesn't matter if I'm getting a flunkie to do my every bidding in exchange."
"How could it not matter? So long as you continue to be her owner, your voice will never come back. No, not only that, as the curse increases in strength, the situation could very well become even more severe. Don't underestimate curses—That's right, this is the message we wanted to tell you in the first place."
Fear crossed her arms and stared intently at Chihaya's back.
"After a tool is cursed, it will begin to emanate its own curse, thereby causing human victims to give off further cursed thoughts—this is an endless cycle with absolutely no benefit to speak of. Even if it begins like a children's game, cursing behavior resembling a ritual is definitely not a good thing. That's why you shouldn't work as a curse expert or anything like that. Why do you do it?"
"This has nothing to do with the current incident, right? It's none of your business."
Chihaya rejected Fear's question with an extremely cold tone of voice.
"Curse expert...?" The priest also cocked his head and looked at Chihaya in puzzlement, but of course, she ignored him as well. Although it was expected already, even the priest did not know what work his daughter was doing? It looked like the father-daughter discord was really quite deep-rooted after all.
In any case, Chihaya did not seem like she wished to talk anymore about the curse expert issue. As though saying "it can't be helped," Kirika nodded and spoke:
"Anyway... The curse and voices? Looks like there might be clues there."
Perhaps due to returning to the topic, Chihaya scoffed indifferently and answered:
"However, I really have no idea why Isuzu would do that. I only found out today that she is able to steal a person's voice apart from my own."
This did not sound like lying. When Haruaki's group was catching them in front of the pond, Chihaya had questioned Isuzu: "Why did you do that!?" She had seemed quite angry about Isuzu taking action on her own. That could not have been an act.
"Hmm, we still don't seem able to get the information we want..."
"Even so, we can't stand back and do nothing. We must prevent the number of victims from increasing. More importantly—We must retrieve Haruaki-kun's voice."
Konoha's tone of voice was very quiet but carried a serious intensity that would bring chills to the listener. Haruaki could feel Konoha's unmistakable wrath. To be honest, he would not be surprised if her hands would slice apart the table they were resting on. Apart from Konoha, the other three girls were equally anxious.
"Of course. It was a rare chance to hear about Haruaki's childhood just now, so we must get his voice back and make him continue."
"Even if it weren't so, not being able to speak is absolutely ridiculous to the extreme. We must find a way... If necessary, I think even a slightly violent solution would be fine."
"I agree. Now is not the time to be concerned about image~"
They were all angry on his behalf. Thinking he could not push everything onto the girls for them to shoulder, Haruaki racked his brains. Information, clues. What was Isuzu planning? She wanted to steal other people's voices. Although the purpose was unknown—but wait, that's right. Was anybody's voice okay?
Haruaki tried to enter his idea into his cellphone and placed it on the table.
"'Those whose voices were stolen, what did they have in common?' huh... I see, if she could steal anyone she encountered, there should be more victims than what we have now, right?"
"Hmm, we could try thinking from this angle. But the victims to this point include me, then Haruaki..."
Next, Kirika continued and shifted her gaze.
"Then there's the ordinary person the priest mentioned just now. Chief Priest, how is that person now?"
"She immediately recovered consciousness, I think she already left... Her partner said that depending on the situation, if she still can't speak, they will go to the hospital."
"Then we can't meet them... It can't be helped. By the way, what kind of person were they?"
"Yes. Uh... I remember a young woman, accompanied by a man, with long hair... I'm sorry, I didn't take care to memorize the details because I never expected this. Also... Oh right, their clothes were quite fancy, the man also had a leather jacket with a skull emblem..."
Kuroe's eyebrow twitched and she instantly said:
"Were the words 'Go to Hell!!' written on his back?"
"Hmm... Now that you mention it, I think those English words were written there."
Haruaki recalled something from the depths of his memory. Kuroe was right. They had seen this leather jacket, rather incongruent with the shrine environment, somewhere before. Where had they seen it...?"
"Kono-san, do you still remember? The people who drew o-mikuji fortunes after us."
"Oh, that's right. That seems to match their description. Back then, I was so demoralized, thinking it was too unfair, so I remember it very clearly. I remember that after Fear-san drew her fortune, it was this couple's turn. The woman was very happy about drawing the Devil's Great fortune—"
"...Both Haruaki and I got the Devil's Great Fortune too."
After Fear murmured without paying attention, everyone sitting at the table looked at one another with a sudden realization. After a second's pause, Fear also realized the significance of her comment and kept blinking.
"C-Could it be, that's what's going on?"
"Although it's still unclear, since three out of three victims had drawn the Devil's Great Fortune... It's up for consideration."
"Also—Just before Fear-kun's voice was stolen, that girl said something strange. It bothered me at the time, so I still remember it... She said something like 'everyone's luck is quite good' then proceeded to guess all our o-mikuji results correctly."
Indeed. Haruaki remembered as well. At the time, he was wondering if she had some sort of power to sense o-mikuji results.
"Well then, let's suppose that she possesses 'the ability to sense other people's luck.' Lucky people will draw Great Fortune. People with even better luck will draw an o-mikuji fortune better than Great Fortune... Suppose she selects a target before stealing their voice, then it must be because it's better for her in some way of course, or people with good luck are absolutely required. In other words, she could be seeking the voices of 'lucky' people."
"Yes. She is targeting the voices of people who drew Devil's Great Fortune—Looks like this theory can be established... Well then, what should we do?"
"That's the main point. After all, we have no idea at all about other people's luck. Using the o-mikuji...? No, besides, it's meaningless once she leaves the shrine..."
Just as Konoha murmured these words—
"...That girl won't leave the shrine."
Chihaya spoke up. She was still sitting on the veranda with her back towards Haruaki and the others, playing with her cellphone—but presumably listening to their conversation all along. But currently, it was still unknown whether she was willing to help find Isuzu or not.
"Because I've never taken her on a walk in this area, so she shouldn't be familiar with the surroundings. At most, she only knows the route to school. Besides, that girl appears to be linked strongly to me. She once said that she's unable to get too far away from me."
"I see. In that case, she really will continue to steal voices in this shrine now when there are the most number of people..."
Konoha nodded, seemingly finished organizing her thoughts. Hence, she began to discuss with Kirika and Kuroe, asking the priest whenever they had questions, deciding on their approach for the operation next. To prevent more victims and for the sake of retrieving Haruaki's voice.
Haruaki was very grateful. These girls were really dependable. But he could allow himself to simply rely on them all the time—Haruaki also typed on his cellphone to take part in the dialogue. He asked the priest about the probability of drawing Devil's Great Fortune as well as the layout of the shrine's confines. Gradually, a clearer outline emerged of what they needed to do.
(However... This really resembles human wave tactics. In the end, we still need to wait for Isuzu to act. If anything, I really hope we could have more manpower...)
However, it was necessary to start the operation as soon as possible. While they were still dawdling, Isuzu might strike again. Pointless wishes would not help things at all... Just as Haruaki sighed—
He had been staring at the cellphone screen all along in order to type. At this moment, the phone rang with a text message alert. Haruaki gestured with his eyes to apologize to the group while opening the received message—This was a reply to the message he had sent out last night just after midnight as an invitation to go on the New Year's first shrine visit. One which he had sent to Kirika as well. Haruaki had forgotten about it because there was no response until now—
'Happy New Year~! Because Shiraho fell asleep while watching the Red-White show, so did I~ Really sorry for failing to reply to your invitation for the New Year's first shrine visit! Right now, you guys probably finished and went home to sleep? Although a bit slower, we're planning on visiting a shrine now~! If there's enough time, we might drop by your house to say hi on the way back. Oh right, Shiraho's sleeping face is already adorable normally, but yesterday when I was watching Shiraho sleep while the Red-White show was on television, she looked even more vulnerable than usual, it really made me wanna hug her tight~ But in fact, I did her hug her~"
Almost reaching the character limit, the text message was filled with showing off her lover. Haruaki skimmed through it quickly and closed his eyes. Sorry. I'm very sorry. I'm really sorry for doing this right at the beginning of a new year. In fact, let me apologize right here.
Haruaki clapped his hands together towards the cellphone screen to transmit his thoughts of apology. Next, while mentally simulating how he should dodge an exorcism arrow to the eye from the one with the adorable sleeping face (allegedly), he once again opened up the text message screen to key in a short sentence. Then he handed the cellphone over to Konoha who was watching him in puzzlement.
'Sorry, could you help me make a phone call? I'll shoulder all of the consequences.'
Rather horrifically, Haruaki's ominous premonition came true.
As soon as the other party caught sight of Haruaki, she held up the exorcism arrow she had brought and stabbed towards his eye without saying a word.
Fortunately, having simulated the situation before hand, Haruaki barely managed to evade successfully, but it was super scary nonetheless. For the first words spoken in the new year to be the sound of tongue clicking, things were not quite right in various ways.
"S-Shiraho~! That's really dangerous, too dangerous!"
"Indeed, what a dangerous crisis. A lowly human dares to summon us as though we were convenient handymen on call. Since it happens to be New Year's, the timing is perfect, so let's take this opportunity to cut ties with him once and for all, shall we? It is my belief that throwing this human into a grave would not only offer the most meaning in life but also produces a clean cut and conclusion. How absolutely wonderful."
"W-We're very sorry... How should I phrase this? It's because we needed more helpers as quickly as possible and it suddenly occurred to us that your house is close by, Shiraho-san..."
Konoha shrank her shoulders as she spoke. Shiraho remained with arms crossed and clicked her tongue with 100% displeasure. "Ahaha~" Beside them, Sovereignty laughed awkwardly with a stiff expression.
The group was now located inside the shrine's confines, near the o-mikuji fortune drawing box. On the phone, Konoha had already conveyed to Shiraho and Sovereignty the basic situation. Apart from Shiraho and the rest, also present was a shrine maiden in a slightly excessively revealing outfit. When Shiraho and Sovereignty appeared, Chihaya made a surprised look for an instant but resumed playing with her cellphone with an expressionless face.
Since Isuzu could not leave Chihaya too far, everyone hoped that Chihaya could accompany them on their operation no matter what. Hence, after the discussion, they tried asking her to follow them—After several minutes of ignoring their repeated calling out to her, Chihaya finally stood up from the veranda, still remaining silent, but following after them. They originally thought it would be a lot harder to convince her, but Chihaya cooperated more readily than expected. Perhaps she found their incessant hassling annoying so she gave up and went for the path of least resistance; or maybe it was some other reason. It was still unclear at this point.
In any case, Chihaya definitely had no intention of helping Haruaki's group, but one could not assert that she was not going to provide assistance either. Maintaining this sort of subtle attitude, Chihaya stood in the outskirts of the group. Occasionally, she would glance up from her cellphone but always towards Shiraho. However, Shiraho was still displeased and did not notice Chihaya's gaze at all.
"Treating us as helpers simply because we live very close by, that's not something I can possibly accept. Hey, Sovereignty, let us hurry and go home after finishing the homage."
"But Haruaki-kun can't speak, that's a great problem! And if anyone else gets their voice stolen, it'd be terrible. So, Shiraho, umm... I really wanna help everyone..."
"Hoo~" Shiraho sighed greatly.
"Seriously, Sovereignty, you're too kind... You really wish to help?"
"Yes, I do I do!"
"...After all, we're planning on making a shrine visit anyway, let's just think of it as taking a walk within the shrine's confines—What a pain, it can't be helped. If simply taking a stroll while casually looking at the surroundings is enough to make you people owe us a favor for the entire year, it's not like we cannot help."
Shiraho rambled in an indirect manner while she glared viciously at Haruaki's group.
"But let me make myself clear from the start, human. I have no intention of separating from Sovereignty. Neither will I let this child do anything dangerous. Also, I've heard that heavy rain is coming this afternoon so we shall be leaving soon."
"Yes, let's go with that for now. In the first place, your job is just for surveillance. If there's any danger, just escape first and contact us afterwards."
"Very well." Shiraho nodded with an expression completely skeptical of Fear's words. "Let's try our best together~" Only after Sovereignty hugged her tightly did Shiraho's expression begin to relax.
At this moment, Kirika stared intently towards the o-mikuji drawing box and spoke:
"Then let's confirm again what we should be doing next. Isuzu is aiming for people with excellent luck—those who draw the 'Devil's Great Fortune.' Also, assuming Isuzu cannot leave the shrine's surroundings, what we must do is watch over those who drew the Devil's Great Fortune while they remain inside this shrine. Right now, the priest is cordoning off the walking trails leading to the back of the mountain, preventing visitors from going through. In other words, most visitors are basically confined to the interior of the shrine's yard. Conversely, Isuzu has no choice but to enter the shrine's confines on her own initiative. Hence, anyone who's free should patrol the entrance to the walking trail or the outskirts of the shrine's confines and watch out for Isuzu's intrusion."
"But the range is too broad after all, so patrolling should only be done if you're free. The chances should be best over here—Check out the o-mikuji fortune results and secretly tail anyone who draws the Devil's Great Fortune until they finish their New Year's first shrine visit. It'd be best if the person leaves without incident, but if Isuzu attacks, then contact everyone else to gather. Although I feel bad about using the common people as bait, there's no choice right now."
"The chances of drawing the Devil's Great Fortune... The priest said it's roughly one in twenty. Looks like it isn't that easy to draw. For me, that woman in the couple and Haruaki to draw it all in a row, is it really luck? Or the o-mikuji paper wasn't shuffled thoroughly enough..."
"Whether you draw the one out of twenty because you're lucky or you're considered lucky because you drew something that has a 5% chance, the distinction is difficult to make, like many things... In any case, we can only rely on the o-mikuji results to determine if people might get attacked by Isuzu."
"However, having the entire group on watch in front of the o-mikuji box doesn't help either. Let's minimize the number of us who are checking the o-mikuji results and have the rest patrolling the shrine's confines or boundary. Once we run out of people to tail visitors, then we start phoning for reinforcements."
"Hoo, how troublesome. Honestly speaking, this is absolutely a pain to the extreme..."
"Shiraho, let's do our best even if it's troublesome! This is for the sake of Haruaki-kun's voice!"
"On the contrary, as soon as I imagine how this human could no longer verbally subject you to his sexual harassment, I see nothing bad with this fortuitous development."
I've never done any verbal sexual harassment! Haruaki glared at her in protest but Shiraho did not return his gaze. Simply tapping against her shoulder the exorcism arrow she had brought, Shiraho held Sovereignty's hand and turned around.
"In any case, we will wander randomly within the shrine's confines. Also, we still need to burn the exorcism arrow and toss in the offering money. Then just as a matter of convenience along the way, mustering a shred of motivation that is about to fall asleep, let us be so kind as to perform this joke of a job as patrolling personnel. To think that such a wonderful and troublesome task would be thrust upon us when the new year had barely started, it looks like the coming year will be full of excitement too. When tossing the offering, I definitely wish to the gods: 'May all humans who get in our way suffer a delightfully tragic death instantly.'"
As usual, Shiraho's every sentence was filled with barbs. Having imposed a request on her first thing on New Year's Day, Haruaki could understand her agitation after all.
"Sh-Shiraho, don't drag me around, okay~ A-Anyway, we're going first! We'll do our best!"
"Yes, take care. Sovey-chan, you be careful too~"
Haruaki and the rest half-narrowed their eyes while Kuroe stared blankly as she waved goodbye to Sovereignty and Shiraho. But after walking a few steps, Shiraho suddenly halted. After some apparent deliberation, her shoulders shook slightly and she spoke without looking back:
"Oh... I almost forgot. I seriously have absolutely no intention of performing this patrolling task earnestly, but simply out of a matter of curiosity, let me ask this. In other words—Uh... The one who stole the foolish human's voice, the commendable person deserving of great praise, what does she look like? I really must offer my thanks when I see her."
Haruaki and company exchanged glances. Speaking of which, they had not told her what Isuzu looked like. Then they smiled lightly. Despite Shiraho's usual display of her twisted personality, she was apparently willing to offer her assistance to some extent. It looked like this year's Shiraho was still the same. Just as the group conversed using exchanged gazes...
"...What's going on? Despite being so pretty, did she catch some sort of disease where she can't speak without mocking or insulting others? What a shame... Anyway, let me record this."
Chihaya, who simply kept sneaking glances at Shiraho, typed on her cellphone while feeling apprehensive about the sense of dissonance between her extraordinary appearance and troublesome personality.
Konoha tiptoed behind shrine visitors to peek at their drawn fortunes. Then looking back at the group, she nodded and disappeared into the crowd, following the visitor.
Kuroe and Kirika remained on standby before the o-mikuji box. After leaving the instructions "Contact us immediately when the next Devil's Great Fortune appears," Haruaki's group began to move out, consisting of the trio of Fear and the two, Haruaki and Chihaya, who could not play combat roles in crisis situations.
While making a circuit of the shrine's outskirts in search of Isuzu, they also confirmed that the path towards the back of the mountain had been sealed off as planned. Cordoned off simply with a rope, anyone could easily pass through just by stepping over it, but this should be effective in restraining the ordinary populace. Next, they returned to the shrine's confines and as the sun continued to rise, they wandered along the visiting road and around the main hall where crowds were increasing. Every time they caught sight of a figure dressed in shrine maiden clothes, they would jump in surprise but of course, they all turned out to be part-timer shrine maidens.
"Hmm~ It's getting more and more crowded. Business looks like it's thriving."
"...Really? Probably just for today. To go so far as to make weird o-mikuji fortunes to attract visitors, that's so desperate it's laughable."
Chihaya played with her cellphone in boredom as she answered. Her gaze was essentially glued to the phone. Occasionally, she would glare viciously at lecherous male shrine visitors who were leering at her shrine maiden outfit. To be honest, Haruaki was wondering. If she did not want to be stared at, shouldn't she simply wear a normal outfit? But speaking of which, judging by the way she spoke, Chihaya did not seem concerned at all about the shrine's work. Haruaki even got the feeling that she did not actually need to wear a shrine maiden outfit on purpose—Yet in actual fact, she was practicing a dance. Did that mean her inner thoughts were completely opposite?
"This is clearly your home's affairs. Trying hard shouldn't be a bad thing, right?"
"...None of your business. Before talking rubbish, let's find Isuzu first. Keep your nose out of my affairs."
"Hmph. Searching is the job of the eyes. It's got nothing to do with the mouth. The way you keep playing with your phone, I'm surprised you don't tire of it. Are you texting your friends?"
"I'm not sending texts, just browsing web pages or doing other stuff."
"Muu~ I don't quite get it but I guess that means you don't have friends to text. How pitiful."
Fear muttered rudely but Chihaya was completely unfazed.
"Yes, it's true that I don't have friends to text. On the other hand, simply counting, I do have a couple people as contacts... But they were pretty much recorded due to favors. Also, I've no interest in texting anyway."
"Why? Isn't exchanging texts quite fun? Hmm, though I've only heard that from Kana and Taizou—in other words, my friends."
"Hoo~" Chihaya exhaled against her cellphone screen.
"—That's because I'm very busy. Before playing with others or sending meaningless texts, I have many other things I need to do. More than enough to fill my time."
Things she needed to do, what exactly were they? The work of a curse expert? Or other things? Haruaki glanced at Chihaya but could not garner any clues from the profile of her bored face.
Perhaps bothered by Chihaya's sigh, Fear looked at her in puzzlement. At this moment, Chihaya's gaze finally left her cellphone and she looked Fear in the eye.
"Say... I don't really care, but didn't you say that searching is the job of the eyes?"
"Muu. I-I just happen to be searching the area behind you, not like I'm looking at you—Okay, let's look at the opposite side next. Haruaki, let's go, don't get separated."
Saying that, Fear squeezed into the crowd again and advanced forward. Since Haruaki could not speak, getting separated would be problematic. Now our positions have reversed—Haruaki recalled the situation a couple hours earlier as he started chasing after Fear's silver hair. Still scowling, Chihaya also followed.
Searching, searching nonstop. Searching for the girl in the shrine maiden outfit. Searching for a cursed bell. Along the way, the cellphone rang, hence they returned to the o-mikuji box to watch over a family whose leader was a man who had drawn the Devil's Great Fortune. After finishing their shrine visit and buying many talismans, the family immediately left. Throughout the process, Haruaki occasionally ran into Konoha and Kirika who were following others with serious expressions, or, when passing by Shiraho, she would silently kick Haruaki in the shins and continue searching the surroundings—This continued for several hours.
Then the situation grew increasingly strange. Literally, this not only applied to the sky but also the condition of Haruaki's group.
"What... A vendor fainted...? His voice really... Hmm..."
Picking up the phone in Haruaki's place, Fear groaned. Konoha had reported the appearance of a new victim. As a vendor, it would not be surprising for him to have stayed inside the shrine's confines after drawing the Devil's Great Fortune. What a disaster. This meant that they needed to take precautions for this side of possibilities as well. Just as they started to raise their guard—
'Sorry, she took advantage of the crowd and using an unseen opening... Another victim!'
'Reporting~ Another person has drawn the Devil's Great Fortune~ Wow, two in a row! Anyone free right now?'
'Human, the current situation seems to be getting out of hand. Fufu, how delightful. Oh right, just purely by chance, I've currently discovered someone fainted in front of me. This is pure coincidence, just when I was casually resuming my stroll... Hey, Sovereignty...! H-Haruaki-kun, Fear-chan, sorry! Even though we were watching over someone who had drawn the Devil's Great Fortune, he still got attacked! I think I caught a vague glimpse of someone dressed as a shrine maiden, but she immediately disappeared! Sorry!'
"She appeared at you and Shiraho's location? But we've received sightings over here as well, about a girl in a shrine maiden's outfit... These are basically opposite directions of the shrine, how does she move?"
The facts were quite complicated. The cellphone kept ringing. Isuzu's attacks could not be stopped. Not only that, quite a few number of new victims arose.
Fear bit her lower lip hard, glaring severely at her surroundings. Naturally, Haruaki was doing the same. Despite monitoring so vigilantly, why could they not stop Isuzu from striking? How many more people's voices was Isuzu going to steal until she was willing to stop? Haruaki's mind kept churning over these questions without answers. However, all they could do right now was keep searching. Haruaki and Fear continued on their way again.
Chihaya's gaze was still glued to her cellphone screen.
But it was different from earlier.
Currently, her fingers made key presses absentmindedly on occasion as though only when she suddenly remembered.
After that, a few more hours passed. Noon went by but still the search remained fruitless. The number of victims had already reached ten. The sky was also filling up with thick layers of clouds and could rain at any moment.
Although Isuzu needed to be caught as quickly as possible, Haruaki's group was tired to their limits by all the mindless searching. They had no choice but to take turns to rest and eat at Chihaya's house.
After quickly eating some roasted corn and New Year rice cakes that were bought at the shrine vendors, Haruaki and Fear caught their breath. Seeing Fear was about to rush out again, Haruaki typed on his cellphone:
'Wait up. Let's rest a little more.'
"I don't think now is the time to be casually saying something like that. But whatever. Me aside, Shameless Shrine Maiden Number One and you must be tired from running all over the place. Let's rest for another ten... no, five minutes."
Due to moving as a group, Chihaya naturally took a break together with them. She did not reach for the snacks but simply sat down, immersed in her cellphone. At this moment, footsteps were heard coming from the veranda. Since the paper sliding door was already broken, they could easily see who was coming. It was the priest—Chihaya's father.
"Chief Priest? Thank you for letting us rest here."
"No no, I haven't been able to offer you proper hospitality either... However, the situation has become very serious."
"Yeah—But don't you worry, I'll surely find her immediately! During this time, please find a way to cover it up and prevent panic."
"Yeah." The priest nodded vaguely. Chihaya clicked her tongue, the corners of her lips twisting in mockery:
"That's right, that's right. Just cover things up to maintain the shrine's reputation. Business sure is tough."
The priest frowned and looked at his daughter with a pained expression. Chihaya continued to jeer:
"What's with that look? Any objections? Oh right, of course you do. Because this is all my fault. Blame me for becoming the owner of a weird bell. It's all because of your unworthy daughter that the all-important shrine is facing a great crisis. You must be very troubled."
"The shrine... is indeed... important. But... No, that's not right. Chihaya, you..."
Chihaya interrupted the priest with a harsher tone of voice. Faced with this sudden, tense, father-daughter conversation that they could not butt in, Haruaki and Fear could only sit uncomfortably, hunching their necks.
"Look, there you go again. That's right, the shrine is very important! The shrine, the shrine! As long as it's for protecting the shrine, you're willing to do anything, right? Under the blessing of the gods, you even made a whole bunch of innovative o-mikuji fortunes. Ha! What Devil's Great Fortune, how inane. In the end, it's all just business."
"What? Are you asking me to act a little more like a shrine family's daughter again? Now that is the most inane! Rather, you should be the one to shape up. Clearly you've never even gone to visit mom!"
Haruaki recalled what the priest had mentioned. A poor father-daughter relationship. A hospitalized mother. For them, this kind of argument was probably commonplace. But Haruaki felt that he could not just silently watch them argue. Despite being an unrelated outsider, it was probably time to advise them to stop—Just as Haruaki thought that...
Fear, who had been watching Chihaya and her father then turning to Haruaki, suddenly frowned. In the next instant, she widened her eyes and reached into her pocket. At the same time, Haruaki also caught sight of something.
The priest was standing in the veranda, arguing with Chihaya in the living room. Beside him, a hand reached out.
That hand's owner, quietly walking on the veranda, silently approaching the priest was—
"Shameless Shrine Maiden Number Two!"
The other side remained silent while approaching from the side of the veranda. Looking out from inside the living room, only her front half could be seen. Still smiling serenely as usual, Isuzu reached out and grabbed the priest's collar, pulling him towards her, then embraced him. Just as he started struggling, like a vampire, she brought her lips near the priest's neck—
"I-Isuzu... S-Stop it..."
Did Chihaya's voice reach her ears? In the end, nothing was prevented. Smooch. A light kiss was heard. After a certain something was stolen from his neck, the priest's body shook violently then went limp and collapsed on the floor.
At the same time, Fear threw the torture wheel but Isuzu had already retreated. The torture wheel struck the thick pillar that stood between the living room and the veranda. Clicking her tongue, Fear pulled the wheel back and rushed out to the veranda. However, her vicious glare, passing back and forth over the garden and the forest behind, indicated she had lost signs of the enemy. Fear probably did not rush recklessly into the forest because she did not want to leave three powerless humans behind.
Haruaki frantically ran towards the collapsed priest. With simply a fearful expression, Chihaya was rooted to the spot in shock, gazing down at the priest's face.
People who had their voices stolen would faint from the shock but regained consciousness soon after. Haruaki had personally experienced the same himself. As expected, it did not take long for the priest to wake up and open his eyes. Sitting up, he touched his own throat with a troubled expression. Sure enough—his voice was stolen.
"Damn it, she escaped...! But as it so happens, Cow Tits, who's good at sensing people's presences, isn't here. What a useless girl!"
Fear grumbled impatiently and returned to the living room. Seeing that the priest wanted to say something, Haruaki handed a notebook and pen nearby to him.
'Sorry. Speaking of which, when I tried drawing an o-mikuji as a test, I also got the Devil's Great Fortune.'
"You should have said so earlier...!"
'I failed to find the chance each time, I'm really sorry.'
"But—Even if we knew beforehand, it's still shocking. I never expected that she would even steal the voice of her owner's family. Damn that girl, she really has no scruples...!"
Fear groaned while glancing at Chihaya. She was gripping her cellphone tightly with an expression of disbelief, casting her gaze at her feet helplessly, whispering softly:
"What... How did things come to this? This... I never asked her to do this kind of thing... Why on earth is she doing this...!?"
The priest was watching Chihaya with complicated emotions in his eyes. Soon after, he finally started to write slowly in the notebook.
'This isn't your fault, Chihaya.'
"...! Th-That's obvious. It's not like I feel guilty or I'm worried about you—!"
Watching Chihaya in her emotional state, the priest continued to write.
'Yes. After all, it's just the loss of my voice and doesn't hurt either. So there's no need to worry.'
"I already said I'm not worried about you! N-Not having to hear your lifeless voice makes things easier for me too. Besides, your job only involves casually watching the shrine maidens at work or sweeping the shrine's confines. Even unable to speak, umm... There won't be any problem—"
Chihaya spoke rudely to her father repeatedly. But it sounded like she was using her feelings of annoyance and impatience to suppress other thoughts in her mind.
'Perhaps so. However, it's not completely without problems. For the tasks at hand, I think it's okay even if I don't speak, but...'
"W-What? Are there other problems? A person like you... Your voice—"
Probably needing more space to write, the priest flipped over to the next blank page. He looked very cautious as he wrote down word after word.
Amidst the silence, only the rustling of the pen writing words could be heard. As the sound of writing stopped, pure silence elapsed for a few seconds. During this time, the priest seemed to be hesitating, deliberating over something as he gazed at the words he had written.
But after a while, he made an extremely lonely smile and held up the paper—
'However, what troubles me greatly is the one fact that I can't phone your mother.'
Chihaya was frozen, apparently stunned as she stared at those words.
"Phone...? You've been... calling her...?"
'Basically every day. Because it's embarrassing, I always call her when you're not around.'
The priest closed his eyes briefly then wrote again.
'You may see me as just a father who's always busy running the shrine and completely neglecting the family. But I can proudly say that I have always cherished my family. Your mother once said that she loves this shrine. That's why I must protect it well. Not only because of financial matters like the cost of hospitalization but also to protect your mother's home. That's why I am desperately trying to make this shrine prosper.'
Only having confirmed that Chihaya had finished reading these words did the priest flip to the next page. But before he wrote down the next sentences, the priest paused for a few seconds. As though saying 'what am I doing, explaining myself this late,' he was smiling wryly in slight embarrassment.
'You are the first child born to your mother and I in our advanced age, so there are many things that I don't know what kind of distance to maintain. Sorry, your father is so awkward.'
'How unbelievable. I never thought that such words could be expressed so easily once transformed into written text. However, no matter how hard it is speak, these words should be voiced aloud. I really wish I could have told you earlier. Perhaps it's already too late.'
Yes, truly. This was perhaps exceedingly pure and simple. Maybe quite commonplace—Haruaki wondered, mesmerized.
An awkward father and a rebellious daughter. A hospitalized mother. Misunderstandings born from minor differences of opinion. Currently, right here was a perfectly ordinary story. Like gears unable to mesh or turn due to an insignificant foreign object getting caught between them. But similarly, perhaps through some kind of chance impetus, they could turn again. If the gears themselves could notice how trivial the foreign object was, perhaps they could recover and turn even faster.
—However, currently, it looked like they still could not turn yet.
Chihaya originally displayed a stunned expression, but most probably subconsciously, she made an expressionless face and turned her back to her father.
"What, saying this at this point. It has nothing to do with me... Really, it's got nothing to do with me..."
"H-Hey, is this really okay?"
"What is really okay? It's just being unable to speak. There's no hindrance otherwise. That's totally nothing to be concerned about. By the way, you only said we're resting for five minutes. Five minutes have already passed."
Chihaya walked quickly over to the entryway. The priest watched her leave and said: 'Don't worry about me. Please bear with Chihaya.' Haruaki and Fear exchanged glances and chased after her. After all, they could report to Konoha the current situation any time they wanted, and even if they left the priest behind, Kuroe and others would arrive for the next round of breaks—But if they lost Chihaya, things would get very troublesome instead.
Haruaki and Fear caught up to Chihaya at the entryway. Haruaki originally wanted to say to her from behind: 'Hey, you really should talk more with your father, okay?' but he could not speak. Arghh, what a pain. Just as he took out his cellphone—
"Hey, let me tell you guys, I suddenly have something I need to do. Since this is a rare chance, accompany me."
"What? We have no time now, we must catch Shameless Shrine Maiden Number Two as quickly as possible! As if we had time to accompany you to do stuff—"
Without answering Fear, Chihaya simply stared ahead—Rather than into the yard, this direction was towards the forest in the back of the mountain that extended from the home's surroundings.
"This is related to your urgent matter too. Because I'm already tired of it. I want to end this meaningless commotion as quickly as possible. Also, it's making me mad, watching an idiot write sluggishly because he doesn't know how to type on a cellphone. What an extreme eyesore. Similarly, talking by writing is even more of an eyesore..."
Chihaya spoke on her own while walking towards the depths of the forest. Related to Haruaki and company's urgent matter. In that case, she meant it was related to the matter of catching Isuzu? Then there was no choice but to follow.
"Could it be that she actually knows where that girl is...? Whatever, Haruaki, let's go in any case!"
Chasing after Chihaya who did not even look back once, Haruaki and Fear also entered the forest. Just as they realized this path seemed quite familiar, they soon reached the shrine in front of the pond. Without any looking around needed, it was clear that there were no signs of Isuzu at this wide open space.
Chihaya sat down at once in front of the shrine, then began to tap away on her cellphone.
"Hey, what do you need to do here? That girl isn't here at all, right? Or you plan on calling her here by phone?"
"How could that be possible? It's not like she has a cellphone. This is simply for killing time. Also, coming here has no special meaning. As long as there's no other people, anywhere's fine."
"I don't get what you're talking about. Explain clearer!"
"Sigh~" Chihaya sighed.
"It can't be helped. I guess I haven't told you yet—Isuzu's curse not only makes my voice like this but also has another effect. You've see it, right? A shrine maiden's dance. I have to dance several times a day. Even if I don't wanna, I must dance. Get it? The reason why I'm dancing in the mornings is neither for this shrine nor an interest in Shintoism."
"What, that's a curse? Seeing you pour water on yourself and dancing early in the morning, to think I was impressed by you... Say, why didn't you mention this until now?"
"Nothing much, I simply thought that I didn't need to deliberately fill in this explanation. Besides, I don't want you to force me to do what's coming next. Although I also hate taking initiative myself, since the situation is such a mess, there's no choice either."
What's coming next? Haruaki and Fear both tilted their heads in puzzlement. As though mocking them for understanding too slowly, Chihaya scoffed.
"Normally, I dance at sunrise or sunset, but occasionally, the impulse to dance also strikes during the day... Like now. Also, you must have heard Isuzu mentioned, right? If I suppress the urge to dance, Isuzu can sense it, apparently. So if I just keep suppressing it, she might start thinking 'Did something happen?' and at least come here to check it out?"
"What!? Really!? In that case, perhaps—No wait, will she know where you are?"
"I've already told you, her connection to the owner is very strong, to the point that she can't leave the shrine's exterior, nor can she stay too far away from me. Since she can tell if I am suppressing the dance impulse, of course she's able to know where her master is."
Chihaya spoke simply. Indeed, in that case, it was very likely for Isuzu to show up here. Under the current conditions where it seemed impossible to prevent further victims from appearing one after another, perhaps Haruaki and Fear had no choice but to participate in Chihaya's plan. As much as Haruaki and Fear thought: "If only you'd told us sooner?", saying it was useless by this point. There must be some reason why Chihaya was willing to assist them despite such great reluctance. Because Haruaki and Fear could vaguely sense an insignificant reason that Chihaya would never admit herself.
"Nunuu... I see, so that's how it is. Then we just need to wait a while here. However, given this rare chance to draw her here, we can't let her escape again. Although I am confident that I can easily catch her on my own, it's better to be safe. Haruaki, dial the number for Cow Tits and the others and hand the phone to me. I'll call them over."
It would probably take some time to gather the girls who were scattered all over various locations of the shrine, but Fear was right. Haruaki dialed the numbers for Konoha and others then handed the phone to Fear to explain the situation.
After contacting Konoha and the rest, all there was left to do was wait. Haruaki sat together with Chihaya before the shrine, waiting for the moment to arrive. On the other hand, Fear kept staring at the surrounding forest without lowering her guard.
However—Haruaki forgot to ask Chihaya something.
Dancing was a curse. Then if she suppressed the urge to dance, what consequences were there...?
Without warning, Chihaya's cellphone fell to the ground from her hand. Only then was Haruaki finally aware of the dangers of enduring a curse. Fear continued to watch the surroundings vigilantly and did not notice Chihaya's abnormal state. Haruaki frantically typed on the cellphone:
'If you suppress your dancing, what will happen?'
"This... Who knows... Hmm... However, it's probably bad for health. I've heard... Depending on the level of the curse... The body simply feels uncomfortable... or goes mad... or—death..."
Even speaking seemed to be difficult. Chihaya picked up her cellphone with trembling hands and placed it in her shoulder bag. Then using both arms, she hugged her knees tightly.
"Hmm... H-Hey, what's the matter? Is this because you're enduring the curse?"
Fear finally noticed Chihaya's condition but Chihaya apparently did not even have the excess strength to answer her.
"Huff... Ha, ah... Kuu, nnn..."
Rubbing her glasses against her knees, Chihaya kept suppressing the impulse. Large beads of sweat appeared on her forehead. Her breathing became irregular, mixed with occasional moans of pain. This was looking quite bad, right? Haruaki had no idea how much further she had to endure until Isuzu showed up. Was there anything he could do—?
Just as Haruaki was at a loss what to do, Chihaya's shoulders suddenly shook violently. Under her shoulder where her t-shirt was curled up, her arm slowly rose. Her slender arm revealed the pale armpit beneath as it rose straight up. However—
Chihaya used her other hand to grab the rising arm. It was as though her body was moving on its own against her will. No, in actual fact, that was exactly what was happening. Even the hand that had grabbed her arm was forced to separate and rise slowly. Not only that, even her waist was starting to tremble, trying to make her stand up.
"Idiot... What are... you looking at... Hurry and help... stop me!"
Even answering "I understand!" was impossible. Haruaki frantically caught both her arms but her legs managed to stand up. If he were to release her arms, she would probably start dancing elegantly with swaying moves instantly.
"Ooh... Oooooh... Ahhh, jeez... It can't be helped... Great pervert...! But there's only you here... No other choice either! Try harder... to stop me! Do whatever it takes... I allow you only now!"
Chihaya's eyes glared at Haruaki but immediately gave off a hazy glint like a delirious fever patient, then suddenly she regained consciousness with a start. While repeating this nonstop, she kept hyperventilating. She could also be seen drooling slightly. From this, one could see that she was really desperate.
"What are you doing... Hurry... Hurry up! Are you trying to make all past efforts go to waste!?"
Of course not. Whether Haruaki's own voice, the priest's voice, or the other victims' voices, all could only get resolved after catching Isuzu. Everything could only be resolved by drawing her here.
No choice but to go ahead. Haruaki forcibly hugged Chihaya's body, forcing his arms around her shoulders and back, pressing himself tightly against her to restrain her movements.
"Mmmmmm... Huff... Hah, ah—Th-That's right. This... works. You can do it... as long as you will yourself... Great pervert. But afterwards... I'm gonna kill you..."
"Woah~! D-D-Damn shameless brat! You finally decided to make use of this excellent opportunity to satisfy your perverted desires!? U-Unacceptable, this is unacceptable! If that girl needs to be restrained, leave it to me! Switch with me!"
Fear kept smacking her palm against Haruaki's head, but—
"I-Idiot... If you restrain me in his place, once Isuzu arrives, there's no one to take care of her...!"
"T-True, but still!"
"Stop talking about this... You just... watch the surroundings... properly..."
It looked like Fear temporarily agreed with Chihaya. After a final smack against his back, Haruaki felt Fear's presence gradually moving away. She was probably checking out the surroundings in preparation for Isuzu's arrival any moment now.
Hurry and come—Haruaki could not help but think that. He considered the current situation rather dire. Enduring a curse was definitely not good for one's health. He would not be surprised if anything happened. If any signs that it would be dangerous should this continued, he would immediately let go—Haruaki secretly made this decision.
"Hoo... No... Ah, hah... Nnn..."
Through his entire body, Haruaki could feel the girl's body trembling. He could feel the tangible existence of the girl who was dressed in the shrine maiden outfit exposing her thighs and the t-shirt that did not match the winter season. Through the thin fabric, he could also feel a certain bulging sensation. Hot breath was blowing by his ear. Chihaya was clinging tightly to Haruaki's body, desperately suppressing her own movements. Not only her upper body but even her legs entangled him, pressing her hips close to him.
To be honest, Haruaki was mustering all his strength. The power compelling Chihaya to dance was far stronger than expected, so there was no way he could relax his arms the slightest. At the same time, he had to judge when she had reached a critical point while trying not to be aware of her body that was intimately pressed against him. His mind was total chaos.
"H-Hyaah... Ahh... No good... Ah... Nnn... No good... Ahhhh—!"
Losing track of time, Haruaki could feel her body shake especially intensely. Her eyes completely lost focus. No good. She could endure no longer. Although Isuzu had yet to appear, Chihaya's life and safety was irreplaceable—!
Haruaki suddenly released her from his embrace. Chihaya's body simply swayed for an instant, then she instantly stood up as if someone had straightened her back. Liberated, her arms were raised up while she stood upright and steadied her stance.
"Ahhh... Enough... It's okay. I'll... start dancing..."
After blinking a few times, Chihaya's eyes finally started to regain focus, then she murmured softly. Swaying her hakama, she began to dance unsteadily. This could not be helped, Haruaki thought. But in the next instant, he realized.
Chihaya did not say that because the plan had failed.
"Oh dear~ Isuzu was thinking there was an abnormal emergency and rushed over for a look. So it turns out to be this~"
"Shameless Shrine Maiden Number Two, you've finally appeared!"
Haruaki turned his head to look back, only to see Fear take out her Rubik's cube and standing before her eyes was the cursed bell, dressed as a shrine maiden.
But not only that—
"How troubling... Looks like we barely managed to make it."
"Apparently so. Looks like this absolutely ridiculous New Year's first shrine visit can finally come to a close."
"However, this timing really is just right. Looks like our hearts and souls are truly connected~"
"Don't go "yes~"! Sovereignty! We only came here to have a look at the commendable girl who stole the voice of the human with the worst nature, that's all—She's the one? Well then, now that we've seen her, I'm satisfied. Let's go home."
Konoha and the others emerged successively from the surrounding forest. Perhaps because everyone was gathering from a different direction, they naturally encircled the shrine completely—in other words, Isuzu was surrounded.
Everything was going as planned, perhaps even more smoothly than expected. Isuzu had nowhere to escape.
But Isuzu remained smiling as though completely unconcerned by the heavy blockade, simply turning her gaze across Fear and the others. Seeing her so calm and composed, Haruaki frowned. What was going on? How could she remain so calm in the face of this situation—?
In the next instant, Haruaki found the answer. A completely unexpected and utterly baffling—
Yet at the same time—
A perfectly reasonable answer as to how she had been able to commit her crimes so elusively.
"Is this what would be called a trap~? But ultimately, Chihaya-sama cannot be abandoned and left behind in this predicament, how truly troubling~ Hence, our entire team has gathered."
Rustling noises could be heard from the vegetation.
As their gazes were drawn in that direction—Haruaki's entire group was rendered speechless.
Between trees, amidst thickets, on branches, the girls were standing there. All smiling serenely as they gazed at Haruaki's group.
Before their eyes were fourteen shrine maidens who looked identical to Isuzu.
Incomprehensible. What was going on? What happened?
"Oh—Right. Please allow me to say in fear and trepidation, Isuzu only realized now~ Because Chihaya-sama didn't really question my true form, Isuzu accidentally forgot to clarify~ To be precise, we—Isuzu—are not actually 'a cursed bell'~"
Standing in the center of Haruaki's group, Isuzu spoke while giggling lightly. The other fourteen Isuzus also giggled in the same manner, using a voice that sounded like the ringing of bells.
"We—Isuzu—are actually a set of cursed kagura dance bells."
Translator's Notes and References
- Kagura dance bells(神楽鈴): a three-tiered set of bells used in kagura, a specific type of Shinto ceremonial dance.
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