Chapter 4 - Did the Voice Transmit Successfully? / "...(No answer)"
Fear frowned in puzzlement and murmured softly:
"W-What's the difference? Not a bell but kagura dance bells...?"
"Perhaps you've never seen them before, but kagura bells are not like the bells you see hanging over offering boxes at shrines. Instead, it's a type of tool used during the ritual dances that shrine maidens perform. It looks like a short staff with long, colorful ribbons at the bottom while the bells are strung together in a ring shape on top. I remember they're divided into three tiers with seven in the lowest, five in the middle tier ring and three bells on the top. That's why the instrument is also called the seven-five-three bells."
After Konoha whispered an explanation while glaring sharply, Isuzu nodded happily.
"Please allow me to say in fear and trepidation, thank you very much for the explanation~ In other words, a set of kagura bells consists of fifteen bells. Hence, you can call us a collective of fifteen bells. Only Isuzu appeared until now because 'Isuzu' sounds the most natural as a name~ But anyway, let's all say hi to everyone~"
Isuzu looked towards the surrounding shrine maidens—in other words, the beings who looked identical to her. In order, they lowered their heads politely and bowed.
"Hisuzu here." "Nisuzu here." "Misuzu here." "Yosuzu here." "Musuzu here." "Nasuzu here." "Yasuzu here." "Kusuzu here." "Tosuzu here." "Toohisuzu here." "Toonisuzu here." "Toomisuzu here." "Tooyosuzu here." "Tooisuzu here."
All with identical faces, the girls introduced their names one by one. But even after introductions, it was still impossible to tell them apart. This was Haruaki's first time to encounter this type of humanoid form, existing as one person and fifteen people simultaneously.
"To think something like this is possible... If the Lab Chief's Nation were to learn of this Wathe, they'd happily classify it as a research subject for sure. No, perhaps there might be precedents, only not to my knowledge—Anyway, I finally understand why you were still able to steal Yachi's voice while under our supervision. It also explains why you were able to steal voices from people on opposite ends of the shrine's confines within short time. So it turns out there are multiples of the same culprit!"
"Yes~ While at the living room, Isuzu took an opportunity when everyone was not paying attention to secretly throw the bells out of the paper sliding door~"
"Because Nisuzu had not found any clothes at the time~ Her appearance was not very presentable back then, please excuse her for that~"
One of the shrine maidens was bowing her head and apologizing towards Haruaki. She was probably the one who had stolen his voice back then, although Haruaki had no idea how their identities should be defined by this point.
"W-Why did you keep me in the dark all this time!? This kind of thing... You never... mentioned a single word to me...!"
Chihaya groaned while dancing slowly. The fifteen shrine maidens all focused their gazes on her.
"Please allow me to say in fear and trepidation, Chihaya-sama, because you said that you were not very interested in our true form. Also, starting from the moment Chihaya-sama became our owner, it would be pointless even if explained~"
"Pointless... What do you mean by that?"
"Yes~ Then let's talk a little about the past. We were originally a set of kagura bells used in a shrine of a certain small village. That era was completely unlike modern times. People lived in self-sufficiency and all fruits of the land were used directly to support their livelihoods~"
"But one day, the village was hit by a severe drought. All crops dried up and if it continued, all the villagers would face starvation. Hence, the shrine maiden of the shrine began to dance in order to let the gods listen to her prayers~"
"Every day, every day, she danced continuously for many hours, continuing to dance even after collapsing, continuing to dance even after waking up. Even when her limbs were stiff and tired, even to the point of spitting blood, she continued to dance~ But the drought still persisted~"
"However, at some point, the shrine maiden began to wonder: even though I am praying so hard, why do the gods not hear my wish? At least let a bit of rain descend. So much suffering, so much contempt. Even so, she still had no choice but to continue dancing, but for what? So much suffering—Hence, a curse was born."
"Meanwhile, the villagers were wondering: Clearly she is trying so hard to dance, but why doesn't it rain? It must be the shrine maiden's lack of ability. How useless, hurry up and make the heavens rain—Hence a curse was born."
Coming from identical faces, identical voices composed a single story together.
"Even so, rain still did not fall from the sky."
"Waved relentlessly, the kagura bells were worn down imperceptibly, eventually becoming unable to make a sound. However, under the villagers' pressure, the shrine maiden had no choice but to continue dancing. In the end—"
"She died. While cursing all creation, she died."
"After the shrine maiden died, it finally rained. However, it was a heavy rainstorm. As though bringing about the wrath of gods, a grand downpour that violently devoured all the farmland and washed everything away."
"In the end, the village was washed away. Any villagers who happened to survive the rain died from starvation. While cursing all creation, they died. Hence, the village died."
End of story. An ending without salvation, leaving behind nothing but a curse.
"Sniff sniff... What a sad story."
Sovereignty frowned and whispered while Konoha narrowed her eyes as though in mourning.
"This has happened before, after all, I once lived through that kind of era. In other words, you are the kagura bells that belonged to that shrine maiden?"
"Yes~ Although many other things happened afterwards... But in any case, we are the «Silent Kagura Bells». However, once someone gains ownership, we can receive half of that shrine maiden's 'voice,' allowing one of us to make a sound and barely speak~"
"I see~ So that's the meaning behind her voice becoming hoarse. One of the bells is then able to speak."
"For us, a person's 'voice' is power. In order to pray to the gods, this is necessary power. Hence, without the ability to speak—without 'voices,' even if more of us apart from Isuzu appeared, we would still be unable to help Chihaya-sama. Neither could we chant the Great Purification Norito Prayer. Hence, until now, Isuzu served our master by herself~"
However, the bells apart from Isuzu, the bells that were originally unable to speak, were all currently talking. In other words—
"Really...!? You girls not only stole that Shameless Shrine Maiden Number One's voice, but also the 'voices' of Haruaki and other unrelated people to use as your own!? So that's why you're all able to speak now, right!?"
"Yes~ When unable to speak, we have no power except for the ability to take other people's voices through bodily contact. But under those conditions, faced with targets who are not connected to us through the bonds of ownership, we are unable to simply take 'roughly half' of a voice. There is no choice but to take all sound to convert into our own~"
"What selfish thieves of voices... Although it no longer matters at this point, what's the reason for targeting people who drew the Devil's Great Fortune?"
"Of course~ Since we want power for helping Chihaya-sama, we need voices that have more power than others. Compared to unlucky people, fortunate people's voices carry more power after all, right~?"
So that was what happened? They had lost their voices. To them, voices were equivalent to power. That was why they stole other people's voices, intending to convert them into their own power—Haruaki finally understood their goal. Including himself, the current victims numbered a few more than ten. A perfect match.
However, he still had certain doubts. Kirika asked them in Haruaki's place:
"However—Why did you wait until now? To this date, you only needed one person's voice, right? Why did you start wanting to obtain more power only after New Year's?"
"That's right, Isuzu, I know you're gathering power for my sake. But haven't we been slowly accumulating power? I already agreed to it and I'm helping you. That's why I'm wearing this kind of shrine maiden outfit and working as a curse expert!"
Chihaya yelled as she swayed in her dance. Haruaki suddenly realized. Indeed—Everything started with them trying dissuade Chihaya from working as a "curse expert."
After Chihaya finished, Isuzu nodded lightly.
"Yes~ In a different sense compared to the 'voices' of bells, to us who have obtained human form due to a curse—"curses" are a kind of power. Hence, we are collecting negative emotions as much as possible. By asking Chihaya-sama to curse people on other's behalf, or to perform witching hour imprecations using Isuzu's hair as a medium, or having Chihaya-sama deliberately wear a lecherous and indecent outfit to make it easier for her to feel displeasure or hatred towards others—All this was for the sake of our power. Regarding this, we are very grateful to Chihaya-sama. Naturally, we hope that she can continue with it as well~"
Indeed, it was understandable. The more a cursed tool was cursed, the more power it could bring out. This was only natural. However, Haruaki had not expected that they would ask Chihaya to do these things deliberately. Clearly to them who were cursed, curses should be something to avoid.
The same went for Chihaya. To think she would wear that kind of t-shirt and thigh-exposing shrine maiden outfit. In a certain sense, she was trying to give herself a bad mood to exude negative thoughts—What on earth was she thinking? Chihaya had viciously scolded Haruaki before: "No looking!" "Great pervert!" But actually, this scolding behavior was exactly her goal. What unbridled unruliness.
"Since that's the case, why exactly...!?"
"Because we believe that simply gathering the power of curses is still not enough, Chihaya-sama. Time is of the essence right now, there is no longer time to take things slowly. In order to fulfill Chihaya-sama's precious wish, we have no choice but to do this. For us who were cursed because a wish that should have been transmitted failed to reach the gods, our greatest hope to is to fulfill the owner's wish~ This time, precisely because we have fallen to become this kind of existence—that's why we believe we must devote our utmost to fulfilling our role as kagura bells, in other words, to transmit the shrine maiden's wish to the gods~"
Fear exhaled. While turning the Rubik's cube in one hand, she took a step forward. Next, she glared sharply at Isuzu ahead.
"I see—Although there are things I still don't understand, in any case, right now, you're just trying to fulfill your unfinished responsibilities from the past? Hmph, I can't help but say this—You are completely wrong."
"Is that so~? If everyone cannot understand, then it is truly a shame~"
"Say whatever you want. Putting your situation aside, what we need to do still hasn't changed. Are you still unwilling to hand over Haruaki and the other's voices obediently?"
"Please allow me to say in fear and trepidation, we have no intention of doing that~ Because these 'voices' are necessary. As our 'voices' and also our 'power'~ Machinery can be used in agriculture in recent times and it looks a lot easier, but if there's no fuel when a harvest is needed, it would be troublesome if the machinery cannot run. Isn't that right~?"
"I don't know what you plan on using that power for... But... fuel? When machinery runs, fuel keeps getting consumed. Could it be that voices are like fuel to you?"
"Precisely~ Because the 'voices' of bells are not eternal. The louder a bell rings, the faster the sound wears away~ In other words, once we deplete the power, the borrowed voices will also vanish~"
Instantly, the aura of wrath exuded from Fear and the girls became even more dangerous.
"Sorry—But starting from this moment, we have no reason to let you off at all."
"I actually think that was the case from the beginning. However, it looks like I must demonstrate to you, with even less hesitation than before, the difference between a sword and a set of antique bells."
"In other words, once they accomplish their goal, Yachi's voice can never be restored again... Absolutely ridiculous. Ahhh, how incurably and absolutely ridiculous..."
"We will take the voices back seriously. To think that Haru's pillow talk cannot be heard anymore, that would be an unforgivable loss to me... Although I've never heard any so far."
"Pillow talk is very important! Simply the echoes are enough to make me feel very blissful!" Sovereignty nodded vigorously in agreement. Just as she tried to step forward, Shiraho instantly grabbed her by the collar to restrain her, of course. After all, Sovereignty's combat strength was lower than Fear and the others. This could not be helped either.
By this point, the opposition between Fear and the girls versus Isuzu's group was firmly entrenched. Perhaps because Isuzu also understood that there was no room for discussion, she spoke:
"Everyone is serious~? In that case, it looks like we have no choice but to engage in battle seriously in turn~ Because we cannot falter. For us to be ourselves, we absolutely cannot give way—"
Isuzu murmured with a calm voice as she raised her right arm lightly. She raised her arm to the side, parallel to the ground. Upon further examination, all the other kagura bells had raised their arms in the same manner. Then—
The sound of bells ringing could be heard.
A ring was heard around Isuzu. Then soon after, the same sound was heard from the bell behind her, followed by a bell beside the previous one. Sonorous and lengthy, the sound of bells was heard from different locations, repeating like echoes. The fifteen bells seemed to be ringing in a chain reaction as the symphony persisted. Then Isuzu's body went "ring!" once again.
"It's not over yet—Become one. Become one and play. One bell echoing the other fourteen bells, another bell echoing the other fourteen bells... Play the sounds of kagura with greater power and endless vastness...!"
The intervals between bells ringing became shorter and shorter. The symphony of bells were gradually playing the sounds of "growing faster" and "growing stronger" in an organized and unhurried rhythm. Maintaining their posture of raised right arms, they made these sounds without moving.
The forest was surrounded by the sound of bells. The sound density was high enough to almost trick one into thinking that the forest itself was an orchestra of bells playing. A single note repeated countless times, rising in speed and strength endlessly. What terrifying sound pressure. Clearly a single note should be a clear and crisp ring of a bell yet they combined to play an extremely onerous and earsplitting song, heavily shrouding the surroundings, like inauspicious screams echoing nonstop in one's mind, also like a certain curse.
Ring. Ring. Fifteen bells sounded. Endless singing. The rhythm continued to speed up. Speeding up faster and faster.
Ring, ring, ring, ring, ring ring ring, ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring—!
Peak density. The instant the world of ringing bells reached a critical point of saturation, a final ring of exceptional loudness was heard. Then silently, without even exchanging glances, the musical performers used their hands to play the ending of the song.
Then only silence remained.
Due to the excessive sound density, Haruaki could not help but cover up his ears. Just as he took his hands off in trepidation, turning his gaze forward—
For some reason, he shuddered.
The aura coming from Isuzu's group had changed completely. Moving uniformly in unison, they put down the raised arms. Their faces expressed—
The serene smiles were wiped cleanly away. Their gazes were incomparably hollow, like lifeless dolls that had lost all emotion. Or perhaps these eyes resembled those of a shrine maiden undergoing divine possession—Without reflecting the sights of the mundane world, simply staring at the thrones of the gods located in the far beyond, only dancing nonstop for the gods, shrine maidens in a trance of self-oblivion.
"Let us try again."
Even their voices seemed inorganic. Despite no change in their actual tone of voice, there was clearly something unusual about their timbre. The voices carried a bone-chilling type of coldness, like that of a possessed medium announcing divine oracles of destruction.
Expressionless with empty gazes, Isuzu's group silently took a step forward. Then—
"—Purification, like blowing a ship out to the ocean!"
After this one sentence, a fierce gust of raging wind began to sweep from underfoot. Despite being a distance away, Haruaki's group was staggering from the wind pressure. Standing up straight with much difficulty, Fear glared severely at Isuzu.
"Tsk... I don't get how this works, but your power increased...?"
"Precisely. Please do not underestimate our united bell ringing."
Isuzu replied in a completely monotonous voice. It was the answer from an expressionless enemy with neither gentleness nor mirth.
She was no weapon but was undoubtedly a threat. Sounds of bells that were able to transmit messages to the gods of nature. Seeing her invoke powers beyond what she had demonstrated before, this fact became even more unmistakable.
Even so, Fear and the girls did not give up on fighting Isuzu's group.
As though cheering for herself, Fear inhaled strongly and said:
"...You can raise your power all you like. But to us, this only means one thing: we don't need to hold back against you, saving us effort. Cursed kagura bells, you are nothing more than noisy toys. Let me show you my sounds in return. I shall let you listen to the sounds of darkness when steel and blades are in action! You will verify with your own ears whose sounds are louder and more acute! Mechanism No.5 impaling type, upright form: «A Skewer Loved by Vlad Tepes»—Curse Calling!"
The Rubik's cube turned into a metal cube, then with series of grating noises, gradually transformed into an execution stake.
While Fear threw the stake towards Isuzu before her, Konoha and the others rushed towards the surrounding bells—
With a expression devoid of smiles, using an indifferent voice, Isuzu simply raised her hand in preparation for battle.
"If fighting cannot be avoided, then Isuzu shall not hold back. Let a dance be performed here as an offering to the myriad gods, with bells playing a symphony that reaches the plains of heavens! I am the kagura bell, Isuzu, hereby beseeching the gods to listen to one of the fifteen sounds of music... Now that all bells are present, let the god-reaching bells be heard fifteen-fold! Come, gods of the heavens, gods of the nation, myriad gods—I implore you to listen to my wish!"
Fifteen opponents. Naturally, this meant that the members of Haruaki's group had to handle roughly four of them each.
Konoha recalled her memories of battlefields in the past, chopping down relentless swarms of nameless infantry. Four opponents were nothing at all—That was how things were supposed to be.
Konoha made a mad dash through the forest, locked on a particular target, using her hand to chop down trees in her way. A second later, the same sound of trees getting chopped down was heard behind her. Instinctively, she leapt side ways. Then she heard the following words:
"Like the way mountains can be cleared of lush vegetation by means of incineration and through the work of sharpened sickles, all sins will be gone, purely purified, and cleanly cleaned!"
Instantly, the space that Konoha occupied mere moments earlier was sliced open by a massive distortion of the air. Then the tree trunk, which she had intended to cut next, slid down with a resounding crash.
"Acting like a vacuum blade? For a bell, that's rather amazing."
"Thank you for your praise."
Expressionless, the bell replied calmly. That sense of calm was most infuriating.
"However—These are simply parlor tricks! Don't you even dare dream of surpassing me in the domain of severing things... I shall make you personally experience how foolish that would be!"
Invisible and sharp blades came flying again, slicing through the air. Brandishing her hand, Konoha chopped them all apart. Konoha intended to proceed and subdue the opponent that was releasing blades of vacuum, but—
"The Spirit, Ibukidonushi, who is the origin of the breath of life—"
"...will breathe and blow sins and impurities..."
"...out to the ends of the underworld!"
At this moment, three shrine maidens in the surroundings chanted in unison to unleash a violent gale. This was the same gust of strong wind that occurred before, sweeping people's feet close to the ground. As much as Konoha stayed on guard, the wind's power was much stronger than before, bolstered by the ritual bell music from earlier, as well as being invoked by three people. Unable to resist, Konoha found her feet beginning to float up.
Instantly, Konoha jumped up and performed a flip in midair, landing on all fours with some difficulty. Without pausing in her movements, she kicked the ground like a wild beast and moved swiftly, avoiding the incoming series of wind blades.
Clicking her tongue, Konoha thought:
(Although I said I'll make her understand her folly, our combat styles are too different...!)
Konoha was only able to engage in close quarters combat but these kagura bells were capable of using the power of wind to fight at range, an ability akin to cheating. And as expected of fifteen who could act as one, the unity of their teamwork was completely beyond that of infantry on the battlefield.
Konoha did not stop moving and continued to dodge the enemy's attacks, meanwhile glancing in all directions. Were the others okay?
Kirika could be seen fighting in the distance, using a dead angle formed by the leaves and branches of trees to strangle one of the bells by the neck with her leather belt. However, another bell next to them immediately swung her arm down and chanted a prayer:
"And this was done by following a ritual performed in Heaven; heavenly golden timber was cut up, and arranged upon many shelves!"
As a result, the air seemed to distort as though guided by her arm, severing Kirika's belt. Konoha could see that she had swung an axe formed by stabilizing a blade of wind like the vacuum blades.
"And heavenly reeds were cut into bits, splintering—"
"...Like needles, while instructions were given to read out the great purification ritual!"
From Kirika's left and right respectively, two bells released needles of air that were invisible to the naked eye. One could imagine their numbers to far surpass what was demonstrated last time. Kirika managed to dodge some of them but could not evade all the needles successfully. Instantly, her clothes were ripped open and a red liquid seeped out from inside—Konoha forcefully suppressed the sense of discomfort surging up her throat. Unfazed by these wounds, Kirika glared at her enemies and extended her cursed belt again.
"...It looks like you should be human, but your body is truly unbelievable."
"Unfortunately, even the power of the gods cannot kill me. I know very well that I cannot defeat you. But even with my arms broken or my eyeballs pierced, I will not give up—!"
Meanwhile, voices could also be heard from Kuroe who was facing off against a quartet just like Konoha.
"There's too many of them. I really wanna get them all at once... Mode: «Killing Machine Masakado»!"
"Akin to strong winds capable of blowing away thick layers of clouds—"
"Akin to the winds of morning and evening..."
"...capable of blowing away the mist!"
Kuroe extended ropes of black hair all at once, but they were scattered by the bells' simultaneous release of violent wind. This was the move creating rampaging wind over a wide area that Isuzu had displayed at the very beginning, simple yet difficult to evade.
Apart from blowing and scattering her hair, as the raging wind ramped up in power, simply the backwash was enough to send Kuroe's petite body tipping this way and that. Probably thinking that falling over would present too many openings to the enemy, Kuroe desperately gathered her hair into one thick bundle to entangle one of many trees that were slanting in the wind. Jumping without opposing the wind, she flew and shortened her rope of hair, landing on top of a branch—
"Phew~ That was really close."
"How light and agile. Kusuzu is impressed."
"Well then, Tosuzu shall play along."
The bells murmured softly without any emotional fluctuation, jumping up and riding along the wind. Kuroe extended her rope of hair again to fly towards the next tree. Thus, an aerial battle began, moving above the trees.
"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!"
Fear threw the execution stake with a great yell but it was blocked by a wall of silence. Turning the returning execution stake into a hatchet, she charged forward once more. However, Norito prayers sounded again and stopped her.
"Damn it, still blocking so effortlessly...!"
"The timing of your attacks is very easy to discern. Despite the fact that the wall of silence only lasts for but an instant, defending is still easy."
"You dare look down on me...!"
Fear fought desperately and kept jumping, swinging her hatchet as hard as she could to deflect the wind needles and vacuum blades fired by the surrounding bells. However, they were right. Even in close quarters combat, Isuzu and her comrades were still able to use the protective shield of silence. Konoha agreed that Fear's fighting style was easy to read and the timing was easy to figure out. Nevertheless, Konoha still strongly acknowledged the destructive power possessed by those massive tools of torture. To think they could be blocked so effortlessly, was there some way to break through these defenses?
(There must be... No, even if there isn't, we must break through...!)
Konoha bit her lower lip hard and renewed her vigor. Don't forget that this battle involves his voice at stake. That gentle yet calm voice whose quiet words alone were enough to calm one's mind, whose whispers alone were enough to bring warmth to one's heart, whose laughter alone was enough to bring happiness—The voice she loved the most in the entire world.
Konoha stopped and drew in a deep breath.
She could not turn back to the form of a sword. Since they were not facing armed opponents, the Sword-Kill Counter was meaningless. Even if it were not, it would be too dangerous to have Haruaki on the battlefield without his voice. Unable to engage in instantaneous communication, it was most troubling.
Hence, fighting in this manner was the only choice. Going all-out, relentlessly, recklessly, carrying the determination to never falter.
"...I must make you return it. Those who want Haruaki-kun's voice and rely on his voice for power—You're not the only ones!"
Konoha no longer ran and dodged all over the place. Deploying a sword's sharpness all over her body, she charged straight into the rampaging wind summoned by the bells. She could feel the gazes of others, watching from a distance away from the battlefield—Haruaki, Sovereignty, Shiraho, as well as Chihaya.
Chihaya was dancing. It was the dance presented to the gods, slow yet carrying a sense of tension. The cursed dance of the shrine maiden.
It was not performed by her own will and seemed quite out of place for this battlefield. Nevertheless, her dancing figure was full of mysteriousness indeed. In the center amidst the intensely resounding noise of battle, only the shrine maiden's dance continued quietly without words.
At the same time, her hair and hakama were swaying from the aftereffects of the raging winds.
All this time, Chihaya was gazing upon the girls.
As though praying something.
Or perhaps, cursing something.
Haruaki could only watch as his companions fought valiantly despite being outnumbered. Although his inability to take part was a common situation, he still could not help but gnash his teeth.
"Oh no... Dangerous...! Phew~, thank goodness, she dodged it... If only I could fight alongside them..."
"No way, I'm not going to allow you to do something so dangerous! Absolutely forbidden! Even if you could fashion multiple dolls out of the trees, you're only able to control them within your line of sight, right? Ultimately, it's pointless if all you can do is attack one person at a time. Your efforts would amount to no more than a drop in the bucket."
"I-I can't argue with that, but..."
While listening to Shiraho and Sovereignty's exchange, Haruaki continued to watch Fear and the others.
To be honest, they were stuck in a desperate battle. The disparity in numbers was too great. Moreover, Isuzu's group was also capable of various moves such as wind and walls of silence. If anything, they were the type of enemy skilled in defense. Landing a decisive blow was impossible.
However, Fear and the girls did not give up at all. Despite panting, despite bleeding, they still attacked Isuzu's group valiantly—
Only time continued to flow nonstop. Nevertheless, the situation did not remain unchanged. As time flowed by, the battlefield began to undergo subtle changes.
"Hmm... Huff... Ah..."
The sound of hakama rubbing was heard. Haruaki turned to see Chihaya collapsed on the ground, her shoulders heaving up and down as she panted. She had apparently just finished the dance required by the curse.
Also, there were two other changes—the increasing number of dark clouds, just as the weather report predicted, as well as—
"This... Situation is getting urgent..."
Emotionlessly, Isuzu and her comrades looked up at the sky and frowned, pausing in what they were doing. Perhaps perplexed by their reaction, Fear and the girls, all covered in wounds, also halted to observe Isuzu's faction.
"What shall we do?"
"Impossible to assert whether trivialities should be neglected in favor of the important matter. Musuzu proposes: In any case, we must get moving first."
"Tosuzu seconds the motion."
"Then it cannot be helped. Isuzu shall lead the way."
Isuzu's group exchanged glances among themselves and nodded. Then they scattered and ran through the forest. The encirclement was over. Greatly alarmed, Konoha said:
But of course, Isuzu's group did not respond and simply disappeared out of sight.
"What's going on? What is their intent...?"
"At any rate, we have a crisis! Once they deplete their power, the voices will vanish. We must catch up to them. But where have they run off to? Damn it, to have allowed them to escape at this time, how absolutely ridiculous!"
Just as Fear and the others were about to rush out despite their puzzlement, Chihaya supported herself with her arms against the ground and slowly got up, having resumed breathing regularly. Her eyes were staring into the forest that had been plunged into darkness like nighttime due to the obscured sun.
"Oh... Really? Sure enough... They're... going to that place—In other words, the oracle back then was about..."
"Although I have absolutely no interest in this, let me ask you a question just in case. You seem to know where these multiplying shrine maidens have gone off to, don't you?"
Shiraho crossed her arms indifferently and questioned. Chihaya did not answer. Fear, whose clothing had become tattered all over from the fight, grabbed Chihaya's collar impatiently.
"Where? Where did they go? Spill it out!"
Although Fear shook Chihaya forcefully, she still did not answer but simply stared blankly into the depths of the forest. However, the force of Fear's shaking gradually grew smaller—
And finally stopped.
"Please. Seriously... I beg you... If you want me to kneel, I'll kneel. If you have anything you want, I'll give it to you. But apart from the voices Isuzu stole. W-We, no matter what, must get Haruaki's voice back."
"I only realized just now. Even though I think I know a lot, there are many things I have completely no idea at all. About his family, his past, his house—There's so much that I wanna ask him. I still hope he'll tell me more things. Not through cold, stiff, writing but using his usual voice to tell me. So please..."
Holding onto Chihaya's collar, Fear pressed her forehead against Chihaya's chest. Fear's appearance and voice were transmitted into Haruaki's heart with definite mass and substance. She desired his voice from the bottom of her heart, seeking it with sincerity akin to a prayer's. This sincerity—Haruaki wondered if it could reach into the depths of Chihaya's heart as well.
Fear lowered her voice more and whispered her words:
"Hey... I'm sure you can't be fine with this, right? Once their goal is reached, the voices they stole for power will disappear. Your father's voice will disappear too. Are you okay with this? Is it really okay...?"
Chihaya's body shook. Having poured all her wishes into her voice, Fear was also shaking. A short while later, Chihaya whispered softly:
"I didn't know. I didn't even know at all... He had been making phone calls..."
"It's fine even if I don't work so hard, right? I don't need to try so hard by myself anymore... Ahhh, maybe, seriously..."
She was probably murmuring to herself. Haruaki and his companions could not understand the true meaning of her words and the sincere feelings they carried. But they wanted to understand.
"...That's right. Even if I... and Isuzu... protected it—But on the other hand, if that guy's voice is gone, surely... Mom... will be even more..."
Chihaya nodded lightly once. Another motion she did for herself.
Then she started sprinting without warning, dashing into the forest. Perhaps due to the fatigue from the dance, she fell over along the way, getting dirt and mud over her face and clothes. However, she instantly got up and made a mad dash while staring intently ahead.
"Even though I still don't get it—This means you're willing to lead the way, right!? Everyone, follow along if you're able to run!"
"Of course. We'll lose her if we don't give chase!"
"A-Anyway, I'm coming too~!"
"Hey, Sovereignty! This has nothing to do with us... Uh, jeez, what a pain! Clearly all I planned for was a New Year's first shrine visit, why did it turn into a hike!? If it starts to rain, this will be truly tragic. When the time comes, I shall demand cleaning damages from you as compensation, enough to purchase an entire laundry shop, human!"
Not only Shiraho's but of course, Haruaki's own clothing was also unsuited for running in a forest. However, now was not the time to be concerned over such matters. Traversing thickets, jumping over dirt, they chased after Chihaya in her red hakama as she raced on ahead.
After running along the pond located before the shrine for roughly five minutes—The view suddenly became wide open.
Before them was a vast, wide open space in the forest, roughly the size of a small park.
"...A kitchen garden...?"
Just as Konoha whispered, before their eyes was a field resembling a kitchen garden. Over many ridges and furrows, numerous plants resembling vegetables had their leaves stretched out. Vines were entangled around regularly spaced and upright rods.
"This is my mother's hobby. Starting a long time ago, she would plant all sorts of things here. My mother cherished this place a lot. Even after being hospitalized, she kept worrying about the situation here. If anything, this would be my mother's treasure..."
"That said, it looks quite neat and tidy right now. Have you been taking care of it?"
Chihaya looked at the field and smiled in self-mockery.
"Hmph, I simply did things casually while looking at the notes my mother wrote for me. Because I have no interest in planting vegetables at all. But simply with some casual watering on Mom's behalf... Incredibly, it grew on me. Oh, the Chinese cabbage over there looks like it's almost ready to be harvested. Mom loves eating Chinese cabbage, so I took the most care with them and looked forward to the harvest... Thinking if it's successful, I could take some over to show Mom. That's right, if they could be harvested successfully..."
Chihaya murmured softly while slowly sweeping her gaze towards the edge of the field. Over on a long and narrow space, standing shoulder to shoulder in a row, was of course, the fifteen kagura bells. They were also staring intently at the vegetables in the field.
As though saying "strike while the iron is hot," Kirika silently extended her belt while Kuroe lengthened her hair. Without saying a word, they tied up the necks of three bells, dragging their targets over with all their strength. At this distance, it was probably impossible for the other bells to cut the bonds using axes of wind. Although that was what they thought—
"Nisuzu, Yasuzu, Tooisuzu... Revert."
Nevertheless, the three prisoners suddenly vanished. Kirika and Kuroe stared wide-eyed as their weapons lost their targets. However, the three shrine maidens did not simply disappear into thin air. The shrine maiden outfits slid to the ground and in their place were—
Three small and exquisite bells.
Ringing softly, they flew into the air as though pulled by a rope, then gathered towards one of the shrine maidesn—presumably Isuzu.
"Apart from Isuzu who has become the main body for now, taking human form requires passing through Isuzu's body—Even we forgot this point. This probably stems from the fact that the fifteen bells are considered one entity, but it's quite troublesome."
Stopping on Isuzu's outstretched palm, the bells quickly disappeared into her body. But then Isuzu instantly waved her arm three times. Each time, a bell flew out of her palm and took on human form again. Naturally, all of them were naked but now was not the time to be concerned by such things.
"They really know how to make the most of their true forms... However, this will be quite a pain. Given this move, it means I can't naively believe that catching you with my hair is enough. What should we do?"
"We must find a way! At any rate, we must find a way! That shameless appearance like Cow Tits', is just as annoying as Cow Tits herself! What a public danger!"
"There are many things out of my control when turning to my original form! However, I do agree that these people's display of indecency cannot be forgiven! If possible, Haruaki-kun, please close your eyes!"
That request is pushing things too far, Haruaki thought to himself.
During this conversation, Isuzu's group slowly turned to face towards them. Still exuding an aura of divine possession, they spoke with a voice completely devoid of emotion:
"—You have arrived? But currently, we have no time to bother with you."
"We have been saying all along, we won't give up. However, let me ask one more time. Do you really refuse to give up on what you intend to do next?"
"Of course, we absolutely will not give up. Isn't that right, Chihaya-sama?"
With no fluctuation of emotion, Isuzu turned her eyes towards her master as though seeking consent.
But after a few seconds, Chihaya shook her head.
"...Giving up... is fine, Isuzu... No, rather, Isuzu, stop it now."
"Incomprehensible. This is your wish, Chihaya-sama. This is unmistakably your wish beyond a doubt, Chihaya-sama."
"This—Yeah, maybe it is. But no, this isn't how I want it. Sacrificing that guy's voice... That kind of thing... isn't my wish at all..."
This time, it was Isuzu's turn to shake her head. Not just Isuzu but also all fifteen of them shook their heads together.
"Since you say 'maybe it is'—That means that this is definitely Chihaya-sama's wish without a doubt. We are the kagura bells for conveying wishes to the gods. As kagura bells, carrying the pride of kagura bells, we must grant Chihaya-sama's wish. This alone is the meaning of our existence."
Chihaya's face became distorted as she clenched her fists. Clearly, Isuzu and company did not intend to give up on achieving their goal no matter what Chihaya said. Haruaki's group knew this too.
"Looks like you don't intend to follow orders. Then there's no choice but to fight it out. Let's go... Nugyuh!?"
"Hold on! You should already know that these are not opponents you can instantly subdue just by rushing headlong! I'd like to start fighting them instantly too, but can't we have some strategy!? Strategy! I'll concede honestly, our combat compatibility is too poor! If this continues, as much as I'm loathed to admit, there's no chance for us to draw out our strengths!"
Konoha had performed a lariat move to stop Fear from charging. While watching Isuzu's group slowly spread out in a formation, Fear's team quickly discussed. Haruaki also racked his brain desperately. What way was there? Was there any method to defeat them—?
"Hey! In that case, you tell me, Cow Tits. You're the most talented in underhanded battle tactics."
"I'm not thinking of any underhanded battle tactics at all. However, if I really had to point out their one and only weak point—It's the fact that they're not very used to battle. Despite being capable of spells, despite overwhelming numbers, despite perfect teamwork, we still have an advantage purely in the area of combat experience. That is how we've managed to put up a fight to this point."
"Indeed, they are not without openings. Like just now, Kuroe and I were able to catch them while they were distracted. But they were able to turn into bells to escape afterwards. This is quite tricky to handle."
"Judging from what happened and what they said, turning back into human requires returning to the boss... Then is there any opening to exploit there? Ficchi, did you notice anything?"
"Lemme think—About those wind techniques, it looks like they can't use more than one at a time. Attack and defense has to occur separately and that defensive shield also seems to be a difficult spell for them, so they can't move out while using it."
"Speaking of which, that defense... is called the wall of silence? There's that as well. The wall is very difficult to break through."
After Kuroe finished, Fear lightly shook her drill. Glancing forward, she said:
"Yes, that defensive wall is very sturdy. However—if I'm only facing one of them, I think it's not impossible to handle. As long as I make good use of my mechanisms."
"What a pointless assumption, kindred. We are having this discussion precisely because our opponents number fifteen, right? Seriously, I have no interest in mucking about in soil and would rather get home earlier."
A number of weaknesses. Things that only they could do. What way was there to link all these details together? Haruaki pondered desperately. They needed to find a way to connect the weaknesses presented by Isuzu's group. There was no time. Hurry, hurry—!
His helplessness made him gnash his teeth. Without a voice, without power, if he could not help by providing ideas then he would be truly useless. Hurry and think, hurry and think, hurry and think!
At this moment—Apparently feeling the same sense of powerlessness, Sovereignty shrank her shoulders and murmured softly:
"Sniff sniff, I wanna help everyone too. I guess I really should've collected stuff like superalloy robots from elsewhere... Even if I can only handle one enemy, it might make a difference."
"Here you go talking like that again. Didn't I say already? It's too dangerous. Not allowed. Besides, by this point, there's no time to be carving wood to make dolls. You should just give up."
Dolls—Dolls? Haruaki suddenly felt a flash across his mind. Then he had a sudden revelation.
If that were present. If everything could be shrewdly connected together—
Perhaps, there would be a way to make Isuzu's group present more openings at least. Then after that—
(Probably... something like this... Then, because Fear mentioned before...)
Will it work? The problem was the step: was she carrying that.
Haruaki reached out towards Chihaya. Perhaps because she misunderstood something, she struggled violent in a panic.
"Y-You great big pervert! What the heck, there's no meaning in using me as a hostage by this point! I know, you're trying to use this as an excuse to do perverted things to me legitimately, right!? G-Give me a break!"
"Shameless brat, have you finally been overcome by your lust!? Hurry and release her!"
Fear thrust the drill towards Haruaki. Although it was quite a pain, unless he explained himself, that drill could very well end up stabbed into his body. Haruaki typed briefly on his cellphone with one hand:
While Fear was frowning, Haruaki used his other hand to search for his target. Naturally, he was not targeting Chihaya's bosom or her thighs.
Instead, it was the bag hanging on her shoulder.
There were two things that he needed. Haruaki examined the bag's interior and found both present, quite miraculously.
"I see, using these...!"
Konoha examined the bag's contents as well and instantly showed comprehension in her eyes. However—
"But will it really work that smoothly...?"
Of course, using them in a conventional way would not work that smoothly. Hence, how they were to be used required some effort. Haruaki typed on his cellphone the fastest that he had ever typed in his life, suggesting how these things should be used.
The core of the suggestion was based on the fact that Isuzu's group was not used to fighting.
Also, there was no choice but to ask Konoha, who had commented on poor combat compatibility hampering her ability to draw out her power, to take center stage with an active role in his plan. In various ways, this active role would probably displease her. However, it could not be helped under the circumstances.
After all, it was undeniable truth that her body was the easiest to hide this thing.
The plan of attack was decided. Faced with Isuzu's group who had entered formation and about to attack any moment, Konoha took a step forward. Just Konoha alone. The others remained on standby without moving from their positions.
"...Just you alone?"
"Indeed. In any case, it's decided that I shall bring out my true power for a grand performance. After all, I'm afraid of hurting my friends if they are close by."
Konoha smiled fearlessly.
"I don't know what rural village you came from, but at least you've heard how terrifying I am as the demon blade? Then you shall see for yourselves whether those horrifying rumors are true or not. Who knows if cursed bells like you are capable of withstanding the true power of a cursed weapon."
"The ones who listen to our bell ringing are the myriad gods ruling over nature... A Japanese sword crafted by humans cannot reach the myriad gods, after all."
Isuzu still resembled a shrine maiden in a trance with her eyes glazed over and her voice hollow. At this moment, staring at Konoha's back, Kuroe gave orders like a movie director:
"Kono-san, you need to be more scary! They're not scared at all! You need to draw more of their attention!"
"E-Even if you tell me that..."
Konoha tilted her head slightly and spoke barely loud enough for Haruaki's group to hear, in an agonized voice.
"Then it can't be helped... As much as I don't wanna use this move."
"...What move? If there's a way, hurry and tell us."
"Yes, this is for the urgent crisis. Well then... Kono-san, what are you fighting for?"
Konoha's shoulders shook once.
"Of course—To take back Haruaki-kun's voice."
"That's something very precious, right?"
"Yes, extremely precious."
"And to think those girls stole something so precious, how unforgivable. It's infuriating."
"—That goes without saying."
Konoha's voice gradually grew stiff as though she was remembering her wrath. Kuroe nodded and said:
"Then I must tell you, Kono-san, a secret. Back then, because we were afraid of shocking you too much, after discussing with Ficchi and Kiririn, we decided to lie to you, Kono-san."
"When Haru's voice was taken, we said that a certain fully nude person was sucking on his ear to steal his voice, right? Sorry, that was a lie. According to Haru's explanation, really—"
Konoha's back suddenly went stiff. As though gears were grating noisily, her voice was heard with suppressed anger.
"Yes. Actually, she used the same method that she used to steal Ficchi's voice. In other words, one of those girls there, after pushing Haru down by force, fully nude, was kissing him on the lips in unparalleled ecstasy~"
(Hey hey! I never said anything like that!)
Perhaps Kuroe already accounted for his inability to protest, hence she fabricated the facts as she pleased. Konoha's back began to exude a most bone-chilling aura. Haruaki could feel an extremely evil and eerie atmosphere, almost darker than the surroundings under the black clouds in the sky.
"Then she also stuck her tongue inside and licked as she pleased. At the same time, she even used her other hand to caress the area around the zipper of Haru's pants—"
Kuroe instantly stopped obediently. Konoha stared intently ahead and simply pushed her glasses up lightly. Without needing to look, Haruaki knew what expression she was making. Most likely she had already gone past her critical point. Her eyes had already returned to that of the demon sword which had once taken the lives of countless victims—
"Oh, is that so? Is that really the case? A mere bell, what bold insolence—Who could have thought that thou art foolish enough to believe thou couldst touch what is mine and still live!"
Haruaki's skin trembled and instantly formed goosebumps. The demonic aura was quite terrifying. Naturally, Isuzu's group also felt it. Faced with true killing intent, possibly for the very first time, they could not help but enter a defensive stance with a chill down their spine despite their vacant quality. Indeed—The pressure produced by Konoha was heavy enough that one would not feel surprised to be killed in an instant the moment one looked away.
Konoha took a step forward.
"How now? Come at me, will ye not? This sword shall be your direct opponent. O foolish bells, O bells, O bells! Since ye desire to ring yourselves so much, let this sword provide ye with assistance. Ye shall make enough noise—as much as necessary, let cries for help, gasps of pain, screams of despair and moans of pleasure be heard! Let alone fifteen, a hundred or two shall not pose any problem. Before the gods, allow this sword to present your lovely music for them to enjoy!"
"A presence akin to rampaging spirits... Danger!"
Isuzu's team rushed forward in an organized formation, lifting their arms. The greatest threat of the highest priority lay there. The astounding killing intent exuded when Konoha got serious was truly impossible to ignore. Over there was something that demanded attention no matter what.
...Hence, that was why she had to be tasked with the job.
"Kuhaha!" Konoha gave off evil laughter like a villain, but just as she was about to rush forward, Kuroe yelled frantically:
"Kono-san, Kono-san~! You're immersing yourself too much in the role, don't forget~!"
Konoha clicked her tongue after hearing Kuroe yelling and stopped herself just as she was about to charge ahead.
"Phew... I did mention being unable to play an active role, but being active in this way... Ahhh, geez! Anyway, by this point, whatever! At any rate, this simply gives me another reason that I cannot forgive you all!"
Instantly, Konoha's cheeks went red—At the same time, she grabbed her collar with both hands and pulled it apart sideways, ignoring the noisy ripping of her clothes.
"Coming coming~! I hold sovereignty over every doll. Those bearing visual semblance, listen and show proof of your worship—Obey!"
Sovereignty possessed the name of the Sovereignty-Perfection-Doll. Under her control, a certain object jumped out from Konoha's cleavage—the straw effigy that was originally kept in Chihaya's bag. Its size was too big to fit in a pocket, but it had to be hidden from the eyes of Isuzu's group, hence that was the only hiding place... Although Haruaki felt quite apologetic to Konoha.
"Then... Uh, that needs to be pulled, right? There!"
Standing on Konoha's chest, the straw effigy was also holding another tool. Similarly, it was also something that was taken from Chihaya's bag. A container, roughly palm-sized—A flash grenade Chihaya had made for self-defense.
The straw effigy weaved its arms through the ring that was installed on one end of the container and pulled it with a comical action as though cheering. Instantly, the flash grenade exploded. Naturally, Haruaki's group expected this and either closed their eyes or guarded their eyes with their hands to block the sudden eruption of bright light. But after witnessing Konoha's aura of murderous intent, Isuzu's team was naturally focused on her and completely caught by surprise.
"How troubling. Their inexperience in battle truly helped us out a lot. Clearly with such superior numbers, why were they all staring in the same spot? In any case—Ueno-san, Kuroe-san, Fear-san!"
"I know! «Tragic Black River»!"
The cursed belt attacked the shrine maidens who were all deprived of their eyesight temporarily and immobilized. The belt first wrapped around one of them multiple times, restraining her securely, then extended its tip and proceeded to the second person. Then doing the same, it went for the third.
"Ohoh, this really reminds me of the way persimmons are tied up and dried under the sun~ However, given that I'm not limited to one weapon, I must work even harder! Mode: «Killing Machine Masakado»!"
Kuroe extended numerous ropes formed from bundles of hair, tying up enemies as soon they came within range, capturing a total of six of them.
"I also have tools of torture that can restrain multiple people at once. Although I never thought of using them—Let me show you how an inauspicious tool of sadism like me hasn't gone rusty at all!"
Fear casually threw the drill, stabbing it in the ground near the remainder of Isuzu's group. At this moment, she ordered it to transform into one of her emulated forms.
"Mechanism No.17 binding type, birdcage form: «The Flocking Storks»—Curse Calling!"
Instantly, several identical restraining tools appeared, linked to a base by metal chains. The restraining tools were triangular in shape, each with a steel ring at the peak, with the rods extending outwards on both sides also made of steel. The centers and the ends of the rods, in other words, the two other corners of the triangles, also had small steel rings. Although Haruaki could not imagine what these simple-looking steel implements were used for, of course she would know. She would know better than anyone else in the world.
"This is a type of torture tool that completely restrains a person, folding the four limbs and the head together. Because it secures victims in a very unnatural posture, after spending too much time in it, some people die from lack of circulation. As for why I would have so many of these in my body, the answer is obvious—In the past, my owner used these tools to restrain families and friends together, lining them up in a row, making bets on who would die first. He even said that he'd let the rest go once the first person dies, thus causing families to curse one another: 'You hurry and die first! Hurry and die!' He even treated these cursing voices as a bell, listening to them with great delight! But I don't wanna listen to your voices, so just shut up—And fall down!"
Fear pulled the connecting chain of cubes, causing the triangular shackles to move independently. First of all, the large rings at the peaks of the triangles restrained the necks of Isuzu's comrades, then the steel rods connected to the rings shook as though they were alive while using the rings on their centers to bind the wrists. Having forced the girls to bend over from the weight, the rings at the ends of the rods were used to bind the ankles. Next, the screws installed in the rings and the rods began to turn, grating as they applied pressure on the girls' bodies—
"Guh, ooh... Ooooh...!"
The postures they were forced into was akin to sitting with their knees drawn up to their chests—But to the limit imposed by the human body's structure. Naturally, they could not sit properly at all. With all four limbs restrained, they could only roll helplessly about on the ground. Like Kuroe, Fear had restrained six of them.
Three + Six + Six. The fifteen kagura bells were all captured, unable to move.
"Guh... To think all members... would be captured—"
"Yes, it's as though we split things up perfectly beforehand! With Kirika and Kuroe on our side, given the chance, catching fifteen people is easy as pie!"
"No—Please allow me to say in fear and trepidation, it is still too soon for you to relax!"
Strange as it were to agree with the enemy, it was definitely true.
However, Haruaki's group already knew what they were going to do next. Just as Fear began to run as fast as she could, Isuzu's group turned back into their original form as bells, just as predicted.
Fear quickly swept her gaze across the fifteen bells that had successfully escaped the hair, the belt and the torture tools within the blink of an eye. Only one bell had a handle with colored ribbons and was also strung on a ring at the tip of the handle. Fear originally intended to decide after observing the direction where the bells gathered, but there was no need seeing as it was so obvious. Without a doubt, this one bell was the main body for the fifteen kagura bells—Isuzu, who was basically the leader right now.
Fear stared intently at this bell with the handle and transformed «The Flocking Storks» back to the black, metallic cube before pulling it back using the chain of cubes. After a moment's delay, the other fourteen bells flew towards the bell with the handle as though drawn to it.
"That's right. Because you mentioned that you must return to your boss in order to change into human form...!"
Just as the fourteen bells connected to the ring of the kagura bell set, the bell with the handle transformed into a human. Stripped of the shrine maiden outfit with her voluptuous body exposed—Isuzu. After noticing Fear approach, she looked up in surprise and raised her arm, presumably intending to change the other bells to human form again. Next, she invoked the wall of silence.
"—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!"
The silent shield of absolute defense was deployed all around her. However, Fear grinned:
"I knew you'd use this move—But you made a wrong decision. Unlike Cow Tits, I'm not a 'weapon.' There's no need for me to break your wall!"
Controlling the chain of cubes, Fear slid her emulated cube towards Isuzu's side like a ferocious hunting hound. Then—
"Mechanism No.10 gripping type, compressing form: «Iron Coffin of Lissa»—Curse Calling!"
The cube opened up. Without touching Isuzu's body directly, it spread steel plates around her with the creaking of machinery. The steel plates dug through the soil and burrowed under her feet to form a floor. Walls of steel also stood upright by her side like majestic castle walls. A ceiling was also formed as though intending to prevent prayers from reaching the high heavens of the night sky. Literally, Isuzu was locked away in a coffin-like sealed space.
"Right now, it's just an ordinary room. But if I use it as a torture tool, it becomes like this!"
Fear gripped the chain of cubes harder, causing the steel coffin imprisoning Isuzu to play a symphony of grating steel as the walls and ceiling moved. Naturally, the space inside was being compressed.
This was a device resembling a suspended ceiling. Locking the victim inside, slowly shrinking the space, without using blades or sharp spikes, a simple torture tool that abused people simply through the use of "volume."
The device's movements gradually became smaller, then stopped at a certain point. The reason was simple.
"Yes, I knew that wall couldn't be broken by compression. Very well, even though I've no idea how long your ability can persist, let's wait patiently. I'm willing to wait for as long as it takes. Feel free to release wind blades all you want. Feel free to summon your companions all you want. After all, both of these actions would only serve to increase your suffering!"
Isuzu's defensive shield resisted Fear's coffin of steel for a while. Then suddenly with a clang, the steel coffin started moving again. Precisely because simple torture through volume was so simple, it was completely impossible to resist. Whether vertically or horizontally, the space had shrunk to a point incomparable to its initial size. But inverse proportionally, the screams coming from inside the steel coffin became more and more tragic.
"Gah... Huff... Ooh... Ahhhhhhh!"
"What's the matter, cursed kagura bell, isn't this your prided voice!? Unless I release you, no matter how you endure, you cannot escape! The twisting of your body must be painful and your bones must be creaking! Would you like to be crushed to death just like that!?"
"H-Hey, you people are going way too far... Enough already... Stop it now!"
Chihaya could not bear to watch and yelled, but Fear continued to stare at the steel coffin without moving at all and simply said:
"If you die, the voices will probably return, so it doesn't actually matter to me. Be that as it may, your master has spoken. Looks like this girl wants you to live. So, hurry and make your choice. Are you instantly returning the voices you stole or do you want to continue suffering until you're crushed to death?"
"Isuzu... Ahhh, jeez, you're really a moron! You should know that this girl won't release you until you return the voices! What can you do in this state? What can you do you if you're crushed!? If you don't get out from there first, nothing can begin!"
Chihaya roared angrily. The groaning suddenly stopped. As though time had stopped, silence descended.
However, time did not actually stop. A new sound started, pitter-pattering.
Dark clouds had increased rapidly ever since noon and occupied the sky ominously all this time. Now, it finally began to rain. The leaves and branches of the surrounding trees also played a pitter-pattering symphony. The exposed soil on the ground began to soften. Tens, hundreds of raindrops were striking the surface of the steel coffin that compressed Isuzu, producing a noisy racket.
Hence, Isuzu also heard the rain from inside.
"It has already... started raining... Too late... No, if this continues, nothing can be done to save... On no, how did it come to this..."
These soft murmurings seemed to be coming from inside the coffin. Immediately, Shiraho, who had been watching everything happen, sighed in exasperation and said:
"Hoo... Look, people, it's starting to rain. Judging from the current conditions, the rain will become more and more heavy. Ahhh, seriously, how do you intend to take responsibility for this!? I'm about to faint simply from the thought of how dirty my clothes and shoes will get in the process of leaving this forest. To think you'd plan on the very first day of the new year to drench Sovereignty and me, allowing you to violate us visually, your bizarre fetishes have gone too far, human! Otherwise, hurry and make this rain stop!"
"Uh, it's really troubling that you're even blaming the weather on me!"
"As if anyone cares about you. Fine, then I shall compromise. Since it is currently raining, plants cannot carry out photosynthesis in the dim conditions. Why don't you help the world by reducing that bit of carbon dioxide? A human who only wastes the world's oxygen should make some contributions occasionally, right? My suggestion is this—Yes, something along the lines of dying. Or perhaps, dying might be good. Rather, how about you simply go and die?"
"Aren't they all the same... Eh?"
Something was not right. Shiraho eyed Haruaki in puzzlement. At the same time, Fear and the rest turned to look at him and called out in surprise.
"Haruaki, did you just speak? You spoke just now!?"
"Yachi... Phew~ You've finally recovered? Good grief."
"Wow~! This is wonderful, this is truly wonderful!"
"So true, ahhh... To be able to hear Haruaki-kun's voice again is truly wonderful... Oh right. After recovering your voice, if the first name you call out is mine, it'll feel particularly special...! Haruaki-kun, Haruaki-kun, in order to confirm whether your voice is restored, test it again! Please try calling my name!"
"Nuu... I don't quite get it but the thought of Cow Tits' name being the first to be called makes me quite mad! Hey, Haruaki, why don't you call out mine instead? Cow Tits takes two words but my name is only one word! It's a better deal!"
"You're the only one who calls me that! Haruaki-kun, 'Konoha' is only one word as well!"
Instantly, a chaotic commotion arose. Haruaki went "Ah~" and "Ooh~" to test out his throat—
"If you feel that the situation is weird, you don't have to force yourself to speak. I've got some cough drops with me, want some?"
"Hmm... No, it shouldn't be a problem. Thank you, Kuroe."
Fear and Konoha's jaws fell wide open in shock. For some reason, even Kirika was murmuring incomprehensibly: "Hmm... I was originally planning to find an unobtrusive opportunity too...!" while she sighed. Then inexplicably, Kuroe made a V-sign for victory along with her usual blank gaze.
Although things returned to the usual liveliness, it could not persist indefinitely.
"Since my voice is back, that means the priest and the others have recovered their voices too. Fear, it's time to release her..."
"Muu. That's right... Let me praise you just for making the correct choice at last."
Fear waved the chain of cubes lightly, causing the steel coffin to disappear suddenly, revealing Isuzu who was curled up into an uncomfortable posture. Haruaki was originally considering whether to bring her a shrine maiden outfit, but Fear and the girls were still watching her warily.
However, Isuzu did not show any intention to resist after regaining her freedom. Perhaps due to releasing the stolen voices, the otherworldly and ice-cold aura of divine possession had vanished completely. Her hands fell to the gradually moistening ground with a splash as she murmured softly in an extremely depressed voice:
"Ahhh... How could... this happen, with this... It's already... hopeless to do anything...!"
"That's right, it's hopeless for you now. Have you given up? Or do you still plan on stealing other people's voices? If that's the case, I'll have to let you taste the same suffering again."
"Fufu... Starting now... Even if new voices are taken... It's too late. At least fifteen portions... No, the voices and power of at least ten people, perhaps that would be possible... Oh no, but it's really too late! Now Chihaya-sama's wish cannot be fulfilled. Once again, we have failed in our duties...!"
Haruaki and his companions exchanged glances with one another. What did Isuzu plan to do by stealing the voices? What was their goal? All along, Haruaki's group only managed to grasp faint clues but have not found the answer.
But among those present, one person had already solved the riddle.
"By this point... Let me tell you guys about the last ability she possesses. That's the 'oracle.' Like the way shrine maidens serving gods can listen to divine messages, this girl can occasionally predict the future. Rather, 'receiving predictions' would be more accurate perhaps. Even if she doesn't always understand the meaning of the prediction herself, through fragments of sentences or images, she can obtain information on what's going to happen in the future. But she has no control over this power, so just like this instance of rain, it happens only on occasion. This is the reason why I knew to prepare a flash grenade in my first encounter with you guys."
Knowing Isuzu better than anyone else, Chihaya spoke quietly. The rain, gradually falling harder and harder, struck Chihaya's face. With a lonely gaze, she bowed her head and looked down towards Isuzu:
"It's okay already, Isuzu? Hurry and tell us—What oracle did you receive just before you stole the silver-haired girl's voice? Maybe you withheld it because you were afraid that I couldn't take it, but by the time you came to this place, I've already guessed it basically."
Isuzu slowly looked up with rain sliding down from the corners of her eyes, looking as though she were crying. Gazing at her master, but speaking with a trembling voice, she turned her face down at the ground again.
"...I saw a series of fragmented images. Heavy rain that resembled the one that destroyed our village, raging winds of a storm, as well as turbulent flows running between the trees. Then—there was this vegetable garden belonging to Chihaya-sama's mother. Linking them together, Isuzu's interpretation was—"
"That's right, it does mean that this rain today is probably going to destroy this kitchen garden."
Haruaki's group was rendered speechless. That oracle was what motivated Isuzu's actions? Then it meant that—
"I understand it all now. You acted for my sake, acting to fulfill my wish. And my wish is to protect the place for Mom to return to. Yes, that's right, this place is the most symbolic. It's also the place I want to protect the most. Every day, I come here to water the plants."
"Yes... Chihaya-sama used us—Isuzu—for the sake of realizing your own wish. And in order to be able to handle emergencies that could happen at a moment's notice, you strengthened our curse and gave us power."
"I was only thinking of doing some preparations beforehand in case I needed to drive away an intruder in a sudden robbery. By the way, since my family's shrine is so old and decrepit without any guards, arsonists are probably the top concern."
While listening to Chihaya, Haruaki recalled. In order to give Isuzu power, Chihaya had kept herself in an environment near curses, doing the unacceptable job of being a curse expert and even deliberately wore an outfit to make herself displeased. This was all done to fulfill her wish. It was for this purpose that made her need Isuzu's power.
Haruaki really did not know if her behavior was commendable or deplorable. However, he could sympathize with the intensity and simple honesty of her wish.
"But... after seeing the images delivered by the oracle, you began to think, in order to protect this kitchen garden... Only this... Simply collecting the power of curses was not enough, right?"
"Please allow me... to say in fear and trepidation—Exactly. The reason lies in the greatest memory of why we kagura bells were cursed... We once possessed the power to control weather. Although it's basically just the power to control wind, so long as the sounds of the fifteen bells are restored, allowing us to unleash the maximum power we possess—"
"I-I get it too. You were planning to gather human voices and use that power to blow these dark clouds away, right!? What an utterly foolish notion. The weather forecast already said that this rainstorm is on the level of a typhoon!"
"But... It's already... no good. The voices, the power, all is returned already. Remaining in Isuzu is only the power produced from the half of Chihaya-sama's voice taken due to the curse. All the other bells cannot ring anymore. Yet we were supposed to be kagura bells for granting wishes...!"
"What the fuck? How inane."
Chihaya's words were like an additional blow to the dejected Isuzu. However, despite her coarse language, Chihaya was looking downwards at Isuzu's face with an exhausted smile.
"I think I've said it already... You've got your priorities wrong. There's no need to complete this task if you need to go so far as to take that guy's voice. Idiot... You're really an idiot... But maybe I'm the biggest idiot of all. This isn't your fault. Only now have I realized that I've gotten my priorities wrong, so I'm the biggest..."
"If this place gets washed away, it can't be helped. Even if that power of the gods, capable of blowing dark clouds away, was used to protect this place, it won't make Mom happy. Anyway, she'll simply smile and say: 'Since there was bad weather, it can't be helped'... Although she'll probably still be sad."
Chihaya and Isuzu stared at each other, resulting in an atmosphere that did not allow any outsiders to interrupt. This silence exuded a feeling that "perhaps this incident was finally drawing to a conclusion." However, there was naturally someone who failed to read the mood and forcibly interjected:
"Yes! I agree! You're an idiot and you're also an idiot! Shameless Shrine Maiden Number One and Number Two are both idiots! No no no, saying this is not enough, I should call you idiotic idiots! You really went too far! You two need to reflect carefully on your actions!"
"What, you got a problem with that? I don't care, let me say my fill! First of all, you, Shameless Shrine Maiden Number Two!"
"...What about... Isuzu...?"
Isuzu slowly looked up. Fear nodded then picked up the Rubik's cube by her feet and brushed the soil away.
"You're absolutely wrong. As for where you went wrong, I can't explain in in simple terms... Hmm.. Let me ask you, while you were being tortured by me, was it painful?"
"I know right? I am the cube used for torture and execution, created only for the sake of torturing and executing humans, making use of all sorts of ways to make a display of their forms. However—the current me does not find any joy in that at all. Rather, I'm totally disgusted by it. Do you know why?"
Isuzu remained silent. While receiving her gaze, Fear pressed the Rubik's cube against her own chest. The toy cube did not have any warmth, but she did. Haruaki wondered to himself if Fear was possibly experiencing their difference.
"Because right now, the current me is also human. That's why I believe: for cursed tools that also count as human at the same time, trying to please humans as a cursed tool is no longer the meaning of our existence."
"For us who have become similar to humans, there are some things that only human-like beings can do. At least compared to torturing people as a cursed tool, I think that's much better and something I should pursue more. That's right... I want to do more things that are helpful to humans. This is for lifting my curse. But even if this goal is removed, I actually enjoy doing the helpful behavior itself and it brings me a special feeling of happiness."
Fear placed the Rubik's cube back into her pocket and stared into Isuzu's face again:
"So definitely, there's no need for you to be obsessed with your identity as a cursed set of kagura bells to help this girl. Just try your best using your identity as ordinary Isuzu, the one who became human."
Isuzu's gaze wavered. What was she thinking about? Haruaki had no way of finding out but he was sure that the words coming from Fear, who stood in the same position, definitely reached Isuzu's heart.
"But... Isuzu... needs power... no matter what. Power... to protect..."
"Yes, this is the point! Time for me to lecture the next person, Shameless Shrine Maiden Number One!"
Fear suddenly turned around, shaking water droplets from her wet silver hair as she pointed her index finger at Chihaya. Chihaya jumped in surprise.
"That's right, you made a great big mistake too! Didn't you just say something like 'since there's bad weather, it can't be helped'!? This field is your mother's treasure, right? How could you give up on it so easily!?"
"E-Even if you say that..."
Ignoring Chihaya's frown, Fear yelled loudly: "Next comes a double lecture—!" while pointing her finger forcefully, back and forth between Chihaya and Isuzu.
"Listen carefully. Right now, it's impossible to use Shameless Shrine Maiden Number Two's power to blow the rain clouds away. Then the answer is simple, just use other kinds of power to protect the kitchen garden!"
The instant he heard this sentence, Haruaki understood what Fear wanted to say while complicated emotions rose up in his heart. "Looks like this'll be tough." A sense of exhaustion. "Can't relax yet." A sense of tension. Also—"So this is the way." A sense of relief.
"How troubling, engaging in a massive operation the first thing on New Year's Day."
"Hoo~ I was thinking if things might turn out this way..."
"Whether it'll turn out to be absolutely ridiculous—Hmm, I guess we'll only know after trying it."
"Looks like there's quite a lot that needs to be done. Where should we start~?"
"I-I'm helping out for sure this time!!"
"It seems like trying to dissuade Sovereignty will be futile... However, it goes without saying, I won't be doing anything at all. But if you want me to prepare a kitchen knife, a rope or poison, I could help you with one of them... Oh right, then a grave needs to be dug afterwards, so there are two things needed to be done. How troublesome. May I ask you to dig a hole and jump into it yourself?"
Watching Haruaki's group talking among themselves, Chihaya and Isuzu looked puzzled.
"W-What are you guys talking about...?"
"You still don't get it? This entire commotion was because you wanted to protect this field, right? If the ending becomes soemthing stupid like 'ultimately, the rain washed everything away~', then all our efforts would have been for nothing! That's why—what I mean is you should borrow our power!"
"Shameless Shrine Maiden Number Two, what are you spacing out for!? If you're gonna struggle, struggle to the very end!"
Chihaya and Isuzu exchanged looks again. After pondering in a moment's silence, Chihaya smiled faintly.
"What a bunch of meddling perverts... However, I have no choice either."
The rain continued unabated, even getting stronger and stronger. Catching raindrops in her palm, Chihaya reached out to Isuzu at the same time.
"Do you wanna try struggling a bit? Even if it turns out to be fruitless, it's better than just watching this kitchen garden at least. If you agree as well... Then hurry and stand up, idiot."
"Fufu—because Isuzu is Chihaya-sama's subordinate and slave... There's apparently no right to veto~ Then please allow me to say in fear and trepidation... Isuzu will try her very best~"
Also smiling, Isuzu held Chihaya's hand and stood up.
Finally, Konoha spoke up with a smile:
"Let me say this first of all. Your first priority should be getting dressed. Also, regarding the situation when you stole Haruaki-kun's voice, please repeat to me in detail... Ufufu?"
Clearly, Haruaki's first priority was telling Konoha that Kuroe had fabricated a bunch of lies to anger her.
However, who knew how much persuading it would take before Konoha would believe him?
After clearing up Konoha's misunderstanding with great difficulty, Haruaki made a trip back to the Hayakawa residence together with Chihaya first. After bringing back necessary equipment to the kitchen garden, the entire team was already mobilized, having started their task of protecting the field. Everyone was already drenched but no one—well, except for Shiraho who was hiding beneath a large tree and glaring with extreme resentment—No one minded.
"The slope's structure is like this... Supposing the water flows over here, it will most likely come from that side. So a few more gutters need to be dug in this direction..."
"I see now, I get it. Mechanism No.19 gouging type, spiral form: «Human-Perforator»!"
After Konoha gestured to give directions, Fear wielded her massive drill and started digging the surface in the field's surroundings. Considering how drills were normally used, this was actually not far from its original purpose, but since Haruaki had only seen Fear use it as a weapon, the sight seemed quite unfamiliar.
Konoha disappeared into the forest after giving instructions. Then shortly after, the sound of trees falling could be heard. Presumably, she was chopping trees down further away in consideration of the drainage effects of losing trees in the field's surroundings.
"Okay~ Everybody do your best~! Come on, one-two, one-two!"
Waving her arms, Sovereignty was leading a group of strange fellows out from the forest where Konoha was cutting trees down. These were crude wooden dolls created by carving tree trunks into humanoid form (probably Konoha's creations), carrying logs in their arms as they advanced. The scene was quite surreal.
Meanwhile, Kuroe was turning her hair into steel wires then severing them to wrap around vegetables as support. Helping out in this task were also Kirika and the fifteen bells of Isuzu.
"Looking at it again, this scene is really super weird... Good heavens."
"You guys are the only weirdos here. We're very normal."
"I-I don't agree with that... Say, apart from Isuzu, all the others have showed up, although I still can't tell them apart."
"Because apart from Isuzu, the rest's only limitation is not being able to speak or cast spells. At the very least, they can be used as simple labor."
Naturally, Isuzu's comrades had all picked up the soiled shrine maiden outfits from the ground and worn them. Haruaki breathed a sigh of relief for that while putting down the vinyl tarp and other equipment brought from the Hayakawa family's storeroom. Hence, Kuroe, Kirika and Isuzu's group came near.
"Uwah, the rain is so heavy now... Although it's only temporary support, the vegetables' reinforcement task is complete~"
"A vinyl tarp? We do need that. Also, the wind is blowing stronger and stronger... Looks like the typhoon-class tropical depression isn't an exaggeration at all. Anyway, we just have to try our best to do what we need to do."
"What should Isuzu do next~?"
"..." "..." "..." As though saying "me too, me too," the other kagura bells were nodding silently as they gathered around.
"Hey, don't press your identical faces close to me, it's very creepy! There are still many things to do. Anyway, I've brought all the shovels, so half of you should go help the silver-haired girl to dig gutters! Next is—"
While everyone was busy with their respective tasks, Konoha returned from the forest. Presumably, she had finished cutting down all the trees they needed. Then she sliced up the logs brought back by Sovereignty's wooden dolls to create many wooden boards.
"Set these wooden boards upright in the surroundings to act as fences. But too many will block drainage so don't surround the kitchen garden completely. Well, as for hammering down the boards... I guess we don't have any tools. Then just rely on that child's convenient carpentry tool."
"Who are you calling a carpentry tool? I'll curse you! Damn it, but there's no other way... Mechanism No.22 bludgeoning type, spike-ball form: «Morgenstern», Curse Calling! Shameless Shrine Maiden Number Whatever over there, come here and hold the board for me!"
Hence, Fear started lining up wooden boards around the field and hammering them into the ground using the massive steel club.
"Okay, then it's our turn to dig gutters in Fear-chan's place, right? Okay, you guys work faster~! There's not much time left, move it!"
Sovereignty's wooden dolls lined up in a row and thrust their hands into the ground in unison to dig the soil. Having reached this point already, however, Haruaki still could not help but think: How convenient in times like these. Nevertheless, it still felt very surreal.
Haruaki and the remaining people started to cover the vegetables with the vinyl tarp. Simply spreading out the folded tarp was enough to feel the strong gusts of wind. The tarp kept fluttering nonstop, making flapping noises.
Just as each person caught one of the four corners of the vinyl tarp, trying to cover up the vegetable garden, the wind suddenly blew harder all at once, rivaling the gales unleashed by Isuzu and her comrades earlier. Next, as though carried by the wind, the rain also increased suddenly in volume. Haruaki even found it difficult to see Kirika on the other side of the tarp.
"Woah! Th-This is terrible!"
"L-Looks like the actual storm is coming... This is... absolutely ridiculous...!"
"Sovereignty, how are you doing with the gutters!?"
"W-We're trying our best~! There's already a lot of water flowing into them, so I guess we should dig deeper, right!?"
"Then we're relying on you. But don't push yourself too much!"
"Take that! Th-This should do...? Oh man, all the fences we put up have started slanting so soon!? Damn it, Shameless Shrine Maidens, let's do it again! Follow me!"
From the other side of the rain water curtain, yelling from Konoha and Fear could be heard. Currently, due to the rumbling wind and rain, it was impossible to talk without shouting over the noise.
However, there was no time to be worrying about others right now. Crouching on the ground, pulling the tarp against the astounding force of the wind, Haruaki's group finally managed to cover up the vegetable garden.
"Woah... Simply holding this down is very difficult...! What's with this wind!?"
"That's right, Yachi. You go find some rocks to weigh it down! I'll hold down your end using the «Black River» for now!"
"G-Got it. Say, this really no different from a typhoon. If I hold an umbrella, I'll probably fly!"
Haruaki remarked as he was about to set off in search of rocks—
Sensing there was something blocking the rain above, Haruaki suddenly looked up to find Kuroe actually flying in midair. Opposite to one end of the tarp which was being held down by the kagura bells, the other side had flown up due to the wind pressure. With Kuroe holding onto a corner of the tarp, she was flying like Superman with the tarp fluttering in the wind. Her light body weight was totally not enough for weighing down the tarp.
"Ohoh... I've finally gained the ability of flight... Invincible!"
"Hey Kuroe, is this my imagination or do you actually look happy!? That's too dangerous, hurry and find a way to get back down!"
"Muu, I'm discovered. But now is not the time for playing... I'll come down~"
Kuroe tied her hair into a bundle and managed to wrap it around a tree trunk on the side. The tree was already slanted due to the wind. With Kuroe's added force, it bent down even further. Slowly shortening the hair like a winch, Kuroe finally managed to land on the ground. Haruaki breathed a sigh of relief.
"Hmm~ Looks like I can only help out while using this tree as my base. Haru, you be careful too~"
"Yeah! Say, we just need to find heavy rocks to take our place, that should barely manage... Uwah!"
Who knew if it was a remnant from Konoha's logging or snapped by the strong wind, a large tree branch flew through the air towards Haruaki. Ducking down on the ground, he barely managed to evade it.
"Th-There's no time to go find rocks... While I'm slowly looking for rocks, the tarp could very well get blown away!"
Once the tarp was gone in the wind, retrieving it would be virtually impossible. Currently, even standing was difficult. Using all four limbs, Haruaki scrambled back to his original position beside the tarp.
"Class Rep, I'm sorry, it looks like there's no other choice! Anyway, before the wind subsides, all we can do is hold it down with our weight!"
"R-Really? I understand! You be careful too!"
Passing through the curtain of rain water, the «Tragic Black River» extended along the ground and wrapped several times around his waist. She was probably hoping to provide him with a bit more support. Haruaki felt very grateful.
"Hey Cow Tits, are you helping out to weigh things down!? Now is the time to make use of your body's characteristic to put up an active performance!"
"What do you mean by that!? I'm the one who should be jealous of your constitution that won't be blown away by the wind easily, or rather, I should say weight!"
"What did you say!? I'll curse you!"
Fear and Konoha were apparently applying their strength to hold down the tarp as well. "Hyah~!" Suddenly, there was a scream. Haruaki looked over there to see Sovereignty and her team of wooden dolls also holding down the tarp.
"S-So cold~! But I will do my best, everybody do your best too~! Ah... Eh?"
"Arghhh, I've had enough! Yes, the wind and rain is so strong, it's cold as hell! It's the same for me, so whatever!"
At some point in time, Shiraho had appeared beside Sovereignty, her beautiful face soiled by dirt and rain water. While wrapping her arms around her lover's shoulders, she held down the tarp with her hands and feet like Sovereignty.
"...In these conditions, hiding under a tree to get away from the rain is completely meaningless. Cold and wet, this is truly the worst. Compared to that unreliable tree, I might as well lean against a certain warm and serious person whom I love, which would be a thousand times better."
"Ehehe... Thank you, Shiraho!"
"I-It's not like I've done anything that requires your thanks! Don't you get the wrong idea, Sovereignty!"
Everyone was giving their all, desperately protecting this vegetable garden from the storm. Due to the great volume of rain water, the garden's ground was turning into a swathe of mud. Was this okay? But had Fear and the others not dug gutters for drainage, this would probably have turned into a sea already. The sound of water rushing into the makeshift gutters could also be heard amidst the rain. The fences, erected through Fear and the shrine maidens' cooperation, also shook under the strong wind, making creaking sounds. Those fences were probably straining to help them block water that had not flowed into the gutters, as well as foreign objects like dirt and debris washed by the water.
The end seemed to be nowhere in sight. Due to the cold, Haruaki could not feel his hands that were holding down the tarp. He could not even be sure if he was applying force. Nevertheless, Haruaki still laid his entire body against the tarp and continued to hold it down.
(How much longer... will this... last...!?)
Nothing could answer the groans in Haruaki's heart.
Only the wind and rain continued to strengthen mercilessly.
What a bunch of weird people—Chihaya thought to herself while devoting all her strength to holding down the tarp.
This had nothing to do with them. This was simply her own selfish wish. Selfish willfulness.
However, why were these guys trying so hard?
(None of my business...!)
Leaving reasoning behind. What was right? What was wrong? What used to be right? What used to be wrong? None of these questions mattered at all.
Also, she only knew—
Inside her heart, there was indeed—A wish.
Wanting to protect her mother's treasure, the place for her return, a wish to protect this kitchen garden.
However, that was all.
Apart from this, nothing else mattered. There was no need to contemplate now.
Chihaya poured her strength again into holding down the tarp. Icy-cold rain. Exhaustion. Hazy consciousness. Were Isuzu and the rest okay? She suddenly felt worried and looked up. In the next instant, a piece of dirt, blown by the wind, flew into her mouth like a bullet. Frowning, she straightened her body lightly and was just about to spit out the dirt—
Suddenly, a gale began to blow, more powerful than ever. Although only her upper torso was blown by the wind, her exhausted body could not withstand even this. Blown over by the wind, she rolled on the ground.
Crap. Crap. Crap.
Having lost Chihaya's weight, the vinyl tarp was lifted up as violently blowing wind rushed underneath it, trying to flip it up from inside. Chihaya could see Isuzu and the rest, their faces showing equal exhaustion from holding down the tarp, stumble as they unsteadily tried to press down the suddenly billowing tarp. However, redundant movements were fatal. Compared to when they were lying prone, more wind poured beneath the tarp, totally throwing the situation into complete disarray.
Disruption at one spot created a chain reaction and gradually began to spread. Beneath the curling vinyl tarp were the vegetables that Mom had cared for attentively before she was hospitalized, whose role was then taken over by Chihaya. Cabbage, spinach, turnip—as well as the Chinese cabbage that Mom looked forward to the most. Although every vegetable had some minimal support, all their leaves were drooping while their stems leaned slanted, screaming silently. If exposed directly to the wind and rain, they would surely not last. The entire field's ridges and furrows would probably turn into a complete mess.
Clearly Mom was looking so forward to it, clearly harvest was fast approaching, clearly she had taken care of them till now. Clearly she had desperately devoted her full effort to take care of them, for the sake of letting Mom return here with a smile.
Were all these efforts for naught?
Mom's treasures, Mom's place to return, were they going to be destroyed?
No way. No way. Unacceptable. They must be protected well. I must protect them well—
Chihaya reached out desperately but could not catch the tarp. It was too late. At this moment, the blue sheet of vinyl plastic suddenly flipped up violently. Chihaya was struck by a sense of despair as though everything was coming to an end. Just as Chihaya was about to close her eyes because of that—
A certain person, apart from her, reached out and held down the blue fabric.
This person was dressed in white attire, symbolizing the sacred just like her shrine maiden outfit, however, his back was currently stained by dirt and rain water.
It was her father.
"Wh-What is this? Why... are... you here...?"
Even though his eyes were narrowed due to the rain, he still turned his head to face Chihaya and chuckled:
"I was thinking you'd surely be here. At the very least, I still know what you're thinking... Because you are my daughter."
Harboring the same wish, she was not alone.
There was this... as well.
(...We... really are like fools...)
While thinking that, Chihaya crawled slowly beside him.
What had they been doing all this time? It was almost like—like a pair of bells, ringing at each other without making a sound, each hoping to catch the other's attention, throwing temper tantrums as though saying "why aren't you willing to understand me?"
Clearly that would not have worked in getting noticed.
Clearly... All they needed to do was speak up.
By speaking, surely the lost sounds of bell-ringing could be replaced, to become the echoing sound sufficient to transmit wishes to a certain person.
Whispering as though murmuring to herself, Chihaya once again held down the vinyl tarp firmly beside him.
As for whether the minute bell-ringing could be transmitted successfully, surely, only the gods would know.
Translator's Notes and References
- Basically, their names simply count from one to fifteen, literally Bell One, Bell Two, Bell Three, etc. Isuzu would be Bell Five.
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