The Zashiki Warashi of Intellectual Village:Volume2 Chapter 1
Chapter 1: Jinnai Shinobu @ Clock With a Different Gear
Even though it was midsummer, the early morning air was cool. When you lived in an old Japanese-style house, the outside temperature had a large effect on the inside temperature. I lived in a giant thatch roof house that’s only advantages were its size and age. In one room of that house, I held the replacement for the smartphone that had been destroyed in the previous incident.
It had just arrived from the service center in an early morning delivery.
I lived in an Intellectual Village that created an extremely high class brand name out of the rural area so that grapes were 30,000 yen a bunch and the water flowing through a nearby river was 300 yen a liter. But to obtain the proper feeling of the rural, the area had few stores. For that reason, quite a few different services were handled via online shopping. The delivery companies tried to distinguish themselves by adding on various additional services such as having their trucks function as supermarket-like food carts in case people felt like making an additional purchase when their package was delivered.
At any rate…
It seemed my smartphone had not been repairable, so they had taken the data out of it, added it to a new phone, and sent me that. It was a different model, so the smartphone’s body seemed a bit thinner than the old one.
But getting a newer version wasn’t a bad thing.
My index finger operated all the basic apps to make sure it was working properly. As I did so, I used the digital camera to take a picture of my own face.
Just as it made an unnecessary shutter sound effect, I heard a whisper from the Zashiki Warashi (long black hair, red yukata, and an incredibly glamorous body) who had entered my room at some point.
“Catching a glimpse of your household’s narcissism is more disheartening than I thought it would be.”
“Don’t be silly. It’s just that the camera’s settings seem off.”
I really was being super kind to so thoroughly explain what was going on to that glamorous Zashiki Warashi that never gave any fortune to her household and instead lazed around talking about pointless crap.
“Look, there’s something wrong with how it gathers the light. It took the gleaming of my blond hair as the standard and now my skin color is way off.”
“Maybe you’re a special exception, Shinobu.”
“Maybe. Okay, Zashiki Warashi, give me an awkward smile.”
I casually pointed the smartphone at the indoor Youkai and pressed the shutter button on the screen using my index finger.
“See? It took the red of your yukata as the standard. Your skin looks really rough.”
“Maybe I can manually adjust the values in my profile. …What’s this? By setting the camera to video mode for about 5 seconds in each photographing environment, the focus regulator will automatically detect the ideal values? But I already did-…ow! What is it, Zashiki Warashi? Why are you kicking me in the shin? …Ow, that hurts!”
I ignored the Zashiki Warashi who had fallen silent for some reason and left my room.
Hmm… Maybe that room was a bad environment.
With that thought, I walked down the long passageway and took random pictures in the living room and on the porch, but I didn’t see any difference. It kept taking the places with the brightest light or color as the standard which caused the rest of the photo to look terrible.
I aimed the lens away from the 20 meter long porch and to the large yard lying beyond it.
I had a feeling the large yard would be a more difficult environment to handle than indoors, but whatever.
The yard was large enough to actually play tennis in, but it had a lot of harsh ups and downs, mossy garden stones and stone lanterns, and trees too thick for me to completely reach around. There wasn’t much usable space left over. The old neighborhood gardener would groan every time he saw the place, but I had no idea what value there was in it.
About half the yard was covered by tall tree branches and the sunlight poured down through the gaps in the leaves. For that reason, it had an incredibly harsh contrast between light and shadow. Plus, the wind was shaking the branches, making it all move around a lot. I seriously doubted the camera could take a beautiful photo with its settings so messed up.
And then I found something odd sitting in the middle of the yard.
It was a round plastic kiddie pool.
As I already said, while it was midsummer, it was also an early morning with briskly cool wind. Getting in a pool at this time would only cover one’s body with goose bumps, but there were exceptions.
This exception was a Yuki Onna with slightly bluish hair and the general appearance of a 13 year old.
She had previously been a component of a Package, a criminal tool that used the power of a Youkai, but as you can see, she was completely carefree now.
That Yuki Onna usually wore a whitish kimono, but she was wearing a school swimsuit today for some reason.
For one thing, I was the only student in the house, so you would never find a swimsuit for a female student here no matter how hard you looked.
As the Yuki Onna sat within the chilly plastic pool, her eyes vaguely wandered through the sky.
“…Sigh. An open air bath is nice every once in a while.”
Apparently, she viewed it as a bath despite the temperature. Which begged the question of what she thought about the bathtub we usually soaked in. My grandfather insisted on keeping the temperature really high, so this might be why she insisted she would never get in after him.
I put on the beach sandals sitting on the porch and headed out into the yard.
I figured it would fail again, but I still casually pointed the camera’s lens at the Yuki Onna and took a photo.
Oh? It actually took a nice picture this time?
Hmm…What is going on???
“And an open air bath of course comes with peeping toms. Eh heh heh heh heh heh heh…”
“Oh, is that so? Well, it’s almost time for breakfast, so get to the altar room.”
In my household, the custom was for the family to eat in the living room and the Youkai to eat in the altar room. This was simply because those were the only places where everything could be set up, but once the meal began we would often move around and meet up. This meant the family and the Youkai often did eat together.
These days, the Zashiki Warashi and others tended to come to the living room, but I couldn’t remember how it used to be. I had a feeling I might have taken my dishes to join the Zashiki Warashi in the altar room.
Anyway, the Yuki Onna spoke while blankly staring up from the plastic pool.
“Oh, right. There are some apple sherbets inside the refrigerator. You can have one for dessert if you like…”
“? Did you buy them at the sweets shop?”
“…I am a Yuki Onna. I can make any fruit into sherbet. I can even do it with human flesh.”
“Hmm. Then I guess I’ll take one. Thanks.”
With that, I was about to leave, but for some reason the Yuki Onna twitched within the plastic pool and brought her small hands to her reddened cheeks.
“…F-flattering me like that will not get you anything other than my vagina!!”
“I don’t need that!!”
As I frantically tried to hold her in check, I heard another voice coming from up in one of the yard’s huge trees. What looked like a white cat was standing on one of the branches covering the sky overhead. But it had two tails. It was a Youkai known as a Nekomata.
“Honestly, what are you doing so early in the morning? You’re louder than the cicadas.”
“What’s wrong, Nekomata? Did you climb up into the tree but can’t get down?”
“Are you making fun of me?” asked the Nekomata before easily jumping out of the branch.
To my surprise, she landed on my right shoulder and then jumped down to the ground.
I aimed my smartphone’s lens at her and took a photo. The quality was better than the Zashiki Warashi’s but worse than the Yuki Onna’s. It seemed to be averaging out, but I had no idea what factors the quality was based on.
The Nekomata gently waved her two tails.
“The old woman said she could not sleep because the cicadas were too loud. I do not know if abnormal weather has caused some kind of change to the magnetic field or what, but those fools are singing even in the middle of the night. I made sure to get rid of some of them.”
“Hmm. I was so fast asleep I didn’t notice at-…Waahhh!!!??? There’s a huge pile of dead cicadas in the corner of the yard!”
The pile was about as large as a campfire. She must have been doing it for my granny’s sake, but it would be best if my granny didn’t see this while gardening. I decided to get a shovel and bury them after breakfast.
The Nekomata must have thought she had done a good deed because she proudly headed for the main entrance of the house.
“You had better not cause any trouble for the old lady either,” she said. “No matter how inept you are, surely you can at least do some weeding. We can’t have her out toiling under the sun.”
“Actually, grandpa and granny believe their health will deteriorate if they aren’t out working up a sweat every day. If you do the cleaning or weeding for them, they’ll actually get mad at you.”
“…Oh? Well, I suppose those two do look stronger than a weakling like you.”
It was true I knew I could never stand up to grandfather in a fistfight. The Zashiki Warashi seemed afraid of my dad, but my grandfather would clearly be the more painful opponent. I couldn’t exactly imagine my grandmother ever punching anyone, but she could easily carry around the laundry basket at her age. If she got serious, she could probably draw out quite a bit of strength.
“Hey, wait, wait, Nekomata. Don’t just go in. When you come in from outside, you’re supposed to wipe your paws off with a cloth, remember? In fact, is there really any point in you having our house as your home base? It’s not the same as with the Yuki Onna who uses the cold room we use for tsukemono.”
“That’s just a needless annoyance. In our world, this is normal.”
“I thought you didn’t want to cause any trouble for my granny?”
The Nekomata fell silent.
Hmm, I might have found a way to control her.
I picked up the obedient white feline Youkai and wiped her paws off with a cloth lying on top of the shoe shelf in the entrance.
And then the dripping wet Yuki Onna approached me from behind.
“…Wipe me off too. Make sure to get into every last unspeakable nook and cranny. Heh heh heh heh heh.”
“This cloth is too small, so just give it up.”
After the family and Youkai ate breakfast, I headed out to bury the pile of cicada corpses the Nekomata had made. I used a large gardening shovel to dig an arbitrary hole in the yard and used the tip of the shovel to push the grotesque piece of art into the hole while trying not to look at it.
I had expected it to just be a slight bit of exercise, but digging the hole was surprisingly exhausting.
For that reason, I ended up taking too long.
And that meant…
“Shinobu, didn’t you say you have school today?”
“Nooooooooooooooooooooooooo!! You purposefully waited until after it was too late to tell me, didn’t you!?”
Otherwise she would never be grinning like that!!
I frantically dashed from the porch and into the large thatch roof house. I cut through the Japanese-style living room and into the hallway. I then headed straight for my room and grabbed my thin school bag.
“Shinobu, Shinobu,” called my overall small granny from the western-style living room. I noisily ran in that direction.
My granny was holding out something box-shaped wrapped in a cloth.
“Here is your bento. And didn’t you say you were using the pool today?”
“Crap, that’s right! Mom, where’s my swimsuit!?”
I grabbed a small bag containing my swimsuit and ran along the shortest path to the front door, but then I headed back to the living room after realizing I had forgotten my indoor shoes.
Honestly! How much time am I going to lose here!?
With the preparations for my adventure finally complete, I put on my leather shoes and headed out the front door.
And there I found a Zashiki Warashi wearing a red yukata.
“…What are you doing here?”
“Taking a short walk. How about we head together for a bit?” With a triumphant laugh, the indoor Youkai needlessly puffed out her already huge chest. “Walking with a beauty like me is sure to improve your social status.”
I found that hard to believe.
For the most part, the people I knew were already aware that my house’s Zashiki Warashi was incredibly glamorous. In elementary school, I had been constantly flooded with classmates (mostly the guys) begging to see her. However, that Zashiki Warashi was either very cruel or very shy. Even though she would suddenly climb into my futon and on top of me in the middle of the night, she would always disappear somewhere as soon as someone from outside the family came to see her.
I highly doubted that indoor Youkai actually wanted to be the center of attention.
And so she had to have some other reason.
“Hey, Zashiki Warashi. Where are you going? The school’s the other way.”
She jumped in shock.
“The only thing in that direction is the tiny post offi-…wait. No! Don’t tell me you ordered something else off the internet using my PO box and COD!!”
“Y-you must be imagining things. This has nothing at all to do with today being the long-awaited release date of the new model of electric stickboard that I already paid for with your account instead of using COD!!” shouted the Zashiki Warashi before running off full speed in an arbitrary direction like she was heading into the sunset along a river bed.
And if I was not mistaken, she had mentioned something that was even worse than I had feared.
“Wait, you thieving Youkai!! Damn you!! And I don’t have time to chase after her since I’m already right on the brink of being late!!”
I thought about calling the post office to have my PO box frozen, but she had said it was already paid for and that would have been done over the internet. And all in my name. Since she could not even sign a contract for a cell phone, she liked to use that method. Once I got back from school, I needed to make sure she paid me back in cash from her allowance before she could weasel her way out of it.
And as I was thinking about that, I was running along the path to school with fields on either side. The pathway was lined with small solar panels that turned toward the sun like sunflowers.
As I ran, something charged out from the side.
It was neither a high school girl with a piece of bread in her mouth nor a half-assed delinquent charging along on an electric scooter.
It was a large paper umbrella of the old traditional sort.
The umbrella was folded up in a conical shape and a comically large eye and tongue could be seen on its surface
The handle was touching the ground and it ran along like someone hopping on one foot. This Youkai was the type commonly seen drawn on the sign for a cultural festival ghost house.
“Boy, I have developed past that territory and gained the proper name of Umbrella Obake.”
As the Umbrella Obake ran along, it spoke in a voice as grim as my father’s.
“What are you doing?” I asked. “Heading to school?”
“My master has a tendency to leave me behind!! And yet today the forecast said there might be rain this evening!!” shouted the Youkai while widening its already unnecessarily large eye.
“I thought the forecast said a 20% chance of rain this evening?”
“Twenty is plenty!! Think for a second that a box containing 100 scorpions was just placed before you and you were told 80 of those scorpions are not venomous. Would you wish to stick your hand in that box!?”
“…I get it, I get it. You’re overprotective. And the name written on your handle is in hiragana.”
Plus, I did not think that example did a proper job of explaining 20%. If there was even a single scorpion in the box, you had a 100% of being stung.
“I have also heard a Shichinin Misaki has been spotted around this area recently. My master needs me to be a bit extra cautious.”
“…A Shichinin Misaki?”
That was one of the deadly types of Youkai that killed people simply as a characteristic of the species.
I was pretty sure the Shichinin Misaki was a Youkai constantly made up of seven drowning victims. Whenever a new victim was created, the oldest victim would be released to rest in peace. There were various theories regarding what kanji should be used for the “Misaki” part.
But if it was made up of seven people who were all victims, where did the true essence of the Youkai lie? Was the Youkai the invisible framework in which the victims were contained?
“But I thought the Shichinin Misaki was an ocean Youkai.”
“Do not ask me. I only know what I have been told.”
When I thought about it, I realized the trouble with the scammer Package using the Yuki Onna had started when I spotted that winter Youkai in the summer.
A Youkai appearing where it should not be might have been evidence of human intervention. I decided to be a bit more cautious than usual.
“Hey, why are you being so quiet? Do you have some idea what could be behind it, boy?”
“No, no,” I said to avoid the issue. “I was just thinking how convenient an umbrella that comes to you if you forget it would be.”
“Heh. I may not look it, but I have been alive for about 150 years. I am nothing like your everyday plastic umbrella.”
“But I don’t think just strapping a GPS to everything would be enough to stop yourself from ever losing anything.”
“Those damn modern conveniences…!!”
The Umbrella Obake gritted its teeth (Did it even have teeth in that comically large mouth?), but it stopped walking when we reached a crossroads between water-filled paddies.
“Oh, my master is this way.”
“Oh, so he is an elementary school kid.”
“Farewell, boy. Try to only run into girls with bread in their mouths thrice a day!!”
“I’ve never even seen a bread girl. Are you sure that isn’t a type of Youkai?”
After parting ways with the Umbrella Obake at the crossroads, I ran full speed for the only high school in the Intellectual Village.
The school only had about 300 students total and the school building itself was fairly small.
However, the Intellectual Village was intentionally designed to appear to be in decline. Given the number of houses, there was no way 300 high school students lived in the village.
“Hey, Shinobu. Run! Keep running! You’ve still got a ways to go to reach homeroom.”
My classmate Tarou called out to me from the dirt schoolyard. He was a healthy school club boy whose casual clothes were always quite plain, but his name was overwhelmingly gaudy; his given name alone was spelled with 7 kanji. Even our Japanese teacher was confused how seven characters resulted in the reading of “Tarou”.
“Tarou, were you doing morning soccer practice? Have you been doing that every day during summer break?”
“No, I was at a morning job. After feeding the chickens, I still have the most annoying amount of free time. It’s more than enough to get to school but not enough to go back to sleep. Those of us who got here early were playing on the schoolyard.”
“A job, hm?”
“Unlike those with a house like you, it isn’t easy for us boarding students to stay in this Intellectual Village. Of course, the acceptance rate is so low, your odds are about as good as winning the lottery if you don’t have any connections from doing this kind of thing.”
That was how the village had an unusually high number of youths for its size.
No matter how maintained the environment was, people were needed to run it. Intellectual Villages actively invited in youths to help stabilize that flow.
There were some exceptions though. For example, my dad had refused any part-time workers or lodgers because he was so passionate about (if not addicted to) making sake that he refused to allow anyone who had not gone to an agricultural university into the brewing facility.
As I changed into my indoor shoes at the entrance, I spoke with Tarou.
“So is the Love King coming today?”
“He’s out mediating a case of cheating, so probably not today. It takes a strange person to become a specialist in helping out with love troubles for only those already in established couples.”
And despite acting like a complete know-it-all when it came to other people’s love problems, no one had ever seen this Love King with a lover.
“So I’m still not getting back the manga I lent the Love King before summer break? Anyway, where’s Akechi?”
“He’s the one the Love King is helping.”
“…Eh? So he cheated on Nagisa? Is…Is Akechi okay? Nagisa isn’t going to murder him, stuff him, and use him as her dakimakura is she?”
“Why do you think he’s getting the help of the Love King?”
“I thought the guy was crazy from the moment he started dating one of the world’s three greatest yanderes. He certainly has guts.”
I parted ways with Tarou as he went off to change out of his personal sportswear that differed from the school PE uniform and into the school uniform.
I headed up the stairs on my own and then down the hall towards my classroom. That was when my homeroom teacher called out to me. She wore glasses and a simple suit. She was a timid teacher who almost always held the tablet computer she used to take role in front of her face while speaking with someone. She dealt with everything very passively and tended to avoid problems whenever possible. But since she had managed to get selected to live in an Intellectual Village despite being a mere local government worker, she must have been quite the strategist.
“Yes, what is it?”
“Eeee!! Don’t scare me with that blond hair! N-no, I mean…um… What I mean is…How was Kotemitsu-san during summer break?”
The “Kotemitsu-san” she mentioned while flinching after every other word was the eccentric beauty of our class, Kotemitsu Madoka-chan. She was not being bullied or anything of the sort, but she was still stuck in an isolated state as she could not seem to fit in with her family or her class.
“Sigh. Is Madoka still not coming to school?”
“W-well, she did actually come…”
“Then why don’t you just ask her how she’s doing?”
“I don’t need to do that!! I need to respect my students’ independence! I cannot intrude that far! It would be such an annoyance!!”
Of course, everyone could tell Madoka stood at a higher position than her family or her class, so it seemed more like she ruled above them than that she was being ostracized.
“It looked like Madoka was grinning while watching stock prices as usual. She started laughing and clapping her hands together when the price of gold dropped like a rock, so something must have happened on an international level. Should I ask her about it?”
“N-no! That’s okay! Really, it is!! I will never intrude on my students’ privacy! That is for the best…right?”
As my homeroom teacher spoke, she had a look on her face that plainly said “Don’t get me wrapped in something I can avoid, you damn brat.”
She gestured me forward a bit and then peered secretly through the classroom’s hallway-side window. She was observing a female student wearing a white short-sleeve sailor uniform.
“I just need to know there are no problems. …Hm, but I can’t tell what is going on just by watching from outside.”
I peered into the classroom next to my homeroom teacher…but everything looked the same as usual. The class was chatting while divided into a few different groups while Madoka sat alone at her desk.
For some reason my homeroom teacher started whispering.
“At any rate, enjoy your youth however you like as long as it doesn’t cause me any problems. Specifically, try to destroy this awkward atmosphere filling the class. My path to success is relying on you, Jinnai-kun. See you during homeroom!!”
My homeroom teacher held up one hand in an extremely lazy parting gesture before heading off somewhere.
Stop using me as your Madoka countermeasure.
But even if she was eccentric, this was a beautiful girl we’re talking about, so I wasn’t about to not do it.
I would never have gone through with if it was merely “the right thing to do”.
After all, I wasn’t like my uncle who had wanted to be a police detective and had actually made it into Department 1 of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department.
I cleared my throat to both check on my voice and to help me change my mode of thinking. I opened the classroom door, stepped inside, and headed straight for Madoka’s desk where she sat looking bored.
“Hey!! Madoka-chan, let’s eat our lunches early!”
“First period hasn’t even started yet! Isn’t that being a little too bold, Shinobu-kun!? And do I need to tell you why girls use such small bento boxes? It’s because we’re worried about what will become of us if we eat too much!!”
What was needed to start a conversation with that “isolated” girl was to find something that would get some kind of emotional reaction. By keeping her from lightly brushing me aside, I had cleared Stage 1.
“Hey, Madoka. Why did you freeze in place as soon as I opened my bento box?”
“…Shinobu-kun? Did you get a chilled meal from a restaurant? No, the thawing process would damage the tissue. Don’t tell me you had it shipped in by air.”
“Don’t be stupid, you damn bourgeois. This is just what my granny made me.”
“…I see,” said Madoka in some kind of admiration.
The way her eyes were glittering scared me. I might have lit a fire in her health-obsessed heart.
“By the way, Shinobu-kun.”
“One of my armed guards said he saw a Shichinin Misaki. Do you know anything about that? He was complaining about how odd it is for an ocean Youkai like that to be here on land.”
I had thought the Umbrella Obake had been telling me nonsense, but now a professional bodyguard was saying the same thing.
“I don’t know anything about it, but I did hear the same rumor this morning.”
“Hm. Well, he only caught a glimpse of it on a camera recording.”
“The Shichinin Misaki is one of the absolute worst of the deadly Youkai. Don’t you die just by meeting it?”
“It seems viewing from an extreme distance is safe, but if you and Youkai detect each other from within a set range, you’re done for. They terrify the police. Thanks to this, my guards have been on edge. They even tried to deploy a unit around the school campus this morning.”
That was when a dull electronic tone came from Madoka’s cell phone.
She pulled the electronic device from her skirt pocket, read the email, and grimaced.
“…Oh, dear. Shinobu-kun, excuse me a moment.”
“Something related to money?”
“There’s been an unpredictable change that my autonomous investing program can’t handle. I have to manually alter it.”
As she spoke, Madoka used her thumb to press the keys at high speed like a true super high school girl. She was probably altering some values in the settings for a program that automatically bought and sold stocks.
It only took a few dozen seconds to a few minutes.
I had no idea how much a period of time like that was worth to an investor.
With her work done, Madoka tossed her phone on top of her desk.
“Insect damages in Australia. A bunch of locusts are showing up right about now and causing all sorts of problems.”
“…What was that email?”
“The program I wrote is also used by a major investment fund. But the program just monitors the trading parameters. It can’t predict the changes caused by sudden military conflicts or natural disasters. That’s why I ordered the fund advisor to send me an emergency email if anything happens.”
“But what if that major fund betrays you…?”
“I have it set up so any losses that I am not contacted about will be covered by either insurance or compensation. Of course, they’re so dependent on me they could never survive without me. …Otherwise, I would never let them use my precious program.”
I could see how she would have little interest in acquiring the inconsequential relationships of a class when she was living in such a dynamic world. That financial monster who freely rewrote the gears of adult society grabbed one of the omelets my granny had made and tossed it into her mouth with a childish look on her face
“So you get these every day for free?”
“Ahh, now I really want to live with you, Shinobu-kun…”
I knew she was not the type to care about her surroundings, but I really wished she wouldn’t say that kind of suggestive line in the middle of a classroom filled with our classmates!
School that day only lasted until midday, but I was stuck there until evening.
This was because Madoka had not done her summer homework at all.
Normally, I would have simply abandoned her, but she knew my personality a little too well.
“Shinobu-kun, we used the pool today.”
“Yeah, that was the main event. Without the pool, not even a third of the people here would have shown up on such a hot day. I’d still be in my futon.”
“Now, Shinobu-kun. If you will look over my homework, I am willing to undergo your lecture while wearing my still-wet school swimsuit.”
And I was enough of an idiot to be drawn in by the school swimsuit.
Evening came before I knew it as we sat with a desk in between us in that afterschool classroom. I looked over her notes, pointed out errors in her calculations, went over an outline of the designated book for the book report, and pretended to drop my red ball-point pen to get a good look at her thighs.
I wasn’t sure if Madoka had finished her homework or not, but she suddenly left once evening came.
Plus, it turned out the Umbrella Obake’s warning that it might rain in the evening turned out to be dead on!! In fact, it was absolutely pouring! Standing outside without an umbrella for just 5 seconds would probably have left me soaking wet!!
“…Is that why you called me here?” sighed the Youkai in a red yukata who held two plastic umbrellas at the entrance of the school.
I gave a serious reply.
“Normally, I would never expect you to come if I called you by phone, but I figured dad would have straightened things out regarding that order you made without permission this morning. I assumed you would be willing to do what I said for once.”
“Uuh…” groaned the Zashiki Warashi as her shoulders drooped.
She was an insolent and prank-loving sort of glamorous Youkai, but it seemed she was no match for my dad.
“Is he really that scary? You know he’s named some of the sake he makes ‘Red Yukata’ and ‘Black-Haired Beauty’, right? For a leading artisan to name his prized product after you, he must really like you.”
“…N-no, it isn’t an issue of what he says or does. In fact, he is completely faultless. This is…well, it’s a feeling that only Youkai can detect.”
So is it like how a parent’s love is hard for a child to understand?
As I had that thought, the Zashiki Warashi and I held up our umbrellas. After stepping out into the rain, I turned back towards the school building. A few windows still had people visible in them. They must have been waiting for the rain to end. I didn’t see Madoka, but I did see a familiar upperclassman girl. I waved back at her, and she gave a quick nod.
The Zashiki Warashi and I left the school grounds and walked down the path leading home.
“The rain is pretty strong, but I don’t hear any thunder.”
“I want to see if you actually look like an X-ray image if lightning hits you.”
But holding up an umbrella among those wide water-filled paddies did make that a slight worry.
The small solar panels sticking up at set intervals along the path were drooping down lifelessly, but the small hydroelectric turbines set up in the ditches alongside the fields were almost too lively. Those ditches would have great flows of water roaring along beside the path to and from school during rainstorms, so they could be rather disconcerting.
Of course, they were designed so trash would almost never clog them up and cause the water to overflow.
“I want to stop by the sweets shop.”
“I want to call you an idiot, but maybe I should praise you for not stopping by on your way to school.”
“Actually, I did.”
“I thought as much.”
But I had eaten my granny’s bento before the morning homeroom to start a conversation with Madoka, so I was pretty hungry myself.
I turned off the shortest route home and headed towards the sweets shop.
The Intellectual Village was designed with a focus on creating the atmosphere of a rural village. While we could purchase anything we wanted online, there were few shops from which we could acquire products the instant we wanted them. For that reason, the few shops we did have did quite well despite seeming horribly outdated.
Even so, I doubted to find any other customers during this evening shower.
But I was wrong.
“There’s some Youkai here.”
The Zashiki Warashi was right.
The Umbrella Obake I had seen that morning was there. And he was not alone. A Paper Lantern Obake with an equally comically large eye and long tongue was floating alongside it. This was the standard pair for a haunted house. I was a bit unsure whether anyone would actually be afraid of them, though.
But something else stood out even more.
A boy of elementary school age was standing in front of the shop. And he was holding the Umbrella Obake like an actual umbrella. The area was growing dark, but it looked like he could also use the Lantern Obake in place of a flashlight.
“You’re the Umbrella Obake from this morning, right? Sorry, but I don’t think I could tell two Umbrella Obake apart even if they were lined up right in front of me.”
Instead of the Umbrella, the Lantern replied in a high-pitched female voice.
“You are a stranger speaking to an elementary school boy? So you are a suspicious person!? I can report this to the police, right!?”
“Shut up, Lantern. You’re the one giving fire to a child. Do you know why lighters are made so hard to light?”
“Heh. I am an LED flashlight inside. That is the perfect method of being good for both the earth and children, don’t you think!?”
“Eh? You want my opinion? …It just makes me wonder whether you can really be called a lantern.”
And since she was a tool made for illumination, I would have thought the candle portion would be analogous to a human’s heart. Sometimes it seemed everything about Youkai was arbitrary.
That was when the boy finally looked up at me.
“…So you know Umbrella?”
“You could say he ran into me with bread in his mouth.”
“Oh,” was the boy’s only response.
Um, no… You weren’t supposed to take that seriously.
If I finally became the protagonist of a love comedy but the love interest was an umbrella, I think I would be left bedridden by how surreal it was.
I guess you could say the boy was a little too unresponsive.
“Oh, would you look at that. That’s an Intellectual Village for you. People can look at these strange scenes like they’re normal.”
I heard a new voice from the side.
We all looked over to find a man in his early twenties wearing a raincoat and raising one hand in greeting. His other hand held a box-shaped case of the type used to hold fishing equipment. He also had a cooler hanging down from a shoulder strap.
However, he did not have a fishing pole.
“Oh, I’m not a fisher. My specialty is Youkai art. I use a fishing case because it’s convenient for holding my equipment. With the weather the way it is, I honestly didn’t expect to have much luck today, but here I’ve found something amazing on my first day here.”
“Another suspicious person approaching the boy!? You had better be prepared!!”
“Shut up, Lantern,” shot back the artist while still grinning.
…A Youkai artist, hm?
TV crews would stop by Intellectual Villages on occasion for programs focused on locations of spiritual or supernatural energy, but it was rare for anyone to come by for artistic purposes. In fact, this was the first time I had ever seen a specialist in Youkai art.
And given how wonderful that Zashiki Warashi was if you focused solely on the visuals, she did seem a good candidate.
“Is it hard dealing with Youkai?” I asked. “They have a tendency to be uncooperative.”
“That’s true. And a lot of them especially do not like showing themselves before strangers. Really, it’s practically a miracle to get to see a Zashiki Warashi like this.”
“Did you come to this village for any reason in particular? That is, are you after a specific Youkai?”
“I heard there was an out-of-season Yuki Onna here, but I haven’t had any luck so far.”
Could he be referring to that one wearing a school swimsuit and sitting in a plastic kiddie pool???
“For future reference, do Youkai like the kinds of sweets sold here?” asked the man.
“If you start giving them this kind of thing, they get really spoiled. It’s best not to try to win them over with treats.”
This good-for-nothing Youkai just stomped on my foot with her high-soled geta!!
Are you trying to crack my toenail open and shove mud inside!?
“This place really is nostalgic.” The artist pulled a toy pistol out from the various products hanging down from the edge of the eaves of the shop. “To be honest, this sort of sweets shop was long gone by my generation, and yet it still feels nostalgic for some reason. This must be one of the effects of an Intellectual Village’s design.”
“Maybe. I couldn’t say since I stop by this place all the time.”
“Ah ha ha. But maybe they were a little too accurate with this toy revolver. It’s made of an alloy, so you could probably shoot real bullets with it if you made a few modifications.”
Then, the Zashiki Warashi standing next to me started tugging on my shirt. I looked around and realized the boy from before was gone. He must have returned home with the Umbrella and Lantern.
The artist did not seem to care and continued speaking.
“Due to the rain, I can’t exactly paint today. But try to find me again once the weather clears up. Not only am I interested in the Youkai, but I’m also interested in the life of people who accept Youkai like something normal.”
For dinner, we had chicken and soumen salad.
However, the chicken was so plentiful, I ended up eating too much. It felt like it was going to just sit in my stomach.
The night went on regardless.
For the first time in a while, the Yuki Onna was in a playful mood, so I spent a long time playing Indian poker with her, the Zashiki Warashi, and the Nekomata.
As I had gone to school, I was quite exhausted after that.
I wanted to hurry up and get to sleep in my room, but I had some preparations to take care of first.
The giant thatch-roof house may have seemed luxurious, but it had enough openings to allow mosquitos in.
“Ugh…dammit. I hate doing this…”
I was preparing a traditional mosquito net.
Plenty of mosquito repellant products existed, but it seemed to me that a mosquito net was the most effective since it physically cut off their path. Plus, any electronic method was out of the question. Also, when you lived in an Intellectual Village that was arranged to have such a beautiful atmosphere, it seemed a waste to fill your room with the scent of chemicals.
I hooked the ring-shaped cords of the mosquito net onto the J-shaped latches embedded at about the height of a curtain rail on the four walls and fixed the mosquito net perfectly in place.
But I did not even have time to rejoice at being done.
I suddenly heard an odd scraping noise.
It was a lighter noise than scraping metal.
It was more like…
“…Is that someone washing rice?”
As soon as I said that, the odd noise intensified. It seemed to be making some kind of objection.
“Oh, it’s an Azukiarai. What are you doing here?”
The azuki bean sound (?) replied, but I could make no sense of it.
There were plenty of different types of Youkai, but I have always felt that they can broadly be divided into those that eat meals like humans do and those that do not. This unseen Azukiarai was the latter.
I was fairly certain we had no such Youkai living in our house, but I decided my Youkai-loving mom must have brought it home and let it live in the attic.
But the thought of the attic reminded me of something.
“Come to think of it, that demon that forced its way into the house has taken the attic as its stronghold, hasn’t it? Were you kicked out from there?”
The azuki bean sound seemed somehow sad as it replied.
But I could not have this Youkai relying on me. If it kept making that scraping noise all night long, I would never get any sleep.
I looked around and finally opened the sliding door to my closet.
“At least do it in here. I’ll find a new place for you tomorrow.”
I had no way of knowing if the unseen Azukiarai was moving or not, but it must have agreed because the scraping sound started coming from within the closet. I closed the door and finally finished my preparations for bed.
Just as I was about to turn off the light, another visitor arrived.
And the first noise I heard came from directly above me.
A corner of the ceiling was moved aside, creating a square hole. Someone then poked her head down like a ninja.
She looked like a glamorous woman, but she had goat-like horns on her head, bat-like wings on her back, and an arrow-like tail on her butt. I’m sure anyone can figure it out with that much explanation. She was a demon. She changed her hairstyle based on her mood, but today her long hair was done up in twintails.
“Hey there. Good morning.”
“What do you want, Succubus? I was just about to go to sleep.”
“That’s why I came. And down I come.”
The Succubus descended from the square hole in the ceiling like a ninja. The two objects just barely covered by her stupidly small micro-bikini bounced around. While this was her standard outfit, she prudently wore a T-shirt over it when she was not in the attic and people besides me were present.
This was primarily due to what happened the day she had arrived. She had gotten carried away and had recklessly told my dad “Please let me stay here. I’ll pay for rent with my body☆” My dad had then thrown a real punch to let her know who was in charge.
It seemed my dad’s fist was just as effective on Western demons as it was on Eastern Youkai.
“The men of this house have too little lust. Having nothing to do is starting to make me feel useless as a Succubus. So how about I give you a nice dream?”
“You demons live in a society of contracts, so I doubt you would do that for free.”
“Oh, I already took that into account, master. I need to give you something in return for sheltering me here. I believe in equivalent exchange, so I cannot simply take without giving anything back. Plus, my debt to you periodically increases in the form of rent, so I need to be able to pay you back somehow. Having a demon in a position where she is getting too much and needs to give back is quite rare, though.” The Succubus grinned and held up her index finger. “All I can do is manipulate your dreams, but if you think about it, that can be quite useful. After all, you can do anything in a dream with no consequences!! Nothing is a crime!! You can experience pleasures and warmth that would be impossible in the physical world!!!!!!”
“What!? I hope you know just how much a teenager’s sexual desire can be boiling below the surface!! You had better follow through even if my demands are a lot crazier than you expected!!”
“Oh, of course! That type of thing is the entire reason I exist! How about you use this opportunity to try out something you could never hope to achieve normally, master!? Like something involving animals or internal organs!!”
“…No, you don’t need to go that far. Ugh.”
“Wait, wait. Don’t get that look on your face like you just saw a steak made up entirely of fat. Okay, what sort of thing would fall right into your strike zone?”
“E-eh? I guess something with an older girl…Someone with breasts big enough to envelop anything…Oh, and have her be the graceful type who looks good in Japanese clothing.”
“If you have a specific model in mind, just tell me. That would make the dream very easy to construct.”
“Bh!? There’s no model!! That wasn’t modeled off of anyone!!”
That was important, so I made sure to deny it twice.
The Succubus’s expression made it clear she was not entirely satisfied with that response.
“Okay, in that case, I have taken in your desires, master. Do not worry!! Just climb into your futon and, before you can count to 10, you will have entered a dream world with breasts everywhere you look!!”
“Really!? It does seem a bit empty for it to be just a dream, but now I’m kind of excited!! Can you really do this!?”
“Fwah hah hah!! Like I said: I will present you with pleasures you could never even imagine in this world!!”
After hearing that, there was nothing left but to try it out.
I turned out the lights, climbed into my light summer futon, and was soon in my dreams just as predicted.
I was not prepared for what would happen next.
I never expected to fall into a nightmare where I was chased around all night long by some horrible mystery person whose entire body was covered in breasts to the point that her face could not be seen and she looked like a bunch of grapes.
Part 5 (3rd person)
In the middle of the night when all the lights were out and the thatch-roof house was completely dark, the Nekomata walked along silently. Her(?) usual living space was the area below the porch, but she would enter the house when it rained.
A Nekomata was not actually a cat, so she was not bound by their nocturnal habits. Normally, she would be sleeping during this time. She had a reason to be wandering around at this time.
Mosquitos had been targeting her.
Youkai could not be harmed by any normal methods, so she was of course not being bitten by the mosquitos. Still, having them buzzing around by her ears was keeping her awake.
(It would be wrong to disturb the old woman in her sleep, so that leaves only one other acceptable option.)
With that thought, the Nekomata headed for Jinnai Shinobu’s room.
She had been hoping for an electric mosquito repellant, but she found a mosquito net upon entering the room. The sight made the Youkai sigh at how old fashioned it was. But it would still keep the mosquitos away.
While making sure no mosquitos got in along with her, she climbed into the net.
With the annoying buzzing gone, the Nekomata curled up beside Jinnai Shinobu’s pillow.
But then her sharp senses detected something.
Her triangular ears pricked up and her vertical pupils opened wide.
She looked around and noticed someone inside the thin summer futon along with Jinnai Shinobu. She flipped back the futon to reveal the Zashiki Warashi.
The annoyed Nekomata said, “What are you doing?”
“What a Zashiki Warashi is supposed to do,” smoothly replied the Youkai in a red yukata. “Unlike in the past, I have to do it without him noticing or he kicks me out.”
“I thought a Zashiki Warashi snuck into futons as one of their childish pranks. What good is a prank if you do it without anyone noticing?”
“I have to work around certain circumstances. If I looked like you, this would probably be a lot easier.”
“Heh.” The Nekomata lightly waved her two tails. “I do think Youkai who belong to a house have it tough because of the constant conflict between their own nature and the customs of the humans, but I can’t let you say I have it easier. I am horribly jealous of Youkai who look like you. The closer to human you look, the easier a time you have being accepted by human society.”
A Nekomata could actually transform into a human form, but it had to kill a human to do it. To a Youkai like her that saw transforming into a human to be that valuable, a Youkai like a Zashiki Warashi that always looked like a human and always received the benefits of it must have seemed a horrible waste of ability.
Of course, the Zashiki Warashi was not thoughtless enough to have never realized that.
However, hers was the sort of personality that led her to stab at that insecurity despite realizing it.
“Looking like a human but never changing at all as time goes on creates problems. People grow jealous of you even though you are a completely different species. Whereas with a cat, not many humans can tell how old you look at a glance.”
“Hah. So are you saying you want a form that allows you to walk around everywhere naked without anyone thinking anything of it?”
“Oh? …Wait, don’t tell me you’re actually worried about that. What, are you that bothered by how this boy’s attitude towards you has changed? Expecting that out of a teenage boy is being too cruel. He can’t always cling to you and call you ‘big sister’.”
“Could you not assume you know what people are going to say before they say it?”
The Zashiki Warashi in the red yukata then covered her head with the futon.
It seemed that assessment had been a bullseye.
It was not often one saw a Youkai sulking over the fact that a human would not let her in his futon or bath.
(No matter how much time passes, that species always acts so childish. What a pain.)
The Nekomata had come to that room to escape the annoying mosquitos, but she decided heading elsewhere would be better than trying to sleep there.
However, she did feel a bit irritated at having that area of rest taken from her as soon as she found it, so she gave the following parting comment:
“If you showed Jinnai Shinobu that face, I think he would start treating you a bit more like a girl.”
A muffled voice in the futon replied, “Don’t joke.”
“I thought as much. If I was in your position, I would probably hang myself.”
With a quick laugh, the Nekomata left.
It had rained late into the night, but the weather had cleared up nicely by morning.
As soon as I woke up from that horrible nightmare, I climbed into the attic and chased the Succubus around.
“But with those theoretical values, you should have received pleasure impossible in reality.”
“If that turned me on, I would never be attracted to a normal girl again!!”
After we ate breakfast, the Zashiki Warashi brought up the electric stickboard she had bought (using my credit card without permission). It was a toy that looked like a skateboard with a vertical bar, bike handles, and electric motor attached.
“But you had earned enough points on that site that they sent a special gift.”
“That is no reason to use my account without permission.”
“Here, it’s a keychain. Inside this sphere is actual ocean water! And phytoplankton too!!”
“Nothing about that makes me want it!!”
She had apparently fully charged the battery overnight, so the good-for-nothing Youkai wanted to take it out for a spin.
We ended up on the road in front of the house that was too small to tell if it was meant for vehicles or pedestrians.
“Too fast, too fast, too fast, too fast!! What the hell!? Where’s the brake on this thing!?”
“Shinobu! The right side of the handles is the throttle and the left is the gear change!”
“I’m asking about the brake, you-….bkyabrgrgh!!”
“Ah ha ha ha ha!! You fell, you fell. That would have been a lot funnier if the paddy had water in it.”
I thought about throwing the electric stickboard at the Zashiki Warashi from the paddy that was a level lower than the road, but I changed my mind at the last second.
The Yuki Onna was jogging over and shouting.
“Let me… Let me try it, too…”
“Fine, but how about we all read the manual first?”
I climbed up out of the paddy that was packed full of rice ears. As I did, I spotted a giant paper umbrella and paper lantern moving along the pathway on the other side of the paddy.
…Is that the two from yesterday?
“Oh, curse our master!! Why did he leave without telling us again!? Does he not have a healthy fear of a 30% chance of rain!?”
“Let’s check the sweets shop first! If he isn’t there, we can head to rhinoceros beetle mountain!!”
It seemed their young master had left them running around once more. I was a bit jealous since it was the exact opposite of my situation. The umbrella and lantern were racing down the pathway at quite a good clip.
Meanwhile, the Yuki Onna was noisily fiddling with the different parts of the electric stickboard.
“…Hm, the wheels are quite close. The hem of my kimono might get caught.”
“Then the Zashiki Warashi can’t ride it either!”
“If need be, I can always change into a mini-yukata.”
“Only urban ganguro girls who ignore all tradition are allowed to wear those. If someone like you wore one, the folklorists would fall into despair.”
Come to think of it, why does she only wear yukatas???
I think she wore normal western clothes once when I was kid, but…
Suddenly, I heard a voice from a short distance away.
I turned around to spot the young man I had met in the sweets shop.
“You’re the Youkai artist, right?”
“You can call me Houjou,” replied Houjou-san. “What’s important is that I managed to meet the out-of-season Yuki Onna. Will you be playing here for a while? You don’t need to stay still like for a portrait. I would love it if you just let me make a quick sketch as if you are part of the background.”
“You heard the man. What do you say?” I asked.
“I-it should go without saying that Jinnai Shinobu is the only one allowed to draw lewd shunga of me!!”
“That does not go without saying and this is not a shunga,” I replied.
And so Houjou-san pulled out some Japanese paper and an inkstone and placed them beside him while the rest of us continued playing with the electric stickboard.
After cautiously riding it around for about 10 minutes, we had picked up the basics, so we began a time attack competition based on our lap times on a 100 meter straightaway.
Since he was a Youkai artist, I did not seem to be one of his targets. That let me take things easy, but the Zashiki Warashi and Yuki Onna’s movements definitely seemed a bit stiff.
“A Yuki Onna just standing around is one thing, but is an image of one playing on an electric machine really something you can hang in a Japanese-style room?”
“Oh, don’t worry about that. I said I was searching an out-of-season Yuki Onna, remember? I wanted this kind of gap. In a way, this is better than I could have hoped.”
“We’ll be leaving at lunchtime. Will you be done by then?”
“More or less. Ink paintings do not take that long to complete. Although that might just be with the methods I have created for painting while I travel.”
The Zashiki Warashi revolutionized our lap times by discovering how to use the clutch to perform a rocket start, the Yuki Onna took the rocket start too far and performed a wheelie, and time passed in the rural Intellectual Village.
“Things sure are peaceful….”
The Umbrella Obake and Lantern Obake I had seen beyond the paddy were now returning the way they had come. It seemed they had not found the boy from their house.
“I want some kind of excitement. Maybe I should buy some fireworks online.”
“Shinobu, if you’re going to get some fireworks, you have to get a set of 50 of the kind that shoot up into the air.”
“You’d just fire them at me, so no.”
“Fireworks, hm?” Houjou-san gave a bitter smile as he moved his brush. “Can you have them delivered the same day if you order them online? But it is supposed to rain again tonight, so I suppose there is no hurry.”
“Oh? I didn’t know that.”
“I use Japanese paper in my work. I have to be careful about the weather and humidity.”
When my overall small granny came to call us for lunch, we left as I had warned.
“Have you finished?”
“Yes, for the most part. But do not worry about me. I will leave once it finishes drying. It’s ink, so that should not take too long.”
And so we left Houjou-san the Youkai artist and returned to the thatch roof house. I looked at the electric stickboard and noticed its battery was already close to dead.
“Oh, c’mon. It dies in less than three hours? You would have a hard time using this in place of a bike.”
“Shinobu, you can buy a better battery for 5800 yen on the site.”
“No, not a chance!! This will be for leisure use only, thank you very much!!”
By the way, lunch was hiyashi chuuka.
Before we had finished eating, I could hear the frogs croaking like crazy and thick dark clouds had started to cover the sky. I headed out to the road again to check on Houjou-san, but the Youkai artist was already gone.
By evening, the rain was pouring down.
I ordered a cheap fireworks set using my laptop and was asked to make an impromptu cat house for the Nekomata who was washing her face with her front paw. She seemed worried about the humidity.
Most daily necessities were ordered over the internet in an Intellectual Village, so piles of cardboard boxes from delivery companies could be found anywhere.
“Do not stuff newspaper in there. Do you think you could sleep surrounded by rough scraps of paper?”
“But you would complain if I used old rags because they smell too much.”
“How about you grab that fluffy stuff over there and stuff it inside?”
“Those are Keseran Pasaran. They’re Youkai like you.”
The Succubus must have kicked more harmless Youkai out of the attic because some new ones had appeared. The Kesaran Pasaran floating near the hallway ceiling were Youkai that looked like white furballs about the size of ping pong balls. A few of them were floating in a cluster.
I assumed my Youkai-loving mom had taken them in and hidden them in the attic. The standard pattern in my house was for my mom to take in a Youkai and my dad to kick it out once he found it.
I eventually received the Nekomata’s approval by wadding up some disposable tissues I had received as a gift from an online store but never used. Then the doorbell rang.
The Zashiki Warashi approached and called out to me.
“Shinobu, the doorbell is ringing.”
“Then why don’t you answer it?”
But she was lazy through and through, so there was no hope of that happening. I headed to the front door.
I opened the sliding door and found some unexpected guests.
“If this is a Halloween party, can’t it at least wait until the end of September?”
“I am the Umbrella Obake. And this is the LED Paper Lantern. I believe we met yesterday.”
I’m well aware of that…
Neither the Umbrella nor the Lantern had arms, so I had to wonder how they had rung the doorbell. I sincerely hoped one of them had not used their long tongue.
“We wish to ask if a boy of about 10 came by here.”
“What? You still haven’t found him?”
“H-how do you know we are searching for him!? Don’t tell me your speaking to him yesterday was indeed foreshadowing of something more sinister!?”
“Shut up, Lantern.”
“Wait, why are you grabbing me all of a sudden!? No, do not squeeze from the top and botto-…agrymghh!!”
As I folded up the Paper Lantern that was causing a racket with her high-pitched voice, I asked, “You’ve been running around since this morning, right? How long have you been at it?”
That question created a heavy mood around the Umbrella and Lantern similar to when a human’s shoulders would droop.
It seemed they had found little success in their search.
I sighed and leaned up against the pillar in the entrance.
“Have you gone around to all his friends’ houses?”
“Have you called his phone?”
“It does not appear to be on.”
“Have you tried the village’s notification network?”
“We posted a lost child notification, but we have yet to receive any useful information, boy.”
If it had been treated as an emergency notification, a message would have been sent to all the adults’ cell phones.
If a friend was simply hiding the boy in their house, the adult of the house would have ignored the child’s wishes and contacted the boy’s family.
“We have checked all of the locations suggested by his friends. We found nothing there, so we are now going around house by house.”
“Well, I suppose there really aren’t that many houses in the village.”
“But we have found nothing at all. It is possible he is in some sort of outdoors secret base rather than a residence.”
In the Intellectual Village, most entertainment was satisfied via online stores, so it had no karaoke boxes, manga cafes, or similar shops. And the closest neighboring town was a fair distance away. Whether they liked the outdoors or not, the only option for a child running away from home was to take some canned bread and bottled water and flee to a secret base. Even I had done it before.
“…But in this rain?”
However, these “secret bases” were usually made from the cardboard shipping boxes. They would not last in this pouring rain. That was why the adults would demolish them when they were found.
“Hm, so where could he be?”
“Sorry for the interruption. If you learn anything, please post in the lost child information section of the notification network.”
With that said, the Umbrella and Lantern headed back out into the pouring rain.
“What is it?”
“You know the mountain the Sanatorium is on, right? The southern base of it has been the standard spot for building secret bases for ages. I doubt he’s there in this rain, but it’s possible he’s playing there if they’ve managed to build a proper hut of plywood or plastic or something.”
The Umbrella and Lantern leaned forward slightly. It might have been meant as a bow.
But I remembered something as soon as I slid shut the front door.
The Zashiki Warashi and Nekomata approached the front entrance.
“If he’s built a secret base on the southern side of Fruit Mountain, this might be dangerous.”
“What do you mean?” asked the Nekomata as she tilted her head.
I explained while also putting my own thoughts in order.
“That area is just an undeveloped open field. Unlike the orchards that produce 30,000 yen bunches of grapes, you don’t get into any real trouble if you sneak in. That’s why the kids like bringing cardboard boxes there to create secret bases.”
“So are there snakes there?”
“No.” I shook my head. “But now that I think about it, the situation is a bit different from when I was a kid. The orchards on the slope of the mountain were taken out by water damage since then. Irrigation ditches weren’t enough to handle the rainwater caused by sudden rainstorms, so they built a flood control reservoir for emergencies. Normally, there is nothing in that empty field, but huge amounts of water can be guided there to protect the valuable orchards.”
The Nekomata fell silent and looked up at the ceiling.
The rain could be heard beating loudly against the roof.
Finally, the Nekomata said, “That is bad.”
“Yes, it is! The area is supposed to be off limits nowadays, but they do find collections of cardboard boxes there occasionally. The kids probably still make secret bases there. If the floodgates are opened, the entire area will be covered in water!! If he really is there…!!”
“Shinobu, do you think this rain will be enough for the floodgates to be opened?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think it’s quite that bad yet. Opening the floodgates is a last resort. The general consensus is that it shouldn’t be done unless absolutely necessary. I doubt they’ll do it unless we get typhoon-level rain.”
We hurried to my bedroom and I opened up my laptop.
I connected to the Intellectual Village’s neighborhood association notification network and checked the disaster message board.
When I saw one thread name highlighted in the color for an emergency, I felt a bit faint.
Important notification regarding the floodgates for the flood prevention reservoir on the southern slope of Fruit Mountain.
“Not good… They’ve already been opened!?”
I left checking the message board’s information to the Zashiki Warashi while I pulled out my cell phone to contact the fire department just in case. But would they do anything? The Intellectual Village was quite well equipped when it came to putting out forest fires, but I could not think of any actual rescue personnel for other disasters.
And then the operator said the following:
“Are you absolutely sure this child was in the emergency flood prevention reservoir area?”
“We will send some men in, but it would be difficult to have the floodgates closed. They were opened to prevent definite losses. Unless you have more definite information…”
“Understood. Sorry. As long as you check. Please just have someone check for a drowning child!”
I hung up and felt like punching the wall.
“That’s no help at all! I get the feeling they’ll just send two or three men out to arbitrarily look around. And it’s going to be completely dark soon. If they walk around a bit and point a flashlight around, they’ll never find a small child!!”
I checked the clock.
It was 6 PM.
Due to the thick clouds covering the sky, it felt even darker than usual.
“Hey, Zashiki Warashi. You bought a whole bunch of disaster goods a while back, right? Where did you put them? I want a powerful flashlight.”
“…You’re heading out now? Have you never heard of secondary losses?”
“I won’t go too far. Just get me a flashlight.”
“Helping and getting yourself involved are two different things. You do realize you are crossing a line here, right?”
“I realize I only have a side role in this. I’m not heading out to battle some strange final boss. I’m just going to go check. If I don’t find anything, I’ll come right back.”
The Zashiki Warashi sighed and headed back to her room.
The Nekomata looked up at me.
“Have you checked your cell phone? Does that old beat-up thing have GPS functionality?”
“Yes, and I have it turned on. But the phone isn’t waterproof, so if I drop it in the water, it’s done for.”
“Then we’ll start panicking if the signal disappears.”
I took a flashlight from the Zashiki Warashi when she returned and then turned toward the front door.
“They’d definitely try to stop me, so don’t tell dad and the others what I’m doing even if they ask.”
“…Shinobu. That request makes me very worried.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll make sure he only gets mad at me. Anyway, I don’t have time. Could you lend me the electric stickboard we were using this morning? You’ve been charging it since lunchtime, right?”
That was not a toy you could carry an umbrella while riding.
I charged through the pouring rain as I rushed for the submerged flood control reservoir.
By the time I reached the southern base of Fruit Mountain, the area was completely dark.
I let the electric stickboard fall to the ground and switched on my flashlight. The area was so worthless no one cared if it was submerged, so it naturally had no streetlights. I lightly swept the light across the area and spotted the Umbrella and Lantern standing in a daze amid the noisily pouring rain.
“Hey, what is it? Did you find the boy!?”
“…I-is our master really out here?”
“A-are…are you sure you were not mistaken?”
I walked up next to the two speechless Youkai and shined the flashlight on the emergency flood control reservoir.
The situation was very bad.
Normally, the area was nothing but a green field covered in short undergrowth. Everything would look the same in every direction except for the occasional cardboard box secret base built by the children. That lack of maintenance allowed it to feel more raw and natural than the maintained orchards of the Intellectual Village.
But now it was all pitch black.
This was due to the water.
With a deep rumbling of flowing water, the entire area looked like the sea at night. Everything from the short underbrush to the cardboard box secret bases had been swallowed up. That flat black surface covered everything. Not even the light of my flashlight could penetrate the water, so I had no idea how deep it was.
It was so much that I almost lost my balance for a moment.
Searching for something in that water would likely be harder than finding a ring cast into the sands of a desert.
“Lantern. You can fly, right?”
“Y-yes. Not very high, though.”
“Then you fly over the flood control reservoir and call out his name. Come to think of it, what is the boy’s name?”
“Hey, boy. What should I do?” asked the Umbrella.
In response, I grabbed his handle.
I then turned him upside down and stabbed him into the water from the edge of the path.
“Excuse me a moment.”
“So it’s about a meter deep. He was about 130 cm tall, so he might be able to keep his head above water if he tries.”
I pulled the Umbrella out of the water and released him.
But the depth could change depending on the location and the ground might grow soft from the water and suck his legs in. I decided it would be best not to be too optimistic.
The Umbrella coughed up the water that had gotten in his mouth. (Where did the water go?)
“H-honestly. People these days do not know how to treat their tools!! It is because of you savages that you almost never see a Tsukumogami in the form of a computer or cell phone!!”
“While the Lantern searches above the reservoir, you and I can head around the perimeter.”
“You’re not listening at all, are you!?”
I ignored the Umbrella’s complaints and began our rather unreliable search.
The outer edge of the flood control reservoir was simply constructed by piling up dirt, so I was a bit afraid it would collapse as I walked along it. I pointed my flashlight around in the darkness and shouted the boy’s name, but I received no response. Occasionally I would stop in shock when I saw something large floating on the dark surface of the water, but it always turned out to be a cardboard box from one of the secret bases.
“Hey, Umbrella. You went around asking about this Yonesaki Hiro boy, right? Do you know who he was playing with?”
“No. Why do you ask?”
“Playing make believe in the secret fortress is like playing tag or hide-and-seek. It isn’t something you normally do on your own. If the floodgates were opened while he was building a base here, some other kid might have been swallowed up too. It would be best to know how many kids we need to be looking for.”
Also, there was no sign of the fire department arriving. I had seen no vehicle parked nearby. It was possible they had decided my call was nothing more than a prank.
The Umbrella remained silent for quite a while but finally spoke quietly as if he could not withstand the pressure of the darkness.
“It is possible our master did not come here to play.”
The area had been turned into an emergency flood control reservoir because there was nothing there. I could not think of any reason to go to the field other than to play.
“Youkai like us do not know much about human schools, but they would warn the children not to play in places like this, correct? The same as they warn the children not to play in rivers or head into the mountains on their own.”
“…Probably. What about it?”
“In other words, our master would have known how dangerous this place is.” The Umbrella let out a heavy breath. “What if that is why our master chose to come here at this time? What if he was seeking that danger?”
“What are you-…?”
I trailed off as I felt like my heart was being squeezed.
I had realized what he meant.
“You don’t mean…Yonesaki Hiro was waiting here for the floodgates to open so he could drown himself?”
A child that young was committing suicide?
I could not imagine how that could happen, but a high schooler like me could not understand the complexity of an elementary schooler’s world. I had once walked down that path, but I could no longer recall the real details of the time.
Was it possible?
Could something really make a child of about 10 completely give up on the world?
“Lately, it has seemed our master has been constantly worrying about something. He has been eating less. And he will not tell Lantern or me what is worrying him.”
“You said you checked with Yonesaki Hiro’s friends today, right? So he has friends.”
“Yes. He is not having problems with his friends. Nor have we seen any discord in the family. …So I have no idea what it is. He has obviously been worrying about something, but I cannot tell you what that might be.”
It was true that people often held problems that could not be seen in their day-to-day lives.
I pulled out my cell phone, but I could not perform a search because its internet connection was too weak. I had no choice but to contact the Zashiki Warashi by calling the smartphone (my smartphone!) that she had.
“I need to find any records a boy named Yonesaki Hiro has left online. Can you search for me?”
“Most people do not use their real name. Do you know what screen name he might use?”
I turned to the Umbrella and asked, “What did Yonesaki Hiro’s friends call him?”
“Search for Yonecchi,” I said to the Zashiki Warashi.
After a few dozen seconds, she replied, “I found him on 4 Line Net. It’s a popular SNS these days.”
“That’s the type that only lets you make short posts, right?”
“I can only get the information set as public, but I can see him posting about his classes and other things he’s done. This account definitely belongs to an elementary school kid from Noukotsu Village. He even names the neighborhood sweets shop.”
“Is he being bullied online?”
“Not really. But I think 4 Line Net has comment viewing levels of ‘close friend’, ‘friend’, ‘personal acquaintance’, and ‘general acquaintance’. Any important information wouldn’t be open for anyone to see.”
“Can you check any further?”
“I am a Youkai, not a super hacker.”
…Hm. But come to think of it, isn’t there someone in my class who knows about this kind of thing?
I hung up on the Zashiki Warashi and called the eccentric beauty Madoka-chan.
“What is it, Shinobu-kun?”
“That certainly is straight and to the point. Has something happened?”
“Madoka, you know a lot about the internet because of your stock trading, right? There might be some traces of criminal activity hidden in 4 Line Net comments restricted from public viewing. Is there any way to get access to them?”
“I see, I see,” said Madoka offhandedly. “What search engine are you using? Try using Free Load.”
“Do you want me to check the cache data?”
“That won’t be enough. Use the image search. It’s meant to search for image data, but it also takes a sample of the text on the page. That should pierce straight through a site like 4 Line Net. Search for an image file unique to the user and it should display it all for you.”
“You sure know a lot of about this.”
“Well, it used to be popular as a means of acquiring insider information.”
“I never used it. My autonomous investing program doesn’t need that sort of information.”
I thanked her and hung up. Then I called the Zashiki Warashi again and instructed her in what to do.
“You take advantage of all sorts of women, don’t you?”
“Please don’t say things that make me sound bad. So did you find anything?”
“…Oh, my. This is full of suspicious text. It looks like this Yonecchi believed everything he was told by someone he had never seen. Do you think this was some kind of Youkai power?”
“Paste the text and send it to me.”
I received an email.
When I read through it, I frowned slightly.
“I think this might be a technique known as journal profiling. People psychologically analyze the available text to respond with comments that will receive the most positive response. A few of these comments almost perfectly match the ones on the alert from the police’s website.”
It was the same as a test that let you freely draw a picture to determine your psychological condition. Blogs and SNSs could be quite defenseless in that regard.
“That’s the method the administrator of that suicide site from a while back used to gather participants, right?” asked the Zashiki Warashi.
“Yeah, but I think he drowned himself when he was about to be arrested for assisting in the suicides. …Wait. But the Youkai used for that was…”
“A Shichinin Misaki, right? The article I read on a news site gave a quick mention of the Package.”
The suspect from that incident was gone.
But it was still possible someone else was reusing the Package for their own purposes or that someone else had been involved in the initial incident as well. And the Umbrella and Madoka had both mentioned recent Shichinin Misaki sightings.
“By the way, what kinds of worries were used to provoke Yonecchi?”
“It isn’t spelled out, but reading between the lines, I think he was afraid of having to say goodbye to his friends.”
I fell silent and looked over at the Umbrella, but he merely rotated his entire body back and forth as his version of “shaking his head”.
“I have heard nothing about any of his friends at school moving away.”
“No,” said the Zashiki Warashi.
“So he does have some friends moving away?”
“No, it isn’t that. These friends are not the kids from school.”
The Umbrella’s thoughts seemed to have frozen up, but I had more or less grasped the situation.
The “friends” Yonesaki Hiro mentioned were…
“Someone came to 4 Line Net and provoked him with the following,” said the Zashiki Warashi smoothly. “ ‘What if there was a method of becoming a Youkai just like your precious friends?’ ”
The Umbrella remained silent for a while.
His movements had completely stopped.
“It’s a pretty common issue,” I said. “Especially in an Intellectual Village. Youkai live with you, but their lifespans are much, much longer than your own. That means you have to say goodbye to them eventually. That is what he was afraid of.”
But what was this “someone” hoping to gain by provoking him with that desire?
A method of becoming a Youkai.
Was that simply a convenient means of luring in a specific person or was that itself the goal?
I asked if any of the posts gave more details, but the Zashiki Warashi’s response was not what I was hoping for.
“It seems 4 Line Net was simply used to gain Yonecchi’s trust. The person invited him to speak further using free email addresses. The specifics would have been discussed using them.”
“That makes this sound all the more suspicious.”
In all likelihood, the boy had been instructed to delete his email address after the needed information had been exchanged. In that case, not even contacting the server company would get us anything. A decent company would delete the entire cluster of personal information. It would all be gone.
“Do you really think there is a means of becoming a Youkai?” asked the Zashiki Warashi.
“I don’t know.”
Humans and Youkai were completely different life forms. It would likely be more difficult a task than turning a human into a mountain gorilla.
I thought for a bit and then…
“You said you saw an article on a news site about the suicide site that gathered participants using journal profiling, right? Did that have details of the Package used?”
“No. I don’t know if the police never figured it out or if they wanted to prevent any idiots from copying it, but no details were given. However, it seems the key to the Package was how to get the people to meet the Shichinin Misaki that kills anyone who meets it.”
“Was there no other hint?”
“An alibi hotel.” The Zashiki Warashi used a term that had been popular on talk shows a while back. “A website is created for a fictional hotel. For the price of a suite, an alibi is created for the person whose personal information is given. That was used so the targets who would never have met the Shichinin Misaki would have met it on paper. What do you think, Shinobu?”
“If that was enough to kill someone, anyone could easily kill the secretary-general of the UN or the president of the US. That would have only been the first stage. After those initial preparations, they would need to actually approach the target to prepare some kind of setting.”
“And that is the flood control reservoir?”
“I don’t know, but they wouldn’t have called him out here for no reason.”
“What about the police?”
“We should probably report this.”
I hung up and a sudden question burst out of the Umbrella.
“Wh-what is going to happen to our master!? Is he here!? Or has he been taken elsewhere!?”
“We don’t know anything yet! It’s still possible he’s just drowning here. For now, we just have to rule out every possibility we can.”
That was when I heard a rumbling noise.
I pointed my flashlight toward it and found the opening to a water pipe tunnel directly below the edge we were standing on. The flood control reservoir was not simply a place to gather water. It only had so much area. The water flowing in was sent through other pipes to disperse the rainwater as much as possible.
The tunnel was about a meter across and the bottom half was filled with water. I would likely be able to enter it if I crouched down.
The Umbrella and I leaned over and I pointed the flashlight into the tunnel.
“I can’t see very far in. I can’t even tell if it heads straight or if it curves.”
“Ah! Isn’t that the straw hat our master was wearing!?”
“Where? Is it just the hat!?”
“Further in. I can see just his hat caught on the edge…”
“I already told you: further in!!”
“Yes, but where further-…!?”
I suddenly trailed off.
I had completely lost my balance. I could hear the Umbrella shouting something, but I couldn’t make out what. I had sunk into the muddy water headfirst, so I could only hear a bubbly, muffled sound.
I was near the large water pipe, so the current was intense.
I immediately began flailing my arms around, but I could find nothing to grab onto. I was swept into the large opening of the water pipe.
“Cough!! Cough cough!!”
I somehow managed to get my head above water, but I had already been sucked completely into the tunnel. I pointed my flashlight toward the entrance and was shocked to see how far from it I had been swept. I was too far for the light to reach the entrance. I had already traveled several dozen meters. And the powerful current was still sweeping me further and further in.
I still had no idea if there had actually been a straw hat there or not.
I tried to brace my arms and legs against the edges of the tunnel to hold myself in place, but I still slipped further in bit by bit.
I began to wonder if it would be best to go with the flow and leave through the exit on the other end.
But there was no guarantee the water level would remain the same. If the water pipe tunnel headed down underground, it was entirely possible the entire thing would be filled with water.
I gave up on trying to gain footing and instead tried to swim through the muddy water, but I could not gain any ground no matter how much I flailed my arms and legs around. In fact, I could tell I was being swept further in.
My body was flipped over and I was rolled around in the tunnel so much I lost any sense of up or down. The direction filled with air and the direction filled with water swapped back and forth so much I could no longer tell if I was sucking in air or swallowing mud.
The hard feeling of the flashlight left my hand.
I was swept on and on and on through the pitch black tunnel.
Maybe I shouldn’t have tried to do something so out of character…
I let out a groan while coughing up what might have been water or might have been mud. The suffering I felt told me that I was still alive.
But where was I?
The next thing I knew, I had been dumped out of the dark tunnel. I sat up from lying on my back and realized I was in a ditch running through a paddy field.
“Wait, that’s not it.”
The sun had already set so it was pitch black and the pouring rain cut my visibility down even further.
Even so, I stared intently at my surroundings. At first glance, it appeared to be a paddy field, but nothing was growing in it despite it being the end of August. And the large paddy field was surrounded by something like wooden planks so I could not see out.
…Is this field not being used anymore?
From how thick the walls surrounding it were, I guessed it might be another proposed site for a flood control reservoir.
I crawled out of the ditch while dragging myself along after my clothes had grown several times heavier due to soaking in water and mud. I pulled out my cell phone, but it was completely broken. I clicked my tongue without meaning to.
The area was so dark I could not see much of anything, but I still had to try.
The area seemed to be an old unused paddy field with a ditch running through the middle, but it was not covered entirely in flat dirt. At one point and one point only, the dirt swelled up. It was similar to the space prepared when someone wanted to create a grave on their own land instead of at a Buddhist temple.
The area of dirt was about 10 meters square.
It appeared large stones had been laid across on top to create a foundation.
“…It isn’t a grave?”
The stereotypical tombstone was not there.
In its place was a small shabby wooden hut.
It was not large enough for someone to enter. It was only about a meter across on each side. It was supported by a small leg, so it reminded me a bit of a Stevenson screen.
What is that?
This was inside of an old unused paddy field that was surrounded by wooden planks. I did not think anyone would be able to see inside from outside the field, so I doubted this was something the owner of the land had built. It was more likely that someone else had put it here so the people of the village would not know it was here.
I approached it with my feet sinking into the mud.
It was too dark to see the details, but the small hut did not look very old. Its color and texture were spot on. It might have been created out of materials taken directly from actual antique wooden buildings. However, the nails or the adhesive used may have been new because I could smell an odd scent.
Was it a small hut or a small shrine?
At any rate, I stood in front of it and opened its double-doors.
“…What is this?”
I found something unexpected within.
It was nothing related to the occult like a Buddha statue or a Shinto shintai.
It was something in the complete opposite direction.
The barrel glittered with a silver light. The grip was covered in black rubber. It appeared to be a stereotypical six-shot revolver. But when I cautiously reached out and touched it with a finger, it felt somehow odd. I had never held a real handgun, but it felt so cheaply made even I could tell something was off. It seemed to be made of metal, but something like paint had been added on top. Color had been added to make it seem more solid than it was. A real gun would not need such a trick.
…Is this a toy?
I touched the black rubber grip and a question caught in my mind.
What was this doing in a place like this?
I also felt like I had seen the exact same thing somewhere. But where? I felt as if it had been quite recently.
“…What are you doing?”
I suddenly heard a voice from directly behind me. It was a high-pitched soprano voice. But it was not a girl’s voice. It was the voice of a boy before his voice changed. It was not the voice of anyone I knew very well, but I was still fairly certain I knew who it was.
I turned around.
I found a boy of around 10 standing there. Perhaps due to the Umbrella not being here, he was soaking wet from the pouring rain. But he was still not as muddy as me. He may not have passed through that water pipe or he may have passed through it before the rain began.
But even so…
This was an old empty paddy field being used as a flood control reservoir, so where had he been hiding?
That question swelled up in my mind, but I had something else to check on first.
“Yonesaki-kun? You’re Yonesaki Hiro-kun, right?”
I was a little unsure of how formal I should be when speaking to a child of that age, but this was no time to worry about that. I ended up asking my question in my usual brusque manner.
The boy nodded his head.
That was stage 1 clear.
But I asked another question just to be sure.
“Did you come here alone? You weren’t with any other friends, were you?”
“I came alone.”
When I heard that response, I finally felt my body relax with relief. Everyone was safe. I did not need to worry about any other children having been swallowed up in that torrent.
As long as I could safely return this boy to the Umbrella and Lantern, the entire incident would be over.
That meant my biggest concern was the actions of whoever had lured Yonesaki Hiro out here. Yonesaki Hiro himself had said he came here alone, but I was afraid this mystery person might be lurking in the darkness somewhere.
“You know the Umbrella and Lantern, right? They’re really worried about you. But you just need to get home for now. I’ll tell the two of them I found you.”
“No,” replied Yonesaki Hiro. He continued speaking while standing still in the middle of the pouring rain. “I’m not going home. I was told I would be turned into a Youkai if I stay here.”
My question was met with silence.
It seemed he was not willing to answer just anything. That was not too surprising as the boy had no real reason to open his heart to me.
Given how muddy I already was, I decided it was pointless to worry about my clothes. I sat down in the mud so I could stare the short Yonesaki Hiro in the eye before speaking again.
“Hey, listen to me.”
“Anyone should know it would be difficult to turn a human into a Youkai. Are you saying you can do it? How? A Yuki Onna and a Zashiki Warashi may look just like us, but they are completely different inside. Even if I decided today I would become a Yuki Onna, I wouldn’t be able to. Don’t you understand that?”
“I can do it.”
His reply came almost immediately.
I had denied what he believed in. This was only a reflexive response to that, but it was better than silence.
“I can do it. I was told I can. So…”
“Is everything people tell you true? Then let me tell you something: a human cannot become a Youkai. Will that change your mind? Will it convince you? Will it?”
“I can become a Youkai!! I can because I waited here for that person!!”
“Again: who is this-…”
My question trailed off as my words caught in my throat.
“Wait. Why did you just use the past tense?”
“You didn’t say you could become a Youkai if you wait for this person. You said you can because you waited for them. That’s what you said, right? Why?”
“Don’t tell me you already met them!? With who!?”
The darkness surrounding me suddenly seemed to stab sharply at me. I could feel malicious intent coming at me from all directions. Was the person nearby? Who was it? What had they done while meeting with Yonesaki Hiro? This meant the person was not simply trying to kidnap the boy. Had they set up some kind of trick that would automatically bear fruit after the fact?
Did Yonesaki Hiro understand what had happened to him?
The boy then shouted out as if I had angered him by insulting his family and friends.
“With the Shichinin Misaki!! I was told I can be one of them!!”
I felt a chill run down my spine that was not from the muddy water. It was much colder.
The Shichinin Misaki.
The Umbrella and Madoka had both mentioned it.
They had mentioned sightings around here despite the Shichinin Misaki being an ocean Youkai.
“You idiot… That thing is completely deadly! And not just on the level of a Yuki Onna or Nekomata. It supposedly kills any human it meets. That’s about as deadly as it gets!!”
Was a wild beast covered in powerful muscles frightening?
Was a wild beast equipped with razor sharp fangs and claws frightening?
The answer is obviously yes. But the strength of Youkai is not the same as that of normal animals. The most frightening species of Youkai are the ones that have irrational deadly abilities.
If you merely meet them, you die.
If you merely have anything to do with them, you die.
Those ones were the truly deadly ones.
At that point, I felt like I had finally seen the whole picture.
Having Yonesaki Hiro meet the Shichinin Misaki had been the criminal’s goal.
After the target had been designated using 4 Line Net and the alibi hotel, some method would be used to send the Shichinin Misaki to the same area as the target. Normally, a Shichinin Misaki would wander around aimlessly simply spreading damage. However, once the Shichinin Misaki had already “met” Yonesaki Hiro online, their characteristics as a Youkai would take over and send them straight for the boy like a guided missile.
It was an assassination Package that accurately killed only the designated target while disguising it as suicide.
But I could not grasp why the criminal would use such a complex plan against a boy like Yonesaki Hiro. Was it simply a test or did killing Yonesaki Hiro hold some great meaning?
“No. No! I was told I would get to be part of the Shichinin Misaki. It isn’t going to hurt me!!”
“You know the Shichinin Misaki is a rather vague Youkai, right?”
“Yes, even I know that.”
“It always appears before humans in the form of a group of seven drowning victims. It kills any human that meets them. The oldest drowning victim is annihilated and the person just killed takes up the position at the end of the line. It’s that repeating pattern…that loop construction that is actually the invisible Youkai known as the Shichinin Misaki. The drowning victims you see are like its clothes or accessories. That is not the same as being one of them.”
The Shichinin Misaki may have been about the most deadly Youkai there is, but it was not good or evil itself. If anyone was to blame, it was the person who had led the Shichinin Misaki here to meet Yonesaki Hiro.
Yonesaki Hiro was not seeking his own death, but the end result was not much different.
He wanted to go somewhere else.
He wanted to become someone else.
Anyone had those thoughts at some point or another, but to me it seemed they had been forcibly twisted to make the boy wish to die as an escape.
“But I was told I would be turned into a Youkai,” repeated Yonesaki Hiro obstinately. “I was told the Shichinin Misaki coming to me was a special one that would turn anyone into a Youkai if they want it. It can ignore the limit of seven. No one has to disappear. Everyone can become one of them and be a Youkai.”
Become a Youkai.
Become the same sort of being as the Umbrella and Lantern.
That way he could avoid the inevitable goodbye with his close friends.
If that was what Yonesaki Hiro wished for, would that infinite Shichinin Misaki really appear so wonderful? But if it was true, wouldn’t this special Shichinin Misaki transform into some horrific existence as the endless pile of drowning victims piled higher and higher?
Becoming a portion of the Shichinin Misaki may indeed mean becoming something other than a normal human.
But would that really be an existence equal to the Umbrella and Lantern?
A fish that could freely swim through the ocean and fish meat made by smashing up the flesh and bones seemed like different things to me.
It seemed unfair for the person behind this Package to demand the boy make his decision without having any of the trickier issues explained to him.
“Listen. Look at me. Come to think of it, I never asked you one thing. You keep saying you will become a Youkai, but why do you want to become one?”
“This silence isn’t because you refuse to answer. You’re embarrassed. I understand.”
“How can you-…!?”
“How can I understand?”
I gave a scornful laugh.
Oh, dammit. Understanding this is easy. It embarrasses me too!!
“When writing about their dreams for the future, children in Intellectual Villages will occasionally say they want to become a Youkai. …In my case, I started writing it in elementary school. Everyone in my class laughed at me. For some reason, it was turned into a wall scroll and it decorates the wall of the Japanese-style living room in my thatch-roof house to this day. The Zashiki Warashi teases me about it twice a year or so.”
“That is why I said I understand. I was the same. I originally thought it was a natural thing to wish for. I didn’t understand why my class laughed at me. But I eventually realized why. Humans cannot become Youkai. That is not the path for us.”
But Yonesaki Hiro had not given up there. Even if he found it embarrassing to tell people he wanted to become a Youkai, he had remained silent and continued to wish for it in his heart. But it had slipped out occasionally. And some idiot had picked up on it and lured the boy here.
“Our differences in lifespan can’t be helped. It isn’t a problem we can solve. Rhinoceros beetles die sooner than we do. That’s sad. But what would happen if we forced a rhinoceros beetle to live for 100 years? I have no idea how a rhinoceros beetle would feel about it, but I would guess it would be painful. The construction of its body would have become something that can no longer be called a rhinoceros beetle.”
Compared to the time when it was said humans lived for 50 years, our lifespans had expanded quite a bit. But it was still impossible to match a Youkai.
Humans could not become Youkai.
No matter how close we lived with them, we were still different.
Yonesaki Hiro asked a short question. It was a question of denial.
Did this prove he was still trapped by the criminal’s trick?
Or did it mean his original wish had simply been that great?
“Why did you give up? What made you say you can’t become a Youkai?”
“Because I don’t need to be one,” I said immediately and decisively. “For the sake of argument, say there is a child with a serious illness. A tactless doctor announces that he has only a few months left to live. Is it wrong for this child to want to make new friends?”
“Of course not. The length of people’s lives does not bind them. Even if you have only a week to live or if you only have a day to live, it is best to live your life to the fullest up to the very last moment. Am I wrong?” I then started from the opposite angle. “Just because Youkai live so much longer than a human who lives for only 100 years, the human does not need to feel inferior. If a Youkai said it did not want to be friends with a human because he only lives for 100 years, that is just that one Youkai’s issue. Would you really want to be friends with someone like that? …The Umbrella and Lantern who have always been with you are not that rude, are they?”
Yonesaki Hiro gave a large shake of his head.
And so I continued on to my conclusion.
“Then there is nothing to worry about .You just have to live your 100 years of life to their fullest. There is no need for you to throw away the life you have to have a Shichinin Misaki turn you into a Youkai. Right?”
“Is that…really true?”
“If you’re worried, don’t keep it to yourself. You can discuss it with the Umbrella and Lantern. As long as you aren’t speaking with a horrible contrarian of a Zashiki Warashi, they will give you a proper answer.”
Despite the pouring rain, they had been searching the near-overflowing flood control reservoir for the boy.
Once they learned he planned to become one of the drowning victims, they might seriously scold him. But I felt it was not my job to scold the boy. That was the job of those who had always been by Yonesaki Hiro’s side.
In that case…
“You do not need the help of the Shichinin Misaki. Okay?”
“Then just wait here. I’ll go call the Umbrella and Lantern.”
I felt a horrible feeling run down my spine.
Now that he had given up on his plan, if Yonesaki Hiro simply headed home and was reunited with the Umbrella Obake and the Lantern Obake…he would not receive a happy ending.
A human who met a Shichinin Misaki would die.
They were not frightening because of their razor sharp claws or fangs. They were not frightening because they were covered in powerful muscles.
If you merely met them, you would die.
It did not even need to touch you.
Yonesaki Hiro had said he met that sort of deadly Youkai. If that was the case, he was no exception. Yonesaki Hiro would die. I did not know if it would be three days later, a month later, or what, but he would certainly die now that he had met it. That was simply the type of Youkai it was.
However, there was a single small piece of fortune.
That Shichinin Misaki seemed to be part of a Package created by a third party.
It seemed the limit of only seven drowning victims at a time had been removed so the drowning victims could be added on infinitely.
I had no idea what number Yonesaki Hiro had been set as.
But if he was not in the normal count of seven, it was possible the count could be returned to zero if the core of the modified Shichinin Misaki was destroyed and it returned to its normal state.
In other words…
It was possible Yonesaki Hiro’s death could be cancelled.
To properly return Yonesaki Hiro to live on in the world he had come from, something had to be done about the Shichinin Misaki at the base of it all.
But on the other hand…
Taking action to save Yonesaki Hiro would mean directly facing that Shichinin Misaki with that horrible characteristic.
If I met it, I would die.
Even if it never touched me, it would kill me.
Luckily, I had not yet encountered the Shichinin Misaki. If the Package was only targeting Yonesaki Hiro, I might be able to avoid ever encountering it. But to save Yonesaki Hiro from the Package, the risk of spotting the Shichinin Misaki rose. Knowing that, was it really best for me to continue on through the mud? I would be lying if I said that worry never crossed my mind.
I was not a card battling Onmyouji living in the modern age nor was I an exorcist who wielded spiritual power.
I was a mere high school student.
If I was to appear in this sort of story, I was only suited to play the victim.
If I didn’t want to die, I needed to flee right that instant. The Shichinin Misaki problem was focused on Yonesaki Hiro, so I would be safe if I kept away from the boy. I could wait for the problem to go away.
“What is it?”
“Nothing,” I said as I shook my head.
Surviving like that was taking the easy way out. But someone’s life was on the line. If I took the easy way out, I felt I would be bound by that decision for the rest of my life.
It’s a bit embarrassing for me to admit, but if I could have easily made that decision, I would not have rushed out into the rain to search the flood control reservoir in the first place.
“Listen. You need to stay here. I’ll bring the Umbrella and Lantern here. We’ll deal with the Shichinin Misaki, so you stay here. Understand?”
Something had released the limit of seven people.
Something was not allowing it to count to seven.
I already had a decent guess as to what that was. There had been a strange small shabby hut set up in the old unused paddy field. A six-shot revolver toy had been kept inside. Its framework was built around the number six, so naturally it could never count to seven. Just as the six-shot cylinder would spin every time the trigger was pulled, the Shichinin Misaki would forever continue gathering drowning victims in vain.
When I thought back, I remembered that Yonesaki Hiro had first spoken to me the instant I touched the toy handgun.
Yonesaki Hiro may have been there all along, but I had not noticed him until I touched a portion of the Package. Was it possible the “change” in Yonesaki Hiro had simply advanced that far?
The fact that the revolver was enshrined in the small shabby hut held meaning.
If I tried to forcibly move it, someone who wanted to maintain the Package would likely try to stop me.
And they would likely do so by wielding the power of the Shichinin Misaki they controlled.
Once my death was decided, I would be able to move the danger away from Yonesaki Hiro who remained behind.
But that alone was not enough.
The Shichinin Misaki was an ocean Youkai. It made no sense for it to be in Noukotsu Village which was surrounded by forests and mountains. Some other trick would be needed to force it past all that. If I did not destroy that other trick, the Shichinin Misaki would remain in the village. It would wield its power and kill both Yonesaki Hiro and me.
“Hey, you said you met the Shichinin Misaki, right?”
“Did you see anything on the ground around it? Like a thermos or a plastic drink bottle. Some kind of sealed container filled with ocean water.”
“…I don’t know,” said Yonesaki Hiro slowly as if trying to remember. “But I stopped by our secret base before coming here.”
“In the flood control reservoir? That whole area was submerged once it began to rain.”
“Yes. There was a lot of stuff there because we all gather the things we find. I remember seeing a case that probably held fishing equipment and a cooler for putting fish in.”
If someone was trying to hide something or keep it from being messed with, the best method would be to place it at the bottom of that violent water. That water that had been made so muddy by the downpour. No one could see the bottom and entering the water would be suicide.
But that was likely where the Shichinin Misaki’s core lay.
If I could open the sealed container and pour out the ocean water contained within, the Shichinin Misaki would likely lose all its power. Even the most powerful shark in the ocean would be powerless when dragged up on land.
I had no time.
The “change” to Yonesaki Hiro was likely progressing at that very moment.
I had to change the Shichinin Misaki’s target before it crossed a certain line.
The small hut contained a silver revolver toy.
The moment I grabbed it, I would begin a deadly game of tag with a Youkai that would kill me if I so much as met it.
I had passed out on the way here, but I figured I was at most 200 to 300 meters away from the flood control reservoir the Umbrella and Lantern were at. Any more and I would have drowned.
The old unused paddy field was surrounded by wooden planks, but a careful observation showed that one of the planks was broken. I could leave through there.
The conditions I needed were all set.
The cards were still stacked too far against me to call it a fair fight, but nothing would be resolved if I did not break free of this.
Are you ready?
I grabbed the toy revolver in the Stevenson screen-like hut. I then began running as quickly as I could. However, the dirt of the old unused paddy field had soaked up a lot of water. I could not run like normal. Nevertheless, I somehow made it to the opening in the wooden planks surrounding the area.
In the next instant, I felt something cold run down my spine. It felt more like static than a chill. The signals running through my nerves had clearly grown buggy. I could feel the core of my body growing limp. Despite the darkness, I was blinded as if by a bright light. My breathing grew erratic. I was sweating profusely.
“Is this…something like…a fever…!?”
It was hard enough to run already!!
In this state, I could see how someone could drown even in a puddle. I practically fell out of the old paddy field and through the broken plank. I approached the mountain slope as I ran along an unpaved farm road. Or rather, I tried to run. It was only a distance of 200 to 300 meters, yet I seemed unable to reach my destination. If I was truly running, I would have passed my destination long ago.
All I could manage was walking while staggering.
I decided that was better than collapsing and being forced to crawl.
The pain in my throat was the worst of all. Was that because this was a deadly Youkai that created drowning victims? I did not have the courage to look behind me. I did not know what form this Shichinin Misaki modified by the Package would have, but I knew I would be overwhelmed if I looked straight at it.
Of course, whether I turned to face it or not made little difference. I had still met it, so I would die either way.
But I could not bear any more fear.
And where was I? How far had I gotten? I had lost track of the direction. Even my sense of up and down grew uncertain. My consciousness was so hazy that both my thoughts and my emotions had grown dull. I sincerely hoped I was not simply running in circles.
And then I spotted a sign.
It was a single light visible in the darkness.
It was the light of the Lantern Obake who was still flying around the flood control reservoir.
“Wh-what happened!? I heard you were sucked into a water pipe!!”
The Lantern made much more of a fuss than necessary when I finally returned to the edge of the reservoir.
But I did not have time to answer her questions.
I had to search the bottom of that unbelievably large reservoir and find the cooler filled with ocean water.
“Gyaaah!! Wh-what are you doing!? Are you trying to kill yourself!?”
Strength left my body and I more or less collapsed forward into the reservoir.
But I was in no state to search for something.
The water was about a meter deep. Logically thinking, it was shallow enough to stand in. But the current was so strong that my feet were swept out from under me and my head was forcibly dragged underwater. I could barely keep my head above water, much less move around the flood control reservoir searching for something.
“Hey! What are you doing!?”
I heard an odd voice and then saw something long and narrow stick into the water in front of me.
It was the Umbrella Obake.
“Grab on. I can act as a float!!”
“Th-thank-…bgh!? Wait a second. Why are you sinking!?”
“Don’t ask m-…mghmghgh.”
This Youkai is useless through and through!!
As I half-floated and half-sank in the muddy water, my body was swept in a single direction. I looked over and panicked. I was headed straight for the tunnel I had been sucked into before.
If I was sucked into it again, I would lose any chance of turning this around.
I would either run out of strength in the old unused paddy field after leaving the tunnel or I would drown in the tunnel.
I knew that, but I could think of nothing I could do to stop it.
There was nothing I could do to resist and both Yonesaki Hiro and I would be swallowed up by that deadly Youkai.
I felt something hard against my leg.
When I thought about it, it made sense. The water was all flowing in that one direction, so all of the trash in the flood control reservoir would gather there.
And that included the cooler I was looking for.
“Lantern!! Cough, light up this area!!”
“Just do it!!”
I gave up fighting the current and let go of the Umbrella I was using as a float. I then held my breath and dived underwater. I heard a splashing noise, but that was it. I could not count on seeing through the water when it was so muddy on such a dark night.
Even so, I managed to find a hard object by touch, grabbed it with both hands, and lifted it above the water.
The first object I found was a plastic bucket.
The second was a broken vacuum cleaner.
The third was the cooler box in question.
I could feel something deep in my head distorting. The Shichinin Misaki’s attack may have grown stronger. But it was too late. I released the latch and forcibly opened the lid.
I then dumped the contents into the muddy water.
Nothing but a clear liquid that smelled of the beach poured out.
But that resolved it.
And as proof…
I looked around once more. I was now calm enough to simply look around. My mind had grown clear. The fever-like symptoms had disappeared.
I finally noticed the Youkai approaching me from behind. The Shichinin Misaki. That deadly Youkai always made up of seven drowning victims. I saw a woman in a swimsuit, a woman in a suit with a tight skirt, a girl in a dress, and others. All of their arms were within a meter of reaching me.
But that was as far as they made it.
Countless fingers were pointed towards me like blades, but they stopped moving and approached no further.
It was as if something was interfering with their ability to act.
“You’re just like a fish that’s been dragged up on land,” I spat out.
I received no response. Perhaps the Youkai could not respond.
“A Youkai can’t be killed by normal means, but what about now? Will you be crushed by the environment and annihilated or will you be stuck here unable to die and experiencing never-ending torture?”
I distinctly felt something like fear running through that deadly group.
“On that note…”
I pulled a keychain out of my pants pocket.
My family’s Zashiki Warashi bought so much pointless crap online that she had earned enough points to be sent this useless present.
The keychain was decorated with a clear sphere about the size of a ping pong ball. And it was filled with ocean water.
“I’ll give you a place to hide for now. I just need to stuff this in a sleeping bag so no one ‘meets’ you and then carry it to the ocean. But that is only if Yonesaki Hiro and I remain safe. Do you understand?”
I may have looked cool bringing all that to a conclusion, but the massive flow of water created by the flood control reservoir was still sucking me towards the water pipe. In the end, I was swept into it once more. (The Umbrella managed to spread his upper portion to catch on the edge before being swept in.) Once I arrived in the old unused paddy field again, I had to return to the reservoir with Yonesaki Hiro.
The Umbrella and Lantern charged full speed through the darkness the instant they spotted the boy.
“O-ohh!! Master, where have you been all this time!?”
“Are you unharmed!? That is wonderful!!”
I could not hear the details of their conversation from where I was, but I figured things would be fine from what I did hear. In fact, there had been nothing to worry about in the first place.
This had all been caused by someone agitating the boy’s concerns to cause a negative growth.
I turned toward a voice behind me and found the glamorous Zashiki Warashi holding an umbrella. I assumed she was going to let me join her beneath it, but she frowned and took a step back when I approached.
“…Stay away from me. You smell horrible.”
“Then why are you even here?”
But given how muddy I was, there was no point in worrying about the rain.
“By the way, remember that Youkai artist…Houjou was it? Do you know where he went?”
I hadn’t expected her to.
When I thought back, I realized the person who had showed an interest in the toy handgun in the sweets shop and the person carrying a cooler and a fishing equipment case for his art supplies had been him.
However, I had a feeling I would not find any sign of that Houjou even if I searched all over the Intellectual Village.
Why had he used that Shichinin Misaki Package? Why had he set Yonesaki Hiro as his target? Those two issues were left a complete mystery.
I’m not a professional detective like my uncle, so I know I can’t have every loose end tied up. But still…
“Sigh. Let’s head home.”
“Yes. By the way Shinobu, I was listening to what that boy and his Youkai have been saying.”
“A-and what exactly were they talking about, indoor Youkai?”
“Something that makes me want to go laugh at that wall scroll in the Japanese-style living room again.”
I could feel my mind going blank. The Shichinin Misaki contained in the keychain was nothing. My true natural enemy was definitely that glamorous Zashiki Warashi!!
“The length of one’s life doesn’t matter, hm?” muttered the Zashiki Warashi with a thin smile as I trembled. “Well, I suppose that ‘answer’ does sound nice.”
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