The Zashiki Warashi of Intellectual Village:Volume3 Epilogue
I quietly opened my eyes on the tour bus.
Sweat covered my body and I was breathing heavily.
Unlike my other classmates who were restless due to the great event of the school trip, I was clearly exhausted.
I wanted someone to tell me it was only natural for me to be this tired.
In the end, we had reattempted the loop more times than I could remember.
I had not made it to the final time limit every single time. Once, I had been strangled to death by a middle-aged man wearing an orange prison uniform. Once, Madoka had crushed my head with a giant rock because she had reached her psychological limit.
If at least one person made it to the final time limit, it seemed we managed to retain our memories during the next attempt. …That meant there had to have been times when no one made it and we simply did not remember them.
Even so, we had solved it.
We had found the 100 puzzles and 100 answers scattered around the Four Mountains region. That included Zenmetsu Village and the semiconductor factory…no, the corporate prison.
Madoka was looking worriedly toward me from the neighboring seat. Just like my uncle, Hishigami Mai, and the others, Madoka had to have attempted the puzzle-solving just as many times as I had.
I did not have the mental leeway to smile and say something in response.
None of it was over yet.
Once we found the 100 puzzles and answered them all, I had been returned to the tour bus. We were just about to enter the tunnel leading to Four Mountains.
For an instant, I wondered if we were mistaken about solving every question and we had actually missed something. But that could not be.
We had solved them all.
We had ended it.
In that case, the real fight began here. The true essence of the Hyakumonogatari was not telling the countless ghost stories. It was after they had been told and after every single one of the lantern’s 100 wicks or the 100 candles had been blown out.
I began to urge Madoka to be on her guard.
But I was too late.
Before I could, the tour bus was swallowed up by the great monstrous mouth of the tunnel.
The atmosphere of the bus completely changed.
Every single time we had repeated the process before, a change had occurred the instant we left the tunnel. This was different. The change had already made its way inside the bus as if we had switched over to a different set of rails. Everyone but me had disappeared from the bus. My classmates were gone, my homeroom teacher was gone, the bus guide was gone, the driver was gone, and even Madoka was gone.
I could see the change thanks to the tunnel’s illumination.
However, that light itself was odd.
The tunnel had never had illumination before. It had been completely dark. That was why I had been filled with so much fear and confusion when sent from the bus to the Four Mountains forest.
The tunnel was filled with a pale blue light as if it was an aquarium. That light eerily lit the inside of the bus.
And in that vehicle my classmates, my teacher, the bus guide, and the driver had disappeared from, another figure had appeared.
It was as if a switch had been thrown.
It was as if this new figure had swapped out with those who had disappeared.
A narrow, narrow aisle existed down the center of the bus between the seats. The figure was in the center of that. In that very center point of the bus, a woman stood as if she were the lead in a play.
She wore a white kimono.
Her hair was long and black.
Her skin was so thin it looked transparent. That skin looked pale and blue, but that may have just been due to the tunnel’s lighting.
The most noticeable characteristic was on her forehead.
From its very center stuck out something that looked more like a thin, sharp blade than a horn.
She was the Aoandon.
She was the blue female oni that was a unification of all the strange phenomena said to appear after the Hyakumonogatari.
“This is the birth canal.” The female oni spoke with a gentle smile within that blue tunnel. “Normally, I would have waited a bit longer, but you are special. I thought it would be best for you to face me before the rest of the world.”
I slowly stood up from my seat.
I was just a high school student. I was not a card battling onmyouji or an exorcist who could wield spiritual power. I was not the sort of person who should be standing face to face with a monster like this Aoandon.
But it had been my ability that had gotten me this far.
That may have meant I had the qualifications to stand on this final stage. But even so, I could not help but feel it was too convenient.
“There were other puzzle-solvers in Zenmetsu Village…no, in the entire Four Mountains area. There was my uncle and Hishigami Mai. Why not them? I thought we would all be gathered together at the end.”
“No, no.” The Aoandon’s attitude did not change. “What matters in the Hyakumonogatari is building up the ghost stories. The storytellers’ accomplishments, abilities, and histories are of no relevance. That is why what makes you special is not a specific quality. It is nothing more than the fact that you happened to answer the 100th and final puzzle.”
It could have been anyone.
I had just happened to be the one.
If the situation had been slightly different, the one standing here could have been Madoka or that canine Youkai known as a Sunekosuri.
That was all.
The Aoandon. To that blue female oni who had built up her appearance in the real world on a foundation of fear and tragedy, the participants and people concerned were worth no more than that.
I narrowed my eyes in that blue tunnel that seemed to continue forever without ending.
“…What are you going to do now?”
“A good question.”
“You are not the same as other deadly Youkai. In fact, you are an oddity even among Aoandon. You are an artificially created Youkai specially tuned up to complete the objective of that old woman who wielded Kusanagi. But now that you are smiling here in front of me, I doubt you are nothing more than that old woman’s tool. After all…”
“It doesn’t really matter,” replied the Aoandon, cutting me off.
This was not because she had a definite answer. She simply refused to give it any real thought.
“My structure was put together by that old woman and I was actually built by you and the others, but I have no obligation to do what any of you tell me. I may feel a debt of gratitude, but it is not enough to actually give anything back in return.”
The Aoandon’s long hair shook.
“But I am excited. That much is true. Yes, I am very excited. I cannot wait to see the wide, wide world beyond this blue birth canal.”
“That isn’t an answer.”
“Even though I’m being honest?”
“What do you want to do in that wide world? I doubt you just want to go sightseeing.”
“Well, I am a deadly Youkai. I am a deadly Youkai that appears before the fools that take supernatural phenomena such as spirits and Youkai too lightly. In other words, I am a symbol of punishment for those who take forbidden actions. If you call me a Youkai that automatically detects the criminals across Japan, it sounds quite heroic and fun, right?”
“You are not something that convenient.”
“You shouldn’t make assumptions. Treating me like that just because I am a deadly Youkai is discrimination.”
“…I went through so much tragedy again and again. If you really were a Youkai that cares about humans, you would regret what led to your creation. But I don’t see even a hint of that in you.”
She was not a Youkai that would systematically bring death regardless of good or evil.
She was not a Youkai one could exist with if one was careful about the conditions.
I’m not entirely sure how to explain it, but there was something fundamentally different between her and the Zashiki Warashi or Yuki Onna. There were some Youkai who would bring illness or death to anyone who simply “met” them, but the fear she gave me was different even from that.
If I had to give a word to it, it was an issue of self-assertion.
The Yuki Onna and Nekomata back home had the ability to bring death to people, but their individual personalities were distinct from that.
However, I could not sense that sort of distinction in this Aoandon. It was as if her ability to bring death was casually lined up right alongside the beauty of her hair or the great size of her breasts. If she were introducing herself or showing of a hidden skill to calm down a crowd, someone would end up dead. I felt a different sort of fear than with a great demon king who acted on simple and obvious ambition.
“That’s true,” said the Aoandon with a laugh. Her shoulders shook and she covered her exposed teeth with the fan in her hand. “I am the generalized form of the supernatural phenomena that appear at the end of the Hyakumonogatari. The target does not matter. The human ideas of good or evil do not matter. Even if the 50th story was told by some country’s president, I will attack whatever completely ordinary person told the 100th. But,” continued the Aoandon with a word of denial, “what does that matter? That’s how it works with deadly Youkai. From the looks of you, I would say you are used to being around Youkai. The death we bring is no different from an accident involving falling rocks. No one is at fault. That is the system society currently uses.”
“I may have created this confrontation, but it is actually meaningless. After all, you should already know that this is how Youkai are and that you can coexist with them regardless. You have no real reason to stop me from being released here.”
That may have been true.
It may have been true that I came in contact with Youkai like it was normal in my Intellectual Village.
She had the ability to bring death. I was not about to say that was enough to punish Youkai or that we needed to slaughter every deadly Youkai. If I was going to say that, I would also need to kill off every last dog that had enough power to kill a child and I would have to chop off everyone’s arms as they could be used to strangle someone.
This was the same.
She had the power to bring death. That alone could not be judged.
“I have a simple reason not to let you go.”
“I’m not interested in the law. I have no interest in the Aoandon species as a whole. I only care about this specific incident.”
“It seems you are the Aoandon created from the Hyakumonogatari put together in Four Mountains. But could you really not do anything until it was completed? Not a single thing? It’s possible you really were too weak to do anything, but even then, surely there was a better way to end this. And if you sat idly by while Yokoeda, Hasebe, and the Kusanagi woman suffered and died in Four Mountains… If you did that just so the Hyakumonogatari would be completed…”
“Hm. It would be easy enough to give a yes or no answer, but I doubt you would believe me.”
“Then you should have killed off the puzzle-solvers once they were no longer needed. You shouldn’t have been kind enough to give me a chance to fight back.”
“Ha ha.” The Aoandon laughed while showing the teeth that had been hidden behind her fan. “What you are saying is completely scattered and sometimes contradictory. Is this inability to focus on your own abilities what it is to be human? Now I’m even more intrigued about the outside world.”
“You understand that you have made me your enemy, right?”
“So what if I have? I am the symbol of the Hyakumonogatari. You could say I have almost any supernatural phenomena that are harmful to humans. Mysterious fevers, blindness, food poisoning, suspicious fires at the participants’ houses, and even natural disasters that cover entire regions. How is a normal high school boy who cannot even use a single homa altar or Shikigami supposed to stand up me?”
In that moment, a new light appeared.
It was the tunnel’s exit. We were approaching the exit of what the Aoandon called the birth canal. Once the bus exited the tunnel, the previously unstable existence of the Aoandon would be released into the world at large.
Most likely, the Aoandon was completely right that I could not overcome that pale blue female oni by force. If the fear of the Hyakumonogatari was only on a level where you would be fine if you had a Buddhist monk on hand, that pain-in-the-ass ritual would never have spread so far. That Aoandon had enough power to draw a clear line between herself and a normal deadly Youkai.
I was a participant in this Hyakumonogatari.
And that meant I could do something that an unrelated professional could not!
“Question 101: Who was truly controlling the Toubyou?”
“What?” asked the Aoandon in confusion.
I continued regardless.
“Answer 101: The Aoandon. She could not influence the real world until the Hyakumonogatari was complete, but she wanted to guide the Hyakumonogatari to completion. She used the Toubyou to make those preparations.”
“What are you-…?”
“Question 102: What is the occult meaning of the blue light filling the tunnel? Answer 102: The original tradition for the Hyakumonogatari was to illuminate the room with a lantern covered in blue Japanese paper. It is modeled after that. Question 103: Why did the Aoandon appear as a pale blue female oni wearing a white kimono? Answer 103: When an Edo period Youkai artist created a visual representation of the supernatural phenomena, he used that form and that form has spread ever since. Originally, the Aoandon was likely a vague collection of supernatural phenomena.”
“What are you mumbling…? No, wait. There is meaning in the Hyakumonogatari having 100 stories rather than 98 or 99. So if more than that are given, does it introduce some kind of bug…!?”
“And unfortunately for you, we’re still in the birth canal. You may have collected the 100 ghost stories, but you have yet to fully appear. The Hyakumonogatari is only complete once the Aoandon appears in the real world, so that stage is still active!! And as a participant in this Hyakumonogatari, any story I finish should be counted toward the total number!!”
A sound rang out as if something had attached to the bus window that was filled with blue light.
It was a single sutra-like piece of text written in sloppy writing.
Each time I gave a question and answer, words of pure white light that did not suit that blue world would fill the window.
“There was meaning in having exactly 100 rather than 98 or 99. Then what about 110? Or how about 120? As the number leaves that perfect framework, the golden ratio holding your body together will crumble. Once we leave the tunnel, will you be able to maintain that form? If a fatal error occurs, you will be unable to exist from the instant you are born!!”
The Aoandon said nothing more.
All calm had left her face. She was now merely expressionless. Bluish-white phosphorescence appeared at the end of the horn on her forehead. The Aoandon was a female oni who was not originally meant to have any form. It was as if she were strengthening her supernatural power as a Youkai by taking on this symbolism in accordance with her name.
By the time that thought came to mind, she had already vanished from before my eyes.
She had been directly before me just a moment before, but now there was only an overwhelming blast of wind as something horrific approached.
Was she trying to stop the error in the number of stories from growing? Would killing me cause another reset because we were still inside the Hyakumonogatari? Was she merely taking out her anger on me? Or was this simply the type of being she was?
However, the Aoandon’s sharp claws and fangs did not reach my throat.
A white light filled the entire area.
The tour bus had left the tunnel.
I was standing alone in the narrow aisle. The Aoandon was gone. My classmates filled the many seats and the bus guide and driver were back as well. The nervous female homeroom teacher in the front seat looked at me standing alone in the aisle and hesitantly spoke up.
“U-um, Jinnai-kun? I know you are excited, but that is dangerous. Please return to your seat. And stop pointing forward in such a decisive and youth-filled pose.”
A bit of laughter filled the bus.
I blushed and returned to my seat next to Madoka.
“Don’t say it. My heart is even more brittle than crystal, so poking at it any more will make it shatter…”
“What happened with the final boss? From the look of things, I take it I was left out.”
My shoulders finally relaxed as I leaned back in my seat.
“I somehow managed to end it. The Hyakumonogatari ceremony itself is a part of the Aoandon, but I managed to cause a bug that made her destroy herself. I caused a fatal error.”
Madoka must not have entirely understood because her face was still cloudy.
She placed a hand on her small chin and thought for a while.
Finally, she seemed to have made up her mind.
“What is it?”
“This question may be a bit abrupt, but…”
“Just ask it.”
“One hundred puzzles scattered around Zenmetsu Village and the Four Mountains area were solved. But were we really the ones solving them?”
“One of the members of the group we assumed were the puzzle-solvers was the Sunekosuri. If a Youkai like him would count, isn’t there another possibility? Remember what made up the stage we stood on.”
That place had been created by thousands, millions, or even billions of snake Youkai known as Toubyou.
And they had taken action to complete the Hyakumonogatari.
“What if our ideas of who was asking the questions and who was answering them were backwards?”
In all likelihood, Madoka herself did not want to believe it.
She may have been speaking her concern in the hope that I would deny it.
“What if we were not answering the puzzles hidden in Four Mountains? What if we were brought there to create the questions and the snakes making up the Four Mountains area were automatically solving them? What if we were brought back to the beginning every time we did not create exactly 100 questions or the snakes were unable to answer all of them?”
But just as I began to argue against the idea, I realized something.
Had my counterattack truly defeated the Aoandon? Hadn’t that Youkai said she had only called me into that blue birth canal on a whim?
She had pretended to be defeated.
Had she played along as thanks for preparing the 100 questions? Or had it been an act to ensure the much more dangerous Hishigami Mai would let her guard down and allow the Aoandon to escape?
At any rate, what weighed on my mind was…
“Was she truly defeated?” I muttered blankly.
No one could answer that, so I could only ask another question.
“Did I even have the qualifications needed to defeat her?”
The fog had cleared up nicely.
I stood on the shoulder of the giant cross-shaped junction and watched the tour bus carrying Jinnai Shinobu and Kotemitsu Moadoka leave.
To be honest, Jinnai Shinobu-kun had done quite well. It had not counted since he was not one of the snakes sitting in a circle and discussing everything who were the true answerers. However, I would have been defeated had that counted.
Had that old woman who had made the preparations for me realized I existed yet? She may have prepared some nasty system to make use of me as a Shikigami.
But she was too naïve.
It would not be that convenient.
The conclusion of the Hyakumonogatari had to be uncontrollable even for the one who had prepared it all.
It looked like the tour bus would safely make its way through Four Mountains.
But even so, Uchimaku Hayabusa and Hishigami Enbi would track down the truth of Hasebe Michio, and Hishigami Mai and the Sunekosuri would destroy the corporate prison. The old woman who would possibly try to forcibly control me might be taken out in the process. Then there would be no problem.
“What should I do now?”
I looked around the area.
The highway continued north, south, east, and west from the junction. It connected to the entire country of Japan. I could go anywhere and do anything.
Still standing on the shoulder of the highway, I held out my thumb to try to hitchhike.
A tanker truck passed by and a small family car honked as if threatening me. I gained nothing more than exhaust-filled wind in the face.
The world was a cold place.
Youkai were sturdy creatures, so I considered tackling the next vehicle head on. However, that was when a mid-sized truck turned on its blinker. It passed by and pulled over a short distance away.
I walked over to it and a middle-aged man stepped out of the driver’s seat.
“What is it, miss? Playing on the highway is dangerous.”
“What? …From that horn, I take it you’re a Youkai.”
“I was left behind, so give me a ride.”
“Hmm,” groaned the man.
Killing him and stealing the truck sounds fun, but I don’t have a license. No ho ho.
As I thought that, the man finally made up his mind.
What a disappointment.
“Sure. Now, miss, where do you need to go?”
I looked around from where I stood at the center of the junction.
The roads continued on to anywhere I wanted to go. They spread out in every direction.
I thought for a bit.
And I gave nothing more than a casual response.
“Just that way a bit.”
Now, it was time to begin wandering.
As the gatherer of so many ghost stories, it was time to begin spreading new fear.
- ↑ Aoandon means “blue lantern”.
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