The Zashiki Warashi of Intellectual Village:Volume4 Chapter 1
- 1 Chapter 1: Zashiki Warashi Yukari / The Past is a Present that Once Was
Chapter 1: Zashiki Warashi Yukari / The Past is a Present that Once Was
March 24, 5:00 AM.
I was napping and not sure if I was experiencing a dream or reality.
My mind had fallen to an odd level not quite awake and not quite asleep. In that state, I suddenly felt a sensation seeping out from my chest. It was as if some kind of barrier had grown weak.
Something was clearly wrong.
From the top of my head to the end of my butt, I felt something like thin, thin wires passing through the center of my body.
They were not sturdy or strong. In fact, they felt like they would break like dry pasta if I twisted my body even slightly. Nevertheless, I felt a vague chill of unease as if letting those sharp fragments spread through my body would be a fatal mistake.
At that time, it came clearly to my mind.
Ahh. I’m definitely not a normal Zashiki Warashi.
National Registry ID #36110054Ra2.
XXXXX Prototype Ver. 39 XXX.
Traditional Species Designator: Zashiki Warashi.
Personal Name within the Jinnai Family: Yukari.
There were a lot of terms that could refer to me, but not even I knew which one truly indicated “me”. Even if there was a “me” I wanted to be, the truth of the world would not necessarily take my side so conveniently.
As I thought on my vague definition of myself, the sense that something was wrong travelled down my back.
The thin wire-like sensation seemed to say it was the only thing on which I could rely to identify who I really was.
Even sighing seemed like too much trouble, so I closed my eyes once more within the thick futon blanket.
This was a thought pattern that only existed in this vague level of consciousness.
It was a fluctuation.
Once I clearly woke or clearly fell asleep, this unease would vanish. And I hated putting in any kind of effort, so going back to sleep was always the way to go.
Or so I thought.
Another action interfered with my meager plan.
Something began rustling around next to me in the futon.
I heard a small child’s voice and a boy’s head popped out from under the blanket.
He was about six and had short, black hair.
His face was as red as a boiled octopus as he spoke.
“It’s hot and hard to breath.”
“That’s what you get for pulling such a thick blanket over your head.”
He was well-known for tossing and turning in his sleep, so his pillow had been thrown to the other end of the bedroom. And it was not the work of a Makura-Gaeshi.
If he had woken up, going back to sleep would be difficult.
I rolled over to check the digital clock and found ten minutes had passed since I had last checked.
The rectangular clock was not my taste.
In fact, the futon itself was not mine.
Sneaking into the family’s futons at night is a trait of the Zashiki Warashi, isn’t it?
I rubbed my eyes, gave a quick yawn, and spoke to the actual owner of the futon.
“Good morning, Shinobu. I’d like to change, so could you scoot back just a bit?”
“Bust: 98 cm. Waist: 54 cm. Hip: 85 cm. Isn’t it a bit of a curveball to call this a Zashiki ‘Warashi’? In fact, it’s downright cheating.”
I was inside a large thatch-roof house.
When I lazily made my way to the altar room, I found Shinobu’s mother waiting for me. As Youkai did not have lifespans, it could be hard to judge our ages once we passed our growth period, but it was true I would likely be categorized as a “young wife” using their standards.
Also, there was only one thing I could say to the words thrown at me the instant I opened the door.
“I’m not sure what you want me to do about it.”
“I suppose you’re right.”
“And another thing. The Zashiki Warashi species also contains young samurai and one-legged monks. It doesn’t have to be a small child wearing a kimono.”
“Sure, sure. Now, how’s Shinobu doing?”
“He insisted he could change on his own, so I’m betting he has his head stuck in the neck hole while he flails around like a giant stuffed amoeba.”
“Did he wet the bed?”
“If he had, I would look a lot more upset right now.”
“It’s my mother-in-law who would be upset since she uses you as a dress-up doll. There aren’t many people who wear kimonos.”
“Then why don’t you wear them?”
By the way, she was in the altar room in order to bring me my breakfast.
In the Jinnai house, the humans ate in the living room and the Youkai ate in the altar room. It was a fairly lax rule, so there was no restriction on switching location after the meal actually began.
After setting down the food and placing a bowl of rice in front of the Buddhist altar, Shinobu’s mother waved at me.
“Okay, enjoy yourself. And make sure you bring fortune and prosperity to our house like a Zashiki Warashi is supposed to☆”
After making sure she had left the room, I sat in a daze for a while. Rather than wanting to sleep but finding I couldn’t, I knew I had to wake up but found doing so was too much trouble.
I decided to switch on the flat-screen TV in a corner of the room and flipped randomly through the channels while I waited for my mind to awaken. Hunger really seemed to play a large role as a mental support.
“Here is the number one for today, March 24! If you’re an Aries, listen up! Your perfect match is a Virgo! And your lucky color is…”
“Here is today’s selected best seller. ‘The Nail that Sticks Out is Hammered Down ~How to Create a Society where only Idiots can Survive~’ This is the latest novel from the author of ‘The Idiots whose Names Deserve to Go Down in History’! It far outdoes its predecessor which was famous for readers having such extremely divided opinions of it that they got into actual fistfights.”
“Beauty! This will be the three-minute exercise for the morning. If you want to smile below the summer sun, you have to put in the effort now! This is the perfect exercise for you piglets who are afraid to look in the mirror.”
“ ‘People are Killed for Such Stupid Reasons ~Selfish Motives Straight from the Murderer’s Mouth~’ This week’s special drama is the ninth entry in the series of true stories that reveal the mysteries behind brutal crimes that will freeze your blood! Don’t miss it Friday night at nine!”
Just as I thought I would remember that my stomach was empty after another fifteen minutes, I heard a sound.
It sounded like dishes clinking together.
I quickly realized it did not just “sound like” that.
“Yukari, Yukari. You can’t eat alone.”
The six-year-old child carried a tray with unsteady hands that pushed the danger meter up to 130%. It seemed he had taken it all the way to the altar room.
“They said on TV that food tastes better when everyone’s together.”
“Shinobu, you’re kind of missing the point and you’re also spilling miso soup at a concerning rate.”
“Yukari! Don’t eat alone.”
I was forced to grab a rag and put in the manual labor to fix a disaster that would delight only a tatami mat craftsman.
He seemed to think I was on the verge of becoming a shut-in, but that was just how Zashiki Warashi were. It was just as pointless to urge a bat or mole to sunbathe.
At any rate, I left the TV on while eating breakfast with Shinobu whose misunderstanding remained.
“Grandma’s food is good, but it’s all so brown.”
“Well, she prefers Japanese food while your mother goes more for the Western food.”
“Grandma should just make omurice too. That would add a bunch of yellow and red! And if she added parsley, it’d have green too!!”
He pouted his lips as he complained, but it was interesting to note that he finished his vegetables more often when his grandmother made the food.
Making a six-year-old child eat his vegetables seemed like a good indicator of skill to me.
“I can eat bell peppers.”
“Oh, can you?”
“I can eat celery too.”
“Personally, I’d much rather not.”
I refused to eat celery on principle, so I turned down his persistent sales talk about adding mayonnaise. His small hands then made an odd movement.
He pulled out several metal skewers divided into different bright colors.
“Um…Shinobu? What are those?”
“You don’t know? Beauty!!”
I had a feeling I had heard that word on TV earlier and he stuck the colored skewers into his boiled eggplant and taro.
“You can go on a diet by stabbing these into the food before eating it!”
“Um, a diet?”
A six year old on a diet?
“This one’s for meat and this one’s for fish. You only get one or the other of those, though. This is for green vegetables, this is for red vegetables, and this is for yellow vegetables!!”
“Oh, I get it. It has a lot more skewers for vegetables, so if you use them evenly, you’ll naturally get the vegetables you need.”
“Beauty said it. Beauty said it on TV, so it has to be true!”
I then recalled that effeminate male TV personality whose hair was dyed a bright color.
He was known as a fashion leader and the one who started the latest diet boom, but for some reason no one actually wanted to be just like him. It seemed like an odd position to me.
“If you diet, you’ll get big and strong. Big and strong!”
“Shinobu, you have the entire concept wrong and I’m afraid you’ll get the skewer stuck in your throat, so stop sticking it in your mouth to eat from it. Bite the food off the side instead.”
So are these colorful skewers an official product?
I doubted there was a specialized shop in the rural area, so someone in the family had to have bought them off the internet. The biggest suspect was Shinobu’s mother. She had a bad habit of buying things on a whim and then only using them once. The porcelain bibimbap dish set and the home-made southern rice cracker set were two of the latest ones.
“Yukari, did you know that ikra is Russian for roe?”
“You sure are knowledgeable.”
“Although maybe your knowledge wouldn’t be so strange if we didn’t have all those cable channels.”
No major incidents would happen.
There were no real ups or downs.
The job of a Zashiki Warashi was to laze around a large rural house, so I only had to find a spot that wouldn’t get in the way of the vacuuming and lie on the tatami mats. I was in a carefree mood far removed from my past of being imprisoned and experimented on by the organization named Hyakki Yakou.
Or so I had hoped. Unfortunately, I heard a commotion out front.
As usual, it was Shinobu’s voice.
I circled around to the front entrance, put on my geta, and went outside. There, I found Shinobu having a small disagreement on the road in front of the house.
His opponent was…something. It was a giant three-eyed dog the size of a small truck and it was cutting across the road to block the way.
“I am a Nurikabe and I will not let you through.”
“Why!? Why won’t you!?”
“If you are going somewhere, you must have an adult with you. Go call someone.”
“You stupid Youkai. I bet you’re called a Roadblock or something!”
“I am a Nurikabe. I already explained that. Now go call for an adult.”
Shinobu grabbed the thick fur on the gigantic dog’s side and tugged, but it did not seem to bother the Nurikabe.
The Youkai was as harmless as it looked, but I had heard of them having a serious effect on the domestic economy when they appeared on a highway or railroad. Youkai like us wouldn’t be harmed by having a dump truck run into us or a tanker truck explode on us, so there was not much the humans could do.
However, I had thought a Nurikabe looked like a large hunk of konjac with short arms and legs.
Letting this continue forever would help nothing, so I decided to call out to Shinobu.
“Shinobu, what are you doing?”
“School! I’m gonna go to school!”
He swung his arms around to try to persuade me.
“I’m starting school in the spring, so I need to make sure I know the way!”
Meanwhile, the Nurikabe glanced over at me with its three eyes and slowly vanished as if dissolving into the air.
“Ah, the Roadblock went away! Okay, let’s go!!”
He looked like he was about to run off and not stop until he was on the moon or something, so I lightly grabbed onto the nape of his neck to stop him.
“Do you even know where your school is?”
“I’ll let you join my exploration party. You should be thankful.”
If I refused, he would probably get lost on his own and manage to escape the Solar System, so I had no choice but to go along.
It was the morning during late March.
The weather was in a bizarre state where the temperature would change quite a bit each day, but it was fairly warm on this day. It was also sunny and there were even butterflies flying around after waking up too early.
“The trees are wearing scarves.”
“Those are made of straw.”
“They must really not like the cold. It’s so warm today.”
I decided to keep it a secret that they were put up to allow bugs to nest in them and then burned to kill the bugs gathered inside.
Meanwhile, Shinobu was looking around in confusion.
“This is tricky,” he said while forcing a knowledgeable look. “Finding your way without landmarks is tricky.”
Spreading out before us was the stereotypical scenery of paddy fields one would see on a postcard for foreign tourists. The landscape contained water-filled paddies, thatch-roof houses, and narrow roads and waterways connecting it all together.
However, this was not just some old rural area.
On pillars set up at set intervals along the roads were solar panels that changed angle like sunflowers, the waterways contained small water wheels for power generation, and the paddies without water were being plowed by unmanned drone tractors. I’d also heard that the scarecrows contained sensors to precisely fire a spear-like sound wave at any animal movement using trumpet- or megaphone-shaped directional speakers.
To combat the cheap and plentiful imported vegetables, this special village created an ultra-high quality brand out of the limited domestic crops.
A new idea of the rural had been created to battle those other nations. It created a fusion of tradition and cutting-edge technology that used the words “safe” and “delicacy” as weapons to sell a bunch of grapes for 30,000 yen and a liter of the water in its rivers for 300 yen.
This was an Intellectual Village.
Japan had suffered a critical defeat in the precision machinery industry and these villages had been created during the great change of focus intended to help the economy recover.
That was the sort of village we lived in.
And at the same time…
“Look, Yukari. There’s an Umbrella Obake and a Lantern Obake.”
“Looks that way. But I think they’re in a hurry, so let’s leave them alone.”
Shinobu was pointing at a road beyond a paddy field. A paper umbrella and paper lantern both with a single comical eye were speaking loudly to each other while running(?).
“Hurry! Mrs. Yonesaki’s labor pains have already begun!!”
“Oh, dear. We need to hurry back to the house!!”
The perfectly recreated rural scenery had invited Youkai back to human civilization after they had hidden themselves during the rise of modernization. That umbrella and lantern were likely causing trouble at one of the village’s houses just like I was.
“Shinobu, I don’t think you need to search for landmarks on a straight road.”
“Y-you’re right! I’ll write on the map that this part is okay!”
He began writing a meaningless comment on a piece of drawing paper.
Once we arrived at a critical fork in the road, he spoke up with a troubled look.
“I’m at the edge of the paper, so I can’t draw the rest of the map.”
“This was nothing but an empty straight road, so why did you draw it so long on your map?”
Of course, he would be travelling in a group for a while after beginning school, so there was no need for him to draw a map and remember the way.
In the end, he flipped the paper over, said “I’ll keep going from here!”, and continued drawing while dragging me further along. He was so focused on the paper that I wasn’t sure he had even seen the fork in the road.
Soon, someone approached us along the narrow road.
It was a girl of about Shinobu’s age who held a large dog on a leash.
She may have been the target of an overprotective parent because every single article of clothing was homemade. She looked a lot like a storybook illustration of Red Riding Hood.
“Oh, it’s Nagisa! Beauty!!”
…If she understands that greeting, that effeminate TV personality must be popular with more than just Shinobu. I wonder if that’s been nominated as a fad phrase.
It seemed Nagisa’s parents had misread the harsh ups and downs of the late March temperatures because she looked hot in the Red Riding Hood look.
Shinobu would sometimes throw fried chicken bones to play fetch with it, so the Saint Bernard that protected the nervous-looking girl wagged its tail and welcomed him. The rumor was that Nagisa’s parents had put it through a legitimate war dog training program and it was trained to immediately rip out the windpipe of anyone suspicious who approached the girl, but I had to wonder if it was true.
At the moment, she hid behind the dog that looked like a giant stuffed animal.
“Shinobu-chan, are you with that Youkai again? A-aren’t you afraid?”
Oh, how troublesome.
The existence of Youkai had been generally accepted in the Intellectual Village, so it wasn’t often you saw someone afraid of us like this.
Of course, the nation had no laws to judge Youkai themselves. It was treated the same as an accident involving a falling rock or a lightning strike, so I couldn’t really complain if people were afraid of us.
Shinobu on the other hand was comfortable around Youkai to an unusual degree.
“Hm? Afraid of Yukari? You don’t have to worry about her. She doesn’t bite.”
“Don’t do that, Yukari! Nagisa won’t get it’s a joke! Look, she fell down!!”
By the way, even though Nagisa had stiffly collapsed like a cicada skin, the Saint Bernard did nothing more than calmly look up at me with its tongue sticking out. Then again, it could probably tell at a glance that I didn’t mean any real harm.
“Sh-Shinobu-chan, you’re mean. If you lie, you have to swallow a thousand needles.”
“No, Nagisa. Liars have to swallow a porcupinefish.”
In just a few seconds, their conversation took a zigzagging turn toward the roots of old words Their conversations were quite peculiar. They were logical, but they would take sudden bypasses based on instinct or emotion. If you lost sight of the flow of conversation for even an instant, you would never find the link.
And if you could not follow the thread of conversation, you could not join in.
With nothing to do, I looked the well-behaved Saint Bernard in its small, round eyes.
No, I can’t start empathizing with a dog. I’m not going to sit and wait like that. My position has to be somewhere higher.
“Bye, Shinobu-chan. I need to finish my errand.”
As I thought about my dignity and respect as a Youkai, their conversation finally came to an end. Nagisa seemed to be dragged by the leash more than she was walking with the dog, but she began walking toward the small post office all the same.
We corrected our course toward our destination. Or rather, I corrected Shinobu’s course.
The village had a single elementary school, middle school, and high school and they were all located near each other. To ensure a safe walk to school, it was probably best to have them all use the same path.
“Well, we did walk about two kilometers.”
After traveling a little more, we saw a large area surrounded by a chain-link fence and a large rectangular building inside.
“Is that my school?”
“No, that’s not where you’ll be going. I think it’s the high school. Y’know, the one Hayabusa goes to.”
It was late March, so I was pretty sure all the schools were out for spring break, but there were still quite a few students in the schoolyard. Sports teams such as baseball or soccer may have been practicing.
For some reason, Shinobu was trembling while pressed up against the fence.
“What is it, Shinobu? If you’re thirsty, how about we go in and borrow their water fountain?”
“No, I could never go in the high school! I don’t have the right!!”
It wasn’t some consulate, so I didn’t see why he would have to worry about that. However, it seemed he had run up against a barrier of age or school year that kids seemed to have issues with.
Having heard the commotion, some girls wearing track suits approached from beyond the fence.
“Hm? What are you doing here? Do you have a lunch for your big brother or sister? If so, go to the main entrance on the other side.”
“Ee!? N-no, I do not have a lunch! And I do not have a big brother who plays sports!!”
“Ah ha ha. Why’s he speaking so politely all of a sudden?”
Shinobu had started to panic, but his confusion faded as time passed. His eyes opened as wide as they would go as he looked at the schoolyard through the fence.
“That’s a big horizontal bar!”
“Yeah, I don’t think I could do a back hip circle on that,” replied one of the girls.
“There’s a sandbox there but no slide or swings. It looks boring.”
“Well, that is for the long jump.”
At that point, Shinobu finally seemed to take an interest in the girls he was talking to through the fence.
“By the way, who are all of you?” he asked with a confused look.
“We’re the tennis team.”
“If you lie, you have to swallow a porcupinefish.”
“Why are you calling me a liar out of nowhere!?” asked one track suit girl who seemed quite willing to play along.
Shinobu proudly puffed out his chest and gave a snort as he made an announcement to her.
“Girls who play tennis wear clothes that flutter around.”
“That’s only in official games. We aren’t going to wear that embarrassing thing all the time.”
Some boys who had appeared out of nowhere began pouting their lips and protesting while swinging their rackets around.
“C’mon, wear the embarrassing outfits! Half the reason we started playing tennis was to see those, so why are you wearing those horrible track suits year-round!?”
“Because lowlives like you have eyes, you damn boys!! Get lost! Any guy without pure eyes needs to go away!!”
Having heard all the noise, a female teacher who seemed to be the coach began hitting balls over at them with her racket, so the boys and girls began running around in confusion.
The teacher walked over to Shinobu who was the flustered source of the commotion.
“Are you interested in tennis?” she asked while perfectly expressionless.
“I don’t know the rules!! I only know you hit something back and forth like in badminton!”
“I see. Then let me give you a chance. This is an old ball. If you’re interested, learn how to use it.”
She forced the yellow ball through a hole in the chain-link fence and handed it to him.
One of the track suit girls running along the schoolyard opened her eyes wide.
“No fair! Are you luring him in with toys like Santa Claus, you old hag! No matter what you say, you’re the kindest one when it comes to little kids!!”
“Shut up!! I’ll have you know I actually wanted to teach elementary school! But the next thing I knew, I was dealing with you deceptive mini-adults and your dead eyes!!”
However, Shinobu had not heard that exchange because he was too focused on the ball in his hand.
“It’s yellow, round, and fluffy. I’ve never seen a ball like this. It’s like a baby duck.”
“Ahhh, Shinobu. This isn’t good.”
“Wow! It bounces really good. This baby duck bounces more than a baseball!!”
He shouted in delight as he threw the tennis ball against the road again and again, but I groaned as I watched.
He had reacted in much the same way when he had gotten a small rubber ball at the temple festival. After making a hole in every sliding door and screen in the house, he had broken the glass in the wall clock and helped revive the intangible cultural asset of the crying child locked in the storage shed as punishment. However, it seemed all of that had vanished from his mind.
I earnestly hoped that a small storm was not approaching the Jinnai house for that night.
“Shinobu, the elementary school is this way.”
“Sure. With this baby duck ball, I’m not afraid of anything!!”
With the legendary Baby Duck Shooter in hand, he grew too bold and tried to walk down the center of the road, so I grabbed the nape of his neck and pulled him to the side of the road.
The elementary school he would begin to attend come April was quite close to the high school. The middle school was also nearby, so the village planners had probably vaguely decided “the schools go here”.
Speaking of which, the village did not have a university.
A tidy place of learning may not have fit into an Intellectual Village that was strategically managed to have the proper image.
To use Shinobu’s checklist from before, this schoolyard had a few swings, slides, and other playground equipment. The horizontal bars seemed to have different heights for the lower grades and the higher grades. Also, the soccer goal and basketball goal were smaller than the ones at the high school.
However, a Youkai like me noticed something else first.
“Why are high schoolers kicking a ball around outside the elementary school?”
For one, it was spring break. Elementary school had no concept of sports teams or clubs, so there would not have been any elementary school students here in the first place. But when you found larger middle and high school students there instead, it looked a lot like they had chased out the younger kids to have the place to themselves.
And that may not have been far from the truth.
The children at the high school had been the passionate athletes. It would have been difficult to dislodge them if you just wanted to play around. And if they then wanted to play somewhere else, it was only natural what would happen next.
They may not have even realized they were forcing out the younger children who should have been there.
However, would elementary school children really choose to gather in a place filled with clearly older and bigger children? Just as Shinobu had been oddly unwilling to enter the high school, the elementary school children may have naturally left without being actively threatened by anyone.
From high school to middle school and from middle school to elementary school.
As the people were left out, they would move down to the next school in line. It was certainly a twisted social structure.
Whether he had caught on to the situation or not, Shinobu tugged on my kimono and asked me a question.
“Is this my school?”
“Looks like it. You’ll be going here every day come April.”
Before I had finished speaking, a soccer ball crashed loudly against the chain-link fence.
It rolled along the ground in front of Shinobu whose eyes were opened wide.
I assumed someone had accidentally kicked the ball this way, but I was quickly proven wrong.
“What are you doing here?”
I heard a scratchy voice much like metal scraping together.
It seemed this high school boy had kicked the ball our way on purpose.
“We already told you the rules, remember!? We’re using this place right now! We even got permission from the teacher as alumni of the school. We’re not gonna deal with little brats like you. If not having your schoolyard is such a problem, go tell on us, but don’t blame me for what happens then!”
Shinobu was not used to being the target of that kind of hostility, so he was more confused than scared.
The boy seemed to have mistaken him for an elementary school kid who had come to play.
A glance through the fence showed that there were no small children despite it being an elementary school. Everyone there was a taller high school student.
“Dammit. Why do they get to be first string and we’re only second string. They’re just splitting us up based on who they like and using up all the equipment and practice space for themselves. Practice…I need to practice. Thinking you can win with guts or a fighting spirit is complete nonsense. I’ll prove to them that people grow more with a training regimen calculated out by a program.”
Shinobu tilted his head and looked up at me.
“Yukari, what is he talking about?”
“He’s saying it’s tough not being a winner because he can’t live up to his parents’ expectations or get the cute girls in his class.”
I gave an arbitrary comment with a lovely grin and received obvious verbal abuse for my trouble.
“Shut the hell up, you damn Youkai!! I know you don’t have any human rights, so how about I beat the shit out of you right here!?”
“We all know you can’t do that☆”
The boy I decided to call Grumpy-kun kicked the fence and then left.
Um, what am I supposed to do at times like this?
Oh, right. Raise my middle finger.
“Yukari, what was all that?”
“Don’t worry. Guys like that have probably never even held hands with a girl. You have him beat by a wide margin, so you don’t have to worry about anything.”
There was nothing more for Shinobu to see. Or rather, the schoolyard had more or less become a post-apocalyptic land where everyone had a mohawk, so sticking around was unlikely to be an enjoyable experience for him.
Today’s theme had been “learning the way to school”, so bringing that to an end and going home was the best option.
“Things can look different on the way back, so let’s try that too.”
“What are you talking about? It’s the same path, so there’s no way to get lost.”
“Shinobu, you’re already taking a wrong turn at the first fork in the road.”
I grabbed the nape of his neck and corrected his path.
He flailed his arms and legs around in protest for a while, but he finally gave a low energy comment as if he were a wilting house plant.
“I’m tired from walking so much.”
“Sorry, but I’m not going to carry you. Why? Because it sounds like a lot of work.”
When we returned to the house that had a full security system and solar panels on its thatch roof, it seemed to be lunchtime.
The day’s lunch was oyakodon.
Meals were always prepared by Shinobu’s mother or grandmother, but the food was always plain yet reliable when his grandmother made it.
After lunch, I had nothing to do and just lazed around until I heard someone talking on the phone.
The voice came from the hallway.
I saw short hair dyed brown and glittering silver accessories.
Hearing he was in his late teens might make you think he was Shinobu’s older brother, but he was actually his uncle.
His name was Jinnai Hayabusa.
He was an obvious delinquent boy who rode around on his electric maxi scooter and got into fights.
“Yes, yes. I get that. What? You think I’m a moron? I agree the instigator on TV is clearly suspicious, but someone that well-known would never do something so dangerous.”
“You mean…still…how…ick works?”
“I already told you that! I don’t know what the trick is or how it works! But they’re definitely using a Package involving a Youkai. Anywhere from a dozen to a few hundred people are involved in a single crime, so we aren’t going to find them that easily! Are you sure you aren’t the moron here!?”
“Ha…ha. Watch what…say or…a kick in…balls.”
Oh, a Package? This sounds dangerous.
That was a criminal method that incorporated the vague existence and traits of a Youkai into a single system.
For example, a Satori’s ability to read minds could be used for insider trading.
For example, a god of pestilence’s ability to make people sick could be used to bring a natural death to someone you hated.
These cutting-edge crimes that involved the occult were often put off until later by the professional police. This was not something a high school boy should be getting involved in, so I decided to cut in.
Specifically, I snuck up behind him and kicked him just as the voice on the phone had threatened.
I seemed to have misjudged my strength because Hayabusa was left rolling around on the ground.
I ignored him, picked his cell phone up off the floor, and heard a dignified female voice.
“Hello. I don’t know who this is, but thanks for stopping Hayabusa-kun from getting too worked up. Heh heh heh. That was a surprisingly cute scream. What did you do?”
“You could say I helped the student council president with the mischief she’s notorious for. Anyway, please don’t get our stupid boy caught up in anything. Half the time he’s suspended it’s due to the requests you give him.”
“I never ask him to go that far. While I do want to stop anyone in our school from getting involved in Packages, he has a bad habit of rushing in too quickly. It’s because he goes too far in his handling of justice. On a field trip, he rescued a girl in his class from some boys of another school and ended making the girl he rescued afraid of him.”
As I grew bored with her non-committal answer, I heard what sounded like a groan from the dead in the depths of the earth.
Delinquent Boy Hayabusa reached a hand toward me while curled up on the floor that was polished to an amber color.
I sighed, tossed the phone toward him, and gave him some relevant advice.
“Halfheartedly getting involved in Youkai-related crimes will only shorten your life. You can’t resolve this kind of thing, so if you have time to talk about this nonsense, try to find some trouble more your size. Maybe you could deal with those complete idiots who’ve taken over the schoolyard of the elementary school Shinobu will be attending soon.”
“Y-you do know assault is a crime, don’t you?”
I had done what I had to do and it wasn’t my job to decide whether he would listen to me or not.
There was no cure for stupidity or death. I began to leave the hallway, but another voice reached me from behind.
It was Shinobu. By the time I figured out he was making an airplane noise, he had already run right into my butt.
“Shinobu, what are you doing?’
The unexpected action made me jump away.
Not because it hurt, though!
I frantically turned around and Shinobu was confused by my extreme reaction.
“Hm? Yukari, what is it?”
“Shinobu, um, don’t do that. You aren’t supposed to bite people.”
That was something I should never have had to tell anyone, but he only tilted his head further.
“But mommy does it all the time. She bites my arm or side.”
“That stupid mother! Can’t she think about how things will influence her child!?”
Anyway, why is he here?
As I wondered that, he waved a hand weakly and asked me a question.
“Where were you going?”
“”I’m going to sleep, but I can’t sleep without you there.”
“Oh, you wanted to take a nap, didn’t you?”
Normally, a Zashiki Warashi snuck into the family’s futons as a harmless prank, but Shinobu had gotten so used to it that he could not sleep without someone in the futon with him.
I laid out the futon in his bedroom and we both lay down in it.
“Yukari, that’s too tight.”
“Bear with it.”
I was holding him in my arms more tightly than absolutely necessary for a good reason: he tossed and turned a lot in his sleep. It was completely normal for him to end up upside down, take the entire blanket from me as he rolled around, find his way underneath me, get tangled up in my long hair, or anything else really.
However, he did not have trouble getting to sleep.
The trip to and from his school must have been a lot for him because he fell fast asleep only five minutes after his complaint.
I had nothing to do until he woke up and my eyelids grew heavy as I passed the time doing nothing.
However, my eyes opened again before I fully fell asleep.
Someone had snuck into the bedroom.
“Heh heh heh. They’re asleep. Fast asleep. Buuut, this makes me a little jealous as his mother.”
It was Shinobu’s mother.
For some reason, she was lifting up her breasts with her hands.
“Does he naturally choose the one with the bigger breasts and smoother skin? I guess I can’t compare to a Youkai that doesn’t age.”
“You have no reason to get upset over this. The only reason he can approach me so easily is because I’m not as close an existence to him. In fact, it’s because I’m so different.”
“What do you mean?”
“Children sometimes have complaints they find difficult to make to a parent, but they can reveal those to a stuffed animal. There are advantages to being something other than human. …However, that can be a harsh truth to the one being treated that way. If you want to be his parent, you don’t want that, do you?”
“Hmm. I’m not sure he puts that much thought into it.”
“It’s even harsher because it’s done subconsciously.”
I gave a dark and cold smile I never let Shinobu see.
This was a good opportunity and I felt like there was a little more I needed to tell the parent who was meant to protect him.
“There’s something about Shinobu that worries me.”
“What is it now?”
“He’s completely unaware of that forbidden line that everyone can naturally sense. Think of a school at night, an abandoned hospital, or a sealed-off tunnel. He might find those places scary, but he would never think of turning back.”
For example, he had no problem bringing his food into the altar room that smelled of the dead to eat with something as inhuman as a Youkai.
I felt it was worth noting the positive possibilities of getting along with any Youkai, but our traits did not always have a positive effect.
“He can’t sense that line that everyone else can, so he always ends up stepping into areas that are best avoided. You need to be aware of that. If a location is separated out, there is reason why. Entering forbidden territory does not always have a happy ending like with Momotarou. It can also end more like Kaguya-Hime or Urashima Tarou.”
Shinobu’s mother lightly traced her index finger along her chin.
“Urashimia Tarou, hm? That really is a strange story. Unlike a lot of old stories, it has no lesson. The main character rescues a turtle and it ends with his misfortune.”
That was how the story went when looking at it with human standards.
None of the major characters of the story – Urashima Tarou, the turtle, and Otohime – had meant any harm. Urashima Tarou had rescued the turtle with no intention of gaining anything from it, the turtle had tried to repay him with no ulterior motive, and Otohime had genuinely fallen in love with him.
Nevertheless, the story ended with his despair.
We might look a lot alike and we might use the same words, but humans and Youkai had definitively different values. In Urashima Tarou’s case that difference was in the view of time. Youkai have no lifespan, so they had not known Urashima Tarou would not like what happened to him.
“It has nothing to do with good will or malice. That is a constant danger whenever humans and Youkai come into contact and it is a risk that never occurs between parent and child. Do you understand now that I’m not stealing your position?”
That was all Shinobu’s mother said.
It was short and concise.
But then she said more with a hint of a smile.
“But you don’t want anything like what happened to Urashima Tarou to happen to Shinobu. That’s not a bad reaction as a parent, you know?”
It seemed I had fallen asleep at some point.
When I opened my eyelids, Shinobu was absent from the futon.
I started by heading to the kitchen and drinking a can of chilled soda from the refrigerator. The refrigerator had a flat-screen computer on the door for looking up recipes. I swiped my finger across it to wake it from sleep mode and opened the online news page.
“ ‘How Does Pizza Arrive at your Door in Only Thirty Minutes?’ is finally getting a movie! This new schedule(?) mystery is from the author of the masterpiece ‘Hamburgers, the Magic of Ninety Seconds from Order to Completion’. This will be another problem film filled with fast food trivia you’ll wish you didn’t know. It is being directed by…”
With the red can in hand and a blue face, I returned the computer to sleep mode.
That was not an article I wanted to read while drinking that. Of course, there were rumors the extreme junk food criticism was a way of opposing imported goods.
I carried the cold can around the house and found a large number of paper airplanes scattered around the Japanese living room that was large enough for a judo match.
This was not the result of some bizarre person getting obsessed with a single action.
A Kappa, a Tengu, and a Yamanba – a group needing no explanation due to their appearances in picture books and Youkai manga – were forming a system for mass producing paper airplanes using the giant pile of paper Shinobu had prepared.
I decided to ask about it.
“What are you doing?”
“Oh, Yukari. We’re having a paper airplane championship! It’s not too late to catch up now!!”
“What are you doing?” I asked again.
My voice was more threatening the second time and it was directed at the Youkai rather than Shinobu. They looked up as if they had come back to their senses.
“O-oh, no. I returned to my childhood for a moment there! We didn’t head into the mountains to do this!!” (<– Tengu)
“We’re here to get a sip of the mysterious sake of the Jinnai Brewery.” (<– Kappa)
“It’s made by humans, so I’m not expecting much. But I’ll try it out, so hurry up and bring some.” (<– Yamanba)
They showed no intention of apologizing for entering the house without permission. The Jinnai house seemed to act as an inn for travelling Youkai.
Shinobu was explaining his new discovery of folding down a corner of the rectangular paper and cutting away the excess to form a square, but he tilted his head when he heard what the Youkai said.
“Are you talking about work? I can go call for daddy and grampa.”
“Fwa ha ha ha ha. You probably shouldn’t. If they heard the master of Mount Kurama had rushed all the way here after hearing some rumors, they’d probably collapse in fear. It’s best for them not to know the details.”
That muscular man was the natural enemy of Youkai who would not hesitate to bring his fist down on anyone who strayed from the proper path, be they a Mikoshi-Nyuudou or a guardian of hell, but it was best for these Youkai not to know the details. They’d be the ones collapsing in fear then.
Shinobu then spoke up completely innocently.
“Do you want to see them work? Do you want to see how amazing they are?”
“If their sake really is good enough for Youkai to accept it, that would definitely be amazing.”
“Nobel Prize amazing.”
Ah, this generally arbitrary group just gave them an arbitrary title!
But Shinobu was completely focused on the sudden foreign term.
“Nobel… Y-you just need some sake, right!? I’ll show you how amazing they are! C’mon, Yukari! I think there’s some in there!!”
He pulled my hand and brought me right back to the kitchen.
Of course, I was not simply going along with what he wanted. My true reason was to stop him from getting into the first-class daiginjo.
The sake made by the Jinnai family was worth 50,000 yen a cup, so some people would not be happy if a child removed the stopper for a prank.
However, my fears proved unfounded when Shinobu did something unexpected.
He opened the refrigerator with his small hands, stuck his upper body inside, and pulled out a thick white liquid in a clear plastic bag.
“This is it, Yukari! This is the kind even I can have on New Year’s, so it has to be the best.”
“Well…I guess you can bring out the amazake. It isn’t a product at least.”
It was treated much like a leftovers meal made from scraps of meat and the centers of vegetables. Then again, everything from the ingredients to the preparation belonged to the Intellectual Village brand, so a cup would probably still leave you minus a 10,000 yen bill.
“How do you heat it up? The microwave?”
“You put it in a pot and use the stove.”
As Shinobu started getting worked up, I grabbed the nape of his neck to stop him.
Should a small child be distanced from the kitchen which was filled with fire, hot water, and knives? Or should they be familiarized with cooking at an early age to give them a good sense for the process? Both arguments could be made, but it was not my job to make that decision. If Shinobu’s family had chosen the former, I had to deal with the pot on the stove.
Not that I was all that good at cooking. No matter how many times I tried making rice balls, they never came out as a proper triangle. I could not let Shinobu see that.
Some of it burned onto the bottom of the pot a little, but I managed to heat up the amazake in about ten minutes. I had Shinobu carry a few cups and I brought the entire pot into the living room.
The Kappa, Yamanba, and Tengu looked a bit skeptical when they saw the thick white liquid in the transparent cups.
“Oh, I was expecting some mysterious sake, but it’s just some amazake for kids. If you think that’s going to get full marks from us, you- bvgrfaaaahhhh!?”
“What is it, Kappa!? Don’t tell me living in the water made your entire body overly sensitive to heat!”
“No, Tengu. Look at his face. He’s overcome by such euphoria that his pupils are opened wide. It looks like this sake might be known as the Youkai Crusher for a reason. I think I need to prepare myself and try it out for myse- bhyaaaaaaaaaah!?”
Youkai would not die from being stabbed or shot, so it was a mystery why they were so influenced by this amazake. And yet they would be able to eat an entire pufferfish or killer jellyfish without issue.
The Tengu assumed he alone would be fine no matter the disaster, so he chugged his cup of amazake and ended up collapsed on the living room floor.
“See, daddy and grampa are amazing, aren’t they?” said Shinobu.
“Mwa ha ha ha ha. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt this good. I’ll turn you into Ushiwakamaru!”
“Eh? But Benkei’s way cooler. Then I could be big and muscly like daddy!”
You don’t need to be big and muscly.
Shinobu’s grandfather entered from the sake brewery behind the house in order to take a break, but he stopped walking when he saw the bodies lying around the living room.
He turned the troublesome question to me.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m fully prepared to be thrown into the storage shed with Shinobu, but let me say one thing first. Shinobu seems to believe you’re artisans on a Nobel Prize level.”
“It’s hard not to get mad after seeing the commotion in here, but there’s something to be said for seeing humans and Youkai get along using something you made. That muscleman will probably still yell at you all like some kind of demon, but he might cry in secret afterwards.”
Shinobu and I were severely lectured.
Fortunately, we weren’t locked in a room.
Then again, whenever Shinobu was locked in the storage shed, he would cry and wild Youkai would arrive to comfort him. Last time, some mascot-types that were either foxes or tanukis ended up filling the shed with him.
His parents had since developed a more effective method.
They only needed an illustrated encyclopedia of deep sea fish. Then they only needed to slowly turn the pages.
“It’s all squishy! It’s alive, but it’s all squishy!!”
“Oh, the crab’s kind of cool.”
I was forced to sit still while he clung to my upper body and desperately tried to look away from the book.
As for why he had such a problem with deep sea fish…
“These are scary! That one looks like it’ll pop if you poke it! That one puffs up if you catch it and something comes from its mouth!!”
It was already evening.
After finally being released, I walked down the hallway that was filled with the orange sunlight. Shinobu was watching TV in the large Western living room. He was sitting with a giant fox and tanuki that had gotten in somehow. They were probably travelling Youkai who were spending the night.
I could hear voices from the TV.
“There’s fox udon and tanuki soba, but why isn’t there anything with badgers!? We’re seriously troubled by that question!”
“But badgers don’t sound very delicious! No one likes snakes!!”
“That’s adder! They barely sound the same!!”
“Then what’s a badger?”
“It’s in the same family as weasels and wolverines.”
“Wolverines! Now you’re scaring me!!”
“A badger isn’t that frightening! It’s more like a red panda or a raccoon!!”
“Oh, so it’s like a tanuki. Then why not just say tanuki?”
“Because it’s a badger! The fox, the tanuki, and the badger are the big three for transforming Youkai!!”
The stage on the screen had a single microphone stand with two people in suits standing on either side of it. In other words, it was a manzai act, but one of the two was clearly a Youkai. There were no laws or obligations restricting us, but the lack of human rights also meant we could not work. After all, we were not “human”. However, it seemed there was a loophole in taking a position much like a dog that was part of an act. I didn’t know the details of the situation, though.
I didn’t feel like interrupting, so I left for the time being.
However, I still had nothing to do, so I wanted someone to fill the time.
And there was one person I knew was the easiest to deal with.
“Haaayaaabuuusaaa!! Help me kill some time!!”
“No!! Why is this mass of selfishness here!?”
As expected, Jinnai Hayabusa, the brown-haired, accessory-covered delinquent boy, let out a girlishly shrill voice. He had been maintaining his maxi scooter in the garage he had made in the shed.
He had brought this unreasonable fate on himself by trying to look cool by drinking a Cassis Orange he had made. Then again, it wasn’t actually alcoholic. He had made an imitation by melting some cassis jam in hot water and mixing it with orange juice.
However, my enemy(?) was skilled.
To oppose my special skill “Forcing the Flow of Events”, he recovered from his panic on his own.
“Hey, god of pestilence. I’m sure you’re only here because Shinobu wouldn’t play with you, but as you can see, I’m busy.”
“Ahh, ahh. Mic test, mic test. Please respond, Jinnai Hayabusa-kun, the indecent boy who feels a slight throb of the heart when he hears the word ‘sister-in-law’. I repeat…”
“Bphhhh!!!?? Y-you idiot, stop making up things that could put irreversible cracks in our family!!”
“But it’s profane in a different way how you get so caught up over the word ‘sister-in-law’ and she has no interest whatsoever. Do you not care in the slightest what other people want?”
“Again, you’re completely wrong here!! You’re not going to claim these baseless accusations are part of your ‘innocent pranks’ as a Zashiki Warashi are you!?”
“Shinobu’s one thing, but you’ve got a troublesome trait as well. It’s not often you see someone who’s actually scared by a Hitotsume-Kozou or a Nopperabou. Of course they’re all gonna gather together to scare you.”
“Yeah, but I get attacked by the deadly ones too like a Kappa or a Makuragaeshi. Thanks to that, I could be killed at any moment.”
He seemed to think he was hated by Youkai, but in a way, it might have been the opposite. He was treated a lot like the monster in an RPG that gave a ridiculous amount of experience points.
“So what exactly are you going to do to kill time?”
“Well, I’ll roll you around and…”
“Don’t scare me! And I asked for specifics! I’m not some reaction comedian whose weapon is the boiling bath. If I tell you to stop, you seriously need to stop!!”
This seemed to be another trait of a Zashiki Warashi. If the other person reached the point of actually crying, I naturally put on the brakes. My defaults were set so I would stop at the line of what qualified as “innocent”.
I had no choice, so I got to the real issue at hand.
I reached into the chest of my kimono and pulled out a handheld game system advertised for its graphics.
“Shinobu said I was really bad at this hunting game. I don’t want him to hate me, so help me practice.”
“I’m pretty amazed just seeing a Youkai from an Edo-period drawing holding a handheld game system.”
The game involved humans with weapons destroying giant out-of-control machines and tearing out the junk parts. It was well known for the online video advertisement with the development team getting argumentative about the rating not mattering because there was no actual blood.
It seemed Hayabusa had one of the systems as well.
Despite being less than a meter apart, we did not look away from our own screens.
As I pressed the buttons, I spoke.
“I’m super interested in the writing filling that white board and the countless arrows connecting it all together.”
“Mgh!? J-just ignore it.”
“You’re writing up all the information on a ‘case’ and connecting it all? Do you want to be a detective from a police drama or something?”
“I told you to ignore it!! If you keep tearing into my heart, I’m going to cancel this mission to get the wings off of Giga Gordon! I’ll hit the start button and select ‘give up’!!”
“If you do that, I hope you’re prepared for a storm at the dinner table tonight. Once I bring up the term ‘sister-in-law’, the gates of hell will open. That supposed Cassis Orange of yours comes from a recipe your sister-in-law invented to avoid drinking while pregnant, isn’t it?”
“You idiot!! How long are you going to keep that up!? And it’s all in your head!!”
“The truth isn’t what matters. What matters is who they’ll believe.”
“You’re as horrible as someone who makes false molestation accusations!!”
Incidentally, the white board had the following things written on it: “gain trust”, “a famous name”, “false information is not a crime”, “far too few victims”, “some other rule to narrow down the targets?”, etc.
Just that was not enough to see what it was Hayabusa (and his high school’s beautiful student council president) was pursuing.
Then again, it was an amateur investigation, so they may not have known either.
“You really like doing things you get nothing in return for, don’t you?”
“I’ll get something eventually! It’s just the drop rate for Giga Gordon’s wings is 2%. In the worst case, we’ll have to fight this same powerful enemy 50 times!!”
“I don’t think that’s how probability works. Also, I was talking about your investigation of organized crime using Packages.”
“I’m not getting involved because I want to.”
“Do you seriously think that?”
“My upperclassman keeps telling me these things I don’t want to hear about. And she knows I can’t pretend not to see it once I know about it.”
“Have you fallen in love with her?”
“D-don’t ask a teenage boy that so bluntly.”
“Is that so? Resolving these things isn’t going to remove the label of delinquent from you, so I’m not sure why you want to stand in harm’s way for the very people who gave you that label.”
“I don’t have a choice. The police apparently put off the crimes involving Youkai and I sometimes hear about people from my school being involved.”
He sounded annoyed, but by the situation rather than what I had said.
“And this time, the term ‘organ trafficking’ has come up. There’s no way I can overlook this one.”
Once night fell, I left the makeshift garage and returned to the house. It seemed dinner was ready, but Shinobu was forming a one-man protest after charging into the kitchen.
“Grandma, make Salisbury steak too! You still have time!!”
“Sorry, Shinobu, but I have trouble with recipes written horizontally.”
“You can’t give up before you even try! I’ll help, so let’s try to make it!!”
He was clearly troubling his grandmother, so I snuck up behind him, slipped my hands beneath his arms, and lifted his small body up like a forklift.
I even made the sound effects.
“Whirrrrr! Kathunk, kathunk!!”
“Ah! Stop! What are you doing!?”
“Moving a certain little boy out of the way. Kathunk, kathunk!”
“Ahhhh!! But the ambitions of the Salisbury Steak Empire!!”
Sorry, Shinobu, but Salisbury steak doesn’t go well with nikujaga and salmon.
I carried him to the Western living room just in time for his mother to poke her head in.
“Dinner will take just a little longer, so can you give Shinobu a bath?”
“You heard her.”
“But I’m starving! I can’t focus on a bath without Salisbury steak!”
Despite his protests, he raced to his room once I set him down. He was most likely grabbing his bath set.
I made my way to the altar room to prepare the yukata I slept in.
As I did, Shinobu dashed toward me.
“Hurry, Yukari! The bath is waiting!!”
“I see you’re as heavily equipped as ever.”
His wash basin had a rubber ducky, a submarine, and a wire ring meant for making bubbles. He also held goggles and had a float around his stomach.
He clearly had a fundamentally flawed idea of what a bath was for.
“What are you talking about? It wouldn’t be as fun without a bunch of toys!”
“Fine, fine. …Now, then. I’m missing my spare obi. I’ll keep searching, so you go on to the changing room.”
“Make sure you hurry!”
His footsteps rang out as he left the altar room at full speed.
I soon found an obi in a color that matched my yukata and continued after him. However, he was nowhere to be found in the changing room.
I received the following eyewitness testimony from his mother.
“Shinobu? He went to the bath with my father-in-law earlier.”
“N-no! It doesn’t matter who’s in there. I can still join them!!”
“You really shouldn’t. I’m worried about the old man’s blood pressure.”
I ended up diving head first into the kotatsu and sulking until a freshly-bathed Shinobu left the changing room in his pajamas.
His eyes opened wide when he noticed my illegal occupation of the kotatsu.
“You’re playing secret base.”
“Shinobu. I have no intention of speaking with little boys who don’t keep their promises.”
“Wow! You’d be safe in an earthquake like this! Let me in, let me in!”
“Ow, ow! There’s not enough space!! Your heel is shoved nicely into my solar plexus!”
I crawled out of the kotatsu like a bear chased from its cave after losing a fight.
Uuh… I don’t even get to sulk in peace.
Shinobu’s mother gave a bitter smile.
“Unlike Youkai, humans aren’t all that influenced by obligation or grudges. You just have to stay constructive and positive by making another promise. How about sleeping in the same futon tonight?”
It was true lying on the living room floor would feel too empty.
I had nothing to gain by continuing to sulk and what was done was done, so I decide to take a bath.
Once I opened the door to the changing room, I heard movement from Shinobu.
He was speaking with another Youkai that was here as a surprise guest at our “inn”.
“I am a Tsuchigumo! I don’t follow the rules of humans, so staying up late is fine by me. People say I’m disobedient because I’m a delinquent!”
“I don’t care, but come with me. Going to the bathroom at night is scary, so you can take me to the bathroom door.”
“Sure thing. Delinquents are nice to little kids and abandoned cats on rainy days, so leave it to me!”
He was speaking with a spider several meters across, but as it was a Youkai, he was not even remotely afraid of it. Then again, kids his age might grab a normal bug too.
It made me wonder how old humans had to get before they started being afraid of bugs.
I thought on that for a bit, spent about half an hour in the bath, changed into my yukata, and left the changing room.
Shinobu was already gone.
I got another eyewitness testimony.
“Shinobu? He ate dinner, brushed his teeth, and then…what did he do? Oh, right, right. He went to sleep with that Tsuchigumo.”
“Beauty!! Today, I’ll be introducing a drink I absolutely recommend. I call it the completely-change-the-feel-of-your-skin-in-five-years drink. If drinking this doesn’t make you healthy, you should just give up on life! Now, the actual ingredients are…”
A crossdressing middle-aged man with brightly dyed hair (he was not transsexual and he merely viewed it as another fashion choice for men) wiggled around while shouting about something on TV. However, none of the adults in the living room were watching.
Sake brewing had been the Jinnai family occupation for generations and 50,000 yen a cup summed up just how skilled they were. Of course, judging an artisan solely for their monetary value had a way of making them mad.
In the name of product research, the house was filled with alcohol almost every night.
And they showed no real sign of limiting themselves to Japanese sake.
“If you don’t have an open enough mind to honestly recognize what your rivals are doing right, you can’t take on the world. Ohhh! This wine is all bubbly! What goes well with Shaoxing wine? Chinese food seems a little too on the nose.”
To put it bluntly, this was a family that needed strong livers.
It seemed the Jinnai line had always been able to handle its alcohol and any woman who married into a sake brewing family would have to like alcohol. This created a family selectively bred to have tough livers thanks to Mendelism.
At any rate, everyone was getting worked up, so I asked the obvious question.
“Um, why am I here?”
“Your heart was headed in a dark direction after Shinobu dumped you. That’s the perfect time to drink and forget it all!!”
“I’m a Youkai that can’t be killed even if I’m stabbed or shot, so it’s nonsense to think I’d get drunk. I technically don’t even need to eat. I just do it if I feel like it.”
“Calm down. I know you want to logically suppress your emotions when you’re feeling down, but you can’t! You can’t, can’t, can’t! It’s best to let them out as soon as you can. Suppressing them just lets them build up! Forget all about logic and take a nice swig!!”
It didn’t really matter.
I could swallow cyanide or monkshood without issue, so I decided to drink some and leave once the others collapsed.
“Hic. Huhhh? Why’sh the world all shpinny even though I’m a Youkai?”
“Mah hah hah hah hah hah!! That’s the magic power of sake! Nothing’s impossible and you can forget everything unpleasant!!”
This was not right.
I wasn’t even sure how much time had passed, so I tried checking the clock on the wall
What? I can’t read this. It’s all melty like what’s-his-face’s painting.
The very fact that I couldn’t remember such a famous artist’s name showed just how far I had fallen.
“Oh, I get it. Youkai focus more on mental laws than physical ones, so the placebo effect works extra well on us. If I think I’m getting drunk, I really will.”
Come to think of it, didn’t Hyakki Yakou’s anti-Youkai process include research into methods of trickery that used optical illusions and incorrect assumptions?
“What? You can still think logically about this? Then you need another drink! Keep on drinking!!”
“Oh, honestly. I don’t even care about being ditched by Shinobu anymore.”
“Nya ha ha ha ha ha!!”
The two women laughed like idiots.
Shinobu’s father, grandfather, and grandmother were there too. His grandmother merely smiled while downing sake at a rapid pace, but the men seemed unable to keep up with our excitement.
To put it more simply, they were a little disturbed by us.
And that didn’t sit right with me.
I slowly stood up and approached Shinobu’s father who was covered in muscles and had a fist that exceeded the upper limits of humanity.
Don’t I normally view him like the lord of fear and can’t even look him in the eye?
“Hey, muscleman!! What’s with that grumpy look? Drinking’s supposed to be fun! Get to it!! And that ambiguous expression is banned!!”
“It’s no use. He only has the grumpy look of a sunglass-wearing killing machine from the future because he’s shy and don’t know how to act around women☆ On our first date, I found him standing at the meeting spot with a look on his face that made me suspect he’d actually called me out for a fight.”
“Come to think of it, why’re you always wearing those tight shirts? Hm? You got a problem? Say it loud!! Now that Shinobu’s ditched me, I’m not afraid of anything!”
“Hya hya hya hya hya hya!!”
“Gwa ha ha ha ha!!”
I have a feeling I’m saying a bunch of things that’ll cause problems later, but I can’t think straight.
“Oh, Tengu. Have you heard about ?”
“Just some rumors. But just hearing the name makes me feel sick. He definitely brings down the overall definition of . It’s not often you see version that’s so specialized in killing and nothing else.”
“He’s shown up.”
“This is gonna be rough. A lot of are going to die again.”
“But it’s not like we can do anything about it. He exists as a that’s been cut free of the simple hierarchy of power.”
“The Aburatori, hm?”
On the following morning of March 25, my palm reflexively flew to the high-pitched alarm clock and an odd chill reached my arm as it left the futon.
And when and where did I even fall asleep last night?
The rain shutters were fully closed which blocked out the sunlight and left the area almost completely dark. That made it even harder to grasp the situation.
A female voice slipped into my ear from very close by. In fact, it was in the same futon.
“Heh heh heh. This is a married couple’s bedroom, you know? You’re quite aggressive to force your way in between a young couple like that.”
I suddenly grew very concerned about the gaps in my memory, but the situation did not wait for me to recover from that confusion.
“Yukari, are you in here? It’s amazing! It’s amazing outside!!”
Shinobu entered the dim room and it took me a while to realize why he was so excited.
It was his next words that clued me in.
“It’s snowing! Everything’s white outside!!”
I grabbed the futon with all my strength to put up my defenses.
Shinobu was the type to go running around in the yard rather than curling up in the kotatsu. If I had to oversee his playtime, I would be thrown out into the below-zero weather of an early morning blizzard.
His mother seemed to realize I was unwilling because she spoke to her excited son.
“Shinobu, if you want to play outside, make sure you eat breakfast first.”
“Ugh… But look! You’ll see if I open the window. It’s amazing out there!!”
Shinobu’s actions turned the entire bedroom into a giant refrigerator and the traitor kicked me out of the futon as a sacrifice.
“Shinobu, go play with the Zashiki Warashi! I’m sure you’d love making a snowman!!”
“A snowman… C’mon, Yukari!!”
“No!! Please no!! It’s freezing everywhere! Just walking through the wooden hallway is hurting the bottom of my feet!! What’s going to happen to me outside!?”
My desperate pleas fell on deaf ears.
The magic of the snow caused Shinobu’s eyes to glitter to a disturbing degree while he dragged me into the snowy scenery while barefoot and wearing nothing but a yukata.
“Wow! I can’t even see the ground!! Everything’s white!!”
He was fully equipped with down jacket, mittens, long boots, and a wool cap, but I was receiving enough damage to give me a heart attack if I weren’t a Youkai.
“Mommy said to make a snowman! She recommended it, so we have to do it!”
“I-I-I-I can’t. There’s no way I can grab snow with my bare hands!! My fingers will fall off. Are you sure this is made of water? It feels more like liquid nitrogen! It’s so cold!”
“If you don’t hurry up, the snow will cover you and you’ll turn into a snowman.”
Not dying is not always a good thing.
While my mind filled with what sounded like a sentence from a terminal care specialist’s essay, I resigned myself to forming the snowball to become the core and then rolling it around. I don’t even remember what I shouted at the time. My memories vanished for a completely different reason than the sake from the night before.
“A-ah!? Afha!! Sh-Sh-Sh-Sh-Shinobu, surely this is enough! We made a wonderful snowman, didn’t we!? Please release me!!”
Fortunately, his mother arrived to tell us breakfast was ready. I loathed her for wearing a giant fur coat as she did, though. Shinobu’s interest shifted to the food and I was allowed to return to the thatch-roof house.
“I-I’m freezing. My hair literally is frozen!”
“I did heat up a bath, so I suggest you take one before eating.”
I wanted to tell her she should have called Shinobu in earlier if she had time to do that, but any more arguing would have left me frozen like a fish even if it didn’t kill me.
But as soon as I had entered the bath and started to stick one leg in the tub, the bath’s window was thrown fully open.
The bath quickly transformed into a refrigerator.
“It’s amazing, Yukari! Daddy’s doing something amazing!!”
Shinobu had supposedly gone to the living room, but he had gone right out into the backyard to get in a surprise attack from outside.
He was currently pointing towards one end of the back yard again and again.
“He knocked a bunch of snow from the roof and made a white mountain! It’s a slide of snow!! It’s so amazing!!”
Th-that damn man is our enemy.
He’s an enemy of all Youkaaaaaaaaaaaaiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!!
I was naked and shivering, but I soon realized Shinobu had vanished from the window and I heard footsteps circling around.
Oh, no. He’s approaching the changing room!
I frantically charged into the changing room and desperately grabbed my yukata.
Before I could put it on, the boy burst into the room.
“Hurry! Hurry, Yukari!!”
I had managed to avoid being thrown naked into the snow, but my defenses may not have been much better.
Ten minutes later, I returned to the house while shivering like a newborn fawn.
“I-I learned something new today. Heating yourself up before being thrown into the cold makes it even worse.”
That was when the doorbell rang.
No one could stop Shinobu now.
At his age, children tended to think about nothing but food when they were even remotely hungry, but the world of snow outside seemed to be stimulating his mind more than breakfast.
He dashed down the hallway and spoke loudly from the entranceway.
“Oh, it’s Nagisa’s grampa!”
“That’s right. Are you the boy that’s been corrupting my granddaughter!?”
I doubted children of that age could get up to too much trouble of that sort, but she may have tried to put on her mother’s lipstick or something.
I didn’t have the energy to fix my yukata and walk to the entranceway, so I just lay on the floor and listened.
“What are you here for?”
“I’m using my truck to check all the houses that probably have a hard time removing snow from their roof. I’m gathering all the young ones to help, but I suppose the Jinnai Brewery has enough young ones to handle it on their own.”
“Young? So is Nagisa here?”
“I didn’t want to bring her with me, but I couldn’t leave her to walk through over a meter of snow with just the Saint Bernard. …Hm? Hey, old man. I’m here with some volunteers. We’ll handle the roof and the road in front of the house, so have your boy look after Nagisa.”
I heard leaving footsteps, so I assumed Shinobu was back to playing in the snow. I wished him well while he did so far away from me.
However, his mother soon arrived with food on a tray.
“Sorry, but can you take this to Shinobu? I’m sure he’s focused on the snow now, but I don’t want him to skip breakfast.”
“If I did it, I’d end up nagging him and telling him to eat. I don’t want to ruin his fun while Nagisa-chan is here.”
“And the real reason?”
“I don’t want to go out in the cold. I’m going to spend all day curled up in the kotatsu.”
I noticed the tray contained a few snacks on small plates in addition to Shinobu’s food. I guessed they might be for Nagisa.
“If they’re having a snowball fight, I doubt they’ll want to eat.”
“Those two wouldn’t be doing that. I hear you two already made a snowman and he’ll probably play house now that Nagisa-chan is here. So how about adding in some real food☆”
I borrowed a raincoat from Shinobu’s grandmother and skeptically made my way outside. But to my surprise, Shinobu and Nagisa really were playing house in a snow igloo in the large yard. I doubted the two of them could make such a nice igloo, so the people gathered for snow removal had likely made it for them.
Presumably to make the house seem more realistic, the igloo had a small waterproof bath TV inside.
“A Japanese translation of ‘Innocent Philosophers: 100 Questions from Children that Stumped Senators’ has arrived! The most amazing part of the book is…”
However, the children were ignoring the TV.
“Welcome! Today’s flounder is cheap.”
“Sh-Shinobu-chan, this is our house, so we don’t talk about the food like that.”
Nagisa wanted an orthodox household while Shinobu kept making more unconventional adlibs. He seemed to want adventure more than stability.
Today’s theme for Nagisa’s outfit seemed to be a snowman because she was covered from head to toe with fluffy white wool.
“Shinobu-chan, you’re the daddy, so you look after the baby. Make sure she gets to sleep so she doesn’t cry in the night.”
“But those peaceful days would not last long for Insect Mask who secretly protects the peace of the world. Kaboom!! It’s the FBI!!”
“Run away, honey!! Wait. What did you do, Shinobu-chan!?”
Shinobu began flailing his limbs around and almost unintentionally destroyed the igloo, so interrupted with the tray of food.
“Wow. You have bread for breakfast at your house?”
“When grandma makes it, it’s rice, but when mommy makes it, it’s bread.”
Shinobu pulled out the colorful skewers advocated by Beauty and stabbed them into the vegetables.
“Are you doing this too, Nagisa?”
“I-I am. And I’m even losing weight bit by bit.”
When I thought about it, I realized that diet method only worked if you were the person who decided on the menu.
“Do you drink milk, Shinobu-chan?”
“The adults love it when I do.”
The two of them got down to eating, but they also had “food” made from balled up snow next to them. Without my intervention, they might have eaten snow indefinitely. Shinobu’s mother may have intentionally had me stop that.
“Eh? You’re lying. There’s no way you can do that. You’re a porcupine fish, Nagisa!”
“I-I’m not lying. And it’s a thousand needles.”
They began arguing while ignoring the consideration of the adults.
It was hard to join in because the conversation jumped all over the place, but I somehow managed to grasp the general subject.
“Are you talking about fried prawns?”
Both Shinobu and Nagisa looked up at me.
“Nagisa says you can eat fried prawn tails, but there’s no way you can eat that plastic-y thing.”
“Y-you can eat it. You just don’t at your house. You can eat fried prawns from the head to the tail.”
Shinobu then tilted his head in confusion.
“But fried prawns don’t have heads.”
“They do to! They’re prawns! How would they swim in the ocean without a head?”
“Ah ha ha. You don’t know anything, Nagisa. Fried prawns don’t swim in the ocean. Their fried outside would get all wet.”
“Th-then where do you think they live?”
“Well…Their outside is all crispy, so…”
“It can’t be on land. Their outside would get all muddy.”
“They don’t fly! Fried prawns can’t fly!”
After clearing the roofs of the Jinnai house and the neighboring house, Nagisa’s grandfather and the young men with him drove to a different area. That meant saying goodbye to Nagisa.
Thanks to Shinobu’s mother’s love of Western food, we had fried prawns for lunch. Shinobu tried to eat the tail and took another step up the stairs to adulthood.
That’s right. You can eat the tails.
I could hear an early afternoon talk show on the TV.
“Eh? My recommendation is… Oh, I know. I’ll choose ‘Ten-Year Money Management Techniques You Can’t Afford Not to Know’. The best part about this book is-…”
“That’s a business book you wrote! Don’t just start advertising it like that!”
After finishing lunch, Shinobu spoke with his grandmother who was ironing the laundry.
“Look, grandma. I folded the shirt.”
“Oh, how wonderful.”
“I can fold pants too.”
“You’re so skilled with your hands, Shinobu.”
With a smile covering her face, the old woman used the instant Shinobu wasn’t looking to refold the clothing at Mach speed. She had perfected the style of praising people to help them grow.
Once the ironing was complete, Shinobu spoke up again.
“Since I finished helping, will you tell me a secret of the Jinnai family?”
“Okay, then. Did you know this house has a staircase?”
“Hm? But it’s a one-story house, so it doesn’t have stairs.”
“But it does. There is a small door somewhere that leads to a short and narrow staircase.”
Oh, is she talking about the stairs to the attic?
Shinobu went to grab a bag with a first aid kit and emergency goods inside.
He pulled out the flashlight and helmet and ran back.
“Yukari, let’s go search for buried treasure!”
The story seemed to have grown inside his head, but once he was this excited, he would never take a nap until he checked.
He tightened and loosened a bundle of rope he didn’t really know how to use and his mother called out to him. She was skillfully holding a tray of iced tea and cookies on one hand.
“Shiiinobuuu. Will you carry this to the Japanese living room?”
“I’m looking for the buried treasure now!!”
“You’ll only get lost if you try that without a map and I won’t give you a map of the house unless you help out.”
“Drat,” cursed Shinobu as he took the tray.
While watching him totter down the hall, I asked his mother a question.
“Is someone visiting again?”
“Yes, and on this snowy day no less. She seems to be a friend of Hayabusa-kun’s. Heh heh heh. And she’s pretty high-spec if you ask me.”
High-spec, you say?
I could only think of one candidate for a “high-spec” friend of Hayabusa’s. Then again, there was only one human girl who would have a proper conversation with that fierce-looking boy.
As always, I grabbed a rag and wiped up the iced tea Shinobu had spilled on his way to the living room. Inside, a girl in a high school sailor uniform was sitting casually at the tea table.
Her name was Atou Minori.
Her black hair was gathered behind her head with a hairpin and her huge breasts looked terribly out of place in a school uniform. The legs extending from her miniskirt and their overly casual positioning were both quite seductive. She was wrapped in an aura that announced every bit of her body was top quality.
“Here you go. It’s black tea.”
“Hm? Oh, excuse me. You’re Hayabusa-kun’s broth-…no, nephew, aren’t you? How about we play a game? With the cookies stacked up like this, we have to remove them one at a time without causing the pile to collapse.”
She gave a friendly smile, but Shinobu looked troubled.
“When a guest is here, I’m not supposed to play around.”
“Eh? Oh…That’s certainly correct, but it kind of hurts to be treated like a complete stranger.”
Incidentally, Shinobu did not get so timid around the Youkai that entered the house without permission. It seemed we really were such distant beings that he saw no need to be concerned.
Hayabusa then entered the living room with a notebook in hand.
“Sorry about the wait. …Why are you hanging your head like that?”
“The shock of a slight rejection hit me pretty hard. Can I just go home for the day?’
“What’s this? Are you a complete moron or something?”
Having completed his task, Shinobu seemed to have nothing on his mind but the treasure map his mother was to give him. However, the beautiful student council president (ha) seemed interested in the helmet he wore.
“A quick question. What is that?”
“I’m exploring the attic!! The journey to the secret treasure chest is harsh and dangerous. It’ll be a dangerous adventure.”
“Kh. Why must everything you say stimulate my interest!?”
That quick comment was enough for Atou Minori to reluctantly sit up straight.
Meanwhile, I grabbed the curious Shinobu’s hand and pulled him back to the Western living room. We received a hand-drawn map of the house and made our way to a sliding door at a corner of the hall that led nowhere.
Inside was a steep staircase that almost looked like a ladder.
“It’s a staircase up.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Wow, Yukari! The treasure map is real!!”
“So it seems.”
I followed him up the stairs to the attic.
As an attic, the ceiling was low and it was not flat like in a normal room. It followed the shape of the thatch roof and rose to an acute angle in the center.
In exchange, it extended a good ways to the sides. It was a large house, so it should have been obvious that removing the inside walls would make a large space.
It was surprisingly warm, but I guessed that was because the house’s heat moved upwards.
“I-it’s dark…but I won’t lose! This is nothing compared to going to the bathroom at night!!”
While urging himself on, Shinobu continued further in.
He seemed not to have noticed that there were bare light bulbs hanging here and there and that he could light the area with the flip of a switch.
Darkness lurked in that space. Places like this reminded me of the organization named Hyakki Yakou that had once imprisoned me, but this place had no connection to that gloomy past.
It had originally been a large room for servants to sleep. The Jinnai house was famous for its warm reception, so I doubted it was filled with the strange kind of grudge that made spiritual something-or-others’ mouths water.
“Ksshh! Kssshhhhh! ‘Ingredient Choices that will Shorten Your Life’ begins Thursday at seven. This week, we will be taking a thorough look at the scary parts of fish that are usually viewed as healthier than pork or beef.”
“Wahh! Wh-what was that? I just heard a voice. Is someone there!?”
“Shinobu, your emergency flashlight has a radio on it. You probably hit the switch.”
After my exasperated comment, I came to a sudden realization.
Because the lights were off, I could catch glimpses of the house’s light through the gaps in the floorboards. I peered down and saw the Japanese living room from before.
Hayabusa and Minori were speaking with the tea table and notebook between them.
“As I said before, that method would mean too many victims. A crime like organ trafficking stands out, so they’d want to keep things quiet. There must be something else we’re not aware of.”
“But if some shady salesman came to the closed society of an Intellectual Village, no one would fall for it. Using the TV would be the best method.”
“You misunderstand. I’m not completely denying your celebrity theory. I’m trying to say there’s something else on top of that. Something that would prevent anything from showing up even if the police searched the celebrity’s house.”
“There is one thing that caught my interest related to that.”
“You mean the online store? I thought that would be the best place too.”
The flashlight turned toward me.
It blinded me a bit and Shinobu’s excited voice reached me.
“Look, look, Yukari! This is amazing!”
“What is it, Shinobu?”
“I found the treasure chest. And it had a backpack in it! A brand new one! This is the legendary backpack that only elementary school kids are allowed to wear!!”
His grandmother had likely set this all up before she began ironing.
But despite that heartwarming thought, I couldn’t focus.
Something else tugged at my attention.
The voices coming from the small gaps in the floorboards gave me a very bad feeling.
“The celebrity advertises it on TV and the customers buy the official goods on the online store. That’s the standard way of doing it.”
“But if you could make a site similar enough to the official one to draw in some of those customers, they would buy a completely different product while thinking they were buying what the famous celebrity recommended.”
“Also, the celebrity on TV wouldn’t know the other site existed. It wouldn’t have any connection to his business, so he wouldn’t even know he was getting his fans caught up in a crime.”
“The true criminals have no connection to the celebrity, so it doesn’t matter if the police search his house. That’s how the criminals are using a national broadcast for their crime.”
Shinobu gave me a blank stare.
The voices had to be reaching him, but they may have sounded like news of a far off country to him.
“Hayabusa-kun, let’s go back over the Youkai being used here.”
“The Aburatori. It originated in the Tohoku region, but unlike other Youkai, it didn’t appear until the Meiji period. That makes it a newcomer. However, its traits make it dangerous enough to overwhelm even other Youkai. Isn’t that right?”
“It’s a Youkai that disguises itself as a farmer and slips in with the other villagers working on the farms. However, no one has ever seen its true form. The next thing they know, it’s already made its way in, kidnapped a child, pierced the child with a thick skewer for cooking fish, and roasted the child over a fire.”
“Its goal is supposed to be the oil from the child’s organs, but it isn’t known why it kills children to take their oil.”
“It’s a Youkai without the lessons present in most Japanese ghost stories. The story doesn’t teach you to go home before it gets dark, not to swim in the river, or anything else. The Youkai simply appears, kidnaps, and kills. This is a negative product of more modern times when the tradition of fear has been lost, but it’s a problem when people start spreading fear that has no countermeasure.”
I felt like my head was spinning.
I felt like I had overlooked something terrible and that I was only noticing it now that its fatal result was showing itself.
A celebrity. An online store. A Youkai that kills children. Dieting. Organ trafficking. Colorful skewers. A method of losing weight. Oil taken from the organs. Kidnapping children and removing their organs. A Youkai that performed meaningless killing. The Aburatori. A Package using that dreadful Youkai.
I turned my head with the stiff movements of a doll needing to be oiled and looked at “him”.
His supposed diet had visually reduced his weight, but the real reason lay elsewhere.
With the lightness of a marionette whose strings were cut, Jinnai Shinobu collapsed to the floor.
The backpack inside the “treasure chest” rolled out.
I could not even scream.
I used my trembling hands to roll him onto his back and hesitantly touched his stomach over his clothes.
At that point, I just about passed out.
As if I was touching a thin rubber film, my slender fingertips sank down deeper and deeper.
It was as if the organs meant to be there had vanished.
I lost track of the flow of time.
The next thing I knew, I was in Shinobu’s bedroom and he was sleeping in the futon.
It was night outside and I could hear someone speaking from somewhere.
As I absentmindedly listened, I finally realized it was Jinnai Hayabusa’s voice.
That was just how messed up my ability to grasp the situation was.
“The Aburatori is a Youkai that kidnaps children and takes the oil from their organs. We are pursuing an organ trafficking Package that uses that trait to steal organs without anyone knowing. More specifically, it takes organs for transplant into children ten and under.”
“Organ trafficking seems like it would be naturally eliminated by tissue engineering, but young children are apparently a different story. The technology saves the healthy tissue before the illness occurs and creates new organs when necessary later. A baby born with an incurable disease can’t supply any healthy tissue, so even if the diseased tissue is used to create a new organ, there’s still a risk of the disease reoccurring. That’s why even that wonderful new technology isn’t perfect.”
“And with normal transplants, they have to wait their turn on a long list. Also, extremely young children can’t use adult organs. The lung or liver can be cut down to an appropriate size for transplant, but according to my upperclassman, there’s a limit to that too. However, there’s almost zero chance of getting an organ transplant from a brain dead child. …And even if people would be hesitant to do evil to save their own life, parents are willing to bloody their hands for their child. Some stupid bastard is taking advantage of those feelings to make some money here.”
“Shinobu used the colorful skewers endorsed on that diet show, didn’t he? I thought that looked dangerous, but it seems you’re chosen as the Aburatori’s target if you prick the inside of your mouth with them. In other words, your organs are taken. I hadn’t caught on until recently. If only I’d been sure, I would have taken them from him!”
“The Aburatori is a Youkai that kills without anyone noticing, so even the children having their organs taken in the organ trafficking Package don’t feel any pain. Something like an emulator makes up for what was taken. Of course, that won’t last forever. If that was enough, the children waiting for their surgery could just have their organs emulated. In other words, the emulators come with a time limit. Once that arrives, Shinobu will die.”
“The key to all this is of course the skewers he was using. That celebrity who was going all out advertising them on TV and the online store where they’re sold are completely unrelated to all this. If we look into the other site, we’ll find the people behind this Package. Once we do that…”
“I’ve heard enough,” I cut in quietly.
That’s right. I had no interest in the answers the humans were looking into.
To sum it up, a Package that stole and sold children’s organs without anyone knowing had been unleashed on this village.
The effeminate celebrity on TV had advertised a skewer diet and the criminals had created a fake version of the official site to pull in a few of the celebrity’s customers.
The customers who accessed the fake site and bought the colorful skewers identical to the real ones would be sent dangerous items that contained the deadly power of the Aburatori. From there, it was a matter of probability. If some percentage of the users pricked the inside of their mouth with the skewers, they would be designated a target and have their organs secretly removed.
That was how the village’s children such as Shinobu and Nagisa had been brought into it.
As the children continued their carefree daily lives, their situation had grown truly hopeless.
Also, I most likely knew who the silly human behind it was. Real life was not a mystery novel, so the most suspicious person was almost always the criminal. In that case, there was only one possible candidate I had seen recently. They knew a lot about programming and software, they were gloomy, they had plenty of complaints about Intellectual Villages, and they were unlikely to care if they got the villager’s involved.
But I didn’t have time to gather evidence and accuse the criminal.
Shinobu’s time limit would arrive as I did so.
It could be a few hours away or only half an hour. I didn’t know the specifics, but he had collapsed because the emulator was starting to give out. I doubted I had much time left and I had to end it all before he “fully realized” that his organs had been taken.
He spoke from the futon, so I smiled and lied.
“You have a cold. Playing in the snow too much really isn’t a good idea.”
I couldn’t tell if that was an agreement or a wince.
“I need to tell Nagisa I’m sorry.”
“Once my cold is better, I need to tell her I’m sorry that I said I couldn’t eat fried prawn tails.”
With that, he shut his eyes as if he had run out of strength.
Seeing it made me think quietly.
Ahh, he’s really going to die.
There’s no normal way to save him now.
The new backpack he had found in the attic lay next to his futon.
It would never be used even once.
It would become a symbol of the tragedy and it would collect dust because no one could bear to throw it out. No one had wanted it, but some unwanted interference had caused it all to fall apart.
As the thoughts in my heart scattered into a million pieces, something quietly gathered together.
I realized I had made up my mind.
Shinobu had not exactly fallen asleep. His mind was rising and falling from consciousness like when suffering from a high fever. After I watched his consciousness temporarily drift off, I spoke quietly to Hayabusa.
“You humans can continue judging the human criminal, but I’ll take a different route. As a Youkai, I’ll directly crush the Youkai at the center of this.”
The standard process was to gradually solve the mystery, find the criminal, use the traits of the Package against them, and settle it with a battle of wits.
But I was not going to go along with that.
Against someone who existed outside the rules, there was no need to follow the rules yourself.
I would render their carefully-prepared stage useless on the most fundamental level.
I would even destroy the world if it meant saving Shinobu and the others.
“Wait. Don’t tell me…”
Just once, I stroked Shinobu’s forehead as he lay in the futon with his eyes shut.
I then stood up and gave what amounted to a death sentence.
“I will personally kill that piece-of-shit Youkai known as the Aburatori.”
To those who did not know the truth, it may have seemed like a useless action.
However, there was no such thing as a useless action in this world.
I left the house and entered the snow. The full moon was visible directly overhead in that strange snowy night. My hands desired a weapon and my feet took me to the shed.
Two small figures hurriedly followed me.
They were a Hitotsume-Kozou and a Nopperabou. I did not know them, but they may have met Shinobu somewhere.
“Are you going to fight the Aburatori? I understand how you feel, but this makes no sense. A Youkai in a Package is just having its power misused by the worst sort of human. The Aburatori simply has the ability to kill. It doesn’t actually want to kill.”
“Also, we Youkai don’t die even if we’re stabbed or shot. That doesn’t always apply when it’s Youkai vs. Youkai, but that means you’re the one in danger here, Zashiki Warashi.”
That didn’t matter.
When I arrived at the shed, I grabbed the thick padlock on the door.
I did not need any kind of technique.
I merely needed a “chance”.
I randomly stuck a wire in the keyhole and shook it left and right.
The lock readily opened, so I opened the door, looked around, and randomly reached out my hand.
“A high branch cutter, hm?”
It was a two or three meter aluminum rod with a pair of pruning shears attached to the end.
The silhouette resembled a naginata.
More importantly, it was more than enough to jab and cut with.
I bit the edge of my lip with my canine tooth, scooped up the red blood with my tongue, and pressed it on the tool’s blade.
The Hitotsume-Kozou and the Nopperabou looked troubled.
“You can’t fight the Aburatori just because you have the power to kill. It doesn’t even matter if you have a connection to the Hyakki Yakou.”
“Its true essence lies in something other than strength. It simply appears, kidnaps, and kills. In other words, no one knows where it is. That’s what makes it so frightening.”
It was true the human police were unlikely to ever find the Aburatori no matter how long they searched. Not even cutting-edge unmanned security could stand up to the power of a Youkai that surpassed human knowledge.
But there was one exception and I had it.
“Do you know what a Zashiki Warashi has control over?”
Logic and instinct were not necessary.
I simply had to obey my inborn power.
I left the Jinnai property with the high branch cutter resting on my shoulder in place of a naginata and I ran through the snowy night illuminated by the full moon. I turned right at a fork in the road without hesitation, I continued straight at the next intersection, and I entered a very narrow farm road.
A Zashiki Warashi had control over destiny.
It was something like a formless temptation. Just as TV ads, magazine ads, internet topics, and other such things created a large wave that caused the customers to choose a product, people would slip in the direction that was easier to understand or easier to move in and they would not even realize they were doing it.
But if you understood how that temptation worked, you could move against the tide and fight it.
Normally, there was no way to come across the Aburatori just from running around randomly. That was simply how the world worked. In that case, I only needed to continue in the direction I would normally never go. I had to move in the direction that seemed most out of place and that I felt the most reluctance toward. If I moved against the flow, I would naturally head toward the most unlikely destiny.
I would meet the Aburatori who I supposedly could never meet.
And I arrived at that destiny.
“Oh? What have we here?”
The hoarse voice of an old man stopped me in one corner of the Intellectual Village.
The full moon stood out to a strange degree in the blizzard.
At first, I thought it was a scarecrow standing in the center of a snow-filled paddy with no water in it.
This was the symbol of an oddity invading a farming village.
Like it was an illusion, the entire scene seemed cut off from the rest of the world. It almost looked like something from a hanafuda card.
This place was “complete”.
It was a place no one should have been able to enter.
No matter how much times had changed and no matter how much foreign culture had been imported, the Aburatori and I were surrounded by the pure scenery of “rural Japan”.
No one could encroach on this territory.
It was a transient alternate world.
And its ruler, the deadly Aburatori, stood in the center of that blue scenery.
“My, my. What an adorable intruder. However, I have no interest in you even if your name labels you a ‘child’. Why are you here?”
His kimono was dyed dark to hide any stains and it was tightened around his legs. I spotted leggings meant to protect his lower legs. Also, he had a broad conical hat on his head. This was the stereotypical outfit of a farmer, but the arms and legs leaving the kimono were closer to being those of a mummy than of an old man. His hat was worn too low to see his face, but I had my doubts about whether he even had eyes anymore.
The hat hiding his face had a pattern drawn on it that resembled a single large eye. The giant eye was filled with an imprudent brightness as if it were toying with people’s lives.
But none of that mattered and my reply was blunt.
“I am here to kill you for Shinobu’s sake.”
He replied with a twisting of the voice that sounded like a mix of surprise and laughter.
“My, my. I had heard rumors I was being used for human crimes, but what has my power done now? You can discuss this with me. It pains me to think my power is being used to harm while I am wholly unaware. Now, how should we begin?”
“Try not to cry.” My voice came out as if to cut into him. “That settled it. I had thought the odds were about 50/50, but now I’m certain. Aburatori, I will kill you and I’ve found my reason for doing so. I am 100% certain that side of you is toying with Shinobu. You know what I mean, don’t you?”
“W-wait. Please wait! It is true I may have been careless, but surely you understand as a Youkai who has grown close to humans. Humans are clever. They always manage to outdo us in cunning. No matter how careful you are, you sometimes simply cannot avoid being incorporated into a Package. I…I am a victim here too!!”
I felt I was being self-righteous.
Essentially, I was killing a stranger to protect someone I knew. That was no different from the parents of the sick children who were buying the organs. In order to save their precious child, they were willing to take another’s life. That was the essence of it.
“Don’t tell me you aren’t involved.”
However, I was not going to take the life of someone “wholly uninvolved”.
In other words…
“After all, you purposefully incorporated yourself into this Package because – deep down – you enjoy killing.”
A brief silence fell.
It was so silent that I almost thought I could hear the snow falling in the light of the full moon.
That silence was broken only by my voice.
“There are many different kinds of Youkai. Some curse themselves for possessing a deadly power, some reach a compromise and coexist with humans despite possessing such a power, and some…some enjoy attacking humans from the bottom of their heart. You wanted to have your fill of killing children while also shoving the blame onto some humans so you could hold the position of a victim. That’s why you overlooked the Package that you very well knew was being assembled. Am I wrong?”
He began to writhe.
An eerie wriggling as if of worms came over the unseen face below the hat.
The movement produced a laugh.
“Heh heh. Kah kah kah kah kah kah kah kah kah!! So you saw through it! You saw all the way through it! But I didn’t provide any of the material needed to reach that answer. Is that also because you’re a Zashiki Warashi in charge of destiny?”
Youkai like us were the occult given form and with a mind enclosed inside.
Thus when we were used in a shikigami, magic, or a Package, a way of controlling the mind beyond simple logic was needed. That is, if you didn’t pacify us, we would bare our fangs.
So before discussing the evil of the Package, one had to sometimes question whether the Youkai itself was good or evil.
“This child organ trafficking Package uses the TV and an online store. I thought it was an interesting setup, but it appears to have gone too far. I have a bad habit of prioritizing my prey over safety.”
“Of course it did. This kind of thing will be discovered pretty quickly. Even some local high school students had caught on.”
“No, not necessarily.”
I heard a sticky sound that made me imagine a smile beyond the hat.
“The buyers of the children’s organs would never speak a word. If they revealed that an organ obtained through illicit means was located inside their precious child, it would affect that child’s future as well as their own. So they will never speak of it. More importantly…”
I heard what sounded like heavy objects falling into the snow around us.
“The silly human behind this had a perfect plan, but they hesitated at the last second. They said they just couldn’t kill children, so they had the organs taken out as quickly as they could. I told them I would cut off the emulators to kill the children if they didn’t meet their monthly quota, so as long as this criminal system exists, they will keep the prey coming to me as if on a conveyor belt. I rearranged the entire system like that.”
They looked like pre-packaged Salisbury steak.
The fist-sized squishy objects were wrapped in clear plastic.
But I did not look at them.
I knew they were the “product”, but I did not look at them for the moment.
“So you took over the Package.”
“Hm, that’s not quite how I interpret it. I prefer to think of it as gathering everything I need to more efficiently kidnap children.”
“You no longer even have something you gain in exchange for the children’s lives.”
“The Aburatori was never something that saved anything. There is no meaning in the action of taking the oil. I am…yes, I am chaos. I act solely in search of human fear.”
This Package had been created by human hands and yet it had completely left their control.
It was similar to the threat of a leaked biological weapon.
This monster had risen from the level of a deadly Youkai that simply walked through the darkness and its atrocities had spread to a wider area.
“I won’t even bother asking why.”
“Oh, but that’s what I most want you to ask. I do have my own personal view on killing. Connoisseurs are always picky.”
“If I kill you it opens the way for Shinobu to live. Destiny is telling me that. So die. I won’t let you refuse.”
I stepped on the accumulated snow and thrust out the long blade that was covered with my own blood.
Meanwhile, the Aburatori merely smiled.
“Did this chance to meet me make you think you are somehow special? I am a variation on a deadly Youkai while you are a harmless Zashiki Warashi. The difference in strength is obvious, so there should be no meaning in a fight.”
“No, you know there’s meaning.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because you are preparing for a fight. Those fish-cooking skewers in your hands are the symbol for killing children, aren’t they?”
He seemed to have only noticed it once I pointed it out.
His intent gaze dropped to the several dozen metal skewers spread out like a fan.
One of the worst of the deadly Youkai would have no reason to react that way to a harmless Zashiki Warashi, so this was proof enough that I was not just a harmless Zashiki Warashi.
This threat taking a farmer’s shape spoke while his shoulders shook.
He was of course laughing.
“If you follow the legends back, we are both Youkai from Tohoku. One is a symbol of the mysterious attackers who kill children. The other is a symbol of all the children killed by their parents to have fewer mouths to feed. To think the two of us would meet in the same place.”
The Package no longer mattered.
This was a fight to the death between Youkai and there was no room for human intervention.
We both naturally named ourselves as if cruelly making a criminal tremble by telling them how they would be executed.
“Hyakki Yakou Prototype Ver. 39 Zashiki Warashi. Personal Name within the Jinnai Family: Yukari.”
“An Aburatori. A variation created in modern times when the tradition of fear has been lost.”
And as if we had agreed to it beforehand, we clashed.
The sound of clashing metal filled the air.
Orange sparks intruded on the strange white and dark blue scenery of the full moon over the snow.
The Aburatori looked like a farmer hiding his face behind his hat and his arms and legs looked like tree branches. Every time he rotated, he scattered several dozen skewers like a shotgun. He seemed to have an unlimited supply because a few dozen more would spread out like a fan each time the old man moved his fingers.
A distance of twenty meters was nothing to that Youkai.
He would appear, kidnap, and kill without anyone knowing. The concept of distance likely did not fit well with him.
While scattering countless skewers as if dancing, the Aburatori spoke in a voice that hurt the ears.
Orange sparks scattered and his smile seemed to grow each time the branch cutter knocked down a bullet.
“Wonderful!! A single scrape from my skewers is enough for me to take all your organs! Stepping on one of the skewers you have knocked to the ground would be fatal!! You are certain to lose your organs at some point, but your Youkai trait is allowing you to avoid that fate!!”
It did not matter what he said.
I did not need to worry about it.
I did everything I could to protect my field. I only had to fight the temptation and choose the option most removed from the one I was naturally drawn toward. Because a Zashiki Warashi was so weak, that “impossible destiny” would allow me to survive.
“Still, this is a strange twist of fate,” said the Aburatori while spinning the fan of skewers in his hand. “I could be seen as a symbol of the adults who kill children. The existence of monstrous people like that is frightening, but that very existence allows people to dispose of children without dirtying their own hands. Those wicked thoughts were what brought me into existence.”
“There is no shortage of food in this age, so you can’t justify killing by saying it’s one less mouth to feed!”
“Hah hah hah!! But they are slaughtered in dark rooms, left in the parking lot of pachinko parlors, and recently I believe they are killed even before birth when an incurable disease is detected. If anything, this age is even crueler. There’s no pressing reason for killing children, yet the act is on the rise!!”
“Do you really think the age desires those meaningless atrocities!?”
“What other explanation is there? This country is a cursed land with a culture of family killing at a level not often seen in the world. They have long killed their parents with the practice of ubasute and killed their children when food is scarce. But even now that they have plenty, the family killing continues. These people can still kill their family even after forgetting the reason why. That is their true essence. I have become the standard!!”
Despite the shotgun blast of skewers I moved forward.
The barrage was not as hopeless as it might look.
As long as I understood destiny, I easily knew how to break through while only deflecting two or three of them.
“On the other hand, you are the symbol of the children killed by those practices. You come from the convenient idea that the children killed by their own parents will actually bring prosperity to the family as guardian deities! I may be the attacker and you may be the victim, but we are actually quite similar. When you get down to it, we were both created by the desires of the parents who killed their children!!”
The concept of distance was meaningless. There was no such thing as close range and long range.
The Aburatori clearly believed that because he gave up his own advantage and took a step toward me.
“That is why you could not forgive someone who killed children for no reason. Did you enjoy feeling like a child’s guardian? But this will bring you no comfort. Even if you save this one child you call Shinobu, it will not revive the many children who were killed in the past to bring about the being known as the Zashiki Warashi.”
He was now in range of the branch cutter I used in place of a naginata.
By opposing destiny, I thrust forward the blade that would normally never hit.
The Aburatori audibly slipped a few centimeters to the side of the blade.
He was a step beyond me?
Even my power…no, the power over destiny that Hyakki Yakou developed wasn’t enough to reach him!?
“You can never be saved,” whispered the Aburatori from so close that I could feel his breath.
Several dozen skewers spread out like fans in both his hands.
“No one can change what has already come to an end. That applies to the children of the past and for the one you call Shinobu.”
A moment later, a downpour of over one hundred sharp pieces of metal rushed toward my stomach from only a few centimeters away.
It all came to an end.
The high branch cutter I used in place of a naginata was a weapon with a thick blade much like pruning shears attached to the end of a two meter shaft. It had a long reach, but it was useless when right up next to an enemy.
On the other hand, the Aburatori could use over one hundred thick skewers when using both hands. If he threw them all at close enough range for his breath to reach me, I had no way of deflecting them.
He had anticipated any attempt to evade and had scattered the skewers over a large fan shape. Moving left or right and even ducking down would leave me full of skewers.
Those skewers were the symbol of killing children, removing their organs, cooking them over a fire, and taking the oil.
A single scratch would use the logic of the child organ trafficking Package to divide my organs up and pack them in plastic, and more than one hundred of them were flying toward me. As I could not defend or evade, it was plain as day what would happen.
However, that was by the Aburatori’s logic.
I could control destiny, so I had no obligation to follow his logic.
The sound of clashing metal filled the air as all the skewers were knocked down by the branch cutter.
The Aburatori looked completely dumbfounded for a moment.
Not that I could blame him.
He had moved within a few centimeters of me and my naginata-analogue was over two meters long. It would have been impossible to knock down all the skewers unless all one hundred or so of them flew backwards.
Also, hitting five or ten of them was one thing, but to knock down all of them would require them to move as if they had been drawn in by a powerful magnet.
“Is it really that strange? It was wrong to ever start thinking about Youkai using the laws of physics.”
“Wha-…bu-… Don’t tell me… Don’t tell me you’d done it from the beginning…”
Did he think I had solved the mystery of this incident surrounding him?
Did he think I’d gotten back at him by using the traits or weakness of the Youkai used in the Package?
If he really thought that, he was far too self-conscious.
This was a story of revealing the rules controlling Youkai and using those rules to defeat them.
However, he was not the only Youkai here.
This was my field.
This was a cruel fairy tale where he would meet a tragic end unless he analyzed the traits of the Zashiki Warashi, found a weakness, and took appropriate action.
“From the beginning, I was fighting against the destiny that exists within the rules of the Zashiki Warashi. My actions were only meant to fight the destiny that would lead to Shinobu’s death. That just so happened to take the physical form of picking up a weapon, running through the village, and fighting an Aburatori.”
How I swung the branch cutter had not mattered.
How and from where the skewers had been thrown had not mattered.
As long as I had fought the destiny that would lead to Shinobu’s death, everything around me would correct itself to bring about that result.
The locations of the branch cutter and the skewer could be manipulated to fit.
“You seem to be mistaken about something.”
I spun around the branch cutter.
I held it so it passed from my back and under my left arm as if making a tricky shot in pool.
“I came here to rescue Shinobu. I did not care in the slightest about you!!”
I once more thrust the blade forward at close range.
With a dull sound, the thick blade stabbed deep into the center of the Aburatori’s chest.
A Youkai would not die from being stabbed or shot, but things were different in a battle between Youkai. That blade had already been covered in my blood, so the damage would take effect.
He looked down at his own chest as if seeing something very strange.
He then collapsed backwards as if widening the wound by forcibly pulling out the thick blade.
The blood that finally decided to spew out was black and seemed to indicate the nature of the Youkai.
“Yes, it is.”
I was shocked to receive a reply.
I looked over to see that the Aburatori was speaking where he lay sprawled out in the snow. It was hard to tell if the words were coming from the mouth hidden by the eye-pattern hat or the gaping hole in his chest.
“The child organ trafficking Package will fall apart with the Youkai at its core gone. To correct the unreasonable action, the stolen organs will likely return to the original children.”
This was strange.
Something was not right.
If that was all, then why was that evil Youkai smiling?
“But if that happens, what will happen to the sick children who have already received their organ transplants? Not even I know that. They may have the organ torn from them and die or they may regain the original diseased organ. The result is the same either way. They have no future. You have done nothing more than kill children to save a child.”
I thought my breathing would stop.
“The people who tried to make money off of organ trafficking were probably trash. The parents who bought the organs knowing where they came form should probably be punished for their actions.”
Even after losing and sinking into death, the Aburatori savored his sadistic victory.
“But the sick children themselves did nothing wrong. Just to be clear, the number of children saved was greater than those attacked. When the organs are split up and given to individual patients, a single child can save multiple children. Meaning! You have created a situation where you kill a greater number of children to save a smaller number of children!! Heh heh heh hah hah!! Welcome to the path of killing. I hope you enjoy sinking into this unescapable mire.”
He did not beg me to therefore save him and return things to normal.
He preferred to enjoy the present situation.
No matter what I did and no matter who I tried to save, either the children whose organs had been stolen would die or the ones saved by those stolen organs would die. This Youkai had stood in the way of the clichéd goal of “saving children”, but he had waited until now to make me bear the heavy cross of letting someone die.
For a while, I stood motionless in the moonlit snow.
The makeshift weapon felt heavy in my hand.
Finally, I squeezed my hand and quietly remembered I held a weapon.
The Aburatori laughed while a shocking amount of blood flowed from his dried chest.
“Kill me if you like, but it will change nothing. Now, choose to let the children die while resting easy that no one can see this shameful action.”
He clearly did not understand.
Say there was a Person A and a Person B and a single person had to die. That did not mean that you could not save both A and B.
Yes. If Person C saw that terrible situation and gave his own life as an additional option, that single required life could be taken while both A and B were saved.
“Do you remember that I called myself Hyakki Yakou Prototype Ver. 39 Zashiki Warashi?”
“What about it?”
“Do you really think the Hyakki Yakou would put together a project that would do nothing more than let them choose between the destinies currently in existence? Do you really think they are such a weak organization that they could not complete a project on that level and it would stall in the prototype phase?”
“You can’t mean…it goes beyond that? But the only phenomenon greater than what you have already demonstrated is…!!”
“I have already shown you I can modify destiny. That is, freely choose from the existing options. But this goes beyond that. Hyakki Yakou attempted and failed to create a method of creating a completely different line of destiny from nothing.”
Here, that would mean saving all the children whose organs had been taken and also saving all the children who were allowed to live by the taken organs.
The only way to allow for that clearly contradictory situation was to create a brand new destiny. The world had to be deceived into thinking two completely identical organs existed, as if they were twins.
What I had to do was simple.
It was what I always did: move my body such that I opposed the invisible temptation.
However, this was completely different from before. It was like a puny human using only their bare hands to oppose a press meant to crush cars. By any normal reckoning, I would be crushed. As if the world’s destiny were rejecting a mere individual’s circumstances, normal destiny would continue even if it meant crushing the one who desired change.
But I would force that reckless action to work.
A creaking sound filled the air as I kneeled on the spot. I held the branch cutter in both hands and pressed its tip against my stomach.
I did not know what meaning the action held.
It likely had no real meaning in a physical sense.
But the overwhelming pain as if crushing each of my fingers and compressing my backbone reminded me of the destiny I had to fight. I became aware of the very thin foreign feeling passing from the top of my head to the end of my butt. It had been placed inside me. This was a product of Hyakki Yakou’s insane ideas and reliable techniques. The theory had never been completed, but I forced it to work regardless. As a result, a sensation of long, thin wires twisted within me.
It’s going to break.
I naturally knew that.
No matter the result, I was going to lose everything as a Zashiki Warashi. Like an automaton with its gears messed with, I would no longer function as a Youkai.
“Why do you go this far?”
I suddenly heard a hoarse voice.
It came from the Youkai that still ruled the area despite having lost.
“It is only a finite human life. No matter how many you kill, more appear like bamboo shoots after a rain until they cover the surface of the earth! There are more efficient methods for an eternal Youkai. Even if someone dies this generation, you only have to choose a favorite from the next generation. And yet you…”
“You would probably never understand even if you did live an eternity,” I spat out at him. “That’s why you don’t even cut it as a ghost story. You don’t give any lesson such as don’t lie or treat your parents right. You can’t bring anything beyond useless cruelty and scorn.”
For an instant – truly just an instant – I heard the Aburatori’s face bend behind the hat.
But I did not continue watching.
I had something to take care of that was much more important than that failure of a Youkai.
I thrust the thick blade into my own stomach.
The thin wire-like foreign feeling running through the center of my body shattered like glass.
And that was how I lost everything.
The following day, the snow had completely stopped. The large yard beyond the veranda was still covered in white and it glittered wondrously as the soft spring sun hit it.
I was lazy by nature. On a cold day like this, I would feel like founding an independent nation inside the kotatsu, but I sat on the veranda on this day.
My internal structure as a Zashiki Warashi had completely failed.
Not even I knew what effect it would have on me. Not even visiting a specialist in spiritual medicine was likely to help. Not even your average underground business could handle a Youkai that had the essence of Hyakki Yakou stuffed into her and then had it take severe damage.
Even just losing my power related to fortune or destiny would hurt.
It was possible this would affect my ability to maintain my body that was not bound by the laws of physics.
I could be destroyed or I could eternally suffer without any way to be destroyed. The fear of such things could cause my mind to fall apart. This was the fear of not knowing what would happen. Just because I was fine one day did not mean I would be the next. I would have to live while praying as if crossing an old suspension bridge.
I did not know how long I would be able to continue seeing this scene, so I committed it to memory as if burning it into my mind.
It was a ritual.
But then a clattering of dishes interrupted my peaceful and pessimistic ritual. I looked over and saw Shinobu carrying his breakfast tray with as dangerous a grip as ever.
“Yukari, you can’t eat alone, so let’s eat together.”
The same sentiment as before softened my cheeks.
Shinobu, Nagisa, the other children whose organs had been taken, and even the sick children who had undergone illegal surgeries had all been forcibly saved.
This result was the one bright side of the situation.
It seemed Hayabusa had found the silly human behind it, so none of the evil remained.
I hesitantly stood up from the veranda to move into the altar room where my breakfast was ready. I did not know how much strength I could use, so I would need to thoroughly test my upper limits at some point. For the moment, the lack of any pain was the most disturbing and frightening part. Rather than making me think I was fine, it made me think I was in a state similar to losing my sense of pain from damaging the spine.
“Hurry, Yukari. The food’ll get cold.”
“Wait, Shinobu. Walk more slowly.”
“Hm? What is it? Is there some food you don’t like? You’re supposed to eat everything, but don’t worry! If it’s too bad, I’ll save you.”
His innocent words made me smile quietly.
“Perhaps you really will save me someday.”
In the present, the evening was filled with the stuffy heat of late summer. A high school boy had his hair dyed blonde, had his legs impolitely crossed, held a popsicle in his mouth, and looked in annoyance at a few envelopes that appeared to contain love letters. A Zashiki Warashi gave a heavy sigh as she looked at him.
“Shinobu, I am really disappointed.”
“Wait a second. Where the hell did that come from?”
- Warashi means child.
- Japanese for porcupinefish literally means “a thousand needles”.
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