The Zashiki Warashi of Intellectual Village:Volume4 Chapter 3
Chapter 3: Sunekosuri / No One Can Predict the Future
Part 1 (3rd person)
An unmanned train station was surrounded by tranquil rural scenery.
The platform had no roof, a few clumps of zebra grass grew on the gravel road, and that grass blew in the cool autumn wind. The sky was a clear blue and a great number of dragonflies filled it.
A man in a suit sat alone on a bench that had long gone unused. He was on the border between middle-aged and elderly, yet he was quite muscular.
No train was coming.
The station had originally had fewer than ten trains stop by in a day and the line had been closed over half a year earlier. Much to their annoyance, those who had used the line were forced to use the less-convenient community bus. They complained, but the level of convenience brought by the trains was still something they could let go if they had to. And as time went on, the station went from being “unmanned” to being “abandoned”.
The man had chosen to sit here because he loved the scenery.
He held a chilled can of beer and a bucket filled with lots of ice and cans sat at his feet.
“Hello,” he said out of the blue.
Someone else had appeared on that closed station that should have been forgotten by everyone.
A woman wearing the ridiculously revealing outfit of a tank top and hot pants had arrived at some point.
Her name was Hishigami Mai.
Hers was a well-known name within a certain small industry.
“Sit down,” said the man while glancing over at Mai with beer in hand. “The scenery from here is wonderful. All those Intellectual Villages are remaking the rural areas into theme parks, so this truly natural Japanese scenery is dying out.”
“Do you always do this?”
“No, this is a recent thing. Something led me to start reflecting on life.”
Hishigami Mai sat next to the man while listening to him.
The paint was coming off the wooden bench that creaked under their weight.
The man spoke quickly while looking up at the dragonflies moving freely through the sky.
“I have cancer. The doctor said I had three months to live, but that was two years ago. I could die at any moment, but I’ve gotten sick of being driven by fear. If I could die tomorrow, I want to live with no regrets. This helped me rethink some things.”
“And that’s what led to this?”
With some exasperation on her face, Mai looked around the area once more.
She saw a rural unmanned train station. A few clumps of zebra grass grew on the gravel road, that grass blew in the cool autumn wind, and the sky was filled with a great number of dragonflies.
That scenery was covered in enough red to completely overturn that impression.
A quick glance at the clumps of flesh lying around was enough to know that more than twenty men had been killed instantly.
“They said they were going to develop this land,” bluntly stated the man after taking a sip of his beer. “Is this what you call the end of an era? Japan’s rural areas are constantly pressured to either join the Intellectual Villages or develop into a regional city. And it’s all because these idiots are trying to increase the value of the land without knowing the difference between the real thing and a fake. So I invited them out here and killed them.”
A long, narrow object lay on the man’s lap.
It looked like a sword inside a simple scabbard, but it technically was not. It was bamboo whittled down to look like a sword.
It was a deadly weapon.
Just as a bamboo leaf or book page could cut one’s finger, even a bamboo sword could kill if the angle and speed were properly calculated out. This man was skilled enough in the art of swordplay to easily cut through someone’s neck or torso with it. Due to how light the blade was compared to one of metal, the man was said to be able to strike five times in the span of a single breath. That allowed him to ignore the fact that this weapon could not block an opponent’s attack.
Also, the bamboo needed to make the sword could be easily acquired at any part of the archipelago except for Hokkaido. Even if it broke, he could acquire another as long as he had a knife. There was a danger of a piece of the bamboo remaining in the corpse’s wound, but bamboo swords could be burned. If he burned the murder weapon after each job and acquired a new one, a plant DNA test was not a problem. Even if they had clear evidence, it was useless without anything to compare it to.
The ease of acquiring the weapon also helped him bring a murder weapon into cordoned-off or closely-monitored areas. For that matter, having a bamboo sword found during an inspection or police questioning was not a problem. They could even be carried on airplanes.
It was truly the tool of a professional.
“C’mon, now. Surely you’ve realized that the reason for killing doesn’t really matter.” Mai sounded bored. “You’re the type of person that can only live while fighting. You wish to fight and only then do you start searching for a reason to fight. This business with the real scenery and concrete land development didn’t really matter.”
“It’s not even that innocent.” The man smiled while swishing around the little bit of beer left in the can. “I’m a professional. All of my jobs were complete shit, but I have pride in my skill. I just can’t stand that it will be disease that kills me. I can’t bear a quiet death. As a professional, I want a formidable enemy’s blade to finish me. I thought someone would eventually come for me if I went on a bit of a rampage. I kept doing it, but I’ve somehow managed to live this long. I’m from an older generation, so I will say a woman assassin was a bit unexpected. But I guess that’s another sign of the changing times.”
“Whatever your reasons, you did a good job killing that many people. Even the higher ups of Hyakki Yakou aren’t sure what to do. If you’d taken official jobs, you’d probably be given an award or a trophy or something, but skipping that process means you have to be executed.”
“Ha ha. I forgot to mention it, but while I’m a professional, I also have pride in never working for anyone else. I wouldn’t have accepted those jobs even if you’d asked.”
He took one last swig of beer, shook the can to make sure it was empty, and easily crushed it in one hand.
“So, miss, I’ve forgotten if this is the fortieth or fiftieth time, but I’ll ask you the same thing I’ve asked so many times before: will you watch over this man’s final moments?”
Hishigami Mai readily agreed.
She spoke with the lightness of a child promising to play with a friend that weekend.
However, this promise concerned a true fight to the death between professionals.
“But it’s already over.”
The man’s shoulders shook as he sat in the bench.
He suddenly realized he did not even have the strength to stand.
Completely dumbfounded, only his lips moved.
“When did you stab me?”
“Far earlier than you are probably thinking.”
Mai shrugged while sitting next to him.
Something stood straight out from between the man’s neck and collarbone. It was a needle as long as a human’s index finger and it was stabbed all the way to the base.
“A killer needle,” he said with a smile. “How much work did it take you to reach this moment?”
“It took seventy-two hours from the moment I took the job to the moment I could envision your corpse. It was not as powerful a dream as love, but you could perhaps call it a longing.”
Mai also smiled thinly.
“I don’t like using special weapons because disguising it as an accident or suicide is safer, but I decided to show some respect to someone who has been in this business longer than me. What do you think?”
“You did well. These days, you don’t often see people kill with a needle that isn’t covered in poison or anesthetic. Also, you placed the tip right in front of the vital point so my own muscles would push it in when I tensed them. It’s a lot like serving a still-moving fish.”
Satisfied, the man leaned back in the bench and slowly closed his eyes.
He looked like he was savoring the moment as he spoke.
“It’s been a while since I last saw the real deal. I can’t help but be satisfied after receiving this kind of treatment.”
“I would like to ask one thing.”
Hishigami Mai sounded perfectly casual as she looked up into the rural sky.
“You are a legend in this small industry, so how did you fall this far? If you had wanted to, you could have suppressed the fear of cancer.”
“Like I said, that was just what started it,” he replied slowly with his eyes closed. “People like us are invincible while we race forward without turning back. But there are moments when we want to look back. That is a mere temptation. It is the fingertips of the grim reaper stroking down our spine. I knew that. I really did.”
“But your deadly disease gave you one last push in that direction?”
“I turned back and saw the path I’d walked down. I also saw what I had gained from it all. …I will not say what it was I saw there, but I want to die in battle. After all, I would prefer not to die along with my enemy.”
Those were his final words.
His arm dangled down while still holding the crushed can.
He remained leaning back in the bench, but his head drooped forward. He almost looked like he had dozed off.
A legend had come to its end.
“I know what you saw,” muttered Mai now that she was alone. “You saw nothing, didn’t you? After countless fights to the death, you assumed you had gained so much, but when you turned back, there was nothing there. But it was your own weakness that made you despair at that.”
Or perhaps this man had been the same.
He may have told himself over and over again that he understood that.
He may have been afraid of truly understanding it and had simply pretended that he did.
Hishigami Mai pulled out a large satellite phone and called someone.
She looked to the dead man who seemed to be sleeping next to her and the countless corpses he had scattered around.
“This was an official job, so I can leave the cleanup to you, right? Right, right. I’ll leave all this here and head back. I’d like my payment right away. …But this one might be a little tricky.”
The term Sunekosuri referred to small canine Youkai like me. We were about thirty centimeters tall and may have somewhat resembled a toy shiba inu. We had no scary traits that would lead to someone’s death. Instead, we had long been famous for rubbing up against traveler’s shins. Hence why we’re known as Sunekosuri or “shin rubbers”.
I was something like a mascot character with nothing dangerous in my appearance or traits.
Nevertheless, I belonged to Hyakki Yakou, a giant underworld organization that would scare even a crying child into silence.
“Yes, yes. Outta the way, outta the way. I won’t stop you from wasting the organization’s money with your existence, but at least stay out of the way of the other Youkai. Do you really think you’re worth causing even the slightest delay for me, the one known as the queen of the Mamedanuki world?”
How can you say that when you’re even shorter than me!?
“You’re not doing anything either! You just sit around smoking day in and day out. And how can you call yourself a queen with those things swaying down between your legs!?”
“Don’t you dare go there, you fool!! A Mamedanuki transforms by spreading their scrotum, so I can’t help it, now can I!? Also, I work as the lady’s body double, so it’s for the best if I have nothing to do!!”
“Call her Hafuri-sama! Don’t refer to the head of Hyakki Yakou as ‘the lady’!!”
“What was that? You wanna fight!?”
The Mamedanuki and I got into a scuffle as usual. To others, it might have looked like a fluffy ball rolling around, but for us, it was a serious battle.
But then someone else arrived.
Instead of more Youkai, it was two humans.
“What’s this? What’s this? Some cute things are playing around. Let me join!”
One was Hishigami Mai. Using human standards, she had a nice body. However, she was a freelance agent that did not actually belong to Hyakki Yakou and she specialized in killing. In her field, it was said that simply meeting her meant your death.
“What are you two fighting about?”
The other was Hafuri-sama. As I had said, she was the head of Hyakki Yakou. The kimono-wearing girl was only about ten, but Hyakki Yakou emphasized bloodline.
The Mamedanuki and I quickly jumped back from each other.
“Milady, um, you see…!!”
As soon as the two of us spoke up, we glared at each other again.
“I told you to call her Hafuri-sama!!”
“Why are you being so distant!? You aren’t going to double-cross her the second you run into trouble, are you!?”
Sparks flew between us, Mai-san laughed uproariously, and Hafuri-sama brought a hand to her forehead and sighed.
I then noticed a Youkai leaning against Hafuri-sama’s small leg.
It looked a lot like a five centimeter stuffed animal.
“Daddy, what’re you doing?”
“Hm?” Mai-san stiffened a bit. “Don’t tell me you’re a dad! When you look like that!?”
“I-I don’t have to explain anything to you.”
“And look how cute he is! I want to stick a fastener on his butt and make a cellphone strap out of him!!”
“I’ll do whatever you ask! Just stay away from my kid! It scares me that I could actually see you doing it!!”
Dammit. She specializes in sabotage, so she spotted my weakness right away!
Mai-san grinned with great interest, so I averted my gaze and spoke half in desperation.
“L-laugh if you want, but the reason I gave up my peaceful life for this kind of work was to find my wife who vanished one day!!”
“What kind of hardboiled motivation is that!? It doesn’t match your appearance at all!!”
Hishigami Mai-san and I were work partners on a provisional basis.
And that meant I was along on underworld business worthy of the name Hyakki Yakou.
“The G20 summit meeting sounds like some terribly formal event, but doesn’t it feel more close to home when you hear it’s happening at Hakone? The cabinet members of the various foreign nations were insistent on holding the meeting at a Japanese hot spring town.”
Inside a soba restaurant near the train station at the entrance of Hakone, the elderly and clearly bored restaurant owner watched the TV. The place was almost deserted despite it being lunchtime, but he didn’t seem to care much.
As a Youkai, I did not much like concrete or precision equipment, but this was little enough that I could still bear it. That may have been because the city was deep in the forest and the mountains. Mai-san was slurping up a combination of cheap kitsune and tanuki soba and I asked a question while rubbing up against her shin.
“Don’t you find this mission strange? Why would they ask you to wait in Hakone until further orders?”
“Hm? Well, they might need to locate the target before sending me in to attack. That G20 meeting is going on, right? They wouldn’t succeed in assassinating a cabinet member, but some dangerous person might show up all the same. I can use this chance to earn some points by capturing some idiot who would normally vanish without a trace.”
“But they really chose a complicated place for an international meeting. That might be part of the trap to lure in that supposed idiot.”
“Hakone is divided between a few Intellectual Villages that are primarily hot spring towns and a regional city that supports the infrastructure. We’re in that city. A long time ago, it was common to combine cities, towns, and villages. Nowadays, they actually divide them up further to help push their own brand name.”
“And how is that complicated?”
“The Intellectual Villages thoroughly reproduce people’s image of rural Japan and make a brand name out of it, but that means they can’t make department stores or shopping malls. They have to use online stores to shop and that leads to hubs for electric trucks being built in a donut around the Intellectual Villages.”
“Um, in other words, the Intellectual Villages make a lot of money but have almost no services, so they join with the regional cities that have almost no money but can supply the necessary services?”
“Officially, yes. However, it actually has ill will complexly wrapped all around it. For example, the hospitals have plenty of helicopter ambulances, but they aren’t used when a patient turns up in the regional city. After all, those helicopters are expensive, so they’ll only use them for the Intellectual Villages, even though the hospitals themselves are in the cities. …Meanwhile, the Intellectual Villages are upset that they have to bear the burden of someone else’s debt. They want to know why they have to pay such high taxes for ‘regional financial health’.”
“So when you say complicated…”
“If some large-scale incident occurs, it’ll be heard to tell whether it was targeting the G20 or caused by the local societal conflict. And a professional would be able to slip in and hide within the hatred permeating the area. This is a giant pain in the ass. If you assume someone is an assassin, you might find you attacked a local kid spray painting a protest on the wall. …Of course, the opposite can happen too.”
Just as we were discussing those issues, a change came over the tone of the voice on the restaurant’s television. I looked over in confusion and found the easygoing daytime talk show had been interrupted by a news program.
Rather than a proper studio, the footage showed an editing room with tons of monitors lined up.
“Is this an emergency broadcast?” I asked.
“How should I know?”
With a G20 summit meeting in town, an emergency broadcast was no laughing matter.
I focused on the screen while a young female newscaster spoke stiffly.
“Hishigami Mai, who was visiting the city, has been found in pieces in the mountains of Hakone. The body’s injuries are severe and the police are investigating it as a possible murder or a possible wild animal attack.”
It felt like time had ground to a halt.
The restaurant owner did not understand the gravity of the situation, so he still looked bored.
I looked up at Mai-san and she shrugged.
“How should I know?”
Regardless of what she said, I could tell her “scent” had changed.
That “scent” had grown much more dangerous.
“But this is strange.”
“Y-yes, it is strange for a false report to be spread so widely.”
“Not what I meant,” she cut in. “I don’t use the name Hishigami Mai in everyday life. In fact, there is technically no birth registration under that name. In my family, the ‘Hishigami women’ are seen as abominations. Normally, they’re killed at birth, so a Hishigami woman is one that was unleashed upon the world after somehow escaping that fate.”
“So the name Hishigami Mai may exist, but it isn’t recorded anywhere. And with no records, no one can use it. If you know my name, it means you’ve taken at least one step away from the normal world. And that means…”
This was real trouble.
That was the obvious conclusion and Mai-san was the person most directly involved.
And yet she was smiling.
“Someone in the same underworld business as me is challenging me to a fight that involves the occult. If that show itself was part of a Package or some other gimmick, this might be a bit of a problem.”
“The number you are attempting to reach is not currently in use. Please double check the number and…”
“Uuh!? You!? But you’re supposed to be dead! Click!!”
Beep beep beep.
“Huh? What is it, Mai-san? They’re saying on the news that you were ripped to pieces. Did you get even Enma to hate you?”
Was there really any reason to be so cautious after a single news story?
While I wondered that, Mai-san sat on the hood of the rental car and called different numbers on her large satellite phone. She had tried contacting some people who were on a similar level to herself, but they had refused to talk to her until this one that she finally got through to.
“Only the third one? That was surprisingly easy. I was sure everyone in this thing’s memory would refuse.”
“That’s just how dangerous you are, Mai-san,” said the man on the phone. “If someone’s willing to switch between enemy and ally if it comes down to it, you’ll definitely view them as an enemy. And I’d much rather not fight you. Not to mention that fighting isn’t my specialty.”
Incidentally, we were in the parking lot of a supermarket near the Hakone train station.
But even this close to the station, the entire area wasn’t covered with asphalt and concrete. I had heard that Hakone was divided between the city portion and multiple Intellectual Villages, but it seemed everywhere had a lot of green. As a nature-loving Youkai, I wasn’t about to complain.
“Supplier, how much do you know?”
“Not much. Just that the shadow-net is going nuts over the local Hakone news that you died.”
The parking lot was covered in gravel and located right next to some woods.
Mweh heh heh. Listening to this dangerous conversation is scaring me, so how about I take a nice stroll through the woods? Time to get some negative ions.
“Be careful, Mai-san. The way to deal with you includes a lot of fear and violence. From what I’ve seen online, everyone has their doubts about this, but the people you’ve been holding down might use this ‘fall of the queen’ as their chance to act. And if they all act together, they might get a little full of themselves.”
“You’re making too much out of those petty thieves, but I suppose you’re right. Oh, damn. Do you think they’ll look through my tax haven bank accounts, my armories, or my hideouts? Well, I’ve set them up so Rank 1 is all traps or bait, Rank 2 will satisfy them, and Rank 3 and above won’t be found.”
“After they pluck off the bug’s wings and legs like that, some of them might go in for the kill. I don’t know if simply killing you is the goal or if that emergency news broadcast was part of a Package that uses a Youkai to broadcast records into the past, but this isn’t an easy one to predict. It is about you, after all.”
“This is going pretty far for harassing me. I guess I’ll kill them.”
“Ha ha. You’d have to be an idiot to make an enemy of a monster like you. I’ll keep up my job as a supplier since a war is a great time to make money. So what do you need?”
“Isn’t your hometown Tokyo? Did you bring that huge RV to Hakone?”
“No, I didn’t go that far. But I have my ‘products’ split up and hidden around the country. If you need something, you can use whatever you find in my Hakone warehouse. But you’ll be buying whatever you take, not renting it.”
“I see.” Mai-san thought for a moment. “Then can you spread a rumor that I’m on my way to that warehouse? I’ll buy up the building and everything inside.”
“Thanks for your business☆”
She ended the call and pulled something long and thin from the pocket of her hot pants. It looked like a case that held a few cough drops, but…
“Okay, Sunekosuri. Let’s start by gathering weapons and equipment for this war. I really hope that news broadcast wasn’t a part of a Package, I’m sure there are two or three layers of traps laid out, and there will probably be a lot of idiots who don’t know about the job we’re on, so let’s finish our preparations while they’re all rushing toward the Supplier’s warehouse.”
“Just the handgun hidden in my boot and the Deadly Dragon Princess aren’t enough. I’d like some heavier weaponry if I’m going to fight a war on my own.”
“B-but where will you get it? Are you saying there’s a weapon’s shop in Hakone like in an RPG town?”
“A G20 summit is being held in Hakone right now. To prevent any possible terrorist bombings, all of the coin lockers and trunk rooms will be inspected. So what happens to the people who normally hide their dangerous things in places like that? I have a feeling they’ll be rushing to hide their stuff elsewhere.”
“Y-you mean you’ll be stealing weapons from real terrorists and gangs?”
“Everyone has their own turf in the underworld, so it could cause a different sort of trouble if they tried to hide those dangerous objects out of town. That means they’ll be hiding them in the part of Hakone the police will most want to avoid. As one of Japan’s leading hot spring towns, it has to have an active volcano. If we dig up the area near the crater that’s filled with sulfuric gas, we’ll find plenty of weapons and ammo packed in plastic. It’s where I’d hide them if I was them. So…”
She trailed off there.
She slowly turned her head and found an old woman wearing pitch black mourning clothes.
The smiling woman swung her arm horizontally and a surprisingly long blade shot from her sleeve with a high-pitched sound. In fact, it was long enough to qualify as a sword rather than a knife.
Mai-san, however, gave an exasperated sigh and rubbed her temple with her index finger.
“So Idiot #1 is between B-class and C-class, huh? Old lady, I hate to say this kind of thing, but do you really understand the situation here?”
The old woman did not respond.
She simply swung her head slightly to the side while still smiling.
And she took a slow and silent step forward.
“Did you think someone with a sword had an overwhelming advantage over an unarmed opponent and that you could win if you attacked before I could find any weapons? …If so, you were sorely mistaken.”
Mai-san gently and slowly spoke as if trying to convince the woman to back down.
She lightly waved the case in her hand as she continued.
“Have you still not caught on? If you grab someone’s hair so they face upwards and open their windpipe, you can easily kill them by throwing a cough drop inside. And it’ll be treated as an accident that is barely recorded. …When people refer to the seven tools of a professional assassin, they’re referring to something like this.”
“Now, let’s see if we can find them. I’m sure the weapons will be buried with a chip like the ones on the legs of endangered species, but the magnetic field around an active volcano is so unstable I’m not sure if we’ll be able to pick up that weak signal.”
Thirty minutes later, Mai-san had driven the rental car to the crater of the active volcano supporting Hakone’s hot spring town. It was still within Hakone, the cabinet members and other leaders of the G20 would clearly not be approaching it for the summit, and it was dangerous to investigate due to the volcanic gasses. Mai-san successfully dug up the firearms and such that the local underground businessmen had temporarily moved there.
“Good, good. Just as I thought, they were buried in the spot with an obvious sign left behind. I’ve got PDWs, grenades, a semi-auto sniper rifle, and even a .50 caliber heavy machine gun. That should be plenty.”
“Hm? What’s wrong, Sunekosuri? Is the car’s air conditioning on too high?”
“N-no! That isn’t it…”
Her success here meant she had easily eliminated the old woman in mourning clothes, and in this business, “eliminating” someone had a specific meaning.
“Next up on the news,” said an announcer on the radio. “At just past noon today, an old woman was found collapsed near Hakone Station. She was quickly taken to the hospital, where she was confirmed dead. She had no obvious external wounds and had a cough drop in her throat, so the police are viewing it as an accident.”
How can this announcer speak so coldly about this!?
It’s like he’s casually talking about the end of the world!!
“Wh-wh-what will… What will we do now?”
“Hmm. To handle this in order, the emergency broadcast about ‘Hishigami Mai’s’ death would probably come first. That’s the largest part of this and the part I least want to leave unattended. Let’s go shake up the TV station while viewing the whole place as an enemy.”
Mai-san sounded completely carefree as she said that with all sorts of weapons and bombs filling the rental car’s trunk.
That sounded a lot like what a terrorist would say, didn’t it!?
I continued trembling and looked back over to the driver’s seat. Mai-san was still smiling.
“Hm? I’m not just going to blow up the station or anything. And searching out the culprit with a long-term infiltration of the station is more my sister’s kind of thing. It would be faster to just cut the Achilles’ tendon, so I think I’ll go attack the highest manager and grab all their company secrets.”
“B-but TV stations are considered high-risk targets for terrorism, right? The security will be strict, so I don’t think you’ll be able to get at them that easily.”
“It’s true it would be hard to shake them up on my own, but the rich almost always have enemies. I can get some help from them.”
“You mean the enemy of your enemy is your friend? But how are you going to actually find the enemies of this top manager?”
“I can search for that online. Rural areas tend to have one national station and one locally-owned station. Wealth and power have a way of gathering in one place and they have a monopoly on the freedom of press and advertisement. Let’s watch some TV and see what local companies have frequent ads. Then we just have to search online for other companies in the same business. They’ll be hurting from the effects of those ads, so they’ll have a grudge against the TV station,” explained Mai-san. “Also, I’m not openhearted enough to call a complete stranger my friend just because we have a common enemy. Calling them a friend is like inviting in a new enemy.”
Tremble tremble tremble tremble tremble tremble!!
I-I just can’t stop shaking!!
I was in the underground parking garage of an apartment complex in Hakone’s city area, but the problem was not that I was surrounded by thick concrete. Something much worse was right in front of me.
Mai-san held an insecticide can that emitted smoke to eliminate roaches and she tossed it into the trunk of an Italian sports car. And she did not hesitate to slam the trunk closed.
She ignored the coughing and banging that were shaking the trunk from the inside.
“A fitting end for some insects.”
“W-wait a second!! Weren’t they normal people!?”
“Normal people don’t own foreign cars, live in nice apartments, and have membership cards to exclusive golf courses. Surely you could tell what terrible people they were.”
“Uuh… W-well I did find it strange.”
“They were probably villains with giant piles of dirty money. Rural TV stations generally run in the red and will jump at any proposal for a sponsorship. Since they rejected mine, they must have something shady to keep hidden. And I checked on the background of the people I targeted, which is why you didn’t seriously try to stop me. The worst part of this business is how the enemy of evil isn’t good. Not that I’m one to talk.”
She sat on the trunk and turned to the 1seg TV on her cellphone.
“Hm. I’ve already killed a few, so there must be a system in place to keep any inconvenient news from getting out. But if the station is blocking it, that means they’re aware of the serial killings.”
She seemed to be enjoying herself and she began calling someone with the phone.
“Hm? Yes, yes. Hello, hello. Can you connect me to the president right away? Oh, you can’t? I see. So this isn’t enough. Then I’ll just keep killing his enemies until he likes me.”
“That’s just cruel!!” I shouted.
If Persons A, B, and C were a problem for Person D and Persons A, B, and C began dying in suspicious ways, it was obvious who everyone would suspect first.
She must have been waiting while being transferred over because Mai-san removed the phone from her ear and placed her index finger against her lips to say “be quiet or I’ll kill you”.
“Yes, yes. Good day, good day. With someone as busy as you, making a normal appointment could mean waiting months before speaking with you, so I took emergency measures.”
“D-d-do you have any idea what you’ve done? Y-you-you’ve…!”
“Yes, I killed some hindrances just as you asked me to. Oh, is this being recorded to drag the truth from me? I see. That’s fine. We can use that recording as my bill. President, I killed them all, so pay me the hundred million you promised after the fact. You brought this job to me, after all.”
If you knew a call was being recorded, you could easily falsify evidence.
Mai-san was two steps ahead of him in everything.
If she vanished here, the police would have to view the TV station president as the #1 suspect, so he could not simply reject her.
“Wh-what do you want to know?” he asked.
“Something I seriously doubt you want recorded. Let’s meet soon. And of course, I’ll be visiting you. Just relax there in the big leather chair of your office and wait for me☆”
Hakone was divided between the city area at the base of the mountains and the natural area in the mountains, but I was surprised to find the TV station in question was in the mountains.
“Idiots, smoke, and broadcast antennae are all best placed as high as possible.”
Mai-san parked the rental car in the parking lot of the local station named Ashinoko TV and took me into the building. We had finally entered the mountains, but the modern building made me feel something similar to seasickness.
We rode the elevator up to the top floor.
The president’s office took up the entire floor and it contained an old man with gray hair and a custom-made suit, a beautiful woman in a tight skirt, and several young muscular men.
Mai-san tilted her head.
“Who’s the woman?”
“I am Asano, his secretary.”
Mai-san tilted her head even further.
“And all the macho men?”
“Wh-when a dangerous person says she is visiting, it’s only natural to contact some skilled people. They work in the underworld as curse-reversal specialists. Normally, having these occult types wandering around the station would be-…”
Thirty seconds later…
No, fifteen seconds later.
In fact, it may have even been a single second or less.
To be honest, it was so vivid a scene that I lost all sense of time.
What had been such a tidy space a moment before was now covered in a dark-red liquid. The gray-haired president was curled up in a corner of the room and trembling. Everyone else had been slaughtered. Mai-san alone stood in the center of the large room.
“You said yourself that they’re curse-reversal specialists. With curses like the promise with a Yuki Onna or the request of an Ubume, you can reverse it as long as you know the trick behind it. I didn’t even have to bring out a weapon. You might’ve been better off with complete amateurs who had normal weapons instead of using a Youkai and doing it badly.”
“Wh-wha-what did you…?”
I was having trouble speaking and that grim reaper answered with a smile.
“Like I said. They were trying to remove my organs using the traits of a Youkai called the Aburatori, but they did a brilliant job of screwing it up and had it turn on them. Also, this might have originally been a trick to run a news story first and twist the truth afterwards. After all, the Aburatori brings confusion by being mentioned in newspapers. Honestly, they were far too naïve to extract the symbols like that. They did it so badly that it’s almost blasphemous. It’s like seeing someone take a first-class Pacific Bluefin and turn the whole thing into canned tuna. And yet someone with actual skill could have killed me in the very first attack with that.”
“Th-that’s just cruel. Aren’t you being a little too cruel!?”
“How? All I did was protect myself.”
Then why is the secretary dead too!? And with a fountain pen sticking out of the top of her head. It’s like she’s about to be cooked on a skewer!! Woof woof!!”
“There was no reason to kill her? Really? Not even one? Are you seriously saying that, Sunekosuri-chan? Don’t ignore the way of the world and try to say the right-hand of such a black-hearted man had never stepped out of line even once.”
Her expression did not change in the slightest.
She sat on the heavy table and spoke to the president.
“Tell me what you think I want to know and give me a clear answer. You have three chances. If you use them all up, you’ll be joining them. Got that?”
“I have a cruiser in Ashinoko Harbor and there’s a hidden safe onboard. The combination is…”
“Two more tries.”
“I did give the order to send the emergency broadcast about Hishigami Mai’s death!! But I was only doing what I was told to. I don’t know how that news fits into the Package!!”
“One more try.”
“Goudo Akira! She’s their contact. I don’t know anything more!! If I had looked further into it, I would have been killed too!!”
“I see. Goudo Akira, is it? Tell me how to spell it.”
After getting the information she needed, Mai-san picked me up and started toward the office’s door. As she did, she spoke without turning back.
“Oh, right. You take care of those bodies.”
“W-why do I have to do that!?”
“You can call the police if you want, but in court, I guarantee you it will eventually lead to you being found guilty. This world is an unfair place, after all.”
“You do business with occult assassins like me, right? Working in the news business gives you special access to some of the private information of the victims and you can leak ‘accidentally’ leak that information for them. Just contact them. They’ll know how to safely dump a body and get out the bloodstains.”
With that, she really did leave the president’s office.
After she hit the button and began waiting for the elevator, I asked what was on my mind.
“Wh-why did you go that far?”
“What good is it to think about that now?”
“They were part of an organization, just like us. Even if they were at the bottom level, won’t the organization think about taking revenge now that you killed them?”
“Sunekosuri-chan, did you see the tattoo on the back of their hands?”
“At first glance, it looks like a fashionable tribal tattoo, but it’s actually the rank insignia for the organization Jouzai Senjou. They add a line each time they get promoted and enough of a mistake for a demotion gets the entire hand chopped off. They’re a third-rate organization that doesn’t at all live up to its name and they make their money by selling Packages to all sorts of criminals. But I killed every last one of their leaders during a past incident. The organization itself managed to get back on its feet, but I doubt they ever want anything to do with me again.”
“That president will likely go crying to them asking for some way of fighting back, but that will bring my name to the people at the top. Now, do you think anyone there still wants to fight me? If the alternative is being completely wiped out this time, they’ll probably bury that president in the mountains for his connection to me. …Of course, I’ll be stopping by to thank them later anyway.”
“B-but you’re just guessing. You don’t actually know what that president will try to do, right?”
“Yeah, I tend to adlib. Still, I’d already guessed Jouzai Senjou was going to show up. They’re the only organization that’s cheap enough to infiltrate some local media for some grassroots information gathering.”
The elevator arrived and the automatic doors opened to either side.
Mai-san did not hesitate to leave with that “execution device” still there.
“I gave him three chances and all I got were hints. And yet I told him to give me the clear answer I wanted.”
Part 8 (3rd person)
Hyakki Yakou’s headquarters were mobile. It was made up of a large formation containing a V-shaped flying wing, a transport ship filled with spare parts, an in-flight refueling craft, and escort fighters.
The interior resembled the Imperial Court of the ancient capital or a noble’s old mansion, but it was actually a flying residence made from cutting-edge technology.
In one corner, a kimono-wearing girl of ten held a phone receiver to her ear.
Her name was Hafuri and she was the leader of the country’s largest Youkai-related organization.
“Sigh. I am not sure what to tell you. We still cannot contact Hishigami Mai either. And needless to say, you were the ones who set all this in motion, weren’t you?”
“That is not what I am talking about. She is a member of Hyakki Yakou, isn’t she? She has already killed four influential people and more than ten others in the president’s office of a regional TV station. And then that president committed ‘suicide’. If this continues any longer, her supervisor will be responsible. Are you sure you want that?”
“You seem to be mistaken about something, so let me explain. Hishigami Mai is nothing more than a freelance agent.”
“Are you saying you can’t send out your internal disciplinary department?”
“We sometimes make requests for jobs, but she does not actually belong to Hyakki Yakou. When she is fighting elsewhere, we do not directly support or protect her. In exchange, we have no way of punishing her. Unless the issue directly conflicts with our interest, that is.”
The Sunekosuri, an official member of Hyakki Yakou, was with Hishigami Mai, but for better or for worse, that fact was never brought up. Sometimes being of no help in a fight was actually useful. The Youkai would likely cry if he heard that, though.
“And I thought you were aware what the Hishigami women are like.” Hafuri sounded almost exasperated. “Hishigami is the general trading company that represents Japan and it primarily deals in heavy industry. But its head family still practices a bloody tradition: the Hishigami men and the Hishigami women. The concept is similar to the psychological terms Eros and Thanatos.”
“The Hishigami men focus on static gatherings while the Hishigami women focus on dynamic separations. They are divided between those who try to peacefully expand organizations and those who radically try to destroy organizations.”
For better or for worse, the Hishigami men had a powerful ability to make connections between people, so they had naturally formed a general trading company with great power.
Meanwhile, the Hishigami women’s traits meant they would smash that to pieces.
Neither of them was in the wrong. During times of chaos, the Hishigami men would rise to the forefront and build up a giant and stable system. During times of stagnation, the Hishigami women would rise to the forefront and destroy the giant and rotten system.
The Hishigami women were treated as ill omens, but they were merely catching wind of where the era was headed and acting accordingly.
“Simply put, a single Hishigami woman possesses enough power to destroy a global corporation. A certain Hishigami fell in love and is subconsciously trying to suppress her power of separation with the power of connection and another Hishigami has shown a desire to bind herself with the ‘obligation’ of a close relationship with Hyakki Yakou. …However, you have cut one of those threads. This battle is no longer based in Hyakki Yakou’s rules. It is now based in the rules of a Hishigami woman. Are you seriously trying to tell me you didn’t know what would happen then, Goudo Akira-san?”
“In other words, you’re saying Hyakki Yakou is useless? That’s fine. I will deal with the problem here, but be prepared for Hyakki Yakou’s influence to decrea- gbgch!?”
The call ended there.
Hafuri quietly looked down at the receiver, sighed, and placed it back on the phone.
She could only say “my condolences”.
“Goudo Akira, hm?”
After checking on the safety of the explosives and transmitter, Mai-san climbed into the rental car.
“I didn’t expect this to be related to the Hishigami men. Is this turning into a family feud?”
“Don’t worry about it. But it does simplify things. It might be hard for a normal person to target a member of the Hishigami general trading company, but I’m family. I know how they do things.”
“Th-then what are you going to do?”
She tapped on the car’s steering wheel and gave a simple answer.
“I’ll kidnap them.”
I may have looked like a dog, but I had my self-respect as an intelligent Youkai who had lived for hundreds of years. It was a testament to my courage that I managed to avoid pissing myself.
“H-h-hold it right there!! It’s probably far too late to be scolding you now, but I’m still going to yell at this! The entire world agrees that kidnapping is wrong!!”
“Uuh… I can’t believe you would give a serious lecture to a delinquent like me. …Teacher! Can I offer you my body in the guidance room!?”
“Not only did nothing I say reach you, but you’re acting completely inappropriately!”
No matter what you did, the bloodshed around her would never stop. There was not even a millimeter of hesitation in her operation of the steering wheel.
“B-by the way, where are we going?”
“Hell Pass. That’s one of the hot spring Intellectual Villages in the Hakone region. It’s a rare type that focuses on sightseeing rather than agriculture. Oh, and we’ll be making a slight detour on the way.”
“There are no crazy traditions there, so there’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s not unusual for places with hot springs and volcanoes to have hell in the name.”
“Th-that isn’t what I meant. That’s right in in the middle of where the G20 summit is being held! If you wander around with a handgun, you’ll be found right away and cause all sorts of trouble.”
“That’s why I said we’ll be making a slight detour.”
As always, she seemed to be enjoying herself.
“An unauthentic souvenir shop in Hakone’s city area would probably work. I need some kind of native garb that hides my identity and looks a little religious. Like a fortune teller maybe. It’ll have to be something an Asian like me wouldn’t look out of place in. Hm… Maybe something from India.”
Fifteen minutes later, Mai-san had acquired the clothing and was driving to the Intellectual Village called Hell Pass. The mountain road twisted and turned, I was sent rolling all around on the passenger seat, and we finally approached the entrance to Hell Pass.
Instead of driving into the center of Hell Pass, Mai-san stopped in the parking lot of a roadside station for a transportation company and dragged me out of the car with her.
“I went to the trouble of changing my clothes, but they would do a thorough inspection if I drove the car into the summit meeting area. That would defeat the purpose of all this.”
She slowly and calmly walked toward Hell Pass while holding me in her arms.
W-will this really work?
“Hey, you over there!!”
Thirty seconds after crossing into Hell Pass, a young man in a police uniform called out to us.
I knew it!!
Of course you’re going to stand out when you wear a gaudy, midriff-showing fortuneteller’s outfit in a hot spring town filled with a Japanese atmosphere! Hiding your mouth with the veil is completely pointless!!
The police officer gave us a perfectly warranted look of deep suspicion.
“Um… Excuse me, but can I see your face? Also, show me your ID and let me inspect your bag. Right now, we have to-…”
“Oh! I cannot show you inside bag. My religion only allows me to show purified grand master inside bag. Otherwise gathered virtue disappears!!”
“Eh? What? No, I’m not talking about that. This is a security iss-…”
“Wow, wow!! I come all the way to Intellectual Village to learn of superior Japan culture, but I am treated with such disrespect? What happened to freedom of religion?”
I could almost feel the sharp gazes of the surrounding people turning our way. The foreign cameramen and journalists here for the G20 leaders had spotted something interesting.
Mai-san pretended to sob while whispering to me as if lightly chewing on my triangular ear as she held me to her chest.
“(With the international G20 summit meeting going on, this place is filled with people from different countries and cultures: the cabinet members, their bodyguard teams, and the journalists who follow them. What do you think the headlines will be if a police officer who represents the country’s authority oppresses another culture’s religion? Criticizing the Japanese representative might become the central topic of tonight’s dinner party.)”
“That’s just mean!!”
“(Also, Intellectual Villages hate the police. Back when they were declining rural areas, the police wouldn’t even build a single police box and they would only leisurely make their way over from the police station when there was a robbery. The police may have changed their mind and want to make police boxes and stations there now that the areas have earned a bunch of money, but that doesn’t meant anyone is going to welcome them. Instead, they use home security systems and armed security guards for better self-security than a university. If this outsider messes up here, no one is going to step forward to shelter him.)”
“U-um, uh, um…”
The young police officer was clearly panicking and looking around in every direction. At this point, the poor civil servant had only two options.
He could grow excessively oppressive and aggressive and try to show off his authority or…
“M-my apologies. Please be on your way.”
He completely folded and grew very polite.
And thus Hishigami Mai-san boldly carried her weapons to her destination despite the strict security prepared for the gathering of G20 leaders and cabinet members.
Our destination was an old high-class inn in the mountains.
It was a wooden multistory building instead of the usual flat structure of Japanese residences. Despite being located at the bottom of a green canyon, it rose high enough to poke up between the gaps in the mountains. It had been built by a temple carpenter and had a tradition of over two hundred years, so it looked more like a Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple than it did a lodging facility. It was a lot like the stage of Kyoto’s Kiyomizu-dera or the ocean torii of Hiroshima’s Itsukushima Shrine in how the manmade object stole the focus of the scenery despite being surrounded by nature.
“W-we’re going here?”
“I said Goudo Akira has a connection to Hishigami, didn’t I? The Hakone region has countless safe zones, but you can narrow that down a lot if you focus on the ones supported by Hishigami. This one is the strongest, fanciest, and most comfortable, so it’s perfect for the boss character’s fortress.”
Mai-san still wore the foreign fortuneteller’s outfit, but she did not hesitate to enter the inn.
Needless to say, the waitresses’ eyes opened wide.
“I was called here by Hishigami and it has to do with Youkai. No need to treat me like a guest, nothing happened here, and you didn’t see anyone. That’s how you should handle this.”
When she mixed in a few keywords like that, the look in the eyes of the dozens…no, over a hundred workers clearly changed. It almost looked like the light vanished from their eyes. It was a strange sight indeed to see an entire group ignoring someone like this.
“If you know how things work, this is easy.”
The great number of witnesses and the cutting-edge security meant nothing.
Mai-san boldly walked straight toward the VIP room that did not officially exist.
“Poor thing. They have so many shady meetings day in and day out that no one will even peek inside no matter how much of a commotion they hear.”
It took only an instant to break the lock on the sliding door.
And it took maybe three seconds to restrain the target inside who was elegantly talking on the phone.
Something like a groan came from the duct taped mouth of the woman wearing office clothing.
Her tight skirt and suit were custom-made and looked quite expensive and she was currently hanging from the ceiling with her hands bound.
Naturally, Mai-san seemed to have had a reason for doing that, but…
“So you used a hidden village style of isolated VIP room? Hm? Did you use the Aburatori again? So is this a separate-style Package?”
“Separate-style? What’s that?”
“Youkai – especially the deadly ones – are hard to capture or contact, right? So instead of getting several of them, you work at a single one from multiple angles to put together many different Packages. Sunekosuri, how much do you know about the Youkai known as an Aburatori?”
“W-well, just that it’s a horrible one. Um, it’s a relatively new deadly Youkai that appeared during the Meiji period, it sneaks into villages dressed as a farmer, and it secretly abducts and kills children, right?”
“Technically, it removes their organs, cooks them with a fish skewer, and takes the child’s oil. Folklorists say it’s a ghost story without the ‘tradition of fear’ since it has no moral to teach. Some say the Youkai itself is less frightening than the overly-suspicious group hysteria that’s a lot like the witch hunts.” She raised her index finger. “For example, the bodyguards at Ashinoko TV isolated the Aburatori’s child-killing symbolism to create a murder Package.”
“Yes, I suppose.”
“But that leaves the symbolism of ‘sneaking in and abducting’ unused. By using that excess portion for this hidden village Package, they can simultaneously operate multiple Packages with just the one Youkai. Those are called separate-style Packages. Right now, there seem to be three: the news broadcast, the assassins, and the hidden village.”
“Y-you’ve been thinking about this. …But wouldn’t they have to be really carefully assembled to avoid any competition that could send the Packages out of control?”
“Yes. At its core, it’s a way of being economical. With its massive fighting force, Hyakki Yakou can capture multiple Youkai instead. That these people chose to use the separate-style tells us something about their strength, Sunekosuri-kun.”
Just as I was about to give a sigh of understanding, some muffled protests came from the side.
Oh, right. That office woman is still hanging there.
Can I just assume she’s Goudo Akira?
“Wait!! Why are you starting to strip off her clothes!?”
“Because it’s necessary. But if all this commotion and creaking of ropes isn’t enough to arouse suspicion, what kind of secret meetings do they normally hold here? Not SM shows, I hope.”
Goudo Akira-san was quickly reduced to her underwear and stockings and she glared at us with hostility in her eyes.
Mai-san ignored it and roughly tore the duct tape from her mouth so it would hurt.
“You know why I’m letting you speak, right? I will ask one question and you have just one chance. You are a Hishigami man’s legal adviser, aren’t you? I had thought you were the type to give advice on criminal activity but avoid actually getting involved in it, but how about it? Are you truly the mastermind behind this or is there someone else beyond you? Please tell me.”
“I won’t talk.”
“Oh, is that so?”
As she spoke, Mai-san pulled something from the bag she had placed on the tatami mats.
But it was not a depressing torture device like pliers, a saw, or a soldering iron.
“Huh? A marker?”
“With some exceptions, most specialized torture devices are too bulky to carry around. When infiltrating enemy territory, you can use something like this to get people to talk in a timely fashion.”
Mai-san removed the marker’s cap and approached Goudo Akira-san.
“Bring it on. I won’t tell you any- hyah. W-wait. Heh heh. What kind of torture is this!? Why are you drawing Xs all over me? Hee hee. What is the point of this scribbling!?”
There was a type of torture known as “tickling”, but I could not see anything here that was depressing enough to rupture the diaphragm used to breath. It really did look like Mai-san was simply scribbling on the woman.
“Yes, yes. If you can’t stand it anymore, feel free to spill the beans.”
“Fya ha ha! I-I won’t- I won’t give in to… hee hee!”
“By the way, Akira-chan, are you familiar with the iron maiden?”
Goudo Akira-san had been twisting her body around to endure the marker, but the sudden mention of that dangerous term caused her to freeze in place as if someone had thrown cold water over her.
Mai-san continued regardless.
“As I’m sure you know, it’s the world’s most famous torture device. Incidentally, the most famous execution device is the guillotine☆ Well, well? Have you heard of it? …That look on your face makes me think you’re going to say it’s common knowledge in the West. So I guess you do know what the iron maiden is, right?”
“What does that have to do with-…”
“Something like a metal coffin with double doors is filled with sharp spikes and the victim is simply closed inside, so it’s easy to use. But since the spikes are positioned in just the right places to not hit any vitals, the suffering lasts good and long. That’s the legend left by that torture device, but I’m sure about half of it is just embellishment.”
With a squeak, Mai-san drew the final X on Goudo Akira-san’s bare side and she hummed to herself as she did so.
“But if you know where to stab, you don’t need that big, fancy device.”
“Eh? Wait. You don’t mean…”
The woman hanging from the ceiling slowly looked down at her own stomach.
She had several dozen suspicious X-marks drawn all over her body.
Meanwhile, Mai-san moved away, put the marker back in her bag, and pulled something else out instead.
Its silhouette resembled a handgun, but the power tool was larger and bulkier.
“Tah dah!! It’s the friend of anyone with a problem, the nail gun! You can use it for your home improvement projects and you can use it when you don’t have a gun on hand, but can you perhaps think of another use for it?”
Goudo Akira-san twisted around enough to make the entire room creak, but it did nothing to change the fact that she was dangling in midair.
“I won’t take my time and slowly fire one nail at a time. I already know it won’t kill you, so I think I’ll go ahead and put all the nails in their marks before asking you again.”
“W-wait, wait!! Even if you do that, I-I won’t…!!”
“It’s no use now. I’m turning you into a human spiked bat no matter what you say. Even if you told me the truth right this instant. So just give up.”
“Ah…!! But…you…that makes no sense!!”
“I said right at the beginning that I was asking one question and you have just one chance. It’s your fault for not making good use of that chance.”
Some said the scariest thing in the world was someone whose thoughts you simply could not comprehend.
I was fairly certain Mai-san was only putting on an act to appear that way, but still.
“I can drag out the information I want once you’ve lost everything and once you’re covered in unnecessary injuries. Okay?”
She did not hesitate.
For this act, she showed a willingness to truly create a corpse here.
While still smiling, she pressed the end of the nail gun against Goudo Akira-san’s body. It was a bit above her stomach and below her voluminous chest where her ribs could be seen protruding a bit.
And Mai-san was not hesitating to smash that rib.
“I-I can’t overlook this any longer! Take this!!”
“Sunekosuri, why are you playing around at my feet? And completely useless help will probably only deepen her despair. Are you actually trying to help me?”
There was nothing I could do, so I simply squeezed my eyes shut.
“Oh, what’s all this? Mai, could you end your eccentric behavior here?”
A new voice intruded on the scene.
It was a gentle male voice. I hesitantly opened my eyes and found a young man of about thirty who wore casual indigo blue Japanese-style clothing. Yes, a young man. He was surrounded by some unseen aura that prevented me from calling him anything else.
Mai-san narrowed her eyes as she turned toward him, but she kept the nail gun near Goudo Akira-san’s body.
“Hishigami Kyou, third in line to the head family.”
“You could call me your brother, you know? We are family, if you think about it reasonably.”
The young man apparently named Hishigami Kyou gave a troubled move of his eyebrows and heavily sat in a wicker chair. He calmly extended a hand toward the opposite chair.
“Sit. If you want tea, make it yourself. We are brother and sister, so treating you like a guest would actually be rude.”
“You sure are calm. If I wanted to-…”
“Yes, my death would probably be unavoidable. Unlike you, I do not possess any unreasonable strength. Whether I resisted or not, you could kill me if you tried. That is the fate of a person who lives in a reasonable world.”
A chill seemed to fill the air and Mai-san sat in the opposite chair with a sulking look on her face and the nail gun still in her hand.
Eh? So, um…
“W-wait. I know we’re not really one to talk, but…um, what about Goudo Akira-san who’s still hanging there.”
“Hm? She is my legal advisor who has been with me through thick and thin. She is also quite skilled. I would love to save her, but as I said, I live in a reasonable world. You can’t expect me to pull off a dashing rescue like a superhero.”
She no longer had duct tape over her mouth, but Goudo Akira-san seemed unable to speak.
Despite the young and beautiful woman hanging from the ceiling in her underwear between them, the brother and sister spoke as if they were alone.
There was no point in arguing whether the Hishigami men or Hishigami women were crazier. They all had a screw loose!
“Now, Mai. Do you know why I am here?”
“It doesn’t seem to be to save that woman or to give me any information.”
Kyou cut in with that one word and continued despite being faced with Mai-san of all people.
“We are aware of the emergency news report saying that Hishigami Mai has died. A few reporters have even foolishly asked if she has any connection to me. Of course, that is not much of a problem. Hishigami is a popular family name in Japan…no, in the entire world. Saying some unidentified person was likely using the name will easily solve the problem.”
“But giving that explanation is not reasonable. Lying in front of the police or reporters is not something we Hishigami men do. It is easy, but I do not like doing it. Please do not cause us any more trouble. Do whatever it takes to ensure that, as it will have nothing to do with us. Do you understand?”
“This is the true essence of the Hishigami men, Sunekosuri.” Mai-san sounded utterly exasperated. “Reasonable this and reasonable that. They keep saying it over and over, but they’re actually the craziest of us all. They support a large portion of Japan’s economy and even control the production and supply of defense weaponry. They’re crazy and stand above everyone but still talk about what’s reasonable. If they altered what is reasonable and thus the tendencies of a vast majority of people in the country, they could easily start a war or a coup d’etat.”
“Well, if that’s the reason of the age, there isn’t much you can do about it, is there? Even if the country fell into decline and over half the population was lost, that would be the result of the reason they themselves desired. We are merely letting that trend carry us along. That is what you must do when you are a good person who wishes to maintain order.”
“And you feel you need us Hishigami women even if you hate us. You want a breaker you can throw in case the giant system runs out of control.”
“Please stop that. If Hishigami siblings truly began to fight, it would reduce the world population to about five people. And that is not reasonable at all.”
Order and destruction.
These siblings existed on a scale that sounded straight out of Indian mythology.
“So how am I supposed to get the information I need to settle this without a fight like that? Should I turn that woman into a human spiked bat or should I hang you up in her place?”
“It doesn’t really matter to me, but how about I simply tell you?”
He spoke bluntly.
It sounded exactly like a brother giving his sister a message from their parents.
“You seem to have made a major enemy, Mai. Have you noticed the term Aburatori popping up around you a lot?”
“What about it?”
“Basically, someone is up to no good using an Aburatori. Mai, what is your job? Have you considered the possibility that you are viewed as an element that could destroy that plan of theirs?”
“I know nothing about this supposed plan. They’re the ones that attacked me.”
“The underworld has no police or trials. The existence of or lack of evidence does not matter. Your world punishes people even if they are simply suspicious, right? Are you sure you did not do anything to make a misunderstanding? Or did you do anything so unreasonable that they might decide to crush you before you became a problem?”
While still holding the dangerous nail gun, Mai-san appeared to think for a bit.
Her appearance was nothing to go by as she was a master of the poker face, but it looked like she was having trouble accepting something.
“So who is this person? For Hishigami to make an appearance like this, it must be someone from the economic world like you. Is it related to politics?”
“Yes, it is. If it’s someone like me, we can safely assume they have spread their influence there. If you think about it reasonably, anyway.”
“How can you say that when you’re involved with voting blocs, policy think tanks, and sponsoring big data to support elections? What, have I made an enemy of the prime minster or something?”
“Higher than that.”
Hishigami Kyou-san did not hesitate to make that unthinkable comment.
Eh? But what position is higher than the prime minster?
“In the east, it’s Akasaka. In the west, it’s Gion. Japanese politics are secretly controlled by a conductor group that is firmly split into two different factions. To them, the boundaries between political parties mean nothing. They control everything even remotely related to politics. Mai, I’m sure even you have heard the urban legends. Those rumors that sound as ridiculous as the nuclear shelter in Nagatachou Station.”
“You mean the Master of the Restaurant?”
As soon as she muttered those words, I could sense a strange chill seep into the room as if we had touched on something that was not to be mentioned. It was like she had rudely kicked down a small shrine of unknown origins.
“I don’t know how many are involved, but the Western Side is planning something with an Aburatori.”
“The Western Restaurant is planning something unreasonable?” Mai-san gave a confused frown. “That isn’t good. Come to think of it, I did go on a bit of a rampage in Kyoto’s Gion recently. I was investigating an incident related to a ‘monk’ and I ended up creating quite a few corpses.”
“And that is the Western Restaurant’s headquarters. That would be why they’re targeting you.”
Kyou-san sounded exasperated.
“The East has been getting all excited with the world’s tallest radio tower and their Edo-style revival campaign, so the West’s small sort of ‘nationalism’ was already on edge. You poked at that hornet’s nest at just the wrong time, Mai.”
“The Edo-style revival campaign? Wait a sec. Isn’t that just some VIP’s hobby?”
“The fact that they have the power to make a national project of that scale out of a mere hobby has angered the Western Restaurant.” Kyou-san shrugged. “At any rate, it is simply unreasonable for the true center of the government to rely on a criminal Package. They must be growing senile. Don’t you think that is a problem?”
“What’s this? Does this person happen to be an eyesore to the Hishigami men?”
“Of course not. We are perfectly reasonable, so we would never think of anything so dangerous.”
The young man in casual Japanese-style clothing grinned while standing from the wicker chair.
“The individual from the Western Side is named Udou Itsuki. If you are interested, then feel free to pursue him. She must be planning to hold discussions with the international cabinet members because she just so happens to be in one of Hakone’s Intellectual Villages.”
“You aren’t feeding me false information so I eliminate a political rival, are you?”
“Then make sure you investigate this properly ahead of time. And being manipulated like that is very unlike someone as unreasonable as you. As your brother, it would sadden me to see you like that. Much like seeing a hero from a movie fall into decline.”
With that, Hishigami Kyou-san readily began to leave the room.
Eh? But what about Goudo Akira-san!?
“Kyou-san!! Um, wait… Please wait!!”
She must have thought he really was going to leave her because she frantically cried out.
“Unfortunately, I cannot cover for you. Mai may indeed be an unreasonable person who does not care who she must get involved to reach her goal, but she does at least make a proper judgment about who she kills. You must have done something dirty that angered her and that is not reasonable. It simply goes beyond the power I wield.”
“But!! You are not allowed to step out of line, so I determined what you wanted and supported your prosperity in a way that did not sully you!! I set up a connection with the Western Side even if it meant dirtying my hands because I thought it would help you in the future! A-and the only reason you rose to third in line over the past few years is because-…!!”
“But I did not want any of that.”
Hishigami Kyou-san sounded troubled and that was enough for Goudo Akira-san to fall silent.
It was like watching someone finish a speech that had lasted several years only to find out the listener had not understood the language they were speaking.
“The line of succession does not matter. If my position is going to fall, then so be it. As long as that fall comes from sticking to reasonable actions, that is. In fact, it is odd for someone like me to be in third place in the first place. From a reasonable point of view, anyway. This is actually quite uncomfortable for me. Being placed outside the course I had planned for could even be called painful.”
“Setting up a connection with the Western Side? That is the opposite of how the Hishigami men operate. Listen. Connections between people are made when they are meant to be made. Trying to forcibly twist them into place will only create unwanted connections. The worst possible outcome is wishing you had met someone under different circumstances and you used that card on someone as large as this. There is likely no longer a way to form a reasonable and peaceful connection with the Western Side. Such a waste. That is the only way to view this.”
“Ha ha…ha. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.”
“But it would be heartless to simply abandon you here.”
“I will go as far as to call the police. Thinking about this reasonably, the police will surely save you.”
This time, Goudo Akira-san’s face truly did turn pale.
Everyone here knew that basic rule did not apply here, but he simply did not want to step outside of that world.
Mai-san lightly waved around the nail gun while still sitting.
“Hey, Hishigami Kyou.”
“There is no reason to refer to your brother by his full name.”
“Does this inn’s ability to deal with trouble live up to its ‘high-class’ name? For example, does it dispose of inconvenient corpses and blood stains for you?”
“I know nothing of that unreasonable world.” Hishigami Kyou-san gave a light shrug. “But Akira-kun uses this place enough that she probably knows. So ask that unreasonable woman who so often did such awful things and yet showed no sign of getting caught.”
The way the muscles in her face tightened must have been enough of an answer.
Before I could even squeeze my eyes shut, nails started firing into her vitals with no regards to the x-marks.
“This is suspicious.”
Once we left Hell Pass and returned to the rental car parked at the roadside station on the mountain road, Mai-san muttered those three words. It was already evening and the red of the mountain’s maple trees was quite beautiful, but it also reminded me of the bloody scenes I had witnessed recently.
“Everything that has happened so far. It all makes sense, but it lacks something. The overall picture is accurate, but I feel like a piece is missing. A piece that I can’t afford to overlook.”
“Um… Do you have anything to support that?”
“Nope. But the trick to a long life is to check over everything again when you feel like the grim reaper is staring at you. Of course, taking it too far gives you a persecution complex, so you have to have a sense for when to stop.”
Meanwhile, she stepped on the rental car’s gas pedal and left the roadside station. She drove along the road zigzagging down the mountain and I spoke while making sure I didn’t get carsick.
“Wh-where are we going?”
“Hakone contains a few different Intellectual Villages. The city grew as it repeatedly absorbed other cities, but it was later split apart again. To lose this unknown grim reaper, it would be best to head to another village.”
Her answer was not enough to eliminate my anxiety.
It was possible I had worded my question poorly
“What are you planning to do?”
“Sunekosuri, what is the name of the person behind all this?”
“Udou Itsuki, a member of the Western Restaurant, right?”
“Are you sure?”
“Eh?” I said without thinking.
Mai-san grinned while turning the steering wheel.
“Well, it doesn’t matter if you hadn’t noticed. For now, the problem is how to approach Udou Itsuki. He belongs to one of the Restaurants that control both the ruling party and the opposing party. Simply put, even using the word Restaurant in this way is a dangerous thing. We need to prepare if we’re going to attack someone like this.”
“B-but everything went so smoothly just now.”
“That’s just because Goudo Akira was incompetent. I doubt our next opponent will be so easy and I doubt the fortuneteller strategy will work either.”
“Then what are you going to do?”
“Udou Itsuki is powerful. His influence is thinly spread across the entire country, but at the same time, the Western Side only represents Japan. He can’t control frameworks larger than that.”
“W-wait… This has nothing to do with the G20 summit meeting, does it?’
“I see you’ve caught on.” She grinned. “Let’s abduct someone even more powerful and threaten Udou. I know. How about an Under-Secretary-General of the UN?”
Tremble tremble tremble!!
“Sunekosuri, you don’t have to be so scared. If you keep shaking like that, I’ll use you as a massager. Do you want me to press you against all my naughty bits?”
“H-how am I supposed to stay calm!? A-a-a UN Under- what was it?”
“Under-Secretary-General. That’s two below the Secretary-General. But the five permanent member nations have the special privilege to choose the USGs. In the end, it’s a peaceful organization created by the victors of war.”
The curtain of night had already fallen over the entire area, so everything was dark. The rental car was lit by the light on the ceiling and Mai-san used a handheld device with shady modifications to search something online.
Surprisingly, simply searching news sites and the like was enough to find what national leaders and cabinet members were in Japan for the summit. They must have thought no one would misuse that information to cause some kind of incident.
Mai-san snapped her fingers.
“Good, good. There’s someone nearby we can use. Thomas Albert Jr. He’s American and an Under-Secretary-General. Let’s go for him☆”
“We can’t!! If we attack some VIP from the UN, they’ll send swat teams or Delta Force or some other group of muscular men in black masks to shoot us!!”
“They won’t do that, so don’t worry. And not even I’m going to try any point-blank range kung fu magic while wielding two handguns. It would be exhausting and just a general pain in the ass.”
“Eh? B-but you said you have business with a strictly-guarded UN Under-Secretary-General.”
“There’s a loophole. And in this business, it’s only polite to take notes of the characteristics and weakness of world leaders even if you don’t need anything with them. Even cutting out tabloid articles to take with you makes a difference. I doubt anything in there is true, but you can still find the truth from that twisted information.”
“But this is a VIP of the UN. What kind of opening could there be?”
“It’s an issue of different systems. Something might be legal in one country but illegal in another. That’s where we’ll make our strike.”
Part 14 (3rd person)
Either a first-string football player or a hitman.
That was usually people’s first impression upon seeing Michael Lucas.
He was a muscular black man measuring over two meters tall. His arms were a surprising 49 centimeters around. When wearing sunglasses, he looked frightening enough that even back-alley gang members would move out of his way, but he did not actually want any of that in the slightest.
Athletics were not his strongpoint.
He did not like horror movies or tests of courage.
He was utterly bewildered as to why he had lasted so long in the bodyguard business, but every time he asked, the VIPs would laugh and say it was because of what a good person he was. For that reason, he had yet to solve the mystery.
“Honestly. What a pain.”
His glove-like palm held a small handwritten note and he nervously checked it again and again.
Simply put, it was a prescription.
UN Under-Secretary-General Thomas Albert Jr., the one Michael had been hired to guard, had handed this secret note to this man he knew he could trust.
There was a tacit understanding that there could be no worries about the physical or mental state of anyone involved in politics or the administration, but this was a bit different than that.
This was about the differences between nations.
It was easier to get prescriptions drugs in America than in Japan. Doctors would prescribe painkillers and sleeping pills for people to take every day like they were Vitamin B, Vitamin C, or other supplements. They officially had migraines, insomnia, or some other ailment, but it had actually become a habit. They were taking them because they did not feel right without them, not because there was anything wrong with their bodies.
And some drugs that could be prescribed in great quantities with a single signature from one’s attending physician in America were unobtainable in Japan because they were considered too potent. And just for reference, the lethal dose of drugs was based on the subject’s body weight. When the size of the average Japanese person was compared to the average Westerner, that deviation in standards was not too surprising.
There was no point in arguing who was right. It was simply a difference between nations.
“But what am I supposed to do? Is this really right? I hope this will turn out okay. …They say when in Rome, do as the Romans do, so I don’t think we should be making waves if we can avoid it.”
Michael Lucas was muttering to himself because he could not contain it inside. He was generally a timid person. It was so bad that he had been momentarily tempted to go confess it all when he had seen a church within the city of Hakone. However, he had just barely restrained himself. An important G20 summit meeting was underway, so not letting the Under-Secretary-General focus could spread unnecessary chaos through the United States and even the entire world. Or so he told himself.
It was already night, so the hospital’s outpatient reception desk and the pharmacy built adjacent to the hospital were both closed. Also, he was unlikely to find the painkiller on the note at those places.
Michael instead made his way to a large drugstore that stayed open late into the night.
However, the product in question was not stocked on its shelves. He walked straight up to the register of that store filled with bright fluorescent lights and he hesitantly spoke to the bored-looking clerk.
“Ee!? M-may I help you?”
“Don’t worry. You can speak Japanese.”
It really did depress Michael a little how scared the clerk was, but he did not let it show. This was always how it had been. Before entering junior high, he had already reached 180 centimeters. Not only had the neighborhood kids looked at him in fear, but their parents had as well.
The young clerk made his way into the back of the store and returned with a cardboard box big enough to hold a soccer ball. The side of the box had the logo of an online store familiar even in Michael’s home country.
Once the ban on selling drugs online had been lifted, the stores had quickly branched out into a number of services. This was one of those. Instead of having the package sent to one’s home, it could be picked up at a local store. When ordering athlete’s foot medication, hair growth medicine, erectile dysfunction medication, emergency contraceptives, and other products one might want a secret, this service left as few ties to the receiver as possible. Not even family members would know.
When ordering from a foreign company, the hurdles to reaching their products could become unclear.
“Um, this should be it. The product name is ‘pills’. Yeah, as usual, that’s a pretty broad category.”
“This is what you call an embarrassing errand. You should have picked up on that when I offered to pay with cash instead of a card.”
“O-oh, um! I was not trying to pry. That will be five thousand yen. That includes the tax. Um, hm… How do you say that in English?”
“I understood you.”
Michael handed over the money, took the box, and felt a pleasantly cool sensation on his glove-like palms. The box must have been stored in a refrigerator.
The large store’s exit seemed quite far away, but it did not actually take more than twenty seconds to reach it. After exiting the automatic glass door and stepping onto the parking lot, he finally let out a sigh.
“Should this really be so easy? Even cold and headache medicines are made by gathering just the drug components using a handmade centrifuge.”
“You’re right. But thanks to this, I managed to capture you.”
He did not catch even a glimpse of the speaker.
An instant later, his vision blurred, he fell to the side, and at the very, very end, dull pain spread through his head.
Mai-san took a small cardboard box and a cell phone from the large black man collapsed in the drugstore parking lot.
I did not particularly like the asphalt parking lot, but the pressure in my stomach made me forget all about that uncomfortableness.
“H-how… How did you pull that off so well?”
“Is it really that strange? It’s already night, so the hospital, pharmacies, and PO boxes are all closed. They can’t exactly have a bike courier carry it directly to the inn because of all the media presence. That leaves an online purchase shipped to a drugstore as the most likely option. They can arrive as soon as three hours after you make the click.”
“B-but this is a national chain. There are tons of the exact same chain in the city portion of Hakone.”
“Even with convenience stores on the same street, some will thrive and some will go under. With the summit meeting underway, a look at the security report will tell you where people gather. And they’re sure to have their package sent to the store that stands out the least and that is farthest away from the crowds.”
I glanced around the asphalt and my gaze stopped on the muscular bodyguard.
I want to believe I’m wrong, but…
“Why do you look so worried, Sunekosuri-chan?”
“Don’t worry. Even I won’t kill people who I don’t have to. The biggest problem isn’t the people with flashy combat skills or great influence. It’s the honest citizen of a small town that everyone loves. Kill them without thinking and the people afflicted by the ‘kind noise’ will never leave you alone. I’d rather not deal with that.”
I followed Mai-san toward the rental car and she used the swiped cellphone to call someone.
“Hello, hello. Good evening. Yeah, a direct line is a wonderful thing. Oh, you’d be better off not tracing or recording the call. That would only be wrapping the noose around your own neck.”
“The bodyguard you sent out on a secret mission has failed. I have the package, so what will you do? I plan to deliver these painkillers you gulp down like mint tablets, so make sure your back door is unlocked.”
“If you’d rather I didn’t, that’s fine too. I’ll just take out the next person you send out. But how are you going to survive that migraine? You might be suffering all night long.”
With that said, Mai-san ended the call and dropped the phone to her feet. After crushing it underfoot, she winked at me.
“The negotiations are complete. Let’s go for a direct delivery☆”
“What? How can you call this cloudy!? Look, the bright full moon is right-… No, wait a second. Don’t tell me…!!”
“The Pon Poko Pon floats in the night sky.”
“Y-you’re kidding. That…that guy isn’t the full moon!! That’s…!?”
“A wonderful stomach that can be mistaken for a perfectly round moon. …I cut down evil to protect good! I am Samurai Pon Poko!!”
Mai-san and I made our way to Ennetsu Village, one of the several Intellectual Villages newly created from a piece of Hakone. The American UN Under-Secretary-General Thomas Albert Jr. was staying in the high-class inn there.
Thomas-san was a well-built old white man. He must have just taken a bath because he wore a yukata supplied by the inn and was watching a period drama on TV with a sake bottle in one hand. He might have been a Japanophile, so I hoped this crazy incident did not change his impression of the country too much.
Mai-san held the small cardboard box and her eyes opened wide when she glanced at the TV.
“Huh? They’re showing Samurai Pon Poko here too? Personally, I prefer Kokkuri-san Conquers!! That’s the one about the adventures of a fox, dog, and tanuki traveling around the country and reforming the world! The tanuki was especially nice.”
“Mh. What’s so great about a tanuki? Those fat Youkai just sit around drinking all the time.”
“Heh he heh. Sunekosuri, are you jealous?”
“Jealous? Of what?”
She suddenly picked me up and then went straight for the face! Not the nose and not the jaw. She bit my entire protruding face!
“G-geh!! Cough cough!! Wh-what are you doing!?”
“You were just so cute I couldn’t help but give you a stimulating kiss.”
“I thought you were going to bite my entire face off! Like in a tomato ad!!”
I heard someone clear their throat and Thomas-san interrupted our conversation as if slipping a thin blade between us.
“Why are you here?”
“Here, we have a present for spoiled littler Junior. …But are you sure? These are a lot stronger than some illegal herbs.”
“This is an issue of the system. These are treated like cough drops in my country.”
“So what control system do you use?”
“Which Western system for drawing out the power of the inhuman do you use? Rusalka? Nixie? I’m not a specialist in this, but I detect a feminine scent of death. But if you can’t keep the spirit’s fatalness from leaking out, you’re not going to successfully harness their inhuman power. In fact, you’ll end up losing your own life.”
“Out of all the options, you had to choose the one that defaults to taking your life force in exchange for her ability. I can see why you need such harsh painkillers.”
“But this is necessary. Three years ago, we sent a large number of container plant factories to central Africa as humanitarian aid. The large boxes were decorated with ribbons and had a message card attached. When combined with solar power, those plant factories could be harvested more than twenty times a year, so they should have resolved the rampant food shortages there. However, they are showing no sign of recovery due to an unexpected turn of events.”
“A local criminal group took over and turned them into narcotics factories?”
“Fully-enclosed plant factories can be hidden inside or underground, so not even satellite photographs are any use. If they are not found immediately, the entire area’s development could be set back thirty years. I need to locate them even if it means taking inspiration that exceeds the human realm. So…”
In a country where prescriptions for large amounts of drugs were normal, even severe symptoms could be hidden. In that case, the price of protecting something had likely left his body in a terrible state.
“What did you gain from going that far?”
“My dream, I suppose. I did reach that dream, but I had lost everything else by the time I did.”
Mai-san gave a bored sigh, brushed a hand through her bangs, and spat out an annoyed word.
“That is the name of a German medical society. They are researching the use of a fairy by the same name that looks like a small bird. It heals the patient by absorbing the illness filling their body, which makes it the natural enemy of a certain gloomy bastard I know. Use your connections to their fullest to look into it. If you’re lucky, you might be able to turn your life around.”
The old man in a yukata fell silent for a while.
“Fine then. I will forgive your impoliteness to make us even. I saw nothing tonight.”
“Why thank you.”
“But your goal wasn’t to interfere in an old man’s business, was it? Why are you even here?”
Mai-san gave a quick shrug.
“Sorry, but I have no interest in you yourself. But that also means I won’t harm you. I didn’t kill the macho bodyguard you sent out on an errand either. I hope you can accept that on good faith.”
“Shh. You’ll know soon enough. Although you might be better off not knowing.”
Just as she pressed her index finger against her lips, the room’s phone emitted a simple ring. Thomas-san reached for the receiver out of habit, but she snatched it before he could.
“Hi there. Are you starting to sweat yet? Has it been over a decade since you’ve felt this way?”
“Who would go that far? This is a UN representative and someone supported by the United States. Do you have any idea how much a single scratch on him could harm our national interests? This could even affect our national security.”
“And that’s why you called directly instead of using an agent or negotiator. Isn’t that right, Udou Itsuki of the Western Restaurant that runs Japan? I’m thankful you were willing to spare some time for a single freelance agent who lurks in the back alleys.”
“Let us get to the issue at hand.”
“I want to know the whole picture. To be blunt, I hadn’t touched on anything related to the criminal plan using an Aburatori Package, so why did you try to take my life by making that false news report a reality?”
“Why do I have to answer you?”
“Are you sure you should be saying that? You assembled that in the separate-style, didn’t you?”
“Have you forgotten? The separate-style alters the breakup of a single Youkai’s symbolism to run multiple Packages at the same time. It’s a convenient system that lets you concentrate your efforts and immediately cut off the supply of power if someone betrays you, but it also means every Package is linked back to that single core.”
“I’ve already come into contact with a few paranormal incidents related to your Aburatori, so I have the opening needed to reach that core. I don’t know what you’re trying to do, but if you keep this up, I’ll go destroy the core.”
Straining my ears was enough to just barely hear a sigh come from the phone.
“What do you know about the Aburatori?”
“It is a deadly variety that specializes in killing children,” replied Mai-san. “It’s a new one that appeared in the mountain villages of Tohoku during the Meiji period. It sneaks in dressed as a farmer, secretly abducts the village’s children, takes out their organs, and cooks them to take the oil. It’s an easy one to use for offensive Packages, but it must be hard to control.”
“Pathetic. Did you study using children’s picture books?”
This may have been Udou Itsuki’s true character.
Or perhaps he put on an act of extreme mental superiority to eliminate his anxiety.
“The greatest trait of the Aburatori is its relative lack of a historical background,” said the voice on the phone. “Youkai can be called paranormal phenomena with wills of their own that have been sharply honed after a natural selection process lasting hundreds or even thousands of years. Some of them are even referred to as gods that fell into ruin after no one worshiped them. But…”
“The Aburatori is a newcomer that suddenly appeared during the Meiji period. In only just over a century, it has transformed into a major Youkai standing alongside the all-stars. Almost as if it took the stairs three at a time. Is that what you focused on?”
“Our hope was to speed up the process at which legends mature,” bluntly explained Udou Itsuki. “How much can the modern Japanese tell you about the gods? Can they name even ten gods from Japanese mythology off the top of their heads? And I mean without checking the internet and acting like they knew it.”
“Can’t we let the history textbooks take care of that?”
“Religion is untouchable. That is the unwritten rule of this nation. And yet they still pray when they’re having trouble and feel a certain spirituality in all things. …It’s all too vague. They call themselves atheists, yet they have a general fear of areas said to have spiritual or mystical power. And at the same time, they do not follow any strict doctrines or traditions. Their belief is fragile. That is why the threat of criminal Packages is so rampant. This country is far too powerless when it comes to the supernatural. Packages may be the only threat at the moment, but in the not-too-distant future a much larger calamity will swallow up the country because of this.”
That was why he wanted “something” to renew the country’s view of religion.
That was why he had focused on the Aburatori that had quickly reached the level of the more historical Youkai.
That was why he had tried to use such a deadly being that brought nothing but fear and death.
And yet Mai-san gave a laugh as if mocking a just cause.
“You wanted a religious boost for the imprudent younger generation? Don’t make me laugh. What you’re doing is no different from using the name of a famous noble to have an easier time catching people in a scam. What exactly are you trying to artificially increase and spread throughout the country? It’s probably some nasty ideology that would never spread under normal circumstances. Something that would create an era of insanity but send a massive fortune your way.”
“Say whatever you want. We…”
“Also, you aren’t really thinking about Japan in all this, are you?”
It seemed like all sound had vanished from the world.
That was just how much Mai-san’s words had torn into the situation.
“It is true Japan is a crazy enough country for videos of ghosts and spiritual entertainers to have real influence, but that doesn’t mean everyone in the country has a complex about the occult. Even if they don’t know much about Shinto or Buddhism, they’re still proud just knowing those things have a history of more than a millennium. This country doesn’t need the kind of system you’re talking about. No matter how much effort you put into making this ‘new product’, no one is going to give it a second glance.”
“In that case, are you perhaps focused on exporting the paranormal? Did someone from the G20 come to make business negotiations with you here in Hakone? Some of them are probably very interested in that kind of thing.”
She glanced toward the corner of the room where the UN Under-Secretary-General sat in a legless chair.
“For example, America. Their country was founded a mere three hundred years ago. They may be a religious nation that uses the Bible during trials and the president’s oath of office, but they also top the world when it comes to handgun suicides. They wouldn’t want that transforming into random shootings or group suicides. What is it that is shaking their citizens’ hearts? How can they stop it? If they only had a system to forcibly mature a solid historical background to tell them everything would be fine, they could stop that shaking of their hearts. It seems to me that would establish the needed supply and demand to export there.”
“Ending the chaos in America is important for our own country as well. No matter what excuses people make, it is a fact that we are relying on them. It is a problem when your partner trips in a three-legged race, isn’t it? So to help them…”
“How many people have died for this? There must have been quite a few failed test runs before you successfully won over what is an especially horrid Youkai even among the deadly ones. And where were those lost lives born?”
“You have no right to say that after laying a hand on your own brethren with a smile on your face!! We are doing everything we can to solve these problems while focusing five to ten years down the line. We are focusing on the future! We are nothing like a Hishigami that kills people without reason for her present convenience!! Do you think we sacrificed our own nation’s citizens because we wanted to!?”
“I hope your fellow Japanese citizens will accept your excuse. What will it be? We were afraid our allied nation in the three-legged race would betray us, so we exported a Package with a backdoor to create an environment where we have a way of manipulating the public opinion of the American people?”
“Ha ha ha. You want to know why I suddenly brought up a backdoor? Because I know you would do that. This isn’t about evidence to submit for a police investigation or trial. We both live in a world where no proof is needed. But are you sure that’s a good idea? If this is found out, both Japan and America will string you up like a bat in a picture book. You’ll probably be kicked out of the Western Restaurant too.”
“This is why I wanted nothing to do with a wild beast like you.”
That comment sounded like a groan and like a curse.
The low voice seemed to ooze out of the phone and into the room.
“No matter how much the information is restricted or cut off, you fill in the gaps with incomprehensible logic that only makes sense to you. You say what you would have done, but that’s enough to find the right answer and you attack at that weak point! Media control and destruction of evidence is powerless against a madwoman’s inspiration!!”
“Why thank you. My job doesn’t give me enough time to slowly search through a massive amount of information. In the end, it’s the ‘nose of the beast’ that finds the answer. And if you can’t believe that, you probably won’t last long.”
Mai-san’s expression remained unchanged.
She maintained a relaxed smile from beginning to end.
“More importantly, you have this backwards. You were the one that attacked first with that emergency news report. You can try to hit me as much as you want, but don’t be so selfish as to beg me not to hit back.”
“What are you talking about? We know that you were investigating us!”
“And either way, you would have picked up on the project somewhere once it began to advance. As I said, we were looking to the future. It could not hurt to take you out early. Even if the news method failed, we will definitely kill-…”
It was as if a switch had suddenly been thrown.
Mai-san gave an icy sigh. It contained the same overwhelming disappointment as a long-married couple rejecting all their nostalgic memories and resolving themselves to break up.
“That’s enough. I understand most of it now. I had my suspicions, but that settled it. Sorry about interrupting your excitement, but I have no more business with you.”
“I mean, you’re supposed to be Udou Itsuki, right? You belong to the Master of the Restaurant that controls Japan from Akasaka in the east and Gion in the west. …If that was really who you were, you would not be so sloppy. You may be under the impression you are speaking logically, but you are clearly speaking from emotion. And that got the better of you.”
She sounded listless.
Her voice contained no hint of respect or caution.
“And you have completely mistaken where the problem lies. The biggest threat is not Hishigami Mai, the lone wolf. It’s the UN Under-Secretary-General listening in from the side, right? He’s an American citizen, so he’s the last person you want learning you’re exporting a Package with a backdoor installed. If you had any sense, your first priority would be figuring out how to naturally eliminate a well-known individual. Of course, pulling off a natural assassination swiftly and quietly at this point would be impossible for almost anyone but a Hishigami woman.”
For a while, no response came from the phone.
However, I could hear an odd sound that was not quite moaning and not quite muttering to oneself.
Mai-san continued while sounding truly fed up with all of this.
“That’s enough to leave your mind blank? …That’s it. I get it, so just transfer me to your boss. Talking with a little boy like you isn’t going to get me anywhere.”
“Th-there is no one higher than me! Ha ha. You seem to have misread that at least. Your cleverness seems to have crossed a line and turned into a victim complex!! In other words…!!”
“And Udou Itsuki may have a lot of ‘power’, but that’s in reference to the political power balance. Direct confrontations using the occult are outside his field of expertise. The brain of the operation must be somewhere near you. …When did you realize they were simply flattering you? They lured you past the point of no return and then used you as a puppet, didn’t they? ‘They’ being the true leader and brains of the operation who respectfully bows down to you.”
“Wait. Did you seriously not catch on? Wow. I did not expect that level of incompetence. But in that case… Hmm. You would have to know that at least, right? But then, if you really are that incompetent…it’s possible.”
“What!? What are you hiding!?”
“Well,” said Mai-san with a thin smile. “Are you aware you’re only Udou Itsuki’s body double?”
This time, the phone truly did grow silent as if it had been swallowed up by a void.
After several seconds, something finally happened.
However, it was not Udou Itsuki speaking.
It was a loud gunshot and the sound of something heavy collapsing to the ground.
“This is hopeless.”
After a pause, I heard a young female voice that was clearly different from the previous man.
Who is this?
“Completely hopeless. I thought an idiot would be easier to control, but they end up tripping you up when they’re that stupid. In a way, this was a good lesson.”
“Oh, so are you the brains? But why did you work with the body double? You could have dealt with the real Udou Itsuki.”
“Are you an idiot too? What's wrong with this country? The real one is too strictly guarded to get anywhere close. But the body double is given a portion of the Restaurant’s authority so no one can tell they aren’t the real one and that portion was enough for me.”
“You mean for assembling the Aburatori Packages?”
“You really are an idiot. Or am I just too brilliant? The Aburatori was nothing more than bait to lure in the body double.”
“Yeah, despite claiming to look to the future, everything he said was way off the mark. Almost like someone was guiding him.”
“I always thought the biggest villain of Snow White was the mirror of truth. Much like an Ungaikyou,” said the annoyed voice. “By the way, my target is you, Hishigami Mai.”
“I don’t recall doing anything to leave a grudge.”
“I’m not going to kill anyone for something like that. Are you stupid?”
“Because this is a small industry. I can tell that we would collide somewhere around the project after the project after my next if I do not take care of you now. And so I will kill you for the sake of the future. Clever, isn’t it?”
She was not killing Mai-san because she had gotten in her way.
She was killing her because she would probably get in her way eventually.
And to do so, she was willing to deceive anyone and drag anyone into this. Succeeding would make her a murderer and failing would make her a murder victim. She had flung herself into that hopeless abyss for what might be an imagined dream.
“Oh, so pretty much what I usually do,” replied Mai-san.
“Please do not compare me to an idiot like you. You only just thought that up, didn’t you?”
They sounded like they were simply chatting.
To Mai-san, that may have been fairly accurate. But this person was intent on killing Mai-san for her own safety, so how did she see the ferocious Hishigami Mai who would press onwards and break through any and all barriers?
The two agents continued on while paying me no heed.
“But my plan will continue even if this idiot of a body double is dead. Don’t think you will survive to see the dawn.”
I heard a strange sound resembling a laugh.
It came from Mai-san’s throat.
“No, no. That isn’t enough.”
“What? Don’t tell me you’re so stupid you think you’ll awaken to some special power if you’re cornered. Approaching the truth of the situation isn’t going to change anything. You are always being chased within this industry and I will slip through those gaps to kill you. Learning the truth only resolves the problem in cheap mysteries. That won’t work in reality.”
“Hah hah. I think I’ll throw those words right back at you☆”
Mai-san immediately replied in an obviously mocking tone.
One of her most frightening traits was her tendency to grow disrespectful instead of shouting angrily.
“In this world, whatever happens happens . You don’t say that things happen no matter what. You say that whatever happens happens. Do you get the difference? One of them includes a human will trying to change it and the other does not.”
Her voice was icily cold and yet she continued to give a smile of true enjoyment.
“You seem to be trying to hammer down the tallest nail as a logical way of ensuring your victory, but in my experience, logic backs off if you truly, truly force your desired result through. That’s why your emergency news didn’t reach me despite supposedly being a surefire method. You could also call that the essence of the Hishigami women. And afterwards, the people around us clean everything up. The people who realize the disaster would reach them as well if they did not contain it will automatically head in and clean up after us.”
“I see. And are you saying their numbers and influence is greater than that of the people I have set in motion? Are you viewing this as an election that counts the negative votes of fear and violence?”
“You don’t stand a chance if you think this will turn into anything like a proper election. My method is to smash the ballot box and stuff in billions of forged votes to turn everything my way.”
She seemed to be utterly, utterly enjoying herself.
Her expression was filled with the hostility of a beast tormenting its captured prey.
But at the same time, the person on the phone may have had the exact same expression.
“You didn’t make it that far,” said Mai-san. “You stayed inside the framework and gathered logical violence that can be understood in a normal sense. That’s too bad. Things are a lot easier if you break free of that framework and it isn’t often I see someone crawl their way up this high in our industry. It really boggles the mind why people become slaves to the rules here despite having fallen into these back alleys of the world because they couldn’t stand following the rules.”
“I tried to hear you out, but that’s nothing but the logic of a fool. Are you perhaps the kind of person who thinks wars can be won by trying harder? If so, that’s pretty sad. Real fights to the death are decided by numbers. If you could raise an individual’s value so easily, any of the six or seven billion people on the earth could become a historical emperor. And the human race would have been wiped out a long time ago.”
When both sides spoke with no intention of gaining mutual understanding, could it really be called a conversation?
They both produced an avalanche of words to crush the other and they were both just about equal. It felt like proof that they were standing on the same field.
And yet I was unsure how many people or even Youkai could stand up to this monster without being “swallowed up”.
“While we’re at it, how about giving me your name?” asked Mai-san. “That would make this more exciting.”
“Are you stupid? I’m going to lie in wait and kill you instead.”
The call ended there.
It ended as easily as a phone call between friends who called each other all the time.
Mai-san shrugged and tossed the receiver onto the landline’s hook.
“Let’s go, Sunekosuri. From here on, it’s a race against time.”
“Eh? Eh? Do you mean you’re going to fight that agent one-on-one?”
My honest question brought a troubled look to her face.
It seemed to say “Oh, I found an actual idiot.”
“No. That is definitely not going to happen.”
After leaving the fancy inn and returning to the rental car, Mai-san said the following.
“The enemy never gave her name and she sealed the lips of the one connection we had: Udou Itsuki…or his body double, I guess. It’s easy to focus on how she kept talking about going on the attack, but she was definitely making sure to get rid of any information we could use to track her down. If we don’t settle this before she can escape, we’ll always be in danger of attack.”
“Th-then why was she acting so belligerent?”
“So she could escape to safety while I went on the defensive. The most obvious example was ‘Don’t think you will survive to see the dawn.’ Someone who was actually afraid would probably hole up in a building, seal up the windows and doors, and wait until dawn. Meanwhile, she would have vanished and could wait until a month or year down the line to kill them. But I’m not going along with that.”
The way these people always had a secret plan or two behind what they said made my head spin.
I felt exhausted, but my only choice was to ask a question.
“What are you going to do now?”
“To successfully vanish, she’ll be rushing around to destroy any hint that could lead back to her. In that case, we can run into her by getting to one of those hints ahead of her. That’s where we can kill her.”
This was a race against time. To arrive ahead of her, we would need to get moving faster than her. It would be too late by the time she had destroyed all of the evidence.
And once again, these people worked on the assumption that they would kill their opponent. I just couldn’t keep up.
“Anyway, the biggest and most obvious hint would be the Aburatori. If she directly assembled the Package, the idiosyncrasies and traits of the assembly could give away her personal information. As she said, this is a small industry. She’d definitely want to destroy that if she’s planning to vanish here.”
“I can’t quite picture the situation.”
“She put together a separate-style Package. That means removing the central Youkai will destroy all of the Packages it was used for. So if you wanted to completely destroy everything as quickly as possible, what would you do?”
“You mean use some kind of ridiculous technique to kill a deadly Youkai that can’t be killed even if you stab or shoot it?”
“Anyone in this business should be able to kill a Youkai.”
You make that sound so easy.
Just so you know, I’m a canine Youkai myself! Tremble tremble!!
“In that case, the issue is where the Aburatori is located. She was probably tricking the body double to keep this whole thing secret and she can’t leave such a dangerous Youkai out in the open. It’s probably locked up somewhere or kept in a state similar to hibernation.”
“Are you saying there’s a secret base or something hidden in Hakone?”
“That would actually stand out too much.” Mai-san sliced my idea in two. “When smuggling drugs, you can slip them into the bag of an unsuspecting tourist. Even if the drugs are discovered, you can still escape. That’s how a professional treats anything truly dangerous. I’d say the Aburatori was secretly thrown in the attic or basement of some normal person who has no connection to the occult.”
“B-but if she’s going to swiftly destroy that evidence…”
“Look at this.”
Mai-san turned her handheld device toward me.
It displayed an article from an online news site.
“Mysterious fires in the new urban region of Hakone. Three homes completely destroyed. Gasoline residue was discovered on the exterior walls, so the police are investigating it as arson.”
“Very unnatural. These timely fires are almost asking me to investigate them. And while I’m digging through empty rubble, she’ll be leisurely finishing off the Aburatori.”
“That’s why she did this? Y-you have to be joking!! The people who lived there lost their homes and some might have died!!”
“We can discuss morality later. To look at this another way, she thinks I’ll outdo her if she doesn’t go this far. That means our target must be somewhere pretty obvious. Somewhere that would stand from just a glance at the map.”
As she spoke, Mai-san opened her device’s map service. She also called up the locations of the fires in the residential district of Hakone’s city area.
It looked like that area dealt more in selling ready-made homes than renting out apartments.
“Sunekosuri, what stands out most to you?”
“E-eh? W-well, the entire place is laid out neatly like a chocolate bar, but I guess somewhere with an unnatural amount of land would stand out most. For example…”
“Oh, but no choosing the parks. If the place has no clear owner, you can’t accuse the owner if something goes wrong. In other words, it has to be a privately owned building.”
“Th-then here maybe?”
I casually pointed my front paw at a building.
“Um, Green Leaves Home? A nursing and welfare facility? Eh?”
“In other words, an old folks home. It was built half a year ago, so it’s almost brand new. I don’t know when the Aburatori decoy project started, but someone could have dug a space under the floor during construction and created a secret space not even the owner knows about. In other words, she could have done whatever she wanted.”
“So the person behind all this will be going there? To destroy the evidence by killing the Aburatori? B-but then…”
“Right.” Mai-san cheerfully nodded. “Let’s stake the place out to see what she does. Once we know what methods she uses, killing her will be easy.”
For an instant, my brain refused to understand what she meant.
You mean…um…what you’re saying is… To sum it up…!!
“W-w-w-w-wait! I don’t know who this enemy is, but she’s coming to this facility if we don’t do anything, right!?”
“She dumped gasoline on and burned down innocent people’s houses just to throw us off her trail! Can she really kill this hidden Aburatori with a single attack? Because…because if she gets into a large-scale battle with it, what will happen to the old men and women staying there!?”
“It doesn’t matter if they get caught up in this. Our enemy doesn’t have time either, so she isn’t going to considerately sneak in or anything. She’ll probably pretend to be a home invader and go around killing people. If she steals some random bankbooks and seals, the police will be fooled. And if she later withdraws some money and exchanges it overseas, they’ll think it was the work of a foreign group.”
That’s not the point.
That’s not what I’m talking about!
You don’t get it at all!!
“If you know that, how can you suggest we just watch!?”
“It’s not like I’m killing them myself.”
“Those old men and women are completely innocent!! Are you just going to sit idly by while they’re killed!?”
“If I don’t, I won’t know what the enemy can do.”
I distinctly felt my mind shake.
Why couldn’t she understand something that anyone should know without being told?
And why was someone like that in a position where she held in her hands the lives of everyone in that facility?
“Um, Sunekosuri. It goes without saying, but I didn’t enter this world because I wanted to be some righteous hero. Did you really think I wouldn’t get civilians involved? What about that UN Under-Secretary-General? Was he a villain?”
“You can think what you want, but I don’t follow those rules. I take the actions necessary for a certain victory and sometimes that process will just so happen to save civilian lives. However, that doesn’t have enough value to leave the path of certain victory.”
Most likely, she was overwhelmingly right. In this small industry at least. Idealism meant nothing here. You would never win, you would never survive, and you would never stop having everything taken from you. I had known that. Even my wife had suddenly vanished one day and I hadn’t found her no matter where I looked. I didn’t think something so unreasonable could be explained away while sticking to idealistic ideas. That was why I had entered a dangerous organization like Hyakki Yakou in the first place. I had been taught all this by the very thing that had brought me here.
“To hell with that, you damn roach. Do you have any idea what you’re saying?”
A painful silence fell over the rental car.
I had said something decisive.
I understood that and because I understood it, I opened my mouth again.
“Do you think you’ll end up on the top of the world if you act like some kind of superhuman and look down on everyone like that? You’re taking the world too lightly. Your position doesn’t rise just because you look down on someone else. You haven’t gained anything.”
“Are you afraid of putting in any actual work? Are you afraid of having a clear loss thrust in your face if you take on an actual challenge like protecting those old men and women but fail? Is that why you don’t even try and minimize your losses!? If so, you’re just laughable. You aren’t protecting anything. Not one thing!! You let the numbers mislead you while you abandon what matters most!!”
I didn’t know if it was the reflection of the moonlight entering through the dark car’s window or if it was something else, but definite light filled her two eyes as she silently looked at me.
“You can pick a fight with me here if you want, but Hakone is a battlefield now. The rule about Youkai not dying doesn’t apply here. …Are you sure you understand that? You aren’t thinking some mysterious power is going to neatly settle everything in the end, are you?”
“You may feel like god is on your side right now and you might mistakenly think a righteous power will reside within you because you made the right decision, but that’s nothing but kind noise. If you continue on like this, you’ll find yourself surrounded by enemies. You’ll turn around, but you won’t find anyone there and no one will give you any help. The source of your power is a hollow delusion. Do you understand that?”
I was a Sunekosuri.
I had no cruel power to kill people like a Yuki Onna or Shichinin Misaki. I looked like a small dog and all I did was rub up against the shins of passing travelers. I knew just how dangerous it was for such a tiny and powerless Youkai to head out alone.
“But I am standing here. Whether by coincidence or inevitability, I am here now. No matter how weak or puny I might be, I can influence the overall situation now that I’m standing on the stage. That possibility remains, so the rest is my problem. You have no right to tell me what to do!!”
“Is that so? Well, if you do understand, I won’t stop you.”
Mai-san rolled down the passenger side window. There was nothing more to say, so I leaned out the window and entered the Hakone night.
I was certain she was not as bad a person as she claimed to be.
If she was truly living a life free of bonds like this mysterious enemy of ours, she would have no reason to choose her targets so carefully. While disguising it as a failed unexploded ordnance recovery or a sudden volcanic eruption, she could have blown away the enemy along with the entire city of Hakone with no concern for the civilians or G20 leaders. It sounded absurd, but with her power and skill, it would have been a piece of cake.
But she did not do that.
No matter what anyone said and even if she mocked the idea herself, she drew a line between who she would kill and who she would not.
But she had not noticed that fact herself. And right now, she was trying to crush that small bud underfoot without ever noticing it was there.
Even if it was temporary and forced on me by my higher ups, I was her partner.
I could not allow her to crush that small bud. And to do that, I had to protect the old men and women of the old folks home from our enemy!
I could not rely on the great power of Hishigami Mai.
I had to fight someone of equal or greater power on my own.
The situation was hopeless.
In fact, my specs were no different from a small dog’s, so even arriving at the residential area in question would be difficult. I approached a truck waiting at a light in the dark city, made a few failed jumps, and finally gathered all my effort and willpower to climb up onto the back of the truck.
On the way, I was nearly taken in a completely different direction, but I moved to different trucks a few times before finally reaching my destination.
I was met by such silence that it felt like the world had been destroyed.
The night was pitch black.
My vision blurred and it was likely due to more than just a Youkai’s dislike of modern cities. There was some unknown presence here and it was on a level to instill fear even in a Youkai like me.
Even this late at night, it was strange to find no lights whatsoever. I felt the same sharp aura as when the electricity was cut off before a SWAT team barged in on a criminal barricaded in a building. Had the enemy already arrived? Would I really make it in time?
For the time being, I ran along the asphalt road to reach the Green Leaves Home.
The grounds were smaller than a school’s. They were closer to the size of a kindergarten. The well-maintained lawn contained a few pieces of playground equipment and the sort of grill set found at campsites. They may have been for when the residents’ grandchildren visited.
A quick look around showed no signs of broken windows or doors.
Deciding I had arrived first, I rang the front doorbell. More specifically, I began jumping again.
Kh… Hitting the button with my front paw is surprisingly hard!!
After a while, a few lights came on inside the building and slippered footsteps approached the door.
When the door opened, a short old woman stepped out.
“Oh? What do you want at this hour, little Youkai?”
I just about named myself, but quickly realized something.
What would I gain by identifying myself as a powerless Sunekosuri?
I rethought my plan and gave a meaningless snort.
“I am a Youkai that predicts the future.”
“A tornado is coming! A huge disaster is coming! In just a few minutes, it will pass through here. If you understand, then please wake everyone and evacuate. A rectangular portion of the lawn has been cut out and there’s an underground space there, right? That should work as a tornado shelter.”
“Oh, my, my. That is a problem. We need to tell the neighbors too.”
“Hurry!! I’ll go tell the neighbors!!”
When I urged her on, she looked troubled but still moved back inside the facility. Despite the late hour, the thirty to fifty old folks obeyed my instructions. It may have been their age that let them trust the words of a Youkai like that.
“Hurry! I don’t know if it’s a storehouse or what, but there should be a door in the yard leading underground. Please head there!”
“Oh? Aren’t you a Sunekosu-…”
“Hurry, hurry!! The tornado will be here soon. Woof woof!!”
One of the old men just about saw through my lie, but I silenced him with pure momentum. Right now, I was an ominous canine Youkai that predicted disasters.
After making sure they had all made their way below the yard, the previous old woman began to close the door from the inside, but she stopped for a moment.
“What about you? There’s a storm coming, isn’t there?”
“A tornado is coming, but don’t worry. I may not look it, but I am a Youkai and I still have work to do. I need to inform as many people in the neighborhood as I can.”
“Okay, but come back here if it gets dangerous. Just because you’re a tough Youkai doesn’t mean we can force all our pain onto you.”
I said I would and she finally closed the door.
I pictured the general layout of the old folks home and hurried around to check with my own eyes. There was a rectangular concrete building, a tank of what was likely town gas out back, swings and a slide in the large yard, and the grill set. Was there anything I could use as a weapon or otherwise? There would be blades in the kitchen, a fire extinguisher in the entranceway, and a tool box I couldn’t find one. There was probably a storage closet or something somewhere, though. After looking around a few times, I found the gardening tools: agrochemicals, plastic rope, and steel stakes.
I would do everything I could and I ran around making my preparations.
The enemy would arrive eventually and she would kill all witnesses even if there were a hundred or even a thousand of them. Those elderly people could not escape on foot in the middle of the night, so intercepting the enemy here was the only option.
And meanwhile the only person who has an actual chance of pulling that off is-…
Just as that thought entered my mind, something happened in just an instant.
The sound of destruction was simply overwhelming and it took me a while to realize what had happened.
I had been standing on all fours in the large yard, but my vision began spinning around and around. Everything transformed into a collection of meaningless flowing lines. My body was in midair and even the cement blocks surrounding the yard and the ground itself had been blown away by a massive strike on the level of a plane crash. By the time I realized all that, my thoughts finally caught up.
I had been knocked into the air by something frightening.
It was a giant arm measuring several dozen meters long. It looked like it was made from armor panels and thick leather held together with glue. A scooping upper cut had torn through the cement blocks and the ground to mercilessly strike me.
That was all there was to the attack, but I shot across the grounds of the old folks home and mercilessly slammed into the building’s wall. The stones that flew along with me broke through the windows and even the wall.
“G-gah!? Gbbh. Bebhh!!”
My own blood…is blocking my throat!!
“Cough….cough cough!! Pant pant!!”
I somehow managed to cough up the blood and secure a path for air, but my head was still shaken. I was a Youkai and thus wouldn’t be killed even if I was stabbed or shot, so what was this? I felt the pain of having my ribs squeezed to their limit and having every single organ crushed. I was undoubtedly approaching death.
By the time I noticed the sound of scraping metal, the giant arm had vanished.
In its place, someone stepped over the smashed cement blocks and into the yard.
It was a girl who looked about high school age and who wore a showy yellow sailor uniform. I did not know if any school actually used that uniform, but there was another more important issue. Simply meeting this kind of person would mean death, so was it even possible for her to have a normal school life?
She gave me an utterly scornful look as I unsteadily tried to stand.
“Don’t tell me you actually thought you’d gotten here ahead of the professional agent and that I just so happened to attack just as you finished your pathetic preparations. If so, you’re not very bright. Not very bright at all. Of course that isn’t what happened.”
As she approached, I detected a sweet juicy aroma similar to peaches. The kind smell seemed so out of place in the otherwise nightmarish scene that I felt like my senses had been thrown out of whack.
“I’m a freelance agent, you know? I make my way through this world without the help of an organization and I’ve survived this long. Did you really think you were faster than someone like that? It was the opposite. The complete opposite. I had already arrived and I was monitoring you to judge your strength. That’s what happened. You may be stupid, but I assume you get it now.”
“Now, here’s a question for you. If I went to the trouble of judging your strength, why did I just make a blatant head-on attack? The answer is because I judged you were nothing worth fearing!!”
With a metallic sound, her slender right arm transformed from fingertip to shoulder. It was now a mass of steel and leather held together with glue. It almost looked like old Japanese armor.
That was the identity of the previous attack. It was a transforming suit of armor.
But as soon as I thought that, the truth far outdid my imagination.
“The Brave Warrior of the Scarlet Peach. That is the name of the artificial Youkai I created. In other words, this is my Shikigami. Now, what legend do you think I based this on?”
The Scarlet Peach.
A gentle and sweet aroma filled the air.
I shuddered and all of my fur stood on end.
It can’t be…
I thought of a name so well-known even a child would recognize it.
“His extermination of the oni is the simplest symbolism there is when it comes to killing Youkai. Even if you gathered thousands upon thousands of deadly Youkai, I could kill the entire horde unharmed. Sorry, but if you were a human who could be killed by normal means, you might have actually lasted longer.”
She would not even try to use a gun or a knife.
She was the type to choose a different set of weapons when fighting a human or a Youkai.
And here, she had switched gears to truly become my natural enemy.
Part 19 (3rd person)
Inside the V-shaped flying wing that was Hyakki Yakou’s mobile headquarters, the group’s Mamedanuki let out a smoky sigh. The Youkai was less than thirty centimeters tall and looked like a stuffed tanuki, but her(?) role was that of a body double.
For that reason, she was ridiculously good at information analysis.
What information should be thrown out and what information should be protected? Who suspected her and who trusted her? If she made a single lie to protect herself, how would it eventually come back and affect her? If she could not instantly analyze all that and smoothly make a decision, she would never have been given the job of a body double.
Currently, that expert of a Manedanuki was grimacing while staring at the documents on the low table she lay on.
“Honestly, he let the kind noise get the better of him. Does he really think a contact who supports things behind the scenes could really defeat a professional monster if he stood in harm’s way? And against someone who built a Momotarou specialized in slaughtering Youkai no less.”
It was hard to think he stood a chance.
And oddly enough, a certain mindset would view that itself as a reason to fight.
That mindset was an ally of the weak.
Those were the heroes of epics told the world over and of the fictional period drams and westerns derived from those epics. The deeds of those heroes were indeed attractive, but that was the attraction of doing something that would normally never succeed. If one hundred people attempted them, not all of them would be successful.
That attraction was the maw of a great monster.
If you let it tempt you, you would be unable to resist its pull and its many fangs would tear you to pieces.
“That idiot is going to die. And yet he’s seen countless people disappear in this same way.”
At that point, a voice directly opposed the Mamedanuki’s accurate analysis.
“He won’t lose.”
The voice came from a small child of an already small species.
The puppy was only about five centimeters tall and he looked up at the Mamedanuki with his four legs braced against the floor.
He stared straight up at her.
“Daddy won’t lose to a bad guy.”
“You’re right,” muttered the Mamedanuki while toying with her slender Japanese-style pipe. “He still hasn’t settled things with me. And he won’t give this an ending that would make the lady sad.”
The hard creaking sound of the armor continued.
It was coming.
I didn’t know how it worked, but that ridiculous attack that instantly grew to several dozen times its size was coming.
The massive fist tore through the air itself as it flew straight toward me.
I only had the athletic ability of a small dog, so I could never avoid it even if I jumped out of the way now.
But I was a Sunekosuri.
I was a Youkai that could do nothing more than rub up against travelers’ shins in the night. But even if that was a useless ability, my movements could reach the supernatural when doing that.
The girl wearing the Brave Warrior of the Scarlet Peach sounded surprised.
To her, it may have looked like my small form suddenly vanished.
In truth, I had only snuck right up to her feet.
The great destruction arrived a moment later.
That building had looked so sturdy, but a great din burst out as the first floor was torn to pieces as easily as a spider web.
My chest hurt, but I had avoided the attack.
And from here…!!
As soon as that thought came to me, I heard a hard sound.
The soft girl’s skin I was rubbing my cheek against changed to cold and hard metal.
She made such a skilled recovery that my mind grew absolutely blank.
She did not hesitate to bring her Japanese armored foot down to crush my back. It was a sharp strike as if from a pile driver. At the same time, the armor made of metal and leather expanded and increased its destructive force with its incredible mass.
I was fairly certain I heard something break inside my body.
But in reality, I was feeling the ground cave in and collapse below me because of all the weight bearing down on me. Yes, there was a space underground. I should have been crushed between the giant foot and the ground, but the thin layer of ground broke instead and I fell into the space below.
The space below the lawn would be…!
I heard coughing from surprisingly nearby.
A large pile of dirt covered my head and someone was looking down at me instead of worrying about themselves.
“Wh-what is it? This isn’t a tornado. What is going on? And…and why are you bleeding so much?”
Dammit!! How could I let myself fall into the very place I had the old men and women evacuate to!? This is no different from pushing them right in front of the wild beast!!
Directly above, I heard the Brave Warrior of the Scarlet Peach girl laugh.
The gentle aroma of peaches invaded this supposed area of safety.
“Hee hee. Hee hee hee.”
I could not let the fight come here. I had to avoid a location that would get them involved.
I immediately moved through the elderly group by travelling from shin to shin. My swift movement looked like someone darting through the gaps in a forest or like the movements of a snake or eel. My goal was the stairway leading up and the door to the surface. Nothing mattered except starting this anew from a position that would not put the old men and women in danger.
But my efforts were not rewarded.
By the time I had run up the stairs and to the door, the Brave Warrior of the Scarlet Peach had already attacked.
The giant arm of armor defeated the entire purpose of an underground structure much like destroying a car’s roof to turn it into a convertible. The wrecking ball of a fist approached along with a tremendous amount of dirt and knocked me and the steel door into the air outside.
I did not even have it in me to cry out.
When my small body finally slammed into the ground, I found myself a disturbing distance away. This was the area with the playground equipment. Specifically, I had landed on the gas range of the grill set.
I can’t win.
Even if infinite options spread out before my eyes, every single one of them would ultimately lead to my death. The girl wearing the Brave Warrior of the Scarlet Peach had made that a reality. She had set things up that way before beginning the battle. That was why I could not win. It did not matter how much I struggled. In fact, the more I struggled, the more I would be hopelessly cornered.
“Ahh, ahh. I was spotted.”
I heard a footstep.
“So which would you prefer? Should I slaughter those old people after roasting you or should I wait to roast you afterwards? Now that they saw a professional at work, their fate is sealed. You can choose whichever order you like, though.”
I heard another.
She was slowly approaching, but I could not move. I was like a fish on the chopping block. I could not even move enough to fall from the dangerous-looking gas range.
The unnaturally gentle peach aroma reached my nose.
The girl controlling and wearing the Brave Warrior of the Scarlet Peach had arrived close enough to look down on my bloody form. Her expression was less that of someone preparing a meal and more that of a child torturing a captured insect. But despite knowing what fate awaited me, I could not make the nimble movements of a movie star.
An ominous vibration shook the gas range and myself.
When I realized her slender fingers had grabbed the ignition switch, an unpleasant feeling ran down my spine.
“Have you learned your place yet?”
“A-all too much.”
Her smooth and unhesitating words seemed to burn my stomach as she spoke without holding back.
“I’d really rather not eat dog, but it would be a shame to have you go to waste. How about I feed you to those old people? I wonder how they would react to that.”
“But thanks to this, I’ve learned some of the secret behind your Brave Warrior of the Scarlet Peach.”
Her fingers on the switch paused for just an instant.
But this pause was rooted in interest and curiosity, not fear and caution. She seemed to be saying she would ignite the gas range the instant those feelings cooled down.
“It’s not quite accurate to say that strange armor harms me as a Youkai. The punching and kicking aren’t what really matter. If so, you wouldn’t be trying to cook me on a gas range in the end. You can’t kill a Youkai by stabbing them or shooting them, even with a harmless Youkai like me. Even a gas range is a normal method. Using it to torture me is one thing, but you wouldn’t choose it as a finishing blow.”
“You use two different supernatural powers. The first is the armor and the second is the creation of a field in which Youkai can be killed with normal methods. And outside the armor, there’s only one symbol of Momotarou here: that peach aroma. You scatter that around to prepare the environment needed to exterminate the oni.”
The girl gave a surprisingly cute laugh of confirmation.
“You may look pretty stupid, but you made it that far, did you? Brave Warrior of the Scarlet Peach includes both a Shikigami and a fire altar. Combining Onmyoudou and Mikkyou is a heretical method much like combining non-complementary foods for a gimmicky dish. That’s why it should have slipped past any specialists in this field. …It looks like taking on an idiot backfired.”
“You were never wielding any especially strong power; you were weakening us Youkai. That armor is being used entirely to attack. It isn’t actually protecting you at all.”
If she could truly wield such unmatched power, she would not have needed to use a gun when killing Udou Itsuki’s body double. It would be best to assume her supernatural power, the Brave Warrior of the Scarlet Peach, could only wield its full power against a Youkai.
“So?” She tilted her head. “Whatever the case, you’re still going to die here. Just like any old dog, you can easily be killed with a knife or gun right now. Or are you so stupid you don’t even know what it is you’re lying on or what my right hand is holding?
“Ha ha.” I laughed without meaning to. “Maybe it’s because you scatter that peach aroma everywhere, but have you really not noticed anything ‘off’?”
“This is indeed an outdoor gas range used for cookouts. And it’s really easy to ignite because a gas pipe buried underground carries fuel to it. But what if someone had sabotaged it ahead of time?”
She stopped breathing when I said that.
She seemed to have finally noticed the stink mixed in with the peach aroma.
“I’m a weak Youkai that can’t do anything more than a small dog and I have no traits that would let me kill a human, but even a small dog’s prank can cause a disaster. For example, he could bite through the rubber hose connected to the gas line.”
“Do you really understand what you’re saying?”
“And your technique only provides offense! You completely ignored defense because you assumed any Youkai weakened by the peach aroma couldn’t do anything worth worrying about. So what if someone brings a normal method into this? If you’re caught in a gas explosion, I doubt you’ll escape unharmed!!”
“My fire altar is still weakening you, so you can’t say you won’t die because you’re a Youkai. If there’s an explosion here, that normal method will-…!!”
“Yes, I know.”
As I spoke, I moved my mouth to show off my teeth.
Specifically, I showed off the piece of flint the size of a sesame seed I had glued to my canine tooth. I had taken apart a cheap lighter I had found inside the facility to get the flint.
And after choosing to show it off, I made an announcement.
“But what does that matter, you damn roach?”
I immediately clacked my canine teeth together.
You’ll probably never understand just what strength fills my heart while I desire to help these complete strangers without trying to earn anything from it myself.
And that is why you will lose!!
A tiny orange spark burst into the dark night.
The look on the girl’s face had been that of someone who had never once thought of anything but her own victory, but in this instant, I saw that look distort.
And a moment later…
I was gasping for breath.
My vision faded in and out. I felt like I would lose consciousness if I stopped focusing for even an instant. I was lying on the lawn a good distance away from the grill set. I heard what sounded like a crackling fire and a corner of the facility grounds was glowing orange.
I desperately tried to stand, but I could not put my legs below me. My front right leg would not move as I told it to. Half of my vision was covered in something dark. Part of me may have been broken or burned, but I was a Youkai, so it was possible I would naturally recover. After all, we generally gathered strength through the passage of time. Even so, I had no way of healing my wounds right away.
I gave up on standing and practically dragged my face along the ground to move at about the speed of a caterpillar.
“This isn’t over yet…”
I had to evacuate the old men and women from the facility grounds. I had not been able to predict where the Brave Warrior of the Scarlet Peach girl would attack, so I had sabotaged the gas lines all over the grounds to create as many attack points as possible. It had just so happened that the outdoor grill set was the one I ended up at. For example, I had also created a gas leak in the facility’s kitchen, so I needed to prepare for a possible ignition of that one as well.
And if Mai-san’s prediction was correct, the girl had been controlling Udou Itsuki’s (or his body double’s) organization and they had kept the deadly Aburatori somewhere on these grounds. I didn’t know what method they were using, but it was impossible to know who the Youkai would bare its fangs toward if the battle or fire woke it up.
That meant it would be best to have the old folks escape as soon as possible. My goal was not defeating the Brave Warrior of the Scarlet Peach. No matter the reason, if even one of them died in the very end, it would mean I had lost.
And so I dragged my battered body toward those old men and women.
One day, when I found my missing wife and had my family back, I would be able to tell them with pride the path I had taken to reach that point.
I can’t give in now.
Part 22 (3rd person)
A quiet noise sounded from the sea of spreading flames caused by the gas explosion.
“It” had a mouth to speak.
However, the exposure to the intense heat had completely destroyed its lips and throat.
Unable to speak properly and letting loose something like a roar, it forcefully stood up within that scorching orange hell.
The damage went beyond the face.
All of its skin had melted into something like a cream and fused with its crumbling clothing. Its entire body had become a twisted mass of muscle fibers. Its hair had vanished in the flames. Its soft subcutaneous fat had completely cooked and separated from its body, so it looked like a sexless anatomy model.
Even so, it did not die.
Something odd was mixed in with that model. An amber-dyed material that looked at least one hundred years old had been hidden below the skin. The material was placed around the body as if to strengthen the skeleton, so it looked like a cyborg made with traditional Japanese mechanisms.
With a wet sound, it walked through the flames. Its eyeballs had almost started to boil and its vision was as foggy as looking through frosted glass, but it still searched for a single target.
That being a harmless Youkai.
That Youkai had apparently not escaped unscathed, but he was better off than her. His lighter weight may have allowed the explosion to throw him outside the scorching hell.
She could not accept that.
She could not accept that his injuries were lighter than hers, that he was in a better position than her, that he was desperately crawling through this hellish scene to save some normal people, or that he had achieved victory despite being infected by the kind noise.
In short, she could not accept any of it.
(I’ll kill him.)
The girl tried to mutter under her breath, but her melted lips had fused together and she could not even do that.
(I’ll kill him! Crush him!! Ruin it all for him!!!! I have to do that if I’m going to get back on my feet. Whether it turns that damn Youkai into a corpse or a pile of flesh, I’ll thoroughly smash him to pieces!!)
She moved her melted body toward the Sunekosuri.
She would first smash the canine Youkai to pieces, show him to those old people, and then ask them to eat him. Any who refused, she would kill right then and there. Any who did eat him, she would line up and kill at the very end. Either way, she would slaughter them all.
But as soon as she made those plans, she heard what sounded more like an explosion than a gunshot and a fist-sized hole opened in her chest.
What had once been a girl looked down to her own chest.
The flesh, blood, bone, and organs were all missing. She had been pierced straight through and what had been there was the most important of the human organs: the heart. It had vanished like a magic trick that stole the hearts of anyone who saw it.
It had been done so skillfully that she forgot to die.
It was just like a fish prepared and served while still alive. And her melted ears heard a dull electronic tone. A cellphone was ringing. The remains of what had been a skirt were stuck to the waist of that roasted anatomy model. She grabbed the device that had transformed into something like cheese melted on toast and she answered it.
The connection was so clear it seemed like some kind of an illusion.
She forcibly ripped her fused lips apart and finally managed to speak.
“That’s right. You’re the one behind all this, aren’t you? Do you know what I did☆?”
“An anti-materiel rifle?
“Nope. Wrong. It was a .50 caliber heavy machinegun. But there are some crazy people who use them for sharpshooting from 2000 meters away. The rounds are the same after all.”
“No…the sound of the shot and the hit…were almost simultaneous. This is just like thunder and lightning… You have to be nearby. Where…are you? I was waiting here…to capture you. But you…had that Youkai…hound me. Get…out here. I’ll kill you…with my own hands.”
“Ha ha ha! I had the Sunekosuri hound you? Are you sure you want your dying words to be a pun!? And sorry, but I’m not about to take you head-on when you can still move around after all that. And I don’t think he was wrong when he said a normal method would kill you, so just die already. …Besides, I’ve 80% lost when I rely on a gun, so this definitely isn’t a fight I want a part of.”
The anatomy model briefly fell silent but finally spoke again.
“Why are…you here? To save the residents…of the old folks home? Or to…save that Sunekosuri?”
“Sorry, but I’m a professional who knows where to draw the line. I know all too well how frightening the kind noise can be. I’m not foolish enough to risk my life for something like that.”
Why had she attacked now?
Whether it was the Sunekosuri or the old people, the best time to take the shot would have been the instant the girl-turned-anatomy-model had killed her target and let her guard down.
“To be honest, my plan was to stir up the Sunekosuri, have him run off to where you were waiting, and then shoot you once you showed up because you were irritated with the eyesore of a Youkai running around.”
“But he did better than I had expected. He actually pulled off that absurd fairy tale of his. He didn’t quite finish the job, but dragging out your secret was quite valuable indeed. …That’s right. Momotarou did not have special power because of a legendary weapon or undergoing some amazing training. His very birth included the symbolism of the peach, a fruit believed to ward off evil. So you’re an evil-destroying cyborg given a boost by the scented wood placed inside your body. If I hadn’t noticed, I might have taken you too lightly and made a mistake.”
That terribly arrogant woman was saying her life had been saved by that stuffed animal of a Youkai.
“In that case, this is an agreement between professionals. Now that the Sunekosuri has achieved his goal of saving those old people and has also found your weakness for me, I should finish my own job. I’ll kill you, take care of the Aburatori, and bring this incident to an end. That dirty work is my part to play.”
She sounded almost jealous.
This tone was one she would never use in front of the Sunekosuri.
It was like she had seen something she had once possessed but had thrown away in order to survive.
And most likely, she was not really speaking to the anatomy model that had been their enemy.
Head, gut, waist, limbs, etc. Before thoroughly destroying every part of that girl’s body with .50 caliber bullets which were the size of hammerheads, Hishigami Mai muttered one last sentence.
“You were really cool, baby☆”
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