The Zashiki Warashi of Intellectual Village:Volume4 Chapter 4
Chapter 4: ??? /// ...The Timeline Collapses
Part 1 (3rd person)
When had the incident begun?
Late at night, the large Japanese-style living room of the old thatch-roofed Jinnai residence was filled with silence and darkness. The moonlight entering through the sliding door was only enough to see the faint outlines of objects. A large German grandfather clock that looked straight out of a nursery rhyme made a rhythmic noise with each movement of its seconds hand.
This was different from complete emptiness.
That faint stimulus increased the impression of stillness and darkness.
With the entire family asleep and the liveliness created by human beings gone, the tranquility almost felt cold.
But a Zashiki Warashi in a red yukata stood within that room.
And she was not alone.
Someone else faced her.
A brutal and deadly Youkai calmly stood there and was clearly out of place in the scenery created by the thatch-roof house.
“It’s been a while,” he said in a hoarse voice.
His expression was hidden, but not just by the surrounding darkness. He was dressed like a farmer and he had a habit of hiding his face with the conical hat that had a single large eye drawn on the top.
“I haven’t seen you since that incident, that child organ trafficking Package that was unleashed here in Noukotsu Village. You must remember. So how has Jinnai Shinobu-kun been since then?”
His voice seemed to permeate or corrode.
It seemed to desecrate not the people who heard it, but the very realm it filled. The voice alone was enough for the Zashiki Warashi to twist her eyebrows in displeasure, but this was not the same as the unpleasant feeling brought by scraping glass. She then spoke the very first thing on her mind.
“I have no idea what incident you’re talking about.”
The deadly Youkai known as an Aburatori laughed beyond his eye hat.
Two Youkai calmly faced each other.
And a certain question once more reached the Zashiki Warashi’s mind.
When had the incident begun?
Part 2 (Jinnai Shinobu)
Don’t act like we’re lovers just because we kissed a bit and you touched my breasts, you idiot.
Two minutes after that shocking turn of events, I was still unsure if I should cry or get mad as I returned to my classroom with a hand on my stinging cheek.
It was the end of our midday break.
Lunch time and fun time had passed and the hastier straight-A students were already preparing their textbooks and notebooks on their desks.
Just like always, Kotemitsu Madoka-chan was messing with her cellphone instead of joining in with the rest of the class. In order to get a conversation started, I threw myself onto her desk.
“Ahhhh! Madoka-san, please console me!!”
“Romance advice is too high a hurdle for a lonely beauty like me.”
“Sorry, but that romance just ended! That’s why I want you to console me! C’mon, c’mon. Will you pet my head? Or you can try something a little more indecent if you like.”
“From that, I take it you’ve thrown me in the ‘complete lost cause’ category.”
“Now, now, Madoka-san. Let’s not say anything sad like that. A-and wait. Does that mean you are an option? Why didn’t you say so sooner!? (Rummage rummage)”
“Now you’re searching through your wallet for a condom right in front of me? I’m in the joke category for you, aren’t I!?”
Madoka, you fool.
Going for a lady-killer aura here would only make the girl put up her guard. I have to make her think it could never happen so she lowers the hurdle. Then as the conversation continues, she suddenly realizes she’s taken a step beyond simple joking! You fool, this is already a romantic minefield!!
There’s no point in holding onto love that has already ended. I, Jinnai Shinobu, will continue on to the next stage not three seconds later!!
Meanwhile, Madoka gave me the same look she would give an investment fraud pamphlet titled “Always Make 100% Returns, Guaranteed!”
“And don’t you already have someone for this kind of thing? Y’know, that something-or-other Nagisa.”
“Y-you idiot! How clueless can you be!? She’s in the top three of the world’s yandere rankings. Bring her into anything remotely related to romance and you’ll end up with flying blades and shed blood no matter what you do!!”
“Hee hee hee. You rang, Shinobu-chan?”
A quiet voice snuck up directly behind me and my entire body jumped as if I were in an electric chair.
I very hesitantly turned around and found that love monster’s grinning face.
She was known as the scissors girl, the knife girl, the katana girl, the hammer girl, the wire girl, and…what else was there? She had too many dark nicknames to remember them all.
“What’s this, what’s this? A love story? Romance advice? Love is so wonderful. Shinobu-chan, you can ask me anything. What seems to be the problem? Heh heh heh heh heh heh heh heh.”
“Y-you’ve got it all wrong, Nagisa. Nothing’s going on that warrants you showing up. If you interfere, it’ll lead to nothing but pain and trauma!!”
The next thing I knew, Madoka was enthralled in her cellphone. She had probably gotten sick of dealing with me and thus called in someone even harder to deal with.
At this point, there was nothing I could do.
I had to send an SOS to a specialist in this kind of battlefield.
“Nooo!! Help me, Love King!! I’ve been sucked into a crucible of fear and you’re the only one who can help me escape!!”
“Shut up, Jinnai. ‘Before it starts’ and ‘after it ends’ are outside my expertise. Come back later.”
That annoyed comment came from an odd neighbor who was exclusively an expert in love advice for the lovey-dovey couples going through a messy soap opera.
“And whatever latent factors might have been inside Nagisa-chan, you’re still the one that pulled the trigger. Y’know, that legendary incident from middle school that ended up in a fight with actual swords.”
“Cough cough!! D-don’t bring up that spectacular failure right now! I swore I would never again go for love that takes the ‘ero’ out of ‘ero guro’!!”
Part 3 (Uchimaku Hayabusa)
“What? A questioning?”
As I made a revolutionary new kind of egg zosui by dumping plain salted rice balls in a convenience store egg soup cup and mixing in hot water, the chief of Investigation Department 1, Mezu Gen, gave me a disgusted look before telling me the following.
“The suspect is from a group that accessed abandoned SNS accounts – that is, ones with no logins for over a year – and started posting things both true and false. At first, we thought it was meant to influence the stock market or the futures market for Intellectual Village brand crops, so Department 2 was handling it. But it looks like things have changed. …And that attempt at zosui is disturbing.”
“But why is Department 1 getting involved? Did they post about a murder they were going to commit or something? …And someone whose wife makes his lunch every day has no right to mock a failed attempt at securing sustenance.”
“I don’t know the details, so go ask that career employee in Department 2. Y’know, the kid in glasses. …And I put in plenty of work to hold my household together. I don’t want to hear anything from someone content with single life.”
“Why do you hate the career employees that much? I do understand being jealous, though. …And what do you mean you put in plenty of work!? You aren’t threatening a young woman with that face that would make a hardened criminal piss himself, are you!?”
He threw a thick case file at me and I fled with the homemade egg zosui cup in hand. To reach the interrogation room on a different floor, I first ran to the elevator hall.
The automatic metal doors opened to either side and I saw a familiar face inside.
It was Chief Superintendent Mishima, one of the highest members of the National Police Agency.
How high up was he, you ask? The only positions above him were the Senior Commissioner and the exceptional positions like the Superintendent General and Chief of Police. To someone stuck in a dead end job at the second rank from the bottom, he seemed above the clouds.
But what did a VIP of the NPA that dealt with the entire country want with the Metropolitan Police Department that only protected the peace of Tokyo?
With that question in mind, I stepped onto the elevator with him and pressed the button for my destination floor.
Once the door closed, he watched the floor indicator light and spoke.
“Are you on your way to a job?”
“I am always working.”
“This questioning sounds difficult, but do your best. I have high hopes for you, Uchimaku-kun, so I put in a good word so you can do your job more comfortably.”
“What kind of support are you talking about?”
“That’s quite something you’re eating there. It’s a blasphemy toward egg zosui. Oh, are you going to give that to the suspect to get a confession? Like an opposite of the usual katsudon?”
“This is a treat for myself!! And more importantly… Ah, wait!!”
The elevator doors opened and he quickly left.
Just before the automatic metal doors closed, he glanced back toward me.
“You need to assume this is the last time you will receive any help that comes at such a loss, okay?”
I was left alone on the elevator with that ominous comment.
I felt like I had been placed on some strange track without even realizing it. Just like with a surprise birthday party, everything around me started to seem suspicious.
However, the Metropolitan Police Department did not offer enough freedom to let me abandon my duty over a bit of suspicion.
I arrived at my destination floor and made my way to the interrogation room.
Waiting near the door was a rich guy in glasses whose appearance practically screamed “In summer, it’s cool biz! In winter, it’s warm biz! In other words, I have different expensive suits for different seasons!!”
We had joined at around the same time, but he was already a superintendent. Rank-wise, he was already higher than my department chief. I just couldn’t stand it.
His name was Gyoutani Jouji and this was the first thing out of his mouth.
“Whoa!! What the hell are you eating!?”
“Can I leave, four eyes?”
“That would be a problem. A huge problem. To be honest, we give up.”
“How could it be that bad?”
“Just get on in there. This is your problem now. Here’s the file. It has the suspect’s history, why they were taken into protective custody, and everything we want to ask them. Now get on in there.”
He shoved the thick pile of documents into my chest and pushed my back to almost throw me into the interrogation room. Is this suspect that horrible a person? I wondered while looking down at the file instead of the actual suspect. But that was when another question occurred to me.
Why they were taken into protective custody? Not why they were arrested?
That question was quickly answered by the suspect’s voice.
“Hi there, detective☆”
“Oh, c’mon. Your future bride, Enbi-chan, is here to have some fun, so don’t scream like a college student running into an axe murderer at a campground. Boo boo.”
“Open up!! Open this door!! Why are you locking me in a room with this mystery freak? I won’t get mad, so just tell me the truth!!”
I pounded on the steel door, but the lock showed no sign of opening.
I did hear the exhausted voice of the glasses guy from beyond the door, though.
“I said we’d given up, didn’t I!? Every time we went in there, she insisted she would only speak with you. And when we threatened her a bit, what do you think she did? She started stripping!! She’s completely taking advantage of her position as a minor. She’s using the transparency system against us to embarrass us in court!!”
“C’mon, detective. You get the situation now, don’t you? If you don’t sit down and listen to what I have to say, it’ll be time for some baby-making with an audience beyond the one-way mirror.”
My headache was out of control.
When I sat in the chair across from the mystery freak and placed the thick file and egg zosui on the table, she frowned.
“What are you eating? Is that a sort of gentle suicide?”
“I’m going to eat this now, so talk as much as you want in that time. …For starters, you could tell me what you did to get arrested.”
“I was taken into protective custody, actually. This way I could speak with you while avoiding all the boring procedure. That’s how urgent the situation is. Do you get that?”
“And what exactly did you do to get brought here?”
“I wanted to get in here but they wouldn’t let me, right? So I had no choice but to start taking off my-…”
“I get the picture, so let’s get back to the main issue.”
“What’s wrong with the Metropolitan Police Department? If you’re a police station, you’re supposed to let the people speak with you.”
I made a mental note to buy a drink for Nakata-san, the guard at the main entrance.
“So what is this urgent situation?”
“It’s related to a Package. In fact, I had infiltrated the headquarters of the ones assembling it. Unfortunately it looks like things have changed there, so I had to contact you in a hurry.”
“You were infiltrating them?”
“That lecture can wait. Plus I’m a freelancer who isn’t bound by the police’s way of doing things. …Anyway, the problem is their Package. It’s dangerous. Really dangerous.”
“They’re building up a Package that frightening?”
“No, the opposite.” Enbi shrugged. “It’s completely out of control. Or maybe it would be better to say the Youkai has taken control of it. It was being assembled by an amateur group that was foiled by scamming countermeasures, but now the Youkai holds their lives in its hands and they have to do what it says.”
“So the Youkai is in control of anywhere from a few dozen to over a hundred lives?”
“And the Youkai can take every single one of those lives with a single fingertip. But after what they’ve done, they can’t exactly ask the police for protection. You can see this won’t lead anywhere good, right? It’s like amateur medicine. Trying to fix the problem without the help of an expert is just a bad idea. In this case, we’ll be lucky if it’s only the criminals in question whose lives are lost.”
I didn’t know what kind of Youkai this was, but if it said to kill someone, at least a few dozen people would act on that order. If it asked for a sacrifice, that many people would kidnap someone, and so on. That was definitely no laughing matter. If the people involved kept making the excuse that “it can’t be helped”, they could eventually stop feeling any guilt. If they were cut off from others enough, those few people could even trick themselves into thinking they were the majority that determined what the proper values were. It was similar to how bloody traditions could remain in an isolated village.
It was true something had to be done, but there were no laws to judge a Youkai.
This was yet another pain-in-the-ass case.
“So what kind of Youkai is it? And what kind of Package did they put together?”
“This one’s unprecedented. It’s a completely unprecedented crime, detective. Even if this had all gone as planned, there would be no law to judge them with. The world’s system would have fallen behind. This might be a crime that should have left its name in history.”
“That Youkai hijacked the Package, the young people who assembled it, and everything else and it’s trying to do something huge. We have to stop this here.”
The mystery freak paused for a moment and then slowly continued.
“We must stop the Aburatori’s plan.”
Part 4 (Hishigami Mai)
Kenzan Village was an Intellectual Village at the base of the Japanese Alps.
However, its situation was a little different from the other villages. It was not making tons of money off of the brand name rural scenery through crops and sightseeing. In that case, what was the foundation of its industry?
“U-uuh… This place is kind of uncomfortable. It looks like a nice old farm village, but I feel like I’m surrounded by a concrete city.”
“That’s because people online call this place Accelerator Village. A limited express railroad tunnel through the mountains was abandoned after the opening of the linear motor train line, so they built a fifteen kilometer straight line particle accelerator there. Also, the plains were used to build a circular particle accelerator with a radius of eight kilometers. They even have a pure water pool underground to observe those neutrinos that are all the rage these days. They supposedly have plenty of other facilities too, so the nanotech and particle businesses are pouring research funding into them. It probably isn’t the best sightseeing spot for Youkai like you, Sunekosuri.”
“I thought the selling point of Intellectual Villages was how they turned the rural into a brand name product. If they aren’t producing any crops, what’s the point in registering as one?”
“What are you talking about? Academia is a world of brand names as well. How well a new theory reaches the world is entirely dependent on who proposes it. Start looking into what schools people went to and you’ll notice a trend before long. …But Kenzan Village has built up a brand that ensures your findings will reach the world regardless of who they come from. Just like owning the world’s #1 supercomputer, they can reliably produce intellectual property with their massive amounts of experimental data.”
“But the pamphlet said sightseeing is one of its main draws.”
“Well, it is the Accelerator Village.”
“Why do humans like to go look at giant dams and things like that?” The small canine Youkai cutely tilted his head. “By the way, can private corporations really reuse an abandoned tunnel like this? I thought railroads were considered public facilities and treated just like public roads.”
“First, this country’s railroads are privatized. Second, there are precedents for reusing abandoned tunnels. People have used them for wine cellars or as dark rooms to grow white asparagus. From there, it’s just an issue of the two corporations talking it out. Plus, I’m sure no one minds if they’re reused for something high-tech like this.”
“And we’re sneaking into that heavily-guarded facility?”
“It’s for a job,” I casually replied. “Due to their origins, Intellectual Villages dislike police involvement. I mentioned that before, right? That means they need to install cameras all over to protect their three hundred thousand yen grapes from wild boars and crop thieves. …But if you understand how all that works, you can find a way around it. It’s nothing more than a common security network using the same internet that connects the world. That means there’s an opening somewhere to get in. There’s no such thing as perfect security, after all.”
“But didn’t you say this isn’t like a normal Intellectual Village? It’s a giant experimental facility with several large-scale particle accelerators. Won’t it have a bunch of human guards?”
“Do you really think they’ll be faithfully carrying out the patrols listed in the paperwork? These devices slam together hadrons or positrons or whatever to break them apart. They’ll send radiation everywhere, so the hired guards won’t want to get anywhere near them.”
“It can’t escape the shielding. We’ll be sneaking inside that shielding, though.”
With that, we dashed right on into Accelerator Village. I’ll skip how exactly we managed it, but you can just assume it was a piece of cake.
After descending below the thick earth and concrete, we arrived at a giant pool surrounded in faint light. It was about fifty meters across and ten meters deep. We stood next to it, but it was more like an aquarium’s walkway than a poolside. Thick glass let us see inside the pool.
“What is this?”
“The pure water pool. A device in Kobe emits neutrinos and all sorts of data is taken here. It practically prints money in the form of patents, patents, and more patents.”
“O-oh. I don’t really get it.”
“If I punched this glass, it’d ruin a three trillion yen facility. Want me to do it?”
“I may not get it, but no thanks!!”
The area around the pool was large. It clearly didn’t need to be that big, but the more they dug, the more the contractor earned, so someone had likely interfered on their behalf.
I heard some stiff breathing that was not quite a voice, but I ignored it and looked around.
“The place is officially said to be under public observance, but it’s actually a giant sealed space. Yeah, this would be perfect for slowly and carefully assembling a shady Package. Not even the workers come in here except the maintenance required once every other year.”
The floor was littered with Buddhist ritual items that they had likely bought from a secondhand shop. I saw opened sutras, an altar decorated with gold leaf, an incense burner, a five-pronged vajra, rope, staffs, mandala, various talismans, and wooden tags with the five elements of fire, water, wind, earth, and void written on them. The tags may have been meant as a type of pagoda. People often thought of Packages as modern high-tech crimes, but it was all based on this. How well one broke down and reintegrated it all so it could be fused with a modern SNS, cellphone, AR, or smart house was where the assembler showed his or her skill.
“B-based on this equipment, I’d say they were Mikkyou followers.”
“Sorry, but no. Look more carefully. All of the equipment has been lightened and creatively modified to be taken apart or folded up. It looks like it was all made to be portable.”
“Oh, Shugendo! It’s all made so they can easily carry it through the mountains.”
“Correct. Shugendo linked Mikkyou with mountain worship, so maybe that was why it was so hard to notice. Conveniently, this Intellectual Village is at the base of the Japanese Alps, so they’re probably controlling a deadly Youkai with the rituals meant to praise a mountain god and suppress a vengeful spirit.”
“They failed spectacularly. That’s why Hyakki Yakou caught wind of them.”
The breathing sounds that resembled a broken flute grew louder.
Annoyed, I looked over at the trembling fat man.
“H-Hya-Hyakki Yakou!? N-no… I n-never heard anyone that dangerous was coming!!”
“You didn’t think you’d run across them sooner or later once you went for a Youkai? That’s like having a loud party in their backyard.”
“But…we can’t do this! We’re already…already in over our heads!!”
“Yeah, this is pretty bad.”
With that casual comment, I turned toward the pool.
The large body of perfectly pure water had been prepared to catch invisible light waves or neutrinos, but at the very bottom were some objects that clearly did not belong. There were several dozen if not several hundred fist-sized objects. They were packed in plastic and piled up like stones on a riverbed.
They were all hearts.
Even though they were packaged like ready-made Salisbury steak and even though they had left their owners’ bodies, they were rhythmically pulsating. The researchers only checked the pool for their data readings, so no one would notice unless those readings changed.
It didn’t seem the Sunekosuri had realized what the objects in the pool were.
Or perhaps he was subconsciously refusing to accept the abnormal scene and number.
“So you have to do what the deadly Youkai says because it has taken your ‘insides’ hostage? Pathetic. You want those ‘insides’ more than anything and they’re right there beyond the glass, but reaching your hand inside would alter the purity of the water and set off an alarm. That’s-…”
I trailed off as something caught in the back of my mind.
A deadly Youkai was threatening the criminals by removing their organs and the Youkai had taken over the Package.
Had I heard of an incident like that before?
“No, there was never anything like that.”
After rejecting that idea, another question came to mind.
It was unusual for me to hesitate over information related to past incidents which were always filled with grudges and resentment. If I could not instantly recall those things, I could be stabbed in the back or side at any moment.
“It wasn’t…it wasn’t supposed to be like this. Dammit, how could this happen? I-I can only think that bastard was guiding us toward failure from the beginning. Otherwise, we never would have overlooked such a fundamental flaw!!”
“It’s too late for that now. You’re past the point where you can recover from this. Unless you can turn back time, there’s no hope for you.”
“Heh heh… Wh-what’s going to happen to us?”
“What do you think I was sent here to do?” I asked back. “Surely you don’t think the great Hyakki Yakou is in such desperate need for technology that they would ask me to bring back the technicians.”
“Heh heh… Heh heh heh!! Heh heh heh heh heh heh heh heh heh heh heh heh heh heh heh heh!!”
The fat man looked like a broken doll.
I gave him an exasperated look and he spoke.
“Right, right. Of course this is happening. I had a feeling it would. No, I was certain it would. But there’s nowhere to run. That’s why I’m still here.”
“But this could still work out.”
“Don’t worry, I don’t think I can turn this around. But…still… If I die here, things could eventually work out for me. That’s what I mean.”
After that nonsensical statement, a solid sound and a red liquid came from his mouth.
“W-wah!! He just bit his tongue!” cried the Sunekosuri.
“That isn’t enough to kill you. You watch too many dramas.”
He collapsed and writhed around in pain as I slowly approached. He was rolling around quite a bit for someone who was prepared for death and I looked down on him with utter contempt.
“Suffering that won’t kill you makes you want to die a lot more than actually dying, doesn’t it? …And what was that suggestive comment just now? I’m sure it’s related to this Package. If you can’t speak, then write it out, but tell me everything. You can use the blood you’ve scattered everywhere.”
“Cough, cough, cough, cough.”
“Just to be clear, I can’t save you, so don’t hope that I can. Even if the blood loss won’t kill you right away, biting your tongue lets you slowly suffocate. And it’s much, muuuuch slower than hanging yourself. …So if you tell me the truth, I’ll give you a quick death. What other compromise could I give?”
Part 5 (Jinnai Shinobu)
I deftly slipped past the questions asked by Nagisa-chan, hell’s love demon, and splendidly avoided the chisels she threw at me.
Oh, right!! Her current nickname is Chisel Girl!!
As the near-death experience brought back that memory, our timid homeroom teacher arrived for the afternoon class and I tried to solve the problem by getting her involved.
Unfortunately, she began to foam at the mouth and collapsed as soon as she saw the look on Nagisa’s face.
I had clearly chosen the wrong person to use as a shield, but I managed to survive by taking a new hostage. Nagisa’s current boyfriend Akechi-kun had just returned from playing soccer.
All of this was the standard midday scene for our class. Can you believe that?
Afterschool, I was mentally exhausted, so I decided to take full advantage of not belonging to a club or team by going home and taking a nap.
“What’s that construction noise?”
“Oh. Let me be the first to welcome you home.”
The flat-chested Yuki Onna called out to me in the yard, but my eyes were glued to the thatch-roof house. Then again, that was no longer an accurate description.
“Why is the entire roof gone!? It looks like a convertible!!”
The answer came from the Nekomata who was using unshaved high-quality katsuobushi as a body pillow.
“The entire roof is apparently being replaced. They have to get all the work done on a single sunny day, so it isn’t easy for the workers.”
I noticed my family and the Youkai sitting on a picnic blanket in the yard with plenty of snacks prepared. They were clearly prepared to kill some time. However, this ruined my plans. There was no way I could get a good nap in with all these people moving around.
“I’m so tired. I want to sleep, but I can’t.”
I carelessly muttered my thoughts aloud and the Zashiki Warashi in a red yukata and the Succubus’s ears pricked up as they played handheld game systems.
“Shinobu. I’m sorry, but it’s one of my Youkai traits. Even if you aren’t in a futon, I might still sneak in with you.”
“Oh, is this a job for me? I’ll give you as many good or bad dreams as you want, free of charge!”
“Please stop!! I just want a healthy and peaceful nap! I don’t want some dangerous adventure!!”
I staggered through the yard and sat in the shade of a tree.
The noise was so loud that my mind wouldn’t calm down even when I closed my eyes. But when I tried to mess with my phone, my head felt heavy and my reaction speed seemed to drop, so I was definitely drowsy.
I tried to think while displaying different photos on the small screen. I had a lot of data because I had been transferring it all over ever since several phones ago.
I found a shocking photo of the night I had spent in an abandoned house in the mountains. There had been a full moon that night and Nagisa had been walking around with a giant machete. Had that really happened? So much had happened with Nagisa that it could be hard to remember every little thing, but if there was a photo of it, it must have happened.
Ugh, when I stop moving, the drowsiness really gets to me.
But I had a feeling falling asleep then would lead to a nightmare of Nagisa chasing me around at her worst.
“Um, it looks to me like Jinnai Shinobu’s body is sinking further and further into that tree trunk.”
“Oh, my. The big Furutsubaki is trying to envelop him.”
I frantically pulled my head from the tree trunk that had gained the consistency of gelatin.
Th-that was a close one!! It may not count as a deadly one, but this thing’s still a Youkai!! I can’t let my guard down!!
I scrambled away from the large tree and a small girl in a kimono approached me. But this was not the Yuki Onna. Another Youkai lived in our house who fit that description.
It was the small Furutsubaki.
She had been involved in the previous incident with an Australian witch.
Currently, she held out a cup of barley tea.
“Eh? O-oh, sure.”
I was thankful, but why was she so brusque?
First the big one and now the small one. Do plant Youkai have a problem with me or something?
My question must have shown on my face because the small Furutsubaki puffed out her cheeks and explained.
“All the others don’t like you because you always support the cherry trees.”
“Eh? That’s all? But if you’re gonna compare cherry blossoms with camellias…”
“That’s what I mean. That’s exactly what I mean!!”
“This goes so deep you had to say it twice!? B-but aren’t camellias supposed to be bad luck? They even say not to bring them to sick people.”
“Cherry blossoms aren’t much better. There are dead bodies buried beneath their trees!”
“That’s a literary expression. Burying dead bodies beneath them has no bearing on how pretty the flowers are.”
“It’s always cherry blossoms with you!! You always take their side!!”
I didn’t understand what the issue was, but it was apparently a big deal in the plant kingdom(?). Despite how she looked, the small Furutsubaki was a Youkai and could do serious harm if she reverted to her tree mode and performed a body press. I could end up meeting a similar fate to the monkey in The Crab and the Monkey.
So to calm the upset small Furutsubaki, I made some random concessions while taking the barley tea in one hand.
“Fine, fine. From now on, I’ll use shampoo with camellia oil and I’ll hold a flower viewing for camellias just like with cherry blossoms. Actually, when do camellias even bloom?”
“Why is your face so red and why aren’t you saying anything? I can never figure out your reactions.”
The small Furutsubaki did not respond, so the Nekomata sighed and did so in her place.
“For a tree, the flowers are the organs that lure in insects with their colors and sweet aroma in order to promote the pollination between the stamen and pistil. In other words, the flowers are their reproductive organs. You just said you would drink sake while looking at them and wash your hair with the juices they produce. Try not to be such a pervert. It’s scary.”
“What the hell kind of culture gap is this!? I was just talking about some heartwarming Japanese culture, but you’re making me out to be some terrible deviant. Are you sure humans and Youkai can ever truly understand each other on a fundamental level!?”
Part 6 (3rd person)
Late at night, the once-a-year changing of the thatch roof was complete and the merrymaking to thank the workers was over. (As they served junmai daiginjo that cost fifty thousand yen a cup, far more workers would show up than necessary.) The dark house was now enveloped by a deep silence that was a stark contrast to the previous noise.
The residents could be heard breathing in their sleep.
The grandfather clock made noise.
Crickets were chirping outside.
Instead of blocking out the sound, the sliding doors and screens seemed to process it like a musical instrument. The softened sounds resembled harmonious ambient music that removed any fear from the darkness.
Or at least, it should have.
That was usually the case during nights in the Jinnai house.
However, the Zashiki Warashi keenly sensed the darkness pressing in on her from every direction. It felt like she had been thrown into the mouth of some giant beast.
It was complete coincidence that she discovered “it”.
It happened just after she left her own room to follow her Youkai trait and sneak into the sleeping boy’s futon.
But it may have been inevitable for “it”.
Lured in by a sense that something was not quite right, she walked through the house and reached the large Japanese living room.
The German grandfather clock sounded louder than usual.
For some reason, the wooden rain shutters were open and the moonlight shined brightly in from the porch.
She sensed a hint of the autumn wind.
“It” stood smiling with only its silhouette visible against the outside light.
“It’s been a while,” said a hoarse elderly voice.
He wore a deeply dyed kimono that was kept short to keep mud off. He wore leggings to protect his legs. He wore a conical hat with a large eye pattern that covered both his head and his face. He was dressed just like a farmer, but the murderous aura enveloping him was different. He was one who abducted and one who killed. Anyone could tell at a glance that he was deadly and did not belong, but everyone would overlook him until the disaster had already occurred. He was a collection of malice that ranked at the top of even the deadly Youkai.
When had the incident begun?
Once she saw the Aburatori, the Zashiki Warashi narrowed her eyes a little. She became strongly aware of forgotten pain, a lost part of her body, and the modifications Hyakki Yakou had made inside her.
Meanwhile, the symbol of abduction who was dressed as a farmer happily opened his mouth.
“I haven’t seen you since that incident, that child organ trafficking Package that was unleashed here in Noukotsu Village. You must remember. So how has Jinnai Shinobu-kun been since then?”
His words were unavoidable.
He was merely confirming something he already knew perfectly well.
It was the same as deriving pleasure from provoking and jabbing at the hurting hearts of a bereaved family.
The Zashiki Warashi remained silent for a while.
When she finally spoke, she did so slowly.
“I have no idea what incident you’re talking about.”
Tension filled the air like a thin thread had been grabbed on either end and pulled until it was about to snap.
However, her response had not been wrong.
A moment later, the Aburatori laughed.
She did not know what was funny.
She simply knew that not knowing was the right answer.
“Ha ha ha!! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!! I see, I see. That would be right for you. Yes. Yes, it would. That incident never actually happened. …I did wield my power in the past, I did target Jinnai Shinobu-kun’s life, and you did stop me. But it was not a child organ trafficking Package. It was an entirely different Package, wasn’t it?”
“Are you only here to ask the obvious? To be honest, I’m a little displeased that you’re still around.”
“Ha ha. Now, now. That was a surprisingly important question.”
The Aburatori laughed in absolute pleasure beyond the one-eyed hat.
“After all, I have surpassed the restrictions of time, so my power can interfere with both the past and the future. Technically, some humans assembled a Package to that end using my traits as a Youkai. Yes, as I’m sure you have guessed, I snatched their organs and took over the Package for myself.”
“Yes. I was first observed in a mountain village of Tohoku during the Meiji period, remember? I would elusively abduct and elusively kill. It seems my trait of killing without anyone ever seeing me was interpreted as teleportation or time travel. Did they call it the theory of relativity? Well, I don’t understand all the tricky details about time and space and whatnot, but those humans constructed a technique to that end.”
“Enough bragging.” The Zashiki Warashi silently approached. “What are you after? I know you’ll only think about using this new technique to kill.”
“True. My first thought was to ‘harvest’ all the adults and old people back when they were young and at their most delicious. But when I thought about it more, I began to wonder if I could have even more fun with this.”
“In other words, you found something even nastier to do? And it involves contacting me?”
“Calm down,” said the Aburatori. “This should be quite obvious. I have surpassed time and space, so you might think there is nothing I can’t do, but there is still something impossible for me. Has it come to you yet? It is your specialty, after all.”
“You don’t want to answer? Yes, that’s it. That’s exactly it. Even if I can surpass time and space, I cannot fight unavoidable destruction. Let’s say a giant meteor is going to hit in three days. What can I do? No matter how far back in time I go, I cannot change its course. And even if I escape to the future, I will only find an ice age after the destruction is over. And even if I try to escape through space, I have no guarantee there are any other planets as comfortable as Earth. See? I am still fragile. I may control time and space, but I am powerless in the face of overwhelming destiny. I am wholly powerless and that is terribly frustrating.”
However, he knew of someone with the power to oppose destiny.
He had seen it for himself just once.
“I want your power.” The monster licked his lips. “I want the power to not only bend destiny in my favor, but to create entirely new destinies.”
“Sorry, but I’m just a pile of junk now. You won’t find anything inside me.”
“I am well aware. And while those alterations were made by Hyakki Yakou, they have deteriorated quite a bit in the last century. Perhaps you could say they have been tainted by modern culture, but whatever the reason, I can no longer find the same level of skill there. Hyakki Yakou Prototype Ver. 39 Zashiki Warashi has been completely lost.”
“I will change the past. I will capture you during that fight before you were broken. That will truly perfect me. I will hold time, space, and destiny in my hands and I will become a being with no enemies.”
“Probably. I have repeated that fight fifteen thousand times now, but I always lose to you in some way or another. …But by redubbing that day again and again, the historical data has been torn to shreds. Before long – probably only two or three more overwrites – it will be unrepairable. Fact and fiction will mix together and I will have free control over the record of who won that fight. That is when it all begins and when it all ends. That is when I will gain everything I desire.”
“Now, how about I repeat the question? The meaningless dubbing will deteriorate the medium of your memories.”
If the Aburatori’s loss there was overturned, the Zashiki Warashi would have been unable to save the young Jinnai Shinobu in that past incident.
“I haven’t seen you since that incident, that child organ trafficking Package that was unleashed here in Noukotsu Village. You must remember. So how has Jinnai Shinobu-kun been since then?”
If she had not saved him, what would have happened to him?
How had the actual incident with the Aburatori ended?
Part 7 (Jinnai Shinobu)
The Zashiki Warashi in the red yukata suddenly vanished.
Part 8 (Jinnai Shinobu)
I ran through every inch of the Intellectual Village searching for her.
I even asked the Umbrella Obake and Lantern Obake I found on one farm road.
But even after all that, I couldn’t find a single clue.
A few days had passed and there was still no sign of that showy Zashiki Warashi.
Had she left the village?
Would she never return again?
It was all so sudden that it all felt unreal even as I took my body through the actions of searching for her. The adults seemed to have completely given up. I had heard a house would soon fall into decline when its Zashiki Warashi left, but that probably had nothing to do with this. That selfish Zashiki Warashi would never have stayed in a house filled with people who cared about that.
On the first day, I started searching after school. It was only when I found nothing that I realized how serious this was. On the second day, I skipped school to search. My dad found out and hit me, but I could hardly worry about school on the third day either.
What was this?
What in the hell was going on?
There had been no signs or omens leading up to it. Or at least, I hadn’t noticed any. She had always been mischievous, but perhaps as a trait of her species, she had never run away from home before. That gave me no way of predicting what that glamorous Youkai was doing. Had she voluntarily disappeared or had someone taken her away? I didn’t even know that.
It reminded me of the people who were spirited away in an older age.
It was no laughing matter when it happened to a Youkai. It did seem like just the silly thing that would happen to that lazy Youkai, though.
“No good today, either.”
The third day of searching was another failure. I reached that conclusion after eight in the evening. Not only had I skipped school, but I hadn’t shown up for dinner either, so it was possible my dad and grandpa would be mad enough to throw me in the storage shed. It pained me, but I couldn’t have my mobility cut off like that.
I felt like I would go crazy if I didn’t think about it that way.
I felt an urge to tear at my hair and scream, but I somehow managed to force it down and started back toward the thatch-roof house.
But then a call arrived at the cellphone in my pocket.
“Oh, damn! So it finally got through. I’ve been calling and calling for three days now!”
I had skipped school to run around looking for that troublesome Youkai. If he had really been calling that much, there was no way I wouldn’t have noticed.
“No, it makes sense that you wouldn’t know. I can’t even predict how long this call will last, so I’ll just get down to business. Shinobu, you’re probably the only one who can resolve this.”
“What are you talking about, uncle?”
I felt like an unpleasant squeezing sound came from my heart when I heard that.
“He’s gained immense power by taking advantage of a Package built around him. However, there’s still no sign of him doing anything in the open despite gaining so much power. There must be something there. As far as I know, that Zashiki Warashi is the only one to ever drive away that Youkai. That means she’s hiding even more power than him. I don’t know what that power is, but it’s most likely the ‘next step’ that the Aburatori wants more than anything else!!”
Part 9 (Uchimaku Hayabusa)
The static was terrible.
I wasn’t sure how much of it – if any – was getting through.
I stood in front of Odaiba’s Hachi TV in Tokyo. After hearing the details from the mystery freak, I had been visiting here quite a bit. I was meeting with Atou Minori-san who had once been my upperclassman and was now an assistant producer for a TV show.
As students, we had both pursued an Aburatori incident in our Intellectual Village.
We had been periodically comparing our memories of that incident.
At first, our memories had matched.
“Huh? Was that what it was? Oh, right, right. Now that you mention it, it was.”
It happened bit by bit.
“No, it was a child organ trafficking Package, wasn’t it? Y’know, it used that diet boom and the fake online store to sell those colorful skewers. And your nephew, Shinobu-kun, got wrapped up in it.”
I could tell it was changing day by day.
My former upperclassman’s memories of the incident were clearly being overwritten by someone. And little by little, the overwritten memories were sounding less and less out of place to me. I was beginning to wonder if my memories of the “actual incident” were wrong.
“I have no way of checking,” the mystery freak had said. “But it might be more than just that one incident. He may have experimented on other incidents before getting to the crucial one. We were involved with an Aburatori in that Tarot Girls 22 incident, remember? But did that really happen the way we remember it?”
Memories of the past were meaningless if the person telling you about them was lying.
The same was true if the information they were working from could be a lie.
When the mystery freak had put herself under “protective custody” to contact me, Chief Superintendent Mishima had called it “help that comes at a loss”. That had not simply been due to my relationship with the mystery freak. It might also have been due to my nephew Shinobu and that Zashiki Warashi.
“Shinobu, we don’t know the details yet, but the mystery freak got some information while partially infiltrating the criminal group. It seems the original Package involved altering photos to create a foothold for influencing the past.”
“In other words, a photo that acts as evidence of what happened in the past has a specific individual added in to actually put that individual in that time period. In other words, it was a time travel Package.”
“He can travel to a past era by altering photographs. It doesn’t matter if they’re in your phone’s image folder or your house’s closet, just be careful about photographs!! You might find something odd in one of them!!”
The mystery freak frowned next to me.
“Are you really getting through? That’s a lot of static.”
“I don’t know!! But it never even connected before. I can only repeat myself again and again and pray it gets through to him at least in part!! Shinobu! Hey, can you hear me, Shinobu!?”
Part 10 (Hishigami Mai)
“The analysis of all the Buddhist ritual items scattered within Accelerator Village is done. Yeah, it was just as I thought. It was a time travel Package using the Aburatori’s elusive nature. The world really is done for now that a single Youkai has taken that over. This is more dangerous than having nuclear launch codes stolen.”
It was in a city.
Someone had removed all the seats from a giant tour bus and completely remade it into an RV. The man who owned it was known as the Supplier and he could apparently survive even if a giant meteor hit the earth.
Incidentally, I had hired that indoor man to handle the analysis, but he had been trembling in a corner of the RV ever since he realized what the Package was. As I spoke over my satellite phone, he was covering his ears with his hands as if to say “I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want to be a part of this.” The Sunekosuri was trying to comfort him, but that seemed like a fatal mistake for someone working in this underground business.
I was using the phone to speak with the young lady of about ten who led Hyakki Yakou.
She sounded quite concerned.
“We have looked though our records of past incidents involving an Aburatori or a Package using its traits.”
“Did you find anything?”
“We were nearly rendered unable to check the records due to a cognitive distortion. Without our Venom Clairvoyant, we probably would not have noticed anything was wrong.”
“Oh, you mean that black-haired blindfolded shrine maiden who ranks in your top five?”
“The worst cognitive distortion is focused on Noukotsu Village in mid-March ten years ago. Surprisingly, there are traces indicating it is related to Jinnai Shinobu and that Zashiki Warashi.”
“Wow. It’s funny how you sometimes find people who get caught up in all sorts of things despite having no real power. Although I’d always thought that was more my sister’s territory with closed-room murders and the like.”
“There are even traces of Ver. 39 being partially used. It’s a complete mystery how we overlooked it until now. She was being treated as an escapee at the time, so there should have even been a specialized search unit.”
I decided to stay quiet on that one. Ten years before was a peaceful time when her parents controlled Hyakki Yakou. It was also the time when an assassination plot was secretly prepared over the course of several years like termites eating away at the organization. It was possible some dangerous internal elements had hidden that valuable information.
“Anyway, is this really so bad you had to bring out one of your top five?”
“The cognitive distortion suggests that the Aburatori has at least begun to alter the past. Even the Venom Clairvoyant is having trouble predicting how long the past will hold up.”
“By the way, do you happen to know any way of directly attacking the past?”
“We have two or three in stock, but none of them made it past the prototype phase and are unstable. We intend to solve this problem, but we cannot deny there is a danger this will destroy a layer. No, it is almost guaranteed to.”
The fact that she actually did know of some showed that they really were the nation’s most powerful organization, even if they had declined some.
“Some are saying the safest bet would be to perform an air strike on Noukotsu Village, the singularity at the center of the problem, but I am currently holding them off.”
“I guessed you would. The timeline is completely distorted there. It’s possible you might not even find Jinnai Shinobu and the others even if you searched all through the village. Even if you bombed the village off the face of the earth, it might not destroy the root cause, so it’s a waste of effort.”
“That is why I am stopping them. But that means…”
“As a professional, it pains me to say it, but we have no choice but to rely on an amateur like Jinnai Shinobu-kun.”
Part 11 (Jinnai Shinobu)
My uncle called out to me again and again, but his voice was perfectly clear.
It seemed like my voice wasn’t reaching him, though.
A time travel Package.
A deadly Youkai had gained so much power and was now targeting that Zashiki Warashi to gain even more power.
My uncle was repeating the same thing over and over, so it would be difficult to communicate any further. I felt bad, but I ended the call to do something else.
“An altered photo!! The key to the time travel is a photo with the Aburatori added in!?”
What does it mean that the Zashiki Warashi has vanished?
Has she been sent to the past? Or has something happened to her in the past so she’s been wiped from the pres-…
I don’t even want to think about that possibility!!
“Whatever the case, I need to find that photo. The altered photo is the source of all this, so I might find a way to solve this if I find it.”
I ran full speed through the night and to the thatch-roof house.
I ignored the surprised cries from my parents and pulled out everything that held photos: albums, digital photo frames, computer folders, etc. I looked through them all, but nothing looked out of place. I even asked my parents so I could check their computers as well. I must not have chosen the best way to ask because both my dad and grandpa hit me, but when I kept asking, they reluctantly agreed.
But even after all that, I found nothing.
That only left the Zashiki Warashi’s computer and smartphone.
However, I didn’t know the password for the computer and the smartphone had vanished along with her, so I couldn’t check either.
Was I stuck?
Or was I thinking about this wrong?
My uncle had mentioned photos, but did it not have to be ones from my house?
“Honestly, what are you doing? Stop worrying the old lady with your bizarre behavior.”
The annoyed Nekomata spoke to me, so I discussed the situation with her and she sounded even more annoyed.
“So that means the Aburatori can travel to a past era by altering a photograph?”
“Simply put, yes.”
“Then why would he rely on an album that is subject to someone else’s tastes? He would use a system that more evenly and generally takes photographs over a constant time and place. That would be a lot more convenient for time travel.”
“But he’s apparently trying to mess with the Zashiki Warashi and my past, so wouldn’t he want some records connected to us?”
“He gained this time travel ability by hijacking a Package some humans created, didn’t he? Why would those original humans assemble the Package based on your albums?”
Now that you mention it…
“But then what cameras or photos would they use?”
“They’re everywhere.” The Nekomata used her front paw to point left, right, and everywhere else. “Aren’t Intellectual Villages monitored by countless cameras to prevent crop thieves?”
My breathing really did stop for just a moment.
If the Aburatori had a technique to interfere with and alter such a massive system, the level of the threat shot up. After all, that would allow him to move to whatever time and place he liked within Japan.
But at the same time, something bothered me.
My uncle was a police detective and the police did not take action unless a crime was being committed. Time travel was an unprecedented incident, but there were no laws to punish it. It was “unprecedented” so that was only natural. In that case, my uncle had to have reached this time travel incident while pursuing some other incident.
For example, a crime related to a network.
If that was true, it supported the Nekomata’s theory.
Where and how had my uncle gotten this information? If I knew that, would it help give me a clue?
“Dammit. It’s no use. And he only just called me!”
The call wouldn’t go through. This was rare for an Intellectual Village with a perfect net environment. In fact, it made me worry about him.
But if I couldn’t check via my uncle…
“What are you going to do?”
“I’ll use whatever’s available to me.”
With that answer, I called another number stored on my phone.
This one connected me to Madoka-chan, my class’s eccentric beauty.
“Hi there. What is it, Shinobu-kun?”
“Thank goodness the call got through. Are the communications working as long as it’s within the village?”
“Wait just a second! What’s this about communications not working? That is not good. If it affects my stock trading, this could be serious.”
“Um, doesn’t the whatever-it’s-called market close at night?”
“And what time is it in New York right now? And London?”
From the sound of it, Madoka wasn’t having any issues. Did that mean my uncle was in some complicated place or did it mean it was centered on me specifically?
“It doesn’t matter. Anyway, Madoka, you hire a bunch of armed guards, don’t you? Have you heard of any trouble with the security camera network? Like someone hacking in from outside?”
“Oh, how timely. But it’s actually about a conflict between online services, not hacking. A notification message from a major SNS and the automatic backup service sending the village’s camera footage to the backup server conflicted with each other. It apparently caused the system to freeze temporarily.”
“It apparently did a lot of damage on the SNS end. While the security programs were locked up, it seems someone stole quite a few IDs. Do you know what an abandoned account is? That’s an account that hasn’t been used in over a year and even the owner has probably forgotten the password. It seems someone has taken over those accounts and is posting all sorts of things, both true and not.”
“Did some hackers cause that major freeze?”
“It’s hard to say. The trouble occurred as soon as the security company added in a new backup storage service, so at first, it felt more like an accident.”
“What kinds of things are being posted?”
“As I said, all sorts of things. The most noticeable ones are those influencing stock prices or raising futures prices for brand-name crops. That’s why an arrest warrant was put out. …But it’s strange. I don’t know if some software is editing the date or what, but entries are being added in for five or even ten years ago. Something about seeing a dangerous Youkai.”
The time travel Package altered past photographs to make an individual actually exist in that era.
Was this an example of that?
“You said the freeze happened because two large systems came into conflict. That was used to attack the SNS, but what about the other side? Was the security camera network attacked too?”
“I don’t know. It doesn’t look like anyone took control of the cameras, but it will take time to check the recorded footage. There’s just so much of it that it isn’t easy to check for traces of deletions or alterations. It does seem there aren’t any traces of massive amounts of data being moved around, though.”
This meant the Nekomata had been more or less spot on.
The security camera footage had been altered and fictional entries had been posted on that SNS to create witness accounts.
In this day and age, people relied on online data more than their own memories.
When people didn’t know how to write a difficult kanji, they would check an online dictionary for the answer. Even if it wasn’t quite how they remembered it, it wasn’t uncommon for them to generally assume the dictionary was right and correct the information in their own head.
And this went beyond mere knowledge.
If an altered photo with a date from ten years ago was slipped into your computer or home server’s electronic album, you might very well assume it must have happened and alter your own memories.
People’s memories – and thus the truth – could be edited by a third party these days.
“Enbi mentioned an incident like this before. Two Packages came into conflict and went out of control.”
“Just hearing that isn’t enough to know what you mean.”
The Aburatori could travel to any time period using false photos and witness accounts.
A monster like this couldn’t be defeated by clenching your fist and punching it.
What was I supposed to do?
If I didn’t prepare some kind of trick, I wouldn’t even be able to stand on the final stage.
“Madoka, can I ask a favor?”
“You already are, but what is it?”
“Since you know about the conflict between the SNS and the security camera network, your armed guards must have been directly affected, right? I need you to use that connection.”
After I finished asking my “favor”, I ended the call.
The Nekomata looked up at me while lying on the tatami mats.
“Mess this up and you’re dead.”
“For one thing, why is a human even trying to pick a fight with a deadly Youkai? You do understand that no Youkai can be killed by normal means, right?”
“But it’s worth trying. Or at least, I think it is.”
Hearing that, the Nekomata slowly moved as if letting me past.
I left the room, ran down the hallway, and made my way to the entrance so I could enter the night once more.
But on the way, I found a small form sitting politely at the end of the dark hallway. It was a girl with long bluish hair and a white kimono.
She was simply there and she blocked my way as a part of the usual scenery.
She gave off the intimidation of a border god that prevented disaster from entering a village.
I spoke her name without thinking.
“I need to speak with you.”
She replied with a dreadfully icy voice that gave a glimpse of her true characteristic.
She most likely knew where I was going and why. She knew that, but she was stopping me.
She was warning me just how dangerous it was.
She was telling me that facing this Aburatori was different from the previous Packages and that I was crossing a line.
“No, Yuki Onna. I don’t have time to speak with you right now. If I’m too late here…if I’m even a second too late, it will all-…”
That one word was all it took for my knees to give out. All strength left my legs. My entire body fell straight down like a spring being pressed down or a transforming toy created to move like that.
I was forced to obey her and enter a similar sitting position to her.
I tried to speak in surprise and protest, but I realized I could not even do that. My teeth chattered and I could not properly move my tongue, lips, or throat.
Is this…the cold?
Is my body so messed up that I can’t even tell that!?
“I have lowered your body temperature by approximately two degrees.”
The Yuki Onna silently narrowed her eyes and spoke calmly.
“Welcome to the world of hypothermia. When stranded on a snowy mountain, this is the beginning of your fear. Your temperature is currently thirty four degrees. If I lower it by another four degrees, you are almost 100% guaranteed to lose your life. Did you know that?”
“Does this seem unreasonable?”
A dry sound burst from the wood surrounding her.
As she sat there, she looked like a giant boulder blocking the sole path back to civilization.
“But that is how Youkai work. You have resolved a few incidents involving Packages, but that is not the same as defeating the Youkai themselves. You do not seem to understand that, so I thought I would give you some advice.”
As I collapsed, the Nekomata gave a sharp hiss to threaten her.
It sounded more like a snake than a cat.
However, the Yuki Onna was unfazed. In fact, she turned a sticky gaze toward that small form.
“I will not spoil him as much as you, nor will I treat him as carelessly as you. At this rate, he will almost certainly die. Letting him continue while knowing that goes beyond letting him die. It is blasphemy.”
My heart hurt.
Intense pain came from the center of my chest as if my organs were being squeezed.
Had my temperature dropped even further?
“Frankly speaking, the Packages humans create are clever, but even another human can destroy them if they know how they work. It’s logical that humans can destroy what humans made. But that rule does not apply when directly fighting a Youkai.”
It no longer felt like I was confronting the single Youkai called the Yuki Onna.
This was a queen’s territory.
The entire frozen world was coming to crush a single human.
“Humans can explain how fish live in the water and how birds fly through the sky, but that does not mean they can defeat a fish or a bird in an actual competition. Explaining how it works only reveals that you have no way to win. …Similarly, your previous methods will not work against this Aburatori. If you think you can win simply by revealing his trick, you are 100% guaranteed to die. Do you understand that?”
Were all Youkai like this?
Were they this far removed from humanity just because they were a deadly Youkai?
I tried to reply, but my lips wouldn’t move.
My vision shook, blurred, and sank into darkness. A moment later, I could no longer distinguish between front, back, left, or right. I wasn’t even sure if I was seeing reality or an illusion brought on by the cold.
All I could see was a vast darkness I couldn’t focus on.
Beyond it was a pair of glittering golden eyes.
The color of those eyes stabbed into my consciousness to an odd extent.
“I have…a chance. Not even I am about to make a suicidal attack here.”
Like surpassing numbness and losing all sense of feeling, I stopped feeling the cold tearing at my skin at a point. Oddly enough, it almost felt like soaking in lukewarm water.
At the same time, I managed to speak.
I wasn’t confident I was actually getting the words out in reality, though.
It wouldn’t have surprised me if I had already passed out and this was just a dream.
Deep in the darkness, the golden eyes spoke.
“That chance is an illusion. Following it will not allow you to defeat the Aburatori.”
“That’s not true.”
“No matter what you may have built up in your head, you do not have the physical ability to pull it off. Even if it is theoretically possible to run on water, your actual body will be unable to keep up and you will sink. A human is nothing more than a fragile container.”
“I can’t know that…until I try.”
“No matter what plan you might have, you will drown if you challenge a fish and you will fall to your death if you challenge a bird. …I am not arguing against what may be in your head. I am not saying you lack the brains needed. I am saying just having the brains is not enough.”
It felt like time stretched out infinitely.
Or perhaps it was already over and I just hadn’t realized it yet.
“What do you have beyond your brains? What specific ability do you have to compare to a fish’s gills or a bird’s wings? I want you to show me. My supernatural ability is much more popular and closer to a physical phenomenon than the Aburatori’s. That makes it a good test, don’t you think?”
At that point, the core of my mind grew much clearer.
“That’s not what this is.”
“While dragging the conversation on and making me worry, you’re continuing to lower my temperature. You were planning to end it all here from the beginning.”
I heard a small sound.
Was it a laugh? Yes, the golden eyes were laughing from the darkness.
“And what is wrong with that?”
I heard a creaking sound.
It was not the sound of an explosive revolution in my muscles. I had not removed some limiter in my head to achieve the ridiculous strength some people gain in a fire. My body was still a human one. No power of friendship or hard work had burst out to increase my potential five or ten times over.
Most likely, the cold had simply caused the house to creak.
But oddly enough, I took an unsteady step forward at that same instant.
I had realized something then.
That bizarre world of golden eyes floating in the darkness was not an illusion or a dream. The darkness did not stretch on without end and the golden eyes were not a vague monster.
I was still inside the thatch-roof house I had been born and raised in and the Yuki Onna sat only a few steps ahead.
If I could walk, I could reach her. There was a goal.
To keep me from noticing that simple fact, she had used the cold to rob me of my senses and judgment and she had trapped me in a labyrinth of my own creation. And she had done it slowly and carefully as if to safely freeze my body.
And with that realization, the very brains she had rejected returned definite strength to my body.
“There’s one thing I want to ask you.”
“What is that?”
I took a step.
“If I give up here, who can save that indoor Youkai? Can you or the Nekomata defeat that Aburatori?”
“I seriously doubt it. We could kill him in a direct confrontation, but his very existence is too elusive. He can attack us whenever he likes, but it would be rare indeed for us to find him. So if he focuses on fleeing, it would be difficult for even a deadly Youkai to kill him.”
I took a second step.
“Then leave it to me. Don’t crush other people’s possibilities just because you can’t do it!! And if he’s that dangerous, that’s all the more reason to go. I’m not going to back off because he’s dangerous. If he’s dangerous, it means I have to go save that Zashiki Warashi even if it’s reckless!!”
“Humans and Youkai are different. Is she truly that important? Having her around might be nice, but you can live without her. You would have to be insane to risk your life for something like that.”
I took a third step.
“You always act like family because we live in the same house, but when it comes down to it, you’re saying to abandon her because she’s a different species? She’s more important than that!! She’s been a part of my life from the moment I was born. In fact, she’s probably been a part of it since before that. I can’t back down here!! Whether it’s an Aburatori or whatever else, I’m not letting some bastard show up now and steal half of my life from me!!!!”
I took a fourth step.
I suddenly realized the golden eyes were directly in front of me.
I slowly stretched out my arm which was shaking uncontrollably.
The palm touched something and that slight sensation brought reality rushing back. Like a receding wave, the world of darkness returned to the familiar entranceway.
The sudden cold that had assaulted my entire body completely vanished.
My hand was placed on top of the Yuki Onna’s head as she continued to sit.
She remained perfectly motionless, so I spoke to her.
“I’ll be fine. This Aburatori isn’t a normal Youkai. He’s not your average deadly Youkai. He’s a cruel being that was born to kill, enjoys killing, and leaves behind nothing but killing. But I have a chance even then.”
Humans could not defeat Youkai.
I agreed with that. It did not even have to be a deadly Youkai. In a serious fight, I probably couldn’t even defeat a Zashiki Warashi or Umbrella Obake. If you still wanted to defeat them, you had to work to transcend the framework of humanity like Hyakki Yakou did. But this Aburatori was not in a normal state right now. He had transcended the framework of Youkai with human help, so the otherwise solid rule that humans could not defeat Youkai was beginning to crumble.
“Don’t worry. I’ll make sure I come back.”
With that, the Yuki Onna truly fell silent.
She had been using harsh words and acting sharply to get me to stop, but all that clearly ended.
I removed my hand from her head.
I put on my shoes.
I opened the front door.
With each of those completely normal actions, I was approaching the Aburatori who had put the Zashiki Warashi in such danger. This was no different from approaching death. Most likely, the Yuki Onna and Nekomata could see the great danger much more clearly than I could.
But so what?
My goal wasn’t to approach that creepy Youkai or to be sucked into his world.
Nor was it to save the Zashiki Warashi with a one-way ticket.
My goal was to return here and rejoin the family and Youkai who had forgiven my selfishness. That was what I had to focus on as I ran forward.
Are you watching me from the depths of darkness and madness, Aburatori?
Well, sorry, but I’m not looking at you.
Part 12 (3rd person)
The Yuki Onna remained motionless for a while.
The door behind her had already opened and the boy had vanished into the dark night.
This time, it was not an illusion or lie.
He had entered a black world where true death awaited him.
“Don’t you want to watch him leave?”
She heard the annoyed voice of the deadly Nekomata who had been left behind with her.
“He’s already left. Just as you feared, this might be the last time you see him. This world is unbelievably dry and puny humans are easily killed. I don’t think this is any time to be stubborn.”
The Yuki Onna did not reply.
Her warning had not reached him.
No, it had reached him, but he had still left for the battlefield, saying he would rescue the Zashiki Warashi.
This was one result.
It confirmed a certain order of priority. It was a simple and cruel answer that tore a hole in a girl’s heart.
“That wasn’t fair.”
But she spoke quietly with her back still to the entrance.
“He shows me the answer, chooses his path, and gives me a clear sense of loss, but he still leaves a slight possibility that fills the hole in my heart.”
“Sigh. What are you talking about? Weren’t you looking at him? A kid with his hair dyed blonde who runs out into the night searching for a girl is obviously a lady-killer. …Also, you were clearly unsure whether to stop him to protect or to kill him here so the Aburatori couldn’t. You just about lost sight of your original goal and gave into your desires.”
His final words had clearly been unnecessary.
If he had made her completely give up, it might have opened a different path, but that small bit of kindness had recaptured her with its massive pull.
She knew it was impossible.
She knew that, and yet…
“I hope he gets stabbed by a kitchen knife one day.”
“Yeah, but I hear he’s already been stabbed twice by a human girl, so I doubt even death would fix that side of him. He was stabbed in the side with a fruit knife and in the chest with a pair of scissors. He only survived the scissors because they were stationery scissors with a rounded tip, but he laughed and said he would’ve died had they been sewing scissors.”
“Damn him! I really need to give him a proper near-death experience!! I can put him into full cold sleep!!”
Part 13 (3rd person)
“It” stood in a place that once was.
The rural scenery resembled what any Japanese person held in their hearts as a sort of sacred ground. All of them were born in different parts of the country, but seeing a single photograph of that place would make them feel nostalgic.
“It” stood in an already harvested paddy field at night.
As if ignoring the weather radar and satellites, white snow poured down on this one isolated area. The area seemed to completely transcend the timeline. The moon directly overhead was a full moon. Like a sun shower, the snowflakes falling from the night sky glittered bluish-white in the moonlight.
This was the scenery from that time and place.
This was the place where “it” could gain everything it had so longed for. Even with the ability to control time and space, there was something there that “it” desperately wanted.
“It” slowly exhaled.
The breath was not that of a wrinkled old man. It sounded more like the oddly charming breath of a young woman.
“So this is what it’s like.”
Ten seconds before, a sense of elation had filled “its” body, but that sense was already gone. Just like the hundredth or thousandth time hearing a great song, the impression it left faded. It had very nearly reached zero.
To gain this, “it” had eliminated as many obstacles as possible.
It had even restrained from killing.
Or at least, it had tried to. It was not confident how much it had succeeded. It had tried to restrain itself, but the number of deaths may not have changed much. All of its memories of past deaths were vague. That may have been one of its traits. If it could fulfill its desires with its memory of the killing, it would not need to kill someone new.
But whether that restraint meant anything or not, it was no longer necessary.
“It” had achieved its goal.
The sense of elation from that fact had vanished.
And that meant “it” would return to its normal territory.
Time, space, and destiny.
In the perfect place, at the perfect time, and with the perfect method, “it” would kill and kill until it had had more than its fill. There was no reason for that. It had always been said to kidnap children, remove their organs, cook them, and retrieve the oil, but no one knew why. But even though no one knew why it did any of that, people had believed that monster existed.
People did not look for a reason in a symbol of fear.
People simply feared the method.
“Now, it is about time.”
“It” gave a thin smile.
“I will spread fear with every method available to me.”
This monster had surpassed even the realm of Youkai and it was about to be released on the world.
But a moment before it did…
An impossible voice slipped in.
The voice clearly did not fit that perfect scenery that looked like a hanafuda illustration.
Part 14 (Jinnai Shinobu)
To be honest, I didn’t remember where I had run or how I had done it. If someone told me to do it again, I probably couldn’t. In fact, I was born and raised in this village, but I had never before seen a place like this.
It may have been cut off from the rest of the world like a hidden village.
Or perhaps the terrain itself had formed a labyrinth.
I wasn’t a specialist like Hishigami Mai or Hyakki Yakou, so I didn’t know the answer. Fortunately, that didn’t matter. What did matter was that I had made my way onto the final stage.
It was an unnaturally perfect paddy field of the kind any Japanese person could immediately picture in their mind.
It was a snowy landscape that completely ignored the current season and weather.
But the oddest thing of all was the Aburatori, that worst of the deadly Youkai standing in the center of the landscape.
“It” wore a conical hat with a large eye pattern that covered its head and face.
“It” was a woman with a glamorous figure and black hair that reached its ankles.
“It” was bewitchingly beautiful and wore a showy white yukata. “It” was terribly twisted.
“It” retained some vestiges of that indoor Youkai which only made it creepier.
“Oh, now this is unusual.”
The Youkai that everyone referred to as an Aburatori formed a definite smile on the mouth peeking out from below the brim of the one-eyed hat.
“Only those with the same sort of power as me should be able to reach this distorted place. But come to think of it, you are the one who that Zashiki Warashi directly saved. Perhaps you two were treated as antipodal singularities, just with one on the active end and the other on the passive end.”
“Antipodal singularities? I don’t know what that means, but are you sure you aren’t getting your terminology wrong?”
“Ha ha. As you can clearly see, I am an old-fashioned Youkai. I was merely using the general nuance of the terms. I don’t actually know anything about math or physics.”
The Aburatori stroked slender fingers across the brim of the one-eyed hat.
“So what brings you here today?”
“I’m here to take back what you stole.”
“Do you really think you can?”
“That doesn’t matter. Do you really think I made it all the way here just because ‘I can, so I might as well’?”
“I see. You say that like you loathe me. But really, you should be thanking me. Just as much as you should thank the Zashiki Warashi who once saved you.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Jinnai Shinobu-kun, I have continually rewritten a past incident to achieve my goal. I greatly altered the original incident to make it a child organ trafficking Package.”
The Aburatori smiled in absolute delight.
It was the look of someone tossing live fish into a pot and gradually raising the heat to cook them.
“So what do you think the ‘original incident’ was? Do you remember, Jinnai Shinobu-kun? Do you remember just how you were torn to pieces? Ha ha!! That is why you should thank me. It was truly and undeniably horrid. It was such an utterly and incomparably gruesome incident that the child organ trafficking Package seems like salvation in comparison. …It was so horrific that your Zashiki Warashi felt the need to alter destiny.”
“Do you understand now?”
The Aburatori smiled and smiled and smiled even more.
“Besides, there is nothing you can do. Nothing at all. Things are already settled between us. And they are settled so perfectly that nothing would change even if we repeated this one hundred times. What can you change by working yourself up here?”
I heard what sounded like scraping metal.
The next thing I knew, the Aburatori held dozens of metal skewers spread out like a fan.
“Oh, I know. If you are that dissatisfied with the altered past, how about I show you just how you met your end back then? I can place the ingredients on the chopping black, explain the process a step at a time, and finally give you a live demonstration.”
The Aburatori’s white kimono shook as “it” approached.
I was frozen in place as if entranced.
As if this was a fixed match that “it” just wanted to get over with, the Aburatori slowly stabbed the metal skewer into my eyeba-
Part 15 (Jinnai Shinobu)
In the instant, the sharp skewer was going to pierce my eyeball, the Aburatori stopped moving.
The slender female arm trembled unnaturally.
“What…? My…body… My…arm…won’t move?”
“Do you think it’s just your body?”
I did not take a single step away from the skewer positioned right in front of my eye.
The effects had shown themselves, so there was no more need to move back.
“Why…? The scenery…the snowy full moon…and the paddy field are…collapsing. They’re melting…away. Why is…the symbol of my power…the power to even…control destiny…melting away?”
Your own traits let you pass freely through time and space. And once you gained “something more” from the Zashiki Warashi, you probably thought you were a god or something. Not a Youkai, but a god.
But that’s not the case.
Every Youkai has their advantages and disadvantages. Advantages can sometimes be disadvantages and vice versa. I seriously doubt there’s some convenient “perfect trait” that’s not a plus or a minus.
On top of that, you forcibly boosted your traits with human techniques. Even if your power itself had grown to rival that of a god, it was still manipulated by imperfect humans at the foundation.
I never had to worry about an unreasonable battle against a pure Youkai like the Yuki Onna feared.
I just have to destroy the human techniques at the foundation.
I’ll make your structure come crashing down just like removing a stone wall from a giant castle!!
“You took over a time travel Package that let you move to any era by placing yourself inside altered photos from the past.”
I quietly gave the answer.
“That made this easy. I just had to search through all the Intellectual Village security camera records you had targeted and delete all the image files you had altered. That erases the time travel. You used that to attack the Zashiki Warashi and steal her power in the past, so those events are erased too. But wait, there’s more. Your entire existence is relying on those photographs right now, so as soon as they’re all erased, your very existence is erased!!”
“Impossible… Impossible!! A mere high school boy could never search through and delete all of the video footage stored by a large corporation so quickly. Or are you claiming you are like a hacker from a movie!?”
“I’m not saying that,” I spat out. “You broke through the security of a large SNS and a security company’s video backup service by using the system malfunction when the SNS’s notification message and the backup service came into conflict. But it seems the security company had only just started using a new net storage service. That makes things simple. The occult criminal group that assembled the Package already had someone inside the security company. You set up that large-scale freeze, didn’t you?”
“That was the Achilles’ heel. I just had to make contact. Madoka has a contract with them for armed guards, so I asked her to contact the employee who had introduced the new storage. He was probably being threatened in some gruesome way by a deadly Youkai called an Aburatori, but he just had to be told this was his final chance. He just had to know this was his last opportunity to cut all ties with the Aburatori!!”
“That employee has access to the video footage in the new backup storage, so he can easily tell which photos have been altered. Then he just has to delete those photos. And it looks like he made it in time. You no longer exist in any era of this world!!”
The Aburatori tried to shout something, but instead, the beautiful female jaw fell completely off.
“You seemed mistaken about something, but you didn’t think I was here to fight you, did you? I’m only here because I don’t want that indoor Youkai to vanish along with you.”
The precipice of not being able to kill a Youkai with a blade or gun was gone.
The Aburatori was nothing more than a still-living rotting corpse that would fall apart and vanish.
“Did I… Did I really look like such a saint that I would laugh it off as you tried to hurt that good-for-nothing Youkai that’s been with me since I was born or even before? If so, I really am going to laugh.”
The Aburatori was rotting away, so even a normal high school boy’s arm could reach inside. That arm could break through, push through, and sink deep down to drag something out.
“I came here to rescue that Zashiki Warashi. I didn’t care in the slightest about you!!”
Without hesitation, I thrust my arm into the stomach of the beautiful woman in a white yukata. I felt my arm piercing into rotten flesh as it sank further in. Soon, my palm felt a much smoother sensation. I grabbed it and forcefully pulled.
I saw a red yukata.
I saw the same glamorous Zashiki Warashi I had seen ever since I was a kid.
At the same time, the Aburatori in the white yukata burst to pieces like a water balloon.
So did the unnaturally vivid rural scenery.
In that place where she had lost everything, the Zashiki Warashi slowly opened her eyes.
“I never once asked you to save me.”
“Oh, really? Well, I never expected any thanks from you.”
Part 16 (3rd person)
Why couldn’t you tell I was being tsundere!? You idiot! You really are the worst!!
The day after the incident, Jinnai Shinobu finally returned to school after neatly settling the problem facing him. There, he learned the love he thought was over had not actually been over, but now it really had been destroyed beyond repair.
He returned to his thatch-roof house with a battered face, but the lazy Zashiki Warashi had no intention of giving someone in the family love advice.
“L-love? Eh heh heh. Are you asking about that despite knowing how jealous and particular about promises Yuki Onna are? I see, I see.”
“This sounds like a job for the Succubus brand aphrodisiac! I can’t guarantee what will happen to their personality afterwards, but they’ll definitely be yours for the night!!”
To escape the Youkai and demon creeping up to him, Jinnai Shinobu ran from his home at full speed.
The Zashiki Warashi in a red yukata watched him leave with a sigh.
Two things had happened shortly after that incident.
First, Jinnai Shinobu and the Zashiki Warashi had compared their memories.
No matter how many times they had spoken, both of them remembered a child organ trafficking Package using the traits of an Aburatori.
The Aburatori was gone, but it seemed the definitively damaged historical information was not going to return to normal.
That altered past had become fact.
The second was something Jinnai Shinobu was not aware of.
While walking through the village to return home after the incident, the Zashiki Warashi had parted ways with him.
She had not had any real reason.
She had simply watched him walk back home ahead of her.
She had not taken a step from that spot.
Finally, her body had shaken and she had collapsed to the small paved road.
While taken into the Aburatori and stored inside the Youkai’s stomach, she had been able to hear what happened outside. She had heard what that worst of deadly Youkai had told him.
And she had heard what he had said.
“Did I… Did I really look such a saint that I would laugh it off as you tried to hurt that good-for-nothing Youkai that’s been with me since I was born or even before? If so, I really am going to laugh.”
His voice had been filled with hatred and hostility.
It was a voice she would never hear in that thatch-roof house.
“I came here to rescue that Zashiki Warashi. I didn’t care in the slightest about you!!”
It had been a shock, like something had been terribly dirtied. The Zashiki Warashi had destroyed something that she could never make up for even with the infinite time given to her as an immortal Youkai.
A sob escaped her throat.
The Aburatori’s inhuman actions had altered that past incident. All she could remember was the incident centered on a child organ trafficking Package and whatever the original incident had been was nowhere to be found.
But a fragment of a long-forgotten memory jabbed at her heart.
Long ago, in the maelstrom of the “original incident” before the past was altered, a young Jinnai Shinobu had met a Youkai visiting the village in the middle of a trip. It had been an Akaname. It was a harmless Youkai that licked up the filthy water left in the bathtub. However, it could give an unsanitary impression to others, so it was one of the few Youkai banned from the Jinnai household because they dealt in the production of drinks.
“It can’t be helped. My traits and your family’s situation just aren’t compatible.”
And the young Shinobu had immediately replied as follows.
“Then how about you play outside with me? Don’t worry. I can get along with any Youkai!”
Some tiny thread had snapped.
“Ahhh. Ahhhhhhh! Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!”
On that day, an incident came to its end.
The Zashiki Warashi in a red yukata stared up into the still night sky.
And she cried like a small child.
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