The Zashiki Warashi of Intellectual Village:Volume7 Chapter 6
Chapter 6: Jinnai [email protected] – Truth
The first thing I heard was the chirping of a sparrow.
Next came the light. Color quickly filled my white vision. It gained depth, the scenery was constructed, and I found myself standing in front of a thatch-roof house.
…Is this my home?
It looked like it, but a few details were different. The branches of the trees in the yard seemed off and the tree mode Furutsubaki (small) was nowhere to be seen.
In that case, that Hafuri girl must have been telling the truth.
Is this really ten years ago?
“Nagisa, Nagisa! Ah ha ha. Again! Let’s do it again!”
“Ehh? But I’m tired, Shinobu-chaaan…”
I heard voices from inside the house.
A young girl called to a “Shinobu”. I needed to learn what kind of connection the Aburatori and I had in the past, so sticking with my past self seemed like the best bet. I may have been sent to the past, but I only had one viewpoint and I couldn’t rewind. If I carelessly missed some crucial information, this trip into the past would be meaningless.
I started to reach for the front door, but…
“I can only interfere once, huh?”
This was apparently similar to an out-of-body experience, so I could pass through walls and doors.
I tilted my head and hesitantly reached out my fingertips. They passed right through the closed door. I didn’t really feel much of anything. It was so strange that I pulled my fingers out and stuck them back in a few times before slipping my entire body through.
As soon as I began to question the fact that I was standing on the ground well enough, I sank down to my knees.
Oh, no! Do I pass through things the instant I think about it!? Could I accidentally send myself straight to the center of the earth!?
I focused on the floor and ground again and took another step. This time, nothing unusual happened. I was apparently floating instead of walking. I had to view it that way for my own safety. I did my very best not to think too hard about things like the rotation and revolution of the earth. If those questions had filled my head, who knows how far I would have been flung.
More importantly, I had to check on the young Shinobu that was my past self.
I walked down the unchanged hallway and heard high-pitched voices coming from the Japanese-style living room.
A boy and girl of about five or six raised their hands, ran in from the left and right, and slammed into each at the center. They both shouted the same thing as they did.
“Ah ha ha ha ha! Nagisa, again, again!”
“Ehh!? You said that was the last time!”
I froze up in utter confusion for a moment, but then I realized that was a gag from some comedian or another. Maybe. After ten years, it was hard to remember what I had found funny about that, but that was the way of things with comedy and fashion.
But more importantly…
…There really is a small me from the past here.
Shinobu was laughing in utter glee in a happi coat, but Nagisa looked pretty exhausted in her mother’s homemade Red Riding Hood outfit.
If this was something from an old photo album or home video that the whole family was watching, I probably would have been writhing in embarrassment, but this was somehow different. I felt separated from it by some thin barrier and it didn’t feel like that was me.
“Ahh, now I’m thirsty. Nagisa, let’s go get something to drink.”
Shinobu ran toward me, passed right through my body(?), and ran off down the hallway. The small Nagisa also passed through me as she chased after him.
“C-c-c-cat panties! Cat panties!”
“Y-you can’t, Shinobu-chan. My mom said not to sing the cat panties song.”
“Ehh? It isn’t gonna curse me, so what does it matter?”
“That isn’t the issue.”
“Quit complaining, Nagisa. You were just as bad with that mango song.”
“(Rumble rumble rumble) Shinobu-chan, you swore to forever seal away the mango and banana song. (Rumble rumble rumble)”
“Pii!? O-okay! I won’t sing it anymore!”
He was supposedly my past self, but I couldn’t seem to predict what he would do. I chased after him and found him using both hands to pry open the refrigerator door.
“Ah! Shinobu-chan, the fizzy stuff is bad for you.”
“But it tastes the best.”
It seemed today’s topic was a bottle of cider. In fact, Shinobu ignored Nagisa’s warning and started pouring some into a glass.
“What do you want, Nagisa?”
“I-I can’t rummage through someone else’s refrigerator.”
“You can drink something too! You have my permission!”
“Uuh… Then instead of that fizzy stuff, I’ll have orange juice. My mom said the ‘hundred percent’ is good for you.”
It was weird seeing a happy time when Nagisa could say normal things instead of only ever saying “I love you” or “I’ll kill you” while categorizing all of mankind with the labels “enemy”, “ally”, “not interested”, or “extreme love”. I felt like I should apologize to her once I returned to the present. Then again, if I brought up that stuff from middle school, there was a good possibility she would stab me right then and there.
“A drink isn’t enough. Oh, I know. I think we have some kitty bread.”
“Uuh… I feel bad eating kitty bread.”
“Hm? Don’t worry, Nagisa. It’s easy to eat if you do this.”
“Ahhh! Don’t tear the kitty’s face apart!!”
I noticed a schedule attached to the fridge door by a magnet. It included the date a package from an online store was supposed to arrive.
According to that, it was late March ten years before.
“Ah, Nee-chan! You want some of the fizzy stuff too?”
“Wahyah! A-a Youkai… (Tremble, tremble)”
There was a time when I had called my uncle “Nii-chan”, but who was this “Nee-chan”? Puzzled by that nickname, I looked in the same direction as the young Shinobu.
There, I saw someone walking into the kitchen.
A Zashiki Warashi…in a red yukata???
“Shinobu, you can drink that carbonated stuff, but only one cup, okay? Lunch is in about an hour.”
“Ehh? But I want to drink more. Bartender, give me another!”
“Y-you can’t, Shinobu-chan. You have to do what the Youkai says…”
The Zashiki Warashi snatched the two liter bottle from the complaining boy’s hands and screwed on the cap.
“You can have more at lunchtime, Shinobu.”
“Okay. I’ll have to remember that.”
…Hmm. It feels weird to see her acting like a big sister. Did all of this really happen?
That said, she really was a Youkai. This was ten years in the past and she looked exactly the same as the present. Comparing that to Shinobu and Nagisa made it painfully obvious she was a paranormal being. It felt wrong, like someone had cut out her picture and pasted it into an older one.
Also, seeing that Good-for-Nothing Youkai caused some curiosity to rear its ugly head inside me. I could view anything in this past world. No one could see me, so I didn’t have to worry about an unexpected counterattack.
Does this mean I can peep all I want when that sexy Zashiki Warashi is in the bath or changing? Heh. Eh heh heh.
“What is it, Nee-chan?”
As Shinobu tilted his head, the Zashiki Warashi gave me a truly unnatural look, so I grew as cautious as possible and slowly moved to the side.
But the Zashiki Warashi’s head and gaze remained perfectly locked onto me.
“Am I just imaging it?” she said.
This was bad. It was very, very bad. It looked like I couldn’t get too carried away. Human rules didn’t seem to apply to Youkai here. Who could say when I would accidentally change history?
Meanwhile, I heard the TV from the Western-style living room connected to the kitchen.
“Just how effective is the Hidarugami Diet!? This new diet is spreading by word of mouth over the internet, but specialists have begun to speak out about the risks.”
Someone had apparently turned on the TV. Shinobu and the others walked into the living room, so I followed suit.
“It’s grampa! What is that you have there? A letter?”
“Oh, Shinobu-chan’s grandfather. H-hello.”
My grandfather waved while chopping up a letter with scissors. After it was nothing but scraps, he threw it into the garbage can.
“Ah, you threw it away without reading it!”
“This letter didn’t deserve to be read.”
“Nii-chan said email is better than letters. You’ve moved onto email, haven’t you!?”
“No, I’m not so good with those electronics. Staring at those screens makes my eyes water.”
Some small footsteps approached.
Instead of family, it was some travelling Youkai staying at the house. The one that looked like a small child was an Onbu-Obake and the large man with a red face was…what was it? It didn’t have any horns, so it didn’t seem to be an Oni.
“Shinobu-chan! I heard we could get a Youkai Stamp if we came here. Give me a stamp! Or a piggyback ride!”
“Eh heh heh. I happened to hear that a Youkai Stamp is an important symbol.”
I tilted my head, but the young Shinobu seemed to understand. He pulled out a round stamp about five centimeters across and pressed it to the back of the Youkai’s hands.
“Now you’re my friend.”
“Wonderful! Now give me a piggyback ride!!”
“You’re a Friend Youkai too.”
“Eh heh heh. So this is the Youkai Stamp that began as an app and now even has a movie…”
This was apparently a magazine bonus based on a kid’s TV show. Unlike most Youkai shows, no one died and the Youkai weren’t defeated. They were simply captured as Friend Youkai. I didn’t really remember the details, though.
“Mhh. Why are you wearing a happi coat, Shinobu-chan? Is there a festival coming up?”
“This proves I’m a man of the Jinnai Brewery!”
He spun around to show it off.
Oh, so that’s why he’s wearing that.
“What does an Onbu-Obake do?”
“Ask people for piggyback rides! Obariyon!!”
“And a Kaki Otoko?”
“Eh heh heh. You can just think of me as a kind of Tantankororin. You’re still too young for the details. …Oh, it’s Hayabusa!!”
“Hayabusaaa! Give me a piggyback ride!!”
The Youkai left with some loud footsteps. I heard someone shouting “Waah! Stay away from me, you perverts!” in the hallway, but what exactly was happening out there?
Back in the living room young Nagisa was puffing out her cheeks.
“What is it, Nagisa?”
“Shinobu-chan! Give me a stamp too!”
“What are you talking about? This is a Youkai Stamp, so I can’t stamp a human like you.”
She was really mad, but then her giant St. Bernard trotted into the living room and gave a single loud bark.
She pulled a children’s cellphone from the small barrel hanging below the large dog’s neck.
“Oh, it’s already this late. It’s almost lunchtime, so I have to head home.”
“Okay. I’ll walk you home. Nii-chan said a true man walks the girl home!”
“Zashiki Warashi, what do you think about that?” asked my grandfather.
“If he didn’t try to act cool saying lame things like that, he wouldn’t have a Kaki Otoko attacking him.”
With that, Shinobu, Nagisa, and the St. Bernard made their way to the front entrance.
It nearly forgot, but the Aburatori incident was supposedly going to begin soon. I had no idea when it would it would happen or how, so I had no choice but to follow them.
The rural farm road was the same scenery I was used to seeing. That said, there seemed to be more Youkai than I was used to.
Shinobu and Nagisa approached an intersection in the middle of the paddy fields.
“I am a Nurikabe.”
“Don’t worry, Nagisa. He doesn’t bite.”
A giant three-eyed dog lay in the middle of the narrow road. It was about the size of a microbus, so it completely blocked the way.
“Wait a little until that work van goes by.”
“A-are you sure it isn’t a bad Youkai…?”
“I’m gonna give him a Youkai Stamp.”
“When I get home, I’m getting a potato and making you a Human Stamp…”
Before long, a vehicle drove through the intersection and the giant three-eyed dog vanished into thin air. The Youkai seemed to be like a railroad crossing barrier.
Nagisa’s home was not in the middle of the paddy fields. It was at the base of the mountain on the edge of the village. I could hear cows and chickens from nearby. I was pretty sure they ran an extremely small-scale but high-quality micro-farm. I remembered hearing something about a price tag of ten thousand yen on each egg laid by their stress-free chickens.
And at this point in the past, no one knew that accidentally seeing her parents at work in the meat processing facility would knock one of Nagisa’s screws loose and ultimately help develop the gory techniques of one of the world’s three greatest yandere. (sob)
“Bye, Shinobu-chan. I’ll head back to play after lunch.”
“Yeah! It’s a promise!”
“Go right back home. Don’t take any detours, okay?”
“Okay! Leave it to me!”
“…I-I’m worried. Maybe I should go with you.”
That would have begun an infinite loop, so Nagisa said goodbye for the time being. Shinobu then started home alone.
“What is it, Kappa!? Why are you all dried up on the road!?”
“U-uuh… The plate on my head has dried up. Water… Could you give me some water?”
“I only have the fizzy stuff in my water bottle.”
“Th-that’s bubbly!? Obh…ofahhh! What is this new sensation!?”
The Kappa got a stamp.
“Fwa ha ha! I am the great Tsuchigumo!! Heh heh. Don’t expect me to obey you!!”
“Huh? Why are you dressed like a girl when you’re a spider?”
“I am the ultimate delinquent, so I can transform into a beautiful woman!”
“How do spiders sleep? In a hammock? Make one for me!!”
“St-stop! You won’t get any silk by pulling on me there!!”
The Tsuchigumo got a stamp.
“Keh heh heh. I am a Nopperabou! What do you think? Scary, aren’t I!?”
“You aren’t supposed to call people scary for how they look.”
“Eh? Ah!? That may be true, but that’s kind of the entire reason I exist!”
“Anyway, you’re my friend too.”
The Nopperabou got a stamp.
D-does this kid forget what he’s doing every three steps!?
Every time he came across a Youkai, he would get sidetracked and he was now walking in an entirely different direction from the thatch-roof house.
“Ah! Come to think of it, I forget to give him a stamp! I need to go give him one!”
“You’re kidding, right?” I said. “The kid’s heading into the mountain, now!?”
He was me, but it was still scary watching it. Then again, I could only physically interfere once, so I couldn’t waste that chance here.
I followed Shinobu along the mountain path and he came to a clearing only about thirty or forty meters up. Instead of a high-tech orchard, the flat area only had some random undergrowth, so it may have been cleared out for a small shrine.
“Hey! I’m here to play! I’ll give you a Youkai Stamp too!!”
I heard the wind gently blowing through the tree branches overhead.
A single rundown cabin existed on that elevated clearing.
And then something peeked out from behind it, as if revealing itself from its hiding spot.
All of its face save the mouth was hidden behind a large conical hat with a single eye drawn on it.
It wore a farmer’s kimono with leggings covering the feet.
Its arms and legs were so wrinkled they looked like tree branches or part of a mummy.
To sum it up…this was the Aburatori.
That worst of all deadly Youkai was second to none when it came to killing children.
Why was he here?
Hadn’t he suddenly wandered into Noukotsu Village one day, caused a number of incidents, and got young Shinobu caught in the middle?
The Aburatori slowly walked over.
The large hat still hid his face and expression as he silently approached Shinobu.
He simply appeared, simply abducted, and simply killed. He would take children away, remove their organs, stab them with skewers, and cook them over a fire. The Youkai that took children’s oil like that was known as the Aburatori. However, it was not defined what he did with that oil and there was no moral behind the story. He was a simple fear without any related lesson such as “return home before it gets dark” or “do what your parents tell you”.
He moved ever closer.
From three meters, to two, and then one.
“What do I do?”
I was filled with a sticky sense of revulsion that went beyond simple fear. Was this it? Was this the scene where I was supposed to use my one forceful interference? I had no time to hesitate. If I failed here, the Zashiki Warashi would use her Ver. 39 power (whatever that was). To preserve that power and use it for the Aoandon incident in the present, I could not afford to mess up here. I had to use my one chance as accurately as possible.
“What do I do!?”
But as soon as I thought that…
“I told you not to come here, didn’t I?”
He clearly spoke with his face still hidden behind the large hat.
The voice was not at all like the rampaging monster I knew that simply devoured children’s organs.
“I am an incredibly scary Youkai that will eventually harm you.”
It was a male voice with deep intelligence behind it.
It was practically dripping with feelings of anguish and conflict.
“That isn’t true.”
“Don’t worry! I can get along with any Youkai, no matter how deadly! I’m here to give you a stamp and you were worried for me. That means we’re already friends. So neither of us has to worry!!”
“Hold out your hand, Aburatori.”
“Just do it! I’ll give you a Youkai Stamp!”
Shinobu forcibly took the confused Aburatori’s hand and pressed the toy-like stamp against the back of his hand.
“Now you’re a Friend Youkai.”
Shinobu gave a beaming smile.
And then my past self clearly said the following in Noukotsu Village ten years ago:
“So don’t say those sad things anymore. We’re the best of friends now!!”
Huh? I thought.
What did I just see?
Is this really what happened in the actual version of the past?
Nothing else happened and Shinobu played with Nagisa at the thatch-roof house without interacting any more with the Aburatori. A variety of Youkai made their way into the house without permission, but I couldn’t see anything else that looked related to the past incident.
“I know what you mean! Jello is cool because it’s see-through!”
“No, Shinobu-chan. Jello is cute because it jiggles.”
The two children argued over their snack, but once they ran out of things to talk about there, they moved onto the names written on their bags.
“Look, Nagisa. I can write my name in kanji.”
“I-I can do that too. We’re starting school this spring, so hiragana would be embarrassing.”
“It’s a heart under a blade! Stab!! But Nee-chan’s is hard. It’s got a whole bunch of diagonal lines. How’d you get such an annoying name?”
“Shinobu, that was the name your parents had prepared in case you were born a girl. They didn’t need it anymore, so I borrowed it.”
Evening fell, Nagisa left, and Shinobu started getting a little excited.
“What is it, Shinobu?”
“I can’t get my toy box closed. All the toys fit in there before, so why won’t they now? This must be some kind of evil magic! There’s nothing I can do!”
“Shinobu. Let’s try thinking through this together, one step at a time.”
They began putting rubber balls, toy cars, and other toys inside the limited space of the toy box like a simple puzzle game.
She was still pretty helpful at this point. How’d she get so lazy by the present?
Once the work was done, it was apparently time for dinner.
When his plate was set in front of him, Shinobu gave a lopsided frown and spoke to his mother.
“Adults don’t play fair.”
“Eh!? Wh-where did that come from?”
“Everyone but me gets to eat oysters. And you all act like it’s the best part.”
“Oh… But they say it’s dangerous to feed raw oysters to small children.”
“Adults always say that! I get that I can’t drink the gold fizzy stuff, but why can’t I have coffee or tea either? You put it all off limits, calling it an ‘adult flavor’!”
“You can’t have any, Shinobu. Caffeine is the last thing you need.”
Shinobu swung his arms and legs around to summon the Zashiki Warashi who sighed when she heard what was going on.
“Yes, the adults don’t play fair at all. Now, how about you come with me and eat some fried oysters?”
“Ah, no fair! You’re just going to steal Shinobu from me without even waiting for an explanation!?”
“But I want one of those slippery ones. Slippery!!”
Shinobu kept complaining, but he seemed happy enough once his stomach was full. He lay on the floor patting his stomach and spoke up.
“Today, I’ll take a bath with mom.”
“Oh, my. Well, I don’t mind.”
“And with dad.”
“What was that for? Do you not want to take a bath with dad?”
“W-well, I don’t have a problem taking a bath with my husband, but I’m not sure I want you in there with us. I would have to find a way to banish all of my worldly thoughts…”
For some reason, Shinobu looked incredibly shocked.
“I was the problem!? Do you hate me, mom!?”
“What!? N-no, that isn’t it at all, Shinobu! That isn’t what I meant!!”
“No excuses! I’m taking a bath with grampa today!! You have to wait until tomorrow!”
“Hmm? That’s fine, but grampa likes his baths hot.”
“And gramma can join us.”
He suffered another shock.
“Th-then I’ll have to take my bath with Nee-chan!!”
“Honestly, why are you adults making such a fuss over a simple bath?”
“And Nii-chan can join us.”
“Not a chance.”
The third shock finally brought Shinobu to tears, so he ran from the Western-style living room and into the Japanese-style living room where the Youkai were gathered.
“Wahhhhh!! Kyuubi! Kuzunoha!! Everyone’s so mean! They’re all taking baths together without me!!”
“Ho ho ho. What a troublesome child. Now, how about you try grabbing my nine tails?”
“You wild fox, stop spoiling other people’s children. As the Kuzunoha, I will harden my heart and thoroughly teach him some manners!”
The boy and two animals made their way to the bath.
That Kyuubi isn’t related to the Japanese Killing Stone, is it? Well, I think they were originally Chinese and were a sign of good luck. But doesn’t Kuzunoha refer to an individual? Could that be the Kuzunoha?
After throwing open the changing room’s door and just before shutting it, teary Shinobu let out a shout.
“We all have to get along!!”
Despite all that, I could see no sign of any sort of bloody incident.
The problem was that I did not know what month, day, hour, and minute the danger would arrive. Of course, I doubted a year or two would pass with nothing happening.
Once the clock reached eleven at night, all the lights were turned out, and the family had all gone to sleep, a certain fact became much more obvious. Simply put…
“I have nothing to do…”
The time travel method was similar to an out-of-body experience, so I could slip through walls and doors without being seen and I didn’t need to worry about biological issues. In other words, I wasn’t sleepy. That may have sounded convenient as I only had one point of view and couldn’t rewind, but when nothing was happening, I got pretty bored.
I slipped through the door to Shinobu’s room a few times to check on him, but he was fast asleep with a giant fox curled up on either side of him.
“Mumble, mumble… Fluffy tails…”
“Keh heh heh! …I-I will never…forget this humiliation…”
I doubted I was going to find any important information watching this.
“I guess I should go back over what information I have.”
That was really all I could do. Then again, I wasn’t exactly overwhelmed by a bunch of information I had to sort through.
The Aburatori had apparently not suddenly appeared in this version of the past. He was living in a rundown mountain cabin doing something.
And I knew the Aburatori.
He had not tried to kill me no questions asked and had even warned me away. But at the same time, he was aware how dangerous and deadly he was.
That led me to the conclusion that he did not want to kill any children. Although I had yet to check inside that cabin. It was possible he was keeping me away because there was something “evil” in there he didn’t want me to see.
I doubted Shinobu was going to do anything here.
Leaving his side and heading out into the mountains wouldn’t be a bad idea. After all, I couldn’t predict when or where the incident would occur. I would have an easier time later if I gathered what information I could now while the danger was still low.
And that sped things up.
Maybe I was bored and starving for some stimulation or maybe I felt safe in this out-of-body experience state, but I felt no reluctance to head out into the dark mountains late at night where I knew the Aburatori was waiting.
I left the thatch-roof house and followed the farm roads.
Intellectual Villages were dark at night. Most crops used photosynthesis, so they were influenced by light and it was not good to shine unnecessary light on them. There were streetlights with the same sensors as automatic doors to ensure the safety of pedestrians, so the lights came on only where people and cars were passing by. However, they didn’t react to me in my current state.
The inky darkness of the village was broken by the carpet of countless stars and the moonlight that pierced through the shadows.
Once I reached the mountain, a bit of a damp chill came over me.
I walked to the elevated clearing from before.
With no wind, I couldn’t even hear the rustling of the branches. Late March was too early for the insects to wake up, so I couldn’t hear any of them either. The silence was almost painful. And that may have been why I heard the whispering voices so clearly.
“Are you sure this will work?”
“Nine years. My calculations say nine years will fulfill all the conditions. That will liberate you.”
“But that boy saw me. I want to be more certain.”
“It’s a Kaeshigami, remember? You’ll be fine. You restrained yourself this long, and you only have a week until the limit. You can make it that long.”
…What? What are they talking about???
The hoarse elderly voice was likely the Aburatori, but who was the young man? “That boy” probably meant young Shinobu, but I couldn’t figure out the rest. Nine years, liberate, restrain, limit, certain…and Kaeshigami. I didn’t know what they were doing here, but it didn’t sound peaceful.
And just as I was thinking that, a young female voice spoke behind me.
“Hey, what’s going on here? We have a visitor.”
My heart jumped more at all the gazes focusing my way than at the loud voice.
The other two were focusing on the comment made by that young female speaker.
That meant they were aware of my presence.
“Hm? Where’s this visitor, Ohatsu-san?”
“Here. I’m rubbing up against them right now.”
“Yeah, but we can’t see anything there…”
I slowly looked down.
A small dog was rubbing its cheek up against my right shin.
It looked similar, but this wasn’t the one that worked with Hishigami Mai. It spoke like a woman, it had a scarf around its neck, and it had a ribbon on its right ear.
The young man who had been speaking with the Aburatori then spoke in a seemingly random direction.
“Shikimi-saaan!! Can you see anything?”
“Don’t ask me.”
Surprisingly, this new voice came from directly overhead.
A girl in a kimono sat on one of the branches forming the tunnel of trees. She had a thick shimenawa around her waist instead of an obi, her long hair was a colorless white, and she was pretty yet eerie. The way she wore her hair up made it look like a strange flower, she had a surprisingly large chest, and her bare feet were dangling down, so I could see her soft-looking toes and the bottom of her feet. Her slender and lovely appearance was belied by tough mannerisms and how her arms stuck out from the collar instead of using the sleeves.
“My specialty is war, so I don’t like spending a bunch of time gathering intelligence or setting everything up just right.”
“Ha ha. And how do you expect me to do something that the founder of the Hishigami line can’t?”
The founder of the Hishigami line.
I had no idea what was going on, but I could feel unpleasant sweat pouring from my entire body. I wasn’t entirely sure I could actually sweat in my nearly out-of-body experience state, though.
“You need to stop looking down and rejoicing when you find someone who can’t do something. It’s pathetic. You’re going to be a father soon, so you need to fix that self-indulgent side of yours.”
“Ohatsu-san, is the visitor still there?”
“Yes. It seems Youkai can tell ‘somehow or other’. Sensitivity and accuracy seems to depend on the specific species, though.”
The young man seemed to be enjoying this situation.
A moment later, I could have sworn the moonlight got stronger. Or maybe the clouds had cleared out.
This man in a dress suit was surrounded by a bizarre group: the Aburatori, Hishigami Shikimi, and a Sunekosuri named Ohatsu. But rather than the kind of clothing the nouveau riche would wear just once to a special occasion, this man seemed perfectly at home in his dress suit, as if he had stepped out of an old painting. The term “old nobility” naturally came to mind. His sleek black hair was tied off at his waist and an old-fashioned monocle adorned his handsome face. At first I thought it was the monocle’s doing, but his eyes really were different colors. Also, he was accurately looking me right in the eye. He claimed he couldn’t see me, but his gaze seemed to stab directly into my mind.
“Nice to meet you, visitor.”
My heartrate increased and I felt like my throat was growing dry. In my out-of-body experience, no one from the past could harm me, but I felt like that assumption had been overturned and I had been thrown into the lion’s cage.
And without any concern for how I was feeling, he spoke.
“My name is Majina, spelled with the character for ‘curse’. Oh, and I don’t mind if you use my first name. For a variety of reasons, my family name is treated like an heirloom sword.”
As if dropping an even larger bomb than the Aburatori’s name, he pointed his thumb toward the family crest on his dress suit’s chest.
“Simply put, I am the leader of Hyakki Yakou. I don’t know the exact method, but since you’re relying on something like that, I can assume you’ve taken at least a step into our narrow field. In that case, I assume you’ve heard that name before.”
Early in the morning on my second day in the past, young Shinobu was throwing a fit in the entranceway.
“Come on, Shinobu. Even Ubu wants you to let him go. They came here to spend the night on their journey, so they can’t move on if you hold onto him.”
Despite the Zashiki Warashi’s gentle attempt to persuade him, Shinobu shook his head with the Youkai in his arms.
As for that Youkai…
Is it just me or is that spider more than two meters long?
“That isn’t true! Ubu’s still a baby!! All he can say is ‘ogyaah’ and ‘baboo’!!”
“Well, he is an aggregation of stillbirths and infanticides.”
“I can’t throw a baby out!”
“But I’m pretty sure he’s lived for centuries, just like me. Come on, Shinobu. Let go.”
I-I’d always assumed my first kiss was with my parents or a relative, but…it was…with a bug!?
Shinobu of course showed no sign of noticing my shock and tearfully pulled out his Youkai Stamp.
“Listen, Ubu. We’re friends now. If you have any trouble, come see me. I’ll always be waiting!”
Some other sad exchanges like that followed and time passed.
While young Shinobu and Nagisa were playing in the large yard, another visitor showed up.
A sexy high school girl with a kanzashi in her long black hair wore Noukotsu High School’s winter uniform even though it was spring.
Who is that? I know she must be a friend of my uncle’s, but still…
Incidentally, that uncle looked annoyed as he opened the door.
“What is it, beautiful student council president? Why the childish entrance?”
“Eh heh heh. I couldn’t help myself after seeing Shinobu-kun and Nagisa-chan playing in the yard. I’m jealous. I want to play badminton with them! Hey, hey. Could you go ask them too, Hayabusa-kun?”
“This stranger is scary.”
“Oh, it’s Shinobu-chan’s uncle. H-hello.”
Both of them were left in shock.
The student council president even had tears in her eyes.
“Wh-what do you mean I’m a stranger? Remember when we played in the river and I held your hands to teach you the flutter kick? Or at the festival when we walked hand-in-hand in our yukatas? Or at the athletics festival when we won first prize in the borrowing race together!? I was supposed to find something I could die happy if I had, so I chose you and ran to the finish line with you under my arm!!”
“You’ve forgotten! You’ve completely forgotten, haven’t you!? Heh. But I’m not petty enough to get hung up on the past. I just have to deepen our friendship starting today!!”
…I’m sorry, beautiful girl, but in ten years, I still won’t know who you are. And I can’t even imagine how chaotic a scene it was for the school’s beautiful student council president to race across the schoolyard in bloomers with a five or six year old boy under her arm.
The two high school students gradually held up their rackets and they began a doubles match with the president on Shinobu’s team and my uncle on Nagisa’s team.
“This person is too beautiful. I can’t get close.”
“Wh-what am I supposed to do about that? But if it means getting along with you, I’m willing to eat a ton of cakes and get super fat!!”
The high school students must have mostly wanted to help out the kids because they leisurely kept the rally going while chatting with each other.
“By the way, Hayabusa-kun, that problem from before has gone up a rank. I still have no proof, though. It’s more of an atmosphere or a thorny nuance.”
“Yeah, I know what the underlings are up to, so I’ll hunt them down before long. But you need to make sure your GPS and alarm are working.”
“It must be tough for you too. But, well, it may just come with the territory for the Jinnai Brewery.”
“This is honestly no laughing matter. Of course, I haven’t lived a clean enough life to be surprised when some shiners show up.”
I wasn’t the only one tilting my head in confusion at that.
Shinobu and Nagisa also looked puzzled as they smashed the shuttlecock back and forth with some help from the high school students.
“What’s a shiner?”
“Shinobu-chan, it’s a type of sushi. I think the shiny silver fish are called that.”
“Then are we having sushi today? I can’t wait!!”
But when Shinobu saw the pasta with meat sauce served for lunch, a completely dead look came over his eyes.
“…I can’t accept this.”
“Eh!? You don’t like my cooking anymore!?”
My mom was left all alone in shock, but Shinobu’s attention turned to the flat screen TV as he covered his mouth in the red of tomato. The sports segment of the news was on, but in late March, there was nothing much happening in soccer or baseball. It was more about introducing some upcoming events.
“Look, Shinobu. The sake we made is on TV. It’s being used to commemorate their victory.”
“That bottle the sumo wrestler is holding?”
“Something from the Jinnai Brewery is the standard way of celebrating the spring competition. That bottle those baseball players are breaking in front of the camera is also ours. There’s even a rumored jinx saying teams that don’t end their spring training camp with something Jinnai will do terribly next season.”
“Oh… You’re amazing, grampa.”
Shinobu pointlessly spun around the fork he wasn’t entirely sure how to use. I could tell how hard it must be to get your kid to follow the family business. The special small happi coat he wore was probably meant to instill a sense of being a part of the industry (although it probably also had a lot to do with my doting parents.) He was an only child, so it would be a problem if he suddenly decided he wanted to be a rock star.
Once he had finished lunch and wiped off his mouth with a tissue, Shinobu began playing with the Zashiki Warashi.
“Nee-chan, look at me!”
“What is it, Shinobu?”
“Look at me!”
Shinobu was wiggling around on his back, but when the Zashiki Warashi approached, he grabbed onto her leg.
“I get in trouble if I climb the trees.”
“Well, it is dangerous and it can harm the older trees.”
“That’s why I’ll climb you. Nee-chan climbing!”
He began his after-lunch exercise.
But by afternoon, Nagisa was back with her St. Bernard.
“Sh-Shinobu-chan, I brought my What’s-This Wand.”
“What’s a What’s-This Wand?”
“My dad bought it for me. If you don’t know what something’s for, you wave the wand in front of it and it tells you. Wh-what’s this!?”
Is that a type of electronic dictionary?
Nagisa held out the toy with a CCD camera and image recognition system installed and she pointed it toward her St. Bernard.
After an electronic sound effect, it spoke in an artificial female voice.
“Guard dog of hell, two melons, hooray.”
With the same look as someone faced with a ridiculous machine translation, Shinobu and Nagisa left the What’s-This Wand on top of the shoe shelf in the entranceway.
“Anyway, let’s play with your dog! Do you want to use the ball or the flying disc?”
“Shinobu-chan. He’s saying to throw both.”
The St. Bernard barked and wagged its tail in full readiness. As I watched the dog race across the large yard, I happened to see the Zashiki Warashi circling around the veranda to the back yard.
I was supposed to be pursuing the truth of the past, so nothing was as irritating as scenes of complete normalcy. In order to gather whatever information I could, I followed the Zashiki Warashi.
And I found a sudden bombshell.
Majina of Hyakki Yakou was leaning against the house’s outer wall with his arms crossed.
“Why are you here?”
“For a follow-up visit.”
Majina replied to the Zashiki Warashi’s stiff voice in an indifferent voice of his own while tracing his finger along the edge of his monocle.
“Don’t look so threatening. You really are worried about the Ver. 39 contained inside your body, aren’t you? You escaped long ago when it was still incomplete and unfinished and it hasn’t had any maintenance done in the century or more since. It could break at any time and no one knows what will happen when it does. Personally, it would frighten me more than a strange shape on the X-ray scan.”
“It’s not like you can do anything about it these days.”
“True enough. The Ver. 39 is a black box to us as well. We cannot reproduce it or create a new one. But that is exactly why I want you to rest easy. Hyakki Yakou cannot steal the technology even if we forcibly abducted you. As such, we have no reason to. Having nothing to gain is the proof of peace. Now, let us shake hands in the theme park!”
He jokingly held out his hand for a handshake, but the Zashiki Warashi did not comply.
Her displeased look remained as he waved his hand at her.
“You don’t believe me?”
“Why should I after what you – well, your ancestors – did to me?”
Majina let out an exasperated sigh.
He pointed his thumb at the family crest on his chest which was modeled after some kind of animal.
“This points to the Youkai that are completely removed from any ecosystem while also pointing to the frightening human imagination. Combine the two and you have Hyakki Yakou. It’s said that Hyakki Yakou has fallen quite a bit over the past hundred years, but that isn’t accurate. It would be better to say we were insane until one hundred years ago. My generation is attempting to return us to our original form, but I do wonder how that will turn out. Whether in politics, the military, or the chair of the company president, power is a devilish thing. Once it falls within your grasp, it will drag you down without end.”
Their conversation was cut off there.
The front yard had grown much noisier. I peeked around and saw…something wearing a worn-out kimono. The small figure looked both like a child and like an old person as it hung its head at the end of the yard.
“Sh-Shinobu-chan, this Youkai is called an Akaname.”
“Why can’t he come into the house? This fizzy stuff is great! Drink some!!”
The Akaname wasn’t a deadly Youkai. It was completely harmless. However, it would lick up the limescale from the bath, so it was not well-liked in a beverage-making family. Intellectual Village brands got their value from an image of high quality, so anything that would give an unclean impression was the same as adding poison to the bottle.
“This is unavoidable. My traits and your family are incompatible.”
Shinobu tilted his head.
“Then how about you play with me outside? Don’t worry. I can get along with any Youkai!”
The Akaname was pulled into their group in no time at all.
And it did not end there.
“Sh-Shinobu-chaaan! Th-th-th-this is a God of Poverty!”
“C’mon over here.”
“Shinobu-chan, what is this giant caterpillar thing? Eh? Kodoku???”
“I don’t know what that is, but let’s play together.”
As the shrill voices of playing children reached him, the man calling himself the leader of Hyakki Yakou gently narrowed his eyes.
“When I hear the word exorcism, I picture someone borrowing the power of a god or buddha to unilaterally blast the evil spirit with a smug look on his face, but this is completely different.”
“The essence of what he’s doing is removing and dispersing spirits. Were they calling him Shinobu-kun? In that way, he is demonstrating the ideal form of what we do. …Even if we send the most virtuous priest on a rampage or send out a famous warrior with a spiritual sword in hand, there are some paranormal beings we simply cannot do anything about. But with Youkai that are immune to even the greatest violence, there are many stories of them leaving when approached in good faith. Gods of Poverty make all people equally poor, but if you fearlessly accept them in and show them proper respect, the stories say they will give you great riches. The Kodoku is the same I believe. They wield the most powerful curse which no charm or barrier can defend against, and once affected, the victim’s entire clan will be destroyed. But a man who tried to sacrifice himself for his family by swallowing the insect supposedly ended up living a long life with no ill effects.”
The man honestly sounded envious.
“I wonder how many people who can pull that off still exist in our narrow field today.”
He almost seemed ashamed of his own lack of virtue.
“We acquire all the power we desire, but in exchange for increasing the rank of our soul, we forget how to respect the paranormal. We are all distorted individuals who can only conquer our fears by becoming a greater monster than the monsters themselves. …And because we fear being devoured by the insects on the ground once we lose speed, we build ourselves up more and more, creating a negative snowball effect. Truly a vicious circle. To be honest, we have too much power. We have enough to wipe out the human race several times over. I would like to change the direction of our field before that power spills out or the ever-expanding balloon bursts.”
This seemed to connect the normal scenery of the past and the bloody Hyakki Yakou I had seen in the present.
What have I been doing without even realizing it?
If the world really was that simple, could that messy conclusion have been avoided even when faced by such a violent Youkai?
“Is that what you’re doing in this village?”
“That is a test case. The Aburatori started it on his own, but since he was about to fail, we decided to lend a helping hand. This is a useful test for us as well. It will provide a concrete outline to our formless ideal. It’s the perfect presentation for the more destructive among us.”
What? What is he talking about?
Since it had to do with the Aburatori, it probably had some effect on the main incident here, but the Zashiki Warashi showed no real intent to stop him. No matter how good-for-nothing she might be, I wanted to believe she would act differently if the plan involved killing small children.
“Do you really think you can pull off the Kaeshigami?”
“It truly is just an ideal at the moment. But while it was on a completely different level, there is the example of Fujiwara no Michizane. Instead of starting with a Tatarigami born of human hatred, this Kaeshigami will begin with an evil Youkai. It would be perfect if we could gain more stability by downsizing that method.”
The group in the front yard must have decided playing with the dog and the ball would be difficult with so many people, so they shifted to playing house. As they sat in a circle and spoke together, Shinobu swung his arms around and gave a shout.
“I need to call Nee-chan too! This would be way more fun with her! Nee-chaaaan!!”
Majina shrugged while still leaning against the outer wall.
The Zashiki Warashi stuck her index finger against his nose to silently tell him not to show himself. Then she walked out from behind the house and toward Shinobu, Nagisa, and the others.
Shinobu was the first to speak.
“Since you’re our newest family member, you’re the baby, Nee-chan.”
“Shinobu-chan. I don’t think that suits this Youkai.”
“It wouldn’t be a game if we act like normal! It’s fun because we do something different!!”
“Sh-Shinobu-chan. Umm, I was already worried when you made the dog the father, so…”
Hm? So how’s she going to handle this one?
The Hyakki Yakou leader and I both focused on the front yard.
Now, Zashiki Warashi, how are you going to answer that six-year-old’s request!?
“Gyah! Gyahh!! Gyahhh!!!! Baboo. I want milk, papa. Baboo, baboo.”
“She did iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit!! That Youkai with a 98 cm bust just went into full baby mooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooode!!”
“Well, a Zashiki Warashi is a collective spirit of the babies killed during famines, so maybe this is what she’s always wanted to do.”
I felt like some strange beams were shooting from my eyes.
And while Shinobu was innocently holding a toy baby bottle to the Zashiki Warashi’s mouth, Nagisa looked horrified.
The scene before my eyes had short-circuited some wiring deep in my head, so I hadn’t noticed at first.
“…!? You…know I’m here!?”
The previous night, he had needed the (female) Sunekosuri to tell him I was there, but now Majina was giving me an amused look with his back against the wall.
“One night is plenty of time to put together a technique, visitor. I would recommend not confusing me with your everyday Package maker.”
Oh, no. Oh, no! Oh, no!!
How much would this affect history? While I did have to alter history at some point to resolve the true Aburatori incident without using the Zashiki Warashi’s Ver. 39, how much influence would this small conversation have? What was going to happen now?
“Do not worry. History has some elasticity to it. Or maybe you could call it an acceptable margin of error. If the smallest phenomenon would alter the whole like the butterfly effect, then the world could easily collapse just from having you standing there. Right?”
“In other words, as long as you make no extreme contact with anything, the flow of history will not change. Having me speak to you will not change anything. The controller is in your hands and you will not spread changes uncontrollably. Yes, this was a well-thought-out structure that took safety into consideration. I can’t quite understand why it has the same scent as us, though.”
My words could reach someone now and this man stood closer than anyone to the truth of the past concerning the Aburatori.
“If only the Aburatori could join that circle as well,” said Majina as he viewed the chaotic game of house including a God of Poverty and a Kodoku bug. “Unfortunately, he is the type who brings death simply from meeting him, just like the Shichinin Misaki or the Killing Stone. Some preparations are needed for the first step to remove that wickedness. That is, to make it so he no longer brings death simply from meeting him.”
Make it so he no longer brings death simply from meeting him?
You mean make a deadly Youkai not deadly?
“It isn’t that rare an idea. Some Youkai are old gods that were brought down to that level. There are also foxes and tanuki that gained divinity from their popularity with the people. And if you look to a higher level, there is even a vengeful spirit that tried to destroy Kyoto but was raised to the level of a heavenly god. However, reproducing it with human techniques instead of relying on a miracle is another issue altogether.”
That was the Kaeshigami.
It was the phenomenon in which a feared being was transformed into a god. They became a being that was both feared and respected.
“If the Kaeshigami is completed, that deadly Youkai will be able to fully switch off his trait of indiscriminate killing. Or he can switch it on of his own will to gain power greater than that of a mere Youkai. Of course, it would be less about providing an allover power boost and more about using more detailed control to reduce the energy loss.”
It was true that anything was fine if it would defang that monster.
However, I couldn’t see why Hyakki Yakou would hold back and use such a roundabout method on the worst of the deadly Youkai. He was clearly different from a Yuki Onna or Nekomata. He only thought about killing children, he had built a time travel Package, and he had even absorbed the Zashiki Warashi to obtain even greater power. He was a monster among monsters.
“The name Aburatori might fill you with negative emotions.”
A probing tone entered Majina’s voice.
“But you might have seen things differently if you were more like Shinobu-kun over there.”
By evening, I concluded Shinobu wasn’t going to do anything else even if I continued watching him, so I left the thatch-roof house and made my way to the Aburatori’s mountain clearing.
“The Comfort Association is known as the Japanese branch of one of the top four networks, and the police are on alert due to rumors that they are holding a large event in the near future. The rumors say they will be reorganizing and…”
The ground was covered in underbrush, the trees created a canopy overhead, and the dark rundown cabin sat in front of me. Hishigami Shikimi may have been watching a 1seg TV somewhere, but I couldn’t tell where even after turning in a full circle.
Also, two Youkai faced each other in front of the rotting cabin.
One was Ohatsu, the female Sunekosuri working with Majina, and the other was the Aburatori with his large conical hat hiding his face.
They were speaking to each other.
“If the unexpected happens, take care of things afterwards.”
“The unexpected isn’t going to happen. After all, our boss is working on this.”
“But I saw him. I saw Jinnai Shinobu. No one was supposed to come here.”
“Don’t worry. You’ve resisted killing any children for nearly nine years now.”
“That was only because I didn’t see any. Viewing my target has resurrected the hunger inside me. At this rate, there is a chance I will break the seal and attack. So…”
“You have less than a week to go. Even if the seal cracks little by little, you will still become a Kaeshigami as long as it doesn’t reach its limit before then. You won’t have to kill anyone anymore. Isn’t that right?”
What was this about?
The Aburatori seemed afraid of killing children…of killing my past self.
“For one thing, you aren’t at fault here.”
“That excuse doesn’t hold water.”
“The Aburatori is based in the fear of a child suddenly vanishing…and the dark desire and curiosity that makes people want to talk about such things as if they actually happened. They make a show of being afraid on the surface, but the human heart can’t help but tell those stories. Monsters are frightening, but if that monster really did exist, it might get rid of those troublesome children. They might not have to kill them in the bath or bathroom as soon as they are born. You were given form by the thoughts of those sickening parents who have no issue with abusing or abandoning their children. You were born from that desire, so you yourself aren’t at fault.”
“I said that excuse doesn’t hold water!!”
The Aburatori’s shout was followed by silence.
I could only hear the ominous sound of the rustling leaves.
He spoke in a barely audible voice.
“I hate it, and hate it, and hate it…but in the end, I do understand the feelings of the parents who made me like this. I understand how unpleasant children are, I understand how nice it would be if they would just disappear, and I understand how wonderful it would be if someone else would do it for you! It doesn’t matter which came first. I was made to be like this. Without me to receive those feelings, the parents of the later generations might not have felt them at all. It’s a chicken or the egg issue… At this point, my very existence might be creating evil feelings within people and then drawing them out!”
That was the system that had been built. It was the role he had been given.
He was a murderer to be despised by everyone.
No excuses were permitted and no thought was given to his circumstances.
He was there to receive the evil feelings of those who were not even aware of those feelings inside themselves.
That was all he was meant to be.
“So please don’t believe anything I tell you. Please don’t believe my soul. It doesn’t matter what I say. The instant you deem it impossible, kill me. I don’t want to play this role anymore. I don’t want to become a being that simply completes a system with no thoughts of my own. I don’t want to be a monster that brutally slaughters those small children without batting an eye.”
This scene completely reversed my image of the Aburatori.
At first, I thought maybe I had stepped into a twisted parallel world.
But in that case…
…What was the Aburatori I saw before? How did such a conflicted deadly Youkai end up as such a crazed monster?
“There’s nothing to worry about.”
“How can you be so sure? Not even I trust myself.”
“Because.” The female Sunekosuri narrowed her eyes a little. “Someone has come here for you.”
The Aburatori followed her gaze and turned to face me.
No, his eyes passed right through me. He was looking behind me. I turned around too and saw a small form there.
It was Shinobu.
It was myself as I apparently came here ten years ago.
The Aburatori was dumbfounded, but Shinobu smiled as he ran through the underbrush. He approached with no caution whatsoever.
“Big news! Big news!”
He swung his arms around.
“We’re having Salisbury steak for dinner tonight! Mom’s finally going all out! I have to tell everyone!! Big news! Big news!”
“Mom’s Salisbury steak is amazing. She puts a fried egg on top!”
It was a silly bit of breaking news, but it sounded like he meant it as a secret for only his friends. That meant he was including that worst of the deadly Youkai in that group.
For a while, the Aburatori seemed unable to move.
The Youkai silently clenched his teeth as Shinobu shifted gears.
“Come to think of it, I haven’t given you a stamp yet.”
“Don’t worry about me,” said the female Sunekosuri. “Keep that lonely old man company.”
“We can all hang out together! Now you’re a Friend Youkai too!!”
This was a conversation from an impossibly distant world.
That bloody Youkai would never have dreamed of reaching that world from the moment he had been born into this world.
“Do you understand, Ohatsu?”
The Aburatori finally spoke almost under his breath.
His voice seemed on the verge of vanishing.
“Even now, I cannot stop myself from categorizing the life before my eyes as a target. In the end, I can only do what everyone wants from me. I know that the more perfectly I fulfill the legend of the Aburatori, the more easily those dark desire will be thrown onto me, and yet…!!”
That which is bright does not always save. That which is kind does not always heal. Sometimes, it becomes a cruel mirror that reflects one’s own ugliness. As she accepted that pain, the female Sunekosuri let out a slow sigh.
But was the Aburatori truly ugly?
Weren’t the human adults who made him like that simply forcing this onto him so they wouldn’t be at fault?
Shinobu tilted his head curiously while only seventy centimeters away from certain death.
“Hm? What are you talking about? A game?”
This was the backbone of the story.
But what kind of awful ending lay in wait?
What ending was so bad that it required that Zashiki Warashi to get involved, release the power of the Ver. 39, and distort history itself?
I followed Shinobu down the narrow farm roads back to the thatch-roof house.
We got back just in time to see my uncle leaving.
“What are you doing, Nii-chan? Heading out?”
“Yeah. You don’t leave the house, Shinobu. It’s scary outside once it gets dark.”
“Hm? But we’re having Salisbury steak today! We need to all eat it together!”
As my uncle walked toward the storage shed a short distance from the house, I could hear a metallic jangling. Shinobu tilted his head and my mom ran out to the front door.
“Ahhh! Wait, Shinobu, where did Hayabusa-kun go!? He hasn’t left the garage yet, has he!?”
“He said he’s heading out. He’s playing at night. He really is an adult.”
“S-someone stop him! Before he finally kills someone!!”
With an obvious engine sound effect, a large electric scooter left the storage shed.
Night was beginning, so Shinobu would be staying at home. That meant he was unlikely to have any contact with the Aburatori. The odds were good following him around would only be a waste of time. With that in mind, I turned right back around and hopped onto the back seat of my uncle’s bike.
I technically wasn’t touching the floor or ground when I walked, but as soon as I thought of myself as “riding” the scooter, I stuck to it. My uncle smoothly operated the bike and raced down the dark farm road.
I could hear a conversation coming from the cell phone stuck in the holder near the handlebars.
One side was the female upperclassman who had played badminton during the day, but the other was a gloomy-sounding male voice.
Who is that?
“Since you were after someone connected to Jinnai, I assumed someone like Shinobu-kun was in trouble, but I certainly didn’t expect the danger to reach me.”
“Sh-shut up. I went with the most surefire method. That kid’s surrounded by Youkai, so the older Hayabusa is the easier target, right? A-and with a hostage, I have even less to worry about.”
“Are you sure that was all? I bet you wanted to capture the school’s beautiful student council president so you could have your own reward. You were probably planning to avoid mentioning the hostage when you hand Hayabusa-kun over to the adults. That way you could do whatever you wanted to my body. Peh heh heh.”
“Shut up!! You just have to keep that mouth shut and do what I say!!”
I had never seen my uncle give off such a powerful aura of anger.
He operated the cellphone to bring up a GPS map.
At that point, I finally realized what the metallic jangling was. There were thick chains wrapped around his waist and held in place by a padlock.
Meanwhile, the remote conversation continued.
“When it comes to guard dogs, Nagisa-chan’s St. Bernard is pretty cute.”
“Wh-what are you talking about?”
“But did you know that her parents had the dog put through the training of a police dog and a war dog so it will tear out the throat of any suspicious person who gets close? A cheap jackknife isn’t going to be much use against that.”
My uncle did something with the bike’s controls.
The headlights vanished and the engine sound effect stopped.
The mass of metal raced along at over sixty kph without producing any light or noise.
“But what I have is more of a hunting dog than a guard dog. Heh heh. I guess it would be a little sad to call him a mad dog.”
“Wh-what? Dog??? Are you saying there’s a dog hiding around here!?”
“He’s already here. And my dog is a lot fiercer than a St. Bernard. Unfortunately for you.”
It happened immediately afterwards.
Without hitting the brakes at all, my uncle hit someone standing in the middle of the farm road.
“B-bhbfh!? Bahbh!! Egbhgahh!?”
The person flew into the dry paddy field and groaned from the ground, unable to get up.
My uncle turned the electric scooter around and his upperclassman cheerfully waved at him in the darkness.
“Yahoo, Hayabusa-kun. Can I leave the rest to you?”
“Yes, you can. Sorry about the trouble.”
“So you arrive five minutes after I call you and don’t hesitate to hit the guy at full speed? I can really feel the love☆”
“If you get too carried away, I’ll force you on a thrill ride along the zig-zagging mountain pass.”
My uncle stepped off the bike and onto the narrow farm road. He then looked down at the gloomy boy who had been knocked into the paddy a level below.
He still couldn’t get up, so he shouted up at my uncle while foaming at the mouth.
“I…I can’t…I can’t believe you!! You tried to kill me!! You did!! Ha…ha ha. You know what’s going to happen when I call the police here, don’t you!?”
“Hm? Why the hell are you still alive?”
He did not try to intimidate the boy and he did not shout angrily at him. That casual nuance seemed to overpower the boy more than anything else. He was overpowered by the difference in experience.
Then the upperclassman gave a warning from the side.
“Hey, hey. You can think it as much as you want, but try not to actually say anything about trying to kill him. This might not qualify as justified self-defense. Not that there’s a lawyer here.”
“J-just-justified self-defense!? B-by hitting s-someone with a bike!?”
“Yeah,” said my uncle as if it didn’t particularly matter.
And not that the laws didn’t matter. That the boy’s life didn’t matter.
“Justified self-defense doesn’t just apply to yourself. If you use a weapon that happened to be nearby and cause less damage than would have been caused otherwise, it cancels everything out. So as long as I did less damage than a knife to the vitals, it isn’t a problem. But what about you? You’re the one that went out of your way to prepare a knife and put together this kidnapping plot.”
“You really are stupid.”
The beautiful student council president seemed to spit the words out from a position of absolute superiority.
“How did you end up a pawn for a large criminal organization?”
“It was probably that Hidarugami Diet.”
“Don’t answer for him. It’s more fun to hear it from him.”
“You sure are cruel… He doesn’t even have the skill to put together a Package. He only created a website to trick people into paying him, so isn’t this enough punishment?”
“But unfortunately, that weight loss drug was actually a code word for you-know-what. The large criminal organization must have thought he was breaking into their market. Not that I’m about to feel sorry for someone who tricked people out of their money.”
“They probably told him they’d let him off the hook if he did some work for them. Jinnai sake is used all over: to commemorate big sumo victories, to commemorate pro baseball victories, and even as an offering at the Ise Shrine. But it isn’t uncommon for people in the criminal underworld to want some. Like for a large criminal organization’s rituals.”
So that’s it.
After pouring their soul into that sake, my grandpa and dad weren’t going to send it somewhere like that. After all, they would even temporarily refuse to do business with a bar that allowed its patrons to drive drunk. Even so, there were some who would still want some Jinnai sake.
And in the Aburatori’s forest, I had heard some news about a big event being held by a group called the Comfort Association.
“I guess that means this guy was the source of those old-fashioned threatening letters reaching my home.”
“Maybe. Hayabusa-kun, how about we hand him over to the cops and let the professionals handle the rest?”
I recalled the letter my grandpa had chopped up with scissors.
It must have asked them to hand over some Jinnai sake if they didn’t want any harm to come to their family.
“Well, given how they work, there’s a good chance they’ll chop this guy off like a lizard’s tail and blame it all on him.”
The student council president’s words gave the boy a clear view of his fate.
That attacker, who most likely attended the same high school as the other two, squeezed out the very last of his strength and jumped to his feet.
“Hee…hee hee!! Hee hee…hee! Hee hee hee!!”
“What, you want more? Just how sad a guy are you?”
“My knife? Where’d my knife go? Dammit, it’s too dark to see!!”
“And as long as we know you have a knife prepared, it means you’re armed, even if you don’t have it in hand at the moment. That means this qualifies as justified self-defense. Unfortunately for you.”
A jangling came from my uncle.
“And did you know this, skinny boy? A giant machete or Japanese sword would be in violation of the Swords and Firearms Control Law. A wooden sword or metal pipe would be borderline. There’s precedent for nunchucks found at an inspection violating the Minor Offenses Act.”
The sound came from the thick, thick chain held in place around his waist by a padlock.
He wrapped one end around his fist and smiled as he continued speaking.
“But there’s no law against wrapping chains around yourself as a fashion statement. And yet swinging them around makes for a more frightening weapon than a metal bat. Strange, isn’t it?”
Yeah, this is hopeless.
My uncle was too used to this. Whether the boy had his knife or not, his fate was sealed.
My uncle was the day’s MVP, but after taking the beautiful student council president home on his big electric scooter and then driving back home, my dad and grandpa beat him up and threw him in the shed. The series of events progressed so smoothly that I could tell it happened all the time. Just how often was my uncle getting into fights?
After locking the thick door, my dad and grandpa began speaking to each other.
“Apparently, Atou’s daughter wasn’t hurt. …He did a pretty good job.”
“Hey, we can discuss the rest over some drinks. Nothing makes sake taste better than these stories, so it’d be a shame to let it go to waste.”
…This is the problem.
After returning to the house, I found the Zashiki Warashi and some other Youkai sitting in a circle in the parlor. The others seemed to be a Nurarihyon and a Kasha.
“Come to think of it, I showed up in the latest entry of that Youkai summoning RPG series.”
“Oh, dear. So you had your big debut, Kasha-san?”
“Was that sarcasm? You Zashiki Warashi are just like the Yuki Onna! You always get chosen! You even got to be the exposition character for the Youkai Stamp movie!!”
Everyone worked to calm down the angry Nurarihyon.
“I don’t like how they illustrated me as a cat surrounded by fire. I know I’m lucky to show up at all, but still.”
“Well, the outline of a Youkai changes from generation to generation. I started as a relative of the Umibouzu, but the next thing I knew, I was the leader of all Youkai.”
“It sure is trouble when cultures combine or when you’re mixed with or identified with another Youkai. I could accept it if it made me divine like the Dakini-Ten, though.”
I heard the sound of an electric guitar coming in from outside the room.
I initially wondered if it was my uncle in delinquent mode, but he was still locked in the shed. When I peeked out, it really wasn’t him. Five tanuki held musical instruments in front of young Shinobu in the Buddhist altar room.
“Yaaaaay! Thanks for showing up to today’s Tanuki☆Bayashi concerrrrrrrrrrrrrtttttttttttttttttt!”
“Gramma goes to sleep at nine, so only until then.”
I had no idea how a tanuki’s paws could hold the pick or press down on the strings, but they played well enough. I thought quietly to myself as I listened.
“I guess that’s going to be it for today…”
Even after the Jinnai house quieted down, the outside world was of course still on the move. If I visited the Aburatori’s forest, it was possible I would get some new information on the Aburatori.
He didn’t seem like much of a threat at the moment while working with Hyakki Yakou. Was he really at the center of this incident? I couldn’t afford to miss the crucial moment if something else happened to be at the center.
Today, I hadn’t noticed that my uncle and Atou-san(?) had gotten involved in some other incident. I wanted to avoid overlooking something like that again.
Where would I start the following day? Between Shinobu, the Zashiki Warashi, the Jinnai house, the Aburatori, and Hyakki Yakou, what was I supposed to focus on? The lack of any obvious malice or benefits did not mean I could rest easy. I knew that a large incident was guaranteed to tear down this temporary peace.
“I’m getting sleepy…”
“Ehhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh? But we were just getting warmed uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuup!”
“I’m going to sleep right here…”
“(Twannnnggg!!) Ky-kyah! Don’t hug me out of the blue!”
“Our hard-rock leader…”
“A-ahem. You can’t Shinobu-chaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan! You haven’t brushed your teeth yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeet! Honestlyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!”
The tanuki picked up Shinobu’s limp form and ran toward the bathroom.
A new commotion began in there. Shinobu was supposed to have been brushing his teeth, but he had grabbed some toys instead.
“This is the proof you’re a man!”
“Shinobu-chaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!? Why are you drawing on a thief mustache with a black peeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeen!?”
“Nn! Grampa, dad, and Nii-chan all shave, so now I can too!”
He was moving around what seemed to be soap made to look like a T-shaped shaver. The commotion only grew when he drew thief mustaches on the tanuki that were already covered in fur.
It was a heartwarming scene that looked like something from a children’s book.
But I knew the moment of doom was approaching.
What exactly was going to happen here?
It was early morning on the third day since I had traveled to the past.
In the Buddhist altar room, Shinobu was forcing a dandy look while holding a nearly square piece of seaweed in front of a bucket of sushi rice. The Zashiki Warashi sat across the tea table from him.
“Hand-rolled sushi is great. It’s fun making it myself.”
“You really do like things like this, Shinobu.”
“Natto is fun too. I love how mixing it feels.”
“Ugh… I-I’ll pass on that one.”
Shinobu and the Zashiki Warashi got down to wrapping the sushi.
“There’s gotta be cheese. There’s gotta be avocado. There’s gotta be fish sausage.”
“Why does your hand-rolled sushi always come out so very American, Shinobu?”
“Then I’ll give this special one to you, Nee-chan. Say ‘ah’.”
That breakfast of half-fun and half-eating came to an end.
It was still morning, but Nagisa apparently wasn’t coming over today. Shinobu trotted over to where the Zashiki Warashi was lazing around so as not to get in the way of the cleaning.
“Are you free, Nee-chan? Or are you busy?”
“What is it, Shinobu?”
“Oh, too bad. You look busy.”
“Really, what is it!? Don’t leave me behind!!”
The Zashiki Warashi clung to him and they collapsed into a ball. Shinobu was holding a thick picture book…no, it was some kind of kid’s textbook.
He sat on her lap and they read through the book together.
“The dog says…woof woof!”
“That’s right. Now, Shinobu, what about the car?”
“Correct. Next…how about soba?”
Shinobu turned his head to look at her long black hair.
“I know! Soba goes rustle rustle!”
“Wrong. It goes slippery slippery.”
“Ehhh? That doesn’t sound right. Ice is what goes slippery slippery!”
My grampa called for Shinobu, so he hopped up from the sexy Youkai’s lap and raced out of the Japanese-style living room.
As the Zashiki Warashi closed the book and set it aside, my mom spoke to her while using a cyclone vacuum cleaner.
“He calls us grampa, gramma, dad, mom, Nii-chan, and Nee-chan.”
“To be honest, I wanted him to call me mama or mommy.” She pouted her lips. “But he was influenced by everyone around him, so the next thing I knew, he was calling me mom. And they all spoil him so much, so the next thing I know, I’m the one that has to stop him as the nagging mother! I want to spoil him too! Besides, I’m the one that went through so much pain giving birth to him!!”
“My condolences. That’s all I can say. …Ow, ow, ow! Where do you think you’re sucking at me with that vacuum cleaner nozzle!? What do you mean I sounded like it didn’t have anything to do with me? It really didn’t have anything to do with-…ow, ow, ow, ow!!”
The loud sound of the vacuum cleaner continued as my mom began some pretty extreme sexual harassment against that Youkai, but then she tilted her head.
“What did my father-in-law want with Shinobu? I doubt he wants him to help in the brewery.”
“That’s a good question. I have nothing better to do, so I’ll go collect Shinobu.”
I followed the two of them from the Japanese-style living room and down the hallway to the Western-style one.
“I just wish Shinobu was a little more polite. I’d love to have a cute little child like Nagisa-chan. You know what I mean? You do, don’t you!?”
“Yes, yes. Go talk to your husband about that one.”
As expected, my grampa was playing with Shinobu during a break in his work.
“Ah ha ha!! Poop, penis, poop, penis, poop!!”
“Wah ha ha ha ha!!”
I averted my gaze from that hopeless scene and looked to the women in the doorway.
My mom and the Zashiki Warashi had an utterly dead look in their eyes.
I let out a scream, but before I could will my grampa to run away, the women grabbed his arms, shoulders, and head.
Those demons from hell had deep shadows falling over their faces, but their eyes alone shined brightly.
“Father, we need to talk.”
“I think someone needs to teach you that there is a limit to everything.”
“D-don’t be silly!! Dirty words are the standard for kids his age! Right? Right!? You know what I mean, don’t you!?”
He franticly tried to escape, but the two women walked down the long, long hallway and vanished.
I’ve heard of a secret prison cell as one of the Seven Mysteries of the Jinnai House, but surely that isn’t true. It’s only a story to scare the children, right?
That was when my small gramma showed up.
“Oh, dear. What are you doing here, Shinobu?”
“Grampa was taken away.”
“…I understand completely now. Take that damn old man to the third door!!”
All emotion vanished from her face and then she too disappeared.
What is the third door? Would I be happier not knowing?
Shinobu had nothing to do now that everyone had left, so he began chatting with some Youkai who showed up.
“The word Oni is a mixture of the original Chinese word ‘gui’ meaning devil and the Japanese word ‘on’ meaning hidden. It originally referred to all spiritual beings, but due to the influence of Noh and Kabuki, we ended up being muscular, with a punch perm, horns, and a tiger stripe loincloth! They forced that image onto us and now they tell the oni to leave because we’re scary!! How is that fair!? Hmph!”
“Hm? What do you mean they tell the oni to leave?”
“Oh? Does your home only ask the good fortune to come in? Wonderful, wonderful.”
The doorbell rang.
I poked my head out into the hallway and saw my uncle answering the door.
The visitor was…Nagisa maybe?
“Oh, it’s Shinobu-chan’s uncle. G-good morning!”
“Thanks to your advice, uncle, I don’t lose to Shinobu-chan in races anymore! Thanks, uncle!!”
“(Stab stab) Unc-… O-oh…is that so? You’re here for Shinobu, aren’t you? Wait just a second. Heyyy!”
The repetition of the word uncle caused all the more psychological damage when combined with that innocent smile, but my high school aged uncle managed to shout for Shinobu.
Based on their previous behavior patterns, Shinobu and Nagisa were most likely going to play in the large yard. And I wasn’t going to get much information while they were having fun.
Shinobu had started seeing Nagisa home every time though, and he stopped by a lot of places on his way back. That of course included the Aburatori’s forest.
“It might not be a bad idea to make a visit there.”
I had been thinking all night.
If I was seeing the truth behind the Aburatori incident, then there were only two major possibilities.
One: The Kaeshigami ritual to make the Aburatori harmless ends in failure.
Two: Someone was lying.
Perhaps Hyakki Yakou’s Kaeshigami ritual would not actually make the Aburatori harmless or perhaps the Aburatori was not as cooperative as he was letting on.
Was one of those Hyakki Yakou members lying or not? Figuring that out would help a lot. I would be able to decide how to face the situation. Of course, I was only a high school student and I couldn’t read their minds from the subtle movements of their eyes or trembling of their lips like some kind of professional profiler, but if I observed them during some especially emotional moment, I might notice something a little off.
I doubted they would make any kind of mistake while working together as Hyakki Yakou. Everything there would be within their expectations and would have settled together like gelatin.
If there was any irregular element, it was the presence of young Shinobu.
Him speaking with and influencing the Aburatori had to be unexpected, even if just slightly. That solidified situation would melt and shift like liquid.
In that case, it had to be when Shinobu contacted the Aburatori or Hyakki Yakou.
Or around that time.
Before and after Shinobu showed up. Before and after Shinobu left. It wouldn’t hurt to look out for any changes in their actions or behavior then.
With that in mind, I needed to get to work.
I left the thatch-roof house and walked down the narrow farm road running between the paddy fields. I passed what looked like a fiber-optic workman’s van and a flying Ittan-Momen as I made my way to the mountain.
That Youkai stood in front of the cabin today as well.
He may have been able to leave while the Kaeshigami project was ongoing because I seemed to find him there whenever I showed up.
It was a strange feeling since the Aburatori was supposed to be elusive and impossible to catch.
“Hello, visitor. Why are you here so early?”
Someone suddenly spoke to me from behind in a perfectly casual voice.
I quickly turned around and found Majina, the young man with a monocle and dress suit who claimed to be the leader of Hyakki Yakou. He was smiling.
The Sunekosuri (female) named Ohatsu rubbed up against his shin with an exasperated sigh and Hishigami Shikimi sat in a tree branch with her pale white hair tied back like a giant flower. It had been hard to tell in the darkness the night before last, but her kimono had Hyakki Yakou’s symbol on it. She also had something like a musical instrument around her neck.
The Aburatori was one thing, but where were these three spending the nights? They felt like they didn’t live actual lives. Or rather, like they appeared from the mist and vanished into the mist.
“What does he think he’s doing? While we can’t match the technique used, the one using it clearly has no idea what he’s doing. It’s like handing an idiot a cellphone.”
“Now, now, Ohatsu-san. I like this kind of thing. It’s been so long since I’ve been able to speak with someone without having to try to read their hand and watch out for murderous intent.”
“You do know you’re about to be a father, don’t you? You need to support a family, so get rid of that pathetic smile and be a little more cautious.”
I wasn’t sure if Majina could hear me or not, but he bashfully scratched at his cheek.
“My wife is near the end of her pregnancy. To be honest, she could give birth at any time now. I’m really not ready for it, though.”
“What an awful husband. His wife is suffering and here is out on a business trip.”
“You don’t understand how scary the maternity ward is for a man, Ohatsu-san! All I can do is wait on the bench, so what am I even supposed to do!? Oh, no. Just thinking about is making my skin crawl…!”
“Honestly, the woman’s position there is ten or even a hundred times worse. Don’t start crying when all you’re doing is watch, you pathetic man.”
“I have a hard time believing you know anything about that, Shikimi-san.”
“What are you talking about? As the founder of the Hishigami line, I used to have an impressive body. It’s just that my eternal youth technique is a little too effective and I shrink on a daily basis.”
This conversation did not suit the name Hyakki Yakou in the slightest. My expression just about softened, but then it hit me.
I knew how this would turn out.
In the “present”, Hafuri was the leader of Hyakki Yakou.
If a girl of about ten had been forced up to that position, what did that mean for her father here?
They believed in blood, so if someone was forced up to a higher position, it could only mean one thing.
“Hm? What is it? You look like you’re at a funeral.”
“He’s probably shocked by how pathetic you’re acting,” said Ohatsu. “Who would ever believe you’re the leader of the great Hyakki Yakou?”
“I don’t blame him,” added Hishigami Shikimi. “The gap in expectations surprised me when I first met him as well.”
“I think it’s wrong for people to have that frightening image of us to begin with. Maybe we should change our name to Kanai Anzen or Mubyou Sokusai.”
“Everyone would assume we went soft the instant you had a kid, so don’t you dare.”
It was almost certain that this leader of Hyakki Yakou and his wife were going to die.
I didn’t know how they would die, but if it was anything too dangerous, I couldn’t assume Ohatsu and Hishigami Shikimi wouldn’t be in danger too.
Abandoning them because it was “their destiny” would have been the right thing to do.
Looking at it positively and being glad that the baby inside the wife’s belly would survive would have been the right thing to do.
But there was a possibility here.
A single statement from me could change something. Was it truly “right” to stay silent and watch them walk down that dead-end of a path?
We were selfishly interfering with history in order to defeat the Aoandon and protect Japan’s future, so I could not afford to change anyone else’s history. But who had decided that was the “right” thing to do?
I didn’t know what was “right”.
Most likely, no one knew.
“Hyakki Yakou believes in blood. My generation will eventually come to an end and the child in my wife’s belly will take over.”
Majina seemed to be staring into the distance as he spoke.
He seemed to believe he would be able to hand the baton over to Hafuri once she was fully grown.
“So I want to search out all the distortions and problems in Hyakki Yakou before that happens. I don’t want it to be some bloody organization. I want to be able to hand down a warm organization that can coexist with the paranormal without needing to bind it using fear and violence.”
This was not a name on a document.
Nor was it someone from the past who had already died, been burned to ashes, and been buried below a gravestone.
Once I looked at it that way, I couldn’t resist.
I forced out the voice that I was unsure he could even hear.
“In that case…you can’t keep doing things the way you are.”
“In the world I know, the name Majina is nowhere to be found. The leader of Hyakki Yakou is a girl of about ten named Hafuri.”
He displayed no obvious killer intent, but neither did he seem frightened or confused.
This young man named Majina simply gave a sad smile.
A single word I spoke must have told him I wasn’t joking.
The name “Hafuri” had to only exist in his head at this point.
Hishigami Shikimi spoke fiercely down from the tree.
“See? Didn’t we tell you there was an assassination plot in the works?”
“Honestly, when you take naivety this far, it almost becomes an art form. It took a visitor from the future before you actually accepted your death is coming.”
Even as the other two spoke noisily around him, Majina remained silent for a while.
Even if they were hostile to him and even if they were clearly after his life, he may still have seen the people plotting against him as being “one of his own”.
Finally, he spoke as if to shake it all off.
I had no idea how to respond.
I couldn’t even decide if I had really done the “right” thing or not.
“But you didn’t come all this way just to tell me that, did you? Why did you come here?”
Most likely, this prophecy of the fall of Hyakki Yakou’s leaders was beyond unexpected for them, but Majina, Ohatsu, and Hishigami Shikimi did not seem particularly shaken. Neither did the Aburatori.
Did that mean they really were a single group and none of them was deceiving any of the others?
“What is it?”
As I looked around in confusion, Majina spoke to me in a puzzled voice.
I could not touch or use things, so I couldn’t use a cellphone. It was very inconvenient.
And so I didn’t know what time it was.
I thought a fair amount of time had passed since I had arrived here. Nagisa would return home for lunch and Shinobu would head out at the same time, but what had happened today? Had he not visited this place for once?
Things were leaving the normal routine.
Even if it was a minor difference, it still filled my chest with unease.
I had only one point of view and I couldn’t rewind.
Had I missed some decisive moment?
“Sorry! I have to go check on something!! We can talk more later! Bye!”
My impatience grew to worry, my worry grew to fear, and my fear grew to panic.
Did I even have a body here? Did I really need to move my legs? I didn’t know, but I still ran as fast as my legs would carry me.
I didn’t see Shinobu on the way back, so I ran straight back to the thatch-roof house.
As soon as I approached, a ripple-like omen reached me.
A few Youkai were gathered in the large yard and chatting.
One was a Hitotsume-Kozou, one was a Dorotabou, and one was a Yagyou-san.
“Mh. There seems to be a commotion inside.”
“I wonder where Shinobu-chan went…”
“Hmm. I was hoping to beg for some lunch, but it looks like today might not be the best day.”
It grew and grew and grew.
The pressure inside me grew past the limit. To reduce the overwhelmingly bad feeling as much as possible, I tried to gather as much information as I could. I didn’t bother opening the front door. I stuck my head right through.
Inside, my pale-faced mom was speaking into the house’s cordless phone receiver.
The growing pressure inside me burst.
“Yes, yes, yes! As I already told you, we’ve been receiving threatening letters for a while now. Yes, and today we received a photograph of Shinobu sent from an unknown address. It asked for a bottle of Jinnai Amaterasu Dedication sake to be sent through a specified method. …What are we supposed to do? We…ahhh!!”
………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………I screwed up.
That was what I honestly thought.
I had misread the heart of the entire incident. It hadn’t had anything to do with the Zashiki Warashi, the Jinnai house, the Aburatori, or Hyakki Yakou. And I had definitely seen hints of it.
The Jinnai Brewery made Japan’s…no, the world’s highest quality Japanese sake that large criminal organizations needed for their ceremonies. And I knew they were willing to kidnap family members to get it.
They had kidnapped Shinobu.
And hadn’t the attacker the day before said he had meant to target Shinobu but had shifted to Hayabusa because of all the Youkai? Shinobu had been a target from the beginning.
But I couldn’t make a mistake here. I was here to see the truth of the “Aburatori Incident”. That meant anything else was only the trigger.
And a trigger like this did make some sense.
At the very least, the Aburatori was not someone who randomly hurt people. I didn’t know what caused it to fail, but he was still stable at this point. It hadn’t seemed right to think of him as the villain here.
But what if this trigger were pulled?
The Aburatori had even asked those experts to kill him if the alternative was him killing another child, what if he learned that the child he had tried to protect at the cost of his own life had just been kidnapped? He held the cruelest killing techniques in his hands, so what if he thought to use them to their fullest to counterattack and rescue Shinobu?
He would do it.
It did not matter if it meant the failure of the Kaeshigami that had required the miraculous combination of resisting for nearly nine years and gaining the cooperation of Hyakki Yakou.
It did not matter if that could lead to a hopeless future in which he was eliminated by Hyakki Yakou as the most dangerous of deadly Youkai.
He had been prepared to give up his life in the first place.
He had no reason to hesitate here.
But that meant…!!
“No one was deceiving anyone. Nothing failed. Was he…was the Aburatori really just a normal Youkai who wanted to rid himself of his murderous trait!?”
I didn’t know what was “right”, but I couldn’t just throw away any chance we might have by letting things continue like this.
I turned right around and ran out of the thatch-roof house.
The Youkai hiding on the farm road, in the dry paddy fields, and in the waterways were whispering to each other.
“I am a Nurikabe. Has anyone seen Shinobu-chan?”
“He was kidnapped. The human world is so scary. Even us Tengu have stopped spiriting people away.”
“Those damn villains. If I only knew where they were hiding, I’d give them a taste of the hammer of justice.”
If they were talking about it, the information had to have spread quite a bit. It was only a matter of time before it reached the Aburatori in the mountains.
When I ran to that elevated clearing, I found someone unexpected there: Nagisa with her large St. Bernard.
She was shouting more at the Aburatori who stood in front of the rotting cabin than she was at Majina or Hishigami Shikimi.
“P-please save Shinobu-chan!! We need your help!!”
She handed him a photo of young Shinobu that had likely been printed on a home printer.
“Even my dog’s nose can’t find him. I asked the other Youkai, but they said they don’t know where he is! S-so you’re the only one left. I don’t care who; I just want as many people searching for Shinobu-chan as I can get! So you help too! To save Shinobu-chan!!”
“I-I know an Aburatori is a scary Youkai. I know you mix up everything in our stomachs and eat it…”
Nagisa lay down on the underbrush covering the ground and spread her arms.
She squeezed her eyes shut and continued shouting.
“But then…you can eat everything in my stomach! I’ll do anything if you’ll help us save Shinobu-chan! So please save him!!”
Her argument didn’t really make sense.
There was no guarantee that Shinobu could be saved with the Aburatori’s help and you could hardly expect a Youkai that eats kid’s organs to keep his promise after giving him your own organs.
But this must have been the conclusion that her childish mind reached through a variety of strange connections.
He was a symbol of madness and death.
He stood in the place closest to vivid reds and blacks.
He stood at the entrance to all of the world’s darkness.
That may have been what the Aburatori looked like to Nagisa. She may have thought anyone who had fallen into the darkness had to obey the will of this gatekeeper, so she may have thought he would save Shinobu’s life from that dark abyss if she gave her own life to this Youkai.
This worst of the deadly Youkai picked up on that.
Rather than focusing on the actions themselves, he understood the human feelings that led to those actions.
“Then I will take one thing from your body.”
I thought I heard a trigger being pulled.
“I only need to take your tears. You must promise me that you will stop crying if I bring this Shinobu back.”
I felt like everything had returned to the proper rails.
This seemed to be snowballing toward the worst possible ending. Everything they had built up was coming tumbling down and failing. I knew that, but I still felt like this was “right”.
Or to put it more simply, I thought he looked cool.
“Can you promise me that?”
“Eh? Um…yes. But is that all you want? I mean…”
“I could not ask for anything more.”
I heard the sound of scraping metal.
The next thing I knew, he had a few dozen skewers spread out in his hands like fans.
“Thank you. I may not have been able to bring this to its conclusion, but I do appreciate the help you gave.”
Ohatsu the Sunekosuri (female) let out a heavy sigh.
“…Are you really going?”
“I have no real reason not to.”
It was a short answer and this time Hishigami Shikimi, the giant flower in the tree, laughed and spoke.
“Oh? Even though it means wasting your efforts of the past nine years? No matter the reason, the seal will be easily broken once you recall the flavor of killing.”
“An optimum answer that requires letting a six-year-old boy die scares me even more. I can only call that properly insane.”
Again, it was a short answer.
Finally, Hyakki Yakou Leader Majina spoke.
“I might not look it, but I am fairly upset about this. I could use Hyakki Yakou’s power to hunt them down. You do not necessarily have to use your power.”
“You will ‘eventually’ find them and defeat them ‘somewhere’. But will you make it in time for Jinnai Shinobu? I am a monster among monsters. I understand all too well how my fellow child-killers and kidnappers think. The best method of arriving in time is for me to use…no, to recall my skills.”
Majina fell silent.
Finally, he brought a hand to his forehead while leaning against a nearby tree to clear the way for the Youkai. Anguish seeped out from behind his monocle and he tore at his bangs as he forced out a low voice.
“…That’s too bad.”
“Once I recall the taste of blood, I leave the rest to you. The Kaeshigami will completely fail and there will be no other way of saving me. So please use the essence of Hyakki Yakou to kill me. Before I lay my hands on anyone.”
With his face hidden behind his large hat, the Youkai formed a ferocious grin.
He was saying farewell to this world without a single complaint.
“You said you are fairly upset about this. Well, I am downright livid.”
I heard a buzzing sound much like a monitor powering on.
Old charms appeared all over his body. They appeared on his hat, his clothes, and his skin. All of those charms formed some kind of seal, but a bluish-white phosphorescence burned through them and destroyed them. He had broken free of his limiter.
He was at full power once more.
He simply appeared, simply abducted, and simply killed.
He was an empty husk of a legend that lacked the traditions of fear.
When he used his power, he broke through the three-dimensional restrictions and vanished in an instant.
The hunter was finally on the move.
Just before the Aburatori vanished, I grabbed his shoulder.
I hadn’t had a real goal in mind. I simply felt like I needed to see all of this for myself.
Thanks to that, I successfully hitched a ride with him.
It may have been similar to teleportation.
First, the Aburatori appeared at a completely normal farm road.
“What would I do? While it is cutting edge, this is essentially an insular village society. Unlike a metropolis, there are no crowds of unfamiliar people walking around. A suspicious person wandering around and searching for someone to abduct would stand out too much. Then what method would they choose? Tire tracks…?”
Next, he appeared at an intersection and looked around.
“Scouting out the terrain, learning the target’s routine, going over the actual method of kidnapping, and a practice run. They would need to stay in the Intellectual Village for quite a while, but I doubt they would use a lodging facility like an inn. So maybe a large vehicle that doubles as transportation and lodging. What vehicle would be able to drive around the village irregularly without rousing suspicions?”
Then he stood in front of a vending machine.
“The Intellectual Village is meant to look remote, so they generally use online shopping. But it wouldn’t be a deliveryman. In rural areas, they only arrive at set times, so a truck driving around irregularly would stand out. …Then an electronics worker? An internet provider truck that performs maintenance and inspections on fiber-optic and high-speed wireless lines does not have a set route. No one would suspect them if they drove back and forth a lot. This old vending machine has been used a lot. It isn’t often you see one with soba and udon. It would have been a convenient source of food without anyone noticing.
He wasn’t so much a hound as he was a precision guided missile.
As the Aburatori grew ever closer to the answer, I could feel an ominous, heavy, sticky, and deadly aura coming from his entire body.
Something he had worked so hard to build up was being definitively corrupted.
It had not even taken ten…no, five minutes.
Not even the adults and paranormal Youkai had been able to find this kidnapper. With young Shinobu inside, an electric truck was driving around at irregular intervals to make sure no one suspected it. It was disguised as an ISP truck and the windows to the back were covered in metal plates.
A torrent of murderous intent had been radiating from the Aburatori, but as soon as he located that target, a clear directionality came over it.
That dark emotion became an invisible spear and accurately pierced through the van.
It had likely been over before it even began.
Before the Aburatori actually made his attack, the soldiers of a large criminal organization after the top quality Jinnai sake were bound like a frog being glared at by a snake.
But even so, the Aburatori kicked the van from the side.
The front half of the metal vehicle instantly tore open like a box of candy and shot out into the paddy field.
That violence was so impressive it almost felt refreshing.
The flow of time briefly seemed to stop.
The Aburatori silently glared into the van.
“Wha-…?” said someone in the back seat.
There were three assassins left and one of them had a hand on Shinobu’s shoulder. But before the flow of time could return, the Aburatori’s hands moved in a flash.
A total of over one hundred metal skewers were released from his hands and filled the cramped van. The storm of steel covered every inch of the van except for the space taken up by Shinobu’s small body.
It all happened too quickly for any screams or shouts to tear through the world.
The Aburatori rushed into the van, grabbed Shinobu’s collar, kicked open the van’s back door, and burst out like a shell.
Shinobu did not seem nervous as he was lowered onto the farm road. He did not appear to have been crying either, so it was possible he hadn’t even been aware he had been kidnapped.
That was all the Aburatori said before approaching the van (Part B) that had finally come to a stop after rolling along.
A single man groaned as he crawled out, but the Aburatori grabbed his collar and lifted him with one arm. He then slammed the man’s back against the ceiling of the van that lay on its side.
“Ubh! Cough, cough!! Gahh!!”
“Lend me your phone. I wish to speak with your boss.”
“Pant, pant. D-do you really think I’ll let you do that?”
“So you will remain loyal to the end? How old-fashioned of you.”
That monster dragged his enemy behind the van where Shinobu could not see and spoke with quiet smile poking out from below his large hat.
“By the way, do you know what it is my skewer is stabbing into? Do you know what this flabby dark red thing is?”
“My specialty is children, but I still wouldn’t recommend upsetting me too much, youngster.”
“Aaaaahhh!? Wh-what…what organ is that!?”
Removing it had not killed him.
So was it his appendix, a kidney, or a piece of the highly regenerative liver?
Whatever the case, seeing it in front of your eyes was probably enough to piss yourself.
“I understand not wanting to lose a finger, but you should look after your insides as well.”
“Now, let’s try this once more: Lend me your phone. I wish to speak with your boss. …Surely you aren’t going to be foolish enough to say you don’t know how many organs you hold inside you. If that’s the case, I don’t mind removing them one at a time to educate you.”
The Aburatori pulled a cellphone from the soldier’s pocket, opened the address book and called one of the numbers there.
His first words were blunt.
“Your men have failed.”
“Wash your hands of this before the wound grows even worse. I am a Youkai and a deadly one at that. I have no concept of lifespan. …I am watching you at all times, forever. If you try to take revenge, I will immediately bring twice the damage to you.”
“Did you think you could threaten the Comfort Association just because you don’t die? We eat violence and fear for breakfast. Just like a sushi chef can’t afford to lose to an amateur in cooking skill, we cannot afford to withdraw in our own field of expertise.”
“Is that so? To be honest, I have no interest in the quantity and quality of your paranormal experts. But can you truly trust in the power of someone else in your organization if it is your own child’s life on the line?”
“Didn’t I tell you? I am a Youkai and a deadly one at that. If you need a further hint, I am the cruelest of the cruel in the field of kidnapping and child-killing. You can hide your child overseas or on the other side of Mars if you want; I will still find them and kill them. I know some tricks to slip past the condition preventing Youkai from leaving this country. This is no different from you targeting a child to threaten Jinnai.”
“No matter how many children you make, legitimate or otherwise, and no matter how many children you adopt, I will kill every last one of them. People often say they will curse someone to the very last generation of their family line, but I will make your generation the end of your line. …Now, what will you do? Will I be removing your entire clan’s organs or will you wash your hands of this so your family can survive? Choose whichever path you like. Nothing in this world could be more frightening than being haunted by an Aburatori.”
“Don’t think you’ll ever get a moment’s rest, you damn Youkai.”
“I suppose you would have to threaten me here, but that establishes our contract. …Let me reiterate: I am always watching you. If you approach Jinnai in any way, shape, or form, I will apply my punishment. It will not be you but your adorable children who die. It only takes one mistake. Keep that in mind and live on in fear.”
The Aburatori did not bother hanging up.
He threw the phone to the ground and coldly crushed it below his heel.
That sequence of violence had been so vivid that I had been entranced.
It was perfect. Even after producing the perfect result, he stood still in the cold wind.
His body wobbled.
I immediately heard a bizarre noise.
It was like cracks running through a plastic board. The chorus of cracking continued without end and a definite but invisible change came over the Aburatori.
Once he recalled the flavor of blood, he could not go back.
Just as expected, the fall had come.
As he wobbled on his feet, he accidentally moved from behind the sliced van.
He entered Shinobu’s field of vision.
Shinobu did not understand what was going on. Not a single bit of it. So when he saw the Aburatori sweating profusely and trying to bear with the pain, he ran over.
“What is it? Are you okay? Do you have a stomachache!?”
Immediately, I felt like the Aburatori’s pulse reached my ears.
An unpleasant sound continued as the Aburatori’s teeth chattered. But this was not due to the fear of Shinobu possibly having seen the aftermath of his brutality. He was desperately trying to hold back.
He was holding back his functionality as the Aburatori.
He was holding back that system built to kill children.
He had recalled the flavor of blood and he was using his intellect and reason to desperately restrain the urge to devour his proper target.
But that must not have lasted long.
A great sound burst out.
The next thing I knew, the Aburatori was gone. Left all alone, Shinobu looked worried and the sounds of police sirens belatedly approached.
The Aburatori had finally been released.
He simply appeared, simply abducted, and simply killed.
He was the worst of the deadly Youkai who did nothing more than that.
“Oh, Tengu. Have you heard about ?”
“Just some rumors. But just hearing the name makes me feel sick. He definitely brings down the overall definition of . It’s not often you see a version that’s so specialized in killing and nothing else.”
“He’s shown up.”
“This is gonna be rough. A lot of are going to die again.”
“But it’s not like we can do anything about it. He exists as a that’s been cut free of the simple hierarchy of power.”
“The Aburatori, hm?”
Since he was six years old, Shinobu wasn’t brought to the police station in the neighboring town. Instead, the police came to the thatch-roof house.
Meanwhile, the growing group of Youkai out front was going nuts.
An Aburatori had shown up.
Lots of children were going to die again.
If you didn’t know the circumstances, that was how it would look. The Aburatori was trying to escape that situation and had saved Shinobu even though it meant throwing away his one and only chance, but no one else knew about that.
“Are you sure you’re okay, Shinobu? You don’t hurt anywhere?”
“I’m fine. I just need to drink some of the fizzy stuff.”
Shinobu waved at my mom and seemed more interested in the rumors about the Aburatori than he did in what had happened to him.
It was past evening by the time the police left, but they hadn’t been able to ask much out of concern for Shinobu.
“Rumor has it Hyakki Yakou is going to act.”
“Then I guess we don’t have to worry. They scare me, but I doubt they would fail to kill the Youkai in their crosshairs. This should all settle down if they kill the Aburatori.”
“Really, we just need to make sure we aren’t caught in the crossfire.”
“That’s true. I’d rather not get killed by the punishment meant for the Aburatori.”
Shinobu gave a troubled frown.
He tugged at my grampa’s clothes and asked a question.
“Grampa, what’s the Aburatori?”
“Hm? Nothing you need to know about.”
For once, the old man bluntly cut off all conversation, so Shinbou asked my gramma instead.
“Gramma, tell me about the Aburatori.”
“That is an extremely scary Youkai. Word has it one has been seen around here recently. You need to stay away from it.”
He looked up at the Zashiki Warashi in a red yukata.
The sexy Youkai simply shook her head with a grim look on her face.
However, this was the end of it.
The Kaeshigami plan was the only way for the Aburatori to walk down the proper path, but it had utterly failed. He was about to go on a rampage, so Hyakki Yakou’s Majina and Hishigami Shikimi would destroy him as he had asked. Nothing would remain, just as they had arranged in advance. Out of concern for Shinobu’s future, that Youkai had saved him and would vanish without ever telling anyone the truth.
…Except that couldn’t be what happened.
This was still just the trigger. I already knew the worst possible ending was coming.
When Shinobu returned to his room that day, the adults and Youkai left him alone. He had been abducted by soldiers of a large criminal organization to influence the adults, so none of them knew what was right or how to approach the situation.
However, that completely backfired.
Shinobu wasn’t the type to hole up in his room when he was in a state of shock. Of all things, he pulled a backpack from the closet and began filling it with a map, a flashlight, and other tools.
He looked like he was about to head out.
He was going to leave this safe home after everything that had happened to him.
Just like a child creating a secret base, nothing he packed seemed particularly useful.
It looked like he was packing up everything he could find, from crayons to snacks.
And one of those items was a piece of construction paper.
It was covered in scribbles from crayons and colored pencils, but it probably had great meaning to Shinobu.
There were humanoid figures drawn there. There were animal-like figures drawn there. What had long been seen as a product of a runaway imagination was drawn there. The one with black hair and red clothing may have been the Zashiki Warashi. Something was colored over with circles of black crayon, but I had no idea what it was.
The countless figures formed a circle and something was sloppily written above their heads: We’re All Friends.
That was all.
But no matter how silly and useless that was, young Shinobu may have seen it as indispensable when his life was on the line.
And my current self was no different.
I had solved quite a few Package-related incidents and I had run across some extraordinary monsters in the process. With the Aburatori and the Aoandon, they had far surpassed the realm of what humans could handle.
But even so, wasn’t this something I couldn’t afford to forget?
“I can’t stop to figure this out.”
He packed up all sorts of things that probably wouldn’t be of much use.
“I can’t sit here crying.”
He forcibly fastened the backpack’s snap.
“I have to save my Friend Youkai.”
He rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand just once.
He faced forward and spoke aloud, as if to fight back against everything that was saying such cruel things.
“The Aburatori is all alone now, so it’s my turn to save him.”
How could it have turned out like this? I thought.
I could take a pretty good guess what was going to happen now.
Before Hyakki Yakou could slay the rampaging Aburatori, restless Shinobu would run across that worst of the deadly Youkai. Something would happen there and the Zashiki Warashi would use her Ver. 39. That was how this was going to turn out.
But while the Aburatori had been foolish, he had done nothing wrong. While Hyakki Yakou had been cruel to let him go, that decision had been kind. While Shinobu knew nothing of what was happening, his decision was wiser than anyone else’s.
Yet like it all was being swallowed up by some great pit of doom, each act of good will or kindness was leading to the expected worst possible ending.
Who had been in the wrong?
Couldn’t it have all ended with the defeat of the large criminal organization? Couldn’t that have been the nice happy ending?
Shinobu put on the overfilled backpack and snuck out of his room. A small child tiptoeing around would normally have been noticed right away, but he happened to slip past everyone’s field of vision. It was almost like fate was giving him a helping hand.
It could only follow him.
I could only watch as that awful conclusion approached.
Young Shinobu ran through the orange-dyed paddy fields. He innocently believed he could save the Aburatori. I knew everything had failed, but I still wished that miracle could actually happen.
But it wouldn’t.
That kind conclusion could never, ever happen.
After all, the ending was already decided. I was only peeking at the predetermined past. This was not the present where countless options danced before my eyes or the future where everything was an unclear mass of chaos. This was the past where everything followed just the one path.
So we reached that mountain clearing filled with underbrush. The canopy of tree branches and the dark, rotting cabin came into view.
And there, young Shinobu saw it
He saw the Aburatori whose entire body was torn to pieces and whose breathing was so shallow it seemed on the verge of stopping.
His blood was closer to black than red.
Unable to stand, he had collapsed to the ground and had his back against the cabin’s wall.
He looked like a broken doll.
Shinobu could no longer form words.
He released a scream that only amounted to sound and ran straight toward the Aburatori.
I heard Hishigami Shikimi’s voice from the trees and looked up to see the giant flower of her white hair.
She was no longer empty-handed. Her hands were stuck into her kimono’s pockets and she was clearly holding something.
“What should we do, Majina!? My specialty is war, so I can’t aim quite so accurately!!”
“My, my. This isn’t good. Hold off for the time being, Shikimi-san.”
I saw a black whirlwind and then Hyakki Yakou’s leader was standing in the center of the underbrush. Like a pet-lover, he held Ohatsu the (female) Sunekosuri in his arms. The small canine Youkai had a scarf around her neck and a ribbon on her right ear.
Did that black whirlwind just gather together!? Did it turn into that (female) Sunekosuri!?
“Now, let me pass that question right along. …Aburatori, what do you intend to do?”
It was unclear just how much life that Youkai had remaining, but he seemed to hesitate for just a moment.
“I made up my mind from the beginning. I told you to take care of this, Hyakki Yakou!!”
Shinobu’s shout interrupted, but it was not directed at the Aburatori. He turned his back on that worst of the deadly Youkai and spread his arms to protect his friend from Majina and Hishigami Shikimi.
“Don’t be mean to the Aburatori!! If you’re going to hurt him, then you have to get through me first!!”
An obvious click of the tongue came from the trees.
Monocled Majina spoke bitterly while holding the (female) Sunekosuri.
But he spoke to the Youkai behind Shinobu, not to the young boy himself.
“Let me ask again: what do you wish to do?”
“The optimal answer is not always the best answer. I don’t mind if you ask for something other than death despite knowing that would be wrong.”
“How could I possibly ask for that?” spat out the Youkai while exhaling weakly below his large hat. “Even now, I am taking aim to tear into this boy’s back!! How can I let this continue!? How can I let this evil remain!? Kill me, Hyakki Yakou. Kill meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!”
Most likely, they had all been living on the very edge.
They had all been worried about someone else, put themselves second, and tried to protect something.
And in this extreme situation, Hyakki Yakou’s leader accepted someone’s wishes.
“…What are you going to do?”
“Fine, then. If that is what he truly wishes, then I will take on the thankless role.”
He may have wanted to hear a different answer.
As wrong as it would have been, he may have wanted to hear the Youkai say he wanted to live and to be happy.
But that opportunity had been lost.
So Majina gently placed his index finger on Ohatsu’s forehead. That was all it took for the small canine Youkai to turn into deep darkness. With a deafening noise, the man’s body began to vanish into the scenery once more.
But just before he did, another great noise reached my ears.
It was the sound of a Zashiki Warashi in a red yukata kicking Majina’s torso with all her might.
The blow may have been on the level of a full-speed collision from a car.
After the shockwave-like noise, the young man’s body flew into the forest. He broke through two or three fairly thick trees and the line of destruction finally came to a stop at a large tree trunk further in.
But that was not the end of the motion.
I heard a rustling sound.
The darkness vanished, the small dog reappeared, and Majina stood at the center of the destruction as if nothing had happened.
“What is the meaning of this?”
“I’m not here for you,” spat out the Zashiki Warashi.
She paid no heed to the Hyakki Yakou leader who was walking toward her.
She was focused on a single point with a branch cutter resting on her shoulder, perhaps to take the place of a machete.
“What do you want to do, Shinobu?”
“What the adults want doesn’t matter. You don’t have to think about the rules between humans and Youkai. What do you want to do right here and now?”
There may not have been a “right” answer.
It may have been that no one could come up with anything like that.
But Shinobu answered without a moment’s hesitation.
“I’ll save my friend.”
With a thin smile, the Zashiki Warashi spun around the branch cutter resting on her shoulder.
She forcefully struck the ground with the bottom to threaten everyone around her.
“If you know that, then go do it. …You’re a boy, aren’t you?”
“Okay! Let’s go, Aburatori!! Come with me!!”
Shinobu grabbed the hand of the Aburatori who looked on the verge of collapse. The two of them ran off into the woods.
Finally, the Zashiki Warashi faced Majina.
She held out the blade to form a barrier against anyone who would pursue those two.
“Now, now. To be honest, I’m thankful,” said Hyakki Yakou Leader Majina in a somehow sad tone. “After all, this conclusion is far too empty. It may be the optimal answer based on pre-established harmony, but there isn’t any salvation to it. It might be inappropriate to say this turn of events excites me, but that’s honestly how I feel.”
Majina pressed his finger against the forehead of the small canine Youkai he held in his arm.
I had a feeling I understood this.
The Sunekosuri was a Youkai that rubbed its cheek against travelers’ legs. That alone sounded harmless and adorable, but it was based on the fear something hiding in the underbrush when walking at night.
Majina had said his name was spelled with the character for “curse” and that was highly appropriate.
A Youkai was a physical manifestation of certain thoughts or feelings, but he could break them down into their original phenomena and mysteries and use them like that.
This went far beyond a Package that took dozens or hundreds of people to take advantage of just a portion of a Youkai’s traits. He alone was breaking down, analyzing, reconstructing, and reusing the entire blueprint or diagram of a Youkai…and he was doing it all perfectly.
Even the most harmless and adorable Youkai had its base ideology extracted, weaponized, and remade into a tool of war.
This was the man who ruled at the top of Hyakki Yakou.
Even if he acted like nothing special, I should have known that wouldn’t be the case!
“But there is more to this than that. I am not so irresponsible that I would leave the conclusion in someone else’s hands. I am the leader of Japan’s greatest occult organization. Or will you twist the destiny of our confrontation with the power of the Ver. 39?”
“Sorry, but neither of us is the star here. As side characters, how about we keep our dance to the corner of the stage so we don’t get in the way?”
“I have to ask. Shinobu-kun is one thing, but why are you personally so intent on saving the Aburatori? You know what will happen in a direct confrontation here, don’t you?”
“To be honest, that doesn’t matter.”
The branch cutter whistled through the wind like a spear.
“But Shinobu decided to walk with even the worst of the deadly Youkai, so I’ll believe in him. I’ll believe in the boy who immediately made the decision you could only dream of making.”
I was confronted with two different choices.
The first was of course pursuing Shinobu and the Aburatori. That was the heart of this incident and leaving them alone together was far too dangerous. Even if he didn’t want to, the Aburatori might kill Shinobu.
The second was to stay here and watch the Zashiki Warashi and Hyakki Yakou’s fight to the death. Shinobu and the Aburatori were a problem, but the Zashiki Warashi’s strange Ver. 39 power was another crucial point. Resolving this before she used it and thus saving it for use against the Aoandon’s group in the “present” was the most important part of this.
I looked all around.
I had only one point of view and I couldn’t rewind.
“Which one am I supposed to choose!?”
I ran with all my might through the eerily rustling forest.
I had ultimately chosen Shinobu and the Aburatori.
The conclusion was approaching fast. I no longer thought there was some further truth or malice hidden here. I knew that, but I still felt uneasy. If I made a single mistake and overlooked the decisive moment, this would all be for nothing.
I found them right away.
“This way! This way! I don’t really know why, but this way!!”
“Wait… Please wait!”
As Shinobu ran through the underbrush, the Aburatori gently pulled his hand from the boy’s grasp and forced out the words as if coughing up blood.
Without noticing the danger, Shinobu ran over to him.
“What is it? Do your injuries hurt!? D-don’t worry. I brought some bandaids for this!!”
“No, not that…”
The Aburatori continued speaking while his teeth chattered.
He looked disturbingly close to stabbing his prey with the skewers and pulling out the boy’s organs.
“You need to run away… You need to leave this place at once!!”
“No! I can’t leave you, Aburatori. You’re coming with me!!”
“That is not what I am talking about!!”
Shinobu’s small shoulders shook when the Youkai shouted back at him.
The Aburatori trembled at the fact that he had hurt the boy, but he could not afford to be kind anymore. He sent more filthy words out toward Shinobu.
“I…I’m saying that…I will end up killing you! Why can’t you understand something so simple!? I am not your friend. You are nothing but a convenient prey to me!! I will derive perverse pleasure from pulling out your organs, skewering them, cooking them, and removing the oil!! That is the kind of repulsive monster I am!!”
“No, you aren’t.”
“That’s why I’m telling you to run. Run from this worst of the deadly Youkai!! I simply appear, simply abduct, and simply kill! That is all I can do!!”
“That isn’t who you are! The policemen told me I was taken away by bad guys and someone saved me! So I know you aren’t a bad guy!!”
“I don’t care what anyone says. I don’t care what you say.”
“You’re my friend!! That will never change!!!!!”
He couldn’t resist any longer.
I heard the sound of the Aburatori’s back teeth cracking in his mouth and then countless metal skewers appeared in his hands.
Once they were released, Shinobu would be completely helpless.
But that never happened.
A white shadow suddenly dropped down from above.
Hishigami Shikimi used the three-pronged vajra she held to knock down the skewers like a bolt of lightning.
How exactly had she done it?
I was watching the entire time, but my understanding couldn’t keep up. A three-pronged vajra was a weapon used by Buddhist monks…or was it called a Buddhist instrument? Basically, it had sharp spikes on either end and you held it in your fist at the center. The only usable portions stuck out from the ends by her thumb and little finger, so how had she knocked down dozens of metal skewers with just that?
She let down her long white hair, let the kimono fall from her shoulders, and revealed the undershirt below. The scent of incense filled the area.
Shikimi sounded exasperated with her own actions.
“Honestly, you’re really making me act out of character here. To think a Hishigami woman would act to protect someone!!”
“Hishigami…Shikimi!?” said the Aburatori.
“Yes. Just to be clear, I’m not here to kill you. I’m well, well aware this isn’t something a battle-obsessed war specialist should be saying, but I too am sick of that sort of thing!!”
As the threat of tension vanished, the Aburatori launched dozens if not over a hundred skewers.
However, Hishigami Shikimi used (what looked like) a single swing of her arm to deflect them all on her three-pronged vajra. Not a single one made it to Shinobu behind her.
“This is no time to be holding back, Hishigami! Kill me!!”
“I can’t help it. If I went all out, I could easily destroy this entire village…not to mention this kid.” She grinned. “More importantly, I too am only a side character. I may not be used to fighting a defensive battle, but I only have to buy some time for her to arrive and persuade her foolish master.”
“She’s coming. Prepare yourself.”
As soon as the white-haired girl said that, a single figure ran between the countless trees and out from a thicket.
The Zashiki Warashi in a red yukata charged toward the Aburatori with the branch cutter at the ready.
The Aburatori already had his hands full with Hishigami Shikimi, so this completely surpassed the limits of his processing power.
He was unable to deal with the Zashiki Warashi as she charged in from the side, so she easily collided with him. They rolled along the ground together, moving away from Shinobu. They slid down the mountain slope.
“Why must you all ignore my wishes!?”
“I don’t like it, but there is one way of saving you! I just have to join forces with them!!” shouted the Zashiki Warashi at close range. “You are a Youkai that kills children and you were born into this world because the humans wanted you to do that and only that. No stabilizing method, restraints, or paranormal technique can stop you from killing children! No matter what!”
“That!! That is why I am telling you to kill me!! Before I lay a hand on that boy!!”
“But have you forgotten? Just as you’re a symbol of the perpetrator, I’m a symbol of the victim!”
They shouted at each other from point black range.
“The Zashiki Warashi is a collection of the children killed during famines. You could say I’m a concentrated symbol of the deaths of children. We are the perpetrator and victim. If the two of us are paranormally linked much like a Package, you can artificially and symbolically feel the deaths of children without end. Just like inflating a medical balloon in the stomach can make one forget their hunger, you will never feel the urge to kill!!”
With that single hope in mind, the Aburatori’s head seemed to be reeling on the ground.
“How exactly will you create that link? And do you have time!? Even if it is just a Package, you have no idea how long it will take to assemble from the ground up!!”
“Normally, yes. But have you forgotten about the extreme exception to that rule?”
“You don’t mean…”
“Majina, leader of Hyakki Yakou. He can instantly break down any Youkai to their base phenomena and mysteries. He should be able to assemble a simple Package in a matter of seconds.”
Once she said that, the Aburatori came to a complete stop.
That worst of the deadly Youkai spoke as if slowly exhaling.
“You mean…I don’t need to be killed?”
“I can rid myself of that deadly trait without being killed?”
“Technically, you won’t lose the trait. It will be caught in a harmless infinite loop.”
“You don’t need to kill anyone and no one needs to kill you,” said the Zashiki Warashi while gently loosening her grip as she pinned to the ground. “You can remain Shinobu’s friend. Just like all the other Youkai.”
The Aburatori remained silent for a while.
His mind may have gone completely blank.
“Nee-chan…” said a quiet voice.
Everything was finally settling down, so the Zashiki Warashi breathed a sigh of relief and slowly turned her head. She looked to Shinobu and gently narrowed her eyes.
“It’s okay, Shinobu. You don’t need to worry about anything. I’ll settle everything for you.”
This was the end.
It was the ultimate happy end where no one had to die.
But was it really?
Wasn’t I supposed to be seeing a failed incident in the past?
The fall began with a very, very small sound.
The Zashiki Warashi had forgotten. She had logically convinced the Aburatori, so she had completely forgotten.
His killing techniques worked on a level beyond his own will.
The instant she turned toward Shinobu while pinning the deadly Youkai to the ground, his arm moved against his own will.
A single skewer stabbed into the center of her body, as if tearing through her ample chest.
That deadly weapon would tear out one’s organs, skewer them, cook them over a fire, and remove the oil.
She looked surprised and her upper body slid to the side.
She crumpled weakly to the ground like a marionette with its strings cut.
Shinobu’s scream and my own overlapped perfectly.
The Zashiki Warashi was not a normal human. She was a collection of the children killed during famines and the like, so it was possible a skewer meant to kill a single child would not kill her. It was possible this would not entirely destroy her.
But young Shinobu did not understand Youkai or Packages, so he didn’t understand that.
I heard him crying.
He was not trying to suppress it. He opened his mouth wide and his young voice wailed like a siren. That shrill cry lingered in one’s head and was likely the last thing anyone there wanted to hear.
It sounded like an expression of unbearable despair.
I felt as if I had finally arrived at the end of this incident.
Young Shinobu, my past self, felt despair.
But not over the fear of what would happen to him. And not from the shock of seeing the Zashiki Warashi harmed. If that was enough to fill him with despair, this would have already happened when he was kidnapped by the large criminal organization.
That was not what this was.
He was not the type to cry for himself.
He believed in the Youkai Stamp. He believed all Youkai were his friends. That sloppy writing on the construction paper had said it: We’re All Friends. Until that very moment, he had not viewed any human or Youkai as higher or lower, superior or inferior to another.
But this created a definitive dividing line.
There was now a split between enemy and ally.
He found himself wanting to save the Zashiki Warashi even if it meant abandoning the Aburatori.
He found himself mentally abandoning the Aburatori, a Youkai with a personality of his own.
That despair was the true damage of this incident.
A quiet voice could be heard somewhere in the twilit mountains.
The number of voices grew like the leaves rustling in the wind. They gained enough intensity to shake the earth, as if the entire mountain were roaring.
Except this was not limited to the mountain. It covered the paddy fields, the farm roads, the thatch-roof house, and the orange sky. Just as a single cigarette butt could spark a vast forest fire, the entire landscape was filled with the explosive deluge of voices.
Did anyone there understand that every one of those voices belonged to an enraged Youkai?
“Shinobu-chan is crying!!!!!!!”
“Hold on,” muttered Hishigami Shikimi with her white hair spread out and her kimono hanging down. “You’ve gotta be kidding. …This is more than just a hundred or a thousand. Is this kid outdoing the phenomenon of Hyakki Yakou with just his crying voice!?”
It sounded like a tremor in the earth.
Even an amateur like me could tell it was a passionate mob that had completely lost sight of its rationality. Were all of those Youkai going to respond to Shinobu’s cry by baring their fangs against the source?
What would happen to the Aburatori then?
“…I get it now.”
I hadn’t reached the depths of the despair just yet. This was still only the entrance.
Young Shinobu had abandoned the Aburatori to save the Zashiki Warashi.
And when he cried out, all of his friends had shown up.
He had given all of them the Youkai Stamp, making them his Friend Youkai. They were all going to bite, rip, and tear the Aburatori to pieces.
I recalled that construction paper.
Humans and Youkai had formed a smiling circle with “We’re All Friends” written at the top.
This gruesome conclusion was the exact opposite.
There was no way six-year-old Shinobu could bear to see this. It wasn’t an issue of his body. His heart would surely break. His heart would be torn to pieces and destroyed if he saw that.
The collapsed Zashiki Warashi’s upper body moved a little.
The Aburatori’s attack may have damaged her bodily structure, but she was still trying to protect Shinobu who was about to be destroyed.
This had to be what she used her Ver. 39 to alter.
She used that single-use cheat code to protect his dream and to protect his heart.
Some bizarre static ran through my mind.
Dual images appeared before my eyes.
A voice from sometime in the past filled my mind.
The voice was forced out through a throat that had been torn to shreds. It sounded like the Aburatori’s, but it contained a wet sound, like he was coughing up blood.
Even after all that, he must not have died.
His arms and legs had been torn off, his nose and ears had been ripped away, his eyes had been crushed, his teeth and tongue had been pulled out, his organs had been dragged out, his spine and pelvis had been removed, his body had been pumped full of venom and dissolved with acid, his nerves had been scorched with flames, his blood had been boiled, and his body was scattered everywhere, yet his soul had not been freed.
“Make me…a villain…”
That was his earnest desire.
“Whether I am good or evil, I will still kill the same number of children. My moral alignment has no bearing on the actions I take. No matter what future awaits me, I will kill the exact same number. Nothing can add to or subtract from that number, so it makes no difference. I at least want to retrieve Jinnai Shinobu’s heart. I want him to think I deserved death. Then the guilt will not crush the child. He will be able to return to his normal life with a smile on his face…”
Was that why?
Was that why I had felt such a discrepancy between the cruel Aburatori I had seen in the “present” and the conflicted one I had seen in the “past”?
This was the true ending.
Nothing more was hidden. I had seen the whole of that awful ending.
That left me with no more reason to hold back.
If I was going to change history and save everyone for a happy ending, I had to do it here!
With the sound of bursting fireworks, the sense of watching everything through a thin panel of glass vanished.
This time, I truly felt as if I had taken a step into the past.
I immediately grabbed the confused Aburatori’s arm and forcibly pulled upwards.
“Stand up!! If you want to live!!”
There was no time. I chose the one remaining option available to me.
It could cause a time paradox, but I didn’t care. I directly faced myself from ten years ago.
“Hey, can you hear me? Hey, you brat!!”
“Listen. I’ll fix everything here, but next time, don’t you dare give up on someone you’ve decided is your friend. Got that?”
I didn’t have time to wait for an answer.
I could feel the low rumbling approaching. It felt like the sign of a coming natural disaster, but it wasn’t. A sea of Youkai was charging toward us, filling the entire surface of the earth. They were giving into their anger to tear apart the Aburatori that had caused Shinobu to cry.
I couldn’t let them do that.
I couldn’t let the Aburatori be killed, I couldn’t let Shinobu’s heart be destroyed, I couldn’t let the Ver. 39 be used, and I couldn’t let Shinobu’s friends dirty their hands.
So with the Aburatori’s hand in my grasp, I jumped down the mountain slope…no, I jumped off the cliff.
Even if it seemed different now, I was still in something of an out-of-body experience. My physical specs were clearly beyond those of a mere high school boy. I landed partway down the jagged slope and continued down at full speed, like I was skiing.
The sea of madness changed direction and continued toward us.
“What…what are you doing!? I cannot escape those Youkai no matter what I do. I don’t know who you are, but you are only going to get yourself caught in the frenzy!!”
“Oh, is that so!? By the way, my name is Jinnai Shinobu! Nice to meet you!!”
“Do you have a better idea of what’s happening now? I’m here from the present! No, I guess from your perspective I’m from the future!! You might not be able to escape no matter where you run, but their venomous fangs can’t reach you if you cross the barrier of time!! If you don’t die, my past self won’t fall into despair. I don’t have time to explain the details, but that will solve everything!!”
“No…no!! You can’t do that. If you throw me into an environment without the Zashiki Warashi’s traits and Majina’s skills, I will become an evil that continues its indiscriminate slaughter of children. I have already recalled the flavor of blood! I can’t stop myself!! So please leave me here!!”
“To hell with that!!”
I jumped from rock to rock sticking out of the slope to continue downward. I felt like a snowboarder being pursued by an avalanche. If I slowed down, that torrent of death would swallow me up.
Was this still not enough?
Once I changed history, I was supposed to be automatically returned to the present!
“I’ve been watching everything you did! I know you don’t actually see any value in death!! So I don’t want to hear you bitching now!! I’m sick of that!!”
“Arguing from a position of emotion is easy, but if you release me in your era, you will undoubtedly regret it. Can you really bear the burden of hundreds and thousands of children’s deaths!?”
“What I’m saying is that I won’t let you kill anyone!!”
“How exactly will you do that!?”
“The Kaeshigami that Hyakki Yakou was talking about!!”
We shouted back and forth while sliding down the slope.
“If you can keep from killing anyone for nine years, you lose your killing trait and become a Kaeshigami, right? Just like the vengeful spirit that nearly destroyed Kyoto was worshiped as a god, you can become a harmless Youkai!!”
“I told you I’d recalled the flavor of blood, didn’t I!? I’ve already broken free of my limiter. I can’t hold back for even a day!!”
“You don’t have to hold back.”
“Didn’t I tell you I’m from the future? But unfortunately, my time travel technique only works on just the one person. If I try to carry anyone or anything back with me, they or it won’t be protected from the flow of time. Simply put, they’ll directly experience the amount of time I’m traveling through. You get what I’m saying now, don’t you? If I jump ten years into the future while holding onto you, you’ll be forced to experience ten years’ worth of time in an instant! So!! You don’t have to hold back!!”
“It’s true you might be a Youkai created from people’s desire for a monster that would get rid of their eyesores of children,” I said while pursued by the avalanche of death and carnage. “But doesn’t that also mean you’re absorbing the anger and hatred of those foolish parents?”
“You were created by gathering up all of those negative emotions. So if you weren’t here, where would those feelings be directed? Wouldn’t they be sent toward those parents’ children in the form of abuse?”
In other words…
“If you could evolve into something that could endlessly absorb parents’ hatred yet control it without going on a rampage of your own, wouldn’t that make you a guardian deity of children? You’d just be absorbing parents’ desire to abuse their children. You’d be calming those feelings before the abuse actually happened.”
A Kaeshigami was something feared by everyone but revered as necessary by everyone.
“In my time, there’s a monster called the Aoandon.”
I recalled the essence of that ultimate enemy.
“She’s a Youkai artificially created from an intentionally twisted version of the Hyakumonogatari. We were unwittingly a part of that plan by being made to kill each other in a place called Zenmetsu Village. Ha ha. Now that I think about it, she’s kind of like our child. I didn’t realize it until I saw that construction paper ten years in the past here.”
I couldn’t laugh at anyone.
Not even at those selfish adults whose negative thoughts had formed the Aburatori.
I would redo it all here. I would take it all back.
I would save him and work with him!
“Could you lend me a hand? It would take a great power to defeat the Aoandon, but it would take an even greater power to save her. Please help me save my child. And to do that, please become a Kaeshigami that protects the children. You’re the only one I can ask, so will you do this?”
The Aburatori reflected on my words for a while.
Without worrying about the horde of Youkai approaching to take his life, the Youkai pondered the meaning of the words directed his way.
“Very well. I have no reason to turn down your suggestion!!”
This time, we held our hands even more tightly.
Immediately afterwards, the sound of bursting fireworks surrounded us.
After an especially loud noise, our bodies vanished from the past.
In the Gap Between Timelines 2
Did the concepts of time and space even exist here?
I didn’t know the details, but I could perceive myself and the Aburatori as distinct individuals.
It was strange to have “time” to think while traveling through time, but that blessed the two of us with a chance to share our information.
“This Aoandon sounds like quite the unusual Youkai. To be honest, I do not think my power alone will be enough.”
“Agreed. She brings together one hundred ghost stories and can extract the individual parts to create brand new ghost stories. We can never defeat her in number of paranormal powers. A normal Youkai with just the one paranormal power wouldn’t stand a chance.”
“But the Aoandon herself can’t use that power to its fullest. She has someone with her for paranormal support, so she probably has something like a Package embedded inside her. If that’s removed, she’ll lose control of her power. Simply put, she’ll return to being a normal Youkai like all the others in the Youkai encyclopedias.”
“The core embedded inside the body of a Youkai…of your child.”
“With a Youkai that removes children’s organs, we might have a chance. Of course, we’ll only have the one chance.”
I was probably the only one that knew why the Aoandon was so crazy. It was possible not even the Aoandon herself knew.
She had been born during the madness at Zenmetsu Village.
Just like the Aburatori was a collection of the feelings of parents who disliked their children, the Aoandon had been born by absorbing all of the gruesome madness the people at Zenmetsu Village had caused.
She had apparently been released into the outside world afterwards, but that had not changed the “directionality” given to her by her birth.
She could freely search through sea of data, but she would naturally gather only the dark and the grotesque.
She had seen only the negative and hopeless aspects of this country.
She had absorbed all that and transformed into something with an even more solidified existence.
It was most likely my responsibility for not letting her see anything that made her not want to destroy this country. We had all been desperate to survive at Zenmetsu Village and we had repeated that hellish scenario dozens or even hundreds of times. That was a mistake on my part.
A failure of a parent had created a monster.
So I alone could not abandon her.
I didn’t have the power to save the world or to save the country. I might not even have had the power to save the village. But whether a parent saved their child wasn’t determined by their power.
“If you traveled into the past, will we return at the exact moment the time travel was activated?”
“No, that was after everything was over. It felt like we had already used all of the methods we hadn’t wanted to use. So it would be best to return a little before that. I don’t know if it will work or not, but I know what moment I want to return to…”
“What do you mean?”
“When do you think the enemy will have their guard down the most?” I asked back. “I think it’s when they’ve used their greatest trump card and allowed the thread of tension to go slack. They might just be in a good enough mood to lower their guard. If we aim for that moment and break through the wall of time for a surprise attack…”
“We can reach the Aoandon?”
“We have to start with the first step. If we don’t pull this off, the rest isn’t going to work.”
And this method would mean we could avoid using up the Ver. 39 which could only be used once. Her power was hers. It wasn’t to be used for humans by humans.
I wouldn’t let this end just by obeying Hyakki Yakou. I wouldn’t let the Zashiki Warashi be used as a tool.
So I would settle this my way. I would take responsibility.
I’ve seen everything, Aoandon.
I might only have an empty argument from emotion and it might not change my physical strength any, but I’ve remembered the most important thing.
So now it’s your turn.
Wait for me, baby.
I’m going to scold you, discipline you, and then save you.
- Kanai Anzen = Household Safety. Mubyou Sokusai = Good Health.
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