The Zashiki Warashi of Intellectual Village:Volume8 Chapter 3
Chapter 3: Entrance to the Gaping Abyss that Looks Up toward Heaven by Hishigami Mai
A V-shaped flying wing owned by Hyakki Yakou flew three thousand meters above Bozen City.
I twisted my hips and gently spun my arms to see how I was doing.
Yeah, it tugs at the skin a little.
I was wearing a Yozakura Ver. 3 made by Hishigami Biochemical Industries, with some of my own custom modifications made. There are nursing suits woven with flexible tape meant to extend one’s back muscles, right? This used the same tech, but it covered me from shoulders to groin with a skintight material much like bike shorts. It also had collar and apron-like parts attached to make it look kunoichi-esque. It was mostly black and beige, but it also had some purple flower petals for decoration. It also partially covered my elbows and knees. …Oh, and as a matter of taste rather than practicality, I had torn off the sickening Hishigami crest over my right breast.
It provided no defense and was even more excessively decorative than bikini armor.
But in my case, it was highly effective. After all, I had modified the human body below it, so I didn’t need a solid defense that could deflect external attacks. I needed some strengthening to prevent me from destroying my own joints when I went all out.
Why had I arranged to have this newly made? There were two major reasons.
First, this job was not about infiltration or spying, so I didn’t have to pretend to be a civilian.
“If Majina’s group is involved, Hishigami Shikimi will be there.”
Hishigami Shikimi was the founder of the Hishigami line.
That woman had truly lived for more than a thousand years and yet was still active.
Her anti-aging techniques were so effective that her physical body apparently grew younger as the years past.
I had lost to her once and she had easily swept me aside. But unfortunately, this field didn’t allow me to just say no because I was no match for her.
If I didn’t have a method to kill her, I had to find a new method. That was what a professional did.
The small canine Youkai rubbing his cheek against my leg hesitantly spoke up.
“I-is Majina-sama, um, really connected to this incident?”
“Most likely. And even if he isn’t, we still need to break in and resolve it as quickly as possible.”
The people caught in Bozen City’s zombie panic may have been hoping for someone – anyone – to show up and save them. Whether it was the police or the military, they wanted someone to bring an end to the city’s insanity.
But that wouldn’t work and there was a simple reason why.
“After all, the zombie panic may have started in Bozen City, but it has spread to thirteen different cities in five regions. Once it reaches a certain point, they won’t be able to seal the cities off anymore and the panic will cover all of Japan. Hyakki Yakou isn’t stupid. Normally, the Top 5 would have detected this and put together a countermeasure before it progressed this far. Since they were so late, the odds are good someone with a deep knowledge of Hyakki Yakou’s methods planned it out.”
“And Bozen City…is at the center of it all?”
“Everyone was slow to catch on, so the police, the JSDF, and even our field were late to react. The cup of water is already about to overflow. But if we stop things here, it’ll all be over. I’m sure that’s accurate, but it seems too blatant. They’re probably confident they can handle an infiltration by the young lady and her Hyakki Yakou.”
When it came down to pure firepower, the current Hyakki Yakou was the greatest force in the nation.
They had plenty of ways to wipe an entire city from the map and the Top 5 could each sink a continent if they went all out.
But the real problem was Hishigami Shikimi.
Just like me – if not more than me – she was the worst of the Hishigami Women.
Her raison d'être was to destroy stable organizations and societal systems, so Hyakki Yakou would be the ultimate bait.
If she was caught in a giant explosion, she would undoubtedly fake her death and make a comeback.
Sending in the Top 5 with their ridiculous firepower would let her manipulate them and lead them toward self-destruction.
Not to mention that Hyakki Yakou was caught between father and daughter at the moment. They didn’t know which one to follow, so they would definitely collapse if they tried a traditional attack.
And if I could figure that out, then Hishigami Shikimi’s mind had to be filled with far, farrrr more gruesome methods.
“Why would Majina-sama do this? What is he thinking?”
“Who knows. He hid in the shadows of history for a decade, let those idiots live while thinking they’d assassinated him, and couldn’t even take revenge for the attempt on his wife’s life. Who knows how much that boiled his heart. He said something about taking Hyakki Yakou from the young lady, but what does that have to do with this zombie panic? I’m not even sure why he started wanting Hyakki Yakou again after all this time. But…”
“I’m not some middle school girl fidgeting in unrequited love. If I want to know how he feels, I just have to find him and ask him.”
I made it sound simple.
I had to do the same thing no matter who my enemy was. If I started thinking about some special way of dealing with that special enemy, I had already been swallowed up by them. Never wavering no matter what was one form of strength.
“First, I’ll defeat Hishigami Shikimi as a fellow Hishigami Woman.” My voice was nearly singing. “We can send in the Top 5 once that tricky woman has been defeated. After that, normal firepower can do the talking. We’ll have better odds of pushing Majina’s group back with pure numbers too.”
That said, the Hyakki Yakou Special-Made Ver. 40 Zashiki Warashi that had appeared at the end was a complete unknown.
“Th-then you know where Majina-sama’s group is hiding?”
“Mt. Boseki, one of the mountains bordering Bozen City. More specifically, in the network of tunnels filling that dormant volcano like a labyrinth. Aka Mikuchi-sama.”
My preparations were complete.
To make our final greeting, the Sunekosuri and I walked through the traditional Japanese-style interior of the plane to meet the young lady who led Hyakki Yakou.
The scent of incense filled the room where a small girl in thick mourning clothes sat. A canine Youkai even smaller than the Sunekosuri (only about five centimeters) sat across from her.
Or rather, it was chowing down on a small plate of chicken.
“So good!! I can’t get enough of your chicken, Hafuri-sama! Munch, munch!!”
“Heh heh. The chicken isn’t going to run away. And there’s plenty more, so slow down and savor it.”
The Sunekosuri’s fur bristled at the sight.
“Waaahh!! G-Gisuke!? How can you be so rude in front of Hafuri-sama!?”
“Oh, dad. Hafuri-sama is an expert cook! Munch, munch! You’ll understand if you try some! I set some aside for you here! Munch, munch!!”
“Don’t talk with your mouth full. …And I’m so sorry, Hafuri-sama! I’ll have him move elsewhere, so please forgive him!!”
“I don’t mind. I enjoy it more when he can relax.”
“Oh, Hafuri-sama, I want to rub up against you now!”
“Yes, yes. Let me move my legs over. Come here, Gisuke.”
She may have disliked the way all of her bodyguards would pat her head. She seemed to be letting off some steam no that she had found someone she could act like an older sister to.
Hmm! She’s so damn cute!! If I had the time, I’d pat her head like crazy!!!! (←Vicious circle)
The room may have seemed extremely calming, but there was actually something horribly off about it.
There was a two meter or more family crest of pure gold directly behind the young lady. Normally, it would have been worth hundreds of millions of yen.
But it had been sliced in two by a sword.
Hyakki Yakou believed in blood. Majina was the pure-blooded father and Hafuri was the half-blooded daughter. If the two came into conflict, it was obvious who most of the organization would side with.
Or it should have been.
But the young lady had changed things. She had raised the paranormal sword prepared by one of the Top 5 and she had sliced that symbol of Hyakki Yakou in front of everyone.
“Not even I was aware of my mixed blood. I had no intention of hiding it.”
With those words, she had turned the unbelievably sharp blade around, grabbed the tip, and held the hilt out towards the others.
The slightest of tugs on the blade and she would have lost all of her fingers.
“If anyone does not wish to continue serving someone of impure blood, then slice me in half and store me in your household shrine. Just like this family crest. If that will maintain order in this small field and if it will prevent any further conflict with Majina’s group, then I do not mind in the slightest.”
If she had simply held up her blood or family name, she would not have been able to restrain the chaos. Hyakki Yakou would have broken apart and descended into chaos just as Majina had wanted.
But that had not happened.
It may have been that the battle with the Aoandon had given her the edge she needed to not simply rely on others.
So the symbol worn by everyone here was now incomplete, like the crescent moon.
They had sworn to bear the complete family crest only once Majina’s group had been fully defeated.
That said, it wasn’t a perfect resolution. The many followers of the giant organization were watching carefully. If the young lady made any kind of mistake and failed to achieve results, she would be deemed unfit to lead and they would all join Majina. They would shift that way like a great avalanche.
That meant she needed to brace herself now.
“I see you’re ready to go.”
“More or less.”
My target was the great hole known as Mikuchi-sama in the depths of Bozen City’s Mt. Boseki. Breaking through the zombie-ridden city and making my way to the mountain would have been difficult, but as I’d said, we were on the flying wing.
Why bother with all that other stuff when I could strap on a parachute and jump straight down to the great hole on the mountain peak?
It was apparently located near an unnatural dog square.
“Allow me to go back over our objective. We are hiring you to resolve the issue in Bozen City that has caused the zombie panic spreading to other regions as well. We also wish to eliminate Majina’s group that we expect is closely related to all this. You will be the first wave and your top priority should be defeating Hishigami Shikimi.”
“Majina claims to be the true leader of Hyakki Yakou and he intends to hijack the organization we have built. What that has to do with this zombie panic is still a mystery, but if this situation continues, it will do catastrophic damage to the nation of Japan. Please resolve this quickly, before that can happen.”
“I’ll do anything if you’re willing to pay for it.”
The parachute down was of course a one-way ticket. If I screwed up, they wouldn’t be retrieving me. The mountain was surrounded by zombies and there were no blind spots in any direction. In fact, if the number of zombies continued growing at an accelerated rate, they would cover the entirety of Japan, so “running away” quickly lost all meaning.
Even so, I left the young lady’s room and walked to the cargo room with its decompression equipment.
It wasn’t that I was filled with righteousness or revenge.
It was simply that I risked my life on my jobs more often than not.
The zombie panic may have looked like the end of the world to some, but it only looked a little more exciting than a normal day for me.
The Sunekosuri had fallen silent at my feet, but he wasn’t simply afraid of the zombies down below.
“What is it? Thinking of your estranged wife?”
“I had always assumed Ohatsu had been dragged into the darkness of this small field. That’s why I charged head-first into it in order to find her when she suddenly disappeared,” intermittently explained the Sunekosuri. “But she herself was a great darkness. She worked with Majina-sama, became the deepest portion of Hyakki Yakou, and now had a hand in this evil! My goal is no longer to rescue my wife. Even if it means sacrificing myself!!”
I stepped lightly on the stuffed animal Youkai and he gave a cute “bgyuh!!” cry just as he put on a serious expression.
Yes, yes. That’s the Sunekosuri I know.
“You’re a harmless Youkai, so stop trying to act like the grim reaper. Making people pay for their crimes is the young lady’s job. We’re just her arms and legs, so we don’t need to worry about it.”
“But she is my family!! That means I have to take responsibility!!”
“Do you put your personal feelings ahead of your work? The young lady hired me to swiftly end this zombie panic. To be blunt, I’m not about to bring along someone dulled by personal feelings. It’ll get in the way of our work.”
“And on the other hand, how about I use personal feelings to motivate you? Why do you think your son Gisuke-chan has been hanging around the young lady so much?”
“Hm? Because Hafuri-sama is showing unwarranted kindness by looking after him?”
“No. Because he’s stopping by every day, begging her to save his mom.”
The young lady would have to face her own parents too. If only she would be so cutely honest, I might feel a little more motivated. Was she insistent on wearing those depressing mourning clothes because she was stubbornly insisting that the mourning period was not over until the ghosts had vanished? Then again, it was also cute how she was desperately trying to hold all that in.
It wasn’t my job to transform that “kind noise” into power. I always dealt with the dirty jobs. I had to dryly, digitally, and assuredly resolve this problem.
It was already pitch black outside.
The pure white snow covering the ground made it difficult to tell how far away it was.
Plus, the geothermal power plant on the slope stood out far more than the winding road or the mountain peak. It was small, so it may have been an experiment in the environmental energy and smart power systems that were all the rage lately. I could feel my eyes being drawn to it which would probably make me miss my target.
Breaking your legs right off the bat was about as stupid as it could get, but it was a pretty common problem on battlefields. I carefully landed on the snow with the Sunekosuri in my arms.
The Yozakura strengthened my joints, but it provided no defense against the cold. If not for my bodily modifications, the cold would have been unbearable.
Bozen City apparently followed an old tradition of height equaling social status, but that made the peak a strange place for this strange dog square.
I cut away the parachute, lowered the Sunekosuri to my feet, and asked a question.
“Now then, Sunekosuri. Based on Hyakki Yakou’s analysis of a few zombies, this zombie panic has a lot to do with a Youkai known as the Kasha. So what is a Kasha?”
“Um, isn’t it a cat Youkai surrounded by fire? I think it creates a gust of wind that blows open a coffin and steals sinners’ corpses from the funeral or grave to eat their organs or something.”
“Yes, that’s one legend, but that one only started in the Edo period. In the oldest legends, it’s a burning chariot in Buddhism. It’s said to be a type of Oni that carries the dead down to the depths of the earth.”
“Huh? But I kind of think there were other legends too.”
“Well, the Kasha has gotten mixed together with the Bakeneko as time has passed. Some stories say corpses begin to move when the Kasha approaches, but you can think of that as a mixture with the Bakeneko’s stories. The trait is still just as effective, though.”
Now, which image of the Kasha was Majina using? He had apparently rearranged a Sunekosuri named Ohatsu into an “original darkness” and used her for both offense and defense, so he could easily use the image from any era. He could probably swap out the Youkai’s powers and traits by the era as easily as switching a bicycle’s gears.
“Does that mean the zombie panic comes from the sinner’s corpses?”
“Well, there are a few different theories as to how the Kasha steals the corpses. Sometimes the Youkai directly carries them away and sometimes the corpses move on their own when it approaches.”
“The latter sounds exactly like a zombie.”
“But there weren’t any legends about it spreading from corpse to corpse.”
“Then did he change something there?”
“Also, the Kasha doesn’t control just any corpse. It has to be a sinner’s corpse. …But what is a sin? This is focused on Bozen City, Mt. Boseki, and Mikuchi-sama, so that question has to be related to the rules here. I want to investigate that.”
“What do you need for that?”
“The dog square at the peak. Those buildings seem to be guarding the Mikuchi-sama pit, so they smell fishy to me.”
The wind seemed to cut through the dark night as we trudged through the still snow, crossed the broken fence, and approached the small cluster of one-story buildings.
I saw no sign of human guards, sensors, or traps.
I smashed the lock, walked in, and found a large empty space. There was no heater or lights. I thought for a bit before turning on a penlight and looking around.
“Was this a stable?”
The inside was clean. There were no dog droppings or even any shed fur. It didn’t even smell of animals. It was simply a large concrete structure with rows of chains and latches meant for holding animals.
The Sunekosuri followed the path of the penlight and read off the name plates above the cells.
“Jirou, Hanako, Honoka, Hitomi, Taichi… Hmm, they sound more like cow names than dog names.”
I lowered the penlight to the floor where I found some glittering silver metal.
“But I doubt they would put handcuffs on a cow.”
At first, the Sunekosuri did not move in the slightest.
Finally, he started to tremble and then looked around again.
“Wait…please wait! Then…you mean…this place was holding…”
“Humans!? All of those nameplates were for humans!?”
Where had they gotten those humans from?
The entire dog square facility was deserted.
I checked inside the residence for workers, but it was covered in dust and clearly didn’t have anyone living in it. However, I did find a few interesting documents inside the rooms that had lost their owner’s scent.
“Looks like this was officially a shrine, not a dog square. The workers were viewed as Shinto priests. The place was registered as a religious organization and even received grant money every year.”
“A shrine? What kind of god did they worship?”
“Mikuchi-sama, of course.”
I tapped at the bundle of old Japanese paper.
“This mountain is actually a dormant volcano and there’s a huge pit below the peak. Long ago, there was a famine and the city at the base was littered with corpses, but they apparently managed to prevent the spread of disease by throwing the corpses into the hole.”
“And they eventually started worshiping the hole as a god?”
“It’s a little unclear whether the hole itself is the god or if they’re worshiping the dead they threw in so they wouldn’t hold a grudge. But things got weird as time passed. They apparently started throwing the badly injured, living criminals, and political enemies into the hole.”
“So anyone who disturbed society, tripped them up, got in the way, or were just too much trouble ended up in that category?”
“They were selfishly referred to as sinners.”
That established a link to the Kasha incident.
The Kasha stole sinners’ corpses or made them move when it got close. That was all it originally did, but Mikuchi-sama rules branded any corpses or injured people as sinners. In other words, if you were critically wounded in a zombie attack, you would be infected with the “sinner” label.
“I still don’t believe it. And what about that stable? If they had a cycle built up to throw the village’s rejects into the hole, they wouldn’t need to capture them and raise them, would they?”
The Sunekosuri did not seem particularly angry. He simply sounded sick of how the human mind came up with these ideas.
However, it may have been a truly strange vision for the four-legged Youkai.
“It’s not that unusual. Sunekosuri, are you familiar with the sacrificial process?”
“I don’t like the sound of that.”
“There are sacrificial ceremonies all across the world, but they tend to follow a few similar steps.”
I raised my fingers with the penlight hand.
“The original deaths are generally coincidental. Someone collapses during a drought and then it rains, so people start to think there’s a connection between the dead and the rain.”
“But next time, they try to recreate it. They check to see if killing someone makes it rain. If another coincidence occurs, there’s no stopping it. Once it’s deemed cause and effect, they’ll end up killing people as offerings on a yearly or monthly basis.”
“Are you saying that has something to do with this Mikuchi-sama?”
“This is a sacrifice too. Since they threw the corpses in to prevent the spread of disease, they could think disease will never happen if they keep throwing corpses in. It could even reach the point that they think the hole itself will spew out disease if they stop doing it. That kind of misunderstanding was pretty common in the days before knowledge of germs. Who they throw in can end up expanding because they can’t find any corpses and they have to choose sinners from the living humans instead.”
“Then those people in the stable…”
“Once the sacrificial ceremony is established, the people will think they need a sacrifice, but they won’t want to be chosen themselves. Since they can’t ignore the ceremony, they start viewing the sacrifices as something special. They’ll say the more noble the person, the more the god will be pleased. That way they can push the role onto someone other than themselves. They’ll create a system that raises sacrifices cut off from the normal world. They don’t have to know about them and can smoothly offer up complete strangers without feeling anything for them.”
“When that desire to not be chosen continues further, they end up making dolls out of paper, wood, wheat, or corn, but it looks like Mikuchi-sama never made it that far. They raised people in the dog square and offered them up when needed. Since it came from a desire to not be chosen, they might have focused on capturing travelers.”
After some more searching, we found something odd in the pet food processing building.
It had a tiled floor, a stainless steel work table, and a bunch of spinning blades in one place (much like a sawmill’s circular saw or band saw) for what may have been a mixer or disposer. It wasn’t exactly pleasant imagining what had been carried by the gears and conveyer belt to be disposed of, but the problem lay beyond it.
Behind a thick metal door, I found a stairway leading into the darkness underground. A thick shimenawa was hung over the top of the entrance and the stench of dirt rose from within.
And to top it all off was the family crest of Hyakki Yakou…no, of the young lady’s bloodline.
It was thirty centimeters across and about eight centimeters thick. It was made of pure gold and hanging from the center of the shimenawa.
“Ohatsu,” muttered the Sunekosuri. “Ohatsu had a hand in something like this while working with Majina-sama?”
“Who can say?”
I neither confirmed nor denied that uncertain fact, but I did speculate based on what I had seen.
“But Majina’s group may not have been running this facility.”
“There was no human smell in that stable and the residence was covered in a fair bit of dust. The magazines and calendars sitting around didn’t have dates more recent than about ten years ago. Now, what happened then?”
“Jinnai Shinobu interfered with Majina-sama’s group in the past?”
“I don’t know if it was for the Kasha, to use Mikuchi-sama, or just because they wanted a hideout. It’s true they set their sights on this place, but based on the old dates, there’s a possibility they took over the dog square and drove out the original owners.”
“B-but you’re just guessing, right?”
“Then how about an interesting piece of information to back that up? Sunekosuri, based on the documents, this place was managed by someone named Sudou Taichi. Does that sound familiar?”
“I’m pretty sure one of the nameplates in the stable said Taichi.”
Someone had pretended to be a Shinto priest while abducting people and raising them like animals. What kind of revenge had the head of Japan’s greatest occult organization taken on them?
People on the underside of society loved that kind of thing, so it had probably been quite thorough.
“Th-then Mikuchi-sama was cleaned up once Majina-sama arrived?”
“At the very least, the sacrificial process may have advanced to the era of paper and wheat dolls instead of human sacrifices,” I agreed. “But make no mistake. Advancing the sacrificial process means the ceremony has been refined just as much. And after ten years of that, it led to a zombie panic spreading across Japan. Cleaned up? That’s exactly right. The imperfect threat was perfected into a stable weapon.”
What lay ahead was a darkness much deeper than the dog square.
If this was enough to shock him, then the rest would squeeze at his heart.
Are you ready, Sunekosuri?
We’re about to visit a true hell. If you still wish for salvation, then you can’t just cling to the truth. You need to have the guts to grab your wife’s hand and pull her out of this muddy truth.
The wind roared.
The giant pit seemed to continue forever. It was over twenty meters wide and I didn’t want to think about how deep it was. The dirt and stone had been dug into to construct buildings and complex passageways all around the hole. Overall, it looked like a bunch of rundown shacks in a slum with wooden and bamboo scaffolding connecting them like narrow bridges.
They must have had no intention of hiding it because the thousand-year-old Hyakki Yakou emblem was burned into the wood all over.
Mikuchi-sama was filled with orange light. There were bare lightbulbs as well as candles and hanging lanterns. The lanterns used a wick soaked in a plate of oil rather than a candle.
As we descended, we generally circled around the large hole. It felt like walking along a coil or a spring.
“This is where Majina-sama’s group was?”
“You could call it their hideout, their secret base, or their zombie laboratory.”
There were damp spots here and there, but that may have been due to a nearby water vein or spring.
In addition to the shacks and scaffolding, there was a lot of digging equipment. This ranged from handheld equipment like shovels, pickaxes, and hammers to heavy machinery like a bulldozer and a power shovel. Wooden boxes were casually stuffed full of cylinders that probably had explosives inside.
They didn’t seem to have many subordinates, so had Majina and Shikimi tied a headband around their forehead and dug out the cave themselves? It sounded like everyone had it rough.
“But when creating a secret base, how you dispose of the dirt you’ve dug out is the trickiest part. They did that and lived here for ten years without the slightest whisper reaching the outside world, so they really are monsters. I can’t believe it.”
The shacks had been given more and more rooms like a reckless stack of containers. I peeked inside one and saw a tatami mat room beyond wooden bars crisscrossing horizontally and vertically.
“Is that a cell?”
I grabbed a voice recorder hanging on the scaffolding’s bamboo railing. It was as blatant as everything else. I hit the play button with my thumb and heard Majina’s voice beyond some static.
“Every time I see them, the relics of our supposed ‘glory days’ make me sick. But I can never regain the lost methods to develop a Zashiki Warashi without following in their footsteps.”
I listened while walking along and came across a slightly smaller cell. Further along, I found an even smaller one. As I kept walking, I found more and more, each smaller than the last.
“If they stripped a Zashiki Warashi bare and had their way with her in the name of research, then they were, without a doubt, monsters. But in their own monstrous way, they would be treating the Youkai the same as us through their lust. But what they did was different. In a way, they were far more awful than mere monsters.”
“W-wait a second,” said the Sunekosuri with fear in his voice. “What is this…!?”
The box in front of us was large enough to hold in your arms. If I were to climb inside, I would have to squeeze inside while holding my knees in my arms. Shrinking it any further could easily break all of the bones in one’s body and leave only a lump of flesh behind.
It went further…
“They did not even view Youkai as beings with a body and mind of their own. They viewed them as mere phenomena that happened to speak the same language as us and act on the same thoughts as us.”
The next box was downright tiny.
Each side was at most thirty centimeters across. It would be perfect for holding a birthday present.
“What they did was simple. They prepared a cell to rob the Youkai of their freedom. Next, they moved them to cages that gradually restricted their ability to live their lives. They could not eat, they could not sleep, they could barely walk around, they had no way of knowing the time, and eventually it was too small to fit inside. By letting them gradually grow accustomed to each step along the way, the Youkai would lose their body and mind. They would return to being a mere phenomenon.”
“What was…inside this?”
The Sunekosuri gulped as he asked.
There was only one Zashiki Warashi that Hyakki Yakou had done anything to.
The surface of the box had a number blotted out with ink and “Ver. 40” was written next to it.
“But…this is…but!? How much would a humanoid Youkai have to lose their humanoid form to fit inside this thirty centimeter box!?”
This was a museum of the truth behind the “glory days” of Hyakki Yakou several centuries ago. Majina had recreated it using immense amounts of data and his own definite skill.
But unlike a Western wax figure museum with a torture theme, this was not an accurate model meant to point out the mistakes of the past and warn the present.
“Yes, and what makes me sick most of all,” spat out the voice, “is that I’m so worthless that I need something like this.”
“He’s even more insane than I thought,” I summed up while stopping the voice recorder.
Leaving all the documents out in the open both here and in the dog square up above had not been carelessness. It had likely been an attempt to confess. But rather than tell someone, he had found meaning in letting it out of his heart in some way or another. It may have been a lot like the story of King Midas and the donkey’s ears.
“Basically, he made a wax figure torture museum, made his own personal customizations, and then threw his wife, that white Zashiki Warashi, into it. And that created the Ver. 40 that surpasses the Ver. 39. Maybe it’s like sitting around on a sofa made of human skin.”
“Wh-what was Majina-sama trying to do?”
“That I can’t tell you yet.”
For ten years, Majina and Mei had watched the world continue under the assumption they were dead. Who could say how much that had broken them?
I couldn’t tell what they wanted from the Ver. 40 or the zombie panic.
I couldn’t see any direct connection to his apparent goal of taking Hyakki Yakou from the young lady.
“He supposedly has a Zashiki Warashi that can construct a brand new destiny from nothing rather than change the existing destiny. If he has that, then he wouldn’t need to bother with all this. He could directly mess with the world to make himself Hyakki Yakou’s leader.”
“Th-then is the Ver. 40…um, Mei-san not complete yet?”
“Do you really think Majina would be that inept?”
Hyakki Yakou Special-Made Ver. 40 Zashiki Warashi was complete. He could use it at any time and he had no reason to hesitate. Nevertheless, they never used that power to put us in checkmate.
“No, that isn’t it.”
“Maybe he’s already using it. And for something that makes his return to Hyakki Yakou a secondary concern in comparison.”
The Sunekosuri trailed off because someone appeared from behind one of the complex shacks as if dragging their heavy bodies along.
There were two of them and they had huge chunks torn out of their shoulders, sides, and thighs.
The Sunekosuri shrieked, but not because these were zombies.
Every zombie had been a human at first.
But the identity of these two zombies was a surprise.
“Uchimaku Hayabusa and Hishigami Enbi…? But, eh? But…it can’t be…!?”
“Did they sniff out this incident like normal but were knocked out of the running? Honestly, there’s no saving them when they take it this far.”
When their blank eyes spotted us…or rather, spotted some fresh flesh that had yet to rot, they turned their heads our way. They had torn clothing, dry white hair, and red and purple mottled skin. With their tongues hanging out and their heads lolling weakly, they barely looked like their former selves.
“Is this any time to remain calm!? What do we do? How do we save them!?”
“Save them? How?”
“I’ll save them if I can. I’m willing to be flexible when it comes to family. But I’m pretty sure this is a lost cause. I may be able to restore or swap out body parts to a certain extent, but not even I can save a brain that’s already rotted away.”
“Th-then what do we do?”
“There’s only one thing to do.”
I clenched and opened my hand.
I focused on the idea of a beast’s claws.
“Whoever they were originally, an enemy has appeared before my eyes. I’m not going to be nonsensically sentimental and say I want to destroy my family with my own hands. I’m just going to defeat them and move on.”
You didn’t release your Hishigami Woman side even with that going on?
She was second to none when it came to human opponents. Even if it meant eventually standing before that detective as the worst possible murderer, she might have been able to save him from the zombies “for the time being” if she had released that side of herself.
Or maybe she decided she would rather die by his side.
“Come here, human.”
It felt so empty.
Not sad, but empty. That was how I felt about a world with nothing but sacrifice.
“I’ll bury you with that man you loved. Maybe that will make up for the sin of killing my family.”
She replied with a roar.
Both of them charged forward in perfect unison. Based on the speed and strength, they were probably about the same as a three hundred kilogram grizzly. A normal human wouldn’t have stood a chance, but I was an exception.
I would decapitate one with my first strike and behead the other a moment later.
As soon as I planned out that accurate course, something else happened.
Suddenly, a great power struck those full-power monsters and they crumbled to the ground.
No one had touched them.
It was blatantly paranormal, as if a shockwave had forced them down from every direction.
“What a pain.”
I heard a voice from overhead.
A woman said to have overdone her anti-aging to the point of shrinking stood on the wood and bamboo scaffolding arrayed in three dimensions. She had long white hair that seemed out of place on what otherwise looked like a girl. The hair was worn up like a giant flower, she wore a colorless white kimono, and she used a shimenawa in place of a sash. Stabbed in the ground was a golden three-pronged vajra that glittered to an ominous extent.
“I thought I’d warned you not to justify the killing that really comes from your own weakness, final generation.”
After those words, all illumination vanished from the large underground space: the bare lightbulbs, the candles, and the hanging lanterns. Like a switch had been thrown, everything went dark.
“…!! I had a feeling you’d do that!!”
I relied on my memories to grab a shovel that had been leaning up against a shack’s wall. I swung it around and it must have struck the three-pronged vajra she had apparently picked back up because orange sparks flew.
One of the hanging lanterns must have spilled its plate of oil because a flame burst out.
The flames and oil fell to the ground and then spread to the surrounding shacks and cells.
My eyes met those of a young face illuminated by scarlet flames.
The careless Sunekosuri was still at my feet, so I kicked him back with my heel. Hishigami Shikimi was the oldest and leading killer of Youkai. When she faced a Youkai, it was harder for her not to kill it.
Shikimi’s white hair spread out.
The next thing I knew, she had removed the top of her kimono, revealing an undershirt and bare shoulders.
The poisonous flower had become a dangerous and deadly fruit.
“I had a feeling you would come here, but did you really think the final generation could hope to match the founder of the Hishigami line!?”
“I had a feeling you would be waiting here. But did you really think an ancient one-trick-pony could stay at the top forever!?”
Nothing more was necessary.
This battle had been decided before it began, so the two Hishigamis obeyed the pre-established harmony and clashed.
During the final stage of the conflict between Hyakki Yakou and the Aoandon’s group, Hishigami Shikimi had mocked me as an expert bluffer with no other skills. I had been completely at her mercy. She had been holding back, yet I had not even lasted three minutes.
However, that was not because her bones or muscles were extremely strong.
In the conflagration, Shikimi twisted her hips inside the white kimono. The golden three-pronged vajra in her hand fell like lightning. No matter where I ran, I would be forced to the ground like Enbi and the detective had been.
That was not what I needed to do.
I twisted my own body around and used the great strength I had acquired from the technology of those sickening Hishigami Men. And it was all to swing my shovel down.
I half-forcibly destroyed the ground at my feet, creating a crack between Shikimi and me.
That was all I did, yet it stopped Shikimi’s attack.
“You’re the Hishigami Woman that specializes in combat. None of your attack methods are going to require targeting each individual person!!”
She swung the vajra and I blocked its tip with the metal part of the shovel. Orange sparks flew.
I immediately noticed something invisible covering the surface of the shovel, as if crawling up the wooden handle from the point of contact.
I quickly let go and grabbed a hammer that was as long as a wooden sword. I swung it to smash the mysteriously infected shovel in midair.
A bursting sound came after a short delay.
“Your method is a terrain effect. It’s probably something like the ‘fill’ tool in image editing software. You desecrate a surface based on the points of contact to remake it into your own field. Then you can freely influence any object, phenomenon, or life form in that field. Since you’re using a three-pronged vajra, I’m guessing it’s based on Kobo Daishi’s Flying Vajra. In that story, he threw a three-pronged vajra to determine the proper site for his headquarters and it stabbed into Mt. Koya!!”
So if there was a crack in the ground, the “fill” would be interrupted.
So if I stuck the shovel in the way before it hit me, the target of the “fill” would change.
While I had strengthened my physical body to face Youkai, she created a “killing territory” that weakened her target.
Under the right conditions, this could cover an entire city or region at once. Then she could instantly kill every single soldier standing there. Even if a 6000 shots per minute Vulcan cannon or a cruise missile were fired her way, she could shoot them down, break them apart, remake them, destroy them, or neutralize them. She specialized in taking on large groups and her firepower was so great that accurately targeting a single person was difficult.
But that didn’t mean she was an immortal monster with no blind spots.
If I didn’t mess up my response, I could avoid an instant death!
“You can only rest easy when you’re looking down on everyone else, so I’m surprised you did so much research. How humiliating was it to realize the truth is much more useful then lies?”
I ignored her and threw the giant hammer at her.
The blunt weapon rotated horizontally, but she made no move to avoid it.
“But have you forgotten? The Flying Vajra covers a surface based on the points of contact, but why does that have to be limited to the ground?”
“And I rule over a territory, not the land itself. In other words, my rule extends to the airspace directly above that surface as well.”
As soon as I threw the hammer, I forced myself into a leap despite my unnatural stance. I felt my entire skeleton screaming in protest, but I had more to worry about. I left my body to the custom Yozakura that seemed like a creaking mass of rubber and springs.
After all, Hishigami Shikimi had slammed her vajra into the wall of a shack.
A dull sound burst out as the flying hammer crashed into that wall as if it had been pulled there by a powerful magnet. It also turned to stone. If I had stayed there, the same would have happened to me.
When she struck the ground, it affected the area above it.
When she struck the wall, it affected the area “above” it but in the horizontal direction…in other words, straight ahead.
It was like being targeted by the invisible spotlight of an electromagnetic weapon.
But what exactly was this attack based in?
Earth, ground, territory? No!
“A certain concept exists in almost every religion around the world.”
Shikimi slowly turned her gaze toward my airborne body.
“Namely, holy ground. Just like the land on which Kobo Daishi chose to build his headquarters. And what is the greatest power that ties people to the earth?”
I kicked left and right off the burning shack walls to escape upwards like a pinball.
“Tch. Universal gravitation!?”
“Precisely. As the planet pulls at us, we too pull at the planet. So you will pull power of this holy ground to yourself and cause it to burst inside your body. …No human body can escape the power of the planet itself.”
I could only remain airborne. My knees and hips were undamaged, so I had to praise the Yozakura suit. A head-on battle was not easy. The best plan was to escape outside the range of her “fill” and use my handgun or whatever else to snipe her from within the smoke!
But then Shikimi placed a hand on her hip and stared up at me.
“Did you think you could reach safety by fleeing high enough above the holy ground? But have you forgotten, final generation?”
“This is the depths of the earth. It is a single space surrounded in all directions by dirt.”
The three-pronged vajra had left her hand.
She had thrown it to her feet where it stabbed into the ground.
An instant later, I heard a high-pitched sound and something invisible spread out in no time at all. Shikimi’s territory began at her feet, continued up the nearby wall, and instantly reached the darkness overhead. It was just like choosing the wrong spot and filling up the entire image.
This ridiculous universal gravity attack had me pull the planet’s disaster into myself and it rushed in at me from all 360 degrees.
I could no longer worry about appearances.
I pulled a wooden charm doll from the open chest of the kunoichi suit and a line of light burst out as if slicing through space. I forcibly pulled out my Shikigami that wore a short kimono.
It was the Deadly Dragon Princess.
The artificial lifeform moved back-to-back with me.
The instant she showed any sign of movement, countless giant cracks ran through the entire underground space. Water poured out like a dam had burst and the solid bedrock crumbled. Cracks had cut apart and broken up Shikimi’s territory.
Then the murderous amount of water swirled, became a great dragon, and rushed toward Shikimi.
“Did you mess with the water vein?”
The founder of the Hishigami line pulled the three-pronged vajra from the ground using its decorative thread and then grabbed it in one hand.
“But did you really think that would be enough to kill me?”
All sound vanished.
First, the Deadly Dragon Princess’s fierce deluge froze over in an instant. As soon as the water dragon entered what little remaining territory she had, all of the water molecules froze in a chain reaction.
The crumbling underground space stopped moving, like instant glue had been dumped over everything.
But I had other things to worry about.
By the time I heard an explosion, Hishigami Shikimi was already five centimeters in front of my face with vajra in hand.
By the time I realized she had used her incredible leg strength to launch herself forward, she had taken her next action.
First, she kicked the Deadly Dragon Princess away. Like two balls on strings clacking together, the kinetic energy was transferred over and the Shikigami stabbed into the bedrock like a shell or a missile. I didn’t have time to gasp. Shikimi spun around in midair and swung her three-pronged vajra down toward the center of my face!
I immediately pulled my handgun from my boot, but the vajra shattered it. Not only that, I was forcibly slammed into the ground directly below me.
I broke through a shack wall, smashed a pile of wooden boxes, and rolled along the ground.
The damage to my body and the remaining moves I had in stock were of secondary importance.
Oh, no. This location is very, very bad!!
“That is my territory left over even after all those cracks. That is the holy ground determined by the vajra.”
Something twisted near my spine, the contents of my head swelled up like a balloon, I felt like I was wrapped in intense heat, and I could not tell front from back, left from right, or even up from down. I frantically moved my arms and legs, but I could not stand up or even sit up.
Damn. Is this what they call an unexplainable fever?
It was a stereotypical form of divine punishment or curse. It was the judgment given to those who rudely violated divine land.
“If you wouldn’t get inside, all I had to do was throw you inside myself.”
I heard a soft sound as Hishigami Shikimi belatedly landed.
She spun the three-pronged vajra like a baton and slowly walked over.
Things were not looking good. The inside of my head was boiling and I was having trouble figuring out which way her voice was coming from.
“What are you trying to do…with all that power?”
“If you see Majina as an insane man trying to overthrow the country, you wouldn’t understand. He is a normal human being. Although that is exactly why he broke.”
“Even after marrying his wife and having a child, the Zashiki Warashi was nothing more than a Zashiki Warashi. Mei could not escape her primary objective of bringing her family prosperity. At the same time, Majina was brought to despair by his own talent. Without him, he felt Mei never would have suggested modifying her body into the Ver. 40. Without him, he felt things would have turned out differently. But they had everything necessary to bring further prosperity. The situation pushed at his back, Mei took his hand, and he fell straight into hell. What if he had forcibly rejected it? That’s simple. A Zashiki Warashi will naturally leave a family that does not desire prosperity. In other words, she would have abandoned him. Her feelings as an individual were irrelevant. It came down to her trait as a species. Majina had no other option.”
So the Zashiki Warashi who had fallen in love with a human had thrown her own body into the compressor.
She had shaken off the hands of the man who wanted to see that least of all and she had taken the shortest route to prosperity.
It was a revoltingly awful form of “happiness”.
“That explains Majina and the Ver. 40’s situation.” I took a slow breath and shook my hazy mind. “But what threat do they see coming? What threat do they think they need the Ver. 40 to face? And how does that connect to this zombie panic? I’m curious about all that as well, but that isn’t what I’m asking. …What do you gain by following Majina? If you just want success as a Hishigami Woman, you wouldn’t need to go along with all this.”
She did not answer my question.
In my blurry vision, I thought I saw the white-haired woman form a slight smile as she looked down at me.
She prepared to swing down the golden three-pronged vajra.
“Sweet dreams, final generation. This is the end, Hishigami Woman who only wanted success on an individual level.”
“Shut it, you old hag. Your loss was set in stone from the moment you didn’t kill me the instant you had the chance.”
This isn’t one of those bluffs you say I love so much.
Have you forgotten?
We’re surrounded by the sea of flames created from the fallen lanterns spreading to the shacks and cells.
And I just destroyed a bunch of wooden boxes when you threw me to the ground.
Now, what had I seen in boxes much like these on my way here?
The answer is blasting explosives.
A deafening roar and shockwave exploded from nearby. I could barely move and Shikimi was standing boldly above me, but we were both blown away. We were thrown through the air as if gravity had vanished.
This is no longer your world.
We’ve left it.
She spun around and tried to throw her vajra, but it was too late.
Before she could, I grabbed at her shoulders in midair. My thumb traced along her slender collarbone and then forcibly grabbed it. It broke with a dry sound.
One of her arms was unusable.
The vajra slipped from her hand and vanished into the pitch black abyss.
We crashed into the roof of a different shack a good distance away. I couldn’t breathe, but I raised two fingers on my right hand. We had escaped her territory and the mysterious fever was gone. I held her to the ground and our arms quickly crossed paths as we targeted each other’s vitals.
The air audibly split apart.
My fingers stabbed into her throat and her finger slipped just past my temple.
She looked up at me with a look of surprise.
Her mouth flapped like a goldfish’s and she forced her voice out with her windpipe mostly crushed.
“You might know…all you can do…is destroy…but did you never…wish…even once…to be useful to someone…?”
So that was the founder of the Hishigami line’s desire.
Had she wandered the world for a thousand years in search of nothing more than that?
“I gave up on that less than a year after being born into this world.”
Shikimi was approaching death, but her eyes widened for just an instant. At the very, very end, she utilized her muscles rather than beg for her life. She was not trying to escape and she was not trying to get back up.
She was going to kill me.
She was going to kill the target before her eyes.
Because she believed that would be useful to someone.
Even as a Hishigami Woman, she wanted just one person in this wide world to say “thank you”.
But you know what?
That’s why this happened, old lady.
I didn’t win because I specialize in bluffing. Nor because I had prepared everything in advance.
It was much simpler. The Hishigami Women summon disaster.
So much so that you had to wish to be useful.
“That’s why I won’t die.”
“And that’s why you won’t be useful to anyone. Not ever.”
That was the difference between the founder and the final generation.
There was no point in discussing who was right. I dug my two fingers deeper into her throat to destroy both her windpipe and the medulla oblongata sticking down into her neck.
A wet sound burst out.
There was a winner and a loser.
Unfortunately, those were the only two categories in our world.
Hishigami Shikimi, founder of the Hishigami line, had ceased to function.
The flower bore fruit and then withered away. The white hair was spread out around the small body that would never move again. I rolled off of her and onto the roof. I couldn’t stop myself, so I slid right off the roof and onto the dirt ground.
I couldn’t feel my legs.
The bones had apparently been taken out when I had blown myself away with the explosives.
I guess not even the Yozakura’s support was enough for that. I’m going to need my kit to repair myself. If I inject the medicinal liquid to set the bones and add a wooden splint on the outside, maybe I can stand.
Just as I was thinking that…
“I can’t believe we actually lost Shikimi-san here.”
Even I felt a chill down my spine.
I couldn’t move my broken legs, so I forced my head up while crawling along and found a long-haired man in a monocle and the kind of suit seen in paintings from the Meiji period. He held a Sunekosuri in his arm like a pet-lover. Standing next to him was an unemotional Zashiki Warashi in a pure white yukata, with a head mounted display hanging from her neck and with half her face hidden by a veil. The monocle and veil made it hard to tell, but they both had different colored eyes. More specifically, they had both swapped an eye for a human and Youkai eyeball each.
One was the Sunekosuri named Ohatsu.
One was the Hyakki Yakou Special-Made Ver. 40 Zashiki Warashi.
And the last was a man with a full family crest on his chest.
“I hadn’t been too worried since she had already lived for a thousand years, but I suppose everything eventually meets its end. Even the prosperous inevitably decay. Don’t you think that is the worst Japanese saying of them all? Can’t anyone reject that awful tendency?”
This was not good.
It was possible I could heal my legs with my kit, but he would never give me the chance. On his own, he could rival the current Hyakki Yakou and he also had the Ver. 40 Zashiki Warashi who could create the world’s destiny from nothing. If I was faced with something like that when I couldn’t even stand up, there was no way I could win.
Then what was I supposed to do? Try to rely on someone else? The Sunekosuri was out of the question and I had no idea what had happened to the Deadly Dragon Princess after she was blown away by Shikimi. That meant she was out of my control and I couldn’t use her.
Does that mean…
There really is nothing I can do!?
“What are you trying to do? No, what are you trying to cause? I can’t figure out why you would start this zombie panic. With the Ver. 40, you should be able to directly create your utopia without going through all this troublesome work… So why aren’t you using the Ver. 40. Could it be that…”
“You Hishigami Women like to stall for time by talking and to wait for an opening when the thread of tension grows slack.”
“Could it be that you aren’t holding back on the Ver. 40. Could it be that you’re already using it for something else? If so, what are you using it for? No, what is the true problem that you couldn’t find a solution for without using the Ver. 40!?”
“Well, the Kasha Package – what you’re calling the zombie panic – is just a way of raising the standard.”
Raising the standard?
I looked confused and Majina continued while petting Ohatsu the Sunekosuri.
“Needless to say, the seeds have already been sown in thirteen cities of five different regions. As time passes, the saturation point will be reached and zombies will cover the archipelago in no time. But turning 150 million people into zombies is only setting the stage.”
He made it sound so simple.
Normally, hearing about the collapse of an entire nation would be enough to feel faint, but we were looking at something beyond even that.
“Needless to say, humans gain a much more powerful body when they become zombies. And the effect isn’t as noticeable, but as they bite people, creating second and third generations of zombies, the zombies gradually start retaining their rational mind. …Eventually, they are no different than when they were alive.”
He was strengthening the entire population of Japan.
On top of that, he could control the core of the Kasha Package, to manage the wills of everyone who had become a zombie without even realizing it. He was raising the standard so all those harmless civilians could survive in our professional world.
It almost sounded like…
“Are you trying to start a war?”
“If a one-on-one conflict can be called a war, then one has been ongoing for ten years now.”
I had no idea what he meant by that, but that was as far as he went.
“More importantly, you should probably be more worried about what happens to you.”
I immediately heard a raw and soft sound as something fell onto my back. It had fallen from the roof of the nearby shack. I thought for a moment, realized what it had to be, and felt sweat pouring from my body.
It was Hishigami Shikimi.
Her white hair was spread out and her shoulders were pushed far outside her kimono.
And her dead, discolored body was moving, which could only mean one thing.
“I’m sure you’ve investigated some things on the way here since I left some materials here and there. The Kasha controls the corpses of sinners when it approaches and the legend of Mikuchi-sama means any abandoned corpse or fatally wounded individual is labeled a sinner and thrown into the abyss. All in the name of preventing disease.”
“So what matters is the boundary between life and death. Being directly bitten by a zombie doesn’t particularly matter. Of course, when you aren’t bitten by a zombie, you start out as a first generation and don’t retain much of your rational mind. Oh, to be honest, there was a risk of a Zashiki Warashi becoming a zombie as they’re a collection of children sacrificed during famines and the like. I was afraid that might happen here since Mei could only become the ideal Zashiki Warashi, but she’s just fine. Just as you would expect of the ideal.”
If the dead became zombies regardless of how they died, what did that mean about Hishigami Shikimi now?
“And Shikimi-san isn’t the only one who became a zombie.”
Two new threats appeared from behind the building.
It was the man and girl zombies who had been freed of the bonds placed on them by Hishigami Shikimi’s attack.
They had white hair, muddy eyes, and skin covered in red and purple. The detective’s cardigan and slacks were stained red and one of my sister’s twintails was roughly undone.
Majina stepped aside as if to clear the way for them.
He smiled and spoke.
“Until we meet again. Although it’s hard to say whether you will be alive or dead when that happens.”
Several hands and mouths approached the living flesh that could not move.
There was nothing I could do.
There was nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing
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