The Zashiki Warashi of Intellectual Village:Volume9 Chapter 3
Chapter 3: Colorful [email protected] Mai
As all of Japan celebrated with mass consumption, Pretty Mai-chan casually drank some coffee while secretly carrying a handgun inside a regional airport lounge. Since it was winter, I wore a jacket over my tank top and pants, but the heat was on too high and I actually felt too warm. I was killing time until my usual client, Hyakki Yakou, arrived in their mobile fortress, but then my satellite phone received a call.
I grimaced as soon as I saw the number.
For a few seconds, I wondered if I should answer it or ignore it, but then, to my chagrin, I realized the caller would notice the hesitation behind those few seconds.
I answered it and someone I truly wanted to curse began speaking.
“Hi, Mai. It’s your Onii-chan. Do you know which Onii-chan this is?”
“Zei or Akane can take a curse for me, but please stop calling me Onii-tan at your age! It’s unreasonable! Ah, I’m really getting goose bumps!!”
“So what do you want?”
“How cold. That isn’t how reasonable siblings should speak to each other. Didn’t I just give you that Yozakura Ver. 3? Have you already forgotten what you owe me for that?”
“Family shouldn’t be talking about what they owe each other either.”
“My apologies. I was being unreasonable. I feel a bit like dying, but I suppose that isn’t reasonable either. Hee hee.”
…Huh? What is with that kimono-wearing reasonable-obsessed man? Despite what he says, it sounds like he’s started enjoying being a half step removed from being reasonable. Did something happen? …No, it couldn’t be. This is one of the Hishigami Men I’m talking about.
“Now, I’d like to get down to business, Mai. Could you do your Onii-chan a favor?”
“That depends on what it is. If it’s to kill you, I’ll even do it for free.”
I casually gave my usual sort of response, but the response I received was extremely unreasonable and nothing like his usual self.
“Yes. I give up, Mai. To be honest, I’m sick of it all. Could the Hishigami Women turn the Hishigami Group into a pile of rubble before it goes through any more disturbing transformations?”
The Hishigami Men referred to a passive gathering.
The Hishigami Women referred to an active parting.
Neither of them was good or evil. In times of chaos, the Hishigami Men would rise up and build a massive organization. In times of decadence, the Hishigami Women would rise up and destroy the rotten organization.
They were like the Eros and Thanatos for the entire human race.
The Hishigami Women brought disaster.
“I see…” I muttered into the satellite phone.
I leaned back in the lounge sofa, looked up at the tall, tall ceiling, and continued.
“So it’s already reached that point, has it?”
“Everything must fall eventually. Although we’re past decadence. You could say we’re over-ripe or even rotting. I’ve given this a lot of thought. There are a few ways of rebuilding a failing corporation, but it’s much harder to restrain a corporation that has grown without end.”
“Ohh, I see. Old Shikimi sure forced some annoying stuff onto us. What was that about being the founder of the Hishigami line? Is that anything to be proud of?”
“She didn’t do anything wrong. An influential person said the moon was the only unattainable thing in a time of peace, but they actually wanted the obvious ‘power’ of a satellite. We are the artificial bloodline that was created as a result. That was the sin of someone who wanted to control the age and control reasonableness, so blaming Shikimi-san alone would be cruel, no matter how reasonable it looks.”
“Maybe I should summon that noble bastard and place their soul in some Shikigami or another so I can kick their ass.”
“You don’t need to bother with anything so unreasonable. They must be cursing in heaven after the Apollo program beat them to it.”
Kyou then changed the subject.
“Now, let’s get back on topic. We intend to obey reasonableness to the end and there’s nothing we can do if that reasonableness itself is unpleasant. I had hoped that Detective Uchimaku could do something, but it seems the flow of time was too fast for him. So Mai, could you please carry out your primary job? I want you to end my life before the reasonableness I know has left my understanding. Euthanasia is such a reasonable word, isn’t it?”
“By the way, why me?”
“I thought you were the best fit.”
Hishigami Kyou nonchalantly answered me.
“There are quite a few Hishigami Women out there.
“Arawa who destroys birth.
“Shitsu who destroys education.
“Yuu who destroys systems.
“Yume who destroys ethics.
“Raku who destroys health.
“Kuji who destroys trust.
“Rou who destroys finances.
“Arata who destroys tradition.
“Taga who destroys faith.
“Ama who destroys hope.
“And many more.
“But this case is best suited for you, Mai. You might be even better than Shikimi-san or Enbi here.”
“And you know what my Hishigami role is?”
“You are Mai who destroys truth. That’s perfect for this. …And scarily enough, you can seem even more bizarre than Shikimi, depending on how one looks at you.”
Is the ability to look at me like that a sign of being “productive”? Well, I guess he’s still a Hishigami Man no matter what might happen.
“How about it, Mai? Will you take on this job to help your Onii-chan save face? The Hishigami Group is starting to leave our control. It’s disturbing, it keeps growing and won’t die, and I don’t even want to imagine being a part of that. Just talking about it here feels like it’s going to give me nightmares. Ending it at the height of glory is the ultimate luxury. Stepping down from the stage is a choice only the victor can do. So please, Mai. Will you save my reasonable dignity?”
I laughed and adjusted my grip on the satellite phone.
“The great and fearsome Mai-chan will give the most perfect ending to her beloved Onii-tan. You will feel despair, fill with darkness, and lose all trust in the world, but if that’s okay with you.”
I heard a sigh from the phone.
It was a sigh of death filled with a hint of expectation.
But what was he thinking? Ending it at the height of glory? I’m a Hishigami Woman, you know? I’m not Old Shikimi, so did he really think I would choose to make someone happy in the way they expected me to?
“The best method of destroying the Hishigami Group is to do nothing. Watch as it rots and crumbles from within and suffer from necrosis while a means of painless death sits right before your eyes, Hishigami Man.”
Kyou started to say something, but I ignored him and hung up. I tapped the floor with my boot that had a gun hidden in the heel.
Then I took a sip of coffee.
Stop relying on others, rich boy.
Or if you must, pray for a miracle and hope Youkai [email protected] KAzU will be drawn to this age of arrogance.
During the battle with the Aoandon, Hyakki Yakou had bought a new mobile base from Hishigami Aerospace Industries on short notice and it had already been dyed deeply in their colors. It looked just like the Imperial Court in Kyoto or a noble’s mansion, so it was easy to forget you were five thousand meters in the air. It was a manmade structure, but it must have been comfortable for the nature-loving Youkai because they were lying around here and there without issue.
Among them were a mother and child of the harmless and adorable canine Youkai known as Sunekosuri.
“Lie down here and I’ll groom you, mom.”
“What is this, Gisuke? Unlike human babies, four-legged animals begin growing independent from the moment they stand up on their own a few hours after birth. Honestly, that husband is so useless. Did he not even teach you that?”
“Dad isn’t useless. He kept his promise! He promised he would find you inside even the deepest darkness so we could live as a family of three again. He kept his promise between men.”
“So he’s amazing. I can only groom you because of him! He’s my hero!”
“Stop that, Gisuke. It tickles.”
The head of that Sunekosuri family was watching their exchange from a short distance away…that is, at my feet. His eyes were growing damp as he entered “dad mode”, so I teased him with the toe of my boot.
“Sorry, but you can enjoy your family once we finish our job. You’re still a part of Hyakki Yakou, so you’re my point of contact and an official agent more than you are a father right now.”
“I know that.”
We silently left that warm scene of the two Sunekosuri.
There were other unfamiliar Youkai and occult practitioners around. The Byouki User was apparently always clinging to the Illness Magic guy and I believe the Ver. 40 Zashiki Warashi was inside a special Japanese-style cell.
“So how dangerous is that, um, Ver. 39…the Zashiki Warashi in the red yukata? Uh, from what I’ve seen, I can’t imagine she’s dangerous.”
“That’s part of what we need to discuss with the young lady.”
As we spoke, we spotted something.
The young lady always stayed in the large hall that Hyakki Yakou called the Tenshukaku, but a sexy shrine maiden was currently crouched down in front of the sliding screen and peeking inside.
It seemed to be the Venom Clairvoyant, one of the Top 5.
“Wh-what is she doing?”
“A blindfolded shrine maiden is peeping. I feel like we’ve wandered into some kind of gag space.”
Part 3 (3rd person)
Hafuri, a girl in a purple kimono who was the leader of Hyakki Yakou, spoke in a dignified tone.
The Illness Magic User, one of the Top 5 which was Hyakki Yakou’s greatest fighting force, had his head bowed so low that his forehead touched the floor. He wore a SWAT-like black combat outfit with plenty of curse charms held in the holsters. He sealed his own stress inside them and built it up to the level of Illness Magic, but his large muscular body was prostrated before the girl as he listened to her speak.
“Sorry for calling you on such short notice, but I decided I wanted you to hear about this first.”
This had to be something important if she had called for one of the Top 5 who were known as her right-hand men. Plus, she had told everyone else, even her aides, to leave. The world below was apparently full of chaos after the international financial stagnation and crashes caused by the multiple credit rating agencies. People were using the network for a lucrative magic trick, a coalition force had set up a naval blockade, the Ministry of Defense was taking ominous actions, and a plan was underway to destroy the people’s financial senses using the foreign-funded natural convenience stores that were disguised as a domestic project. Any solution would be far from peaceful. But wherever she might send him, the Illness Magic User was prepared to live up to her expectations.
He was confident his heart would remain steady no matter what command she gave him.
If this girl told him to die, he would die.
Hafuri then got to the main point.
“I only noticed this recently. Although maybe it isn’t worth making a big deal out of…”
He guessed this was a metaphor for some kind of crucial plan.
But her next statement proved otherwise.
“Illness Magic, I seem to have gotten my first perio-…”
“Cough, cough. Oh, excuse me. My apologies, Hafuri-sama. I am delighted you would ask for my assistance.”
“I have not just sat idly by. I did everything I could to look into it. It seems the tradition is to cook red rice. There also seem to be a few different varieties of menstrual products, but I am having trouble making a decision on my own. Illness Magic, I want your help. Which should I choose? A pa-…”
“Cough, cough!! Ueh, cough!!!”
“…-pon? …Oh? What is the matter, Illness Magic!? If you’re having trouble controlling your stress, I can have some incense prepared!!”
Hafuri spoke worriedly to the Illness Magic User who had coughed up some blood.
He trembled in his prostrated position for a while, but he was confused and his mind was filled with question marks. Finally, he hesitantly raised an objection toward his leader.
“What is it?”
“Why would you ask me about this…?”
“You are something like my family doctor, aren’t you? No one is more knowledgeable of my body’s structure. I thought about asking the Mamedanuki who copies my appearance as my body double, but I thought you would be best since your knowledge includes the inside of my body.”
There was no hesitation in her voice and no hint of embarrassment or shyness, so it was obvious she really was just asking for his advice.
She truly trusted him.
From her point of view, this was the same as asking a familiar doctor for help after coming down with a cold.
But despite his appearance and skill, the Illness Magic User was a sensible person.
And annoyingly enough, he had something of a samurai spirit.
He worked his mind at full power as he placed three fingers of each hand on the floor in a beautiful Japanese prostration.
(Ehh? It’s true I needed to know the details of her body to create her surrogate mother, so I could draw up a diagram with my eyes closed. But I don’t have a medical license, so wouldn’t anything I did just be “playing doctor” with her and thus completely over the line as a human being?)
Unbearable pressure weighed on his stomach.
Even if this was a direct order, he was feeling a bit like committing seppuku.
To be clear, he had a naïve heart that built up stress exceedingly easily.
“What’s the matter, Illness Magic?”
“N-nothing. But in that case, wouldn’t it be better to ask my sister…yes, the Venom Clairvoyant?”
“Um, about that. I tried to ask, but it seems she does not use any kind of menstrual products. I think she called it menstrual blood control. It has to do with the way she walks and the way she tenses the muscles in her groin, but it sounded far too difficult for me.”
“Then why not ask the Passionate Predator?”
“She specializes in phantom pregnancies, so I can’t rely on her. I assume she lives a life without any real menstrual cycle. …Hey, Illness Magic? As you can see, you’re the only one I can rely on. Can you please help me?”
A bright smile appeared on Hafuri’s face.
A death pallor appeared on the Illness Magic’s.
(What do I do!? I’ve built up too much trust!! No, there has to be some other way. Seppuku would be the easy way out, but Hafuri-sama’s sadness would remain! What about the Byouki User? …No, I suppose not. She came from the Aondon’s group, so she’s an outsider. She will prove her trustworthiness with her future loyalty and valor, but she still needs to be kept away from our leader. Allowing her to meet one-on-one with Hafuri-sama so soon could breed discord within the other powerful members who consider themselves regents and chief advisors. But then what do I do!?)
“Oh!! Right. Why not ask Mei-sama in her cell!?”
“You fool!! How could I talk about this with my own mother!! I’d be too embarrassed!!”
He could not figure out her standards for embarrassment and he nearly said as much, but he truly was a samurai living in the modern era. Bringing shame to his master with a tsukkomi was out of the question.
He remained prostrated and hesitantly worked at resolving the situation as if defusing a landmine.
“But…but Hafuri-sama. I unfortunately have lived a life that has given me little to no knowledge about that sort of feminine product…”
She cut him off.
She gave off a majestic air of authority that felt like the cold and mysterious pattern on a drawn sword blade.
“Are you saying you intend to disobey the orders of me, Hyakki Yakou’s leader?”
“No!! No!! I would never think of it, Hafuri-sama!!”
He lowered his head even more and scraped his forehead against the floor until the friction seemed it would start a fire. That serious human being was utterly worried about where destiny was leading him.
Forward, back, left, or right? Where was he supposed to go now!?
One sliding screen away, the Venom Clairvoyant was trembling.
The little sister had seen it all!!
“What…what happened to you, Onii-chan!? Ah! Come to think of it, when I was little, I messed up controlling the insects inside me and had him remove them. Don’t tell me that knocked a screw loose and eventually led to him having no trouble playing history’s greatest game of doctor here!? What do I do!? This is all my fault!!”
The sexy blindfolded shrine maiden’s state would have been amusing if not for the fact that she was one of the Top 5, each of whom was rumored to be able to destroy a continent. None of the stuffed animal-like Youkai dared say anything.
That was why the Mamedanuki, acting as a representative for those stuffed animals, dragged in the Supernatural Trainer. That slender man in glasses and a butler uniform rubbed a finger against his temple and finally called out to her.
“Hey, what the hell do you think you’re doing there? Have some restraint and quit sending out so much killer intent and scaring everyone around you.”
“Besides, Hafuri-sama personally had everyone leave her. I don’t really care what’s going on in there, but don’t blame me if she starts having her doubts about you and exiles you to some remote area.”
“N-no, that’s not what, um, this is, Supernatural!!”
“I don’t know what’s right or wrong here, but when Hafuri-sama tells us to stay away, we stay away. That’s pretty standard, isn’t it? Plus, each of us is just one finger on her hand. Know your place. I don’t know what’s gotten you so worked up, but did you think a single fingertip could outdo the head?”
She had no argument against that.
For one thing, she had no way of knowing what Hafuri really wanted. For some reason – for some reason!! – she did have a feeling something awful was going to happen beyond that sliding screen, but that was only from her point of view. A single command from Hafuri could decide the fate of the nation, so the girl might not understand how someone could let their thoughts break down and stop strategizing, even over something minor. After all, even the small things could indirectly influence the history of the world for her.
The Venom Clairvoyant had no choice but to accept this.
She was incredibly reluctant, but she slowly stood up from her crouched position in order to leave.
That was when she heard a creaking metal sound. That quiet noise seemed to grab the blindfolded shrine maiden with an invisible hand and turn her head in that direction.
There, she found another of the Top 5.
It was the Heirloom Transcender.
The elderly man sat in a wheelchair with a worn out canopy and he looked up at her face.
The old man in Japanese clothing did not speak a single word.
But he did nod just once.
And the look in his eyes eloquently told her to do as she wished.
The Venom Clairvoyant teared up behind her blindfold, but she had something more important to focus on. She had something to do now that someone had given her that push forward. Two old German handguns flew from the sleeves of her shrine maiden outfit.
“Ah, wait a second!! We’re inside the palace!!”
The Supernatural Trainer quickly tried to stop her, but she was not listening. As if guided by a voice from heaven, the Venom Clairvoyant kicked down the sliding screen and stepped inside.
“Curse you, Onii-chan!! Don’t you know that’s a crime!!!??”
A few of the other Top 5 had leaped around to restrain the crazed blindfolded shrine maiden (for some reason the old Heirloom man had nodded calmly without doing anything to help, so he had probably been nodding off to sleep), and the woman was now cooling her head inside a cell.
For some reason, the young lady holed up in the back for a while afterwards.
She seemed to be discussing something with a few of the female Youkai in the organization: a Tengu woman, a Futakuchi-Onna, and a Hinoenma. I also got to see the rare sight of that Illness Magic guy desperately begging those Youkai for help.
“Sorry about the wait.”
The young lady looked refreshed when she reappeared.
She seemed oddly calm for so soon after a rampage by the Top 5.
She quickly got down to business.
“This is probably related to the Venom Clairvoyant too…but it seems it will take a while longer before she will listen. What on earth got into her? It might be that one of the insects that literally has ‘gotten into her’ is causing issues, but…”
The Sunekosuri trembled at my feet.
A direct battle between the Top 5 must have been quite scary. That was hardly surprising when a bit of slapstick from them could sink an entire continent. How could anyone watch that in mild amusement?
“M-maybe it’s a control issue? I don’t understand how anyone could actually raise insects like that. Tremble tremble.”
“Oh, but speaking of that blindfolded shrine maiden…”
“We have the help of my mother…of the Hyakki Yakou Special-Made Ver. 40 Zashiki Warashi, but the analysis suggests she lacks the output needed to resist the destiny of doom.”
That really wasn’t good.
Everyone seemed to call the old Hyakki Yakou the strongest, and this was the best they could do now.
No matter where you went, even the greatest would decay.
“Well, if everything was always smooth sailing with the occult, I guess your ancestors wouldn’t have been defeated at Dan-no-Ura.”
Globe & Ingot, Triple Roses, and the world’s other credit rating agencies had started putting out completely contradictory lists and the value of national bonds was collapsing around the world. Was everyone just spinning their wheels? Had they created a black box? Whatever you wanted to call it, the effects had spread.
The American dollar and the European euro had of course been affected. The Chinese yuan, the Brazilian real, the Indian rupee, the Russian ruble, and the South African rand of the so-called five developing countries were no exception. The Korean won, the Hong Kong dollar, the Australian dollar, and pretty much everything else had been taken out too. I think even electronic money and virtual currencies were hit.
The only survivors were those in the network. Those were the air pockets that had been left open because everyone had forgotten about them or looked down on them. And for better or for worse, Japan was one of those.
That was the overall outline of the issue.
But that was strange at a fundamental level.
The rise of Safe Banking, Triple Roses, Pengjia Gongsi, and the other credit rating agencies made sense. But there’s no way they would have put out such contradictory rating lists. Those ratings weren’t something the agency just decided on. Just like the weather forecast, the experts were calculating them. It would take a lot of work and time, but an amateur could find the answer if they tried. If you put out a completely nonsensical list, the amateur investors would see through it and it would all be over.
Yet that hadn’t happened.
Everyone seemed to believe this prophecy of doom even though everyone wanted to deny it.
So the core of the problem was not money, bonds, or data. It was the movement of people’s hearts.
And we had predicted the source of the problem quite early on.
It was a Youkai of fortune.
It was the Bloodstained Zashiki Warashi that brought ruin.
And this one in particular had been given the power to freely manipulate the world’s destiny by Hyakki Yakou.
The Sunekosuri rubbed against my feet.
“The Ver. 39 is at the center of this, isn’t she?”
“Yes. And because the Ver. 40 was made to stably alter destiny with almost no risk, her power is always even and she supposedly cannot match the upper limits of the Ver. 39’s harshly fluctuating power.”
“Yes, Majina’s solution was to strengthen the population by turning all 150 million of them into zombies. While the entire population was restraining the Red, he wanted to use the Ver. 40’s stable power to alter destiny. Even that genius among geniuses couldn’t come up with a better answer, so we should assume it’s nearly impossible to solve this with no sacrifices.”
“You readily mention sacrifices, but are you saying it would be possible if we allowed for them?”
The young lady’s question caused the Sunekosuri to tremble even more violently.
“I don’t really know.”
As a professional, it would be insincere if I was too quick to say it was impossible.
“The Red is inside Noukotsu Village, so the area around it has likely become an invisible labyrinth. If anyone tries to approach with intent to harm her, the destiny of the world itself will get in their way. And even if they don’t intend to harm her, if they’re being used by someone else, the same thing will happen. Frankly, it’s strange that Majina was able to get that close to her.”
In fact, was it possible the blindfolded shrine maiden had gone nuts because the destiny was working in the Red’s favor? Given the situation, even those seemingly ridiculous things were no laughing matter.
The problem was not the comedy space itself.
That Venom Clairvoyant could directly view the future and destiny, yet she had been manipulated so thoroughly. She was the top specialist who had the greatest odds of seeing through the Ver. 39’s power, so she had been taken out first and foremost. And the rails of destiny had switched over entirely seamlessly. No one knew when we had wandered onto this path. If the bomb squad with a mine detector had stepped on a landmine, what were the rest of us supposed to do?
I also needed to keep an eye on the movements of anyone who had approached the heart of this, such as my sister Enbi, anyone related to Kotemitsu, and the Ver. 40 in her cell. If they were doing anything out of the ordinary, I could assume they were already under destiny’s influence. There was a chance they were being manipulated by a labyrinth of inescapable comedy space.
So to challenge the Ver. 39, you first had to be accepted by her so you could approach.
For better or for worse, a variety of coincidences would occur, even the most thorough of preparations would easily crumble, and you would be forced to give up before you realized it. Happiness was a frightening thing. People could be promoted and transferred to some remote area because human beings could not fight happiness. And the Zashiki Warashi could manipulate that to alter things to her satisfaction. And it didn’t matter if she was aware of it or not. To stand on the same field as her, you would need a powerful bond on the level of knowing her since before your birth and you would need to be able to sniff out her every habit.
But that probably wasn’t our role.
It was a high school boy in Noukotsu Village who held the key. Sadly enough.
The young lady was thinking about all this too.
“I doubt that unstable Ver. 39 can intercept us quite that accurately…”
“You understand, don’t you? If the Red creates this worst case scenario and then falls apart, no one knows what will happen afterwards. It’s like having a nuclear sub sneak up into our front yard and then have a meltdown before firing its ballistic missile.”
“So there will still be damage, but we won’t be able to predict what it will be?” asked the Sunekosuri.
“It’s a nuisance either way.”
“Is it possible that the rupture of destiny will cause space-time to collapse?”
“Ask the Venom woman to deal with those apocalyptic simulations. But to put it another way, the entire world is currently under the Ver. 39’s influence. It’s just like this mobile base. If all the engines started spewing flames, how much chance would we have of landing safely?”
Yes, we couldn’t just defeat the source of the problem.
This wasn’t that simple.
Even if the visible problem was financial, we couldn’t take it lightly. The Zashiki Warashi had the power to control destiny, so our opponent here was the world’s destiny. Not of Japan, or of Asia, or of Earth, or of the Solar System, or of the Milky Way. Of the entire giant framework called “the world”. This may have even gone beyond the level of the creator gods. Was this really something that humans could handle?
A decline always awaited the prosperous.
That was the scope on which the fangs and claws of destiny worked. How many beings could oppose that entire irreversible stream? This world even had plenty of gods who had been entirely forgotten.
“You are not a part of Hyakki Yakou and sometimes have a more flexible mindset because of it, so I have one question for you.”
“What can we do?”
That question held great meaning.
I shrugged and gave a simple answer.
“Well, it doesn’t look like there are any obstacles you need to remove. I thought some idiot would show up to attack Hyakki Yakou since you were weakened by the Aoandon’s group and because they could use Majina’s zombie outbreak as a justification, but there’s no sign of it.”
“For better or for worse, that would be thanks to the Aoandon. She searched out all of the people who ‘wanted a change’ around the country. In other words, she gathered together all of the dangerous elements and allowed us to defeat them all at once. Those who refused her invitation or that she decided were not worth inviting probably don’t have it in them to bare their fangs against Hyakki Yakou now.”
“In that case, our only opponent is the Red herself.”
“That brings us back to the previous problem. There is an invisible forest around Noukotsu Village that will lead anyone astray. That nearly impossible labyrinth will block our way by seamlessly manipulating the entire world’s destiny. What can we do about that?”
It isn’t like a professional to admit this.
But when faced with this direct threat, it isn’t like me to avoid the issue in the name of pride or honor. I guess I have to say it.
“You often hear people irresponsibly saying they’re rooting for a couple’s love, but I honestly don’t know if that’s ever actually helped.”
That’s what this came down to.
Scarily enough, the future of seven billion people was riding on the decision of a lovey-dovey couple.
Part 5 (3rd person)
After completing her meeting with Hishigami Mai, the girl in a purple kimono, Hafuri, left her seat in the great hall once more. She kept her Mamedanuki body double by her side for the bare minimum of protection as she walked down the kind of hallway found in an old house of ancient Kyoto, but she finally turned to the Mamedanuki.
“You stay here.”
“Don’t worry. Hyakki Yakou’s techniques are solid. More importantly, this is family.”
After the battle with Majina ended and the mourning period was over, the girl had changed into a brighter colored kimono once more.
The stuffed animal-like Mamedanuki sounded worried, but Hafuri smiled faintly and placed her hand on the entrance. It was more of a gate than a door. Even without a lock, its pure thickness and weight made the wooden door difficult to open. Its design was as complex as parquetry and it would strictly prevent anyone aside from Hafuri and a very few caretakers to open it.
Something flowed out from the darkness beyond the slight crack that opened.
That alone changed the air. The atmosphere seemed to swallow her up.
Or perhaps it could be called the age itself.
Even the concepts of time and distance were cut off by that deep darkness to preserve its isolation.
She gathered all her strength in her small hands and the gate easily opened as if its thickness and weight were a lie.
Two tearooms were contained within.
The one Hafuri stepped into had wooden flooring and the other had a tatami mat floor.
The two tearooms were separated by a sturdy lattice of peach wood which was known to destroy evil and the only way between the two was a small door that even a child like Hafuri would need to duck down to pass through.
It was a traditional Japanese-style cell.
“Mother,” she called out.
The candles in the candlesticks faintly illuminated her skin in the darkness.
She did not hear the rustling of clothing or even any breathing.
Nevertheless, someone was there.
She had glossy black hair cut at the shoulder, much like Hafuri. She had smooth skin that was far from healthy but required far more than just the word “alluring” to describe. Beyond the veil that thinly covered half her face, two differently-colored and unblinking eyes pierced Hafuri. The woman’s white yukata was falling from her shoulders and she made no attempt to hide her ample bodylines as she sat with her legs turned to one side. She looked like a nonliving ornament or like a hallucination. The head-mounted display around her neck had a horribly modern streamlined shape that seemed to stand out within the fog.
This was the Hyakki Yakou Special-Made Ver. 40 Zashiki Warashi.
This was Mei.
This was the girl’s mother.
“How have you been?”
The sexy Youkai did not respond to Hafuri’s question.
The girl herself had trouble deciding what she wanted here. Imprisonment in this evil-destroying cell was a last ditch attempt to suppress the Ver. 40’s power to change the world’s destiny, but she did not even know if that was the right thing to do. There was no precedent for this. The Venom Clairvoyant, who could see into the gaps between every world regardless of causality and the timeline, had given her approval, but even she had no way of proving the accuracy of what she saw. It was possible even she was being guided and manipulated.
Mei said nothing.
She did not utter a single word, she did not stir, and it was suspect whether she was even breathing or her heart was beating. Without her caretakers, she would likely have a thin layer of dust on her hair and shoulders. It was as if her controller had been lost with the death of a certain man.
And that was why Hafuri began to think she was really just speaking with herself here.
“We may have destroyed what you were working toward.”
Words which would never receive a response escaped the girl’s lips like the starting few drops of a downpour.
“And that may have brought the very world you feared.”
Mei did not move.
She was as motionless as an abandoned toy or doll.
“But we do not regret our choice.”
Nevertheless, the words did not stop.
That isolated cell was filled with a wordless pressure, a silent headwind, and an incredible sense of futility, but Hafuri spoke to shake off that weight of her own creation.
“There may be nothing we can do and we may be approaching the peak of foolishness by sitting idly by and leaving the fate of the world in the hands of an amateur high school boy, but we will remain proud that we opposed your attempt to solve this with an all-encompassing zombie outbreak. I may never have learned anything from you – no, from you two – directly, but I have learned one thing.”
She calmly looked directly into those unfocused eyes.
She persistently looked directly into those pupils that simply reflected the candlelight.
“I am a foolish and powerless half-breed,” clearly stated Hafuri. “I lack the immortal body of a Youkai and I may lack the proper blood needed to rule as this organization’s human leader.”
She placed a hand on her flat chest. She accepted, pondered, and spoke the fact that had shaken her very existence.
“But that is why I will make this foolish attempt once more in the very, very end. We have passed the crossroads and there are no theoretical means left, but I will still struggle. The Hyakki Yakou that currently exists, the Hyakki Yakou that you wished for, and the Hyakki Yakou I wish to create may all be different things, but that is why I will show you the Hyakki Yakou I brought about on my own, not one that was given to me.”
She had said all she needed to say.
She had finished facing herself, rather than her mother.
She had gathered her feelings.
She bowed and prepared to turn her back on the evil-destroying peach lattice, but then something unbelievable happened.
The Zashiki Warashi in a white yukata moved.
It was a small thing. As Mei sat near the lattice, she slowly brought her right hand to her chest and tapped the head-mounted display with her index finger. But even that miniscule change was enough of a shock to erase all thought from Hafuri’s mind. From a causality viewpoint, this was as ridiculous as the earth suddenly reversing direction in its orbit around the sun.
It took her more than a minute before she finally moved her numbed tongue and spoke a new word.
That was all.
During battle, this current leader of Hyakki Yakou could meet one hundred situations with one hundred strategies and plan out her possibilities one hundred steps in advance, but that one word was all she could produce with the full use of her mind.
Mei of course did not reply.
She only tapped the device around her neck once more.
Hafuri reached a small hand into the cell. The gaps in the lattice were large enough that a child like her could fit her head through if she wanted to. Mei put up no resistance as Hafuri gently removed the head-mounted display and took it. She toyed with the device that retained her mother’s warmth and the scent of her hair. It had no cables connected to it, but did that mean it was a standalone device or did Mei have a wireless video player in her yukata? It was hard to tell, but Hafuri finally placed the display over her eyes, fixed it in place with the multiple rubber straps, felt for the button near her temple, and pressed it.
The concept of a screen did not really apply.
From Hafuri’s point of view, it looked like a life-sized human being was standing in the darkness in front of her.
And that person was Majina, the leader of the old Hyakki Yakou.
“Hi, Hafuri. This is probably a bit of a shock since Mei doesn’t speak much, so did I surprise you? It’s your dad.”
Her tall father had his long hair tied back. That man had swapped an eye with his wife Mei. With his anachronistic dress clothes and monocle, he seemed to have stepped out of a painting of old nobility. He was not looking at Hafuri as he spoke. This was nothing more than a recording of the past. And yet young Hafuri was unable to escape his eyes.
Was that because she had yet to rid herself of her fear for this powerful enemy?
Or did it come from some other emotion?
“If you’ve come across this footage…or rather, if you’ve managed to make physical contact with Mei who can distort the world, I should assume I’m no longer with you. It’s not a future I like to think about, but it’s also something of a complicated feeling. Maybe this is how a father feels when he sees his daughter leaving him.”
The past image of Majina continued speaking to his shocked daughter.
“Always prepare for the worst. Make sure a path to resisting the Bloodstained Zashiki Warashi remains no matter how this ends. Hafuri, this may qualify as meddling since you’ve already left me, but allow me to give you a parting gift as we head in different directions at this fork in the road. It is up to you whether you will actually use it or not.”
It happened suddenly.
Light entered the darkness filling her vision. It revealed a wall. It was likely somewhere in Mikuchi-sama, that pit in Mt. Boseki that had acted as the center of the zombie outbreak. The wall of a crude wooden shack was covered in so much old Japanese paper that she could not see the color of the wall behind it.
The papers all contained the greatest secrets of Hyakki Yakou.
Some were diagrams, some were ritual prayers, and some were patterns.
But this was not just a random arrangement. The massive amount of information had a point in common.
“The Zashiki Warashi…?”
“Let me be blunt. If you use these 108 secret rituals to their fullest, you will arrive at the same zombie outbreak as I did. But you rejected that. In that case, let’s cut the conditions in half. You need to use the same material I had, yet walk a different path than me. This contains a method of amplifying a Zashiki Warashi’s power and a method of intentionally breaking the balance of a half-Zashiki Warashi like you. There are methods of killing Youkai and methods of using them. How you use this is up to you. Please complete a recipe that I could not think of.”
Hafuri was still overwhelmed, but Majina winked at her as if he were enjoying himself.
“My only useless advice is to keep an eye on Jinnai Shinobu-kun in the Intellectual Village named Noukotsu Village. I can’t imagine I would lose, but if it does happen, it wouldn’t be from a clash with the greatest force of the pre-established harmony like the Top 5. It would have to be a surprise element like him. Does that ring a bell? If so, then rely on that. He can get along with any Youkai. As a half-Youkai, it’s up to you who you want to rely on, but I’m sure he’ll help you.”
Majina then cut himself off with a truly powerful “but”.
His next words were set up by that denial.
Hafuri found herself putting up her guard as her father made a solemn prophecy.
“Do not take that Youkai-attracting side of him lightly. Grow careless and you too will fall victim to it. Now, I want to believe in Jinnai Shinobu-kun’s conscience, but…no, no. I just can’t carelessly place my trust in him here!!”
Hafuri fell silent, but the past image of Majina did not stop.
“I brought Mei to meet you during the battle with the Aoandon, but she saw Shinobu-kun then too, didn’t she? Oh, I’m worried! I’m so worried! He’s apparently completely won over the red one, so I have no proof the exact same logic won’t work on the white one! And a half-Zashiki Warashi like you is in danger too!! Oh, I just can’t imagine I would die, but if that does happen, it would make sense that Mei would leave Hyakki Yakou. But if you’re viewing this video, it means some kind of powerful anchor kept her in place. The odds are pretty good it would be Shinobu-kun’s ability to attract Youkai that would keep her from wandering off and that means my death brings the serious possibility of both Mei and Hafuri falling for him. That’s all the more reason I can’t afford to lose!!”
Hafuri felt like her mouth had become a small triangle.
“Hey…hey, Hafuri? Can I ask you something? Mei would definitely punch me if she heard this, so I can’t be too open about it…but in ‘that world’ where I’ve died, Mei isn’t showing any odd signs, is she? No! I trust my wife!! But! But!! If you are seeing any hints of change, then find any time you can while dealing with the Bloodstained Zashiki Warashi and use it to stop Mei!! A-ahem. Listen, Hafuri. This isn’t just the vain struggles of a pathetic man who’s having his wife and daughter stolen at the same time. We’re talking about the Ver. 39 – that is, the Bloodstained Zashiki Warashi – and the completed Ver. 40. Oh, and you, the half-Zashiki Warashi with unknown hidden possibilities. It would be very, very bad if all three of you fall into Shinobu-kun’s hands. Far too much of the world’s causality would be concentrated in a single point! To make sure he doesn’t become the next Alexander the Great…yes, to protect the future of the mankind, you need to protect Mei!! Please!!”
Hafuri briefly thought about forgetting everything, tearing the device from her head, and throwing it to the floor, but then a hand reached in from outside her vision.
It belonged to the Hyakki Yakou Special-Made Ver. 40 Zashiki Warashi. That is, to her mother.
Hafuri removed the head-mounted display as if to shake off the past image of Majina that continued to cling regretfully to her and she found Mei’s hand reaching out through the peach lattice.
That hand was preventing her from destroying the device, but it was somehow reminiscent of a mother rubbing her child’s head.
Hafuri stared blankly for a moment but finally understood.
(That’s…that’s right… Even this may be a part of the Bloodstained Zashiki Warashi’s ruinous destiny.)
She would have destroyed that valuable information.
She would have closed that path.
No grand violence was necessary. Slight coincidences would coincide and bits of bad luck would pass by at the worst possible moment. That was why this kind of message had reached Hafuri in her current mental state. It may have looked comical at first glance, but impulsively slamming the device to the floor might have meant losing the 108 secret rituals of the old Hyakki Yakou.
Mei had noticed and stopped her daughter.
Even as the evil-destroying peach restrained her power, she was resisting the Bloodstained Zashiki Warashi.
That was the gap between the completed Ver. 40 and a half-Zashiki Warashi like Hafuri.
It was an overwhelming difference.
Even after losing her beloved, losing her very raison d'être, and being weakened by the current Hyakki Yakou’s greatest seal, she remained on the side of protection. The actual action may have been small, but not even Hafuri could imagine how many threads of fate she had needed to slip past to reach that point.
That was a Zashiki Warashi.
They had no fierce fangs or claws, but they could perceive and control destiny to bring great fortune.
They sought no reason or reward from that fortune.
Mei’s lips parted slightly.
The Ver. 40 did not even need to breathe, so this had to be to communicate her thoughts.
Hafuri had not heard her voice since bringing her here.
In fact, Hafuri had not heard her voice from the day she had been born.
Hafuri focused on Mei’s lips so she could read the words on them even without an actual voice, but Mei did produce a scratchy voice.
“…What kind of person is this Jinnai Shinobu? I’m a little curious…”
A distant look entered Hafuri’s eyes as she realized how much she needed to brace herself.
By about the second year of middle school, Shinobu had stopped hiding his words.
Instead of the Buddhist altar room, they had been inside the room newly prepared for the Zashiki Warashi. (Needless to say, this was because that Indoor Youkai had gathered so much manga, games, and other entertainment items that they were hesitant to invite their relatives and the Buddhist priest to the memorial services.) They had been speaking while playing a dance game using a special mat controller.
The controller had rows of foot buttons lined up like a certain foreign party game and multiple people were meant to step on them.
This had naturally created a troublesome problem.
“Those things swaying in front of my eyes are in the way. They’re distracting me when we’re supposed to be working together! Sometimes they nearly slap me, so do something about those rampaging 98 cm!!”
“Are you not even trying to hide your vulgar side anymore!?”
“The only thing that needs to be hidden right now are your breasts! At least do something during these harder dances. They’re right there on the verge of popping out, and that’s worst of all!! I can’t focus!! If you’re gonna do that, you might as well just pull the whole things out!!”
Shinobu had dyed his hair blond, perhaps to copy his Uncle Hayabusa during his high school days, and the Zashiki Warashi’s heart trembled as he shouted at her.
Was this okay?
Was this really okay?
What had happened to the Jinnai Shinobu whose eyes had sparkled as he said he could get along with any Youkai!? Could she really allow a rebellious phase like this!? She was frightened by how quickly humans changed because they were bound by their lifespans.
“I don’t want to hear that from you!!”
“You used to be so considerate and caring, so how did you end up like this? You get noticeably more good-for-nothing every day and you’re only getting any better at pointless skills like online gaming and trolling message boards. I mean, your entire life cycle is messed up. How many potato chips do you go through in a day? It only works because you’re a Youkai. If you were a normal human, you’d be one of those unbelievably fat foreigners who need to be rescued because they can’t leave their room.”
The Zashiki Warashi had only turned out that way because Shinobu had taught her about human entertainment, but he had not noticed his own influence on her.
“Yes, yes. But this is fine. Playing is part of a Zashiki Warashi’s job.”
“That’s one hell of an argument. And it’s poison for me since I have to start thinking about entrance exams soon.”
Their feet had not missed a beat even as they spoke to each other. While the Zashiki Warashi had worked hard at this every day (so she could play with Shinobu), Shinobu had simply been good at it. The game came down to how one used their feet, but he would occasionally ignore the example by using his hands, turn his back to the screen while maintaining perfect timing, or do something reminiscent of breakdancing.
“Oh, right. Hey, Zashiki Warashi?”
“What? I’m not returning your smartwatch yet, if that’s what it’s about.”
“Give it back! That thing’s popularity is gonna be shorter-lived than a cicada, so I need to show it off to my class while I can! Oh, but that’s not what I was going to say.”
“Then what is it?”
“Well.” They had both looked to the screen while side by side. “I’ve started going out with Nagisa.”
A beeping much like a quiz show’s “wrong answer” buzzer had played from the flat screen TV.
“You idiot! That was the entrance to the bonus zone! Why would you miss that!?”
“Eh? Oh, sorry, Shinobu.”
The Zashiki Warashi had slowly gotten back on track, but her movements had lacked their previous edge.
“Get it together. I’m helping you unlock the hidden character for your account, so we need to get over eighty thousand points. I don’t want to repeat the same song again and again.”
Shinobu had complained, but the Zashiki Warashi had not been listening. In fact, her head had been filled with question marks.
She had been forcibly trying to verbalize something she had not understood.
Huh? Why do I feel hurt by that?
Why is there a hole in my chest?
In fact, was there even something in my chest to get a hole in it?
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