The Zashiki Warashi of Intellectual Village:Volume9 Chapter 4
Chapter 4: Be Dyed in [email protected]???
Part 1 (Jinnai Shinobu)
Let’s go back over the conditions.
There are apparently two broad categories of Zashiki Warashi.
The normal Zashiki Warashi that preferred to wear a white kimono protected one’s assets and happiness.
The dangerous Zashiki Warashi that preferred to wear a red kimono brought bankruptcy and ruin.
It isn’t actually known whether they are entirely different species or if the clothing they wear changes depending on certain conditions and the timing. When it comes to Zashiki Warashi, there are even theories that they settle down alone and theories that they do so as twins.
Regardless, our Yukari preferred to wear a red yukata.
That meant she was the Bloodstained Zashiki Warashi.
Normally, that would only wipe out the family from food poisoning or a fire. It would never destroy a country or the world. I think Majina had said the Jinnai family only lasted more than a century with the Zashiki Warashi with us because of our great fortune and assets. We had earned more than was being taken away. We had handled that misfortune just fine. Our ancestors had been monsters in their own way.
But that would not last forever.
For one thing, Yukari was not just “any old” Zashiki Warashi.
She was the Hyakki Yakou Prototype Ver. 39 Zashiki Warashi.
She was a special Zashiki Warashi that had been given the ability to distort the world’s destiny not just by Hyakki Yakou but by techniques they considered to be lost.
I had no idea why the Hyakki Yakou of the time had wanted to give something as dreadful as the Ver. 39 to Yukari who had been “red” from the beginning. She may have been the only sample they had to work with and they may have wanted to use the power of destiny for military purposes by intentionally spreading that ruinous power.
That didn’t matter now.
That combination had led to the current unbelievable situation.
The world would end if we didn’t do something.
The multiple credit rating agencies and the world’s inability to measure the value of government bonds was one way that would happen, but it was not the only way. Unless we dealt with this at a fundamental level, fixing the global economy would solve nothing. Ruin would arrive again in some other form and it would keep happening until it worked.
“So what exactly are you going to do?”
The Nekomata approached while I was looking up at the moon and thinking on the porch.
“You’re true to your desires, so I doubt you would be satisfied with a beautifully platonic ending of waiting for the end in your lover’s arms as the world falls to ruin around you. There’s still a lot you want to do, so what will you do about it?”
“I can’t mess with the Ver. 39.”
I quietly answered and my voice vanished into the night air that was a little chilly in just a hoodie and shirt.
“Not even the current Hyakki Yakou understands it, so an amateur high school boy can’t mess with it. The Ver. 40…Mei, was it? Anyway, things might be different if we had her body to look at, but even that wouldn’t help much. Besides, Majina was enough of an expert to create the Ver. 40 from scratch and even he threw in the towel. I doubt we can do anything on that front. I expect she’d either lose control of destiny or die of a ruptured organ. Both of those options are unacceptable.”
“Then you’re going with the other condition?”
“Yeah.” I moved my eyes from the moon to the Nekomata. “The dangerous Zashiki Warashi prefers red. Doesn’t it seem like we could figure something out about that rather than grasping at a cloud with the Ver. 39?”
“Does it? They both seem unlikely to me. Besides, what does it mean to prefer a color? If the Zashiki Warashi announces she’ll start wearing a white yukata from now on, will all this chaos settle down? Does she just have to avoid red day after day? I seriously doubt it’s that simple.”
She had to switch from red to white.
The issue of preference was clear, but changing it would be difficult.
If a child hated carrots, it was still possible to make him eat them. You could discipline him until he would eat every last one. Or you could chop them up and mix them in with fried rice or Salisbury steak to get him to eat them without knowing it. But wouldn’t it be far more difficult to actually making him like carrots? In fact, was it even possible?
You often hear people say their tastes changed when they grew up, but that would be entirely up to coincidence. I didn’t think it was something you could intentionally cause by human means.
So if I was trying to distort that, there was only one way to describe it.
“What is it?”
“I think I’m about to do the worst thing in the world. This might even be something Majina avoided, so I don’t care if you look down on me for it.”
“But don’t stop me.”
I spoke quietly yet powerfully to the silent Nekomata.
“If she’ll walk by my side and if there’s still a way of doing everything I still want to do, then I’ll do anything. I’ve finally found something that makes me think my principles can come second. So don’t you stop me. I’ll never give up before doing this.”
I heard a sigh that almost sounded like a laugh.
The cat couldn’t form facial expressions, though.
“Then do what you want. I haven’t exactly lived a praiseworthy life, but I have no intention of regretting it.”
Saying it and having someone else hear it seemed to have cleared things up for me.
What I was doing here was kind of like rejecting my past actions. I had run across many different Packages, analyzed their structure, determined the weakness of the Youkai being used, and turned everything around at the last second.
I had even defeated Majina, the leader of the old Hyakki Yakou, like that, but now I would be doing the opposite.
“I will create a Package.”
I said it.
I finally said it.
“I will personally create a Package that suppresses that dangerous trait so I can walk alongside the girl I’ve fallen for.”
The Nekomata did not curl up on the spot.
She continued standing tall and looked up into my eyes.
She was being courteous because this was not something to listen to while curled up.
“Oh? So this time your love isn’t shallow enough to joke about?”
“Well, I was always this serious at the time…”
“But you always ran off. Whenever you sensed you couldn’t deal with it any longer, you had a habit of backing out. That’s how you preserved your peaceful life rather than going for something akin to a heroic double suicide. You can’t deny that.”
“But something was different this time. You can actually face what you want to protect, even if that means burning away your own body. I suppose you could say the eggshell has finally fallen away from the chick’s tail.”
That may have been true.
I had no real proof, but I had a feeling that if the world tried to kill the Zashiki Warashi to protect its peace, I would not have hesitated to become a being that could destroy the world. And this wasn’t just an adolescent delusion. I really did think that might be the case.
“So where are you going to start? We’re talking about a criminal Package here. No matter how hard you work, you can’t do that on your own. You need dozens if not hundreds of people, specialized knowledge, and a Youkai to build into it. The Ver. 39 power is connected to the whole world, so you’ll have to keep this quiet. You can’t have someone slipping in a backdoor after all. You were already planning to get me involved, weren’t you? But who else are you going to use?”
“Isn’t it obvious?”
I breathed in and looked up to the moon again.
“I’ll use everything I can.”
Part 2 (Jinnai Shinobu)
The answer had been in front of my eyes all along.
It had been hanging in front of my eyes since ten years ago.
“This construction paper?”
All of the Youkai except the Zashiki Warashi were gathered in the living room and I showed them the child’s drawing I had dug from the back of the closet. It was the original of what I had on my smartphone.
Humans and Youkai were smiling in a circle and the words “We’re All Friends” were written over their heads.
But that wasn’t the point.
That wasn’t what I wanted to take from it.
“Look at this, everyone.”
I pointed at one point on the edge of the construction paper.
“Um, is that the sun?”
The Succubus looked puzzled. It was just a spiraling circle drawn in red crayon, so she looked skeptical that it could really help solve this worldwide problem.
But it could.
It was the key to the one and only right answer.
“That’s right. Think about it. The sun is red. I think any kid would draw it that way, but it’s weird if you think about it. If you look up in the blue sky, you aren’t going to see a red sun there.”
“But if you pass a kid a crayon, they’ll all use red to draw the sun. Why? Because they aren’t looking up at the sun to check on the color. It’s based on the image in their head. It’s a mass of fire, so of course they think it’s red. They redraw the actual scene with their imaginary color. That’s why they picture the sun as red despite what the actual scene shows.”
Some of them seemed to be gradually catching on.
Marguerite the Witch cut in while rubbing her chin with her slender fingers.
“Those are called memory colors, right? The concept is widely used in the field of magic. Fire is red, water is blue, wind is yellow, and earth is green. By coloring your cards and weapons accordingly, you can picture things more easily during certain rituals.”
“The Bloodstained Zashiki Warashi prefers to wear a red yukata. We can’t change that part. After all, she’s been doing that for centuries and it’s indelibly stained her heart. Confiscating her yukata and throwing white clothes at her wouldn’t change the fact that she loves red, so it wouldn’t free her from the bonds of the Bloodstained Zashiki Warashi.”
“So you’ll use memory colors?” asked the Aburatori. “You’ll have her focus on the color in her head over the color she sees? Wait, do you mean…!?”
“Yes,” I confirmed. “What if the kimono she grabs, thinking its red, is actually white?”
Everyone there gasped.
It wasn’t an issue of her body. We were talking about her mind, about her perception.
This was the worst possible method, but it was the only way of overcoming this incident without anyone dying.
“We’ll overturn her perception of color. We’ll turn red to white and white to red.”
If this didn’t get through to them it was all over.
If they said it was unrealistic, unusable, inhumane, or cruel and then rejected it, the path would close off.
After all, I didn’t have the skills or manpower to do this. Convincing everyone was absolutely necessary to save the Zashiki Warashi.
But that was exactly why I had to tell them this. If I hid anything, I would never gain their trust, so I could only lay out everything I had and pray!
I was no hero.
I was saying I would be dragging them all into a criminal Package!
“With a Package like that, she would think she loved red while actually always choosing white! If it worked, she would unwittingly become a white Zashiki Warashi!”
Had it worked?
I had thought and thought until my mind boiled over to come up with this answer, but what would they think of it? It was absurd and silly, but had I built up enough trust for them to go along with it? Or would they flinch back at the thought of messing with her mind.
“Sounds good to me.”
The Aoandon spoke up slowly without thinking too deeply about it.
“I honestly thought my mama would end up being that human girl named Kotemitsu, but that’s your decision, papa. And I guess you could switch between a Youkai mama and a human mama. But based on what I’ve heard, it makes sense. If a Zashiki Warashi’s traits hinge on red or white, guiding her to choose the color of her own free will isn’t a bad idea. If we were talking about a human, I could just use this.”
She gently stroked the single horn growing from her forehead.
Its phosphorescent light provided a form of hypnosis.
This wasn’t an issue of good or evil and she was not empathizing with me. To her, manipulating someone else to one’s own end may have been a perfectly normal thing to do. It also might have helped that she herself was bound by the color blue.
“My thoughts on it are complex, but I can’t come up with a better idea,” said the Furutsubaki (Small). “And shooting down every idea while just sitting around won’t improve the situation. The only other options are to wait for the world to fall apart or to have someone else kill the Zashiki Warashi and I flatly refuse to do either of those. In that case, I can only bet on Jinnai Shinobu’s suggestion.”
“I call myself a guardian deity of children. A Zashiki Warashi is a collection of the young children killed during famines, so I don’t like the sound of treating her so crudely. But if you are shorthanded, just ask.”
Then the Aburatori gave his approval.
The Nekomata used her back paw to scratch her ear while sitting on the tea table.
“I’m more worried about the old woman than the Zashiki Warashi. She hasn’t had any time to rest since this unnatural age of mass consumption started. I’m willing to help if it will bring an end to that.”
“I would love to have a chance to learn about Eastern Packages rather than Western magic,” said Marguerite the Witch. “Plus, I’m nearly a refugee here, so I wouldn’t want to lose this home.”
“Well, you are my current master right now,” said the Succubus. “With our contract, I won’t stop you if you’re willing to risk your life on this. A demon will continue obeying as long as it continues to benefit her.”
The Yuki Onna was the last to speak.
“I don’t really like doing anything to help that filthy Youkai…”
The deadly Youkai sighed as everyone focused on her.
A diamond dust atmosphere glittered around her and she continued as if having given up.
“But abandoning her here would probably greatly change Jinnai Shinobu’s nature. It is truly unfortunate, but I do need to keep him in the form I want him…”
That settled it.
If we got down to who benefitted the most from this, it would of course be the Zashiki Warashi and me, but they would stick with me regardless. Creating a criminal Package was wrong. No matter what it actually did, the simple idea of “using” a Youkai could easily have filled them with disgust.
I could only bow my head to these idiots for gong along with my selfishness.
“You need to proudly thank us instead. You’re going to take on the world for the girl you love, right? What about that requires curling up in shame?”
The Aburatori quickly corrected me.
When I raised my head, the Aoandon cut in.
“But what will you do? When it comes to knowledge and techniques, I would know a lot about Eastern stuff and Marguerite would probably know a lot about Western magic, but you’ll need more than that to build a Package. You need to observe the Youkai involved, accurately grasp her legends, distort or enlarge a portion to match your objective, build in symbols with specific physical items, and spiritually link them together. That requires at least a few dozen people and at most a few hundred. Do you have anyone you can rely on?”
“Sorry, but can you draw up the plans for the Package I want? I want to start recruiting help after we have the preliminary calculations done.”
“Fine, but where are you going to find these people? Surely you don’t mean the students at your school.”
I could not help but smile at that.
For the time being, I would cast aside all my principles and I could violate any taboo if it meant saving the world from this ruinous destiny and walking alongside the Zashiki Warashi once more.
So I said it.
“How many Youkai do you think I’ve dealt with in the past?”
“You don’t mean…?”
I had made up my mind. I would use everything I could. Giving up before I’d even tried, abandoning her in this crisis she was entirely unaware of, and then regretting it was the one thing I couldn’t do.
So I would bear any sin and I would accept any punishment.
I couldn’t hold up the pure goal of saving the Zashiki Warashi to dull people’s conscience and guilt as I dragged them into something as crazy as a criminal Package while remaining clean myself.
I placed my left hand on my right shoulder and rotated my dominant arm.
And I suggested something I really should not have let myself do.
“Youkai seem to like me, so I’m gonna intentionally use that for once.”
Part 3 (3rd person)
——It began inside Noukotsu Village.
“Hey, Umbrella, a letter just arrived.”
“Hm? It’s for the Youkai directly rather than our master or his mother? How rare. Let’s take a look.”
“Oh, my. Do you think we should call for the Mayoiga too?”
“Yes, Lantern. Let’s call the new Fuguruma-Youbi as well. This is a good opportunity for her to get to know everyone.”
“The Jatai and Kosode-no-Te are saying they want in too.”
——An old-fashioned postcard with an attached reply card arrived at a distant seaside town.
“H-hey, that’s a Shichinin Misaki, isn’t it? Don’t you die if you meet one…?”
“Shh! It looks like they’re distracted by something… Are they reading a letter? Anyway, we need to run away!! Don’t give up hope! This’ll work out somehow!!”
“But there’s a mermaid over there. Don’t you gain immortality by eating their meat!?”
“And how are you going to cook up a mermaid that’s immune to physical attacks? And let me tell you something more fundamental: The people who get greedy at times like this are the ones who die! So run!!”
——Another postcard arrived at the even more distant land of Okinawa.
A Shisa held it in his mouth while running to a familiar Kijimuna for advice.
“I am Shisa. That Jinnai Shinobu guy is in trouble. What should we do?”
“… (sway sway)”
The lion-like decoration and the Chinese banyan tree continued speaking like that.
——A middle-aged man gave a postcard a concerned look at the tollbooth for the Four Mountains Junction where multiple highways intersected.
“A postcard for Zenmetsu Village? Are you serious? This thing isn’t cursed, is it?”
When he looked away for just a moment, a snake about as thick as a pinky finger grabbed the postcard in its mouth and carried it away.
It was a Toubyou.
They were hiding all around and quietly discussing the postcard, but the middle-aged man was oblivious.
“What, is that thing really cursed!? I’ve got the night shift coming up, you know!?”
——A few postcards were delivered via the special casino district of Goldmine Island.
The first one was sent to the Gold Crane Inn that Jinnai Shinobu had stayed at.
“Oh? A postcard from a guest. How unusual. And it even comes with a gift.”
“Let’s see… A Zashiki Warashi? Isn’t that like a relative of ours?”
“It’s more like they’re the main family and we’re the branch families.”
They were a Notabariko, an Usuhiki Warashi, and a Kura Bokko.
However, there was actually another Usuhiki Warashi on Goldmine Island.
Her mini-yukata was worn off the shoulders, so the girl seemed to be wearing a tube top dress as she ran around behind the casinos.
She held an identical postcard in her hand.
One of the postcards was sent from Goldmine Island to the United States via airmail.
Hasukawa Yumi frowned when she saw the strange postcard that slipped through the gaps in the naval blockade.
(To think he would use the world’s top intelligence agency to relay a message…)
It was being sent to the Kechibi, Ubume, and Amanojaku at the base of the Package they had used.
If a Package was being made to interfere with the Bloodstained Zashiki Warashi that was causing the global chaos, the CIA had a chance to add in whatever they might want.
Hasukawa Yumi thought for a moment about where to send the postcard.
(But unfortunately, I owe him one.)
She sighed just once.
She then erased a few records and sent the postcard along while making sure it would not be seen by Sid Clouds, her boss in name only.
Lastly, one was transferred to Shikoku from Kyushu’s Goldmine Island.
“Tanuki, Fox, Badger. You have a postcard.”
When the small girl called for them, three Youkai who looked like stuffed animals rushed out. It was a commonplace ready-built house, but a span of two generations from grandchild to grandmother lived there and it even had its own gardener, nurse, and bodyguard.
“Ohh, it’s from Jinnai Shinobu! I haven’t heard that name in a while!”
“My, my. But based on what it says, we can’t just rejoice about this…”
“Not a problem. I didn’t like being indebted to him anyway, so we should actually be thankful for this chance to repay him!”
——A postcard arrived for Ranzono Sachi at her juvenile hall.
When she read the text with the small centipede that crawled in through the gaps in the bars, her friend spoke to her.
“Sorry, Sachi. I know you’ll be lonely, but the time has come to repay that boy for what he did for us.”
“Hee hee. Even the picture books talk about your concept of repaying debts, so you don’t have to be so formal. More importantly, why not bring the others? The Tsuchigumo, the Nue, the Gama, the Uwabami, the Tesso, the Takebunkani, the Sarugami, and the Baku… Heh heh. They’re all really nice, so I’m sure they’ll help out.”
A small bird could be heard chirping, but it was nowhere to be seen.
“Heh heh. Yes, there was an Okuri-Suzume as well, wasn’t there?”
——Many a postcard were sent out over the country based on old memories.
“Oh, it’s been so long since I visited the Jinnai place… I never did get Shinobu-chan to carry me, so maybe I should stop by again!”
“Eh heh heh. I think it’s about time I approached Shinobu-chan about ‘that’.”
An Onbu-Obake and a Kaki Otoko were saying some dangerous things.
“This Ubu only ever says ‘babuu’ and ‘ogyah’, but the disobedient Tsuchigumo have a soft spot for abandoned kittens on a rainy day!!”
An Ubu and a Tsuchigumo moved their legs along.
“Heh. Ever since Shinobu-chan showed me a whole new world, I’ve always kept carbonated drinks in my head plate.”
“I am a Nopperabou, but I think people would actually be more surprised if I had eyes and a nose drawn on with black pen.”
A Kappa and Nopperabou were discussing something.
“Ho ho ho. He’s still such a spoiled child. Perhaps I, the Kyuubi, should pay him a visit.”
“C’mon, you wild fox, you just want to enjoy the festivities. As the Kuzunoha, I will make sure to train him properly.”
The Kyuubi and Kuzunoha.
“Yayyyyyyyyyyyyyy!! This is Tanuki☆Bayashiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii! Today, I think I’ll introduce you all to a passionate fan letter we receeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeived!”
“I’m more than willing to help, but I don’t want him to expect too much. The Nurarihyon may be known as the leader of all Youkai, but I was originally just an Umibouzu.”
“I’m an Oni! Not many homes only do the bringing fortune inside part, so I need that shelter for February 3!!”
There were even five Tanuki, a Nurarihyon, and an Oni.
“Scurry scurry (Playing house with Shinobu-chan was fun.)”
“That’s right. A God of Poverty like me probably should have been worshipped there originally.”
“I don’t know what an Akaname can do, but I’ll head there if he wants it.”
A Kodoku, a God of Poverty, and an Akaname.
“I am a Nurikabe. I came running when I heard Shinobu-chan was in trouble.”
“I, an Ittan-Momen, am here too.”
“Then quit blocking the road! Do you want a Yagyou-san like me to kick you with my headless horse!?”
“Now, now. Infighting won’t get us anywhere. How can you look a Dorotabou like me in the face and think otherwise?”
“I didn’t know a Dorotabou could walk on the road like normal. My single eye is quite shocked.”
A Nurikabe, an Ittan-Momen, a Yagyou-san, a Dorotabou, and a Hitotsume-Kozou.
——In neighboring Bozen City, a postcard arrived at the supposedly abandoned dog square.
“It hasn’t been long since that zombie outbreak, so what is it now?”
The creeped-out part-time delivery boy had considered throwing away the postcard countless times on the way, but he had been afraid that would get him cursed.
Then he saw a giant ball of light shoot up from the peak of the dormant volcano.
“Gyawah!! What!? Is that a UFO!!!???”
Few people knew the original form of the Youkai known as a Kasha.
——A few postcards were delivered to Shinobu’s Uncle Uchimaku Hayabusa rather than the Youkai.
“Hm? I’m supposed to deliver these to any Youkai I can think of?”
“Um, there was Zashou Island’s Funa Yuurei and Nure Onna, the Jinmensou from the Tsumada Mio stuff, and…well, we can ignore the Aoandon from Zenmetsu village and the Aburatori from the Tarot Girls 22 stuff, but there was also the Yamanba from the Ubasute Apartments, right?”
“Come to think of it, what ever happened to Toujou Miyabi’s Inugami?”
“Oh, right. And there was a Jorougumo too.”
——And a few more were delivered to Hishigami Mai.
“What kind of paranormal power did he use to deliver these to me when no one knows my real name!? Jinnai Shinobu’s gotten pretty good since I last saw him!!”
“Perhaps so. Munch, munch. This squid somen is delicious.”
“Hey, you damn Shikigami. Don’t tell me you’ve gotten so attached to him you’ve started leaking my information. First the detective and now the blond? How unfaithful are you!? I shouldn’t be having this much trouble controlling a Shikigami!”
“I have no idea what you are talking about. More importantly, what will you do?”
“Playing it safe would get Hyakki Yakou wrapped up in this…but it’s interesting that these came to me rather than the young lady. Is the boy already thinking about the power balance? Or is he telling us to do this on our own?”
“I think I’ll go along with it and then watch to see what happens. The only Youkai I think we could use are the Monk from Amemura-chan’s family, the Inugami Gyoubu Tanuki and Osakabe-Hime from that udon shop, the Kitsunebi and Tengu connected to Shinshou Hitsubatsu, and…huh? There really aren’t that many.”
“That’s because you go around killing all of them.”
“Can that young lady really pretend to not notice when her beloved Onii-chan is in danger?”
——And lastly, back in the Jinnai home.
“Okay! We already have a Yuki Onna, a Nekomata, a Furutsubaki (Small), an Aburatori, and an Aoandon here.”
“Um, master? Aren’t you forgetting the Keseran-Pasaran and Azukiarai?”
“Heh heh. I’m glad to see you forgot about the big Furutsubaki. That’s what she gets for stealing my snacks!”
“And can you really just shove a demon like the Succubus and a witch like Marguerite into the occult category?”
“Not a problem. From the moment we make a contract with a demon, our souls are shut out of heaven but we become a being who can bring about supposedly impossible phenomena in this life.”
“But I want nothing to do with Tselika after all the torment she put me through. Come to think of it, what do we do about her? You should be able to contact her if you send a postcard to a coven in the catacombs.”
“No!! Please don’t do that!! I never want to see that Archdemon again!!”
There was little a single boy could do, but the path he had walked thus far had given him a definite answer.
He had done everything he could.
He felt definite progress each time.
He heard someone gasp.
There was “something” there that was gentle and yet stole away the entire advantage they seemed to have built up. It brought unease, fear, and a sense of danger. That invisible “something” spread through them all and seemed to reach the Youkai before a human like Shinobu. The five members of Tanuki☆Bayashi lay on their backs to play dead while the Umbrella and Lantern folded up and flattened their bodies of oiled paper.
The strange sense seemed to be arriving from the main entrance down the hall.
When Jinnai Shinobu gulped and hesitantly looked that way, he saw a familiar face there.
It was a girl of about ten with a purple kimono and black hair in a bob cut.
“Pardon my sudden visit, but surely you did not think Hyakki Yakou would fail to notice such a largescale movement.”
The Furutsubaki (Large) and Usuhiki Warashi clung to the boy’s waist.
They did not know much about the situation, so Hyakki Yakou may have looked like an organization that treated the disobedient with the attitude of the Yamato Imperial Court: kill them or force them to obey.
Shinobu exhaled, toyed with his hair, and patted the head of the white-haired Usuhiki Warashi clinging to his waist.
“I really didn’t want to get your help this time.”
“Yes, I understand your concern. If our predictions are correct, you are working to build up a strategy or Package to interfere with the Bloodstained Zashiki Warashi. If Hyakki Yakou knew your methods, the risk of us including an unwanted backdoor would rise considerably. Before even worrying about the destiny of the world, you likely wanted to avoid having a third party mess with your lover.”
The Yuki Onna belatedly ran to the front entrance.
She covered her mouth with her kimono’s sleeve, but a dangerous light filled her eyes.
“You have guts interfering at this delicate stage. We all have our own complicated reasons to try to save the Zashiki Warashi, so if you do anything that would dull our resolve, I am prepared to take actio-…”
“What is with this short girl?”
An exasperated-looking Hafuri pushed up on the Yuki Onna’s small nose with her index finger.
“Jinnai Shinobu, if you do intend to use this group, there is one thing you must consider first. Take command with a solid policy in mind. Even if you do intend it that way, the actions of any member of your organization can be taken as the intentions of the group as a whole.”
The Yuki Onna struggled and flailed her arms around, but Hafuri continued pushing on her nose and teasing her for nearly ten seconds before finally releasing her. The small jewels in her hair near the ears clacked together and produced a refreshing sound. The Yuki Onna collapsed exhausted to the floor and the nearby Tsuchigumo and Nurikabe trembled.
“H-hey, she’s one of the representative examples of a deadly Youkai, isn’t she? She’s something like the king of street fighting in the late-night back alleys, so how frightening does Hyakki Yakou have to be to defeat her so easily!? That girl must be like the gym teacher that patrols at night!!”
“I am a Nurikabe. Shinobu-chan, who is this girl? She’s giving off a scary aura, but she won’t bite, will she?”
Shinobu glanced back at the frightened Youkai hiding behind him and Hafuri breathed out through her nose.
She seemed to be used to this.
But at the same time, there was some envy in her eyes as she looked at Jinnai Shinobu…no, at that entire lineup.
“I have a suggestion.” Hafuri held a finger forward as Shinobu thought. “I would like to know what the Ver. 39…no, the Bloodstained Zashiki Warashi is doing. But you do not want Hyakki Yakou to know about the Package you will be using to control her. …Thus, I will assist you as an individual, not as the leader of Hyakki Yakou. I will supply you with everything I have, but I will not take back anything I see here. How does that sound?”
“Can you not believe a young girl’s verbal promise?”
“No, I believe you. I mean, if you really wanted to kill her or capture her for experiments, she and I could have been spirited away before we left Mt. Boseki. I owe you for that. No, I guess I could say I trust you as a person thanks to that.”
Hafuri looked a little surprised even though it had been her suggestion.
And Shinobu did not notice the change in her behavior.
“But that aside, is your position really that convenient. I understand how you feel, but will those around you really allow it?”
“Who do you think I am?”
“Majina’s daughter and the leader of Hyakki Yakou. That’s my entire point.”
“And it was my entire point as well. Doesn’t it seem extremely unusual that I appeared here alone without a single bodyguard?”
The girl in a purple kimono grinned in a way very unlike her and toyed with the jewels by her ears.
“My blood is a mixture of the pure blood of a Hyakki Yakou leader and the blood of a Zashiki Warashi. That has allowed me to control destiny, even if only slightly. It was enough to slip past the hundred generals and Top 5 of Hyakki Yakou. You can ignore that solid organization for now. It is unable to function properly for some reason.”
“Appeared here alone? I don’t want to hear that from a little girl who showed up at my house with her mother. And with matching hair accessories too. You must be close.”
“Eh? Huh? Ehh!? Mother!!”
Hafuri was confused at first, but she finally caught on after looking behind her. Yes, a sexy Youkai in a white yukata who had an almost ghostly lack of presence was standing right behind her.
It was Mei.
Without speaking a word, she looked Shinobu in the eye and silently nodded. She also gently rubbed her daughter’s head.
Meanwhile, Hafuri was anything but peaceful.
“How? What? Eh? But… Weren’t you confined to Hyakki Yakou’s most strictly guarded cell!?”
“I really doubt normal logic works with them. It feels like they can directly mess with the world’s destiny. Besides, settling down and leaving when they want is just what a Zashiki Warashi does.”
“More importantly, our Yukari apparently escaped Hyakki Yakou over a century ago. I think I’ve heard that was your golden age or something, so there’s already a precedent when things would have been even harder.”
“That’s not the point!! Why did you leave your cell and come all this way, mother? More specifically, was it to contact Jinnai Shinobu!? Depending on your answer, I might have to do everything I can to stop you as your daughter!!”
Hafuri snapped at her mother, but Mei simply patted her daughter’s head some more.
“This means you got into Noukotsu Village just fine, doesn’t it?”
“Yukari didn’t call for you, but you forced your way in. And it worked…”
Could it be? wondered Shinobu.
He may have been too conceited. It may not have been his own doing that had allowed all these Youkai to conveniently gather, that had prevented coincidences that sounded like jokes from getting in the way, and that had kept the Bloodstained Zashiki Warashi’s ruinous destiny from intercepting them. Hafuri and Mei may have briefly diverted Yukari’s power that Majina had analyzed as outdoing the Ver. 40’s during its brief spikes.
Shinobu had no way of seeing destiny.
He had no idea how exactly its threads were tangled together.
But could it be…?
“What will you do?”
The Nekomata had walked up to his feet at some point and she asked him that question.
Shinobu intentionally sighed.
After that word, he faced his inner thoughts again.
He had to remember his own catchphrase.
He muttered it below his breath: I can get along with any Youkai. You decided that already, Jinnai Shinobu.
“Understood. You aren’t Hyakki Yakou’s leader right now. You’re just an individual and one of ‘us’. Is that okay?”
This time, Jinnai Shinobu had the necessary power in hand as he smiled and looked across them all.
It really was like the crude drawing on that construction paper.
Everyone had gathered at the entrance at some point.
There was no division between human and Youkai. They all smiled together as a single group.
At first, he had thought about having them all hold hands in a ring like a scene from an adolescent drama, but there were too many of them to do that now.
In other words…
“I’m counting on you, Jinnai Shinobu’s Hyakki Yakou! We don’t need to take over the world and immortality doesn’t matter!! I only want one thing: give me your help to save the girl I’ve fallen for and to keep her from becoming a villain!!”
For a brief time, that boy would be the leader of one hundred monsters.
The world did not matter to them.
The part of the world in the light of day and the part of the world hidden by shadows was no concern of theirs.
They had just one goal: protecting that boy’s beloved girl from every unreasonable thing the world could throw at her.
Part 4 (Jinnai Shinobu)
What I would use was simple.
I could get it all in half a day with a few clicks on an online shopping site.
A red pen, a compass, a hand mirror, a plastic ruler, a glass cutter, a cardboard tube, thin red paper, an origami set, a drill, scissors, a utility knife, glue, masking tape, and lastly some crepe paper to make it look nice.
I did as I was told by using the ruler to mark the hand mirror and then I grabbed the glass cutter. The tool looked like a tiny version of a pizza cutter.
“It doesn’t have any cables or wireless capabilities, so can it really act as the core of a Package?”
“Anything can as long as it has the proper symbolism.”
Hafuri answered me with a composed voice.
Next, the Aoandon readily agreed.
“To put it another way, what were the cores of the Packages you’ve seen already? Weren’t the blatantly suspicious ones the exceptions?”
She had a point.
When I thought about it, I realize it had all been things like the sanatorium user agreement or a toy revolver. They didn’t have to be digital and high-tech and they didn’t have to be filled with strange occultism either.
I cut the mirror in thirds and placed them together into a triangular prism. The mirrored side was on the inside. Then I filled the gaps with glue and held them together with masking tape until the glue could dry.
“We have a USB fan, don’t we? Would that help it dry faster?”
“No, any unnatural interference will create ‘lumps’. It’s best to let it dry naturally. Just leave it be. Rushing this will only lead to mistakes.”
Hafuri simply narrowed her eyes and watched me work. She would say something if I messed up, but she generally just observed without giving any instructions. That may have been what she judged to be “helping as an individual but not as Hyakki Yakou”.
“The key to this Package is the color deception. It makes red into white and white into red. It doesn’t matter if it’s complete sophistry; we still win if we can reverse the perception of those colors. Is that much okay?”
“Well, I was the one to suggest it.”
I used the compass to draw a perfect circle on the cardboard and used the utility knife to cut along the line. I had to open a hole in the center…but I decided I didn’t need the drill for that. I used the point of the compass to directly tear through.
On the Aoandon’s instructions, I placed the thin red paper on top of that.
“A kaleidoscope has two holes. One to peer inside and one to let light in. If you place the thin red paper over the light opening, the inside of the kaleidoscope will be red.”
“I see, I see.”
I pulled some red paper from the origami set.
It required patience, but I cut it up with the scissors. They were basically square dots or chips only a few millimeters long. The math worked out to 108 of them in all.
“Place white paper inside and it will be dyed red. You’re looking at white, but you see red. That’s stage one.”
After making sure the quick-drying glue had dried, I removed the tape from the triangular prism.
Hafuri sighed quietly.
“It looks fine.”
I placed the mirror part inside the cardboard tube and glued it inside. The bottom was covered by the circular lid of thin red paper.
I then poured the dots and chips of origami paper inside.
“But even if they’re seeing red, someone who knows the trick will assume they’re really looking at white.”
The Aoandon grabbed the rest of the origami set and flipped the paper over.
The front side was colorful, but the back was pure white.
In other words…
“But in truth, the dots are red on one side and white on the other. That means no one knows what color the dots inside the kaleidoscope really are. The ones you think are actually white might really be red. It might be something like that cat in the box. Anyway, that completes stage two. This one kaleidoscope turns red into white and white into red.”
That just left the details.
I cut a circle in the cardboard for a large peephole. It would look more the part with glass covering that hole, but I was afraid an amateur like me would leave some small fragments behind if I tried to do that with the glass cutter. That was especially scary with something you held to your eye. Instead, I cut off a piece of the clear cellophane bag the origami set had come in. After placing that cover over the remaining upper end, I covered the side of the cardboard tube with flower-print crepe paper I thought the Zashiki Warashi would like.
This was a once-in-a-lifetime endeavor, yet it looked kind of awkward.
But maybe that was for the best.
The “We’re All Friends” construction paper was the same and I knew something had definitely been saved by that.
The Aoandon reached out and traced her finger along the outside.
“That completes the core.”
“But I can’t imagine how we’re going to link this kaleidoscope with the Zashiki Warashi. Does she just have to carry it around with her everywhere?”
“You can leave those tricky calculations to the witch. A Package isn’t something a single person can do, remember?”
“Yes, and my mother Mei and I are here to watch over things. If there is a discrepancy between the Western and Eastern methods, we can correct it for compatibility.”
“Is that how it works?” I wondered while glancing over.
The Youkai were moving all about through the thatch-roof house.
“Sigh. This is more heavy labor than I was expecting…”
“We have to make adjustments all over and we have to get it done before nightfall! Even if we got permission to head out, our master will worry if we’re out too late!!”
I asked the Aoandon a question while watching the Umbrella and Lantern’s mouths moving.
“What are they doing? Aren’t they just renovating the house!?”
“We’ll do all the detailed calculations, so don’t worry about it.”
“A Zashiki Warashi settles down in a house, so they have a strong connection to the house. Making adjustments to that house is the easiest way of altering her bodily structure. I know it isn’t exactly a happy memory, but do you remember what happened in that Fuuka Village hotel? The hotel’s blueprints were used to interfere with the Zashiki Warashi then too.”
“Of course, we’re choosing areas that don’t move much so you humans won’t mess with this when you make your own renovations.”
I heard a commotion from the ceiling, but this did not sound like more renovations.
“Oh, honestly!! The attic is my territory! You don’t have anywhere else to stay? I don’t care! Go sleep in a tree or below the floor!!”
I called out to her before an actual fight broke out.
“Succubus, we have around a hundred Youkai in here now, so be a little flexible. Everyone’s making compromises.”
“Oh, that’s just mean!! You’re my master, so I can’t save face if you say that! And there’s no stopping them all now!!”
I saw a bunch of stuffed animal-like Youkai rushing up the stairs. From the look of things, they would be fighting over food too.
“So how long is this going to take? We’re generally welcome to Youkai visitors, but I think my dad will get suspicious if a hundred of them stick around for too long.”
“It won’t take that long. Although the trick will be to have the Akaname and Shichinin Misaki work while hiding from the humans.”
With that comment, the Aoandon spread a map out on the tea table. Hafuri filled it in with pink highlighter while checking on something. It was a map of my house and she seemed to be marking the areas where the work was complete. It was at about a third. She drew in what looked like wiring, but I wasn’t sure what that meant.
The Zashiki Warashi in a red yukata slipped past all the working Youkai to approach me. She had to have no idea what was going on. In fact, she didn’t even know what her very existence was doing to the world. Her perception was shifted out of place. She looked around skeptically before looking straight at me.
“What is all this? I’ve never seen so many different Youkai in here. This is technically my territory, but there’s clearly some other Zashiki Warashi here.”
“What’s with you, Yukari? Are you jealous having all these Youkai around? Come to think of it, there are a lot of pretty good looking ones like the Nure Onna, Jorougumo, and Kosode-no-Te.”
“Eh? Seriously? That’s seriously why you’re upset? Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow!! Don’t scratch me! Don’t scratch me all over! Are you like a pet cat that gets upset as soon as it has kittens!?”
We started playing around like that, but I could tell Hafuri and the Aoandon were slowly narrowing their eyes.
At this point, nothing was meaningless. We were trying to build a Package that would restrain the ruinous power of the Ver. 39. That power could bend the entire world’s destiny, so it could easily detect something like this. And for better or for worse, it would use destiny to crush our efforts. The rails switched over too seamlessly to notice and we were thrown into the labyrinth. We were not even allowed to choose to fight or not. We were simply diverted from the main track of destiny and all our efforts were ruined.
Even the Zashiki Warashi’s own will may have been irrelevant.
The ruinous power may have been manipulating her as well.
And if what the Aburatori and Aoandon said was accurate, then Noukotsu Village was surrounded by an invisible labyrinth and anyone who would get in the Ver. 39’s way (whether they meant harm or not) would be unable to approach. Even so, the hundred Youkai of my Hyakki Yakou had gathered here.
That of course had likely been helped by my special trait to gather Youkai as well as Hafuri and Mei’s ability to bend destiny as white Zashiki Warashi.
But if that was enough to utterly defeat the Ver. 39, then we wouldn’t need to build such a major Package and Majina wouldn’t have had to make himself a great criminal by causing a zombie outbreak.
In other words, all of this was insignificant.
The source of all fortune and misfortune was the Bloodstained Zashiki Warashi.
As the Ver. 39, she was obstructing us as the Ver. 39, but as a Zashiki Warashi, she was trying to welcome my guests.
Something was diverging inside her as well.
I could not ignore that power.
If that divergence continued, I could not even guess what would happen. She might become a puppet of the Ver. 39 or her body might split in two.
I swallowed everything inside my chest.
I then embraced my girlfriend, gently rubbed her head, and softly repeated myself.
“There’s nothing to worry about. I promise you I won’t let anything you care about be destroyed.”
It did not matter if those words could not reach her within the bonds of the Ver. 39.
Part 5 (Uchimaku Hayabusa)
Chief Superintendent Mishima said it was urgent and called me to a large harbor region in the Tokyo subcenter.
“I’m surprised you showed up when they could ‘accidentally’ send a missile flying this way any day now, Mystery Freak.”
“You too, detective. I don’t think many civil servants would keep working once they aren’t getting paid.”
One of us was a plain man in a cheap suit and coat and the other was a showy girl decorated with ribbons wrapped around her body and a top and miniskirt made to look like whipped cream and chocolate.
We exchanged a glance and both laughed as if we couldn’t believe it.
The world was ending.
It was a little unclear if it was going to end soon or if it already had and no one had noticed, but according to the economic and investment experts, we had long since passed the point of no return.
The core of it all was the Zashiki Warashi and the only one that could stop it was my nephew Shinobu.
It sounded like a joke, but all my phone calls and emails mysteriously couldn’t get through to him. The trains and planes were all conveniently having trouble. I considered getting a rental car, but I was stopped by the ultimate “coincidence” of growing hesitant because I was afraid of getting into an accident on my own.
There was nothing we could do.
We could only wait for whatever result Shinobu and the Zashiki Warashi brought.
That said, I couldn’t just hole up in my room and pull the blanket over my head. After all, I was a police officer and problems both big and small were cropping up everywhere.
We could not stand in the center, but Shinobu could not reach the outer edges.
We each had our job. I would be lying if I said it wasn’t frustrating, but finding something I could do myself was much more important and meaningful.
That way I could prevent as much unnecessary damage as possible.
The city subcenter’s coast was near Hachi TV where my old upperclassman Atou worked, but we had not arrived at a waterfront office building or luxury apartment.
It was a cruise ship moored in the harbor.
“The Yakata-II. We haven’t seen it since Goldmine Island, detective. We never got to go inside then, though.”
“Huh? But didn’t something happen to that cruise ship at the end of all that…?”
At any rate, the Mystery Freak and I entered the ship. Fortunately, there was no dress code.
Mishima-san was enjoying some wagyu teppanyaki in the ship’s three-star restaurant. Although it was more like the food area of a larger party space than it was a dedicated restaurant.
“Hi there, Uchimaku-kun. Over here, over here.”
“What are you doing? Didn’t you say this was urgent?”
“Yes, but just like in hotels, I can’t help but go get some teppanyaki. It’s a lot like the urge to dive into a bed when you see one.”
That man in his fancy suit was living it up in his bachelorhood even more than me. He was really old enough to settle down too. And he was quite energetic about the meat when even the global burger shops were having trouble after the zombie outbreak.
“Were you thinking something rude?”
“No, not really. Now, about this cruise ship…”
“That’s right, Hayabusa-kun. You might not know all the details since you weren’t directly involved, but it had a hole in the bottom. It’s unclear whether it was the CIA or the Hishigami Woman that did it, though.”
“No need to be so nervous. Only the ballast tank was taken out, so it won’t sink as long as the inspection hatch is closed. It’s still careless to have 1700 lives riding on that, though.”
Things had gone beyond that.
They were intentionally hiding it. They were keeping quiet to make money, safety be damned.
They really were worshiping money.
“Troublesome, isn’t it? And we can’t get after them for it when all the related agencies have closed up shop. I might be at a wagyu teppanyaki place, but I actually like the abalone steak the best. Although I’m skeptical whether this is Intellectual Village meat like they claim.”
“So the magic trick using the network’s bonds is producing all sorts of moral hazards, is it?”
“I have something to discuss concerning that. Kotemitsu-san was supposed to give the details, but…hm, how should I put it? Her fights with her sister are pretty intense. I can’t exactly enjoy the company of the two beauties like this.”
“Yeah, that is what’ll happen if you shove Madoka and Seika into the same trading room. It’s like trying to raise a cobra and a mongoose together.”
Enbi gave her exasperated comment while dressed in her red ribbons, whipped cream and chocolate top and miniskirt, wafer ribbon tie, and shortcake hat on the side of her head.
A moment later, a door was thrown noisily open. I looked over and saw a square opening in the thick wall where there had been no sign of a door before. A woman and a girl stepped out.
It was college-aged Seika of the main Kotemitsu family and Shinobu’s classmate Madoka-chan.
“I can’t believe you would start selling there!! Why would you make manual changes when the autonomous investment program can see the optimal move!? You don’t gain anything besides stroking your own ego when you succeed based on your own decision!!”
“I think you rely too much on the machine. Investing is about reading the interactions of people’s hearts. Even if programs wearing the skins of user accounts are running rampant these days, the thoughts of the people building their algorithms will still affect things. You don’t understand the Kotemitsu style at all, Miss Error.”
“It pisses me off that you sum everything up using internet terminology! Is that in style these days? It wasn’t that long ago you used chess terminology to describe the family’s system!!”
“Noise that doesn’t fit the file format will not even reach my ears. If you wish to speak with me, then learn the Kotemitsu format first.”
“And why are you wearing that showy marching band outfit, you flat old lady!?”
“!! Mishima tricked me by saying this was a costume party!”
Mishima-san waved at me without looking back.
“Do something about this, Uchimaku-kun. You have no trouble going out for karaoke with a middle school girl, so you’re my final hope here.”
“I had a very good reason for that!! I just wanted a soundproof room for-…”
“That’s right. The detective dragged this innocent little girl into a private room where no one could see us or hear me scream.”
“It was so we could discuss strategy, you idiot!! That case had to do with the embassy, so we had no choice but to give up on more direct methods!!”
Seeing others behaving badly seemed to help people correct their own behavior. The Kotemitsu Sisters’ argument had heated up so much, but they calmed down when they saw our commotion.
Mishima-san sounded impressed as he chowed down on an abalone steak that used the large shell as a plate and was covered in a special sauce made from butter and its innards.
“Well done, Uchimaku-kun. You handled that so well I feel silly for wasting three hours with that. They say it’s best to go to the specialists and it looks like I should just leave all the young girls to you.”
“Who the hell is secretly manipulating the rails of my destiny!?”
I cried out while afraid of some invisible threads I felt were wrapped all around my body, but the rich bachelor wiped his mouth with a napkin and handed a black card to the waiter. He politely declined any dessert, finished paying, and guided me to the previous hidden room with a fancy coat in hand.
“The Yakata-II was built for the wealthy, so it has a satellite connection and card company servers linked to the casino and trading rooms. That makes it a perfect base for us.”
“But why use such a dangerous ship? There are plenty of nice rooms on the coast you could use.”
Seika-san answered my natural question.
“Those are so full of the newly rich that there won’t be an opening for years. It’s everyone from grade schoolers to housewives and even the elderly who have too much free time and pension money. Do you know what the most popular thing to get training in is these days? It’s apparently the investment business by a wide margin.”
I still only saw investing as another word for gambling, so this new era seemed absolutely insane to me. I shuddered just thinking about people who couldn’t connect a computer to a printer in computer class diving into a world where they could blow a hundred million yen in a ten thousandth of a second, but that probably just meant I was too set in my ways.
Then again, feeling that way was an important thing now.
The hidden room was the size of two school classrooms. Two chairs sat back-to-back in the center. In all 360 degrees, the walls, ceiling, and floor were covered with flat-screen monitors supported by the kind of arms used for desk lamps.
Countless numbers and graphs moved about wildly on the screens.
There was data on wars, disasters, mergers, buyouts, weather forecasts, and even hamburger prices in different countries. There were clusters of windows displaying every single online news article that could even slightly affect the stock or foreign exchange market.
I just felt overwhelmed.
You could recognize a single ant as an insect, but once there was a thousand or ten thousand of them, they looked like a single wriggling mass or monster. This provided the same sort of pressure.
“Where am I even supposed to focus?”
“I think the trick is to view it all at once without focusing.”
Madoka-chan casually answered me in her sailor uniform. She did not sound entirely confident in her answer because it was such a natural thing to her that she might as well have been explaining how to breathe or blink.
“So what’s the problem?”
“This.” Mishima-san turned one of the arm-mounted flat screen monitors my way. “The national natural convenience stores I mentioned before are just barely being contained. They use a new cold storage service to transport perishables without damaging them, but Madoka-chan and Seika-san targeted that by claiming it violates another company’s patent. That said, it’s really just buying time. The moral hazard itself is continuing to spread as data. It won’t be long before this kind of thing is considered normal and a few of the people’s threads have already burned away. Look.”
“The people who gained a small fortune with the bonds magic trick are starting to reach elsewhere. They have nothing better to do since the natural convenience stores have stalled.”
“Um, what is this? They’re buying land on the moon and mars?”
The Mystery Freak sounded confused and Madoka-chan shrugged.
“If you can put a price tag on it and sell it, it doesn’t matter what it is. Do you know why pure gold and platinum are so valuable? Because there are a lot of people who find that convenient. And in this case, land on the moon and mars can’t fall victim to land speculation, can’t jump in value due to a sudden railroad expansion, can’t fall into a fight over sun exposure rights due to a high-rise building, and can’t have protestors stage a sit-in. And unlike gold and diamonds, thieves can’t run off with it. Once it has a price tag, there is no more stable savings box.”
“Plus, there are no international or national laws concerning the land of other astronomical bodies. Setting aside how effective it is, there’s no problem with buying and selling this land as data. These days, avatars in virtual space open up shops and sell digital products for digital money. Even if you can’t reach it, it might actually be a plus that there’s something physical attached to the deal.”
At this rate, they were probably going to pour a bunch of money into the candy of some nonexistent fantasy land.
I was utterly exasperated and Mishima-san showed me yet another window.
“But once all the land on the moon and mars has been sold off, those greedy people will move onto another market. This one’s growing pretty hot right now. It’s also space-related.”
“The satellite debris business?”
“Detective, if you include the ones of unknown nationality, there are currently one to two thousand satellites in operation. But their average length of durability – that is, their lifespan – is between five and ten years. And what do you think happens to a satellite that’s role has ended?”
“Well, isn’t it sent into the atmosphere to burn up on reentry?”
“With the controllable ones, yes.” Seika-san slowly sighed. “But when control is lost due to a malfunction, that can’t happen. There are an estimated seven to eight thousand ‘empty shells’ orbiting the earth. Include the separated parts, separated paint fragments, and small debris, and it’s rumored to be more like four to thirty million.”
The estimated range had grown quite a bit.
That must have shown how little anyone knew about it.
“So they’ve placed price tags on the trash orbiting the earth and acting like it’s as valuable as diamonds or platinum?”
“At first, but things have changed.”
Mishima-san held out the finishing blow.
It said the following:
Don’t let the wealth gather at the top!! Help us distribute it to everyone!!
We have started this group to bring an end to the satellite debris business that unfairly manipulates the value of money using formless economic activity. With help from civilians, we have begun developing a special type of small satellite. It is loaded with explosives and it detonates near the valuable debris floating in orbit to send that debris into the atmosphere.
Satellite destroying satellites, aka killer satellites, are banned, you say?
That treaty was signed between nations, so it does not apply to a borderless civilian nonprofit like us.
Doesn’t it seem odd to all of you?
Don’t you think the people diligently working up a sweat at their jobs should be making money too?
If the country refuses to do anything about it, then civilians like us must act in their stead.
We are not asking for monetary support. It can be message boards, blogs, SNSs, or whatever else, but please explain to everyone that what we are doing is right. The support of public opinion can’t be taken lightly. Your support will be our greatest strength.
- Hishigami General Trading Group
I could not help but groan.
When I saw the name Hishigami, I glanced over at the Mystery Freak.
The twintail girl quietly bit her lip.
“This is the problem with those Hishigami Men. They always go on and on about being reasonable, but as soon as what the country or the world considers reasonable becomes distorted, they raise the white flag.”
“Is this even possible? You mean it isn’t someone pretending to be them!? But the Hishigami Group is an international corporation with over two hundred thousand employees! Flip through the channels during primetime and you’ll see their ads pretty much everywhere!!”
“Those men will do anything if the concept of ‘reasonable’ has been distorted. Do you need to check a history textbook to know who it was that first started releasing tanks and fighters during wartime?”
Explosives on civilian satellites? Sending them to space and detonating them? Treaties between nations didn’t matter for individuals and civilians? That nonsense would never work. A rocket turned into a weapon was the very definition of a missile. If individuals and civilians used that without the military’s management, others would fight back. This seemed to be on the Hishigami Group’s website, but where were their headquarters located? If it was in Japan, then weren’t they essentially announcing to the international community that our island nation was a dangerous place that couldn’t manage its own ballistic missiles and could start firing them like crazy at any moment!?
“You couldn’t find a greater moral hazard, could you?” Mishima-san sounded disgusted too. “And there are two frightening aspects to this. First, the fact that the police have shut down and can’t act even with this nonsense going on. And second, that a fair number of people are agreeing with this.”
What look did I have on my face? It was probably the same as the one on the Mystery Freak’s face next to me.
A short text SNS said the following:
“Frappe: What’s wrong with that? I don’t really have anything against them, but it’s important to keep things in motion. Preventing stagnation will make everyone happy, so we need to give the economy a shot in the arm like this.”
“Round: I’ve got more news! It seems Hishigami is focusing a lot on the angle of entry. That way the abandoned satellites that are nearly whole can survive reentry and reach the surface. We can get all the rare earths we want from them. Yahoo!”
“House Mouse 21: It really is a redistribution of wealth. C’mon, we need even more of this. Really, having just a small part of the population gaining so much using fictional price tags was what made no sense. Now we’ll have jewels raining down across the globe. What a wonderful age we live in.”
No matter how much we scrolled, there were always more new messages.
Plus, the opinions were gathering in single direction. Out of the hundreds and thousands of short posts, there was not a single real rebuttal.
It felt like these were the residents of some creepy dictatorship.
“Amazing, isn’t it? This isn’t even an anonymous message board. Of course, the anonymity of those message boards only gets you so far, but still. They aren’t even trying to hide their identity with proxies. I’m impressed they can post this kind of thing under their own screennames.”
Madoka-chan really did sound impressed.
These kinds of posts would normally lead to suicidal levels of embarrassment, but no one seemed to care. No one was even flaming them. The moral hazards had already made it that far into the normal functioning of the world.
But not even that was the core of the problem.
“But detective, isn’t this really bad? I mean, whole satellites raining down? Wait just a second there. Satellites are designed to burn up on reentry, so they tend to have some pretty dangerous things inside. They tend to use nuclear batteries and the kind of rocket fuel that burns the skin on contact!”
“And that will be raining down across Japan…no, across the world…?”
The Intellectual Village brand name would collapse instantly.
In fact, the entire globe would be contaminated!
“The natural convenience stores that led to this new age must be panicking. If that ultra-valuable brand-name is destroyed, their stores lose all meaning. And it’s too late to try to stop each individual one now. Plus, there’s no guarantee this is the only moral hazard. At this rate, they’re sure to start popping up like bamboo shoots after a rain.” Mishima-san looked to the screen. “So let’s start a war void of morals using this network that connects the world. What can we buy and sell, what can we say, and what online news can we use to bring an end to this worst case scenario? That’s what I want all of you to think about.”
Part 6 (3rd person)
While the Package was being constructed, the Yuki Onna walked out into the yard, took a ladder from the shed, and placed it against the wall of the house.
“Eh heh heh.”
When she heard a bewitching female laugh, a tremor ran down her spine.
She could not believe it. She simply could not believe it.
When the short girl fearfully turned around with a cold sweat dripping down her face, she saw a most unwelcome vision.
“M-Mizore!? And Hadare!?”
She had no idea when they had arrived, but two similarly dressed Yuki Onna had locked onto her. They were old friends who had lived on the same mountain as her, but the Yuki Onna of the Jinnai household had a reason to be nervous.
Mizore, who had spiral glasses and two braids, spoke up hesitantly.
“H-Hyou-chan, we were all worried about you when you suddenly left the mountain in the heat of midsummer. We hadn’t heard anything from you since you said you were going to find a human husband, so we thought you might have ended up like a popsicle dropped on the asphalt during summer break.”
“And the seasons have finally changed, so we left to search for you. I’m glad you’re doing well. So Hyou-chan, did you meet a lovely person?”
Those 100% well-intentioned words stabbed into the Yuki Onna’s chest in rapid succession.
It was like going to a class reunion and finding out you alone had made no progress whatsoever.
(Gh-ghhh! Why did they have to show up now? …Oh, is this the Bloodstained Zashiki Warashi’s interference that Jinnai Shinobu was talking about? Is her power shifting destiny off track? I really want to kill her right now…)
Some steam started rising from her due to the pressure, but then the Yuki Onna named Hadare opened her mouth. She was a sexy woman with her light blue hair worn up.
“Heh heh heh. I told her you would be fine. I mean, you’re such an unusual Yuki Onna, Hyou. You can’t even make proper snow, yet you can bring down blocks of ice during the summer. Hee hee. You just don’t have the elegance of the snowscape.”
“Kh. Why you…!!”
“So how did it go? The Yuki Onna is the standard example of a beautiful Youkai, so after wandering around down here for about half a year, surrrrrely you’ve managed to snag at least one guy. Right, Hyou?”
Hadare’s confidence came from what she held in her arms.
Yes, she was a Yuki Onna that came with a baby.
Was it derived from the Ubume or had a similar story come about by coincidence? The white Yuki Onna was generally thought of as a symbol of virginity, but there were some that held a baby. They were a deadly Youkai that asked travelers to hold their baby and, if the traveler agreed, would crush them as the baby gradually grew heavier and heavier. Just like with the Onbu-Obake, it was a stereotypical Japanese ghost story of destroying oneself by taking on a burden.
Of course, one could not make a baby on their own.
Nothing could apply greater pressure on a marriage-seeking Youkai.
“She was just dying to show her to you, Hyou-chan. Her name is Sou-chan and it’s spelled with the character for frost. Isn’t she cute?”
“Sh-shut up! I did not miss her at all!! And I was really planning to turn that guy into crushed ice…”
“Hyou-chan, don’t you think we did a wonderful thing by stopping her?”
While plain Mizore wore spiral glasses and had a flat chest, the steam weakening effect gave her a dynamite body when she stepped inside an open-air hot spring. The hot water would make her dizzy, but since that made her harmless, beautiful, and carefree, she was ranked third or fourth on a list of Yuki Onna that skiers wanted to run across. Any old story or drama that included a silly Yuki Onna that could not seem to kill anyone and always failed was generally based on her.
And as the pressure bore down on her, Yuki Onna Hyou gathered all her strength and began fighting back.
“Heh…heh heh heh. What are you talking about? Of course I’m super popular. I have so many to choose from I might as well have my own harem. I was just late in reporting back to you because I was having trouble choosing from them all.”
“Ah ha ha! Of course. A Yuki Onna can capture a husband in a single ski season, so it would be pathetic if you couldn’t get a single guy after freely wandering around for half a year!! By the way, my husband runs an IT startup and owns the entire top floor of a Roppongi apartment building. He’s super rich from that bond trading that’s popular these days!! But I’m a Youkai, right? So I don’t like the city air much and I’ve had to reject his invitations even if it is a luxury apartment. Instead, I’ve settled down in a Karuizawa mountain villa. Oh, sorry about getting sidetracked on my boring old self. So what kind of person is your man? What’s his salary? I want to hear all about your luxurious and happy new life. Heh heh heh.”
“Y-y-y-y-you’ll be shocked when you hear it. But, um…oh, right! This would be a little much for a baby, so I will restrain myself for now. I’m definitely not making excuses. This is for your sake.”
“Ehh? That’s amazing, Hyou-chan!”
The spiral glasses provided dreadful supporting fire by innocently placing a hand over her mouth with that comment. The Yuki Onna was going to have to keep up the act until the end of the world now.
Steam started rising from her head as she continued.
“H-he is incredibly bold, and…”
“He’s so nice he invited me into his basement ice room when the summer heat was getting to me…”
“I-I can’t even imagine living without him anymore…ah, this is too embarrassing! I’m melting. My body is melting!!”
She seemed to have reached her limit.
White steam burst from the already small Yuki Onna’s body as if she had used a ninja smokescreen technique. Mizore coughed and wiped off her steamed-up spiral glasses before putting them back on.
Then she placed a hand over her mouth.
“Huh? Where’d Hyou-chan go?”
“Heh heh heh. Oh ho ho ho ho!! The little girl couldn’t stand it any longer, so she ran off! Lie all you want, you can always smell the desperation in a bachelorette!!”
Hadare laughed loudly while holding the baby that symbolized a happy life while Mizore remained oblivious. They looked around to see where the other Yuki Onna had hidden and then they glanced to the open door of the shed.
They peered inside without actually going in.
“She isn’t here, Hadare-chan.”
“Honestly. This is what happens when you try to tell a blatantly made-up-…”
Hadare trailed off as she recalled Hyou mentioning her man introducing her to a basement ice room when the summer heat had gotten to her.
“Hm? Hmm? Wait. Does that mean Hyou was dizzily collapsed on the side of the road and he took her home to his private basement for a honeymoon?”
“Hadare-chan, why are you fidgeting?”
Hadare frantically shook her head, but it still bothered her. Was there maybe an entrance somewhere in the floor in the shed’s darkness and did it maybe hide some stairs down into a basement?
Her eyes were naturally drawn in that direction and then she spotted something.
Some rope was sitting in the back of the shed.
“No, no, no. That doesn’t mean…that doesn’t mean anything. There are all sorts of ways to use rope and a shed is a perfectly normal place to store it. It doesn’t mean that short girl has entered a dangerous territory not even I’ve-…”
She came to a stop when she saw something else.
She spotted a strange silhouette in the back of the shed.
It seemed to be made from several different pieces of wood. It had four legs like a table, but the top was not a flat surface. The center line rose to a point like a doghouse roof. And it was quite a point too. The overall silhouette did look something like a simplified version of an animal, just like some kind of playground equipment.
It was made of wood.
The back was a pointed triangle.
And it was modeled after an animal…specifically, a horse.
What was such a device called?
“H-h-heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!? Is this the legendary…the legendary…ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!?”
“D-don’t yell, Hadare-chan! You’re making your baby cry!!”
Hearing the commotion the two Yuki Onna caused as they ran off, Shinobu’s small grandmother arrived with a confused look. However, the source of the noise had already left.
The shed door had been left carelessly open, so she approached to close it.
Then she spotted something inside that she had not seen in a long time.
“Oh, we haven’t used the fish drying rack in a while. I should drag that back out once the sun blesses us with its presence again.”
Part 7 (Jinnai Shinobu)
Did I just hear some screaming out in the yard?
That bothered me, but I had my hands full in the hallway.
The large and small Furutsubaki duo was fighting.
“I am far more useful to Jinnai Shinobu. I’m taller, so I can reach things.”
“Why you…! You’re only two millimeters taller!!”
“I don’t want to hear anything from an inelegant and flat-chested child.”
“I’ll break your trunk and eradicate your roots!!”
They started grabbing at each other which pulled their kiminos from their bodies in a number of places, so I stopped them.
I was pretty sure this was another example of interference.
“You be the judge! Jinnai Shinobu, you be the judge!! Which one of us has the better transformation!?”
“Mh. How exactly will he judge that?”
“It’s about who’s more human-like, so it’s a softness competition! We’ll have him feel our softness!!”
“Okay, but let’s make this thorough. No spot is off limits.”
“Ah, stop that, you idiots! The look in Yukari’s eyes is really scaring me!! Oh, god! She’s coming this way!!”
This had to be the Ver. 39 detecting the Package preparations and shifting destiny off track to interfere, so why was the Zashiki Warashi herself so jealous that she seemed to be growing horns!? She was being manipulated as much as anyone!
I fled the Zashiki Warashi’s roaring fists like a klutz who had accidentally knocked down a hornet’s nest and then I spotted small Hafuri sitting on the porch in her purple kimono.
The Aburatori sat next to her.
They seemed to be watching the Furutsubaki duo from afar, but they had yet to actually join in.
“Are you not afraid of me?”
“Unfortunately, I claim to be a guardian of children,” said the old man who hid his expression below a bamboo hat with an eye pattern drawn on it. “For the other Youkai, it seems to be an issue of how they view you…no, how they view the term Hyakki Yakou. Plus, I knew the man named Majina and saw what Hyakki Yakou was during his time, so to me it seems odd to fear Hyakki Yakou.”
Hafuri fell silent for a moment.
“That man plotted to usurp Hyakki Yakou and began a national zombie outbreak to split the organization.”
“That was only to oppose the Bloodstained Zashiki Warashi and protect the world you live in.”
“But…wait, how could you possibly know that?”
“The human heart is easily drawn to evil, but is also easily bound to good. If something grows even slightly distorted, you can readily accept yours and others’ deaths. I know that all too well. I saw who Majina truly was ten years ago. They say people never truly change and I doubt he would have changed that easily. His actions must be strictly judged, but we cannot take away why he did it. Not even the gods in heaven can do that.”
What did those words mean to Hafuri?
Majina had had his reasons for his actions. Someone in Hafuri’s position would be able to figure that much out, but how many people were there who would accept Majina’s reasons? Hafuri and Mei’s opinions were biased as they were family. And the members of Hyakki Yakou worked for Hafuri, so their acceptance would sound like nothing more than kind words for her. But the Aburatori was looking in from outside and he had accepted Majina. Maybe not his crimes or his results, but he had accepted his humanity and what had led him there.
Then something moves past my feet.
It was the Fox, Tanuki, and Badger.
“My, my. What are you doing here? It’s time for tea!”
“Hm? You aren’t afraid of me?”
“A lot of the others seem to be, but we realized we had already worked with you at Goldmine Island. We already know you don’t bite.”
When the Fox held his front paw out as he spoke, Hafuri thought for a moment and reached out a hand.
She shook that tiny, tiny paw.
The Badger shook his head vertically as a nod.
“And we also realized you look a lot like our master’s granddaughter. We hear you’re helping as an individual instead of as Hyakki Yakou, so we felt there was no reason to hold back.”
“Eh heh heh. So leave it all to a wet nurse Tanuki like me! This is heated barley tea, so it has no caffeine. It’s perfect for young children.”
“I-I am not so young I need a wet nurse!”
Hafuri blushed and raised her voice, but the Tanuki smiled and said, “Oh, dear.” The Usuhiki Warashi joined in while shouting “kyah kyah” and started eating the tea cakes. She too may have been used to Hafuri after Goldmine Island and Hafuri scolded her a little when she started drinking the hot barley tea from the teacup Hafuri had reached for.
I also saw the Kura Bokko, Notabariko, and the other Usuhiki Warashi from the Goldmine Island inn gathered together.
“Wow. Being in the territory of a real Zashiki Warashi is making me nervous…”
“The red one and white one are both made by Hyakki Yakou. And then there’s the half-human one.”
“And I feel really overshadowed with that ‘kyah kyah’ girl acting like the representative of Usuhiki Warashi.”
The helpful Oomukade pushed on those three girls’ backs and they managed to join in.
The one-eyed Umbrella and Lantern must have decided Hafuri wasn’t that scary even if her emotions were a little rocky because they came out after observing from behind a sliding screen.
“It’s true she doesn’t seem that different from our master.”
“Nonsense! Hiro-sama is far cuter!”
That set a great wave in motion. The Keseran Pasaran, a white puffball said to bring good luck, floated over toward Hafuri and the Furutsubaki duo slowly inched closer.
It looked like things were going to be fine.
Then I heard the sound of a shifting panel overhead.
I looked up to find a square of the ceiling opening up and Marguerite the Australian Witch poked her head out.
“Jinnai Shinobu, could you hand me that duct tape? I need it.”
“Yeah, Westerners rely on crowbars and duct tape about as much as a knife and fork, don’t they?”
I grabbed the roll from the sunken hearth and Marguerite leaned further out. In fact, she crawled out so she hung upside down with just her feet caught on the edge of the square.
“What’s this, Marguerite!? It looks like you have horns, wings, and a tail!”
“And that’s one hell of a micro bikini! Man, it’s something else entirely when an authentic Westerner wears one!!”
“I guess you would care about that most.”
For some reason, the witch hat didn’t fall off even when she was upside down. And they must have been demonic parts because the blue fabric of the skin-tight gloves and knee socks was wriggling a little.
The exasperated sounding witch traced her index finger along the underside of the micro bikini top’s shoulder strap.
“I’ve temporarily fused with the Succubus to help the ritual go more smoothly.”
“Yahoo, master!” said the Succubus’s voice from somewhere. “If you miss me, just call for me. Your dreamtime partner is right here!”
“Well, her master contract is connected to you, but we added in a bypass to trick the contract. Demons don’t actually have physical bodies, but a Succubus is a rare exception. They have the power to construct their own body and we’re using that to hide her in my womb by-…”
“Hmm. Maybe it’s gravity doing it, but boobs have so much more impact when they’re upside down! And other than ‘that’ and I guess ‘that’ too, there aren’t many other poses that give you such a good view…”
“Are you even listening to me?”
“And did you say you messed with my demon contract? Succubus, this isn’t like opening a hole in the bottom of the bucket of my soul, is it!?”
“I wouldn’t screw up like that, master. It’s just sharing your senses a little. Oh, and your lifespan.”
“Hold up! Is there no going back on that!?”
“In some rare cases, it can fluctuate pretty wildly and end up something like a market crash.”
“Now you’re really scaring me!!”
I needed to calm myself down. And hadn’t she mentioned something about my senses?
I tested it by touching my right ear and for some reason the upside down micro bikini woman gave a little jump. She pulled up her shoulder like something tickled and acted like she was holding something between her right shoulder and cheek. Yes, almost like someone had blown on her right ear.
“Calm down, Jinnai Shinobu.”
“Ohhhh!? That means…what does that mean? What happens to Marguerite if I touch my own chest right now? I’m not doing anything to anyone, so there couldn’t be a problem, right? Because I’m not doing anything to anyone!!”
Marguerite trembled and blushed, but she squeezed her lips tightly shut to keep her voice from escaping.
Now, a question.
I had to calm down and think about this. Were my senses really linked with the blonde witch’s? Or was a silly boy getting all worked up on his own while he groped his own chest? Which was it!?
I figured the odds were 50% or greater that it was a lie. After all, this information came from a Western demon and lying was pretty much their job. And not the heartwarming and kind lies. They would heartlessly laugh at you afterwards.
“No,” said the Succubus’s voice. “Marguerite really is trying hard not to moan right now.”
“The entire point is that I can’t trust you. Here’s the tape.”
The witch must have also enjoyed putting on deceptive acts because her shoulders trembled as she hesitantly took the roll of duct tape from me. Her breaths seemed strangely heated and seductive.
“Pant, pant. I thought I was prepared when I heard we would be mixing Eastern and Western, but the rules of the paranormal really do run on…well, it would be nice to call them rhymes, but it’s really more like puns.”
“In Japanese, four sounds like death and nine sounds like suffering, so even adults will avoid those numbers. And Oni wear tiger striped loincloths because Oni are traditionally associated with the northeast, which is close to the direction associated with tigers. Power is more easily summoned by images simple enough for a child to understand, but you need to be careful because unintended associations can create new connections and allow the power to escape. It’s like how gathering water is easy but maintaining pure water is hard.”
“That does seem to be how it works. A lot of the legends about gaining eternal youth are based on wordplay. For example, there are apparently no religious rules behind the idea that eating soba at New Year’s helps you live a long life.”
“Have you seen those prayer charms for passing exams?”
“Crazy, isn’t it? But don’t worry. The Japanese know how silly it is. It’s like a special product for an annual winter festival.”
As we continued our chat(?), I heard a commotion from the living room.
Marguerite waved and ducked back into the attic, so I went to deal with the commotion.
The two red and white Zashiki Warashi were tilting their heads together in the living room.
I followed their gazes.
“How in the world did this happen?”
“I am Shisa. The Yuki Onna is in trouble.”
The Aoandon and Shisa spoke up as soon as they saw me.
As for the Yuki Onna…
Why was she stuck on her back in the gap between the floor and the short-legged stand for the 50-inch flat screen TV?
I peeked on the other side which wasn’t cleaned often and had a lot of dust. I could see the Yuki Onna’s face and she looked about to pass out.
“We had to get behind the TV for the big renovation project, but she decided to climb below the TV stand because she didn’t want to move it.”
“And she got stuck?”
She must have struggled a lot on her own because her kimono had mostly come off of her lower body. While a kimono seemed to provide high defense, they didn’t have to move much for them to become entirely useless.
“Is it just me or have you gotten bigger, Yuki Onna!? Your size is completely off!”
“U-uuh… That lazy Youkai distorted destiny, so I ran into some old friends… Th-that got me fired up in a bad way, so my body ended up like this. That damage was like something from a tenth or twentieth year class reunion, so a child like you wouldn’t understand, Jinnai Shinobu.”
She was a little more sexy than usual.
It was possible she had gotten stuck because she wasn’t used to the size of her body.
“What should we do, papa?”
“Um, I take it from the state of her kimono that you already tried pulling her out by the legs.”
“I am Shisa. Her stomach or hips must be caught because she would not budge.”
“It’s my chest or butt!! I’ll kill you, you summer Youkai!!”
We could rescue her right away if we moved the TV stand, but I could understand why the Yuki Onna had wanted to avoid that. That proper method would be a huge pain. We would have to unhook the TV’s antenna cord, the power cord, the fiber optic wire for cable, and all the wiring for the DVR and game systems. Then we would have to move the equipment out of the way. Only then could we lift the TV stand.
“Let’s leave rearranging the furniture as a last resort and go with the standards first. If we get her wet with detergent or something, she might slip right on out.”
“Heh. Eh heh heh. Jinnai Shinobu getting me wet!? Not bad. Yes, not bad at all! This is clearly an unnecessary detour set in place by the Bloodstained Zashiki Warashi, but I don’t even care!!”
That was when the perfect Youkai, a Nure Onna, showed up. She must have been tired from the work because she was wetting down her body at the sink in the kitchen adjacent to the living room.
When I explained the situation, the woman with wet hair (and see-through clothing) simply pointed to the TV stand with a troubled look.
I looked back over.
“Eh heh heh. Eh heh heh heh heh. I-if you like you could use salad dressing or a mysterious sticky liquid that falls into the ‘joke goods’ category. Eh heh heh heh heh…”
“Ahh… Papa, I think the TV stand is starting to freeze. The gap below is probably entirely filled with ice. Throwing water on her would just freeze her in place even more.”
“Then what are we supposed to do?”
As I complained, I felt a tug on my sleeve.
Mei, the Zashiki Warashi in a white yukata, had silently approached at some point and she handed something to me.
It was a candle that had likely come from a disaster-preparedness bag.
“Ehh!? I kind of get using the fire element on the ice element, but isn’t a candle getting a little too kinky!?”
“(Jump!?) Eh!? A candle!? (Fidget fidget)”
The Yuki Onna struggled without knowing what was going on, but she had no way to resist while stuck there.
Perhaps because she too belonged to the candle element (?), the Aoandon tilted her head with her forehead horn glowing with its bluish-white phosphorescence.
“Huh? You’re not into that, papa? I thought for sure you’d be all for a chance to enjoy the Yuki Onna’s reactions.”
“Well, while I do want to sleep with as many women as possible, I can’t stand seeing a girl who honestly isn’t enjoying it. It’s a total turn off. But if she really wants to do it, then I’m prepared to do just about anything!!”
Yukari hit me for my honesty.
And she used her fist too! Aren’t girls supposed to slap you!?
“I am Shisa. So what do we do about the Yuki Onna? I feel bad for her like this.”
“Hm? What is it, Jinnai Shinobu? Why are you picking me up?”
“I-it can’t be…” said the Yuki Onna as she trembled on her back below the TV stand.
“A candle might be a bit much, but rubbing a summer Youkai against her shouldn’t be as bad, right?”
“W-wait, Jinnai Shinobu!! That is a fatal combination, much like dropping a popsicle on the hot asphalt!”
“Ehh? The Shisa won’t work?”
“Yes, that’s right. He won’t work at all.”
“In that case… Hey, Marguerite.”
“Do something about this. Witches are pretty general-purpose, so you can handle any element right? Use some kind of fire magic.”
“How will that help!? If a candle was too much, why would you think fire itself would be fine!?”
“Ehhh? It’s magic, so won’t it just all gently melt away?”
“Let her roast you a little first if you think that!!”
As she hung upside-down from the attic with her wonderful micro bikini, Marguerite thought for a bit and held out a strange item that looked like a magnet on the tip of a red-painted plastic umbrella.
“It’s cliché, but summoning a Salamander might work. I’ll restrict the amount of the gathered element to keep it at the size of a chameleon.”
“Hee hee hee!! What is that licking at my calf!? That isn’t a dog or a cat! That’s the creepy sensation of a lizard!”
“Didn’t I say it was a Salamander?”
“I-isn’t there…isn’t there a better way of warming my body!? Oh, I know! You could wrap a string of Christmas lights around me like this and that to tie me up tight.”
“And how are we supposed to tie you up when you’re stuck under the TV stand?”
“I-I have a hint: how do young men and women warm each other up inside mountain cabins in the winter?”
“No, thank you. If I embraced something that’s fifty below zero, I’d freeze to death. Ask me again once you’re a little weaker.”
“No, not the toes. Why is this animal licking between my toes so thoroughly!?”
Oh, I think it’s working.
It was looking like I wouldn’t need to grab the Aoandon’s head and use her as a candle for the Yuki Onna. I had been worried her phosphorescence wasn’t really all that hot.
“Ah, ahh, ahhhhhh… Jinnai Shinobu is attacking me with an animal. It’s the animal that is tormenting me, yet Jinnai Shinobu’s will is working through the animal… H-how am I supposed to process these feelings? …I-it’s too much!!”
As the weird orange-glowing lizard or chameleon played around with the Yuki Onna’s calf and toes, the frozen TV stand gradually thawed. At the same time, the Yuki Onna shrunk.
Once her usual bodylines were back, she slipped right out.
We had finally rescued her.
“Sigh… That was extremely silly, but maybe we should see it as odd that we’re getting trapped by these silly things at this time of crisis. The Ver. 39’s curse is frightening indeed.”
“I feel like we’ve just started to blame her for everything unpleasant.”
“More importantly, papa, what do we do now?”
I tilted my head at the Aoandon’s question, so my far too well developed daughter clarified.
“For the big renovation project. We can’t move on until we finish behind the TV.”
We all turned toward the wet Yuki Onna.
She was the perfect size now and she would be slippery too since she was absolutely soaked.
“W-w-w-w-w-wait! Please don’t all push me at once! I just proved I don’t fit! Ah-ahhh!! Is this more of the Bloodstained Zashiki Warashi’s interference!? Mgyuhhh!?”
Part 8 (Hishigami Mai)
“What is it?”
We were in a certain metropolitan area and I was a little chilly with just a jacket over my tank top and hot pants. The nature-loving Sunekosuri looked a little nauseous, so I started talking to distract him.
“Why are you still working for Hyakki Yakou? You found your wife Ohatsu, so you’ve returned your whole family to Gisuke. I don’t see any more reason to stick around.”
“I thought the same thing at first,” replied the Sunekosuri in my arms. “But when I started collecting my things, I felt reluctant to leave. I had finished everything I went there to do and there was nothing more of value for me to do there, but I was still hesitant. That’s when I realized that, while Ohatsu and Gisuke are important, that isn’t all that’s important.”
“Oh? So you found a new objective while working in this underground business?”
“I’m not sure. The era is going to change and Hyakki Yakou is going to run across all sorts of dangers, so they’ll want as much help as they can get. I just can’t bear to turn my back on Hafuri-sama and the others and leave on my own. My family is important and they need a peaceful life, but…but that isn’t all. I’m not just an accessory to my family.”
“Those are some dangerous words.”
“I know that. If Ohatsu heard me, she’d probably bite me for real. But I can’t just return to the peaceful world and abandon everyone I’ve fought alongside for so long. I want to remain their allies and I want to remain a part of Hyakki Yakou. I can’t lie about that.”
The stuffed animal changed the subject there.
“What about you, Mai-san?”
“Me? This is purely business for me. The young lady and the Ver. 40 apparently went to open a hole in Noukotsu Village, but they paid me a fair bit in advance. I’m only doing as much work as they paid for.”
“Even though the Japanese yen could be utterly worthless any day now?”
Oh, I see.
You’ve gotten some guts, Sunekosuri.
I carried my partner over to a tour bus with tinted windows parked on the side of a metropolitan road and I knocked on the door.
The Supplier who owned the special machine claimed it would let him survive even if an asteroid hit the earth and triggered an ice age, but now he was curled up in a corner of the giant vehicle.
“Mai-san, I screwed up. If I’d known this was going to happen, I wouldn’t have worked so hard to build something that could endure on earth. I would have built something that let me abandon the earth.”
“If you’re gonna go that far, wouldn’t it be faster to turn yourself into an octopus alien? I thoroughly modified my own body, so I could help you out.”
“Ah, don’t cling to me with tears and snot all over your face! I was joking! Just joking!!”
I did understand why the cowardly Supplier would be so afraid of the approaching extinction of mankind, though.
The Bloodstained Zashiki Warashi issue was ground zero, but the derivative moral hazards were nothing to sneeze at either. The commotion in the TV news, newspapers, and online news was only the tip of the iceberg. It had reached those of us in the underground businesses too.
Underground businesses dealt in money as well.
It wasn’t generally known (in fact, the very existence of the businesses wasn’t), but the overall circulation of black money underwent changes too. That meant bubbles could form. Just like how the value of land and classic cars could skyrocket with no connection to the actual economy.
“So how are things going for you?”
“Probably the same as for you, Mai-san. Just looking at the requests I get makes me hate my life.”
“I figured as much. I’ve been getting more and more people approaching me without using any real middleman like they have a death wish or something.”
The Sunekosuri seemed to feel left behind at my feet.
But I’m super nice, so I decided to help out the pretty Youkai.
“There have been a lot more requests to kill people. And the amount they’re paying keeps going up. Of course, there’s no real set price for underground jobs like theft and killing. It’s a world of market value and suggested value. But those have been jumping all over the place and we’ve entered an age where people buy a single burger with a stack of cash. Nothing good comes from giving idiots a ton of money!!”
“B-but aren’t you an agent that gets unofficial orders from Hyakki Yakou!? And they’re giving you jobs as casually as ordering a burger!?”
“Some want me to silence their nagging mama, some want me to attack a teammate so they can take the regular spot, and the list goes on. It’s like the price is skyrocketing while the value of the job is tanking. But if I don’t do anything, I bet some other assassin will show up to do it. After all, these jobs are far easier than attacking some strictly guarded VIP after investigating their transportation route and bodyguard arrangement. And they still pay plenty. Those other assassins are probably still cautious since these might be traps, but anyone can make a ton of money if they throw out their pride.”
The excessively high payments were probably stopping people for the time being.
People had a weakness for what they considered a fair price. For example, who would believe a 200 yen diamond was real? Before getting into the quality of the jewel, they would be blinded by the questionable price. The excessively high payments were the same. They would assume some ulterior motive and suspect something bad would happen to them when they showed up for the job.
Once the moral hazard burned through that normal suspicion, there would be no stopping it.
And did those amateurs innocently making requests like some kind of king realize that a client with no backbone could more easily make money by attacking them for everything they had than by actually doing the dangerous jobs? It was possible someone was already writing up a list.
“But that’s not the worst part.”
“Eh? Th-there’s more?”
The Sunekosuri trembled at the Supplier’s deep voice.
“The worst part is that the biggest increase isn’t in that kind of casual killing. Yes, yes. It’s been a while, since these jobs were coming in. And I thought I’d forgotten how the dark side of society could drag an individual’s heart into such awful places.”
“There’s a lot of another kind of job,” I nonchalantly explained. “Requests from cowardly people who want to be gently killed. It’s from people like politicians and presidents of major corporations. The country is still celebrating the greatest festival it will ever see, but those with real power understand that this is the end of the world. Those in control of the world have all thrown in the towel and are spending their personal fortunes on suicide. Pretty harsh, isn’t it?”
The Sunekosuri didn’t seem able to ask any more questions.
Or maybe he was afraid of getting any more answers.
As I wondered which it was, a call reached my satellite phone. He was persistent, I’ll give him that.
I hit the button to reject the call.
“A-are you sure, Mai-san?”
“It’s fine, it’s fine. Don’t worry.” I waved my hand dismissively. “It’s just a VIP of the Hishigami Group asking me to kill him. I don’t have time to deal with his pathetic complaining.”
The Sunekosuri shook violently, but it was hardly a surprise for the Supplier.
“Oh, so they’re doing that ‘aboveground’ too?”
“I take it that means the same thing’s happening ‘underground’?”
“Juunin Toiro, Meikyou Shisui, Shinshutsu Kibotsu…and well, all the elders from groups like that. Although they have to maintain appearances, so they send the request under a false name and through several intermediaries.”
That was why we were visiting him.
Although the Sunekosuri didn’t seem aware of it.
“So that means…?”
“Yes.” The Supplier nodded. “They’ve used some tricks to hide it from the normal routes, but a few high-ranking members of Hyakki Yakou have made requests too. They feel they can (in a way) trust you, so they want you to kill them as if putting them to sleep. How long is this going to last?”
If people on that level have thrown in the towel, it might just last until the end of the world.
Part 9 (Jinnai Shinobu)
The work ended up taking two to three days.
I had been worried my impatient dad and grampa would drive out all the freeloaders (or that the Ver. 39 would manipulate destiny in that way to stop us), but they somehow managed to restrain themselves.
That was partially because I persuaded them, but it also had to do with help from my Youkai-loving mom and gramma. Then again, this too was probably due to the power to manipulate destiny.
But not the Ver. 39’s.
I mean Zashiki Warashi Yukari’s.
The two powers were in conflict. It looked like comical Youkai getting into trouble, arguments over whether to let them stay or kick them out, and a small-scale fight to save my girlfriend, but the scales actually held the runaway credit rating agencies, the collapse of the government bond system, and a global panic covering the entire planet’s population of seven billion. That was just how much power the Ver. 39 had.
I couldn’t let the adorable appearance of the local events fool me.
I couldn’t let my guard down around these exhausting events.
What I had to fear most wasn’t a ferocious beast’s giant maw that could bite through steel and it wasn’t a genius criminal with a nightmarishly clever mind. It was that I couldn’t even reach the actual battleground. We were going to all this effort just to stand on that same field. We were walking on and on through the labyrinth and being pressed to give up on our own.
I had to keep going until the very, very end.
I had to save my girlfriend Yukari by freeing her from her bloodstained trait and from the Ver. 39’s power which would bring ruin to the world.
I couldn’t let myself leave those rails. No matter what.
The Youkai may have been able to sense it better than a human like me.
The Package was complete.
The Aoandon called out to me from the side.
Either due to her experience in Hyakki Yakou or her senses as a half-Youkai, Hafuri picked up on something and shouted a warning.
“Hurry up and use this!! A great fluctuation is appearing! At this rate, you’ll have at most one chance at this!!”
I glanced at what she threw toward me and saw the kaleidoscope spinning through the air.
The Aoandon and Hafuri were unable to say more.
Or maybe my sense of time simply vanished. I heard a sharp sound. Mei, the Zashiki Warashi in a white yukata, had started glaring intently at me in a way she never had before. She had done something. She had used the Ver. 40. But for what? I already knew she wasn’t our enemy, so it must have been to protect me from something.
Even if I wanted to see what it was, I couldn’t even turn my head while engulfed in the field of stopped time.
The kaleidoscope flew extremely slowly through the air and I sensed some new footsteps.
A red form approached from the tea room.
It was my beloved girlfriend.
It was Yukari.
But something wasn’t right. The Good-for-Nothing Youkai stood just ten meters away. She hung her head a little in her red yukata, but it no longer had a flower pattern. Instead, it had human handprints. But not adult ones. The countless eerie handprints were of small children.
And it wasn’t just that she had changed into a new yukata. The handprints moved freely along the surface of the yukata as if tracing themselves along my girlfriend’s seductive bodylines. It was like a projection mapping on a building wall.
Red was the symbol of the Bloodstained Zashiki Warashi, so was this the Ver. 39 running out of control?
Once I realized that, the presence of the spinning kaleidoscope grew much larger in my mind. It was the first and last piece needed to seal away the Ver. 39’s ruinous power. Grabbing it would reject its destiny. That was why this paranormal phenomena had started and why the Zashiki Warashi had transformed. With each millimeter the kaleidoscope approached my hand, she had to be leaving reality at a quadratic rate.
The Zashiki Warashi’s yukata had become a sea of handprints. Her ankle-length black hair began to move. Something danced within that hair that had the luster of polished ebony. They were bones. Specifically, human skulls. These too looked like they belonged to small children. They swam freely through that sea of fine black hair like the moon reflected in a lake at night. Sometimes a skull covered her bangs, sometimes one circled behind her with the long black hair acting as a screen, and sometimes one clung to the side of her head like it was rubbing cheeks with her.
Then I recalled that the Zashiki Warashi was an aggregation of the children killed during famines and the like.
She took the form of a sexy Youkai, but if someone like Majina of the old Hyakki Yakou broke her down into her original phenomenon, countless deaths would cling to her.
These had not attached themselves to her. They were coming out from within her.
That was why we had built the Package.
That was why I was attempting to grasp that first and last chance.
And the skulls swimming through her hair used a low, low voice to give me a simple but absolute command.
The voice seemed to come from the headphones she always had around her neck.
It was filled with hopeless malice.
The almost childishly simplified statement was innocently sharp. That may have come from the mentality of those children killed to have one less mouth to feed.
Then the distorted sense of time came to an end.
My fingers finally touched the kaleidoscope.
I grabbed it.
I called her name, but I already knew deep down that I wouldn’t get an answer.
She changed again.
She passed some kind of limit.
She was now the Bloodstained Zashiki Warashi. She was something meant to invite death to the world.
So I said more.
“I will bring you back. I will save you.”
My senses returned.
A moment later, everything vanished.
Except for the Zashiki Warashi and me, the entire world became a tatami mat floor that stretched beyond the horizon.
It went far beyond the concept of projection mapping. My ability to verbalize it was about at its limit. Her long black hair slithered like snakes and hid more than half her face. Small decorative jewels glared at me like twisted eyeballs. Countless handprints moved across the yukata that contained her bewitching body. The entire world had been blotted out as soon as they had dripped from the bottom of the yukata like drops of water and reached the floor.
The tatami mats were bright crimson, as if soaked with fresh blood.
The heavens were pitch black, as if dyed with evil.
Flames flickered atop tall candlesticks lined up at even intervals as far as the eye could see. Those flames were the only light source. Candles were commonly seen as symbols of life or a lifespan. There was also the eerie legend about a Zashiki Warashi predicting a fire before its family declined and fell into ruin.
It was all so colorful and psychedelic. Everything grounded in reality had been erased from this world.
But I kind of understood. I had no proof, but I felt like I understood since I’d been with the Zashiki Warashi all my life.
A Zashiki Warashi manipulated destiny.
But they were not destiny itself. They were just the controller or the terminal. In other words, there was something deeper. You could call it the main unit or the server. We had been dragged up from the world we normally lived in and had reached a higher “stage” where that server lurked.
You could call it the hidden side of the world.
Or maybe it was the source code hidden behind the browser that gave it a nice understandable visual form.
It was possible I couldn’t properly grasp what this place was using my five senses. It may not have actually been what I was seeing. It was just like how the ancient Greeks used a combination of animals when imagining a monster. I couldn’t deny the possibility that it was just so psychedelic that the resources in my mind could only throw together some kind of montage to show me.
This was probably beyond what the human mind could comprehend.
What did this look like to the Zashiki Warashi who was always in contact with this?
But to my eyes at least, something pulsed down the surface of the candlesticks with each flicker of the flames and then slithered along the crimson tatami mats. I could not help but understand that this was causing “something” to happen in the world we knew.
Messing with that would destroy all of the emotions of the people working so hard to live day in and day out.
Then it hit me what exactly the destiny controlled by the Zashiki Warashi really was. I didn’t even have to confirm it.
It came down to inevitable decline.
It was the idea that decline was inevitable for even the most prosperous person.
That concept had worked itself deeply into the Japanese psyche over a thousand years or more. Think of Dan-no-Ura, Honnouji, or Sekigahara. Even historic figures who influenced an entire era were forced to accept their own ruin as inevitable when the powerful, powerful fangs and claws of destiny reached them.
But there was nothing odd about it showing up here.
I mean, that’s just what a Zashiki Warashi was. They brought prosperity when they arrived at a house and they drove the house to ruin when they left. They were truly the messengers of inevitable decline. That was a concept you couldn’t remove or ignore when talking about a Zashiki Warashi.
There were beginnings and there were endings.
There was creation and there was destruction.
There was life and there was death.
There was no opposite pattern. It was inevitable, so it was only a matter of sooner or later. Whatever the speed, the gears could only turn in one direction and those gears were the true essence of a Zashiki Warashi. And as I was trying to forcibly turn those gears in the opposite direction with the kaleidoscope, the Ver. 39 seemed to speak to me.
It seemed to say I had successfully acquired your beloved and that was exactly why destruction must come to me.
It was truly awful.
The greater my success, the greater the absolute defeat that would follow.
It was the extreme form and original version of the childish idea that people had a fixed amount of luck so if something good happened, something bad was sure to follow.
Inevitable decline was a truly frightening sort of destiny. It was an unshakable malice and nothing could be more persuasive as every Japanese person understood it. Everyone assumed good luck would not last forever and often even wanted to see the successful suffer. The nail that sticks out gets hammered and we all fall equally. It was a subconscious aggregation of evil thoughts. It was a dark inheritance that no one had ever been able to throw out.
It could be the Taira clan and the Minamoto clan.
It could be Oda, Toyotomi, and Tokugawa.
Even if they had conquered Japan, that ultimate and solitary law would drag them down from the stage of history and force the end of an era onto them. In a way, it was a form of destiny that every Japanese person could picture just by closing their eyes.
That didn’t matter.
I didn’t care what it was. What I knew was simple but could not have been more critical. The Ver. 39 had been gently using natural shifts in destiny to interfere with us before, but it had finally decided drastic measures like this were necessary. It had brought out the handprints on her yukata and the skulls in her hair while showing off this hidden side of the world. This could not have been worse for me, but the same went for it. This dead end was also my best chance of turning this around.
And turn it around I will, Ver. 39.
I don’t give a crap about inevitable decline. I won’t let you turn this success into ruin. I’ll turn this ruin into success. You could only settle in and leave and you could only give out and take away fortune on a whim, but I’ll show you a new path.
That said, I didn’t really know what I was supposed to do with the kaleidoscope.
But when I reflexively took a step toward the Zashiki Warashi, a change assaulted me.
The skulls used her headphones to howl emptily at me.
“Die.” “Die!” “Fail.” “Ah ha ha!!” “You’re going to fail.” “Are you stupid?” “Ee hee ha ha ha!!” “Why are you taking this so seriously?” “Die!” “Give up.” “Everyone must die!!” “Stop.” “Shut up.” “You’re an eyesore.” “Shut up!” “The way you take this so seriously is just a pain.” “Ksh.” “Kssshhhh!!”
The deluge of noise lost all meaning and became a single cracked roar.
It was on the move. Faint drops of light ran through the Zashiki Warashi’s long glossy black hair.
As soon as that light dripped to the red tatami mats, an infinitely expanding ripple instantly flowed to the horizon in every direction.
That was when it happened.
The way was forcefully closed. Countless translucent and glowing red sliding screens closed in from the left and right between Yukari and me. Some symbols were drawn on the surfaces, but there were too many of them to make out any individual one. I simply saw the Zashiki Warashi standing beyond that red color.
It looked like less than ten meters, but the infinite number of ultra-thin screens created an absolute wall in my way.
They were red.
They were bloodstained.
They seemed to be refusing anyone that would shake her existence, her coloration, and her essence.
“To hell with that…”
What did those screens mean and what were they really?
Why would I bother thinking about that?
“To hell with all of this!!”
I gathered speed and prepared to kick through them rather than open them.
Immediately, I felt my sense of time die once more. This second time, it finally occurred to me that it was much like the feeling of running out into the road and finding a tanker truck approaching you. It was a lot like having your life flash before your eyes. When I felt that and had the incomprehensible phenomenon surround me, I finally realized what those translucent red screens were.
Each and every one was filled with just as much “death” as a speeding tanker truck. An endless supply was lined up before my eyes as a barrier that I couldn’t breach no matter how many lives I had.
Part 10 (Uchimaku Hayabusa)
We had no choice but to do it.
We used the Yakata-II cruise ship’s trading room to wage war with the Hishigami Group that was interfering with the satellite debris business by sending debris to the earth, including the nuclear batteries and tanks of dangerous rocket fuel. Seika-san and Madoka-chan bought up the rocket launch brokers they were trying to use while we made waves of posts on the message boards and forums people from that business used. We insisted that the Hishigami General Trading Group was doomed to fail and working with them would end badly.
There were plenty of ways to send something into space these days.
In addition to the rockets and shuttles managed by the government, there were projects by companies and universities that launched single-stage rockets from high-altitude airplanes or giant balloons that reached the stratosphere. Groups and organizations with the tech to leave the atmosphere were popping up like bamboo shoots after a rain.
That meant buying up and crushing each and every one would no longer work.
The infinitely expanding possibilities defeated our limited buying ability. We had to close off those many possibilities by informing the world that they would gain nothing by working with Hishigami. That was our only chance.
“Warning: They’re doing this to help us all, so why would you try to make them sound dangerous? Do you just want attention? Are you shilling for someone?”
“Squall: And when the killer satellites detonate to bring down the debris, won’t the exploded killer satellites make new debris? It’s like a perpetual motion machine! It’s a never-ending lottery!!”
“Kitty Lion: If you’re against this, you must be one of those people getting rich off the satellite debris. Yes, yes. Pay them no heed. Better luck next time!”
“Damn, it’s no good! We’re telling the truth, but they make us out to be the bad guys. How can they rejoice at a civilian project that’s going to contaminate the entire world!? Do they want to see destruction that badly!?”
“You might not be that far off the mark,” muttered Enbi. “There isn’t some mastermind behind this. Hishigami is becoming something of a symbol, but they aren’t directly manipulating the information. This is the overall will of the internet. They’re averting their gaze from the destruction as they approach the cliff. Doesn’t it look like they’re enjoying the aesthetics of destruction? Just like how the ancient Greek empire had its fill of all kinds of entertainment and then decayed amid corruption and degeneracy.”
“I refuse to believe that,” I spat out.
It may have been true Japan was enjoying the festivities. The network and the bonds magic trick had given them plenty of money, they had bought everything they wanted, and they had nothing else to spend their money on, so they were pouring money into this nonsense.
But that wasn’t all.
In Intellectual Villages, there were plenty of farmers who created those valuable vegetables. There were also plenty of living national treasures. There were craftsmen whose metalworking could not be recreated by the precision machinery in the city and performers who continued the traditions of noh and kabuki.
In fact, it didn’t matter if they had special qualifications or a name everyone knew.
It could just as well be the people working hard at convenience stores or gas stations. Or the daily paper boy and the delivery service for old folks with weak backs. There were plenty of people working to keep the gears of society turning without getting involved in these festivities!
And you expect me to believe they were drowning in desire and wished for death?
People were free to grow world-weary and let their hearts fester if they wanted, but I couldn’t let that subsection of the rich drag everyone else down with them!
This may not have been the core of the issue and it may not have mattered to Shinobu and the Zashiki Warashi, but no matter how far removed from the center this was, people were still suffering. Then how could I allow it to continue? I had to stop it here!
Enbi must have liked how I had replied so quickly because she giggled next to me.
And she spoke.
“Then let’s continue our futile struggle to the very, very end.”
Once the Mystery Freak said that, I heard a confused voice from Madoka-chan.
“We have some requests coming in. Um, they’re from…PSI_ver_RAIN and Anemura Kaede???”
“Finally.” The twintailed demon snapped her fingers. “One’s an online idol whose new songs reach thirty million views within twenty four hours and the other’s a regular member of the national idol group Tarot Girls 22. With them on our side, we can change the direction this is headed! We can destroy this disgusting mood of pessimism!!”
Part 11 (Hishigami Mai)
A tremendous blow hit the Supplier’s modified tour bus. The entire vehicle shook. My focus shifted to the handgun hidden in the heel of my boot. The large bus weighed a dozen or so tons on its own, so it wouldn’t budge from a normal vehicle collision.
That meant something just as big had hit it.
The Supplier had been driving it around, but now he gave a wide-eyed shout.
“Mai-san! A twenty ton truck is attacking! Any ideas who it might be!?”
I looked out the tinted windows and a call reached my satellite phone.
I kept rejecting the calls, but he couldn’t take a hint!
“Hi, Mai. It’s your brother. I couldn’t bear it any longer, so I came to discuss it with you directly. Could you maybe destroy the Hishigami Group we’ve constructed!?”
“Kyou-chan, what happened to the reasonable-obsessed brother I knew? Not even the underground businesses crash their vehicles together like a Hollywood movie in this camera-filled city!”
“Hah hah hah. Didn’t I tell you? We can only obey what people consider reasonable. Look at the city around you. This is spreading without end. We’re approaching a world where this kind of dangerous driving is perfectly normal.”
I heard screeching tires.
But it did not come from our bus or Hishigami Kyou’s truck. A few fancy Italian cars had drifted through the intersection right in front of us. It looked like the drivers were college aged if not younger. And based on the roar of the engines, they had clearly been tuned to pro racing standards. These were not cars that should be driving on public roads.
If they lost control at that speed, the sidewalks would become a sea of blood in no time, but the crowds were cheering rather than screaming. They were starting to turn their smartphone and cellphone lenses toward the cars as they uploaded photos to their blog or gave commentary on a live broadcast.
It could not have been sillier.
“What counts as reasonable is only going to get more sickening.” The voice seemed to be cursing that fact. “Do you know what our company is doing now? We have no choice but to be dragged down with this god-awful moral hazard!!”
The heavy masses crashed together and sometimes knocked down telephone poles and streetlights, but I was focused elsewhere.
Specifically, the roof of the truck’s trailer.
The bodyguards with names like Zei and Akane wore the kunoichi-like Yozakura suits while hiding below cloaks covered in patterns that used the science of perception to divert attention away.
“This isn’t good. They’re going to board us, Supplier!!”
“So please do something about this!” said my brother. “Isn’t that your role, Mai!?”
With those words, red Zei, blue Akane, and yellow Ran lightly jumped between the two vehicles and smashed through the reinforced glass to get inside.
Youkai medicine had been used to artificially implant these monsters with Hishigami Women traits.
I ignored the storm of glass shards and took a breath to prepare myself while Zei tossed aside her cloak and spoke with no expression on her face.
“Assist us, original.”
“Oh, shut up. Unlike you artificial ones, I have no obligation to help a rich man with his hobby.”
“That is fine.”
I had not expected that answer.
Zei jerked her chin toward the truck.
“Throwing our lives away for Kyou-sama would be our greatest joy. His meeting with Uchimaku Hayabusa should have planted the seeds of a pleasant change inside him. We cannot allow that sprout to be trampled, even by Kyou-sama himself.”
I fell silent.
As a ferocious wind entered through the broken window, the Sunekosuri ran back and forth in confusion.
“What do you want me to do?”
“That truck is not meant to destroy the target by crashing into it. It is a special vehicle created to carry something.”
“Hold on. You don’t mean…!?”
Zei spoke a name.
That name meant “slaughter”.
“She is a failure based on the anti-human Hishigami Enbi. If she is activated here, this city of thirty million will be destroyed. Kyou-sama’s rational side is just barely holding him back now, but if the reasonableness afflicting him grows any more distorted, there will be no stopping it. We want you to cut the storage pod from the truck before that happens.”
Part 12 (Jinnai Shinobu)
I still didn’t know what the screens were.
But the Zashiki Warashi’s Ver. 39 power to control destiny had likely done something.
It was getting in my way, keeping the kaleidoscope away, and protecting its system.
It was using the law of inevitable decline to rob me of success.
“See?” “You failed.” “You’ve failed.” “No chance of success remains.” “You will die.” “You will fail.” “You will lose everything.” “You tried to act cool.” “You tried to act important.” “But you only embarrassed yourself.” “So watch as you lose everything.” “Reach for it.” “Realize you can’t reach it.” “Die.” “Die!” “Die!!” “Ksshh!!”
The skulls displayed in the Zashiki Warashi’s black hair mocked me through her headphones. They were saying I’d fallen for their trap and stepped onto the rails of ruin on my own. And they did so with a childish sort of evil.
You little brats.
Do you really think you can steal my girlfriend from me?
You might as well have already given me the answer.
If the Ver. 39 was working this hard to keep me away, there had to be a good reason for that.
I didn’t know how to use the kaleidoscope.
I knew nothing about occult Packages.
If it hadn’t done anything, I might have wandered aimlessly until I ran out of time.
But it had pointed my compass in the right direction.
And in the most difficult direction.
Thanks for telling me I just need to get close to the Zashiki Warashi, Ver. 39!!
I gathered enough strength in my body to break free of the seemingly stopped time brought on by the fear of death.
It felt like the very space around me was cracking.
But then red filled my vision.
——And deep within the rising fear, “it” truly assaulted me.
After a bright flash, I found myself somewhere other than the infinite expanse of tatami mats.
I saw nothing but gray dust for as far as the eye could see. It was a rural scene filled with every form of contaminant imaginable. In this land of the end, simply breathing in and out and simply blinking my eyes filled me with such intense pain that I thought fire was bursting from every hole in my body.
“Gblgh!! Agweh!! Glgah!!!!”
I somewhat understood.
This was the Hyakki Yakou Prototype Ver. 39 Zashiki Warashi.
She could control not just the current destiny, but create a brand new branch of destiny.
Each and every screen contained an image of hell. It was those images that Buddhist monks drew on screens as a simple warning of what would awaited those who were excommunicated. Those screens of light had a thickness approaching on zero and they were filled with images of failed destinies, mistaken worlds, and hells.
So this was a parallel world that could have happened. It was the result of a mistaken choice on my part. For example, if I had relied on the CIA at Goldmine Island and the national suicide Package had activated, this is what would have happened to the Japanese archipelago.
The pain rushed at me all at once.
I coughed up blood, my blood vessels seemed to crawl below my skin, and I clenched my teeth.
Even so, I moved forward.
I bore the pain of an entire world and moved further forward.
——And “it” wasn’t just the one.
I saw the world after the archipelago filled with zombies according to Majina’s plan. The living dead grabbed at my arms and legs, bit into my flesh with teeth that reeked of decomposition, and tore me apart. Finally, I felt the fear of having my body rot from within.
I was swallowed up by that fear.
But I didn’t care if my arms and legs were torn away or if my organs were dragged out.
I just had to move forward.
I had to keep going.
As I clenched my teeth and worked against the powerful headwind, I suddenly wondered what my enemy was here. I knew it wasn’t the Zashiki Warashi, but it might not have been the Ver. 39 either. Countless handprints oozed out onto her yukata and skulls swam through her glossy hair. They would sometimes circle around to the back with her black hair as a screen, they would sometimes cover her bangs, and they would sometimes move the side of her face as if rubbing cheeks with her. But even they may have been a broken safety device running out of control. Inevitable decline. The hidden side of the world where forgotten destinies gathered. The fragments of the ages gathered here, from past events like Dan-no-Ura, Honnouji, and Sekighara to the “what ifs” where mistaken choices had led to ruin for any number of reasons. The entire world was swallowed and chewed to pieces, and the fragments gathered in this graveyard. Had this awful “something” been dragged toward us because the Ver. 39 had carelessly reached it and contacted it?
In that case, this fight wasn’t about good or evil.
It was about putting a lid on the ruinous power pouring down on us. It was about closing the floodgates in a world of neither good nor evil.
I would do it.
I understood that. I understood it now.
It didn’t matter what I was up against.
I would reach my one and only beloved Yukari no matter what!!
——“It” had a seemingly infinite number of layers.
In a world where I had failed to stop Archdemon Tselika Wien Alpha Chelydia Lumidrier who did not quite qualify as one of the seven deadly sins, I was swallowed up by such great sweetness that my entire vision grew bright red and I convulsed with blood pouring from every hole in my body.
“Gah…bah!! Khah!? Cough!!”
In a world where the Aoandon’s plan had succeeded, I learned true exhaustion and weariness as I wandered endlessly through an empty rural scene where none of the Japanese remained.
“Ah, ahh, ahhhhhh….”
In a world where the worst of the deadly Youkai, the Aburatori, had taken control of time, space, and destiny, I nearly went mad from the psychedelic scene of organs hanging from the branches of every tree as far as the eye could see.
In a world where Kawabata Megumi, the old woman who had created the Aoandon in Zenmetsu Village, had succeeded with her plan, I felt the intense pain and fear of having my body thoroughly chopped to pieces by Kusanagi which precluded all defense and evasion.
“Oh, kh…! Khah!!”
In a world where Australian Witch Marguerite Steinhols had obtained the Succubus, I was continually afflicted by the dreadful sensation of having my soul rot thanks to Western magic.
In a world where the Akki Rasetsu agent named Saijou successfully modified the Umbrella Obake and Lantern Obake, she controlled all Youkai and filled me with the despair of having my body utterly devoured.
In a world where the coup d’etat of Hyakki Yakou had succeeded, I was overcome with the tremendous heat of all my body’s protein boiling as the Illness Magic User took over the Fuuka Village hotel.
——No matter how far I went, “it” never ended.
Worlds created by a wrong decision were slammed into me one after another.
As all the pain rushed to a single point, my body trembled so violently I thought I would bite my own tongue.
I had no idea how much time had passed.
I felt like I had been wandering for a hundred if not a thousand years.
But the true despair did not come from the pain or the fear itself.
I noticed something.
Even after all that, I noticed I had only moved forward a few centimeters.
How much farther did I have to go?
How long would I have to do this before I could reach the Zashiki Warashi? In fact, who had even guaranteed that this would end after making it a certain distance? If the Zashiki Warashi…no, if the inevitable decline controlling her decided on a whim to take a step backwards, this infinite hell would grow even longer.
“He’s given up.” “He’s given up!” “He’s given up in front of his woman.” “Throw him out.” “Let’s throw him out.” “He’ll break.” “He’ll break now!!” “Kee ha ha!!” “Yes.” “You can’t reach anything.” “You can’t reach it.” “You’ll just die.” “Die!” “Give up.” “Break already!” “Now.” “Now!” “Now!!”
The white skulls swimming through her glossy black hair looked at me and mocked me through her headphones. Countless handprints crawled along the yukata that covered her ample bodylines. Her hair slithered like snakes and covered her face as jewels glared out like twisted eyeballs. This power did not hate anyone. It was not fixated on anyone. It was inevitable decline. It simply took and simply ruined. It viewed that itself as its goal, like it was appreciating some elegant aesthetic.
Could I really do something about that?
Could I overcome it?
I bit my lip, tasted blood in my mouth, and stared straight ahead.
The Zashiki Warashi was only ten meters away, but she seemed infinitely distant and would not approach me.
Could I endure this that far?
Wouldn’t I crumble away into something like a lump of tar?
I would break. I would be destroyed.
If I let go, it would all fall into ruin. The world’s destiny or evil spirit that was this law of inevitable decline would only give me a momentary flash of dark joy. I knew that, but I could not stop my heart from heading in that direction.
It was like a growing stomachache on the train when the next station was a long way off. It was like the rapidly growing thirst discovered the instant you stepped out of the sauna and saw the vending machine. The wall of my limit was approaching with tremendous speed. The last ten minutes I had overcome were nothing compared to the next minute I had to overcome. The strength it had taken to endure for a minute might be used up in a single second afterwards. The curve of rapid exhaustion seemed to have quadratic growth. Time itself seemed to be wearing down my fragile soul.
My very self wavered.
And even if I tried to rely on “someone else”, I was trapped inside this subspace where the red tatami mats continued as far as the eye could see. The Zashiki Warashi stood before me in this alternate dimension that trapped me in dark death, symbols of ruin, and inevitable decline.
Was it hopeless?
What I sought was right in front of me and I held the kaleidoscope needed to overturn this, but I still lacked something needed to cover those ten meters. And I could never find whatever it was in this never-ending world of isolation!
But as soon as I thought that…
I heard a voice.
I heard a definite voice in this world where I should have been alone.
“And? I hope you aren’t foolish enough to add ‘so I might as well give up’.”
It arrived like a gust of wind that swept away the disturbing heat filling my head. Moving just a few centimeters had exhausted me to the point that I thought it would fry my brain, but now someone stood next to me.
He had a more solid build than me, he wore a lab coat over a suit, and he wore glasses that really didn’t suit him. More importantly, his eyes were reminiscent of a thick swamp and he had some people standing next to him: Madoka, the Succubus and a short gray demon.
Wait…it can’t be. Are you saying he stuffed Tselika in a machine and tamed her!?
But even though everything was wrong, I still reached a certain conclusion.
That was me.
It was Jinnai Shinobu.
I had never known that name could be defined so broadly.
“Is that anything to be surprised by? This is the singularity where the threads of destiny gather. It’s the rule-breaking land where all parallel worlds are concentrated. So what’s so strange about a meeting between two people who never should have met?”
I was dumbfounded, but then something else happened.
On the other side from him, I saw another new form. It was me, Jinnai Shinobu. However, this one was half my height and looked only five or six.
As soon as I noticed this alternate version of myself, I sensed a great presence behind him.
I didn’t have it in me to look back, but I more or less knew what was there.
There had to be Jinnai Shinobus as far as the eye could see. Some might have failed in something and some might have succeeded in something. In the past or the future, they had each taken a different path than me. And altogether, we created a group of nearly infinite number to face those hellish parallel worlds.
“Each individual ruin is an individual death. If the combined failures of the individual named Jinnai Shinobu are the strongest barrier against this personal hostility, then we only need to negate each and every one. To put it another way, each world can only kill one of us.”
“Simple, isn’t it? It has to be. At least compared to the suffering of losing your beloved before your very eyes.”
“Yeah!! I know that much!! I know the Jinnai Shinobu standing here…the Jinnai Shinobu that made it this far has to be one hell of a lucky guy!!”
We didn’t need a cue.
Our thoughts were united.
“So I’ll go for even the cruelest of options. Lend me your strength, Jinnai Shinobu!! I’ll show you the gentle conclusion of the Jinnai Shinobu who can call her Yukari!!!!!”
Part 13 (Uchimaku Hayabusa)
“PSI_ver_RAIN: If you actually think about it, this doesn’t really make sense, does it? A group that wants to ban speculation on debris is going to send that debris down so people can collect it. Aren’t they just admitting it’s valuable? Won’t the speculation just heat up more the more they do that?”
“Anemura [email protected]: Um, and is it really safe to have satellites falling down to earth? It would have to hurt if a piece fell on you, and even if that requires the same bad luck as getting hit by lightning, that would still mean some definite victims every year. Can anyone who knows more about it tell me the details?”
Those short posts changed everything.
The stagnant water began to flow.
“It doesn’t look like a perfect solution, though,” said Madoka-chan in her sailor uniform. “Those Hishigami people have set up a donation site. They’re trying to raise as much money from supporters as they can to fund a launch as soon as possible! Even if the other companies are reluctant, this will let them buy a free pass with the power of money!”
“It’s all over once they reach a certain amount of money. They’ll be able to keep going no matter how much opposition there is.”
“Like we’ll let them do that.”
“And how do you plan to fight them?” asked Mishima-san.
I gave a succinct answer.
“Fundraising on the borderless internet is actually a gray zone. If they’re suspected of illegally transferring money, they’ll have trouble finding supporters. We just have to hit them with suspicion. If people think they’ll be complicit in something illegal if they take part, the donations will stop. Even if the police aren’t functioning, the brand-name of the guardians of the law should still be effective!”
“Detective, don’t tell me you’re planning to post under your real name in this freely expanding internet society. The winds may have begun to change, but stir up people’s animosity and they’ll dig up all the data on you they can find!!”
“I’ve already asked civilian middle school girls to do the same thing.”
I smiled a little and looked to the two posts from the girls who had helped out.
“The adults can’t get cold feet now. These people are trying to send nuclear batteries and dangerous rocket fuel tumbling down to earth, so stopping them comes first!!”
Part 14 (Hishigami Mai)
Things had gotten bad.
The large bus and truck were still crashing into each other. Plus, the back of the truck contained Ou, a failure who would slaughter at least thirty million people. I needed to cut away that container to eliminate the possibility of her waking, but the problem wasn’t the 80 kph car chase. It was all the eyes of Tokyo.
Working for an underground organization could be tricky.
“Zei, Akane, Ran. Which one of you is the most useless?”
“Don’t glare at me like that. And don’t start grabbing at each other either! Okay, I’ll be borrowing one of those camouflage cloaks that use the science of perception to trick the human brain and program analyses. I don’t care what happens to you afterwards. You can grab at each other’s hair to settle things amongst yourselves once and for all if you like. The weakest one who loses the game of musical chairs can stay here!!”
“Wait, Mai-san. A fight between women scares me even more than an asteroid! This is going to be absolute carnage!!”
The cowardly man’s cries didn’t matter.
I pulled the cloak over my head, picked up the Sunekosuri, and jumped out the broken window and onto the truck.
“U-u-um! Why did you throw me out here too!?”
“Stop it, partner. Did you think you could get out of this without playing a role?☆”
We stood on the joint connecting the front of the truck to the container on the back. The heavy metal connector was accompanied by a mess of cables to send signals to the rear wheel breaks and such. No, there were too many of them for just that, so they may have been related to Ou’s storage tank.
Anyway, I just had to remove the cut-away safety lock and pull the lever, but…
“It’s completely broken!? And there are marks from a gas burner being used!!”
“How can he say he loves being reasonable? He’s completely insane.”
If Ou awoke, thirty million people would die. That was certain. Plus, it was unknown how far the carnage would spread beyond that. And that of course meant he would die first there in the driver’s seat. But anyway…
“So what do we do, Mai-san? Oh, you have a gun hidden in the heel of your boot, don’t you?”
“That small caliber handgun can’t break such a thick metal connector. And that’s too much effort. I’ll just break it with my bare hands.”
“Waaah! You’re as much of a monster as ever!!”
Although I had remade myself to deal with Youkai and not things like this, so I didn’t recommend doing these things that would break my own body.
Then an irritated voice reached me over the satellite phone.
“Mai, are you ready? I would really rather not use Ou as a bargaining chip!!”
“Shut up, you stupid brother!! Do you know how messed up things have to have gotten for me to be the straight man!? And I can hear you grinning while you say you’d rather not use her, you unreasonable bastard!!”
“Yes, yes. So you still have that kind sort of reasonableness. I’m jealous. Yes, so very jealous.”
He was hopeless He was completely self-absorbed.
There was no real reason to waste effort chatting with him.
I grabbed the metal connector with both hands and it produced an odd creaking sound. I prepared to pull it out, but…oh, dear. That wasn’t good at all. My shoulders and back were creaking too. I was going to have to replace all of my arteries and muscles afterwards and probably check over my entire skeleton too. For a normal person, it was like swapping out everything but the brain and heart!
But my efforts weren’t wasted.
The joint was like a mechanical dinosaur’s backbone, but it was definitely beginning to change shape.
Just a bit further…
Red Zei shouted to me from the bus where she was grappling with the others like her.
A moment later, something ran down my spine.
As soon as I swung my head to the side, the container’s thick wall was broken through from within. A wet and swollen translucent hand that almost seemed made of liquid pierced straight through the spot my face had just been in. It was not a fist or stabbing fingers. The hand simply grabbed at empty air. It was shaped like a child’s small hand.
But I could tell what that stinging sensation was.
It was death, it was slaughter, it was Ou. If that touched me, it was all over. No defense or knowledge would help. This had nothing to do with the methods or efficiency of killing. It was death on the fundamental level of one’s soul or core.
The flabbily swollen arm pulled back.
A pair of eerily glowing eyes pierced through me from the darkness within the hole.
If the hand had been pulled back, it would be coming again.
Just like an arrow fired from a drawn bowstring, the next attack was coming.
How much of the original Hishigami Enbi did this reproduce? 20%? 30%? Even with the Youkai medicine, I doubted it was even half the original. And this was what she could do? Sister, just how much of a genius are you!?
Sweat poured from my entire body, but I couldn’t stop working now.
Once the steel egg cracked open, she would be freed.
At this point, she could still be contained.
To be honest, Mai-chan probably didn’t really need to go along with all this.
Thirty million people would die? So what?
Japan would be destroyed? What did I care?
I could always leave Tokyo, flee Japan, and pull out a beach chair and parasol to enjoy the final paradise on the other side of the globe. A Hishigami Woman could pull off that kind of unfair method.
But even so…
This wasn’t about the Hishigami Women and it wasn’t about business or the rules of our underground industry. I recalled what the Sunekosuri had said. His wife Ohatsu and son Gisuke were important, but that wasn’t all. He wasn’t just an accessory to his family and he had gone to Hyakki Yakou of his own free will.
This must have been something that I personally wanted to do.
“Oh, ohh, ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!”
Part 15 (Jinnai Shinobu)
All the Jinnai Shinobus moved at once. They charged toward the “things” that were thinner than the thinnest paper and would hit you with an apocalyptic level of pain, fear, and despair when you broke through them.
With each Jinnai Shinobu’s sacrifice, one layer was broken and we moved forward.
One after another, the parallel world barriers were breached and we continued on.
Every mistake was accounted for and every wrong decision was accepted.
That wasn’t quite right.
It was true that most of the Jinnai Shinobus had not made it this far.
But they had had their own endings.
——To overcome the worst case scenario of Japan being sold off, one had made a contract with Archdemon Tselika, made an enemy of the world, and finally been reunited with the Zashiki Warashi who waited on that contaminated archipelago.
——One had left the small world of Japan with Madoka and spent his time engaging in financial battles with demonic investors who seemed to embody the seven deadly sins.
——One had gained the direct fighting strength of the Yuki Onna, defeated and neutralized extremely deadly Youkai like the Shuten-Douji and the Nine-Tailed Fox, and used them as Shikigami.
——After the death of Nagisa’s beloved dog had driven her insane, one had stuck with her to the end, managed to regain her sanity, and used nothing but human power to face the nationwide Youkai controller constructed by Akki Rasetsu.
——One joined forces with Marguerite and the Succubus and managed to rescue the other soul that had been hidden in her womb.
——One had stopped the Aoandon’s rampage by teaching her of kindness back in Zenmetsu Village, had taken up the sword Kusanagi, and had fought alongside his “daughter” in the battle over the three Imperial Regalia.
——When Majina had completely stolen Hyakki Yakou away from Hafuri, one had used his Youkai-attracting trait and swore to the sobbing girl that he would create a new Hyakki Yakou that would never hurt her.
——One had built a time travel Package around the Aburatori, used it to prevent the Hyakki Yakou coup d’etat in advance, and truly protected a certain family.
——One had gone the widow route, fallen for Ver. 40 Mei rather than Ver. 39 Yukari, and retrieved her heart with a device that provided salvation.
——One had successfully seduced both Mei, who did not age, and Hafuri, who had grown up, and thought he had won the legendary oyakodon…right up until Majina’s ghost came back from the depths of hell during the Bon festival and punched him.
——One, one, one, one…
They may have been different from here, but that didn’t mean they were failures. Those were the results of the decisions they had made, but I had mistakenly seen them as obstacles and viewed them as hells. That had pissed them all off. They were insisting that they would take care of and look after their own worlds.
So I just had to look at my own world.
I had to look beyond all those other worlds.
I had to look to the Zashiki Warashi!!
I ran once more with the kaleidoscope in hand.
“No.” “This wasn’t supposed to happen.” “Break.” “How can you still stand!?” “No.” “Wait.” “Stay back.” “Stay away!” “I’ll crush you.” “We’ll crush all of you.” “I’ll crush every last possibility!” “We don’t need those bright things.” “I don’t want to see them.” “Because.” “It wasn’t…” “It wasn’t enough to save us!!”
The children’s skulls displayed in the Zashiki Warashi’s black hair used the headphones to threaten us. The handprints moved about her yukata with none of their previous confidence. The twisted eyeball jewels rolled around inside the sea of hair covering her face. It was filled with impatience, anxiety, and rage. But that hostility sent out by the inevitable decline told me everything I needed to know. The end was near. I…we…Jinnai Shinobu was on the right path!
The many Jinnai Shinobus caught up. They passed me by. They smiled as they moved ahead and were burned by those many ruined parallel worlds and by their true hellfire that lay beyond different decisions that, to me, looked mistaken.
So the fear faded.
My sense of rivalry overcame it.
Even if we were all Jinnai Shinobu and even if we all wished to save the Zashiki Warashi, she was mine.
I wasn’t going to let any other Jinnai Shinobu touch her!! I wasn’t going to let them save her in my place! Even if none of those other conclusions were any better or worse, I was the one that had chosen this and made it this far! So how could I let them take the best part? I was the only one that got to take that Good-for-Nothing Nee-chan in my arms and call her Yukari!! Let me have that much pride, you idiots!!
I clenched my teeth.
I raced desperately forward and reached out my hand.
I broke through all the screens and all the red-dyed images of hell.
I raced across the countless battlefields.
And at the very last moment, I thought I felt a push on my back. I didn’t have time to look back, but I had a feeling someone was smiling there. Another Jinnai Shinobu who had made a different decision and couldn’t reach this point was leaving something with me.
He was telling me to make my dream come true, to not let her cry, and to put the biggest smile on her face.
Then that seemingly endless distance shrank to nothing.
I held the Zashiki Warashi in the red yukata tightly in my arms.
She was as limp as a doll.
The small skulls and handprints wriggled across her.
No one had told me what to do with the kaleidoscope.
I didn’t know how Youkai worked, I didn’t know the details of the Package, and I didn’t know what kind of techniques or tools supported them.
But the destiny of inevitable decline had wanted to reject that salvation. The skulls in her hair, handprints on her yukata, and jewel eyeballs in her serpentine hair had most wanted to keep me from approaching her. It had put all sorts of obstacles in my way to keep me from doing that. It was like throwing a detective with brilliant deductive skills onto a battlefield with shells flying everywhere or throwing a veteran martial artist into a gag space. Having me fight out of my element had acted as a barrier.
That was what the infinite parallel worlds had been.
They had been nothing more than distractions to get me to lose sight of my goal.
So I just had to stay focused. I just had to look to the Zashiki Warashi and seek what I wanted in the very beginning. It didn’t matter if it was out of place, inappropriate, or embarrassing. That kind of self-restraint was nothing more than interference from the destiny of inevitable decline. When I was trying to continue forward like normal, the magnetism and attraction of the situation would guide me off track.
I couldn’t let it affect me or sweep me away. I had to stay true to myself.
It didn’t matter how pathetic or silly it was.
This had to be the one and only correct answer in this world that was scattered with as many options as there were stars in the sky. I had to trust in myself after my decisions led me this far!! I didn’t have the power to save the world, but I had managed to choose the one path that the million other Jinnai Shinobus hadn’t been able to. So I needed to be proud of that! It was something I could truly be proud of!!!!
Further strength entered the arms that held the Zashiki Warashi.
I felt her pulse.
The countless handprints didn’t matter and the white skulls had fallen silent.
I focused on her face as she looked unsteadily up at me.
We weren’t enemies.
She wasn’t a threat I had to defeat.
I couldn’t forget that.
Yukari was my girlfriend.
And when I was with her, I just had to do what I most wanted to do.
With that alone in mind, I gently placed my lips on hers.
It was like a switch had been thrown.
I heard a deafening sound and the never-ending world of red tatami mats was immediately blown away.
The handprints on her yukata, the skulls in her hair, the serpentine hair, the jewel eyeballs, the inevitable decline, and everything else were gone.
The unpleasant noise from her headphones had grown silent too.
Part 16 (Uchimaku Hayabusa)
I gulped with the Mystery Freak and the others as we viewed the screens in the cruise ship’s trading room. We focused on the message boards that had grown quiet, as if the previous commotion had never happened.
“Does this mean…?”
Part 17 (Hishigami Mai)
In a certain metropolitan area, I watched the container roll away after it broke through the chain link fence of an industrial complex. I wiped the sweat from my brow while clinging to the rest of the truck with the Sunekosuri. That monster was only sleeping and I doubted that would be enough to kill her, but…
“…It’s over for now?”
Part 18 (Jinnai Shinobu)
I kissed the Zashiki Warashi.
What purpose did that serve?
Perhaps it was important that the creator of the kaleidoscope made physical contact with the Zashiki Warashi it was targeting.
I didn’t need to know the answer. It had worked and that was all that mattered.
Her full body weight leaned against me.
The next thing I knew, we were inside the familiar tea room of the thatch-roof house. We were surrounded by the Umbrella, Lantern, Tanuki, Fox, and plenty of other Youkai and the Zashiki Warashi seemed embarrassed having so many creatures around her. I could feel her squirming in my arms.
We were back.
We had faced inevitable decline in the graveyard of the world built by the remains of the countless destroyed eras that lay beyond an endless labyrinth of “what ifs”.
But we had escaped that terminal of intersecting destinies and returned to our normal life.
“Shinobu, this is a little embarrassing.”
“Ha ha. Sorry, sorry.”
“And I thought something tasted rusty, but you have a cut on your lip.”
She brought her finger to my lip and looked at what got on her finger.
“See? You have all this white blood on there.”
When I heard those words, I pulled her close again and pressed her head to my chest.
I had messed with her head.
And I hadn’t wanted her to see the look on my face when I accepted that fact.
“What is it, Shinobu?”
That considerate question could almost be called innocent.
But I was unable to answer her and simply held her tighter in my arms.
Then I bit my lip again and said more in my heart.
Even if it meant dirtying my hands, I just couldn’t accept a future without you.
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