Even though it was midsummer, the early morning air was cool. When you lived in an old Japanese-style house, the outside temperature had a large effect on the inside temperature. I lived in a giant thatch roof house that’s only advantages were its size and age. In one room of that house, I held the replacement for the smartphone that had been destroyed in the previous incident.
It had just arrived from the service center in an early morning delivery.
I lived in an Intellectual Village that created an extremely high class brand name out of the rural area so that grapes were 30,000 yen a bunch and the water flowing through a nearby river was 300 yen a liter. But to obtain the proper feeling of the rural, the area had few stores. For that reason, quite a few different services were handled via online shopping. The delivery companies tried to distinguish themselves by adding on various additional services such as having their trucks function as supermarket-like food carts in case people felt like making an additional purchase when their package was delivered.
At any rate…
It seemed my smartphone had not been repairable, so they had taken the data out of it, added it to a new phone, and sent me that. It was a different model, so the smartphone’s body seemed a bit thinner than the old one.
But getting a newer version wasn’t a bad thing.
My index finger operated all the basic apps to make sure it was working properly. As I did so, I used the digital camera to take a picture of my own face.
Just as it made an unnecessary shutter sound effect, I heard a whisper from the Zashiki Warashi (long black hair, red yukata, and an incredibly glamorous body) who had entered my room at some point.
“Catching a glimpse of your household’s narcissism is more disheartening than I thought it would be.”
“Don’t be silly. It’s just that the camera’s settings seem off.”
I really was being super kind to so thoroughly explain what was going on to that glamorous Zashiki Warashi that never gave any fortune to her household and instead lazed around talking about pointless crap.
“Look, there’s something wrong with how it gathers the light. It took the gleaming of my blond hair as the standard and now my skin color is way off.”
“Maybe you’re a special exception, Shinobu.”
“Maybe. Okay, Zashiki Warashi, give me an awkward smile.”
I casually pointed the smartphone at the indoor Youkai and pressed the shutter button on the screen using my index finger.
“See? It took the red of your yukata as the standard. Your skin looks really rough.”
“Maybe I can manually adjust the values in my profile. …What’s this? By setting the camera to video mode for about 5 seconds in each photographing environment, the focus regulator will automatically detect the ideal values? But I already did-…ow! What is it, Zashiki Warashi? Why are you kicking me in the shin? …Ow, that hurts!”
I ignored the Zashiki Warashi who had fallen silent for some reason and left my room.
Hmm… Maybe that room was a bad environment.
With that thought, I walked down the long passageway and took random pictures in the living room and on the porch, but I didn’t see any difference. It kept taking the places with the brightest light or color as the standard which caused the rest of the photo to look terrible.
I aimed the lens away from the 20 meter long porch and to the large yard lying beyond it.
I had a feeling the large yard would be a more difficult environment to handle than indoors, but whatever.
The yard was large enough to actually play tennis in, but it had a lot of harsh ups and downs, mossy garden stones and stone lanterns, and trees too thick for me to completely reach around. There wasn’t much usable space left over. The old neighborhood gardener would groan every time he saw the place, but I had no idea what value there was in it.
About half the yard was covered by tall tree branches and the sunlight poured down through the gaps in the leaves. For that reason, it had an incredibly harsh contrast between light and shadow. Plus, the wind was shaking the branches, making it all move around a lot. I seriously doubted the camera could take a beautiful photo with its settings so messed up.
And then I found something odd sitting in the middle of the yard.
It was a round plastic kiddie pool.
As I already said, while it was midsummer, it was also an early morning with briskly cool wind. Getting in a pool at this time would only cover one’s body with goose bumps, but there were exceptions.
This exception was a Yuki Onna with slightly bluish hair and the general appearance of a 13 year old.
She had previously been a component of a Package, a criminal tool that used the power of a Youkai, but as you can see, she was completely carefree now.
That Yuki Onna usually wore a whitish kimono, but she was wearing a school swimsuit today for some reason.
For one thing, I was the only student in the house, so you would never find a swimsuit for a female student here no matter how hard you looked.
As the Yuki Onna sat within the chilly plastic pool, her eyes vaguely wandered through the sky.
“…Sigh. An open air bath is nice every once in a while.”
Apparently, she viewed it as a bath despite the temperature. Which begged the question of what she thought about the bathtub we usually soaked in. My grandfather insisted on keeping the temperature really high, so this might be why she insisted she would never get in after him.
I put on the beach sandals sitting on the porch and headed out into the yard.
I figured it would fail again, but I still casually pointed the camera’s lens at the Yuki Onna and took a photo.
Oh? It actually took a nice picture this time?
Hmm…What is going on???
“And an open air bath of course comes with peeping toms. Eh heh heh heh heh heh heh…”
“Oh, is that so? Well, it’s almost time for breakfast, so get to the altar room.”
In my household, the custom was for the family to eat in the living room and the Youkai to eat in the altar room. This was simply because those were the only places where everything could be set up, but once the meal began we would often move around and meet up. This meant the family and the Youkai often did eat together.
These days, the Zashiki Warashi and others tended to come to the living room, but I couldn’t remember how it used to be. I had a feeling I might have taken my dishes to join the Zashiki Warashi in the altar room.
Anyway, the Yuki Onna spoke while blankly staring up from the plastic pool.
“Oh, right. There are some apple sherbets inside the refrigerator. You can have one for dessert if you like…”
“? Did you buy them at the sweets shop?”
“…I am a Yuki Onna. I can make any fruit into sherbet. I can even do it with human flesh.”
“Hmm. Then I guess I’ll take one. Thanks.”
With that, I was about to leave, but for some reason the Yuki Onna twitched within the plastic pool and brought her small hands to her reddened cheeks.
“…F-flattering me like that will not get you anything other than my vagina!!”
“I don’t need that!!”
As I frantically tried to hold her in check, I heard another voice coming from up in one of the yard’s huge trees. What looked like a white cat was standing on one of the branches covering the sky overhead. But it had two tails. It was a Youkai known as a Nekomata.
“Honestly, what are you doing so early in the morning? You’re louder than the cicadas.”
“What’s wrong, Nekomata? Did you climb up into the tree but can’t get down?”
“Are you making fun of me?” asked the Nekomata before easily jumping out of the branch.
To my surprise, she landed on my right shoulder and then jumped down to the ground.
I aimed my smartphone’s lens at her and took a photo. The quality was better than the Zashiki Warashi’s but worse than the Yuki Onna’s. It seemed to be averaging out, but I had no idea what factors the quality was based on.
The Nekomata gently waved her two tails.
“The old woman said she could not sleep because the cicadas were too loud. I do not know if abnormal weather has caused some kind of change to the magnetic field or what, but those fools are singing even in the middle of the night. I made sure to get rid of some of them.”
“Hmm. I was so fast asleep I didn’t notice at-…Waahhh!!!??? There’s a huge pile of dead cicadas in the corner of the yard!”
The pile was about as large as a campfire. She must have been doing it for my granny’s sake, but it would be best if my granny didn’t see this while gardening. I decided to get a shovel and bury them after breakfast.
The Nekomata must have thought she had done a good deed because she proudly headed for the main entrance of the house.
“You had better not cause any trouble for the old lady either,” she said. “No matter how inept you are, surely you can at least do some weeding. We can’t have her out toiling under the sun.”
“Actually, grandpa and granny believe their health will deteriorate if they aren’t out working up a sweat every day. If you do the cleaning or weeding for them, they’ll actually get mad at you.”
“…Oh? Well, I suppose those two do look stronger than a weakling like you.”
It was true I knew I could never stand up to grandfather in a fistfight. The Zashiki Warashi seemed afraid of my dad, but my grandfather would clearly be the more painful opponent. I couldn’t exactly imagine my grandmother ever punching anyone, but she could easily carry around the laundry basket at her age. If she got serious, she could probably draw out quite a bit of strength.
“Hey, wait, wait, Nekomata. Don’t just go in. When you come in from outside, you’re supposed to wipe your paws off with a cloth, remember? In fact, is there really any point in you having our house as your home base? It’s not the same as with the Yuki Onna who uses the cold room we use for tsukemono.”
“That’s just a needless annoyance. In our world, this is normal.”
“I thought you didn’t want to cause any trouble for my granny?”
The Nekomata fell silent.
Hmm, I might have found a way to control her.
I picked up the obedient white feline Youkai and wiped her paws off with a cloth lying on top of the shoe shelf in the entrance.
And then the dripping wet Yuki Onna approached me from behind.
“…Wipe me off too. Make sure to get into every last unspeakable nook and cranny. Heh heh heh heh heh.”
“This cloth is too small, so just give it up.”
After the family and Youkai ate breakfast, I headed out to bury the pile of cicada corpses the Nekomata had made. I used a large gardening shovel to dig an arbitrary hole in the yard and used the tip of the shovel to push the grotesque piece of art into the hole while trying not to look at it.
I had expected it to just be a slight bit of exercise, but digging the hole was surprisingly exhausting.
For that reason, I ended up taking too long.
And that meant…
“Shinobu, didn’t you say you have school today?”
“Nooooooooooooooooooooooooo!! You purposefully waited until after it was too late to tell me, didn’t you!?”
Otherwise she would never be grinning like that!!
I frantically dashed from the porch and into the large thatch roof house. I cut through the Japanese-style living room and into the hallway. I then headed straight for my room and grabbed my thin school bag.
“Shinobu, Shinobu,” called my overall small granny from the western-style living room. I noisily ran in that direction.
My granny was holding out something box-shaped wrapped in a cloth.
“Here is your bento. And didn’t you say you were using the pool today?”
“Crap, that’s right! Mom, where’s my swimsuit!?”
I grabbed a small bag containing my swimsuit and ran along the shortest path to the front door, but then I headed back to the living room after realizing I had forgotten my indoor shoes.
Honestly! How much time am I going to lose here!?
With the preparations for my adventure finally complete, I put on my leather shoes and headed out the front door.
And there I found a Zashiki Warashi wearing a red yukata.
“…What are you doing here?”
“Taking a short walk. How about we head together for a bit?” With a triumphant laugh, the indoor Youkai needlessly puffed out her already huge chest. “Walking with a beauty like me is sure to improve your social status.”
I found that hard to believe.
For the most part, the people I knew were already aware that my house’s Zashiki Warashi was incredibly glamorous. In elementary school, I had been constantly flooded with classmates (mostly the guys) begging to see her. However, that Zashiki Warashi was either very cruel or very shy. Even though she would suddenly climb into my futon and on top of me in the middle of the night, she would always disappear somewhere as soon as someone from outside the family came to see her.
I highly doubted that indoor Youkai actually wanted to be the center of attention.
And so she had to have some other reason.
“Hey, Zashiki Warashi. Where are you going? The school’s the other way.”
She jumped in shock.
“The only thing in that direction is the tiny post offi-…wait. No! Don’t tell me you ordered something else off the internet using my PO box and COD!!”
“Y-you must be imagining things. This has nothing at all to do with today being the long-awaited release date of the new model of electric stickboard that I already paid for with your account instead of using COD!!” shouted the Zashiki Warashi before running off full speed in an arbitrary direction like she was heading into the sunset along a river bed.
And if I was not mistaken, she had mentioned something that was even worse than I had feared.
“Wait, you thieving Youkai!! Damn you!! And I don’t have time to chase after her since I’m already right on the brink of being late!!”
I thought about calling the post office to have my PO box frozen, but she had said it was already paid for and that would have been done over the internet. And all in my name. Since she could not even sign a contract for a cell phone, she liked to use that method. Once I got back from school, I needed to make sure she paid me back in cash from her allowance before she could weasel her way out of it.
And as I was thinking about that, I was running along the path to school with fields on either side. The pathway was lined with small solar panels that turned toward the sun like sunflowers.
As I ran, something charged out from the side.
It was neither a high school girl with a piece of bread in her mouth nor a half-assed delinquent charging along on an electric scooter.
It was a large paper umbrella of the old traditional sort.
The umbrella was folded up in a conical shape and a comically large eye and tongue could be seen on its surface
The handle was touching the ground and it ran along like someone hopping on one foot. This Youkai was the type commonly seen drawn on the sign for a cultural festival ghost house.
“Boy, I have developed past that territory and gained the proper name of Umbrella Obake.”
As the Umbrella Obake ran along, it spoke in a voice as grim as my father’s.
“What are you doing?” I asked. “Heading to school?”
“My master has a tendency to leave me behind!! And yet today the forecast said there might be rain this evening!!” shouted the Youkai while widening its already unnecessarily large eye.
“I thought the forecast said a 20% chance of rain this evening?”
“Twenty is plenty!! Think for a second that a box containing 100 scorpions was just placed before you and you were told 80 of those scorpions are not venomous. Would you wish to stick your hand in that box!?”
“…I get it, I get it. You’re overprotective. And the name written on your handle is in hiragana.”
Plus, I did not think that example did a proper job of explaining 20%. If there was even a single scorpion in the box, you had a 100% of being stung.
“I have also heard a Shichinin Misaki has been spotted around this area recently. My master needs me to be a bit extra cautious.”
“…A Shichinin Misaki?”
That was one of the deadly types of Youkai that killed people simply as a characteristic of the species.
I was pretty sure the Shichinin Misaki was a Youkai constantly made up of seven drowning victims. Whenever a new victim was created, the oldest victim would be released to rest in peace. There were various theories regarding what kanji should be used for the “Misaki” part.
But if it was made up of seven people who were all victims, where did the true essence of the Youkai lie? Was the Youkai the invisible framework in which the victims were contained?
“But I thought the Shichinin Misaki was an ocean Youkai.”
“Do not ask me. I only know what I have been told.”
When I thought about it, I realized the trouble with the scammer Package using the Yuki Onna had started when I spotted that winter Youkai in the summer.
A Youkai appearing where it should not be might have been evidence of human intervention. I decided to be a bit more cautious than usual.
“Hey, why are you being so quiet? Do you have some idea what could be behind it, boy?”
“No, no,” I said to avoid the issue. “I was just thinking how convenient an umbrella that comes to you if you forget it would be.”
“Heh. I may not look it, but I have been alive for about 150 years. I am nothing like your everyday plastic umbrella.”
“But I don’t think just strapping a GPS to everything would be enough to stop yourself from ever losing anything.”
“Those damn modern conveniences…!!”
The Umbrella Obake gritted its teeth (Did it even have teeth in that comically large mouth?), but it stopped walking when we reached a crossroads between water-filled paddies.
“Oh, my master is this way.”
“Oh, so he is an elementary school kid.”
“Farewell, boy. Try to only run into girls with bread in their mouths thrice a day!!”
“I’ve never even seen a bread girl. Are you sure that isn’t a type of Youkai?”
After parting ways with the Umbrella Obake at the crossroads, I ran full speed for the only high school in the Intellectual Village.
The school only had about 300 students total and the school building itself was fairly small.
However, the Intellectual Village was intentionally designed to appear to be in decline. Given the number of houses, there was no way 300 high school students lived in the village.
“Hey, Shinobu. Run! Keep running! You’ve still got a ways to go to reach homeroom.”
My classmate Tarou called out to me from the dirt schoolyard. He was a healthy school club boy whose casual clothes were always quite plain, but his name was overwhelmingly gaudy; his given name alone was spelled with 7 kanji. Even our Japanese teacher was confused how seven characters resulted in the reading of “Tarou”.
“Tarou, were you doing morning soccer practice? Have you been doing that every day during summer break?”
“No, I was at a morning job. After feeding the chickens, I still have the most annoying amount of free time. It’s more than enough to get to school but not enough to go back to sleep. Those of us who got here early were playing on the schoolyard.”
“A job, hm?”
“Unlike those with a house like you, it isn’t easy for us boarding students to stay in this Intellectual Village. Of course, the acceptance rate is so low, your odds are about as good as winning the lottery if you don’t have any connections from doing this kind of thing.”
That was how the village had an unusually high number of youths for its size.
No matter how maintained the environment was, people were needed to run it. Intellectual Villages actively invited in youths to help stabilize that flow.
There were some exceptions though. For example, my dad had refused any part-time workers or lodgers because he was so passionate about (if not addicted to) making sake that he refused to allow anyone who had not gone to an agricultural university into the brewing facility.
As I changed into my indoor shoes at the entrance, I spoke with Tarou.
“So is the Love King coming today?”
“He’s out mediating a case of cheating, so probably not today. It takes a strange person to become a specialist in helping out with love troubles for only those already in established couples.”
And despite acting like a complete know-it-all when it came to other people’s love problems, no one had ever seen this Love King with a lover.
“So I’m still not getting back the manga I lent the Love King before summer break? Anyway, where’s Akechi?”
“He’s the one the Love King is helping.”
“…Eh? So he cheated on Nagisa? Is…Is Akechi okay? Nagisa isn’t going to murder him, stuff him, and use him as her dakimakura is she?”
“Why do you think he’s getting the help of the Love King?”
“I thought the guy was crazy from the moment he started dating one of the world’s three greatest yanderes. He certainly has guts.”
I parted ways with Tarou as he went off to change out of his personal sportswear that differed from the school PE uniform and into the school uniform.
I headed up the stairs on my own and then down the hall towards my classroom. That was when my homeroom teacher called out to me. She wore glasses and a simple suit. She was a timid teacher who almost always held the tablet computer she used to take role in front of her face while speaking with someone. She dealt with everything very passively and tended to avoid problems whenever possible. But since she had managed to get selected to live in an Intellectual Village despite being a mere local government worker, she must have been quite the strategist.
“Yes, what is it?”
“Eeee!! Don’t scare me with that blond hair! N-no, I mean…um… What I mean is…How was Kotemitsu-san during summer break?”
The “Kotemitsu-san” she mentioned while flinching after every other word was the eccentric beauty of our class, Kotemitsu Madoka-chan. She was not being bullied or anything of the sort, but she was still stuck in an isolated state as she could not seem to fit in with her family or her class.
“Sigh. Is Madoka still not coming to school?”
“W-well, she did actually come…”
“Then why don’t you just ask her how she’s doing?”
“I don’t need to do that!! I need to respect my students’ independence! I cannot intrude that far! It would be such an annoyance!!”
Of course, everyone could tell Madoka stood at a higher position than her family or her class, so it seemed more like she ruled above them than that she was being ostracized.
“It looked like Madoka was grinning while watching stock prices as usual. She started laughing and clapping her hands together when the price of gold dropped like a rock, so something must have happened on an international level. Should I ask her about it?”
“N-no! That’s okay! Really, it is!! I will never intrude on my students’ privacy! That is for the best…right?”
As my homeroom teacher spoke, she had a look on her face that plainly said “Don’t get me wrapped in something I can avoid, you damn brat.”
She gestured me forward a bit and then peered secretly through the classroom’s hallway-side window. She was observing a female student wearing a white short-sleeve sailor uniform.
“I just need to know there are no problems. …Hm, but I can’t tell what is going on just by watching from outside.”
I peered into the classroom next to my homeroom teacher…but everything looked the same as usual. The class was chatting while divided into a few different groups while Madoka sat alone at her desk.
For some reason my homeroom teacher started whispering.
“At any rate, enjoy your youth however you like as long as it doesn’t cause me any problems. Specifically, try to destroy this awkward atmosphere filling the class. My path to success is relying on you, Jinnai-kun. See you during homeroom!!”
My homeroom teacher held up one hand in an extremely lazy parting gesture before heading off somewhere.
Stop using me as your Madoka countermeasure.
But even if she was eccentric, this was a beautiful girl we’re talking about, so I wasn’t about to not do it.
I would never have gone through with if it was merely “the right thing to do”.
After all, I wasn’t like my uncle who had wanted to be a police detective and had actually made it into Department 1 of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department.
I cleared my throat to both check on my voice and to help me change my mode of thinking. I opened the classroom door, stepped inside, and headed straight for Madoka’s desk where she sat looking bored.
“Hey!! Madoka-chan, let’s eat our lunches early!”
“First period hasn’t even started yet! Isn’t that being a little too bold, Shinobu-kun!? And do I need to tell you why girls use such small bento boxes? It’s because we’re worried about what will become of us if we eat too much!!”
What was needed to start a conversation with that “isolated” girl was to find something that would get some kind of emotional reaction. By keeping her from lightly brushing me aside, I had cleared Stage 1.
“Hey, Madoka. Why did you freeze in place as soon as I opened my bento box?”
“…Shinobu-kun? Did you get a chilled meal from a restaurant? No, the thawing process would damage the tissue. Don’t tell me you had it shipped in by air.”
“Don’t be stupid, you damn bourgeois. This is just what my granny made me.”
“…I see,” said Madoka in some kind of admiration.
The way her eyes were glittering scared me. I might have lit a fire in her health-obsessed heart.
“By the way, Shinobu-kun.”
“One of my armed guards said he saw a Shichinin Misaki. Do you know anything about that? He was complaining about how odd it is for an ocean Youkai like that to be here on land.”
I had thought the Umbrella Obake had been telling me nonsense, but now a professional bodyguard was saying the same thing.
“I don’t know anything about it, but I did hear the same rumor this morning.”
“Hm. Well, he only caught a glimpse of it on a camera recording.”
“The Shichinin Misaki is one of the absolute worst of the deadly Youkai. Don’t you die just by meeting it?”
“It seems viewing from an extreme distance is safe, but if you and Youkai detect each other from within a set range, you’re done for. They terrify the police. Thanks to this, my guards have been on edge. They even tried to deploy a unit around the school campus this morning.”
That was when a dull electronic tone came from Madoka’s cell phone.
She pulled the electronic device from her skirt pocket, read the email, and grimaced.
“…Oh, dear. Shinobu-kun, excuse me a moment.”
“Something related to money?”
“There’s been an unpredictable change that my autonomous investing program can’t handle. I have to manually alter it.”
As she spoke, Madoka used her thumb to press the keys at high speed like a true super high school girl. She was probably altering some values in the settings for a program that automatically bought and sold stocks.
It only took a few dozen seconds to a few minutes.
I had no idea how much a period of time like that was worth to an investor.
With her work done, Madoka tossed her phone on top of her desk.
“Insect damages in Australia. A bunch of locusts are showing up right about now and causing all sorts of problems.”
“…What was that email?”
“The program I wrote is also used by a major investment fund. But the program just monitors the trading parameters. It can’t predict the changes caused by sudden military conflicts or natural disasters. That’s why I ordered the fund advisor to send me an emergency email if anything happens.”
“But what if that major fund betrays you…?”
“I have it set up so any losses that I am not contacted about will be covered by either insurance or compensation. Of course, they’re so dependent on me they could never survive without me. …Otherwise, I would never let them use my precious program.”
I could see how she would have little interest in acquiring the inconsequential relationships of a class when she was living in such a dynamic world. That financial monster who freely rewrote the gears of adult society grabbed one of the omelets my granny had made and tossed it into her mouth with a childish look on her face
“So you get these every day for free?”
“Ahh, now I really want to live with you, Shinobu-kun…”
I knew she was not the type to care about her surroundings, but I really wished she wouldn’t say that kind of suggestive line in the middle of a classroom filled with our classmates!
School that day only lasted until midday, but I was stuck there until evening.
This was because Madoka had not done her summer homework at all.
Normally, I would have simply abandoned her, but she knew my personality a little too well.
“Shinobu-kun, we used the pool today.”
“Yeah, that was the main event. Without the pool, not even a third of the people here would have shown up on such a hot day. I’d still be in my futon.”
“Now, Shinobu-kun. If you will look over my homework, I am willing to undergo your lecture while wearing my still-wet school swimsuit.”
And I was enough of an idiot to be drawn in by the school swimsuit.
Evening came before I knew it as we sat with a desk in between us in that afterschool classroom. I looked over her notes, pointed out errors in her calculations, went over an outline of the designated book for the book report, and pretended to drop my red ball-point pen to get a good look at her thighs.
I wasn’t sure if Madoka had finished her homework or not, but she suddenly left once evening came.
Plus, it turned out the Umbrella Obake’s warning that it might rain in the evening turned out to be dead on!! In fact, it was absolutely pouring! Standing outside without an umbrella for just 5 seconds would probably have left me soaking wet!!
“…Is that why you called me here?” sighed the Youkai in a red yukata who held two plastic umbrellas at the entrance of the school.
I gave a serious reply.
“Normally, I would never expect you to come if I called you by phone, but I figured dad would have straightened things out regarding that order you made without permission this morning. I assumed you would be willing to do what I said for once.”
“Uuh…” groaned the Zashiki Warashi as her shoulders drooped.
She was an insolent and prank-loving sort of glamorous Youkai, but it seemed she was no match for my dad.
“Is he really that scary? You know he’s named some of the sake he makes ‘Red Yukata’ and ‘Black-Haired Beauty’, right? For a leading artisan to name his prized product after you, he must really like you.”
“…N-no, it isn’t an issue of what he says or does. In fact, he is completely faultless. This is…well, it’s a feeling that only Youkai can detect.”
So is it like how a parent’s love is hard for a child to understand?
As I had that thought, the Zashiki Warashi and I held up our umbrellas. After stepping out into the rain, I turned back towards the school building. A few windows still had people visible in them. They must have been waiting for the rain to end. I didn’t see Madoka, but I did see a familiar upperclassman girl. I waved back at her, and she gave a quick nod.
The Zashiki Warashi and I left the school grounds and walked down the path leading home.
“The rain is pretty strong, but I don’t hear any thunder.”
“I want to see if you actually look like an X-ray image if lightning hits you.”
But holding up an umbrella among those wide water-filled paddies did make that a slight worry.
The small solar panels sticking up at set intervals along the path were drooping down lifelessly, but the small hydroelectric turbines set up in the ditches alongside the fields were almost too lively. Those ditches would have great flows of water roaring along beside the path to and from school during rainstorms, so they could be rather disconcerting.
Of course, they were designed so trash would almost never clog them up and cause the water to overflow.
“I want to stop by the sweets shop.”
“I want to call you an idiot, but maybe I should praise you for not stopping by on your way to school.”
“Actually, I did.”
“I thought as much.”
But I had eaten my granny’s bento before the morning homeroom to start a conversation with Madoka, so I was pretty hungry myself.
I turned off the shortest route home and headed towards the sweets shop.
The Intellectual Village was designed with a focus on creating the atmosphere of a rural village. While we could purchase anything we wanted online, there were few shops from which we could acquire products the instant we wanted them. For that reason, the few shops we did have did quite well despite seeming horribly outdated.
Even so, I doubted to find any other customers during this evening shower.
But I was wrong.
“There’s some Youkai here.”
The Zashiki Warashi was right.
The Umbrella Obake I had seen that morning was there. And he was not alone. A Paper Lantern Obake with an equally comically large eye and long tongue was floating alongside it. This was the standard pair for a haunted house. I was a bit unsure whether anyone would actually be afraid of them, though.
But something else stood out even more.
A boy of elementary school age was standing in front of the shop. And he was holding the Umbrella Obake like an actual umbrella. The area was growing dark, but it looked like he could also use the Lantern Obake in place of a flashlight.
“You’re the Umbrella Obake from this morning, right? Sorry, but I don’t think I could tell two Umbrella Obake apart even if they were lined up right in front of me.”
Instead of the Umbrella, the Lantern replied in a high-pitched female voice.
“You are a stranger speaking to an elementary school boy? So you are a suspicious person!? I can report this to the police, right!?”
“Shut up, Lantern. You’re the one giving fire to a child. Do you know why lighters are made so hard to light?”
“Heh. I am an LED flashlight inside. That is the perfect method of being good for both the earth and children, don’t you think!?”
“Eh? You want my opinion? …It just makes me wonder whether you can really be called a lantern.”
And since she was a tool made for illumination, I would have thought the candle portion would be analogous to a human’s heart. Sometimes it seemed everything about Youkai was arbitrary.
That was when the boy finally looked up at me.
“…So you know Umbrella?”
“You could say he ran into me with bread in his mouth.”
“Oh,” was the boy’s only response.
Um, no… You weren’t supposed to take that seriously.
If I finally became the protagonist of a love comedy but the love interest was an umbrella, I think I would be left bedridden by how surreal it was.
I guess you could say the boy was a little too unresponsive.
“Oh, would you look at that. That’s an Intellectual Village for you. People can look at these strange scenes like they’re normal.”
I heard a new voice from the side.
We all looked over to find a man in his early twenties wearing a raincoat and raising one hand in greeting. His other hand held a box-shaped case of the type used to hold fishing equipment. He also had a cooler hanging down from a shoulder strap.
However, he did not have a fishing pole.
“Oh, I’m not a fisher. My specialty is Youkai art. I use a fishing case because it’s convenient for holding my equipment. With the weather the way it is, I honestly didn’t expect to have much luck today, but here I’ve found something amazing on my first day here.”
“Another suspicious person approaching the boy!? You had better be prepared!!”
“Shut up, Lantern,” shot back the artist while still grinning.
…A Youkai artist, hm?
TV crews would stop by Intellectual Villages on occasion for programs focused on locations of spiritual or supernatural energy, but it was rare for anyone to come by for artistic purposes. In fact, this was the first time I had ever seen a specialist in Youkai art.
And given how wonderful that Zashiki Warashi was if you focused solely on the visuals, she did seem a good candidate.
“Is it hard dealing with Youkai?” I asked. “They have a tendency to be uncooperative.”
“That’s true. And a lot of them especially do not like showing themselves before strangers. Really, it’s practically a miracle to get to see a Zashiki Warashi like this.”
“Did you come to this village for any reason in particular? That is, are you after a specific Youkai?”
“I heard there was an out-of-season Yuki Onna here, but I haven’t had any luck so far.”
Could he be referring to that one wearing a school swimsuit and sitting in a plastic kiddie pool???
“For future reference, do Youkai like the kinds of sweets sold here?” asked the man.
“If you start giving them this kind of thing, they get really spoiled. It’s best not to try to win them over with treats.”
This good-for-nothing Youkai just stomped on my foot with her high-soled geta!!
Are you trying to crack my toenail open and shove mud inside!?
“This place really is nostalgic.” The artist pulled a toy pistol out from the various products hanging down from the edge of the eaves of the shop. “To be honest, this sort of sweets shop was long gone by my generation, and yet it still feels nostalgic for some reason. This must be one of the effects of an Intellectual Village’s design.”
“Maybe. I couldn’t say since I stop by this place all the time.”
“Ah ha ha. But maybe they were a little too accurate with this toy revolver. It’s made of an alloy, so you could probably shoot real bullets with it if you made a few modifications.”
Then, the Zashiki Warashi standing next to me started tugging on my shirt. I looked around and realized the boy from before was gone. He must have returned home with the Umbrella and Lantern.
The artist did not seem to care and continued speaking.
“Due to the rain, I can’t exactly paint today. But try to find me again once the weather clears up. Not only am I interested in the Youkai, but I’m also interested in the life of people who accept Youkai like something normal.”
For dinner, we had chicken and soumen salad.
However, the chicken was so plentiful, I ended up eating too much. It felt like it was going to just sit in my stomach.
The night went on regardless.
For the first time in a while, the Yuki Onna was in a playful mood, so I spent a long time playing Indian poker with her, the Zashiki Warashi, and the Nekomata.
As I had gone to school, I was quite exhausted after that.
I wanted to hurry up and get to sleep in my room, but I had some preparations to take care of first.
The giant thatch-roof house may have seemed luxurious, but it had enough openings to allow mosquitos in.
“Ugh…dammit. I hate doing this…”
I was preparing a traditional mosquito net.
Plenty of mosquito repellant products existed, but it seemed to me that a mosquito net was the most effective since it physically cut off their path. Plus, any electronic method was out of the question. Also, when you lived in an Intellectual Village that was arranged to have such a beautiful atmosphere, it seemed a waste to fill your room with the scent of chemicals.
I hooked the ring-shaped cords of the mosquito net onto the J-shaped latches embedded at about the height of a curtain rail on the four walls and fixed the mosquito net perfectly in place.
But I did not even have time to rejoice at being done.
I suddenly heard an odd scraping noise.
It was a lighter noise than scraping metal.
It was more like…
“…Is that someone washing rice?”
As soon as I said that, the odd noise intensified. It seemed to be making some kind of objection.
“Oh, it’s an Azukiarai. What are you doing here?”
The azuki bean sound (?) replied, but I could make no sense of it.
There were plenty of different types of Youkai, but I have always felt that they can broadly be divided into those that eat meals like humans do and those that do not. This unseen Azukiarai was the latter.
I was fairly certain we had no such Youkai living in our house, but I decided my Youkai-loving mom must have brought it home and let it live in the attic.
But the thought of the attic reminded me of something.
“Come to think of it, that demon that forced its way into the house has taken the attic as its stronghold, hasn’t it? Were you kicked out from there?”
The azuki bean sound seemed somehow sad as it replied.
But I could not have this Youkai relying on me. If it kept making that scraping noise all night long, I would never get any sleep.
I looked around and finally opened the sliding door to my closet.
“At least do it in here. I’ll find a new place for you tomorrow.”
I had no way of knowing if the unseen Azukiarai was moving or not, but it must have agreed because the scraping sound started coming from within the closet. I closed the door and finally finished my preparations for bed.