In the end, I didn’t get even a wink of sleep.
“You idiot! You complete moron!! I told you this was your fault! It hung up because it mixed up the signals from my room and yours after you messed with the router’s settings!”
“Ahem. You can blame it all on the video lagging while I was playing my FPS.”
“You aren’t getting out of this by pouting your lips. Oh, honestly. It didn’t record that foreign drama because of this… What happened to that terrorist after he jumped from the dam!? There’s no way he’s dead!!”
“Shinobu, listing past regrets isn’t going to change anything. Think of it as the beauty next door asking you to hook up her digital recorder. It sounds like a lovely memory now, doesn’t it? Yes, and you spent all night with her.”
It was true that Zashiki Warashi didn’t often come begging me for help with her hands clasped together and tears in her upturned eyes. Just how addicted to entertainment was she? The real problem was that her description had made my heart skip a beat. If she found out, she’d have me doing her bidding for the rest of my life!
By the way, her room was filled with the sweet smell of incense. Once I finally got the internet connection working, the cable broadcast returned to the flat screen TV. When I saw the dry early morning news playing, I finally breathed a sigh of relief.
“Disconnection education or trauma disconnection is the idea of optimizing the brain’s network of synapses using the fact that heavy mental stress will block some of the circuits in the brain. The experts have admitted this provides extraordinary improvements in calculation speed, but at the same time…”
It was just too dry. Given the time, it was too early for breakfast but too late to get some sleep. Even if I washed my face and set my hair, I’d still have some time leftover.
It was mid-October. After finishing with my face and hair and putting on my winter school uniform, I had a little extra time on my hands, so I decided to play with the Nekomata, a relatively sensible Youkai.
“What is it now? Why are you bothering a lady as she tries to eat?”
She sounded a little annoyed, but that might have been because my Western cuisine loving mom was in charge of the cat food today. The can of tuna cat food cost a little more than the human food, but this Nekomata much preferred the “cat rice” my grandma made by putting miso soup on leftover rice.
Giving that cat rice to a normal cat would be deadly with all the salt and the green onion, but this was a Youkai. Things must have been different for her.
The Nekomata devoured the can of food despite her displeasure, so I sat in front of her and asked about something.
“It’s been two or three months since we met, hasn’t it?”
“Munch, munch. What about it?”
“Then I think it’s about time we brought our communication to the next level.”
“Let me touch your tai-…”
“I’ll kill you, brat.”
She didn’t even let me finish.
Don’t think I’m going to give up! I’ve got nothing else to do!! And I’m going a little nuts from the lack of sleep!! (←Yes, I was well aware that was the cause.)
“C’mon, c’mon. Just a little, okay? Let me touch your tail just a little. Do it with a normal cat and it would scratch your hand with a cross counter, but I can talk it out with you since you understand human language!!”
“If you know I won’t like it, then don’t force me to put up with it! You sure are impudent for an M!!”
“Oh, come one! You’ve got two tails and I’m only asking to touch one! Quit being so stingy!!”
“How stupid can one brat be!? Would you agree to have one of your balls crushed just because you have two of them!? And I called you an M, so how about you at least deny it!?”
As we argued, my spine tingled as an intense gaze reached it.
For one thing, the gaze came from somewhere unusual.
“Wh-what? The ceiling? Gh!?”
When I looked straight up, I saw a square hole removed from a corner of the ceiling like something from a ninja mansion and I saw two eyeballs peering down from it.
The succubus that lived in the attic was observing our exchange. With round goat horns, bat-like wings, an arrow-shaped tail, and her micro-bikini, she was (from a purely visual perspective) a wonderful housemate, but…
“Master, if you want to play with a tail, you can always use mine!!”
“Why do you sound so excited!?”
“Because I’ve been so bored living in the countryside!! There’s no stimulation from young men and women here!!”
The Western demon slipped down from the ceiling.
“Look, look. If you want to touch a tail, you can try mine out as much as you want. If you like, I can moan erotically every time you poke it which should leave an impressive bulge in your pants before you head off to school! In the world of imagination, of course!!”
“Oh, sorry. It doesn’t work if I know it’s an act.”
Besides, I already knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to love on that cat’s tail! I had to see if it was as soft and fluffy as I imagined it was!!
But the Succubus pouted her lips.
“Boo. You’re too cold, master. Maybe it would be more effective if I messed with you instead. I could use the arrow on my tail to thrust right on in from behind.”
“Wait! Wait!! You’re doing what to where!?”
I was already panicking, but that was when yet another deadly Youkai wandered in.
This yandere marriage hunting Youkai was the Yuki Onna.
“Nope! Back right on up!! I’m not letting you make this any more complicated! And you don’t even have a tail!!”
I prepared myself to flee at a moment’s notice, but the Yuki Onna was acting oddly.
Her face was as red as a boiled octopus, her kimono was practically falling off of her, and she was swaying back and forth.
Hm? Huh? Was her kimono always this baggy???
“Haphew… Trying to take a morning bath was a mistake… I-it was practically boiling after your grandfather took his bath…”
The freezing chill that usually hung around her had vanished.
What’s going on here? Did that hot bath weaken her? And she still looks soaking wet.
So that means…oh?
Are her deadly below-zero defenses not working right now?
And she’s still intent on marriage?
So what would happen if I let her take control of the situation and we ended up on the floor together?
I, Master Gentleman Shinobu, cleared my throat and stood up from the tatami mats.
I put on my best gentlemanly look and spoke.
“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to lay out a futon over there to help nurse the overheated Yuki Onna back to health.”
“Getting her drunk and taking advantage of her? You really are the worst.”
“That is not what I’m doing!! Removing her violent side just barely brings her into the acceptable zone. …But wait. What is this? Is she melting or shrinking? Where did those small yet promising breasts go!? Now, I’m even less sure, but I bet this weakened state is only temporary. The second I do anything, she’ll probably make a full recovery and freeze me! So for today, I’m just going to keep an eye on her!! Damn, if only her chest was still there!!!!!”
“Oh, c’moooon, master!! If you’d only told me, I could have let you use all sorts of cheats to get any girl to fall in love with you. How about it? To get you started, I’ll let you try one out at the low, low price of only one year from your lifespan!”
“I said I’m not doing anything today!! And I’m not interested in that right now anyway! Now, Nekomata, just let me touch your fluffy tail!!”
“Don’t turn that Succubus’s attention my way. Stick with the Yuki Onna.”
“Is it just me or are you leading me in that direction even as you look down on me for doing it?”
“And now your muscular dad is standing right behind you. So how do you plan to explain your way out of this one?”
Eh? No, wait!!
“You’ve got it all wrong!! Eh? Wh-why are you clenching that gigantic fist as hard as rock!? They were the ones leading me astray! I was only trying to nurse her back to health, so it would be wrong to only hit me!!”
After the great panic that morning, it was time to leave for school.
I groaned and rubbed the top of my head as I plodded along the usual path to school. After my dad’s fist dropped, the Youkai and demon fled like they were hit by the shockwave of a meteor strike. The Zashiki Warashi hadn’t even been in the same room, but she still spent a while hiding under the tea table (without realizing her butt was sticking out). Honestly, there were too many questions about the way that man scared Youkai.
This winter uniform’s collar is too stiff!! I know I’m probably just not used to it after not wearing it for so long, but it’s still bothering me!!
“Today’s lunch is sukiyaki! What an age we live in.”
“First years, don’t leave the sidewalk.”
“PE’s so boring now that swimming lessons are over.”
What’s this? What’s this?
It felt like there were a lot more little kids than usual.
When I gave the backpack-wearing group a puzzled look, a sporty classmate of mine named Tarou spoke up after joining me from another farm road.
“You hadn’t heard, Jinnai? A bunch of city kids were invited to the elementary school. It’s an entire year of kids from some city school. They’re calling it a cultural exchange and it’s making things pretty cramped for those of us in the lodging group. I want permanent residence in this village so bad. I don’t want to be a servant to some brats.”
“Yeah… Who knows how much it would cost to stay in an Intellectual Village inn.”
“Your place doesn’t accept guests, so I’m pretty jealous. Of course, that wouldn’t leave anywhere for me. Some places take in about twenty people in one house. That really makes you feel like a maid. I don’t know if it has to do with the genius kid boom they’ve been talking about, but those city kids see right through anything you try to get by them. They’re so not cute.”
It was easy to tell which ones lived here and which ones were from the city. One group looked shocked whenever a Youkai showed up and the other group ignored them completely.
“There’s a 30% chance of rain today. I must protect my master from a sudden downpour!”
“The sun sets quickly once autumn begins, so it couldn’t hurt to have a lantern!!”
An Umbrella Obake and a Lantern Obake with a single eye and a large tongue sticking out were carefully guarding a boy of about ten from either side.
Let’s see… That boy in the blue sweater and beige pants is Yonesaki Hiro, right? Didn’t I meet him during that stuff with the Shichinin Misaki?
“Jinnai, is there any kind of Youkai you want?”
“With them, I really don’t think it’s about what you want.”
After all, you suddenly find them living with you! That might have had something to do with how my Youkai-loving mom kept taking them in, though!!
“Eh? But wouldn’t you love to be like Taira no Masakado or Takiyasha-hime? Don’t you dream of being completely untouchable as the ultimate Youkai tamer?”
“I think they dealt more with vengeful spirits than Youkai. And no thank you. That always ends with having your physical body taken over.”
“But our school has a bomb shelter dungeon. You’d have to be crazy if that doesn’t get your imagination going!”
“That’s just part of the disaster infrastructure in case a typhoon or landslide isolates the village. After all, an Intellectual Village is so reliant on online shopping that we’d starve with the roads cut off. All you’ll find in that shelter are sleeping bags and canned biscuits.”
“If you go to the very bottom, there’s gotta be a half-naked spring spirit girl with wet, see-through clothes!!”
We continued our discussion all the way to our high school.
The classroom was filled with activity before homeroom because first period was PE. My school had a general understanding that the boys changed in the classroom while the girls changed in the locker room. I couldn’t have been the only one who shed tears of blood that it wasn’t the opposite, allowing me to “accidentally” open the door to that world of pink.
“Have you heard, Shinobu-kun? We’re running a marathon for PE today. Can you believe that? And after I was up until four in the morning trading and drinking health drinks.”
“Madoka, you really need to get some common sense. They split up the boys and girls for PE, so… Whoa!? Our summer wasn’t over after all!!”
“Thank you for the reaction I expected. Can I hit you now?”
My classmate, the eccentric beauty named Madoka-chan, was squirming and rubbing her thighs together, but that was obviously because of the red bloomers she had changed into for PE. And while her hair was short, it was cutely tied on either side.
“Honestly, I thought we were finally free of this now that autumn is here, but they said track suits aren’t allowed for the marathon! We have to run outside the school grounds dressed like this. Can you believe that!? I know Intellectual Villages create a high-quality agricultural brand name by intentionally reproducing the original scenery of Japan, but they didn’t have to bring this back with it! It feels like using your computer’s recovery point and bringing back a virus you thought you’d already dealt with!!”
Angry Madoka was speaking faster and a lot more than usual.
Hm, I see. Since she’s so isolated with no connections to our other classmates, I bet I could improve her bit by bit a lot like with shock therapy. Grin, grin.
“Sigh. Never mind. Shinobu-kun, you don’t hold back when you have a chance to look, do you?”
“By the way, we’ve known each other since April, so that’s over half a year. Isn’t it about time we ended up back to back in a hot spring after we unexpectedly find out it’s a mixed bath?”
“Keep up the perverted jokes and I’ll have my armed guards snipe you.”
“Oh, no fair! You’ve got two breasts, so can’t I grope just one of them!?”
“Shinobu-kun, that makes no sense. You have two eyes, but does that mean you don’t mind if I jab my finger into one?”
“If I can give up an eye for near-permanent access to one of these breasts, you can call me Mr. Eyepatch!!”
Madoka’s expression immediately grew flat as she gave up on thinking.
She then snapped her fingers.
“Heyyy, Whatever-Your-Name-Is Nagisaaa.”
“You!! You’ll call in Nagisa when you don’t want to deal with something now!? Couldn’t you find a less horrifying way to get smarter!?”
It may have been good for Madoka to have some interactions with some other classmates, but that didn’t make it any less frightening. If Nagisa’s yandere thought processes infected Madoka, the power of money would turn her into an even greater monster!
At any rate, it was time for an appearance from Japan’s #1 girl when it came to carrying a chainsaw in the pale bluish light of the full moon.
“What is it, Shinobu-chan? Are you recruiting the people you need for a love spell? Eh heh heh…”
“No! I have no plans for any insane ceremonies involving muttering magic words while cutting your wrist to pour blood into a handmade box lunch!! Bye!!”
I raised a hand and made a full speed dash from the girls in bloomers.
Nooo!! The guys are supposed to change in the classroom, but that’s a lost cause now. I have to stay away from this area for a bit, so I might be stuck changing in the bathroom!!
As I shed tears and a youthful sweat, I ran down the hallway and collided with my nervous homeroom teacher who suddenly appeared from the stairway.
“Bfh!? Y-you’re kidding me? Why do you have toast in your mouth at school!?”
“I know we fell into a heap here, but if that hand keeps creeping silently toward my chest, I’ll scream!!”
Tch. She noticed.
And come to think of it, how does that cliché even happen!? If I really grabbed her breast with my full weight on her, I think I’d either sprain my wrist or break her ribs!!
“No, wait. If I fall down normally from the initial hit, roll on the floor to change position, and reach out my hand, I can ignore my weight and the potential energy. That means it might be possible to get a nice feel in without worrying about the risks of the fall. But I can’t pull that off right away. It’ll take some commitment. Maybe I’ll start by getting the judo team to help me practice my falling technique. Mutter, mutter…”
I suddenly noticed my homeroom teacher with teary eyes beyond her glasses as she sat on the floor closely guarding her chest with both hands.
Oh, dear. Did I frighten you, young lady?
“Heh. Not to worry, teacher. Not even I would treat a virgin roughly. I know how to contain myself, so please relax.”
“I mean, that necklace came as an extra in the fashion magazine Autofocus, didn’t it? It costs less than two hundred yen! And isn’t that magazine’s primary demographic middle school girls? If you’re still seriously consulting that at your age, it makes some things pretty clear.”
My homeroom teacher’s entire face grew beet red and she began waving her hands around for some reason.
There was no sign left of her previous fear.
Hah hahhh. This is what happens when Jinnai Shinobu, shock therapy master, is on the case!!
“Mutter, mutter. It’s true Ram-chan wrote that it’s an all-purpose piece that anyone from children to adults could-… N-no, you’ve got it all wrong!! The thing is…um…It’s certainly not true that I have no experience whatsoever at my age!!”
“What’s wrong with that? It’s a beautiful thing. It’s perfectly fine. In a way, it’s a rare find.”
“You’re attacking me with that ‘in a way’, aren’t you!? You added a silent laugh in your heart, didn’t you!? I’ll have you know that I spent my college days in the big city of Tokyo! Every day and every night was spent in melted in someone’s arms like ice cream on a sunny day!!”
“Do go on.”
“And it goes way beyond just lovers! It was…um, is it called friends with benefits? I still have some of the addresses from back then. Yes, yes. And it involved all sorts of things that I could never tell a high schooler like you about. You’d be left amazed that those things could be used like that! O-oh, it’s such a shame. I can’t think of a good way to explain to you just how obscene and splendid my weekends are. Ah ha ha ha ha.”
“Do, do go on.”
She meaninglessly thrust her chest out proudly and waved her hand as a fan to combat the sweat pouring down her entire body.
But was she aware of the new threat approaching from directly behind her?
“Ahem! …Tanioka-sensei, care to explain just what you were talking about there?”
“Eh? Ah? Eeeek!? P-principal!?”
“I prefer not to invade on others’ privacy, but I believe I just heard something unbecoming of the holy profession of an educator and I’m not quite sure what to do about it.”
“A-ahhh!! That’s not it at all, principal! Kh, but if I deny it all here, Jinnai-kun will think-… Waaah! How am I supposed to explain this!?”
“No need to worry. You can explain everything in the soundproofed student guidance room. …Of course, this is the first time in my long time as a teacher that I’ve heard of a teacher needing to be scolded in there.”
“Ahhhhhhhhhhh!? J-Jinnai-kun, see you later!!”
I waved a hand as my nervous homeroom teacher was dragged away by the back of her neck with tears in her eyes.
With an entirely serious expression, I pulled out my cellphone.
“Good, it can record audio. Good, it can record video.”
After checking its functions one by one, I too made my way toward the student guidance room.
Now, then. It’s time for some sleazy desire! If she’s being questioned over what she said, she’s definitely going to be asked if she’s a virgin or if she slept around like crazy. We can’t have that! I simply can’t allow that kind of sexual harassment to happen behind closed doors in the constitutional state of Japan! In the name of having audiovisual records of the outrage, I, Jinnai Shinobu, must do my part to ensure the smooth execution of fair and impartial justice. More specifically, I want to see her face when he asks her and makes her squirm!!!!!
In the end, I got a little too carried away and the principal found me almost immediately.
I ended up sitting in the student guidance room right alongside my homeroom teacher.
Today’s walk to school was a little more exhausting than usual.
The kids from the city for the cultural exchange kept asking questions and my throat was sore just from answering them all. I had the umbrella and lantern helping me, so the other kids must have had it even worse.
“There’s a 30% chance of rain today. I must protect my master from a sudden downpour!”
“The sun sets quickly once autumn begins, so it couldn’t hurt to have a lantern!!”
The kids from the city were extremely interested in the umbrella and lantern that kept pestering me. They grabbed at and tugged on the two Obake.
To me, those kids were the strange ones.
For one thing, the color of their backpacks wasn’t normal. Instead of red or black, they all had different colors like sky blue or emerald green. They said some of them could swap out the cover for another color based on their mood that day.
Their clothes were the same. To describe what each one of them was wearing would require using four or five brand names you heard about on TV.
“Have you seen Corundum’s new color? I don’t think I could put that on my nails.”
“Also, Kanade-chan really is going to use her spring boots during fall too.”
“That drinkable perfume apparently doesn’t work. Mi-chan from Class 2 collapsed from it.”
Listening to their conversations made me feel a little embarrassed. I chose my own clothes too, but only from the online stores my mom said I was allowed to use. It made me feel immature.
The local kids and I had to explain everything to the mature-looking city kids. It all felt unbalanced, so I had trouble relaxing.
I was already feeling isolated and it didn’t help that the girl walking next to me was especially mature-looking even among the city kids. She felt like the center of both her class and her entire year.
“An Intellectual Village has lots of Youkai, right?”
Her name was apparently Ranzono Sachi-chan.
Her long, chestnut hair had fluffy curls with enough volume to make her already small face look even smaller. On the side of her head, she had a…what do you call those? It was a white rose accessory. Her slender, doll-like body was covered by a white turtleneck sweater, a reddish jacket with the front open, a black miniskirt, skintight jeans, and chocolate-colored boots. She also had a leather belt loosely wrapped around her waist. According to the others, all of her clothes were from a fashion magazine that middle schoolers read.
And that wasn’t surprising.
“Heh heh. A nostalgic coloration wouldn’t be bad. Wearing an actual kimono would be out of the question, but combining the amber brown of wood with red Japanese paper could make for a decent coloration.”
“Will you make it in time for the next issue?”
“Probably not, but I can do what I want for the issue after that. Heh heh. I’m a model and a writer, so I can absorb plenty here and bring it to everyone else.”
That was the gist of it.
On the day Ranzono-san and the others arrived, my classmates had already gotten their hands on enough information to have gathered the fashion magazine Autofocus that middle schoolers read. Middle schoolers seemed out of our reach and even they looked up to Ranzono-san, so knowing the person pictured in the magazine would be standing with us and breathing the same air as us had filled the class with excitement.
Ranzono-san herself was very aloof and did not seem nervous when everyone focused on her. As she peered inside the lantern from above and opened and closed the umbrella, we arrived at the wooden elementary school.
She commented on the schoolyard.
“I see you can play soccer outside in rural schools.”
I had always had trouble speaking with girls, so I had no idea what to say to a celebrity who seemed to be from a different world.
I managed to work out a safe answer.
“Are schools in the city different?”
“We don’t have a schoolyard. We only have the area inside the fence on the rooftop.”
I didn’t see any real sparkle in her eyes when she said that, so she might not have been all that interested in sports.
The PE outfits the city kids had were so much cooler than ours. They had called them…um…spats, was it? They were streamlined and cool like the swimsuits designed to make you swim fast or an F1 racer. They were so much better than our rectangular shorts.
But I wasn’t sure what to do when Ranzono-san didn’t say anything.
I just wasn’t any good at speaking with girls. I only went with the safe and harmless things that everyone had asked and everyone already knew the answer to.
“How do you become a model for a magazine?”
“Heh heh. I’m a model and a writer. They contact you. Anyone’s fine as long as they’re active online. It’s entirely based on merit, so they treat me just like an adult and I design the layout for a magazine middle schoolers read.”
“Middle schoolers, huh?”
That seemed like such a distant world. It felt as far off as the moon. I knew people had gone there, but I couldn’t picture myself standing there.
In other words, Ranzono-san was standing on the moon like that.
We could all tell she was hopelessly out of reach for rural kids like us and it made perfect sense that she was the leader of the city kids. We were all obsessed with talking about “the moon”.
“Hey, is it true Intellectual Villages are full of rare Youkai?”
“There are plenty like the umbrella and lantern, if that’s what you mean.”
“Hmm. I was thinking of something bigger. Like an Oomukade or Tsuchigumo.”
“I wouldn’t know about that… I do know an older boy who knows a whole lot about Youkai, though.”
“But you know a lot for a city kid.”
“Heh heh. I did a lot of studying.”
The chirping of a small bird interrupted us. I looked over but didn’t see an actual bird.
“That’s an Okuri-Suzume,” said Ranzono-san with a smile.
“An O-Ku-Ri-Su-Zu-Me. Heh heh. It’s a small bird Youkai that no can see. Its voice is supposed to inform people of coming danger.”
She was so smart. She could study, she could do sports, she knew lots about fashion, she played the piano during music class, and she seemed good at cooking during home ec. It felt like there was nothing I could do better than her. I had thought Youkai knowledge would be the one thing, so it was embarrassing having her explain one of them to me when I actually lived in an Intellectual Village.
Our conversation ended there.
I worried that I should say something and that staying silent would be bad, but I couldn’t find anything to say.
We simply walked toward the school entrance in silence.
As time went on, I realized something.
This doesn’t feel all that bad.
It was just like the umbrella and lantern that were always with me. There was no reason to keep playing catch with our conversation like shoveling coal into a steam engine. Simply giving ourselves over to the flow of time while walking side by side was plenty relaxing. It felt somehow meaningful.
“Hm? Did you say something?”
It felt like I could get along with her after all.
I certainly hoped I would be able to.
The Umbrella Obake was sticking upside-down into the umbrella stand to one side of the elementary school’s entranceway. His large tongue was sticking out and hanging down due to the pull of gravity.
“U-Umbrella!! This trial is necessary to protect Hiro-sama! So stick with it for another five hours!!”
“Heh. A lantern like you could never understand the grudge of an umbrella left behind like this! Ahh, ahh. I know all too well how a cheap plastic umbrella must feel!!”
The Tsukumogami seemed worked up, but they were really just bored. They were worried about Yonesaki Hiro of the family that owned them, but there was nothing they could do during school. If they tried, the teacher would throw them out. That of course meant they needed to supply themselves with a way to pass the time until school let out.
Today, the lantern carried a teen fashion magazine named Autofocus in her mouth.
“Now, let’s see here. The bonus magazine gives twenty ways to ensure your love comes true.”
“What can a lantern like you learn from a magazine for humans?”
“I am a lady, you know!? I worry about looking after my skin!!”
“And I’m asking how that magazine will help a lantern!”
As they argued, the umbrella moved his single upside-down eye to stare at the magazine’s pages with the lantern. He was a man(?) at heart, so he doubted it would interest him much. Still, he needed some way to pass the time.
“What are all these stripes? I thought a fashion magazine would be filled with models posing in colorful clothing.”
“These are called barcodes or matrix codes. They’re also called AR markers. Basically, you can hold up a cellphone or smartphone to see images or videos of the models.”
The umbrella looked to the magazine that had codes filling the boxes that would normally hold pictures.
“How strange. Then why not look at it all on the internet in the first place?”
“They apparently did that at first. It was only after setting up a successful online business that they decided to enter the paper magazine industry.”
The lantern only knew so much because the children had been talking about little else. Model and writer Ranzono Sachi gathered enough attention to drive out all other conversation. Hanako-san and the statue of Ninomiya Kinjirou had to be crying.
“They scout people without asking about age, qualifications, education, or work history. You can be a scathing critic on a blog, a frequent user of ratings sites, a popular commenter on an SNS, or a creator on a video sharing site. You only need some accomplishments online. Human jobs certainly have changed a lot.”
The internal staff may have been the only exception because the magazine filled with black and white codes included a few actual pictures of posing models.
Although based on their sensibilities, the AR and video codes may have been the main draw while the normal pictures were only meant to fill space.
The model wearing winter boots a little early was Ranzono Sachi.
“They’re pushing her as their top model, but she’s also part of their internal staff. She’s probably easy to use when they need to fill some holes in the magazine.”
“Kids sure have it tough. There are plenty of things they can’t do once they grow up, so I feel like they should make the most of being a kid while they can.”
“Yes, Umbrella, but you mustn’t say that in front of Hiro-sama. At their age, nothing irritates them more than being lumped together with everyone else by saying what they should or shouldn’t do.”
“Also, they’re only using the right person for the job. Unlike us, humans only have a short time to live. They don’t have time to have an outsider blocking their freedom and holding them pointlessly in place.”
The principal got even more heated up than expected in the student guidance room, so – to make a long story short – coffee sprayed from his mouth like a poisonous fog and it poured all over my nervous homeroom teacher.
However, she had no real change of clothes with her, so she had been forced to borrow the “last resort” from the infirmary.
In other words, she had a dead look in her eyes as she stood at the front of the class in a PE outfit.
She wore fiercely red bloomers.
“Um, so when it says ‘spit’ here, it refers to a folk belief at the time. The story of Tawara no Touta slaying the Oomukade with an arrow he had spit on ended up spreading far enough for people to falsely believe that all Youkai had a weakness to saliva…”
She continued her lesson in monotone while looking just like a robot printing a long trail of paper from its mouth.
Hmm, my heart is throbbing from guilt.
Still, it was the principal who made the finishing blow and, more importantly, this is some nice eye candy! I never knew how nice my teacher looked from behind as she wrote her boring notes up on the blackboard!! Yahoo! And while Madoka-san and the others are wearing short sleeve shirts with their bloomers, adding on the track suit jacket is pretty nice, too!! But only the jacket!! (←Important emphasis)
But then something interfered.
I heard a chirping small bird fly in through the open window.
“Hm, what? Did something come in!?”
“Is it a sparrow?”
“I don’t see anything? Did it get behind something?”
The class grew noisy, but then I saw a small bird’s footprints on the paper of my open notebook.
It was the same bizarre scene as an invisible man stepping in some mud.
“An invisible bird Youkai? Is this an Okuri-Suzume or something?”
“Oh, honestly!! Jinnai-kun, can you please give it a rest!? If you have some business with a Youkai, take it out in the hall!! Out!!”
“Eh? I don’t have any control over it!!”
I had no idea what was going on, but the invisible Okuri-Suzume was chirping something in its high-pitched voice.
No, now it was clearly speaking in human language.
“Trouble, trouble! Hiro-chan is in trouble!”
“Who the heck is Hiro-…”
“Ow!? You idiot, don’t peck at the back of my head! My scalp! My scalp!!”
“Hiro-chan is Hiro-chan. Yonesaki Hiro-chan!!”
“Hiro-chan is in trouble. Boy, the time has come to stand up!!”
“Why do I have to-…”
“The Okuri-Suzume is a Youkai that warns of coming danger, but we originally could only warn that the Okuri-Ookami was coming. I tried to change that, but I keep having to work in symbols of the Okuri-Ookami. I tried to warn Hiro-chan directly, but it didn’t get through to him.”
“Again, why me?”
“All of the Youkai around her say Jinnai Shinobu is an Okuri-Ookami!! So I tried speaking to the Okuri-Ookami. And just as I thought, humans can understand me when I’m near you!!”
“Bfh!? Please try not to destroy my social life with some bizarre misunderstanding!! L-let’s discuss this further in the hallway, Okuri-Suzume!!”
“Hiro-chan is in trouble!”
To drive off the Okuri-Suzume that did not care at all about the circumstances of human society, I stepped out into the hall.
Which Youkai has been spreading half-truths about me!? I’d bet anything it was that Good-for-Nothing Youkai!!
But for now…
“What exactly is this about? Why is Yonesaki Hiro in trouble?”
“Save Hiro-chan! Before that deadly Youkai eats him!!”
“If an Okuri-Suzume is going nuts, has an Okuri-Ookami shown up?”
While the term Okuri-Ookami was often used in reference to a certain type of human, it was originally a type of Youkai.
It was a wolf that appeared on dark roads at night and followed travelers around. That alone would cause no harm, but if the traveler tripped, it would attack and eat them.
“No, this is a different Youkai.”
This thing was invisible, so I had no way of knowing how it was acting.
Regardless, I heard it continuing to speak.
“It’s an Oomukade. An Oomukade is after Hiro-chan, so he’s in trouble!”
Classes for the day were over.
After cleaning the classroom and lining up the desks, the end of my right pinky finger itched a little. It didn’t look like anything had happened to it, but something might have irritated it.
Meanwhile, Ranzono-san was looking in her hand mirror in a corner of the classroom. She was staring at it with a serious look on her face, patting a hand across her face, and stretching her cheek with her fingers.
“What are you doing? Everyone’s already gone.”
I called out to her and she quickly put the mirror in her backpack. She might not have wanted anyone to see her maintaining her looks.
The city kids and the local kids had all gone wherever they wanted to play, so it was only Ranzono-san and me. We naturally ended up leaving the school and walking home together.
Am I forgetting something?
I clenched my hands trying to fill the blank in my mind, but it wasn’t working.
At the same time, Ranzono-san spoke to me.
“Would we be able to see a ton of Youkai if we went to the mountain?”
“The rice has already been harvested, but you should be able to see a Kappa if you go to the fields.”
“Is that so?”
I had said the fields, but she looked to the paddies for some reason. Some adults were gathered in the distance, but I couldn’t tell what they were doing from this distance.
“The Yamawaro – those are Kappa that have come up onto land – help with the work in the mountains. They mostly help the lumberjacks, but they apparently also help in the paddies and fields nearer the mountains. I’ve heard they’re something like migrant workers.”
Youkai, Youkai. …Hmm, it’s on the tip of my tongue.
I still couldn’t remember whatever it was, so I gave up. That was when my cellphone gave high-pitched ring. This was different from the usual ringtone. Even someone as high-tech as Ranzono-san didn’t seem to know what this was because her eyes opened wide.
We both peered down at the screen.
“It looks like a local message, but it doesn’t usually make this loud a sound.”
“Heh heh. There are emergency alerts, aren’t there? So what is it? Did someone spot a deadly Youkai?”
When an unfamiliar deadly Youkai appeared on the way to or from school, the school would tell us to be careful, so this kind of alert had to be an absolute last resort.
I checked more closely and read the message.
“Warning!! An Oomukade has been spotted. This Youkai is not from Noukotsu Village, so caution is needed. Be very careful if you run across it. One: do not approach it. Two: if you run away, it will chase after you. Stay put and see what it is doing. In the off chance that it approaches even further, a weapon with spit on it is said to be effective.”
I tilted my head.
“An Oomukade? What kind of Youkai is that? Is it just a big centipede?”
“It’d be pretty scary if it’s poisonous. It might be best not to get near the mountain.”
“No,” said Ranzono-san.
She pouted her lips in a somehow childish way that was the complete opposite of how she had acted before.
“The Oomukade isn’t a bad Youkai. There’s a story about it eating a clan of dragon gods, but doesn’t that mean it never actually ate humans? The humans just chose to side with one type of Youkai and then decided to slay the Oomukade.”
“Like I said…!!”
Ranzono-san seemed irritated, but something else was bothering me more.
I hesitated to bring it up, but finally did.
“Ranzono-san, do you have something on your face?”
I looked up at her from below.
When I did, I could tell it was only a grass seed stuck to her. It had probably been blown there by the wind.
That was all it was.
But a moment later, Ranzono-san pressed the back of her hand to her cheek as if trying to tear it away.
I was left speechless.
Meanwhile, she frantically pulled her hand mirror from her backpack and checked her face. She had done the same thing while we cleaned up afterschool. She touched all over her face and even pinched and pulled at her skin.
“Here’s fine. No problem here either. Where? Where is it? Where is it out of balance? I thought I was fine after getting through PE without issue…”
She was muttering something under her breath, she was breathing heavily, and her eyes were rolling around in her head.
What was going on?
She may have misunderstood what I meant, so I tried speaking to her again.
“You have a grass seed near your bangs. Want me to get it for you?”
A blank look came over her as the previous horrified one vanished entirely.
She didn’t seem to know what to do with the mirror in her hands, so she fidgeted her fingers, grabbing and letting go of the device.
For some reason, her maturity had completely vanished.
“Where? Where is it???”
I ended up grabbing it for her.
Touching her nice-smelling chestnut hair made my heart race a bit.
“You couldn’t see it in the mirror?”
What had she been checking, anyway? What had she been so focused on that she had completely overlooked that obvious grass seed?
It seemed strange, but I didn’t have time to ask.
We had reached a fork in the farm road and she took the branch that didn’t lead to my house.
“I-I’ll be going now. See you tomorrow, Yonesaki-kun.”
She nearly ran into a blonde-hired high school boy walking down that path, so she gave a quick shriek and jogged off toward the house she was staying in.
The high school boy looked back with a puzzled look and muttered something.
“What was that? Was it what they call a Twelve?”
I thought about the girl who had rushed off a moment ago.
She had worn a miniskirt, jeans, a turtleneck sweater, a jacket, and a white rose corsage on the side of her head.
She was probably one of the city elementary school kids here for the cultural exchange Tarou had mentioned.
I’m impressed she can do that.
I’d never be able to live with such a constrained lifestyle.
I was half impressed and half shocked, but then the boy left all alone called out to me.
He was Yonesaki Hiro, the elementary school boy who had been involved in the Shichinin Misaki incident.
“What are you doing here?”
“Nothing, really. …By the way, where are the umbrella and lamp that are always with you?”
He frantically turned back the way he had come, so he really must have simply forgotten.
As soon as I started feeling sorry for those one-eyed Youkai, they came rushing up the farm road at tremendous speed, as if my feelings had summoned them.
The Umbrella Obake and the Lamp Obake’s comical eyeballs locked onto me instead of Yonesaki Hiro.
“Time for punishment!!”
D-did those things really just tackle me at full speed!? The lamp’s one thing, but that closed umbrella jabbing into my solar plexus seems like it could be pretty dangerous!
They turned toward their master while ignoring me as I held my gut and groaned.
“Are you okay, master?”
“Honestly. Going home on your own is far too dangerous after an Oomukade alert was sent out.”
Yonesaki Hiro tilted his head as if he did not understand what they were talking about.
He then opened his mouth and asked a question.
“What’s an Oomukade?”
He seemed to be asking me more than the umbrella or lamp.
Don’t tell me he thinks I’m a Youkai Buster who can handle any kind of Youkai after I dealt with that Shichinin Misaki incident.
At any rate…
“It’s a giant centipede Youkai. Their size can vary a lot, but the bigger ones are apparently long enough to wrap around a mountain seven and a half times. You don’t often hear it, but they supposedly get their power through weird rituals like waiting for one hundred years or climbing a waterfall.”
“What does it do?”
“I don’t know. It depends on the time and the situation. Some say they can deflect any attack, some say they’re wrapped in lightning, some say they cause storms, some say their one hundred legs glow like torches, and some say the poison in their bodies can be used in rituals. The most famous one is the one that appeared around Lake Biwa and ate the dragon god clan. That one was then slain by a warrior. If they can eat dragon gods, I assume they can eat humans too. The dragon gods supposedly walked on two legs and looked like beautiful men and women.”
Yonesaki Hiro only gave a vague response and fell silent.
As a high schooler, I may not be one to talk, but kids these days are a pain to deal with.
The umbrella and lamp caused an uproar of their own in his place.
“We saw some damage from the Oomukade on the way here! The support for a roadside solar power generator was broken. If it had hit someone, there would be nothing they could do!”
“And in the paddies, the wall of a pump shed was broken. They say small fires and crimes against small animals are the harbinger of a major crime, so this is kind of scary. Tremble, tremble.”
They saw signs of it too?
“I came from that way and I saw a few things like a tree fallen by the candy shop or a broken fence at a house.”
“See! It really is a deadly Youkai! And one dangerous enough to eat other Youkai!!”
“Yeah, but isn’t this a bit strange?”
The umbrella, the lamp, and Yonesaki Hiro all turned toward me.
Hm, that caught his attention more than I thought. I just don’t get what makes kids tick.
“I mean, the fallen trees and broken walls are scattered across the village from one side to the other, right?”
“What about it? That just shows how far the Oomukade’s rampage has spread. No one else has that much strength.”
“I heard they found centipede bite marks. Doesn’t that settle it?”
“But,” I added. “How does an Oomukade gain its strength?”
“Isn’t that obvious? One hit from its giant body would bring down a house or even a castle, so…”
After complaining so much, the lantern trailed off.
“The Oomukade is big. Even if this one isn’t big enough to wrap around a mountain, it has to be way bigger than a Zashiki Warashi or Yuki Onna. You’re saying that deadly Youkai travelled from one end of the village to another, spreading destruction on the way? Then someone would have seen it somewhere. But I haven’t heard anything about that.”
“The only thing anyone has found is destruction seemingly caused by an Oomukade,” muttered the lantern. “No one has seen the Youkai itself.”
Yonesaki Hiro then cut in.
“Then maybe this wasn’t done by an Oomukade.”
“No! On the way here, I heard the villagers talking. The bite marks and leg scratches on the broken support were definitely from a centipede. A human could never do that!!” The umbrella opened and closed as he spoke. “And the stories about an Oomukade’s size vary quite a lot. That vagueness means its size isn’t fixed. It’s possible it can change its size.”
“That’s right,” added the lantern. “If it can shrink itself, it could sneak around, destroy things, and hide itself again. This is very dangerous!”
They had a point. If it could change its size, my doubts were meaningless.
“But why would the Oomukade sneak around like that?”
“Eh? Because it doesn’t want to be noticed, right?”
“Why wouldn’t it?” I immediately responded. “Youkai can’t be accused of a crime even if they kill people. And since the Oomukade can eat other Youkai, it won’t be punished by other Youkai either. If it was causing trouble, it wouldn’t need to hide. It would show up without hiding and leave without hiding. So why didn’t it do that?”
“B-but some humans are even more frightening than Youkai!”
Oh, do you mean people like Hyakki Yakou?
“If it was afraid of people like that, why would it cause so much trouble in the first place?”
“It would take the risk if it has a reason worth doing so, but is destroying wooden walls and solar power generators really that important? What does that accomplish? None of this is making sense.”
Of course, I had no obligation to side with a Youkai I’d never met.
But a few things were bothering me.
Was there really an Oomukade here? And if there was, was it involved in this destruction?
And whether it was the Oomukade or just someone making it look that way, what was it supposed to accomplish?
What would anyone gain from knocking down trees and destroying walls?
And most importantly, the Okuri-Suzume had said Yonesaki Hiro was in trouble. It had said an Oomukade was after him. That Youkai warned of danger, so that wouldn’t be a lie. In which case, what connection was there between Yonesaki Hiro and the Oomukade?
Was there an Oomukade here or not?
Was the Oomukade involved in this or not?
The current situation was a combination of those four possibilities, but with the Okuri-Suzume’s “prophecy”, I knew the answer would ultimately lead to an Oomukade harming Yonesaki Hiro. So how did this all fit together to reach that answer? Even if I had cheated and learned the final answer ahead of time, if I misread the situation leading up to it, it was still possible I could fail to stop it.
What a pain.
Yonesaki Hiro tilted his head and looked up at me.
To be honest, I had no real reason to get too involved with this kid, but since Youkai had no rights, their testimony could not be used in court, and they could not be charged with crimes, I couldn’t just call the police and leave this with them.
Which meant I had to figure out what was happening in the village whether it involved an Oomukade or not. And until I had enough information to get my mind working and figure out what would happen next, I had to run around gathering that information.
I was beginning to seriously hope people wouldn’t start calling me the Youkai Detective.
I went back home with the umbrella and lantern.
My home was a used goods store and would fix just about anything except for electronics. It could be a broken rice bowl, a paulownia dresser, a stained hanging scroll, a pocket watch, or anything else. That was why we had a lot of “object” Youkai like the umbrella and lantern.
The house itself was a Youkai called a Mayoiga.
I called out as I opened the front door and a bunch of different furniture approached. There was a tea table, a different kind of lantern, a pot, and even a teapot. Just like in an American anime (Were they called cartoons?), they shook like gelatin and the tea table and chair’s legs easily bent to move them around.
“Welcome home, Hiro-chan!!”
“For a snack, there’s a donut made from pancake batter! It has plenty of caramel sauce and chocolate sauce!!”
I removed my shoes and walked down the hall with the furniture following me around. Lots of eyes appeared and blinked on the sliding doors and I saw a translucent humanoid figure peering out from behind a folding screen, but none of them meant any harm.
I washed my hands in the bathroom, rubbed my eyes, and felt the itching in my fingertip growing. It felt like the pinky was having difficulty bending. I tried to remember where the bug bite medicine was.
It must have not been able to wait because a table approached from the kitchen carrying a donut on a plate. It couldn’t get through the door, so it got caught.
“Ahh, Hiro-chan, Hiro-chaaan!”
I dried my hands and approached the lamenting table.
As I had the table back up from the doorway it could never fit through, grabbed the donut, and took a bite, the plate spoke up.
“It seems we have a newcomer.”
“It’s a Fuguruma Youbi. Your mother is looking over it in the workshop. It’s an antique, so it should be an amazing Youkai.”
Fuguruma? What kind of tool is that? I wondered with a tilt of the head.
I didn’t want to get in the way of my parents’ work, so I decided to watch some TV with the furniture. I used the remote to flip between the cable TV channels, but most of the news was about Tokyo and most of the dramas were set there. It seemed so far away.
“Medical Camp in Nakano, Tokyo, has gained some recent attention due to a capital injection from the major distance education company Ganesha, but the consumer living center seems worried about the rise in anonymous data related to Medical Camp’s unique disconnection education theory.”
TV was directed at housewives in the evening, so it wasn’t that interesting. Nothing stood out to me. I checked around and finally found a show for someone like me.
“Are even idols moving from TV to online videos? New music videos get over thirty million views in just twenty four hours and a fourteen-year-old’s tweets can affect stock prices! This middle school esper girl is all the rage right now! It’s PSI_ver_RAIN!!”
The buzzer indicating a visitor rang, so I placed my half eaten donut on the plate and headed to the front door. A girl of about my height stood there in a kimono.
However, she was definitely a Youkai.
Based on the aroma wafting from her, she was a Furutsubaki.
She had to be way, way older than my grandma.
“I’m here to pick up the item we left here.”
“Is the pocket watch left under the name Jinnai fixed yet?”
She was blunt and hard to understand, but I checked around and did find a pocket watch labelled “Jinnai”. I handed it and the memo from my grandpa to the Furutsubaki.
“Um, this says the mainspring was broken, so he replaced it. It won’t be worth as much as an antique, but it says to forgive him.”
“That’s fine. The Jinnai grandfather received it from his father as a coming of age present, so all that matters is that it runs.”
The Furutsubaki took the pocket watch that had a chain attached.
I assumed she didn’t need anything more, but she suddenly started sniffing.
And then she stepped toward me.
Th-that’s really close!! A girl’s face is only ten centimeters away!!
“You’re in love, aren’t you?”
“A Furutsubaki has the ability to seduce humans, so we can understand their feelings. But be careful. The scent sticking to your arm is a detestable one…no, a monstrous one.”
“But I am also jealous. The standard way for a Youkai to repay someone is to marry them, but I’m not sure what to do with mine since half the time he’s filled with lust and half the time he’s completely clueless.”
The Furutsubaki seemed to lose interest because she turned away. Without looking back, she left with the pocket watch in hand.
The name Jinnai reminded me of that older boy who seemed to be investigating something.
That reminded me of the uproar over the Oomukade.
I thought back to that comment about a detestable or monstrous scent, and worry filled my chest.
I felt like something was happening without my knowledge.
Once this day ended, the next day would arrive. And then I would be able to see my friends and acquaintances again. However, whatever this was felt like it would overturn that basic fact.
For a while, I thought blankly about what the Furutsubaki had said, but…
“What is it, Hiro-chan?”
“It seems our master is in love with someone. (Worry, worry.)”
“Umbrella!! We must not interfere with an issue of succession. Keep this a secret from the head of the family!”
I quickly turned around and the furniture peering out from the cracked-open door scattered like baby spiders.
I always got needlessly excited when we had Salisbury steak for dinner, but that had to be something imprinted on me as a child. And there was no stopping it when they had a fried egg on top. I knew I had to have a really cheap heart to be won over by something like this, but there was nothing I could do.
“Can I really win Jinnai Shinobu’s heart with something like this?”
“Ram-chan said so, so it has to be true. Autofocus’s bonus magazine gives twenty ways to ensure your love comes true.”
The Yuki Onna and the Furutsubaki (small) were already whispering some dangerous things in the living room. They had some kind of fashion magazine opened up on the floor. I had never seen any of those magazine romance questionnaires hit the mark, but they were free to believe it if they wanted to.
“Mh, how about this? ‘A Super Simple Ice Bath☆The Low Temperature Diet!!’.”
“It also mentions the ‘stranded on a snowy mountain’ effect which outdoes even the suspension bridge effect. Mhh!!”
Uh, oh!! That writer probably just wrote some random hundred-word article, but I can feel my death approaching already! I need to get out of here before disaster strikes! There’s also that Oomukade stuff, so I was already thinking about heading out to check around the village tonight!!
“Shinobu, why are you grinning with a flashlight this late at night? It’s creeping me out. Are you on your way to drill a hole in the wall of your school’s shower room or locker room?”
“What!? I haven’t even snuck out yet and I’ve already been caught!?”
If she told my dad or grandpa, I could easily get locked in the storage shed, so I explained everything to the Zashiki Warashi to get her on my side. The Good-for-Nothing Youkai in a red yukata gave a sigh of utter exasperation.
“Seemingly meaningless destruction, an Oomukade no one’s seen, and a warning from an Okuri-Suzume saying that Oomukade is going to attack Yonesaki Hiro? …Sigh. Shinobu, that’s not enough to know an Oomukade is really sneaking around at night. In fact, is one involved at all?”
“That’s the question. But if it’s willing to attack during the day, it might be out at night, too. And if it doesn’t show up at all, I’ll know it’s only showing up during the day. I just have to narrow down the possibilities like that.”
Afterwards, I snuck out of the thatch-roof house without telling my parents.
You might think I was surrounded by silence, but the night was actually really noisy with all the different crickets everywhere. The growth of brand-name crops may have been directly related to light because streetlights had been intentionally excluded from the farm roads. The area was filled with a thick, ink-like darkness.
The night was long, but I had to decide where to check first.
I didn’t know if there really was an Oomukade in the village or where it would attack next if it was. Even in a small village, could I really find anything by searching around randomly?
“Well, it’s not like I could come up with any good ideas anyway.”
I started by checking on the sites of the damage.
I checked the roadside solar power generator, the wall of the paddy pump shed, the house’s fence, and the large tree near the candy shop.
They all looked like they had been hit by a truck or by demolition equipment.
“Is this the centipede bite mark?”
The fallen tree had been moved to the side of the road for the time being, so I checked the break. Prepared to see some disturbing things, I used my cellphone to search some bug-obsessed sites and this did resemble the “bite marks” I found there. Although this mark was much, much bigger.
So was it really an Oomukade?
But at the same time, I tilted my head.
As mentioned during the day, the damage was scattered throughout the village instead of focused in one area. Moving from one to the other like this required going back and forth through the village.
“There are cameras, aren’t there?” I muttered as I looked up at the traffic signal.
Intellectual Village grapes cost thirty thousand yen a bunch, so there were surveillance cameras everywhere to protect those brand-name crops from boars and vegetable thieves.
I didn’t know how big this Oomukade was, but if it had gone back and forth through the village, it would’ve been caught by that network of cameras somewhere.
Or did it have some way of keeping itself from being seen, like the Okuri-Suzume?
A normal Oomukade was not invisible.
If it had gained that ability, this wasn’t just a Youkai acting on its own. Someone would have had to forcibly twist the Youkai’s traits and swapped them out to create the desired effect.
In other words, a human would be involved.
I hadn’t considered it since there was no apparent profit or planning, but could this be a criminal Package?
I instinctually turned off the flashlight.
It was as if I had realized how dangerous it was to reveal my location.
At the same time, a Package required dozens or even hundreds of people. I doubted that many people would gather together to knock over a tree on the side of the road.
Had they messed up the assembly?
Or was there some great benefit still hidden?
And how was it all related to Yonesaki Hiro?
No amount of thinking was going to reveal the answer and that meant I didn’t have enough information. With that in mind, I raised my head again.
I saw a figure moving unsteadily down the dark farm road.
However, it was quite small. They probably only reached my chest or stomach.
And then I saw what it was.
The lights were out as I sat up in my futon. A mixture of itching and pain crawled across my right hand. The itching that had begun at the end of my pinky had slowly spread, but I didn’t have time to worry about that now.
My blanket and pillow moved on their own.
“What is it, Hiro-chan?”
“What is it, young master? Can you not sleep?”
It would be impossible to leave without anyone noticing. I felt a weight in my chest when I lied and said I had to use the bathroom, but I left my room in my pajamas all the same. I walked down the dark hallway and made my way to the front door. That was enough for the furniture to fidget, but they seemed to be letting me do as I pleased.
“My master, you’re going, aren’t you?”
“Are you going, Hiro-chan?”
Unlike the older Jinnai boy, my way of getting to the answer was probably cheating.
Instead of gathering the pieces of the puzzle one by one and calculating it all out, I reached the answer through vague intuition.
I began to make a strange connection between Ranzono-san’s odd behavior and the uproar about the Oomukade.
The older Jinnai boy might settle everything eventually like that other time, but that scared me this time.
I was afraid getting my peaceful life back would mean Ranzono-san would disappear.
The lantern and umbrella were waiting at the front door.
“If you’re going out at night, it wouldn’t hurt to have a light.”
“As an umbrella, it is my duty to protect you from any disaster that might pour down upon you.”
I nodded, put on my shoes, and grabbed the two of them.
I then opened the front door and ran out into the dark outside world.
The figure swaying along the pitch black farm road was probably only in elementary school, so it was clearly unusual for them to be out this late. I was too far away to tell what they were wearing or even if they were a boy or a girl.
Why was it I didn’t immediately turn on the flashlight and shine it on them?
An invisible tingling tension stopped me from taking that normal action.
What was this?
What was I so afraid of?
It was an issue of the atmosphere. This was clearly a small child, but they didn’t seem at all harmless. Unpleasant sweat poured down my back as if I’d spotted a tiger, a bear, or another large carnivore in the mountains.
Meanwhile, the small form made a turn at an intersection dividing up the paddy fields, so it wasn’t like they were approaching me after noticing me. I hesitated for a moment, but I decided to follow them.
Their pace varied and their head swayed back and forth, so they didn’t seem to be looking in any set direction. Did they even have a destination in mind?
As if to answer that question, the figure came to a sudden stop.
It felt like they had been on their way somewhere but had given up.
We were near some vending machines set up next to the farm road. I was pretty sure they had recently been put in at the request of some people who had succumbed to heatstroke during the residual heat of September. Five vending machines for drinks and bread were lined up below a metal roof to keep off the rain.
Just like with an automatic door, the fluorescent lights were rigged to show off the products when someone approached.
When I saw what was illuminated by those bright white lights, I just about screamed.
They were only between 130 and 140 centimeters tall. Their frame alone wasn’t enough to tell if they were a boy or a girl, but they were likely a girl since they were wearing a skirt. She may have been aiming for a kind of gap appeal because she wore a sports brand track suit jacket with a frilly miniskirt. I could guess this was probably an elementary student.
The problem was the face.
The neck up had transformed into a giant centipede with countless squirming legs.
What…in the hell…is that!!!???
I stared in shock as the head – the centipede – stretched out. The bizarre movement was like an even more grotesque version of a Rokurokubi.
I couldn’t tell you where it was coming from, but it gave a strangely distorted groan. Before long, the number of centipedes grew. It looked like a giant tropical flower now.
It looked a lot like the headbanging often seen along with hard rock music. The young upper body moved violently back and forth and the countless centipedes (which were now longer than the body was tall) snapped like whips. They slammed into the vending machines. A violent wind blew through in the instant of contact and it struck me in the face. No, that wasn’t it. Was the wind compressed as it wrapped around the centipedes? After I heard metal bending and electrical sparks flying, the fluorescent lights died. Sometimes the centipedes constricted their target with their body, sometimes they bit into them with their massive jaws, and sometimes they compressed them like the wind. Even as a silhouette, the destruction continued. The vending machines were supposed to be solid metal boxes, but they were crushed like balled up tissues and finally torn into several pieces. All that remained was the sound of the wind crushing them further.
Was this the source of it all?
Was this how the Oomukade’s damage had crossed from one end of the village to the other without any people or cameras spotting it?
Was the Oomukade hidden inside the children’s bodies?
“Ahh, ahh. So the secret’s out.”
I heard another girl’s voice from directly behind me. Before I could turn around and shine my flashlight, the girl shined her own light on me. I covered my dazzled eyes with a hand and tried my best to see who it was.
It was hard to tell through the light, but the short silhouette looked like another elementary student. Her long chestnut hair was curled and all of her clothes were brand names from the city. She wore a white turtleneck sweater, a reddish jacket with the front open, a black miniskirt, a loose belt around her waist, tight jeans, and chocolate-colored boots. I didn’t have any way of checking, but I was pretty sure she wasn’t from the village. She would be from the cultural exchange group Tarou had mentioned. One look at the white rose corsage on the side of her head was enough to know she wasn’t like the other kids.
She giggled and spoke.
“We’ve finally managed to bring them out whenever we want, but a lot of us don’t know how to use them. Well, it’s just something you have to learn through practice. This probably wasn’t the best time for the trip. We have a proper training ground back home.”
She showed no concern about the size difference between an elementary student and a high school student.
Or even that I was a witness to what was happening.
“Do you have a Package that lets you fuse an Oomukade with your bodies?”
“Heh heh. What if we do?”
I heard a footstep in the grass. No, it was more than one. When I switched on my flashlight and pointed it all around me, I saw twenty to thirty children surrounding me on the farm road and the already harvested paddies.
“Why would you do that? And wait. Who put it together!? Assembling a Package takes dozens or even hundreds of grown adults with specialized knowledge!”
“If I said we’d done it ourselves, would it hurt your pride as a high schooler?”
And more importantly…
She was shining a bright light on me, but what was it? She wasn’t holding a flashlight!
The chestnut hair girl seemed to be their leader and she swung her small right hand horizontally
A sticky sound followed and the arm transformed from the shoulder down. It became a giant tentacle-like object made of countless intertwined centipedes. The light came from the centipedes’ legs. They were glowing like a torch’s flame. No, that wasn’t all. I could see some irregular movement inside her clothes, too. The movement inside the pants below her skirt was completely ignoring the joints of a leg.
Was this to gain physical strength? To gain a special power? To become something beyond human?
Whatever the reason, I couldn’t imagine what kind of mind could accept something like this with a smile. Nevertheless, the rest of the kids surrounding me also transformed their arms and legs into centipedes. They all showed off their strange tentacles with some spreading wide to either side like wings and some hanging down around their neck like jellyfish tentacles. However, that was not the problem.
Each time the many centipedes wriggled, a gust of wind blew out. It was said the Oomukade could control storms, so were they controlling the wind or the air pressure? And the winds they produced seemed to have different effects. Some cut, some crushed, some dried out the plants, and some shook the dirt and rocks.
And this was not just a lone madman like with a serial killer. They all shared the same insane obsession.
“I’m sorry, mister.”
The chestnut hair girl spoke while her many “legs” wriggled about.
“We still haven’t reached the end. And until we do, we can’t have anyone getting in our way. So I’m sorry…but we’ll have to silence you.”
At that moment, a thick presence almost like an invisible wall rushed toward me.
I frantically looked around, but I was completely surrounded and there was nowhere to run. And based on the destruction I’d seen around the village, those centipedes had enough power to break a thick tree truck or bring down a shed’s wall. Would they crush me under their giant bodies or would they cut through me with their gusts of wind? I didn’t know the actual method, but this was no different from having cars rushing toward me from all three hundred sixty degrees.
I didn’t even have time to think it was pathetic I was losing to elementary school kids.
Pure fear rose from my gut and I could tell my legs weren’t working properly.
It was just like running out onto the road and seeing a truck’s bumper filling my vision.
And then something struck me in the side.
An unpleasant sound burst out, my feet immediately left the ground, and I flew through the air.
My mind was sent flying.
A neverending floating sensation came over me.
I even forgot how to link my memories in a sequential order.
But once I questioned why I still wasn’t dead, I finally realized what had happened.
A centipede had indeed hit me, but I wasn’t dead. I wasn’t even scratched.
The centipede that had rushed toward me first was not one of the kids led by that chestnut hair girl.
I heard the girl’s shrill voice from the darkness behind me.
“Why are you getting in our way!? We’re your friends!!”
The giant creature looked more like a dragon than a bug.
Countless legs carried it across the already harvested rice paddies.
Its head was reminiscent of the front of a train and its extremely bizarre jaws held my body.
It almost seemed to be taking me away from the children.
“Are you…the original Oomukade!?”
“How much of this do you understand?”
“There’s been a lot of damage caused by centipedes in the village, but it was actually done by those kids from the city and they’re only drawing out your power. Is that right?”
“I will give that fifty points. That is merely the result and you have yet to reach the true issue. I just hope we can find somewhere quiet to speak.”
“Even though you’re on those city kids’ side?”
“Because I am on their side. Do you think I want them to be using my power and traits?”
The Oomukade said nothing more.
Footsteps that sounded like they were cutting through the grass and the low rumbling of violent gusts of wind were enough to know we had several pursuers. We were moving faster than your average car, but they were keeping up. I could see quite a few lights following us like will-o’-the-wisps. I no longer felt any inclination to shine my flashlight on them. I did not want to know what change had come over their bodies to pull this off.
“Looks like we need to lose Sachi’s group first.”
Sachi? Is that one of their names?
No, more importantly…
“Wait a second. What’s that light? On the road through the paddy field!!”
I immediately found the answer to my own question.
This light was much softer than my flashlight. I was pretty sure it was a Lantern Obake and a small form was vaguely visible in its light.
“I do not recognize that child. He must not be part of Sachi’s group.”
“That’s Yonesaki Hiro. He’s a kid from the village!!”
This was bad. The chestnut hair girl had said she would kill anyone who saw them. Yonesaki Hiro would be no exception. His eyes opened wide when he saw me and it was obvious what would happen if the centipedes caught him.
This is dangerous.
This is so dangerous, but I have to say it, dammit!!
“Oomukade, don’t worry about me! Leave me around here and take that kid with you!!”
“Hurry!! I can manage on my own. The umbrella and lantern with him can’t stand up to the power of a Youkai that can eat dragon gods!!”
He hesitated a little.
But then the jaws holding me loosened and I fell toward the paddies that seemed to be quickly flowing by below me. I clenched my teeth to bear with the pain as I rolled again and again and I heard the Oomukade speak as it lifted its head like a cobra.
“Don’t die. I will need your help for Sachi’s sake.”
It didn’t wait for me to reply to or question that.
The Oomukade whipped up the wind and used the spring-like power of its entire body to jump over and collect Yonesaki Hiro. I somehow managed to get up and ran in a different direction.
For better or for worse, the kids seemed to pursue the much more noticeable Oomukade. I could see the leg lights they were using as illumination and the blowing wind heading in that direction. This was not quite what I had expected, but Yonesaki Hiro wouldn’t be killed that easily if the original Oomukade was helping him.
But what was I supposed to do? If I returned to my thatch-roof house, I would just be attacked there. There were at least a few dozen of them, but if every single kid from the city was involved, the number jumped to over one hundred. I was outnumbered, but they were relying on the occult. Since they were using a Package built around that Oomukade, I only had to destroy that system to rob them of their power like I had thrown a breaker. Once they lost the centipede power, they were nothing but powerless kids. It didn’t look like there was any other way of escaping this alive.
“What do I need to do that?”
I needed information and time to think, so I decided to hide somewhere or hole up somewhere.
I looked around and spotted a large building.
The school, huh?
That would be better than standing in the middle of the paddies like a scarecrow, so I pulled my aching body along to run there.
When I got closer, I realized it wasn’t my usual high school. It was the elementary school I had graduated from long ago. But this was no time to be picky. It was all over if I was caught, so I climbed the metal fence, ran across the schoolyard, and ran up to the entranceway of the high-tech wooden school building that had air conditioning and internet access.
I didn’t have time to check whether it was locked.
I swung down my flashlight to break the door’s glass and I unlocked it from inside. That might have sounded an alarm at the security company, but that was actually a good thing.
I stepped inside.
Schools could be frightening places at night because it felt like a ghost was going to show up, but this was hardly the time to worry about that.
But then I heard the high-pitched sound of shattering glass coming from somewhere else.
“Don’t tell me they’re already here!”
I felt a squeezing in my chest, but the person who broke through the hallway window was Yonesaki Hiro who had been held in the Oomukade’s jaws. The umbrella and lantern accompanied him.
The original Oomukade itself shrunk in size to only a few meters long and entered the hallway.
“Wh-what is going on!? When did this village turn into a kodoku jar!?”
“There’s nothing we can do! If only we could contact the mortar or armor back home.”
The umbrella and lantern were left to speak back and forth as the Oomukade spoke up.
“This is not good. Sachi intentionally guided us here.”
“What do you mean? What does Ranzono-san have to do with this?”
Yonesaki Hiro sounded nervous and the Oomukade twisted around toward him.
“Sachi comes from the city, so she has never been in the mountains at night. She also doesn’t know much about this village, so she probably decided she would have the easiest time in the school because it is built a lot like those in the city. She intends to finish you all off here.”
“City schools and rural ones aren’t exactly the same. Intellectual Villages rely on online shopping so much that we’d be isolated if a typhoon or landslide cut off the road. We have far more shelter equipment,” I cut in. “The elementary school is like the house of bricks from The Three Little Pigs. It has the toughest disaster infrastructure. There should be a large-scale tornado shelter underground. Do you think that steel door can hold up against them?”
“I doubt it. Centipedes burrow through the earth, so hiding underground would only be taking this onto Sachi’s home turf.”
“I see. But we should still be able to use it.”
I brushed a hand through my blond-dyed hair and asked about something more important.
“Sachi? Ranzono-san? To be honest, I don’t know that much about this situation, so can you explain how everyone’s involved in this? Otherwise, I can’t grasp the big picture of this Package.”
“Ranzono Sachi is the queen of her community. She stands at the top of every category around her: her class, her year, and her entire school.”
“She’s a girl from the city. She’s really smart. She’s athletic, she’s fashionable, she can play the piano, and she can cook. She works as a model and writer for a fashion magazine and middle schoolers around the world look up to her.”
“A fashion magazine?”
“It’s called Autofocus. You’ve never heard of it?”
A magazine for kids? Come to think of it, the Yuki Onna and the Furutsubaki (small) were looking at that.
The umbrella and lantern opened their large mouths and spoke.
“Ohh, I saw that too! It was filled with these weird things called barcodes and matrix codes!!”
“I heard it was originally a web magazine, but it was successful enough to head back to the original paper format. That made it feel more linked to the internet than absolutely necessary, though.”
I see. So that’s what this is about.
A model was one thing, but it was impossible for an elementary student to write for a magazine. Before even talking about talent or skills, the Labor Standards Act prevented them from working.
When it was only on the web, she had probably been treated as someone updating a blog as a hobby rather than a job. Just like the prize exchanges for pachinko parlors, they probably gave her some “allowance” in a somewhat separate place. They may have been working around those issues for the physical magazine, too.
“What about it?”
“Well… They were gathering attention by creating a dream team from well-known figures on the internet, but that means they were gathering people who they’d never even seen before, right? Nothing says all the harsh critics giving everything one star on review sites actually know what they’re talking about. They have to have seriously tried to recruit some kid claiming to be a well-known worker somewhere or, even worse, a bot that only posted automated text.”
I didn’t know if this had anything to do with the centipede Package, but I needed to get an idea of who Ranzono Sachi was since she seemed to be the mastermind.
For some reason, Yonesaki Hiro pouted his lips.
“That’s not what happened here. Ranzono-san really is, um, mature and fashionable. There’s no one else as, well, pretty in my class.”
“What?” I frowned. “Sorry, but are you seriously saying that?”
He sounded confused, but that may have been because I sounded more exasperated than insulting.
“Just so you know, it’s only natural they look perfect and mature. After all, they’re Twelves.”
“What’s a Twelve?”
“Kasane_12 or Twelve for short. Simply put, it’s a kind of trick art used on people. If you place white paper and black paper next to each other and look at them from a distance, the white paper will look closer to you. They use tricks like that with the colors of their outfits to give the illusion of an hourglass figure and they use makeup and their hairstyle to make their face look smaller.”
The name of course was based on the traditional Japanese twelve-layer robe. But despite the designer’s intentions, the term was now mostly used as an insult. It was seen as a misogynistic fashion that made the girl look pretty by covering her in so much makeup and clothing that they could barely move.
“Her looks…are fake?”
Yonesaki Hiro was dumbfounded.
The Oomukade twisted awkwardly next to him and remained silent.
“It’s kind of like covering their entire body with a thin layer of special makeup. So if they get sweaty and the makeup comes off, it would apparently be far worse than losing an eyebrow. I’ve heard the perspective of their face would be thrown off and they would look something from a game of fukuwarai. They have to constantly check their face in a mirror, so it has to be a restrictive way to live.”
“I see. So that’s why she freaked out when I said something about her face.”
The boy seemed to remember something.
Hearing that, the Oomukade finally spoke again.
“That is why Sachi…no, all of the Kasane_12 children are doing this.”
“I still don’t see it. What do the centipedes have to do with special makeup?”
“It is possible the fear of becoming a centipede has been numbed by the centipede’s venom, but at the very least, Kasane_12 was the initial cause.”
The deadly Youkai said to eat even other Youkai sounded troubled.
“Here is a hypothetical situation for you. Kasane_12 optimizes their looks, but those looks will completely fall apart if it fails. Now, what if they did not what to do this themselves? What if it was forced onto them by their parents or other adults? Just how much pressure do you think they would be under then?”
“People praise Sachi. They call her beautiful and they gather around her. …But that is not her true self. They are all looking at the false outer layer and none of them are truly looking at her, praising her, or showing any kind of concern for her. Isn’t that more than enough to destroy a growing personality?”
The girl and the centipede.
She was breaking the boundary between the beautiful and the ugly and mixing them together.
She hated and wanted to ruin what it was everyone praised about her.
The situation was slowly coming into focus.
Adults made Packages for simple money or fame, but this one was based on the values only held among these cornered kids.
“This is my fault,” confessed the Oomukade. “It was wrong of me to feel sorry for her. It was irresponsible to try to cheer her up. That was what placed the final crack in the dam of her heart which she was only just barely keeping in balance.”
“Sachi-chan, why are you smiling?”
That casual comment led me to realize my face was falling apart.
I was not allowed to sweat carelessly, I was not allowed to shed tears carelessly, and I was not allowed to let the rain hit me carelessly. When I went outside, I always had to have a mirror on hand and I had to constantly check my face no matter where I was.
And I could not quit either.
My status and the expectations of me were still on the rise. No matter how much I told people I couldn’t do anymore, they kept pumping in more and more expectations. The higher I ended up, the greater the damage if I fell. There was no way I could land safely anymore. The expectations of my parents, my friends, my teachers, and even of complete strangers were just too heavy. A single mistake and I knew unbearable pain would press in on me.
I lived in a soft living hell, like being strangled by luxurious silk.
That was when I found it.
It was a spot of green seemingly cut off from the hustle and bustle of the city. It was the remains of a shrine that seemed almost buried by the buildings around it. It was like the secret place in the donkey ears story.
I found the Oomukade there.
No, a Tsuchigumo and Nue were there too. The Youkai were all so strange looking.
To be honest, I was scared at first.
But despite not looking remotely human, they didn’t seem to care, joked with each other, and worked together to pick the fruits in the trees. I was jealous when I saw them.
I didn’t take long to start fitting in.
In that world, your looks didn’t matter. Those friends would look at who you were on the inside.
I had gained something that should have been normal. I felt like I was regaining myself after I had started to fade away. They truly did save my life.
“Sachi! Why would you get anywhere near those creepy things!?”
Something set foot into my world.
“It’s okay. It’s okay, Sachi-chan. We’ll call a famous expert for you.”
Something brought unwelcome help into my world.
“It looks like they are affecting her. But not to worry. I can handle this easily.”
Something approached with a smile after catching the scent of money.
If the Oomukade, Tsuchigumo, and Nue had seriously resisted him, they could have torn that fraud of a medium to pieces, but they didn’t.
When I arrived at the usual place, gasping for breath, nothing was left. They had not even wanted to harm the person coming for them, so they had given up their home. That was how it seemed to me.
I simply could not allow it to end like that.
What had the Oomukade done? What was wrong with a Tsuchigumo being ugly? Was a Nue’s inhuman appearance any reason to proudly rob them of everything they had? They understood human feelings, they could communicate using words, and they had enough of a heart to care for even those who opposed them, so why did they have to be treated like that?
What was beauty?
What did it mean for the beautiful to exterminate the ugly?
If that logic actually held up, then it was obvious who should truly be exterminating who.
Everything needed to become the same.
Everyone needed to become centipedes.
Humans were not beautiful or ugly. It only came down to whether they hid it or not. In that case, I just had to drag it all out into the light. If everyone looked the same, we would finally be able to compare who we were on the inside. If we did that, we humans were sure to realize just how inferior we were.
If I had lost sight of my true self inside the cocoon of the manmade Kasane_12 and I had become a mere doll, I may never have had these feelings. I would probably have become a disturbing empty shell that only gave the answers that would delight the adults and live up to my parents and teachers’ expectations.
But I had regained myself. Those kind Youkai had brought me back.
So I couldn’t bear it. I would use myself for their sake.
I would use myself up to the very end.
“It comes down to an issue of affinity. As humans grow, they come to hate bugs. There is nothing cruel about it; it is completely normal. Sachi just so happened to develop that later than others. That allowed her to fit in with us, but the adults around her would not allow it. I had predicted she would be pulled away from us, but it seemed to be quite a shock to her. Her hatred did not die down, so it continued to quietly burn within her and she ended up building this Package with the other children.”
The Oomukade’s story was strange, but it was not that I couldn’t understand it.
That may have been because I lived in an Intellectual Village full of Youkai.
Then again, I didn’t exactly like giant spiders or roaches. If a rhinoceros beetle was flipped over and I saw its soft belly, I would flinch back. It didn’t feel quite the same when I could speak with it like with the Oomukade, though. If you could tell them to go away and they would, there wasn’t anything to be afraid of.
“I had no direct contact with the children other than Sachi. After we left, she must have spread her story to others with similar worries. Unfortunately, the ones who haven’t seen us probably had an easier time glorifying us in their imagination. We aren’t creatures meant to be looked up to after all.”
The Oomukade had said it had been wrong.
It had said cheering her up had been irresponsible.
“I think you have that a little wrong.”
“It’s true you messed up, but that doesn’t mean the beginning was wrong. The problem was the ending where you vanished without saying a thing and left it all unsettled. Accepting Ranzono Sachi when she was in such a bind was clearly the right thing to do. Who knows what might have happened to her otherwise. It scares me just to think about it.”
“At the very least, this would not have happened to her.”
“You’d rather she was a soulless teacher’s pet? She might have even hung herself. I’m betting you took on the seeds of this trouble because you saw those possibilities in her future.”
“If ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are the only options, then you pulled the lever toward ‘right’. You did something you can be proud of. And if Ranzono Sachi still hasn’t been saved, it means she derailed from the ‘right’ track. All you have to do is help her recover. If the train is brought back on track and carries her to the goal, then this will all work out. That’s the best possible option, right?”
The Oomukade remained silent for a while.
But finally, it looked between me and Yonesaki Hiro and dropped its raised head. To put that another way, it bowed toward us.
“I must ask you again. …Will you help me save Sachi...and the rest of those children? I need to save them before they cross the point of no return and really do kill someone.”
I didn’t even need to answer. I had been the one trying to get this going.
For some reason, Yonesaki Hiro held out his small clenched fist, so I lightly clenched my own fist and pressed it against his.
That was when the umbrella asked a question.
“But could those small children really assemble a Package? They might have the dozens of people necessary, but still.”
“Those children had another worry besides Kasane_12. It is commonly known as a manmade genius project. A business that acts more like a seminar than a cram school artificially remakes the structure of their brains. I believe the business was known as Medical Camp.”
“You’ve gotta be kidding me. That’s the thing they call trauma disconnection, isn’t it? They apply pain to close off the unnecessary synapse connections, leaving only the connections for academics and other lessons. It’s been showing up on talk shows and the online news, so it’s more of a gray area than anything fully illegal.”
If what I’d heard on TV was accurate, the man who founded the business was constantly moving between countless different businesses. He had made all sorts of crazy seminars and cram schools that would drag kids in and lock them in bomb shelters as “punishment” if they stopped showing up.
“I had thought Ranzono-san was amazing because she was great at school, sports, fashion, music, and cooking, but it seemed strange to me,” said Yonesaki Hiro, another kid. “How did she fit all that into only twenty-four hours a day? …But I was wrong. There was no way she could fit it all in.”
Those children had been fully remade, inside and out, for the convenience and vanity of the adults.
They were robbed of any sense of self and were displayed by their parents as a medal or a trophy.
The Oomukade’s group had definitely been right to accept Ranzono Sachi. If things had continued without their intervention, she would have met a fate worse than becoming a creepy stuffed human trophy.
“That means they gathered their genius minds together and used them to assemble a Package better than any adults could have.”
“In that case…” I chose my words carefully. “This Package turns people into centipedes, so the core has to be the Oomukade. You must have had your power and traits stolen without even knowing it. But the components have to be something else. The Package would have been assembled from things those city kids could get their hands on.”
“But since they’re from the city, wouldn’t the core be outside the village?”
“Even if it is, the leader must have some kind of controller. Otherwise, one of the other kids could overthrow her. …It must be really close by. This is the elementary school, so we might find a hint here. What would Ranzono Sachi be free to bring in and use here?”
As I wondered about that, I also went over the traits of the Oomukade at the source of the Package.
–The Oomukade is a large centipede Youkai.
But it wasn’t explained why it was so large or violent.
–The Oomukade can eat other Youkai such as a clan of dragon gods.
But it wasn’t explained whether it ate them due to hunger, hatred, or whatever else.
–The Oomukade is immune to normal blades, but it is weak to weapons with human spit on them.
But it wasn’t explained why human spit was effective.
Those unknowns were very important. One could substitute in any parameters they wanted when assembling the Package. A clear weakness made a safety device easier to add in, so this was actually a pretty easy to use species.
“Um, since it’s Ranzono-san, wouldn’t it be this?”
I heard a rustling sound as Yonesaki Hiro pulled out a magazine larger than A4 size.
That’s Autofocus, but…huh? Where did he pull that from?
“You can find them all over the school. It’s a big fad right now. This one was on top of the shoe lockers.”
“That helped us out too. Heh heh.”
First the Yuki Onna and now the lantern. The magazine seemed pretty popular with Youkai.
I placed the magazine on the floor and flipped through it with my flashlight in one hand. Despite being a fashion magazine, it barely had any photos. It was all barcodes and AR marker and it was real pain having to hold up my cellphone every time.
“That’s some odd taste. Well, maybe she was forced to do it for work.”
“Did you think a model in a fashion magazine was some kind of god that’s always right? These are really just fancy banner advertisements. She wears the clothes from the makers and brands affiliated with the editors so they can sell as much clothing as possible. That’s how this is set up. They don’t introduce things because they’re the latest trend; they introduce them to make them the latest trend. Apparently, some magazines make more from the money the clothing makers give them than from selling the magazine.”
“If I use a more modern word like ‘affiliate’, do you get why Autofocus would recruit well-known online figures? You can reference the magazines if you want, but don’t just accept what they say at face value.”
Including Ranzono Sachi, they had about twenty dedicated models of various types.
They were all wearing some pretty forced outfits that were supposed to make you want to click the banner ad for a shopping site, but Ranzono Sachi seemed a little different from the rest.
There was definitely something odd about her.
While the other models were clearly playing their part with dollar signs in their eyes, I couldn’t sense any obvious benefit for her. I couldn’t figure out why she was wearing those mismatched clothes.
“I don’t believe you.”
Yonesaki Hiro pouted his lips a little. It looked like he had more of a problem with me saying these things about Ranzono Sachi than with the facts themselves.
“Ranzono-san really is the center of her school. She’s in some unreachable place like the distant moon and everyone wanted to hear the things she says. You can say those things all you want, but she still seems perfectly mature to me.”
I just about told him distinguishing between what you wanted to think and the truth was the sign of maturity, but then I froze up.
Wait a second.
“The Oomukade is an enlarged centipede. Its threat grows with its size.”
“What about it?” asked the Oomukade.
“And Ranzono Sachi’s group is turning their own bodies into centipedes. They’re turning themselves into a special being that grows more powerful the larger it grows.”
I pointed at the magazine on the floor and the umbrella gave an “ah” of realization.
“She’s a model and writer for a fashion magazine. She’s an unreachable existence like Kaguya-hime on the distant moon. …She is in elementary school just like our master, but she’s also a celebrity with a clear line drawn between her and the other children.”
“The two fit together. The Oomukade is an enlarged centipede and that city girl has enlarged her status with the magazine. Do you think Ranzono Sachi used Autofocus to make herself seem bigger and therefore combine with the Oomukade?”
“B-but…” The lantern cut in. “What about the other centipedes with her? I believe she is the only one directly connected to Autofocus. How did the centipede power infect those other children as well?”
“Did they reference Autofocus? Did they read it? No, that isn’t it. They have to make themselves look bigger. There has to be a trigger for that. If it applies to more than just the actual writer…”
I had no guarantee here and we had no time to gather evidence.
I could only present my theories.
“There has to be a condition for her gallery to make themselves look bigger. Are they doing it through Ranzono Sachi? Did they follow her fashion to stand on the forefront of their own classes? Yes, they didn’t question those mismatched outfits, chose their clothes on baseless information, and felt a misguided pride in it all.”
Otherwise, Ranzono Sachi wouldn’t have any reason to wear those mismatched outfits in the magazine.
If her success through Autofocus was the trigger, then she would have worn proper outfits. That would have been the way to increase the number of centipedes.
“Wait,” said the Oomukade. “If that is the case…”
“Yes. The centipede transformations won’t be limited to her class or year. This might have spread throughout Japan. A lot of them are probably hiding it because they’re afraid of revealing something so grotesque.”
Yonesaki Hiro seemed bothered by something and he hid his right hand behind his back.
That caught my interest, but I didn’t have time to ask about it.
I heard a clattering like a sudden downpour striking the roof. Each individual sound was a leg and they spread through the darkness like a ripple. Knowing they were approaching from outside the window was enough for a chill to run down my spine. Storm-like winds blew against the glass and several points of light turned toward us.
It had to be a group of centipedes large enough to envelop the surface, but I didn’t have the guts to shine the flashlight toward it. In fact, I couldn’t imagine how a human being could transform into something that would make noises like that.
“Ranzono-san and the others are here!”
“What should we do?” asked the Oomukade. “As sturdy as this school is, it has a lot of windows and they will completely fill the building at this rate.”
“W-we need to hide somewhere!”
“No,” I cut in. “Just running isn’t enough. Oomukade, Ranzono Sachi shouldn’t think you’re a definite enemy yet. That means you can maintain an ambiguous position without running or hiding. Can you stay out here as a scout?”
“I can, but wouldn’t I be more useful to help you fight?”
“No. …Yonesaki, right? You come with me. I need to know the layout of the school. I don’t want to find out they’ve made additions or changes since I graduated.”
“Wh-what are you going to do?” asked the umbrella while glancing out the dark window again and again.
“I’m going to spit on an arrowhead.”
“That’s how you defeat an Oomukade. But now that we know how Ranzono Sachi has set up the process using the fashion magazine, I obviously don’t mean it literally. If I get my hands on that arrowhead, we might be able to turn this around.”
“What exactly should I do to help Sachi and the other children?” asked the Oomukade.
“I’m going to do something, but afterwards, I want you to see if they’re using cellphones. You can tell us by… yeah, let’s do it like a fake medium. For yes, do nothing. For no, go on enough of a rampage for the noise and shaking to reach us. That’s what I’ll use to decide what to do next.”
Our opponents were getting close. If they rushed into the school building before I could take action, it was all over. I didn’t have time to explain everything, so we parted ways with the Oomukade and ran through the dark building.
“Where are we going?”
“That’s what I need to ask about. Do they still have a device in the faculty room that looks like a giant fridge?”
“Intellectual Villages are reliant on online shopping, so we’d dry up in no time if a typhoon or landslide blocked off the road through the mountains. So just in case, we have ample disaster infrastructure. Especially in the community center, the schools, and anywhere else a lot of people can take shelter inside. …And the elementary school is the best of the best. It has water, food, sleeping bags, and everything you need to sleep over here. I’m interested in one of those things.”
We didn’t have time to worry about locks, so I kicked down the door to the faculty room.
I pointed my flashlight at what was inside.
“An emergency wired communications server and a large-scale antenna tower. These are to maintain the communications infrastructure.”
Ranzono Sachi’s ability to make herself look big was reliant on the fashion magazine Autofocus. And Autofocus was filled with barcodes and AR markers, so you couldn’t tell what was inside just by looking at it.
She had to be using the magazine and the website together to gain allies from her fans around the country. With the support of those online friends, she thoroughly turned herself into a celebrity. For her, one hundred legs was nothing.
But if her communications were cut off, what would happen to Kaguya-hime on the moon? If she fell to the earth, she would be no different from any other child. Without her fans and online friends, she would be nothing but a human being. Wouldn’t I be able to tear out her hundred legs then?
I opened the door to the switchboard and worked on it while I explained all that.
The umbrella groaned and spoke up.
“The Oomukade’s weakness is a weapon with spit on it. You could switch that around to say it’s weak to being spit on, can’t you? You’re going to isolate Ranzono Sachi to rob her of her celebrity status and then you’re going to reject her clothing. That will remove her power as a centipede.”
I was calling it Operation Emperor’s New Clothes.
However, there was no guarantee it would go as well as the picture book. A failure would mean being decapitated in the public square.
“B-but, you’re messing with the spare server for emergencies, right? The Intellectual Village is filled with a spider web of countless pieces of communications equipment, so destroying one or two of them isn’t going to bring it all down.”
“I don’t have to destroy them,” I corrected. “When the Zashiki Warashi messed with the router’s settings, her signals got mixed in with those from my room. That shut down communications from both rooms and it took until morning to get it all running again.”
“This is the same. Causing a malfunction will create more trouble than physically destroying it. I’m messing with the spare server’s settings to send out a bunch of data that intentionally interferes with the village’s normal lines. That will bring down all communications.”
I flipped a switch.
“Okay. That just leaves the wireless communications. If I have the emergency antenna tower send out the same frequencies used for cellphones and wireless LANs, I can seal off the communications by force. If this works, it will tear the centipede legs from Ranzono Sachi. This is Step 1. We’re finally stepping up onto the same stage as her.”
Late at night in the sanatorium, day trader Kotemitsu Madoka was facing her computer wearing her red bloomers (perhaps for good luck). She let out a scream when the connection suddenly died.
As Ranzono Sachi watched, many children used the light of their centipede legs to break the windows and enter the high-tech wooden school building. Violent wind was blowing down the hallways. However, no one would have thought these were human children anymore. A lot of them were more centipede than human now. Some had gathered centipedes to form great wings and others had half their body completely covered like a hermit crab. Of course, not all of that would be effective. Even if they transformed their arms, they wouldn’t be able to secure the lift needed to fly. They still had enough of a heart left to care about how they looked, but that was gradually fading away. They would become a formless swarm of centipedes. They would be nothing but centipedes. They used slicing wind, crushing wind, wind that corroded with oxidation, and wind that produced electricity. They found plenty of new things to fascinate themselves.
After the soldiers leveled the ground, the queen would continue forward. But that ended when Ranzono suddenly came to a stop.
A familiar deadly Youkai showed its face through a broken window.
She briefly forgot everything and called its name with a high-pitched voice appropriate for a girl her age.
She ran over, spread her arms, and jumped toward the large head.
“You big dummy!! Don’t worry me so much!! Our centipede transformation has progressed enough to harm your skin and a lot of the kids can’t control their power, so this is really dangerous!”
“But don’t worry. Heh heh. It’ll all be over soon. Once the transformation crosses a certain line…once this night is over, it’ll all come tumbling down like when the water in a cup passes the limits of its surface tension. All of Japan will become like us. No one will be hurt by the phony ideas of beauty and ugliness and the world will be a kinder place.”
The Oomukade decided shaking its head here would not reach Ranzono Sachi.
She looked down at her smartphone. Instead of the actual phone, she was using a free texting service limited to 100 characters. More and more word balloon windows opened to tell her what those in the school were finding.
Then she looked back up.
“Oomukade, you’re acting as a spy for the ones trying to escape, aren’t you?”
“So you noticed.”
“Heh heh. I know everything about you. And I don’t mind if that’s what you’re doing. Even if we’re enemies, we’re still friends. I believe you’ll eventually know I was right.”
Noukotsu Village’s wired and wireless communications should have been down, but as far as the Oomukade could see, the children had constructed a personal communication network using the special kind of service used for wireless keyboards and printers.
Its range was only fifty to one hundred meters, but they could exchange data without being monitored because it did not require going through a server or cellphone tower. Its misuse in America for terrorist plots and drug trades had led some to argue the maker should limit its abilities.
Ranzono Sachi shut her eyes while embracing the Oomukade’s head as if to offer herself up to that great maw.
“I’ll create a place for you, so let’s talk about more stupid stuff together afterwards.”
“But first, I need to get rid of the people standing in our way.”
The Youkai shouted, but it was too late.
It tried to close its jaws to restrain the girl’s body, but she slipped away. With a truly bizarre sound, she quickly made her way into the dark school building. The sounds and movements she made would not have been possible using two human legs. The pants below her skirt bent oddly and the two centipedes sticking out of her skirt wrapped around each other. But even that was not enough. The countless legs were likely cutting at the air to create a violent wind that propelled her forward. She moved like a nimble snake and it reminded the Oomukade of the stories found in the East and the West of grudges transforming girls into monsters.
As soon as Sachi stepped into the hallway through the window, static came from all of the school’s speakers. A high school boy’s voice followed.
“Hi!! You’re Ranzono Sachi, I assume. I have no intention of letting you kill me, so I think I’ll put up a useless fight now!!”
Sachi operated her small screen with her thumb to instruct the others to find the broadcast room and break into it.
Meanwhile, the voice continued.
“I saw the magazine you’re in. And the clothes you’re wearing now. Why are they so mismatched? White shows up the best, so if you wear red over white, it makes the inside portion look bigger and makes your chest look bigger. The black skirt is probably meant to make your waist look thinner and it matches the chocolate color of your brown boots. But the jeans are clearly unnecessary. I can’t figure out why you would add blue into the mix. The arrangement of colors is a mess.”
(Is he trying to destroy the centipede Package by attacking what makes me “look bigger”?)
Her smartphone received a response.
It was from the boys who had broken into the broadcast room, but they had not found anything.
“No one was there. The lights weren’t even on.”
“Is there any other broadcast equipment? Check the gym or anywhere else the school would gather.”
Not knowing how to respond would give this boy more time.
Ranzono Sachi looked down the dark hallway and the boy’s voice stabbed into her ears whether she liked it or not.
“For one thing, the curls of your chestnut hair are really soft and honestly more suited for some high-class girl. The white rose corsage matches that perfectly, yet the combination of a miniskirt and jeans is obviously more of a street outfit. Your belt is wilder and butts heads with the hair. They don’t go together, yet they don’t have enough of an impact for gap appeal. It just looks like a failed outfit to me.”
(But that isn’t enough. Heh heh. It’s supposed to be a wrong. They’re supposed to know it’s wrong but still do it because I told them to. That’s how I make myself ‘look bigger’. So pointing out my mistakes won’t ruin my enlarged status!)
The girl gave a fierce smile in the hallway of broken glass.
More and more text message responses reached the centipede queen.
“No one in the gym.”
“I doubt there’s any other broadcast equipment.”
“There’s a door leading underground. It might be the kind of tornado shelter I’ve seen on TV.”
One of Ranzono Sachi’s eyebrows shot up.
She operated the device with her thumb.
“That would be the gym-sized shelter in case of a disaster. It probably has broadcast equipment to prevent a panic and to organize personnel. Tell me where the door is. It’s time to attack.”
A rumbling much like TV static filled the school.
Tarou had called it a bomb shelter dungeon, but it was really just a big warehouse filled with stacks of cardboard boxes. The boxes all contained canned food and sleeping bags. They were stacked two or three stories tall, so they formed perfect walls, turning the large space into a labyrinth.
Something was surrounding us from all directions on the other side of the walls made from stainless steel.
Something was scraping at the walls with ferocious speed. No, it was scraping through the walls. It was probably that wind. The deluge of sound reminded me of a heavy downpour. The tornado shelter walls were meant to withstand a tornado with wind speeds of one hundred meters per second, but they quickly crumbled and large holes appeared.
Something like clumps of black seaweed poured in along with intense blasts of wind. Most of them had lost their human forms. The arms and legs sticking out through the gaps just barely let me know what they had originally been. And that wasn’t all. The weird wind that wrapped around the centipedes may have been sharp enough or powerful enough to kill someone without ever touching them.
The only one who still looked human was Ranzono Sachi because she had complete control of her transformation. When she walked in, the swarm of black centipedes split to the left and right to make a path for her.
“Heh heh. I suppose this would be checkmate.”
The antennae of the countless bugs focused our way.
The lantern and umbrella stood in front of Yonesaki Hiro and tried to puff themselves up, but it was plain as day what would happen to them if an actual clash began.
“The Oomukade calls in storms. The lightning and steel-like toughness both originated from control of air pressure. That gives me plenty of options. I could bite you and fill you with venom, I could constrict you with its large body, or I could crush your eardrums and organs using great wind pressure from every direction. Oh, but…”
As soon as she said that, Ranzono Sachi casually swung the centipede she had as an arm. The creature was wrapped in a whirlwind of orange flames.
“Heh heh. That might start a fire. Like with diesel.”
Dammit, I really don’t have any time left. Underground really is the centipede’s home turf!!
Still, my only option was to smile as I held the emergency broadcast radio microphone.
“I wouldn’t be so sure. Your brand is already falling apart. Using fashion magazines is fine, but you can’t accept everything they say. The people around you will be figuring that out before long.”
“But I’m not going to wait around for that. So die to help me create a free and kind world.”
She snapped her fingers and the seaweed-like darkness rushed in from all directions.
I saw darkness rushing in.
The lantern shouted something in my ear and the umbrella opened up to protect me.
But I was fine. There was no need for that.
After all, I too had looked up to Ranzono-san.
I gave a horizontal swing of my right hand that was still itching.
That was enough to transform it from shoulder to fingertips. I gently pushed the lantern and umbrella out of the way and forcibly swung my insect arm like a whip toward the approaching centipedes.
A clump of air exploded like it had contained a bomb and the sea of centipedes flew apart.
Ranzono-san looked surprised.
“I’m the same as these kids. I thought you looked cool when I saw your pictures in Autofocus. Or would you rather I said you looked cute? But either way, I looked up to you. That let the centipede power infect me.”
The many scraping sounds came from my one hundred legs. Those were a part of me now. I didn’t just strike with them. I sliced through the wind, controlled the air, and produced small storms.
“And even if that older Jinnai boy revealed everything, I still think you’re cool. After all, I also decided I want to be a Youkai once. But I relied on the adults, let them manipulate me, and that was the end of it. I can’t believe someone could put together all this on their own and manipulate the world of adults like you’ve done. I think we should look up to you for caring for your friends so much. I’d get mad if someone was mean to the umbrella or lantern, but I wouldn’t be able to tell you how much I’d actually be able to do. But you found an answer! And a great enough one to reject the world of adults! So!!”
More than one centipede extended from my shoulder now. More and more heads grew like Yamata-no-Orochi. I clenched and opened them like a giant hand and wind wrapped around them.
“I won’t lose. If it was the power of my feelings for you that gave me this centipede transformation, then I won’t lose to the rest of these kids! I won’t be shaken!”
“I know more good things about you than even you do!!”
“What are you saying!?”
She may have been angry because her face grew red and she charged toward me. The legs in her pants transformed into long centipedes and moved like snakes. Lots more centipedes burst from below her skirt. She beat the air with them, built up the wind, and produced flames. I responded by stepping forward. The other kids between us were knocked out of the way as our giant centipedes moved like muddy rivers and collided. Tearing at the ear created vacuums which exploded and blew everything away. My wind wrapped around Ranzono-san’s flames.
As we fought, I gradually learned more about the centipedes. It wasn’t the size or shape that mattered. Nor was it creating fancy-looking winds or flames. The older Jinnai boy had said Oomukade venom was used to make curses.
Curses had to be about feelings.
The Oomukade was a Youkai that grew larger when filled with feelings, so this was a battle to see who could turn the most powerful feelings toward the other and who could pour those feelings into the other.
“What could you understand about me!? My face is fake and my heart was torn to pieces, so there’s nothing of myself left! Looking up to a doll like me and innocently following me is the same as obsessing over a corpse! You don’t understand anything about me!!”
“If you can hate yourself like that, it means that you have a self. You’re trying to dirty yourself for the Oomukade, so you must care about your friends! And that means you can’t do this. A heart that cares for its friends would never decide it’s okay to hurt your classmates or parents. You’ve only frozen over and numbed yourself!! If you stay numb and follow through with this, you’ll definitely come to regret it!!!!!”
The centipedes moved in accordance with my will and created countless forms. They punched as a giant fist, they surrounded themselves in swirls of wind and flames, they stabbed like spears, and they exploded again and again. As time passed, it became clear who had the advantage.
Unsurprisingly, Ranzono-san was more powerful. And not just in how well she used the centipedes. It didn’t matter if she could shoot fire at me. The feelings, the curse, and the centipede venom at the base of it all were much, much more powerful and heavier. That was just how intense her feelings for her friends were.
“Heh heh. Is that all you have? You can’t stop me!!”
But have you forgotten, Ranzono-san?
I don’t have the lead role here.
There’s an older boy who knows a whole lot about Youkai behind me.
The scene before my eyes reminded me of the Okuri-Suzume’s words that had been the start of this whole affair.
(Hiro-chan is in trouble. Save him before the Oomukade eats him, hm?)
Was this what it meant by “eat”?
In all honesty, Ranzono Sachi was dangerous. Compressing air and creating explosive flames using dust was completely insane. I wouldn’t even be able to stand up to Yonesaki Hiro who was facing her alone using wind as his weapon.
And there was no need to give into sentimentality here. I only had to make use of the time he had given me.
“Don’t make me laugh, you brat!! You’re making yourself look bigger? You’re making yourself bigger than any adult? No matter how much you stretch your back, a kid’s still a kid. Do you really think you can beat a high schooler!?”
Ranzono Sachi had been about to push Yonesaki Hiro back, but she seemed to realize something and came to a complete stop.
Yes. I was using the microphone even though she was right in front of us.
“It might’ve been easy to feel proud when surrounded by other elementary school kids. Autofocus is mainly read by middle schoolers, so you might have them beat, too. But I’m in high school, the step above that. When I look down from above, I can see your flaws immediately!!”
My argument may have seemed inconsistent or like I was refusing to admit defeat, but there was a reason for it.
Yonesaki Hiro had said a few things to me before coming here:
“But you might be able to finish off Ranzono-san.”
“To us, a single grade difference feels like an infinite barrier. The gap between elementary school and middle school feels as distant as the moon from the earth. Ranzono-san is on that moon, but you’re even higher.”
“Ranzono-san’s status is in the world of middle schoolers, so it won’t reach you. The words of a high schooler hold a lot of weight, especially about fashion.”
I haven’t let go of the microphone because it’s not you I’m speaking to.
I was speaking to Ranzono Sachi’s hangers-on, believers, gallery, and online friends who were filling the entire school grounds.
It didn’t really matter what I said.
I just had to use the difference in age and school level to build uncertainty.
“Spit on its own is meaningless. No matter how much you spit on someone, it isn’t going to damage them. It only works as the Oomukade’s weakness if you use some other tool as well to make it an arrowhead with spit on it.”
In other words, the act of “spitting on” the weapon meant something had to be carried to the centipede.
But then what was that?
Ranzono Sachi had the answer, not me.
Yes. It was the cellphones and smartphones they had been using to contact each other!
Ranzono Sachi quickly pulled out her smartphone.
She had built in a safety measure. If there was a split in the group, she had prepared an “arrowhead” to rob a member of their centipede power.
She tried to quickly block all of their addresses, but it was too late.
The text messages arrived.
“He’s saying our plan is going to fail.”
They came from other members of her own group.
“Will this really work?”
They seemed to be doubting her.
“I had thought this was a problem from the beginning.”
It was like they were spitting on her.
“This is a high schooler that’s saying it.”
It was like they were spitting on their weapon and firing it at the centipede.
Dozens or even hundreds of text message complaints rushed toward Ranzono Sachi, their leader.
She did not even have time to scream.
The giant centipede her arm had become burst apart. A slender, feminine arm appeared from within. After that, the darkness surrounding her began to burst, bit by bit. The objects that no longer looked human reverted to being boys and girls.
Her vision wavered and a voice escaped her.
She had been a step away from a world where she was free to smile with the Oomukade and the other Youkai, but now it was growing eternally distant.
“Now, that would be checkmate.”
The absolutely unreachable being that was a high schooler spoke into the microphone again.
As if it had been waiting for this moment, her friend the Oomukade poked its head down from the stairs leading to the surface.
“It doesn’t matter how many of you there are. We’ve got a high schooler who might as well be on the moon and a real deadly Youkai. …Now, what will you do, elementary school kids? Do any of you still want to take us on?”
Jinnai Shinobu and the others climbed the stairs to the surface where some police cars waited. Instead of the old man from the village’s police box, several police cars had been sent in from the next rural city over.
But that was not because they knew about the trouble caused by Ranzono Sachi and her group.
“Illegal trespassing, property damage, violation of the Radio Law, and, um, what else was there? Anyway, messing with the antenna tower stood out too much. That even affected the next town over. Well, just pray you don’t get kidnapping, abduction of a minor, or some other perverted charge tacked on there as well, high schooler.”
“You’re kidding!! You’re handcuffing me!? And why is it all on me!? How is a human supposed to destroy the walls of a tornado shelter!?”
There was no system to charge the Youkai themselves with a crime, but it was possible to charge Ranzono Sachi’s group that had misused one’s power. If he could prove he had been under attack by dozens of individuals and that he had been fighting to protect Yonesaki Hiro, his actions would qualify as justified self-defense or an emergency escape and the charges would be dropped, but that was another story.
Ranzono Sachi had been taken into custody by uniformed police officers and Yonesaki Hiro ran over to her with the umbrella and lantern following him.
She looked away from him, but he clearly heard her speak.
“I did the right thing, so I’ll try again as many times as it takes. I’ll keep at it until our beauty and ugliness have melted away and we all become the same.”
“Then I’ll stop you as many times as it takes. I know the real you can’t do something like that.”
The exchange sounded something like Izanagi and Izanami from Japanese mythology.
Just as the police officers began to carry the girl toward a police car, Yonesaki Hiro said one more thing.
“Ranzono-san! Can I ask you just one more thing?”
He breathed in and then out.
He looked her straight in the eye and asked.
“Will you show me your face?”
He did not mean it literally. She was a Kasane_12. Human trick art was used to thoroughly alter the impression she gave people, so that question had special meaning for her.
In fact, her eyes opened wide.
Then she smiled just a little. She covered her face with her hands and moved them like drying it with a towel after washing it. It looked like a scene from a classic ghost story where a Nopperabou would appear.
Finally, she moved her hands out of the way.
She exposed the unadorned face that her classmates, neighbors, and even parents had rejected.
She then asked a cruelly ironic question.
“Am I pretty?”
And this time, Yonesaki Hiro’s immediate response caught her completely off guard.