It was November.
The weekend had finally come, but I couldn’t sleep in until noon today.
Something seemed intensely off in my futon.
I felt a smooth, squirming sensation of skin. I detected a slightly sweet aroma resembling old incense more than the chemical floral smells of the shampoos and conditioners my classmates used. As soon as I felt someone else’s body heat below the blanket, my sleepy mind rapidly focused itself as I lay on my side.
“Wait! Not again, you Good-for-Nothing Zashiki Warashi! Why do you have to sneak into people’s futons!?”
I mean, I would love to grope her tits if I could and I’d bow down to get a chance to see her naked, but there was more to it than that! I needed to prepare myself mentally!! This kind of surprise attack was bad for my heart!!
I felt blood instantly gathering in my head and that surge of heat moved my hand below the blanket. I was blindly searching for her slender shoulder to throw her out, but…
“Ow! What the hell!?”
I felt a sharp pain like I had touched the point of a giant pair of sewing scissors, so I quickly pulled my hand back.
Then a chill ran down my spine.
Eh? What? Scissors? In other words…a blade? She’s definitely never brought something like that into the futon before. No…no, wait. Is this really that Zashiki Warashi? When it comes to blades, I can’t help but think of that member of the world’s top three yandere! Don’t tell me this is that crazed childhood friend Nagisa-chan!! Please, please don’t tell me she’s had a relapse!
“Wait, wait. If the Nagisa is within twenty centimeters of me, I’m dead three times over!”
I frantically pulled back the blanket. It felt like belatedly realizing I’d gone to sleep holding a hornet’s nest in my arms.
But I was wrong.
Someone had been nestled up against me with their head right next to my chest, but it wasn’t that Indoor Youkai in the red yukata or the childhood friend from hell who was rumored to know 34,000 methods of killing.
“Nnn… Mumble, mumble… Fwah, what is it, papa?”
The girl wore a white kimono and had a single knife-like horn splitting through her glossy black hair as it grew from her forehead. She looked like a lovely and pure girl (but with a decent chest), but she was actually an artificial Youkai created by absorbing one hundred ghost stories. She was also a literal evil Oni who had plotted to overthrow Japan and had nearly destroyed Hyakki Yakou, the most powerful occult organization.
This made me realize the sweet aroma was not the Good-for-Nothing Youkai’s scent and my body heat only shifted up a gear. I wasn’t able to cool down through my usual routine!
“What are you doing!? Why are you here!?”
“Well, I am a collection of the questions and answers of a few people, including you. That makes us something like father and daughter. It would be too boring to just call us creator and creation, don’t you think? So what’s this? Are you saying a baby of only a few months isn’t allowed to sleep in her parent’s arms?”
It was true her motivation had mostly been that of a monster baby that wanted to speak of the world without knowing the first thing about the world and wanted to answer people’s cries without knowing the first thing about people. And we did carry some responsibility for creating her and then abandoning her in the world at large.
The Aoandon giggled while curled up on the futon with a body far too developed for a high school boy to be calling his daughter.
“I know exactly what I can say to keep you from pushing me away.”
“I can’t directly cause any destruction due to the mental stopper inside me. Just like you would feel illogical hesitation toward crushing a spoiled kitten below your foot. But I can use my power indirectly. For example, if I were to arrange it in the form of an unforeseen accident.”
She traced her slender index finger along my chest more like a lover than a daughter.
Wait. What is this rusty iron smell I hadn’t noticed before?
“I really couldn’t help it☆ I have this knife-like horn on my head after all. When I rubbed up against you like a loving child, it happened to tear your chest to shreds, but that was a complete accident. I didn’t mean anything by it.”
I screamed when I looked down.
Wh-what is this? I’m bleeding way more than that shaving disaster when I tried to act cool using that large razor one-handed!
The Aoandon laughed at my panic.
She’s hopeless. She might not be able to crush a kitten underfoot anymore, but that doesn’t mean we’ve mended our differences. She’s just hiding her cruelty! It didn’t go away!!
Frightened by this legit deadly Youkai, I tried to move away, but I ran into someone lying on my other side.
Is it the Zashiki Warashi this time!?
However, the skin felt like dried branches and I detected a faint aged smell.
No, wait. Don’t tell me… Wait!!
The newcomer then spoke behind me.
“Mumble, mumble… Nnn…boy…”
“Noooo!! I don’t want you showing up as the punch line, old man!!!!!”
On one side was the symbol of the calamity that arrived at the end of the Hyakumonogatari. On the other was the Aburatori, a symbol of untraditional fear who was even worse than the Aoandon when it came to his specialty of killing children.
As usual, the Intellectual Village was in top form first thing in the morning.
The Aoandon had really done a number on me that morning.
My chest was a bit bloody, but it wasn’t as bad as it looked. It would probably be fine without any kind of treatment, so I dragged my stinging body to the changing room/washroom to wash my face.
I started by scooping up cold water in my hands and slapping my cheeks. Then I mixed in some hot water for warm water, lathered up some face cream, and rubbed it into my face with circular motions. While it was refreshing, it stung my eyelids. It may not have been a good match for my skin, but I at least had to use up the tube.
After washing off the foam with the warm water, I looked up to see the Zashiki Warashi in a red yukata reflected in the mirror.
She was holding a first aid kit.
“Hm? What is it, Good-for-Nothing Youkai?”
“That’s my line.”
She sounded exasperated as she set the first aid kit down on the washing machine and opened it.
“Where did you get those cuts this early in the morning? Anyway, let me see them. You can’t just ignore them.”
I ended up letting her do as she wished. It may have looked bad, but it was really only a thin layer of skin that was cut. It was no more than a cut from a razor when shaving, so I’d been planning to ignore it. Was this a case where the blood concerned the others more than the injured person?
The Zashiki Warashi reached a slender finger toward my chest.
Inside the pajama top torn apart by the Aoandon, she traced her finger along my unharmed skin to wipe away the blood that had seeped down.
“It isn’t very deep. Some disinfectant and a bandage should be enough.”
“Hey, Indoor Youkai, this is kind of embarrassing.”
“Quiet. I need to take off your shirt to wrap a bandage around you, so raise your hands. C’mon, up with those hands.”
She was acting like she was helping a little kid change clothes.
The disinfectant stung a little, but I personally found the bandage more difficult. Specifically, it tickled! It felt like having a cheap fluffy sweater rubbing directly against my chest!! It wasn’t just bittersweet!!
After wrapping the bandage around my chest, the Zashiki Warashi fixed the end of the bandage in place with a small metal clip.
“There. All done.”
“You suddenly start acting like a big sister sometimes, you know that?”
My casual comment elicited a twitch from the shoulders in front of me.
“What’s this? Do you not like being called ‘indoor’ or ‘good-for-nothing’? Would you prefer I called you ‘Nee-chan’? How was I supposed to know if you never told me?”
“I-I have no idea what you’re talking about…”
“It doesn’t matter to me what I call you. Peh heh heh. Nee-chaaan.”
I never would have done this a month before, but I had worked out some things during the Aoandon incident. The trip to ten years in the past probably played the biggest role. The unpleasant reluctance toward this kind of thing had vanished.
The Zashiki Warashi was frozen in place close enough to feel her warm breath on my chest wound and her black-haired head was trembling a little.
“I-I can’t stand this! I know you’ve been horribly tainted since back then, but I can’t deny that hearing you call me Nee-chan is shaking my heart!!”
“Don’t act so innocent after manipulating me into doing things for you so often. And while I’m fine calling you Nee-chan, don’t start thinking you’re my superior or anything.”
“There! Right there!! That rising tone at the end there!! You’re definitely looking down on me!! But I know I outrank you when it comes to human things like education, athletics, and sociability!”
“Shinobu.” She shook her head in utter exasperation. “I know the perfect way to see just who is superior to whom. Try patting my head and calling me a good girl.”
Good girl, good girl.
“…Huh? What’s going on? I feel faint…and a little ill…”
“See? It’s hopelessly out of place, isn’t it? This proves I’m your superior. Your very soul is rejecting the idea of looking down on me.”
I wasn’t going to let her get the last laugh here. I would never let her quit while she was ahead(?). I would at least end this in a draw(???)!!
“Shinobu, how long do you plan to keep rubbing my hea-…kyah!?”
I slid my palm down her silky hair, moving it from the top of her head to the back. I then pulled forward to hold her head in my arm, placing her forehead right on my bandaged chest.
Her palms were still placed gently on my chest and she seemed oddly silent.
I pressed my nose against the top of her head.
Oh? This Good-for-Nothing Youkai smells pretty good.
“I think I like this better than rubbing your head. Hmm, but it’s not as fun since it puts us on equal footing.”
“Hm? Zashiki Warashi-san? Onyah!?”
She must not have liked that I had noticed how she briefly froze up because her shoulders gave a large start.
When she looked up at me from my arms, I played dumb.
“What’s the matter, young lady? Having trouble hiding your surprise at how manly you’re finding the boy you’ve always treated like a little brother?”
“Wh-where did this dark-hearted Shinobu come from!? Where did I go wrong raising you!?”
Probably the part where you bathed with me and slept next to me every night. It turned me into something of a gourmet.
Also, mwa ha ha!! I have no idea where the line between winner and loser is anymore, but I’m definitely on top here! I’m king of the hill!! Or at least, you don’t get to quit while you’re ahead this time!!
I heard a quiet voice that sounded like an icy wind blowing in from the depths of hell.
I looked over to find the Yuki Onna poking half her head out from the changing room door and glaring at me in yandere mode.
“What’s so great about treating wounds? I can do that too. Did you know flash freezing can stop bleeding, prevent cell death, and cut off the pain signals in the nerves? In other words, I can do it better. Now, let’s try it out. Come over here and pat my head too.”
“Wait! That method sounds like it would destroy the cells in the freezing/thawing process and it’s probably a really bad idea right on top of the heart like this. I’m pretty sure I’ll die!! And when did that Zashiki Warashi escape my arm!? Wait! Don’t leave me behind, Nee-chaaaan!!”
After that last word, the sexy Youkai’s shoulders twitched and she sighed.
She was already well on her way toward slipping out the changing room’s small window, but she made a change of plans and clung to my back for some reason.
It was like a Nininbaori or ventriloquism show. I felt something soft squishing against my back, but it didn’t seem the best time to make a joke.
She then whispered in my ear as quietly as she could manage.
“First, grab the Yuki Onna’s slender shoulders in your hands and move her to the wall.”
I ended up doing as I was told.
“Eh heh heh. I can easily freeze the injury with temperatures of eighty below ze-…hyahn!?”
“Place your hand on the wall next to her head. Now look her in the eye as if leaning over her. Make your presence known and don’t take no for an answer!”
“Use your other hand to gently grab her chin between your thumb and forefinger. Yes, and pull it up!”
“Finish it off by pressing your forehead against hers!”
“Finally, whisper this…”
“…Don’t cause me too much trouble, Yuki Onna. Got that?”
The Yuki Onna’s eyes were spinning and her entire body looked red.
She slid down as if her hips had given out. She seemed to have passed out and her flat-chested body had melted a fair bit.
What did I just do???
“What was that!? I’m disgusted with myself! I want to be the comedian type of popular, so this isn’t who I am! Was that the Wall-Don, Floor-don, Ceiling-Don, or whatever it’s called from shoujo manga!? That cliché would never work in real life! So it’s even more baffling that it just worked here!”
“Heh. Clichés can be powerful if you stick with them and don’t chicken out. They’re clichés for a reason, after all. It’s just that going for it without slamming on the brakes is incredibly hard.”
The Zashiki Warashi poked her head out from behind me with a triumphant look on her face.
Hmm. How should I put this?
“So is that your fantasy? Don’t tell me this all-out perfect older sister type writhes around in the bath imagining she’s a perfectly-proportioned starry-eyed shoujo manga girl with tons of eyelashes.”
“Bfh!? L-let’s not start making ridiculous accusations, Shinobu!!”
The thatch-roof house had grown quite lively.
The Zashiki Warashi in a red yukata had always lived there, but quite a few newcomers had been added: the flat Yuki Onna, the Nekomata who had wandered on in, the Western Succubus, the Furutsubaki (Small) who had been brought here during the Australia incident, the Aoandon from Zenmetsu Village, the deadly Aburatori who had been transformed into a Kaeshigami, and Marguerite Steinhols, the witch whose soul had been imprisoned by Archdemon Tselika.
My Youkai-loving mom had added even more with an Azukiarai, a Keseran-Pasaran, and the Furutsubaki (Large), so there were quite a few of them.
That could of course be a problem, so…
“Hey, Zashiki Warashi.”
“What is it?”
“And the rest of you too. Over here, everyone!”
After eating breakfast, I gathered the house’s problem children in the Buddhist altar room. A human like Marguerite was casually mixed into this occult category, but…
Wait. Is that okay? Her visa has to have expired, so wouldn’t she count as an illegal alien?
I prayed that the great Hyakki Yakou had done something about that and then got down to business.
“You all know about my uncle, right? His name is Uchimaku Hayabusa and he works in Tokyo as a police detective.”
“Oh, the one who left this peaceful rural village to risk his life in the big city because he wanted to meet some youthful middle school girls? That kind of aggressive approach isn’t bad.”
I noticed one hell of a misunderstanding in there, but we would be here all day if I bothered correcting every little thing.
“He called to say he’s coming here for a job today or tomorrow and he wants to stay here instead of at an inn. However, Youkai really seem to dislike him and I don’t think he knows the house he grew up in is full of deadly Youkai. …I know different Youkai have different traits and traditions, but don’t kill my uncle. Can you promise me that?”
The Furutsubaki duo both nodded, but they accepted so readily I had trouble believing them. I decided to hammer this one home.
“Repeat after me! I will not attack Shinobu’s uncle.”
“I will not attack Shinobu’s uncle.”
“I will not attack Shinobu’s uncle.”
“I will not attack Shinobu’s uncle.”
“Good! Now, I will not eat Shinobu’s uncle.”
“I will not eat Shinobu’s uncle… Sigh.”
“I will not eat Shinobu’s uncle… Sigh.”
“I will not eat Shinobu’s uncle… Sigh.”
“I’m a little worried by that disappointed sigh, but this should just about-…hey, Zashiki Warashi! Why are you already putting together a rubber gun out of chopsticks and a rubber band!? And isn’t that the one I designed that has enough force to crush a kiwi!? Didn’t we swear to seal that one away forever!?”
The Zashiki Warashi in a red yukata remained seated in a beautiful Japanese seiza position, placed a hand on her cheek, and elegantly tilted her head.
“Yes, I wonder why. I have no real interest in Hayabusa’s visit, but I still feel an urge inside me to prepare for an attack.”
“Now I’m worried!!”
“If you’re done, I’ll be at the kotatsu.” (Nekomata)
“It’s November. That’s winter. That’s my season!! Pant, pant. I sense a first snow coming earlier than usual. Shiver. Please come trample all over my virgin snow!!!!!!” (Yuki Onna)
“Ahh, my shoulders are stiff now. Okay, Marguerite, let’s head back into the attic to continue our secret ritual. Mwa ha ha. Yes, a ritual between witch and demon that needs to be kept hidden!!” (Succubus)
Marguerite had tried to get the Nekomata to chase a yukata sash, but gave up and made it into a corset. She and the others scattered in every direction, but I was afraid letting this slide would create some great turning point in my uncle’s life.
But unfortunately, I already had plans.
“Oh, honestly! Aburatori, you take care of the rest. Don’t let them gang up on my uncle. You have the power of a weaker god, so you can restrain them, right!?”
“I’m the guardian deity of children, you know?”
“Don’t look so puzzled, old man! You don’t even need any tricky logic! My uncle was a kid once! Isn’t that enough!?”
Everyone was moving noisily around, but I had to prepare to leave.
An Intellectual Village was a high-tech rural area intentionally setup to create ultra-high quality brand-name crops, but that could sometimes be inconvenient. For example, shopping was entirely reliant on the internet and the train only ran five times a day.
Heading to the next town over to go shopping was a major event. In all seriousness, missing the train would throw off all of your plans for the day. It was a little bit cold even for November, so I put a white jacket on over my shirt.
“I’ll be going now. …Dammit. How many times have I had to get a new cellphone this year alone?”
“Yes, and to think the ugly model you and probably no else uses would have trouble with the battery overheating. Hee hee.”
“I don’t know how many times I’ve had to ask this question this year alone, but are you really a Zashiki Warashi?”
Noukotsu Village was surrounded by mountains on all sides, but there was another town past those mountains. I believe it was called Bozen City. I normally thought of it as a delivery base for online shopping, but it was fairly well developed and quite convenient if you ignored the infrequency of the trains. Of course, it was located at the base of a mountain, so it felt more cramped than a large city built on a plain or next to a bay. Still, it felt enough like a city to someone who had grown up in a rural village.
I walked past a sign saying not to smoke on the streets.
The Intellectual Village had a something of a village society going on, while rumors were only temporary… Okay, okay. I’ll admit it. It wasn’t easy to have a love life when a single mistake could lead to rumors spreading throughout the entire village! And the timing just wasn’t right for a school romance! So until the heat died down, trying to hit on some girls in this city seemed like the better bet!! Trading in this recalled phone was my main reason to be here, but they tended to hire good-looking girls at those shops!!
But as if to drive a wedge into my plans, a damp voice reached me from directly behind.
“Eh heh heh. What are you doing here, Shinobu-chan? Are you lost?”
What I heard was enough for me to have trouble breathing. I turned around with my mouth flapping like a goldfish’s.
Soft, fluffy chestnut hair, slender shoulders, and white skin. The chest was a bit of a disappointment, but I couldn’t get enough of the line from her long, soft legs to her butt. She excelled at housework, she was smart, and most importantly, she was devoted to her man! …But it was all ruined by the heavy look in her eyes. Now, who did I just describe?
“Good morning, Shinobu-chan. It’s getting chilly these days, but you didn’t catch cold, did you? How about I heat up your hands with my breath?”
Nagisa smiled at me with eyes that looked even heavier than the leaden skies which seemed on the verge of snow. Instead of her school uniform, she was wearing a white cardigan over a knit dress. She wore the kind of hat that had to be pinned to the head. The cat knee socks were transparent like stockings and she had a cat tail accessory clipped to the back of her waist. Altogether, it was a kitty nurse outfit! But the Shinobu Gauge hidden in my chest didn’t react at all to her coquettish look. I’d heard that a guy’s meter was given a full boost from his survival instincts in extreme situations, but did this mean that was an old wives tale?
Still, this was odd.
It was the weekend, but romance-obsessed Nagisa-chan wasn’t with her boyfriend Akechi-kun. Even if they hadn’t made any plans, I would have expected her to spend all day hiding below her boyfriend’s floor or inside his wall.
I felt like a small doubt was leading to a horrific answer. It felt like the world I knew could be turned on its head.
I was afraid to learn the answer, but I would only be crushed by doubt if I didn’t know.
I hesitantly asked.
“U-um, Nagisa-san? Are you meeting Akechi somewhere?”
She did not hesitate to answer me with a smile.
“We broke up.”
“Wait, Shinobu-chan… Why are you tearfully running off in a random direction? Eh heh heh. Are you playing hard to get?”
My thoughts had just about blanked out completely, so the next thing I knew, Nagisa held my wrist in a vise-like grip.
But of course, this was no time to be grimacing in pain.
After all… After all, after all, after all!!
I hadn’t known she had broken up with Akechi. That meant one of the world’s three greatest yandere was free. I hadn’t known that. This was very, very, very bad. She placed all seven billion people on this planet into one of four categories: Enemy, ally, not interested, and extreme love. I’d managed to get by until now with Akechi filling the “extreme love” slot, but if she was free and that slot was open, then any guy standing in front of her could end up filling it. While it was true she was a yandere, she was most dangerous when she was free. It was like super-sweet game of deadly musical chairs with an anti-tank mine in place of a cushion and I may have just sat right on top of that mine!!
She narrowed her eyes and slowly, slowly spoke to me with a sugary voice that sounded like a bottomless bog of sugar, honey, and cream.
There was a…what was that thing? Oh, right. There was a paraglider circling overhead, but it looked like a vulture circling a likely target to me.
“After we broke up, I dated a lot of different people, but not many of them lasted even a month. None of them could compare to my first love… So I’ve been thinking about some things.”
“It’s not good to get too fixated on one thing and think about it over and over! It’ll trigger Gestaltzerfall!!”
“I think I might have been chasing after your shadow in everyone I’ve dated since…”
“You’re imagining it!! In fact, you’ll say that to anyone, won’t you!? You’ll say all of your past mistakes were necessary to meet them! Just to be clear, you can’t erase your dating history by making up some grand ‘reason’ for it all!! You can’t force it all into a straight path to pretend that every single one is your first love!!”
“Eh heh heh. Hey, Shinobu-chan. Do you believe in the red string of fate? I think there really might be something that connects people who are meant to be together☆”
Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhh!! She’s not listening to anything I say! She’s locked onto me already!! M-m-m-m-m-m-m-my teeth are chattering!
“B-b-b-b-b-b-b-b-b-b-but what happened with Akechi? What went wrong!?”
“I don’t know, I don’t care, and I don’t see why I should even bother remembering what someone I don’t love looked like.”
I suddenly pictured him chopped to pieces with a machete and boiled away in a metal drum. I couldn’t rule that out. I couldn’t rule out anything anymore! He could easily have been turned into something like a thick beef stew cooked for seven long hours by a French chef!!
I could only pray to the god in heaven and to athletic Akechi-kun’s escape skills.
I made it out alive in the past, so surely you can too, Akechi!
“But…but what happened!? The two of you were always so lovey-dovey and flirting!”
“…Do you really want to know?”
Her heavy eyes were accompanied by a thin smile on her lips.
“He was so cruel. I don’t remember what he looked like or which number boyfriend he was, but he was cruel. His handkerchief stunk, he got bed hair, he was sweaty, I made it very clear I’m on the left when we hold hands and he still got it wrong three times, he was more than 120 seconds late meeting me on five separate occasions, miso soup has to be made with a dried sardine stock yet I was forced to eat mud made from dried bonito and kombu and pretend I liked it, it took him more than a minute to return my emails when I only sent him 97 in a day and worked so, so hard to not send more than 100 in a day, and so on and so on.”
Nagisa’s yandere illusion seemed to be wearing down my soul, so I cut her off with a scream.
You haven’t changed at all since back then! You’re as crazy as ever, Nagisa-chaaaaaan!!
Meanwhile, her eyes seemed to be spinning as she lost herself in those crazy memories.
“Sob, sob. Hey, Shinobu-chan. Where are you going today?”
“W-well. Ah ha ha ha ha. I have a lot of shopping to do and it’s going to take a real long time, so you should probably stick to your original plans.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll stick with you. Forever.”
I recognized this situation. If I pressed the issue, she would adorably whisper into my ear: “Why won’t you listen to me? Maybe there’s something wrong with your ears. Not to worry, Shinobu-chan. I’ll clean them out. C’mon, lie down in my lap☆” Then she would ever-so-thoroughly clean out my ears down to the eardrum.
She grabbed my hand, intertwined our fingers, embraced my arm, and leaned against me from the side. I sensed a gentle feminine scent, warmth, and softness. I could feel the warmth of her breath and the silkiness of her hair. But this was all her version of the pay-on-delivery scam. It was like finding an edible bird’s nest or shark fin on your front step and then being forced to pay the exorbitant price after the fact!
The old man smoking on a no-smoking bench and the kid going over to scold the man for smoking did not realize at all what an emergency this was. I was literally in a fight for my life here! This was the problem with beautiful girls. They just had to smile and everyone took their side!!
“Where are you going today?”
Was I crying? Or had the dial spun all the way around to smiling?
I wasn’t sure as I forced out the words like squeezing out fresh cream.
The cellphone store took up the first floor of a multi-tenant building a bit away from the train station but still on the main road. The bright store was covered in windows and it looked more like a post office or bank lobby than an electronics store. However, the blinds were lowered, so I couldn’t see anything outside. There were a lot of sofas, but that must have been because the different processes left people with a lot of time to wait around. Perhaps to advertise the carrier, a large e-book reader was prepared in the magazine stand and the TV was playing a zombie movie streaming from the internet.
As I glanced through the new model pamphlets installed on the e-book reader, Nagisa spoke with her shoulder pressed up against mine.
“Look, Shinobu-chan. It’s a Kasha-chan strap.”
“It’s a collaboration with a local mascot. Oh, yeah. The winter festival is coming up soon, isn’t it? I hope we can go together this year☆”
The flat-screen was introducing a strap modeled after a black cat walking on two legs as it pulled an oxcart from the Heian period.
Hmm. What kind of Youkai was the Kasha again?
“#7: Nakisuna Okuri. I repeat, #7: Nakisuna Okuri. We are ready to serve you now, so please come to the counter.”
“Oh, it’s finally my turn. That’s me, that’s me.”
A young man with a beard stood up from the sofa. His bright orange down jacket and jeans were fine, but the knit cap and sunglasses made me wonder if someone would mistake him for a robber. It was a no-smoking lobby, but he pressed a cigarette butt into a portable ashtray modeled after that same Kasha-chan. The number was pretty low even taking into account that the store hadn’t been open long. Not many people were waiting, so it probably wouldn’t be long until my turn. Not that I could call this “clear sailing” when Nagisa was free and hanging around me!
“#8: Jinnai Shinobu. I repeat, #8: Jinnai Shinobu. We are ready to serve you now, so please come to the counter.”
“Eh heh heh. Good luck, Shinobu-chan.”
With that meaningless encouragement pushing me onward, I walked up to the horizontal line of counters.
Standing on the other side was what I guessed was a part-timer. The short girl had short hair with her bangs held in place by a hairpin. She wore a suit-like light green jacket and tight skirt with the carrier’s name printed in large letters like on a race queen. She wore the store’s uniform perfectly, but she also would have looked at home in my school’s hallways if she changed into a school uniform. Still, she would probably have fallen into the “upperclassman” category.
The nametag on her modest chest said she was Nozaki Haru.
“Um, what do you need?”
“Well, I don’t know all the details, but…y’know, there was an article on your website and they were talking about it on the news. The D512’s battery can overheat, right? Well, I happen to have that exact model.”
When I pulled my phone from my pocket and placed it on the counter, Nozaki-san began waving her hands back and forth. She seemed to have been given a script to follow, but she was having trouble remembering it.
Hmm. So she’s the small animal type.
Then an icy voice reached me from behind.
O-oh, no! My careless adoration of this girl from a more heartwarming world has triggered Nagisa’s sensors! This employee is going to end up buried in the mountains!!
Nozaki-san apparently had poor danger senses despite being so nervous, so she didn’t notice Nagisa.
“Um, um, thank you very much. No, I mean… Understood! Now, will a replacement battery suffice?”
“What? I thought the website said you would give me a different model of similar specs free of charge.”
“Well, um, uh, we’ve changed our policy…no, I mean… We have updated our means of support for this issue. We have discovered we can provide support without replacing the entire phone. Transferring the data takes time, so this is less of a hassle for you, the customer.”
“Well, it doesn’t really matter to me,” I said without really thinking about it. “Oh, but will the new battery already be charged? Or do I need to charge it up once I get home?”
“What!? Um, um… E-excuse me! Can you wait just a moment!?”
“Eh? Well, if you don’t know, that’s fine too.”
“K-Kamimaki-san! Excuse me, but about this customer’s question!!”
Nozaki-san almost tearfully went to get some help from a male employee moving back and forth behind the counter.
D-does she just have a really strong sense of responsibility? I can’t get enough of watching her, but…yeah. I should keep that a secret.
This Kamimaki-san appeared to be college aged. His black hair was parted down the middle and he looked like a refreshing sort of person. I had to wonder if they hired these workers based on their looks. The male uniform didn’t seem all that great, though.
“Nozaki-san, you shouldn’t get so nervous in front of a customer. What they want from us is a sense of reassurance. While it isn’t an actual product, it’s still something we have to provide them. Okay?”
“O-okay. But about what this customer needs…”
I felt someone looking over from the next booth.
However, they weren’t looking at me. A sexier female employee was dealing with the neighboring customer. When she looked over, her body stiffened and her hands wandered through the air. It was inappropriate, but it was kind of cute seeing the older girl with thick lipstick looking so troubled.
“Hey, Kamimaki-san… Oh, geez. Not again.”
Was she having some trouble too? Being their advisor must have been tough.
However, the customer was not necessarily going to wait around. The guy in a knit cap and sunglasses leaned forward with his elbow on the counter.
“C’mon, you don’t have to get so irritated. If you’ve got to wait, then how about we have a quick chat, Akehara-chaaan? Is that earring a Near Elf? Do you tend to hang around the areas north of here?”
The employee’s earring covered more than just the earlobe. An extremely detailed metalwork “side” seemed to sharpen the overall silhouette of her ear. The bearded man grinned and toyed with it.
It looked like he was here for the employees too. But since he was showing off a complaint card while asking her private questions about her life, I had to wonder if he actually thought that was going to win her over.
The young woman’s long chestnut hair was tied back and her forced smile was a little stiff, but based on the timing, it may have had more to do with the cigarette smell coming from that Nakisuna guy’s mouth and down jacket. I’d heard that people sensitive to that kind of thing were really sensitive to it.
Things were strained between the employees and muddy between the employees and customers.
I stared into the distance while thinking about how bittersweet life could be, but the one in the most danger here was probably me since Nagisa had locked onto me! I couldn’t even imagine how the situation could get any worse!!
But I was readily proven wrong by what happened next.
A yellow dump truck that had to weigh more than ten tons crashed into the store, breaking through both the window and the blinds.
It was more of a shockwave than a noise.
A horizontal downpour of glass and a far-too-large mass of metal passed by behind me. The neat line of sofas was knocked away, they crashed into the opposite wall, and some wiring must have been broken because the lights blinked unsteadily.
“Whoaaaaaa!? O-ow! What the hell!?”
The bearded man in a knit hat and sunglasses – Nakisuna-san was it? – shouted something, but he hadn’t actually been hit by the dump truck. One of the sofas seemed to have hit him in the waist. That didn’t matter, so I ignored him and looked around the messed-up store. Fortunately, I quickly spotted a familiar face.
“Are you okay, Shinobu-chan?”
“Are you, Nagisa? …Or rather, was anyone hit by that?”
“Eh heh heh. Shinobu-chan was worried about me…”
It was lucky there had been so few customers.
Those customers were all focused on the front of the dump truck that had crashed into the wall. We all hesitantly looked in that direction. …Was the driver okay? At the very least, the driver’s compartment hadn’t been crushed like an empty can.
The employees of course hadn’t been trained for something like this, so they had all frozen up.
Meanwhile, I heard a creaking noise.
The driver’s side door slowly opened and something fell out. At first I thought it was a trash bag, but it wasn’t. It was a human. It was a middle-aged man in a work uniform.
Or…was he really middle-aged? Something was wrong with his hair. It was really dry and nearly white. He also had muddy eyes and all of his skin had turned red or purple. Did he have internal bleeding? Was he hurt? From what I could see, his clothes weren’t stained red and his limbs weren’t bent at odd angles.
At first, no one moved to help him.
That may have been because no one was sure if he was a culprit or a victim.
But as time passed, the tense atmosphere relaxed and we gained more freedom of movement. The first one to be freed was that male customer named Nakisuna.
“The hell do you think you’re doing!?”
He held a hand on his back and angrily approached the driver who had slowly started standing up.
“Were you taught not to say you’re sorry even if you kill someone? Don’t even try to call yourself a victim after what you’ve done. Are you even listening? You should be bowing down and begging for forgiveness!!”
Once Nakisuna grabbed the driver’s collar, the male employee named Kamimaki frantically started climbing over the counter.
However, none of us could have predicted the rusty iron smell we detected a moment later.
With a raw sound, the middle-aged driver bit violently into Nakisuna’s wrist.
At first, the man in a knit hat and sunglasses simply looked confused.
The sound of someone chewing through chicken cartilage followed.
The pain and fear must have risen within him as if to remind him this was real.
He instinctually pulled his hand back, but was that the right decision or not?
Doing so threw the middle-aged driver off balance, causing him to fall on top of Nakisuna. It looked like an embrace between old friends reunited at the airport.
But a moment later, a deafening scream erupted from them.
The driver bit in and tore away a huge chunk of flesh from a point closer to the neck than the shoulder. Feathers from the down jacket floated through the air, but they were dyed red.
Nakisuna yelled and desperately struggled, but it was no use. He only managed to drop his wallet and Kasha-chan ashtray from his pocket.
“B-bfah!? Abhbhbhbh!! Bhbbhbh!! Y-y-you…you…bbbbhbhbhbhbbhbhbhbhbhbbhb!?”
He wasn’t even speaking the human language anymore.
But Nakisuna wasn’t the only one.
Screams and shouts came from all around. Someone fell to the ground, but the others rushed toward the exit without even reaching out to help.
“H-help me!? Please help me!? What is going on!?”
That voice of tears and snot came from Nozaki-san the part-timer who was shaking her pale head. Akehara-san, the older employee who had been across the counter from Nakisuna, was beating on the male employee’s back, but when the man didn’t do anything, she clicked her tongue, moved her slender and stocking-covered legs, and walked out front herself.
Only then did my thoughts finally recover from their human camera mode.
I was urged into action more because I didn’t want to feel the guilt of letting the man die than because I felt the need to save him. I worked with the well-proportioned female employee in pumps to grab the middle-aged driver’s arms, wrap an arm around his waist, and try to forcibly pull him off.
I frowned when I felt an unpleasant stickiness, but I quickly realized that was the least of my worries.
“Wait…what!? He won’t budge!!”
“You’re kidding, right? Hey, you! Get off him! I said get off him!!”
It felt like playing tug-of-war against a forklift or power shovel. I was pulling hard enough that I thought a blood vessel in my head would burst, but he wouldn’t move a millimeter.
In fact, I was pulled toward him.
He ignored our efforts and took a step forward.
Akehara-san and I were swung around by the driver. Our legs gave out and we were dragged along the floor. Meanwhile, the driver leaned over Nakisuna who was lying face-up on the floor.
With a wet sound, the bloody smell grew stronger.
Nakisuna had been so noisy before, but now he was silent. His arms and legs were trembling unnaturally, but I doubted that was under his control.
Isn’t this really, really bad!?
This time, I grabbed his dry hair instead of his body, but it came right out. It made me shudder how easily it pulled out.
Still on the ground, I grabbed the notebook-sized e-book reader that had fallen nearby and hit the back of the driver’s head as he focused on moving his mouth. I heard a loud sound, but he didn’t react. I hit him again, this time with the corner instead of the flat surface, but he completely ignored me.
Wh-what is with this guy!?
A hit to the back of the head with the corner of a normal notebook would at least make your vision flash from the pain, and this was a harder and heavier piece of electronics!
That was when I heard a girl’s voice that sounded too gentle to belong in this scene.
“Hey, Shinobu-chan. I don’t know what’s going on, but should I help? It could be a joint effort powered by our love…just kidding.”
“If you think you can help, then do something!! What is this guy? Is he really human!? Are we sure he isn’t a Youkai that just really looks human!?”
It was possible I had overlooked the most basic concept here.
The bizarre sight of a human eating human flesh may have left my mind blank.
Otherwise, I never would have asked Nagisa of all people to help.
She held a shovel in her hands. It looked out of place in the cellphone store, so it may have been attached to the dump truck to help transfer dirt and gravel.
A moment later, I heard a dull sound.
She swung the shovel like a golf club and the heavy tip severed the driver’s neck.
My legs seemed to have turned to rubber.
She held the heavy shovel’s handle and spun it around like a baton. She skillfully controlled it even when moving her hands over her head or behind her back. It reminded me of a weapon in an online game I’d played. The weapon had looked like a cup on the end of a stick and had thrown a stone using centrifugal force. After building up power, it gave a roar.
The scene was so outlandish that it didn’t seem real. The man’s previous strength vanished, so Akehara-san and I tumbled backwards like the rope had broken in a game of tug-of-war. Then I heard a high-pitched scream reminiscent of shattering glass.
However, it was not in response to Nagisa decapitating someone.
Nor was it in response to the headless corpse falling on us.
We flipped the headless corpse off of us to see.
Even with the body cut away, the head continued to bite at Nakisuna’s neck.
The dull chomping and chewing sounds continued and signified that the teeth were now crunching through bone instead of flesh and blood. What was this thing? Now that I thought about it, there hadn’t been much blood. We hadn’t been soaked by a red fountain.
Finally, I heard a dull snapping sound.
After biting clean though Nakisuna’s flesh, the remaining head fell to the floor as if washed away by the red torrent of the living man. It rolled into a corner like a basketball, but I didn’t feel like checking to see if it was still moving.
“Wh-what the hell is this?”
Something right in front of my eyes had drowned out even Nagisa’s abnormality. It even overshadowed the fact that Nakisuna was lying utterly motionless on the floor.
“You’ve got to be kidding me. What the hell happened!?”
To distance myself from the situation, I had finally looked to the outside world beyond the completely shattered window. I was doing the same thing as the other customers who had already left.
And there I saw a colorful hell of reds and blacks.
To put it simply, none of those who had left were still around. To put it another way, that driver hadn’t been the only abnormal monster. Put those two together and you get this:
Someone was pinned down by multiple other people.
I could hear a sound much like someone biting through chicken cartilage with their back teeth.
Someone else was dragging around something soft while still alive.
There were no screams or yells.
Everyone was trying to get back inside, but the monsters grabbed at their arms or legs.
It was an orgy of violence filled with muddy eyes, red and purple skin, and pale white hair.
It covered the entire city. I doubted I could find a window that wasn’t broken. Cars had crashed into telephone poles and traffic lights and the screaming people inside were being dragged out by countless hands. The monsters weren’t all muscular macho men. The kid I had seen running around before and the old man who had been sitting on the bench were among them. Those normal people’s teeth weren’t exactly sharp, but that made them look all the more horrifying when bared.
I had no idea if anyone was inside it anymore but a costume of the local Kasha-chan mascot was torn and lying on the side of the road. The fact that even it was being trampled underfoot made me feel like I was viewing the demise of morality.
I didn’t have time to think about saving anyone or figuring out what to do.
It was already over, so I simply didn’t have time to think.
I could tell at a glance that I couldn’t save anyone by running out there.
And then countless eyes turned our way. The mouths and clothes of those emotionless figures were stained red. Akehara-san used both hands and leaned forward to shove aside the headless driver. Nozaki-san seemed to have been hiding somewhere until now, but she nervously showed up holding her shoes and a cloth pouch.
“K-Kamimaki-san, what should we do about locking the registers!?”
“What’s with that old lady’s pouch? …Don’t tell me it’s yours! And we need to lock this place up before worrying about the money! We can close the shutter to-…”
“Both of those can wait! We need to focus! This is no time to be worried about the business!!”
The argument between the nearby employees seemed so far away.
I subconsciously reached for my cellphone.
Only now did the obvious idea of calling the police come to mind.
“Hey, let’s get out of here.”
My thoughts were cut off when someone grabbed my shoulder.
Kamimaki-san had ditched the more polite speech of a clerk to a customer.
“We can call the police afterwards!! They’ll rush in here and kill us while we’re waiting for the police to show up! The metal shutter isn’t as tough as it sounds. It’ll break pretty easily if a few dozen people try to break it down. We’re sitting ducks if we stay here! We need to get somewhere safe!!”
“But where would be safe!?”
My trembling fingers operated the phone as I shouted back at the man.
I dialed the simplest three-digit number, but something wasn’t right.
It wouldn’t connect. It wasn’t getting through at all!
“How should I know? But we’re screwed if we hole up in this tiny building. Luckily, we have the dump truck here. Don’t you think we’d be better off escaping outside the city!?”
I could almost feel common sense crumbling away inside my mind, but it was obvious staying here would lead to the same fate as those who had gone outside.
“Let’s go with that. Can you drive!?”
“It’s basically a giant stick shift, right? I think it’s worth a try when the alternative is giving up!”
With that comment, time seemed to start moving once more.
While the dump truck was big, it couldn’t hold very many people. Only three at the most. Nagisa and I would let the store employees take those spots. We would instead climb into the back of the truck, where the gravel and dirt would normally be carried.
“Nagisa!! That’s fine with you, right? If we don’t hurry up, they’ll start pouring in here! So hurry up and-…!!”
I trailed off because something rose from the floor next to me.
It was Nakisuna whose neck had been eaten into down to the bone.
My mind went blank.
He got up only a few dozen centimeters away. It was hard to tell if his hair had changed color since his hair was dyed, but his eyes were muddy and his skin had darkened. His arms grabbed at my leg like a kid throwing a tantrum. If this was the same as before, then he was holding me with the same strength as a brown bear or grizzly bear. When I recalled how Nakisuna himself had been killed, intense rejection filled the back of my mind.
But that was when Nagisa’s shovel gave a roar.
The tip of the shovel stabbed into the seam where his neck bone was already visible. She placed her foot on the shovel and kicked him over. Then she placed her full weight on the heel pressing against the shovel.
With a dull snapping sound, the head rolled away like a ball.
Strength left the headless body and Nagisa shoved it away.
She then spoke to me, not looking any different from normal.
“Hurry up, Shinobu-chan.”
I realized just how insane, twisted, and wrong this all was.
But not because of how Nagisa was acting.
It was because this situation was making me glad to have her around.
As soon as the kotatsu was pulled out from the Jinnai house’s storage shed, it had become the Nekomata’s independent kingdom.
However, that Nekomata was now yawning grumpily and scratching her ear with her back paw a short distance from the kotatsu.
There was a simple reason: the Furutsubaki (Small) had holed up inside the kotatsu’s blanket.
When Shinobu’s Youkai-loving mother asked what was going on, the Furutsubaki (Small) had stuck just her head out and shouted at the top of her lungs with her cheeks puffed out.
“She ate my pudding!! It even had ‘Furutsubaki’ written on it in permanent ink!!”
“Hmm… But Furutsubaki could refer to two different Youkai in this house.”
“She did the same thing with the cookies, the chocolate, and the snow viewing popsicle!! She has to be getting it wrong on purpose. She always eats my stuff!!”
“Then why not write Furutsubaki (Small) next time?”
“And what is that small part referring to!? My height or my chest!? That’s an important distinction!!”
Shinobu’s mother was unfazed by the shrill complaints.
“You don’t have to worry about the pudding. I can make you some.”
“…You can make it?”
That must have touched at her heartstrings because Kotatsu Fortress Furutsubaki (Small) twitched in response.
“You can make pudding!? How!?”
“Heh heh heh. I grew up in a traditional Japanese restaurant, so I rebelled against my parents by learning how to make nothing but Western food.”
That said, the woman had only gained that Western bias after absorbing all the skills of a well established high-class restaurant in Kyoto, so she was clearly highly skilled. And after more or less eloping to marry into the Jinnai family, she had absorbed the skills of Shinobu’s grandmother as well.
“You can…you can make pudding?”
The Furutsubaki (Small)’s heart had had been shaken by this shocking truth, so she crawled a bit out from the kotatsu.
However, she soon came back to her senses.
“Ah!? No, no. I’m not mad because I can’t eat pudding. I’m mad because she stole my pudding! I won’t accept anything that doesn’t punish her!!”
“C’mon, that doesn’t really matter, does it?”
“It does! It really, really matters!!”
“C’mon, c’mon. Stay in that kotatsu and you’ll ruin your clothes. Do you really want that hair decoration to be all wrinkled once Shinobu gets back? Your kimono will be wrinkled too.”
The Furutsubaki (Small) finally fell silent and then crawled out from under the kotatsu.
“This doesn’t mean I’m not angry! I’m not moving from this spot until she’s been punished!!”
It looked like the area around the kotatsu was going to remain her territory after all. If Shinobu, the legendary Furutsubaki Meister, had been there, he could have driven her to ecstasy by listing off 100 good points about each of those two Youkai who were nearly indistinguishable, but the Nekomata was sick of it all and decided to leave the room for a while.
The floorboards were too cold to curl up on the veranda in November, and there was another commotion out in the yard anyway.
The Yuki Onna was hopping up and own with her hands in the air.
“It’s here. My season is finally here!! The first snow… My virgin snow!! Heh…eh heh heh…eh heh heh heh heh heh heh heh!!”
“Seriously? That explains why it’s been so cold today. Snow is such a pain when it accumulates…”
The Nekomata was really annoyed now, but the Yuki Onna was not listening.
“Keh heh heh. Yes, yes. I can feel my power growing… This is what it means to be a Yuki Onna. The summer heat was robbing me of half my charm before, but look at me now, Jinnai Shinobu! This is a true Yuki Onna!!”
“She’s at full power? Is she going to turn into a fully grown woman or something?”
The Yuki Onna’s small body began to glow and the glow soon grew to an explosion of light. A flash of light as bright as the sun lasted a few seconds.
The Yuki Onna was now even younger.
If Jinnai Shinobu had seen it, he probably would have covered his face with his hands.
The sleeves of her kimono had also changed to create snowflake cut-outs.
The Zashiki Warashi had come out after hearing the commotion, and she narrowed her eyes while giving her opinion.
“Which way are you trying to go?”
“Come to think of it, you had something of a chest during the summer, didn’t you? Don’t tell me the more power you get from the weather, the smaller you get.”
“But didn’t she get smaller when the hot bathwater weakened her? She melted a little.”
“So she shrinks when it’s hot and she shrinks when it’s cold? I can already imagine that lustful kid holding his head in his hands.”
The Yuki Onna’s white clothing was a symbol of virginity, so it was not altogether wrong for her to grow more virginal the more her power grew.
There were also stories of travelers inviting the Yuki Onna to take a hot bath, not knowing what she was, and then finding an icicle floating in the tub.
In other words, she could easily grow smaller whichever direction she went.
“Well, if she’s happy, I guess that’s all that matters.”
“It looks like a kind of curse to me.”
But as the other two Youkai were speaking…
The Zashiki Warashi’s gaze jumped upwards.
It was beginning to snow a little.
I heard occasional heavy clunking noises as the large dump trunk drove through the city that reeked of death. Nagisa and I were sitting in the large metal bucket on the back, so we couldn’t see what was going on outside. However, that may have been for the best.
I couldn’t see anything in the horizontal direction, but I could see a little bit when I looked upwards.
An old man on a building’s rooftop was burning a banner to call for help. The banner was advertising a winter festival, so the Kasha-chan was smiling and announcing that Shouryou City, Kumotsu City, and other partner cities around the country would be celebrating too.
I saw plenty of windows stained red by something on the inside.
Occasionally, a window would shatter and a bunch of violent white-haired figures would pour down like a waterfall.
There were even some living people who had lost all hope and jumped out on their own.
And that was only a small fraction of our surroundings. If I had a clear view of everything, it might have fried some kind of wiring inside me.
“It’s like a zombie movie…”
I heard a voice from my cellphone.
It belonged to Kamimaki-san in the driver’s seat. With some of us inside the truck and some of us outside, we couldn’t speak directly, so we were using our phones as transceivers. Instead of talking via a cellphone tower like normal, our phones were directly connected to each other. I think it was using the same service that wirelessly connects your phone to your printer. Yes, it was the same thing Ranzono Sachi had used during that Oomukade incident.
There was an incredibly simple reason we were using them that way.
Phone calls, emails, and even emergency calls to the police or firefighters weren’t working. Basically, anything that used the cellphone towers. Due to all this trouble, I hadn’t actually gotten a replacement phone or battery and I was a little worried about it overheating, but I had much bigger things to worry about.
“There are corpses everywhere. Some have been torn to pieces and others have gotten up after being eaten. I don’t know what’s going on, but it looks like the dead become one of them.”
Hearing that word almost made me laugh. The common sense governing this small world of mine had completely broken if I needed to use that word to plan for survival.
“What caused it doesn’t matter,” I said. “Someone else will look into it. Let’s leave that to the police and focus on getting out of the city. Staying here would be way too dangerous.”
“Agreed. But this definitely isn’t normal. I wonder if a Package related to some kind of Youkai is involved.”
Another vibration shook the truck.
I grimaced and leaned my back against the wall of the giant bucket.
I suppressed the urge to vomit.
It might have been a rural city, but an asphalt road would never be that bumpy. Then what was causing those vibrations? No one was worrying about the traffic lights and zombies were wandering around in search of prey, so what was it the dump truck’s tires were running over?
It wasn’t hard to figure out.
The dead were rising, zombies were flooding the streets, and human forms were devouring human flesh. I was focusing on all of that, but was it possible we had actually killed more people than anyone else in this city?
“What’s the matter, Shinobu-chan?”
“You don’t look well. If you’re worried about something, I might be able to help. …Hee hee. A couple is supposed to share their troubles and their joys.”
Nagisa was acting completely normal while embracing the bloody shovel like a stuffed animal.
What had made her like this?
My relationship with her had completely crumbled during middle school, but something else had more directly broken her.
“Don’t look so depressed. You didn’t do anything wrong. What? Did you want me to punch you or something?”
Her grandfather had said that to me.
Yes, that was it.
She had always had a St. Bernard with her. Like the Zashiki Warashi for me, that dog had been her partner since before she had even been born. But a pet was not the same as a Youkai. Even if the delicious food of an Intellectual Village allowed them to live a longer and happier life than normal, a dog would grow old in ten or fifteen years and they could even succumb to a variety of illnesses. Their motor functions could deteriorate, their organs could grow diseased, or they could come down with dementia or Alzheimer’s.
That St. Bernard’s final days had been especially bad. He apparently hadn’t been able to distinguish his owner of over a decade from a complete stranger. He couldn’t move very well, but he had bared his fangs and barked at anyone who came close. Even his family had to be careful when giving him his food or they would get bitten. That had apparently continued for quite a while.
But one night, he had been unable to get up inside his cage and he had continued drooling and barking without end. Nagisa had apparently approached him then.
The shriek that had followed had apparently been indelibly burned into her grandfather’s ears.
When Nagisa had returned, she had been covered in blood. That was the result of embracing the St. Bernard for a long, long time while he could not recognize her. She had been torn up from being bitten all over, but she had given a two word report with her expression frozen in place like ice: “It’s over.”
What had that felt like?
Saying that he wasn’t human was no consolation. He had been with her since the moment she was born, if not earlier, and she had to have completely taken his presence for granted. Even if he could not be spoken with, he was still a member of her family. What had it felt like to watch his life declining, see him do nothing but suffer, and then take his life with her own hands in the very, very end? The rest of her family had been unable to do it, but that girl had borne all the responsibility and been broken by it.
It would be a lot like me breaking that Good-for-Nothing Youkai’s neck.
“So it wasn’t your fault. It’s our fault that Nagisa started pursuing ‘eternal love’ and ‘unbreakable bonds’ like they were the mantra of some kind of cult. If you stay with Nagisa now, it really would wear down your life. No one will blame you if you leave her.”
After thinking through all that, I slowly shook my head.
I was fleeing reality in favor of my thoughts. My memories of Nagisa weren’t going to show me a way to survive this extreme situation. The only reason I was losing myself in those memories was to avoid facing the reality before my eyes.
“What do we do now?”
I didn’t want to stay in this city, so I was all for leaving. But would we really be safe then? Who ever said this disaster was limited to this one city?
Besides, the Intellectual Village we lived in was only a mountain away. If this had spread there, the situation could hardly be worse.
I had a phone, but I couldn’t reach them.
If I could only call the Zashiki Warashi’s smartphone and check to see if they were okay, I could lift one weight from my heart.
My thoughts were cut off again.
I heard a loud sound of clashing metal. The dump truck came to a sudden stop and both Nagisa and I were shaken around in the giant bucket. We ended up in a pile together. I could feel her soft body in my arms, but I focused on shouting into my phone.
“Th-this is Nozaki! Um, the way is blocked by crashed cars. A whole bunch of cars were abandoned after crashing. We tried to push through them with the dump truck’s power, but it isn’t working very well…”
“This is awful…”
The truck backed up and drove down a different road, but the situation gradually came into focus.
“Shinobu-chan, it looks like there are traffic jams on all the roads.”
“Of course there are. If a single car is stopped on the road, it stops everyone behind it.”
“Eh heh. But we’ll be fine. We know each other well enough to fight in the line at an amusement park.”
Things were awfully quiet for a traffic jam. I couldn’t hear any angrily honking horns or the rumbling of engines. The stillness of death hung over everything.
But that was hardly surprising. It was obvious what the zombies would do to the drivers once the cars came to a stop. The more victims there were, the more abandoned cars there were. Everyone would of course try to leave the city with this going on, so the routes out of the city had been the first to be blocked up by abandoned cars. The bridges and tunnels were probably impassable.
Even the heavy dump truck could not defy the prearranged layout of the roads. We couldn’t leave the roads and destroy the city as we went.
I could hear the three in the driver’s compartment arguing.
“What do we do!? Avoiding the traffic jams is fine, but aren’t we just circling around and around now!?”
“But we can’t just stop! There are zombies everywhere. If we stop, they’ll grab onto the truck!!”
“But we don’t have an unlimited supply of gas. Wh-what do we do?”
What to do now really was the million dollar question. The more we avoided the traffic jams and abandoned cars, the farther we moved from the city’s exits. But even if we tried to force our way out, not even this dump truck could keep moving while pushing aside all those cars. If we hit our limit and came to a stop, we would definitely be surrounded by zombies. But even if we drove around aimlessly, we would run out of gas and meet the same fate.
“Hey, Shinobu-chan. Maybe it would be best to find somewhere to hide before we run out of gas.”
“But where!? Schools and hospitals are covered in windows. If we holed up in there, the zombies could get in from just about anywhere!”
The dump truck was actually a decent fortress since it was a moving box and a moving weapon.
However, it would not last forever.
The routes out of the city were blocked off. If we just drove around inside the city, we would only be waiting until we ran out of gas.
I started to panic, but then I looked up into the sky.
“Hey, doesn’t Bozen City sometimes do that…what’s it called? That sport where you fly around with a giant propeller attached to a parachute-like thing! Para…um, para…what was it? Oh, damn. I thought of it not long ago.”
“Yes, that! Paragliding! I don’t know the details, though!!”
“Yes, there’s something like that at the mountain peak. Was it called the Dog Square? They have a facility that raises one or two hundred pedigree dogs. I believe it doubles as a paragliding airfield.”
“Do you have to bring your own machine or can you rent them?”
They all briefly fell silent.
Yes. Even if we couldn’t get out, as long as we could freely use the roads inside the city, we could drive up to the mountain peak. And if we escaped through the sky, we wouldn’t have to worry about the zombies biting at us.
“I don’t know, but it’s a better bet than waiting around for us to run out of gas.”
I heard the large tires tearing into the road and the dump truck changed direction.
We were on our way to the air route.
If this didn’t work, our situation was going to be hopeless indeed.
The dump truck drove along a mountain road.
Riding along that winding road in a giant truck was disconcerting enough, but it was also beginning to snow and we had neither tire chains nor studless tires.
Leaving the city center distanced us from the bloody hell of those damn zombies, so I stood up inside the bucket and checked on the outside world from above the side.
“With the weather like this, we might have been screwed if we’d taken half an hour longer to make up our minds,” said Kamimaki-san as he drove.
Unlike in the Intellectual Village, this mountain was not highly maintained. I had expected nothing but dense woods, but it looked like things were different here. I could see some occasional roofs along the slope.
“There are houses here,” I commented. “Why would they build them in such an inconvenient place?”
“Um, I’ve heard this was actually the original Bozen City.”
“Or maybe I should say that, in an older age, the height of your residence was directly linked to your social status in Bozen City. The social classes were arranged from the peak to the base. The base has been developed more in recent years for transportation and the other services, but real estate, banks, and other important stores are still built on the mountain.”
That was enough to depress me.
If there were a ton of people on the mountain, then there could be zombies here too.
I was thinking about that, but Nagisa seemed to be thinking about something else entirely.
“But in that case, why is that Dog Square place at the very peak, Shinobu-chan?”
“The peak of the mountain would be the best spot, right? So I would have expected to find a castle or mansion there.”
It was admittedly strange, but the local data on this neighboring town didn’t matter right now. We needed to focus on how to survive these zombies.
“I’d like to get to the peak before the snow really starts piling up,” said Kamimaki-san as the dump truck started across a metal bridge over a valley.
“Shinobu-chan, do you know how to fly a paraglider?”
“I don’t want to think about it. We can only pray it’s easier than riding a unicycle.”
“Eh heh heh. If we’re going to do it, we should ride one together. Do they call that riding tandem? You can be below and I’ll be on top. I’ll be on your lap like this.”
She seemed happy with anything as long as it involved romance.
I breathed a sigh at her overall happiness, but then explosions occurred at the base of the bridge’s legs.
The bridge began to fall, starting from the back.
In this short time, I’d come to understand something.
No matter how unreasonable the situation and even if you didn’t know who was responsible, you still wanted to complain.
“Bwah!? Wh-what the hell is this!? Why would you do that!?”
The dump truck shook violently.
Someone had likely covered explosives in adhesive and dangled them down on ropes to stick them in place. Only the back of the bridge had been blown up, but the damage created differences in height along the rest of the bridge too. It was falling. It was being swallowed up by the bottom of the valley. An extra large tremor ran through the truck, so I guessed Kamimaki-san had floored it. It sounded like the engine was going to burn out and the 10+ ton mass raced along the newly sloped bridge.
We just barely made it.
As soon as the truck reached the opposite end of the valley, the bridge completely fell away.
“What do you think that was!?” asked Kamimaki-san.
“If they were targeting us, they would have placed the bomb in the middle of the road instead of on the bridge,” I answered. “Maybe they were trying to close the castle gates so none of the zombies can get in from the city at the base of the mountain.”
“Hmm. In that case, Shinobu-chan…”
“I don’t know where they came from, but the area up here might still be safe.”
Part of that assumption was the fact that my heart couldn’t bear the alternative.
“We can’t exactly complain when we’ve been running right through all the red lights with this dump truck, but it’s hard to believe they’re already doing this,” said Akehara-san. “They’re willing to use explosives to stay alive, and they’re willing to block the route to anyone else who might need to escape. The zombies might not be all we have to worry about. If we don’t do something soon, we won’t be able to trust any humanoid creatures we-…”
She trailed off because the large dump truck gently braked in the middle of the mountain road.
We were just approaching a large thatch-roof house built to be buried in the greenery.
I could see outside by peering over the bucket’s walls, but I couldn’t see straight ahead because the driver’s compartment was even taller.
“Why did we stop?” I asked.
“There are a few metal drums lying in the way. …They aren’t more bombs, are they?”
“No, wait. Wait!! Kamimaki-san, back up now!!”
“They aren’t bombs! Oh, honestly. They were meant to make us stop the-…!!”
It happened before she could finish.
With the sound of splitting air, orange sparks scattered from the bucket’s side wall.
At first I couldn’t figure out why lightning had struck so nearby, but my mind slowly caught up and sent a chill out to my body.
“If you don’t want to die, then get out of there! Hand over the truck and we won’t kill you!!”
“Yes! Someone finally drove by. We’re saved! Now we can reach the paragliders at the peak. That thread of hope is ours!!”
Four or five men and women came out of hiding. They may have shared a box because they all held identical cigarettes in their mouths. There was a fairly steep slope just beyond the guardrail and they had apparently been hiding at that cliff-like point waiting for a vehicle to drive by.
Were they from the house right nearby? Or were they someone else entirely?
“You, blond boy in the back there!! You get out too. That leaves you with more of a chance than being shot and dumped on the road.”
I raised my hands when they aimed my way using a hunting rifle with a wooden stock.
I couldn’t make careless eye contact and I had to keep my thoughts silently in my head.
She was sitting next to me in the giant bucket and rubbing her cheek against my thigh. She and her knit kitty nurse outfit were completely hidden from view, so no one had noticed that extreme yandere girl was there.
Her fingertips left my leg and she started to grab the shovel next to her instead. I placed a foot on the shovel’s handle as an unseen sign that she should stop. Then I obeyed the ambushers’ instructions and got out of the dump truck.
Akehara-san, Kamimaki-san, and Nozaki-san left the driver’s seat and passenger’s seat at about the same time. It didn’t look like the ambushers were after money because they didn’t show any interest in Akehara-san’s earring or Nozaki-san’s cloth pouch.
Strangely, the homemade weapon made by wrapping barbed wire around a metal bat seemed much more ominous than the hunting rifle.
I gulped and asked a question.
“Why are you doing this?”
“Look in the mirror and you’ll understand. The only difference is whether we tried everything we could to survive or not.”
“How much do you know about the zombies? What are they!?”
“Let me ask you this: would you tell us if our situations were reversed?”
Black-haired Kamimaki-san forced out his voice despite the corner of his mouth convulsing a little.
“P-please wait. The back of the truck can probably hold a dozen people. I’ll give you the key and I don’t care who’s in the driver’s seat, but you have no real reason to leave us here!”
“I don’t know what you’ve done to get this far, but did you take on even one extra survivor in that time?”
“This is the same. It isn’t about how many people will fit. How long will this zombie panic continue? How much food and water will we have? How many weapons and shields will we have? The more people we have, the more people will screw up and turn into zombies. And we don’t even know how many paragliders there are at the peak. So what possible reason do we have for picking up more living people?”
In this world, you had to weigh a human life against that word.
Even something as basic as stopping on the red light and crossing on the green light seemed horribly distant now.
“There you have it. We’ll leave you here, but we won’t kill you. We won’t do anything as sleazy as bring just the girls with us either. Not because we have a conscience left, though. Because we don’t have time to get sidetracked with something like that. Oh, but you can still try to reach the peak without the truck. And if there are any paragliders left after we’ve escaped, then you might be able to escape too.”
That was when I spotted something incredibly unpleasant out of the corner of my eye: Nagisa.
That girl poked her head above the bucket wall to peer out.
What is she doing?
Immediately, my thoughts seemed to explode into a million pieces.
She hadn’t been swinging her shovel around beheading people because they were zombies.
She placed all seven billion people on this planet into one of four categories: Enemy, ally, not interested, and extreme love. The zombies had fallen into the “enemy” category for her. Then what about these people trying to steal our dump truck…no, these people aiming weapons at Jinnai Shinobu?
I could tell sweat was pouring from my body.
We had hardly been in the clear before, but this would definitely step completely out of bounds.
But even as I started breathing heavily, the situation had progressed far further than I could have imagined.
Nagisa grinned and pointed her slender finger into the distance.
A moment later, I heard a dull sound and a chunk of flesh was bitten out of the hunting rifle man’s shoulder.
His eyes opened to the limit at this sudden pain. Meanwhile, time continued to pass. I heard a wet sound. I saw white hair, muddy eyes, and purple skin. A monster with chunks of flesh missing from his side and thigh similarly chewed on someone else’s flesh.
It was a zombie.
Five or six of them had suddenly appeared from a nearby thicket on the wall-like slope. No, there were still more. I could hear rustling from within.
…Hm? They came from the slope?
“Agfwah!? Wh-what? B-b-b-but the bridge was… There shouldn’t be any zombies here ye-…bgweh!!”
His voice grew distorted at the end, but not because a zombie had bitten through his windpipe.
One of his own companions had used a metal bat wrapped in barbed wire to smash the bitten man’s head in.
“We’re not wasting our time with a guy we know’s turning into a zombie,” he spat out. “More importantly, we need that rifle!! We need to push them back from-…!!”
He too trailed off.
Just like in a movie or a drama, someone else had kicked away the rifle that had fallen to the road.
The bat man looked up and the cigarette fell from his open mouth.
It was refreshing-looking Kamimaki-san. The trembling young man was backing up while nearly falling backwards. He was trying to get as far away as possible.
But from what?
From the white-haired zombies of course.
Who became the next target was determined by who did and didn’t move during the next few seconds.
“Bhah!? Gah!! You…you piece of…!!”
Swarming purple flesh, a human form swallowed up, chewing sounds, and a single arm writhing through the air. While still trembling and moving back, Kamimaki-san repeated the same thing over and over like a magic spell.
“I didn’t kill him, I didn’t kill him!!”
The bat man had only been thinking about getting the rifle and pushing back the zombies, so he hadn’t thought about how he would escape.
All that remained was a hellish scene of screams. I had no clue where they all came from, but more and more white-haired zombies jumped out toward the ambushers. Their weapons actually seemed to have worked against them. They briefly stopped to decide between fight and flight, but if they had turned tail and run without hesitation, they might have escaped without being bitten.
“H-hurry! We need to get out of here!! Onto the truck! Hurry!!”
Kamimaki-san shouted to us while grabbing for the dump truck’s driver’s side door.
I heard a solid sound.
And then a slight voice of surprise.
Before Kamimaki-san could even open the door, a dry-haired zombie seemed to embrace him. He didn’t even have time to scream before it bit into his shoulder. A powerful stench of blood scattered as his flesh was torn by familiar human teeth rather than a mechanical blade or bestial fangs.
Akehara-san with her chestnut hair tied back grabbed the barbed wire bat with her neatly manicured fingers and swung it around with all her might. The first blow knocked off the zombie’s right arm, the second collided with Kamimaki-san’s shoulder, and the third struck the zombie’s head.
With the sound of a rotten watermelon being crushed, the shape of that head greatly changed. White hair scattered around, the shape of the purple jaw crumbled, and Kamimaki-san’s shoulder was finally released.
The zombie continued to walk around, so she managed to drag Kamimaki-san and his reddened pale green uniform away.
The dump truck was a lost cause now.
“It doesn’t matter where!! We just need to escape to somewhere, Nagisa!!”
“Hee hee. I’ll go anywhere you tell me, Shinobu-chan.”
A single form nimbly jumped down from the dump truck bucket.
A few of the zombies seemed to notice her, but she was faster.
I heard the shovel give a roar and then heard a number of impacts. Sometimes she intentionally shook the shovel in front of them, swept their feet out from under them when they bit at it, and swung the shovel down into the back of their head to smash it open. Sometimes she swung the shovel to smash their knees, pressed the metal tip against their neck when they collapsed, placed her heel on the shovel, and severed the neck. Nozaki-san seemed caught off guard as she held her cloth pouch in her arms.
“I-if she can do all that, couldn’t we leave it all to her?”
That was when I heard the sound of something thick breaking.
The shovel’s handle had broken near the front and flown into the distance with the metal part attached.
Nagisa looked at the broken wood and threw the remaining handle aside.
“It came off. Looks like that’s as much as I can do.”
It was all a complete mess.
We ran with all our might while supporting Kamimaki-san whose shoulder flesh had been bitten away. The only nearby shelter was the thatch-roof house by the road. The one piece of luck was how almost all of the zombies were busy devouring the flesh of the ambushers. At any rate, we ran inside the old house with Nagisa and Akehara-san. We weren’t in any state to even think about removing our shoes.
We quickly locked the door from the inside, but how much would that really help?
The sliding door did not seem anywhere near as reliable as an apartment door. I had a feeling it would be knocked from its rails right away even when locked.
“What…what are we supposed to do?”
This was not a fortress of bricks. It had paper sliding doors, glass windows, and wooden rain shutters. Zombies aside, even I probably could have kicked my way into the house.
Once the gore scattered on the road was gone, they would definitely come here, so what could we do in the meantime?
“Oh, my☆” said Nagisa as she viewed the items hanging on the hallway walls. “Look, Shinobu-chan, there’s hunting gear all over the place.”
In addition to umbrellas and straw raincoats, there were ropes and wooden frames worn on the back to help carry things. When I looked closer, I even found something like a 150 centimeter square cage. It had a large entrance and it was made to drop a guillotine.
It was a bear-hunting cage.
“Does that mean they have hunting gear made to kill bears?”
That hunting rifle may have come from this house.
Meanwhile, Nagisa grabbed something from the wall like she was window shopping.
“Oh, this is cute. What do you think, Shinobu-chan? Does it suit me? Hee hee…”
It was a cattle cleaver.
As the name suggested, it was a thick blade used to cut a giant cow into individual pieces. A normal machete would only be thirty to forty centimeters long, but this was almost as long as a Japanese sword. And given the thickness of the blade, it had to weigh more than a sword.
The name printed at the base was Namagusa. It was an archaic term for killing and meat-eating, making it an ironic name for a zombie killer.
She had done so well with the shovel, so what would happen if she wielded that specialized cattle cleaver?
The zombies weren’t my only worry. I needed to keep an eye on Nagisa’s actions too.
“More importantly, did you see a first-aid kit anywhere?”
Sexy Akehara-san cut in while touching her earring, perhaps as a habit that helped calm her.
“Kamimaki-san’s wound is bleeding more than I expected! We need to stop the bleeding!!”
That gave us a task to focus on.
We had no ideas on how to fortify ourselves here or to escape, so this may have been something like reading a manga you found while cleaning your room.
We checked the shelves in the living room and other rooms, but didn’t find anything. It was possible those ambushers had taken the first aid kit with them. We ended up compromising by grabbing a towel, some cloths, and a bundle of old Japanese paper and then laying Kamimaki-san on the floor.
He was bleeding more than I had thought.
Akehara-san had been right.
I didn’t know what a “pallid complexion” specifically referred to, but this may have been it. A muddy yellow seemed to be seeping out from below his nearly white skin. His hair color didn’t look right either. It was rapidly drying out and losing its color. His breathing was shallow and his eyes were wandering lazily, but he was sweating quite profusely.
“A-anyway…anyway, we’ll stop the bleeding now! Kamimaki-san, stay strong and don’t you go to sleep!!”
Akehara-san called out to him again and again and pressed the towel and cloths against his shoulder…well, actually more like his neck. They rapidly grew red, so he might have really been in trouble. I knew how to disinfect a wound and close it up with a bandaid or bandage, but there was nothing I could do beyond that. If it needed to be sewn up, what were we supposed to do?
Kamimaki-san spoke with sweat pouring from his brow, but he didn’t seem to be feeling pain anymore.
His unfocused eyes wandered aimlessly, his voice was feverishly weak, and he did not seem to be speaking to anyone in particular.
“I’m scared. I’m afraid of becoming like that and of having my heart crushed by the fear. Either way, I’ll turn into a monster. So…”
“No! No!! I won’t let that happen!!”
Akehara-san continued pressing against the wound and shouted as if to hold back the blood with her voice. She was so worked up that her hair began to fray.
Meanwhile, Nagisa was pouring the contents of an electric water boiler into a small teapot.
She unconcernedly pointed toward the papers placed on the tatami mats.
“Look at this, Shinobu-chan.”
“Wh-what!? This really isn’t the time…”
“But it says something interesting.”
She was referring to one of the things we had gathered to use in place of bandages: the bundle of Japanese paper I had grabbed.
The serpentine writing was hard to read, but a few points were just barely legible.
“It says ‘Kasha’, Shinobu-chan.”
The first thing that came to mind was local Kasha-chan mascot I had seen on the strap, torn costume, and banner for the winter festival back in the city at the base of the mountain.
But what kind of Youkai had it originally been?
I started tilting my head in thought, but then I realized something.
It wasn’t just the old piece of paper Nagisa was pointing at.
The hanging scroll on the wall, the folding screen in a corner of the room, and the scroll in a picture frame all depicted the Kasha.
What I had grabbed seemed to have originally been a traditionally-bound book, so I checked the hard paper cover.
What does this say? Kasha Evil Sealing Festival, maybe?
After the trouble I had reading old kanji back at Zenmetsu Village, I had studied up on it a bit. This seemed to be some kind of manual, but I couldn’t actually read the contents.
I looked to the hanging scroll and folding screen instead.
The images were drawn in a flat style very different from the Western style of perspective. It depicted flames, wind, skeletons, a round bucket, and what looked like a black shadow dancing on the roof. It was a very disconcerting image. It reminded me of a caricature of the grim reaper spreading the plague in Europe that I had seen in my history textbook.
And as I stared at it, something in the back of my mind was gradually stimulated.
Wasn’t it…yes, it was a Youkai that steals corpses from funerals and graves. No, it possesses the corpses and…huh? Did it control them? I can’t quite remember the details, but I know it did something bad with corpses. Except I don’t think just any corpse would do. Didn’t it steal only the corpses of sinners? Since having a corpse stolen by the Kasha would bring shame to the family, I think they had some kind of charm that prevented it from ruining the funeral. I think it looked something like a burning cat, but did it really?
It stole corpses.
It moved corpses.
“Could these zombies be connected to that Youkai?”
“There’s one other thing,” said Nagisa as she poured tea into the matching teacups meant for a husband and wife. “It says ‘Mikuchi-sama’ here, but it’s mentioned like a place name. …Ugh, this is second flush tea. Well, I suppose it could be worse while outside of an Intellectual Village. But you might be fine since you like your coffee black, Shinobu-chan. Eh heh heh.”
I didn’t think that was a Youkai. I’d certainly never heard of it before.
I followed Nagisa’s gaze to select one of the scattered pieces of Japanese paper. It seemed to be an old document written with brush and black ink. Something like underground water veins were wriggling across a cross-section of Bozen City’s mountain. That looked several centuries old, but some sort of clear film had been placed over it. The newer writing on top of that looked quite modern and included the word Kasha.
What if these aren’t underground water veins? What if they’re hand-dug tunnels?
There were still a lot of mysteries surrounding where the zombies had originally come from. I had assumed they had appeared in the city at the base and gradually made their way up the mountain from there, but they had been walking around the mountain even after the bridge had been blown up.
But what if this was where they had come from?
What if they came from deep within the mountain? What if the original zombies had appeared from the countless tunnels filling the mountain like an ant colony?
Earlier the zombies had appeared from a thicket growing on the wall-like slope, so couldn’t there have been a cave entrance hidden by that tall grass?
What is this Mikuchi-sama?
“That doesn’t matter.”
My thoughts were cut off by a female voice that seemed to carry a curse.
It was Akehara-san’s and a few strands of her frayed hair had fallen into her mouth.
“There’s someone! Right here!! That we might be able to help!! So none of that other stuff matters! Hurry up and help already!!”
I heard the sliding door opening and saw Nozaki-san walk in.
Akehara-san naturally snapped at her too.
“What do you think you’re doing!? You’re always manipulating Kamimaki-san and being nothing but a nuisance! But when you can actually help him, all you do is wander around with that granny’s pouch!? Don’t you want to repay him for what he’s done for you!?”
Nozaki-san’s response was slightly delayed. It was a subtle thing, like the sound cutting out of an online video for a fraction of a second, but it dangerously scorched my nerves for some reason.
Afterwards, Nozaki Haru spoke with a dull light in her eyes.
“Oh. Are you two still alive?”
Akehara-san’s mouth flapped silently, but it did not seem to bother Nozaki-san. In fact, she pulled something from her cloth pouch and sprinkled its contents onto Akehara-san’s head.
Is that a Kasha-chan…ashtray?
“That should do it. How about you quit trying to dress up your ugliness? This suits you better, don’t you think?”
“Bweh! Cough, cough!! What the hell are you-…!?”
I thought Akehara-san was going to explode, but I was wrong.
The great energy created by a wave of people crashed into her. The sliding screen wall behind Nozaki Haru was torn to shreds as countless red and purple hands burst through!
I screamed and Nagisa grabbed my hand while holding the huge cattle cleaver called Namagusa.
Of course, the one caught most off guard was Akehara-san as she tried to grab at Nozaki Haru.
She was grabbed, grabbed, grabbed and gouged, gouged, gouged with nails, nails, nails.
“Bhrabgweh!? Dbah!? Ah! Why!? You…bgweah!?”
She tried to grab Nozaki-san, but the most she managed was knocking off the hairpin in the girl’s bangs.
The zombies showed no mercy.
Her hair, her earring, and the stockings covering her slender legs were all ruined. First, the countless hands pulled her to the ground and she vanished among all the flesh. Kamimaki-san could barely move on the tatami mats, so it was obvious what fate awaited him with so many predators here. Neither of them screamed, but that had to be because their windpipes had been torn out. Only the sounds of chewing remained.
Nozaki Haru alone stood in that red and purple hell like a clownfish living symbiotically with a sea anemone. Her bangs hung down toward the thin, thin smile on her face.
I must have looked like I had seen something truly unbelievable.
“You…called these zombies here yourself!?”
“Oh? Is that really so surprising? Akehara-san already did the same thing.”
I had no idea what she meant as she stood there holding her cloth pouch.
“Think back to when Kamimaki-san was bitten. Just as he tried to open the truck’s door, he stopped moving like something had caught and only then was he attacked. And these days, you can lock a vehicle’s door without sticking the key in. You only have to press the button on the key.”
“Someone locked the door in the confusion. Akehara-san was messing with the headless driver’s body, so she could easily have found a spare key. I doubt she expected those people with the rifle would attack us, but she probably thought it was her chance.”
But that didn’t make sense.
If Akehara Ritsu had intentionally gotten Kamimaki-san bitten, why had she acted so worried about stopping the bleeding afterwards? I had a hard time believing that was all an act.
“Think about it the other way around.”
“There were two girls and one guy. Whether in a band or as roommates, that’s bound to lead to fights. And it was obvious she had feelings for him. But what if he wasn’t interested? And then this incredibly exploitable zombie panic came along. What would she do if she wanted to make him hers no matter what it took?”
That was her motive.
That was her reason for throwing a living human to the zombies.
That was why she had taken the contradictory actions of getting him bitten and then hurrying to stop the bleeding.
She had wanted to create a minimally injured and stable zombie to tame.
“Hee hee. Come to think of it, do you remember what she said when searching for the first-aid kit, Shinobu-chan?” asked Love Monster Nagisa while holding the sword-like cattle cleaver. “She said he was bleeding more than she expected. I wonder how much she was planning for.”
“This is insane!!”
“Yes, it is. Do you have any idea what it feels like to be stuck between people whose heads are boiling with thoughts of love and romance and to have her constantly calling me a whore or a thief from the back of the store? Kamimaki-san? Who cares about him? Akehara-san? She needed to shut up and stop trying to hide her aging looks behind makeup!! She was like an animal in heat that just won’t shut up! She couldn’t make sense of anything if it didn’t relate to romance, like she lived in some cheap love song! She can live in that tiny world if she wants, but don’t drag me into it!! There are so many more important things in life. This cloth pouch was my dead grandmother’s treasure! And she mocked it day in and day out!! Who does that bitch think she is!?”
Akehara Ritsu had been insane, but what about Nozaki Haru who had punished her?
The people who had blown up the bridge or attacked the dump truck may have been the same. Their frustrations may have been building up little by little and the zombie panic had simply broken the dam in their hearts.
At any rate, only one thing was filling her mind now.
“Your revenge is over. So what are you going to do with us?”
She had crossed a line.
The gears had broken, so she tilted her unscathed head with her bangs hanging emptily down among the zombies.
“To be honest, I don’t care about you, but these things will attack and eat you either way. I can’t control them.”
“!? Th-then how did you…!?”
“Hee hee. Do you really think I’d tell you?”
After that rejection, the bloody monsters all turned toward us.
I would sometimes watch online rented movies with the Zashiki Warashi. When watching zombie ones, something always seemed strange to me, even if it was crass to point it out.
The zombies of course had no intelligence.
But how did they distinguish living humans from their fellow zombies?
If they couldn’t tell, a zombie panic wouldn’t last long. If you hid for a while, the zombies would simply devour each other. The zombies, being zombies, wouldn’t know how to hide, so they would be the first ones attacked while standing in the middle of the road.
However, that wasn’t what happened.
Zombies would surround and devour a single victim, but they never began cannibalizing each other once they gathered.
There had to be something.
They couldn’t speak, they couldn’t read, and they weren’t smart enough to track their prey using footprints and broken twigs. Even so, they would accurately search out people hiding behind cover or survivors lying among a pile of corpses. How did they do it?
Zombies didn’t actually exist.
Even a perfect recreation of the “true legends” from Haiti and Voodoo would not create the kind of zombies seen in movies. They were something else entirely.
So my hypothetical could only rely on currently existing creatures.
What had the Zashiki Warashi and I concluded while lying around munching on popcorn and sipping at sodas?
I remember now.
A dull sound rang out.
Just before the countless zombies attacked us like a great wave, I had kicked forward the matching teacups at my feet. They were the ones Nagisa had unconcernedly poured tea into despite the life or death situation.
Nozaki covered her face with her hands, but it didn’t matter much with a liquid. It covered most of her head and she shouted more in surprise than anything.
The eyes behind her hanging bangs were burning with rage.
“But what is that supposed to accomplish!? That won’t change any-…!!”
She trailed off.
The white-haired zombies squirming around her were acting odd. They had two obvious targets in Nagisa and me, but they were clearly having trouble deciding who to attack.
Did it work?
“Yeah, hot water wouldn’t change anything. But that stuff was a little different. Although Nagisa didn’t seem to like the flavor of that tannin-rich second flush tea!!”
“It can’t be…”
“Smell!! I shouted to answer it all. “Most animals search for food using their sense of smell!! You must have checked on it at some point. I don’t know if they consider it a fellow zombie or just not of interest, but it seems they don’t attack any flesh giving off the stench of decomposition!!”
Based on the timing, it had likely been after we reached this thatch-roof house. While we had searched for the first-aid kit, Nozaki Haru had vanished. She had likely had her doubts already and then used the zombies devouring the ambushers as her first and final test.
If people had been living in this home until today, then she would have easily found something rotting in the kitchen garbage.
And if a rotting smell acted as the brakes, then a cigarette smell must have acted as the accelerator. The ashes she had dumped on Akehara-san’s head had not just been to provoke her. It was often said babies would swallow cigarettes because of the size and shape, but one theory said it was also a reaction to the stimulant effect.
In the exchange between the bat man and Kamimaki-san, the zombies had gathered around the bat man who had been smoking. Nakisuna had been the very first one attacked and he had been the only person smoking in that no-smoking lobby. It had nothing to do with distance or hostility. The zombies had been drawn by the smell and had set their priority there. They would attack anyone, but they started with the ones giving off the smell of a stimulant like tobacco.
From that very first attack, the theory must have slowly solidified in Nozaki Haru’s head.
A closer look at the Kasha-chan ashtray showed it was the one Nakisuna had used.
When Akehara-san had yelled at her before we left the shop, she had changed her shoes too.
“Between the accelerator and the brake, the brake seems to take precedence. Once that smell vanishes, what will happen to you? Conveniently, tea has a deodorizing effect. And the second flush tea Nagisa dislikes has even more tannin than usual. It could easily throw off the perfect balance you’d been keeping!!”
The zombies all turned toward the center of their group.
They turned toward the closest target of all: Nozaki Haru.
She pulled what looked like a bottle of perfume from her treasured cloth pouch, but it was too late.
Her short, slender body was swallowed up into the center of that crazed scene of red, purple, and muddy white.
Her hands swam through the air like a drowning man grabbing at straw and the perfume bottle fell to the floor and rolled.
If we could only get our hands on that!!
A gust of wind whipped through the room.
The heavy cattle cleaver named Namagusa fell to the tatami mats. It stabbed into a zombie’s toes and then the bottom of the handle slammed into the zombie’s jaw once it lost its balance. Zombies couldn’t hold their ground well to begin with, so it somersaulted backwards and crashed into the group behind it. Yes, zombies did not cannibalize each other. Nagisa used the time this bought to raise the cattle cleaver as high as she could to use the height difference for a powerful attack, even if it mean leaving her body unguarded. The long tail swayed. I stayed low and ran through the gap in the carnage to grab the perfume bottle from the tatami mats.
I turned around to find Nagisa about to be swallowed up by the zombies.
Even when she decapitated them, the bodies continued walking. The head seemed to be what made the decisions, but the bodies were still in the way. And as she kicked them out of the way, some more fully-functioning zombies had rushed in.
I guess not even Nagisa can push back a dozen or so zombies!!
I didn’t have time to worry about safety measures.
I felt a squeezing in my heart, but I had to act now.
“Dammit!! Catch, Nagisa!!”
I threw the perfume bottle.
I could clearly feel the thread of hope leaving my fingers.
I was also in the middle of the group of white-haired zombies, so I knew exactly what would happen to me without the smell solution that Nozaki Haru had found.
“Come and get me!! I’ll kill every last one of you!!”
I had no actual weapon. I only reached out and grabbed the electric water boiler as I yelled at them. I knew there was no saving me, but I at least wanted to reduce the number of zombies heading Nagisa’s way.
Ha ha. Being an ex-boyfriend is a strange thing.
Our paths could never cross again. We couldn’t go back to being friends. We had no more of a connection than strangers. Even if we could repeat the past, we would never try dating again.
I would still irresponsibly want her to be happy!
Time seemed to stop.
Countless crazed and muddy gazes stabbed into me.
Dull sounds rang out through the room.
The festering smell of blood filled the depths of my lungs.
I saw reds mixed with blacks and purples.
The violence seemed to encroach on the area beyond death.
I blankly watched the overwhelming scene while collapsed on the floor.
It had arrived so suddenly, and I called its name.
A red storm answered me.
She held a branch cutter made from an opening and closing blade attached to the end of a long stainless steel rod. It swung around like a spear as it stabbed into the chests and heads of the zombies, tore through their insides, ripped them apart, and severed the strings of those marionettes. Nagisa had been pretty impressive with the shovel and cattle cleaver, but the Zashiki Warashi took it to the next level.
One of the zombies bit at her arm, but there was no sign of blood on the Good-for-Nothing Youkai’s slender arm. Physical attacks were useless against Youkai. She swung her arm around, smashing the zombie’s head open against a nearby column. Dry white hair scattered everywhere.
She had literally superhuman strength and an immortal body that could not be harmed.
She was the natural enemy of zombies.
I don’t think that red storm lasted even ten minutes. That was all it took for that seemingly unbeatable swarm of zombies to collapse to the floor and stop moving.
“That should about do it,” said the Zashiki Warashi with the branch cutter resting on her shoulder.
I didn’t understand.
“How did…you get here?”
“I walked. Even if it’s across the mountain, this is only the next town over.”
“Not that! How did you find out about the zombie panic? And even if you knew about that, how did you know we were in this house!?”
“Who was it that changed history to give me back my power during the Aoandon incident? With the power of the Hyakki Yakou Prototype Ver. 39 Zashiki Warashi, I can easily sense my family’s danger and remove that danger. I may not like it, but a Zashiki Warashi protects the good fortune of her family.”
“A-are you saying you never got involved in the past incidents because your gears as a Zashiki Warashi were broken?”
“Shinobu, is there any point in discussing an alternate timeline? Although to be honest, that way was a lot easier for me.”
She really did sound annoyed, but I finally managed to breathe a sigh of relief.
I grabbed the cloth pouch from the floor. Nozaki had called her grandmother’s treasure. She had let go of it, so it had fortunately not been stained with blood.
The zombies were dangerous and I wanted to get out of this city as soon as possible, but the winds were changing. I had Nagisa and her cattle cleaver (even if she was difficult to deal with) and I had the Zashiki Warashi who might as well have all the cheat codes activated. This was like being given a flamethrower and Gatling gun with infinite ammo in a zombie movie where you had done nothing but be chased the entire time. Or maybe it was more like summoning a demon from a grimoire after only having a knife and handgun to fight the swarm of zombies.
It was possible we could actually keep moving forward while sweeping all the zombies out of the way.
“Nagisa, are you okay? You weren’t hurt just now, were you?”
In the instant I looked away from the Zashiki Warashi to speak to Nagisa, it hit me.
Not even I knew why the thought came to me.
We had no idea what turned people into zombies. We only had a vague idea that people who were bitten or killed became a zombie.
This seemed to involve the Kasha, which was said to steal or move the corpses of sinners so they would vanish from their funeral or grave. I couldn’t remember the exact rules, though.
But what if the rules were focused on moving the dead? What if the important factor was being dead and not being bitten by the zombies?
What kind of Youkai was a Zashiki Warashi again?
She was a collection of the babies killed by their parents during famines and the like.
In that case, she counted as being “dead” from the beginning.
What if that created a security hole that matched the conditions for being controlled by the Kasha without being bitten by a zombie?
I could not turn around.
I could not look back.
If that was the case, this could not be worse. It would be the worst of the worst case scenarios! The human zombies were more than enough of a threat, so all was lost if a zombie was made out of something that was immune to blades and bullets and could freely control human destiny in the form of good and bad fortune. There would be nothing we could do. She would become the worst and greatest monster of them all!
So I begged for it to not be true.
I begged that I was worrying over nothing.
I seemed to be praying to god as I begged so very, very, very hard in my heart, but then a sweet-smelling breath blew into my ear.
A moment later, I heard something.
It sounded like the growling of a large beast.