The sky was even redder now. The streets were filled with distorted creatures as a result of self-propagation. Too much division had caused them to become disfigured. A dog with its jaw almost falling off turned its gaze toward Mayuzumi. It leapt from the wall and sprinted down the road, but a goldfish met it and kissed its distorted forehead. There was a gurgling sound, and the dog vanished instantly. After drinking the blood and ink, the goldfish grew bigger. A second later, it spat everything it had swallowed onto the road. It didn’t want foreign substances in a body made of a god’s blood. Maintaining its pure red color, the goldfish flicked its fins.
Shirayuki moved her brush. She painted the word “wolf” on the road, and two lean beasts appeared, their hard coats of fur rippling. The wolves guarded me and Mayuzumi.
Mayuzumi chuckled as she watched the deformed creatures squirming before us. “Now this is impressive,” she said. “Odagiri-kun, do tell me if the child in your belly becomes too active. This place might be hell for you, but it’s amniotic fluid for the child. She might tear through her parent’s belly. She wants to come out in the open too sometimes. Talk about convenient, though. There’s no one here but us. Shall we give a round of applause to the defector for their effort?” Mayuzumi spread her arms wide.
“I think,” Yukihito murmured. “He doesn’t want… casualties.” He’d been hiding earlier, scared shitless, but now he was staying close to Shirayuki to protect her.
“Shiramine-sama is… that kind of person. He grieved… the death of others… more than anyone else.”
No one said anything back. I didn’t know what to say either. A defector who grieved for the death of others more than anyone else. Yukihito was saying he was a kind-hearted person despite all the mess he’d caused. I felt I could somehow understand that contradiction.
I am scum. Still, I feel sad. I can’t help but be sad.
Even now, emotions were being transmitted to me through the blood and ink. Every cackle from the child in my belly conveyed the defector’s feelings.
I am certain that no one will forgive me.
“But I still…”
Blood spattered in front of me. A creature whose skull had been destroyed by the goldfish collapsed. Its head had swelled up like a tumor. It no longer retained its original form.
“We’re not going to get anywhere if we keep dealing with graffiti,” Mayuzumi said as we continued onward. “The stage is set. All we need to do next is get the actors to come up. He’s the one who invited us. He has to join us dance. If he’s not coming, we’ll just find him.”
Rubber soles treaded on drops of blood.
Twirling her parasol, Mayuzumi smiled. “And with that said. Can you carry me again, Odagiri-kun?”
I saw this coming a mile away.
Again I carried Mayuzumi as we ran. I no longer felt nauseous. But although I hate to admit it, just carrying fire extinguishers back and forth made me run out of breath. No matter how light Mayuzumi was, a whole person’s weight was still too much for me. Still, I managed to will my legs into motion.
With two wolves running side by side, Shirayuki opened her fan. “Are you all right? Do you want me to carry her?”
“It’s fine. Don’t mind me.”
I doubt Shirayuki had that much upper body strength. Then I suddenly remembered her wielding a long sword. Maybe she could actually carry Mayuzumi. But her hands had to be free. Masses of flesh, crumbling from repeated division, reached out for us from both sides of the road.
There was a rhythmic thumping ahead of us. Yusuke licked off droplets that landed on his face. One of the wolves gnawed a monkey’s arm as it tried to grab Shirayuki. We scurried down a gentle slope, crossed the street, and entered a shopping mall. Right then, I heard a soft voice.
O’ pretty goldfish
Wearing red clothes
I will give you a treat
If you wake up
It was the same song that Yusuke sang. A woman was singing it this time. A full-swung bat smashed a chunk of flesh against the display window. A dog’s paw, the only one still in its original shape, slid across the glass. I could hear singing in the background. A serene scene once again unfolded before my eyes.
The red goldfish
Makes a tiny bubble
Then wakes up
From its afternoon nap
On the porch of the Minase home, a woman was singing a song, with someone’s head resting on her lap. Surrounded by the fresh greenery of spring, she continued stroking their hair.
Her voice echoed softly through the air.
Right. She often hummed that song. Perhaps she liked the lyrics.
I know that. I remember.
Because my place was on her lap.
In my mind, ■■■ is alive.
Is that why he conjured goldfish?
It suddenly made sense. Why did the defector create goldfish? Why not a red bird or a butterfly? Why did he choose goldfish specifically? It was because of this song. The children’s song she used to hum. It left such a strong impression on him that when he thought of red creatures, all he could think of was goldfish.
That’s why goldfish flew in the air.
Why the flightless soared through the skies.
“Odagiri-san,” Yusuke called. “It’s too annoying down here. Let’s go somewhere higher up.” He jerked his chin toward a pedestrian bridge.
The skywalk that stretched around the shopping mall was not high enough. We made our way to the pedestrian bridge that led to the street in front of the department store. I chewed on my lip as we ran up.
The defector had longed for this moment. Goldfish drifted in the skies. The world had shifted to the other side. He had waited for this. Yearned for it. He waited so long, weeping alone.
The day that he could summon a god.
Then why wasn’t he showing up? Why was he taking his time?
We… Mayuzumi, a living god, was right here.
I have waited for this for a long time, haven’t I?
“The opening is over,” Mayuzumi muttered, as if reading my mind. “I’ve had enough of these childish games.” Her voice was barely above a whisper, but I could hear her clearly.
Suddenly, she jumped off my hands. The stairs made me trip. Casting me a sidelong glance, she landed gracefully.
“It’s about time you show up,” she whispered.
A beast roared in response. The bridge shook violently. Hearing powerful footsteps, I looked up.
A fiery tiger was galloping up the staircase on the opposite side.
It was a far more beautiful beast than the ones I saw at the Minase household.
Shirayuki flourished her hand, and the wolves vanished. She then crushed the goldfish made with Mayuzumi’s blood in her snow-white, graceful fingers. Shirayuki plunged the tip of her brush into her bloody hand and swiftly moved her brush on the stairs.
One of the steps turned red. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem like a little of Mayuzumi’s blood was enough to conjure a dragon. Or perhaps Shirayuki herself thought that it wasn’t enough. The crimson did not move; only rippled like the surface of a lake. Shirayuki shoved her brush into some blank ink and painted “Dragon” again over the red one. Black blended with red, swirling together, then suddenly it burst. All the steps of the staircase were dyed red and black. Yusuke yelped. The word gradually took shape under our feet. Scales formed. Muscles swelled. A vivid image of a dragon was completed, a mixture of red and black, lying flat on the stairs. Then, it moved. It crawled under our feet and up the stairs, and when there was nothing to block its way, it reared its head out into the three-dimensional world. There was only a sprinting tiger in front of it.
The two beasts collided. The tiger’s fangs dug into the dragon’s throat. Blood and ink rained down. Their roars shook the air. Blood and ink splattered like raindrops, falling on my cheeks and trickling down to my chin.
I couldn’t utter a single word. I watched the two beasts kill each other in a fierce battle, sinking their fangs against the other.
Humans are powerless, I realized.
The battle between the two creatures was profoundly elegant.
Suddenly, the tiger’s body quivered. It failed to land and its legs crumpled. The dragon pulled most of its body out of the floor, wrapping it around the tiger, before crushing its flesh and breaking its bones. The tiger reverted back to ink and blood, dripping onto the road.
Shirayuki was shaking as she stared at the expanding puddle.
She didn’t seem the least bit triumphant. She was biting her lip hard, tears in her eyes.
A groan, out of nowhere. My eyes widened as I heard her voice for the first time.
Shirayuki opened her mouth, threw her head back, and screamed. She was trying to say something, but only incoherent sounds poured out of her throat. As I listened to her scream, an image I once saw flashed through my mind.
A teary-eyed young girl, her tongue about to be severed.
Her emotions flooded into me. Clear words emerged from her maniacal screams.
“Come out, you coward. I do not care about your summoning a god. Fight me one-on-one.”
It was the roar of her soul.
A cry so heartfelt that the child in my belly picked it up.
Yes. I knew. I understood all along. And so did he.
Shirayuki will never forgive me.
“Why did you leave me, brother?!”