She flashed an innocent smile. Grabbing the hem of her skirt, the girl curtsied.
“What’s up with this girl?” Yusuke muttered curiously.
A girl from the neighborhood? An odd one, for sure.
Standing still, I surveyed the park. Slides and swings glittered under the blue sky. A fresh breeze caressed my cheeks. Yukihito crept closer through the shadows. He hid behind me, keeping his distance from Yusuke.
“What now?” Yusuke asked.
“I have no idea.”
Akari had stopped screaming. She seemed to have calmed down, but I didn’t know what to do next. The beasts did not disappear; they were still writhing beside Akari. I sighed.
There was a squelch, and blood spurted from Akari’s thin arms and legs. Red dripped down the bench and onto the dry sand.
An utterly bizarre sight in the otherwise serene scene.
Another squelch. I realized what it was.
It was the sound of fangs digging into flesh.
“Yo, Odagiri-san. That looks bad,” Yusuke said.
The beasts were attacking Akari’s. Not tearing their creator to shreds, at least. But they bared their fangs on her skin over and over. Each time, Akari’s limbs were ripped open and blood spilled. The beasts occasionally looked up to the sky and made a motion of swallowing prey with dissatisfaction. It dawned on me, then, why her shadow was distorted.
The beasts were terribly hungry.
Starving, thirsty, raging.
I stepped out of the shadows.
“Wait, Odagiri-san! What are you planning to do?!”
The beasts lifted their heads simultaneously.
I shook Yusuke’s hand off my shoulder. “Don’t worry, I won’t get eaten. I’m not that selfless. I’ll just draw the shadows away. I’ll come back once I run out of stamina.”
I took off, and the beasts came after me all at once. I ran around, dodging them. I went under slides and jumped over swings.
It reminded me of a game of tag. It was like running away from six its.
Super fast its.
My arm was bit, and I quickly changed directions. The six beasts basically followed the same movement. I was glad I wasn’t being flanked from all sides, but it didn’t take long for me to run out of breath. I regretted staying cooped up in the office. A little too late for that, though. In my mind, I apologized to a frowning Mayuzumi.
You were right. Cleaning all the time was not a good idea, Mayu-san.
Wiping does not give you more endurance.
I was wheezing at this point. Sensing my limits, I scrambled into the shade of the trees, falling to my knees. Sweat fell and soaked into the ground. I turned around and saw the beasts moving around the area, not giving up. But all six of them were heading back to Akari.
I looked up, and for some reason Yusuke was staring at me with half-lidded eyes.
He pointed to his watch. A look at it sent me to the pits of despair.
It had only been a few minutes.
“You owe me one, okay?” Yusuke said.
Yusuke started warming up.
Then he bolted away.
Yusuke was far more athletic than I was.
But humans can only run at full speed for a few seconds. Even when keeping a steady pace, you’d hit your limit eventually. Yusuke and I took turns running, but we barely made any progress. Akari’s shadow was still out of control, and I was starting to worry that we would have to do this forever.
Then, Yukihito opened his fan. “I don’t think so. I think there is a limit to her ability. The shadow beasts went out of control because of hunger. If they become so exhausted that they forget their hunger, they will merge back with their creator’s shadow to rest.”
“In that case, you should run too!” Yusuke kicked him from behind.
Yukihito screamed as he ran around, stumbling with a desperate look on his face. The girl in white was watching us happily.
But it wasn’t the least bit fun for us.
“I-I can’t go on… any longer,” Yusuke gasped. “Wh-What is wrong with those things? How much more… do we have to run… before they go to sleep?”
“I’m spent,” I said. “No more running… from me.”
Yukihito, sprawled on the ground, said nothing. The girl tapped my forehead to encourage me. But I couldn’t move another step. The beasts were swarming Akari again, mouths open.
What should we do? There was no way I could turn a blind eye.
Maybe the only option was to get gnawed in her stead.
It would feel better than her getting hurt.
Steeling myself, I turned to leave the shadows.
Yusuke pulled my hair. “You there. Person who can’t even… walk anymore. I don’t know… what you’re thinking… but you should stop… caring about others… too much.”
“I can’t… just sit around… and do nothing.”
Yukihito rolled closer. He opened his fan and wrote something. “We should stop.”
“I know… you’re exhausted. But at least… speak!” Yusuke smacked Yukihito on the head, and his brush rolled on the ground.
As I moved to pick it up, I came upon a realization.
“What… is it?”
“Those beasts… are starving, right?”
“Ahuh… What about it?!”
I looked at the brush, then at Yukihito. Yusuke blinked a few times and then grinned in realization.
Yukihito gave us an anxious look.
“Food,” I said.
“That’s all they need,” Yusuke added.
Yukihito’s face turned pale as a sheet. He tried to escape, but Yusuke and I grabbed his shoulders.
The trembling brush touched the sand, and ink soaked into the ground. Sand stuck to the bristles with each audible stroke. A moment later, the writing was done.
The letters began to morph. The edges melted, frog legs grew, and a body was formed. A frog made of thin ink jumped out of the ground and hopped onto the dry sand.
The Minase clan’s ability to materialize words they painted never failed to amaze me.
The beasts began to gather around the frog. The moment the frog leapt, one of them opened its mouth and swallowed its shadow. At the same time, the frog disappeared. The beast looked up in the air and chewed several times.
“We should’ve done this from the start,” Yusuke said.
“Yeah,” I agreed. “Realized it a little bit late.”
Yukihito was drawing frogs to life with tears in his eyes. He gave us a hard time at first, but when I explained the idea to him, he agreed to do it. Now he was trying his best to move his brush. You wouldn’t even believe that he tried to escape moments ago.
Maybe he thought he was going to be used as bait or something.
The beasts devoured all the leaping frogs. It should solve the problem. Or so I thought. But we were too naïve.
There weren’t just enough frogs.
There were six beasts, but only one frog could be produced at a time. The sand clinging onto the brush slowed Yukihito down. But there was no other place within the shade where he could paint the word “frog” except in the sand.
Suddenly the beasts split into two groups. Three headed for Akari, while the other three remained.
It was obvious what they were going to do.
“Why?” I gasped. “They shouldn’t have any intellect.”
“It’s not about intellect,” Yusuke spat bitterly. “They’re just hungry, so they’re going to the closest food available.”
Yukihito frantically moved his arm, but his speed was clearly slowing down. Frogs would not get us anywhere. There was no point in materializing something that could be swallowed whole in one bite.
“Can’t you summon other creatures?” I asked. “Something bigger would be great. Like birds, or dogs. Animals that can run away should be able to buy time.”
Yukihito unfolded his fan. He tried to write something with his messed-up brush. But when he couldn’t draw any legible characters, he opened his mouth.
“Lack training. Only frogs.”
“You didn’t do any training after what happened at your place?!” Yusuke snapped. “You should at least do some mountain retreat or something. You know, sit under a waterfall and such.”
“Don’t be too hard on him,” I said. “No one expected this to happen. Also, your idea of training is weird.”
“Is this really the time to be nitpicky?!”
The beasts swarmed Akari again. Though their numbers had decreased, the fact remained that they bore fangs. There was a crunch, and red spilled.
I might have to start running again.
“No, wait,” Yusuke suddenly muttered. “There is something fast.”
His eyes were wide open for some reason, seemingly surprised at his own idea. Yukihito and I exchanged glances. Yukihito’s eyes flickered curiously.
“Yukihito, can you draw anything else besides frogs?”
Yukihito shook his head. Yusuke grabbed his shoulders tight, and Yukihito let out a yelp, then cried.
Yusuke shook him back and forth. “There is one more thing you can summon!”
I thought back to the incident with the Minase clan. I saw various animals then—hawks, monkeys, panthers, tigers, dragons. But I couldn’t remember anything else that Yukihito drew.
There was one.
But should we really be summoning it?
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” I asked.
“We don’t have any other choice, do we?”
We talked it over.
Yukihito clutched his brush anxiously.