Once upon a time, there was a fox.
All the stories began the same way.
This was the story of a fox and the game he set up.
The first few sentences were the same until about halfway.
One day a new pit was added to the graveyard.
The coffin was filled with the smell of rain.
The fox asked the despondent pair.
If you grieve the death of a loved one, let’s undo it.
But it needed a missing ingredient.
One for the body, and one for the soul.
For two people, four were needed.
They accepted the difficult conditions.
Can a monster become human?
What do you think, dear reader?
My vision blurred. I remembered the mermaid that disappeared into the sea and Aya crammed in the cabinet. Her eyes swiveled and looked at me, her body mutilated all over.
One for the body, and one for the soul.
For two people, four were needed.
Four people were going to die. I clenched my trembling palm. I shifted my gaze to the last sentence. It was completely different from the previous ones. The child in my stomach spun around. I bit my lip, and blood trickled from the torn flesh. A drop of blood slid between my fingers.
What do you think, dear reader?
My ears picked up a murmur. My own words sounded like someone else’s. I was astonished at the hatred in them. There was a sharp pain as I removed the teeth buried in my lip. Blood flowed, filling my mouth. As I licked my lips off, I noticed Higasa’s gaze on me.
“A-Are you all right, lad?” His voice held a note of fear.
What kind of expression did I have on my face right now?
“I’m fine,” I spat. “Don’t worry about me.”
I glared at the paper, reading the sentences over and over.
“I see,” Mayuzumi muttered low.
She was holding a card in her hand. It came with the envelope, apparently. She tossed it onto the desk, and it slid to a stop in front of me.
Unlike the letter, the pure-white card was made of expensive paper. It featured a map and typed text.
“I have a case for you.”
I grabbed the card tight without thinking. Unpleasant memories flashed through my mind.
Following the map that arrived in the mailbox, I headed to Asato’s place.
And what happened after that?
I let go of the card. It was marred by a bloodstain in the shape of my thumb.
“He’s asking to deal with a poltergeist,” Mayuzumi said. “An obvious lie. Talk about bold. I suppose a hunter sprinkles chicken blood to hide the scent of iron. The fox doesn’t even bother to hide his traps.”
The fox set an obvious trap. He didn’t even bother burying it in the dirt.
Mayuzumi shifted her legs. She looked at the card with cold eyes.
Abruptly she lifted her head. Her icy gaze turned to Higasa.
“So why did you bring this to me?”
Mayuzumi picked up a chocolate. She slithered her tongue over the marbled cat’s back. Biting off the tail of the animal, she stared crossly at Higasa. I frowned. What did she mean by that?
Did she just ask him why he brought the case to her?
“So you’ve shared this with us. Now what?” Mayuzumi said wearily. There was no hint of panic or nervousness in her voice.
Bewildered by her response, Higasa said, “The recent cases have all been strange. A lot of things that don’t usually happen, just keep happening. It’s like the world has gone crazy. That thing you guys are spreading. It’s the same thing, isn’t it? I don’t know what’s going on. But after all that’s happened, it’s hard not to realize that something’s up.”
Higasa tapped his fingers on the paper, scowling at the fox’s story. He looked up abruptly. Mayuzumi was not smiling.
Her face was terribly cold.
“Mayuko. This case is for us both, isn’t it? And then there’s this. It’s different from the other cases. Like you said, it’s too obvious. They’re probably waiting for us to put our feet into the trap.”
“And?” Mayuzumi muttered listlessly.
Even after seeing the letter from Asato, there was no sign of panic on Mayuzumi’s part. Biting the cat’s ear, she seemed completely uninterested in the conversation. A question reemerged in my mind.
Why did she look so bored?
“I want to take the case,” Higasa said.
I looked up. He was staring at the card with a grim look in his eyes. Mayuzumi did not say anything, did not even ask him why.
“There’s someone pulling the strings behind this series of cases. If this is also about us, not just you, we can’t rule out the possibility that the Kariya clan is involved. I want to settle this before danger comes to Akari.”
The fox was behind the case. His target was me and Mayuzumi. Higasa and Akari were not supposed to be a part of this. But I still didn’t know Higasa’s story. All the cases so far were sent in a way that involved us both.
The fox obtained something akin to a god from somewhere.
Was it possible, then, that he was working with someone?
I stared at the words on the card.
Four were needed.
There were four of us: me, Mayuzumi, Higasa, and Akari.
“Okay, then. Knock yourself out.”
The chocolate snapped. Holding the headless cat, Mayuzumi cast a bored look at Higasa. Her eyes conveyed her answer clearly.
She couldn’t care less.
“What are you saying, Mayu-san?!” I snarled, rising to my feet.
My knees hit the desk, and the box of chocolates fell. Mayuzumi looked up at me with her legs crossed arrogantly. Her expression didn’t change in the slightest.
My rage, my anxiety, meant nothing to her.
“What are you saying, Odagiri-kun? Think about it. This is the fox’s story. Written by the fox, starring the fox.”
She was right. This was a game the fox had set up. Wouldn’t it be our bellies ripped open if we left it unchecked?
Mayuzumi snapped the cat’s body lengthwise. Shrugging, she added, “Perhaps the stage will be to my liking. But I don’t want to be incorporated into a script he came up with. If he comes to me, I’ll deal with him. But why should I go to him?” she finished in a mocking tone, and snorted.
She was exasperated. She was going to turn her back on the obvious trap that Asato had set for her.
She had no intention of walking towards a bear trap.
But if we left the trap as is, someone else might walk into it.
I wanted to ask if she was okay with that. But I swallowed the words. There was no need to even ask. I already knew the answer.
Mayuzumi Azaka would not care if a stranger’s legs were shredded.
No matter who died, she would watch the blood flow while taking a bite of her chocolate.
“I disagree, Mayu-san. How many people have already been killed for fun? If we don’t participate in the game Asato has set up, we won’t know what’ll happen next.”
Like the man swallowed by the sea, like the girl buried in a coffin, someone might die again. I was sure of it. The fox would keep killing until we made our way to him.
Mayuzumi picked up a chocolate truffle. She placed it onto her tongue and into her mouth. It crumbled softly.
“Aya’s death has made you lose your cool, is all. Are you really heading to a trap in your current mental state? You can’t even stop your bleeding, and you’re going to fall into a trap on someone else’s behalf? Get off your high horse. I’ve had enough of your arrogance.” She spat the last part out with a lovely smile.
Her words were harsh, but they were spot-on. I was all talk with nothing to back it up. I had a demon in my belly that was more powerful than any monster. A real flesh-and-blood aberration is more powerful than any esper. But I myself had no power.
What could I do?
I couldn’t even save a single girl.
I was speechless.
Mayuzumi’s red lips twisted. “And think about it. You say ‘people’ have been killed, but in fact, there’s only three so far.”
There was a crash.
Before I knew it, my right hand had struck the water tank. Glass hit the floor and shattered. I glared at Mayuzumi.
Her words were repulsive, her thoughts no different from those of the fox. I’d followed her until now, fully aware of that. The question I’d asked myself over and over again resurfaced, a question that I already had the answer to. I couldn’t listen to her any longer.
Perhaps she was right, in a way.
But fuck all that.
“Enough! I get it!”
A different voice interrupted me. Slapped his knees, Higasa stood up. He looked at me and nodded. He shifted his eyes to Mayuzumi, who met his gaze calmly.
“And what exactly did you get, Higasa?” Mayuzumi asked softly, inclining her head.
“If you insist on staying away, so be it. This is our problem. I won’t ask for your help anymore.” He shook his head. “We can’t keep running away forever.”
Mayuzumi watched him go in silence. I hurried after him. Opening the door, I called out.
He stopped, and I caught up to him. Then a fist was thrust in front of my face.
There was a tinkle and a silvery glow.
It was a round locket.
“Don’t follow me, lad. What Mayuko said was cruel, but I can kinda agree with some of her points. A guy like you should stop poking his nose into other people’s problems. You’re not as handy as you think you are, and you’ve got enough on your plate. Take my advice: don’t grow up too fast. You’ll only have a hard time.”
His eyes were dead serious.
He was genuinely concerned about me.
“Give me your hand.”
I did as I was told. The locket fell onto my palm.
He nodded. “Should anything happen to us, open it. Also…” Suddenly he bowed deeply. “I’m truly sorry for getting you involved in all this. The cases came to us first. Please don’t let all the things that happened so far bother you. I apologize for all the trouble we’ve caused. Goodbye.”
Higasa turned on his heel. I watched him go blankly. I clutched the locket tight. I returned to the apartment and slammed the door shut. Mayuzumi was drinking hot chocolate from a cup.
She didn’t even glance at the shattered water tank.
“I’ll say it again, Mayu-san. We should move too. We’re involved in this. Running away is unacceptable.”
Mayuzumi didn’t reply. She tilted her cup and drank the sweet liquid down.
“Are you done?” Mayuzumi said after a momentary silence.
She turned her gaze to me, her cat-like eyes glinting.
She gave a small smile. “I’ve already said what I wanted to say.”
I had nothing to say either.
I turned and started running. I put on my leather shoes and grabbed the doorknob.
A voice came from behind. “If you want to go, I won’t stop you. It’s your choice. I’m not going to get involved. But I’ll give you some advice. Don’t be overly sympathetic. You’re just an ordinary human being, Odagiri-kun.”
Her voice was frigid. But she wasn’t mocking my actions.
She only gave serious advice.
“Not a god,” she added.
I understood what she meant. There was only so much a man could take.
If you can’t carry something, you shouldn’t carry it in the first place.
There is little that man can do to save another. That’s why people turn to gods.
To prop oneself up during difficult times.
I heard nothing more. I gripped the doorknob tight, hesitated for a moment. Then I opened the door wide and bolted out of the apartment, not stopping until I reached the station. I didn’t know what I found frustrating, painful, or even what I really wanted to do. I’d already made a number of mistakes. The man who was swallowed by the sea, the girl bathed in her own blood—both were my fault. I asked myself what I could even do at this point, but I couldn’t provide any answer.
But I just couldn’t…
I couldn’t bring myself to admit that I was powerless.