Dawn arrived, and there was a break in the weather. The sun was peeking through the clouds. But there was a slight hint of rain. As I stared at the worsening weather, a warm breeze blew past.
Rainy scenes flashed through my mind. A dark library, a late-night apartment. A house closed up like a coffin. Closing my eyes made me feel like I was trapped in the rain. The suffocating feeling returned.
“Uka,” I whispered.
My stomach wriggled.
The car continued on to its destination. Filling up the tank a few times along the way, we took the highway to the west, and then followed the map deep into the mountains. Our destination—a mansion—was located in the woods. The massive Western-style architecture caught my eye. The building seemed to have been dismantled abroad and reconstructed here. A lone abandoned house standing in the middle of the mountain, with no other private residences nearby. It was a bizarre sight. At first glance, it was hard to believe that we were in Japan.
A haunted house.
That’s what the card said.
“A poltergeist phenomenon in a haunted house,” Higasa said, cracking his neck. “Talk about a cliché setup.”
The words on the card were all lies. A meticulous setup, like the events of some story. Upon reading them, I was convinced.
This place was a stage prepared by the fox.
I stopped in front of the mansion with Higasa. We climbed the stone stairs and placed our hands on the door.
Suddenly I felt a gaze.
I turned around and spotted red. My eyes narrowed. But when I looked again, there was nothing there. Just a faintly bright sky.
An inexplicable shiver crawled down my spine. But we couldn’t afford to waste time.
Higasa opened the door. As he pulled the handle designed like a lion’s head, the interior of the mansion came into view with a creak.
The dark hall was empty. There was a staircase in the center, and an upper balustrade surrounded the room in a square. Looking at the corridor stretching from the hall in three directions, Higasa whistled softly. I was speechless too. The luxuriously decorated mansion looked like something out of a movie.
It was too well-made.
“Now, then. I guess it’s time to explore.”
Our footsteps echoed loudly on the polished, black and glossy floor. I could vaguely see my reflection on it. Past the staircase, I spotted decorative flowers.
Gorgeous red roses were in full bloom. It felt like a sick joke.
When I saw them, I realized something.
There was no dust on them. They were new.
There were clear traces of life in the mansion. The silverware in the dining room was spotless, and the old refrigerator was filled with food. The electricity seemed to be working. Staring at the dry-cured ham, I shook my head. We searched the other rooms, but there was no sign of the residents.
During our search, we found a small room that was used for storage. It contained winter bedding, a heater, plastic containers. There was nothing to identify the age or sex of the residents, but there were traces of their presence in the place.
It reminded me of the story of Mary Celeste.
Everyone had disappeared, but left signs that they were there.
Studying the carefully-arranged bedroom, Higasa shrugged. There was pen and ink on the desk, but no writings of any kind whatsoever. The ink was new, fully usable.
“This place is creepy as hell,” Higasa muttered, confused. “What’s going on here?”
But the mansion did not respond. A heavy silence fell.
There was a strange plaque hanging in what appeared to be a guest room.
Room of the Dead.
Swallowing the fear, we turned back straight to the hall. I peered at the polished floor and saw a puzzled face. The red roses by the stairs were oddly vibrant.
There was no one in the mansion.
Everything was blanketed in silence.
“What are we supposed to do?”
Higasa twisted his neck. I had no answer. His voice reverberated and faded away. We found ourselves in an unexpected situation. There was nothing in the house except for the luxurious amenities.
Nothing happened. It was just creepy.
“Maybe time plays a part in this place. Like the oddity from the sea. In which case, we have to wait until nighttime.”
Higasa pulled a cigarette from his chest pocket and put it in his mouth. After lighting it, he offered me a lighter and a box of cigarettes.
The moment I took them, there was a creak.
Butterflies fluttered in my stomach momentarily.
A strange sensation ran through my entire body. But I didn’t know why. Footsteps clattered on the floor. Higasa’s eyes widened in shock, and the cigarette fell from his mouth, rolling across the floor, still lit.
I turned around and saw a woman in a suit standing there. Beside her was a man in the same outfit. The simple black suits looked somewhat like mourning attire. The short-haired woman lifted her head. Her beautiful androgynous face was devoid of expression.
Her lips parted a little. “It’s been a long time.” Her voice was terribly cold. She stared at Higasa with glassy, soulless eyes. “I didn’t expect the intel to be correct. I thought it was impossible, but color me surprised.” There was no inflection in her voice.
“Run, Odagiri!” Higasa grabbed my hand.
He ran as fast as he could, I thought my shoulder would get dislocated. All of a sudden, the floor shook, and the hard floor cracked. I turned around, my eyes wide open.
The woman was holding her arms up high, her palms joined together intricately, casting a faint shadow on the floor that squirmed to take shape.
The dog’s mouth snapped open and shut.
Suddenly it split apart. Three heads formed, their necks fusing into one, forming a shadow puppet of a dog with three heads. It swelled as it transformed, something Akari’s shadow didn’t do. The dog changed its shape from the woman’s fingers and grew more ferocious.
The huge deformed dog howled.
Its appearance bore a striking resemblance to the mythical Cerberus. The guard dog of hell couldn’t possibly exist in this world. Mayuzumi’s words played in my head.
Nothing is impossible. Common sense is meaningless.
Espers are beings that defy it.
Higasa sprinted to a room deeper inside. We were trapped. He then closed the curtains, plunging the room into darkness. Shadow beasts shouldn’t be able to enter now. Letting out a long breath, Higasa checked the situation outside. The sound of the floor cracking went on in the distance. It was as if the beast’s fangs were destroying the house with each bite.
I could feel their powerful presence even from beyond the door.
The presence of a ferocious beast.
The shadows crawling across the floor were alive.
“Who was that?” I asked, shoving the cigarette and lighter I had been holding into my breast pocket.
Higasa wiped the sweat off his chin. There was fear in his eyes. His gaze darted sharply, and he pressed his ears against the wall. Befuddled, he paced around the room.
“She’s from the main family. There are personnel in the Kariya clan tasked to kill people. They’re more skilled than anyone else at controlling beasts, more ruthless, and they have no sense of humanity.”
Higasa’s teeth clattered. Suddenly, the mansion quieted down. The footsteps stopped in the distance.
Did we lose them?
The walls creaked. A hole opened up, cracks running in all directions, as though fangs had been buried in it.
“It’s them!” Higasa shouted.
The wall collapsed, and the cracked ceiling fell, allowing for light to come in. The beast crept inside. Higasa opened the window and leaped out, tumbling into the garden, then bolted away. I immediately followed him. I heard the bed being smashed. Taking in the light from the outside and the hallway, the beast trampled the room.
“We’re dead like this! We have to get to the car!” I told Higasa while sprinting across the garden.
The gate wasn’t that far. If we continued running, we’d make it before they could catch up to us.
But Higasa did not respond. He stopped for some reason.
He pulled my hand back hard. The wound in my palm opened, and I stifled the pain. The beast emerged from the wall, roaring. Facing the beast, Higasa charged forward.
“We’re dead either way, damn it!” he shouted as he passed me. “They’ll catch us on the way. And then Akari-sama will be in danger. I have to kill them!” His eyes blazed.
But we had no way to deal with them. Still, he didn’t stop running. The beast roared and opened its mouth. Higasa zipped by its sharp fangs. Blood spilled from his grazed shoulder. The beast followed him, opening and closing its mouth.
“I’m counting on you, Odagiri-san!”
He took off, with the beast hot on his heels. Listening to his screams, I was stunned.
He thought that staying together would just end up in both of us going down.
So he drew the beast’s attention to himself, while I figured things out.
But what could I even do before he got mangled to death?