“I knew you and my sister wouldn’t die from this. This is just the opening act. A sideshow. It took a lot of work, but I’m glad to see you enjoyed it.” He sounded satisfied.
My eyes opened wide. My stomach tore open. A blue parasol spun round and round in my field of vision. Raindrops fell on it and bounced away.
If I could move my arms, I would have gouged out the fox’s eyes already.
“…I enjoyed… it?
Uka slowly emerged. Copious amounts of hot blood spilled out, running down my skin.
How could I enjoy it? They were dead—Makihara, Aya, Akari, Higasa. They were toyed with for the fox’s amusement. Brutally killed. How could anyone enjoy such a monstrous spectacle?
Fuck you. Die. Die right now.
Asato shook his head. He didn’t react to my murderous glare. He held up a pale finger in front of his face and wagged it playfully.
Then he pointed at me. “You did this,” he declared firmly.
His voice sounded like Mayuzumi’s. My vision rocked like I received a blow to my head. I couldn’t understand what he meant. But fear gripped my body instinctively. I shouldn’t have listened. I should block out his words.
I’d rather have a knife in my heart than listen.
But I couldn’t move. I couldn’t even look away from the fox’s smile.
Asato smiled, nodded as if to say I did well.
Then the fox began, slowly.
First was the story of a man consumed by guilt.
“Your blaming Makihara caused the sea to rise. Since you seem unaware, I’ll give it to you straight. Had you done nothing, the monster would have stayed on the first floor. The mermaid wouldn’t have come unless his desire to live outweighed his guilt. ‘Don’t even think you can get away with this.’ When you told him that, he realized that he shouldn’t run away. He was swallowed by the sea because of your righteousness. Well? Are you happy?”
Second was the story of a girl who was driven to a corner.
“If you hadn’t let go of her hand, she wouldn’t have died. Did you know? I actually placed certain restrictions on the fake Aya. If, in some way, you promised Aya that you would protect her, then she mustn’t lay a hand on her when you’re around. But you didn’t hesitate to let go of her hand, because you never truly wanted to protect her in the first place. Am I wrong? Or was it because deep inside you wanted her dead? Aren’t you glad to be rid of a heavy burden? All the women who put their trust in you die on their own. Happy?”
Third was the story of two dead people.
“Akari died because you showed her a little bit of kindness. She looked at you and decided that she didn’t want any more people dying. Higasa died because you kept helping him. If you hadn’t tried to help them, or if you had persuaded my sister to come with you, there might have been another way. It was you who closed all the avenues. Oh by the way, there was something I wanted to ask you. What were you trying to say to Akari? You were hoping she’d die for you, weren’t you? What was there to say, then? You survived, while they perished. You must have felt glad.”
His tone was as soft as a feather.
I just listened. No words came out. I couldn’t even think. Asato slowly extended his arm. His pale fingertips touched my cheek, brushing away the soot.
His fingers were terribly cold.
Asato inclined his head. “It’s your attitude that’s allowed all of this to happen.”
Everything within my sight seemed to shatter. There was no pain. There was no physical change of any kind.
But in that very moment, something inside me died.
“It was fun, wasn’t it?”
The fox smiled.
The fox sneered.
I groaned like a drowning man. Blood spurted from my stomach. A childish voice struck my ears.
“Papa?” she whispered worrily.
Something fell on the dirt. A figure stood up, taller than before. Black hair covered its small head. Seeing the small body stirring at my feet, Asato stepped back. Uka stood up on her own and held out her arms. Her mouth gaped open and shut. A thought came to me.
Let her eat everything.
Then the fox would disappear
In response to my thoughts, Uka opened her mouth and scuttled innocently towards Asato. The fox did not move. Right when she reached for his face…
…something came flying in and dug into her little cheeks. Time stopped, and Uka’s body lurched. She was frozen in the air for a moment, then blown back the next second, slamming against a tree. She let out a muddled yelp. Strength drained from her young body, and she fell to the ground.
I reached for her. I cried for her name over and over again, but I couldn’t speak properly. She didn’t even lift her head. I wanted to pick her up, but I couldn’t reach her.
A second later, I realized what the scene before me meant.
A demon was knocked out.
A creature that was supposed to be overwhelmingly powerful.
Hearing a soft chuckle, I turned my head back around. A girl in pure-white gothic Lolita outfit was standing in the rain. The same girl from the park. Her red eyes glinted.
Holding up the hem of her skirt, she gave a curtsy.
Her flamboyant appearance was exactly the kind that the fox was into.
“Come here, Shizuka.”
Asato called the child to his side and picked her up. The girl giggled happily. Then suddenly her body quivered. She curled up in pain and puked.
A white mass of flesh fell to the ground. Steam rose as the heap convulsed. It began to stretch and contract, as if unsure what shape to take. After a while, it stopped moving. Then out of nowhere, Asato moved his hand, waving his pale fingers like a conductor.
The flesh started moving systematically. It stretched widely, changing its shape to a human face. Earlobes and eyes formed, mouth opened. Streaks of flesh elongated, blackened, and turned into hair. The hideous, sacrilegious transformation continued.
Finally it took a familiar shape.
A gentle face gazed at me.
Slowly Shizuka opened her eyes.
It crumbled the next moment, leaving only a heap of carrion.
The sight left me speechless. Red filled my eyes. But no definite emotion surged in my chest. My mind was completely numb.
The child in Asato’s hands laughed merrily.
I raised my head, and Asato turned his gaze to me.
He reached for me with a smile.
I felt no fear. A lethargy, akin to drowsiness, permeated my entire being.
I can finally be at peace.
Then, out of the blue, I was embraced from behind.
Soft arms coiled around my body and dragged me backwards. Asato’s hand stopped. His eyes widened slightly, then he smiled again. I could smell ink. Unlike Mayuzumi, she was holding an umbrella made of white paper. Resting it on her shoulder, she hugged me protectively with both arms.
A dignified face glared at the fox. My breath caught in my throat.
What is she doing here?
Since she used ink, she was at a disadvantage in the rain. But she wasn’t the least bit fazed. Her arms moved. Holding a brush in both hands, she brandished them with blinding speed, and the word “Tiger” appeared on the inside of the umbrella in large letters. Shirayuki swung the umbrella sharply, throwing it at Asato’s feet.
Two tigers rose from the umbrella. Their muscles, made of diluted ink, flexed. Before the rain could wash away their bodies, they bared their fangs at Asato’s neck.
But before they reached him, a small hand touched the tigers’ jaw. The pale child crushed their faces in its grip. Losing their jaws and tongues, the tigers’ bodies disintegrated. Black liquid, reminiscent of blood, pooled on the ground. Shirayuki gasped, then embraced me tight again.
She was like a mother protecting her child. She didn’t take even one step back.
Someone fell in beside her.
I saw red.
A figure dressed in a gothic Lolita attire stood under a familiar parasol. There was no hint of panic or fear on her face, only a bored smile as she watched Asato.
She was, as always, munching on a piece of chocolate.
“Long time, no see, brother.”