When the red color subsided, my vision switched.
In the middle of a dark space, Shirayuki stood under the shadow of her snow-white umbrella, looking up at the building in front of her. It was a structure with an old exterior. Raindrops trickled down the dirty gray walls marked with fine cracks. There was nothing to identify its location. Light was coming in from inside the closed windows.
There were people inside, it seemed.
Where was I?
“It’s a catalyst. By using the soul in my blood as a medium, you will know how I’m doing even when we’re apart.”
Mayuzumi said that to me when she gave me something similar. Apparently Shirayuki’s blood couldn’t replicate the exact effect. The glass ball emitted so much heat that I feared the blood would evaporate.
Shirayuki’s gaze fell to the card on her hand. Pure-white paper bearing simple typed words. The moment I saw it, my hackles rose, and I almost stopped breathing.
The card looked familiar.
The words on the white, high-quality paper were an invitation from the fox.
“You can’t go, Shirayuki-san. Don’t go!” I shouted.
But my voice couldn’t reach her. Shirayuki walked with a fierce look in her eyes and stopped in front of a brightly-lit automatic door. I saw a scarlet carpet. Contrary to the building’s dreary exterior, the inside looked like the reception area of a company’s headquarters.
A man in a suit and glasses was sitting behind the service counter. His gray eyes, reminiscent of reptiles, were smiling gently.
There was something off about the place, I realized. The counter, the walls, everything was new.
It seemed to have been built hastily just for show.
Holding the umbrella, Shirayuki went inside. The automatic door closed behind her. She closed her eyes and slowly opened them.
“Oh! Welcome, Ma’am.”
The man’s voice was oddly calm. Shirayuki did not respond. She lowered her umbrella and closed it.
“I am well aware. You’re the Minase clan’s—”
His calm voice was cut off mid-sentence. Foamy saliva fell on the counter as the man propped his elbows on top.
A white umbrella was wedged in his chest.
Shirayuki pulled the umbrella away, shifted it in her hand, and swung it to the side like a bamboo sword, hitting the man on the head. He rolled to the floor with a loud thud.
Shirayuki stepped on his broken glasses.
It all happened in an instant.
I was at a loss for words. Shirayuki proceeded onward without hesitation, not sparing a glance at the fallen man. A middle-aged woman in a suit emerged from the corridor deeper inside. She screamed, petrified. The woman backed away while giving Shirayuki a confused look.
“P-Please calm down, Minase Shirayuki-sama. The master is…”
Who was she referring to? Where was this place?
There was no time to even think hard. With a fluid motion, Shirayuki drew a fan from her clothing.
It spread open in one stroke, and words appeared at a terrifying speed.
“I have accepted your invitation. Summoning me means you must be at least somewhat prepared. You hurt my future husband. I will not wait—Forget it.”
The fan closed and opened again. Shirayuki wrote a brief message.
“No more talking. Say your prayers.”
Her obi fell to the floor.
Shirayuki swiftly took off her kimono, white cloth fluttering down from her shoulders, revealing a shorter, thinner kimono inside. With her feet now able to move freely, she charged forward. Her slender leg bent like a whip…
…and dug mercilessly into the woman’s stomach. The woman doubled over and threw up. Shirayuki passed by her as she tried frantically to escape. Shirayuki tucked the fan into a new obi and took out another brush. Stretching out her arms, she pressed the brushes against the walls.
Ink dribbled slowly down the dull surface. I had witnessed an identical scene back at the Minase manor. Shirayuki steadied her breath, then moved her arms widely, as if dancing.
The letters swirled violently. Black ink contracted into two dots.
The next second, it swelled and morphed. Like a beast emerging from an egg, a strange transformation occurred on the wall. A mass of flesh with fins appeared, imitating the creation of life. It grew rapidly. The powerless lump of flesh gained arms and legs, and transformed into a ferocious beast.
Her drawing was different from before, both in the transformation and quality.
The beasts roared. Tigers poked their faces out of the wall, shaking the very air. Ink-smelling drool splattered. Massive paws pounded the floor. Shaking their tough coat of fur, the tigers looked around.
Fury blazed in their eyes. With two tigers flanking her, Shirayuki stared ahead.
She swung her fan down the dark corridor.
Obeying her silent command, the tigers sprinted down the corridor at a tremendous speed, muscles pulsing, pinning down the people that appeared with their forelegs. They didn’t use their claws, and avoided inflicting fatal wounds, per Shirayuki’s instructions most likely. But a few injuries were no problem.
Screams erupted. Men and women scrambled around the corridor.
As I watched them, I realized something. The people inside the building all looked strangely uniform in appearance, all wearing similar suits. But they weren’t all employees. Their ages and images varied considerably.
What in the world was this place?
Those who heard the commotion came out the doors, filling the corridors with more chaos. But there was one person among them that did not move. They were standing still against the flow of people.
Shirayuki lifted her gaze. Their eyes met.
A short ponytail swayed. Legs as pale as dead flesh peeked out from a tight skirt. The familiar woman’s large eyes gleamed with amusement.
She flashed a bewitching smile.
There was a clack. A closed door started moving. On the wall up ahead, an iron door opened automatically. Bright light spilled onto the dim corridor.
With a creak, another figure emerged from within. Bare foot appeared through the gap in the door, five tiny fingers wriggling.
Their skin was unnaturally pale.
Shirayuki walked up to the door without hesitation and waved her fan, tearing open the person’s throat. Red blood spattered. The person’s head toppled, their long black hair fluttering. Blood bubbled from the throat gaping open like a twisted mouth.
Unable to carry the weight of its head, the body topped backwards, crumbling like a puppet with severed strings.
I swallowed. Shirayuki killed a person?
Shirayuki cast a cold gaze at the figure. Their bony chest was stirring slightly. Only pale, colorless lips peeked out from between the rough bandages that covered their whole face. Their bony body reminded me of a ball-jointed doll.
Blood seeped into the bandages. Their body was made of flesh and bone.
But a first glance said they weren’t human.
What were they?
The door opened wider. Inside the small room were numerous dolls, humans all cramped tight with no space in between. Like mass-produced dolls, they all shared the same appearance.
Shirayuki retreated a few steps. A human swung their arm, following an impossible trajectory. Nailless fingers closed in on Shirayuki’s face. But they stopped right before gouging out her eyeballs.
Tiger fangs had sunk into the belly of the human, piercing its pale flesh. Blood dripped down sharp teeth.
Not letting go of the body, the tiger leapt into the room, and the other beast followed suit. The humans in the room were nothing but food for the ferocious predators.
The onslaught began. Pulsating organs rolled to the floor, torn arms and legs flying everywhere. But the slaughtered humans did not so much as let out a yelp.
They were like knock-off human beings.
Shirayuki wiped the blood that splashed on her cheek, leaving behind a red mark that looked like makeup. She pressed her hand against the wall, and her brows knitted suspiciously. Her fingertips had sunk a little bit. The wall around the door was pulsating red. The boundary was collapsing.
The real world and the spirit world were blending together.
I recognized the scene. The mass production of otherworldly creatures had tipped the scales.
Shirayuki narrowed her eyes and stared at the red, pulsating wall.
Something flew out of the door and rolled across the floor. A human head, scattering brain matter. The two tigers, mouths glistening crimson, returned to Shirayuki’s feet. She pulled out her fingers and started walking again. While the tigers were slaughtering the humans, the people had disappeared from the corridor.
The woman was gone too.
When she reached the end of the corridor, there was no sign of anyone. Instead, an elevator rose, stopping on the seventh floor.
Shirayuki turned to the elevator and pressed a button. The cabin slowly descended.
Shirayuki stepped inside the elevator, bringing the tigers with her. The doors closed gently. The indicator for the seventh floor lit up even when no one pushed it.
Shirayuki was unperturbed. She glowered at the other side of the door with eyes filled with anger. There was no fear in them. Her whole body tense, she waited for the elevator to arrive at the top floor, where it stopped, as though summoned there.
The door opened with a jolly tone.
The tigers pounded the floor with their forelimbs and rose sharply, standing on two legs to hide Shirayuki behind them. Two huge bodies stood abreast in the narrow doorway.
A giant meat shield.
Suddenly something small and white flew through the air, zipping straight to one of the tigers’ abdomen. Human fingers bore into the soft belly. Like tearing a piece of cloth, the tiger’s belly ripped open.
Ahahaha. Hahahahaha. Hahahahahahahaha!
Strange laughter echoed through the air, overlapping with the beast’s howl of agony. Organs spilled from within its torn bellies. But it did not fall backwards. It faithfully obeyed its master’s command to shield her. Its contours were beginning to waver, however. A small fist landed on the second tiger, too, and a large amount of ink splattered to the floor.
The shield disappeared. But Shirayuki had already painted the letters.
Words were written grandly on either side of her.
Whirlpools reminiscent of a stormy sky formed on the elevator walls, and gray clouds began swirling at a furious speed. A pale-white figure was standing on the floor where the ink had spilled, splashing ink around their feet as if playing with blood. A girl in a pure-white gothic Lolita fashion.
She grabbed the edges of her skirt and gave a curtsy.
The girl smiled innocently. But the next moment, she disappeared.
One of the dragons, with only its face protruding from the floor, swallowed the girl, vanishing abruptly into the creature’s long jaws. A black strip rushed across the floor at lightning speed. Bending its smooth body, it charged straight ahead to its target without hesitation. In the middle of the red-walled room was a chair.
A young man with a fox mask was sitting there.
My scream coincided with the dragon’s roar. The dragon opened its mouth at the man, ready to devour him.
Then, everything went still.
Ink slowly dripped from two long fangs. The dragon froze mid-air, as though it had reverted to mural. Even its long whiskers were motionless. The mouth under the fox mask curved into a smile. He stroked the dragon’s chin as if showing love to a dog.
The dragon reverted back to ink. His smile widened, and he cast a glance at the elevator.
There was innocent laughter. The girl had ripped open the dragon’s throat and landed a kick into Shirayuki’s stomach. The soles of her tiny shoes sunk into small belly. Shirayuki fell face down on the spot without even a scream. She exhaled and directed her gaze to the ceiling.
She looked at me and smiled.
Her gaze was tender, and sorrowful.