Friday, 6 February 2015

Garuguru! -Dancing Beast Night- (Part 2): Chapter 5

(Download the updated version in PDF/epub format here.)

Enjoy.

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Chapter 5-A: Wolf Alert


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The Western District. The Grand Ibis Hotel.


As I walk down the dim corridor, I fall into thought again.

It feels like thinking is all I do these days. At this rate, I’m going to turn into one of those neurotic creeps who wonders about the meaning of each grain of rice as it pertains to my life. In old video games, there’s always one character who goes out of his way to sound poetic about the world, but I think being like that must be tiring. Although I can’t say I dislike people like that.

Everyone ends up thinking a lot when they have nothing to do.

‘School is pointless’.

‘Why do humans wage war?’.

‘Why shouldn’t we kill people?’. …Although it would be funny if I ended up wondering this one out loud.

There’s no point to thoughts like this, I thought seriously… in other words, I didn’t have much to do.

People think about these things because they’re bored out of their wits.

…In that case, I must be all the worse.

By the time my thoughts went from ‘It feels like thinking is all I do these days’ to ‘People think about these things’, I had taken a grand total of three steps.

Things always end up like this when I get too carried away by my thoughts.

I remember something my friend said in junior high school.

“Y’know how in baseball manga, there’s always a really long scene where the pitcher throws and the batter just thinks on and on before he hits the ball? That could never happen in real life—the ball’d be in the mitt before he got his thinking done.”

I remember wondering what the hell this guy was talking about.

Saying your thoughts out loud is one thing—there’s a physical limit to how fast your vocal cords and mouth can move—but there’s no such limit for thinking in your head.

That was what I’d always thought, but apparently that wasn’t the case.

I think. I am nothing special. Everyone can do it, but they underestimate their brains so much they’re placing limits on their own abilities. They think they can’t do it because they’re letting their brains move at the same speed as their eyes, their voices, and their eardrums. They have to have faith in their own brains, their minds, and their consciousnesses.

…That was what I thought, once, when I had nothing to do.

Did I start thinking fast because I had faith in my brain? Not really. It’s been as normal as breathing to me ever since I was little.

But the problem is that thinking fast doesn’t mean being smart.

I’d rather have been born stupid. Then they wouldn’t have made me do all those unpleasant tests, and I never would have become twisted and discreetly ostracized by my family.

My family, seriously…


Wait. Almost got off-track again.

There’s still 10 meters to go until my destination.

I’ll slowly get my thoughts in order as I go.

I was thinking about…

…The reason people started calling me ‘Killer Ghoul’.

I guess my body count has something to do with it.

I think it’s a pretty high number, even for someone on the island, but I did my best to avoid killing whenever I could.

I… just had too many enemies.

Right after my first kill, a bunch of people appeared with guns in hand, saying they wanted revenge. Not knowing why they’d step in so loudly when people were watching or why the people in the Pits didn’t try to stop them, and scared that this was acceptable behavior on the island, I got rid of them all. I didn’t go for kills, but at least a few of them must have died from the injuries I inflicted.

But too many people saw me in action.

I almost died many times after that, too. Sometimes it was unconnected muggings, but naturally a lot of the attacks stemmed from my first kill. I understood with all my body why people said hatred gave birth to more hatred, but understanding doesn’t break that cycle.

How many people had I killed by then?

That rumors began going around in the Pits that killing ‘the guy in white’ would net you fame?

How many people had I killed by then?

That I realized they’d put a bounty on my head in parts of the Pits?

How many people had I killed by then?

That the rumor and the talk of the bounty spread outside the Pits?

To be honest, I was scared.

I was scared to death by the fact that there was a bounty on my head, or that my life was threatened by a meaningless lie. But what scared me even more was the idea of leaving the island knowing that I’d committed murder.

Maybe if I’d put on a disguise and lived incognito then, the rumors might have stopped. But upon endless deliberation, I decided in the end that, rather than hide my identity and live in fear, I would be better off flaunting my existence and killing anyone who attacked me to become feared and untouchable.

…After all, by then, I no longer felt guilty about killing people.

But still… I don’t want to kill people.

I don’t kill just anyone. I only kill to keep myself alive.

Right. Right. I’m… still normal.

…But how many people would still be alive if I’d left this island? In the end, hadn’t I essentially killed people purely for peace of mind? My brain repeated those vain thoughts again and again, made excuses for them again and again, and argued back again and again, and—

In that repetition of thought, my mind came to one conclusion.


I kill people because the sky is blue.


So I never put on a disguise. To paint over my crimes with these white clothes as my mask.

So I could leave this color behind completely someday, when I left the island.

…That’s right. I plan to leave.

But… what’s so bad about running away?

I just didn’t want to die.

But… even on this island, where killings are nothing to blink at, the people forced this moniker onto me. The Killer Ghoul.

It disgusted me. When I realized that the world was rejecting me, I felt something indescribably unpleasant—not anger, not sadness—rising to my throat.

And the final nail in the coffin came when that sicko showed up.

Specifically, he didn’t show up. But he provoked me endlessly with his voice. The sick bastard called Spring-heeled Joplin had the gall to say this to me—


<The reason you’re called the Killer Ghoul has nothing to do with how many people you’ve killed. It’s just because you’re eerily cool and abnormally strange. Your strength. Your speed. Your movements as you outread all your opponents. The way you evade even bullets. That already qualifies you as a mystery to other people. By giving you a moniker, they get a brief taste of gaining insight into the mystery. The moniker ‘Killer Ghoul’ is just a convenient tool by which they try to understand you.>

<If you believe you’ve been abandoned by society—that you’re being rejected by the world—come to me. Live like I do, as a legend. Because once you conclude that you’re not human, you never have to agonize over yourself again.>


…Damn it.

No. Don’t screw with me!

How the hell am I superhuman?! I… I’m human! I’m so very human! I would have been so much happier if I were a vampire or a monster. Because then, I could just throw up my hands and surrender! I could just surrender because I wasn’t human to begin with! But… I’m human. …I want to remain human.

I… love humans. Because humans can smile and laugh at the most inconsequential of things! I only realized this when I became this way. I realized… two months ago.

I am human and I love my fellow humans. So why do I have to keep this mask on my face? Damn it… I’m going to blow my lid. I’m going to blow my lid at my own weakness, and even at that formless ‘something’ that’s driven me to this mess!


…Huh?

Not good. I walked right past the door.

I shouldn’t get too deep into thought. Focus, Yakumo.

Cool down. Cool down. It’s all cool.

One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four.

…All right. All calm.

I made a point of taking deep breaths and slowly reached out to the doorknob. …Considering the possibility that they have a stungun set up inside, I put on a rubber glove as I took hold of the knob.

Instant-acting traps like this scare me. I could do something about a barrage of bullets, but even I can’t counter electrical currents.

With the doorknob in my hand, I heightened my focus. My ears picked up nothing unusual, and my nose didn’t sense anything particularly dangerous.

Right… I’ll waltz straight in, no breathers.

Focusing, I turned the doorknob in one go—


Click       Click


A set of slow metallic noises.

It must be locked.

…Obviously, it must be locked. Obviously, it must be an automated lock. This is a hotel.

Internally slapping myself, I took out a card key. I’d knocked out the guard earlier and swiped it from him.

…I stole the key but forgot to use it. Hm. What does that say about me?

I must have had so much on my mind that I completely forgot about the key. Damn it. This is why thinking fast doesn’t make me smart.

But the fact that I made this noise means that the occupant knows someone’s here. Should I just leave this time?

“…Who is it?”

As I turned the card key over in my hands, I heard a crisp female voice from inside. An alluring and elegant voice that was at the same time cold as ice.

My target must be inside after all.

I’d come this far; I decided to respond. …I guess being straightforward will make the best impression on her.

“It’s Amagiri. Umm… Yakumo Amagiri.”

For a while, I heard nothing but silence. Which is natural. Even I’m smart enough to understand… I think. But objectively speaking, is it stupid for an intruder to reveal his own name in the act? Oh no. Now I’m starting to panic. Please… please, say something.

“…Is this a joke?”

Oh. She thinks I’m lying.

Then again, she must trust her guards, and she wouldn’t believe that the suspect they’re after would suddenly show up before her eyes—I don’t think she’d want to believe. If this is real, she’ll have to fear for her own safety.

But I’m sorry to say that this is real. That is a fact, so I can only hope she understands… Wait a second. What if I just reply, ‘Yes, I’m terribly sorry. I’m actually just a passing little grey’?

Wait. Wait a second here. Even I think ‘little grey’ is pushing it. Speaking of which, Triple Beretta should be starting on TV right about now. Ugh… I should have watched it before I left. I’d better make sure to at least catch Zap’em-all Quartet tonight.

No. No. no. Wait a second. Wait just a second here. This is no time to be thinking about—

“It’s open.”

Maybe I should just forget this today— wait, what?

There was a low metallic noise and a voice.

I turned the doorknob just in case. It was clearly unlocked now.

I have no idea what she’s planning, but she’s invited me in. Even if this is a trap, I’m sure I can walk in and things will work out somehow. No, wait…


And after thirty seconds of deep deliberation and introspection, I opened the door.


◁ ▶︎


The moment I stepped inside, I wondered if I’d wandered into a different dimension.

The air was a complete 180 from that in the hallway. …Maybe this is a better way to put it, then. Right now… I’ve truly set foot into the Western District.

It was a luxurious room—a hotel suite. I even forgot to close the door as I lost myself in the interior.

The furnishings and decorations were Chinese in style, a far cry from the hotel exterior. Each and every piece was tasteful and impeccably ordered. This must be what the word ‘bourgeois’ is used for. I’ve never even imagined a Chinese bourgeois before, but if I ever do in the future, this room will always rise to my thoughts. The one flaw, maybe, is that the abundance of primary colors teeters on the verge of being garish.

There are talismans stuck all over the walls and the ceiling. I thought the owner of this room was a sceptic realist. Maybe she’s more superstitious than she lets on?

It’s great that I got a chance to experience stepping into a slice of China, but where is the owner of the room?

I was prepared for gunfire the moment I opened the door, but I sensed no sign of that. Was she planning to fill the room with poison gas? I think I could break the window and climb down the wall, then… But that’s gotta be bulletproof glass. I hope I can break it with the table…

That was when a slender figure leaned over from behind a bamboo partition in the corner.

“I suppose I should say… welcome.”

“Oh. Thank you.”

There’s no mistake; I’ve seen her at a few events on the island before, so I know her face.

Yili, a Western District executive.

“You’re making quite the bold entrance. Did you assume you’d be able to kill me easily even if I was armed?”

“…”

“Please don’t underestimate me… is what I’d like to say, but to be honest, you have the skills to get away with that.”

“You’re overestimating me. And I’ve never underestimated you, as far as I can recall. I’ll apologize if it came across that way. I’m sorry. Oh, and I am terribly sorry for barging in like this without even making an appointment. …Anyway, I am extremely apologetic.”

All right. Now that the apologies are over with, it’s time to get business done.

But I’m surprised she showed herself so easily. She doesn’t seem to be holding a gun, so she might be holding poison pins in her mouth or something. Yili is a proud witch—one of the people who move the island—so she could kill me the moment I let my guard—

“So now it’s my turn, is it? All this talk is a little gift before you send me to the next world?”

“N-no. About that—”


Agh.


Argh… I messed up.

I screwed up! I am an idiot! Damn it!

I let Yili distract me for too long!

How could I make the same mistake as two months ago? Of all things, the very same mistake?

How could I have been oblivious to the bloodlust swelling behind me?

The massive glass window reflects the interior of the room, cast against the evening lights.

In a corner of that image… I clearly saw a hand holding a gun.


Stop… Stop this!

This is no time to be killing people!

So don’t shoot.

Listen to me! You, the one behind me!

Depending on what happens, I might have to end up killing you to protect myself!

I… I’m not that strong of a person!

So please don’t make me want to kill you…!


“Calm down. I’m not here to kill you.” I said, pretending I hadn’t noticed the presence behind me. It would only sound like I was pleading for my life if I did.

And Yili doesn’t seem like the type to accept pleading.

Then I have to take care of the person behind me. It’s not very easy, keeping people alive—especially disarming them completely. Depending on his skill, not killing him might jeopardize my own life.

Then… I hope Yili listens to what I have to say.

“…I’d be very, umm… happy. If you could listen to what I have to say.”

I wanted to say this more to the person behind me than Yili.

She gave me a dubious look before opening her light scarlet lips.

“Oh my. Are we obliged to listen?”

…Oh no.

She’s noticed.

She’s noticed that I’ve noticed the person behind me.

Then I have no reason to try and pry.

“…But you have the right to listen.”

“…You’ve killed many of our allies and brought chaos to the city. What more could you say? Will you declare victory? Will you provoke us? Or are you finally in the mood to make your demands?”

“I want to tell the truth.”

She frowned for a moment.

I can’t let this chance pass by. I put everything I wanted to say in order and threw out every truth I knew.

“I didn’t kill them.”

“…?”

“I didn’t kill anyone. Not the Western District executives, not the Eastern District executives. All I did was sneak into your father’s room, stand at the old man’s bedside, and warn him. That was all. But it looks like people think I’m the one behind all the crazy serial killings on the island. So… I know it’s my fault for causing a misunderstanding, but I think I have the obligation to deny what is wrong.”

“…”

Yili’s mouth closed. The guy behind me seems to be hesitating too.

“…And here I was wondering what you’d come here for. Nonsense. How could you deny anything when we have witnesses?”

“All I can do is deny the witness accounts, then. Or maybe someone’s disguising themselves as me to kill them.”

Yili was silent again, but she quickly shook her head and opened her mouth again.

“Unfortunately, we have no—”

The sound of metal on metal. In the reflection on the window I saw the man’s finger move.

“—reason to believe—”

Of all the moments to attack! When I saw the finger move without a second’s hesitation, I leapt forward.

Yili’s expression wavered. She must have thought my assailant had captured the perfect moment, but I could react the moment I saw his finger move.

But that doesn’t mean I can move faster than a bullet. The odds are stacked against me, and even if I avoid a fatal hit it’ll be nigh-impossible to make it out unscathed.

But I could not let myself get hurt here.

I moved, mindful of the hand reflected in the window.

I stepped in directly between the hand and Yili.

“…!”

I knew it. He hesitated.

I spun around and flipped the nearby table at the man. It was heavier than I expected, but I managed to get it in the air. One good hit to the head and he’ll be knocked out at the very least. Even if it missed, I could use the moment he dodged it to knock him unconscious myself.

But in my slow-motion world, the man did something unthinkable.

He didn’t evade, or even try to deflect it—

Instead, he charged forward and fell to the floor moments before impact, sliding under the table and taking aim at me.

Now Yili was no longer in his line of fire.

Did this guy just read my reaction?

This is the first time anyone’s done this with me since I faced the rainbow-haired man a few years ago. I let him get away then, but he never went after me afterwards. I’m glad we didn’t end up spilling blood.

…Wait. Not good. I shouldn’t go off-track when I’m fighting this guy!

He doesn’t seem to think as fast as I do; his aim is a mess right now. I launched myself off the floor again to worsen it, even for a moment.

I saw flashes of light.

At the same time, I hooked my feet into a nearby chair to escape the bullet’s trajectory. I leapt off the chair and flew through the air, crossing past the man sliding under the table.

He couldn’t have expected that. His eyes widened in shock as I passed him by—

…Hm?

I’ve seen him before.

Leaping over the table I had thrown, I lifted the table the other way around. It wouldn’t be much of a shield against the high-caliber gun he used, but it would be enough of a distraction.

I kicked the table with my heel and launched it at the man. He couldn’t dodge this one—I saw my chance.

I narrowly flung myself behind a wall. I’m glad this is a suite with multiple rooms—in a cheaper place I would have been cornered in the bathroom.

Once I was able to protect myself from gunfire for a time, I recalled the man’s face again.

Right. I’ve almost never come to the Western District, but I’ve seen his face a few times.

He was an executive here who was trying to revolutionize the island. I remember making sure to memorize his face because I hoped I could finally cast off my mask if guns were outlawed from this sick island.

I think his name was—


“You’re… Mr. Seiichi Kugi, right?”


I coldly called his name.

All I heard in exchange was silence, but in this situation I suppose he wouldn’t acknowledge it even if I’m right. It was a stupid question now that I think about it, but I’ll be glad if he’s even a little rattled.

I waited several seconds, but he did not respond.

Although that’s only if I haven’t switched gears so much that my internal clock’s gone haywire.

In any case, it’s a good thing we have a chance to talk. I took a slow, deep breath and repeated myself.

“…I’m going to say this again. I didn’t kill them. The only people I kill are people who try to kill me or kill those I care about.”

“Let me repeat myself as well. I don’t believe you.”

Yili spoke from beyond the wall. Her voice is as cold as ever, no matter how many times I hear it. I can’t say for certain, but I don’t think I’ll ever like her.

“Then what can I do to make you believe me?”

“Nothing. Although if you dragged the real culprit to our feet, we could at least have a look and see if you’re telling the truth.”

I sensed no complacency or conceit in her tone. She was just stating the facts. It looks like she instantly made herself more cautious after seeing my movements in person. …She must have been a little less guarded earlier because she trusts this Kugi guy.

And he is a skilled one. Although I’m not confident that I’m an accurate judge of people’s fighting skills, I was scared of him for at least a moment.

If this were a manga, meeting someone on par with me or higher might make my heart race. But no. I’m terrified. I think my heart is going to stop. Then again, characters in manga who get pumped up about fighting stronger people get called abnormal, too.

That’s right. From a normal person’s perspective, that’s abnormal.

I am a normal person. I… I’m normal.

Then what about this man?

Is he normal? What about Yili behind him? She’s already a part of the criminal underworld, so I suppose her abnormality is a given. But what about Seiichi Kugi?

He tried to make this island a better place. He disappeared so suddenly that I assumed he was killed by that Inui character.

Yet he’s alive and well. But he won’t show his face in public. And I thought he hated guns—why is he trying to shoot me to death now? Political figures really should keep their campaign promises.

Why? If I kill him now, I’ll never find out. But his bloodlust refuses to disappear.

Then maybe I should just ask now?

Right. I will. I don’t expect much of an answer, but it’ll at least buy me time or provoke him.

“Hey, Mr. Kugi. Mr. Seiichi Kugi.”

He was as silent as I expected he would be, but I continued anyway.

“You know, to be honest… I really respected you. You tried to make this island a better place where most other people would have given up. So… why are you using a gun now?”

“…”

“Just out of curiosity… Do you think you’re normal?”

Any normal person would get angry at that question. At least, I would.

“…Shut up.”

It was a low voice.

His voice was normally higher to match his looks, but the heavy tone of made his anxiety clear against my eardrums.

“Let me just assume you’re still normal. Look. There’s no benefit to us killing one another at this point. If I wanted to kill you, I wouldn’t have leapt in here—I would have taken Yili hostage. Am I wrong?”

“…”

“And even though you’re armed, you’re not coming around here to shoot me because you’re on guard. All right. Calm down and listen to me, okay? And ignore your mistress there and just listen to what I have to say.”

“…”

Was he finally ready to listen? If only I had a hand mirror I could look around the corner. Oh well. I’ll assume he’s listening.

“Listen. I want you to accept the premise that I’m not trying to hurt anyone here. After all, if you try to kill me, I won’t be able to go easy on you.”

“…”

“And if that happens, I’ll do everything my power to go after Yili instead of you.”

“…! Jackass…”

Good, it worked. That’s enough to carry on the conversation.

“I’d be happy if I could take her hostage, but I don’t think you or Yili will give me the chance. So all I could do then is kill your employer—the person you’re supposed to protect. But if you decide to not kill me, we can end things peacefully. And on that note, if you could give me your number we can resolve this over the phone without any violence. What do you think?”

Damn it. Am I doing this right? I’m not really good at negotiations.

But I think these two are more inclined to listen to reason than the crazies from the East. The one who recites pi endlessly, the one who falls asleep while I’m still talking, the airhead girl who just laughs about not knowing anything… The only people I can actually talk to might be the bondage lady, Carlos, and Jun Sahara.

If Zhang were here, he’d just say, “Got it!” and land a drop kick straight through the wall. I don’t think bullets could get through here, but his kicks are practically rocket-powered.

Oh no. I’m getting off-track again.

…Anyway, Yili isn’t saying a thing. I didn’t think she was the type to get scared… maybe she’s coming around from a different direction to get me. I considered that, but I don’t think I can see any way of coming around here from that corner. Then again, there could always be an emergency escape door around here, so I should stay on guard. If she uses something silent, like poison darts, I’m finished.

I tensed slightly and waited for an answer.

…But what if it turns out this guy isn’t Kugi after all? That would be mortifying. It’s funny how I can worry about being embarrassed at a time like this.

There’s only one thing I have to be mindful of now. Whether they’re willing to listen to me or not.

The moment I turned back to the matter at hand, a sickening thought rose to mind.

That killing them is all I could do.

That that was all I could do after all.

That ultimately, that was my only choice.

Ah, I see. I see. This is the way I am normally.

Something is confusing me. I have been abnormal recently. I can’t convince myself to kill. …No, wait. That’s how a normal person should feel. Because no normal person convinces himself to kill so easily.

No, that’s not right.

I am ‘Yakumo Amagiri’.

I should be wearing the mask of the Killer Ghoul. A mask. So why am I hesitating? I mustn’t let the mask become one with the real me underneath. The mask of the Killer Ghoul must protect the real me. so I should not hesitate.


After that second of thought— 


Rather than cling to the mask, I ended up prioritizing the conversation.

“So now what will you do? I think it’ll be most energy-efficient and sensible to talk this out peacefully.”

“…I understand. I accept your terms.”

Huh?

I’m surprised. He actually accepted.

But no matter how polite he sounded, he seemed still very cautious.

“Thank you. But I’m not stupid enough to just walk out there now. Could we keep talking like this for a bit?”

“Yes. Let me begin, then. If you have the time and energy to be trying to prove your innocence, I believe you’d be better off leaving the island altogether.”

“Hey, that applies for half the people on this island. Including you.”

“…”

I was right on the mark, but the man was silent. Did I strike a nerve? Before, he used to be the face of the Western District—but now he’s acting more like Yili’s personal bodyguard…

…Hm? Something’s wrong.

Right. Yili. Where’s Yili?

She’s talkative and feisty. I know that. So why isn’t she saying a word?

I didn’t even have to check. I heard footsteps coming down the hall. It’s a good thing I left the door open. But that was foolish of me. Then again, I’m just a Killer Ghoul. I’m not an assassin or a soldier. I’m not perfect.

While I spoke with Seiichi Kugi like a half-wit, Yili must have contacted security on her cell phone.

I’m such an idiot.

Now… Now I have no choice but to kill.

My heart felt heavy. I am different from before. I’ve changed. I think… it must have been that day, two months ago.


…But one thing remains the same. My bloodlust.

It’s been with me for the past two months, clear as can be.

It’s no exaggeration to say that I’m here to fulfill that desire.

I was led here by my overflowing bloodlust, directed at someone I don’t even know.

But once I do figure it out, I am going to kill them.

And there’s only one person in the whole wide world who could stop me.

…She’s… not around anymore. She’s gone.

Who are you…?

Who in the world could you be?


My thoughts swelled with bloodlust as the footsteps drew near, but the moment I remembered her smile the bloodlust completely ignored both Kugi here and the guards outside.

I’ll kill them. That’s right. As I move to the rhythm of my raging emotions, I simply repeat this phrase to myself myself myself myself I will kill you. But that person alone should be my target. No one else.

Miss Nazuna…


I swear that I will murder the one who hurt Miss Nazuna.

Miss Nazuna is the only one who can stop me now.


So… so please… get well soon.

The radio broadcast said she was in critical condition. I wanted to visit her as fast as I could, but I don’t know where to find her.


What in the world happened?

What in the world happened to her after we parted ways that day?


At that point, I spotted men in black Chinese clothing at the door.

Before they noticed me, I leapt into the air.

And even as I flew, I wondered to myself.

There were enemies in front of me.

But should I kill them or not?


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Chapter 5-B: Slow Case Files


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Afternoon. In front of the ruined hotel in the Western District.


“Don’t even think about starting those toy engines of yours, damned kitten. You may be able to protect yourself, but the two behind you are another matter entirely.” Western District executive Lihuang Ei smirked, a dozen men under his command. The tattoo on his face added a twisted bent to his already terrifying grin.

Meanwhile, Jun held her weapons at the ready and replied defiantly.

“…Wh-what makes you think I can’t protect them?”

“That’s a bold claim, even for the captain of the Guard Team.”

“Yes. But it’s one I’m willing to back up.” Jun said, her eyes flashing as she tightened her hold on her chainsaws.

“I’m well aware that you’re no small fry. But…”

Lihuang snickered and turned his gaze to his sister, who stood further behind Jun and next to the caucasian siblings. He gave her a resounding command.

“Lilei. If the cat decides to turn on her chainsaws, choose one of the foreigners and crush their face.”

The girl nodded silently.

The siblings knew very well that Lihuang was talking about them. But—

“Charlotte? I think we’re in trouble.”

“Worry not, Sherlock Liverpool! Everything will be fine.”

“How?”

Charlotte didn’t seem cowed in the least. Sherlock did not share her optimism.

“There’s no way a girl this adorable could do something so horrifying! Remember—we don’t watch; we observe.”

Lilei’s gaze moved slightly. She looked straight into Charlotte’s eyes and mumbled, so quietly that only she could hear.

“…Adorable? I am adorable?”

“Hm? Yes.” Charlotte said without missing a beat. Lilei averted her gaze with a blush.

Sherlock, who did not hear the exchange, sighed.

“I’m more horrified by the fact that you think you can reason with a gloomy girl holding a rusted lead pipe.”

A second’s silence later, Lilei spoke loudly enough that Sherlock could hear as well.

“Crush your face. It is decided.”

“…Oh. Right…”

Turning her back to Sherlock, who reacted with exhaustion, Lilei moved away and began to draw something on the ground.

Charlotte watched her for a moment before clapping her hands together.

“Sherlock Liverpool… did you just provoke her on purpose? So that you would take on the brunt of her anger?”

“…No. What are you saying, Charlotte?”

“Then perhaps if I insult her, she won’t smash in your face!”

“Seriously. What are you going on about?”

Ignoring Sherlock’s question, Charlotte turned to Lilei.

“Umm… excuse me. I’d hate to say this, but I actually don’t think you’re ado-”

“I heard it. There is no meaning.”

Lilei cut her off. Charlotte could not continue. She turned to Sherlock in a plea for help, but he stared in silent disbelief.

As Charlotte gaped, Lilei gave her a word of consolation.

“You are good person. Not breaking. Be quiet. Listen.”


Meanwhile, tension ran thick in the air between Lihuang and Jun.

“…It’s not like a Western District executive to be taking hostages.”

“We simply show honor to those who deserve it.”

“But what if I decided to abandon those people and attack you anyway?”

“Fine by me. Although I suspect it will take a bit of effort.”

Lihuang snapped his fingers. The men around him drew their weapons.

Five of the men were holding guns, and the rest Chinese swords. One of them was carrying a Chinese broadsword with a long handle. But he threw it high into the air—

And the spinning blade flew into Lihuang’s hand like a falcon returning to its trainer.

“…I was expecting a submachine gun.”

“If I wanted to kill you, I would have issued the men assault rifles. Like I said, I have no intention of killing you here.”

“…That sword doesn’t seem to agree with you.”

“Ironic words coming from a woman armed with chainsaws.”

It seemed as though there would be no end to their banter.

Most of Jun’s awareness was focused on the siblings behind her. She didn’t care if she was hurt or captured, but she could not let bystanders be dragged into the mess.

“…Are you certain about fighting the Eastern District?”

“Do not take us for barbarians. We also strive for the security of the island.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Let me make this clear. I suspect you and the Guard Team are behind the rash of deaths among the ranks of my brethren. The suspicion extends to Yakumo Amagiri as well.” Lihuang said plainly. But Jun seemed to have been expecting his answer.

“Why do you think that? …The Eastern District has lost executives, too.”

“We’ve seen none of the bodies. Not only can you not prove the murders happened, your leader also seemed to be intent on drawing Yakumo Amagiri to the Eastern District. So why would the Killer Ghoul murder your executives when they shouldn’t even be his enemies?”

Jun was silent.

“And let me tell you something not even that repugnant radio station knows. We lost an executive last night. One of our brethren. The death took place at almost exactly the same time as one of your people’s supposed deaths. Now… doesn’t that make Yakumo Amagiri a very busy man?”

Like a detective breaking a faulty alibi, Lihuang continued quietly.

“And last night, you came to visit the Western District. What have you been doing until now?”

“?!”

Jun froze. She had not expected that she herself would be under suspicion. Specifically, it had never occurred to her that the Western District would be keeping such close tabs on her.

“Talk. What have you been doing all night since you entered the hotel?”

“…I…”

“Clearly, you’ll claim you were with the two foreigners. Which is why they are coming with us.”

Jun bit her lip.

Lihuang must know everything—that Jun hadn’t taken a single step outside since coming to the hotel at night. That was why the Western District had acted now; because they found the perfect scapegoat.

Jun would not have minded so much if the Liverpool siblings had been left out of it.

The siblings in the distance probably heard Lihuang’s voice as well. She apologized inwardly, imagining how terrified they must be. But her guilt was confused by a completely oblivious deduction.

“Aha! I finally understand!”

Charlotte cried, clapping her hands.

And with an innocent voice that drained the world around them of hostility—

“From the evidence, I deduce that we are in trouble!”

“Please, Charlotte. You’re making this worse.” Sherlock groaned, shaking his head with a sigh.


“Is her head full of maggots? Or is she the type to stab her opponents in the eyes with a smile, like Mii from your Guard Team?”

“No, well…”

With a gentle grip on his sword Lihuang cast a glance at Charlotte and put on an icy grin.

“Hmph. No matter. Soon they will come to fear for their lives.”


It was just as Lihuang had said.

But it came much sooner than he expected.


Specifically, only a few seconds after his words, a corner of the hotel shone brightly—


◁ ▶︎


The violence in the Western District was being observed.

In fact, it was observed by two different parties.


One was Spring-heeled Joplin. The cameras hidden around the hotel were giving their independent network a live feed of the action.


The other was enjoying the situation.

So it’s about time.

The men led by Lihuang were surrounding Jun Sahara, a key figure in the Eastern District.

Murder was close at hand, but he smiled an invisible smile. At the same time, a complaint rose to his thoughts.

Why is he not here?

This was the best chance he had to torment the man.

Then I just have to call him.

I’ll give him a motive. I’ll give you a motive you’ll never be able to ignore.

Suffer and dance in grief. Wolves, pigs, they will all die.

And you’ll rot in the midst of their corpses.

Sōji Kuzuhara.


The man decided to act, and fingered the device in his pocket—


And at that moment, part of the hotel went up in a column of flames with a deafening roar.


◁ ▶︎


“What’s going on here?!”

“?!”

Lihuang and Jun reflexively broke off their standoff at the sudden noise.

At the same time, an intense shockwave passed by them all. It instantly turned to a wave of heat, making the incident known to all—whether they liked it or not.

An explosion.

The windows in that corner of the hotel shattered at once, and the shards ballooned outwards as they flew everywhere.

Flames red and yellow licked the air between the windows, and the wind that came with the heat pushed glass and shrapnel in all directions.

Covering his eyes from the debris, Lihuang howled furiously.

“How?! Why here?!”

The serial bombings had been happening too often over the past two months.

They took place in random locations at random times. No one would be surprised at where or when they struck.

At least, that was what those absent from this place might think.

The timing of the explosion was impeccable. It left a palpable imprint of the culprit’s malice in the area.

Not debris, not flames, but pure malice. It rose far into the air in a pillar of black smoke.


“Wh-what?!”

“Charlotte!”

The moment she spotted the flames, Charlotte was shoved to the ground by Sherlock.

The heatwave passed over their heads and tiny pieces of debris scattered over Sherlock’s back. Lilei batted away the larger debris with her lead pipe.

“…What is this. It explodes. You did not say. Elder Brother?” She said, her tone unchanged, as she glanced at Lihuang.

But when Lilei saw the look on his face, she realized that he had been caught completely unawares.

As she wondered what to do, Lihuang—who had come to his senses earlier—clicked his tongue and gave new orders.

“Damn it… Are they planning to get in our way? …Lilei! Take those two to the Pits! Search them and make sure they are not carrying anything suspicious. We can’t be certain that they’re not the ones behind this explosion.”

“…Yes.”

Noting his sister’s answer, Lihuang directed the other men.

A man holding a gun and a man holding a sword walked over to the siblings.

“Stop! Keep your hands off my sister!” Sherlock roared, shooting the men a murderous glare as they came over to search them. The men tried to push him away, but Lihuang was the one to stop them.

“Hmph. Fine. You take the woman, Lilei.”

He chose to speed up the process rather than cause disruptions.

Lilei nodded, and with the lead pipe still in one hand, patted down Charlotte and searched her pockets. She had no bags on her, so her search should have been over quickly—save for one thing.

Lilei froze when she saw the photograph she found in Charlotte’s pocket.

“Oh. It is him.”

“Pardon?”

Charlotte’s gaze was instantly drawn to the photograph.

It was the picture of their current target. Takehito Isegawa, as he looked five years ago.

“It is him. He is sleeping. Sleeping on roof.”

“Wh-wh-where?! Where can I find—” Charlotte began, thrilled at the new lead. But she was interrupted.

“Go, Lilei.”

“Yes. Elder Brother. I am sorry. We talk later.”

The conversation came to an abrupt end and the Liverpool siblings were forced into a nearby car.

Deciding that there was no point to resisting, Sherlock boarded without a fuss. The car slowly made its way down the fire-lit road.


The moment the car departed, Lihuang and Jun both breathed a sigh of relief.

“…?”

Herself aside, Jun wondered why Lihuang seemed to relieved.

It was almost as though he had prioritized sending them away.

Noting her curiosity, Lihuang held his sword crooked and put on a wry grin.

“Hmph. It would be difficult to talk him down if there were civilians around. I would prefer if you made no fuss as well.”

Who?

Jun’s confusion lasted but a moment, for the answer soon became clear.

She heard a strange noise.

It was a siren, like a police car, an ambulance, and a fire truck were combined into one. A noise that was nothing but annoying at this point.

Then, a van appeared out of the corner of her eye.

It was the most famous vehicle on the island, painted the same color as the sky. The moving studio of the pirate radio station, Sōsei Airwaves.


She heard Lihuang click his tongue.

When he raised a hand, the men with guns immediately put away their weapons. But those with blades did not move.

When Jun realized the implications behind their actions, everything fell into place.

She knew who Lihuang was talking about—who was on that van.


The radio station made a wide, screeching turn and stopped right in front of Lihuang and the others.

The siren ceased, and at the same time emerged one of the island’s most prominent celebrities. A man who was, in a way, much more famous than Lihuang or Jun and had the trust of the islanders to back up his fame.


With a tired look, the man scanned the area.

His eyes were on neither Lihuang nor Jun nor the flames that continued to burn.

But on the man who plunged the island into chaos, standing somewhere beyond the flames.

Or perhaps he was glaring at his old self, who had let the man get away.

All Sōji Kuzuhara could do was whisper the name of his nemesis.


“Ginga… Kanashima…!”


-----


I didn’t notice a thing when all those things were happening with big bro.

I just listened to Nejiro’s friends talking over what looked like cell phones and pieced things together.

“It’s Kuzuhara.”

“He came.”

“He made it.”

“What’s happening?”

“What’s happening?”

“An explosion.”

“Another one.”

“At the hotel.”

“The three-story one in central district 3?”

“Yeah.”

“I see.”

“I’m the one who put the bomb there.”

“Yeah.”

“So?”

“Was it amazing?”

“Was it?”

“Not really.”

“Right.”

“Right.”

I still can’t get used to the way the Rats talk to each other. It almost sounds like they’re one person, and it’s very hard to join the conversation.

And how could they be so indifferent about setting up the bombs? Maybe I’m just not used to their voices and they’re actually very scared. But I do not know the truth.

Before, I would have passed it off as a joke.

But things are different now.

Because now… I know.

That the ones who set up most of the bombs that exploded on the island were these kids.


I realized this only a few days ago.

After I showed Nejiro the picture two months ago, he began to act strangely. Or maybe the picture didn’t have anything to do with it at all.

So… though I was focused on Nejiro all that time, I recently ended up seeing something.

I was wandering around an abandoned building in the Eastern District when I saw some of the kids who often hang out with Nejiro. They were putting something strange by an old vent. When I asked them what it was…


“What do you mean?”

“It’s a bomb.”

“A bomb.”

“Oh.”

“She caught us.”

“She did.”

“What do we do?”

“Do we kill her?”

“Kill her.”

“Oh.”

“What’s wrong?”

“She’s Nejiro’s friend.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“I see.”

“Then maybe we shouldn’t kill her.”

“Yeah.”

“Then let’s bring her with us.”

“Yeah. Let’s ask Nejiro what to do.”

“Yeah.”

“Nejiro always knows what to do.”


Right now, I’m with Nejiro.

He won’t tell me any details.

“It has nothing to do with you, Yua. You could tell people about it, but… then the person who made us do this might set off all the bombs at once. And… there’s more bombs out there than the ones we set. Damn it… he doesn’t trust us after all. I guess I should have expected that.”

He sounded so very sad. But I couldn’t forget that sound. So I was too scared to tell anyone. Scared that the moment I confessed, the bombs would explode all at once. That… that these kids would all die.

After that, I’ve been coming to see Nejiro all the time.

I think the kids have started acting this way because of the adult beside Nejiro, who’s telling him things all the time.

I don’t know who this person is. Nejiro won’t tell me the details. But… something about this person scares me. It’s like standing in a room with someone who’s killed many people.

Once, when we were alone, Nejiro said this to me.

“…Yua. If you have any relatives on the mainland, I think it’d be best if you left the island.”

I shook my head, then.

“I see… So you have loved ones here. Then you should run away with them if you can. I’m sure you have your reasons for staying until now, even after all the explosions. But still…”

I shook my head again.

There are so many people I love on this island.

The people at Iizuka’s restaurant, big bro, and Kelly. I love them all so much.

But even if they all left the island… I think I would stay.

I nodded to myself and told Nejiro that I had to make maps.

“No matter how much I catch up, the paths keep changing in a matter of days. So… this island is alive. I love my friends, but I can’t leave this place.”

There was a shadow over his face as he looked away.

“This island isn’t alive, Yua. It’s been dead from the beginning. But it keeps on squirming. Just like us. You’re willing to die for that?”

I nodded immediately.

I told him that, if I stopped making maps, I would feel like I would lose my reason to live—and deny my father’s life, too.

Nejiro said, “Your dad wouldn’t want you to get hurt”. But I replied, “I know. This is something I want to do. Whatever my dad says, I won’t stop making maps. And he’s already gone, you know? So he can’t stop me”.

“And you know…” I said, “the explosions are making new paths, too, so I need to record them.”

Nejiro looked so sad.


“You’ve lost your mind, too.

“I thought you were still normal. I thought you wouldn’t end up like us.

“Why? Why…? Why does this island have to drive someone like you crazy, too? I just don’t get it…

“Damn it… This island is full of insects. It’s sickening. It’s completely lost its mind. Damn it… Damn it!”


Nejiro slammed his hand against the wheel of his wheelchair with tears in his eyes, calling me crazy.

Maybe he’s right.

I didn’t feel angry, and I wasn’t surprised.

So I think maybe I am a little out of my mind.

I’m sure people would think I was very strange if they could see me now, talking to a cat with a speaker strapped to its back.

Tell me, Spring-heeled Joplin.

This island is alive. That’s what I believe.

But if it is, is it out of its mind?

I just don’t know.

So please. Please tell me, Spring-heeled Joplin.


Even if this island—we—are out of our minds… can we find happiness?


-----


This is Spring-heeled Joplin.

Allow me to answer your question, Spring-heeled—oh, ahem. Excuse me. Not yet, I suppose.

Allow me to answer your question, Miss Yua Kirino, the one who walks the line between fairy tales and reality.

This island has lost its mind.

Which is why it is allowed to exist.

After all, it was never supposed to exist to begin with.

I can’t tell you if you have gone crazy or not. If you think you are, then the problem becomes what things around you you assume are normal.

If you wish for a standard of normalcy on the island, then you’ve never been out of your mind to begin with.

It’s the same with happiness. It all depends on what you see as the standard.

I apologize for the cliched answer, but not even Spring-heeled Joplin is omnipotent.

Now, think it over once more.

If you choose to become Spring-heeled Joplin, we will welcome you.

…Probably.


-----



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