Tuesday, November 22, 2022 @

Chapter 16, Part 1

 In most cases, although youkais are killed by exorcism experts, youkai are powerful beings by nature. No, even the exorcism experts were often beaten back in the old days.
 Then, in this day and age, exorcists can slaughter without any danger unless it is against some big youkai or calamity youkai who attack with a set-up or concept attack. Still, they can slaughter them because they have concentrated their spiritual power through successive generations of powerful people, acquired more powerful unusual powers, and acquired the know-how of exterminating monsters at the cost of enormous sacrifices.
 In the meantime, a stray sorcerer or a servant with only second- or third-grade equipment, who has not been trained for generations, can only win a one-on-one victory against a small youkai, or ten against a medium youkai, and even then, they have unparalleled power against a mere mortal who does not know how to fight. Of course, the warrior, who also have only fragile spiritual power, put all of their little spiritual power only into improving their physical ability, and they fight against the monsters by using armor like a lump of iron and weapons like blunt weapons, while the soldiers of the Imperial Court, who do not have even a small amount of spiritual power, can fight against most of the monsters by using a large number and concentration of explosive weapons and other flying weapons in large quantities
 On the other hand, it would be suicidal, even reckless, to fight a group of youkai if there were only a few or a handful of humans. Although there are individual differences, even the strength of a small youkai is almost equal to that of a well-trained and armed common soldier.
 Therefore, it was no surprise to find several dead gangsters scattered in a bar in a bad part of the new city at midnight.
 "Hmm, it tastes a little greasy and sticky, but... well, this is what I expect from a place like this..."
 The bar is not a large place, but it is crowded with many foxes who are biting and fighting over the lumps of meat in various parts of the bar. The only one, a charming five-tailed humanoid fox sitting on the table, takes a lick of blood stuck on her hand and expresses her opinion on the taste. Unlike peasants, town people, especially gangsters who stay in a place like this, seem to enjoy eating meat a lot, and the taste is not so good, not to mention the nutritional value. However, it was not a problem for them since the meal was only for a secondary purpose. The real purpose is...
 "One, two, three, four, five and... six. That's a lot."
 The youkai fox counts the survivors shivering in the corner of the bar and mulls it over. It was hard to believe that this was the same man who had just killed over a dozen people in less than a few seconds.
 "Hmm, okay. I choose you."
 "Huh...? Hgg—!?"
 Before the chosen man can scream, a fox obeys her command and bites down on his throat, ripping it open. The man dies in agony, red froth spewing from his mouth and blood spurting from his throat.
 The rest of the survivors scream. But no one outside notices the sound of their voices. After all, the bar has already been covered with sound-proofing youkai-jutsu.
 "You're being too loud. Why don't you quiet down a bit, you monkeys."
 For a brief moment, the female fox turns on her youkai energy with deadly force. With that, they gasp and some of them faint. This was a natural result considering that they were residents of the capital who had never faced youkai before.
 "Well, well, is everything ready now? At this rate, we'll have a feast tomorrow."
 With a spoon, the monster scooped up a piece of peach-colored "tender meat" from the "container" and placed it on her red tongue, savoring its rich fat and sweetness, while thinking about tomorrow's catch with a horrified smile...
* * *
 The sun was still shining in the blue sky, but at the same time, it was considerably less intense than the previous day. The cicadas were buzzing less and less, and the breeze blowing in the air was slightly cooler than it had been in autumn.
 One day at the end of the month, when the summer was drawing to a close and the heat was getting away, it was supposed to be a normal day for her.
 "Alright then, I'm going to work. Everyone be well-behaved, okay? ...and don't let strangers in, okay?"
 Azuma Hibari reminds them, and they cheerfully comply. Of course, it's not just a thoughtless remark. As half-youkai, they knew how they would be treated outside, and even if they did not, they were well aware of the danger of bringing a stranger into their home. Therefore, their voices were serious, as opposed to their tone of voice.
 Azuma smiled and nodded at the children's response. Then, she recognized a white girl looking at her anxiously and worriedly from a little distance away from their gathering. Her white skin seemed paler than usual.
 "Shiro, what are you doing there? Come here, you too. Won't you come with me and see me off?"
 She folded her knees and looked at her with the same gaze as the child, and then she gently beckoned to her.
 Slightly flustered, the girl runs up to Azuma and hugs her tightly.
 "Umm? I had a nightmare today."
 The girl mutters with a trembling voice. She herself can hardly remember it, but she remembers that it was a horrifying dream that made her hair stand on end. She was therefore afraid to go to work with Azuma, perhaps out of a sense of insecurity.
 ...However, the problem is that it was not a dream.
 "I see. That's tough. Then I'll go home as soon as I can today for Shiro's sake."
 Hugging Shiro and rubbing her head and back, Azuma reassures her new family member.
 "Of course. But I can't take time off from work. In the meantime, will you be patient?"
 Shiro looked down for a moment, but immediately looked at the other children, and when they smiled at her, she gave a small nod of acceptance, albeit reservedly.
 "Good girl, good girl. Everyone, Shiro's only been here a short time. Take good care of her so she doesn't get lonely."
 She said, to which the children responded cheerfully once again. Relieved at this, Azuma finally gets up, checks the boundaries, etc., and then walks to her workplace, the temple school, with the children seeing her off.
 On the other hand, the children started to play excitedly when the orphanage director, who also acted as their mother, left. They are children, after all. Azuma, however, had already anticipated such a situation and had added a soundproofing function to the boundary, albeit a limited one. To be more precise, the sound from the outside could reach the inside, but the sound from the inside could not leak out to the outside. Simply, the sound of children's noise could be a nuisance, and above all, there was no need to attract the attention of suspicious people by telling them what was going on inside the orphanage.
 And since the children knew this, they could play while shouting without worrying about their surroundings.
 "Shiro-chan, let's play house!"
 "Eh~, let's play hide-and-seek instead!"
 The older children ran up to Shiro and invited her to play, partly because they did not want their new friend to feel lonely, and partly because they themselves wanted to play, too. The fox girl is confused as her hands are pulled in opposite directions.
 "Shiro-oneechan, can you read me a book?"
 The one who came to the rescue was Akane, who was holding a book in her hand while flapping her lizard-like tail and waving it around like she was in a good mood. Although she herself did not intend to help her, but only acted on her own desire.
 No one can complain when Akane, the youngest, the most pampered, and the whiniest among the orphans, says so. She is loved like a little sister by everyone, and her request could not be ignored. Above all, Shiro could read the most among the orphans, though she herself did not know why. So it was obvious which game the fox girl would choose.
 "Yeah, okay. Akane-chan, you want to go?"
 Seeing the troubled attitudes of the people around her, and at the same time, sensing the power relationship between them from her not-so-long life in this orphanage, the fox girl accepts her cute friend's request with a slightly bitter smile and starts reading a book sitting on the porch of the orphanage.
 The books were slightly discolored due to the lack of mass production of paper and the immaturity of the type-printing technology. It was a moral education lesson book donated anonymously to the orphanage some years ago, probably from a second-hand bookstore.
 "So, which story do you want to talk about today?"
 "Ummm... The story of Kasa Jizo!"
 Akane cheerfully answers Shiro's question. The story she told was about the Kasa Jizo. It was not simply because she liked the story, but rather because the girl Akane seemed to like stories involving food every time, and that seemed to be her choice.
 The story is about a poor old couple who can't afford to buy rice cakes at the end of the year and go to a town to sell their hats in the snow. However, no one cares about their old rural hats, so they go back to their house. On their way home, they find five snow-covered Ojizo-sama, and the old man takes pity on them and gives them some of his unsold hats and a hand towel to one of them who is short. At night, when the old couple was sleeping, they heard a noise. They peeked in the doorway and found a pile of boxes containing bales of rice, vegetables, fish, koban, and fabrics. They were gifts from Ojizo-sama to the kind-hearted and good-hearted old couple.
 "The grandfather and the grandmother, who had given a blessing to the departing Ojizo-sama, were able to celebrate a wonderful New Year in this way. And they were very happy."
 When Shiro finishes her story, Akane, peering at the illustrations in the book as if peering into the book, asks her new family.
 "Shiro-oneechan. From this house. There's Ojizou-sama statue a little ways away from here."
 "Is that so?"
 Akane's sudden words made Shiro look a little puzzled as she asked back. She still did not fully understand the geography of the area around the orphanage.
 "Yeah. So... Next time. I'd like to make a cookie. In winter. When it snows, if I give it to Ojizou-sama, will He give me food like in the story?"
 "Umm... I wonder if that's true...?"
 Akane, who was already like a little sister to her even though they had known each other only for a short time, said something that even Shiro could not clearly say back. The fox girl was a good person, but in the back of her mind, she knew that the story she had just told was just a story. Because she already knew it.
 (That's right. Helping... no matter how nice or good they were...)
 However, even though we didn't bother anyone. Just living a quiet life with my mother, cultivating the fields on the outskirts of the village! And yet... and yet...!!
 (No one came to help to us. Even though we did good things... Even though we didn't do anything bad. That's right... that's why I'm...)
 "Huh? Uh, um, I'm sorry. Akane. I was kind of fuzzy from the heat..."
 The fox girl comes back to herself at the sound of Akane's voice and answers evasively. At the same time, she herself wondered what she had been thinking.
 (Could that have been, just now...?)
 She does not know because she does not remember, but it seems to her that this was the element that controls the basis of her existence.
 (In the first place, who am I? No... what am I?)
 She has no memory and cannot remember where she was born. She can read and has nightmares. Such things do not seem to be unrelated and independent factors. And some of the contents are clearly disturbing.
 At this thought, Shiro fears it inwardly. The orphanage is important to her. A place where she felt safe and at peace, even if her time there was short. She did not want to put the place and its people in danger because of her.
 "...Uhh, Shiro-oneechan. I... I love rice cakes."
 After staring at Shiro, Akane suddenly speaks up.
 "Rice cake (Mochi), is it?"
 "Yes! It's so delicious in soup! And also! Anko (red bean paste), kinako (soybean flour), and ah! Sato shoyu is also delicious!"
 With a slight twinkle in her eyes and drooling at the corners of her mouth, the young girl talks about the deliciousness of rice cakes. In this world where white rice is still precious, rice cakes are also a luxury item, and at the same time, rice cakes are a food that is concentrated with the flavor of rice. If one considers the value of white rice to be a feast for the common people, the value of rice cakes can be understood.
 "I-Is that so...?"
 Akane's joyful tone slightly turned her off, but Shiro urged her to continue the conversation.
 "Yes. But... Last Oshogatsu (New Year)'s... Everyone ate rice cakes, but only mother didn't eat any."
 Akane looked sad as she spoke those words.
 "You know. Mother always shares her food with us. Even though she's bigger than us and has more work to do."
 After saying that, Akane stared at the book again. Then she snorted and declared "That's why I'm going to make a cover for her for the next Oshogatsu (New Year)!" She said.
 "And, we're going to eat lots of rice cakes! So, let's eat it on the next Oshogatsu (New Year) together, Shiro-oneechan!"
 Akane's words, uttered with a carefree smile, made the fox girl gasp. She understood that the younger sisterly girl in front of her was speaking out of concern for her. And moved by the fact that she said she wants to live with her from now on, Shiro's heart burns deep in her chest.
 "Yes... That's right. I wish we could all be together."
 So Shiro answers. And she affirms it. Because she, too, sincerely wishes it.
 At this moment, the girl who had almost lost everything was indeed happy. At the same time, she had made up her mind as a child to protect this small but warm and precious happiness.
 ...But this happiness is not long-lasting. It never lasts. The hour of doom, the hour of despair, the moment of the tragedy was almost upon them.
* * *

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