Demon Child, Chapter 10.
from Aili's translation of Ono Fuyumi's Mashou no Ko.
The next day, a great many condolence callers came to the small main hall of the temple. What was surprising was that about a dozen of them were students who had skipped school to come to the funeral. They were all class 2-6 students, but Sakata was not amongst them. They awkwardly offered some incense and gave Takasato a few words of support. Hirose's mood was hard to articulate as he watched this supposedly heart-warming scene.
A surprising number of condolence callers had shown up. A majority of them seemed not even to know what Takasato looked like. People were gathered in small clusters here and there throughout the main hall and the grounds of the temple, gossiping to each other in lowered voices. He knew from what he could hear that they were here merely to get a peek at the rumored angel of death.
Since this was a funeral with only the ashes of the deceased, there was no funeral procession. After Takasato gave a short customary expression of gratitude, the guests left their seats in waves. Just then, a thunderous roar erupted in the vicinity that seemed to make the ground shake. All the guests gathered in the main hall looked to the direction of the sound, and saw the air above the road to the temple filled with a thick cloud of dust. Everybody began speaking up.
The temple gate had collapsed.
In an instant, a tumult rose up in the area. Hirose leapt out of the main hall and ran towards the gate. The gate that, while small, had been built in the style of a temple gate, had fallen over and crumbled. Amid the scattered heaps of timber, roofing tiles and the mud wall, he could see the hands and feet of people. There was also blood and the sound of groaning—and cameras.
At once he realized that the members of the press who were waiting outside of the temple had all been buried under. Looking around, he could see the luckier reporters who had escaped unscathed all standing in a daze as they looked upon the rubble.
Suddenly hearing a sound, Hirose looked back. Three students from class 2-6 had gathered near the advancing crowd of people.
"After causing such a commotion, did you really think that you'd all be fine?"
"Yeah! How could you broadcast about some curse? I can't believe it."
They sent flickering glances around and could see Takasato standing with a pale face.
The reporters standing in front of the gate began to move about. Some called for ambulances and some asked if the video had been rolling. "That guy put a curse on them," a man said, pointing at Takasato. Then there emerged the widespread sound of camera shutters.
Takasato stirred. He ran to the pile of rubble and started pushing aside the things that had fallen to the ground. Some people from the crowd jump forward to help with the rescue effort as well. They hauled away the rubble and started pulling the injured out.
- - - - -
It was likely that all of the ambulances in the vicinity had been called. A few of them had rushed there and were beginning to take the injured away. Hirose sighed and patted the dust off of his body. He looked for Takasato in the crowd and found that he was near the main temple hall, surrounded by the students who had come to pay their condolences.
Hirose walked over there and heard someone say kindly, "You must have been scared."
"Takasato, you don't look well."
"Yeah, you should take a break somewhere."
"This must be hard for you. I'll go ask where you can rest."
Saying this, one of the students left and spoke with an elderly monk who was sending off one of the people who had been injured on the temple road.
Hirose knew what was really going on. —They were just flattering him.
Here, there was a king of curses, and he used fear to rule those around him. One day, those around him raised a banner of revolt and attempted to overthrow the king and topple his reign of terror. However, the king hadn't been defeated. He fell three stories but suffered nary a scratch, and afterwards, he implemented a purge. Those who tried to smash his reign of terror were punished in a horrific way, and thus the rest of them became subservient. If a revolution was impossible, then to live on, their only option was to serve him. They had to avoid making the king unhappy and couldn't provoke his anger. If they never defied him and always treated him kindly, then no mistakes could be made.
Takasato was so lonely, thought Hirose. Every part of him was utterly filled with loneliness.
The siren of an ambulance went off as it sped away.
This incident had resulted in the deaths of nine people and the injuries of twenty-some others. The news for that day repeatedly broadcast the recorded images of that moment.
The temple gate suddenly collapsed, and before they had time to scream, those standing under it were crushed. The moment was like a tower of toy blocks that were stacked too high and thus toppled over.
When Hirose and Takasato returned to the apartment that night, it was quiet all around. They no longer saw the gathered reporters from before. The atmosphere in the road in front of the apartment was still. The wall of the house across from them had been damaged and was covered with a sheet. They thought it curious as they walked up the stairs of the apartments. Then, Hirose stopped in front of his door.
A paper was taped to the door with two words scribbled on it in marker: "Get out." Hirose ripped it down and unlocked the door with the key in his hand.
- - - - -
After that night's news, they knew the reason why there hadn't been a single person out there in front of the apartment complex.
At the time the temple gate collapsed, an accident occurred near Hirose's apartment as well. An out-of-control car had hurtled into the group of waiting news reporters, resulting in two deaths and four injuries. Since the driver of the car was one of the dead, no one knew why he had driven like that.
I see, Hirose thought. So they're finally scared, are they?
Reporting about the collapse at the temple and the car collision, a hard-line newscaster said, "News reporters became victims while covering an occurrence," but which "occurrence" they were referring to would likely be immediately spread around.
After watching the news, Takasato's face became ashen. Hirose felt terrible for him. His very existence had caused these horrible things to happen. Just how many lives have been lost because of him?
Hirose looked at Takasato's profile with a compassion a bit different than that which he expressed before yesterday, and then he stared off into space.
Perhaps, Hirose thought. Perhaps their intention was to get rid of all enemies. He felt this was like a child's line of thinking. If that was the case, then they'd likely never stop. Tomorrow, another group of reporters will come, and they'll surely treat Takasato less favorably than the group before them. What will they do to them? Will they get rid of them too?
And then, before long, will they have determined everyone to be an enemy? If they continue to unrestrictedly protect him, then he'll eventually lose both a way and a place to live.
"Takasato," said Hirose. Takasato looked at him. "Let's use this opportunity to take a walk."
Hirose forced out a sliver of a smile.
"I don't think we'll be able to go outside tomorrow."
They couldn't see the moon. Without any street lamps, the top of the weir was dark all around. The pitch black mud broke against the outside of the weir.
"What was your grandmother like?" asked Hirose as he was looking down at the water. Takasato found it hard to hide a troubled expression after Hirose suddenly brought this up.
—This was a trap.
Hirose looked at Takasato's face as he mumbled to himself, "It's a trap. Don't fall for it."
He tilted his head. "I think...she was ordinary, just a little strict."
"She was a strict person when it came to discipline. Because she was really old-fashioned... I remember she had a lot to say when it came to how we held our chopsticks or how we sat when we ate."
"Oh? That strict, huh?"
Takasato smiled. "My grandmother was scarier than my parents. That one time, she hit me mercilessly."
Hirose looked at Takasato. "Are you talking about when you were spirited away?"
Takasato nodded and appeared to be smiling bitterly. His expression saddened Hirose. He had no idea he was about to fall into a trap.
"What was the reason? I remember that...she asked me who'd dripped water all over the bathroom. Yeah, I think that was it. My brother said that it was me, but since I didn't remember doing it, I said that it wasn't me."
"So was your brother the real culprit?"
Takasato shook his head. "I don't know, because I didn't see anything. If I'd seen who did it, then I would have told her. Unfortunately I didn't know who did it, so all I could say was that it hadn't been me."
What an interesting line of thinking, thought Hirose. Wasn't he even a little bit suspicious of the brother who'd insisted it had been him?
"My grandmother also said that it was probably me. She scolded me. Why can't you just apologize honestly? She sent me out into the garden and told me that unless I apologized, I wasn't allowed to go back inside. It'd been February then and it was snowing." Takasato smiled and said, "It was cold outside, but I knew that I hadn't done it, so I couldn't apologize and lie and say that I did. This was because my grandmother always warned me that I should never ever lie."
"...And? What happened after?"
Takasato was still smiling. "I was at a loss. I didn't know what to do. It was getting colder and colder and the sun had almost set. I wanted to go inside really badly, but I couldn't lie. It was then that I felt a warm breeze blow towards me. I looked in that direction and I saw that arm."
The smiling Takasato looked at Hirose and began to look more hesitant.
You've fallen into the trap. Hirose swallowed these words.
Takasato. In front of Hirose's eyes, he looked like a helpless and unlucky boy.
"Did you hate your grandmother?"
"No." Takasato shook his head.
"Wasn't she strict? You must have hated her."
"I've never thought that way before. I was afraid of being scolded by her."
"Even though she made you stay out in the garden in midwinter for something you didn't even do? At the very least you must have hated her at that time, right?"
Takasato shook his head. He didn't look like he was lying or pretending. "But what could she have done? My grandmother didn't know who did it, and my brother said it was me, so she could only believe him..."
"You don't think it was really your brother?"
"Why? My brother said that I'd done it."
"Because of that! You hadn't done it and your brother hadn't seen you drip any water, right? But he was so certain that you had. Don't you think he was pushing his own blame onto you?"
Takasato was taken aback, and then asked, "Ah, now that you mention it... I suppose that's a possibility, huh?"
He looked as if he was slowly coming to this realization.
Hirose sighed. It didn't look like he was acting, but his reaction could have another deeper meaning.
"Aren't you angry at your brother?" asked Hirose quietly. Takasato smiled. He was not accustomed to smiling, so it looked unusually earnest.
"It doesn't mean that he actually did it... Also, it's already in the past."
Seeing his smile, Hirose understood. The quarry had fallen into the trap. All he had to do now was seal it up.
Hirose breathed in softly, and then he said to Takasato as calmly as possible, "It's you, isn't it, Takasato?"
Takasato looked as if he didn't understand Hirose's meaning. Hirose repeated it quietly.
"You're the one doing it."
Takasato opened his eyes widely and then creased his brow.
"What did I do?"
"The retribution. You're the one doing it."
Takasato stared at Hirose's face. His eyes carried a jumble of different emotions.
"I think you're doing it subconsciously. Despite that, I think you're the one doing it all."
"...You're wrong." He sounded perplexed. His expression and mood were that of not understanding why Hirose would suddenly these things.
"I'm not wrong. It was you that hurt those people. I think your subconscious wanted to take revenge on them. And you carry it out with this 'power' that you have."
"It would be a bit cliché to call it a psychic ability. It's some sort of unique 'power," and it exacts revenge on behalf of your consciousness."
Takasato shook his head vigorously. He didn't appear angry, just a bit distressed.
"You hated your home. You wanted to escape to somewhere. Your subconscious used that 'power' and made you vanish to some other place. In that way, it's a tremendous power. You got rid of all the people you didn't like. Every time you felt lonely, you would call for its consolation."
Hirose shook his head plainly. "It's only that you don't know about it. You don't know you have that kind of 'power.' Somewhere inside of you, you hate the people who hurt you."
Takasato didn't respond. He simply stared at Hirose's face with widened eyes. He looked just like an abandoned child who couldn't completely understand the situation, and so simply felt sorrow.
"People are messy creatures. They're messy and crude creatures." It's only because they're not wild animals that they're so tainted and base. "People's souls aren't made of light or glass, but the poisonous ego. No one can live like you do, where you don't hate anyone. That's not something that people are able to achieve. There can't be a complete lack of hatred. You simply cover it up is all. Otherwise, it's not that you won't admit it. It's just that you're pretending it doesn't exist."
"...That's not right."
Hirose looked directly at Takasato. "Then why did you ask Hashigami for Tsuiki's name? It was because you wanted revenge. On those guys who brought up things you didn't want them to bring up."
"That's not true." Takasato looked up at Hirose. "I didn't ask him. It wasn't that I wanted to find out Tsuiki-kun's name. A third-year was saying such strange things, and I just wanted to know who thought that way."
"Takasato," sighed Hirose as he shook his head. "This is a front, and I'm not going to buy it."
In the same way, there was a self-deception in Hirose as well.
"It's true. I was wondering if the rumors had really already become so strange, so..."
"Takasato," Hirose interrupted Takasato. "Stop it. You must understand that it can't keep going on like this. You'll slowly lose your own footing and at the same time gather yourself more enemies. And the enemy that appear will be even worse than before."
Takasato shook his head.
"Takasato. Humans can't live tidily. People can't spend their days crying for those who've harmed others or lamenting those who've hit other people."
"You can hit me. You can hate me and yell at me. Just stop pretending you don't know what's happening and stop overpowering your ego."
Takasato hung his head low.
"Stop saying these things, please."
"Don't cover your ears."
"I'm begging you to please stop!"
"Please just stop!" He looked up at Hirose sincerely. "Please, don't die."
He sounded utterly genuine.
Is it that he can't admit it, or that he doesn't want to?
Hirose patted Takasato's shoulder. He was still hanging his head.
"...Let's head back."
Late that night, Gotou called to ask that Takasato make a trip to the school the next day. His tone had sounded strange. Was he drunk? thought Hirose. Of course, he'd never seen Gotou drunk before.
The following day, Takasato asked Hirose to come to school with him. It surprised him, since this was the first time Takasato asked something of him, but still he nodded silently.
When they went outside, an astounding number of reporters were gathered on the road in front of their place. Upon seeing Takasato, they began causing a commotion. Before they ran to Totoki's arriving car, they could heard enough malicious taunts to induce a headache.
- - - - -
Per instruction, they made their way to the prep room where Gotou was already inside waiting. When he saw Hirose, he raised his eyebrows but didn't say anything.
"Takasato, I feel terrible for asking you here."
"I'm sorry, but could you go to the headmaster's office? The headmaster would like to speak with you."
Takasato looked at Gotou's face, but didn't say anything. Then he looked back at Hirose.
"Excuse me, Sensei, can you come with me?"
A surprised Gotou spoke up, "Hey hey, I don't think the headmaster has any business with Hirose."
Takasato looked at Gotou. "I feel a bit helpless. If Hirose sensei doesn't come with me, I'm not going."
Gotou dumbfoundedly looked at Hirose, and Hirose looked back at Gotou. With a baffled expression on his face, Gotou picked up the telephone and dialed an extension number. He told the person on the line what Takasato had said to him.
The other person didn't really have any objections. Via the telephone, Gotou served as an intermediary between the other person and Takasato and finally put down the telephone receiver. He had a strange expression on his face.
- - - - -
They arrived at the headmaster's office, and other than the headmaster, the deputy headmaster and the second year dean were also there. They seemed a little bit unhappy as they looked at Takasato and then Hirose, and then with sullen expressions invited the two to sit down.
"First, we are all very sorry for your loss. Have you decided on what you will be doing from now on?"
The headmaster gently cleared his throat. "Takasato-kun, I heard from your homeroom teacher, Gotou sensei that you were going to withdraw from school, is that right?"
The headmaster nodded a few times, and then squeezed out a smile, though they weren't sure what it represented. "A lot has happened to you recently, and it's been hard, hasn't it? And with the loss of your family, I think you probably need to take some time for yourself. I believe you want to find a place where you can really think through all the things that have happened to you, so that you can completely change your mental state, is that right?"
Hirose fixed his eyes on the headmaster.
"The school is willing to accept you withdrawal notification any time."
Hirose stood up. "Does that you mean you want him to leave?"
The deputy headmaster scowled at Hirose. "No one's said any such thing. Please settle down."
The headmaster looked at Hirose with upturned eyes and then looked back at Takasato.
"So, what do you think?"
Takasato nodded, his face showing no particular expression. "When I go back, I'll take care of the formalities."
The headmaster looked very obviously relieved, and then nodded. "Don't worry. There's no rush. Please go downstairs for the paperwork, and just mail it to us at a later date. According to policy, you're supposed to need a guardian's approval, but because of your situation, your guardians are no longer present, so that can't be helped."
How crude, thought Hirose. He knew why Gotou had gotten drunk last night. The school wanted to get rid of Takasato, but since they couldn't think of a reason to, they were pressuring him to withdraw on his own. The reason they had asked Takasato in during his mourning period was because he currently had no guardian who could oppose the school officials. He'll have a guardian in the future, but by that time, the school would have already accepted his withdrawal notification. They were trying to wipe themselves clean of responsibility after the fact, and it was truly a despicable way to do things.
However, it didn't appear as if Takasato cared. He was looking down expressionlessly, meaning that he had already accepted it. The headmaster smiled as he gave a soon-to-be-leaving student empty words of encouragement and caution. Hirose stood nearby with clenched fists as he listened on.
As they were about to leave the headmaster's room after the discussion was over, the deputy headmaster beckoned to Hirose. Hirose stopped walking and Takasato did the same.
"Hirose-kun, please wait a moment. —Takasato-kun, you may leave," said the deputy headmaster.
Takasato said, "Can't I stay as well?"
Hirose looked puzzlingly at Takasato. The deputy headmaster gave the headmaster a troubled look. "In any case, please leave."
"No." His voice was firm and resolute. Hirose was very surprised as he looked over at Takasato's raised profile.
The deputy headmaster walked over and grabbed Takasato's arm.
"At any rate—"
"If you force me to leave, I'm going to tell the media that you asked me to withdraw."
The deputy headmaster was taken aback as he looked at Takasato. Takasato was smiling.
"I could also tell them that you threatened me."
The administrators all appeared worried for a moment. Hirose was speechless and absolutely astonished. His behavior could only be described as a complete change. He was not at all like the Takasato of before.
"Hirose-kun," said the deputy headmaster uneasily. "About this matter—"
"I'll keep quiet," Hirose spit out indifferently. "I didn't see or hear about any of the things that went on here, including my previous stint as a student teacher. From today on, I no longer have anything to do with this school. —Is that good enough for you?"
Hirose looked at the nodding administrators, and then prompted Takasato to leave. The exited the headmaster's office together.
On their way from the headmaster's office back to the prep room, Hirose might better be described as surprised than angry. He had to stop himself from asking, "What happened back there?" He mulled something over in his head several times, and when they were going up the stairs, he carefully asked, "Takasato, you'll have to excuse me, but in a little bit I have to go to my university."
Takasato looked at Hirose. "I can't come with you?"
"I'm sorry, but I have to go talk some things over with my seminar instructor..."
"Please, take me with you. I swear I won't get in the way."
He was so insistent. Hirose understood why.
—Being nearer to Takasato raised one's chances for safety.
When was it that I'd discussed this with Gotou?
Hirose felt deep emotions, as he looked at Takasato who was looking back at him.
Takasato widened his eyes.
"Forgive me. It was a lie."
He looked down in shame.
"Takasato, thank you."
"...I don't understand it myself." Takasato kept his head down. "No matter how much I think it over, I don't know if I'm really doing it or not. Even more, I really don't know if I'm actually harboring all this hatred but pretending like nothing's wrong."
His voice was trembling.
"Regardless of whether I'm doing it, or if someone else is, I don't know how to stop it from happening. But, if it is me, then I know I'm probably not going to harm myself. If there are others protecting me, then they're not going to hurt me either. So..."
Why is it Takasato? Hirose thought. Why is it Takasato who has to shoulder this fate?
"Thank you. Well, let's go back to Gotou-san's room. He's probably fallen into a pit of self-hatred right about now."
After they returned to the special classroom building, while walking in the hall, Hirose heard someone calling to him. He stopped and looked around him. Takasato stopped as well. They were in front of the Earth Sciences laboratory.
"Hirose." The door to the lab was open, and the voice came from inside. It sounded like Gotou.
"Is that Hirose? I'm sorry, could you help me out?"
Hirose poked his head in. The blinds for both the windows facing the sports area and the windows facing the hallway had all been pulled down, and the classroom was as dark as night. A figure was crouching over at the very back of the room.
"Gotou-san, what happened?"
Just when Hirose stepped into the classroom, the door slid shut behind him.
He heard Takasato's desperate voice.
Hirose ran his hand frantically about the door which had a small clouded glass window set into it. No matter how he pulled or shook it, the door wouldn't budge even a little. He heard Takasato's voice shouting from outside.
Hirose kept trying with all his strength to get the door open, while looking around the classroom. The figure in the back of the classroom stood up. The only light source came from the small window in the door Hirose was attempting to open. In that weak light, he couldn't tell who the standing figure was.
The figure moved from behind a desk into an aisle, and then bent down, thrusting its two hands forward. Hirose stared at it, forgetting that he needed to get the door open.
The figure crawled between the big lab desks on all fours and made its way closer. The aisles were even darker than the rest of the room, and Hirose couldn't see the figure clearly. He could only hear the sound of bare footsteps. Hirose rubbed his eyes and looked again. The shadowy figure that appeared to be a portion of the darkness seemed to have grown limbs at some point. It crawled forward slowly with its four forelimbs and its two legs. It gave off a faint smell of the sea.
—So your ego isn't able to forgive me, Takasato?
The shadow crept forward sneakily. The number of its limbs increased again. Every time I crawled forward a step, it would grow another set of limbs. Before he knew it, the shadow had transformed into a giant centipede.
"If you kill me, you'll be alone."
The centipede-like shadow crept out of the aisle. It was already no more than two meters from Hirose. From the light shining in from the small window, he could see it glistening with the color of bloody pus.
"You've already got nowhere left to go. Do you know that?"
It stood up suddenly, and its silhouette no longer resembled that of a human. Without thinking, Hirose had backed into the corner of the classroom. When the shadow stood up, its height measured more than two meters, and it rocked its upper body like a snake that had raised its neck. He could almost see the tapering point of its snout.
This was the form of Takasato's ignored and neglected ego that had been continually distorted underwater. Of course it was ugly, thought Hirose. People are all raising such hideous monsters inside their bodies.
Its body swayed as it approached, emitting a thick and damp sea odor. It opened its bloody-pus-colored jaw. Under the dim light that was coming through the window, the rows of teeth inside its mouth gleamed. It suddenly popped up in Hirose's head the image of those appalling corpses he'd seen at Takasato's house.
—So this is what it was?
Hirose thought this calmly. In that moment, it swung its forelimb across and he felt a blow to his chest. It then struck his shoulder, and a gouging pain coursed through him. Hirose pressed his shoulder with his hand and it felt warm.
His strength escaped his knees and he slumped down in place. It continued to advance on him with its sea stench, heavy with rot. Hirose remained still and stared at its teeth.
Just then, he heard the sound of shattered glass, and light streamed into the room.
- - - - -
It stopped moving in alarm.
Hearing Takasato's cry, it crouched down and looked back at him. Beyond its body, Hirose could see the window blinds on the hallway side flapping about. In the daylight streaming in, its hideous shape emerged for only an instant, and at the same time the blinds flipped down, it returned to its initial deep black shadow.
The thing's shape was restored in Hirose's eyesight, stimulated by the sudden light. He could see Takasato's silhouette facing the monster.
"Please stop it!" Takasato cried out forcefully. "Why are you doing this?"
The crouching monster crawled on its countless legs and hid to the side. There was no longer anything blocking Hirose's vision. He could clearly see Takasato facing it and looking at it intensely.
"This person is not my enemy! Please stop!"
The creature withdrew. It retracted its body and hung its head. Its movements were almost ridiculous in how they looked like that of a reprimanded dog.
"What are you? What exactly are you to me?"
It drew its body in even more. The size of the shadow continued to shrink, eventually resembling the shape of some animal.
"If you've done all this for me, then you should be punished more than any of the others!"
Looking at Hirose, Takasato ran over.
"Are you all right?"
"...Yes," replied Hirose though his gaze remained fixed on the shadow. It now completely resembled a dog.
"We..." Suddenly the shadow spoke up. Takasato turned to look. "We have the duty of protecting you."
It was the deep voice of a man. The shadow shrank even further.
"We exist solely to protect you."
"What do you mean?"
"This is...what was...determined."
Buzz buzz, it was the sound of something crumbling. The shadow was now smaller than the size of a baby.
"What the hell does that mean?"
Buzz... This sound was the only response Takasato received. They could no longer see anymore of the shadow.
They suddenly heard a noise from outside of the classroom.
This time there was no mistaking that this was indeed Gotou's voice.
- - - - -
The door to the classroom was opened effortlessly. Some ten teachers had gathered in the hall, Gotou included. Under the bright lights, they could see countless scratches on Takasato's body. The damaged window on the hallway side was now just a wooden frame. Broken pieces were scattered about the floor of the hallway and a chair had been knocked over.
Gotou told the others to leave this to him. Hirose reached through broken window and turned up the blinds. Nothing out of the ordinary could be seen in the classroom anymore.
"I heard the door to the Chemistry lab open," said a troubled Gotou. They were in the waiting room of a hospital near the school. "I looked outside and saw Takasato's expression undergoing a change as he carried a chair out of the room. I asked him what had happened, and he said that you'd been trapped inside the lab next door, so I ran there with him. The door couldn't be opened. Before I knew what was going on, Takasato had smashed the window and jumped inside. I was going to follow him in, but he told me not to. Danger was written on his face, so when he said that to me, I couldn't help but step back as courageous as I think I usually am."
"Also, after Takasato entered, it became silent. I wanted to flip up the blinds to take a look inside, but they wouldn't budge. They were just blinds, but at the time they were immovable like they were made of metal. I could only stand in the hall and wait. What else could I do?"
He sounded like he was making rationalizations. Hirose laughed. As soon as he moved his chest, he felt a burning pain. When they stitched him up, they had given him local anesthetics that should still be in effect, but Hirose didn't think they did much good. The injuries below his collar bone and on his shoulder were both deep, but they didn't reach the bone. The wounds appeared to have been made with a sharp knife, and so Hirose had no alternative but to say that his cuts were the result of running to a glass window, and the old doctor more or less accepted this. Perhaps that had something to do with the fact that Takasato had come for medical attention with real glass injuries.
- - - - -
After they were treated, they went back to the school and answered the deputy headmaster's questions together. Hirose simply said that he had been shut in the laboratory. He didn't think that there was any need to elaborate.
By the time this was over, it was the lunch break. Because Totoki had said he would take them home after the midday meeting, Hirose and Takasato went back to the prep room to pass the time. Gotou turned out not to be there, but four students were present instead.
"In a meeting. Sensei, I heard you got hurt again." Nozue looked at Hirose. Hirose opened up the lab coat Gotou had lent him a little to show him.
"Did you get stitched up?"
"Looks like you won't be able to hit up the hot springs for a while."
"For sure," said Nozue as he glanced over at Takasato. The others had done the same. Tsuiki was the only one looking coldly at Takasato. Takasato indifferently bore the stares of this group of people.
"That's right," said Sugisaki. "Sensei, did you hear? Something happened to Sakata-san."
Hirose's eyes went wide as he looked at Sugisaki. "What?"
Gotou hadn't mentioned this.
"Yesterday morning, he fell off a subway platform and was hit by an arriving train."
Hirose knew that his face had drained of color in that moment.
"I think he was skipping class and on his way somewhere when it happened. The train was slowing down so he didn't lose his life, but I heard his injuries are serious and he's still in a coma."
—It wasn't Takasato.
An astonished Hirose glanced back at Takasato and looked at his ashen face and eyes, wide from surprise.
It had nothing to do with Takasato's ego. It was the work of creatures holding a different purpose.
Takasato looked at Hirose uncertainly.
"It wasn't you. I'm sorry."
"Why did Sakata-kun..." mumbled Takasato.
"You mean it wasn't really an accident?"
Hirose shook his head. "It was retribution. I have no doubt."
"...There was no reason for it." Takasato looked troubled. "They only needed a small reason to carry out their retribution, but there was no reason at all for Sakata-kun."
Why did Sakata suffer retribution? At a glance, he had been a supporter of Takasato's. No matter how Hirose thought about the reason for Sakata to face retribution, he could only come up with one.
Nozue blurted out, "Was it because he was the leak?"
He looked over at Tsuiki.
"Leak?" Takasato looked at Tsuiki.
Hirose asked Tsuiki, "Tsuiki, did you tell Takasato about that?"
"No." Tsuiki stiffened his face and shook his head. "I didn't talk to anyone. I can't publicize anything that has to do with Takasato."
Takasato turned to Hirose.
"It's a possibility that the one who leaked all that stuff about you to the press was Sakata."
Takasato widened his eyes.
"That's probably what actually happened. Or else there's no other reason why Sakata would have been punished. The person who leaked your whereabouts could have been him too. —It wasn't you. You didn't even know about any of this."
Hirose hung his head. "I'm sorry I ever doubted you."
Takasato shook his head slowly. He looked as if he was having trouble holding together the entire sequence of events.
It was then that someone knocked on the door of the prep room.
- - - - -
When they opened the door, they saw about a dozen students standing outside. Most of them were from class 2-6, but a few were from other classes.
"...What's going on?"
The class six student standing in the front spoke up. "We heard that Takasato was here."
"Ah, yeah..." Hirose pointed inside. Takasato tilted his head and looked over.
"Hirose sensei, we heard you got injured. Is it true?"
The clothes he had on this morning could no longer be worn, so he had put a white lab coat directly on his bandaged body. Since the bandage could clearly be seen, Hirose just nodded honestly.
Sounds of scorn suddenly rose up from the students. Takasato and the others in prep room stood up.
"What is this about!?"
One of the students pointed to Takasato and said, "It was Hirose who hid you, wasn't it? Wasn't Sakata one of your supporters? Why did you curse them?"
Another carried a pallid face with tears welling up in his eyes. "You killed your parents, and you're killing your friends. What exactly do you want us to do?"
"You don't actually care if it's friend or foe, do you? When it comes down to it, will you hurt just about anyone? You kill people whenever you feel like it, right?"
Like screams, the insults roared forth.
They had expressed their fealty in an attempt to escape his curse. They had flattered the god of curses in every way they could in order to save themselves. The one who had most embodied this—regardless of his intentions—was Sakata. But Sakata was purged all the same. Hirose had always protected Takasato, but he was purged as well. Even his family, those who were supposed to be his original supporters were purged.
"Wait! This is a misunderstanding!!"
There was a reason for Hirose's attack, and Sakata was not exactly a great person. No one in his family was a friend to him.
"Calm down!" shouted Hirose. His wounds immediately burned, and he couldn't help but crouch down. Watching this unfold, the group became even angrier. Seeing that they were about to rush forward, Hirose suddenly raised his arms and blocked the door.
The student at the front shoved Hirose. Hirose wasn't able to take the push and fell over. He had no strength left in his current state.
"Stop!" Hashigami shouted. "Do you know the consequences of your actions?"
"Yes!" someone yelled.
"If he indiscriminately kills his enemies and his friends, then why can't we be his enemies? If only there was no Takasato—"
Hashigami picked up a jar that was sitting on the table and threw it. The jar hit the window and its frame. The window shattered with a crash, and the jar was also smashed into pieces. The sharp noise of breaking glass caused all the students who were rushing into the prep room to stop.
"If only there was no Takasato, what?" Hashigami looked around at those students. "Then what, huh?"
The agitation that had filled the room had immediately cooled off.
"Where you really going to kill Takasato? Would you then be able to sleep soundly? Sleeping in a reformatory or juvie?"
"Are you a friend of Takasato's?" asked someone. Hashigami laughed.
"I just hate stupid people."
"...You better remember this."
"Oh, I will. Because I saved all your lives."
The students looked at Takasato, who was standing by the wall, and then turned to Hashigami. Everyone of them appeared conflicted.
Amid all this glowering, Takasato opened his mouth. "I'm dropping out of school."
Everyone turned to look at Takasato. "I want to withdraw. I came here today to give them official notice."
There was a moment of silence, and then someone suddenly began to laugh. Hysterical laughter had infected the people around him, and they continued to laugh up until the teachers who had heard the uproar hurried there.
When Totoki dropped them off in front of the apartment, there were even more people there waiting for them. They pushed their way through the surging crowd of microphone-holding people, and expended quite a bit of energy just to get to the stairs. When they ran up the stairs, none of those people followed them, but a few stones flew their way from somewhere. The walnut-sized rocks bounced off the hallway, making crisp clattering noises.
There was a large piece of paper stuck to the door.
The word "warning," written over and over again in small handwriting, filled the entire piece of paper. As Hirose reached out to tear it down, another stone came flying and the sounds of jeering rose up behind them. Hirose gave up on tearing the paper down and escaped inside.
- - - - -
The three o'clock talk shows were all discussing the same thing. The media gradually came to the consensus that Takasato was an enemy. All of the commentators reporting on this story mercilessly criticized him.
How will it be from now on? Hirose looked over at Takasato as he opened up his sketchbook. If the media was labeling him an enemy, then eventually he'll become an enemy of humanity. This was undeniable. He had lost his guardians, and he had lost his student status. Will he still be able to find a place that'll give him work? How long will it be before this commotion settles down? How long before people forget about all of this?
Hirose watched Takasato. His paintbrush slid across the surface of the sketchbook. He was staring intently at the sketchbook much like the first time Hirose saw him paint, but the tranquility and sincerity that had been present before was completely different than the feeling now. He knew there were things heavily disrupting Takasato's mood.
He colored the "Labyrinth of Rocks" he had drawn with green. It was a deep green, as if the crags were thick with moss. Takasato colored the picture quickly and then sank into deep concentration. He looked fixedly at the picture and cocked his head ever so slightly.
"Something's just not right about it..."
Despite this, this work was definitely very important to Takasato. Hirose smiled gently, and then suddenly felt uneasy. What kind of person was this boy sitting in front of him? The shadow that attacked Hirose had said its duty was to protect Takasato. The retributions didn't come from Takasato's will, nor were they carried out by his subconscious. The grotesque had used grotesque logic to protect Takasato. However, why did they shoulder the responsibility of protecting Takasato? And furthermore, where did they come from?
—Are you an enemy of the king?
He thought of that voice he'd heard. Who was the "king"? Was it Takasato? If so, why was he being called a "king"?
"Takasato," called Hirose to Takasato who then looked up. "If someone called you a king, what comes to mind?"
"...King?" Takasato repeated the word, and then appeared to be deep in thought. "Taiou." [note: the japanese word for king is pronounced "ou," so the conversation makes a little more sense if you want to replace all instances of "king" with "ou."]
Hirose sat up, and his wound sent out a shock of pain. "Taiou? What is that?"
Takasato shook his head, baffled.
"I'm...not really sure."
"How do you write it?"
"The 'tai' in antai, peace..." [note: just to clarify, the kanji for "tai" used in Taiou is the same as the "tai" in the word "antai," which means "peace."]
—Taiou, King Tai. Hirose murmured to himself. "Is Taiou a name? Or a title?"
Takasato knit his brow in bewilderment and looked deep into his drawing. He looked like he was searching hard for something as his eyes roamed across the surface of his picture.
"Does this have to do with your lost memories?"
"...I think so."
"Since you're remembering it, this word must have a profound meaning for you. Can you think of other stuff? Anything would be good."
Takasato shook his head. "I don't know."
"Let's think about it like an associative game." Hirose grabbed a piece of paper next to his hand. "It's just like when we were talking about Houzan, Mt. Hou. You seem to remember words better than visual images. Try saying all the words that come to mind."
"Well, you don't have to think about king if you don't want to. —Right, spiriting away. If someone brought up spiriting away, what do you think of?"
Hirose wrote it down quickly. "And then?"
"Vagueness. Uneasiness. Incident. Heresy. Foreign. Alien. Loss. ...Arm. Disturbance—"
"Kirin painting. Good omen, kakutan, horn, Confucius, transformation, selection, king, covenant."
When Confucius came upon the carcass of a kirin in a field, he wept and said, "My path is at an end." Hirose understood it up to this point, but the associations after it were cryptic for him.
"...What are those?"
Takasato shook his head. "I don't know, I just said what came to mind..."
"Hm." Hirose nodded and continued. "Haku Sanshi."
"Water, woman, protection, ayakashi." [note: the ayakashi is a sea ghost that causes shipwrecks.]
Hirose crinkled his brow. "Do you mean the female ghost related to the water?"
After asking this, Hirose opened his eyes wide.
—What did Takasato call her?
Hirose searched his memory. It was the name of a nymph, the name of a sea nymph. That right, it was a siren. They caught a siren and then gave it a name. Gosh, what was it...?
Takasato surprised himself by murmuring, "Murgen."
Was that woman called Haku Sanshi?
Hirose stopped him. "Don't worry, keep going. —Mt. Hou."
Takasato closed his eyes. "Crags, Roraima, Guyana, birthplace... Tree, Houro...kyuu."
Hirose handed the memo paper over to Takasato, and he wrote on it the characters for "Hourokyuu," Houro Palace.
Takasato immediately replied, "King Tai."
He then shut his eyes.
"Covenant, kirin, twelve kings."
For some reason, Takasato looked like he was about to cry. "In the twelve kingdoms, twelve kings."
Saying this, he looked at Hirose.
"King Tai is a title. The king of Taikyokukoku is King Tai."
After he spoke, he wrote down the characters for "Taikyokukoku," the Far Kingdom of Tai. Hirose stared at the words.
Takasato covered his face. "I don't know. I can't think of anything else..."
Hirose looked over memo paper. Takasato's lost memories. The fragments of a year. His spiriting away seven years ago, and then— Hirose couldn't help but smile wryly inside as he thought about this. What a foolish imagination I have. But if the monsters were real, then it doesn't matter how foolish it is.
Takasato underwent a spiriting away seven years ago, and then spent a year in another world where there were twelve kingdoms and twelve kings, of which King Tai was one. The king and the kirin were bound together by a "covenant." Houro Palace sat in the expansive green crags of Mt. Hou.
Hirose looked over at Takasato, whose face was down on the surface of the kotatsu.
—You are King Tai.
If Haku Sanshi was indeed that woman, then kirin must be that monster. Didn't the kirin say that it "had a duty"? If that was part of the "covenant," then the person who received protection based in the covenant could only be the king.
However, for some reason Hirose couldn't bring himself to say this aloud.
Hirose had no way of analyzing his own feelings and couldn't help but feel dismay. Takasato wanted to recall what happened, and so he must want to hear about anything that has to do with what happened. But then, why couldn't Hirose say anything?
Hirose was troubled, but he still wasn't able to tell Takasato what he had been thinking.
＊ ＊ ＊ ＊ ＊
＊ ＊ ＊ ＊ ＊ ＊
He stood in the balmy night. It was past midnight and a large group of people was gathered on the road. Below the nearby wall upon which a blue sheet was draped, people had piled up a number of flower bouquets.
Each and every one of them gazed resentfully at the apartment in front of them. He was especially angry as he glared at the dark windows. His friend had been crushed to death under the temple gate. I'll never forgive you, he thought. The kid who at a glance appears harmless and gentle. The boy who uses strange powers to control those around him with terror.
The boy could not be allowed to continue living without receiving consequences. Justice would not permit this.
He was the representative of justice, and he held a weapon more powerful than a sword. Iniquity must be exposed and denounced. Thus, there was freedom of the press, and that child had employed dirty methods in obstructing that right. He couldn't let something like this happen.
He lit a cigarette. When he put the lighter pack into his pocket, he noticed a photographer outside of the group walking unsteadily into a back alley.
He's tired, he thought. Everyone here's tired.
He stared up at the second floor window as he shook the ash from his cigarette. There was a door facing the road next to the window and affixed to that door could be seen something white. It had been stuck there by a resident of the apartment building. Everyone present knew who had attached the paper to the door, but no one was going to give up this information. He knew that the person who'd thrown the rocks was a father that lived in the house across from the wall he was next to. But he wasn't planning on telling that boy.
He threw the cigarette butt down by his feet and extinguished it with the tip of his shoe. He looked around casually and saw that the original six-plus people gathered here had already reduced its number by half. A lot of people with no patience, he murmured inside. He was planning on keeping vigil all night. Someone was going to come tomorrow morning to switch with him. Before that, he had to keep watch here in order to keep that boy from escaping.
A man who was standing close by entered a nearby door. He saw the look of the guy as he went in. In the dim light, he appeared to have been pulled inside. Probably needed to take a piss, he thought. Some people have no manners.
He squatted down, leaning his back against the wall. His lower back and legs creaked. He sat there and lit a second cigarette. At some point, the continuous sounds of whispered conversation had stopped.
He heard the voice of someone being squeezed to death from somewhere. Just as he turned his head in the direction of the sound, he spotted a magazine reporter entering an alley. He saw the reporter's foot, hidden in the alley. A light breeze brought with it an unpleasant odor. It might have been the smell of the mud at the mouth of a river, with perhaps a little of the scent of blood.
He watched the apartment absent-mindedly and slowly puffed on his cigarette. When the ash reached the cigarette filter, he stubbed it out on the asphalt. At that moment, he felt like heard a distant scream and looked around disconcertedly. It was then that he realized at some point he had become the only person left on the night road.
He stood up and took two or three steps to his left and then to his right. He extended his body to check the road, but there was no sign of anyone. The slumbering houses were lined up like ruins. He wanted to look for the man that had entered the door. He had already been gone a long time. If he fell asleep in someone's yard, they're probably going to get another complaint.
As he was about to move, he heard another noise, this time much closer to him. It was the sound of the sheet rustling. He gazed at it and caught something moving inside the blue sheet hanging on the wall. Just as he focused his look on it, the movement stopped, and things returned to their previous calm.
He stepped closer to the sheet. It was simply a sheet that was being used to cover a broken part of the wall. He flipped up a corner of the heavy sheet and discovered that the bouquets placed near his feet weren't chrysanthemums, but marigolds.
—It was the flower that old ladies offered up at Buddhist altars.
He thought this blithely as he gave a crooked smile. He pulled up the sheet by the corner as he was smiling. The hole in the wall took the form of a pitch black shape.