Ningen Series Volume 1 Chapter 7

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Chapter 7: Killer Crimson (2)

To express it in the simplest terms possible—a certain “he” and a certain “she” confronted one another and got into a “fight”—and that was all there was to it.

It was nothing more or less than that.

And with just that—the Grand Integrated Research Center for All Studies, commonly known as the ER2 System (currently the ER3 System); the organization RULE, with the Four G.o.ds and One Mirror behind it; moreover, the enormous community with the Kunagisa Organization at the center; and finally, the seven Killing Names of the Niounomiya, Yamiguchi, Zerozaki, Susukino, Hakamori, Tenbuki, and Is.h.i.+nagi, and their ant.i.theses, the six Cursing Names of the Tokinomiya, Tsumiguchi, Kino, Nuk.u.mori, s.h.i.+buki, and Toganagi—all of the aforementioned groups were dragged into the affair.

To stress the point once more.

It wasn’t that “he” and “she” joined hands and combined forces to carry out a raid on those organizations; “he” and “she” took notice no notice of anyone but each other. To put it the other way around, they weren’t concerned with what happened to anyone but themselves, and they didn’t care about anyone but themselves, and so, other than those two, everyone involved truly just happened to be there, just happened to be in the way, and with just that…

They were dragged into the affair.

They were simply mixed up in it—and yet it would be no exaggeration to say that every single one of those organizations was nearly brought to ruin. Ten years had pa.s.sed since then—and yet almost none of them had been restored to their former glory. They were all warped, full of distortions. Just two people—a mere quarrel between just two people had brought the entire world to the brink of destruction.

There were few who could give a firsthand account of the time.

Almost everyone who had been close enough to know the details had lost their lives—and those who had managed to make it out alive refused to talk about it. They stubbornly kept their mouths shut, and likely wouldn’t open them until the day they died. Not many are willing to throw away a life spared once. Or perhaps—it was that they simply didn’t want to remember. That was the extent…

The extent to which “he” and “she” were considered taboo.

A taboo existence.

A taboo legend.

A taboo myth.

A taboo miracle.

No one wanted to allude to it.

No one wanted to allude it—not even as a joke.

And so, there were just as few who knew that the winner of that microscopic and astronomical war, the “World War,” had been “her.”

“She” who was known as the ultimate red.

“She”—is called “Killer Crimson.”

✦   ✦

The first thing to seem off had been that red cloth.

“…Kuh, hah, hah, hah, hah, ahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha…”

A certain figure dashed frantically through the forest.

Those longs arms and legs and overly tall stature wove through the gaps between trees in a manner both restricted and unimpeded, criss-crossing along all three dimensions. As he moved, he didn’t forget to knock down a tree every now and then, shrewdly leaving more obstacles in his pursuer’s path. It was a flawless “getaway” in every respect. But despite making such a perfect escape, no complacency could be found in the countenance of the man with the wireframe model build. On the contrary, his expression was frozen stiff, a disconcerting smile plastered across his face.

“Hah, haha, haha, ahahahahaha…!”

And indeed, he was laughing.

Really now…

What else was there to do but laugh?

Sous.h.i.+ki Zerozaki derided himself.

How ironic that he, who had always been the hunter, would be the one getting chased in a game of manhunt.

Those were Sous.h.i.+ki’s thoughts amidst his all-consuming panic.

“…Honestly, how did things turn out this way…? Where is this, anyway?!”

He couldn’t begin to guess how long he had been running. It felt like he had used up the entire remainder of his life escaping, but realistically, it had probably been about an hour or so. But—that hour should have been plenty. No matter which direction he was running, that should have been more than enough time to make it out of those woods.

“d.a.m.n, it must be that barrier…”

It was like he was stuck in the same place, running in circles.

The scenery never changed.

He was moving, but he wasn’t getting anywhere.

Sous.h.i.+ki finally realized the reason for the barrier. It wasn’t meant to prevent him from “entering”; it was meant to prevent him from “escaping.” He had gotten himself caught in the most cla.s.sic of traps. And as a result…

“…This is the worst case scenario imaginable.”

He glanced back over his shoulder.

He couldn’t afford to waste even a second of time on an action like that, but he couldn’t help himself. After all—it was a sight rarely seen.

There stood the legend.

There stood the myth.

There stood the miracle.

There “she” existed…

And “she” was chasing after Sous.h.i.+ki.

“She” wasn’t running.

“She” wouldn’t do something so inelegant.

Instead, “she” maintained an easygoing gait, like she was enjoying a leisurely hike through the forest park—and still she managed to keep up with Sous.h.i.+ki’s pace.

On the one hand, there was Sous.h.i.+ki Zerozaki, running with all the speed he could muster.

And on the other, there was “she,” just sauntering along.

What overruled the common-sense reasoning that Sous.h.i.+ki should have outrun her right out the gate… was that Sous.h.i.+ki was das.h.i.+ng across all three dimensions, while “she” was following a straight path, walking directly towards Sous.h.i.+ki.

There were obstacles.

Or buffers, one could say.

In this case, those would be the trees that made up the surrounding woods.

Sous.h.i.+ki made use of those obstacles, and occasionally using one for cover, occasionally using one as a means of transportation, and occasionally using one as a diversion, he transformed those impediments into “means.”

However.

To “her”—those trees were never obstacles in the first place. There was nothing in this world that could keep “her” at bay.

“She” knocked them away with her hands, as if she were swatting at a fly.

That was all.

With a wild hand, “she” just casually knocked them out of her way.

And with just that—all trees disappeared from “her” path. Occasionally with a creaking sound, occasionally with a snapping sound, and occasionally with no sound at all, she transformed those impediments into “nothing.”

“The logic is simple—’no truck would get into an accident by cras.h.i.+ng into the air.'” Sous.h.i.+ki tenaciously carried on with his three-dimensional sprint. That was the only way he could hope to maintain his distance from “her.” “Still, you’ve got to be kidding me… Forget ‘eagle,’ she’s practically a ‘grizzly’…!”

Sous.h.i.+ki Zerozaki desperately persisted in his escape—but giving it some thought, that could be considered a hopelessly idiotic course of action. If “she” got even the slightest bit serious—”she” could close the gap between them faster than the blink of an eye. In other words, this was just a game for “her.”

A game—a whim.

“She” was enjoying their game of “tag.”

Sous.h.i.+ki had told Naguma Sawarabi that “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” but now that he was on the other side of things, he saw that, indeed, it wasn’t particularly pleasant when you were the one being toyed with. Still, in that particular moment, Sous.h.i.+ki didn’t have the presence of mind to take issue with that “unpleasantness.”

Absolute. Overwhelming. Mighty. Fierce.

Red.

How very… beautiful.

“Sawarabi… You sure hired yourselves a real monster. This goes beyond elaborate; you’ve really outdone yourselves…”

However, Sous.h.i.+ki Zerozaki wasn’t one to indulge his inner turmoil indefinitely. By now, although it was a gradual process, he was starting to come to his senses. While he certainly couldn’t be described as calm, his powers of discernment had recovered to the point that he could properly a.s.sess the “situation.”

“…Whether she’s an ‘eagle’ or a ‘grizzly’… now that she’s made herself an enemy of the Family, she’s my ‘enemy,’ too. I have no idea why Red would choose to throw herself in with the Sawarabi—but I suppose I just have to do this.”

While jumping from branch to branch, he snuck his hand into his suit and took out Mind Render. However, at that point in time, Sous.h.i.+ki hadn’t the least intention of facing “her” head on. Sous.h.i.+ki was neither a “hitman” nor a “warrior,” and while he found meaning in both winning battles and achieving his ends, he found no meaning or enjoyment in the act of fighting itself. “Escaping” was all that occupied his mind. He wanted nothing more than to avoid any pointless conflict with “her.” Leaving aside his self-professed pacifism, when it came to “Red,” anyone—be they a member of the Zerozaki Family or not—would have to make the same call.

That was the extent to which “she” was the strongest.

“And knowing that, they still hired ‘her’…? For a branch family of the Niounomiya, isn’t that course of action rather devoid of pride…?”

Was that how deep their obsession with avenging their sister went?

Yumiya Sawarabi.

“You’ve really done it this time, Hitos.h.i.+ki…”

It was as he was jumping from branch to branch, moving higher and higher in an attempt to put as much distance between himself and “her” as possible, in the same moment he bitterly spoke his little brother’s name.

The sound of footsteps vanished from behind him.

That artless sound, which had always reached Sous.h.i.+ki’s ears despite the sound of falling trees to m.u.f.fle it, suddenly stopped.

And then—a single sentence.

“I’m tired of playing tag.”

A voice rang out.

The tone it carried was terribly rough.

He instinctively looked back over his shoulder—but there was no one there.

And then.

“She” was before him.

There had been no sound of a running jump—no sound of feet kicking off the ground—she just jumped up in a single bound, hovering in the air above Sous.h.i.+ki. Without any preceding movements or any preparatory motions—”she” had leapt across a distance of ten meters.

“…Ee…”

He didn’t have time to let out a scream.

What she did next was plain and simple, something anyone could do if their body was flexible enough.

She pulled back her right arm—

“…Earth Splitter.”

—and swung it down.

“Guh… gwaaah!”

He just barely managed to block that strike with his left arm, the one that wasn’t holding Mind Render. No, it wasn’t quite true that he had blocked it. All he had managed to do was protect his face using his left arm.

He heard the sound of his arm shattering.

His vision spun with abrupt force, and he was thrown to the ground with a gravitational pull fifteen times stronger than normal. The recoil sent him flying two meters into the air, and then, he was once again flung down into the same spot. Careening downwards with such velocity that it was a wonder he didn’t make a crater, he learned how it felt to be a human meteorite.

“Gah, hah, ahh. Aaahh.”

His left arm. And the ribs on the left side of his body. Each and every one of them was a broken mess. His left leg, too—while it wasn’t quite broken, it appeared it had been badly injured.

Where was “she”?

That was the first thing he checked.

Looking over, he saw that “she”—that “her” red figure—was in the midst of jumping down from the thick branch Sous.h.i.+ki had been holding onto just moments ago. “She” was about five meters from where Sous.h.i.+ki laid—and once he had established that much.

Sous.h.i.+ki Zerozaki grinned.

“…The right half of my body is completely unharmed… and I haven’t let go of Mind Render. And—just as the ‘rumors’ say…”

He clenched his hand around his scissors.

“…The ‘composure’ that comes with being the ‘Strongest’—that can be equated to ‘carelessness.’ In that case—I can take advantage of it.”

By all rights—that single blow should have settled the match.

No, it went beyond that. The match should have been settled at the very beginning, during their first encounter. To sneak up on him from behind and not do anything at all—and whether it had been for the fun of tormenting him or not, to then start up a leisurely game of tag—that was little else but a grave blunder.

“Allow me to make use of that ‘whimsy’ of yours.”

Sous.h.i.+ki hadn’t given up on survival.

Everything was fine; as long as his internal organs weren’t damaged, there was nothing to worry about. It was a bit depressing to know that after overcoming his current bind, he would then have to go fight the oldest Sawarabi brother—but it was all for the sake of his new sister—and his family. If it was for the sake of his family, Sous.h.i.+ki Zerozaki wouldn’t give up. Not ever. Although dying by the hand of his role model didn’t seem like a poor choice for his final moments, it was still too soon for that.

“Hey now. What’s wrong? I held back so much it almost killed me. Don’t tell me you went and died anyway.”

While speaking, “she” drew closer. “She” was still a ways off. With that much distance between them, there was no way to deliver a “fatal blow.” What he was aiming for—what he had to aim for was a “one-hit kill.” As he was now, Sous.h.i.+ki hadn’t the slightest room to make mistakes. Having such leeway was unthinkable. But all the same.

“Hah. How weak. How truly weak. Too weak. So weak, weak, weak, weak I can’t stand it. I thought for sure the guy called the Twentieth h.e.l.l would have a little more fight in him—but you’re as shabby as they come.”

“…”

He held his breath and waited.

His target was a point on “her” neck.

And it would have to be a single blow unleashed with no extra motions, what they call a “thrust” in kendo. It was a move Naguma had used against Sous.h.i.+ki—and a move Iori had used against Yasumichi.

The most primitive technique, as well as the most effective.

Despite everything, “she” was still manifested by a human body. Then there was no way “she” could be invulnerable to a blade. If he aimed for the carotid artery, one of the parts of the body where muscle is the thinnest, he had a shot at victory. At the very least, enough of a victory to get him out of there in one piece.

“…”

Under normal circ.u.mstances, such a pathetic “shot at victory” would never exist. Every living being on this earth knows that there’s nothing more dangerous than a wounded beast. It goes without saying that a person should be at their most cautious when delivering the final blow.

But “she”…

“She” readily closed the distance between them, came right next to Sous.h.i.+ki without demonstrating the least bit of caution, stopped where she stood, and of all things, crouched down and brought her face close to his.

“Hm? Wait, is he really dead—?”

“—Gwah!”

In an instant.

He aimed one of Mind Render’s blade edges at her throat.

He twisted his body upright, and at the most optimal speed, but with the maximum amount of gravitational force, he made Mind Render glisten in the name of his lone shot at victory. If this didn’t settle the match, it was all over—if “she” dodged the strike, it was all over. Even “she” wouldn’t drop her guard around Sous.h.i.+ki a second time.

All-or-nothing, a true one-point breakthrough, a fatal blow to either of them!

“…”

“…”

To simply state the result.

“She” didn’t dodge the strike. “She” didn’t move an inch. Without a doubt, Mind Render’s blade, which Sous.h.i.+ki Zerozaki had thrust forward with all his might, flawlessly captured “her” neck. But nevertheless…

“She” was completely unharmed.

Nothing happened.

The blade had come to a stop, unable to pierce the skin.

“…Ha. Hahahahaha. Ahahahahaha.”

Now—there really was nothing to do but laugh.

Now—there was nothing left he could do.

Now—there was nothing left.

“Hahaha—haha, aha, ahaha.”

Realistically, how was he supposed to fight an enemy that couldn’t be cut by a blade? No, that surely applied to more than just blades. For instance, if he had the newest model of machine gun, “she” wouldn’t even try to dodge the bullets. If a torrent of nuclear missiles came raining down from the sky, “she” would live through the blast while leisurely humming a tune. On the contrary, “she” might be glad it cleared up the view. Supposing the very Earth itself vanished, “she” would just pack up and move to Mars.

Composure, carelessness.

It went beyond that level. Those concepts were irrelevant. Such low-level terms—he had just foolishly a.s.sumed they applied.

“Hah, hahahahahahahahah, ahahahaha—”

Dammit.

To think he would rot away in a place like this.

Unable to kill the Family’s enemy—unable to rescue his “sister”—no, it was worse than that. If he—if Mind Render fell in battle, the Zerozaki Family would be forced to move against “her,” his “nemesis.” Every last one of the Zerozaki Family’s adherents would have to take up that hopelessly unwinnable battle—in the name of their raison d’etre. Crush the “enemy” until it is an “enemy” no more—that was the essence of the Zerozaki Family.

Even if the result that awaited them was eradication.

Once it began, there was no stopping it.

If they had even a single casualty…

That was no longer considered a “pointless battle.”

“…That’s the one thing…”

That was the one thing he needed to avoid at all costs.

Sous.h.i.+ki Zerozaki couldn’t allow himself to be killed by such an unkillable existence.

Because of his family.

He had to protect his family.

Think.

Think, think, think, think.

Think with every fiber of your being.

There had to be something. There had to be something.

There had to be something he could do.

“Hah. This is pretty boring, what with you all quiet and despondent. Haven’t you got any more tricks up your sleeve? Show me a good time, Mr. Mind Render.”

“…”

“I don’t care about anything that’s not fun. You hear me?”

Paying no need to “her” final notice—Sous.h.i.+ki Zerozaki racked his brains. Were there any facts that could prove convenient for him? He thought back on everything that had happened until now. He didn’t mind if it was just a faint chance, and he didn’t care if it would take a miracle, but wasn’t there any kind of possibility?

Any kind of hope?

First, there was the opening scene.

The red cloth.

That cloth dyed in killer crimson.

That—cloth.

Red.

“Hah…”

With a tug, “she” lifted him up by the neck.

“Really, though. Those Sawarabi guys and you Zerozaki… Can’t believe you’d both risk your lives over a worthless reason like a ‘little sister.’ Well, in that case…”

And then, he felt an unbelievable amount of pressure on his neck.

“Die for that worthless reason of yours.”

✦   ✦

Naguma Sawarabi reminisced.

He reminisced back to the time he first realized there were things in this world that existed beyond his reach—hopeless things.

At that time, he had still believed.

Believed in his own strength.

Believed in his own possibilities.

Believed in his own hope.

His brother—his sister—and himself—as long as all three of them were together, they could reach for the sky, they could even grasp the stars—he believed in that fleeting illusion.

However—illusions are fragile, ephemeral, and eventually shattered.

The one to shatter it had been a “hitman” from the main family.

Yes—it had been the same back then.

That time, too, Naguma had been unarmed, and he and Yumiya had been alone. Hawatari had started in on a “job” before Naguma and Yumiya, and moreover, as the de facto commander of the three, Hawatari was being entrusted with more and more solo missions. During that period in particular, it was a frequent occurrence. Still, his lack of weapon and lack of brother made no excuse. After all, Naguma and Yumiya were together—and their opponent, the hitman from the main house, was all alone—and what’s more, that opponent had both arms sealed away in a straitjacket.

“Gyaha…”

Defeat.

They had been handed a complete and utter defeat.

The opponent really had fought using nothing but footwork.

“Gyahahahahahaha!”

That laughter had been seared into his brain.

None of it could be ascribed to the difference between main house and branch families.

None of it could be ascribed to the difference between apprentice and full-timer.

That was a complete monster.

That was completely hopeless.

That pet.i.te devil in a straitjacket was something hopeless.

His sister had fallen first, and Naguma soon followed.

The opponent hadn’t taken any damage at all.

It’s all over, he had thought.

He was going to be killed.

“…Gyahaha.”

When Naguma threw himself over Yumiya’s unconscious body, as if to protect her—it laughed.

“…That’s one hour.”

“…?”

“I limit my slaughter to one hour a day. Hey, I had a pretty good time today. Thanks, Mister, Miss. Never imagined you guys would hold out for a whole hour. If you used your naginata, I might’ve been in trouble. Well, I had both my arms sealed, too, so let’s call it even.”

“U-Uuugh…”

He couldn’t respond.

He couldn’t believe that the thing before him spoke the same language he did. All he had was the firm conviction that no matter what he said, it would be useless, and that his own words would never get through to it.

“I like your style, Mister. …C’mon, enough with the menacing glare. Don’t worry, I’m not gonna do anything more. Not to you—and not to that lady there, either. Gyahaha, that’s your little sister, right? She’s real pretty.”

“…”

“I’ve got a sister, too—in here.” The hopeless thing indicated its temple to Naguma. “But unlike you guys, we’re not partners; we’re two sides of the same coin. Honestly, I’m a little jealous of what you guys have got.”

“J-Jealous…?”

“You guys can chase after the same goal together, right? You can share one thing among yourselves, right? I’m really jealous of that. ‘Cause… I’m always the shadow.”

The hopeless thing spoke in an oddly self-deprecating tone.

“Take good care of your sister.”

And then—

The hopeless thing left.

The two of them never met again.

Afterwards, Hawatari informed him that that had been “Man Eater,” the one known as the two-in-one Niounomiya siblings, the Sleight of Slaughter Niounomiya Troupe’s greatest mistake. According to his brother, it was a good thing that Naguma and Yumiya hadn’t been strong enough to force Man Eater to undo his bindings.

When Naguma heard the term “mistake,” it struck him as oddly fitting.

Indeed—there were no “hitmen” like that.

That was no “hitman.”

It was something else entirely.

It was something completely different from them, some other kind of hopeless thing. A huge mistake. Only through some grave error could something like that be created.

…A great deal of time had pa.s.sed since then.

As things stood now—at the very least, if he had his naginata with him, even if the opponent used both of his arms, he would stand a chance at winning the fight itself. By now, the only person who Naguma thought he “might not be able to beat” was Hawatari Sawarabi and Hawatari Sawarabi alone. In the long run, that complete and utter defeat had worked in his favor. Naguma and Yumiya grew from the experience, enough to make one wonder if that had been the hitman’s true goal all along. After the generations turned over, Naguma and Yumiya, as well as the “Sawarabi” as a whole, definitively became the strongest “Sawarabi” in history.

In retrospect, it was a bitter memory.

A setback in life, the sort of thing that happens to everyone.

An all-too-common mental scar.

But still—Naguma was sure.

It was hopeless—nothing could be done about it.

No matter how strong he became—no matter how much he polished his skills.

Even if they had a rematch, and he came out victorious.

Even if he managed to land a fatal blow.

All the same, that was hopeless.

That was something hopeless.

Something hopelessly different from him.

It was out of his reach. He could never grab hold of it.

Strong or weak.

Kill or be killed.

None of that was the issue.

They were standing on different stages.

Atypical, abnormal, and aberrant.

He could never become like that.

That was impossible.

That was unattainable.

The dimensions they lived in were different.

Their existences were different.

Everything was different.

He hoped he would never experience that sensation again.

“Brother.

“What does it mean to die?

“What does it mean—to kill?”

Thinking back—it was around then that Yumiya had begun asking Naguma those questions. Over and over again, the little sister had asked her two brothers questions they couldn’t possibly hope to answer.

“What are we, really?

“What are we, in essence?

“Why are we siblings the way that we are?

“Why did things turn out this way?”

Hawatari ignored all her inquiries.

He never had been a man of many words.

So by necessity, Naguma was left to answer them.

“What does it mean to die?

“What does it mean—to kill?”

He didn’t know.

Ultimately, that was Naguma’s answer.

It wasn’t a response he had given any thought to.

In fact, it barely qualified as an answer.

Yet still—there was nothing else he could say.

He didn’t want to remember that fight.

He didn’t want to think deeply on that question.

Because just thinking about it—just reflecting on it—was unpleasant.

But looking back on it now…

He should have answered his sister’s questions.

He should have remembered his scars from that battle.

He should have thought about his response to that question.

If he had…

They might have known what to do that day.

Yumiya might have escaped with her life.

Something hopeless.

He experienced that exact same sensation.

A sensation that he knew well—that he remembered well.

Something inhuman.

Something not of this world.

It was hopeless. Nothing could be done about it.

A hopeless thing.

And—that same sensation.

He had felt it when he exchanged blows with the Twentieth h.e.l.l.

And—when they exchanged words, too.

And even now.

Even now, in that very moment, the sensation persisted.

Truly, hopelessly so…

The Zerozaki Family.

Indeed.

In the end—that’s what it was.

Something different from him. Something he couldn’t comprehend.

That was something decisive, something decided.

Surely, without exception, the members of Zerozaki Family possessed the same kind of existence, the same characteristics as the Niounomiya Troupe’s mistake of the century…

“…Ah.”

With a jerk.

He used the tip of his naginata to knock the dagger away.

The dagger he had sent flying wedged itself deeply into one of the ceiling beams and didn’t come back down. The naginata he had swung completed its revolution and returned to its owner’s shoulder. Without any attempt to readjust his stance, Naguma Sawarabi simply maintained that pose—

“This is reality.”

—and flung that curt remark at Iori the “Zerozaki.”

Meanwhile, Iori had been left completely unarmed. When Hawatari tied Iori up (though apparently he hadn’t actually needed to, as for some reason, she was already tied up when he found her), he had searched her person, so Naguma knew for a fact that she wasn’t carrying any other weapons.

“No matter how much of a ‘murder prodigy’ you are—no matter the extent to which you’re ‘like that’—no matter how hopeless of a thing you are—as things stand now, you’re an amateur and I’m a pro. That gap in experience can’t be bridged by mere talent.”

“B-Bleh…”

Iori groaned and glared at Naguma. “Go on, choose again,” Naguma demanded, barely acknowledging that glare.

“Will you kill yourself, or will you die by my hand? Make your choice. No…” Naguma paused briefly, as if in thought. “If I were to explain it more thoroughly and more accurately… yes, on a personal level, it would most certainly be ‘easier on you’ to be killed by me. I can’t imagine you know the proper methods of suicide, anyway. So if you choose the latter, I promise to cut off your head without giving you the chance to feel pain. However—in that event, you will cease to be ‘normal.’ You won’t be an ‘ordinary girl.’ We don’t kill civilians, so paradoxically, that will make you one of us. Your status as something ‘hopeless’ will become hopelessly cemented. But—”

“But if I kill myself, I’ll be one of them.”

Iori forlornly finished Naguma’s sentence.

“Precisely,” Naguma responded with a nod. “Deep down, you understand, don’t you? If you were ‘normal’—your family wouldn’t have died, and perhaps your cla.s.smate wouldn’t have lost his life, either. Oh—and Mr. Mind Render, too. He came here to save you, but by now, I’m sure he’s met his end in the middle of this forest.”

After all—he wasn’t fighting Hawatari. The one out in the fray was the woman equally horrifying to have as an enemy or an ally, whose very name was too repulsive to mention. His chances of survival were undoubtedly zero. If Naguma were in Sous.h.i.+ki’s position, he would, without question, choose suicide. Death would be preferable to fighting that woman. And—if Naguma were in Iori’s position right now…

His answer would remain the same.

Die as a human?

Or die as a brute?

Wasn’t that an easy choice to make…?

However—as if she wasn’t giving any thought to the choice he had presented her with, Iori only asked, “Huh…? Sous.h.i.+ki-san… He’s already made it here?”, inquiring about a part of the statement unrelated to the point at hand.

“Yes. By now, he’s not far from us at all. Though either way, no matter what he tries, it’s all pointless. It’s all completely pointless. It’s all hopelessly in vain. I can’t understand what drives him to bother.”

“…Hehe.”

At that.

Suddenly, Iori gave an unpleasant laugh.

The smile on her face was somehow reminiscent of Sous.h.i.+ki Zerozaki.

And then, she a.s.sumed a fighting stance.

“…I was thinking it might be nice to die looking all cool and stoic… But after hearing what you just said, that’s not an option anymore.”

“…?”

“I’m not the ‘sickly, timid, and delicate’ type, after all. I’m the ‘spirited and selfish’ plus ‘goody-goody contrarian’ cute little devil type. It’s only natural for him to come save me, no matter what he has to go through… but if he’s in a tough spot, I can’t just sit back and wait to be saved.”

“What are you talking about?”

“It’s a ‘little sister’ thing—obviously!”

Together with that yell, Iori sprung herself at Naguma. Without waiting for a response, she literally, by the letter, sprung forward in a straight line.

Naguma couldn’t comprehend the significance of that action.

Naguma couldn’t comprehend the intent behind that action.

Given that she had no weapon, no hope of winning, for what reason—no, on what grounds was she standing up to him? He couldn’t see the meaning in that action. It would be a different story if she were at least wielding the dagger—but right now, Iori was utterly unarmed. She had no means of attack whatsoever. Forget a one-in-million chance; she didn’t even have that one-millionth. Surely she had to understand the overwhelming difference in ability between them. Or, no, was that very lack of calculation what made her a Zerozaki?

…No.

That wasn’t it. The Zerozaki didn’t even have a concept of “reckless abandon.”

They were just hopeless.

If she was coming at him like this, she couldn’t be attempting anything but a “lethal attack.” In other words, there had to be some kind of meaning, in other words, she had to have some kind of reason, in other words, she had to have some grounds—and in other words, she had to have some means of murder.

However, unlike when they had fought in the apartment, she didn’t even have a fork this time. Was there anything else she could use as a weapon? The rope she had been hanging from—the elastic string—Naguma had already cut them both to pieces. Neither could be used as a makes.h.i.+ft whip, and strangling him by the neck would be out of the question.

Then what in the world did she have?

Still unclear about what was happening, he held his naginata at the ready, but because of his uncertainty, his reaction time was ever so slightly delayed. He couldn’t pursue any course of action with confidence. Iori was already within his sphere. At her current distance, she was too close to knock away with the blade. He would have to turn his naginata around and use the is.h.i.+zuki to—

“…Ah.”

He… remembered.

Back to the very beginning.

When Sous.h.i.+ki and Iori had come into contact under the bridge.

Back then—Iori had fended off Sous.h.i.+ki Zerozaki. Tremendously enough, a completely ordinary high school girl had forced the Twentieth h.e.l.l, Mind Render, to pull back.

Using only the sharpened nails on both of her hands.

“…Kuh!”

In a split-second decision, he let go of his naginata, then used one of his free hands to seize Iori’s left wrist just as she was a hair’s breadth away from reaching him. He very narrowly managed to catch hold of her other wrist in the same instant. Her sharp nails were stopped in place—the left just before Naguma’s carotid artery, the right not far from Naguma’s eyeball.

“…How careless of me.”

If he had swung at her with his naginata—no matter which side he sliced from, the nails on her other side would have gouged right into him. And no matter if that was the left or the right side—it would have made for a fatal wound. He would have been sufficiently, certainly, absolutely, and hopelessly… dead.

“…Horrifying.”

So this… was talent.

So this… was a Zerozaki.

Something hopeless.

“…Let go of me!”

Making use of the way both her hands were being held in place, Iori raised her body into the air, used her wrists as a fulcrum, and brought both of her legs together in a kick that burst right into Naguma’s stomach. Although she wasn’t a particularly heavy girl, there was no way an attack with all of her weight put into it could be completely ineffective…

But in the end, there was still the gap between a pro and an amateur.

There was a clear difference of physical fitness.

Without so much as flinching, Naguma twisted Iori’s arms around, flipping her over and throwing her against the floor. With both of her hands in his grasp, Iori had no way to lessen the impact as she hurtled to the ground face-first. Naguma didn’t let up after that, moving on to straddle Iori’s slender back, restricting her movements.

“Gweh!”

A sound akin to the cry of a squashed frog escaped Iori’s mouth. Unmoved, Naguma trampled Iori’s left arm under his foot, and used both hands to grab her right arm.

“These nails are awfully dangerous. It’s not safe to let your fingernails grow so long. Here, allow me to trim them for you.”

So he murmured.

Then, holding Iori’s four fingers in place with his right hand, and using the thumb of his left hand to line them up.

He tore off all four fingernails at once.

“Ah, hee, eeeeeeeeeek?!”

Within the time it took her to let out that blood-curdling scream, Naguma peeled off the remaining nail on her thumb with a practiced hand, as easily as if it were a magnet on a refrigerator. Then, repeating the same process, he stomped down on her writhing right hand, and next, grabbed Iori’s left wrist.

“Perhaps I should do these one by one.”

“E-e-eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeek?! N-No! No, no, no! Stop it! Please sto—”

An unspeakable agony a.s.sailed Iori’s fingers.

Her index finger, her little finger, her middle finger, her thumb, her ring finger.

One by one.

One by one by one.

One by one by one by one.

One by one by one by one by one.

One by one by one by one by one by one.

Paying no heed to the screams that accompanied each individual deed, in a procedure both meticulous and chaotic, Naguma finished peeling away all ten of Iori’s nails, leaving not one remaining.

“Ah… u-ugh…”

There were unmistakably tears mixed in with her groans. Well, of course. That was understandable. Only natural, really. Cutting a nail to the quick is incomparable to the pain of having a nail torn off; even a grown adult would cry mercy after one or two rounds. And that was to say nothing of the fact that Iori had been a bona fide ordinary high school girl until just the previous evening. This was likely the first time in her life she had experienced such intense agony.

“Ooh… o-ooh…”

In spite of her moaning—Iori stopped resisting.

After Naguma released his grip on her hand, it only dropped limply to the floor. Like a dead woman, she didn’t as much as move a muscle. Seeing Iori like that, Naguma laughed derisively.

“And with that, you’ve been left wholly unarmed. I’m sure you’d be able to play the piano quite nicely now. Haha.”

“…Stop… Please, forgive me…” Eventually, Iori spoke up in a small, muddled voice. “It hurts, I hate it… Eh, egh, guh, oh, ooh… My fingers… My fingersss… I’m sorry… I’ll apologize, so stop being cruel… Don’t hurt me anymore…”

“…”

“H-Hic… ooh. Stop it, stop it, h-hic… Stop it, stop it… It hurts… O-ooh…”

“…Hah. That’s what I thought.”

Naguma reached out, used one hand to drag the discarded naginata towards him, and settled it back into his grip. Then, he placed the blade of weapon against the nape of Iori’s neck…

And forced Iori to grasp the handle.

“Like this, all you have to do is slide your hand a little to the side. That’s all it will take for you to die. Without any more of this suffering—as a ‘normal human.’ This is your last chance. This is your last chance, Zerozaki—no, ‘Iori Mutou’-san. Now—make your choice, and carry out your decision.”

Iori was shuddering with sobs.

Naguma looked down on her as she cried. If she showed even the slightest hint of resistance, all he had to do was press down on the naginata from behind. It would slice through Iori’s neck like a knife through b.u.t.ter.

“It’s nothing to agonize over. The rest of your life would be worthless, anyway, almost certainly worthless. As of now—you’re all on your own. Mr. Mind Render told you the same thing, didn’t he? Whenever you encounter someone, you’ll only be able to kill them; such is the Zerozaki. You’re completely hopeless. You will always, always be alone. Hopelessly alone. What benefit, what reward is there in a life like that?”

“…”

“Mr. Mind Render and I are irrevocably part of this world. It’s too late for the both of us—but there’s still hope for you. You still have the chance to take care of the matter discreetly, within the bounds of reason. Beautifying your final moments—that’s something to be proud of, really.”

Those were Naguma’s last words to Iori.

He wouldn’t go on any longer.

There was nothing more to say.

There was nothing more he could do.

He had already done everything he could.

Now—he just had to wait.

However, no matter how long he waited, Iori only trembled and cried. While it was true that ten of her fingernails had been torn off, once enough time had pa.s.sed that she ought to have become numb to the pain, Naguma frowned, starting to realize that something was off.

And when he looked a little more closely…

“Hehe…”

When he looked a little more closely.

“Hehe… hehehe.”

He saw that Iori was laughing.

Her shoulders were shaking with laughter.

“Hehe. Hehe, hehehehe.”

“…What’s so funny?”

“What’s so funny? Isn’t it obvious? You are!” Leaving her face hidden, Iori spoke in a voice still choked with tears. “This whole time, I’ve been thinking the things you’re saying are downright laughable and nonsensical—but there’s really nothing to it. You just want me to die of ‘my own volition,’ don’t you?”

“…”

“In other words—you want me to choose death over becoming a psycho killer, right? If my only other option is to become ‘like that,’ if my only other option is to become ‘something hopeless,’ you want me die of my own accord. Simply put, that’s what you’re saying, isn’t it? Hehehe, how laughable, how laughable, how laughable! How ideal—how idealistic. And pitifully enough, you go pus.h.i.+ng your ideal onto other people like a d.a.m.ned nuisance. What do you mean, ‘too late’? You’re just a pathetic, sniveling coward who can’t be bothered to do anything yourself!”

Choose death over becoming a psycho killer.

Choose death over regressing into a brute.

That decision was perfectly sensible, the obvious choice to make.

But Naguma Sawarabi never chose it.

He must have had it.

He must have had the same “option.”

Sous.h.i.+ki Zerozaki—Mind Render’s words were what finally made him realize that. A Sawarabi is not a “Sawarabi” by birth, nor a “Sawarabi” from birth. So—there should have been another path to take.

Choices, a say in the matter.

Even if they were small and few, he did have them.

Before he became a monster, he could have chosen to die.

He should have run away.

He should have felt more afraid.

For instance—like his little sister, Yumiya Sawarabi, did.

“You’re the hopeless one, you piece of s.h.i.+t!”

Iori finally lifted her face, glared fiercely at Naguma—and yelled.

“If you want to die so badly, then you’re free to go die! Don’t blame your death on anyone else! Like I give a d.a.m.n about the feelings of someone whining about how they want to die—whining about how they want to run away!”

“…!”

“I won’t die! I won’t run away! Even if I’m on my own, I’m not alone, so no matter ‘how’ I end up, I will live! I won’t choose death! I won’t run away from myself! I won’t deny it; I’ll affirm everything! I won’t despair over something as trivial as my life, as trivial as my talent!”

Iori began to thrash about with her entire body, as if her submission until now had all been an act. Could it be that she had been “pretending to cry” all that time? “Crocodile tears,” you say? And she had used that opportunity to recover her stamina? Without ceasing, Iori slammed against the floor, swung her arms and legs about to free them, and tried to escape Naguma’s hold. She struggled violently enough to cause the entire prefab hut to groan and shake. It was so abrupt that even Naguma was left fl.u.s.tered. The blade of the naginata had already drifted away from Iori’s nape. It would be difficult for him to take aim again—and, more importantly than that.

Iori’s words had sent Naguma into a rage.

“…D-D-Don’t talk as if you know anything, you little girl! Y-You stupid brat, it was only just yesterday that you became a psycho killer! Y-You don’t know the first thing about despair, you little s.h.i.+t! Have you ever pointlessly killed a group of girls you bore no grudge against?! Have—Have you ever sacrificed a complete, unrelated stranger for your own convenience?! O-Once you’ve murdered a dear, beloved friend of yours, see if you can run your mouth like that!”

He stepped down on Iori’s right arm, seized that arm.

Raised his naginata ever so slightly.

“I’m not giving you a peaceful death anymore! Suffer, suffer, and suffer, because I’m going to kill you bit by bit! I’ll cut you up piece by piece until you’re begging for death! Wallow in deep, thorough regret as you die!”

And he severed Iori’s right hand.

A scream rang out.

✦   ✦

Sous.h.i.+ki Zerozaki’s memories began from inside a cage.

He didn’t remember anything from before that. He didn’t remember who he was before that. Whether he ever actually had anything before that was unclear, something he couldn’t really say. Judging from the circ.u.mstances, he had been kidnapped from somewhere—and he had been living inside that cage for quite a long time. Those were the only two facts he knew.

And based on those facts, he had come to a conclusion.

He was alone.

He was hopelessly alone.

Most likely, he wasn’t the only one who didn’t know the person he had been before. n.o.body else, whether it be the parents who gave birth to him, people, society, or the world—n.o.body else knew, either.

Everyone had forgotten about him.

It was only natural.

Even he didn’t know who he was.

The owners of the cage, too, didn’t know him.

They would look at him, but they still didn’t know him.

They would touch him, but they still didn’t know him.

n.o.body…

n.o.body knew who he was.

…Yes, there was no doubt about it.

He was hopeless.

That was just who he was.

That was just what he was.

He was all alone in the world.

He was the only one in the world.

There was no one there.

After all—if there was only him…

It made no difference whether or not he was there.

Whether he was there or not, nothing would change.

Nothing would deviate, nothing would disintegrate.

Like zero.

He was lamentably zero.

…Then, forget it.

He thought.

If it doesn’t make a difference whether or not I’m here…

He reflected.

I’ll just get rid of everything.

He decided.

It doesn’t matter anymore.

He gave up.

And thus—Sous.h.i.+ki Zerozaki awakened.

And so, in the sense that he’d never had anything “beforehand,” Sous.h.i.+ki Zerozaki could be considered an uncommon, incredibly rare breed of Zerozaki. It would be no stretch to say that his origins were what made him the one who held the greatest affection for his little brother, Hitos.h.i.+ki Zerozaki. It was only natural, as well, that even within the Zerozaki Family, a group that placed almost excessive value on their relatives, Sous.h.i.+ki Zerozaki would be familistic enough to be considered an eccentric.

He had been overjoyed.

When his “parents” showed themselves before him.

When they came to bring him home.

When they accepted something like him.

He had been truly happy.

Ever since then…

Sous.h.i.+ki Zerozaki was no longer alone.

It did matter whether or not he was there.

He finally felt that he was allowed to exist.

For the first time since he was born—he was able to leave the cage.

And so, he would protect his family.

And so, he would love his family.

And so, he would hold his family’s hand.

And so, he would treasure his bonds with his family.

And so…

He couldn’t let himself die here…

“…The inspiration… is Kinnik.u.man, I suppose?”

“…Ah?”

“She” raised a suspicious voice.

Undeterred, Sous.h.i.+ki continued.

“…Oh, it could be Fist of the North Star, too. There’s also Yu Yu Hakusho, Sakigake!! Otokojuku… and I mustn’t forget the cousin from Kimagure Orange Road. Those are the only examples I know of, however.”

“…What are you talking about? Have you lost it?”

The moment “she” said that with genuine incredulity.

“If you don’t understand, then it’s fine.”

With a yank, Sous.h.i.+ki shook off the hand gripping his throat. He shook off the hand that had been gripping his neck with an unbelievably weak pressure. In the same instant, Mind Render glistened, tearing into her arm. The blade didn’t bounce off the skin…

It tore through.

Deeply.

Invasively—it pierced into the skin.

“Ah—aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!”

It wasn’t a scream. It was a grating voice jumbled with white noise—no, a grating sound jumbled with white noise.

At the same time, Sous.h.i.+ki’s field of vision was upended.

“If you don’t understand—then you aren’t ‘her.’”

What was upended wasn’t his own view…

It was the world itself.

The landscape behind Sous.h.i.+ki underwent a complete transformation.

He recognized this place.

As he thought that, he turned around—and there was a red cloth.

A killer crimson cloth.

A red cloth nailed to the trunk of a tree.

He was back where everything had begun.

“Heheheh. How terribly embarra.s.sing, to have lost my head like that. I’ve certainly shown you a disgraceful side of myself. It was something I’d confirmed on the way, too—that there was a Cursing Name involved in this incident.”

And he turned back around.

Of course, “she” wasn’t there.

Instead, there was an old woman easily past her sixties, whose arm was bleeding profusely. Although she was fully clad in red clothing, there was a vaguely shabby quality to it, and it carried no air of intimidation.

“She” was nowhere to found.

As she used her other hand to apply pressure to the injured arm, the old woman glared at Sous.h.i.+ki. Indifferent to her gaze, Sous.h.i.+ki gave a light shrug of his shoulders and kept speaking.

“The Mind Manipulation Specialist Group who governs over ‘fear,’ the Tokinomiya. I realize my second name is Mind Render, but that’s a little too on the nose. For all my experience, this was my first time facing off against a ‘hypnotizer’ or a ‘brainwasher’ directly. I was completely taken in.”

“…”

The old woman continued to glare in silence.

“So you’re the one who supplied the Sawarabi with those Marionettes? And the barrier was part of the set-up for your trick, too. I see, I see.”

Monotonous tasks that lack a moderate degree of stimulation can send people into a hypnotic state. The phenomenon is called a “sensory deprivation hallucination.” A monotonous task that lacks a moderate degree of stimulation—it could be something like watching a pendulum swing back and forth before your eyes, something like repeatedly moving luggage across the floor, or something like walking through a forest with scenery that never changes.

“There are a few parts I find to be a letdown, or frankly, a disappointment, so my feelings are somewhat mixed, but my goodness. You certainly managed to jumble a simple affair into quite a bit of trouble for me.”

“How… did you figure it out?” the old woman asked in a hoa.r.s.e voice.

Along with a light laugh, “It was simple,” came Sous.h.i.+ki’s reply.

“This was a smart move. Cowardly and underhanded, but a smart move. First, by showing me this red cloth—this killer crimson cloth, you prompted me to visualize ‘her.’ You took advantage of that moment using your trademark Mind Manipulation, and then all you had to do was wait for me to die off inside my own hallucination. When you’re envisioning an opponent you believe ‘you couldn’t possibly beat,’ well, there’s no way you can win. Thinking about it a little more rationally, this isn’t some kind of manga, so even ‘she’ couldn’t knock down a tree with just one hand. Even ‘she’ couldn’t be impervious to blades. Heheh, that ‘Earth Splitter’ bit was good, though.”

“…”

“The first thing to seem off… was this red cloth.”

Sous.h.i.+ki pointed to the fluttering cloth.

“If that was really ‘her,’ she wouldn’t use something like this to make her opponent turn around. If she really had to devise a way to sneak up on her opponent—no, not devise, stage—if she really wanted to stage a way to sneak up on her opponent, there’s a better way to do it. And that’s what ‘she’ would choose. She’d use some kind of chisel to carve ‘If you turn around, you’re dead’ into the trunk of the tree, then lie in wait—you know, to make a show of it.”

“W-What are you talking about…?”

“As I said, the fact that you don’t understand what I’m talking about is the irrefutable evidence that you’re an impostor. Don’t a.s.sume there’s an explanation for everything; this isn’t a mystery novel, you know. If you’re going to disguise yourself as someone else, you ought to investigate that person down to the very last available detail. Well, I suppose it’s more unusual to find someone who does know very much about ‘her.’ ‘She’ is a taboo of sorts, after all. It would seem I was lucky in that regard. Or no, perhaps I was unlucky? Knowing her so well is what drove me into such a corner. Goodness, I really did have my back to the wall there. I never imagined I’d find myself in such a tight spot. Well, let’s just say I lost my head with delight when my long-held dream of encountering ‘her’ finally became a reality; more importantly, my lady, as a j.a.panese citizen, your unfamiliarity with those masterpieces marks you as one of the biggest losers in the world. Oh, come to think of it, I remember hearing some rumors. About how there was a second-rate Tokinomiya making a profit off of going around pretending to be ‘her,’ or something like that. So that was you?”

The old woman shrank back, but Sous.h.i.+ki pressed on, unconcerned.

“Still, you truly proved yourself as a specialist; I can see you live up to your name as the ant.i.thesis of the Niounomiya, Tokinomiysan. In and of itself, the spectacle brought on by my manipulated mind was absolutely incredible. Even if it was just a hallucination, no, an illusion conceived by own mind… ‘she’ was, without a doubt, the strongest. …However, there was just one flaw in the design. As I just told you—if ‘she’ was really ‘her’—the ‘cloth’ at the very beginning doesn’t fit into the picture. Of course, that was something I saw before I fell victim to your spell, so I suppose that’s only natural.”

What had been prepared for him wasn’t a “trap” or a “strategy”—it was a “spell.” A “spell” which Sous.h.i.+ki had fallen under completely. Convinced that his enemy was the Sawarabi, he had failed to antic.i.p.ate such a crafty move, and that had been his undoing.

“But once I noticed the flaw, the rest was simple. ‘She’ tipped her own hand. Putting your life on the line for a ‘little sister’ is idiotic—is essentially what ‘she’ said, but…”

He gave a gentle shake of his head.

“‘She’ would never say that. The reason I fear her—and at the same time, respect and admire her—is that ‘she’ is the one and only person to be ‘softer on her a.s.sociates’ than even the Zerozaki Family. We hold nearly the same ideology, but ‘she’ takes on the world alone, all by herself. Can you name a single person more fearsome and more magnificent than that? That’s why I’m a fan of hers. Not quite on the level of a stalker, but I’d consider myself an enthusiast. And so—after that remark of yours, I was convinced. And at the same time, I remembered. Remembered about those d.a.m.ned dirty Tokinomiya!”

At the very end, Sous.h.i.+ki’s voice turned into a yell, and he threw Mind Render. It went flying in a straight line towards the woman’s left s.h.i.+n, pinning it to the tree behind her just as she had been about to run away.

“E, e, eeek—”

The old woman’s face contorted in terror as she looked at Sous.h.i.+ki.

“W-Wait. Don’t kill me. Please don’t kill me. I only did this because I was hired to. Those Sawarabi boys paid me to do it. Don’t kill me, please don’t…”

At her plea, Sous.h.i.+ki only laughed scornfully.

“The Tokinomiya who govern over fear and manipulate the consciousness—how truly ironic to see you make that expression. How very unsightly, how terribly feeble. You have no right to look at me that way. You have no right to say that to me. Really now, you Tokinomiya may be skilled, but I can’t imagine myself ever getting along with you. You don’t have to say anything for me to know that you ‘fail.’ It must have been an agonizing decision for the Sawarabi, to team up with a repulsive Cursing Name like you…”

Bit by bit, he closed in on the trapped old woman.

The woman’s expression had gone from terror to something like a smile.

There was nothing left she could do but laugh.

“H-Hey—hee, heehee, c-come on. You’re going to kill a senior citizen, not to mention a woman? I don’t believe this.”

“You’ll pay for forcing me to destroy ‘her’ form—is what I’d like to say here. But both fortunately and unfortunately, I didn’t manage to destroy it in the least, so I’ll subst.i.tute that line with a quote from my lovable little brother.”

He extracted Mind Render from her leg, then gave it a quick spin so as to shake off the blood.

And then, he grinned.

“Young or old, man or woman, no mercy.”

(Tokei Tokinomiya—Failed for proxy test-taking)
(Chapter 7—The End)

Ningen Series Volume 1 Chapter 7

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Ningen Series Volume 1 Chapter 7 summary

You're reading Ningen Series Volume 1 Chapter 7. This novel has been translated by Updating. Author: Nisio Isin, 西尾 維新 already has 152 views.

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