T/N: Light chapter. Notice that Anri has a ponytail in the picture!
Himeka speaks informally to the boys. In this chapter Celty tries to be polite at first, but slips back into informal.
From the trio’s point of view I refer to Celty as ‘it’.
So far Ei Li-pei tends to drag the end of his sentences. Think Izumii Ran
“Li-pei”: “pretty seashell”. The Ei family appear in Etsusa Bridge also. They all have somewhat awkward names—’Ei’ isn’t actually the right pronunciation for that word in any major dialect, for that matter.
Somewhere in Ikebukuro. Storefront of the antiques store Sonohara Hall.
The store was on the outskirts of Ikebukuro, and had an unplaceable sense of isolation about it.
Here, far from the busier streets around the train station, this old shophouse stood by its lonesome in a district of ordinary houses.
Being that it was an antiques store, it could be said that the store’s exterior was only fitting and in fact enhanced its charm.
A display case fitted into one wall displayed red and black teacups and coins with unfamiliar inscriptions, further emphasising the quaintness of the store.
Suddenly the door to the shop swung open, and a group of young people clad in modern-style uniforms emerged.
“I’m glad I found a proper radio.”
Stepping out of the store, a quiet-looking boy—Mizuchi Yahiro—heaved a sigh of relief as he looked at the radio in his hands.
“Thanks for showing me here, Tatsugami-san.”
Although said offhandedly, the gratitude Yahiro offered was sincere. The girl he addressed, Tatsugami Himeka, shook her head.
“Don’t worry, this place just happens to be near my home.”
“But thank goodness I could get a cheap one.”
Yahiro examined his purchase once more as he said this.
The casing itself was wooden, with an ascending dragon engraved in the back. When Yahiro had first seen the red and black of the mahogany he had even thought it might be mechanical rather than electrical.
Despite the uniqueness of this radio the lady who owned the shop had offered a discount seeing as they wore Raira uniforms, and he had acquired it at a surprisingly low price.
“You’d think a store recently opened by a Raira graduate would be pretty new, but it turns out to have this ancient vibe, what a shock, huh? And the store owner looks so serious with those glasses, but she’s a real beauty—is she attached, you think?”
The boy behind Himeka and Yahiro who brought up this new topic—Kotonami Kuon—was even more incongruent with the store’s atmosphere.
The boy with the dyed-green hair recalled the store owner from earlier and continued to speculate:
“But in the first place—such a young woman running a store by herself! Isn’t that amazing? Does she have no family to help…?”
“Hm… I don’t know, but when the place just started up there were some people helping with the renovations.”
“Are there many shops like that around?”
Yahiro looked over his shoulder at the store shrinking into the distance behind them.
After some thought Himeka replied.
“I suppose there are plenty of private businesses around. Different areas have different environments, and there are a lot of interesting shops, so you might want to tour around to look.”
“Tokyo is amazing after all…”
“Wait, this isn’t actually exclusive to Tokyo.”
Yahiro shook his head at Kuon’s comment.
“Ah, sorry. I never really left my own village.”
“And you just decided to come to Tokyo… That’s quite interesting.”
After that half-hearted reply, Kuon looked at Yahiro’s radio.
“By the way, is it really okay to rely on a radio instead of a TV for news?”
“I think it’ll be fine. I already have a smartphone anyway.”
“Rather have a smartphone than a TV. How the times have changed. Ah. Do you go on any SNS?”
Yahiro cocked his head curiously. Incredulous, Kuon rolled his shoulders, and explained politely:
“SNS—short for Social Network Service. The blanket term for services that use the internet to support human communication. In a nutshell like Twittia, Facemagazine, Nixi, Fine…”
Yahiro did not seem to recognise any of the services he listed, and began slowly,
“Whoa. Never thought I’d hear the word ‘chatroom’ in this day and age. Impressive, actually. Eh, since you have a smartphone I can show you the free websites later…”
Kuon made as to continue, but he trailed off as a car horn honked from behind them.
The trio spun around to see a car slowing down behind them.
The window at the passenger seat slid open, and a boy’s face poked out.
He wore the same Raira uniform as them, and on first glance appeared to be their age.
However what Kuon said next marked him as senior.
“There you are. That hair sure is convenient when we’re looking for you.”
” are you here? Didn’t I tell you I’m not free today? Argh.”
Kuon responded easily to the upperclassman; behind him Yahiro and Himeka exchanged glances.
The upperclassman Kuon had called Kuronuma had a typical, tame look to him, but the fierce man in the driver’s seat, combined with the fact that the rear windows were heavily tinted, lent a shady atmosphere to the situation.
Just as Yahiro was floundering about how to react, the upperclassman in the passenger seat turned towards him.
“…Hey, Kuon. Who are your friends here?”
Despite saying ‘friends’ in plural, his attention was fixed on Yahiro alone.
Yahiro guessed that the wound on his face must have drawn his eye. Kuon answered informally,
“Ah, they’re my classmates. Mizuchi and Tatsugami-san.”
“I see. I’m Kuronuma Aoba, third year. Pleasure.”
“Nice to meet you… I’m Mizuchi Yahiro.”
In reply to Aoba’s friendly introduction, Yahiro bowed his head, while Himeka murmured her own greeting.
“Mizuchi-kun? It looks like you’re hurt, are you okay?”
Aoba asked, looking at the bruise on Yahiro’s face.
“It’s nothing, I fell down the stairs…”
“You fell? Where?”
Having not expected further probing, Yahiro stumbled over his answer.
Kuon, however, backed him up, cutting into the conversation.
“Yeah! It was at the station! This guy’s not used to the crowd since he came from up north, so he felt sick and toppled over all of a sudden! What a shock!”
“Uh, er, yeah.”
Yahiro hurriedly corroborated the lie Kuon had so fluently produced.
“So that’s how it is. Where are you from?”
“It’s a hot spring town in Akita… Um, it’s called Haburagi Village; north of Lake Hachirogata.”
“Haburagi Village, huh.”
After affirming this, Aoba grinned and said to Kuon,
“So you’re showing your friend around?”
“Something like that, I guess.”
“I see.. I never pegged you as such a considerate person.”
With that he turned back to Yahiro and Himeka.
“You should be careful. If you hang out with this guy your grades will go down.”
“Wha, you’re awful, Aoba-sempai… I might look like this, but I’m a good tutor too, you know?”
Kuon sighed as he denied Aoba’s claims.
Ignoring his junior, Aoba waved, smiling.
“We’ll be going, then. Feel free to talk to me in school if you have any questions.”
Emitting the air of an amiable upperclassman, Aoba shut the window.
The trio lapsed into silence as they watched the car turn out of the alley, but eventually Kuon let out a deep sigh and smiled.
“Puhyo~ That was embarrassing. That senior was just messing around. Don’t mind it, all right? I mean it. It’ll be a favour to me, too.”
“But you’re the only one he insulted, Kotonami-kun. I don’t really mind…”
“I don’t think he said anything worth worrying about in the first place.”
Hearing Yahiro and Himeka’s replies, Kuon grimaced, shrugging.
“Anyway, it’s best if you stay away from him.”
In the car.
“We approached them too randomly, don’t you think?”
Inside the van driving away from Yahiro and company.
The driver munched on chewing gum as he spoke.
“By the way, are you sure that kid’s the one who had that showoff with Shizuo?”
“Probably. Kuon rarely bothers to hang out with anyone besides us, so there’s a huge likelihood.”
Aoba replied lackadaisically.
“If it were up to me I’d have exchanged contacts.”
“Are you serious? He’s the one who matched up to Shizuo?”
Aoba’s teammate Yoshikiri asked from the back seat.
“I’m not sure. That’s what we’re going to find out.”
“But Aoba. Even ignoring his build—doesn’t he seem a bit too timid to fight anyone?”
Being a fight addict himself, Yoshikiri was generally able to recognise when a person was dangerous. But he had received none of those vibes from the boy Mizuchi Yahiro.
Even so, Aoba replied after some thought,
“Did you see his hands?”
“Eh? No, I couldn’t see from the window.”
“He had some unusual scars on them.”
Yahiro’s hands, from what Aoba had seen, were littered with unusual scars.
There was definitely some special circumstance behind this, but as it had only been their first meeting he had not broached the topic.
Hearing this another passenger in the backseat laughed.
“Scars on his hands, huh. Like what? Think he might’ve gotten stabbed with a biro?”
“Oi shut up.”
Aoba frowned and rebuked him, before looking up at the ceiling of the car, mumbling to himself.
“Kuon’s planning something, so I want to get that guy’s contacts. But it would’ve been awkward to ask for his email back there.”
Then he slowly took out his phone from his pocket.
“Haburagi Village… Ha-bu-ra-gi… There, this one?”
A simple search displayed foremost the home page of a hot spring inn, followed by tour companies and personal blogs introducing the ‘secret hot spring’.
The website for the village office itself only showed up some way into the results, so it was surmisable that the place was quite famous for its hot springs.
With that he continued searching with various keywords, browsing through social media communities and message boards frequented by the locals.
After some minutes of searching, Aoba’s eyes narrowed.
The website on the screen was a message board based in a town near Haburagi Village.
It was a series of posts from about a week ago, in a thread for high schoolers to exchange news.
[I heard the monster from Haburagi’s going to a high school in Tokyo]
[You mean Mizuchi?]
[Thank goodness, if he went for a public school he’d be in mine]
[The seniors were terrified]
[Yes! My high school bliss is safe]
They bantered back and forth, treating the site as more of a chatroom than a message board, but this was sufficient for Aoba to confirm Yahiro’s identity.
Despite smiling internally at having hit the nail on the head, Aoba’s face remained cool as he murmured,
“Now what next? I’m curious about what Kuon is thinking…”
“If he’s doing secret things without us we just need to get rid of him, right?”
Yoshikiri made this vile proposal, to which Aoba answered,
“Don’t be hasty. We’re not going to strangle the goose laying us golden eggs.”
Then he continued calmly.
“Well, he could just be looking for more people to work for him… In the first place, we don’t know the motives of that newcomer, either.”
The conversation in the car ended there, and with that they returned to their normal—as it was for them—everyday lives.
But as if preventing that, Aoba’s ringtone erupted from his phone.
“Oh, who is it.”
Before taking the call, Aoba checked the caller ID displayed on the screen.
After a moment of astonishment, his mouth crooked into a smile as he picked up the call.
“Hello… It’s been a long time. …yes, I’m fine. … Aw, don’t sound so disappointed.”
At Aoba’s cheeriness the Blue Squares in the car exchanged glances. His use of polite language indicated the other party was of a higher status, but it had been a long time since Aoba had spoken to someone like that so cheerfully.
Some of them considered it might be Ryugamine Mikado, but the thought quickly perished.
Ryugamine Mikado had cut all ties to people like themselves, and at most made small talk with Aoba now and then in school.
While his team mates speculated Aoba continued talking with a smile.
“Sure, if it’s someone I know I can send a photo over.”
But in the next moment—
A hint of surprise flitted over that smiling face.
And as if to check with the person across the line, he repeated the unique name.
“Tatsugami Himeka… you said?”
A few days later. Raira Academy.
Raira Academy had begun regular lessons, and Yahiro was able to participate normally without standing out or being ostracised.
The wound on his face had mostly faded, and now that the bandage had come off he was fairly nondescript.
Both Himeka and Kuon were astonished by his quick recovery, but injuries were so common for Yahiro, who had suffered random ambushes since childhood, that he found himself awkward with their reaction.
His classmates had at first been surprised when they saw him injured, but with someone as unapproachable as Kuon hanging around him few spoke to him more than necessary.
His fight with Shizuo behind him, Yahiro was just feeling grateful that he had successfully launched his peaceful high school life—
But in the end this peace was too easily terminated that very afternoon.
“Mi~ zu~ chi~ -ku~n! Le~t’s ha~ve so~me fu~n… aha!”
It was a few minutes into lunch break.
Yahiro was holding his home-made lunch, pondering where to eat it, when that feminine voice rang out from the back of the classroom.
The remaining students in the classroom looked up at the commotion, and glanced between the girl and Yahiro.
“Ah… Er… Orihara-sempai?”
“Tha~t’s right! Great! You remembered!”
The third year, who wore glasses and a braid, entered the first year classroom with nary a blink, and hopped onto Yahiro’s desk.
“Hey, do you have time after school today?”
“Er, I’m on after-school duty for the Library Committee…”
“Okay! Then I’ll see you at the library! There’s some stuff I want to talk about!”
They had only met once so far; yet Mairu uttered something so inconsiderate.
“You basically just said you’re going to disrupt my work, I don’t…”
“It’s fine. I’ll just say sorry to the Pres. By the way, where’s Kuon-kun?”
“Oh, he should be on the roof, I think.”
“Ah, I see. Maybe he’s eating with Aobacchi and friends?”
Due to this Kuon was not in the classroom, and Himeka had also left to buy her lunch.
Thus no one was around to rescue Yahiro; there were only his classmates, who were glancing surreptitiously from a distance.
“It’s all right to talk to me here, too, actually…”
“Ah, that won’t do. No rush, no rush.”
She grinned with her index finger over her lips, and then pressed her finger onto Yahiro’s mouth.
“Anyways, it’s something I can’t say here, so let’s have a nice long chat after school, all right?”
With a smile that put one at a loss whether to describe as innocent or annoying, the girl left the classroom.
“Mizuchi-kun, you know Orihara-sempai?”
After she had gone, a number of girls gathered around Yahiro curiously.
“I just met her recently… What is she like?”
Yahiro, surprised, responded with his own question, and the girls exchanged glances before replying.
“Hm… She’s exactly what she looks like.”
“She’s well-known in our school, right?”
“Her older twin sister’s the VP of the student council…”
“The Orihara twins have both boy and girl fans worshipping them, so you better watch out~”
They supplied all kinds of information, but nothing specific, and so Yahiro was unable to grasp anything about her as a person.
From their latest encounter and the one at the gym he could see that she was a fairly unusual person, but what would someone like that want from him?With this doubt adrift in his mind Yahiro entertained his classmates, opening his lunchbox.
–Well, it shouldn’t be anything too serious.
–She probably wants to talk about the Headless Rider, or invite me to the dojo.
That was the outcome Yahiro imagined; yet this almost impersonal prediction was thoroughly disproved.
After school. The library.
“Hey, how did you fight equally with Shizuo?!”
As Mairu delivered this outburst with shining eyes, Yahiro’s face twitched of its own volition.
“Wh, what do you mean?”
“Don’t pretend, don’t pretend. We know what happened!”
Yahiro was very obviously avoiding eye contact, but the two had him sandwiched and were looking at him intently.
Mairu was not alone; her older sister Orihara Kururi was with her, and they had cornered him in the library for this interrogation.
They were sensitive enough to avoid the crowd of the peak hour, and approach Yahiro around closing hours where most people had left already.
Cornered by two girls in the library after school, with no one else around.
Phrased that way it might sound exciting, but Yahiro was in no condition to savour the situation.
“No, I really don’t know what you’re…”
“You see~, it was videoed, you know~? It was from far away, so your face was blur, of course, but the guy beside you had green hair, you get it?”
“Aren’t there a lot of people with green hair in Tokyo?”
“…Are you… sure…?”
Yahiro, being a bad liar, could only avert his eyes from the twin upperclassmen pressuring him.
He was panicking at this moment because he had not anticipated that others would know about the fight.
He had underestimated the information network in the city of Ikebukuro.
Having a big fight in the middle of the street was of course problem behaviour.
Yet, if that was all, Yahiro was used to police involvement, so it was not an issue. But this was not his hometown; it was not his own family but the Togusa family putting him up that he would be causing trouble for. Yahiro, who feared this, had in fact been relieved that the incident had not attracted the police. Although he had gotten over his loss to Shizuo, he was not proud of his longstanding record of frequent violence, and was afraid that the school would expel him for the fight and send him back to his hometown.For Yahiro, this city was the only place where he could hope to find new self. He was thankful to his village. He did feel it was his home. But the hope he could find there was for peace and stability, and if he remained there, where he was labelled a monster, he would likely accept things as they were and give up on changing himself.
But this new city held possibility.
The Headless Rider, a true monster. Heiwajima Shizuo, who he had fought with his fullest strength against, and yet had been unable to defeat.
And his friends who had accepted him.
Yahiro was mesmerised by this barrage of changes in his life.
That was why he, a coward, was more afraid than anyone.
Afraid that the life he had finally achieved could be reduced to nothing.
“I, that is…”
“You don’t have to hide it. It’s not like we’re going to scold you for fighting or spread rumours or anything.”
You just admitted it
Yahiro yelped as he realised his own carelessness.
If it were his past self in Akita, he would have grown serious for a time due to his fear, and would not have answered so foolishly. Yahiro was shocked at himself, and shook his head, attributing it to the culture shock bubbling in his mind.
In actuality, rather than being in Tokyo, it was just the remnants of the high he had experienced fighting Shizuo.
Yahiro looked away for a moment, and sighed defeatedly; then he confessed.
“Yeah… I did fight with Heiwajima-san…”
“I knew it!”
Yahiro tilted his head, not knowing why the two starry-eyed girls were so happy.
When his violence was exposed, the eyes of the people around him would grow fearful, and naturally they would distance themselves from him. That was the pattern he had grown used to up to now.
But the reaction of these upperclassmen was not something he could have foreseen given his past experiences.
Yahiro hesitated in replying, but Mairu continued.
“It’s amazing! You fought with the Shizuo head-on? It feels like a new hero’s being born in Ikebukuro!”
“Yep! The city’s always hungry for new things. If you step out and confess you’ll be the biggest star of the rumour mill, you know?”
“I don’t really want to be…”
Although Mairu praised him, Yahiro’s face darkened.
–Special treatment doesn’t feel good, somehow, no matter what kind.
–In the first place, someone like me who was called a monster being a hero doesn’t even count as a joke.
“No~? Well, that’s that, and we’ll respect your decision.”
“Thank you very much.”
“But I think it’s already too late, yeah?”
Yahiro raised his head curiously, and Mairu replied:
“Because you’ve already made a splendid debut here in Ikebukuro! Even if you try to lay low, the city won’t let you off so easily.”
A street in Ikebukuro. In front of Tokyu Hands.
“Yo, Yahiro, you’re late.”
From the train station an enormous junction far into Sunshine 60 Road could be seen.
The area in front of Tokyu Hands building, which stood next to it, was often crowded at any time of day or night.
There was an underpass to Sunshine City and other means by which people could travel to and from here easily, so it was a hotspot as a meet-up point.
The trio had agreed to meet up at six-thirty that evening to discuss what they would do from now on.
“Sorry, some seniors held me up at the library.”
”They’re just as troublesome aren’t they!”
Kuon gave his condolences, and then, with a more serious face, said,
”So, what did they say? Those girls are into idols, so it probably wasn’t a confession or anything, right?”
”Yeah, we just had a chat.”
After a glance at Himeka, Yahiro chose to answer vaguely.
Himeka was likely unaware of what had happened between Shizuo and himself.
He acted on this premise, and Kuon, probably detecting his reluctance, did not push him further.
“Eh, our school churns out lots of problematic people, whether it’s current students or alumni.”
Himeka replied to Yahiro,
“Until ten or so years ago the school was famous for delinquency. Back it was called Raijin High. Since it became Raira Academy things have improved a lot.”
”Well more importantly, let’s get moving. We’ll show Yahiro around a bit, then discuss what we’re going to do over dinner, okay?”
Kuon clapped Yahiro and Himeka’s shoulders, smiling.
Following his plan, the trio set off.
They had yet to notice.
That there was a silhouette behind them, eying them with purpose.
And that there was more than one.
30 minutes later. Somewhere in Ikebukuro.
“It’s quite deserted here, huh.”
It was a street some distance from downtown.
They were passing by after visiting a tour spot; and Yahiro was surprised upon seeing this road.
“I guess so. Sometimes just a few streets away it feels like a different city altogether; it’s a common thing, not just in Ikebukuro. And depending on what time it is places can change a lot too.”
For Yahiro, life up to middle school had been restricted to his village.
As he was accustomed to all of the places in the village, no matter where he went he could always identify the place as local, but as he was new to the city environment, just a slight change felt completely different to him.
Yahiro pondered over this drastic difference in population over such a short distance, when—
Suddenly he felt uneasy, and stopped.
Himeka asked, seeing that he had stopped walking so abruptly.
Yahiro did not meet her eyes, simply staring deep into the alley they were walking in.
“Hm? What do you mean, something?”
Kuon, hearing this, squinted.
On first appearance, it was a normal, deserted road, but—
There, in the darkness between two streetlights.
Unlike the commercial district where the street would be lined with shops, the area was completely shadowed.
And in that darkness, was something of an even darker black.
“What could that be…”
Yahiro strained his eyes further, and saw something coming out from the darkness.
It was a simple full-face helmet, with a tinted visor.
To Yahiro, it was a familiar sight from video sites and the internet.
His heart raced.
He could see the mass of ‘darker black’ inch slowly, slowly towards them.
When light struck it, the dark mass did not reflect anything.
Anyone could tell.
It was a motorcycle.
On top of the fact that it had neither headlights nor a number plate, there was a ‘being’ clad in a pitch black rider suit straddling it.
The being was wrapped in shadow such that only the helmet it wore was apparent; giving the impression of a disembodied head floating in the darkness.
There was no need to wonder what it was.
“Oi, are you serious…?” Kuon, realising, mumbled under his breath—
While Himeka, standing beside Yahiro, identified it out loud, sweat gathering in her palms.
“The Headless… Rider…”
Her eyes were wide, and her breathing had quickened.
Yahiro saw her swallow fearfully, and through his own nervousness he asked,
“Tatsugami-san… Are you okay?”
Yahiro heard the slight quaver in his own voice, and realised he was on edge. Yahiro and Himeka wore the same expression but there was a fundamental difference.
It was concealed by his more ostensible shock, but at Yahiro’s core were ‘jubilance’ and ‘hope’.
Whereas the emotion sequestered behind Himeka’s gaze: was clear ‘hatred’ and ‘terror’.
The reason he had come to Tokyo was before him.
The suspect for the kidnapping of her family members was before her.
Neither Yahiro nor Himeka had imagined this being would show itself to them so easily.
The Headless Rider.
A walking urban legend.
That said, no one knew if it was truly alive.
There were those who said it was the vengeful spirit of a motorcyclist killed in an accident.
There were those who said it was a grim reaper.
There were those who said it was a kind of faerie; a dullahan.
There were those who said it was simply a performance artist.
There were those who said it was cursed motorcycle that had developed its own will.
There were those who said it was a prank by students.
There were those who said it was a stunt by the TV station.
There were those who said it was a disruptive work of art by an artist group.
There were those who said the Headless Rider never existed in the first place.
It was fantastical being, yet it existed incontrovertibly in reality.
Even if there was a somewhat unusual side to them, the trio of students were in the end no more than simply human students. Before this trio who could be no more rooted in reality, this being revealed itself.
“Oi… You’re kidding, right?”
Kuon broke out in cold sweat as he said this, but Yahiro’s reason anchored himself.
“Is that… the real thing?”
“You can tell, right? I mean, yeah, there’ve been fakes before, but…”
When Yahiro glanced at Himeka, her expression was unchanged from before, but her body was wracking with fine tremors.
Seeing this, Yahiro was able to speak with surprising calmness.
“What’s the plan.”
“Do we run?”
Grounded by her calmer friend, Himeka recovered her own cool.
“It’s fine, thanks.”
She swallowed again, and tamed her breathing.
Her fingers tightening into fists, quietly, she continued to watch the Headless Rider come towards them.
Kuon looked between Himeka and the Headless Rider, and blurted,
“Huh? Wait, are you serious… It’s coming straight for us, isn’t it? What now, if we’re running that’s fine, but if you want to talk, what are we going to say?”
It might have been because he was from Tokyo and had at least heard of the Headless Rider before, but Kuon was not as afraid as he could be.
But to Yahiro this was a mythical urban legend, and more importantly, to Himeka, this was the being who had taken her sisters.
With this being in front of her, it would be normal to think:
’It’s here to take the last of the three sisters.’
Yahiro had also understood that, and naturally he took a step forward, as if to defend Himeka.
So that he could act immediately no matter what the Headless Rider were to do.
–But what should we do?
Of course, Yahiro’s face was dripping with sweat.
–If it really attacks… Can I hold it off?
He had dealt with regular humans as his opponents countless times before.
Even when his opponent was a gangster with a sword he had been able to handle the situation, scared as he had been.
But it was his first time against someone who could form giant scythes and other weapons from writhing shadows.
If, like the online videos showed, the Headless Rider were to brandish that kind of weapon, in what way should he dodge—
As he imagined the outcome should he to fail to evade it, a shiver ran down Yahiro’s spine.
The cowardly boy focused his awareness to the utmost in that instant, and thought furiously of counterstrategies to various situations.
But his thinking was stopped for a time.
Because what the Headless Rider did as it arrived two metres from them exceeded his predictions completely.
’Um, excuse me.’
From the rider suit reflected no light and could well called darkness itself, the Headless Rider took out a smartphone—typed Japanese into it, and thrust it towards them.
’Can I have a moment? I’m not inviting you to any weird religion, and it won’t take much time.’
Kuon and Himeka’s faces had stiffened and they were silent, while Yahiro’s brain had also blanked out.
Before Yahiro returned to reality it was a few seconds until he realised he was the one who had let out the “eh?”.
This supernatural creature, the Headless Rider, was holding a smartphone, a civilised tool.
The glossy touchscreen shone as if to advertise her in the middle of the darkness that absorbed all light.
It took the wind out of Yahiro’s sails since he had been sure an attack was imminent, but even so, he told himself it could well be a deliberate act to lower their guard, and, still vigilant, he replied.
”Um, what is it?”
’Ah, excuse me, actually, there’s something I need to ask that girl.’
With this somewhat businesslike statement, it then showed Himeka its next question:
’That is, you’re Tatsugami Himeka-san, right?’
Taken by surprise, hesitation flashed across Himeka’s face—
But within seconds she registered the meaning of those words, and glowered warily at the Headless Rider.
”Are Nee-san and Ai… safe?”
Thinking that perhaps it was here to abduct her as well, or to deliver the ransom conditions, Himeka spoke with a challenging tone.
”What… are you here for?”
Her words alone would lead one to think she was calm as always, but Yahiro noticed that her voice was trembling.
In response, the Headless Rider waved its hands anxiously, and from afar it showed them the screen.
’Please don’t misunderstand. I had the feeling you would say that, but…’
It seemed to have expected this degree of distrust, and keeping the 2-metre distance between them, it continued to type in words in an especially large font.
’Please don’t run away yet.’
’Let me say this first. Regarding the kidnapping incidents, I am innocent.’
In this way, the Headless Rider declared its innocence.
The trio exchanged glances, speechless at the dubiousness of the situation.
”Oh? Haven’t seen that in a while…” A passing cyclist, most likely a long-time denizen of Ikebukuro, mumbled this under their breath as they went past the Headless Rider.
Amidst this hostile atmosphere, Himeka spoke a single word.
‘I’m telling the truth; I don’t remember doing anything like that.’
“That can’t be, my sisters, they…”
Her voice was worked up, but even then her expression had hardly changed.
It was likely that instead of anger and fear alone, she was confused at the Headless Rider’s sudden appearance and friendly manner.
‘That’s why I’ve come to meet you, Tatsugami Himeka-san.’
‘Could you tell me exactly… what happened to your sisters?’
And then—the Headless Rider said something completely beyond them.
‘I want to help to find them, too.’
After a beat, Kuon, who had gone silent thus far, spoke up.
“Wait, nononono! That’s just weird!”
“W, wait, slow down! Let’s just calm down, okay?”
“You’re the most agitated person here, Kuon-kun.”
Ignoring Yahiro’s calm assertion, Kuon summarised the situation with a spiel of words.
“What’s going on here! We were supposed to look for the Headless Rider, right?! But now the Headless Rider’s the one looking for us and here already!”
Kuon, riled up, turned to Yahiro and Himeka, and continued rambling.
“And then just as we’re thinking, ‘Uhyaa, it’s true that the Headless Rider kidnaps you if you go looking for it! We’re done for~!’, just as you’re thinking that, the Headless Rider starts chatting with you with a smartphone?! And that’s the latest model! Is this the real thing?!”
”Their clothes absorb light and the engine has no sound; there’s no doubt. I don’t think a fake could reproduce that, and even if it’s an imposter, the bike looks real, and it seems worth it to talk to someone related to the real Headless Rider.”
“Wow you’re really calm Yahiro?! You’re not angry?!”
Kuon shook his head bewilderedly, and watching this, Yahiro was silent for a moment.
–Ahh, there it is again.
–It’s, that thing… Kuon-kun feels fake.
Occasionally he would feel his friend’s unnaturalness, but he had not expected that it would still be present in this situation.
In the end, unable to discern Kuon’s purpose, Yahiro could only let it be.
‘Actually, it helps me a lot if you’re calm.’
Conversely, the Headless Rider, seemingly oblivious to Kuon’s unnaturalness, bobbed its helmet in a miniature bow, and showed Yahiro this message.
‘Thanks. You’re not surprised, so you must be local, right?’
Unable to confess that he had come here from Akita to meet it, Yahiro responded weakly, mind busy.
–It’s not what I expected.
Yahiro felt the collage of impressions he had accumulated about the Headless Rider up till now collapsing, but abruptly, he remembered:
–It feels in line with the Headless Rider Awakusu-san and Mairu-sempai talked about at the dojo before.
He felt the pain of his injuries that should have healed already, and recalled what Heiwajima Shizuo had said.
–“That person wouldn’t do anything to make anyone cry, let alone kidnap.”
–Yeah, if Heiwajima-san was right, this situation makes sense.
Yahiro was able to accept it, but Himeka, on the other hand, was in turmoil.
Probably due to her natural personality she was not panicking, but although her face was usually blank as steel, now there was obvious discomfort in her eyes.
”What’s going on, you weren’t the one who…”
’It really wasn’t me. I don’t have any evidence, but please believe me.’
”Then you should tell the police later.”
’I don’t have a driving license, so it’s hard to talk to the police. I don’t want to get arrested for something I didn’t do, either.’
The Headless Rider shrugged, and continued seriously,
’I want to help the victims so I can clear my name. And if there’s an imposter of me around, I have to get rid of them.’ The full-face helmet concealed the Headless Rider’s expression. Perhaps there was no expression to be seen in the first place, if the rumours were true.
Even so, to Yahiro, it was as if the Headless Rider was saying this very seriously.
Or perhaps it was that the trio were already thinking the same thought about the ‘urban legend’ before them.
–It’s… way friendlier than expected!
“Um, anyway, what did you want from Tatsugami-san?”
In the end it was Yahiro, the calmest one present, who asked this, and the helmet of the Headless Rider nodded as it began to type something.
From afar there was the revving of motorcycles, and quickly the source grew closer towards them and came into sight.
Looking closely there were three motorcycles in a line, meandering forth bit by bit in a manner akin to the fluid motion of a dragon.
Kuon stepped towards the curb to avoid any trouble –
But the motorcycles slowed down to a stop precisely in front of them, in a semicircle formation.
Then the three people alighted from their vehicles.
The person who had been on the foremost bike was a man about twenty years old, and the other two were girls.
However, for an instant Yahiro thought all three were girls.
All three had their helmets off and fastened around the back of their necks, their faces exposed, but the man in front was a beautiful man with a feminine face, and a portion of his shiny black hair was tied back.
Because of his alert observation Yahiro had noticed the person was male from his hip structure and the faint protrusion of his Adam’s apple, but anyone else would probably have mistook him for a woman.
While Yahiro was noticing this, Kuon was more concerned about something else of the three newcomers.
Their motorcycles shared the same decal.
The design resembled the white skeleton of a snake, but looking closer one could spot legs and conclude it was in fact the fleshless remains of a dragon.
“Yep, that’s right.”
At Kuon’s darkening expression, the man at the head of the group chuckled as he said this.
On closer inspection there was a dragon tattoo inked around his neck; despite his kindly face, he emanated the air of someone clearly on the wrong side of the law.
He glanced at the Headless Rider, and then focused his gaze on Yahiro.
Feeling the man’s scrutiny, Yahiro put himself on guard.
As he did so, the man turned to the two women behind him, and asked, casually,
“Yeah, that’s him, Li-pei.”
“He’s the one we told you about.”
The women nodded and replied in succession, and the man they called Li-pei grinned and turned back to Yahiro.
“All right, hello~.”
“Huh… Ah, yeah, hello.”
Behind Yahiro, who had bowed his head and returned the greeting automatically, Himeka was mumbling under her breath, “Eh? A man?” Most likely she had not realised Li-pei was male until hearing his voice.
“Nice to meet you. Ahh, it must be some kind of strange fate that the Headless Rider’s here to see our first meeting.”
The man glanced towards the Headless Rider again, before addressing Yahiro; but for all of his nonchalance the following words were like cold water over Yahiro’s head.
“So. I heard you’re strong.”
“Strong enough to take on even Heiwajima Shizuo?”