The Successor (Part 2)
Less than an hour ago. Somewhere in the city.
Near a deserted park some way from the heart of the city.
A place Akane would generally avoid after nightfall.
Not that she would have reason to be here in the daytime either—after all, Shiki had just been abducted, and this was a secluded alley.
She was peering around, as if waiting for someone.
“Here should be fine …”
Akane murmured, and just then a van parked in front of her.
Next a number of men alighted from the van, and closed in around her.
“You’re Akane-chan, right?”
Sensing danger, Akane’s hand drifted towards the long, slim bag on her back.
But the men smiled, and opened the door on the side of the van.
And when Akane laid eyes on the figure inside, her eyes turned shocked.
Then, right after—with a smile of relief, she took a step towards the van of her own volition.
“Oi! What do you think you’re doing!”
Before Akane could open her mouth to speak, a rough, male voice yelled out.
All of them turned towards it, to see another group of men running towards them.
These men were clearly an unlawful sort, but Akane was unruffled by their appearance.
This was because she recognized them as the men who frequently accompanied Shiki.
The men from the van leapt back into the vehicle the moment they noticed their new company.
One of them reached out to force Akane along, but—
Sensing a dangerous vibe from him, Akane batted his arm away from her.
With that he shut the van, and they escaped the fierce-looking men by a hairbreadth.
“Stop right there!”
One of the men tried to jump onto the roof of the van, but missed and fell to the road—and so all that was left were Akane and the rugged men.
“Why are you out here so late, Miss Akane…”
“What about all of you, why are you here?”
“Ah, well, we were just passing by…”
Assuming that Akane did not know of Shiki’s disappearance, the men exchanged glances and chose to draw the conversation elsewhere.
“More importantly, what happened, Miss Akane? Were you about to get on that suspicious van…!”
Averting her gaze uncomfortably, she answered with full honesty:
“Because there was someone I knew inside…”
Shinra’s apartment. Underground car park.
‘So is this Shijima person behind this? Or was he the first victim…?’
“No idea. I was thinking there would be further developments once you came back…”
Li-pei’s reply was nonchalant in spite of the fact that he was involved himself.
“Anyway, if they catch us chatting so happily like this I might become a target too, like that green-head.”
‘Huh? What do you mean?’
As he realised they were on different frequencies, Li-pei wore a look of surprise, and asked her,
“Ahhh… You don’t know yet?”
“That green-haired boy’s been kidnapped.”
Celty’s world froze for a moment at this unexpected news.
And, as though the timing had been calculated, her ringtone began to blare.
‘Hello, is this our Courier-san? Tap twice if it’s a good time for you.’
The voice belonged to a man from the Awakusu-kai like Shiki. Despite her bewilderment over Kuon’s situation, Celty quickly tapped on the receiver.
‘It’s an emergency situation, so I called instead of texting… Akane-chan just met with a kidnap attempt, actually.’
The confusion in Celty’s mind only grew at the news that Akane, who she had just spoken to that afternoon, had been attacked.
‘We know you spoke to her this afternoon, since we have the younger men guarding her from the shadows. I know you’re not the kidnapper; plus the ones who did it was a group of men we’ve never encountered. None of them look like the mastermind, but then again we don’t know anything about them.”
Akabayashi outlined the situation calmly, and then went to the point.
‘So, Oi-chan’s friends from Jyan Jyaka Jyan are tailing them right now…’
‘Any mood to catch the real culprit and restore your honour?’
Somewhere in the city.
‘Horada-san, I managed to follow them without getting caught… They entered a villa around the Hachiōji forest.’
“Good job! Stay there and keep your eyes open.”
The underling he had sent off as their runner had called back, and Horada replied cheerfully.
‘Erm… I have bad news, to be honest?’
Horada’s brows furrowed. The other man replied, somewhat afraidly,
‘There are a bunch of vans parked on the grounds… A lot of people are going in and out…’
“What gang are they? Th, they’re not Awakusu-kai, are they?”
Horada asked this, mentally prepared to retreat immediately if it was an organisation of that calibre.
‘No, that’s not what I mean… Something is weird. Like, the people here, they’re not a gang, and they look like regular folks no matter how I see it… And I think there are middle and high schoolers too…’
‘But in terms of numbers… There are definitely more than ten people, from what I’ve seen.’
“Seriously? Shit, if it was only the four, five people on the van we could manage it somehow… Whatever, anyway, mail us a map of the place or something.”
With this Horada hung up, but right after that his phone rang again.
It was a friend from his Blue Square days, the one he had asked to investigate Mizuchi.
“Yo, what’s up?”
‘Ahh, I found that Mizuchi kid’s house, but… bad news.’
“You too?! Fuck, everyone keeps going bad news, bad news… What happened?”
Horada said irritatedly. The other man replied,
‘The apartment… Um, it’s Togusa’s house.’
‘He was polishing his van the whole time, but they were talking, he and Mizuchi.’
In the past they were in the Blue Square together, but he was one of those who had betrayed their past leader Izumii, rebelling under the lead of a man called Kadota.
“Oi, don’t tell me Kadota’s got his hands on that kid already…!”
‘Uh, I don’t know for sure. You know Togusa’s apartments around there? They rent rooms out now and then, right?’
Horada groaned in frustration, and thought for a while.
—Shit, what now?
—Getting Mizuchi indebted to us is good, but it’s gonna suck if Kadota pops up.
—Is there a way to do it without dirtying my hands…
—In the first place, jumping into a fight with a bunch of unknowns seems like a bad idea, too…
With the information in his hands, Horada wracked his brains, and through that—
He arrived at a certain solution.
—This is what Blue Square is for, isn’t it?
—I can just let them go in there, and if anything bad happens pretend I didn’t know anything.
—In the best case, Mizuchi joins the Blue Square, and I can walk into their base and say, ‘I was the one who found your girlfriend’.
—…It’s not a lie, so the current Blue Square people can’t argue either, right?
Thinking only of his own benefit, Horada began to press the buttons on his cell.
—And then I just pray Izumii-san doesn’t show up.
With a shiver down his spine, Horada greeted the boy he was calling with such vigour it was unnatural.
“Yo! Kuronuma Aoba-kun, right? It’s me! Me! Your friendly sempai Horada! I just thought I’d pass this sweet tidbit on to my cute juniors!”
“The rookie who faced off Heiwajima Shizuo? Let’s get him to owe us one.”
Somewhere in the city. Underground.
Despite having been confined underground for more than half a day, both Shiki and Kuon remained calm.
Shiki’s subordinate would whimper every now and then, but at that point Shiki would glare at him silently, and he would immediately straighten himself out, only to have the process eventually repeat itself.
Perhaps due to their own reluctance to exchange information, or for fear of being overheard by the guards, they had spoken little, and time marched on tick by tick uneventfully.
They had been allotted a toilet break where their legs had been freed, though they were blindfolded until they reached the restroom and another guard stood outside the door—but as for sustenance they had received not even a drop of water.
Shiki’s observations of the interior of the restroom and the distance between the rooms only solidified the idea that this was a villa.
He had tried many times to strike conversation, but all their guard had to say was, ‘We can’t tell you anything’.
This was not the style of the yakuza.
Shiki had inferred as much.
Everything they did gave off a sense of ‘civilians using brute force’, down to the way their captives were contained.
Normally civilians should have no need to resort to kidnapping, but Shiki had derived a hypothesis from what he had seen thus far.
And, so as to confirm it, Shiki called out to Kuon.
“Yes, can I help?”
After realising that he was dealing with yakuza, the boy had become remarkably polite.
Even so, Shiki could tell his respect was an act.
This he noticed because the boy was exceedingly similar to a man Shiki had worked with a lot in the past, Orihara Izaya, in every way, from his mannerisms to his choice of words. Izaya had not been so frivolous, but lacing the boy’s words was the same malicious, probing intent.
“…When you first came, you said that Tatsugami Aya and Ai should be here.”
“That’s what I said, yes.”
“Which did you mean?”
“What… do you mean, which?”
Kuon cocked his head, and Shiki clarified curtly, as if telling him there was no need to pretend,
“Did you mean the two of them were here as hostages like us? Or…”
“…If you’re asking that at all, there’s no need for me to answer, surely?”
Kuon smiled awkwardly, and just then, there was some commotion from the entrance.
“Oh… A new guest?”
Conversation temporarily aborted, Kuon and Shiki focused on the room’s now-open door.
And met the newcomer: a schoolgirl bound in the same way as themselves.
As she wore the same uniform as Kuon, she was presumably from Raira Academy.
“…Kotonami-kun. It’s good to see you safe.”
The girl’s blindfold was removed, and as the first thing she saw was Kuon’s green hair, she greeted him expressionlessly.
“Since it’s our touching reunion, could you, say, be more excited I’m alive and cry some tears of joy?”
“I’m sorry. I can’t guarantee that you’ll remain safe, so…”
“If you’re going to apologise so frankly I’ll fall into despair, so stop right there, okay?”
“Your sister was worried.”
The moment those words left Himeka’s lips, the smile on Kuon’s face vanished.
“The two of us met her.”
Himeka phrased it so as to prevent the men from hearing Mizuchi’s name.
She had deduced that avoiding names would be for the best not only because of the kidnappers; with just a glance she had noticed the sharp gaze of the man tied up beside Kuon, and guessed that he was on the other side of the law.
Kuon sunk into silence for a few seconds, but eventually he sighed deeply and shook his head.
“Damn… I can’t believe she’d open the door to anyone outside of deliveries.”
“Sorry. Does it bother you?”
“Nah, it’s good. If she let you in I have no reason to complain.”
She omitted how she had forced the door open, and skipped to the end of the story.
“She said you had a plan when you got yourself kidnapped… Do you know who the culprit is already?”
“…Just how much did she say?”
“…Up till someone called Orihara Izaya.”
At the sound of that name, Shiki raised his eyebrows in surprise, from where he sat behind Kuon.
But the students continued, oblivious to his reaction.
“…Ahhh, I see. So she wound up telling that, too.”
Kuon grinned, and with cold eyes, said:
“Then there’s no need to hide anymore.”
There was none of his usual jocosity in his voice; it was with a gaze like that of a snake eyeing its prey that he looked at Himeka and asked his next question.
“But I have a question. Himeka-chan, when did you figure out the culprit?”
“The ominous feeling was always there. I always thought what if… To be honest, the moment I found out the Headless Rider was a good person… I already knew there was no other possibility.”
Her voice was even as always, but something in it seemed frailer than usual.
“Even so, it was hard to come to terms with. I was prepared for this to happen… But even now I’m hoping there’s some mistake.”
Just then, of the two adults who had silently listened on their conversation, the bald one shouted,
“Oi, don’t have your own secret conversation! Say it in a way everyone gets!”
Right after, his head was kicked by the bound feet of the other man, presumably his superior.
“Quiet. You’re the only one who doesn’t get it here.”
“Huh? Wh, what’s going on, Aniki!”
To the increasingly bewildered bald man, Kuon said, with a cold smile,
“In other words, you two sirs were the first victims in this case.”
“Followed by myself, and now this girl, in that order.”
“What are you saying now! From what I checked at least fifteen people were kidnapped!”
The bald man said. The man called Shiki replied.
“There was no kidnapping. We misinterpreted the situation this entire time.”
“Wha? Wh, what does that mean, Aniki!”
“The people who disappeared weren’t abducted by the Headless Rider; they went into hiding in order to create that impression.”
The man’s face remained confused and he tried to ask Shiki again—
Only to be interrupted by the opening of the door.
“So? Have you calmed down?”
The woman who had entered was smiling sweetly at Himeka’s restrained form.
In answer, Himeka answered without a leak of emotion,
“I’ve been calm since the start. Can you say that for yourself?”
And then, after several moments, she uttered the following audibly to Kuon and their company:
A single van drove on this expressway towards Hachiōji.
It did not belong to the kidnappers.
It belonged to one of the adult members of Blue Square; a vehicle specifically for their gang’s activities.
Even as the van shook around him, Kuronuma Aoba thought.
—To think Horada would be the first to get his hands on that information.
—Did I underestimate him…? He might be more capable than I thought.
Unaware that Horada’s only true specialties lay in coincidences and brute force and nothing more, Aoba’s initial evaluation of the man was wavering.
Aoba was generally in the passenger seat, but today he sat in the back, discussing the immediate future with the underclassman beside him.
“I’m surprised you actually came, Mizuchi-kun.”
“Why? Of course I would. My classmates were kidnapped.”
“…You really are out of this world. Wouldn’t one normally leave it to the police?”
Upon Aoba’s mention of the sensible option, Yahiro reflected for a moment before answering.
“Now that you mention it. That makes sense. Why didn’t you call the police?”
“We have a couple of black marks ourselves, so we can’t carelessly draw that kind of attention. And apparently they can’t act on anonymous calls immediately.”
With a wry smile, Aoba came clean with his side’s motives:
“We’re not philanthropists here. There are benefits to getting the edge over this organization before the police step in, is all. But to think you never even thought of calling the police until I mentioned it… I have to say I’m impressed.”
“I’ve only ever brought trouble to the police, so I try not to get them involved.”
Aoba nodded once, and laid down a single card from his hand:
“You don’t have any good memories with the police in Haburagi, perhaps?”
Yahiro slowly, wordlessly, turned his gaze on Aoba.
Aoba remained facing away from him, and continued, gaze fixed outside the window.
“I’m sorry, but I had my friends look you up, just a little. You were quite the problem child in your village, no? There’s a guy who had every bone in his legs shattered, who’s still in hospital even now.”
Aoba slowly, deliberately turned towards Yahiro, continuing brightly.
“Why would a person like you come to Ikebukuro? Did you get bored of your hometown and come to Tokyo seeking stronger fighters? Say, for instance, Heiwajima Shizuo…”
And there—Aoba found himself cut off.
Yahiro had not done anything in particular.
He had simply met Aoba’s eyes with his own.
But that alone was sufficient to halt Aoba from speaking further.
It felt as if the temperature in the van had suddenly dropped a few degrees.
Aoba felt as if a bottomless darkness had just opened up before him.
There was a darkness in Mizuchi Yahiro’s eyes, almost as if he were a different person entirely; and in that moment he understood:
That his current situation was akin to treading a tightrope between skyscrapers.
That a single slip would plunge him into unbelievable danger.
An inflectionless voice.
His tone was such that it would have been utterly unsurprising if he proceeded to say, “Please die,” and snap Aoba’s neck.
But Aoba’s character was not so soft that something of this degree could cow him.
Aoba smiled faintly.
“The man whose arms and legs I broke… He rammed me with a dump truck.”
“He was driving without a license, not to mention after hitting me with the truck he and his friends ganged up on me with pickaxes… so even going that far was settled as legal self-defence.”
Yahiro recited this calmly, so calmly, as though he were reading out from a diary.
Aoba doubted it was a proper application of self-defence laws, but refrained from nitpicking.
Something like that was trivial compared to what Yahiro was saying presently.
“Today they try to kill me with a truck. What if next they break into the house and kill even my family—I was scared, so scared, I didn’t know what to do.”
“And so I thought, it would be best to make it so he can never drive again. That’s all.”
Yahiro stated unflinchingly. A shudder ran down Aoba’s spine.
It was not out of fear; it was from the surge of excitement upon knowing the person before him was not ‘normal’ in the least.
—I see; so this is Mizuchi Yahiro.
“Kuronuma-sempai, did you think I had nothing better to pass time with than fighting people…?”
Seeing that Aoba had gone silent with a complicated expression, Yahiro continued.
“I’ve never enjoyed fighting once in my—”
Life, he was about to say, when his voice cut off.
Flashing through his mind was his fight with Shizuo the day previous; Shizuo’s fist rushing towards him.
It was a powerful blow that would have been a traumatic experience for anyone else.
Yet even so—that one fight was unlike any of its precedents. Of this he was sure.
Even if one were to ask why, it was difficult for Yahiro to articulate in words.
Even though he himself was confused, he had gathered.
That he, who had only ever been regarded as a monster, had been granted a chance for change.
Yet meanwhile Yahiro was aware that this chance was shrouded in dark clouds.
—Ahh, so that’s how it is.
—In the end it comes down to this.
He had learnt these past few days that Kuronuma Aoba was not the innocuous person he appeared to be.
But he had not expected Aoba to investigate his history and bring it up in his new life in Ikebukuro.
—So in the end, even here, there’s nowhere to run.
Now that he thought of it it was unsurprising that just like how he had been able to read up on the Headless Rider and Heiwajima Shizuo, the people of Tokyo could just as easily look him up.
In the end, what it came down to was that he had done those things back at his hometown.
Yahiro, consumed by these brooding thoughts, slowly closed his eyes.
“…Sorry, I got a little emotional.”
With that he averted his eyes from Aoba, to the scenery outside the window.
The orange light illuminating the expressway shone down on Yahiro’s melancholy face.
—What am I on my way to do.
—Do I even have that right?
—To help anyone when I’m such a monster…
Memories flashed through the boy’s mind.
Pinned on himself, the eyes of all kinds of people. Eyes. Eyes.
Unable to bear those looks, Yahiro had increasingly wanted to turn his back on all of those eyes.
—No, nothing will change if I don’t overcome this.
—I need a turning point, anything.
—Anything so I can move just one step, whether it’s forward or back—
Yahiro clenched his fists; without any specific god or demon in mind, he simply prayed.
The sudden appearance of the oddity snapped Yahiro out of his thoughts.
A pure mass of darkness, reflecting no light at all, neither the orange streetlights or the headlights of the vehicles behind, crossed Yahiro’s line of sight—passing right beside the Blue Square van.
“Oi Aoba, what the hell! You called the Headless Rider?!”
The driver shouted agitatedly. Aoba replied,
“I was thinking to do that after getting proper evidence… I haven’t yet.”
“The motorcycle leading the Headless Rider—I’ve seen it before! It’s Jyan Jyaka Jyan!”
“Ah, does that mean the Awakusu-kai got a lead?”
Aoba was saying ruefully, when he noticed.
A group of motorcyclists in white riding suits were following Celty at a distance.
“Is that… Dragon Zombie?!”
An odd collective had emerged on the highway; consisting of black tailed by white.
Aoba smiled happily at the realisation that they were getting caught up in a very strange series of events.
“Looks like things… are getting more heated than expected.”
“We’re lucky we’re not late to the party, in a sense.”
Tatsugami Himeka did not think herself unfortunate.
Conversely, neither did she think she was blessed.
In the end, was her life a good one or bad?
Himeka was unable to gauge this objectively.
She was strong.
That said, she was not especially athletic or clever.
It was simply that she had, since birth, possessed more courage than most.
Even as a young child she could not be spurred to cry in a haunted house, or scream on a roller coaster.
If she were asked how it was she would say, “It was extremely scary.” But with her unruffled tone of voice few would have believed her.
Since she was conscious of the world around her she had lived with the truths her surroundings presented her.
The intimidating mien of her father as he hollered at her mother, or punched people she did not know.
The gentle smile of that same father, almost as if he were a different man, as he ruffled her hair; the warmth of his hand.
The revelation, when her younger sister was born, that her father was a criminal.
An illicit moneylender. In other words, that her father had been a loan shark that had made countless people suffer.
When Himeka was still in elementary school—her older sister had exposed their father’s company’s secrets to the police, in hopes he would be arrested. She had lived with this, as well.
With the shunning of her classmates upon her father’s arrest.
With her standing in the class growing stronger instead when she proved herself unfazed by these hardships.
With her young classmates suddenly pandering to her when that happened.
With her mother gradually falling to pieces after her father disappeared from their home.
Even as her mother feared her perpetually yelling father, perhaps she had also loved him after all.
Or perhaps she had mistaken a fear-induced loyalty as love.
Himeka had been unable to understand, but it was between the two, she had thought there was no need to pry.
Whichever it was, her mother had created a dream world in her own shadow to bury her grief, and simply, simply rambled on to the pitch darkness cast on the wall.
In that false reality it seemed that her father would not only shout at her mother, but even beat her. Often her mother would call out Himeka and her sisters’ names, mumbling, ‘Don’t leave me alone. Don’t leave me alone with someone like that.’
Why was it that in fantasy she made herself suffer even more than in reality, and could that truly be called a fantasy then? Himeka had not understood—but even without understanding, she embraced her mother as she was, and cherished her as family.
Furthermore, even while she thought her arrested father was hopeless trash as a human being, she loved him as a family member still.
She wished that he would turn a new leaf and return a better person after his sentence, and would support him completely in starting anew.
Himeka’s mistake was in not noticing that she was a strong person herself.
Thus she had believed that her sisters would likewise live with the card they had been dealt; there was no doubt of it in her mind.
Until she heard from her older sister’s mouth her hatred for the world itself.
When Himeka was in middle school, her older sister, a college student, was stabbed by a client of her father’s.
‘I can’t even borrow from other lenders anymore since they suspect I leaked the information,’
was what he had wailed in the interrogation room, she was told.
The man had been a director of a factory in a small town, and because banks had been reluctant to loan money, he had turned to loan sharks in a time of crisis. But his factory had gone bankrupt due to the rumours, and after being thrown out onto the streets he had lashed out violently.
Indeed, Aya had been familiar with the face of that director, and had passed details of his transactions to the police.
Of course, she had never imagined it would result in this.
Himeka had learnt of this afterwards; it seemed that there were many people who, even knowing of the illegal interest rates, sought to take advantage of loan sharks themselves.
Even so, Himeka did not think of illegal lending as a necessary evil.
Her father had done it for his own interest, and even if he had helped the factory director in some way, he had also forced many other people out of their homes in his business.
That was why she did not think her sister’s actions were wrong, and felt that that director should have blamed the poor financial climate that had caused banks to withhold loans in the first place.
Even though Himeka was greatly distressed by her sister’s assault, with this logic she overcame that shock, and in order to support her sister she kept up casual conversation.
—”Why is this happening to me?”
—”I did the right thing, right? Himeka?”
Indeed. Her sister had done the right thing.
Himeka thought so, and said just as much.
Nee-san did the right thing, but there was no guarantee she would be rewarded for it.
Maybe this is just how the world is.
I can’t say if the gods really exist. Even if they do, they can’t instantly help people who do the right thing. So let’s fight through this together.
Himeka said this innocently, but her sister replied:
—”…You say such cruel things so easily.”
—”Do you know what our broken mother said to the wall?”
—”She said… ‘Don’t report your father to the police. We’re family.’ …”
—”Is that how the world should be to her?”
—”Are you saying the world is right when I have to hear that from my own mother?”
—”I don’t want that. I can’t think like you.”
—”I refuse to look at the world so coldly like I know everything already and give up just like that.”
Those words stabbed at Himeka’s heart.
It was not that her sister was right.
Himeka did not remember ever looking at things coldly; it was because she was truly suffering that she did not want to give up.
It inevitably hurt that she was perceived to be doing the opposite.
But Himeka was resilient by nature, and enduring that hurt, without crying or becoming agitated, she persisted in continuing a casual conversation with her sister, who could not move in her injured state.
Yet, to her mother and sisters, not to say outsiders, Himeka’s strength was abnormal.
‘That girl has no feelings.’
This thought would even cross their minds.
She was no less sensitive than the people around her; her heart possessed the same spectrum of emotions.
If there was something funny, she would laugh. In that she was the same as anyone else.
But she had endured much more sadness and suffering than happiness; too much more.
For that reason she was almost immovable, and could bottle up even extreme anger and swallow down tears of grief.
It was not that her ability to express emotions was inferior in any way.
Tatsugami Himeka’s problem came before that step.
For better or worse, she was highly resilient to any obstacle that sought to attack her emotionally.
Because of that strength, the path she walked did not meet.
With those of the sisters she treasured more than herself.
The arrest of their father and the hardship that had followed, the assault of their sister who had done the right thing, the crumbling of their mother: her younger sister Ai had not been strong enough to endure the brutality of their reality.
Their oldest sister, while able to return to college after a full recovery, fell into limbo about her undecided future career after her hospitalisation, and seemed to have felt it was only more proof of the world’s unfairness.
And one day, while watching the television, her older sister had murmured.
—”The Headless… Rider…”
Anyone who had stayed in Ikebukuro for long knew of it.
Himeka had been surprised when she first saw the silent motorcyclist herself, but at the time all she thought was that it was a ‘an unusual speedster on a strange motorcycle’.
She was not alone. To many people living in Ikebukuro at the time, that was their vague impression of the Headless Rider as well.
But one day things changed.
The Headless Rider, previously an unidentified being, had showed itself on television.
As if to flaunt its own existence, the Headless Rider had displayed impossible feats, creating a giant scythe from shadows emitted from its body, and scaling a building on speed alone.
Himeka had thought it was amazing, but had not paid much mind, thinking it might be edited footage.
But since then, the Headless Rider had come to use its superhuman powers even in the day; even in front of people.
It was as if the city itself had accepted the Headless Rider into its fold.
Aya had probably seen it directly at some point.
She began to research the Headless Rider like a woman possessed, rambling about how it was a being that had shed the shackles of common sense, of the rules of the world.
That Aya was experiencing a form of fanaticism.
She believed that while the society around her was untouchable and unreasonable, the Headless Rider was a being more illogical than that society itself, come to punch a hole through its fabric.
Perhaps the Headless Rider was truly some kind of ghost; or perhaps it was along the lines of an angel or demon.
Just proving that alone would alter the rules of the world.
She did not know if the state of society would evolve or regress.
Whether the Headless Rider would be laid bare by science, or worshipped as a deity.
Whichever happened, the world would change.
The Headless Rider would lead them out of this unfair world.
Without any kind of proof, Aya was convinced of this.
Despite the fact that the Headless Rider had not come here to save anyone, even if it was indeed a being that bypassed the laws of the world.
In the first place, the Headless Rider had apparently been in Ikebukuro for twenty years at least. If it was here as a saviour, it should have saved Aya from being stabbed previously.
That was why, to Himeka, the Headless Rider was no more than a ‘stranger with unbelievable powers’.
But she was not inclined to persuade anyone of it.
Because for Aya the Headless Rider was a source of strength to go on living, and just by existing in the city it had without a doubt saved her older sister.
This was what she thought.
Until the Headless Rider vanished from the streets of Ikebukuro.
At first it had only been rumours, but as the days passed and the Headless Rider showed no hide or hair, Aya grew visibly high-strung.
At times Himeka even saw her whispering to the wall by herself, like their mother.
—”The Headless Rider will take us away.”
—”The Headless Rider will help us escape this world.”
This was what Aya had mumbled. Ai was similarly influenced, and the both of them had even gone out into the streets to search for the Headless Rider.
The Headless Rider had given the sisters hope, but vanished without fulfilling it.
Even knowing that her resentment was unwarranted, Himeka had been unable to bring herself to like the being.
She even thought the Headless Rider might truly be a demon who offered false hopes to people only to thrust them into despair.
At the same time she knew having such unsavoury thoughts about a being she had never met was low of her, and the feeling that she was no better than the man who had stabbed her sister, or even beneath him, pained her.
She felt that she herself was, to the Headless Rider, being unfair.
Although it never showed on her face, these heavy thoughts continued to plague Himeka, accumulating in her mind.
One day, Aya’s mood suddenly lifted.
Following that, Ai had become strange as well.
At that time, Aya had asked Himeka countless times,
—”Maybe it’s just as you said, Himeka; maybe there are no gods.”
—”But if there is no god, why don’t we just create our own?”
Uncomprehending, Himeka had answered vaguely—but Aya had continued dreamily.
—”You don’t have to try so hard anymore, Himeka. You’ll understand eventually.”
In the district of Ikebukuro, now bereft of the Headless Rider, it was Aya who most craved its presence.
And one month after—Aya had gone missing.
At the same time as Ai, who had been equally fervent in pursuing the Headless Rider.
For an average person the shock of losing both sisters at once would have impaired logical thought. But Himeka had had the resilience to overcome this shock and arrive at a certain theory.
—Had Aya truly been kidnapped?
Upon seeing the notes Aya had left in the magazine’s editorial department, Himeka was deeply disturbed.
For one, it was written all too calmly for Aya, who had thoroughly worshipped the Headless Rider—and the information in the memo was meager compared to what she brought up so passionately at home.
She had had a sense of foreboding; had been aware of the possibility.
Nevertheless she wanted to deny it.
She wanted to believe her sisters would not do something so foolish.
Himeka loved both her sisters as family.
That was why, if forced to choose between the Headless Rider and her family, Himeka had firmly decided to believe in them.
Himeka reunited with Aya in the worst of circumstances.
Or, if death or irreparable injury were the worst circumstances, this would surely come right after.
In the basement of this villa a distance from Ikebukuro, Himeka learnt:
That her sister was not a victim—but had all along been on the side of the ‘culprit’.
“It’s been a long time, Himeka. How many days?”
The woman Himeka had greeted as her sister looked down at her prone form, smiling somewhat hollowly.
Himeka met that gaze with a cool expression.
“Weren’t we together in the van for quite some time just earlier? Though I was lying down, so I didn’t see your face well.”
“Oh? Really—… Ah, that might have been the case.”
Himeka’s sister, Tatsugami Aya, said this with a calm face, and, still smiling, said something very odd.
“It’s great you arrived safely. It’s all right, everyone here is very nice.”
“…What are you saying, Nee-san?”
“The Headless Rider Celty-sama will return. Everything will be fine.”
Noticing that what they said was not matching up, Himeka’s face morphed to one of wariness.
“We’ll be ushering in a new age. You’ll bear witness to it too.”
“What are you saying… Nee-san… Is Mom safe?”
“Mom? Oh, she was talking to the bathroom wall. But it’s fine, since she belongs to Dad. Neither you nor Ai have to suffer over our parents anymore. Everything is thanks to Celty-sama. Dad will die off somewhere in jail, I know it. And Celty-sama will help Mom, too. Yes, it’s all okay, everything will be fine, it’s fine…”
“Stop it… Nee-san, you’re just using the Headless Rider as an excuse to escape. You’ll cause a lot of trouble for that person.”
Himeka said. Aya tilted her head violently, and asked Himeka:
“That person? Meaning Celty-sama?”
The smile was still on her face, but in her voice there was an infinite iciness.
“What do you know about Celty-sama?”
“I know because I was told directly.”
Aya’s smile vanished upon hearing those words.
“…What? What do you mean?”
Himeka faltered, and instead, Kuon spoke up.
“We were together when we met Celty-san.”
A single, challenging statement.
At that point, time froze in the room.
Aya’s sombre silence drove the men around her to speechlessness as well.
She spoke quietly, breaking the silence.
“Why? Why you?”
“It’s all wrong. The world is wrong, after all. We have to run… quickly, quickly, into the black smoke…”
Aya mumbled these ridiculous words. Himeka yelled back,
“Nee-san, stop already! I don’t believe you were the one who started something like this! Who instigated you?!”
“Instigated…? No, Himeka. We were inspired. To lift ourselves from that rotted mud… I’m feeling very, very good right now. Isn’t that proof enough? Do you get it?”
Still their conversation was not matching up.
Just as Himeka found herself at a loss for words, Shiki whispered from behind her.
“I believe it’s useless trying to persuade her now, Miss.”
“That is… Do brace yourself for this—it seems your sister is under the influence of drugs.”
Himeka’s face, which had been steely up till now, paled.
“Her eyes and expression… are familiar. Those who dabbled in the drug Heaven Slave all gave off this vibe. I hear it acts up the moment they encounter something they don’t want. They get enveloped by bliss and can’t see or hear anything undesirable.”
‘Undesirable’ in this case was probably that Himeka had met Celty before her. Himeka realised this instantly, and that her sister was truly not in her right mind at the moment.
“She’s still in the first stages. If she’s stopped soon, there’s hope for her yet.”
Kuon, who had been listening, decided to take over from Himeka who was in shock, asked Tatsugami Aya,
“Hey, lady? So Ai-san is safe, right?”
At the mention of her sister’s name, Aya thought for a while before she answered.
“Ai? Ai… Oh! Yes, of course, don’t worry. Ai-chan’s doing what she needs to do. She’s going to fetch that junior of hers who was talking so familiarly with Celty-sama and Heiwajima Shizuo.”
Shiki’s subordinate stiffened abruptly at this answer.
“This may be sudden, but what was the child’s name?”
“Oh, what was it? Well… um… right, Akane-chan, was it?”
“…” “A, Aniki!”
Shiki’s face soured, and his subordinate was visibly dismayed.
Smoothing over his expression, Shiki continued calmly.
“Why that girl?”
Perhaps she found the question amenable; unlike with Himeka, this time she replied properly.
“Heiwajima Shizuo’s a human who’s surpassed humanity, so he has the right to talk to Celty-sama. But we can’t allow an ordinary child to approach and make friends so fearlessly.”
As she said this she smiled softly, and kicked Kuon’s head.
“It’s alright, Himeka. We don’t intend to kill him. Just give him some time to reflect… And have him go missing for us.”
Himeka found herself once again stunned by her sister, who had just said something of such grave consequence so casually.
“Are you… Are you going to blame it all on Celty-san?!”
To that, Aya cocked her head, confused.
“? What are you saying? Celty-sama was the one who took all of you. We know Celty-sama’s will. Our will is the will of Celty-sama.”
“We’re protecting the legend of the Headless Rider who’s disappeared from Ikebukuro. Right now it’s only a missing persons case, but the rumours are there. They say the people taken by the Headless Rider crossed the shadow into a world without suffering.”
Nothing was getting through.
It was not that she was avoiding their questions; by her face it seemed she honestly believed what she was saying.
There was no trace of the rational magazine reporter; Aya stood before Himeka as no more than a blind fanatic.
Himeka averted her gaze, and lived with the irrevocable reality she had been given.
—Nee-san is wrong.
—Even so, I won’t run from Nee-san, or from Ai.
—Reality, the Headless Rider… I won’t run from anything.
With that conviction, she spoke to her sister.
“Nee-san… Please, could you please meet with the Headless Rider and talk? I know you’ll understand if you talk.”
“It’s fine, Himeka. We’re already happy enough. When we create and spread an urban legend of our own it’s almost as if we’ve become part of that legend ourselves… My senior at work said that; and how true. But it’s not ‘almost’. We already are a part of the great Headless Rider.”
Her sister’s eyes brimmed with a tranquil madness; but Himeka met that gaze fully and began to try again.
However—before that could happen, the door opened, and the man who entered whispered into Aya’s ear.
With that murmur, Aya headed for the exit anxiously.
“I’m sorry, Himeka. It seems Ai failed to kidnap that Akane girl.”
Himeka’s eyes rounded in surprise, and behind her Shiki exhaled in relief.
“It’s alright, I’ll get it done properly.”
“Wait, Nee-sa …”
Aya slammed the door, leaving only one man to guard them.
As if running from the reality of Himeka’s words.
Somewhere in Hachiōji.
‘…Fancy meeting you here.’
After receiving a message from Mizuchi Yahiro, Celty had chosen to rendezvous with the boy some way from the place the Awakusu-kai were gathering their men.
“Sorry. I’m surprised myself.”
‘But what are you doing here?’
Yahiro explained his situation, and Celty huffed as she processed their situation.
‘So it was Kuronuma Aoba. Just where did he get that information?’
It was unbelievable, but the boy had an information network almost as good as Izaya’s.
Although she had suspicions that he might be tapping into the Awakusu’s communications, she chose not to pry.
‘But what are you going to do? Since you’re here already, does that mean you’re planning to barge into their base with Aoba’s group?’
“Two of my friends were kidnapped. I can’t do nothing.”
‘I would tell you to leave it to the police, but I don’t have the right… But it’s not necessary for you to put yourself in danger.’
“Even if there’s no need, I feel like it’s something I must do. Please let me help.”
Even knowing that what he was saying was irrational, Yahiro did not fall back.
“If I stop here, I feel like this turning point will slip from my hands…”
Celty asked. Yahiro shook his head anxiously, and diverted the conversation.
“I know I’m being unreasonable. But… since Kuon-kun and Tatsugami-san have been kidnapped, I might be next; I can be bait at the very least.”
‘I never thought even Himeka-chan would be abducted…’
Had Yahiro been an ordinary high schooler Celty would have insisted that he stayed far from the danger, but by now she had realised he was not ordinary in the least.
In a sense, he was a milder Heiwajima Shizuo. If this was a straightforward brawl she would not stop him, but in this case they knew absolutely nothing of their opponent. To put it crudely, for all she knew their enemies could be the kind to whip out guns and start shooting randomly.
—The we have those hot-blooded Awakusu men, and even Dragon Zombie…
And to add oil to the fire now Blue Square, too.
Dragon Zombie and Blue Square’s relationship was nowhere near friendly. And if Dragon Zombie’s rival gang Jyan Jyaka Jyan came along, just one spark would cause an all-out war.
—And the kidnappers tried to go after the Leader’s granddaughter Akane-chan. The Awakusu-kai won’t be in the mood to hold back; they might even have guns with them.
Celty shook her head of the negative thoughts, and went back to Yahiro to ask,
‘What is your goal?’
‘In the past, there was a child who came to Ikebukuro to seek out the extraordinary. Even now I’m not sure if I should have stopped him when he first stepped into the underside of society, like you’re doing right now. But he stepped out after getting horribly injured. If someone gets hurt because of the ideals they have then yes, it’s fully deserved. But I don’t recommend involving yourself with this side of the world for some rash emotion.’
Celty looked straight at the boy before her, remembering a certain other boy from the past as she continued.
‘Tell me. Did you have a good reason for coming to Ikebukuro?’
And Yahiro, after a moment of silence—looked straight at Celty, and spoke.
“…I’m going to ask something incredibly rude. You can hit me for it if you like.”
‘? Uh, I don’t think I would hit someone over a question…’
Celty tilted her head curiously.Yahiro took a deep breath, and chose, with determination, to confess.
Why he had come to this city.
What he had been labelled in his hometown.
“When everyone calls you a monster… what do you feel?”
Basement at the villa.
“What do we do, if we don’t do something Akane-chan…”
Himeka had agonised over her inability to communicate with her sister, but that sadness was quickly suppressed, and she spoke now with a collected voice.
Shiki replied from behind,
“Your sister and her cohorts won’t get the second chance they’re after.”
Kuon, sensing Himeka’s unvoiced question, answered instead of Shiki.
“That Akane-chan she mentioned is probably Awakusu Akane. She’s the granddaughter of the Awakusu-kai’s leader.”
“…You know a lot about this, boy.”
“We go to the same dojo.”
“…I see, so you’re from Rakuei Gym.”
Shiki nodded, seemingly satisfied by the explanation.
Kuon nodded back, and said, lowly so the guard could not hear,
“To put it simply… Everyone in this villa just made the Awakusu-kai their enemy.”
“Miss Akane should have guards on standby. If so, we can assume the ones who failed to kidnap her are already being tailed.”
“Wait, you mean…”
“Yes, in other words… there are any number of the Awakusu-kai heading here right now.”
At Shiki’s words, Himeka’s expression grew conflicted.
Even though there was relief at the prospect of rescue, to her it must have been more worrying that her sister had made enemies of yakuza.
“Oi, what are you mumbling about…”
The guard moved towards them with a frown, suspicious of their whispered conversation.
“Ah, sorry. We got some blood on the floor, so we were worried about it.”
The man, confused, came closer.
So he was a normal civilian after all. He examined the four of them without any sort of wariness—
And Shiki slammed a palm into his nose bridge.
His face jerked back, and began to bleed heavily from his nostrils.
Shiki, who at some point in time had freed all of his limbs, stood quickly and grabbed the man’s head and his right wrist.
The man whimpered as his hand was forced behind his back, and his hair pulled.
Then Shiki manipulated his centre of gravity, and smashed his face into the corner of a shelf.
The man let out a strangled cry; Shiki swung him around again, crashing his face onto the floor.
There was a sickening crack, and the others realised the man’s nose had been broken.
To the unconscious man, who still had blood dribbling from his nose, Shiki said,
“See? There’s blood now.”
Shiki shrugged; Kuon asked, in shock,
“Wha… When did you get free…?”
“I’ve been free from the start, but I thought it would be good to stay quiet until we learnt more about them. This kind of bond is nothing in our line of work…”
While Shiki fished out the man’s smartphone, his bald subordinate spoke up, uncomfortably.
“Aniki… I wasn’t able to untie myself, could you please help…?”
Near the villa.
‘I see… So then you decided to look for Shizuo and me.’
Celty, after listening Yahiro out, calmly showed the boy these words.
‘So, was Shizuo a monster?’
“…in terms of strength, yes.”
‘Other than that?’
“…he’s a good person.”
Celty whistled internally at that answer.
There were very few able to say Shizuo ‘was a good person’ immediately after getting beaten up by him at full strength.
“He was angry on behalf of you and his brother. I thought it was really incredible that he was so angry not for himself but because his friend had been made fun of.”
‘Ah, I see.’
—Well, he’s often angry for selfish reasons, too.
Celty had this thought, but did not derail the conversation with it, and continued to listen quietly.
“I was called a monster by many, many people, but I’ve always tried to live as peacefully as I could… I wonder why I couldn’t become like him…”
The road signs and lampposts Shizuo had broken flashed through Celty’s mind; Celty thought briefly that Yahiro ought not to look up to him so much, but decided that she had no right to comment as an unlicensed road user.
“I thought that maybe I wasn’t alone… I thought if I came to Ikebukuro and spoke to other people who were called monsters I could find my own meaning in life… I’m so sorry.”
‘You don’t really need to apologise. From humans’ perspective I really am a monster.’
As she said this, Celty casually removed her helmet.
All there was beneath was the cross-section of a neck, spewing forth black shadows.
Yahiro was shocked by her sudden revelation, but he calmed his breathing and said.
“You really… aren’t human.”
‘You don’t seem very scared.’
“No, my legs are shaking.”
Yahiro whispered, swallowing; clenching his fists, he spoke guiltily.
What he feared was not the headless visage of Celty—his terror was at how small he was before this bona fide monster.
“It must be a bother for you, being grouped with some lukewarm person who gets called a monster just because of certain actions.”
‘Isn’t it fine to become one?’
Yahiro had bowed his head again, but Celty interrupted him with her smartphone.
‘If you don’t like being in the middle, becoming a monster’s not a terribly bad idea.’
Years ago, Celty would never have dreamed of saying those words.
‘Don’t be scared of becoming a monster.’
There was a time in Celty’s life where she was extremely conscious of the fact that she was not human.
At that time, this awareness had driven a rift between herself and humanity.
‘Even if you were headless like me… You’re still you.’
What had bridged that rift was not her wanting to become human.
It was meeting a person; a meeting that she now considered her fortune.
‘The world is a big place. Have faith in your future… I can’t say anything awe-inspiring, but… there will be someone who believes in you, who loves you, even as a monster.’
The face of the man who truly loved her for her monstrous self was in her mind.
The face of the man who was, at the same time, the one she truly loved.
“Someone who… believes in me?”
‘So long as you don’t lose faith in that person you’ll meet someday, whether you’re a human, whether you’re a monster—’
‘You will always, always be Mizuchi Yahiro.’
In that moment, Yahiro felt that the headless woman was smiling.
That alone was enough.
The smile of the Headless Rider was the best turning point to push Yahiro forward.
Basement at the villa.
After Shiki had released his subordinate, he left him with instructions to free Kuon and Himeka,
In that time he started up the smartphone from their guard, and with a map application checked their current location.
Then using an online search he brought up the details of the building they were currently in.
“Hmph. The era of convenience.”
As Shiki murmured this, his eyes roved over the words, ‘Owned by Shijima Properties. Villa’.
Apparently this whole area belonged to Shijima Group, and was currently on sale.
The name Shijima was not unfamiliar.
—So this incident might be linked to him.
—Not to mention Shijima’s the only one who trafficked Heaven Slave…So, he caught on to me when I was researching the case and hit two birds with one stone?
By kidnapping Shiki, a member of the yakuza, the public’s attention would be on the Headless Rider finally attacking the Awakusu-kai, while at the same time revenge would be wrought against the Awakusu-kai, which had crushed his drug group.
—But why now?
—Did he assemble the Headless Rider cultists as a smokescreen to revive his drug cartel?
—Was he the kind of person to drag civilians into the fray so carelessly?
But in the first place, if Shijima had a hand in this, wouldn’t he have come to kill Shiki hours ago?
Shiki’s mind was filled with questions, but he judged that the information he had was of little use at the moment, and chose to handle their short-term plans first.
First he had to use the phone to contact the Awakusu-kai, through his superior Awakusu Mikiya.
Shiki, who had painfully memorised all of the important officers’ numbers for emergencies like this, dialed his number directly and called him.
‘…Who is this?’
Mikiya’s voice was suspicious. Probably because it was a foreign number calling him.
“Pardon, Mikiya-san. It’s me.”
‘! Shiki?! Where are you now!’
“Hachiōji. We’re in the heart of their base right now. Is Miss Akane safe?”
‘I was told that people tried to kidnap her earlier, but she was saved by your underlings. Thanks.’
His thanks was curt, but Shiki paid little mind to that and explained his situation to Mikiya. Perhaps mindful of Himeka so near him, he made no mention of Aya.
“There are plenty of people here under drugs, but it’s likely that Shijiima orchestrated the situation. Whether or not there’s anyone pulling his strings I’ve yet to find out.”
‘…Akabayashi’s bosozoku and Aozaki’s lackeys are on their way. Make sure you don’t get dragged in.’
At Mikiya’s words, Shiki frowned.
“Aozaki didn’t let them bring guns, did he.”
The faction of the Awakusu-kai under the fighter named Aozaki consisted solely of hot-blooded people, down to the man himself. If one ignored the drugs, these kidnappers were actually regular civilians; a bullet hitting any of them would spell the demise of the entire Awakusu-kai.
‘We can only have faith in his judgment. If I weren’t in this position I’d be raiding the place myself.’
“I suppose I can only try my best not to escalate things.”
After a few more words Shiki ended the call, and turned around to face Kuon and Himeka.
“We’ll be heading out now; you should avoid running around carelessly.”
“No… I’m coming. I’m worried about my sister.”
Himeka announced this calmly, unafraid even after ascertaining what kind of person Shiki was.
Even if Shiki thought she was brave, he had no reason to bring a civilian around.
Just as he was wondering if he should have left her restrained, the sound of footsteps came down the stairs towards them.
Shiki glanced at his bald underling in silent instruction, and the man nodded, hiding behind the door.
And, when the door was opened, the man lunged at the newcomer—
In a second he was countered, and passed out with his eyes rolling up.
Shiki’s breath hitched as he saw how, too precisely, that blow had targeted the man’s temple—
But before he could grow wary, he noticed the figure behind the newcomer.
The figure that, excluding the helmet, was as if a shadow had taken human form.
“Tatsugami-san! Kuon-kun! You’re safe!”
As they saw Yahiro rushing to them, Himeka and Kuon’s eyes widened.
“Yahiro?! And… Celty-san?!”
For an instant he felt relieved that the two who had called his name seemed unhurt—
But at the sight of the man beside them, Yahiro shuddered.
The experience he had accumulated over many years, alongside the instincts that had accompanied him from birth told him.
That this man was, in a different way from Shizuo, a highly dangerous person.
But the man with the dangerous aura—bowed deeply to Celty.
“Thank goodness. Your presence is a great help, Celty-san.”
‘Shiki-san! You’re safe!’
“Yeah, somehow. You figured we were in the basement?”
‘We snuck in from the back door, then we caught one of the guards on the way in and threatened him for directions.’
Celty typed. Shiki replied,
“…I think the threatening was unnecessary.”
‘? Speaking of which, he was smiling and crying at the same time… What a weird reaction…’
“Unsurprising. Anyway, it’s a relief you made it here first. I’m sure we can trust you with the students once it gets messy.”
The man glanced at Kuon and Himeka as he said this, and Yahiro figured that he was not an enemy—
At the same time, he suddenly realised.
“Um, could it be that that man… wasn’t one of the kidnappers?”
Yahiro flustered as he looked down at the bald man at his feet, but the sharp-eyed man simply sighed and replied with a wry smile.
“He was the one who misunderstood and attacked you first, so it’s not your fault. Getting defeated by a child is embarrassing enough he won’t spread it, not that I’ll let him.”
Yahiro calmed down with that, and bowed his head again.
“Alright then. When he wakes up, please tell him I’m really sorry.”
Usually he would have woken the man and apologised immediately, but being short on time, Yahiro turned towards his friends instead.
“You have to get away quickly. It’s going to get troublesome very soon.”
But Himeka shook her head.
“No, I can’t leave Nee-san.”
‘Right, your sisters were kidnapped too. So they’re in a different room…’
Celty typed for Himeka reassuringly.
‘I’ll be the decoy, and all of you can escape from the back. Is that fine?’
“…No, that’s not it, Celty-san.”
Celty faltered; Himeka bit her lip, and explained.
“Both of my sisters… were on the kidnappers’ side…”
‘Wha… How did that happen?!’
Celty asked in shock. Shiki replied, cynically,
“Whatever it is, it’s because you’ve been too careless.”
Near the villa.
“…What are Dragon Zombie weaklings doing here?”
“Doesn’t that go for you too? Jyan Jyaka Jyan gathering in Hachiōji—not gonna stink up Ikebukuro anymore?”
With multiple groups assembling on the villa grounds, friction between the gangs was, naturally, building up. The higher command of both Dragon Zombie and Jyan Jyaka Jyan were of course better-informed of the situation and thus calmer, but the more hot-tempered members were beginning to scuffle.
“Say again? Maybe you’re working with those kidnappers, huh?”
“Don’t yell in my face, you saying the noses of the Awakusu dogs are so rotten you can’t even differentiate between us and kidnappers?”
The argument devolved into unintelligible yelling, filmed from afar by yet another party.
“Goodness, at this rate everyone in the villa must’ve noticed them by now.”
In the corner of a car park some distance away, Aoba said the above as he operated a video camera inside the van.
“Your voice is in the vid.”
“It’s fine, they’ll edit our voices out later.”
“By the way, when are we crashing the party?”
Aoba answered his teammate,
“Once we know what we’re up against. This could turn into a brawl between Dragon Zombie and Jyan Jyaka Jyan, so when that happens you guys might have a chance.”
Just as he said that, another gang member, who had been watching with night vision-equipped binoculars, passed down news of what was going on.
“Oi, one group’s heading for the entrance.”
“Which one… Oh, Jyan Jyaka Jyan, huh. And in front of them the scary guys from the Awakusu-kai…”
Aoba scoped out the situation with the camera’s zoom function.
It looked like a scuffle had broken out near the entrance of the villa.
“Is it starting? Now, the demon or the snake, which will move first…* “
(*Referring to Dragon Zombie and Jyan Jyaka Jyan respectively; Jyan Jyaka Jyan has the kanji of evil-snake-evil.)
Aoba was observing the situation curiously when he noticed a fluttering light on the upper left of the screen.
It was a tiny flicker at first, but by the time he noticed it had expanded, streaking from the second floor of a villa to the grounds outside.
Just as Aoba noticed what it was exactly—there was a shattering of glass, and flames bloomed across the ground.
“Who did that!”
“Was it you bastards!”
The Molotov had come flying at them out of nowhere.
It was more than enough to ignite the simmering tensions between the gangs.
With the first blow struck between them, violence exploded across the entire area.
“Ah, dammit, what a bunch of hot-blooded guys. Jyan Jyaka Jyan always get all pissed when they see us, and it’s vice versa, too.”
Li-pei, who had been observing from a distance, eyed the fighting resignedly.
“Well, nothing we can do now it’s started.”
His voice was disapproving, but his eyes were smiling with amusement.
A few of the younger members of Jyan Jyaka Jyan charged from behind him with metal pipes.
“Go to hell Li-peiiiii!”
The men yelled, raising their pipes, but Li-pei spun with a flash of silver.
With sharp, metallic cracks, the metal pipes rolled to the ground in pieces.
The men stared stunned at the scimitars in his hands.
(T/N: The Ryuuyoutou sabres from SH.)
Eyes darting between the sorry state of their weapons and Li-pei’s swords, the men yelped and fled.
“So those are their new recruits? Really feeling the manpower pinch on both sides.”
Li-pei shook his head with a bitter smile, and ambled forward.
Not to stop his comrades; only so as to watch the unfolding of events from the heart of the battlefield.
Conversely, the Awakusu-kai men, who knew that the Molotov had been thrown from inside the villa, after a moment of fear, began to charge toward the villa’s entrance with their own cries of anger.
This time, as if having expected this, another Molotov came flying out at them.
That was not all.
The crowd began to get pelted indiscriminately by random Molotovs from the grounds of the neighbouring houses.
Roiling up even more havoc were what seemed to be tear gas bombs—the grounds owned by Shijima Group descended into utter panic.
“Fuck! Oi, get me a gun!”
Idiot! Aozaki-san will kill you!”
”But at this rate we’re getting nowhere!”
”What’s Izumii doing! Pass him the weapons, get him to bust in with his people!”
”He’s in no state! The bastard’s hopeless with fire!”
Amidst their screams and angry yells, someone decided to retaliate by driving a car into the villa; the crash destroyed the serenity of the forest, and the flames from the Molotov glowed off the fumes of tear gas, illuminating the night.
“They’re in a right state.”
Aoba murmured as he turned the camera.
“Oi, what happened to that Yahiro kid?”
“He met up with the Headless Rider on his own. Since the Headless Rider makes this awful face… er, awful gesture whenever I show up.”
“So you gave up on him?”
“No, I’m looking forward to what those two are going to do. Especially since getting it on camera’s probably our aim here.”
Aoba grinned as he continued moving the video camera.
As if answering to his expectations—
Q r r r r r r r r r r r r r r r r r r r h h h h h h h h ────────
The revving of an engine, almost like a horse’s neigh, reverberated through the flurry of chaos and destruction on the grounds.
The ones who reacted most to this unearthly engine roar were the occupants of the villa.
“This sound… There’s no mistake… It’s the motorcycle of Headless Rider-sama!”
“It is! Where… Where is it coming from?!”
Aya and Ai, who had been flinging Molotovs down from the second floor of one of the villas, began to weep, their eyes glazed.
Leaning her body out of the window, Aya craned desperately to find the source of the sound.
And amidst the firelight, clouded by smoke—she saw it, on the roof of the neighboring villa.
The idol of her twisted ‘faith’—the Headless Rider, Celty Sturluson.
“Ahh… Ahh… She’s come… She’s finally here! Our saviour!”
Aya gazed up at Celty, on her motorcycle atop the roof; her face was streaming with tears.
Hesitantly, her younger sister Ai pointed a finger slowly.
“Who… is that?”
She was pointing at a coal-black shadow behind the Headless Rider.
It was made of pitch darkness itself.
If the Headless Rider could be described as clad in a rider suit the colour of darkness, this, on the other hand, was as if shadow itself, in wafting fumes like dry ice, had coalesced into a human shape.
—Just who was it?
No, was it even a person?
There were a few who thought this; the same, tiny few that had noticed the presence of Celty and the unknown.
Yet—in the next moment, every person on the scene was made to acknowledge the ‘Shadow Man’.
” ────────────────── “
From the roof he howled.
It was a scream that split the night and would silence crying babies.
The brawling men, even those who were fleeing mindlessly from the fire, found themselves frozen instinctively.
For that howl had overcome them on a visceral level.
With a crushing fear that stole their focus from incoming fire and their opponents.
“What… is that…”
One of the bosozoku whispered, but no one could answer him.
The Headless Rider was well-known to all in Ikebukuro; a familiar monster.
But the monster that stood there was a completely unknown quantity.
Tension ran high on the scene.
Amidst the crackling of fire and the coughing of the tear gas victims, one of the bosozoku cracked under the pressure, and flung a metal pipe at the man on the roof.
“What the hell are you!’
But the Shadow Man caught the pipe neatly—and with it in hand, began running down from the roof.
Just as they thought he would jump down to the ground level, he stopped at the balcony of the second floor, and stood off with the kidnappers inside.
On the second floor of the villa were about five well-built men. Seeing the Shadow Man reaching to break the Molotovs, they yelled in surprise and tried to stop him.
But those men were quickly suppressed and dealt with.
The Awakusu-kai members and the brawling bosozoku at the entrance to the grounds felt their hearts quail at the screams emitting from the second floor.
Their feelings had been dulled by Heaven Slave, but the sheer bizarreness of what was going on seemed to have evoked a fear even the drug could not repress.
“Now’s the time! Attack!”
Taking advantage of the opportunity, the Awakusu-kai lackeys charged forward, beating their opponents to the ground.
“Go to hell!”
The Awakusu-kai men, having long lost their restraint, were kicking at the ribs and heads of the enemies that had gone down.
Just as it was certain someone would die—the second floor window shattered magnificently, and the Shadow Man came flying out.
He flashed to the group with inhuman speed, swiftly invading their ranks.
“W, what the hell! Whose side are you on!”
Panicking at the sudden intervention, one of the Awakusu-kai men charged forward.
But the Shadow Man evaded by a hairsbreadth, and grabbed his opponent’s wrist, twisting him to the ground.
Letting out incoherent battle cries, the young men of the Awakusu-kai lunged forward.
He avoided their attacks easily, and continued dodging around the chaos that was the villa’s grounds.
Whether Jyan Jyaka Jyan or Dragon Zombie, the kidnappers or the Awakusu-kai: he challenged them all indiscriminately.
But there was some pattern to the fights he started; it seemed that he would seek out the hotspots of the fight closest to him and transfer all of their hostility to himself.
Almost as if he was quenching the fight by creating a common enemy in himself.
—Wait… is that Yahiro?
As he filmed, Aoba muttered this internally.
For he had realised that those sharp, economic movements, as the being went up against a crowd of enemies, was remarkably alike to how the boy had fought Heiwajima Shizuo in the video.
“Ahaha!! Did you hear him roar?”
Smiling, the other person who had recognised the Shadow Man for who he was—Ei Li-pei—asked his sisters the above.
“What a delighted scream that was… Yahiro-kun.”
The Shadow Man, after running around the fire- and smoke-filled battleground, eventually scaled the outer wall of a house nimbly, and stepped into a room in a villa.
There, there was a young woman and a girl.
They were the sisters of Tatsugami Himeka.
“What are you… Just… what exactly are you?!”
The sight of the being instilled a primal fear in Aya.
It was not the Headless Rider.
It was a completely different monster they had never heard of.
“How are you related to the Headless Rider…. to Celty-sama…?”
To Aya and her cohorts, who had fallen under the illusion that they were becoming a part of urban legend, the Shadow Man’s existence was a splash of cold water.
The figure raced towards them with superhuman movements; to them it was as if he was saying mere humans like themselves were unfit for the Headless Rider.
“What are you!”
With that cry, Aya flung a Molotov.
But the Shadow Man caught the bottle from the air—and wringing out the fire with his black hands, he answered, calmly,
“Exactly as you see… I’m a monster.”
10 minutes ago. In the basement.
‘Uwahhhhh, no way… So all this happened because of meeee!’
Celty rolled on the floor as she typed erratically.
‘Whattttttttt. What~? Whaatttt~?! What this?! A cult dedicated to worshipping me… What’s with that?! I wasn’t informed! No one told me!’
The embarassing sight was hard to link with the legendary Headless Rider; Himeka and Kuon stared dumbfoundedly, while Yahiro, who had grasped earlier that Celty was remarkably human, was rubbing her shoulder, asking, ‘Are you okay?’
“Goodness. If they saw you like this maybe they’d snap back to their senses immediately.”
Celty leapt to her feet at Shiki’s words.
‘Exactly! If I come out in front of them and say, “Stop doing this,” wouldn’t everything be solved?!’
“Perhaps not. Assuming all of them have been addled by the effects of Heaven Slave, I wouldn’t be surprised if they choose to kill the god for the religion, so to speak. It’s also possible they’ll say, ‘There’s no way Headless Rider-sama would say that,’ and decide you’re an imposter.”
‘No way! What should I do then!’
Celty asked in panic. Shiki informed her coolly,
“It’s our job from here on. You’ve been proven innocent. Even if you indirectly contributed to this situation, you need not worry about us forcing the responsibility on you.”
Realising his implication that she would have to do something to compensate in future, Celty gloomily decided to pull back.
“Wait… Nee-san… What about my sisters?”
“…It’s unlikely they’ll opt to eliminate a group with more than ten civilians… but considering how messy things will get, I can’t promise they’ll be unharmed.”
“That can’t be…”
Himeka’s eyes bespoke her anxiety. It felt as if any more discouragement would have her rushing out to save her sisters herself.
‘What about if I tie everyone up before it becomes a fight? If I do that the Awakusu-kai people won’t act rashly, right?’
“…It’s true that if you did that we could hand over everyone except the mastermind Shijima to the police or the hospital, and end things there.”
Shiki agreed. Yet one person objected.
“Could all of you just stop this…”
‘Kuon-kun? What’s wrong?’
Kuon answered Celty’s question with a self-deprecating smile.
“I mean… Just like how Himeka’s sister and her friends worship you, Celty-san… I know a girl who worshipped this man called Orihara Izaya in the same way… To the point where it felt as if she would kill herself on the spot if Orihara Izaya didn’t need her anymore.”
—Why’s Izaya’s name popping up here?!
Celty was shocked, but Kuon continued,
“If you stop all of them directly, Celty-san, wouldn’t it cause irreversible damage to one or two, or even more people? Himeka-chan’s sister seems particularly susceptible, isn’t that right?”
“…I can’t say you’re wrong.”
Himeka said a little sadly. Celty sunk into thought—
But then Yahiro said to Himeka,
“Then let me do it.”
“I’ll suppress all of them. Tatsugami-san’s sister and her people, and depending on the situation the people from that something-kai, all of them.”
‘What are you saying, Yahiro-kun, that’s…’
Celty tried to discourage him, but Yahiro, smiling faintly, replied.
“Isn’t that what you said to me earlier, Celty-san? To become a monster.”
‘That’s not rela…’
Before she could stop him, Yahiro was shrugging off his jacket.
“What are you saying… Why would you put yourself in that kind of danger…”
“Oi, are you serious?”
Himeka and Kuon each had their own protests, but after some thought Yahiro told them:
“The only thing I’m good at is violence.”
“I’m not as strong as Kuon-kun or Tatsugami-san. All I’ve ever done is run from reality.”
Those were Yahiro’s true thoughts.
Now that he knew of Himeka and Kuon’s pasts, he felt that he might not have been able to overcome such things as they had.
They had strong hearts. But his own was weak; all he had was a happenstance gift for violence.
“But… How can I say this? If there must be something to connect someone like me to the world, I think it can only be violence, in the end.”
“Yeah, there’s no way I’m not a little insane.”
He smiled as if he had finally understood something, and Kuon and Himeka saw his most excited expression yet.
“So, at the very least… I want to live without regrets.”
With that Yahiro folded his jacket neatly, and started trying to wrap it around his face.
Seeing this, Celty realised his intention.
‘Ah, are you hiding your face?’
“I don’t want to cause trouble for my family or make them worried… And if people see my face I’ll be scared that they’ll get back at me.”
‘For someone volunteering for something so outrageous you’re awfully thoughtful about the details, aren’t you.’
Celty typed. Yahiro only smiled awkwardly as he replied.
“…I’m a coward, that’s all.”
Seeing the smile on Yahiro’s face, Celty had concluded that it would be useless to try to stop him.
She had seen many boys like this in the past; a person wearing that expression would not change their mind because of what someone else said.
She slumped as though heaving a sigh—and emitted a thick shadow-fabric from her palm.
‘I can lend you a mask to hide your face, at the very least.’
As she passed over the odd shadow-made cloth, she heard a deep sigh from behind her.
“You’re cooking up all kinds of plans on your own there.”
‘Ah… Shiki-san, this is, um… for the sake of the Awakusu-kai too, um, see, it’ll be all sorts of trouble if they fight with a civilian boy, right?’
Celty explained nervously; but ignoring her, Shiki stood in front of Yahiro, and looked into his eyes as he said.
“Do you know what it means to go up against this ‘something-kai’?”
Yahiro fell silent; Shiki continued.
“Have you considered what would happen if your family gets attacked in retaliation?”
“At that time…”
Yahiro hesitated for a beat, and answered frankly,
“I think I’ll have no choice but to get rid of them permanently…”
It was neither sarcastic nor in jest.
This was Yahiro’s answer, completely straightforward.
Having received this kind of a reply, delivered with such honest eyes, Shiki narrowed his eyes and eyed Yahiro.
And then, with a bitter smile, he spoke to Celty.
“So that’s how it is. He truly is a monster.”
“I can’t do anything about a mysterious monster running around.”
Shiki might as well have said he would play dumb to what the boy planned to do.
“But. If a single person from that ‘something-kai’ dies or gets permanently disabled…”
Shiki uttered, voice icy and razor-sharp.
“Without fail we’ll shred that hide of yours from your body… boy.”
Present time. On the roof of the villa.
Shiki’s words flitted across Yahiro’s mind.
In the end, Shiki’s flintlike gaze in that moment was the most terrifying thing Yahiro had faced that day—and at the same time, the last of his fears that day.
—Wrapped up in this shadow… I feel like a lot of things aren’t scary anymore.
When Celty had accepted him, monster or not, and wrapped her shadows around him, the ‘fear’ in Yahiro had cleanly disappeared.
This was important to him.
Because of his fear, he had a tendency to go too far regardless of his opponent.
But now his fear had lessened his heart was at ease enough that he could easily limit his strength.
Was it the influence of Celty’s shadow wrapped around him, or Celty’s words, or both?
He did not know why. But in the instant Yahiro had become a complete monster—he had felt himself released from his fear.
He corralled Himeka’s sisters and tied them up with a bedsheet from the room so they would not be injured, and ascended to the roof once more.
The emotion overflowing within him was a shade different from when he had fought Heiwajima Shizuo with his full strength.
Perhaps this was no more than a trick of his senses.
Whatever the cause, violence was violence.
He was simply using Himeka as an excuse to beat people up.
This he was well aware of—yet still Yahiro felt joy.
He did not care if he was good or evil or a monster.
He had been able to become a ‘monster’ by his own will, and just by that fact, he felt that he had taken a step out of the world he had been locked out of until now.
He felt that, for the first time, his existence had been affirmed, and—
Once again, Yahiro’s howl rippled through the sky.
“Whoa. This is amazing! Fantastic! I wasn’t expecting a hero to show up!”
The bosozoku, suppressed by the monster that had suddenly appeared, were losing their confidence. Yet amidst them one man, Ei Li-pei, was in very high spirits.
“Maybe ‘freak’ is better? Eh, whatever. Awesome.”
He sheathed his scimitars behind his back, and clapped his hands like a child.
“I want you on my team more and more, Mizuchi Yahiro-kun.”
After saying that his face quickly turned serious, and he murmured.
“Though… Maybe I should call you ‘nameless monster’. Something that shouldn’t exist…”
Then a good idea seemed to hit him, and Li-pei asked his sisters beside him,
“Hey, what about calling that monster… ‘Snake Hands’?”
“Now, things are getting interesting…”
Switching off the camera, Aoba smiled cheerfully.
“That monster… Well, Yahiro-kun, that is… He might be making enemies with all of the gangs, but he’s an ally to all of them, too.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It’s time for a new generation. Previously it was an organisation that moved the city. This time it’s the opposite.”
With a wicked smile mismatched with his childlike face, Kuronuma Aoba watched the monster from the roof, murmuring to himself.
“Now… How will you change Ikebukuro with your strength…?”
And so, on this night—
A new ‘monster’ shook the streets of Tokyo with its birth cry.
That cry spread across the internet from the video Aoba had recorded—
And before the day was up, took form as the latest urban legend in the rumours.
As if the city itself was broadcasting the monster’s existence.