[ I - Conjunction ]
First, I'd like to assure you of one little thing.
Inside, I am a completely plain and ordinary boy.
One Month Before
Somewhere in the western suburbs of Tokyo, an abandoned mining truck was thrown six hundred meters into the air.
It was with a great whining of violated steel that it had been sent whirling, hard, six hundred meters up into the peaceful, relaxing afternoon sky. And with a great groaning of kinetic energies, its great mass hovered terrifyingly still in midair before making its descent.
Few people had seen it that day, and fortunately, a policeman was not among the handful. But no matter how clearly the image of a mining truck six hundred meters in the air would've been burnt into their retinas, no one would have seen one little detail.
At the pit of its curved, bent side was an imprint of a single fist.
This wasn't supposed to be happening.
Such was the thought of almost every man within the abandoned warehouse. Tonight, the group Hunters had been supposed to have ridden themselves of the biggest thorn in their side.
Their opponent had been just one middle school student. The plan had been to catch him on the day of his graduation ceremony and leave him beaten by the abandoned part of town with a simple warning – they weren't heartless, after all, and they had thought that the boy had simply been a snarky brat with lazy parents.
They had caught him and taken him to the warehouse, to the abandoned block at the far edge of town. The plan had been going smoothly, and all they had had to do was inspire fear in numbers and rough him up decently.
But the first punch thrown had ended up staying still against his cheek, with fractured knuckles.
And then everything had kicked into a downward spiral—hard and fast.
Now, almost ten minutes later, with each and every one of them sporting at least one broken limb and several large bruises, they watched in horror as the mining truck begun to grow larger in the sky, its fall silently promising a horrible and messy death.
And the boy—the boy was holding another mining truck, a terribly dramatic (and obviously fake) evil smile tearing at his face.
But what got to the gangsters wasn't his bad acting, but the fact that he was holding the mining truck with a single hand.
Like a nightmare, like a bad joke.
"Just in case," he remarked passively, as though he were talking about the weather. "Some of you aren't bloody stains on the ground after it arrives."
Some of them wondered exactly when the world had gone crazy, some were simply letting loose in their pants and some had already started to write their wills. But mostly, they wondered just what they had done to deserve such a fate.
They had done no such thing, but the boy didn't appear to care at all.
He did, however, drop his smile and throw the mining truck he was holding at the falling one.
With a noise that made their eardrums numb, the two vehicles, now mangled beyond recognition, tumbled off in the air to another part of the abandoned block.
After that day, the Hunters didn't bother with the Koumoto Zen again.
I remember the date of the day clearly enough, but the memory of the incident itself was patchy and distorted, like a memory of a bad dream.
If it had been a dream, then it had been an inhumanely terrifying nightmare.
On my last day of elementary school, I had met that something on the way home. All I knew about that something was that it hadn't been human, or yōkai, god or any other kind of known creature. But whether it had been physical or spiritual or even a living being altogether, that something had taken something away from me on that day.
But in return, I had taken something from that something as well.
Perhaps it had been a trade, a deal, but the feeling in my guts begged to differ. It hadn't been a deal of any kind at all, not when the distorted memories of struggling violently said otherwise.
I had been cursed.
And I had cursed that something in return. We had burdened each other with things of unimaginable pain that day.
It was that pain which prohibited me from living as a normal human being. It was that pain which had taken away what had made me a warm, living human. It was that pain which had driven me to the brink of insanity. It was that pain which made me hope that that something was suffering as much as I was.
Remaining as a cold, unbreakable shell of a human – a mere shade, a mockery of what had once been human.
But still, life would go on, but for better or for worse, I didn't know.
"Hey, don't you think there' something weird about Koumoto-kun?"
"Did you think so too? There's something…chilly about him, isn't there? He always keeps his distance like he's afraid we might touch him or something."
"Plus he always looks so tired. Does he even sleep? Those bags under his eyes are so creepy…"
"I heard some bad rumours about him from middle school, you know—apparently he got into lots of fights with the wrong sort. They all went to the hospital after he beat them up – with his bare hands."
"Uwah, scary... But he doesn't look like a fighter at all – he's all thin and tall and everything isn't he?"
"…One time in gym class, I saw him lift one of those basketball goalposts like it was nothing!"
"Eh? Don't joke around, I'm not that stupid."
"I'm not joking! I know what I saw…"
Once, there had been a small town in Korea, where the legend of a Nine-Tailed Fox had sprung up from times unknown through the influence of Chinese culture. While the legend had been rather similar to stories of supernatural foxes in the orient, this one had a few unique points which made it stand out among other versions of the legend.
A wise fox, a gumiho, a kitsune, would most often turn into a beautiful young woman and cause mischief in society, sometimes going good, sometimes doing evil. At some point in Korean history, however, these foxes came to be regarded as spiritually vile creatures, and were hunted down as much as possible.
But one wise fox came up with a tricky, clever plan to live in peace in the mountain she loved and the village she loved to visit.
Tracking down girls at a young age, she blessed them with beauty, vigour and grace, each time in their sleep. These girls grew up to be exceptionally beautiful, charming and charismatic, just like the wise old fox, no matter their house or status. And thus, the fox managed to blend into the village, and lived in peace.
While there are no further records of what happened to the fox after that, a trail of whispers, barely audible and traceable throughout the violent, supernatural history of the Korean Peninsula, say that the fox imparted her knowledge with her kin all throughout the orient.
So it became quite well known throughout the supernatural world that any place with an unnaturally high population of attractive girls most likely meant the presence of a fox spirit in a long-term escape from enemies, such as bounty hunters and predatory yōkai.
Mikuni Academy, a private school with an escalator system from middle school to high school, was not only famous for having an attractive aesthetic, but for its amazingly beautiful female population. And while it may sound like an excuse taken from the main character of some harem genre anime, I only entered because it was nearest to home.
I had had an odd feeling about the unnatural amount of attractive girls in the school, but I had never, ever suspected that it would be a voluntary act of the supernatural source of it. Well, there was my second reason for entering Mikuni Academy – in hopes that there might be a spiritual entity hovering about, responsible for the unrealistic amount of attractive females.
It was odd, how being surrounded by beautiful people was more disturbing and at times outright bizarre than being faced with a single beauty.
"Which means that one of you is a kitsune, huh…," I muttered under my breath as I looked around the school auditorium, which was slowly filling up for the entrance ceremony. Over half the students were beautiful girls with dazzling, feminine auras. Even I in my cursed state could tell that all the boys, even the seniors, were being overwhelmed.
Considered as one of the rarest and most subtle of spiritual creatures to roam the world, kitsune were revered even in modern-day supernatural society of Japan. And so it took a considerable amount of expertise, deliberate delaying and agonizing long-term plans to find one.
"…Can't sense anything," I grumbled under my breath. I closed my mouth once the seats around me started to fill up.
Well, I didn't expect to sense anything, really. I was trying to find one of the most elusive races in the world, after all.
"Umm, are these seats taken, by any chance?"
I looked up to see a slender, pale girl, her uniform crisp and new just like mine. And just like every other girl in this hall, she was extraordinarily attractive.
I shook my head.
With a soft, polite smile gracing her delicate features, she turned her doe eyes to her awaiting friends and called them on through the row of seats. At the instructions of a teacher, she sat right next to me to leave not one empty seat, before turning away to giggle with her group of friends, who were equally pretty as she was. Most likely she had known that I was a complete and utter loner from the start, but had asked just in case – everything about her seemed to speak of a proper, ladylike upbringing.
I looked around, bored, at the raised platform that was surrounded by the battalion of rising seats fanning around it. A few teachers, sometimes a student council member or two, flitted about, making last-minute tweaks and fixes before the time for the ceremony came knocking.
"…like I was saying, I really did see a giant fox!"
"With nine tails…?"
"I can't believe this girl… You actually believe you saw a yōkai or something?"
"Well I know I saw something, then."
"Trick of the light, perhaps."
I twitched, drinking in more of the conversation to my right. The girls weren't just giggling over pointless things after all. Well, pointless to me, that was.
"So, where did you see it then? We could always check it after the ceremony."
"The school gardens, I saw it on the way."
"No way, then any of us could've spotted it too, you know?"
The girl next to me gave a soundless sigh.
"We'll just take a look around after, OK?" she said, her soft, lilting voice settling down the quarrel like a fall of thick down.
They grumbled their assent, and leaned back on their seats for the ceremony.
This left me to wallow in my own thoughts for a while. It wouldn't do to examine the school gardens (I suppose the only reason the school had one was thanks to its founder, who had apparently been a gardener for the Imperial Palace, with more thanks to its diligent female population who kept it alive and famous) while they were, no matter how large it was. I didn't want to be labeled a stalker on the first day of high school after all. But at any rate, I would go tearing to find something like a kitsune no matter what. Missing this opportunity would be stupid and irresponsible of me.
But on the other hand, I had no plan as to how I should go about asking such an entity about curses. Both kitsune and curses were tricky subjects of the supernatural, and both were heavily affiliated with the concept of unfair deals. Even though I was quite sure that I would win in a fight, kitsune had their own invention of spells and seals, so trying to extract information from one called for terrifyingly complex and tedious dealings.
Unless, of course, I simply approached it with my usual straightforwardness, like: "Hi there. I got cursed a while back by something but I can't seem to lift it at all. Mind giving a hand?" But then, most likely, a powerful spirit like a nine-tailed fox would easily steer the conversation into something amusing and beneficial to itself.
"Quiet, quiet," called a magnified voice, issuing from the great speakers mounted onto the corners of the auditorium. The speaker was a tall young man, a teacher, with tired eyes and a wry expression that bespoke of a constant exasperation. "Quiet down, everyone – now, I congratulate all of you for not managing to crack your skulls over the icy winter, and our girls for not getting into any modeling business. And, for our new students, freshmen of the middle school section and 'transfer' freshmen on the high school section, I hope you'll make the most of your attendance…"
Looking down at the back of the seat a row before me, I lost focus in the teacher's words, and only paid half of my attention at the words of the headmistress.
I wanted to find the kitsune as soon as possible. But the ceremony wasn't about to end anytime soon, forcing me to even consider ditching it altogether. The first day was only about introductions and school tours after all, and no one would particularly be concerned about a single absentee.
I looked up to see the student council president making her speech and accidentally caught her eye, causing an inward grimace. It was usually troublesome coincidences like these that kept me to an obligation, but I really did want to examine the school gardens as fast as possible.
The armrests of my seats started cracking due to the strength I put into my hands. I was torn between wanting to rip through every tree and flowerbed in the garden and staying here in this hall, pretending to be one of the masses, a nondescript, bored student.
"Next, we will have a speech from the representative of freshmen – Aoyama Fuyumi!"
For some reason, this caused a ripple of excitement throughout the crowd of students. The teachers, however, keeping an eye on the important-looking guests and the parents of the freshmen, hurriedly shushed the auditorium.
Looking down at the platform, I had a gut feeling that even I, a transfer freshman, knew what they were on about.
Standing behind the tapestry-covered stands was a fifteen-year-old girl. Setting her apart from the other girls in the auditorium was her vivid ruby eyes, smooth, unmarred skin with an almost mystic, pearly sheen and long, lustrous black hair. There was constantly a certain grace in her movements that simply left people at a loss for words. Vibrancy, power, serenity, pulchritude – it seemed as if each and every characteristic of the concept of 'beauty' had been packed fluidly into her being.
And the reason that it got to me was because my spiritual sensors were raising red flags.
This girl, most likely half-foreign, was keeping a storm of spiritual energy contained safely inside her, and she was doing it with such ease that I wondered if she knew exactly what the average spiritual level for humans were. Excluding the special condition of my curse, I had met very few supernatural beings who could keep a leash on so much energy with such easy power.
But this girl wasn't a spirit or an aberration at all.
She was just a human.
I cocked my head ever so slightly, scrutinizing her face and body language.
Where have I seen her before?
Two Weeks Before
"The Union is impatient, Fuyumi."
The curvaceous girl dipped her head down, partly in respect for the elder, partly in fear. Although the head priest of the temple was known to be a easygoing and generous man, with a liking for drinking and flirting that oddly seemed to have no impact upon his life, marriage or profession, there were times like these when she felt that he truly did deserve the title of Head Priest.
The Head Priest of the spiritual Amaya Temple, the guardian of Kyoto and most likely all of Japan. During these kinds of moments, Fuyumi truly felt the weight of such a position.
"The aberration that was created three years ago and the one that you clashed with a year ago – you are sure that they are one and the same?"
"Yes," she replied, unsuccessfully suppressing the quiver in her voice. She could feel cold sweat gluing her miko garb uncomfortably to her skin. "Koumoto Zen. He attended Kasaka Middle and will start attending the same school as I will, Mikuni Academy, in two weeks time."
"Any other information…?"
"I…have none," she replied, closing her eyes tightly regret, shame and fear, her lips pursed. Her fists were curled tightly over her folded legs, barely keeping still.
The head priest sighed.
"There are shikigami that I have planted all over Japan festering over Tokyo. All you need to do is keep an eye on Koumoto Zen during school hours and take action when you see fit – make sure that he does not cause any permanent damage. On other reports…I've seen quite a lot through my shikigami, and I can now speak surely. Koumoto Zen is under the apprenticeship of Hata Shimaru."
Behind Fuyumi, gasps and exclamations of shock broke the lingering tenseness of the previous atmosphere. Heads of various houses residing within the temple and important figures within the supernatural world were seated behind her in the head priest's study.
"I haven't heard of him since what happened thirteen years ago…"
"A monster raising a monster…what a drag…"
"So Hata is helping the aberration in his search for a cure?"
"Impossible. Solving a curse that gifts one with immortality and invincibility will be as difficult as it was to place it. Regardless of his title as a Superación, Hata is still a human."
"A human—I stopped believing that he was even such a thing from the start after I saw him in action that day…"
Fuyumi craned her head around to hear as much of the conversation as possible, confusion and curiosity in her eyes.
"Umm…," she bit her lip, frustrated at being left out and feeling stupid before the words and references she had no knowledge of. "…Who is this Hata Shimaru person? And what is a Superación…?"
The clan heads fell silent as they blinked owlishly at her, before turning in unison to the Head Priest for help.
Slipping into boredom was a bad habit that the Head Priest constantly suffered from – as it was, during the earlier ruckus, he had abandoned his image of a powerful, angry leader, and had promptly opened up a porn magazine to enjoy.
Turning his square face up towards their stony gazes, he broke out into a wide, sheepish grin.
"Ahahaha, sorry – you guys seemed to have been enjoying your conversation so much that I…"
"…Well, as it goes, aberrations will always attract a great deal of interest and attention." He shook his head as Fuyumi attempted to object, asking in vain about who Hata Shimaru was. "Fuyumi, although I do admire your pulchritude, especially the simply divine shape and size of your—"
"—err, well, of course, the blessings of the kitsune in Mikuni Academy must not be disturbed, as a treasure for all men. However, I cannot imagine that a kitsune, even one who is disguising herself from her natural enemy, will be able to resist the urge to make contact with Koumoto-kun."
While she ignored the head priest's admiration for her breasts, all the same, Fuyumi could not help but fidget uncomfortably at the fact that, while she did inherit her mother's beauty, the kitsune residing in Mikuni Academy had nurtured that beauty even further beyond that of what was possible naturally.
Women were more susceptible to jealousy than men, more likely to drown themselves in its deepest depths. Whenever she visited the temple, or took a walk around town, she would always feel far too many dangerous eyes on her than to be safe.
They all said the same thing:
"Die, Miss Perfect Little Goddess."
She cleared her throat, speaking up. She swept away all of her unanswered questions to the back of her mind.
"So…the kitsune will reveal herself to Koumoto?"
"Most likely," the head priest replied thoughtfully, hardly looking as wise as he actually was. "She will attempt to analyze, to calculate. Keep in mind that, while Koumoto-kun's skill in spiritual arts is virtually zero, the unlimited strength that his curse indirectly gifts him with is a 'big gun' so to speak. Kitsune are fickle beings, powerful, but bored because of it. While you have been keeping a low profile while in Mikuni, Koumoto-kun's raw presence might trigger a change in the 'game' being played between the kitsune and her current enemy, as a third party. If a situation should arise, I trust you will do what is right?"
Fuyumi bowed her head.
"Yes, head priest…"
As Fuyumi finished her speech, she spared a calculative glance at Koumoto Zen. Fortunately, his eyes were trained on his smartphone for the moment, so he did not notice her look.
The boy who stood in the middle of so many things, and unaware of it all – a paranoid, haughty and cold existence, hollow and empty, existing for only one goal that it chased like a creature driven mad, to find the something that had cursed him three years ago.
He was a pitiable existence, or, as the head priest said, a delicate existence that could bring about so many things. What his presence spelled for the supernatural world at large could not be predicted. His status as the most absolute kind of aberration to exist could possibly ignite a war in a world so full of tricky, prideful and eccentric forces.
But as long as he chased his goal, and as long as he reached it, then the peace that the spiritual world had been lounging in would be saved.
And Aoyama Fuyumi was determined for it to be so.