It’s a universally known fact that it is, indeed, a bad idea to follow strangers no matter what promises they offer you.
Yet, Miko, being the desperate schoolgirl she is, can’t really afford to listen to the most laughably basic of rules. Romm offering her something as tempting as getting the fox spirits off her back is almost too good, and part of her is still unsure whether she can fully trust the man. Yet, she knows that she doesn’t have better options. It’s not like there’s a whole crowd of reliable exorcists that she can turn to should she reject Romm’s supposedly helping hand.
Or, at least, that’s what she thought.
“Uh…” The three unusual trespassers of the mountains trekked further away from where Miko and Romm had headed earlier. Miko had no idea where they were going—and she was hardly in a position to question it. She didn’t have nearly as much knowledge as the other two… experienced party members. She came to help, but she’s not even sure she has much to offer.
Romm was subtly pissed when Mitsue showed up to intervene with his plan, although in a more passive-aggressive manner, but after the whole fiasco where Romm’s plan b failed in front of them and Mitsue insisted they seek help from elsewhere, it’s as if the outer layer of Romm has been peeled away to reveal a much more pissed-off Romm underneath, one that’s blatantly against Mitsue’s new plan at all costs.
Everything would’ve gone smoothly if you had just listened and brought your friend along, Romm had said, but Miko doesn’t regret not bringing Hana in the slightest. There has to be another way that doesn’t involve Hana. Mitsue said there was, but Romm was having none of it. He and Mitsue had an entire argument over the elusive “Plan C” which Miko has yet to know anything about. She can only assume it was nothing good from the way Mitsue tried to talk Romm out of it, only barely just succeeding.
I’ve heard they known each other for some time… yet, the way that Romm talks to her drops any of the formal politeness in lieu of crude honesty, a type of clear disrespect for the woman whom Miko once knew as the only one who understood her troubles. It’s weird to think about how far things have come, yet how little she actually knows about the world compared to the other two.
“You don’t think we can handle it on our own? That little thing? You didn’t even seem fazed back then, so why the change of mind now?” Romm keeps taunting Mitsue, whose poker face doesn’t slip.
Mitsue turns a heated glare on him, an unspoken spark alight in her eyes. “Shut up.”
Romm shakes his head, a groan letting loose from his lips. “This is what I get for not keeping my mouth shut…”
They leave the mountains to come across a small town, and Mitsue leads them to the train station, paying for Miko’s ticket.
“I can pay for my own—”
“Don’t worry about it,” Mitsue croaks, serious as ever. “I have my own reasons for wanting to take down that shrine spirit. I just haven’t found a real reason to come back until now.”
“To the mountains or to go see them?” Romm hums with disagreement. “Honestly, I don’t even know why you bother keeping in touch, we barely have much in common. It’s a complete headache just to interact with those types of people—”
“We may not have much in common, but we at least understand each other. You never know,” Mitsue’s eyes wander to the floor of the station, “Sometimes, our worlds overlap.”
Miko’s eyes flitter between Mitsue and Romm, gears in her head trying to decrypt the vague conversation. She fails miserably. She doesn’t understand what’s happening, why the sudden change of plans, and she wants to ask but her sense of knowing her place keeps her mouth shut.
They climb onto the train and sit in one of the booths, and it’s only then when Mitsue begins to explain things to Miko.
“Exorcist… gathering…?” Miko asks, blinking blankly trying to parse the words in her head.
“That’s right,” Mitsue says. “Old friends of mine, you could say. It was a long time ago, during an incident when I stumbled upon a young woman, same as age as me at the time, trying to exorcise a spirit using a method I’d never seen before. We became friends, and I tagged along with her to some of these gatherings… but it was then I realized that we come from two different worlds.”
“We can’t see what they see, and they can’t see what we see,” Romm cuts in with sly eyes. “There’s hardly any difference from just getting normal people involved—like Miko’s normal friend. How much help could these ‘other’ exorcists possibly offer?”
“…You’re still not over that kimono incident, Romm? I thought you were mature enough to let that go already.”
“I’m not the one who brought it up,” Romm smiles, but the way he looks at Mitsue is as if he were ready to snap her neck anytime. “
“I’m confused,” Miko says. “I can see things that you can’t, because I have… some kind of different level of powers than you or something like that. So… these exorcists can see even more than we can?”
“It’s perfectly understandable to be confused!” Romm says with an ingenuine smile. Miko’s sure that anybody else—anyone who isn’t at least half-familiar with the man—would’ve taken his tone as sarcastic mockery. “Those dimwits just deal with different types of spirits. Nothing remotely close to what we have to deal with.”
“Oh.” Miko’s resounding disappointment echoes in that one word. It would’ve been nice if there was a whole community out there full of people like Romm and Mitsue… as it turns out, it was too much of an optimistic hope to cling onto.
“It’s true that we are different by nature, but there’s always something to learn from others,” Mitsue says. “I don’t feel confident about facing the shrine spirit without a second opinion. Not from Romm.”
Romm’s finger slightly twitches at Mitsue’s harsh tone.
She continues, “That mountain is a famous gathering spot. There are rumors surrounding that shrine that must’ve reached even their ears. There is no shame in asking for help.”
“Unless it’s from those guys,” Romm groans. “You’ll learn to hate them, too.”
Miko wants to trust Mitsue more than Romm, but the facts are laid out clearly to her. Even she has little hope that asking these people for help will truly do anything for them.
“Hakozaki-san lived here alone,” Natori remarks.
Natume’s eyes take in the mansion, as tall as it stands and the surrounding crowd of people eager to just be here. “Alone?”
“He may’ve been a talented exorcist and researcher, but he was very strange. It seems he had few friends.”
“Oh—but there are a lot of people here…”
Natori’s friend says, “Sure, but they’re all in the same business we are.”
That brief conversation sticks with Natsume for some reason. It’s a sort of sad, lonely existence, Natsume muses in his head, but he knows there must’ve been more to his story than he’ll ever know. Still, it must be sad to have all these people showing up to one’s house when the owner dies… these people who have never known the owner himself and vice versa.
“As you know, my grandfather had a huge amount of research documents on youkai and magic,” Beniko, Hakozaki-san’s granddaughter, explains. “When he was alive, he said they were all inside his study.”
“His study?” Natori pipes up. “You couldn’t find them?”
“No, not exactly. We searched the mansion, but we didn’t find any room that looked like a study.”
So, apparently, magic exists.
Miko sorta knew since the methods that Romm employed used some sort of spiritual power (supposedly) and Julia could see auras… which was a very supernatural phenomenon Miko had to assume. Seeing a woman announce to a whole crowd of people about research documents on youkai and magic with a straight face is on a whole another level. Magic is real.
They arrived earlier to a mysterious mansion surrounded by a decently populated crowd. Not the biggest turnout, but for a niche hobby like exorcism, it had to be expected. The way that some of the people situate themselves, however… it’s hard to explain, but somehow Miko can tell that it’s unusual. People talking to blank space is another red flag—there really are things that exist out there that she can’t see.
From what Miko can tell, they’ve inserted themselves into the middle of an exorcist-exclusive treasure-hunt. So this is what an exorcist gathering is like… it’s a lot different from how she imagined it to be. If she were an exorcist, she’d want every meeting to be about new methods of getting rid of these monsters, but… there is something different about how these so-called exorcists talked about the youkai they can see.
Romm yawns, loudly, when Beniko is finished with her speech. Eyes turn to them—the obvious outsiders. Miko suddenly feels small and out-of-place with so much attention on them.
“Does it really matter if you sold the house with the study inside it or not? I mean what do you expect to happen—evil spirits cursing the new owners or something?” Romm smiles his usual creepy smile, “We all know nothing bad will happen to those of us who can’t see anything. Seems like more of a trap to have all the best exorcists gathered together in one place.”
“Romm,” Mitsue hisses with barely concealed outrage.
“I reassure you; this is no trap. We wanted to be sure… that no trace of my grandfather would be left behind in this mansion.” Beniko’s focus sharpens on the unusual trio. It’s clear she doesn’t recognize them, but she holds her tongue—out of formality or out of dignity, Miko’s just grateful she doesn’t call them out for being outsiders. “It may seem cruel, but it is just what needs to be done. I hope that you all understand.”
The other exorcists don’t respond to her—in fact, they don’t even seem all that interested in the granddaughter, only whispering about what potential secrets might be in those spells that Hakozaki kept in that study.
“Typical,” Romm snorts.
“Don’t act like you’re any different,” Mitsue snaps, elbowing him hard. “What were you thinking? Are you trying to attract unwanted attention onto us?”
“I’m not scared. What are they gonna do, sick their pets on me?”
“Watch your mouth, idiot.” The sharp rasp in Mitsue’s voice is harsher than Miko’s ever heard it, a warning edge that puts her on alert. Even Romm seems to get the message and promptly shuts up, though reluctantly, wary eyes flitting around for only a second.
“But, if she doesn’t need the papers, then let’s take them. It’s better if the papers are in the hands of someone who’ll take care of them than someone who’ll use them for evil,” Natori reasons. “We just need to find them first.”
Natsume agrees yet at the same time, when Natori says things like those… it rubs him the wrong way. He thinks Natori is a good person, who has to make some hard decisions sometimes, but it’s still polarizing to hear him like that. Still, he understands the sentiment behind it. “Right.”
They split up, Natsume taking the western annex to search through. Natori insists that he wears a mask and take Hiiragi with him, which he doesn’t argue the other man over.
They go together, Nyanko-sensei in his arms and Hiiragi trailing behind him.
“I thought for sure, that woman would’ve shown to such a lucrative happening…”
“Well, she’s not, so let’s go—”
“I know she’s here,” Mitsue says with utmost confidence. “She wouldn’t pass up an opportunity like this. I’m not leaving until I’m sure she’s not here.”
“You know we don’t belong here,” Romm casually says. “We should count our blessings and leave while we still can. Who knows, this really could just be one trap! Can’t trust these lunatics for a second.”
“You’re not the one to bring up trust,” Mitsue clicks her tongue at Romm.
Romm sighs a long-suffering sigh. “I don’t know why you bother clinging onto this community. Fine. If you want to ask for help so badly, then I’ll go find it.”
Romm walks into the mansion by himself, not looking back to spare either Mitsue or Miko a glance.
“I’m sorry about him,” Mitsue grumbles, “It’s not as bad as he makes it out to be. Just different.”
Different seems to be an understatement at this point.
“Don’t worry about it,” Miko reassures the elderly woman. “Who were you looking for? Maybe if we split up, we can find them faster.”
“Nanase-san of the Matoba clan,” Mitsue says.
“Okay, I’ll go to that building,” She points to the western annex, “And you check the other one?”
Mitsue considers it for a moment before agreeing. “Stay on alert. I doubt you’ll be bothered, but just in case… Come find me if something happens.”
“Alright,” Miko says.
“Well, find anything?”
“Find it! With Hakozaki’s papers, I could become famous overnight!”
“Wow,” Natsume remarks with fascination at the one-track mindedness of these exorcists.
Sensei is less amused by the determined population. “We can ask them, but I don’t think his rivals are going to tell us anything.”
“I don’t know about that. Many of these youkai don’t look very smart,” Hiiragi’s eyes trail after obviously unenthusiastic youkai mindlessly roaming about, “and some of them were forced to become familiars.”
“Also, many youkai here seem to have nothing do with this,” Sensei comments. “This place just feels pleasant, though.”
“Like…” Sensei’s voice drowns out in Natsume’s ears when he feels someone’s sharp gaze on him. Natsume turns his head slightly only to see a black-haired girl wearing a school uniform staring at him with apprehensive eyes. She looks as if she’s studying him.
There’s something haunting about those yellow eyes that… Natsume can’t explain. It conveys a certain feeling in Natsume—one that can’t be described with mere words.
“Oi, Natsume! Were you paying attention at all to what I was saying!” Sensei berates his companion with a light whack.
The girl who had been staring at him, slightly startled, shakes his head and turns her head away from Natsume and continues walking with a brisk pace, notably alone.
“That girl…” Natsume says. “She was looking at me.”
He had blended well up until that point—the mask made him look like just another youkai servant as Natori had wanted.
“It’s possible that she’s able to sense that you were human,” Hiiragi, despite her lack of facial expression, sounds thoughtful and a tad bit curious. “I don’t think she was a youkai from what little I could sense.”
School girl uniform… that girl sticks out like a sore thumb, it’s rare to even see people his own age at these exorcist gatherings. The way she looked, it was as if she was lost… like if a normal girl had suddenly stumbled into the exorcist world by pure mistake. Natsume shudders at the possibility.
Sensei’s eyes narrow, just the slightest bit.
“Natsume, if I were you, I’d stay away from that girl,” Sensei warns.
Natsume is surprised at Nyanko’s sudden shift of tone. Going from lighthearted to alert in just the span of a few seconds… it warrants some confusion on his part. “Eh?”
Hiiragi shifts slightly.
“I couldn’t tell exactly why, but there is something about that girl that feels… off.”
“So, you felt it too, then?” A clear vision of that girl’s face comes up in his head again—those eyes that stare right through him.
“Mm. We shouldn’t get involved, if possible.”
Natsume neither agrees nor disagree with that sentiment.
Miko’s not had any luck trying to find the person that Mitsue wanted.
All the… exorcists here are too busy with trying to locate the study, it’s impossible to get a word with anybody. She rests upon a random wall in the hallway, trying to figure out the next logical step of action.
What am I even doing here…? I thought I was going to finally help Hana today, Miko thinks. On her own. Without Hana’s help. She’s glad she didn’t bring her—not that she ever would try to put her friend in danger on her own accord. For Miko, it was never an option from the start.
She looks out the window and sees a lone maple tree planted out in the yard. It almost looks out of place—similarly to what she must look like to most of the exorcists here.
“Exorcists aren’t at all like what I thought they’d be…” Miko mutters to herself while staring at the maple tree. She registers that someone walks up to her side, also looking out the window at the tree she stares at.
Should she really be surprised? Romm isn’t exactly the type of man she’d put her trust in, in the first place. Yet she did. She should know by now that first rule of being able to see things that other people can’t: never judge a book by its cover. Is that not what’s been drilled in her head repeatedly?
“It is a terrible price to pay, is it not?”
Miko’s eyes widen, and she tears her eyes away from the maple tree to see a spirit… almost human-like, just like her dad. It’s a relief, as frightening and exhilarating as it is whenever she sees something she’s not supposed to see.
Miko shifts her eyes back to the tree, pretending like she didn’t just acknowledge the spirit’s existence.
“A strange one, aren’t you,” the spirit continues to say. “You’re not like the others here. You don’t even have the ability to see youkai.”
“But you can see me,” the spirit remarks.
“I see things that other people can’t,” Miko replies without turning her head nor averting her eyes away from the tree. She keeps that calm, neutral expression—trying to hide the fear that always threatens to claw its way out. “Same as everyone else here.”
“Fascinating. Truly… though, I imagine such a way of life must be lonely.”
“In a way, but… I’m okay. There are others like me,” Miko thinks of Mitsue (who understands her plight) and to a less extent, Julia, and… Romm. Yeah, he counts. “And I… still have my friends and family. Even if they don’t know what I have to go through every day.” Her brother, Hana, her mom, even her lingering dad…
“I planted that tree because my granddaughter once said she loved maple leaves.”
Miko is hit by the startling realization—Beniko, the woman who tells everyone that anybody who can find her grandfather’s study, the mysterious elusive exorcist who passed away, the wanted research documents…
“You’re… the exorcist that used to live here,” Miko says, already having forgotten the exorcist’s name.
“Hakozaki,” the exorcist spirit corrects.
The three of them wander around the western annex until they come upon a room, and a certain girl that Natsume hadn’t expected to run into so soon.
The same black-haired girl that Sensei had just warned him not to get involved with.
“Ah,” both her and Natsume say at the same time when their eyes meet again. Natsume looks around the room, with all its furniture broken into bits and pieces, some various wooden parts jutting out like a continuous splinter hazard.
“I—,” the girl pauses, “It wasn’t me, I just happened to wander into this room, and it was like this when I came in.”
At Miko’s side, Hakozaki lets out a hearty laugh to her embarrassment.
“The others here are desperate to find that study,” Natsume says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re the ones behind this. Even so, this is overdoing it.”
The girl doesn’t say anything, though she looks like she wants to make a comment but something holds her back.
“It doesn’t matter.”
The both of them turn their heads to the source of the voice—a young woman who stands at the doorway of the trashed room. Beniko-san. The granddaughter who organized this search in the first place. Her face remains passive even at the remains of furniture scattered around.
“We were planning on getting rid of the furniture eventually.”
“Are you sure about this?”
“It has to be done. There may be a creepy room in here, but we can’t find it.”
Something changes in the face of the girl besides Natsume—she doesn’t seem to have liked that Beniko-san would say such a thing. He sorta understands—on both ends, having been the grandson to inherit what some may consider a burden from his grandmother. Yet, on the other hand, it seems too sad to abandon what was once important to those connected to you…
“When I think about what would happen if we let it go, and if something inside were to want revenge on us…” Beniko walks out of the room, into the hallway, eyes peering out of one of the windows, Natsume and the other girl following, and they look outside at the yard. “We need you to find it and take what’s inside, or we won’t feel safe.”
“Revenge?” The girl inquires, causing Beniko-san to turn her attention from the tree that stands just outside…
“Sorry, I don’t quite understand,” Miko says. “The… spirits in this mansion must’ve been benevolent to your grandfather but you think they’d inflict… revenge on you? Even if you can’t see them?”
Her voice sounds unsure to her own ears. “It just doesn’t make any sense. I thought they can’t do anything as long as you can’t see them.”
You don’t even know how good you have it, goes unspoken in Miko’s head. Of course, she’d love to be in this woman’s position—and happily go her merry way without knowing any of this existed in the first place. She can’t.
You know that’s not true. Why would you be doing this for Hana in the first place, is another thought that occupies Miko’s head, albeit further in the back where she can ignore it.
“It’s better to be safe than sorry. In the first place, the only one who would know for certain is the man who died and left us this house,” Beniko reasons. “How can we know for sure if he never made any enemies? In this line of work, it almost seems inevitable.”
“For us outsiders, we’ll never be able to understand—why he chooses to be with spirits rather than with his own kind.”
Hakozaki smiles sadly, and it’s all the proof Miko needs to know that whatever Beniko is saying is not true.
“How can you know for sure? I mean—he planted that tree right there for you,” Miko says, “Because you told him you liked maples.”
Beniko pauses, freezes. Once the words slip out of Miko’s mouth, it’s too late. There’s no taking them back. She—she hadn’t realized…
“One of his youkai must’ve told you,” Beniko says, and Miko nods, going along with it, relief flooding her senses—it’s all the same, even here, where people will believe what they want to believe, because thinking of other possibilities is too outlandish or creepy or… painful. Thank god.
“Ah, yeah, that’s right,” Miko lies.
“You’ve got to be more careful…” Hakozaki grumbles. Sorry, Miko thinks but doesn’t say out loud for obvious reasons.
“That was a long time ago. After I told him, he planted it immediately,” Beniko’s expression turns bittersweet, melancholy reflecting off her eyes, “I was so happy. But whenever I visited him, all he did was happily talk about youkai.”
“Even though I couldn’t see them, and he was the only one having fun.”
Hakozaki walks forward until he’s by Beniko’s side at the window, his head lowered in—regret? Sorrow? Grief? About what could’ve been? Or about the things he could’ve done better when he was still alive?
Beniko regales the last of the tale—about how she wants nothing more to do with the mansion. Miko can’t find it within herself to speak for Hakozaki anymore, it’s already awkward enough that she tried to intervene herself. This is a personal family matter, after all.
It doesn’t feel right to insert herself right in, despite being the only link between the two anymore.
“Now you see, the price that is paid,” Hakozaki says. “It is universal among us all—even you, I’m afraid, cannot escape.”
“Not really,” Miko murmurs, eyes on the floor, reminiscing. She's referring to the "universal among us all" statement.
They really are different after all. Miko’s just happy to be alive everyday—and this man was blessed enough to surround himself with benevolent spirits. How Miko would kill for such a life… instead of being able to see the things that she does.
“Hmm?” The boy next to her reacts, breaking her out of her trance.
“Sorry, just talking to myself,” Miko smoothly lies. Now that she thinks about it, there’s not many here that are around her age. The boy with the strange mask is the closest, from what she can tell.
He has to be human, Miko reasons. Hakozaki’s granddaughter could see him, and she just went off on a whole speech about feeling alienated from people who can see.
“You were looking at me earlier. Out in the main hall.”
“The mask made you stand out from the rest—erm, sorry if it made you uncomfortable.” Miko’s not sure if it’s some sort of rite-of-passage tradition for young exorcists to wear masks, and it would be terribly offensive if she had made someone feel bad for doing something that they would consider normal.
The boy flips open the mask, revealing a very-human face underneath. “No, it’s okay. I was just curious.”
“I’m new around here,” Miko admits. “Truthfully, I’m not even really here for Hakozaki’s research. I came with two others who were looking for a specific exorcist.”
“So, the mask…” The boy trails off, as if trying to find the right words to ask a difficult question politely, failing, and then realizing that the best course of action is to get straight to the point, “Can you not see youkai, then?”
“I can’t see youkai,” Miko reiterates, but she doesn’t emphasize the youkai part like she would if she really wanted to invite questions. She says it normally, because she’s careful, and she’d rather not reveal what she can do without more information first.
(Maybe Romm’s paranoia is getting to her.)
“I just… got involved with something I shouldn’t have,” Miko continues to explain. “These two… exorcists have been helping me, and now, they need help with the problem themselves. It’s like a never-ending nightmare.”
“Who is it that you’re looking for?”
“Nanase-san, I think she’s part of the…”
The boy frowns deeply, the answer on the tip of his tongue. “Matoba clan.”
“Yeah,” Miko says, hopeful. “Do you know her?”
He turns away, the air around them turning colder and colder. “We’re not on the best of terms. The Matoba clan is—well, I’m not sure if going to them for help is the right choice.”
She tilts her head slightly to the side, genuinely confused. “What do you mean?”
Whilst explaining everything he knows about the exorcists, which isn’t a lot in the first place, and what he knows about the Matoba clan, again not much there, he learns that the mysterious girl’s name is Miko.
“I think at this point, violence might be the only option,” Miko sadly says. “It’ll be hard to reason with the evil spirits at this point.”
“There was this spirit pretending to be a mountain god, granting people’s wishes but expecting to be paid back. I don’t exactly know what’s happened to people before me, but I’ve recently gotten myself entangled with it. It wants payment from me now…”
“What kind of wishes did you make?”
“Vague ones. They granted them anyways, and now they’re mad. They won’t accept any of the basic offerings I’ve tried… Godmother told me that they have something specific in mind.”
“I’m still not sure if it’s a good idea to use the Matoba clan. Knowing them,” Natsume imagines Matoba’s face clearly in his head, smug, with a bow and arrow in his hands trying to chase after a fleeing mountain-god-looking character, “They’d probably try to capitalize on the evil spirit by capturing it and using it themselves.”
“Like—using its spiritual power?”
“No, by forcing it into a contract and making it do their bidding.”
Miko blanches. “I don’t even think that’s possible.”
Now that Natsume thinks about it, Matoba did mention once that a spirit couldn’t understand humans enough to make a contract—it could be just like that incident.
“In that case, they probably wouldn’t help unless they gained something out of it.”
“Which mountain god are we talking about?” Nyanko-sensei pipes up out of nowhere, having laid dormant throughout the duration of their conversation until now. Miko shrieks, jumping out of her skin, widened eyes at the cat.
“Sensei, you know better,” Natsume gently berates his companion.
“The cat talks?”
“Fools, this is but a mere form to conceal my true power,” Nyanko-sensei huffs. “Now, about that pesky problem that you’ve been talking about…”
“Uh, I mean, yeah,” Miko stutters. She tells them what she knows about the shrine.
“None of it is ringing a bell,” Nyanko-sensei says. “Too many mountain gods these days—one of them was bound to turn out to be a fake. I don’t see the need to exorcise them—you said it yourself that they can’t directly harm you unless you step into their territory. What’s the problem here?”
“They can still do things like making windows around me break,” Miko says. “And I’d prefer to not have two spirits following me for the rest of my life, haunting me. I would’ve never made those wishes in the first place had I known.”
“But there’s something you’re leaving out, isn’t there?”
The question startles the girl, to which Natsume has to shout, “Sensei!”, hating how blunt and rude the other can come off as at times.
“…I’d rather not talk about it, if possible.”
“I’m sorry,” Miko says, even though she’s apologizing for nothing.
Nobody in her situation would reveal their cards—especially when one is always in constant fear that something may be lurking around the corner, overhearing them, and realizing Miko is different from the others. It’s a terror she hasn’t been able to shake off since she gained this ability. It really sucks to have this fear controlling her life.
“It’s not your fault,” Hakozaki says.
“I understand,” Natsume tells her, warm smile on his face. “It’s just like that, sometimes. It’s okay. We all have some secrets to keep. It doesn’t make your situation any less dire.”
“My, someone’s grown up,” Nanase-san comments as she approaches Romm. Romm stares at her with unfriendly eyes, not even a speck of warmth reserved for the woman. “It’s been a while since we’ve seen your kind around here.”
“Still as arrogant as ever, I see,” Romm says, before cracking into his signature ingenuine smile, “It’s been a while since I’ve decided to mingle with your kind.”
Nanase reflects that sharp smile of his. “Something tells me you’re not here for Hakozaki-shi’s research.”
“As if I’d require such garbage to make my life more fulfilled. You’re all so predictable, it almost hurts.”
“Uh, Natsume… I, uh, know this is going to sound weird, but if I help you find the study, will you help me get in touch with an exorcist who can help us with the mountain shrine god problem?”
Now it’s Natsume’s turn to apologize.
“Sorry, I don’t really know much of the exorcists here. I could ask my friend, though. He’s an exorcist himself, and he might even know others who could help.”
“That’s good enough,” Miko says, appreciative smile. “Do we have a deal, then?”
“Mm,” Natsume says, nodding without considering it any further. Nyanko-sensei sends him a judgmental look off at the side.
“I’ll be right back, then,” Miko says, twisting on her heel and turning around the corner of the hallway, away from Natsume’s view.
“She’s strange,” Sensei says, “Sounding so confident when she doesn’t have the ability to see. How much more help could she possibly be if that exorcist’s granddaughter can’t be of any use?”
“Maybe she found a clue earlier on her own and didn’t have any reason to go after the study.” Miko wasn’t here for the “treasure”, after all.
“Yet, she told us to stay behind,” Sensei reasons. “Plus, she lied to that woman about being able to see youkai. So how did she know about the maple tree?”
“The maple tree… the maple tree!” Natsume’s eyes widen. That’s right—Miko knew that Hakozaki planted the maple tree for her before she said that he did… and chalked it up to the youkai around here being chatty, but she can’t see youkai as she explained…
“I told you, Natsume, there’s something wrong about that girl. Yet you’re getting yourself involved again. I wouldn’t if I were you.”
“You keep saying that but—”
“No, I think the fat pig is onto something,” Hiiragi interrupts Natsume. “There is something… off about her, but I assumed it was the fact that she is being hunted right now. The evil spirits’ lingering scent might be still on her.”
“Except it wasn’t the scent of two evil spirits,” Sensei argues.
Hiiragi doesn’t disagree. “I couldn’t tell. It’s not something I’ve ever sensed before.”
“Exactly. The scent of evil would’ve been obvious from the very start.”
“So that means…” Natsume trails off.
“Something beyond our comprehension has marked her, but we cannot tell what sort of intentions it held for her. Either way, she’s been marked for something,” Hiiragi explains.
“Nothing good,” Sensei adds.
In the distance, a dark fog looms in the corner of one of the hallways of the old mansion. Something tangible begins forming, but neither exorcists nor youkai notice it. It lays dormant, waiting...