The shadow extended around Mutsu, as if trying to surround her. It had the shape of a person but awfully slender and long.
“What brought you here?”, a voice sounded right from behind her. At the same time, she felt a lukewarm animal-smelling breath upon her neck. It was an extremely disgusting feeling, similar to the hair standing up on the back of one’s neck.
Mutsu slowly looked over her shoulder.
But, there was nobody there, only a big cream-colored fox at her feet.
“Are you the one who lives here?”, Mutsu crouched down, put her hands on her knees and gently spoke to the fox. She gave off the impression of an animal-loving girl, who would try to hold conversations even with cats.
“A lot of people went missing. I’d like you to tell me if you know something about it. You can speak, right? Or…”
She dug around in her bag and took out a long and narrow box.
“Maybe I have to feed you for us to get along, like one does with an alley cat.”
From the box, she retrieved the remnants of the castella sponge cake she had also shared with Toushirou.
Maybe it had become curious about the sweet scent, but the fox’s gaze switched between the sponge cake and Mutsu. And then, suddenly, the fox rose to stand upright on two legs.
“Let me invite you to the shrine office.”
Mutsu followed after the fox, who briskly started walking away after those words, as they headed for the shrine office.
Mutsu, who had been brought into the shrine office by the big fox, was so surprised that she forgot how to speak for a moment. There, there were two other foxes, sitting at a kotatsu table and drinking tea.
“This… is amazing.”
The shrine office looked like a homely, isolated house. It even had heating and felt pleasantly warm.
“Please come join us.”
“Oh, of-of course.”
Mutsu sat down at the kotatsu table.
Her legs, which had become completely cold from walking outside, slowly warmed up.
The fox that had brought Mutsu to the house placed a teacup in front of her and served everybody a piece of the castella sponge cake.
“Is it castella? I’m so happy.”, as it said this, the foxes nimbly cut the sponge cake into bite sized pieces, which they then put into their mouths.
“Wow, um, so kitsune also eats castella sponge cake?”
“Well, we take on a human form in our daily life, so we eat what humans eat.”
“Mmnm, it’s a good castella. You said you had something to ask, right? What is it?”
Mutsu gave a complacent smile as she placed her part of the castella cake on the plate of a fox who had completely devoured its own piece and stared longingly at hers. Then she relaxed her shoulders and finally started sipping her tea.
“I heard that a lot of people had been disappearing around here so I came to investigate. Do you know anything about it?”
“I see. You’re not an ordinary person, are you?”
The pairs of eyes fell upon Mutsu, staring.
Grimly looked at the kitsune with an unwavered gaze, Mutsu stated:
“I’m an onmyodo sorceress.”
After she said this, the kitsune suddenly left the kotatsu table and surrounded her. And yet, Mutsu calmly continued to sip her tea.
“You are trying to mess around with me, right? Surrounding me like this.”
She lightly chuckled. “If that’s the case, I could stop you in the blink of an eye.”
She didn’t do anything else, albeit only placed her teacup on the table with both hands.
“Oh, you don’t want any more of the castella cake? I’ll take it then.”
Mutsu tossed the entire piece of castella into her mouth without even cutting it in parts. The room went silent for a while, and only her chews could be heard. Then, she took another sip of her tea and closed her eyes in satisfaction.
“Could we please have a talk about what you know now?”
Mutsu sweetly smiled, but her lowered voice did not carry the intonation of making a request.
The kitsune slowly returned to the kotatsu table and took deep breaths to calm themselves. One of them hesitantly started to speak.
“This place, Hakonou, as you might have noticed is in the middle of nowhere. So in the beginning, when young people started disappearing, we thought that they had just left for Tokyo or some other town.”
After saying that much, the kitsune picked up a teacup, and a different kitsune picked up where he left off.
“However, before long, elderly people and children also started to disappear. But this isn’t something that started just recently, it’s been going on for a long time. It’s just that the numbers suddenly spiked now.”
“Children who went to school never returned and farmers who went out to work in the fields never came home. Things like that.”
“This place is surrounded by mountains. There are rivers and cliffs around too. It was speculated that they might have fallen down from one for example and simply never been found.”
The kitsune who spoke interrupted its story to ask Mutsu if there was any cake left. Mutsu wryly smiled – they had finished all of it. But she promised that she would bring some more if they would cooperate with her.
Hearing that, the kitsune’s spirits improved and it became even more in the mood to talk.
“Recently, about 2 months ago in December, we started to feel the presence of something strange. Something different from us.”
“You’re saying that these are related?”
“We wouldn’t go as far as to claim that. But we think there’s a possibility that they are.”
After rummaging around in her pocket, Mutsu brought out her cigarettes and put one between her lips.
“Sorry, is it okay if I smoke?”
“Share some with us too.”
After receiving their cigarettes, three kitsune started to smoke, looking like they had done so many times.
“What is going on?”
Just as she wanted to light her cigarette, a small light flared up before her eyes. It was a kitsunebi ghost light. Fascinated, Mutsu used it to light her cigarette and slowly started to inhale the smoke.
“Where are the archives of this area?”
“If I’m not mistaken, it’s in the town lowest below the mountains of the area. It’s quite far from here.”
“Yeah, about a 2 hour walk.”
Firmly pressing her cigarette butt into the presented ashtray, Mutsu groaned and lied down.