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"Could it be the park?"
"The Forest Park in the centre of the city. My workplace― could that be where the parasite wasp originated?"
"Why?" said Nezumi. "That park is right in the middle of the city. It might be a forest, but it's still artificial. All the wildlife is managed and controlled by the city. If a parasite wasp sprung out of nowhere, they'd notice."
"That's true, but... out of all places in the city, the park would be the most adequate environment for a new species to appear. And all the victims so far, including me, were in the park when it happened. Of course―" Shion hesitated. "I don't know if there's been casualties anywhere else― but I think part of the reason why the city suspected me was because the incidents were concentrated in that location. But if that's the case―"
"That monster must have been born there somehow without being noticed by the control systems."
"It's plausible, right? And what's more, the park is where lots of people gather."
"No shortage of hosts," said Nezumi grimly.
It was a park that was beautifully and conveniently crafted for the citizens. If a species that preyed on humans actually did inhabit it, then―
"Spring," Shion murmured.
Spring? Nezumi echoed in question.
"Once winter comes, the wasps will cease activity as they enter a dormant stage. The eggs that have been laid already will probably pass the winter as they are."
"Inside people's bodies."
"Yeah. And when spring comes, they'll be able to resume activity as an imago. Then they'll hatch all at once." In a season abundant with sunlight and flower blossoms, a mass of black wasps would simultaneously break out of people's bodies to take flight. How many would they be? How many people would be sacrificed?
"We have to do something."
"And how are you gonna 'do something' about it?" replied Nezumi bluntly. "Don't even think about going back to the city. You'll be killed. You're an amateur, you can't pull any fancy tricks like slipping past surveillance. Ten-to-one, as soon as you step inside the city, you'll be shot dead. We don't have a trump card to pull out, you know."
"Actually― I think we might."
Nezumi narrowed his eyes.
"I survived that wasp attack. There's a chance that I've developed antibodies that resist the toxin. If I have, then it'll be possible to make a serum out of my blood."
Nezumi shot an appalled look at Shion and hunched his shoulders exaggeratedly.
"And then what're you gonna do? Go waltzing into the city's Health Bureau and say 'Please check my blood. And if you like, please make a serum out of it'? That's idiotic. They'll probably suck all your blood out and throw you in the trash with the rest of their organic garbage. Sure, what you're saying is impressive, but are you prepared to risk losing your life for these people?"
"I don't want to die."
"Then don't think about useless things. Whether you have antibodies or not, once you're caught, you're going to get killed anyway. It's just a matter of how soon or how late."
"Then what should I do?"
"Don't do anything. Just leave them to fend for themselves."
Shion lifted his face.
"Leave them?" he asked quietly.
"Yeah. What a magnificent stage it'll be," Nezumi sneered. "You can watch the Holy City crumble into ruin, glowing in the light of spring. And you'll have the best seats in the house."
"Nezumi!" Shion raised his voice sharply.
"Whoa, don't go dumping water on me again."
"Are you under the impression that the West Block is safe from this?" he said incredulously. "We're human beings, the same as them. There's no knowing when the wasps might attack us too."
Nezumi fell silent. A crooked smile played on his lips.
"We're not the same."
"The people inside the city sure don't see the residents of the West Block as the same human beings. You still don't know what kind of place this is, do you? This is the Holy City's garbage dump. No. 6 has thrived by throwing everything it doesn't want out here. You should take a good look and see for yourself."
"This is just my hunch, but listen," he continued. "That monster is probably only going to choose residents of No. 6 to be its host― the people who have pushed everything dirty into the hands of others to live in that perfectly hygienic environment, well-nourished and in excellent health. Mr. Monster has gourmet tastes."
"How can you be so sure?"
"I have no clue about the biology of insects, Shion. But I'm probably right in guessing that any bee, wasp, ant or grasshopper will appear most in places where there's the most food. In terms of population density, we're much higher than the city. But do you see any sign of the monster here? No. Which means that there are simply no prey, no hosts here. Right?"
Shion was at a loss for words. His thoughts were becoming tangled, and there was a dull pain throbbing at the back of his head. Nezumi's hand touched his cheek.
"Sorry―" he said softly. "I didn't mean to give you a hard time. I forgot. You're from the other side, the inside of the wall."
"I don't understand what you mean by inside and outside."
"Of course you wouldn't," Nezumi said gently. "That's normal. You guys have probably never tried to understand what was going on outside your walls, have you? You probably weren't even curious about it. Oblivious, arrogant, blissful people... But you, poor thing," he murmured. "You've fallen off that pedestal."
Which means I can no longer be oblivious, arrogant or blissful anymore. Is that what you want to say? Shion let his gaze speak for him as he looked Nezumi in the eye.
If arrogance is knowing nothing and never having tried to know, and if my blissful life until now has been built upon this arrogance, then sure, I don't mind throwing everything away. Falling off my pedestal would be the best thing that could have happened to me.
"Nezumi," he said steadily.
"I want to know the truth. I want to know what's real, what's happening to this world I'm living in. I want to see its true face."
Nezumi hunched his shoulders and flashed him a wry smile.
"Such youthful words."
"We're the same age."
"I have more life experience than you. Geez, I don't know who else would rattle off a line as embarrassing as 'I want to know the truth'. Except Hamlet, maybe."
"A prince of Denmark. I think you should balance out that knowledge bias before working on knowing the truth. You really know next to nothing about classics, huh?"
"Well, I've never needed them before..." frowned Shion. "The Arts weren't encouraged much, so..."
Nezumi reached into the shelves and pulled out two books.
"If what you're saying is true, then once winter comes, the commotion will die down. Which means we have a moratorium until spring."
"Then there's no need to get worked up," he said airily. "Nothing will come of it. So until you recover and you're well enough to move around, you can read him these."
A brown mouse scurried up onto Shion's knee, and stood on its hind legs.
"He loves Macbeth. The other is Faust. Ever heard of it?"
Nezumi grimaced, and heaved an exaggerated sigh.
'If feeling prompt not, if it doth not flow
Fresh from the spirit's depths, with strong control
Swaying to rapture every listener's soul,
Idle your toil; the chase you may forego!'
"―is how it goes. You should give your brain a break and work on training your soul. Your Mama used to read to you, right?"
The mouse squeaked insistently.
"Oh, right. Speaking of Mama, I have a message from yours. I almost forgot."
A faint colour rose in Nezumi's cheeks as he obstinately turned aside.
"Well, since you managed not to die... I figured it wouldn't hurt to tell your mother that you're over here now. "
"You went to see my mother?"
"Not me," he said brusquely, "I stayed in the underground tunnel. This guy―"
The brown mouse tilted its head to one side.
"―He went for me, with the note in his mouth. One of the oldest tricks in the book, but surprisingly, it got past surveillance without being noticed."
"Stop that." Nezumi pulled a face. "Don't give me that teary-eyed look. Aren't you embarrassed at all?"
"I was talking to this little mouse here."
"Oh― well, then."
Shion really was grateful. Now that he knew how difficult it was to get past the wall, he felt grateful from the bottom of his heart that Nezumi had taken the same risk again just to deliver the message to his mother. So this is what it means to gain knowledge.
"Your mom's got some guts," Nezumi remarked. "She managed to give me a reply without getting caught." Nezumi tossed him a rolled-up strip of paper that was about half the size of his finger. There was a message hastily scribbled onto it that he could barely read.
"What does this mean?" He and Nezumi looked at each other in bewilderment.
"It's a letter that your Mama wrote to her beloved son," said Nezumi. "Don't you have any clue what it might be about?"
"Not really," replied Shion doubtfully. "'K' probably stands for my mother's first name, but this... 'not sure'...?"
"It's probably an address. Not that building numbers would do any good here.... Latch Building, huh. I guess I'll look into it."
"So that must mean my mother knows someone who lives in the West Block." It was a surprise to him. He had never heard Karan utter a single word about anyone who lived here. Nezumi snapped his fingers smartly.
"Oh― I know."
"Maybe he's your dad."
"Fat chance," retorted Shion. "Look who's had one too many stories to read. Aren't you embarrassed at all?"
Nezumi tsked in disappointment.
"You're getting better at your comebacks. ―But, well, I guess you're right. It's your typical script for a cheap melodrama. A father and son reunite in tears after sixteen years of estrangement." Nezumi's voice turned deep and burly.
"I've missed you, son."
"Me too, Father." Shion bounded into Nezumi's widespread arms. They circled around his back. It was warm. For an instant, the frigid touch of Yamase's dead body flashed back in his mind. But it was this warmth here, not that coldness, that he wanted to remember; and Shion vowed never to forget the heat of the body that was in his arms. He wished all beings, himself included, could continue to be living beings. He didn't want his life unfairly wrenched away from him. He could feel it― the pleasure of living, breathing, and possessing a body of warm flesh― soak into the depths of his core. Nezumi gently detached himself.
"You're getting better at picking up your cues," he said approvingly.
"I know. I've come pretty far in a short time, haven't I?"
"Quite an excellent pupil. Shall we go, then?"
Darkness had fallen outside. Here in the West Block, night and complete darkness seemed synonymous. A chill wind nipped at Shion's skin.
"Look," Nezumi pointed. No. 6 was carved out in the darkness, bathed in light as it glowed in the distance.
"It's always shining like that, morning, day, and night. Pretty, isn't it."
"But where you're going to be living from now on is here." The land was sunken in darkness, with a sparse scattering of lights here and there. They burned forlornly, and made the surrounding dark look even more inky black. The clouds above broke, and the moon peeked out. It was a crescent moon. A thin sliver, almost like a clipped nail, floated in the empty sky.
Nezumi crouched down to pick something up.
"Look at this." It was a dead wasp.
"This looks like just a regular paper wasp."
"You were right, it looks like the season for wasp activity is over."
"By springtime..." Shion trailed off.
It was possible that the city would hold out somehow until spring. It gave him a few months' grace period until the fatal judgment would fall.
"If you're serious about fighting the parasite wasps, I won't get in your way," Nezumi said. "But if that means helping No. 6, I'm backing out."
"Do you have a grudge against No. 6?"
There was no answer. The wind blew stronger. The canopies above creaked and rustled as they swayed in the darkness.
"That city where you were born and raised in― that's the biggest parasite."
"It latches onto the host, sucks out all its nutrients, and devours it whole. That's the kind of city it is. A Parasite City... do you understand what I'm saying?"
"You'll find out soon. You said you wanted to know the truth. But once you know, you'll never be able to go back. I would prepare myself if I were you."
"I've already come too far to go back anyway, wouldn't you think?"
"I guess so."
Nezumi's quiet laughter carried on the wind. His voice was dry and hollow, as if to complement it.
"If you find out the truth, and still want to protect No. 6― then,"
In the darkness, Nezumi's face turned to his. Shion could feel his gaze. He could almost see the grey of his eyes just as vividly.
"Then you're my enemy too."
Boy, it's chilly out here. Let's head back in. Nezumi's tone was light. It was as if nothing had happened. He turned his back to Shion, and began whistling as he descended the stairs.
The whistling stopped.
"You haven't told me your name yet."
"Nezumi it is, and Nezumi it shall be. Good enough."
"But it doesn't suit you. And it was a promise. You said you'd tell me your name if I survived."
There was a soft laugh, which quickly turned into whistling again. The door closed, and a silence settled over the darkness. Shion stood alone, rooted to the spot. The wind caressed his white hair. He could hear a dog barking somewhere in the distance.
He gazed up at the city that bejewelled itself in light. The Parasite City. The city whose name Nezumi had spat with disgust was shimmering and beautiful.
Shion averted his eyes from the light, and took a deep breath.
Then he descended slowly down the steps to the room below.
Go on to read Volume 2 Chapter 1.