According to Nezumi, the Forest People are those who have made the forest their home. Since ancient times, they've lived in harmony with the wind, the earth, lakes and rivers, and the sky.
To borrow Rou's words, the forest is a place both of their birth and upbringing. They nurtured, respected, and continued to protect the forest. They lived peacefully within the bounds of nature without desiring prosperity or development. Even those who lived in the Town of Roses had no idea about their existence.
Elyurias' power wasn't what allowed the abundant forest to survive on this land. It was because the Forest People protected it. Through the long, perpetual flow of time, they continued to protect the forest.
Rikiga let his empty juice bottle roll across the floor. It continued to roll until it hit the doctor's arm, and stopped.
Nezumi is a descendant of the Forest People. He's also a descendant of the "Singers".
"Yes, Singers―those who had the power to appease Elyurias and converse with her. There were always a number of Singers among the Forest People."
Neither Elyurias nor nature were embodiments of pure compassion and generosity. On the contrary, they could easily turn terrifying. The Forest People knew this.
Both nature and Elyurias could bare their fangs and attack suddenly at any time. Their power was absolute―no human could compare. That made them all the more dreadful.
Yes, the Forest People knew fear. They knew how to fear as well as revere. Singers could appease Elyurias' wrath with their voices, and were able to exchange words with her. They had the ability to mediate between humans and nature. Nezumi had this ability, and so did his mother.
Rou ventured deep into the forest, met Elyurias and the Forest People, and reported their existence to No. 6. He had no idea that this had planted the seed for the Mao Massacre.
"The Mao Massacre?" Creases appeared between Rikiga's eyebrows.
"Yes. 'Mao' apparently refers to the area near the lakeshore where the Forest People lived. They had a settlement there. It's where the airport is now. Apparently the lake was drained to build the airport. I had no idea."
"I didn't know, either," Rikiga said. "I was already kicked out when they started building it. A massacre, huh... which means No. 6 must have invaded the Mao area and tried to wipe out its residents?"
"What for? Did they need land for the airport?"
"No. What they really wanted was Elyurias."
What for. Rikiga kept repeating the same question.
What for, what for. Really, what was this for? What made people this brutal, this ruthless?
Shion looked down at the doctor's body. It had lost all its human warmth and was now a cold corpse. The nurse lay beyond it, and beyond her lay an unnamed man.
What made them capable of taking the lives of others so easily?
In the short instant that he closed his eyes, he could see the Hunt unfold again behind his eyelids. He could hear the groans of the people loaded onto the truck's cargo bed. In his ears rang the screams of the people who had died, piled on top of each other in the basement of the Correctional Facility.
Perplexity―not anger―snagged Shion and would not release him. Also, fear.
What set him apart from the central figures of No. 6? Hadn't Rou said so himself? Everyone was young; everyone had hopes to build a utopian city.
It had taken mere decades for these hopes and ideals to mutate. Mere decades. Shion swallowed his breath.
What kind of person will I be in a few decades? Would I still be able to hold the same hopes and ideals that I have now, at age sixteen? Would I be connected in any form with this kind of brutality?
The terror was enough to make him shiver.
What did they want Elyurias for? Her special powers.
"Special powers?" Inukashi's mouth fell open as he stared at Shion.
"Yeah. Elyurias embodies the form of a wasp."
"Wasp? Like those things that fly around flowers and stuff?"
"Those would be honeybees. Elyurias is a parasitic wasp. She lays eggs in her hosts."
Inukashi's mouth fell open wider. No words came out.
The eggs hatch inside the host's body. They grow without the host's knowledge, become pupae, and emerge as adults. They tear through the host's body to escape, leaving him behind like an empty shell. This is what's happening to No. 6 right now.
Elyurias' children are all beginning to hatch. They're children who fed off No. 6 citizens in order to grow.
I told you earlier that Elyurias looks like a wasp. But she isn't one. No one knows who or what she really is. Rou has recorded that he thinks she might be between a human and a god. That's why she―since she lays eggs, I'll call her a 'she', but I don't think there's much meaning to distinguishing her sex. Maybe she's taken the form of a wasp because it was a convenient form for her to lay eggs inside the hosts. Maybe she only appears as a wasp to human eyes.
She has an enormous intellect―and intellect that far surpasses that of humankind. And she had the power to exert perfect control over the hosts.
Because of that power, the hosts were programmed to take actions that were favourable to the children of Elyurias, oblivious to the fact that they were being leeched from. For example, their instincts for sensing danger were honed, and they became increasingly sensitive to their nutrition. They were controlled to take every effort to maintain a healthy body; their personalities turned gentle; they began to avoid disputes. It makes sense that No. 6 citizens were the only targets. Think about how malnourished the West Block people are, coupled with their substandard environment... as hosts, they were out of the question. Nezumi mentioned before that the parasitic wasps have gourmet tastes. He turned out to be right.
"Ironic, ain't it," Inukashi muttered. "We starved, we froze, we didn't know when we would die... but because of that, we West Block residents were spared."
"These were the absolutely necessary conditions for the eggs: the host needed to be alive when they hatched, and the host needed to be healthy. Even Elyurias couldn't turn the West Block into a paradise. But she didn't need to."
"You've already got the best hosts you could ask for in No. 6."
"The wasps controlled the humans?" This time, it was Rikiga who opened his mouth. He breathed raggedly.
"Yes. They can make people act according to their every whim. It's not unusual for parasitic organisms. A certain schisotome blindfolds the human immune system and makes it think that it's harmless. A species of parasitic wasp injects its DNA into the caterpillar that it chooses as its host, and disables the caterpillar's immune system completely. But I don't think there's any other example of a highly-functional parasitic organism like Elyurias, who chooses humans as her host and controls them completely without the host's knowledge."
"...And No. 6 wanted that power―the power to completely control and dominate over humans." Rikiga made a choked noise in his throat. It was a dry, brittle sound, similar to the frigid winter wind.
No. 6 had tried to attain Elyurias' power.
They came to know of this mystical power through Rou's investigative reports, and tried to use it in building their government.
Elyurias' characteristics remained a mystery; however, everyone in No. 6 thought of her as a mere insect, a mutant species. They did not think of her as a being halfway between man and god, like Rou did. Not one of them saw her as such. Every person believed firmly that no being more superior than man existed.
Elyurias was nothing but a queen bee with an unusually large intellect. It would be no large task training her and controlling her according to their needs―that was what they believed.
An investigative squad was formed for the capture of Elyurias, and they set foot into the forest. There, they met adamant resistance by the Forest People.
Elyurias did not constantly reside in the forest. She appeared once every few years, or once every few decades―always unexpectedly. Everything about her―what the necessary conditions were for her appearance, when she laid eggs, and how long she lived afterwards―was a mystery. After she laid her eggs, Elyurias always disappeared. She withdrew from human eyes. A new queen bee emerged from one of the eggs she laid. It was never clear whether that was going to be a few years or decades later.
No one has seen Elyurias' body. From the time this forest appeared on this land, Elyurias had been repeating the same routine, but not a single person had ever seen her corpse.
Among the Forest People, it was said that Elyurias was immortal, that she revived endless times―that her corpse decayed somewhere where no eye could see, and became the forest itself.
When Elyurias appeared, the Forest People appeased her with song. They prayed and pleaded with her that they would not become hosts. They carried out rituals, and offered a Godly Bed. The Godly Bed was a type of man-made host, prepared from animal brains. It was an offering for implantation. Led on by the song, Elyurias would lay her eggs there. After the eggs were laid, the Godly Bed never seemed to rot or dry out; instead, it maintained an adequate level of moisture and freshness until it rotted away with the emergence of the adult wasp.
Yes, it was the same―the same way in which human hosts aged and died within the blink of an eye immediately after the adult wasps emerged.
The Forest People protected the Godly Bed with their bodies and souls. It was part of their promise with her. This rule had been passed on for ages. As long as the Forest People continued to protect the Godly Bed, Elyurias did not inflict any harm on them. She not only protected the people, but the forest and its land.
That was the rule.
No. 6 had burst onto the scene and wrenched everything from them. They had burned down the settlement of the Forest People when they resisted; they had massacred women, children, and the elderly indiscriminately. They had taken the Godly Bed back to No. 6.
The Mao Massacre―the demise of the Forest People.
This incident took place just twelve years ago.
Shion sucked in a huge breath, and exhaled. He felt like there was no other way to let the air reach every corner of his body.
"From here on is my guesswork, not Rou's records. I'm positive that it's true."
Rikiga leaned forward as if to encourage him. Inukashi, on the other hand, shrank back. He grimaced as if he had smelled some unbearable stench.
"The upper echelons of No. 6 probably attempted to hatch Elyurias' eggs artificially in the Godly Bed that they'd brought back, and failed. They had no Singers, and therefore couldn't maintain the Godly Bed. Nonetheless, they refused to acknowledge anything other than scientific proof. But through their countless failures, one thing they realized was that the most suitable place for the eggs to hatch and grow was inside the human brain."
"Brain?" Rikiga grabbed his head.
"Yes. Not a cow's, pig's, or monkey's. They got as far as determining that Elyurias' eggs hatched if they used a human brain, and that one of them would be born the queen bee, as another Elyurias."
"And then, what...?"
"They implanted eggs inside a number of citizens secretly―just like a wasp would use its ovipositer to lay eggs inside its host. It was easy enough to give a needle during scheduled check-ups, saying it was only part of the procedure. They chose sample citizens who differed in gender, age, build, and environment. I was one of them. Rou was also chosen as a host, but it seems Elyurias' will had some influence in this case. Both of us survived because the parasite's development was incomplete. The host always dies if the adult emerges successfully. That means Elyurias' eggs were effective also as assassination weapons. The upper echelons would do anything to have Elyurias in their power. They were desperate to have her under control. Maybe they already had a faint premonition that cracks would start to form in No. 6. Maybe they knew that their selective and exclusive government would some day break down, no matter how skilfully it was camouflaged. That was why they wanted definite control over others. They wished to be the queen bee, and to reign as the absolute, sole ruler."
"Were front-line research facilities set up in the Correctional Facility to, um, research those... wasps?"
"Yes. They couldn't figure out what kind of conditions Elyurias required to emerge as an adult. I think any human effort would have been fruitless―it would always be a mystery. But they built a research facility anyway, to unravel a mystery that couldn't be unravelled. In it... there were rows of countless brains, contained in special cases. I'm sure eggs were planted in every one."
It came back to him.
The rows of brains trapped in cylindrical cases; Safu, trapped in its innermost depths―it all came back to him.
"I see." Rikiga stroked his chin. "In the Correctional Facility, you could have as many brains as you wanted. Couldn't ask for a better place."
"Makes me sick." Inukashi clutched his chest. He looked truly nauseous: all the colour had receded from his face. He tossed his piece of bread aside.
"I've been starved enough to eat grass and caterpillars off the ground, but I've never felt this sick before. I don't see whatever it is you're seeing. So―was this Hunt a massive harvest of human brains?"
"Yes. They probably wanted to experiment on human brains that have survived harsh conditions. They wanted brains affected by various things, like large amounts of stress, or the will to live, or fear, or excitement."
"I... I think I'm really going to be sick." A dog nuzzled up to Inukashi. He buried his face in its coat and sniffed.
"These guys are... are a hundred times, a thousand times, ten thousand times better than humans. Shion, I'm glad I've got dogs on my team instead of humans. I really am."
"Yeah." You're right, Inukashi. Dogs are a hundred times, a thousand times, ten thousand times better than humans. I can see why you'd feel that way.
Inukashi sneezed softly. He sniffled.
"So, what, Nezumi? Are you really a surviving descendant of the Forest People or whatever?"
Nezumi raised his face. The colour had returned to his cheeks, perhaps thanks to Aria's care. It made Nezumi into a glowing, living being rather than a beautiful doll.
"So you survived that Mao Massacre, or whatever it is. Looks like your lucky streak takes you way back, huh."
Nezumi's eyes focused on Shion. Shion returned his gaze without blinking. After a moment of hesitation, Nezumi began to speak.
"I was really young then. To tell you the truth, there's not much I remember about the Mao area. I just remember Gran carrying me on her back as she ran frantically through the flames. I don't know if Gran was my real grandmother, or if she was a total stranger. But she rescued me and raised me. After we escaped from the forest, we moved constantly around in what's now called the West Block."
Nezumi's tone was brisk and seemed to contain no emotion.
"Gran taught me a lot of things. She was also the one who found a room that used to be a library vault, and suggested that I live in it. I buried myself in those books, and I grew up listening to Gran tell tales of the Forest People. These guys―"
Nezumi snapped his fingers. The three mice scurried up to him, squeaking.
"―were born in that room. They're intelligent and can feel emotion. So could their parents, and their grandparents. Those kinds of animals just seemed to gather around the Forest People. These guys and Elyurias were both―well, we didn't call it Elyurias. We just called it the Forest God. But I was too young to know what the Forest God was, anyway. I was taught that only Forest People like us had a connection to these little mice and the Forest God. But they seem completely used to having Shion around, and they seem overjoyed that they've been given names. It was the same with the rats in the underground realm. I was surprised, to tell you the truth."
"Same with my dogs, come to think of it. They've taken such a liking to Shion. They didn't even bark at him."
Nezumi smiled serenely.
"You're a mysterious one, Shion. I thought so since the first time we met―you're a mystery."
"You're talking about the night of the storm."
"Yeah. The night we first met. But let's go back to the topic for now. I was ten when the special gates of the Correctional Facility were completed. The mayor was scheduled for a visit. Gran said it was our first and last chance for revenge. Revenge―Gran said it was the only thing she'd been living for. But a ten-year-old kid and an old woman were no match for him. Gran had a knife hidden on her, but she was shot on the spot trying to get near the mayor. I was caught along with captives of the Hunt and thrown into the basement of the Correctional Facility. It was a miracle that I didn't die. I climbed the wall of rock as if my life depended on it, and I got to those caverns. That was where I met Rou. Maybe that was a miracle, too. Rou gave me even more knowledge than Gran, and when I turned twelve, he ordered me to leave the underground realm and face a new world. At the time, Rou still had a thread,―a thin one, mind you―of communication leading to the core of No. 6. Once in a while, No. 6 delivered just enough food and living supplies for us to survive. I guess in the back of their minds, their conscience still nagged them to help the man who was once their colleague. Through that route, Rou sent in a suggestion that I be transferred to the Moondrop. He proposed to have me examined in detail as one of the last surviving Forest People. The mayor and his associates agreed. They'd probably reached a roadblock in their research about the Forest God. They were eager for any potential lead, so they jumped on the chance. On the day of my transfer, Rou handed me a special knife that wouldn't get caught by the metal detectors. He told me to find my own path. I wouldn't survive if I let myself be taken into the Moondrop. There was a good chance that I'd be dissected there. My only path of survival was to break free and run before I reached the Moondrop. As for the rest―I don't think I need to go into details. I was able to survive, thanks to you rescuing me."
Nezumi looked up at the ceiling and exhaled a long breath.
"Like I said before, on that stormy night, you threw open the window and welcomed me in. It was a real miracle. To me, you were more of a miracle than the Forest God ever was. I felt like I was being told to live―to live on, not give up.... If you hadn't been there, I wouldn't have been able to survive that night. Shion, you―only you―were the one who saved me. This time, too."
Nezumi stood up carefully.
"Glucose infusion completed. Infusion is complete." Aria retreated silently like a meek maiden.
"You saved my life," Nezumi said.
"It goes both ways. If it hadn't been for you, I wouldn't be alive, either." Shion stood up as well.
"Hey, hey, wait a minute here. If you're gonna overwhelm yourselves with gratitude, it should be for us. Right, old man?"
"Of course. Eve, you've just made yourself a hell of a debt. You better be prepared."
Inukashi and Rikiga nodded in unison.
"Practically finishing each other's sentences now, aren't you? You've sure gotten close." Nezumi smirked as he wrapped himself in the superfibre cloth.
"If you're going to keep tabs on my debt anyway, mind giving me a ride and dropping me off close to the Moondrop?"
"Are you really going to go?" Rikiga said in disbelief.
"Yes, we are," Shion answered. "We have to. Nezumi is the only one who can stop Elyurias."
"Don't get ahead of yourself. We don't even know if my singing is going to work on her yet."
"It will. Even on that cargo bed on the way to the Correctional Facility, people still wanted to hear you sing."
Rikiga swung his arm around. His weary and bloodshot eyes blinked repeatedly.
"Why, Eve? I thought you were going to sit back and enjoy the show as part of the audience. Weren't you going to laugh the whole way through while you watched No. 6 give its last dying shriek?"
"I was planning to, but it looks like my career as an actor will be the death of me," Nezumi said ruefully. "Seems I can't stand being out of the spotlight for more than a short while. I guess I'm not made to sit in the audience, after all."
"This isn't the time to be showing off," Rikiga said bitingly. "Take it seriously. I thought you loathed No. 6. Just leave it alone, and it'll destroy itself. There's nothing more you have to do except sit back, watch, and laugh."
Nezumi's face contorted for an instant. It did not look like an act.
"I would if I could. But Rou told me―what about the children within the walls? What are they guilty of? He said those who twiddle their thumbs while they watch children die are no better than the murderers themselves."
A sigh. All emotion vanished from Nezumi's face.
"Old man, I do loathe No. 6. This destruction is what I've been longing for. In fact, it's everything I could have wished for. If I ended up bloodying my hands to attain it, so be it―that's what I used to think, and I still think that way. But I want to avoid killing children at all costs. I'm a survivor of the Mao Massacre. The last thing I want to do is be on the side of the murderers. I don't want to become like No. 6."
Rikiga fell silent. He sighed like Nezumi, and took out his car keys.
"Inukashi, what are you doing to do?"
"I'll go. Don't got a choice, do I? I've got my own baby to worry about. I can understand what Nezumi's trying to say. Heh, but I didn't expect to be completely convinced. I must be getting old."
"Oh―Inukashi, by baby, do you mean the one I entrusted―"
"Shut up. He's my baby, and it's none of your business. A little slow to notice, huh, uncaring prick? You can beg on your knees asking to see him, but you won't get a chance." Inukashi neatly gathered up all the leftover food and stuck his long tongue out at Shion.
Confusion was reaching its peak around the Moondrop. The army had fired further shots into the knots of people, resulting in even more deaths. At the same times, several soldiers also fell to the ground, growing old and dying within minutes.
A roar of fear erupted from the soldiers. As some threw their guns aside and attempted to run, their superiors shot them dead from behind.
"Obey your orders. Suppress the rioters. Disperse them."
"No! Our lives are precious to us, too!"
"Don't even think about fleeing. Desert the battlefield―the penalty is death," a senior officer barked. Suddenly, he bent backwards and collapsed. Blood spurted from his forehead. A bullet had ricocheted and hit him, perhaps―or had someone shot him? Even while his body convulsed, the soldiers trampled him with their military boots in an attempt to escape.
The crowd swarmed into the Moondrop. In their midst, each gate of the city exploded and dissolved in flames. Cracks appeared in the special alloy barrier as it, too, fell apart. The Correctional Facility was already half-demolished in a cloud of black smoke.
The bigscreen monitors in the square displayed each of these scenes.
"Shion, what the hell is going on there? Why are they playing that? Is No. 6 showing everyone its demise on purpose?" Inukashi asked with a shiver.
"That must be surveillance footage from the cameras installed in each part of the city.... But that should be playing on the screens in the monitoring room of the Security Bureau. This footage is being forwarded to public screens... which means the computer's controls have gone completely haywire."
"And that must be...."
"Yeah, you're right. Only she can scramble No. 6's controls like this."
Chuckle, chuckle, chuckle.
Chuckle, chuckle, chuckle.
He could hear lighthearted laughing. It reached his ears, threading its way through the roar of the mob, footsteps, screams, and the sound of something being beaten like a drum.
Chuckle, chuckle, chuckle.
Chuckle, chuckle, chuckle.
She's laughing. She's trying to destroy No. 6, laughing all the while.
"Nezumi, can you sing?"
"...Not here. It's too packed with people. I'll be out of breath before long, especially in this condition." Nezumi looked up at the night sky, his face shining with perspiration.
"She's laughing," he muttered.
"You hear it?" Shion asked.
"Yeah. She sounds like she's enjoying herself. Arrogant humans thought they were the rulers of the world, and now look how easily they destroy themselves―she's relishing every minute of it."
"Is she punishing human hubris?"
"Or it might be fate," Nezumi answered. "No. 6 was fated to become like this. A balloon will always burst if it's blown up too much. Maybe she just sped up those cogwheels of fate a little bit."
Chuckle, chuckle, chuckle.
Chuckle, chuckle, chuckle.
A man clutching a boy of about five ran past Shion.
"Help me, help me!" he cried through his tears.
"Nezumi, let's go to the top floor of the Moondrop."
"The mayor's office?"
"Yeah. Your voice will reach the entire square from there. Not only will Elyurias hear your song, so will the rest of the people."
"A song won't calm the confusion."
"It'll be more effective than guns. That much is for sure."
They went along with the flow of people and entered the Moondrop.
"Where's the mayor? Bring him out!"
"This is the end of No. 6! We're done for!"
"The wall has crumbled! The gates have been broken!"
"Bring out the vaccines! Mayor! Mayor!"
Suddenly, one man dashed up the stairs. With a megaphone in hand, he bellowed in the stairwell.
"Comrades, I am here! I am Yoming! I once urged you to rise for freedom!"
The crowd buzzed.
"It's Yoming! Yoming!"
"Yes! Comrades, just moments ago, I was attacked by the security squad and I was almost killed. But yet I still stand here in front of you. I will not die until I finish rebuilding No. 6 with my own two hands. I will not die―I am immortal!"
The buzz grew louder. A mass of fists were raised triumphantly towards the man.
"Yoming! Yoming! Our hero!"
"Comrades. No. 6's destruction is near. We're almost there. Let us defeat No. 6, come together as one, pool our strength, and build a new utopia. We will make our bright future a reality, with our hands, comrades!"
"Yeah! That's right!"
"Three cheers for Yoming! Three cheers for a new No. 6!"
"Comrades, let us drag the mayor and his people out before us. Here we will sentence and obliterate them. Let that be the first step towards a new world!"
Cries of assent melded together into one roar. It shook the very air.
Shion also dashed up the stairs to stand beside Yoming. "That's wrong. What he's saying isn't right."
Yoming's eyes bulged as he gritted his teeth.
"Everyone, listen to me: there is no vaccine here. What's happening right now isn't going to be stopped by the likes of any vaccine."
"Hey, what are you―"
"I survived." Shion took off his shirt and flung it aside, exposing his red banded scars. "This is proof of my survival. Everyone, please. Give us a little bit―ten minutes―of your time. Don't worry, we'll settle this somehow. I survived. There's nothing stopping you from surviving, too. But for that to happen, we need time."