What is this? Is someone living here?
He twitched his nose again. Like before, he did not smell anything. Inukashi took down the small silver box from the shelf. He opened the lid.
He found himself letting out a whistle.
Oh, I see. This is quite a treasure. I've found myself some booty.
The box turned out to be an emergency kit, with bandages, pincers, gauze, and a number of medicines stored neatly inside. There was even a scalpel. It looked like something that had been used in No. 6. Inukashi had no clue about how this ended up here. He had no intentions of finding out, either. He didn't care about its journey or story. What mattered was that he was holding it in his own hands. That was all.
Medical items of any kind were coveted in the West Block. Disinfectant, especially, was traded at a high price. Sometimes a small bottle of disinfectant could fetch up to two silver coins.
Inukashi brought his nose close.
This is a hundred-percent pure, with no additives―the good stuff. Look at the way it stings my nose. Heh, forget silver―this might just transform into a gold coin if I'm lucky. I made a good find. My luck is finally turning around.
Inukashi grinned to himself as he shut the lid of the box. He was about to lift it up in his arms when he noticed a small table covered with books.
On top, there was a small mouse. It was not alive. It was skilfully wrought, but it was clearly man-made. Inukashi leaned forward, still cradling the box. The belly of the mouse peeled back to reveal its complex inner parts.
Inukashi was about to lean further in when he felt a violent chill. He felt goosebumps forming on his back.
"Don't move," he heard a voice by his ear. This time, the skin on every inch of his body bristled. It was not because a blade had been pressed against his neck. It was because the voice was completely void of warmth. All emotion in it was suspended frozen. Its icy blast chilled even Inukashi's own emotions.
It was the voice of a murderer.
It was the voice of one who could take a human life with no hesitation, no sway of emotion.
And―and on top of that―this guy got behind me.
If Inukashi could swear on anything, it was his ability to sense the presence of people. His sixth sense was as good as any dog's. The more emotional a person was, the more Inukashi could feel the presence on his skin. Thanks to this ability, he had been able to escape danger and dispute time and time again. But this time, he had felt nothing. He was not even able to discern the slightest from the person creeping up behind him.
Maybe he's not human? A dead man come crawling out of the depths of Hell? A demon? A shapeshifter?
His teeth refused to come together. His molars chattered, making a strangely mechanical sound. It echoed deep in his ears.
Inukashi gritted his teeth, and clenched his stomach.
"W-Wait a minute here. I was only..."
"Put the box back."
"A-Alright, alright! I'll do as you say." Trembling, Inukashi replaced the box on the shelf.
"Th... there. I returned it. That's enough, right?"
"Enough? Are you kidding me?"
The blade moved ever so slightly. He felt a jolt of sharp pain. He struggled to rein in the scream that was about to tear through his throat. He was sweating in his armpits.
"Theft amounts to death in this place. You should have no complaints about being killed."
"Y-Yeah, but I mean, I can't complain if I've already been killed, right? H-Hey, I live in the ruins, by the way... know about it? It's on the far end of here, the ruins of a hotel. That's my place. I live there with my dogs. My name is... uh, well, I don't have a name, but you know―who needs one in a place like this, right? People call me inukashi―the Dogkeeper. Dogs are part of my business. Ha ha, but who cares about my name, right? I kinda like it, though. Ha ha. So if you ever wanna call me by name, it's Inukashi."
Inukashi kept talking. He felt like if he closed his mouth, his throat would be slashed in the silence that fell afterwards.
"Hey, come on. I'm begging ya. I'll apologize, so will you just forgive me? Please? I'm sorry. I'll never do it again," he tried imploring pathetically. "Don't kill me. I'm on my knees. Help me, please. I... I don't wanna die yet. I really don't wanna die. I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. I'll never touch your stuff again. I promise. Please, just don't kill me."
Inukashi wasn't putting on an act. He was earnestly pleading for his life.
Don't kill me, please. Let me go.
Please, please, please, please, please, please.
The knife was lifted. Suddenly, the base of his neck felt much lighter. Inukashi let out a long breath. His neck muscles hurt, likely from being taut this whole time. The spot on his neck throbbed slightly when he pressed it with his hand, but no blood came off.
The wielder of the knife had made a slight cut, as shallow as the mere first layer of skin on the neck, to freeze his victim in fear. Not enough for it to bleed, but just enough to make the victim feel pain.
I knew it. The guy behind me is no human. He's a dead man, a demon, a shapeshifter....
Inukashi turned around slowly, still holding his neck. The truth was that he did not want to turn around. He wanted to beeline right out of the place. But his feet hesitated; he felt like the moment he turned his back and broke into a run, a knife would be plunged deep into his back.
He slowly, slowly turned around.
He had to blink. He knew his mouth was hanging open.
The figure in front of him was no dead man, demon, or shapeshifter. It was a boy wearing a plaid shirt. It might have been a girl. No, it was a boy. A girl couldn't produce an icy voice like that. The boy only looked like a girl.
The boy had long hair which came down to his shoulders and hid his forehead. His small, white face was almost uncannily proportionate. Inukashi had imagined the boy's eyes to be glittering full of murderous intent, but they were serene and inscrutable.
The boy had eyes of a strange colour.
An elegant dark grey. It was Inukashi's first time seeing such a colour.
The boy seemed to be taller than Inukashi, but he figured their ages were about the same. But Inukashi was also unsure of his own age.
The boy sheathed his knife, still wearing a blank expression. Inukashi felt overwhelming relief. Then, he felt irritation at himself for being relieved.
I was being threatened by this twig? He wanted to click his tongue in frustration. Geez, I'd never be able to live that down.
"You could have picked a better shirt to wear." Inukashi wore a smirk as he jerked his chin. He intended to look smooth and unruffled. "But the quality doesn't look half-bad. Not something you'd come across often in the West Block."
"It's a borrowed shirt."
"Borrowed? Where did you borrow such a good piece of clothing, huh? Don't tell me you got it from No. 6."
He had meant it as a joke, but once he put it into words, he felt like that was the only possibility. The shirt's superior quality was evident from first glance. It looked soft to the touch, warm, and durable. The emergency kit he had just put back on the shelf was also a product from inside the walls, no doubt about it.
"Who the hell are you? Don't tell me you came from that―" Inukashi trailed off. He had just seen the boy pick a strip of dried meat out of his breast pocket and bite on the end of it.
"Hey... don't tell me that's..." Inukashi scrambled through the bag hanging from his waist. It was empty. He had most definitely put dried meat in there, but it was gone.
"I'm taking this", the boy said. "As compensation for your stealing."
"B-Bullshit! Who's the thief now? Give it back, that's my meat! Give it back!"
Heh. The boy laughed. His smile seemed both innocent and carefree.
"Wanna try to take it back by force, Inukashi?"
"Gh..." Inukashi bit his lip. This was not someone he could win against head-on―his instincts were telling him so.
Damnit, I shoulda brought my dogs. If I had them with me, I could take him down in one bite.
But his dogs were not here. Inukashi was alone.
"...Fine. Keep it."
"There's a good boy. You should know when to listen. It'll help you live longer."
"Damnit, stop making fun of me!" Just watch. I'll get my revenge.
Inukashi retreated to the door. He grabbed the handle. There was no need to stay here longer than needed.
The boy sat on top of a pile of books and said nothing. Only his gaze was fixed on Inukashi. Inukashi's movements were completely surrendered by that gaze. His arms and legs turned stiff and awkward, and they refused to move smoothly.
"...What the hell are you...?" He repeated his question from some moments before. This time, it was more serious. "Do you live here?"
He did not expect a reply.
"This house has been abandoned for ages. There hasn't been anyone living in it for years―at least, there wasn't supposed to be. Where the hell did you come from? And why do you have a shirt and emergency kit that's clearly from No. 6? Oh, and that mouse doll―what is that? It looks like a robot. Don't tell me you built that thing?"
Inukashi knew he had to run away as soon as possible, but his mouth kept moving. Question after question escaped his lips.
"You talk a lot, don't you? I'm surprised you haven't bitten your tongue already from talking so much." The boy shook his head. An amused smile crossed his face.
Inukashi found himself almost attracted to him. His heart beat faster.
This guy is dangerous. More dangerous than a murderer, and hell of a lot more hassle. This was another gut instinct of his. And he was sure he wasn't off the mark.
Don't associate with him. Get away from here, and never come back again―a voice of warning echoed in his ears. Inukashi usually obeyed the voice promptly, but this time he ignored it and continued to question the boy.
"What's your name?"
The boy tilted his head very slightly. "Nezumi."
His name, so unexpectedly and promptly given, seemed unusual for a human.
"What kind of name is that? Is it your real name?"
"You could say the same about yours, Dogkeeper. It's not a proper name, for sure."
"Hmph... well, you could say that. Nezumi, huh. At least it's easy to memorize."
"So you plan on remembering it?"
"Erm... well..." Inukashi felt like he was being toyed with. If he didn't wrap it up soon, he'd get sucked right into Nezumi's plot. Like an insect caught in a spider's web, he'd be immobilized and would eventually wither.
Danger, danger, danger.
"Well, see ya, Nezumi. If we're lucky, maybe we'll meet again."
"If we're lucky."
To hell with luck. I'll make sure I'll never see your face again.
Inukashi slid his hand behind him and opened the door, and slipped outside. As soon as he was out, he sprinted up the stairs as fast as he could. His feet froze halfway. About midway up the stairs, Inukashi found himself turning around. He could see the rusty door.
"Nezumi, huh," he muttered.
Would I really be able to get away with not ever seeing you again?
If we're lucky.
The line he'd heard only moments before still echoed inside his head.
If we're lucky.
We probably will meet again. He had a sudden feeling. It was almost closer to a firm belief. From hereon, he would see that boy time and time again. They would form a connection.
His body almost recoiled in disgust. But at the base of that disgust lurked something slightly tender. He muttered it under his breath again.
"Did you call me?"
He heard an uncannily crisp answer.
"Did you call me, Inukashi?"
He opened his eyes. It was bright.
His room, tucked away in a corner of the ruins, was filled with light. Beyond the glass pane of the window he could see the blue sky behind a crack in the clouds.
The blue soaked into his retinas.
Nezumi was peering into his face. Their eyes met. His eyes were the same elegant dark grey as the time they had first met.
"...What... are you doing here...?"
"Huh? What is this treatment? You're the one who called. Using this guy as a messenger, remember?" A brown dog wagged its tail from beside Nezumi.
"C... Called? You? Psh, of course not. I was calling for..."
"Then who were you calling for?"
"Inukashi, are you awake?" A head of white hair peeped out from behind Nezumi.
"Yep, it's me. You must have had a tough time. It's alright now. We'll make you better in no time." Shion smiled.
Inukashi came close to tears. He stopped himself in time from clinging onto Shion and sobbing out loud.
Shion, I was scared. I thought I was going to die. I was so scared, so lonely, and I didn't know what to do. So I called you.
"Here, drink this." Shion offered him a chipped bowl. It contained a thick, green liquid. Its dirt-like smell stung his nose.
"It's a medicinal herb. I found a book about oriental medicine in Nezumi's bookshelf and thought I'd give it a chance. I hunted around in the woods and found a lot of stuff. This will calm your nausea down, and it'll also help you recover from exhaustion."
"It's a type of medicine that was passed down in the East. The book says it's supposed to heighten your body's overall healing ability. Come on, just give it a try."
"Pinch your nose. It'll make it bearable," Nezumi said. Inukashi pinched his nose as he was told, and swallowed the drink in one gulp. He didn't think it tasted half bad. The bitterness that slid down his throat seemed to give him strength. He let out a long exhale.
They actually came for me. They got my SOS. I begged for them without offering anything in return.
Shion placed a hand on Inukashi's forehead. It felt cool and soothing.
"You'd better stay in bed for a while. You haven't got pneumonia, but you have all the symptoms of a cold. And anemia, as well―"
"If I get trapped in bed, my dogs'll starve to death."
"We'll do something about it. I'll take over your rental duties, and Nezumi will keep you supplied with food. Right?"
Nezumi shrugged lightly. "Sure, I can do something about it. But you owe me for this, Inukashi. I'm charging interest."
Inukashi managed a faint smile from where he lay. Nezumi's remarks, which usually irritated him to no end, sounded unbelievably gentle now.
There's something seriously wrong with me. If I cry here now, who knows how much I'll be made fun of afterwards. If I'm going to cry, it has to be when only Shion's around. Hold it in. Tears, don't spill over.
"Say, Inukashi." Shion smiled even more gently. "I don't think you need to worry about your cold, judging by your physical strength. But the wound on your toe is another story."
"Toe? Oh, my right big toe, right? It's been hurting for a while." Inukashi got injured all the time. Unless it was a considerably large injury, he usually just licked it better.
"It's festering," Shion pointed out. "If you leave it like this, it'll swell up with pus and you likely won't be able to walk. So―"
"You need an operation."
Shion took out that same emergency kit. It looked no older than when Inukashi had first seen it.
"Shion, uh, what are you―?"
"I'm going to cut open the wound, extract the pus, disinfect it, and then sew it back up. That's it. It'll be over in a flash."
Shion was already wearing rubber gloves and holding a scalpel. It was a small silver blade, sharpened to perfection. Inukashi felt his spine growing cold.
"C-Cut open? Wait, wait a second, Shion. Hold on. Wh―What about painkillers? Sleeping gas?"
"I don't have any."
"Whaddoyou mean, you don't―"
"It's alright. It'll be over quickly. Sorry, Nezumi, could you hold Inukashi down? Make sure he doesn't move."
Nezumi held Inukashi's hips down with both hands. Inukashi's lower body was immobilized completely.
"I think this might be news to you, Inukashi," Nezumi smiled in a strangely provocative way. "But Shion loves to sew people up. He may look innocent, but he's a huge sadist."
"Wha―stop it!" Inukashi yelled. "I'm scared! Help!" It was now beyond Inukashi's power to put on a brave face. He was close to crying.
"Settle down," Nezumi said testily. "Just listen to what he says. Besides, even I can tell that this wound is pretty serious. You could be risking your life if you leave it untreated. I know Shion didn't mention it outright, but maybe this is what's behind your sickness."
"I don't care what's behind it. It hurts! Stop," he wailed. "Somebody help me! Shion, have mercy!"
"It'll be alright. Don't move," Shion said. "Oh, look, see? All this pus has built up inside. I'm surprised you could walk with this. You must've turned numb to the pain. Okay, it'll be over soon."
"I'm not numb," Inukashi sobbed. "Owww, don't sew it! It hurts!"
"Don't cry," Nezumi said. "There's a good boy. I'll give you a reward."
A soft melody flowed forth from Nezumi's lips. It gently rocked Inukashi's heart. For an instant, Inukashi had turned back into an infant and was being held in someone's arms. He was freed from fear or suffering. He was in a place of peaceful sleep.
"There's a good boy. Don't think of anything, just sleep. We'll protect you with everything we've got. We won't hand you over to the Reaper, no matter what happens."
We'll protect you with everything we've got.
Inukashi opened his eyes and looked at Nezumi. Then, he looked at Shion's profile as the boy crouched at his feet. Both of their faces were grave. Numerous streaks of sweat marked Shion's cheek, and formed droplets at his chin.
We'll protect you with everything we've got.
It wasn't a lie.
This world was ridden with lies, but Nezumi's words were true. Even if everything in this world were a fabrication, Inukashi knew he could believe those words without fail.
Inukashi could bear no more. His tears spilled over. They kept flowing. He felt like he was drowning in tears.
Bastards, making me cry.
Inukashi pressed both fists against his eyes, and cried silently.
The blue sky was still outside his window.
Read Chapter 2.