Ichirou Nakata was not big, he was not strong, he was not brave, and he was not at all happy to see the end of Summer. Working in his father's little shop was wearying, but it was Heaven compared to the Hell that began for him each year on the first day of school.
Like a pack of wolves, every student body has a social order; like a pack of wolves, every student body has one poor individual that occupies the lowest rank, the one that even the bullied could torment, the one that eats last. Ichirou had held that position for years, ever since primary school, and he never understood why.
"Ignore them," his mother said. "They will get tired of it one day and will leave you alone." It was hard to ignore a bloody nose, and despite all the wisdom behind those words, the wolves never seemed to tire of it.
"Don't fight back," his father said. "It will only lower you to their level." It did not seem that he was at a very lofty level when he had a black eye and with no lunch to eat.
"It's good for you," the principal said. "It will toughen you up." He did not feel very tough the day they seized him, bare, from the locker room and threw him into the girls' gym class. Even after the screams and giggles had quieted down the new nickname that he had earned from the incident stuck to him like gum on the bottom of a shoe: Chippoke-chan. Puny.
Neither his mother nor his father nor the principal could offer any better advice as September loomed. On the morning of the First, Ichirou dutifully put on his uniform, kissed his mother, bowed to his father, and trudged to his bicycle like a man headed to the gallows. With each stroke of the pedals he would fantasize about riding down to the water and stealing away on a ship and leaving the cackling demons far behind, but he knew that he could never do that, and the happy daydream faded all too quickly after he set his front wheel in the rack alongside the other students' bicycles and made his way through the gate where, as always, they were lying in wait.
"Hey!" one of them barked. "What is that thing?"
"It's wearing a boy's uniform. Is it a boy?"
"I can't tell. Someone bring a microscope."
"Chippoke-chan! Chippoke-chan! Chippoke-chan!"
The time spent in class allowed him his only respite, as none of the others would dare to carry on in front of the teachers. Not that the teachers would do anything about it if it happened. They stood idly by and chatted and some even smirked during break-time when Ichirou's books would be scattered or his hair would be pulled or a foot would shoot out to trip him. The classroom, though, that was the teacher's domain, and they tolerated no such behavior to interrupt their lectures.
After lunch, which was enjoyed by everyone except for Ichirou, as his was being enjoyed by someone far larger and better-looking, was biology class. Herbivores and carnivores, herds and packs, the strong devouring the weak -- Ichirou knew all about that. He sympathized with the deer who was cornered by the wolves, but also he envied it, because its pain, though no doubt intense, would always be brief. He wondered if the deer ever tried to fight back, or did it simply accept its fate? Did it believe that if it only endured the slashing fangs it would become tough? Was there someone telling it that if it simply ignored the wolves, they would go away? Was it afraid to lower itself to their level?
His reverie interrupted, Ichirou turned his head and listened.
On that swampy afternoon the classroom windows had been kept open, and as he was seated beside one of them, Ichirou clearly heard the pleasant chime as it floated down from the mountain at whose foot the school building squatted. Ding! Faint, but so bright. ding-ding! Cheerful.
A lump of chalk slapped against his forehead. Ichirou yelped and jerked himself straight upright in his chair.
"Nakata!" the teacher shrilled. "Please stop staring out the window and pay attention to the lesson!"
Nakata. Any other boy would have been Nakata-san or Nakata-kun. "Yes, Sensei," he whimpered.
The rest of the class tittered.
After biology came math class, followed by civics, then a punch in the stomach, running feet and barking laughter, and at last the slow trudge, all alone, to his bicycle. Luckily, it was never disturbed. The one person who once tried to bend the wheel had gotten into a lot of trouble, so Ichirou's bicycle was off-limits. Ichirou himself, though, apparently did not matter as much.
Today, once he was through the gate, he did not turn toward the road that led to his house.
He wanted to know.
The path up the mountain could hardly be called a road. If it had ever been paved it was long ago. The trees provided cool shade, though, and the shafts of late-summer sunlight that filtered through their leaves danced as cheerfully as the little chime sang. Ichirou followed the sound, stopping every time he heard the chime to catch his bearings. The song grew louder, clearer, the higher that Ichirou climbed, until at last he came upon the source, a single glass wind-chime hanging from the finger of a nightmare.
Ichirou cried out and almost fell off of his bike when he saw the face. A long and fang-filled muzzle. Broad, upright ears. Two glowering eyes nestled beneath an evil-looking third. Broad shoulders that led to powerful arms, one outstretched, its viciously clawed fingers reaching to snatch Ichirou off of his bike and drag him into the dark and bottomless well that lay nearby.
With such a horror looming behind it, the little chime seemed greatly out of place. Ichirou stared, shivering, then rallied a little courage and crept forward. The three eyes, even though carved into the stone, seemed to track his every move. The wind rustled the leaves, and then... Ding! Ding-ding...ding...ding-ding! Clear. Bright. Happy. Ichirou could not look away from it. So little, so simple, its glass dome catching the filtered sunlight and throwing it back in a kaleidoscope pattern. Dazzled, he reached slowly forward, his fingers drawing to within a hair's breadth of the chime.
Then he remembered his manners and quickly withdrew his hand. It would not be a good idea to annoy whatever spirit that this shrine honored. Rising to his feet, Ichirou pressed his palms together before his chest and bowed his head. "Thank you for making me feel better," he whispered.
Ichirou's father was waiting, glaring and cross, when Ichirou finally pedaled into view. "Where have you been?" he demanded. "Your mother was worried."
Ichirou hung his head.
"Was it the other boys?"
Ichirou hung his head further.
"Did you fight back?" his father demanded.
Ichirou swallowed. "No, Oto-sama," he whispered.
His father nodded. "Good. I have told you many times that you are better than they are. You must never degrade yourself by becoming what they are."
His mother appeared in the doorway. "You should not antagonize them," she scolded. "If you simply ignore them, they will get tired of you and will find someone else to tease."
Ichirou could only nod. Far away, as the wind drifted down the mountain, a soothing song reached his ears. Ding...ding!
"Oto-sama?" Ichirou ventured when dinner was finished, "Do you know about the shrine on the mountain?"
His father frowned. "What shrine?"
Ichirou pointed. "On that side. About there."
His father's frown deepened. "Probably the mountain spirit. Hasaiōkami. I think that's what my grandfather called him. But you should not go up there, Ichirou. It is dangerous. The shrine is abandoned and there are snakes."
"I don't think it's abandoned, Oto-sama," he said carefully. "Someone has put a wind-chime on the statue. It was very shiny."
"I don't care," his father snorted. "I will not tell you again. Do not go up there. There are snakes."
"Listen to your father," his mother added. "All of the other children know enough not to go up there. There are snakes, like your father said, and also stinging nettles. You wouldn't want to get hurt, now, would you?"
Ichirou's eyes looked far into the distance. "No one ever goes there?"
"No one. And that includes you."
"Yes, Oto-sama," he said softly.
The next morning, Ichirou was out of bed very early. "What are you doing?" his mother said. "School will not start for more than an hour."
Ichirou hesitated, steeled himself, and for the first time in his young life, he lied to his mother. "Sensei asked me to help prepare the class," he said as matter-of-factly as he could manage.
His mother's face brightened. "Well, isn't that a surprise! You must have impressed her. Oh, that makes me so proud! Quickly, eat your breakfast and go. You mustn't keep her waiting."
Ichirou obeyed and wolfed down his breakfast and was out the door even before his befuddled father could ask any questions. He pedaled hard toward his school, but when it was time to turn toward the gate he hesitated, steeled himself, and for the first time in his young life, he disobeyed his father.
The chime greeted him happily when Ichirou rounded the bend in the path. There he stopped to lean his bike against a tree. Hasaiōkami was even more frightening in the early-morning light, his long teeth grinning, his tongue dangling hungrily. Ichirou crept forward, shivering, averting his eyes from the monster's three. "May I please sit here for a while?" he whispered politely. "I promise that I will go to school, but...I do not want to go right away."
Encouraged by the sound, Ichirou inched toward the statue and hoisted himself up to sit on the edge of the well. He ventured a look over his shoulder but quickly turned forward again, unnerved by the infinite blackness below. "Is it true that no one comes here?" he whispered. "If it is, then I feel sorry for you. You must be very lonely."
The chime gave a soft, almost sorrowful ding.
"I know. I am lonely, too." He peered around at the trees that were just beginning to toy with the morning rays. As the sun rose higher even the statue's features, no longer steeped in shadow, seemed more serene. Ichirou craned his neck a little and stared through a gap in the trees toward the school building which hunkered over an empty courtyard that would soon be filled with the laughing predators. "I do not want to go," he said sadly, and then, "I wish you would protect me, Hasaiōkami-sama."
The wind sighed, but this time the chime said nothing.
Ichirou looked down. "I know. You have no reason to. Please accept my apologies." He turned and pressed his palms together once more. "If you would allow, may I keep you company now and then? It...would make me happy."
A pause, a lengthy, thoughtful one, and at last, a softly whispered ding.
Ichirou smiled and bowed low. Then he looked at his watch. "It is about time," he said. "I think that this just might work."
His bicycle wheels clattered and rattled his teeth as he sped down the mountain path, which wove, twisted, slowly widened and at last gave way to a proper roadway at the edge of town. He pedaled furiously, worried that he had misjudged his timing and that he would hear the sound of the gong before he could reach the gates. They were just beginning to swing shut when he darted through them and right past the surprised yard superintendent. Dropping his bike by the rack, Ichirou raced in through the doors and burst into the classroom at the exact moment that the gong tolled its ominous lament.
"Nakata!" the teacher shrieked. "One more second and you would have been late. What is the matter with you?"
"I am sorry, Sensei," he said, and made his way to his seat past a sea of glowering faces filled with anger toward him for having denied them their morning sport.
The lie and the disobedience were both repeated the following day, and the day following that, and the day following that. Every morning Ichirou would kiss his mother and bow to his father and then hop onto his bike and race out of sight. Every morning he would pedal his way up the mountain, following the gleeful pealing of the chime to greet the savage fangs and glaring eyes that no longer frightened him. Every morning he would sit beneath the trees and listen to the singing of the chime, and he always remembered to thank Hasaiōkami-sama for letting him use the tranquil moments to avoid his usual morning humiliation. And every day his teacher would scold him for his near-tardiness, but she could not report him, because he always arrived within a single breath of the sullen gong.
The visits became part of Ichirou's daily routine, until one day when he rode around the bend in the trail and called a cheery ohayoo gozaimasu! that froze in his throat.
There were five of them: Nagumo, Hirata, Iseki, and not one but both of the Abe brothers. One at a time they were formidable; all together, all at once, they were a living, breathing Hell.
"See? I told you he came up here!" Hirata sneered.
"Hiding from us?" Iseki barked. "How dare you!"
"Maybe he comes up here to pull on his little shank," one of the Abes crowed, to which the other added, "But that can't be. He doesn't have a magnifying glass to find it with."
Panting, Ichirou tried to turn his bike around, but a hand caught the collar of his uniform and hauled him backward. The bike clattered to the ground and Ichirou found himself being held by both arms. A fist slammed into his gut, making him yelp and gag. The fist drew back for another blow and Ichirou blurted out a hoarse "Let me go!"
All of the boys stopped, taken aback by the unprecedented defiance, and then all of their faces darkened at once. "Are you trying to tell us what to do?"
"Who do you think you are?"
"He forgot his place, it seems. We need to remind him. Bring him this way."
Whimpering, Ichirou tried to dig in his heels but he was dragged by rough and powerful arms and thrown forward. His chest cracked painfully against the rim of the well and he found himself staring down into its horrible depths while a hand pressed hard between his shoulder blades.
"We ought to throw you down there, Chippoke-chan!"
"Yeah! No one would ever find you."
"We could be rid of you once and for all. We'd be doing the town a favor!"
Then there came a loud and ominous cracking noise. Terrified, Ichirou twisted his head around to see Nagumo contemplatively hefting a dead branch in his hands. He peeled back the bark to reveal a bare, blunt end that looked more than anything like a clenched fist. "It still irks me that a little girl dares to wear a man's uniform." His thoughtful expression melted into a sadistic grin. "Pull his pants down, Men. Let's show Chippoke-chan what a little girl she really is."
Ichirou wailed and tried to kick but they held his legs tightly. "Don't! Please, please!"
"You hear that? The little girl is begging us for it!"
He felt his trousers being yanked violently downward. Clenching his teeth, Ichirou groaned and whispered desperately, "Please, Hasaiōkami-sama, help me!" and while the boys laughed raucously behind him a single tear squeezed forth from Ichirou's eye and dropped down into the maw of the well. Down, down, out of sight, down, into the darkness, down and down.
Suddenly Ichirou was falling. The wind roared in his ears and the light quickly faded. He flailed his arms but touched nothing as he plunged down into the depths, down, down, out of sight, down, into the darkness, down and down.
He saw a light below him. A tiny glimmer, a candleflame that grew steadily brighter, steadily larger. A pupil formed in its center, and then it was joined by another. Ichirou cried out in terror at the sight of two fiery orbs rushing up from below, and he cried out again when a third, blood-red and blazing, slowly opened above the two. It was toward this third great eye that Ichirou plummeted, screaming as its black pupil engulfed him.
The air about him was stale and smelled of earth, but when he opened his eyes he saw nothing, not the barest trace of light anywhere. "Help!" he shouted, but as soon as he raised his voice he was answered by a fearful and deafening bellow. He stayed perfectly still and waited in the darkness, straining to catch some hint of where the thing was that had made such a terrible roar, but there was only silence. Nervously, he began to grope into the darkness ahead of him, until he felt his fingers sink into soft dirt. It crumbled away, and as it did he spotted a tiny sliver of light. "Oh! I can get out!" he said, but as soon as the words rose in his throat a horrifying growl echoed all around him. Whatever made that sound was huge, and it was close by! Panicked, Ichirou clawed at the wall, raking away dirt and rocks and soon tearing open a hole through which the rays of the rising sun streamed. Scrambling at the crumbling edges of the opening he hoisted himself up, kicking his way frantically toward the light, and finally toppling face-first into a tangle of branches.
After the hellish darkness the sunlight was dazzling. It took several seconds before he could hold his eyes open, and once he did, he found himself sprawled amidst a vast field of the most exquisite bonsai trees he had ever seen. Each was perfect to the last detail, and the field stretched impossibly onward, almost to forever. Turning around, he saw a great mound of earth behind that had been likewise decorated, each tiny tree perfect down to the smallest Autumn-tinged leaf. Curious, Ichirou reached out to touch one of them.
With a cry of terror he jerked his hand back, and at the same time a guttural howl thundered forth and echoed off of the far-off hillsides. Ichirou scrambled backward on his rear, then numbly raised his hand to his face and stared, incredulous, at a padded palm from whose thick fingers sprouted broad, blunt claws that were caked with slowly drying soil. That palm was attached to a powerful arm coated in shaggy fur as black as tar. The fur continued all the way down his chest, all the way down his legs, all the way to heavy paws that tramped the foliage flat beneath them as he stood up.
Dumbfounded, Ichirou took a hesitant step -- one big paw swept forward and tramped several of the little bonsai flat -- and then another -- the other paw followed, the little trees cracking and splintering as his weight pressed them flat. Turning his head, Ichirou gasped at the sight of a tiny town laid out before him. A thin, curving line extended from it and crawled up the face of the mound, tracing a little trail among foliage that he was beginning to realize was no artist's work. Suddenly, something upon that line caught his attention: five tiny figures, each smaller than a cricket, all rolling and rattling their way frantically down the trail.
He fixed all three eyes upon them. His heart began to thud against his ribs. Behind him he sensed for the first time the wag of his tail, and when he smiled he felt his lips slide back from long, smooth fangs. Some part of him, some part that he had never known before, was becoming very interested in those little figures. He leaned in for a closer look.
They were panicked. They were fleeing. They were squealing. Ichirou's heart began to beat even faster as his wide ears turned to drink in the sound. He understood just at that moment why the deer did not fight back: it would be useless. The deer's fate was sealed the very moment it began to run.
Ichirou chuckled darkly, and the sound rolled as thunder from his throat. It terrified them. He could smell their fear. Warm smell, salty smell. A smell that made him salivate and he licked at his lips with a slop of his tongue. He watched their desperate but comically slow retreat, and then he casually lifted a mighty foot. Its shadow fell all around them. He considered how easy it would be to just step on them if he wanted to. But that would be letting them off easy, and why should he do that, after all that they had done to him?
No. I really shouldn't step on them, he thought. But they certainly deserve a good scare.
Ichirou brought his foot down hard, slamming it into the earth just behind the shrieking boys. A wave raced through the soil and shook the trees and threw all of them off of their bikes and sent them toppling and tumbling as Ichirou laughed. "Who is chippoke now?" he taunted, and smiled with satisfaction at the way they clapped their hands to their ears to shield them from the bellowing blast.
Catching them was easier than he would have imagined. He corralled them by knocking over trees with his feet until the five were surrounded by fallen timber. They darted about in the tiny clearing and wailed and yelled and babbled in voices so minute that they might as well have been those of mosquitoes. Ichirou stood over them and rubbed at his chin as he pondered the many, many things he could do next. He was not certain that he wanted to hurt the boys, at least not too badly, but he very much wanted them to learn what it was like to be at the mercy of someone larger and more powerful than they were. Squatting low over their little enclosure he made a great show of reaching for them, and chuckled at how desperately they tried to avoid his grasp. Oh, how they kicked! They punched, they twisted, they howled, but nothing could stop Ichirou from plucking them one by one into the air, as effortless as picking up a coin. One by one he dropped them into his open palm, and then he stood up slowly, raising that hand close to his face. He could see their eyes bulging and rolling about in terror as they retreated into the center of his palm and held onto one another. Their mouths were open and moving but Ichirou could not make out what they were saying. Not that it mattered. He did not care what they had to say now. All he cared about was everything else that they had said to him every day since primary school. The biting words, the hard fists, the kicks, the slaps. It all played through his mind, and his heart pounded like a great o-daiko drum at the thought that they were now stood helpless in the palm of his hand. They were probably pleading. Yes. Begging the giant not to harm them.
But why shouldn't he? Did they deserve even a drop of mercy from him? What were they, even, compared to him now?
Ichirou drank in the scent of their terror as they cowered before his dripping fangs. He watched them wriggle like worms in his hand. Yes. That's what they were. Worms.
Ichirou drooled and all of his eyes blazed as he began to close his fingers around them. That's it. Squirm. Squirm, you worms! Squirm as I squeeze you like you squeezed me. Yes. Squirm. Scream.
Ichirou was startled when he felt their bones crunch and wetness began to drip from his clenched fist. He had not even gripped them that tightly. The merest clench of his fist, the most casual effort, had been all that it took to destroy them. How could it have been that simple? Was so little effort needed to erase the torment forever?
At first he could not look at what he had done, but drawn by some unfamiliar desire and quivering from head to tail, he slowly, slowly opened his fingers and peered closely at what remained. It was hard to tell which boy was which. Their bodies were tangled and twisted, bent everywhere they should not be, their insides squeezed out. Only their uniforms, sodden and red, still held them together. Three of their heads had popped. Of the other two, one's mouth still opened and closed feebly. Still alive. Suffering.
Ichirou's mind reeled. He felt as though he were staggering backward even though his feet remained firmly settled into the earth. His eyes, all of them, stared down the length of his muzzle and fixed hard on the tiny gasping face. His heart felt as though it might explode out of his chest. He wanted to drop his hand, to shake the ghastly evidence away, but instead he found his hand moving, slowly, shakingly, closer to his face. His big black nosepad quivered as it drank in the smell, the warm smell, the salty smell. Closer still. His mouth opened. He watched in a daze as a wide, pink tongue flicked upward over his nose, and then quickly scooped the mess from his palm before dragging it down and out of sight. Then there was warmth, warmth that spread from his mouth through his chest and to the tips of his toes. He licked again, and again, and then again, each time with greater enthusiasm, cleaning away the last traces of the five who had reigned over the hell that was his life. And now they were gone. They were nothing.
They had always been nothing.
Ichirou threw his head back and let out an elated shout which burst forth as a howl that sent birds scrambling skyward, and seconds later the windows of the distant school building, all the way from the top floor to the bottom, disintegrated in little clouds of glitter. The sparkling haze drifted down upon countless tiny, darting silhouettes. The moment he saw them Ichirou licked at his whiskers and his third eye grew bright and fiery. Five had been dealt with handily, but only five. There were still more. Many, many more. And Ichirou knew just where to find them.
The schoolyard lurched violently with each colossal footfall, the shock waves flinging about anyone still remaining in the open. Ichirou coldly played his gaze over the struggling forms and he recognized some of them. There was the yard superintendent who had stood and watched while Ichirou's food was snatched right from his hands. There was one of the teachers who had punished Ichirou when the other boys pointed blame at him for their mischief. There was a boy who had boxed Ichirou's ears one day and left them ringing for hours. Or maybe it was not him. They were so tiny and looked so much alike in their uniforms. But it did not matter. All of them died beneath Ichirou's foot. He took his time, pressing them flat, savoring every pop. There were others who had not made it inside, and they never did. One at a time, and by twos and threes, he patiently squashed them, until there was no longer anything moving in the courtyard. All of the others had been chased inside and were now cowering within the building. And that was exactly where Ichirou wanted them.
Crouching down before the front of the school, Ichirou punched his hand in through the main doors and groped about. As soon as he felt something soft and wiggly he gathered it into his fist and squeezed hard. With the squelch that followed came a satisfying chorus of screams. Eagerly he sat down and wrapped both legs around the building's base. He was just in time, as the rear doors immediately began to patter and thud against the backs of his heels. With no more concern about losing any of them that way, the only thing left to do was to jab his fingers deep into the building on both sides and wiggle them threateningly, starting with the second floor, then moving to the third. By the time he reached the fourth floor the doors to the rooftop athletic courts burst open and Ichirou's tormentors came streaming forth, just as he had planned. Ichirou smiled, his great fangs flashing in the morning sun, and he licked slowly over them as he continued to herd them from the lower floors up to the roof. The courts filled steadily, like water trickling into a basin, little uniform-clad bodies racing about in an ever-tightening mass trapped by the tall fencing that had made every rooftop gym class feel so much like a prison. Before long there were so many of them that they could barely move against one another. Ichirou casually smashed the rooftop entries, one at a time, beneath his thumb, and then slowly and deliberately he stood up, grinning at his captives' reaction as his massive body rose higher and higher and higher and swallowed them in its shadow.
They had branded him Chippoke-chan. Puny. Now, every one of them who had pointed and cackled as Ichirou's cheeks burned with embarrassment now found themselves cowering, dwarfed into insignificance by the sheer enormity of that of which had been the source of their derision. Ichirou moved his hands to his hips and, just in case any of them had somehow failed to get his message, he stepped forward, spread his legs and straddled the rooftop. The squeals of dismay that drifted up to his ears in response made his blood surge. He leered down at them, saliva dripping from his fangs, and began slowly to crouch.
His thighs settled upon the top of the fencing and began to collapse it. He felt one miniscule hand touch him, and then more, and soon many more, an intoxicating caress that made him shiver with delight. He carefully settled himself lower, the rooftop beginning to creak beneath his weight, his laughter crashing through the heavens at the sheer irony that what they had once laughed at as chippoke were now big enough to crush them. He licked his whiskers and carefully rocked his hips, dragging the mammoth bulk over the little insects and watching with glee as they disappeared, screeching, beneath his flesh, quivering at the delicious sensation of their puny bodies turning to pulp. Were they laughing now? Would they still want to point and shout chippoke at him? "What's the matter?" he jeered, his voice a roar that by itself was powerful enough to shatter bones. "I am only trying to toughen you up." He grunted as four boys fell beneath him, struggled briefly, and then crunched. "What's that? Can't take the weight? Then maybe you should just ignore me. I'm sure I'll get tired of you eventually. Maybe I'll just lower myself to..."
...to their level.
His father's words crashed like a lightning bolt through Ichirou's mind. His vision spun and the rooftop with all of its scrambling captives dropped away as though he were being launched skyward. Clutching at his head, Ichirou fell backward, striking the ground and rolling and wailing, "No, no, no!" He curled tightly into a ball and only slowly did he realize that his voice no longer thundered. Even more slowly he gathered the courage to open his eyes, and when he did he found himself alone beside the well, with the morning sunshine dancing in lazy patterns through the foliage overhead.
Ichirou sat up, panting. "What a dream," he said, half-laughing to himself as he shuffled his pants back up. His chest ached mightily, though, and when he peeked inside his shirt he saw a nasty bruise right in the middle. He guessed that he must have fallen at some point and landed on a rock, and that the pain had translated into such a vivid dream that he was still shaking from it. But wait...why had he taken his pants down?
A crash and a low boom drew Ichirous attention to the valley below. Hasaiōkami-sama lay ssprawled beside the battered school building, which compared to the great beast's shaggy form looked no bigger, and no more substantial, than a child's dollhouse. His powerful legs twitched and spasmed. Two of his eyes blinked rapidly before the great red eye finally fluttered open. He rolled ponderously to his belly, pushing himself up with both arms, and shook his head hard, his ears flapping All of his eyes closed tightly and then opened again, and the giant raised his head and peered around with his mouth open and tongue dangling, as though he, too, had just awoken from a vivid dream and was not yet certain where he was. Soon his gaze fell upon the school building and the scores of students still trapped on the roof. His ears stood up straight and he tilted his head; his long tongue lolled out from his muzzle, and bucketfuls of saliva began to rain down.
The hair stood up on the back of Ichirou's neck. "No," he stammered, and then he jumped to his feet. "Stop!" he shouted. "Listen to me! We don't need to hurt them anymore!"
But it was no use. Their cries of terror echoed as the mountain spirit's arm lashed out. His mammoth fist swept up a dozen of them all at once and bore them to his mouth, where he crammed them inside like a handful of popcorn before swallowing them, whole and screaming.
Ichirou wailed with dismay. "Hasaiōkami-sama, please stop! I am sorry! We do not need to do this! Please return to your mountain!"
If the giant even heard, he did not listen. Rolling to all fours he thrust his head down to the rooftop with his jaws wide open. With a single lunge he shoveled up an entire classroom's worth of people. Ichirou could see their limbs flailing about as they tumbled in a great tangled knot toward the back of the beast's maw, and their cries were swallowed along with them as they disappeared forever.
Ichirou fell to his knees with tears streaming down his cheeks. He could do nothing but watch in helpless horror as Hasaiōkami-sama gobbled up every last person on the rooftop. "Please, please don't!" he whimpered, but the giant ignored him and stalked into the town, his immense feet smashing houses like sandcastles and kicking a great fan of wreckage before them. The streets were beginning to fill with running figures upon whom the giant's three eyes soon hungrily fixed. "We mustn't do this," Ichirou sobbed as two great hands reached down toward the fleeing crowd, but by now he had realized that there was no longer any "we."
Ichirou jerked his head toward the little chime dangling from the stone Hasaiōkami's finger. Scrambling to his feet, he rushed to the edge of the well and gazed down into its inky depths. Somehow, and he did not know how, he had brought Hasaiōkami-sama to life. Somehow the monster and he had become one. They had been "we." Maybe there was still something of that link left, something that he could still be broken and return the mountain spirit to his home.
Another crash rose from below, and a shrill collective scream that ended abruptly, convinced Ichirou that he had to act quickly. Taking a deep breath, he threw one leg over the well's edge and pitched himself forward. The wind roared in his ears and the light quickly faded. He flailed his arms but touched nothing as he plunged down into the depths, down, down, out of sight, down, into the darkness, down and down and down.
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