I continued forward carefully, lantern raised high. It was just as humid in here as the previous cave, and water dripped down the walls and ceiling, flowing under my feet in little rivulets. It was difficult to see and I thought I would slip if I lost my concentration for even a second.
“Are you okay?” Inui asked over his shoulder as he pushed ahead with a nimbleness that belied his age.
“Yes. …I could do without all this water though,” I grumbled.
“But because of all the moisture, the ‘shadow’…the mites don’t come here.”
Although mites usually preferred humidity, the walls here were so wet that they had difficulty moving. The black widow mites were small enough that the surface tension of the water was enough to trap them, so I really shouldn’t complain about it being wet.
The four of us had split up according to Kiroumaru’s plan. Inui and I were on our way to the beach to retrieve the boat, and Satoru and Kiroumaru were leaving a fake scent trail.
Satoru had asked me to go get the boat because he said his injury was preventing him from traveling long distances, but his real intention was obvious: he wanted to take on the more dangerous task. Even with Kiroumaru around, it was risky putting yourself right in the enemy’s path. Just one misstep and it would be the end.
I knew all this, but accepted Satoru’s suggestions anyway.
Everyone was going to survive. I had to believe that.
“Inui, we’ll be fine, right?” I asked, hoping to be comforted.
But his answer was not what I expected.
“To be honest, I don’t know. Everything here has been beyond my imagination.”
An oppressive mood fell over us.
“But I’ll make sure you survive no matter what, Watanabe-san. I will do my utmost to that end.”
“Thank you. It’s reassuring to hear that from you. You’re the only survivor from our fierce Wildlife Protection officers after all.”
I regretted this immediately after I said it.
“Survivor?” Inui smiled slightly.
“Sorry, that’s not what I meant.”
“No, no, I just never considered myself a survivor. To me it seems more like I escaped death.”
“That’s how it is. The comrades I lost were closer to me than my family. Surviving them was mere chance…nothing more. I’m like a ghost. I want to avenge my friends; that’s all that keeps me bound to this life.”
I felt like I had recently heard the same words from someone else.
“The fiend will pay for this,” Inui said, his usually placid expression replaced with one of fury. “Please promise me that you will stop the fiend even if I fall before our mission is complete.”
Stop… Although we were psychologically restrained from using language stronger than that against humans, I knew what he meant.
“This is what the queerats mean when they call us the gods of death. I guess I can imagine what the people who were hunted back then felt like.”
“Me too… I suddenly feel like this world has become a nightmare. That nothing that has happened so far is real. Tomorrow morning, I’ll wake up and someone will tell me not to worry, that everything was just a dream…” I was too choked up to continue.