It was only five days after the sunshower that the first disappearance took place.
Six-year-old Tsubasa Motoi had been playing in his aunt's yard when all of a sudden, a fierce gale blasted through the streets, shaking the shutters and doors of all the houses on the block. Fearing for her nephew's safety, Mrs. Motoi had rushed outside as soon as the wind died down, but Tsubasa was nowhere to be seen. The distraught lady, her neighbors, and the police couldn't find the boy even after hours of relentless searching.
Two days later, another strange incident occurred.
Nine-year-old Kyoko Ehara had been climbing trees in the park when, much to the other children's horror, the tree she was sitting in burst into bluish flames. After thirty seconds, both the fire and Kyoko vanished without a trace. The flames hadn't felt hot at all, according to a few boys who touched the trunk by accident, and the tree itself was left completely unburnt. All the witnesses insisted it was as if the whole incident had been a scary magic trick of some kind.
Then just ten hours later, a third child went missing, this time at the district elementary school.
A group of students had been swimming laps in the school pool, when the water suddenly erupted and rose up into a gigantic wave. It crashed down on them mercilessly, and after dragging themselves back out of the pool, they realized eight-year-old Risa Yamaguchi was gone. Everyone was scared she’d drowned, but they couldn't find her anywhere inside or near the pool.
This string of bizarre events continued to grow until the priests of the local shrines were finally forced to look into the matter, including Ruri’s maternal grandfather Hiromasa Fukumoto, the overseer of Ariake shrine.
“It could be the work of racoon-dogs or foxes,” he sighed, holding a glass of shochu liquor as Ruri and her friend Shou Tsuruoka sat listening to him intently.
The elderly man would stop by their house every week to check on his granddaughter, and this was one of those visits. Right now, he, Ruri, and Shou were sitting around the living-room table, having just finished lunch.
“Racoon-dogs and foxes are masters of illusion,” he continued. “When it comes to raising havoc like this, there’s no spirit in the nation who can beat those two.”
“Illusion...So that's what you think this is, grandpa?”
“No doubt about it. Apart from the missing children, we haven’t found any signs of physical disturbances at the reported sites. The students at the pool weren’t injured by that giant wave either.”
Shou raised a hand. “Which one do you think the culprit is then? Racoon-dogs or foxes?"
Mr. Fukumoto thought for a moment. “I should say, foxes. There are many shrines dedicated to them around here. The one in your neighborhood was built for fox spirits too, by the way,” he said, turning towards Ruri.
“You mean, Koho shrine?”
For a moment, Ruri’s face stiffened. She still hadn’t told anyone about the wedding procession she’d seen the other day to avoid stirring the creatures’ wrath. However, it was highly likely this incident and the ongoing disappearances were connected. The young girl wasn’t sure whether to tell her grandfather about what she had seen or not.
“Is something wrong, child?”
“N-No.” She quickly shook her head. “If foxes really are behind all this, how are we supposed to ward them off?”
“We can’t. That’s the problem.”
"What do you mean?" Shou asked.
"There are two types of fox spirits, 'zenko' and 'yako'. The yako are usually the ones humans have to watch out for. They love tormenting other creatures."
"And the zenko?" Ruri asked.
"Unlike the yako, the zenko are messengers of the god Inari. They're benevolent spirits who bring prosperity to those who respect them. They also help restrain the yako's antics when necessary," Mr. Fukumoto explained, stroking his beard wearily. "The sutra charms planted around this town are strong enough to repel most evil spirits, including the yako, and none of them have been removed or torn. In other words-"
"A zenko may be behind the disappearances?" Shou finished his sentence.
“Exactly. If a celestial servant is behind all this, and its master is doing nothing to stop it, then it’s possible the fox is carrying out Inari-sama’s* will. Shou, do you think humans can interfere with the will of gods?”
“That’s why the other priests and I are stuck right now. It’s possible racoon-dogs are abducting the children, but not a lot of them live around here. We’ve already tracked them down, so if another child disappears, that means they’re not responsible.”
Ruri gripped her tea mug subconsciously. Shou’s expression also clouded over at Mr. Fukumoto’s words.
Two of the missing children, Yuya Nanase and Chiaki Goto, were their classmates. Neither Ruri nor Shou were very close with them, but the four of them had worked on an art project together once, and they sometimes sat at the same table during lunch. It was natural that they were feeling worried.
“Anyhow,” Mr. Fukumoto gave them a serious look as he stood up to leave, “you and Shou have to be extremely careful, alright? Never go out alone, and keep the protection charms I gave you at all times.”
Ruri rested her head on her hand and lightly drummed the tabletop with her fingers, a habit of hers whenever she was planning something. This didn’t go unnoticed by Shou.
“You’re gonna do something, right?”
“What do you mean-”
“I know you have something in mind. Tell me about it.” He moved his chair right next to her. “I’ll help if I can.”
The look of surprise on Ruri’s face melted into a resigned smile. “Seriously, nothing gets by you, does it...?”
For all his poker-facedness, her best friend was definitely sharp. She started telling him about the wedding she’d seen, how the disappearances coincided with the event, and her careful deductions regarding the matter.
“The kids are probably being kept at Suiren house. You know where it is?”
“It’s the traditional-style house near the lily pond, right?”
“Yep. It’s also the only empty building near Koho shrine. I went to check the place out myself yesterday, and this reacted.” She pulled out a white, marble-shaped charm from her pocket.
Her grandfather had given her a total of twenty charms over the years, claiming each one possessed either powerful protective or sensory abilities. This particular charm was created to detect the presence of fox spirits, both zenko and yako. When Ruri had walked up to the door of Suiren house, the stone suddenly began emitting a bright, bluish glow, and it even started pulsing slightly in her hand. There was no doubt a fox was within the walls. The priests likely visited Suiren house as well, but there were so many fox dwellings in this city, they couldn’t have pinpointed an exact location. None of them had witnessed the procession at Koho shrine, after all.
“Why didn’t you tell Mr. Fukumoto all of this?”
“Because he wouldn’t let us go anywhere near the house if I did.” Ruri looked directly at Shou, smiling a little slyly. “To be honest, I was gonna ask for your help tonight, even if you didn’t ask me first. Ten o'clock sharp, we’re heading out.”
“Yep. We’re going to Suiren house.”
“Yes, by ourselves. Right now, you and I are going to prepare the items we’re taking with us. After that, let’s get some sleep. We probably won’t be back until morning.”
*"sama" is an extremely respectful Japanese honorific, and it is always attached to gods' names by believers.