A bright light peered through the now creaked canopy just as Izumi began to doze off. Lifting his head from the covers, he rubbed his eyes and glanced over, but the figure, or figures, on the other side weren’t those he expected. There was a large framed inhuman male standing in front of a dark suit of plated armor.
“Izumi!!!” Neio, who looked more than overjoyed to see him, threw back the drapes with a shiny grin, a chilled wind breezing through with their removal. “Boss asked us to watch you because he was worried about leaving you alone.”
“But he said he wouldn’t be very long?”
“Well, he doesn’t think he will, but he still was paranoid so here we are.”
Dahlia, only greeting Izumi with a slight bow, leans against the wall behind Neio while he does all the talking, as per usual. On the other hand, Neio pulls the desk chair, which creaks in a struggle to contain his enormous body, and plops himself into it, setting it beside Izumi.
“How’ve you been kid? Although it’s been only a few days.”
It’s rare for Dahlia to ‘say’ anything, hence when they do, all ears are attentive. “He told us to treat Izumi with respect, so don’t call him ‘kid’.”
Sarcastically, Neio rolls his eyes and asks, “Do you mind if I call you kid sometimes?”
“Yea it's fine! Wraith used to call me that sometimes when we first met, so...”
Neio childishly looks back at Dahlia like an annoying sibling with a clear you wanna say something else? face, to which Dahlia only responds with a disgusted groan.
Redirecting his attention back to Izumi, Neio spoke in an exuberant tone once more, “So! You mind if I ask what’s with you and the boss?”
“I wouldn’t mind answering but I’m not sure what you mean by that.” Izumi, somewhat confused, responds.
“As in are you his girl? Or well guy I suppose, but you know what I mean.”
If there was any hint of sleepiness left in him, it was gone now, as his flustered eyebrows shot up in alarm, as though he couldn’t make an inference of what Neio was implying. “H-his girl?! Like dating?!” Izumi shrieks, clasping the sheets. The temperature in the room seemed to increase, but he wasn’t sure if it was genuinely starting to warm up or because of his embarrassment.
“Or in any relationship in general. Boss seems to really fancy you, and before you ask no I don’t know his opinion of you actually but I’ve been with him for what at least a thousand years now? And the only time I’ve seen him interested in someone was Lavina, and he shows that same kind of interest to you. I mean, he looked like he was about ready to implode when he was waiting that week before you guys met up for this investigation thing.”
“Well…” Izumi fiddled and fingered the blanket bashfully. “At least officially we aren’t dating or anything...and I don’t really know how he feels about me either, or even if I want that from him…I….”
An image plays in his mind of what it’d be like to be in a relationship with Wraith, testing his heart to see if it is something he desires. All the times Wraith smiled, treated him with care, provided comfort and consolation, expressed concern for him and more. There emerged a light flutter in his chest, giving him his answer. Yet, through all of this, he felt defeated before he even began. With each step closer to Wraith, he only pushed Izumi back. But, why?
An adequate emotional reader, Neio knew exactly what Izumi was thinking by his distressed face alone. “Keep your hopes up kid. I think you’ve got a shot. Boss is probably being weird with you right? Being kinda distant?” Izumi nods in response, willing to accept any advice. “Yeaaaaa he’s probably trying to figure stuff out himself. If he really is in the process of growing feelings for you, knowing him, he’d deny it even with a knife to his throat like the stubborn bastard he is.” Dahlia angrily barks Neio’s name at his ‘bastard’ comment, with Neio only sticking his tongue out in response. “Also because Lavina was the only person he supposedly was ever affectionate for, so it’s not a far-fetched idea that even he doesn’t know what he thinks of you. So, don’t worry kid. Just keep doing what you’re doing, which I imagine is being yourself.” To end off, Neio largely beams with his crystalline teeth matching his hair in color.
On the other hand, Dahlia doesn’t give the same grandiose advice, only affirming, “You’ll be fine, Izumi.”
Compassion wasn’t something Izumi expected upon the entry of the opposing pair, but he was more than grateful, even more than words could express, for their reassurance, and in return, he softly smiled and sincerely uttered, “...Thank you.”
Just as their conversation came to a close, a tall shape began to form behind Neio. The ombre hair was recognizable alone, but for an instant, it felt as if someone else entirely had entered the room as his expression was unimaginably apoplectic, eyes brimming with an incandescent flare, truly displaying how unnerving his gaze alone can be. Yet, almost on command, it faded, becoming more of an exhausted display. Nonetheless, Izumi knew what he saw, but he left it to fate whether he would explain his whereabouts or not. In his hand was his smoking pipe, which Izumi hadn’t seen in awhile, but almost as though he noticed Izumi’s ogling, he dematerialized it. “You two can leave now.” Wraith finally uttered, the two obeying immediately, bowing and saying their farewells to both before leaving. Maneuvering to the other side of the bed, Wraith removed his shirt, belt, and shoes before sliding the drapes shut and shifting under the covers. Seeing the motion to sleep, Izumi laid down as well, unsure whether he should face Wraith or not, so he laid on his back. A tug on his arm answered his question, however, so he came closer to Wraith and turned to face him, the two now not too far apart.
“Did they treat you alright?” His voice was in a concerned whisper, but his fatigue was discernible.
“More than alright honestly. They’re pretty fun to hang out with.”
“Is that so?” Wraith faintly smiled. “That’s good to hear.”
He really does feel like a different person, he’s acting so...weird…
“Well...are you...um….alright..? You seem kinda off, like I don’t know, tired?”
A light sigh is his initial response. “That’s because I am. I’ll tell you tomorrow I suppose, right now, I just want to clock out.”
Before Izumi could even say good night, Wraith drew Izumi into a cuddle, a hand still wrapped around him as he began to drift off nearly instantaneously. The soft tickle of Wraith’s breath against the top of Izumi's hair and the accompanying slow rising and falling of his heated chest sent his heart into a rapid flurry, making it incredibly difficult for Izumi to fall asleep, especially through his racing thoughts. Ahhhh just kill me!!!! When did we establish that we sleep together like this?!! I only slept with him ONCE. Once! And it made sense then to just cuddle or whatever but this is different he left and came back and just didn’t even ask not that I’m opposed but this is more than I can take ahhhhhahhhh..! It’s ok just calm down...just calm down… Alas, albeit after an extensive amount of time, he finally fell asleep.
The following morning, Wraith was the first to rise, and thus had to wake up Izumi. Immediately, he noticed that despite the removal of the canopy, which was now reformed into Wraith’s robe once more, the room was warm and the sun shone brightly. Reading his face, Wraith answered his clear question.
“I took care of it the other day.” He leaned upon the desk, crossing his feet. “Something led a horde of spirits over here, so I took care of it and then figured I’d get rid of the fog too.”
“You...changed the weather?”
“Hence why I was so tired, it’s kind of an aggravating process. The spirits were nothing, but the magic put into changing the weather?” Wraith whistles, expressing the drastic amount. “It was a pain to do that after taking care of that horde. My guess is whatever or whoever caused the change is trying to test for something. The locals said this was the worst fog they’ve had in years, and my guess was that it wasn’t going to go away anytime soon.”
“So, they were trying to see what they were up against kind of thing?”
“Exactly that. Which really says something if they can sense me from miles off. I get the feeling they’re not a normal spirit, but I suppose we won’t know until we find out, right?”
A nod in agreement affirms Izumi’s desire to head into the rumored town and unravel the puzzle before them. “Then, did you want to go now?”
“We’ll go around sunset. Ghosts prefer the night, so if we want to talk to shades or anything that might be in Hodaira, it’s better we go then. And also because the inn lady yelled at me so I’m waiting for her to cool down.”
Izumi sat on the edge of the bed. “......why?”
“Noise complaint, called us ‘mutts in heat’ which is a first for me.”
Realization slowly seeped into Izumi’s expression and he launched from the bed with scarlet cheeks. “Y-you--!”
“Me? Haha! You mean you!” Wraith sneered, “Please put it in~ ah~!”
A swift pillow nearly slams against his face, but he catches it and throws it in its proper place.
“I hate you!!!!” Izumi’s voice quivered in utter shame, defeatedly plunging back into the bed, shadowing himself with his hands.
“I’m sorry I’ll stop, don’t hate me.” Wraith unveiled Izumi’s covered face and pecked the corner of his eye. “If you cry I might just fall apart.”
The tension nearly climaxing, Izumi sighed in relief at the near miss and reached for his phone, Wraith a little disappointed.
“Crap! It’s my mom, I missed so many texts from her and Eiji yesterday she’s worried sick! What were-?” Oh…
“Nothing! I’m gonna call her! So! Wait here!” Izumi dashed out of the room with his heart in his hands. Panting, he sat beside the door and felt his scorching face, butterflies loose in his torso. Hahhhh….how am I actually falling for you….
It didn’t take too long for them to reach the town, as initially Wraith carried Izumi and leapt through the air to cut time, but just when Hodaira came into the horizon, he let him down and walked the rest of the distance in order to not attract potential attention from whatever possible residents were located inside. The buildings of the deserted village were worn down and in some cases partially destroyed, with bits and pieces of wood and stone hanging and creaking in the icy howling wind. This caused the town to emit an eerie mystical air which was almost oppressive in nature, sending a chill down Izumi’s spine in fear of what possibly lie in wait. It was incredibly apparent that no live soul had entered Hodaira in an extensively long period of time, as there wasn’t a hint of life, not even in the trees, which were painted a charcoal black and cracked at the slightest force. There seemed to be few homes in the town, and even fewer businesses, which implied that it was a small village to begin with. In a case like this, it would make more sense for a population to disappear without a trace, and while Izumi began to become increasingly afraid, Wraith was increasingly weary in comparison, keeping his eyes and ears peeled for danger. To start with, they decided to check out the homes in hopes of a sign for the possible cause of the disappearances, Izumi taking plenty of pictures for his records while Wraith provided a small magical light whenever it got too dark. However, each residence had the same pattern, there seemed to have been a struggle of some sorts, yet one that was inhumane in nature. Slashes and claw marks that would appear to have been done by an otherworldly bear if one didn’t know any better. For the specter of despair though, he knew the cause. Spirits. And vicious ones at that. It was evident that they were bloodthirsty and sought a meal. If the claw marks didn’t show this, the dried splashes of blood in each home were proof enough. Plus, there weren’t any corpses left behind, and when spirits and specters feed, this is typically the case. For once, Izumi felt lucky that he had prior exposure to such things, as he gained a form of tolerance to it, as unfortunate as that also is. Despite this, there wasn’t much evidence that showed exactly why spirits targeted Hodaira in particular, and why they continued to target it despite the lack of occupants. A tourist attraction wasn’t enough of a reason, considering that eventually, people began to be wary of the blood-strewn town, with only college students with nothing better to do falling for the trap. This made the pair more and more frustrated with each home examined. There was only a repeating pattern between each abode, nothing that could possibly help them pinpoint the cause. Finally, when particularly Wraith was about to lose patience, Izumi stumbled upon a diary in one of the homes, which was located on an old, crumbling desk. The diary was falling apart at the seams, the paper beige and yellow, and the black ink nearly faded to the point of invisibility. Excited at the prospect of possibly valuable knowledge, he hurriedly began to read, only calling over when he ascertained the contents, “Wraith!”
Wraith, who was in the bedroom with him, yet looking elsewhere, returned, “What?”
Dragging himself in exhaustion, he peered over Izumi’s shoulder. “What is it?”
“A diary, I read it already but, pretty much there was this man who lived here, his wife, who he thought to be the healthiest person he knew, suddenly grew terminally ill and despite all the money he poured into her recovery, she still passed. The doctor was apparently critically acclaimed and they said she worked miracles. Weird thing is though, his wife got sick after a visit to that doctor, in which she was supposedly healthy. Even though he was suspicious, he thought it was just an act of fate.”
“And….?” Wraith ushered.
“And after the fact other people in the town began to get sick and die. Super suspicious, right?”
“Yea, but if we assume that the doctor was the cause, what would they gain from killing off the town? Obviously they weren’t the cause of all these blood stains and all that, and death alone doesn’t attract spirits because they want to eat LIVE humans, although they can eat shades too, just live ones are more sought after.”
“Well, you said that whatever spirit or spirits we’re dealing with, they’re probably strong right? Since they can change the weather?” Wraith nods in response. “What if the doctor was working with them?”
Unsure where the speculation came from, Wraith’s brows furrow. “Huh? How would they do that? If not just why. You do know you’re basically the only human alive that can see ghosts, right?”
“I know, just go along with it. Think about it, they had an audience. People came in for their supposedly miraculous cure, while some people mysteriously died. There’s a continuous stream of people flowing in and out. Healing magic is a thing, so that could be the so-called miraculous cure for everything, and the price is that they have to pay up in human lives from time to time.”
“Hmm….” He runs the idea through his mind repeatedly, thinking about the likelihood of such an event. “I mean...not too far-fetched. The only thing I find hard to believe is how a spirit would communicate this whole plan to a human. After that, I could see it coming together that way.”
“Which is a reasonable flaw in this whole theory. I’m just speculating though.”
“Ok let’s go with it for now. Let’s say your theory is right, despite that flaw. Why didn’t they just freely kill humans in non-occupied areas or just join a specter’s faction?”
“That...I’m not sure.”
“There’s a motivation we’re missing in that case. Why go through all that effort when there’s easier ways to feed? And they’d get more out of it too.”
“Ugh…” Back to frustration once more, Izumi groans.
“And if they were eating the dying patients, how did that get explained to their families? It would look even MORE suspicious if they never had the bodies available, and like I said, the spirit would want to eat them alive.
Izumi scratches his head trying to think of a better idea. “Now that you put it like that, there’s more flaws in that theory than I thought…”
“No, no it’s fine, I’m just saying. It’s better than anything I came up with, which was practically nothing. Tell you what, we can go to the graveyard and see if there’s bodies in the caskets.” Izumi’s look of concern is immediately answered by Wraith, “Don’t worry we’re not gonna dig any of them up, I’m a ghost, remember? I can just go through the ground and check. Then we can see if the doctor’s office has anything.”
The cemetery matched the rest of the town in appearance, old, dreary, and defeated, yet the atmosphere felt more somber than heavy in comparison. To normal individuals, it would make sense for a graveyard to be empty, especially in the case of an abandoned city, yet in this world of the paranormal, it was especially unnerving for a cemetery of all places to be empty. Not a single shade or spirit lurked around the tombstones. The cause of this could be pointed to the shades themselves being consumed, as in whatever spirit or spirits feasted on the town not only ate them when alive, but when they passed as well. Yet, as Wraith cared to note to Izumi, this is an exceptionally rare event. Typically, shades aren't eaten, although they could be. To spirits and specters alike, they're seen as essentially flavorless and unfulfilling, so there would be no point in doing so, thus only adding to the growing mystery. One thing that was confirmed, however, was the absence of the bodies of some of the buried residents, which at least confirmed that they were likely eaten by the spirit at the center of all this, but how? Did the doctor fake their deaths only for them to be killed later? The only way to find the answer to their rising questions was to finally visit the hospital where these events would have occured in hopes of records that would uncover the truth. It was incredibly easy to find the hospital, as it was the most prominent building among the others. In its prime, before the tragedy of Hodaira, it was eminent that the hospital was the town's pride and joy, as it was vast in size and much more modern in appearance compared to the rest of the bland village. Despite this, it was the most ominous of all the complexes they've visited thus far. Nothing made a person's hair stand more than an abandoned hospital, especially one that was already framed as a crime scene, and even more so in the case of Izumi. Unconsciously, he clenched Wraith's arm as they traversed in search of the hospital's records, specifically that which the head doctor owned, as the rest were likely falsified. Insects and vermin made this hospital their home with the vast amount of space it provided, and Izumi only hoped that arachnid spirits didn’t exist or he would give up on the spot. Door to door they went in search of the head doctor's office, as the markings on each door were too faded to read or torn down, until eventually they were able to locate it after Izumi suggested checking a directory, which for whatever reason they didn't think of doing to start with. The office wasn't very luxurious, only having the bare essentials, but it had plenty of bookshelves and file cabinets to boot. Wraith, who was tired of looking through rooms and papers, left it to Izumi to find what they were looking for, only helping by providing a magical light for him to see, considering how dark it was inside. He flipped through files upon files, some useless to look at as they were torn to shreds, others too faded, and some too stained to discern. Within time, he gathered any of the information he deemed useful and reported back to Wraith, who was surprisingly smoking indoors, likely out of fatigue.
“So? What'd you find?” A cloud of smoke fled from his pursed lips.
“Well, the husband's speculations were right: she was poisoning them. At least sometimes. There's records of medication she gave to patients when they didn't need it, or giving them higher doses than what's required.”
“Anything about why?”
“Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprising, nope. The only thing there is are falsified records and the real ones. I'm guessing the head doctor was the only one who knew about it then, but why would they have kept the untampered versions? Wouldn't they be afraid of getting caught?”
“Guilty conscious maybe?” Wraith extinguished the cigarette on the back of his hand in order to avoid setting light to the scattered documents on the floor. “Wanted to remember what they did.”
“But not why they did it?”
A shrug in response. “Maybe they're just not a diary person, considering that between all the houses we visited, only one guy did.”
“I guess...but now what? We didn't really find anything which explicitly said how the rest of the town went missing. I mean, now we know it was partially the fault of this doctor. We know that whatever remained of the town was probably done in by a spirit or multiple spirits, judging by the damage and blood everywhere. But that's the thing. We still don't know WHO caused the end result. The doctor isn't really the issue here, it's the fact that Hodaira is plagued by some bloodthirsty beast that just keeps coming back for more.” For an instant, Izumi notices that Wraith looks a little off put from his words, which only moderately confuses him. Spirits and specters always appeared to live in a world of kill or be killed, at least from Izumi’s perspective, and it was clear to Izumi that Wraith cared little for those outside of his circle. This made him doubt that the reason for his disturbed expression wasn’t due to pity, sympathy, or even offense, but it was likely something more. Regardless, Izumi knew better than to pry into Wraith’s past.
Recollecting himself, Wraith sighs and formulates a plan, “Who said we’re giving up? Whatever spirit is behind all of this is likely still nearby, since it would be a pain for them to leave and come back. So, it’s just a matter of finding them.” Just as their expedition seems to make progress, the end goal only seems to get further and further away, but such is the determination required for such things. Luckily, or unluckily, the answer to their questions was about to fall into their lap.