"And then I take a right up this path here... or is it the next path...?
Reading the scrap piece of paper gripped between his shuddering fingers Yashiki looked around. He was standing on a thin dirt path that was fenced by tall trees on both sides which made it hard to gauge if he was actually going the right way. Around two hours before he was scheduled to meet up with Yuu Nanamura at T hiking trail it suddenly occurred to him that he had no idea where the trail was! Luckily he was able to find the area on a map and jotted down directions to follow but the location seemed to elude him; with no distinguishing signage to help he was reduced to following a man-made path which may lead him to the main hiking trail. The Winter sun had set behind the mountain range hours ago and any natural light was smothered by the blanket of clouds so Yashiki had to rely on his old faithful flashlight to avoid tripping over the rocks that jutted out from the mud. Keeping up a good pace despite his confusion Yashiki eventually made it to what one could assume to be a signpost, although it had definitely seen better days. The rotting and weathered post had a single slab of thin wood nailed to it on which the words 'hiking trail' were crudely painted in dull white. Beyond it there was a more established path leading off into the dense forest. This was probably - hopefully - the right place, so now all he had to do was wait for Nanamura to show up. Surveying this new area Yashiki noted that it really was remote out here, he hadn't seen another person or any service buildings for a good while and from what he had seen walking up there was no public roads leading to it. Was this really a hiking spot?
Nanamura did describe it as a 'hidden gem' so it made sense that it was off the beaten path. Currently it's appearance was nothing special, with its bare trees, trampled, muddied grass and sparse foliage but perhaps when Winter's ravaging was over and Spring breathed new life back into the greenery it could be a work of natural art. Perhaps he would come back here another time, during the day of course in order to avoid any unwanted tag along entities.
Yashiki jumped in surprise at the sound of his name, turning to see a slightly breathless, red cheeked Nanamura rushing up to him.
"I thought it was you standing here so I started running! I'm glad it wasn't some stranger! That would have been embarrassing!"
He adjusted the rucksack on his back then looked Yashiki up and down.
"You really came here dressed like that?" He asked, referring to the other man's lack of appropriate attire for this trip. He was certainly dressed for hiking, wearing strong outdoor boots, durable, waterproof clothing and on his hands were a pair of thick yet tight fitting gloves whereas Yashiki had stuck to his usual outfit complete with unsuitable footwear.
"I don't have any clothes for hiking. It's not an activity I do, so no need to buy them." Yashiki brushed off Nanamura's judgement.
"Ah, because you don't really leave the house, right?" Nanamura narrowed his eyes and smiled playfully. His words sounded like a question but their undertone was that of a statement, like he somehow knew he was right.
"I'm not some shut-away..." Yashiki mumbled and turned his attention to the path behind him. "So, I'm assuming this is the hiking trail in question?"
Nanamura nodded. "Yup! This is the one! If we follow it up I can lead you to the canyon."
"Right. We should get going, then."
Bracing himself Yashiki started up the larger dirt path, making sure to aim his flashlight at an angle where he could see the ground but also keep an eye on the dense forest around them - it would be all too easy for someone (or something) to take them by surprise if they didn't stay alert. His beam was soon joined by another one. Nanamura tapped the compact headlamp resting across his forehead and flashed a grin. They continued deeper into the trees, gnarled branches from the dead foliage reaching out to snag against their arms.
"...So your companion didn't want to join us?" Nanamura spoke up.
"Companion?" It took Yashiki a second to realise who he was referring to. "Oh, no. Mashita... had other business to attend to." He kept it vague, not wanting to talk about the real reason why Mashita wasn't here.
Because he's tired of me.
"Oh? I'm surprised he let you come here alone, considering how against it he was." Nanamura laughed and gave Yashiki a sidelong grin. "He seemed very - how do I say it without being rude? - Strict? Controlling? Well I don't mind! It's nice that we can spend some together! Oh- Kazuo! We have to take a left here to reach the canyon!"
"Mashita isn't either of those things." the words left his mouth almost automatically to defend his friend. "He's just more of a realist and methodical in his his actions... sometimes."
Nanamura rasied his eyebrows in surprise, then furrowed them a little.
"I don't want to upset you, Kazuo, but I've seen plenty of guys like him before - they hang around someone and take pleasure in controlling and influencing their decisions but when they start to lose dominance they drift away. Do you even know how he feels?" Nanamura shook his head, then paused, turning to face Yashiki. "I know you said you aren't one for hiking, but are you one for dating?" Nanamura leaned forward, his inquisitive brown eyes boring into Yashiki's.
"T-that's a very personal question!" Yashiki in turn leaned himself away. "And it's got nothing to do with this trip!"
"I'm just curious, that's all. Are you dating that Mashita guy? 'Cuz I think you could do way better."
Yashiki opened his mouth to say something, to tell Nanamura to stop messing around with this strange interrogation when a cold shudder rattled his spine.
What was that?
It felt like someone was watching them.
His flashlight glided across the wall of trees, in the distance he was sure he saw something, a shape of some kind; straining his eyes against the dark Yashiki tried to focus his sight to see if- there!
A person, half hidden behind a tree trunk.
Yet It was blurry, almost like mist but it was there.
From what he could tell it was an adult female, her long dark hair fell just past her shoulders, obscuring a portion of her face. She wore a bright but stained red jumper, a colourful garment which had caught Yashiki's eye. She appeared to be watching them and from the sudden thickening chill that layered the area and the way her body seemed to glow there was a high chance she wasn't of this world.
"Kazuo? Hey Kazuo! What's wrong?"
Yashiki looked to the perplexed Nanamura then quickly back to where the woman had been.
She was gone.
"You were staring off into space, are you okay?" Nanamura walked up close to him, lifting up the front of his hair and pressing their foreheads together.
He was way too close! Uncomfortably so.
"Hmmm, I don't feel a temperature, actually you're pretty cold!" Nanamura said then smiled. "You had me worried for a second there! I don't know much about ghosts or the like, but remember what you said? If we feel in danger we book it? You gotta tell me if you're uneasy, okay. Come on, we're close to the canyon!"
He pulled his head and hand back, adjusting Yashiki's hair gently before spinning around and continuing up the steadily steepening path. Rubbing his forehead Yashiki started following behind but couldn't help but glance back to the now empty treeline, the intrusive conversation forgotton. Who was that woman?
Was she just the spirit of someone who died in these woods? Something told him it was more than that, some small niggle at the back of his mind yet he thought it wise to keep the sighting to himself.
Eventually as they climbed they left behind the scent of subdued greenery and emerged into an area that was more rock than dirt. The ground was more level than the ascending path they had walked up but further ahead - presumably where the canyon was - it was evident even in the gloom that sharp rocks were nestled among the larger ones, meaning they would have to take extra care not to lose their footing if they went closer. Yashiki shined his flashlight over the the environment, taking note of what appeared to be a small hut tucked away at the far right. It sounded rather rude but he couldn't find any visual appeal in this place that would be worth trekking all the way out here for. As if he was a mind-reader Nanamura spoke up.
"It may not look too impressive right now, but on summer nights when it's warm you can get a beautiful view of the night sky! It's very romantic! Like I said before, it's a great date spot!"
"I'm sure it is." Yashiki nodded with an awkward chuckle.
"Maybe I can bring you back in here in the spring? I'm sure you'd appreciate how lovely it is." Nanamura suggested, yet his playful tone had deflated.
The blonde no longer seemed as peppy as he had been on the trail; his expressions became harder to decipher and the overall energy he was emitting was... strange.
Without any warning Nanamura began walking over to the mouth of the canyon, each step confident and strong.
"Nanamura! Where are you-"
"I told you, Kazuo - Yuu is fine! Call me Yuu." Nanamura looked back over his shoulder with a small sad smile. "Tell me the truth, Kazuo. Do you truly believe in ghosts? Do you truly believe the spirits of the dead roam the world?"
What? Why was he asking such questions now? Yashiki swallowed and looked him dead in the eye.
"I do. I've seen them... plenty of times."
Nanamura hummed in response. Coming to an abrupt halt at the edge of the canyon he spun around on his heels and stroked his chin in thought.
"Perhaps my friend really was onto something when he said this place was haunted." a pang of what appeared to be pain flashed across his face. "Well? Do you hear anyone, Kazuo? Is anyone calling out to you from the canyon?"
Hesitantly Yashiki let his focus shift a little from the man in front of him to the canyon so he could listen for anything.
Yet only the crescendo of the howling wind whipped his ears.
"... Aw- .... now..."
Yashiki quickly shushed Nanamura.
"Hur- ... -n away... Now..."
There. On the wind. It was hard to pick out but there was unmistakably a voice.
"Nanamura, you said people reported hearing the voices of people they knew, right?"
"Y-yeah, that's right. Why? Do you hear something, Kazuo?!"
Yashiki didn't answer him, instead he began taking careful steps towards the opening of the abyss. With each step the voice grew in clarity; it sounded faintly like a singular female at first but gradually other voices joined in, creating a myriad of noise.
"Hurry! Run away, now!"
Run away? Why? What were they trying to warn him about?
If he got closer would he hear more? Just a little... closer...
A hand tightly grabbed his own and yanked him backwards. Nanamura placed his other hand on Yashiki's shoulder and began shaking him.
"Hey! C'mon! Snap out of it!"
"I'm fine! I'm fine." Yashiki pushed the hand clutching his shoulder off.
"Hoooo, please don't scare me like that! You kept walking towards that edge and I... I don't want to lose anyone else." Nanamura mumbled, casting his eyes downwards. Yashiki could see that he was shaking slightly and suddenly felt guilty. True, he had been quite rude and very nosy regarding Yashiki's personal life, yet he hadn't really taken Nanamura's feelings on this whole matter into consideration. He had lost a friend here and yet Yashiki had been to worked up over his own problems to be fully sympathetic. There was a chance that his erratic behavior was his own way of dealing with fear or grief.
"Nanamura... I'm sorry, I didn't mean to worry you." He said sincerely, gingerly patting him on the shoulder while at the same time trying to pull his hand from his grasp. Nanamura's eyes widened slightly but then they narrowed as he smiled.
"Ahh, Kazuo, you're really kind, aren't you? But wait-" his expression shifted. "-does that mean... you actually heard a voice?!"
Yashiki nodded and for a second the colour drained from the bartender's face. He continued.
"There were many though so I'm not sure if I can reach your friend..."
Following the urban legend of this trail the victim was meant to hear the voice of a loved one, so why had he heard the call of multiple strangers? A knot of dread was beginning to weave together in his stomach; there was more to this than he had previously assumed.
"Nanamura, I'm going to go a little closer to the canyon. That way I may be able to hear more. So... could you please let go of my hand?"
He had expected Nanamura to either protest the idea or quickly release him and apologize, yet he kept a hold on Yashiki's cold hand for a long moment before slowly uncoiling his fingers and giving a sharp bob of his head.
"Alright. Heh, man, you're so brave. I can't believe you're doing all this for a total stranger. Y'know, you really are my type." He laughed quietly. "I'll be right behind you, Kazuo. I won't let them drag you off."
Yashiki just shook his head slightly at the random compliments and set his sights on the beckoning black maw. With each step he took his heart pounded faster, images of long white ghostly hands springing forth from the shadows below and wrapping around his body, dragging him down to splatter and snap against the stones shot through his mind.
"Hurry... -un away..."
Again the screaming wind carried that cryptic warning to his ears. Was it a warning to stay away from the canyon? Despite that he pressed on, holding back a gasp as his shoe scuffed a protruding rock and nearly caused him to stumble. Just a little closer. Carefully... Carefully...
The screech in his ears stalled his legs. At the same time the heavens opened, sending a cascade of raging rain down into the earth, the pelting drops drowning out so much noise.
Who was coming?!
His brain screamed at him to turn around! To run! To do something! But he was clueless to the apparent encroaching danger. He felt stuck in place, unsure whether to keep going or turn back. The decision was made for him when amid the downpour Yashiki could make out what sounded like a beloved, familiar voice yelling. He whirled around and saw a silhouette he knew so well.
Was it really him?! Why was he here?!
The rain muffled all sound and the creeping fog partially concealed what was happening before him. Mashita's figure looked to be struggling in a fight against an unusual figure.
"S-stop! What are you doing?!"
Nanamura's loud cry resounded from the fog. It all seemed to happen so fast - the figure pulled their fist back and struck Mashita in the stomach, causing him to double over. Then they raised their arm, a metal object glinting in their hand and brought it down with no hesitation, piercing the detective.
No no no!
Yashiki screamed as loud as he could, attracting Mashita's unfocused gaze. Through the onslaught of rain the pair locked eyes for a second, a multitude of emotions running through both of them, before Yashiki froze in place.
Someone, no something, was touching him. Holding onto him.
It couldn't be... It couldn't be.
Wrapping painfully tight around his shaking legs and hips, unnaturally long fingers digging into him, were several long, ghostly pale arms.
He lost his ability to scream, he lost his footing and he lost his view of Mashita as he was dragged down into the maw of the cursed canyon.