After the sun had set, we entered the mountains and three hours had passed. Even though it was still early spring, the night in the mountains was chilly.
“I should have worn a little more layers,” I said.
As a precaution, both of us had changed into work clothes to look like delivery workers. We relied on flashlights illuminating the darkness and the LED lantern hanging from Sakurazaka’s waist.
As someone who kept in shape due to my profession, I had no problem, but surprisingly, Sakurazaka was able to keep up with a light step.
We avoided the village with the inn and parked their car on the side of the road on the other side of the mountain before entering the mountain.
I found out through satellite imaging that the location where the senior visited is situated between a large river and mountains, where a village has been built.
The river is wide and has a rapid current. Crossing it would be reckless, and if someone were to have an accident and fall in, their chances of survival would be low.
Therefore, it was decided that relying on the mountains, which offer a higher chance of survival, would be the best option. In addition, the senior is an outdoor enthusiast and is familiar with the mountains. It is believed that if an escape route needs to be chosen, this would be the best option.
“Hinoyama, I found it!”
As we walked, Sakurazaka, who was a little behind, shouted loudly, causing him to cover his mouth in surprise. His voice echoed through the quiet mountain path.
I ran towards him with a wry smile, and saw that the trunk of a large tree that was illuminated by the light of a lantern.
There were marks carved into the wood with a knife, forming an arrow symbol.
“Is it really true?”
“Well done, Sakurazaka-san. This is definitely senior’s.”
Previously, when I was forced to accompany my senior to the mountains, we almost got lost. However, at that time, my senior had dug distinctive arrows into the trees.
“So, this means we should go in this direction, right?”
“Yes, that’s right. Their chances of survival just went up.”
It had been five days since we lost track of our senior. They say a person can die within four or five days without any water intake. However, we had already found natural springs and streams within just three hours of entering this mountain.
Given our senior’s resilience, they could survive in this environment.
“But isn’t it dangerous? If senior is caught up in trouble, leaving these markers could draw attention from potential pursuers.”
“I would think the same thing in normal circumstances. However, this is like a little code. Take a closer look at the arrows. Do you see any marks on the longest line?”
“Oh, yes, you’re right. There’s a small diagonal line on the shorter one.”
“Actually, let’s assume that the long line of this arrow represents the hour hand of a clock, pointing to 12 o’clock. Then, what time does the shorter line represent?”
“Um, since it’s on the upper left, maybe around 9 o’clock?”
“Correct. Therefore, the direction indicated by this arrow is not here, but towards 9 o’clock.”
In modern detective work, knowledge of codes and puzzles is not necessary, but our senior was a bit of an oddball who entered this industry out of admiration for fictional detectives.
Therefore, he loved making seemingly pointless codes and would always try to get me to solve them once they were done.
I thought it would only be good for conversation topics, but it turned out to be useful, thanks to our senior.
Sakurazaka-san didn’t notice, but there was a code engraved on the top of a tree away from the arrows.
Unlike the arrows, this code was located at a considerably high position and was engraved thinly and shallowly, so it is in a level that you can only find if you are as tall as I am.
Moreover, only our senior and I knew about this code.
In other words, this was a message our senior left for me.
“The danger of being a wanderer has become a reality.”
The hastily engraved, roughly carved characters were barely legible. It seemed that our senior was in a desperate situation, as evidenced by the rushed and careless engraving.
“Sakurazaka-san, I’m sorry but please go back alone. I will go on from here by myself,” I suddenly said.
“What happened? Why the sudden change?” Sakurazaka-san asked, unable to hide his confusion.
“It seems like a pretty dangerous situation,” I replied.
“If that’s the case, then all the more reason you need someone to help you,” he said.
“No, there’s danger for the search party too. It seems that my senior is being chased by the villagers. The reason is unknown,” I explained.
“That’s not enough reason for me to be convinced.”
There is no certainty, only cryptic and circumstantial evidence. It’s impossible to persuade someone with just such materials. However, I cannot put amateurs in danger.
“Do you realize? We haven’t had any cellphone signal since entering this mountain.”
He took out their smartphone to check.
The fact that there is no signal in this area means that they wouldn’t be able to call for help in case of an emergency. Just like what happened to their senior earlier.
“If you’re worried about me, there’s no need. I won’t suffer any serious injuries or die no matter what happens. Until that day comes, at least.”
I wonder why he can confidently make such a statement.
It doesn’t seem like he’s just pretending to be tough. Despite having no real basis for his confidence, he have a strange persuasiveness to their words.
At that moment, I closed my mouth.
We heard a sound coming from somewhere.
As we strained our ears, we could faintly hear the sound of rustling grass and footsteps.
I hid behind the big tree with an arrow carved on it and turned off the light. Sakurazaka-san also crouched down in the same way.
“Someone is approaching.”
I whispered the information and received a small nod in response.
We held our breath and tried to locate the sound.
Judging by the footsteps, it seemed like there was only one person… or so we thought. The walking speed and stride were inconsistent.
We peeked out slightly and looked towards the direction of the sound.
It was dark, but since the density of trees was low in this area, we could barely make out the figure of the person under the moonlight.
We hoped it was senior, but it wasn’t.
His trademark wrinkled coat and worn-out suit were nowhere to be seen, Instead, they had on a down jacket with sweatpants.
The deep wrinkles on their face suggested that they were around 70 years old, despite looking younger.
It was strange to see an elderly person walking around at night without any light.
While it was possible that they were an elderly person with dementia wandering around, it was hard to believe that they would be out in the middle of the mountains like this.
“Looks like they’re staggering. Are they drunk?” I whispered.
“Or maybe they have dementia and are wandering around. But it’s strange,” he replied.
As the person approached unsteadily, we heard another sound mixed in with their footsteps.
“Ah… ah… ah…”
It was an indiscernible voice, just repeating “ah” at regular intervals.
The situation was already eerie, given that we were in the mountains at night. But on top of that, there was this suspicious elderly person with strange behavior.
It was understandable that we were feeling stiff and uneasy.
“Hinoyama-san, look at the old man’s eyes,” he whispered.
Suddenly, Sakurazaka-san grabbed my shoulder and shook me vigorously, his voice full of urgency. I was so startled that I almost screamed, fortunately, I managed to hold it in.
I wanted to complain, but seeing the expression with eyes wide open to the limit, I swallowed my words. It was truly a shocking expression.
He had a look of absolute shock on his face.
Compelled by that gaze, I turned around and saw it.
Red eyes shining in the dark night.