DARK MODE 

Thursday, December 1, 2022 @

Chapter 23, Part 1

 Two figures were moving through the forest in the mountains, where the atmosphere was heavy and gloomy. One was a tall man, and the other was a slightly shorter and slimmer girl.
 
 They walked in silence, and behind them, several presences were lurking. Little by little, but surely, they were closing the distance between them, making small, low, eerie animal noises... and gradually, these noises were being heard not only from behind them, but also from both the left and right sides of the forest, and even from above their heads.
 
 ...in other words, they were being surrounded.
 
 Here in the far north from the capital, a land of the northern part of the country (北夷) where the youkai still roam, it was the most dangerous area of all.
 
 'Roarrrrrr!!!'
 
 The roar made the earth shake like an earthquake. Then, several huge shadows appear from the deep forest. Each of them was a great youkai that resembled a snake, a crab, a boar, and so on... and each of them had the potential to become a calamity youkai in another hundred years.
 
 The area is dangerous in the northern part of the country, where a hundred calamity youkai who once followed 'Kuuban' and rampaged in the central part of the country. In addition, there is a mountain forest with a low-grade spiritual vein through which the Ushi-oni (ox-demon) escaped from the Imperial Court's conquest of the area.
 
 Despite the cleanup of the remnants immediately after the end of the great war, a few exorcists were returned and eaten to death, and thereafter the Imperial Court had to give priority to the restoration of the land and the defeat of other dangerous youkai who were still actively working, so the extermination of the monster, a wounded creature that never came out of the forest, was postponed and gradually, it was left unattended.
 
 Nowadays, it's been several decades since humans have wandered into the forest, where they are strongly forbidden to enter so as not to feed them along with the containment, and in fact, the last time humans were eaten was even longer ago because they escaped from the forest... Anyway, for a long time, the taste of human beings was kept away from them. So, there is no doubt that these two stray people were a great treat for the monster formed from the spirit of mountains and forests.
 
 Now, the great youkai, a serpent with a body like a giant tree, was the first to shout a threat. Then, stretching out its slender tongue, it leaped at the wanderers with its sharp fangs. But then... its entire body went stiff.
 
 'H-hisssss!!?'
 
 The serpent, literally within arm's reach of the wanderers, clearly defies gravity in a strange position... as if time has stopped... and its yellow eyes widen as it cries out as if it has no idea what is going on.
 
 'C-creakkk....!?'
 
 Next, a crab as big as a castle tower spurts out a lot of foam from its mouth and shakes its body, letting it drip on the ground. Its shell makes a creaking sound, and cracks appear, leaking out yellowish bodily fluids that stain the soil.
 
 'Grumbleee!!?'
 
 The boar howls. As it howls, its thick neck bends slowly but surely. The boar tries to resist the invisible force with its muscle power while shaking its whole body and sprinkling saliva, but gradually the balance of the force is broken and the angle of the neck bending increases.
 
 Snap! Snap! Crack...Crack...Crack! Snap! Crackk......!!!
 
 Such various "breaking" sounds echoed through the forest. A moment later, there is a thud, and the sound of something huge crumbling down. It was a serpent whose body had been folded into dozens of pieces like origami, a crab whose shell had been torn off its entire limbs, and a boar whose neck had been twisted all the way around.
 
 These great youkais were by no means weak beings. The serpent had a venom that caused the whole body of its victim to burn and die in agony just by seeing, or rather, knowing it, the crab had a unique ability to manipulate the gravity of matter around it, and the boar's body had a conceptual power that could not be damaged by any kind of "metal".
 
 All three were formidable great youkai with special abilities that could not be countered without knowing them... but they died without even being given a chance to demonstrate their true value. Entering his sight, itself, was a mistake.
 
 "...well, let's take care of them while we're at it..."
 
 The taller of the two mutters casually. At the same time, the small and medium youkai, who had noticed the danger and were trying to escape, stopped moving as if they were bound. Unfortunately, Kizuki Shisui is well aware of the weak point of his own supernatural power, namely that his magical eye is limited to the range of his field of vision, and he has already developed a countermeasure against it.
 
 By soaring in the sky above or sharing his vision with other shikigami scattered throughout the forest, his special powers extended over a wide area beyond the reach of the naked eye. Of course, it is not an easy task to move countless shikigami at the same time, to 'see' all of their vision, and to activate his powers at the same time... but in any case, the fate of all the youkai is now decided.
 
 The situation is sort of comical, but it reminds of squeezing a rag. Bones, muscle fibers, and internal organs were twisted with a grotesque gurgling sound. Fresh blood gushed out from the torn epidermis or palate, and the creatures screamed in despair.
 
 'Please stop! Please! Ah...!!'
 'Aaah...!! It hurts! It hurts!'
 'Please don't do it! Aaah! Aaahhhhh!'
 
 Some of the monsters were dressed as women or children, imitating their voices, or both, pleading for help, but such trickery would not work on Shisui, who is a true exorcist. Without a care in the world for the voices that would make an unknowing person feel guilty and upset... or indeed, some of them made noises that had the effect of interfering with the human psyche... Shisui broke their necks, crushed their internal organs, shattered their spinal cords, and finally, compressed their whole bodies into a ball.
 
 There was no mercy. It was just a simple, unobtrusive 'work', typical of the peculiarities of exorcists who fight against non-human monsters despite their human bodies. And when considering that this power that is directed at youkai is not necessarily directed at humans, it is easy to understand why the Imperial Court has treated the exorcists with such respect but has also been wary of them since their establishment.
 
 "Thank you, my second cousin (再従兄上). ...but you didn't have to go this far. Do you not trust my abilities that much?"
 
 Kizuki Hina wonders as she watches the youkai being crushed into little meatballs of flesh and bone. It's true that she was able to deal with the troublesome small fry, but after preparing the place so thoroughly... she feels as if she thinks she is going to have a hard time in the coming battle, and she glances at Shisui slightly with her lightless eyes.
 
 "No, Princess Hina. I trust your ability, and I know how powerful your 'other ability' is. However, that does not mean that your power is all-powerful, and above all, youkai are sneaky beings who cannot be taken off guard. Therefore, it is only natural for you to take all possible measures, isn't it?"
 
 Even though she was trying to kill him, Shisui was still declaring like a teacher who gently admonishes her students. It is a fact that he was the most promising candidate for the head of the Kizuki family he could keep his composure even when he was hit by her swarthy atmosphere.
 
 In fact, Kizuki Hina's 'Annihilation' ability is infinitely versatile. Its power to burn away even phenomena can neutralize most of the means of defense in case of attack, while in case of defense, it can even burn away her own death event. However, no power is perfect, and there are structural weaknesses.
 
 Kizuki Hina's "annihilation" is meaningless unless she thinks and is aware of it. And above all, it is a tremendous drain on one's spiritual power. If she is injured or dead, it is possible for her to automatically "annihilate" the event, but if her head is destroyed, she cannot think until her head is recovered, and of course, she cannot perform any other actions.
 
 As a matter of fact, if the head is destroyed by surprise before it is recognized and the ability to think is taken away, it is possible to kill her by repeatedly crushing her recovering brain before it recovers, because her spiritual power will be exhausted in a whole day.
 
 Similarly, it is possible to "destroy" her head using an illusion or mental attack, but to do so, the attacker must be aware that the attack is an illusion or a mental attack. And usually, the person who is performing the attack is basically accused of making it impossible to recognize that it is an illusion or a mental attack. Therefore, it is necessary to have strong mental strength and calm thinking ability to perceive it.
 
 "I know I don't need to tell you now, but you must not be proud of your abilities. I have been doing this job for a long time, and I have seen many of my colleagues who thought they were invincible and all-powerful get caught in their own feet."
 
 Moreover, Shisui knew that the eldest daughter of the main family in front of him now was frustrated.
 
 (Originally, she was not busy... but since Princess Aoi's contest, things have been getting worse.)
 
 Hina seems to be somewhat restless and frustrated, and that's how Shisui describes her.
 
 Kizuki Hina and Kizuki Aoi, both of them are the main lineages of the family, and both of them are suitable to be the next head of the family because of their unique abilities and fighting skills on the one hand, and their spiritual power and talent on the other. But this is not something that the Kizuki family should be happy about.
 
 Because of their competing strengths, and because he knows that their power, now or in the future, will rise to a level beyond the control of the rest of the family, Shisui is more concerned about the situation than anything else because of the bad relationship between the two women.
 
 (Oh well, is it all because of the mismanagement of the head of the family? What in the world is he thinking...?)
 
 Shisui thinks back to the man who has been shutting himself up in his room without fulfilling his duties as far as he is concerned. The head of the family was also a person who was too talented, powerful, and excellent to be dealt with. Despite his excellence, his behavior is...
 
 (If the balance of power is broken, it may cause internal conflicts. We, the Kizuki family, would like Princess Hina to play an active role here in order to restore the balance of power.)
 
 That's why Princess Hina herself hunted the small fry to set the stage for her success. The rest is up to Princess Hina's own ability. Well, to put it paradoxically, if she can't produce results after all these arrangements, she is not qualified to be the next head of the family.
 
 "...Well, well, the real leader has finally arrived..."
 
 As soon as Shisui said this, the mountain was shaken by an earthquake. No, not the mountain. The forest was trembling. The birds perching in the trees took to the sky as if frightened, and the beasts crawling on the ground ran away to keep their distance from it.
 
 'Uoooooooooooooooooooooooo...!!!!'
 
 The whole mountaintop moved. The trees fell, the earth crumbled, and what emerged was an enormous monster, perhaps 40 feet long. It looked like a combination of a bull and a demon (oni), with a jaw like an insect, two horns on its head, and four red eyes that shot angry looks at the two exorcists. It was a hideous creature with a six-legged body reminiscent of a spider, and a spherical, swollen abdomen with a mess of black hairs...
 
 "But... it's a lot smaller than the legend, isn't it?"
 "It must have been a desperate measure. I heard it was very badly wounded when it was driven from the capital. And a low-grade spiritual site like this one was probably not enough to heal the wounds of calamity youkai. It seems that he had no choice but to lower his own 'status'."
 
 If it had been a mere human being, he/she would have swooned at the horrifying sight or vomited from calamity youkai. However, neither Hina nor Shisui showed any such signs, and they even gave a scathing evaluation of the huge monster in front of them.
 
 As a matter of fact, the current Ushi-oni (ox-demon), having suffered a near-fatal wound and being shut away in a low-quality spiritual place, was cruelly weakened from the viewpoint of the old legends. In this sense, the end of the monster proves that the Imperial Court was right in its policy.
 
 Of course, even so, it still had a power that would surely have been able to defeat the low-ranking exorcists with a history of only a hundred or two hundred years or so. But... unfortunately, this monster could not face such a first-rate opponent.
 
 "If you're in danger, I'll join you. But first, you're on your own. Please be careful."
 "Yes. But don't worry too much. I'll finish it in half a day at the most."
 
 With that, the eldest princess draws the sword from her waist. Perhaps understanding her words, the Ushi-oni (ox-demon) runs down the mountain with a truly terrifying yell.
 
 "Well, it's not that I don't like playing with insects... but unfortunately, it's not something I would have enjoyed in my position now, let alone when I was a child. I'll take it easy and give it my all."
 
 With these words, Hina quickly and lightly swings her sword. At the same time, she produces a red flame in the shape of a dragon. Ushi-oni sees that it is not a mere flame and slows down his run down the mountain as quickly as he can. But... it was pointless.
 
 "Burn away! Guren-kyou-sou Ouharai Ryuu-mai' (Wild Crimson Exorcism Dragon Dance (紅蓮狂葬大祓龍舞))!!"
 
 The moment the dark-haired girl flashed her sword, the forests of the northern land were literally swallowed up by the many dragons created by the merciless fire...
 
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