Thursday, December 15, 2022 @

Volume 3 Epilogue, Part 1

 For me, it was just one of many irrational, life-threatening, unwanted memories.
 This little girl in my arms was trembling. Simply trembling. Because there was nothing else she could do.
 The girl who should have been able to run fast without leaving sound behind, whose arms could have beaten to death any monster even with her bare hands, was now completely helpless. Her body was powerless, and her overflowing spiritual power, however, was completely useless.
 The reason for this was that she had been paralyzed by a neurotoxin and her flow of spiritual power had been blocked by a youkai poison secreted by a youkai that imitated a carnivorous plant, and thus she was no more than a child with no power at all. Now she is a small being who has no choice but to be frightened of even the lowest class of young youkai. Not even one of the simplified sorcery could be performed by her. To put it bluntly, she was nothing more than a useless handicap.
 "Please, no! I don't want this... I'm scared"
 The half-naked girl sobbed, huddled behind her cloak. She repeated the plea over and over, her voice trembling with fear.
 Tears streamed down her face as she felt a sense of betrayal from the world around her. The damage she had suffered was too much for her 10-year-old mind to bear, who had never known failure before. Such a shock and intensity of the experience were overwhelming for her.
 ...and the most unfortunate thing was that this was still far better than her original fate, which was... not yet solved.
 "Haha, this is really impossible. This situation."
 I spat out in a tone of disgust as I hid myself in a crack between two big rocks in the deep, deep midnight, in the forest where monsters were wandering around with high spirits. In fact, I was getting fed up.
 "I never thought it would be this hard..."
 I boasted with a wry smile on my face. I didn't want to die, so I prepared as much as I could for this forced sh*t event... However, I can't help but laugh at the fact that all the items I prepared were wiped out on the first day. No, I didn't underestimate it...
 "...!? It's close..."
 The roar of the creature echoing out of nowhere makes my expression grim. It probably hasn't spotted me yet, but I don't think I can stay longer. I wanted to recover my strength as much as possible...
 Suddenly, I look down. A peach-colored girl hidden in a cloak is looking up at me with frightened, clinging teary eyes. There was a sense of despair, fear, and anxiety.
 (...she's a smart girl. She understands her situation)
 Her young but smart head seemed to understand that there was no way to search and rescue, that she was helpless and that the only person to whom she could depend on was the cheeky servant in front of her, and that more than anything else, she herself was just an obstacle to the servant getting out of this forest.
 "...don't make that face. I'll figure something out."
 I say to her, wearing a half-cracked mask. I didn't have time to joke around but I couldn't let her scream here. So, I'll at least play the clown for her mental stability.
 ...though, as a servant, I don't want her to see me too expressive since it might arouse unnecessary suspicion.
 "Well, that's what I'm trying to say—Don't peep at me, you monster!"
 Immediately I pull out a cheap dagger from my waist and throw it at the monster. The monster rat that had been watching us from the crowd is pierced through the skull, its brain destroyed, and it dies without a scream. Luckily, I was able to stop its scream before it called its friends.
 "Huh...? Ah..."
 The girl, unable to detect the presence due to her young age and the poison, watches the whole thing with her mouth hanging open. At last, she looks like her age.
 (Well, it's better than her previous cocky attitude. I hope this will make it a little easier for me to do what I ask... I hope...)
 Thinking of the reality that things are not going well in the world, I observe the girl again with self-deprecation. Apparently, she does not distrust my attitude. And that's convenient. But still...
 I reach out my hand to her and she trembles, her shoulders shaking with fear. She stares fearfully at my approaching hand, and finally, she shuts her eyes as if enduring. Then... she opens her eyes curiously at the touch on her head and looks at me.
 "You know, I've been looking at it for a while and thought it looked comfortable to touch. Well, since we're in this situation, you'll have to forgive me for this."
 I offer this with a wry smile and a rude attitude. I'm not lying. I've always had a thing for silky soft, bright hair, you know?
 ...though I don't deny that there's more to it than that.
 The girl who looked anxious, but when she saw no hostility or malice in my eyes, looked at me quietly as if she were a borrowed cat being petted, and then hugged me tightly.
 (...tsk. She's really a smart kid, isn't she?)
 She understands the danger if she doesn't want to be petted. Well, it's better than making a fuss without thinking about the situation, but... it's really a hell in this world to force a child of no more than 10 years old to put up with such a thing.
 "Hmm...? Has she gone to sleep?"
 How much time has passed? Perhaps exhausted from all the work, I noticed that the girl in my arms was breathing quietly in her sleep. She may not have been at ease, but she could not resist her instincts, I guess.
 "...seriously, when I look at her like this, she looks even more like my little siblings..."
 Memories of my younger siblings flashed through my mind. It was not the shape of their faces, but the atmosphere of their faces. Especially my little sister, who cried so hard and hugged me after she had a scary dream. She used to fall asleep like this after soiling my clothes with tears and snot. Such a cheeky little girl...
 "She's really cheeky, isn't she? Although..."
 Kids are supposed to be cocky. It's better than being scared and trembling. At least right now this kid is innocent. Besides, I won't get out of here alive either way if I don't bring her back. So, it can't be helped. I have to do it. That's why...
 "Please hold on to my body until we get out of this forest...?"
 I stood staring blankly at the red pool of blood beneath me, a result of the cut on my back from when I let the peach-colored brat escape from the monster. It was a smile of determination.
 It was a long time ago, four years ago I think...
* * *
 "... a dream, huh?"
 Those were the first words I muttered when I came back to consciousness in the real world. Then, following my consciousness, my senses gradually regained a sense of reality.
 "Ah... ugh, gghh...!?"
 I let out a groan and opened my eyes, still in a foggy, hazy state of consciousness. Then, what hit me suddenly upon my return to reality was a feeling of pain and exhaustion.
 I felt intense pain all over my body. Even moving a finger was difficult. It felt as if I was tied.
 The next thing was a headache. I grit my teeth and endure the throbbing, pulsating dull pain that comes from deep inside my brain as if my head is going to crack.
 And here I felt a fever and a chill. I felt hot inside as if I had a cold, but I also felt chilly. I felt nauseous and finally realized that my upper body was covered with bandages and wet with sweat at the same time.
 The last thing I felt was fatigue and exhaustion. My body felt as heavy as lead. Every bone, every joint felt worn out. An intense drowsiness lured me back to the land of sleep. Such a temptation was irresistible.
 Still, I instinctively suppressed the desire. If I could not withstand that level of this temptation, I could not resist youkai's illusions. My memory of the last few minutes is hazy, so I move my eyes to get a better grasp of what's going on around me.
 There was a ceiling. A wood ceiling, which meant that I was in a room somewhere.
 Next, I saw a sliding door and confirmed that there were some hanging scrolls and furnishings, though it was too dark to see them clearly. The bedding and pillows were made of feathers. Then, I guessed that I was in a bedroom...?
 (What... is... going on...?)
 At least I know that I'm not in a servant's hut that has been assigned to me. But at the same time, a question came to my mind.
 Where am I? Why am I here? Why was I sleeping here? I am only a servant, and I should not be allowed to sleep in such a place...?
 "Ugh... Ggh... Arrghh...!?"
 In a daze of pain and drowsiness, I sway my aching body from side to side to gather more information and scream in pain as I try to move my hands. At the same time, I recall the fact that the youkai sword had broken my left arm in a funny direction and penetrated through my palm to my shoulder.
 "Ggh...! Hahh... Hahh... Hahh... W-what is going on...? What happened at... the underground tunnels...? What happened to that d*mn sword...?"
 I mutter, breathing hard. D*mn, it's hard to even raise my voice...
 "H-hey, is anyone out there—Huh... Who is it...?"
 I crawl on my right arm, which is relatively uninjured, and finally touch it. There is someone or something inside the futon, right next to me...
 At normal times, I would have been alert and armed, or even jumped out of the futon in the first place. Unfortunately, my fatigue and injuries did not allow me to do so, and there were no weapons nearby, and above all, my worn-out thought process did not allow me to even think about such a thing.
 So, without thinking about anything in particular, I absentmindedly grabbed the futon and pulled it off.
 Then, I stopped for a moment to think about the presence in the futon. In any case, there it was...
 "Oh, huh...?"
 It was a girl. Her hair was bright and shiny, peach-colored or cherry-colored, and everyone would agree that she had a combination of childish and bewitching beauty, with a curve at the nape of her neck that was thin and glossy. Her skin is so white and fresh that it is almost transparent, and yet her body is somehow voluptuous, and her chest is ample and not commensurate with her age... There she is, a girl who is the ideal in terms of appearance that most men desire in a woman. ...literally without a stitch of clothing on her body.
 For a few seconds, I was speechless, my even foggy consciousness, and my thoughts were suspended. Then I notice the sound of her regular breathing and realize that she is sleeping because her eyelids are closed.
 Even after I understood, I still had nothing but doubts and suspicions.
 (No, is this real in the first place...? Is this a hallucination, or am I dreaming?)
 Even if I consider only the surrounding information that I can recognize now, it is too doubtful to call it a reality. Therefore, I concluded that there was a high probability that this was a hallucination or a dream, coupled with the fact that my consciousness was still clouded from the start. The circumstances surrounding me were so unnatural.
 "Are these... tear marks?"
 It is clearly something unusual to look at a girl who is sleeping right next to me, right under my nose as if our skin were touching, but when I noticed it, I couldn't help but be aware of it.
 She, Kizuki Aoi's eyes was red and swollen. And her cheeks were wet. They looked like swollen marks made by crying.
 I was silent at the sight. I wasn't admiring her. I wasn't lusting. I was just recalling an old memory. Yes, the memory of that time four years ago...
 "...looking at you like this, you haven't changed at all."
 Did she have this expression on her face back then?
 No matter how talented or capable she may be, she's still just a 10-year-old girl at heart. And if she is betrayed by her subordinates and relatives... or even by those whom she adored and yearned for the most, and on top of that, she is unable to move her body at all and has to run away for three days and three nights in the forest where she might be devoured or raped by countless monsters at any moment, there is no need to think what would happen to her.
 The arrogant and haughty attitude she had when she had just left the residence had quietly disappeared, and she was just frightened, crying and begging for any help she could get... even flattering and clinging pathetically to the lowly and pathetically weak servants.
 "...probably because of the ugly way she behaved that time..."
 Very naturally, without any particular reason, I had reached out my hand as if sucked in.
 And just like I had done to my younger siblings and to the baby chicks when they were little, I stroked her head, which was still so young as if I was soothing her hair.
 "...haha, I'm going to be beaten to death when she wakes up."
 A mere servant stroking the head of a noble princess of the most prestigious exorcist family without permission is a punishment, no doubt about it. Anyone with a temper would have had my head on a spike.
 It was too dangerous, too senseless an act with no return. It was folly itself. But still...
 "...your sleeping face is still the same as before..."
 And as I caress her, I realize now that the gorilla-sama may have been keeping me because she had exposed her own ugly face to me so much at that time.
 Of course, even if it was when she was ten years old, she can't leave me alone with someone who has shown her such an image of herself. It may be more than just a sense of amusement, but it may also be that she keeps me close at hand and watches me to make sure I don't blurt out anything inappropriate. Of course, this is all just speculation...
 "But why does she look like this... and why are there tears...?"
 For a moment, I think of a rational explanation for this situation, but then I conclude... that it is probably a dream or hallucination, so there may be no point in thinking about the reason in depth.
 "Wait, wait. Haha, is that it? Is this what my deep mind and desires are showing me? Hahaha, that's a masterpiece. Laugh..."
 I stopped talking, gasped for breath, and froze for a moment. Then I turned my head and looked at the source of the voice slowly.
 The girl who was sleeping with me was staring at me with her eyes red and puffy and moist. Her eyes were somewhat transparent, and she looked frightened like a child.
 "P-princess... this is...!?"
 I stopped stroking her head and tried to come up with an excuse, but my headache and sleepiness made it impossible for me to come up with such an excuse on the spur of the moment, and I was at a loss for words. And just when I was trying to get the words out somehow, I felt a warm touch on my cheek.
 It took me a few moments to realize that the warm, soft touch on my cheek was the hand of the girl in front of me.
 "Please don't stop, keep going."
 I immediately understood what those words meant. And then I continue to stroke her silky hair in confusion and bewilderment.
 Silence... continues for a while, and I just keep stroking her head, and she keeps touching my cheek lovingly and staring at me. The fact that we are under the same covers, and we are both almost naked, makes me feel unreal as if it were a new experience.
 "...Princess, are you crying?"
 I had many questions. There were things I wanted to say. But the first thing that came out of her mouth was those words. And Aoi's eyes trembled at those words. And her eyes narrowed.
 "Yes. Although I knew it, that's my choice, isn't it?"
 Aoi murmured so sadly, regretfully, but with a satisfied look, and moved her thin hand, which had been touching my cheek, to my forehead as if she traced it. Then she whispered to me.
 "You'd better rest still. Don't worry, you're safe here. So go back to sleep."
 By the time I realized it was eye technique, it was too late. I was suffering from headaches, fatigue, and sleepiness, and my consciousness was rapidly fading away. It was already impossible to think deeply. And then I slowly closed my eyelids, and then... and then...
* * *

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