Thursday, December 15, 2022 @

Volume 3 Epilogue, Part 2

 The girl watched the young man as he fell into a deep sleep again, and Kizuki Aoi gazed into his face. She continues to stare. Perhaps he will remember little of this when he wakes up. That's all right. For now, at least...
 "...I hope I managed to disguise it somehow."
 Aoi got up and stroked the young man's cheek sadly and lovingly. For a while, the corruption had progressed to such an extent that it was impossible to cover it up, but it seems that she has somehow managed to do something about it in time. At least as far as his face is concerned, it does not look that different from what can be seen from the outside. Although she is not sure what is going on under his skin...
 "Even so... it's surprising. I didn't expect to be stared at like that."
 That's not what she was aiming for. It was just he had just lost a lot of blood, and his body was as cold as a dead man at the tip. The inside of his body was radiating intense heat due to the mutation... So, Aoi had to suppress the mutation using a fever reducer and a secret medicine, and at the same time, she had to prevent his body from decomposing from the outside, she thought. That's why she was lying under the covers in this state, praying that the worst would not come to pass... Though, she would be lying if she said she wasn't "hoping" for the best.
 "Still, it's a bit disheartening. Normally, a man should be able to react at least a little."
 Aoi is aware of her beauty. The beauty of her face, the charm of her body, the nobility of her lineage. All of them are so valuable that a man would want to have them at any cost.
 And now, with his life in danger, and without reason, he has become close to the monsters who have given themselves over to their desires. It is needless to say what would happen if a beautiful girl without a stitch on her body were to enter the room beside him. But then...
 "You weren't looking at me like that. Don't you think I'm more like an animal than you?"
 She could have expected to be looked at with lustful eyes, but that was not like that. It was more like friendship or affection.
 "Good grief, It's a pity, isn't it? You wasted a great opportunity."
 If he had pushed her down at that moment, or if she had pushed him down, Aoi had no intention to resist him. She would have accepted everything he did to her and would have allowed him to do as he wanted to do to her...
 Such a thought makes Aoi ridicule herself. Even though she would have forgiven him? Wrong, it's not.
 It was her own expectation, her own desire, her own wish. She was just afraid of the scorn and hatred he would look at her when he woke up, and she was just trying to have an insurance policy.
 "Hehehe. Isn't it funny?"
 It's no different now than it was then, and she can't say a word about the man.
 Yes, it's funny. Like it was back then, when she despised and disappointed her mother, and sought her father's love instead. The time when she thought that if she worked hard, if she was active, if she was educated enough to follow in Kizuki's footsteps, her father would surely love her. But then, she stupidly fell into his trap and was betrayed by his father... Yes, she did this to him like her parent.
 Oh... no, it's different. Very different. She's not like her parent. It was all unexpected. She wasn't trying to trap him. She wasn't trying to be mean.
 She just... yeah, she just wanted him to be good enough for her. She just wanted him to be good by her side. That's it, that's it...!
 "As long as I could establish the facts, I could have made any number of excuses."
 After all, he's still in the lower position and she's still in the upper, and if everything went as planned, she could have used it as an excuse to tie him up. She's sure he wouldn't have looked at her with contempt out of guilt if she did that. But then, she didn't... expect him to look at her like that.
 "In the end, I still owe you. Really, you're a terrible person. Is it your desire to cause me suffering? Or perhaps you are looking to collect interest on what I owe you?"
 She says this in a joking manner. Then she cupped his cheeks with her hands. Lovingly, affectionately...
 "I won't say forgive me, okay...? Oh, don't worry. I'm not going to give you a "morality decree" either. But there will be a time... when I'll take your punishment."
 I'll take whatever punishment comes my way when I'm yours. I will do as you wish. I will do whatever you want. That's why... that's why—
 "...please, grandmother, no peeping, okay? You have no taste for snooping on your granddaughter's affairs."
 Aoi muttered to the sliding door behind her, to the shadow of a bird floating in the moonlight. Her voice was cold, alert, and even deadly. It was hard to believe that it was the same person whose voice was sweet, emotional, and sensual like the sound of a bell.
 "Aoi, my dear granddaughter, why do you speak to me with such coldness? I have always done my best for you and it saddens me to see you behave like that, and if you act like that, grandmother will be sad, you know?"
 "How can you say that? You've abandoned your lovely granddaughter."
 Aoi spits out with sincere disdain and hostility at the sweet, petting voice coming from the shadows. Her grandmother knew that her father had set a trap for her four years ago, but she had done nothing to help or warn her.
 "Please, do not speak like that. I have my own thoughts on the situation at hand. The truth is, things are not okay. Furthermore, have you forgotten all the things I have done for you?"
 Aoi clicked her tongue at her grandmother's sweet voice through the shikigami. At the same time, she couldn't deny the fact that the words themselves were undeniable.
 She had a bad premonition at the time that the damned iron scraps were going to kill his lovely man. And the fact that he was still breathing even after all that blood... So, it could only mean one thing.
 He must not be found out by others. So, as soon as she returned to Oumi's house, she placed dozens of boundaries and sorcery around the room before anyone in the house could see them and figure out what was going on. The boundaries were so tight that even Uemon, the representative of the clan, could not easily break through them. After all, if anyone had seen his condition, there would have been no way to recover.
 At best, he would have been confined and sealed, at worst he would have been killed, and at worst of worst, he would have suffered worse than death by being turned into a laboratory animal by the research group. And it is not easy to get a test subject mutated by the "youkai mother". So, she had even assumed what would happen to him if those lunatics found out about his mutation... or worse, she even assumed that they would kill anyone who saw his mutation on the spot without even leaving a corpse. Fortunately or unfortunately, that did not happen. Although he was saved because even if his body had been erased, the disappearance of the people in the house would have been suspicious.
 However, even if Aoi had safely protected him in her room, what happened after that was still a problem. Although she managed to stop the bleeding and sew up the wound, the thick and dense monster fluids that entered his body slowly but surely transformed his body.
 It was like a caterpillar dissolving its body in its chrysalis and transforming itself into a butterfly, remodeling itself from the inside. Probably, it was the left eyeball that was invaded, and from there, the body was transformed into a different shape as if it were spreading, pulsating, and violating the body.
 As a matter of fact, it was impossible even for Aoi to solve this problem immediately. Although there was a secret medicine to stop youkai-ization and prolong their lives, it was only to prolong their lives, not to cure them. Or there might be some kind of forbidden technique of the Imperial Court if she looked for it... but in any case, it was impossible to find and mix it right now.
 In any case, finding the secret of life-prolonging medicine is not easy to obtain. In other words, the body that is becoming youkai-ized must be remodeled into a human one. If the youkai-ization is caused by the youkai power that has invaded the body, it naturally requires the spiritual power to counteract the youkai power... Among various materials, human blood and hearts with especially high spiritual power are not so easily obtained.
 Nevertheless, it is doubtful that a halfway substitute would have any effect if it is made of the body fluid of a small fry youkai, but if it is made of the horrifying "youkai mother" whose origin is said to be a fallen god, it's not good. So, Aoi was prepared to take out a few exorcists in the capital by blackmailing them.
 "You know, it was your grandmother who saved you. I don't mean to make you feel obliged, but you should be grateful at least a little. Don't you agree?"
 The shape of the bird, perhaps due to her age, gently and with a relaxed voice, asks for agreement. To tell the truth, this Egret Shikigami appeared to Aoi who was in a very tight situation. The owner of the Shikigami, who probably also attached a Shikigami to him to grasp the situation, came to Aoi two days after the incident with a set of ingredients for the secret medicine. And Aoi, boasting of her talent, showed her grandmother how she had completed this medicine, which was extremely difficult to make at the first sight, and made his lovely man take it.
 After three days since then... the mutated parts, which had been repeatedly humanized and youkai-zed as if they were fighting over and over again, finally regenerated to the point that, at least on the surface, most of them were as human as human skin, and he regained consciousness after five days, although he was considerably weakened. It is certainly thanks to her grandmother's help. Thanks to her...
 "I have a rough idea, but that heart... belongs to that woman, doesn't it?"
 The question was somewhat abstract, but it was sufficient for both of them to know that it was hers.
 "...If it has to be taken once or twice, it's okay. But once a month, it's best to take it from her, you understand that, don't you?
 After a moment of silence, the egret shikigami confirms this to Aoi. Kizuki's second daughter wrinkles her brow slightly from discomfort but finally affirms it.
 "I'm not stupid either. I know that organs of that quality are not so easy to come by."
 If this was a one-time thing, Aoi wouldn't have wanted to use that woman's heart, but... this is not an emotional decision. Yes, this is a life-prolonging, symptom-suppressing medicine. It is not a cure.
 Even if nothing is done, if he does not take it at least once a month, the youkai-ization phenomenon will come back to consume him. Yes, at least once a month. To suppress the bodily fluid that contains the rich youkai power of the "youkai mother", it is necessary to have an organ of a person who has the appropriate spiritual power... preferably a heart... and that once a month?
 In a sane person's mind, such a thing is impossible no matter how much money is spent. But in just a couple of days or so, her grandmother showed her the best ingredients she could hope for in the freshest condition and told her that she could order it anytime in the future.
 Then there is only one possible way to get it. That was from a woman with no forethought, lacking in brains and character, but blessed with power and good fortune, a woman who wouldn't die even if she was killed...
 "I understand I'm in no position to complain. I understand it."
 It's true that just the thought of having a part of her body inside him, just the thought of her body, gives him goosebumps and makes her want to throw up. But she will endure it. She will suppress those feelings for his sake.
 "So? What does she want from me in return? I'm not being arrogant. I'm willing to give as much as I can."
 Aoi was ready to accept most of the demands except for surrendering her beloved. She was partly responsible for this incident, and it was true that it had put him in danger. Of course, she could afford to be sure that even that stupid woman with a flowery mind would not make a claim to her property, which was absolutely non-negotiable, considering the situation of Kizuki's house.
 But... in a way, the choice of her big sister was more offensive to the pride of Aoi, a girl with massive self-esteem, than any other demand. In other words...
 "Don't worry. She says she doesn't want anything in return."
 "...is she insane?"
 Aoi's expression turned fake when the shikigami said that.
 Even if she could regenerate herself, she must not be noticed by others, so she would have to cut her own guts out of her heart by cutting herself. Even if she did not actually experience the pain, she would know that the pain would be unimaginable. But to think that her sister would give it to her for free? It is unbelievable. Maybe it would be more plausible to say that her grandmother brainwashed her sister.
 "I wouldn't do that, okay? I explained the situation to that little girl and she listened to my request. She said, 'Why do I have to ask for something in return for giving it to him?"
 Aoi's eyes widened wide and she was absolutely stunned by those words. Aoi understood the meaning of her sister's words as accurately as she could.
 For her big sister, she was not even in her mind and she was not even concerned about her. What she needed was to give her own heart to him, and that's why she was going to cut her own guts out. In fact, she doesn't care about her sister, and she probably doesn't even think that she is helping her. Yes, Aoi was completely ignored.
 ...just like her biological father had treated her like that ever since she was born.
 "Don't be ridiculous...!!"
 She bites her back teeth involuntarily. She can't believe that such a woman, such a carefree woman would make a fool of her to this extent...!! In Aoi's heart, a black feeling was awakened.
 It was a clear hatred. It was a murderous hatred against the woman who had all the things she wanted, but threw them away so easily. Don't be ridiculous... don't make a fool of me! Stop kidding around!
 (That woman...!! How much more can she mock me...!! From this to that!! She's still talking nonsense...!!)
 Aoi's big sister's arrogance and brazenness, which makes her think that she might be conceited about her infinite and all-powerful abilities, make the spiritual power in Aoi's body rage. Does she think she won't die no matter what? Too naive, too naive.
 Her ability is indeed a threat, but that's all it is. There are ways to kill her accordingly and even ways to put her in a much more painful state than death. And with Aoi's intelligence and knowledge, she could come up with at least ten of them at once, and yet...!
 "Yes. Let's teach her something. Then she would make me so stupid..."
 "Aoi, I won't allow it."
 Aoi's anger was subdued by her grandmother's cold and heartless warning which showed no sign of emotion. Although it was a short word from the shikigami, it contained the power of the thick killing spirit and the word technique which had been developed so well that it deprived Aoi of any interest in other things.
 For a moment there is silence, and the girl who covers herself with only a futon, with her back to protect her beloved, is on the utmost alert against the shikigami who is facing her across the boundary. Even Aoi, who should be called a genius, is only 14 years old, and if she is literally unarmed and has something to protect behind her back, she cannot easily stop her grandmother, even though it is relaying the shikigami. This reaction was natural, in a sense.
 "...Hehe, don't look so scared. I'm not trying to pick a fight with you."
 The tension was unilaterally broken by her grandmother. Her soft voice declared, and the deadly atmosphere dissipated.
 "My dear granddaughters, I know that it can be difficult for sisters to always get along, but please try not to be so openly hostile towards each other. See, if you frown too much, it will ruin your pretty face, right?"
 Her optimistic words... However, Aoi does not take those words at face value. She understood that it was a kind of warning.
 "...hey, I've been wondering about this for a long time, grandmother? What on earth are you thinking of sending me a helping hand after all this time? You don't have the other elder's approval this time, do you?"
 Aoi asks probingly. Yes, that's right. This rescue mission should not have been allowed. Neither her own obsession with a single servant nor her sister cutting her own guts out are acceptable for the sake of Kizuki's family history and honor. And why is her youthful grandmother taking on their side?
 "Oh, dear? Is it really so strange? I am your grandmother before I am an elder of Kizuki. Isn't it natural for a grandmother to take care of her adorable grandchildren and grant their wishes?"
 How dare you talk to me like that...! Aoi glances at her grandmother's goddess with cold eyes.
 (Really, she's so brazen to say something that's not even in her mind. If she really thought so, neither me nor that woman nor that man...!)
 Aoi says so with suspicion in her mind. But she doesn't say it out loud. It's meaningless, and she'll be fooled by him anyway.
 "...well, I wonder... Anyway, I understand that woman. After all, I know I'm in a position where I can't complain, so I'll endure. So... please go back. Don't ruin our private time together with him. Or is there something else you want to tell me?"
 In other words, Aoi euphemistically tells her to get lost.
 "Hehehe, I understand. It's time for the elder to go. Ah... I should have told you something too. Don't worry about Uemon, I've already talked to him, okay? You don't have to say anything because I've already made excuses. And don't forget to apologize to the Ako family later. They love their youngest daughter very much. Oh, we have made plans for you. Finally, the ingredients for the next potion, I'll send it to you in twenty days at the latest, okay?"
 In a sweet voice, her grandmother tells her what to do and orders her to do it. Aoi thinks that she is still a tricky woman. It makes Aoi wonder how she managed to gather information and make arrangements in such a short period of time without being noticed.
 "Well then, take care of yourself."
 The shikigami, which declared that, ignites and vanishes into ashes. But of course...
 (Though there may be a small Shikigami hiding somewhere.)
 There is no evidence, but Aoi was almost sure of it. Otherwise, she would have reacted too quickly.
 "Really, what is she thinking...?"
 Aoi was tongue-tied by her grandmother's movement, which was as meaningful as ever and she didn't know what her grandmother's purpose was. Although she was trying to find out some things in her own way... Aoi couldn't understand the purpose of the whimsical, cunning, and horrifying grandmother who had sent the rescue ship this time. She could not read her plan at all. Is she betting on both her foolish sister and herself, so that whichever of them would be the next head of the family would remain influential? She doesn't know. But She does know one thing.
 "...I have a bad feeling about this."
 She can't put it into words, but her instinct tells her that she just can't let the old leopard-like girl go unchecked. That's why she would not let her guard down. She mustn't. That's why...
 "I know I'm giving you a hard time. But... please be patient now."
 Once again, she lies down next to the man she loves most of all again and caresses his cheek. She holds him close and whispers in his ear. She knows how cruel it is to do that. But it's the only way to live with him.
 "More and more, stronger and higher, you're going to be my husband, aren't you?"
 Aoi mutters with a lonely smile on her face. She was aware that this was a half deception. She indeed has high ideals. She also isn’t interested in those ordinary men. But more than that, it is true that it is too difficult and too dangerous for him to be her husband now. That's why she has no other choice but to make him a hero...
 "...I'm sorry."
 For the last time, she whispered in a small, muffled voice, holding him in her arms as she fell asleep on his chest...
* * *
 "...Seriously, she's such a bad granddaughter. Points deducted."
 The shikigami, who had been staring at the scene in the darkness, spun a sarcastic laugh loud enough for no one to hear. There was a sense of irritation and discomfort in her words, which it was hard to believe that they were directed at her granddaughter.
 Through the shikigami, she cast a cold gaze at her granddaughter, who was hugging him. And then... a small scowl.
 She did not realize that it was hatred of her own family, envy, and jealousy...

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