Thursday, January 19, 2023 @

Volume 4 Epilogue, Part 3

 It was three o'clock in the morning. A man gazed out the window at the starry night sky in his government office, which is located in the inner part of the vast imperial palace. He pours the contents of a bottle of imported wine into an imported glass he keeps in his hand.
 The glass seems to have been filled with ice beforehand, and the glass filled with red wine reflects the moonlight in his hand, making the contents shine beautifully and fantastically like a kaleidoscope.
 ...and all of them were the bribes he had received from a certain merchant.
 "There is plum wine in this country. As for grapes, these are not cultivated in the first place, so only imported grapes can be found in the market. Especially this one, which has been stored for more than half a century. It has a very quaint taste. Would you like a drink?"
 The man... who holds the rank of a small advisor in Danjo-dai (Imperial Prosecuting and Investigating Office) approaches Kamui, who has been lurking in the background of the office for a while, and offers him a drink.
 "No, no, I'll refrain from doing so. Though I'm a drunkard. I get drunk easily even with sweet muddy sake with little alcohol content. Besides, in this situation, I'll refrain from this time."
 Kamui declines the invitation with a troubled expression, waving his hands in the air. He seemed to be somewhat playful, but there was a clear glimpse of caution in his expression. In fact, Kamui had never and would never carelessly eat or drink what the person in front of him offered. The official in front of him, the being posing as such, is someone who needs to be mindful of such things.
 "Hmm. That's a pity."
 "Then, do you have time to talk about that? Please look outside. Isn't it so scary that there's no time to look at the moon?"
 In fact, the outside of the building was not as picturesque as Kamui said it would be. Well, about an hour ago, the spontaneous change had begun, and by the time they noticed it, it was completely too late. First, there were the guards on patrol, then the Imperial Guard, then the exorcists, then the soldiers... Before long, the Danjo-dai (Imperial Prosecuting and Investigating Office) was surrounded by hundreds of soldiers, all inside and out. They were ready to let those who were inside not escape. Now, the government office had been empty for some time, and there were just two people in this office...
 "But, they don't know I'm here. Thanks to you, my has become very useful."
 Kamui, who has become one with the night shadow as if to show it off, says in a tone of voice that is tinged with acting. Originally, Kamui, who had become a being slightly different from humans through his Ezo technique, had secretly switched his allegiance and affiliation to the man in front of him... or rather, to the being in front of him, and since then, his nature seemed to be diverging even further from that of humans.
 "...Hmm, it seems that I was sold. Considering the origin of this body, I suppose it's only natural."
 Danjo-dai (Imperial Prosecuting and Investigating Office) Shosuke muttered as if he was talking about something else.
 There were many people who were involved in Tachibana Kurayoshi's smuggling, whether large or small. It is true that Danjo-dai (Imperial Prosecuting and Investigating Office) Shosuke was deeply involved among them... but the others apparently decided to sacrifice this official of commoner's body background who had no relatives to conceal or mitigate their own crimes. Though he is a criminal to begin with, more and more charges must have been added to his guilt or forced upon him. And it is not difficult to imagine the terrible torment that awaits him when he is captured to make it a fact.
 "...Well then, is it about time to move in?"
 "What are you going to do? If I use my power, I can at least get you out of there"
 While Danjo-dai Shosuke observed the tense situation with elegance and composure, Kamui tentatively asked him.
 "No. Let's not do it. It would not be interesting."
 Shosuke declared flatly. He declared as if he was a stranger to the situation. No, in a sense, in fact, he did not care about such a thing.
 "Well, I'll have to make another appointment anyway. My body is no longer of any use. If anything, it will make them more suspicious."
 And that distrust will make this country even more corrupt. Those who should be held accountable are in someone else's hands, and people are often suspicious of others because they have something to hide themselves. That is the role he was assigned to play in this country, in the upper echelons of its capital. Slowly but surely corrupting the country's leadership, sowing seeds of doubt, and undermining the rules and laws, for a time longer than the mortal can recognize. And when talented people rise to prominence, they are either ostracized or corrupted...
 "I see. That's a deep taste. Although that old man was obsessed with a lot of things, it seems only his eye for seeing things was genuine."
 The man who gave the order to get rid of the old man says this carefree remark. He says this as if it were someone else's problem.
 "Obsession, huh...? Then, what are you going to do about the servant? Unfortunately, I couldn't get him to talk. Should I contact him again?"
 As if remembering, Kamui asks about Kizuki's servant who was spotted by the mother of the infamous youkai, as well as by the human-skinned being in front of him.
 "I've seen the memories. He seems to have undergone a very interesting transformation, doesn't he? It is interesting that he could control himself in that situation... But I'm more interested in the transformation itself. I never thought her blood could make him look like that."
 Shosuke is very interested in the topic. Showing a childish attitude of genuine interest.
 And indeed, he is interested. He knows the blood of the fallen god well. In fact, in the time of the great war, not a few people were bathed in her blood. And most of them ended up in a boring way, and the transformation of the very few exceptions was, in some ways, ordinary and irreplaceable. But... now, both the nature of the transformation and the spirit of the transformation seemed to be different from the cases he had seen before, and he was sure that it could be a very fascinating subject of study.
 "No, no, not now. Let's not do this right now."
 It would be foolish to do something just because he is interested in it. Like wine, everything has a maturing period. It is the act of a beast without wisdom to take a bite of something just because he is interested in it.
 Because it is the aging process that enhances the flavor of the ingredients. And it is this small but careful effort and patience that makes the ingredients richer, and more attractive. So, he should take his time and wait for the right period. After all, he was a man who left the fun for later.
 "Well... are we going to start?"
 Shosuke was about to speak about the future of the building as if he had some knowledge about it, but was interrupted by the sudden change of situation. Looking out the window, there is an avalanche of guards rushing in from the front gate on the first floor. It seems that it has finally begun.
 "Hmm. So everything's on schedule?"
 "Yes. As effectively as possible, to make them upset and confused. Oh, yeah. I forgot."
 Then he turned around as if he had just remembered. As he turned around, he opened his mouth.
 "You can use this girl as a messenger, so please take out her there too..."
 He pointed at the birdcage he had placed by his side and declared so, and at the same time he turned around, he felt a slight tremor in his body. Then, he looked at his own chest... There was a big hole through his belly.
 "... Good grief, I wish they would at least talk to me in advance. I almost couldn't speak before I could tell you, couldn't I?"
 "Oh, I'm sorry. I have received your order."
 Immediately after the exchange of casual talk, which did not fit the situation, Shosuke’s head was blown off. His brain and bones were scattered on the wall and windows behind him. With a thud, the head- and stomach-less mass of meat slumped into the chair behind him, following gravity. It seemed as if he was seated.
 "Well, well... So, is that you, huh?"
 'Is that you! Is that you!'
 The parrot cries as it is taken out of the birdcage. Whether or not it understands the words it is saying is not clear. But one thing is clear, the sight of its face cracked open, its serrated fangs and tentacle-like tongue waving in the air is quite disgusting.
 "Hey. Don't get too excited, okay? ...Shall we go then?"
 Kamui roared as he listened to the countless sounds coming up the stairs. As he roars, he sinks into the darkness with the parrot on his arm.
 By the time the soldiers of the Imperial Court, who wanted to take Shosuke into custody under false pretenses, stormed into his office, all they found was the corpse of their target, so disfigured that it was impossible to extract any memories from it...
* * *
 On a snowy mountain road, a convoy of ox-carts, wagons, and foot soldiers was moving along. Although the Northern Mountain Middle Road, which is a national road maintained by the Imperial Court, is not a steep road, the cold and the snowfall still slowed down their movements. In fact, the snow was so thick that the lead carriage finally got stuck.
 "D*mn it, we can't go any further, stop the convoy!!"
 "Hurry up and move out of the snow! Hey! Keep your eyes on the perimeter!"
 Shouts an exorcist from one of Kizuki's family. He gives orders to his servants, but he notices a shadow. No, he just noticed it.
 "Hey, what are you doing? If you're going to stand around here like that, why don't you get on with your work?"
 The exorcist rush toward the figure, but he finally realizes the fact when he is about 20 paces away from the figure. It was not a shadow, but a literal shadow. An unstable "shadow" with a muddy outline was standing in a field of white snow.
 In silence, the shadow grows little by little at first, but gradually and acceleratingly, it becomes huge. For a dozen seconds, it changed from a young man to the size of a carriage at best, but in the next ten seconds it grew to the size of a small house, and now it is so bloated that it could be a small mountain.
 "It's Mikoshi-nyūdō!!?"
 One of the mongrels noticed and screamed. At the same time, it was a bad move. Now there was no way to prevent this youkai from growing to a huge size.
 This shadowy youkai, which grows larger the more it is seen, can be dealt with if the encounter is with a single person.
 Paradoxically, if several people see it, it is extremely difficult to stop it from growing bigger, and this great youkai, which becomes even bigger and more powerful as it grows bigger, is too troublesome for a group of people.
 And then, the shadow walks out. It tries to trample down the line advancing along the snow-covered city street. The kicked-up snow swallows people, and wagons, and blows them away. However... the next moment, the youkai is kicked in the neck and twisted off.
 Without even a cry, but with a gesture that showed his obvious bewilderment and confusion, Mikoshi-nyudo, a monster who should have ranked high among the great youkai, cried out and died, and with a roar, youkai fell to the snowfield, cracked open, and shrinks like a broken balloon.
 "Oh my, oh my, what a mess. I wonder if it's already been taken care of?"
 "Wh-what is that...? What happened...?"
 Kizuki Aoi and Tachibana Kayo muttered to each other about the scene outside through the window of the ox cart, which had been turned into a "stray house". Kayo in particular seemed to have no idea what was going on.
 "Uhhh... Tomobe-san... What was that...? I thought I saw a black shadow, and then I thought I saw a head..."
 Kayo then turned to me, who was standing right next to the ox cart, and asked so.
 "I didn't get a good look at it either, but it looks like the youkai who attacked us probably got his head kicked off."
 "Kicked in the head...?"
 While Kayo looked incredulous, the person who had done it appeared with a smiling face.
 "Hahaha, I'm sorry for the trouble I've caused you. Miss Tachibana. It's just one youkai. I myself went out there myself and took care of it... Still, it's cold! Get me some more blankets!"
 Uemon Kizuki leans toward the ox cart in heavy clothing, his fat body swaying as he speaks. Because of the incident at the capital, he had personally moved and killed many times whenever he encountered youkai along the way. In addition, he is so cold that he yells at his men every time he steps out of the oxcart. But still...
 (As expected, he is one of the elders of Kizuki. His face is ordinary, but he is strong.)
 To tell the truth, I couldn't see how I could win the fight against that youkai even if I had prepared for the fight with preparation, or even if I had prepared carefully. And to kill it with a single kick... No wonder the main character would have died without even being allowed to enter the battle if he was ambushed with such an afterimage-like movement. On the other hand, in the route where he fights gorilla-sama and sis (anego-sama), he would fall down instantly and is beaten back in two scenes.
 "...How many times has this happened? I don't mean to be presumptuous, but I never expected to be attacked by youkai so many times on the national road... Is it because the northern region is such a magical place...?"
 Otsuru, the old maid, moaned as she stood by Kayo's side. Well, if I remember correctly, in the nearly twenty days since we left the capital, we had already been attacked eighteen times by youkai, including this time. If I include the ones that ended without my noticing, the number would definitely exceed 20. That's almost one a day.
 "No, even in the northern region, we don't usually have such frequent raids. After all, youkai also seem to starve in the wintertime."
 Winter is not exactly a time to hunker down... but for youkai who feed on humans, winter is a time when the human traffic is reduced and their prey dwindles. This is especially true in the northern areas of the country, where the snow closes in, and many people do not leave their houses with charms on them, unless they have something to do. Even on the national roads, there are equally spaced checkpoints and post cities, and the soldiers of the Imperial Court stationed at the stations would not patrol the snow-covered roads during this season.
 It is obvious what these "youkai" with nothing to eat and nothing to hunt would do if they saw dozens of human columns including exorcists, the best prey they could find. Although it was the first time for me to actually participate in this winter return procession, I had heard many times about the dangers of the national road from my fellow servants before me. But now, nobody's alive...
 "Hahaha, you needn't worry so much! I'll take care of all the youkai like I did just now! I've been back home many times already, and every year, only a servant or two or so are eaten on the way. Well, well, don't worry!"
 Uemon says these words to Otsuru... or rather, he boasts cheerfully to appease Kayo who is worried. Oh, yes, that's right.
 (There’s something...)
 I glance in the direction where youkai-kai fell and turn on my heel.
 "I think there must have been some damage because youkai went on a rampage a few minutes ago. I was thinking of going to rescue."
 It may not have killed anyone, but even so, it was an avalanche of snow that kicked up amid snow-covered ground. Some of the victims were shallowly buried alive, and some of the wagons must have been damaged. They should be taken care of.
 "What!? Don't do that! Your order is to escort the ox-cart..."
 "It's all right. Go on. It won't make much difference to the safety of this place whether you're here or not."
 Uemon grimly tried to stop me from leaving the ox cart, which I had been staying behind to guard Tachibana Kayo, but the gorilla-sama pushed him out of the way.
 "Nunu!? But you see, Aoi. We have guests. We must be ready..."
 "Ah, I'm honored that you're paying so much for one of my servants."
 To Uemon's rebuttal, gorilla-sama replies with a sarcastic and ironic smile before he can say anything else. The fact that she hides her sleeves and smiles with a lecherous smile must be proof of her good character.
 "Kayo-san, you don't mind, do you?"
 "I don't have any ownership rights. You can do as you please, Aoi-sama."
 And before Uemon's further protests, Gorilla-sama took Kayo's words and crushed the room for rebuttal. And then he stopped...
 "If you insist on taking all possible measures, uncle. Why don't you escort the cart instead of the servant there? You don't think uncle's weaker than Tomobe?"
 It seemed to me that all he wanted to say was those mean words. If she said that, even her uncle, who is cold, could not ignore her for the sake of face.
 In other words, Uemon has no other choice but to accept the provocation, at least while he's still standing here...
 "That's what I mean. Go ahead and get out of here."
 Gorilla-sama said to her uncle who was standing by the oxcart, groaning without being able to argue with her, and I couldn't stand the atmosphere and left the place as if to run away. Besides, I don't want him to take it out on me.
 ...still, the snow covers me up to my ankles, and I get there with some shortness of breath. Rescue work had already begun, and one by one, the buried laborers and servants were pulled out like radishes and wrapped in blankets by a hastily built campfire. Or wagons and ox carts with twisted axles were being repaired, and horses and oxen with sprained legs were being put to a stop.
 "Magoroku, are you all right!?"
 I shouted to the miscellaneous laborer I had made acquaintance with in the underground tunnels with snow on his head.
 "Hey, hey. I just put a light dusting on my head. More importantly... Mari!?"
 Magoroku looks around frantically with unsteady steps. As soon as he found it, he turned pale and started running. A figure fell to the snow, as if it had been thrown from a carriage whose wheels had been dislodged by the impact of Youkai's attack...
 "Mari!? Are you okay, Mari!!?"
 "Let's get her back in the carriage...! This wind is too cold. Wait a moment..."
 I bring the figure back into the wagon with Magoroku and run toward the campfire where the people who are cold from the snow are gathered.
 "I'm sorry but I'm going to take two or three!?"
 I take some of the stones piled up by the fire, puts them in a drawstring bag, and return to the wagon.
 "Here are some hot stones, put them in your pockets to keep you warm. As for the blankets... there must have been a spare blanket in case of emergency..."
 Magoroku and the person I'm helping are each given a spare blanket in the carriage and a hot stone to keep them warm.
 "Are you all right? I can get you some extra blankets if you're cold..."
 "No, I'm fine... Tomobe-sama. Thank you for your concern for someone like me."
 The winter cold in the northern land is too severe. And the cold wind blows mercilessly through the cracks in a covered wagon that have not yet become a "stray house". That's why I suggest doing so... For the note, the person lying on the back of the wagon wrapped in several layers of cloth answered in a reserved voice, shivering from the cold.
 The person was a neat, shy-looking girl. She must have been in her early teens? She had long black hair and unhealthily white skin. Her eyes were closed, but even if she had opened her eyelids, they would have shown only her pupils, which were dilated and clouded with no light.
 This girl was the only family member and Magoroku's only little sister who was hired as the new servant of the Kizuki family... or more precisely, the Gorilla Princess. Her name is Mari, a helpless girl who lost the light in both eyes in an accident when she was a child, and who has been cared for by her brother ever since she lost her legs. She was blind when she fell from the carriage and could do nothing but crawl on the snow because she could not even stand without a cane.
 "Don't be modest. The winters in the northern region are incomparable to those in the central region. Be careful too. You'll get chapped."
 "I-I know! Big bro, I'm sorry!"
 Magoroku bows his head with a look of sincere apology as I throw him the blanket.
 (If they hadn't gotten involved with me, they wouldn't have come all the way here, would they? Well, it's too late to say now...)
 I feel indescribably guilty that Magoroku and her little sister, who is frail and has an eye disease, have to make a long journey together... However, it's not so bad, given that youkai were breeding so much in the underground tunnel that her brother could have been eaten at any time, and without her brother... What would have been the fate of the little sister who would have been blind and unable to walk without her brother? Well, it would be a self-justification to affirm this situation.
 "...we're almost there. But, we'll have to be patient until then. It's warm inside the house like a capital. Maybe there's some food ready for you, so you can look forward to it."
 "Big bro, the wagon..."
 "The wagon... It doesn't damage as bad as it looks. I'll catch the one who ran away and fix it together. Take it easy, you stay here and look after your sister. You're getting cold yourself, aren't you?"
 With that I got off the wagon, looked around at the still flustered surroundings, and started to search for the man who had probably abandoned the wagon, and the passengers the moment they saw youkai.
 ...it was about two ticks later that the convoy started moving forward again.
* * *

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