Wednesday, February 8, 2023 @

Chapter 54, Part 1

 "No, I don't want to do this anymore..."
 In a dimly lit room, lit suspiciously only by the light of a candle in a candlestick, I heard the voice. A voice that trembled weakly, faintly.
 "I don't want it... I don't want to live in a house like this anymore. Even if it's big, it's lonely, and I won't be able to visit my mother's grave. Besides, I won't be able to see my father forever, and I'll be attacked by those monsters... Everyone's attitude also changed so suddenly... It's scary, it's scary..."
 The girl sobs and cries, tears streaming down her face. It should have been a shameful cry from a child who doesn't care about how she looks... but with her natural beauty and shiny black hair, it was rather frustratingly attractive.
 However, what dominated my mind more than that was a shock. I realized at this moment that I had already made a mistake. Everything had already deviated from the established trajectory by my unintentional intrusion. That it was a definite, fatal derailment.
 Yes, she should never have burst into tears here. Abandoned, indifferent, and treated as if she did not exist, though, she defeated the attacker with her hidden power and was marveled at and praised by everyone around her. And from there, she would discover the value of her existence and grow into a virtuous exorcist who strives to conduct herself in a way that people are not ashamed of. It was supposed to happen. But then...
 "I don't need these clothes. I don't need a tortoiseshell comb. I don't want to do these suffocating lessons. I just want to live in peace with the person I love. This is... this is...!!"
 She clutches the sleeves of her luxurious silk kimono so wrinkled that they crease. The beautiful clothes that would make any girl happy were nothing more than a source of comfort for her now, and only made her suffer.
 It was natural for her to think about it. A young girl is separated from her familiar home, her loving mother is sick with anguish and dying, and her father, the only one she can rely on, is distant from her. Even though her father's actions were for her own protection, there is no way she could have known that at such a young age. Her selfishness and coarse behavior have kept her lonely all her life. And I underestimated her despair. Because in the original story, she was able to recover on her own. That her own actions were only meant as leverage at best.
 "I don't want it! I don't want it! I don't want it...!!"
 The dark-haired girl, my childhood friend, my master, the girl I was trying to use, she pleads, lamenting, crying, and screaming. I already understood that her tantrums, however, were her desperate pleas for help. I understood that.
 "Uuu... hey, help me. Help me, ■■. Like you always do... Please, help me........."
 With these words, she takes a step toward me. She looks up at me, anxious, but surely trusting, as if clinging, grasping for a glimmer of hope.
 Oh, it was a mistake. It was a big mistake. A great error. Those colored eyes. She was not that strong. She was just putting up with it. She was just fooling her own mind. Of course, she was. It's a horror for a child to see people around her who were indifferent and cold to no end change and flatter her as soon as they realize how much they can use her.
 I am sure that the original her was also just enduring. She was just acting out because she thought that her life was worthless other than meeting everyone's expectations, there was no meaning to her existence, and there was no way to survive. And I, because of my involvement, created an escape route for her. She became the one to ask for help. So she let out her feelings, which she never would have done in the first place. She let it out clearly.
 Oh, I failed. I failed again. I'm a fool. I don't understand the human heart. That's why I'm such a failure. That's why I made such a mistake in life before... but regrets won't turn back time. After all, time does not return.
 She calls my name with fear and deep anxiety. She must have been thinking about my silent state of mind. Maybe because she had the courage to ask for help. In fear of rejection, she spoke out her true feelings. I must have been her last hope. When in reality, it's not that big of a deal.
 "...Oh, it's okay. I'll... no, I promise to help you. Absolutely."
 I try to smile as hard as I can. Trying hard to reassure her. The girl's eyes lit up and her face broke into tears as if she was truly saved by my words. She was smiling even though she was crying. A smile so happy that it was almost frustrating. And seeing her like that, I smiled at her on the surface, but inwardly I was scornful. Not to her. It was at myself. I was choking on my own stupidity.
 ...Yes, I'm stupid. Even though I knew it would only strangle me, even though I knew it would only fail, even though I knew it would only make the future uncertain, even though I knew it would not be good for the family, this world, or myself, I still took her hand. I had to.
 Because how can I leave a girl crying in front of me, how can I let her go?
 The girl smiled carefree, like a flower blooming, and hugged me tightly as if she had been moved to tears.
 The girl seemed to express her joy and happiness all over her body as she clung to me vigorously. I fell down without being able to catch it, partly because it came so suddenly. Her hair fell softly on my face, and the fresh scent of her perfume tickled my nostrils.
 "I'm so happy! ■■, thank you... I'm really happy!! I really, really like you!!"
 "...yeah, I like you too."
 She puts her thin, white arms around my neck and buries her face in my chest over my clothes. As she does so, I pamper her.
 I also hold her back and rub her back and her head as if to calm her down. My face was trembling as I rubbed her. But I was ready.
 The path of suffering. A path of despair. A path of torture. But I have to do it. I cannot run away. So I'm going to do it. To save everything, I'll commit a crime. It'll hurt a lot of people's feelings. Believing that the best future lies ahead. I want to believe so...
 "It's gonna be okay. So just leave everything... to me, okay...? Hina?"
 While sweet-talking the girl who has been flirting in my ear, I look at the young boy who is peering at me through the sliding door of the room with an awkward, frightened, and puzzled look on his face. Our gazes meet. I narrow my eyes and smile. A smile that must be very drawn out.
 If she dies next time, I'm sure she'll go to hell this time... I think about that as I stroke her head, feeling as if I'm talking to someone else.
* * *
 "Ah... uh... a... dream...?"
 "Ah... Whoa!? You're awake!?"
 I awoke with a headache and muscle aches, and the first thing I saw was a boy. The boy was staring at me with his face close to mine, and when our eyes met, the other boy looked stunned, then he panicked as if he had come to himself. Finally, he stood up and hit his head against the rock surface of the ceiling in agony as if he was running away in a panic.
 'I wonder what he's doing...'
 A voice echoed in my ear in dismay. I looked around with the weight of my head and sore muscles as if looking for the owner of the voice, and wondered where this place was.
 I muttered as I touched the rock surface. But then, in a low-ceilinged space like a side cave of a cave... I suddenly notice the presence of a person. The figure, who was talking with a girl at the back of the cave, turned to me in surprise.
 "I'm surprised... Their paralyzing poison is supposed to have a long-lasting effect."
 The person with a bandage-like cloth wrapped around his face and wearing gloves along with a cloak was a young man, probably younger than me. This appearance...
 "Are you from the Hidden group....?"
 "Good answer. You are a servant, aren't you? A Yun-shoku one."
 "Yeah... by no means, are you from the Kizuki family?"
 "Yes. Do you remember the last time you fainted?"
 "Last time...? Huh!?"
 My thoughts become clearer with the question and I look around again. And I'm confused. What about those thugs? The kappa? The spiders?
 I try to stand up, but my knees go numb and I stumble.
 "You've regained consciousness, but the spider's venom hasn't left you yet. You'd better take it easy."
 I bite my tongue at the words of the young man who is a hidden group member, who says this in a polite tone. Then I look at the boy who is rubbing his head.
 "Shirowakamaru, what is this? Where are we? What happened after that?"
 "Huh!? T-that's..."
 "He'll get confused if you ask too many questions at once. But I've already asked. Let me summarize and tell you what's going on so far. Is that okay?"
 The young man from the hidden group suggested to me in my agitation. I hesitated for a moment. I guessed that he was a member of the Kizuki family... but even in the original game, the hidden group was not a trustworthy one because of its role in the game. And the strange child hiding behind him.... however, it would also be unnatural to refuse him here.
 "...I don't mean to sound suspicious, but I don't trust you unless you at least introduce yourself... or at least tell me your name. Considering the people I'm dealing with, I'm sure you understand."
 So I say it anyway. It was a kind of provocation to check and probe my opponent. Now, what does he say...?
 "...This is quite right. Excuse me, let me introduce myself. My name is Hayama, a member of the Kizuki family under the leadership of Lord Uemon."
 The name sounded familiar, and a few moments later I was shocked inside. Hayama, a member of the Hidden group, was a name I was surely familiar with. It was in my previous life, in the original game.
 Hayama... whose real name is Kizuki Yakage, is a childhood friend of Kizuki Ayaka and the only survivor of the Haneyama family, which is a branch of the Kizuki family.
 According to the backstory, it is the Haneyama family that attempted to assassinate the young Kizuki Hina by having youkai hide in their mansion. The family disliked and despised Hina's existence, but they happened to witness Hina's outburst of spiritual power and created a small flame of destruction in her palm, which she somehow shared with her father, triggering the plot.
 In the end, the attack failed, and the Haneyama family was forced to do something or other against Hina's father's wishes, and was punished. He was the one who started the attack by the order of family, but being a concubine's child and too young, he was spared only because Ayaka's family pleaded for his life and the Kizuki family's bloodline was spared. Still, he was expelled from the Kizuki bloodline and ordered to fall into a Hidden group. His name is Hayama, which proves that he is of the Haneyama bloodline and also means that he is no longer related to them. However, it is probably because of this that he grew up to be a relatively decent person for a member of the Kizuki bloodline.
 ...well, it's unfortunate considering how things ended up in the original story. In this game, why is it that the ones with decent personalities are the ones who get hurt the most?
 (...but still trustworthy, I guess)
 To be honest, he is not a deceitful person. If he deceives, it is not for personal gain. He is fundamentally a good person. ..Inevitably, many well-meaning things often backfire because of the malicious intentions of the creators of the .......
 Hayama called out to me in confusion, while I was in a state of exasperation and at the same time becoming convinced. I hurriedly introduced myself.
 "Well, I'm still having trouble speaking due to the paralyzing poison. You probably know me as Yun-shoku of the Kizuki family, whose name is Tomobe. Hayama... the name sounds familiar. All right, I believe you. However, depending on the case, I can get him to back me up, can't I?"
 I ask Shirowakamaru after taking a glance at him. Shirowakamaru, on the other hand, looks at the young man with a doubtful expression on his face. What is it? Should I ask him later...?
 "...Yes, no problem. It's a natural obligation."
 Hayama was silent for a moment and then answered in a calm tone. The expression on his face, which could be seen through the gap in the fabric, was calm and somehow gentle. It was as if he was nostalgic for something...?
 "Then, let me answer you. I'm sure you're wondering how you got here and what's going on. I have a lot of things to ask of you as well."
 He looks at the girl behind him once and starts to tell us everything. I focus on it with my tired consciousness.
 The dream I had just before I woke up is already hazy...
 It's no surprise why we've been brought here. After the spiders wrapped us in cocoons and took us to their den, Shirowakamaru cut the cocoons with my tiger's dagger (tantō), only to be found and eventually rescued by Hayama.
 That's good. That's fine. The problem is his, the information they gathered, and the situation they were led to.
 "A ground spider (Tsuchigumo)...!?"
 "Yes. But it seems to have been weakened considerably, so you may not recognize it at first glance."
 To my astonishment, Hayama added.
 The ground spider (Tsuchigumo)... is a top-level non-human who, like the abominable youkai mother, would be ranked as a god if the book were correct, but that was a long time ago.
 To be precise, the northern Tsuchigumo... used to reside in the area of the spiritual vein where Shiro'oku city is located, and had a large area of dominion in the northern region, but it was pushed down as the Imperial Court expanded, and finally reduced from a pure deity to a youkai (a being that can be killed). After that, this spider challenged the court many times, but each time it was defeated and weakened, and finally, it even submitted to Kuuban, a newcomer, to oppose the court, but that too ended in defeat. In the game, only its name is mentioned in the first half and the middle of the game, and in some bad endings, the character is depicted in the background as one of the monsters that attack the Kizuki family's mansion and the capital.
 In the manga version, the nameless exorcists from the Onmyo Dormitory (nicknamed "Violent Young Miko" by fans), who was portrayed here and there in the corner of the panels in other chapters, crushed the spider's head with a knee kick from directly above while the spider was attacking the noble's house in the capital which was on fire, and it ended up dying.
 Overall, this is a name-defying and pathetic-looking foe, and in fact, even fans tease it as a "name-defying loser," ...... but the threat is real nonetheless. I am sure that I, in particular, will be killed in a second. Unlike youkai mother, Tsuchigumo hates humans and will be destroyed as soon as it is captured. It was probably this one that spread the word about kappa. Perhaps this spider also created the kappa for the purpose of making soldiers. Though this story is not heard in the original...
 But, although the opponent is quite dangerous, there is hope for the future.
 "However, this raiding party is quite a large one. They may have a large number of kappa, but we should be able to defeat them."
 That is why the number and quality of the exorcists gathered this time are so great. Among them, the "youth old hag" has killed countless kappa with her shikigami, while the Hamaya clan has dispatched exorcists who use bows for special attacks on youkai, and the Yashagami clan has dispatched a wielder of a youkai sword comparable to the one possessed by the Ako clan.
 Furthermore, the Miyataka family, the birthplace of the magical Marabou-kun, the NTR master and trauma for the original players, is famous for having several servants who have divine powers through secret techniques. Naturally, the Tsuchigumo, a former deity, would be a natural enemy. They may have to make sacrifices, but they cannot be defeated in the end. In fact, the raiding team should be wary of the escape of the ground spider, as has been the case in the past.
 "Yes, that's right. I heard about the formation. However... no, that's precisely the problem."
 "? That's a strange way of putting it. What do you mean?"
 I ask Hayama as he answers bitterly. With a bad premonition.
 "...That guy, the Tsuchigumo is preparing to trigger 'Spirit Exhaustion Detonation'."

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