Tuesday, February 21, 2023 @

Chapter 60, Part 1

 As mentioned in western mythology, fire is the origin of civilization, the beginning, and the symbol that separates human beings from the rest of the beasts.
 A bipedal primate with fragile physical capabilities, however, gained wisdom and with the power of fire, rose to become the ruler of all things. Without the legs of a horse, the fangs of a wolf, the camouflage of fur, the thickness of fat, or the eyes that can see in the distance or the dark, fire was truly the gift of life for humans. No matter what physical abilities the beasts of the field have, they are completely helpless in the face of fire.
 So, human civilization is the civilization of fire. Fire is the one thing that people can no longer do without. Along with water, fire has been the foundation and basis of life and society. It is impossible to imagine a civilization without fire, and it is impossible to live without fire.
 Furthermore, fire, or the spiritual arts belonging to the fire arts, is a basic element for exorcists, and at the same time, it is a very deep field of study.
 One of the many fire-based spiritual arts is the 'Pure Fire'.
 The 'Purifying Fire', a unique ability possessed by Kizuki Touya, is a step or two lower than the 'Annihilation' possessed by the eldest daughter of the original lineage, but that is only because of the bad comparison. Though it is not effective against humans, it can even be said that this power is useful against youkai.
 Its ability to burn only youkai is most effective in a melee situation where friend and foe are intermingled. And the same is true in a closed room. 'Purifying Fire', which burns with spiritual energy instead of oxygen, can avoid the lack of oxygen not only for the person who burns but also for the people around him or her.
 And the result was the calamity youkai who were burned to a crisp in front of their eyes.
 'Ggg... Gh... Gaah......!'
 "You're still alive? What a tough little fish, are you?"
 Kizuki Touya growled mockingly at the moaning of the tiger wolf raccoon (Korouri), who was almost as good as dead.
 ...But the winner was already decided. As a matter of fact, Touya himself was not that different from Ayaka in terms of ability. However, their compatibility was too bad even before their abilities.
 However, the plague or the poison, which was exhaled by the tiger wolf raccoon (Korouri), was also an object that could be burned by the "Purifying Fire" since they were generated by the youkai energy. And this calamity youkai was not a good one in a simple physical battle, whereas Touya's preparation and skill in a physical battle were no less than his own, since his special ability was ineffective against other than youkai. Then, this situation was also natural in a sense.
 'Ggh... Gaaa!!'
 "Whoa, that was a close one!"
 Just as Touya is about to make a move, calamity youkai raises its head and opens its jaws. The venom ejected from the poison rays in its mouth is evaded with minimal movement of his neck. Almost simultaneously, a sword is thrust into the monster's mouth.
 The sword, forged by a well-known master in the northern region with tama-hagane steel (a type of steel made in the Japanese tradition) over seven days and seven nights, is a first-class sword that can withstand being used by the exorcists and the crimson flames that erupt from it burn the monster from within the range...
 'Gah... Ah...'
 Now, the monster could not even make a sound of despair. After all, the 'Purifying Fire' released from the sword spread directly to the creature's throat and lungs, charcoaling its vocal organs. As it was, the monster died, and its body continued to burn, using its youkai energy as fuel to light up the dimly lit cave...
 "Now, I'd really like to finish this..."
 "We're saved. Thank you very much, Touya."
 Ayaka comes running up to him and thanks him while Touya himself is looking around to see if there are any small fry youkai monsters hiding. But seeing Ayaka's attitude makes Touya click his tongue in annoyance.
 "Before you thank me, isn't there something you should tell me? Why are you here? Aren't the servants supposed to be the only ones in front?"
 "Well, that's... Uhh..."
 The silver-haired girl is flustered by Touya's point. The exorcists, who could wipe out a hundred youkai with a single arrow if they wanted to, were now just young girls their age.
 "Tsk, don't worry, I won't tell the higher-ups about it. I can guess the reason for it. And, you. What's the damage?"
 Touya clucked his tongue and said to his childhood friend, and then asked one of the servants nearby about the damage to the servants.
 "Yes, although we don't have a complete picture yet... we are sure that three are dead and ten are wounded."
 Ayaka's expression turns uncomfortable at this report. Touya, on the other hand, looked a little surprised.
 "For someone who was cornered like that, there was surprisingly little damage. You did surprisingly well, huh?"
 It was natural for Touya to be surprised because he honestly thought that the death toll alone would be in double digits. In fact, it is not surprising since they were attacked by a nearly three-digit number of youkai including calamity youkai. In some cases, the servants of other families who were going through the same den had suffered more casualties than them even if they had not encountered calamity youkai. His words were reasonable in comparison.
 "Anyway, we should probably retreat and join up with the guys behind us, but.... that's the thing."
 "What do you mean?"
 "Look at that."
 Ayaka tilted her head and Touya pointed at it with his finger. Ayaka looked at it and noticed that there was a big sinkhole in the corner of the spacious room.
 "Is that...?"
 "You don't know? It was already there when I came here. It looks like it goes deep... but hey, does anyone know anything about it?"
 Touya asked the remaining servants, and one of them stepped forward to answer.
 "Yes. I remember that the hole was made suddenly in the middle of the battle. We were fighting kappa, when suddenly a gust of wind blew. The next moment all the monsters around us disappeared, and at the same time there was an explosion and the ground caved in."
 "What's that?"
 Touya looks doubtful at the servant's statement. It is only natural. The only person who could have done such a thing was Ayaka at the very least. And there was no way she could afford it in such a situation.
 "Whatever it is, it seems to have penetrated deeply. Could it be possible to reach the deepest part of the den through this hole?"
 "That may be so, but..."
 The red-haired exorcists looked at the suggestion of one of the servant squad leaders with a sullen expression on his face. He seemed wary of approaching a large hole that he did not know who had made it and for what purpose.
 "Oh, speaking of which, where's Shiro-chan!!?"
 Ayaka, who had finally regained her composure, was again panicked when she remembered her presence. She asked the servants to help her and inquired about the whereabouts of the half-youkai girl, but there was no sign of her whereabouts.
 "Could it be that she is in that hole...!?"
 "H-hey! Don't run selfishly....!!?"
 Ayaka's face turned pale and she ran toward the big hole with a desperate look on her face. Touya also followed her to chase after her.
 "Shiro-chan! Shiro-chan! Are you there? If you are there, please answer me! Shiro-chan......"
 Ayaka screams at the big hole. However, her cries cease immediately. Because a giant spider flew out at a great speed from the depths of the hole and crashed into the ceiling... crushing it.
 With a thud, the great youkai spider, which is at least two meters long, plunges into the ceiling and, according to the law of gravity, falls right next to Ayaka, and it dies, leaving a cloud of dust. During this time, Ayaka's mouth was gaping open, not knowing what had just happened.
 "Ayaka! Are you all right!!?"
 "Uh, ah... Yes. Somehow..."
 Ayaka somehow managed to answer while her face was tense as Touya rushed to her. It was such a shocking event.
 If it had been a living youkai, she would have been able to recognize it by its presence and killing power, but when a crushed corpse jumped out, she was unable to react.
 "Seriously, we should get out of here...!"
 Touya said as he looked into the big hole, and immediately prepared his sword and deployed the flames of the "Purifying Fire". At the same time, Ayaka, who was standing right beside him, readied her bow, and several servants who had been following behind her also readied their weapons. Because there is such a strong killing atmosphere.
 Immediately afterward, dozens of dismembered spider corpses erupted from the big hole. The sight is like an eruption. The servants rush to avoid the falling spider corpses.
 But the two exorcists do not move. It is because they are facing the white shadow that appears at the same time. Fire and bow were fired simultaneously. But they are obliterated by a single gust of wind.
 Touya shouted. He felt a tremendous emotion. He knew in his gut that the killing intent was not directed at them, but it still made their legs tremble. And the source of it was only vaguely recognizable through ten or twenty layers of illusions.
 The next moment, something was thrown away toward Ayaka. She, who has good eyesight due to her experience in handling a bow, understands what it is, and with her natural good-naturedness, she hurriedly throws away her weapon and catches it.
 "H-hey! What are you— A child!?"
 Touya blames his childhood friend for dropping her weapon and accepting the thrown object. It is too rash action for exorcists, but doubt takes over his thoughts instead of condemnation as he recognizes the presence in Ayaka's arms.
 It was a girl. A young girl who had fainted was in Ayaka's arms. At the same time, a sense of bewilderment emerged. Touya stared at it again as it emerged from the large hole.
 However, as if by an illusion, it is difficult to recognize her, and it takes one look at him, and immediately returns to the hole as if it has lost interest in him. No, it seemed more like it was in a hurry to come back to the hole.
 And both Touya and Ayaka could only look at each other for a while, stunned by the suddenness of it all...
* * *
 It is a common old story. It is a tragedy that abounds in a time when people are powerless and life is cheap. Perhaps there are many more tragic, sad, and horrifying stories to tell.
 And yet... for her, it was still a nightmare that haunts her dreams even now, more than half a century later.
 Up until that point, everything seemed to be going well for her. The trap set by her cruel and heartless brothers and sisters, had ended in vain. After all, even though she had been unknowingly and unpreparedly sent to the den of monsters, she was not injured, her body was not defiled, and she was literally safe.
 It was all thanks to the man for whom she had a secret crush. Although he is technically her manservant, he is more like a father to her, much more like a brother than her real brother, more like a friend who knows her well, and more like a lover whom she can rely on above all else... Though he has a foul mouth and is quick to make a move on the housemaid or village girl, or he makes fun of her. Above all, she didn't like the way he treated her like a child, but still, she trusted him nonetheless. She trusted him more than anyone else.
 Likewise, he was willing to give her trust, more than willing to give her confidence. Even when she was about to give up, he was strong and patient, though he didn't really have the luxury of being so, but thanks to him, everything was fine.
 Yes, he even protected her from the attack of a huge and terrifying spider youkai monster. He had managed to get her out of a hopeless situation by going through many dangers with a hair's breadth of time, and by finally meeting up with another youkai and eating each other.
 To her, he was hope. He was the one to whom she turned her absolute trust. A young man she could trust more than anyone. And she genuinely believed it. That she would always be with him, as she had always been. Genuinely, unquestioningly, confidently, and believing.
 ...That is why she doubts the situation at hand.
 "Isn't this... too hard for you?"
 "Hahaha," her beloved laughs. Despite his tone of voice, his mouth tightens, his face contorts in anguish, and beads of sweat appear on his forehead as he holds his stomach as if in agony. Stains spread across his black robe, which is the standard equipment of the servants, reminding one of a monk-soldier. The stain is clearly visible despite the black material. And it was clear from the crimson puddle that formed under his feet what it was, running down his side.
 The girl asks her beloved in a trembling voice. She asks out of heartfelt confusion and doubt. Because isn't it natural? Even though he could run away from a calamity youkai without her who is holding him back...

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