Friday, March 24, 2023 @

Chapter 69, Part 1

 In the darkness, a young hunter is frustrated. As he desperately moves along the mountain path in the darkness, his face gradually turns into the color of despair.
 Desperation consumed him as he pondered on the matter at hand. It was true that there was a rumor that youkai had been increasing their number of victims in recent years. However, this does not mean that he should stay at home. Autumn has already begun. Peasants have to harvest the harvest of their fields. As for vendors, the sale of stored goods to those who hibernate for the winter is a valuable source of income, and for hunters, the fat beasts of autumn are the perfect prey.
 So, people have to work to survive. Moreover, it is autumn now, and winter is coming. People cannot cower timidly in their houses, no matter the dangers. Needless to say, even though the number of people attacked by youkai has increased, it is still a minority in the whole. That is why many of them work under the illusion that they will not be attacked, or under the false pretense of fear and insecurity. They believe that only the unlucky ones will be attacked or eaten.
 And in that sense, the young hunter was unlucky.
 He did not know how long he had been in the trap. Before he knew it, the hunter found himself lost. As if after all this time, he realizes that the charm he had been carrying in his pocket is broken. When he became aware of this, he was lost, not knowing which way he had come from or which way he was going.
 In a panic, he returns the way he came. He had left early in the morning and realized it before noon. Although it was not a deep mountain, he still could not reach the hut where he had been staying even as the sun was setting.
 Even after the sun had completely set, he desperately kept going. He has no choice but to go. He did not intend to look behind him. There was no room for that. No, he was more afraid than that. He felt that if he turned around, he would never be able to go back.
 "Ah, d*mn it...!!"
 On and on, he kept going... even though his feet hurt. After all, instinct and his sixth sense as a hunter warned him that if he stopped, it would be the end.
 However, it was nothing more than a desperate attempt.
 The hunter stops, breathless. He has no choice. Ahead of him is a cliff. Before he knew it, he had arrived at a place he would not normally set foot. A cliff so steep that even a hunter who has lived in the mountains for many years would find it difficult to climb over it... His escape was completely lost.
 "D*mn, d*mn it...!!"
 The hunter picks up his bow with a trembling voice. He fires his arrow. He does not intend to die here. Even if he does, he doesn't want to just be monster food. At least let him take the monster with him.
 "I'll do it... I'll do it!! Come at me, you monster! I'll beat you to death and skin you alive!!"
 The young hunter shouts with fear overpowering him. Still, he inspires himself. Motivates himself.
 And when he sees the bushes sway, the hunter immediately fires his bow. Again and again, and again. He madly shoots his arrows until there are no more arrows left.
 After shooting all his arrows, the hunter comes to his senses. At the same time, he turns pale. But... nothing happens?
 Now, he switch to his dagger from his pocket and goes to the bushes. He shakes the bushes. And then he sees. A deer with several arrows piercing its flesh.
 "Uh...? Ha, haha... Did I, misunderstand? It's not a monster?"
 The hunter is taken aback. He drops his dagger and is relieved. Was he mistaken if the presence from behind him was just his imagination...? The hunter laughs awkwardly, as if he were possessed by a fox or a raccoon.
 A moment later, a violent gust of wind blows. At the same time, the hunter "rolled over" from the pain in his shin.
 "Ughh! ...What!?"
 The hunter looks at the shin of his leg to see a wound if he had been cut. But there was neither a wound nor bleeding. There was only a piece of cloth that had been cut without any wound.
 Soon after, the hunter notices a shadow that literally "suddenly appears" behind him. Then he turns around.
 In his last moments, he saw. Death itself, in the shape of an approaching wolf's fangs.
 And he realizes. It was all a trap. The fact that he let himself get lost and exhausted, the fact that he was so relieved that he let his guard down, it was all a cunning trap. But, people knew that, didn't they? Youkai are cowardly and sneaky to the end.
 So it's not surprising that they would join forces to humiliate others.
 Soon after, the sound of crunching flesh and bones echoed through the mountains.
* * *
 The Kizuki family's estate is located on a large plot of land. It was a collection of buildings such as huts and warehouses, blacksmiths, and various processing facilities built in the northeast of the main hall... And in one corner of it was the metallurgical facility where I stood, carrying a teguruma (yo-yo like) apparatus with a coil of earth spider silk.
 "Excuse me, I'm the Yun-shoku, the servant. Is the curse tool maker leader here?"
 After asking a few craftsmen and curse tool maker, I finally found the place, and as soon as I opened the door, I heard a sound.
 It was the sound of metal clanging, but as soon as I turned to the people inside and asked them a question, the noisy sound immediately died down. Then I see it. At the back of the room, which is not brightly lit, I see a man with a bar of iron in his hand, examining its quality. Without looking at me, he beckons and commands, "Come in."
 I bow and enter, and the room begins to echo again with a metallic clang. I ignore it and approach him, and this time, the desk nearby is struck with the back of his hand.
 I understand what it means, and I place it on the desk where it was tapped. Then he finally turns his head to look at me. With a grin. I responded by looking at him again.
 "How? How's this guy doing?"
 "Not bad. I'm still afraid of self-destruction and friendly fire."
 "Well, it's too bad that the thread is too sharp. You know how hard it is for me to process it? And do you know how many times I almost cut off my finger?"
 I take one look at the teguruma on the pedestal, wrapped in layers of cloth for safety, and the man dressed like a craftsman stops all work and cries out with a cowering shoulder, showing his thick palm, which bears the marks of several cuts.
 "Anyway, let's have a look, shall we?"
 The man put his special gloves on his arms and began to carefully examine his work, the teguruma I had placed on the desk.
 ...The Kizuki family curse tool users are one of the subsidiary organizations organized by the exorcist clan Kizuki family, and for many members of the Kizuki family, they hold a much more important position than the lower servants.
 Even for exorcists, it is extremely difficult to fight against youkai without any special clothes on. No, the average exorcists in Kizuki can probably beat or kick to death small youkai, depending on the number of youkai, even if they are naked. However, it is difficult to kill higher than that. ...Though, if it was Gorilla-sama, she can beat a dozen of great youkai to death with only her bare hands, but that is an exception.
 And since most of the equipment used by exorcists is designed for use against youkai, not against humans, it is not easy to manufacture. In many cases, special processing is required. Therefore, mass-produced military swords and spears that were not even cursed by the smiths in those areas were very inefficient for use against the medium youkai, but not for use against the larger youkai.
 In addition, the Imperial Court forbade the manufacture of private curse tools, regardless of their actual state. This was to secure tax revenue and to prevent rebellion by controlling weapons and other necessities.
 In defense, the quality of the black-market charms varies widely, and some of them are dangerous, so it is not completely wrong, but the quality of charms made by the government is also generally good, so in that sense it is still a vested interest.
 ...Aside from the private sector, the problem is the exorcists. The standardized government-made charms are insufficient in terms of performance and variety for them to be able to penetrate into youkai's den. Therefore, the exorcists were given special privileges to manufacture curse tools, and they gathered or trained their own craftsmen and created a skilled group to produce curse tools to equip themselves or to sell to the surrounding villages and cities. This is the beginning of the so-called Kizuki family's curse-tool maker group.
 Kizuki family's curse tool maker group has a leader like Yun-shoku, and Kuga Sarujirou is the name of the leader who examines the teguruma in front of me. He is about two years older than me, a distant relative of the Kizuki family, and one of the sub-characters in the game "Firefly of the Dark Night (Yamiyo no Hotaru)" on which the game is based. In the game, he does not participate in battles and does not join the party, but he sometimes provides the main character with items or advice depending on events. He is a completely safe character with no landmines. I made his acquaintance when I was still a miscellaneous man.
 "Hmm, the mechanism doesn't seem to be damaged. I guess, materials are important. I used scraps of meteorite and sacred wood, but with this, it shouldn't break even with long-term use."
 Kuga checks the parts of the teguruma to see if they are worn out. He asked me if the spider threads I had recovered could be used for some kind of equipment, and among several prototypes I made, he finally selected a dark instrument with a wheel as a final candidate, but the problem was its material. As was the case with the other ideas, the string of the Tsuchigumo was too sharp to be used as a weapon, and it would easily damage if it were used with a half-finished metal fittings or wood.
 After making several prototypes and changing the materials, he finally succeeded in making something out of the materials used for making armor and protective gear that were offered to the Kizuki family members, as well as scraps and leftovers. From there, after several actual battles to identify problems and defects, the weapon finally seemed to be ready for full-scale use. The only weapon that could inflict a decent wound on a great youkai or stronger had been the dagger (tantō), so even though it was not easy to use, this teguruma was going to be a very reassuring weapon.
 "It will be very helpful. These gloves must have been difficult to make, too, right?"
 I show him the gloves that I made by unraveling and sewing elastic threads one by one, which were also spit out by the tsuchigumo, and express my gratitude. This is also the work of the man in front of me, and I cannot use the teguruma without it. It cuts even iron. With mere gloves, my fingers might fall off even if I don't do a bad job.
 "Hey. You should thank me in some way. You're that kind of guy, right? You're bringing them, right?"
 The craftsman smiles at me with a wicked grin, and I give him a devious grin across my face as well. Then I slowly pull it out of my pocket.
 "Hey, hey, that's..."
 "At first I was going to buy some sake in the city, but I met up with a group of Tachibana merchants on the way. As a thank you for escorting them, they gave me a little souvenir."
 Saying this, I show him a glass bottle that can be held in one hand. Inside the bottle is a clear liquid containing highly purified alcohol... that is, an imported distilled liquor that was called vodka in my previous world.
 Made from barley or wheat and finally filtered through charcoal, this imported liquor is known for its particularly high alcohol content. In Fusō-kuni, sake is first of all made from rice, a sweet but muddy liquor that is easily intoxicating and unpleasant to the palate, and then comes the luxury of sake made from rice lees and other ingredients. And neither of them had an alcohol concentration that could hardly be called sake in the presence of the imported sake I had in my possession. ...No, in fact, it is almost a mass of alcohol with a concentration of more than 90%, isn't it?
 In any case, many imported goods are expensive. And considering the treatment and circumstances of the curse tools maker, this small bottle would be a sufficient bribe.
 "Hmm, this certainly has a strong aroma of liquor. Just take a sip... it sure looks like it will get me drunk soon."
 Pulling out the bottle cork and smelling the contents, the curse-tool maker leader take a sip and then say what he thinks of it. He seems to be shocked at the taste, which is quite different from the sake he usually drinks.
 "I'll accept it gratefully... I'm sorry, it's always the same with you. Thank you very much."
 "No, I'm also the one who is always getting help from you with equipment. I have to keep the connection with you."
 For him, the souvenirs I buy when I go away on a mission are valuable enough. After all, the curse tool maker can't go out. And depending on the family of the exorcists, there are many secret arts and legends, and each toolmaker creates their tools with them in mind, or by using them. Their skills and knowledge are confidential.
 Therefore, basically, the curse-tool makers are not allowed to leave the house. They spend most of their lives in the estate, and can go out with their attendants to nearby places in the territory (in the case of the Kizuki family, to the Kizuki valley village which can be seen from the estate) if they are authorized, but that is about it. The rest of the time, they could accompany their master's family to the capital's artisan city or to the imperial court's curse-working department for study. In any case, there is little danger of death, but there is little freedom. So the bribes I can offer will work.
 And in fact, the payoff is enormous. I would have died sooner than I did without the explosives and the charms he offered me. It's not that I approached him for that in the first place, but... everything in life is a good thing, I suppose.
 "Oh, by the way, there was a supply of something that would go well with booze the other day. Let's see... Oh, here it is..."
 Suddenly, as if remembering something, Kuga begins to look in the tool cabinet in one corner of the room. He takes out a sake cup and a small burlap sack, which were hidden behind the tools, and shows them to me.
 "What's that?"
 "Well, just take a look."
 Kuga opens the contents of the sack with such a manner. The contents were immediately recognized by its peculiar smell: dried food. It was dried meat and dried squid, which could be used as a snack. Kizuki Valley is located deep in the mountains, so I could recognize dried meat, but... dried squid?
 "I got some left over from the ritual."
 "Oh, I see..."
 It is surprisingly one of the ingredients used in ritual offerings. Perhaps this is the leftover from an offering, or perhaps it is the offering itself that was collected after it became stale.
 "Well, would you like a drink?"
 The curse-tool maker shows me a cheap sake cup and tempted me with it. It was a tempting offer, but unfortunately I could not take it.

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